Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jungle lunch

“We’ll hike over there.” Edd pointed to the hills beyond the cleared ridge west of the village of Sae Jai Pattana. We were about to set out on a full-day trek with three Akha villagers. “Wear good shoes.”

Good advice—for us. He and Leeja wore old runners, and Apae wore flip-flops! The trail took us down past fallow and newly-planted rice fields before ascending the ridge and following a newly-laid water pipeline to its source in a spring located higher in the jungle above.

IMG_2051Apae was carrying some cement to seal the small dam at the catchment end of the line, and pushed ahead while Edd and Leeja shared their knowledge of the Akha uses of vegetation as we hiked along the creek.

My first stirs of anxiety about lunch came when Leeja scooped up a little minnow I had noticed in the creek. “Here,” he passed me a bamboo tube, “we can put them in this!”

P2090078Within moments, he had several more minnows—and then a crab, and a shrimp-like creature. When he pulled a frog out from under a muddy rock, I knew lunch would be a challenge.

Edd took the tube to help Leeja, and I joined Katharine to examine the nearby bamboo spirit house built to ensure good water. Apae finished his dam, and as the small reservoir started to fill, we scooped out leaves as all three men collected more lunch ingredients.

IMG_2090We then learned how important bamboo is to the Akha people. Edd split a small length and cut out the dividing parts to make an elegant sluice to provide a clear flow of spring water to clean the catch. Leeja had split a larger diameter piece of bamboo to form a two-section troughs: one side for the items to be cleaned; the other to hold them after cleaning. Meanwhile, Apae made a small fire near a bamboo grove, and filled two bamboo tubes with water, positioning them so the heat would boil the water before the containers dried enough to burn.

IMG_2099It was all very well timed: when the water boiled, Apae added some leaves and the ingredients, while Edd used another bamboo trough to pound chilis, salt and garlic into a paste. Leeja had split a small bamboo length to act as a spit for the frogs (after basting them with some of Edd’s paste).

IMG_2102They’d brought some leaf-wrapped sticky rice for each of us—and some chicken for the second dish in case we were too squeamish. Apae even fashioned some perfect chopsticks.

Leeja chopped a few banana leaves from a nearby tree and laid them out as a mat and serving area. Lunch was ready.

P2090102The ingredients were certainly the challenging part for us, but the preparation was immaculate—and fascinating.

And the food? Tasty enough, but memorable to say the least!