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The Thai Culture of Food

First published 30 June 2021

I recently wrote a story about the different style of meals comparing the west to Isaan, and my theory as to why that was. This post rounds off that topic, and I hope you find it interesting. It was triggered by one incident at the farm, when Yuan cooked breakfast and then a small plastic bag of food appeared ready for Gaun to take home for her and Peng's breakfast:

Freshly made by Yuan and packaged for Gaun and Peng. This is no big deal, requiring a 'payback'. It just naturally happens in the flow of daily life.

For those of you with a direct experience of Isaan, you will know not only the obsession with eating at almost any time of day, but also the inclusiveness of meals. I have been walking down a street and passed workmen having lunch at the side of the road and been invited to join in. Some of that is play-acting, but there is also a totally serious aspect to it as well. If I took them up on the offer, no one would think it strange, other than the fact it was a farang.

I will often arrive at the farm at the same time as Yuan and Lud have started eating what for them is lunch, but breakfast to me. I will always get a call of 'kin khao' or 'eat rice' and there is an open invitation to share if I was inclined. Gaun sometimes does. It's an obvious state taken on the surface in the same way if we arrived at someone's home and they were having a roast, and they turned to you and said "we're having a roast" - duh no kidding! I believe there are two main underlying sentiments behind the obvious and will talk about them now.

Firstly, something I have touched on before - I think there is a built-in pride of achieving the result of putting a meal on the table. This relates back to times when food wasn't a given and much more connected to the individual's personal effort to grow, forage or catch it. To say 'kin khao' with food to back it up, was a statement of achievement - look at what I have done.

Sour mangos from Gaun to Yuan and others.

Built into that is the central role of rice, which has always formed the foundation of every meal in Isaan. Whatever extra went with that was a bonus. I saw an illustration of that just this morning. The farm has a few workers bundling rice shoots to replant, and one of the ladies had brought a meal with her. It comprised of a sticky rice container and the smallest fish - 10 baht at the shop. With limited money, rice forms the largest part of the meal and the fish provides a little variation as an addition.

Freely available to share it you want. They would be so delighted if you did.

Secondly, and this relates to the little bags of food that go from farm to home and home to farm, Gaun has talked about the importance of sharing food within the community when she was young. I believe this is also a natural component of Isaan people and in my mind relates back to those times. Gaun tells me that then if you had excess food after your needs, then that was given to neighbours and who maybe were struggling to provide for that meal. As an aside, I think this might relate to the strength of connection to what Gaun calls the Koom (phonetically), or a group of houses within the village. Back in the day, each Koom would build a Bun Bang Fai (a Lao and Isaan festival) rocket for example, many of which exploded on the ground according to Gaun. Getting back to topic, food would be shared within the Koom so that the current bond has a historical basis.

This aspect of sharing food willingly and enthusiastically has I am sure its foundation in local history and the challenge of survival. Nowadays, there isn't the same need to share more widely outside the family structure, but within it, this is a daily event. Often the evening meal will comprise several generations, and each group will contribute a dish or two, and it will be shared by everyone.

On a more ad-hoc basis, smaller meals will make their way to anyone who might get benefit within the family. Yuan will shout out across the fields to Bear to come and get something she's made, while Gaun will turn up with sour mango slices - photo two.

In an age when western families rarely seem to have group meals and share food together, this is yet another wonderfully refreshing aspect of rural Isaan life for me. It will break down in time, but for now I am loving every chance to observe traditional life in action.

Thanks for reading.



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