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The last few days I’ve been in Northern Thailand, far from a wifi connection. For a while there, we didn’t even have hot water or actual beds. We were being very well looked after and not at all roughing it but I have had to save up blog posts. So for this part of our trip, we have been on a tour with Intrepid, who organise small group tours for the more adventurous traveller. It’s been fantastic – our guide Aom has taken us to places we would never have found on our own and we’ve maximised our time, packing in more places and experiences in a day than you’d think possible. I know people can be a bit sniffy about the idea of tours but honestly, if you don’t have months to spare exploring a country, a tour makes it possible to learn a lot in a short time. Why start from scratch when you can have the benefit of expert knowledge? In the last few days, we’ve travelled across Thailand by train, local bus, bike and songtaew, and we’ve seen the impressive Buddha park in Sukhothai, communed with elephants in the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and cycled in some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. What we haven’t done a great deal of is eat authentic Thai food.

It makes sense. The tour brings together a real mix of people with very different tastes and comfort levels in terms of Asian food. Intrepid want to give people a real experience of Thailand but it’s one thing to go to Buddhist temples and another to eat radically unfamiliar food. I totally understand that my desire to drink in regional authentic Thai flavours is not everybody’s desire. So I’m not complaining at all when I say that the food we’ve eaten in the last couple of days has been what in Thai they call ‘farang’ and what I would call white people food. At the Sukhothai temple complex Aom organised a wonderful picnic lunch made by her local connection Mrs G. It was very good – a massaman curry, a light pork stir fry and vegetables, followed by addictive sesame fritters stuffed with mung beans. But Aom didn’t eat what we ate – Mrs G had made her a different dish. She kindly let me try it and it was fantastic: a dry curry richly flavoured with lemongrass and lime leaves, moderately spicy but with a bright red chili zing. I wished I were eating that for lunch. Later, at the elephant centre, we had bland and boring pad thai while again Aom went off for homemade sticky rice with nam prik pow. I had to remind myself that I was there for the elephants and, as in any tourist site cafe, crappy food was to be expected.

Look at this elephant! Isn’t she marvellous? She’s called Motala and she lost a foot stepping on a landmine on the Burmese border. Now she lives in the Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation hospital, where she and others like her are fitted for prosthetic legs that allow them to walk again. It was incredibly moving to spend time with these animals. They’re very intelligent, living long lives that really do enable them to remember. Looking into Motala’s eyes you see something – not like human eyes but nonetheless a knowledge, a recognition and a sense of her years and her experiences. She retained her dignity even as she let us pet her trunk.
Our last night before reaching Chiang Mai was a homestay in a little village called Baan Mae On, where our host Aoi made a wonderful Khantoke dinner for us. There was a hugely generous spread of food, including a lovely cabbage salad, minced pork, and this fried chicken (which tasted a bit like Pim’s amazing Thai fried chicken which is marinaded in fish sauce and garlic before frying).

Aoi also made nam prik aong, a typical Northern Thai dip with minced pork and tomato, which I first ate at Nahm in London. I remember it as the highlight of that meal, with its fiery and rich flavour and the crunchy pork rinds that came with it. Here it was also very tasty (and came with pork rinds which are never a bad thing) but there was no chili in it at all. It became a very nice tomato pork dish but definitely a farang version.

Lastly there was Issan sausage. This was utterly delicious, redolent of lemongrass and with a tiny but pleasing chili kick. I inadvertently burned out the mouth of one of my tour mates by telling her it wasn’t spicy and she should try it. Oops. Lesson learned: do not trust me on the subject of how spicy things are.

The hospitality of everyone we met was impeccable. It can’t be easy to open your home to random groups of foreign tourists and Aoi and her family made what could have been an uncomfortable ‘meet the natives’ scenario into a real exchange. One of our group went home with a Thai knitting board after an impromptu lesson and Aoi gave us more than a sanitised tourist account of Thai culture. (She also told us some ideologically questionable stories about sex and gender in modern Thailand that had the Lemurs raising our eyebrows but that’s another story…) I’ve seen more cool stuff than I can reasonably blog and even ridden a bike, which I haven’t done in literally 25 years. Northern Thailand is gorgeous but I am totally ready for some non-farang eating. I can only say about five words in Thai but one of them is pet, which means spicy. I’m off to find some street stalls, people who make food for Thai palates not white people food. Pet pet, Thai pet. I’m ready…

I love making feijoada, the Brazilian national dish. It looks like a decadent feast of many components, but it’s easy to achieve and you get to watch the magic of black beans slowly becoming silky and thickened. It’s also fairly healthy for such a heavy dish – the central beans, meat and rice are joined with sliced orange, toasted manioc meal, and kale for a colourful and fully rounded meal. It was the perfect relaxed meal to share with our friend K, who had been working very hard and arrived in the middle of an apocalyptic storm. We passed around the pão de queijo and pretended we were in Rio…

The origins of feijoada are somewhat murky. Mr Lemur, who was born in Brazil, always told me that it was a government invention, designed with the optimal nutrition of a poor population in mind. I haven’t been able to find any sources for this story, so I suspect it’s an oddly socialist urban myth. Many people believe it to have originated in the slave quarters of early colonial Brazil, but this one is a bit of a myth too. These days, it is accepted that the dish has a largely European origin, with the Portuguese bean and pork stews similar to French cassoulet adapted for the black beans of Brazil. There are some native elements, such as the use of black beans rather than white, and the farofa sprinked on top of the beans. And it’s certainly true that African bean and leafy green stews, and indigenous bean and manioc dishes are crucial to Brazilian cuisine in general. But while Brazilians would prefer to view their national dish as emerging from native and African roots, this particular ‘national dish’ seems more likely to have developed in the grand homes of the colonists. No matter who invented it, though, feijoada today does represent elements of each of Brazil’s major historical influences: African, indigenous, and European. Even if, like most traditions, this one turns out to be a nineteenth-century invention, it’s a pretty good one. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m going to Chiang Mai in December, and one of the things I’m most looking forward to is the varieties of Northern somtam. My friends know that I’m an absolute sucker for green papaya salad, which I find it hard not to order in any Thai restaurant, but the mild papaya version we get in the west is just the tip of the Thai somtam iceberg. (I’m not sure how I feel about that metaphor but let’s go with the awesome vision of a somtam iceberg, shall we?) Eating Asia had a great piece a while back on the many types of somtam, where Robyn pointed out that somtam is more of a method of preparation – pounding ingredients into a dressing in a mortar and pestle – than it is a set of ingredients. As luck would have it, I had reason to call upon that knowledge when I was prepping my own somtam last night.

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