21 March, 2016

Farming for Food and Culture in Isaan

Thomas Amburn is a native Kentuckian from Louisville, Kentucky. He graduated from Transylvania University with a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry and minors in biology and Asian studies. Thomas is a 2015-16 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA in Kamalasai, Kalasin in Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand. In his free time, Thomas likes to run, eat sweets, spend time with people in Kamalasai, and is up for anything. In the future, Thomas wants to pursue a career in medical sciences either as a physician and/or researcher. 

“Thomas is chaw-na!” Chaw-na in Thai means “farmer” which my landlady is now calling me. I grew up in Kentucky where there are many farms. Cows, pigs, chickens, corn, tobacco, soy, and of course horses are all normalcies for me. As you drive through Kentucky, horse farms are scattered everywhere, and there are multitudes of fields devoted to crops. Naturally, it’s beautiful, but most Kentuckians do not think much of it. It is just normal and an aspect of our culture. Even though I did not live on a farm, my family does have horses, and we often try to grow a few vegetables and fruits for ourselves such as tomatoes, cantaloupes, corn, beans, and cucumbers. It is safe to say that Kentucky is an agricultural society.

When I applied for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant, I thought agriculture could be my window to relating to Thai culture, and therefore expressed my interests in being in rural Thailand. Well, welcome to Kamalasai, Kalasin located in the North East region of Thailand which is called Isaan. On October 28, 2015, as I was looking out the window of the airplane coming into Khon Khaen airport, all I could see was green and outlines of farms. I got what I asked for. This is a land of farms.

Driving through Kalasin, the roads are lined with farms – primarily rice farms. Green fields full of tall rice. But these farms certainly are not stagnant. They are always changing. Late in the year, the rice turns a yellowish color, meaning it is time for harvest. You can either eat white rice, sticky rice, and sometimes black rice. White rice is what we consider “normal” rice which is also common in the USA. Sticky rice, as the names implies, is very sticky, and you must grab it my hand and mold it into a ball. Black rice is also sticky, but it is purple-black in color and rather sweet. Often it is served as a dessert. After the harvest, the fields are burned leaving a brown, destitute field. If you are driving at night, you often can see fires throughout the fields burning the leftover rice plants. A little ominous to be honest. Now in this time of the year, the fields are growing again with new, young rice plants which have a brilliant green color.

Rice fields in the process of harvesting.

Rice is not the only thing growing in Isaan, though certainly it is predominant. Unlike Kentucky I have not seen any horses, but I certainly have seen many cows, buffaloes, and chickens. Not only do I see them, I hear them too. Around my house, the roosters seem to crow all through the night into the morning. When I first moved to Kamalasai, there was no way for me to ignore them. Now I only notice them when I skype family and friends, and they tell me they can hear the roosters in the background. I think, “Oh yea, I forgot about those.” Every farm has at least one pond full of fish to be caught and eaten. Even here at Kamalasai School, there is a pond which I only learned recently is a crab pond.

When walking through the night market here in Kamalasai, there is no question – Kamalasai is situated in a farming region. Fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices are plentiful and all fresh. Even better, they are cheap too. This all means that if you are invited to an Isaan style dinner, it will be delicious and relatively healthy. Walking through the market, you can hear the chatter of people speaking the local language Isaan (almost the same as Lao), the occasional chopping of meat, and people advertising their products to people walking by. For me, I hear “Farang! Farang!” from eager vendors hoping they can convince me to buy their goods. Farang means foreigner.

There are the fruit stands with the array of colors that the fruits come in – reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, and many more. Then there are the stands that are completely green from the vegetables being sold there. I also never knew there were so many types of mushrooms to choose from. Then I smell the fish, reminding me of my days fishing in Kentucky. I have seen catfish being sold in the market that are nearly a meter and a half long (about five feet)! There are vendors selling fried insects which are a delicious snack. Then you see some stands more grotesque than others such as the pork vendor selling every part of the pig or the fresh beef vendor. Or the stand selling farm rats – farm rat is considered a delicious dish. I must agree. They are clean unlike city rats. Last and definitely not least is the kanom (dessert) vendors selling cakes, pastries, and sweets. Though not necessarily fresh off the farm, I like sweets a lot so I must mention it.

