The pestle and mortar is as rudimentary in the Thai kitchen as a kettle is in the UK, and already Jan Son is pounding out its familiar rhythms into a fragrant paste of chillies, galangal, salt and garlic. Of the meals I share with this family in rural northern Thailand, chilli mixes of varying strength, colour and texture are the punctuation marks of every meal, bringing brightness and heat to the reverently simple dishes set on the table alongside it. This simplicity, unlike anything I experienced elsewhere in Thailand, I’ve also written about here.
In this household, ingredients are treated with respect for their essential flavour. No sauces or pungent broth – and especially not the ubiquitously used MSG – mask protein or vegetable. Jan Son employs soy sauce, sugar and even citrus fruit sparingly, relying instead on the flavours procured from the food she or local neighbours are able to grow. Limitations, you might think, that are unnecessary. Until you watch her cook.
On this particular early summer afternoon, fresh green chillies are busy blistering over a hot flame, their skin burning and popping under intense heat to release their sweet flavour. Out in the garden, a tray of drying red ones slowly shrink and shrivel in the sun, sweating out their moisture to eventually become the capsules of potent heat that Jan Son will store – preserved – in a rusty tin box. This box is already packed with dried chillies from a previous harvest; the same ones that are now suffering the fate of Jan Son’s pestle.
Chillies grow abundantly here and as such various techniques are employed to bring out their natural sweetness and heat. Dried out in the sun, toasted in a hot wok, charred directly over a fierce flame and broken down in a mortar are examples of this, and I see Jan Son in the few days I’m with her use all of these measures to make the potent (but always different) mixes, pastes and dips that accent each meal. Age-old tasks that remind you how clever the act of cooking – drying, chopping, heating, pounding, salting and mixing raw ingredients – really is. An evolution of trial and error that has gotten us to this point; the preparation of a seemingly simple chilli paste in this rural Thai kitchen. It blows my mind.
Jan Son is a genius at manipulating her raw ingredients so their natural flavour takes centre stage, and I see this again when she makes Keng Keh, a traditionally ‘peasant’ dish of mixed wild greens cooked into a richly flavoured broth with fermented fish paste, chilli (of course) and garlic. To prepare it, I followed Jan Son around her garden, stopping as she picked seemingly innocuous weeds from between her vegetable patch, on pathways and in bushes, and even the ivy growing up her greenhouse. By the time she had finished, we counted about 15 different green edibles, all with flavour profiles that ranged from citrussy and sour, sharp and sweet, bitter and plenty more I fail to recall now.
Keng Keh is a typically rural dish, made using whatever greens are growing wild at the time. You’ll see women selling keng keh mixes at market, which I suppose are equivalent to the market garden salad mixes we might have here; a spectrum of mustardy and sweet, crunchy and soft, oniony and bitter leaves that make a good salad delicious, and renders the use of a heavily flavoured dressing quite pointless. This is the kind of diversity we’d do well to champion, not only for the benefit of our local ecosystems but for our palettes too.
Jan Son tips the chilli, galangal, salt and garlic mix – now sufficiently pounded and aromatic – into a bowl and sets it aside. As simple as it sounds, it’s one of the best things I eat while in Thailand (pictured below). Now, she removes the blistered green chillies from their skewers, and muddles them into her mortar with tiny cloves of garlic, fresh ginger and toasted bamboo larvae. Side note: larvae and insects of various kinds are eaten a lot here in the north providing umami and depth to broths or pastes, or eaten as a snack.
Both chilli pastes are set on the table alongside the leftover keng keh and steamed mushrooms from yesterday’s evening meal. A well-rehearsed equation of simple ingredients. Building blocks carefully balanced to create yet another riff on the raw materials. This, I suppose, is what it is to cook.