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Thailand | Ruth Tshin

Food culture of resource-poor communities in northern Thailand

Will you support me as I complete my last term with ECHO Asia in 2013?

Thank you for your support in 2012!

I’m raising an additional $7500 to cover living+working expenses for my last term in 2013.  I’ll be wrapping up these exciting projects. Please note – I cannot provide tax receipts.

  1. Collecting traditional recipes and writing a cookbook on how to eat the local vegetables we produce at the seed bank.  We will promote this resource with the ECHO network and among development organizations working on improving food security.  I need additional funds for research trips in northern Thailand, decease Laos and Burma.
  2. Supporting ECHO Asia’s local networking events, pill like the Tropical Agriculture Workshop in Chiang Mai and conferences in Philippines. 

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  • Recipient: “ruth@tshin.com“.  Bank: CIBC
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  • Ruth Tshin
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A photo exhibition at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, ailment St. Catharines, visit this
Ontario, May 24-27, 2014, as part of the Canadian Association of Food Studies Exploration Gallery.

In collaboration with ECHO Asia Regional Impact Center.  Thanks to: Rick Burnette (Agriculture Director, ECHO International), Ratakarn Arttiwutikul and Abram Bicksler (ECHO Asia Regional Impact Center), and all the staff at Upland Holistic Development Center.  All images are copyright Ruth Tshin, unless otherwise noted. Please do not use without permission.


Globalization has affected marginalized and resource-poor, ethnic minority communities in northern Thailand, many who migrated in waves from neighbouring countries due to conflict.  The shift from dependence on subsistence farming for food and income, to market-based farming and livelihoods has led to loss of traditional knowledge, and in turn, a loss of cultural identity as subsequent generations assimilate into Thai culture.

I lived and worked for 5 years in community with people from ethnic minority communities in Chiang Mai province while setting up a centre producing open-pollinated seeds of culturally-significant plants for farmers seeking to be more self-reliant in their practices.  These photographs represent the daily meals and hours of food preparation with colleagues that thrust me into an astonishing food culture beyond typical Thai food.  This rich food culture is a way for my colleagues to celebrate their cultural identity, using diverse, seasonal ingredients sourced from nearby forests and using methods reflecting dependence on the surrounding environment.

Accompanying article: A Family and their Forest in northern Thailand.


 

Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai province, September 2012 A farmer walks home through the forest after a day working in the fields.

Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai province, September 2012
A farmer walks home through the forest after a day working in the fields.

Omkoi District, Chiang Mai province, February 2010 Photo courtesy of Niemeet Chompoothong Wedding celebrants enjoy a meal centred on rice in a communal setting.  Compared to jasmine rice favoured by lowland Thai, upland rice is grown primarily for consumption by ethnic minority communities in the mountains of Thailand and rarely sold in lowland markets.  The chubby, speckled grains are hearty and anchor the fiery chili pastes and forest vegetables stews cooked nightly in the communal kitchen.

Omkoi District, Chiang Mai province, February 2010 (Photo courtesy of Niemeet Chompoothong)
Wedding celebrants enjoy a meal centred on rice in a communal setting. Compared to jasmine rice favoured by lowland Thai, upland rice is grown primarily for consumption by ethnic minority communities in the mountains of Thailand and rarely sold in lowland markets. The chubby, speckled grains are hearty and anchor the fiery chili pastes and forest vegetables stews cooked nightly in the communal kitchen.

Mae Suai district, Chiang Rai province, December 2008 The cooking area is typically located inside a well-ventilated room attached to the family home.  The shelves suspended above the cooking fire and take advantage of the smoke and constant heat to preserve dried food products and next season’s planting seeds stored.  During the cold season, family members gather around the fire to socialize and enjoy cups of bitter tea.

Mae Suai district, Chiang Rai province, December 2008
The cooking area is typically located inside a well-ventilated room attached to the family home. The shelves suspended above the cooking fire and take advantage of the smoke and constant heat to preserve dried food products and next season’s planting seeds stored. During the cold season, family members gather around the fire to socialize and enjoy cups of bitter tea.

