True simplicity in Jan Son’s Thai kitchen

The best methods of food preparation preserve nature’s delicate flavours. The art of cooking begins with sea salt and a crackling fire. When food is prepared by someone sensitive to the fundamentals of cookery, it maintains its natural flavour. True culture is born within nature, and is simple, humble and pure. – Masanobu Fukuoka

A pot steams. Its vapour rising and dispersing quietly at this early hour. The rain had begun without warning, thrumming its tune on the kitchen’s corrugated roof and streaming down in rivulets around us. Jan Son, with stick in hand, nudges the galangal stalks out of the kitchen, their drenched heads bent inwards as though seeking shelter. She returns to her low stool, carving knife in hand and continues prepping the bowlful of garden snails she’s collected that morning. Her workspace-cum-sink is a shallow, wide, stone platform set into the floor. There’s a large earthenware pot on one side, from which she periodically draws water, splashing it over the snails or to clean her knife, her back stooped, her hands in continuous motion. Familiar rhythms.

The dirty water runs off through a small opening on the far side, directly into the garden. The kitchen is entirely open as is the way with most Thai kitchens. An outdoor space that sits beneath the house itself, built off the ground on solid wooden plinths. Pots, pans and countless plastic bags filled with drystore ingredients hang from the rafters. Beneath it, an immaculately clean smooth tiled floor, and Jan Son rattling about, back bent (even when standing) in her leopard print fleece and indoor flip flops. As she talks aloud in clipped consonants and long vowels, she picks up the bowl of snails and tips them into the now boiling pot of water on the gas stove. She adds lemongrass and leaves it alone to simmer, talking to me all the while. I have no idea what she’s saying, but that seems to be ok.

Mealtimes are no big fanfare in Jan Son’s kitchen. No fierce wok of frying vegetables, no complicated arrangement of spices, no sizzle of meat drowning in sauce. It comes together quietly. A steamer of wild mushrooms or chunks of sunset orange squash, a pot of yesterday’s boiled beef, a broth of snails. A constellation of simply prepared ingredients, which she will eventually spoon into large bowls and set on a round silver tray as though no effort has gone into their preparation at all. A chilli paste or two of varying texture, strength and colour always appears. A familiar but inevitably new arrangement that ensures leftovers – when there are any – are never monotonous.

Here in this northern Thai village, ingredients are procured from the garden, from the farm, from a neighbour or a nearby market. Jan Son’s family are strict about using organic, local ingredients, grown in tune with their surrounding ecosystem. Their farm and garden is actually renowned for its no-till, permaculture principles. Path, Jan Son’s husband, was the first in his village to return to organic methods of farming 30 years ago, inspiring others in the local district to do the same, starting a movement that has attracted people from Thailand and further afield to learn from him. Their daughter, Pui, now runs a seed-sharing movement to promote the growing of biodiverse crops. A move away from the monocultures of cash crops, with their heavy reliance on pesticides, that have become ubiquitous in Thailand.

This family’s reverence for nature’s cycles and seasons shows through in the simplicity of flavours at each meal we share. “When you eat food this fresh, you don’t need to add MSG”, Pui tells me, referring to the growing number of Thai people moving away from the country’s rhythms, from the seasons, from home-cooking altogether. From food that tastes, quite literally, of itself.

We sit cross-legged around a low, wooden table. Jan Son delves into the rice cooker and breaks apart clumps of sticky rice (homegrown no less) as though tearing off chunks of crusty baguette, and hands a piece to each of us. She doesn’t take a plate or spoon herself and neither does her husband. Instead, rice is softened in warm fingertips, then dipped into broth or chilli paste – “quickly!”, they warn, “before it disintegrates” – and eaten in a bite. Silence descends, except for the sound of snails sucked expertly out of their shells.

Jan Son’s pantry
chilli – galangal – lemongrass –  turmeric – ginger – shallots – fermented fish – shrimp paste –  sea salt – rice bran oil – sticky rice – chicken – beef – snails – wild greens – banana – bamboo larvae – mushrooms – root vegetables