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  1. #1
    DrB0b's Avatar
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    Laarb, Jaew Bong, and A Child of the Northeast

    Not a recipe but still food-related.

    One of my favourite Thai novels is "A child of the Northeast (ลูกอีสาน)" by Kampoon Boontawee. Written in 1976 it's a deeply moving story of the lives of an Isaan family in the 1930's. The book contains many wonderful, happy and sad, descriptions of Isaan life and culture, from folk beliefs to mor lam at the temple, from hunger, drought and emigration to family meals made from the sparse pickings of the Isaan countryside. Even though the book is a classic of modern Thai literature, has won several major prizes, and even been made into a movie it's not very well known outside Thailand. It's still in print but I've rarely seen the English language translation on sale anywhere else but secondhand bookstores.

    A recent post about making laarb reminded me of this book and I thought people might enjoy this description of preparing laarb in a 1930's Isaan household. As with many of the scenes in this book you could see pretty much the same scene in may parts of the North and Northeast today.

    The main character in the book is a young boy named Koon. He lives in a poverty-stricken village with his mother and father, who are never referred to by name, and his two younger sisters, Yee-Soon and Boonlai. The book is written in the Isaan dialect.

    Koon's father is about to take a trip to the forest to gather grasses to rebuild the roof of their house.


    When Koon begged to go with him, to look for cicadas and snakes, his father said no and Koon knew that he would not change his mind. He wandered into the kitchen to see what his mother was doing.

    "I want to go with Papa."
    "Papa would take you, Koon, but he's only going to gather thatch. If he was going to the knoll, where you went before, I'm sure he'd take you."
    "Do you really think so?"
    "I'm sure. He told me that the day you went with him you didn't complain at all, not even when you were tired and thirsty."

    Koon was very pleased to hear that. "Can I help you make jaew for Papa?"
    "No jaew today, I'm going to make laarb from pla ra because Papa won't have time to catch cicadas or lizards to eat with jaew. It'll be easier for him to pick some Neem or Jik leaves to eat with laarb."

    Koon had often seen his mother prepare laarb and so he went to get the chopping block. She reached for the jar of pla ra and removed the plug she had made from a handful of charcoal wrapped in a rag. then she pulled out four or five pieces of pla ra, each the size of her little finger, and laid tehm on the chopping board in front of Koon.

    "You chop them."
    "Why do you have to put that rag with charcoal in it on top of the jar?", Koon asked, looking curiously at the little bag. "What if you used something else?"
    "No", she said, shaking her head. "You can't use anything else, The flies hate charcoal. If I put something else in the mouth of the jar they'll lay eggs there."
    "Oh", sid Koon, and began to chop the fish with a satisfying thunk! Thunk!
    "Not so hard", said his mother, "the small pieces will fall on the floor. We don't have much."

    Koon chopped more carefully. When the fish was minced his mother added two stalks of lemon grass and slices of fresh young galangal to the neat pile on the chopping block. Koon kept chopping and after a few minutes his mother added a handful of dried green onions and fresh chilli peppers. When Koon had chopped these into the fish for several minutes she added a handful of parched, finely ground rice. His hand was getting tired.

    "That's good", she said. "Now you start to turn it over with the knife, like this, every few chops." She took the knife from Koon, slid the flat blade under the mixture, and deftly flipped it over. Chop-chop-flip...chop-chop-flip... Koon took the knife back and did the same, concentrating on doing it just right.

    "Aren't we going to put any lime juice in, like when you make catfish laarb?"
    "We don't have any limes and your father doesn't like lime juice in it anyway. You know what he likes with laarb made from pla raa!"
    Koon laughed. "I know, red ants!" It was true.

    He chopped and flipped, chopped and flipped, and at last his mother took the knife from him. Sliding it under the top she laid one half of the fragrant mound on a piece of fresh banana leaf, heated it over the fire, and expertly folded the leaf into a sturdy square packet which she tied into a scrap of cloth. The rest of the laarb she put into a small square pot.
    "This is for you me, and Yee-Soon and Boonlai, to eat with todays breakfast rice.

