Monthly Archives: January 2012

What is that smell? Pla Ra (ปลาร้า) and Som Tum (ส้มตำ)

Driving home from town the other day I stopped off at my sister in laws shop to drop of some stock that I had picked up for her. She was a little busy as parked out the front was this vehicle.

It takes a lot to get my SIL excited so I was interested in what it was that the man was selling to make her grin like a shot fox. I ventured closer to take a look but it was the smell that hit me before I could even see what was in the containers.

To everyone’s amusement I backed up very quickly as the smell that was attacking my nose is seriously one of the worst things in the world that man has ever created. Why they bothered with Mustard gas in the war is beyond me when this lethal concoction was readily available in North Eastern Thailand.

It is called Pla ra (ปลาร้า). It is basically a fermented fish sauce and is so popular in the North East of Thailand that it almost forms its own currency!

It is made by pickling fish. There are a few varieties in it but the main ingredient is the Snake head fish. Once the fish is caught, cleaned and cut up into small pieces it is thrown into a big jar along with salt and rice bran before being covered with a wooden lid. There it lies for between three months and a year, slowly but surely fermenting itself into the it’s pernicious final product.

So why make such a vile product? Well apparently it is meant to taste really good! It is mainly used in what would have to be the most popular dish in the North East. Som Tum (ส้มตำ). Som Tum is a spicy salad usually made from shredded green papaya. Just amongst my family here in the village it would be eaten on average once a day, every day.

So this man with the stink bomb on wheels travels all around the area selling his own special concoction of hell and the locals can’t get enough of it!

I took a big breath and entered back into ground zero just to take the following two photos for you the reader. You can thank me by clicking on one of the advertising links when you have finished this story!

He was a delight to talk to and really made me laugh when we had the following conversation. I have embellished it ever so slightly as I wish my Thai language skills were that good, but the aren’t. The final line is exactly what was said though.

Stinky Fish Man: “Why did you back away like a man who has just seen a ghost?”

Ignorant Foreigner: “Because what ever it is you are selling stinks like all my nightmares rolled into one”

Stinky Fish Man: “But this is Pla ra (ปลาร้า), the most famous ingredient in Thailand. With out it, Thailand would simply stop.”

Ignorant Foreigner: “That may be the case but it is an assault on my senses. I don’t know how anyone can make it, smell it, let alone eat it.”

Stinky Fish Man: “You eat cheese don’t you?”

Chalk up a point to the Stinky Fish Man as he does have a point!

An elephant sized interruption

One of the first things you learn to deal with when beginning home schooling is interruptions. You are always being interrupted by something or someone. It could be the telephone, that broken sprinkler outside or a major sporting event on the television. The reasons can be wide and varied.

Friends and family can actually be the main cause of interruptions that sometimes, can cause you to lose an entire day of learning. They know that you are home and have nowhere pressing to be so tend to call on your first when they need help or feel like visiting someone. Half the job of getting yourself organised into a routine is teaching yourself to be focussed and ignore the phone, sprinklers and TV while the other half is teaching those close to you about your schedule and what it means.

The most important thing to remember about interruptions is no matter how hard you try to avoid them, it is inevitable that they will still happen and when this happens – use them to your advantage! Turn them into an opportunity to teach. Just about all interruptions give you the opportunity to teach your children something new like learning about……… Elephants!

There we were last week, half way through a reading lesson when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a slow moving grey mass lumbering past our balcony.

I heard a shout from outside of Chang! Chang! (ช้าง ช้าง) and quickly realised that it was an elephant coming to pay us a visit. Elephants in Thailand are almost as common as Kangaroos in Australia but this remote area of Thailand is quite the exception. It was the first time I had seen one here and upon asking the locals later you would be lucky to see one, once a year. The particular one had come from Surin walking it’s way through many remote villages earning it’s mahout a little money by soliciting people to purchase pieces of sugar cane to feed it.

We quickly put our books down, grabbed the camera and went outside to take a look. I love Elephants and could have fed and watched it all day but unfortunately they were down to their last bag of sugar cane. My wife however does not share the same feeling as I do for the great lumbering beasts and in fact has a phobia about their trunks which to her resemble over fed leeches. I have seen her cross busy roads in Bangkok to get away from an elephant trying to share the same footpath as her and this one was no exemption with her standing at the rear of our house while the kids and I fed it.

