The Reality of Rural Thailand

Mango drying in the midday sun in Issan

In this day and age we don’t tend to think much about how our food is prepared or preserved to last as long as it can. Unfortunately, even though we call it progress, technology has failed us in many ways when it comes to the foods we eat

Red ant larvae These preservatives may keep the foods we eat from spoiling faster and keep bacteria and fungal growth away but they also change the foods on a molecular level and the story is still out on how some of these preservatives can affect us.

Leaving small town America for rural Thailand will open your eyes in many ways but none more than how food is handled and preserved for future use. It’s almost like walking backwards through time and using reverse technology.

While I was at the family farm in Nakhon Phanom I witnessed daily the act of preparing food for future use. While the family does have a small refrigerator it isn’t relied upon to keep food as much as it is used to store water.

Meats drying on a side street in Nakhon PhanomAll this food preparation and preservation takes time but it is an every day part of life in Issan shared by the farmers and city dwellers alike. Walking through the city streets you will see many houses where they are preparing meat and fruits to dry in the hot Issan sun.

One day I watched Pookie’s Aunt gather mango’s for an hour and then she peeled, cut and seeded them before placing them in a mortar and pestle and mashing them for what seemed like another hour. She added small amounts of salt and sugar while mashing and then when done she spread the mashed mango on plates and left them out to dry in the midday sun. When dried it becomes similar to a fruit rollup that you can eat whenever you want and they supposedly last quite a while. The 2 plates pictured above are the result of a half a days work.

Dried fish at a small market in MukdahanHow have we as Westerners gotten so far away from the fundamentals of society. Everything has been scaled up with unnatural communities springing up around malls and entertainment districts. Because of this we had to figure a way out to feed millions of people cheaply and efficiently, although badly at the same time. We stopped living where the living was good and spread out in unnatural ways that can’t be sustained.

Rural Thailand is the perfect example that we should all be striving for. Small self contained communities working together to grow their own foods and prosper off the land. These Thai farmers could survive any disaster put to them much more easily than any community in America or Europe. Don’t believe that? Just look to the after effects Katrina had on New Orleans. We had the technology and the wherewithal to withstand anything and yet we failed.

If America and Europe don’t get back to these types of small self sufficient communities then we won’t have to worry about wars, natural disasters or energy deficiencies bringing us down because we will have already brought ourselves down with our need to live in suburbia closer to the McDonald’s, Starbuck’s and the Walmarts of the world.

Edit: Go Passport just left the link to a documentary called Food Inc. I think this should be required watching for every person living in Western society. The full movie can be found here: Food Inc

I decided to add the movie here as well because it really is that important for people to see.

sig1 The Reality of Rural Thailand

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Comment by GotPassportNo Gravatar
2009-11-16 20:31:02

How ironic that you published this post a couple of days within the recent documentary of Food Inc!!

I am amazed of how everyday aspects of lives are lived and how humans in rural corners of the world function without the modern technology.

Great post!
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Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-16 20:41:52

I’ve read a little about this documentary and have been looking forward to seeing it. I hope it lives up to all the hype it’s been given.

It never ceases to amaze me either that people in the rural parts of the world get along just fine without help but if cell phone service gets disrupted for an hour in America all hell breaks loose.

Comment by CatherineNo Gravatar Subscribed to comments via email
2009-11-16 20:42:38

Talen, Thanks for the heads-up. I have had Thai style fruit roll-ups, but I have not had the pleasure of dried mango mush, so I’ll look out for it.

Not only does the Thai country way work better, it tastes better too!

This week I splurged on a jar of Planters peanuts. They used to be a much-loved treat when I lived in the west, but were expensive in SE Asia so I avoided them.

Expecting the lovely crunch of a freeze dried product, I was disappointed.

The taste was totally unnatural. The texture too. Blech! Chemicals covered the outside. Why?

I’m going back to Thai peanuts, for sure.
Catherine´s last blog ..Free Download: The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand My ComLuv Profile

Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-16 22:27:41

Cat, When the family had karaoke night on the farm we got a huge basket of Thai peanuts and they were delicious.

It’s not until you eat this way and see how it’s done that you totally appreciate the hard work put into a self sustained lifestyle.

Comment by SiamRickNo Gravatar
2009-11-16 23:09:21

Darn nice piece Talen.