I am fully aware of the agriculture surrounding my new home in Thailand, but it is time for me to get my hands dirty. In my first month in Kamalasai School, I made a new friend who is a chemistry teacher, Itiporn Burikhan (Tone), who invited me to go to a farm to harvest rice. I want to experience Kamalasai, so I get dressed with my long sleeve shirt and jeans. Isaan is rarely cold, and on this day, it was far from cold. Rice farmers must keep their bodies covered from the sun which tends to be rather harsh. After driving through many winding roads meandering through the plethora of farms, we finally arrive. I am given a farmers hat and a sickle, and we’re off! In order to get to the rice fields, we must walk along raised paths that also serve as dividers between rice fields. Grab the rice, cut, stack, and repeat. Again. And again. I am gradually appreciating the Thai affinity of patience more and more. After fifteen minutes, we stop to go eat. I would be lying if I said we worked hard. Tone prepares octopus in the nearby barn as I “help” (I only stirred the boiling water). Then it was time for sabaai.

Walking out to the rice fields.

What is sabaai? It is the Thai word and culture of “easy going, relax, take it easy”. It is a normalcy here, not something isolated to holidays or vacations. Easy come, easy go. Even though I grew up in an agricultural society, I would not say I am perfectly acclimated to an “easy come, easy go” lifestyle. I want to be busy. There must be something I should be doing. Time to set goals and complete them! Thailand is teaching me that there is so much more to living than this “go, go, go!” mentality, and I try to learn. I have also learned that sabaai can mean anything. Most commonly, sabaai includes eating and relaxing, such as laying in a hammock, but it also can include coffee shops, reading, riding a bike, running (at least for me), and basically anything that makes you feel a little more easygoing. On the day I learned how to harvest rice, sabaai time turned into taking the fishing boat out on the shallow pond. Be careful though, maneuvering through the vegetation can prove to be rather difficult, and you may end up lost like I did.

Hammocks in the barn for sabaai
Sabaai includes fishing boats with my friend, Tone.

But my days of farming weren’t finished. My house is rented by a very lovely lady named Ajarn Sirinat Balla (Ajarn means a teacher) whom I call “Mae Khung”. Mae in Thai means mother and that is certainly how she has treated me. She invited to a party at her house with her family one Sunday, and much like many people in Kamalasai, they own a farm. As I described previously, the farm has ponds, chickens, and rice fields. But not only that though. I appreciate Thai homes for the fact that they are truly a fresh food supermarket. Much of the plants around the house yield a fruit or vegetable, such as the many papaya, rose apple, coconut, and banana trees.

When I arrived at her home, she prepares for me swim shorts, a farmer’s waist sash, and a farmer’s hat. Today, I will be a fisherman. At first I am just walking along the banks for the ponds watching the farmers catch the fish with nets. Then, it is my turn. First try, I wrap up the net, lay it over my shoulder, and sling. Not bad for a first try, but no fish. Ok one more time. Wrap up the net, lay it over my shoulder, and clunk! I just threw the net, and it sank to the bottom of the pond. Good thing I can swim. After two tries, they decide maybe I should just cook food instead.

The real fisherman is teaching me how to fish with a net.

My Thai mom teaches me how to cook Isaan style on the farm. First is the grilled fish. The fish are certainly fresh, considering the farmers just caught them a few minutes ago. You first wrap the fish in banana leaf after putting some seasoning on the fish. Then grill it over a Lao stove. In the USA we “clean” the fish, which basically is removing any parts you don’t want to eat. Here though, the fish goes as is – no cleaning. Then we prepare a fish soup. Again, all of the fish goes in with vegetables and spices. Finally I must prepare som dtam which is an extremely popular dish here in Isaan. Som dtam anywhere, anytime. First, I shred a fresh papaya. Once finished, I grind the shreds with many peppers (spicy!), tomatoes, green beans, soy sauce, garlic, peanuts, and other spices I am not sure what they are. Som dtam is always spicy, and sometimes too spicy for me. Therefore, I made my own without peppers, which to Thai people having no peppers means no flavor. After the food is prepared, we eat. Eating is certainly a big aspect of the sabaai culture.

Cooking and eating with my Thai family.

Ajarn Sirinat Balla (Mae Khung) wearing traditional Isaan-style clothing.

In rural Thailand, agriculture cannot be ignored, and you cannot separate it from the community and culture. It is integral. It is not just their life force, it is their lifestyle. Even in much of Thai pop culture and especially Isaan pop culture, many music videos of famous Thai singers will be on a farm. For many young people, it is a place to practice their photographing or even modeling skills. The farm is a place to enjoy other people’s company and to socialize. Undoubtedly it serves many purposes. For me, it is a place to run. I often go to the nearby lotus farm and run laps on the roughly four kilometer dirt road loop. The farm is for food, but its value goes far beyond just culinary purposes – it is a culture.

I would like to thank Ajarn Sirinat Balla and her generous family, Ajarn Kusuma Senanak, and Itiporn Burikhan for inviting, giving information, and helping me understand and appreciate agriculture in Kamalasai. Writing this narrative would not be possible without you all.

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