We've started cooking up a storm at the ECHO Asia office every Friday, as we explore how to eat the under-utilized food plants found in this part of Thailand. For us foodies, one of the fun aspects of our work is learning how the same plant is considered delicious by many ethnic communities in the north, but some parts of the plant are favoured over the other, depending on the cultural group. Take for example the snowflake tree (Trevesia palmata) that’s native to northern Thailand and can easily be found in many rural markets. Northern Thais eat the flowers in a gaeng (northern-style stew/soup), while hill-tribe communities favour the shoots, fruits and flowers pounded into nam priiks (spicy side dish), stewed as a gaeng, or boiled. The fun begins as each group would claim their method of eating is superior to the other.
Our kitchen at the office has turned into a food laboratory as we’re testing traditional recipes that use local plants like snowflake tree. These recipes are gleaned from UHDP staff hailing from five ethnic communities (Palaung, Lahu, Hmong, Karen, and Akha) as well as friends with cultural heritages as diverse as Northern Thai, Kachin and Yunnanese-Chinese. Recipe by recipe, we're going beyond the technicalities of growing these plants or saving the seeds, and towards understanding the diverse cultural methods of preparing plants that aren’t well-recognized in Thai culture. This is village-farmer gourmet!
Recently, we experimented with chaya (Cnidoscolus acontifolius); our plants are probably the first of its kind grown in Chiang Mai. It comes from South America and can be eaten like spinach or used instead of corn leaves to wrap and steam foods, tamales-style. Chaya, also known as spinach tree, flourishes without much rainwater and provides year-round shade with its large, dark-green leaves edible by people and animals. In fact, the goats at ECHO's Global Farm in Florida eagerly gobble down the chaya whenever they're fed it! It’s also easy to propagate – cuttings taken from silvery stems are planted without much hassle.
We took young, tender leaves from our garden and boiled them to remove cyanide found in the leaves. They smell and taste like a combination of broccoli and spinach but with the texture of kale. We made two polar opposite dishes: a tasty and home-style stew with pounded peanut and chaya inspired by East Africa, and a fragrant nam priik accompanied by fried shallots based on a Lahu recipe. Needless to say, we scarfed down the dished with a resounding YUM!
This is a tough job but meal by meal, we're eating our way through a list of plants with the aim of producing a cookbook that showcases the many ways of enjoying plants we promote through our local partners or in our seed catalogue. In turn, we hope it becomes a resource to both the curious gourmet and people working in hard-to-grow-food areas to better understand how something like chaya can enhance the environment and be a source of tasty meals. Bon appetit!