I’ve just seen a Thai film called Agrarian Utopia about rice farming families and the marvel of it was how Isaan people can live off the land. They don’t have a satang to buy prepared foods from a street stall let alone from Carrefour. But they sure know how to hunt, trap, fish, find edible natural field and jungle plants, not to mention how to grow just about anything. It was truly inspiring. (Beautiful film by the way. I couldn’t believe how 2hrs could go by so fast.)

Back to the food processing industry . . . another thing is so much of the good things (nutrition, flavour) in food are slowly being hybridized out for the good of shelf life, presentation and ease of baking/cooking.

Pick any veg. Take tomatoes. I was knocked out at the taste of tomatoes I had in Vietnam and Thailand when I first visited in 2004. People here in the west wouldn’t believe they were tomatoes because the ones we get now are juiceless, tasteless and practically colourless. And they’ve been grown in a “nutrient solution” in hydroponic or fast-grow greenhouses.

So yes, the taste and colour of vegetables in Thailand is one big (good) shock for a western visitor.
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Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-16 23:15:35

The two family homes in Mukdahan and Nakhon Phanom are amazing. They had at least a few of every type of fruit bearing trees as well as nuts. They grow their own rice and bamboo and other farmers in the area grow corn and other vegetables that they all trade for.

They have man made ponds among the rice fields to grow fish in and the larger ponds you can find many clams in thanks to the birds.

it seems the future is the past and it will be much better for us.

Comment by CatherineNo Gravatar Subscribed to comments via email
2009-11-16 23:26:57

‘People here in the west wouldn’t believe they were tomatoes because the ones we get now are juiceless, tasteless and practically colourless.’

It all depends where you are in the west. I went ott feasting on broccoli after moving to France because the taste was so amazing. Broccoli with flavours to die for, who knew?

For tomatoes, my top choice is the UK. As soon as I land, I head to Sainsbury’s to stick my nose in the most heavenly smell in the world – ripe tomatoes still on the vine. Sigh…
Catherine´s last blog ..Free Download: The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand My ComLuv Profile

Comment by CatherineNo Gravatar Subscribed to comments via email
2009-11-16 23:21:26

The hard work is the problem, mostly because it is so time-consuming.

I mean, with a modern lifestyle, as well as needing to bring in an income, who has the time to keep the family supplied with food all year around?

So it would have to be a compromise situation of some sort.

I love peanuts. But just the nuts, nothing more.

On Borneo they served roasted peanuts with little dried fishes.

I don’t like little dried fishes. Or little dried shrimp for that matter.

When visiting Kampong Ayer (water village in Brunei), I would walk by seafood drying along the boardwalks. Laying in the sun, the seafood would attract flies and the odd cat.

So in my mind, peanuts with little fishes are NOT yum.

(but as I’m not starving, my avoidance is no great loss :-D
Catherine´s last blog ..Free Download: The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand My ComLuv Profile

Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-16 23:43:24

Cat, maybe the modern lifestyle is the problem. How long do you think we can sustain living like we do. The economic challenges we are facing right now should be a wakeup call for everyone.

We’ve become a service society in the West and that is a bad bad thing.

Luckily if you live near rural areas in the states you can get great fresh produce but in the winter time it’s lacking in taste.

Comment by CatherineNo Gravatar Subscribed to comments via email
2009-11-16 23:58:30

Talen, I have no real answers. I’d happily have a garden to grow what I’d need, but garden = house = living anywhere but Thailand (unless I want to jump through many hoops and take a chance at losing my investment in the end).

I understand what you mean about the US (the part I was in anyway). When I lived in Houston I shopped at the Farmer’s Market. I expected to get fresh tasting produce, but that did not happen.

The produce was brought to the city straight from their farms, so I expected fresh and tasty. It was barely above supermarket tastes, so I switched to buying in the Village. But that increased my costs and travel time (45min one way) without a great increase in taste. Only the assurance that the produce was organic.

Going from Houston to Pau, I experienced truly great veg. Only, in France, I found the wonderful veg at the local supermarché. And if the French can do it, why not the US?
Catherine´s last blog ..Free Download: The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand My ComLuv Profile

Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-17 00:30:53

You can always grow in pots cat lol. And if you can figure out how to grow kit kat bars it would be greatly appreciated.

Comment by CatherineNo Gravatar Subscribed to comments via email
2009-11-17 00:41:11

I have thought of growing in pots, but with a deep balcony, I have my doubts that there would be enough sun.

And I have been waiting for ages and ages for my lotus to flower just so’s I can write that post on Tropical Gardening… no luck yet.

(lotuses flower all over Thailand under eaves with morning or afternoon sun, so what gives?)