Bounty from the forest that make up to 80% of the upland diet: local mushrooms; feathery, garlicky-tasting acacia shoots; sweet-tasting chayote shoots and white galangal shoots.

Bounty from the forest that make up to 80% of the upland diet: local mushrooms; feathery, garlicky-tasting acacia shoots; sweet-tasting chayote shoots and white galangal shoots.

 

Vegetables are frequently eaten boiled and dipped in a spicy chili paste, like boiled bamboo shoots with wasp larvae harvested from the forest.  The diet of many upland communities is based on rice or other starchy staples and vegetables. Although a pig may be prepared for community celebrations, meals may not feature meat or other protein.  If eaten, protein can be sourced from the forest (small game, insects), rice paddies (fish, crabs) or small livestock (chicken, pigs) raised in backyards.

Vegetables are frequently eaten boiled and dipped in a spicy chili paste, like boiled bamboo shoots with wasp larvae harvested from the forest. The diet of many upland communities is based on rice or other starchy staples and vegetables. Although a pig may be prepared for community celebrations, meals may not feature meat or other protein. If eaten, protein can be sourced from the forest (small game, insects), rice paddies (fish, crabs) or small livestock (chicken, pigs) raised in backyards.

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, January 2013 Loh, a Karen woman, and her son on the land her family has farmed for several generations.  In the background, her husband Singkham is harvesting a forest plant for supper.  Out of Thailand’s population of 67 million, more than 1 million are people from ethnic minority groups and primarily located in northern mountain communities.  Officially recognized groups include Karen (population 500 000), Hmong (160 000), Lahu (103 000) and Akha (46 000).  Source: Department of Social Development and Public Welfare, Ministry of Human Development and Security, Thailand (2002)

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, January 2013
Loh, a Karen woman, and her son on the land her family has farmed for several generations. In the background, her husband Singkham is harvesting a forest plant for supper. Out of Thailand’s population of 67 million, more than 1 million are people from ethnic minority groups and primarily located in northern mountain communities. Officially recognized groups include Karen (population 500 000), Hmong (160 000), Lahu (103 000) and Akha (46 000).
Source: Department of Social Development and Public Welfare, Ministry of Human Development and Security, Thailand (2002)

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, January 2013 A Karen boy chases a chicken next to forest products being auctioned off during New Year’s Day celebrations. In the foreground are a pumpkin, stalks of sugarcane and golden-green snowflake tree flowers harvested by the community.

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, January 2013
A Karen boy chases a chicken next to forest products being auctioned off during New Year’s Day celebrations. In the foreground are a pumpkin, stalks of sugarcane and golden-green snowflake tree flowers harvested by the community.

Preparing a stew made with vegetables harvested year-round in the surrounding forests.  Stewing, grilling and boiling or steaming are common methods for preparing vegetables throughout mountain communities in Southeast Asia, reflecting simple culinary techniques developed in the absence of expensive inputs like cooking oil, soy or fish sauces more readily available in lowland communities.   A simple stew highlights the astonishing flavours of whatever vegetables are seasonally available and incorporated: sweetness from fishtail palm heart; sour from tamarind leaves or local tomatoes; bitter from rattan shoots or snowflake tree flowers.  Seasoning staples include chili peppers, salt, wild herbs, and fermented soy beans to add a savoury dimension.

Preparing a stew made with vegetables harvested year-round in the surrounding forests. Stewing, grilling and boiling or steaming are common methods for preparing vegetables throughout mountain communities in Southeast Asia, reflecting simple culinary techniques developed in the absence of expensive inputs like cooking oil, soy or fish sauces more readily available in lowland communities. A simple stew highlights the astonishing flavours of whatever vegetables are seasonally available and incorporated: sweetness from fishtail palm heart; sour from tamarind leaves or local tomatoes; bitter from rattan shoots or snowflake tree flowers. Seasoning staples include chili peppers, salt, wild herbs, and fermented soy beans to add a savoury dimension.

