Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Twitter Solves Thailand Green Plant Riddle
Whenever I go abroad I like to eat what the locals eat. It gives you a much truer reflection of a country’s cuisine and eating habits. Sometimes I go into a fancy restaurant to try a skilled chef’s interpretation of a local dish, but I’m a great lover of rustic food and when you go off the tourist map there are always some surprises.
It was during one of my jaunts around the back streets of Chiang Mai that I came across a plant I’d never seen before. It resembled sprouting broccoli that had gone to seed or perhaps unripe elderberries, and was bubbling away in a pork belly and pig’s tail stew and was absolutely delicious.
Thanks to some very helpful food bloggers on Twitter – including @meemalee, @granthawthorne, @chezpim, @essexgourmet, @applelisafood and @NorthernSnippet - I eventually found out it was called sadao, and is the fruit and leaves from the neem tree.
I especially owe @pearcafe a big drink for badgering a Thai chef in Bristol. He scribbled its name in Thai - and it matched the hieroglyphics pencilled by a passer-by in my notebook. "Man thought I was very strange coming in off street to ask!" she said.
Apparently, you can get it in jars back in the UK, but I’d never seen it, and I was lucky to be in Thailand when it was in season. At first I thought it might be green peppercorns, but as the stew was 30 baht (about 60p) and peppercorns are relatively dear, there was no way they could make it at that price. I grabbed a plastic stool and waited as the dish bubbled away on a calor gas burner.
I watched as the locals queued up for their evening meal. It reminded me how much of a takeaway nation Thailand is. Food at street stalls is so cheap, healthy and delicious that many Thais say they don’t bother to cook themselves – it’s cheaper to buy it.
They carry the dishes home in little plastic bags and then eat together. Walk past an open window at supper time and you can often see a Thai family crouched down on the floor picking through bags of brightly coloured food.
Another thing I love about Thailand is the way street food sellers sometimes have a little Buddha shrine tucked away they can pray to. This one was at the back of the stall, near the tarpaulin, and perched on a little tiled plinth.
As the locals ordered their barbecued fish, minced pork and vegetable curries, and batter cakes made of tiny fish, I tucked into one of Chiang Mai’s famous spicy sausages.
It was like a good chorizo in texture, with little squares of moist fat. The heat hit me straight away and then the lime and coriander. It was wonderful and had all the salty meatiness of a good banger. I’ve had some fairly poor sausages since I’ve been here – including one that was sickly sweet that I gave to a beggar. But the sausages at that stall were the best of the lot.
Eventually, the stallholder came over and handed me a polystyrene tub full of pork sadao. It reminded me slightly of the peasant soups and stews they serve in South America, designed so that a little bit of meat goes a long way. There were slices of green beans, onions and tomatoes in there, as well as pig’s tail and a chunk of pork belly.
But it was the sadao that was the star. It was slightly bitter and had a faint taste of celery – one of my favourite flavours. The broth was thin and moreish and fairly subtle compared to many Thai dishes. It had been pepped up with a little red chilli, garlic and fresh basil leaves, but only a touch. Most of the flavour came from the white pepper that had been added - which was another reason I intitially suspected it was green peppercorns. I sat there and sucked the bones and then had another helping.
When I got back to my hotel I had a chat with a chef I’ve met and she told me how sadao grows near temples in the city and is revered for its medicinal qualities. I described the dish to her and she gave me the basics on how to make it.
She said you start by frying pounded red chillies and garlic, and then when they have cooked down and coloured the oil, you add slices of onion and the pork. You add water and boil it rapidly for ten minutes, and then add the tomatoes and the basil leaves. You boil it again, and then throw in the sadao for the last five minutes.
It was a great dish, and the thing I loved most was it didn’t have that ubiquitous citrus flavour of lemon grass and lime leaves, or coconut, or fish sauce for that matter, which can get a bit samey at times. I’ve no idea what sadao tastes like in jars, but if you ever get a chance to try it fresh, I urge you to do so. If you ask nicely, I’ll smuggle some home in my suitcase.