Kit cat bars… :-D

Comment by SiamRickNo Gravatar
2009-11-17 03:08:05

Cat, you wrote:
It all depends where you are in the west. I went out feasting on broccoli after moving to France because the taste was so amazing.

I agree, and it seems in Europe they appreciate good tasting food and have laws to regulate it. In Canada, we have allowed the agri-industry to virtually write our laws protecting their industry. Hence everything’s for the convenience of industry, which means lower food value and sometimes nasty outbreaks at giant food processing plants. Imagine what would happen if one food processor went out of business. There’d be sudden shortages, etc. becasue we’ve given away diversity of quality and sources.

Where I live I am able to easily buy organic veg, unpasteurized honey, and naturally raised food animals. The taste is better as is the nutrition, but I have to give Thailand the nod in terms of taste.
SiamRick´s last blog ..My first look at North Korean film, A Schoolgirl’s Diary My ComLuv Profile

Comment by MikeNo Gravatar Subscribed to comments via email
2009-11-17 06:03:23

I believe the sentiment of your post is spot on but small rural communities producing their own stuff is fine until you take a closer look at some areas of Africa for instance.

I picked up on something on Nat Geo the other night regarding feeding the world and sadly without intensive methods there is not going to be enough to go round soon.

Even as a lad in the UK we collected and preserved many things as I guess you might have done, unfortunately the global population has increased somewhat since then.

I am sure it works well in rural Isaan and I agree they could survive if the apocalypse suddenly arrived or at least the ones still living there and not in Bangkok and Pattaya would.
Mike´s last blog ..Phuket- Answer to Plastic Bags Waste in Thailand? My ComLuv Profile

Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-17 22:28:40

I agree that some areas of the world such as parts of Africa obviously would have problems with this scenario.

Even though the global population has increased we could still feed everyone. The majority of America’s corn crops get sold below market and are used by the tons for things we could do without such as high fructose corn syrup and feeding cows that should only be eating grass.

Unfortunately it’s all a Utopian dream as the majority of westerners want quick and easy no matter how bad it is for them.

Comment by Matt SFNo Gravatar Subscribed to comments via email
2009-11-18 02:17:40

Excellent write up Talen, and thanks for the link.

I worked very briefly in the types of facilities mentioned in “Food, Inc.” and the reality of mass produced food from the factory floor is far different from the simple farmer image that billion dollar marketing campaigns promote on American television. That’s partly why I posted the video because I’ve seen the sorts of things that most people don’t get a chance to see because of laws, red tape, etc, until the film was produced.

Like you, I grew up in smalltown America where we probably grew 50% or more of our own food ourselves. Now that I live a “modern” American lifestyle, I might grow 5-10% if I’m lucky. Part of the great specialized workforce that America promotes… but when we lose jobs, some folks just go hungry I suppose.

The good thing is that word is beginning to spread about the film and hopefully the surge in “recession gardens” being planted in 2008 will start to make a dent. Thanks again for the link.
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Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-18 02:54:27

Matt, Very good write up on your site. I had always known that big business was behind the small farm logos…I live near Purdue. I didn’t know just how bad the big companies screw the farmers or just how bad corn was for cows and ultimately us.

It would be nice if more Americans saw this film but unfortunately most Americans are more concerned with American Idol than how they are being screwed.

Comment by MartynNo Gravatar
2009-11-18 12:08:45

I really do enjoy your writing when you don your rural boots and put your straw hat on. Food preservation in the Isaan villages is a need to survive and one that is an obvious choice with the volume of produce about. In the hot sticky heat, sustaining food ’shelf life’ is paramount in that survival technique and one which is to the villagers a natural way of life.

I do still get amazed at the huge differences in Thai city life to the villages, a throwback in time if I’ve ever seen one and one that is visible in the passing of just a score or so kilometres. I wonder at times if the emergence of the Tesco’s and the Thai’s want for more modern housing and technology will one day shrink and blend those two worlds into one. That would be sad and an end to most of the food preservation and survival tricks that are abundant in rural Thailand right now.
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Comment by TalenNo Gravatar
2009-11-18 14:55:57

Martyn, remind me one day to show you the picture of me with my rural boots and straw hat on…it made my sister piss her self.

I think Tesco’s and Top’s are encroaching on the way of life but I doubt they could ever do it cheaply enough to make a Thai stop doing what they do.

That’s pretty much why we eat the crap that we do…it’s mass produced and cheaper than what’s good for us.

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