The hearty vegetable stew made with slivers of white banana stem hearts, green flowers of the snowflake tree, and local sour tomatoes.  Thai cookbooks reflect the food culture of dominant and food secure lowland groups, rather than the minority and food-insecure groups in the mountains. Source: Food Culture in Southeast Asia, Penny van Esterik (2008)

The hearty vegetable stew made with slivers of white banana stem hearts, green flowers of the snowflake tree, and local sour tomatoes. Thai cookbooks reflect the food culture of dominant and food secure lowland groups, rather than the minority and food-insecure groups in the mountains.
Source: Food Culture in Southeast Asia, Penny van Esterik (2008)

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, January 2013 Loh’s mother prepares sits on the bamboo floor preparing vegetables for the evening’s meal.

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, January 2013
Loh’s mother prepares sits on the bamboo floor preparing vegetables for the evening’s meal.

A bowl of pounded, bitter rattan shoot chili paste rests on a rattan tray, ready to be eaten with dipping vegetables and rice.  Bitterness is a prized flavour as it signifies medicinal and healing qualities of the vegetable.

A bowl of pounded, bitter rattan shoot chili paste rests on a rattan tray, ready to be eaten with dipping vegetables and rice. Bitterness is a prized flavour as it signifies medicinal and healing qualities of the vegetable.

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, March 2013 Two young girls dressed in the distinctive white shifts signifying unmarried status in the Karen culture, walk home after the wedding of a cousin.

Mae Chaem district, Chiang Mai province, March 2013
Two young girls dressed in the distinctive white shifts signifying unmarried status in the Karen culture, walk home after the wedding of a cousin.

“…but you’re still farang…”


The Thai word for guava is the same as "foreigner" - farang.

The Thai word for guava is the same as "foreigner" - farang.

I was eating lunch this Sunday with Thai friends in Chiang Mai and had lapsed into my usual mode of listening and observing when I don’t understand everything that’s going on.  My friends were gossiping in Thai and I understood what they were generally talking about (relationships, drug girls) but not anything specific.  All of a sudden, T made a disparaging comment about someone’s physical size and turned to me and said, “But it’s ok, you understand, you’re a farang.  In my eyes, even though you’re Chinese, you’re still a farang.”

Now, generally, farang or foreigners are bigger in size than Thais (I’m no exception!) so maybe that’s why he made that comment to me (I’m actually still confused as to why I was pulled into the conversation).  The most interesting effect of this particular encounter was how quickly I felt from being comfortable in Thai culture (I had understood at least 75% of the morning’s sermon which was in Thai) to feeling like a complete outsider again.

It happens often to me: I start to feel comfortable in Thailand (I can converse, order food, give directions, ask questions, get around just fine) and then some little thing or comment will knock me flat on my farang butt, and I’m reminded that I don’t fit in.  I call it “falling on my face”.  This occurs often in the language, culture, food, relationships, general understanding departments.  The first year living here, it hurt so much and I really didn’t like getting up.  I would sulk and feel down on myself for days because I didn’t understand a conversation after trying so hard to listen and to practice speaking.  Or if I thought I knew where I was driving to, and ended up in the wrong direction because I couldn’t read the Thai signs.

I take comfort in the fact that I’m no longer floored by “falling on my face”.  I’m learning to shake and laugh it off.  And then to go and enjoy something truly farang like dinner and a movie 🙂

Kitty cats

When I moved back into my house in Mae Ai, buy information pills there were two little kittens meowing around.  I’ve never raised cats, healing only cat-sat for friends who went away on holiday, so I was a little hesitant to start feeding these little guys.  Well, that was back in August.  I just picked up a 7kg bag of cat food in town, so I think I’ve officially become “one of those” people…cooing and cuddling at their pets.

Phoebe and I both came up with names of our cats: Darnell D’Angelo is the black one and Mimi Mariah Carey is the tabby.  Darnell is much bigger than Mimi, but is so much whinier and wussier.  They love fighting each other, have a healthy appetite for mice and cockroaches, and go completely limp if you snuggle them tight in your arms.  They’re adorable!

FYI: you know there’s not much to do in the countryside when you lock yourself and your housemate in her room together with your cats and let them chase a cockroach around.  Or, when you are very amused at seeing your housemate wrap Mimi up like a mummy and wait for her to disentangle herself from the cloth.