    "Mama, how do you make jaew bong?", he asked, thinking of the fish mixture she sometimes packed into bamboo tubes.
    "Almost the same as we just did" she said,. "Only I add dried roasted peppers, not fresh ones, and roasted onions too."
    "Why do people call it jaew bong?"
    "Because they pack it into a bong, a bamboo tube, for going on a long trip. Jaew packed into a bong will last for months, even a year. But I always heat it again, just to make sure."
    "Someday I'm going to make jaew bong."
    "Of course you will, every human being should know how to make laarb pla ra and jaew bong."

    She leaned out of the window with the chopping board and poured water over it, brought it back inside, scrubbed it, held it outside the window again and rinsed it. The water splashed sharply onto the packed, dry earth.

    Koon's father came into the kitchen, fastened the cloth that held his food around his waist, took his machete down from the wall, and went off.

    Koon's mother called the two little girls, who left their play below and scampered into the house. The mother and children sat in a circle on the floor; in the center of their circle was a round, woven, bamboo box of rice, the little pot of laarb that Koon had helped to make, and two hard-boiled eggs cut in halves. Their mother gave one half to each child and put the extra half onto a shelf.

    "Who gets that one, mama?" Yee-soon asked.
    "Whoever feels hungry later."

    Koon pulled a chunk of rice out of the woven bamboo box, quickly rolled it into a ball with his fingers, and dunked it into the laarb. It was delicious with the pungent, fresh aroma and taste of lemon grass and galangal. When his lips burned from the fresh, hot chillis he had chopped into the laarb he pursed his lips and drew in his breath to cool them.

    "It's not that spicy" his mother said, "I only put in four or five chillis. Anyway, a young boy should be able to eat five-chilli laarb! Look, Yee-Soon can eat it."

    Boonlai had her own laarb, a spoonful mother had taken out before adding chillis.
    "Yee-Soon can eat anything," Koon said.
    Yee-Soon looked at him with narrowed eyes. ""Papa told me that we'll be smart when we grow up if we eat lots of chillis," she said. "Is that true, mama?"
    "It's true."

    Yee-soon stuffed her whole piece of egg into her mouth. "Mama said you shouldn't do that." Koon said. "Mama says you're supposed to eat lots of rice and only little pieces of the other food. Not stuff all your food into your mouth. Right, mama?"
    "That's right. If you eat a lot of sticky rice, Yee-Soon, and not so much of the other things, you'll grow up to be a pretty girl, and a good girl, too. Yee-Soon narrowed her eyes at Koon again. He didn't care.

    He though about his dogs, mawm and daeng, who had gone with Papa. Oh, if only he could have gone too! He absently pinched off little bits of stick rice and fed them to a small spotted cat that brushed against his arm. Yee-Soon grabbed the cat roughly and pulled it onto her lap. "Nobody can feed this cat excpet me," she said, "It's mine."

    Koon thought of Mawm and Daeng racing through the hills and wondered why anybody would ever want a dumb cat anyway.

    A Child of the Northeast by Kampoon Boontawee 390 Baht

    A Child of the Northeast by Kampoon Boontawee

    Translated by Susan Fulop Kepner

    A Child of the Northeast is a novel about a year in the life of a village in Northeast Thailand during the 1930's. It is also a tale about a world scarcely known in the West: the world of "Isaan", which is what the natives call their corner of Thailand.

    Kampoon Boontawee based this award-winning novel on memories of his own childhood in Isan during the depths of the Depression. The loving, courageous family at the center of the novel include a boy named Koon, who is about eight years old; his sisters Yee-soon, five, and Boonlai, two; and their parents, whose names we never learn. They are simply "Koon's mother" and "Koon's father", even by their friends and family.

    Kampoon also introduces his readers to a wider, equally unforgettable family: the relatives and neighbors who live in Koon's village. It is their bravery, their goodness of heart, and above all, their indestructible, earthy sense of humor, that shape the boy Koon's perception of the world, and his purpose in it.

    Nonthaburi 1987
    Pouyzian Publisher
    477 Pages
    ISBN 9749281586
    A Child of the Northeast by Kampoon Boontawee
    The Above Post May Contain Strong Language, Flashing Lights, or Violent Scenes.

  2. #2
    splendid and tremendous
    somtamslap's Avatar
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    Yesterday @ 05:01 PM
    Down on the farm
    Larb pla ra..sounds revolting..nice little snippet from the book though..cheers bob.

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