Saturday, 19 January 2008
There´s Fish In Them Rice Fields!
In the last few days, we’ve been having fish deep fried in vegetable oil and they’ve been delicious. They’re only small but they go crispy right through so you can eat them whole including the head, without having to pick around for bones. And they’re even tastier because we get them for free.
When I was new in these parts I once asked Cat why she was wanting to put green netting all the way round the family fish pond. To deter theft?
‘No, it’s to stop the fish escaping,’ she said without so much as a blink.
It’s sometimes difficult to know what stories to believe in Thailand but this one was true. Certain types of small fish can migrate across land and if they sense that the water’s greener on the other side, they’ll give your fish pond the push and move off elsewhere.
What’s also extraordinary is that while more than half the year here in the North East of Thailand is absolute drought with no rainfall, when the rains come the flooded fields are soon teeming with fish. And not only fish… there are crabs, shrimps and shellfish of several varieties, just like at the seaside.
There’s a super-abundance of protein in the water, all of which disappears with the dry season, though it’s still possible to find crab holes and to dig them up even when the fields are dusty and dry.
This cycle of feast and famine thus creates a need to preserve surplus fish for the dry season and the chosen means is fermentation. The plaa raa that results, sometimes called rotten fish is an important part of the local diet. Poor families eat their rice with plaa raa and little else and to a non-local it smells utterly disgusting.
Strangely though they all love it and pla raa and the purple land crabs are an essential part of that great Isaan dish, som tam. This is a salad made with shredded green papaya and if you can persuade them to serve it without plaa raa and chili in volcanic quantities, it’s a great dish indeed.
At the end of November the rains are over and the fish will soon be gone, though not quite yet. Cat has been out in the fields with her boots, a bucket, two little cousins and Pepsi, the dog and has come back with kilos of fish and crabs. She has precise local knowledge of where to find them and she’s never happier than when she’s burrowing in the mud to find this excellent free food.
She has absolutely no need to bother doing this dirty task and I like her all the more because she so loves doing it. But then if she were the sort of wife who sat at home preening and painting her lips pink, then I wouldn’t have chosen to be with her in the first place.
Cat is a rich and enthusiastic source of information on rural life here and for me she is the link between my urban, western lifestyle and the place in which I now live. It would all respects be pretty meaningless without her.
(Posted from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.)