Waterfalls in Chiang Mai and Fang

It’s currently hot season in Thailand, site which means farmers burn their fields in preparation for the next season of rice planting or other crops.  The air is smoky, dosage the sun barely filters through and the sky is usually a soupy greyish brown throughout Chiang Mai province.  I hiked through Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai with some friends, and “discovered” a nearby waterfall in Fang with my housemates – a refreshing change to the hot and dry around us.

Waterfalls


A new year, new beginnings

Errr...this actually isn't my picture...

This January, page I really sense an excitement and anticipation for new beginnings and fresh starts.  I’ve learned many things about myself in 2008, no doubt due to the dramas that I went through related to jobs, culture shock, grieving for loss of communities and moving to a new country.  But He is good and gracious!  In the past week, I’ve travelled in three northern provinces in Thailand: Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.  The mountains here in the north are splenderiferous – jaw-droppingly beautiful and awe-inspiring – and different in each of the provinces.  Their gloriousness (gee, big word, eh?) remind me of the majesty of the Lord.  Spending several nights in mountain villages of friends, I’ve been privileged to observe the rhythms of life and nature so intertwined: starting fires in the morning to keep warm and cook breakfast; birds and dogs making noise as the day warms up; laundry laid out in the noonday sun; visits with friends in the shade of afternoon heat; children and adults strolling home as the sun slips down; fires started again and tea made after supper; stars twinkling proudly in the velvet dark sky. The past week’s experiences bring to mind some of my favourite verses in Psalm 95:1-6:

O come, let us sing for joy to the LORD, Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the LORD is a great God And a great King above all gods, In whose hand are the depths of the earth, The peaks of the mountains are His also. The sea is His, for it was He who made it, And His hands formed the dry land. Come, let us worship and bow down, Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.

And in Psalm 104 (this one is so good and full of images):

He waters the mountains from His upper chambers; The earth is satisfied with the fruit of His works. He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the labor of man, So that he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine which makes man’s heart glad, So that he may make his face glisten with oil, And food which sustains man’s heart. The trees of the LORD drink their fill, The cedars of Lebanon which He planted, Where the birds build their nests, And the stork, whose home is the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; The cliffs are a refuge for the shephanim. He made the moon for the seasons; The sun knows the place of its setting. You appoint darkness and it becomes night, In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey And seek their food from God. When the sun rises they withdraw And lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work And to his labor until evening. O LORD, how many are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all; The earth is full of Your possessions.

Christmas in northern Thailand

(Sorry, purchase the photos are probably out of order because I still don’t know how to order them with the gallery function…)
I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from northern Thailand 🙂  Kor hai mii kwaam sook wan Christmas gap sawat dee bee mai!!
 
Last week, more about I celebrated Christmas with my UHDP friends with an all day party that included killing a pig and preparing a very very yummy northern Thai lunch and dinner.  We had a gift exchange where you could steal someone else’s gift instead of choosing one from a pile – I actually ended up stealing a set of coffee cups from Nong Boh, patient an 18 month old boy (hehe)!
 
Today, on Christmas Eve, I made a western breakfast (french toast, real maple syrup, bacon!) with my housemates, Kimberly and Brandon and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast outside our house at UHDP.  We’ve been working our way through Parts 2 and 3 of the Lord of the Rings movies all day…now is a break in between to make roast chicken, mashed potatoes, nachos and salsa, email loved ones, and then back to our movie/eating fest!!
 
For Christmas day I’ll be going to Ajan Tui and Pi Da’s house…I think I’ll introduce them to poutine (oh YES!!!).  We’ll have dinner there overlooking their beautiful rice fields and then head to Pi Da’s Lahu church up the road, to celebrate with singing – the Lahu choir has amazing talent for four part harmony a capella…reminds me of being in Africa.  Then, I’m headed to Mae Chaem district to visit Wah’s family in a Karen village, and then visit my friend Beth, a Canadian who lives in Mae Hong Son province, for New Years…hopefully we’ll be able to stay up and watch either Anne of Green Gables or BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.  Oooooh yeah!
 
