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.


Clare said...

Wow! It's a far cry from the stuff we get in restaurants in the UK, in Sheffield anyway!

Dominic said...

You should go amazon next - great street food and very different to what we re used to. The gelatinous tacaca broth, chilli heat from tucupi, irony acai with tapioca or salted beef, all sorts of dishes that are lethal unless cooked right one of the best being the spinachy manisoba. All served with a cold beer of course

Lennie Nash said...

Hi there Clare,

That pork pie you're pictured with looks amazing! I must admit I'm missing my pies. I'll swap one for a load of sadao.

All best,


Lennie Nash said...

Hi there Dom,

How are you? I've always wanted to go to the Amazon. Those dishes sound fantastic. I've heard manisoba is delicious.

I hope you're writing bucket loads of songs!

@lotteduncan said...

(Via Twitter)

Great blogaroo as usual. Love it! Sounds completely delicious...

Lennie Nash said...

Thanks Lotte! Maybe you could sell sadao when you open your deli/cafe? I think it's a winner.


Matt said...

Great article!wish we had more street food vendors in this country of that quality. Richard Johnson has organised a street food competition in London this year, check out the website.Its my belief you can get great quality , restaurant standard food at market stalls for a lot less. We need to support and encourage more of these stalls in the UK.Truro farmers market Cornwall we have a couple. Everybody benefits, the customer can get affordable, quality unique food and stall holders can work with local produce and keep their overheads down. People need to get to the local markets and support this growing trend. If anyone is thinking of getting into this, i can highly recommend it!
cheers Matt (Cornish Mussel Shack)

Elly @pearcafe said...

Glad to be of assistance! I love it when Twitter works like this. I always help when I can, as I know that if I need help with something, Twitter comes up trumps nearly every time. What goes around comes around, and all that.
Oh, and mine's a pint of wine. Cheers! Elly @pearcafe

Lennie Nash said...

Dear Matt,

I couldn't agree more. You've summed it all up. Let's start a campaign!

All best,


Lennie Nash said...

Dear Elly,

Completely agree about Twitter. So useful for sharing the knowledge. A pint of wine is on its way!


karl said...

Excellent stuff. I envy you. Here I am stuck shivering in the Bolognese hills and there you are, sweating like a gissy in a torrid threesome. It's bloody good to get out of the house though, eh? Eh?