As you can see in this photos the kids were not all that sure about our visitor but bravely put their good hospitality lessons to the test by offering it some sweet sugar cane to munch on.

With a little prompt from the mahout the Elephant said thank you with a wave of its trunk and a soft grunting noise before backing out of our driveway, turning east and disappearing down the road.

Baking your own bread in Thailand

Returning to Australia last year meant having an oven for the first time in a long time. This got me inspired to bake some bread and I had a lot of fun experimenting trying to get it just right. The problem with baking your own bread is the time it takes and the mess it makes.

My Mum is an excellent bread baker but I noticed during my most recent trip to New Zealand that she does not bake in the oven anymore but uses a bread machine.

I used it once and was surprised how easy it was and it got me thinking about buying one and taking it to my house in Thailand as I have no intention of ever putting an oven into my kitchen there.

Relaxing in New Zealand during this time allowed me the time to catch up on some interesting blogs that I follow from people living in Thailand. One of them is called Beyond the mango juice and one of his recent entries was all about eating western food in a Thai village. He wrote about using a bread machine to bake your own bread so I left a comment asking about the possibility of buying a bread machine in Thailand rather then lugging one all the way from New Zealand. He did some searching for me and came across a website I had never seen before.

It was with some trepidation that I clicked on the link as Thailand does not have an online shopping culture and this is reflected by either the complete lack of shopping websites, or if you do find one, they are very poor quality and in a completely non user friendly format. A lot of companies do have websites which show their products but to buy them you have to go and visit their premises or if you are lucky fax (yes fax!) in all your details and then organise a bank transfer. Using a credit card is still quite rare and then only with face to face transactions.

The website recommended was for a company called. Verasu. I was blown away! It was just like you would expect in Australia although this was even more user friendly! No more then five minutes later I had purchased a bread machine and organised delivery to the village. No emails, no phone calls, no forms to sign just in and out the way it should be. They have a lot of great looking products for sale and I know for sure that I will be using them again and again.

The brand I bought was a Severin and it cost 5,900 baht ($190) for the machine and 200 baht ($6.50) for the delivery.

When we arrived in the village it was handed over to me by my sister in law with an excited look in her eye. She had just visited us a few months previously in Australia and had quickly become addicted to my bread with lashings of butter and jam and had already figured out what this new machine was meant to do.

So, to the whole point of this blog entry…. making your own bread in Thailand! For a basic loaf it is oh so simple. Just follow a basic recipe like this.

After adding your water, you need to add your flour. Make sure you use bread flour and not the all purpose flour that you see in many small shops in local villages. If you live in the boondocks like I do, you may have to stock up on some flour when in the big smoke. I bought mine at Tesco in Ubon Ratchathani and then some more later at Tesco in Det Udom.

My Mum adds a little sugar to her bread but my recipe said to use honey so I tried that and was happy with the result. I would have much preferred to use some local Thai bush honey but there is currently none available in the village.

Then add a splash of oil. Don’t use the cheap stuff, spend a little more and get some decent olive oil.

I liked to add some rolled oats for a little extra oomph and texture. I bought these from Tesco as well.

Of course you cannot forget the yeast. I bought this at Macro but am sure it could be found at Tesco or Big C as well.

Once all the ingredients are in, simply turn the machine on, chose the right settings and walk away.

Three hours later and your bread is ready.

This is a loaf I did with with oats.

This is another loaf finished without any oats.

This cut loaf is the one with oats in it.

Of course you can mix and match all your ingredients and make a wide variety of different bread. Wheat and rye bread, onion bread, raisin bread, French bread, oat flake bran bread etc etc. It is also great for getting your pizza dough ready.

Yummy, healthier (then a lot of store bread) and fresh! Your house will never smell so good! I roughly worked out that for a large 1 kg loaf of bread the cost of the ingredients comes to around 30 baht ($1).

A reader asked where to buy flour, especially whole wheat, in Ubon so I have attached a map below showing where Peppers buy their flour from.

View Bakery Shop in a larger map