God’s peace bless you deeply.

Ballet Shoes in Chiang Mai

Yeah....right...

Yeah....right...

Even though I’m lazy, pharm I can muster the energy to go shoe shopping when I’m in the mood and especially when I’ve been out in the countryside for a while.  Just off of Nimmanhaemin Road (a really cute neighbourhood with relatively few tourists loitering around) in Chiang Mai is a shoe store called Ballet that sells hand-made, artificial leather shoes.  I’ve popped in several times to check out their selection and yesterday, decided to actually try on the shoes.  I was sold!  It’s difficult to find good quality, orthopedically correct shoes that are also attractive, in Thailand.  Bangkok has an incredible selection but the styles are rather trendy and fashiony, so I’ve always had difficulty finding functional yet pretty shoes there.  Many girls in the city wear inexpensive but trendy heels and flats that cost about $3 but probably won’t last through a rainstorm (because the soles are glued on) and are so uncomfortable after an hour (I’ve had my experience with shoes like that!).  I came to Thailand with my trusty Birks (still love them), Chacos and Blundstones (ditto, ditto) and Old Navy flip flops (yes, I know…why bring flip flips to the land of flip flops?  They were silver…?!?).  Everything was totally functional and not pretty, especially for those days when I need to feel like a woman!  So, I bought a pair of forties-style espradille wedges in green suede, T-strap heels in grey and funky T-strap sandals in metallic purple – all for under $70.  At the store, Jan made sure to stretch some stiff leather sections and to punch in extra holes in my straps.  Wow, that’s service.  She told me that some of their styles are always bought out by their Royal customers (as in related to the King) and I was like, I’ll bet!

Now, reality check: these shoes will not be wearable in Fang (too fancy, will get dirty easily) and relative to the wages the folks around me in the villages receive for a day’s labour in the fields, I spent a fortune on these shoes.  This is the dichotomy (I’m not sure if that’s the proper application of the word) I experience being involved in development work to benefit the Palaung people and being a Westerner who has disposable income to spend on the “finer” things in Thailand (and also a taste for it at times).  I’m not experiencing buyer’s remorse, but I am reminded again and again of the opportunities and experiences available to me because of my background, education and socio-economic status.  Some of my friends in the Palaung villages can’t even leave Fang to travel to Chiang Mai because they don’t have Thai ID cards, nor can they read nor write.  They still prefer to forage in the forest for bamboo shoots and other plants instead of paying for vegetables in the local markets.  Shoes for thought, perhaps?

ECHO graduate

I’ve been chatting with some friends of mine from my time at ECHO, prostate and we’ve been musing on how different it is to no longer be an intern on the farm.  From my time at ECHO, my friends have spread across the globe.  AI is in Mozambique, JB is finishing up in Tanzania, I’m in Thailand, EA left for the Democratic Republic of Congo today, MC is heading to Ethiopia next year, and DH is heading on a six month journey through Europe and then into French Africa to check out projects there.

Today, I was studying up on Zanthoxylem rhetsa, a tree native to northern Thailand which UHDP and Floresta are hoping to learn how to propagate in large numbers.  We’ve been studying it for the past 3 years, and I’ve inherited various research projects on the tree.  I had sent out some emails to past ECHO interns (and fellow co-workers) asking for their advice on how to approach some issues and realized, Hey!  I’m a true ECHO grad now!  In the field, getting my hands dirty and always learning.  It felt very satisfying.

UN, Aquarium and Krabi Photos

The beach....jpg
The beach of Phi Phi Island (same beach as “The Beach”…say that fast 10 times out loud)

Tubkaak Resort.jpg
Tubkaak Resort in Krabi (the princess comes alive!!)

Sunset.jpg
Sunset at Tubkaak Beach

bubbleheads.jpg
Dan and I are bubbleheads at Siam Aquarium

Spider crab in yo face.jpg
Spider crab in yo’ face!

Ruth at UN Regional Centre BKK.jpg
At the UN Regional Centre in Bangkok

dan in hallowed UN halls.jpg
My brother is UN-employed…get it?

UN tourist shot.jpg
The UN tourist photo