June in Thailand: Food Festival and Other Sukhothai Eats

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Tom and I pulled into Sukhothai in the evening and we settled into a charming guesthouse (that would later steal money from the stash we put in safekeeping with them, unfortunately). We wandered out onto the street looking for food and chanced upon a banner advertising the Sukhothai Food Festival. It was just on the opposite side of the river from our guesthouse and nicely within walking distance. The place was bustling but not too crowded, just right for soaking in the atmosphere yet getting our food with no problem.

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There was loads of stuff on offer, from salads and fish cakes to rice with dishes and plenty of fruit and desserts. Here was where I introduced Tom to the joys of rambutan and my favourite, mangosteen. But let me show you just the highlights. I particularly liked the salt grilled river fish. The tilapia-like fish was coated generously in salt and grilled over a charcoal fire. When it’s on the plate, just lift off the skin, scales and salt and all. The interior is steaming hot and incredibly juicy, heavenly with the spicy lime and chilli dipping sauce.

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Then there were the grilled jumbo-sized prawns. Oh my, how fresh and succulent and good these babies were. It was Tom’s first time eating proper prawns, so I taught him how: grab and pull off the head, being careful not to let the juices dribble out, then quickly suck out the brains; peel carapace off body section by section, dip in sauce and devour. There’s something just so magical about charred crustacean. Like my prawns, I lost my head and blew my daily budget getting more. I’d just have to eat less the next day. (As if.)

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The most fascinating thing I saw of the festival was this dessert stand. It made gossamer-thin pancakes, even thinner than paper-thin, somewhat like Singaporean popiah skins. With the pancakes came a bundle of coloured spun sugar, a bit like cotton candy. Eat by rolling sugar in pancake then popping in mouth. It was a great dessert and we stood for ages at the stand, mesmerised by the deft twirlings of the chef slapping dough ball on hot slab to make perfectly round pancakes in perfect timing.

The food festival was so good we went there two nights in a row, but of course that’s not all we saw of Sukhothai cuisine. I read in the guidebook of a place that specialised in Sukhothai kway tiew noodles. It took little coercion to get Tom in on the hunt and after one failed attempt (it was closed), we sat down to two variations of the exceptionally thin flat rice noodles. The first was a bowl of scalded noodles with toppings, somewhat like the Vietnamese noodle salad bun thit nuong. It had bits of boiled pork, deep fried wanton skin, chai poh (preserved turnip), grated peanut, beans and herbs, all topped with lime and fish sauce. The medley of flavours was refreshing and a delicious change from the usual soup noodles or fried noodles.

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Speaking of which, the fried version was very yummy too, thanks to the generous sprinkling of deep fried lard over it. It was somewhat like pad thai minus the ketchup and shrimp. While both were delicious, I think the unfried version was slightly more unique.

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Stomachs sated, we were satisfied enough to head out to the attractions of Sukhothai.

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August in China: Festival Day in Dong Country

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Mrs Lu invited us to a baby’s first month celebration. Half the village was going, so as their guests we had to go too. I didn’t get the logic, so I don’t expect you to either! As expected, the celebration was by the river. We got there a bit early as preparations were clearly still under way.

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This place would be a food inspector’s nightmare. The meat was chopped up right in the shallows of the river, while bowls were washed nearby in the same river water. It was all part of a day’s work.

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Next, the meat was cooked in a massive wok with plenty of river weed, wood ear mushroom and preserved vegetables.

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While waiting, most people milled around gossiping, Mrs Lu chatting with the rest about me. Others were more industrious, like this lady pounding her cloth with a mallet. Dong cloth is famous for its indigo cloth and in Zhaoxing, especially prized is the maroon shade achieved by adding chicken blood to the dye. A woman’s worth is measured by the quality of cloth she produces and the cloth has to be pounded to make it soft and easy on the skin.

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It seemed to be a multi-purpose festival day. There was a separate celebration for a teacher’s retirement just a few paces down the main street. They set off round upon round of firecrackers, filling the street with an almighty din and a screen of smoke. We stood and stared while waiting for our celebration to start.

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Finally, it was time. The children seemed to heed an invisible signal and rushed forward. Mr Lu barreled past, grabbing Willy along with him. He was to join the men to eat and drink the local moonshine. I joined the women.

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We each grabbed a pair of bamboo chopsticks and reached into a large wicker basket for a handful of glutinous rice. Next, we headed to an empty slot at a low table and started digging in. It went like this: if you’re an elder, sit on a low stool, if not squat. Pick a morsel of food from any of the bowls, followed by a mouthful of glutinous rice. Keep eating. Try not to pass out from the pain of squatting for an eternity. (It was probably only about half an hour.)

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The food was delicious! There was pork boiled with some kind of river kelp and wintermelon, vegetables in very spicy chilli and some preserves. All were very excellent and everyone happily dug in with gusto. There was plenty to go round.

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I stood up periodically, ostensibly to take pictures but really to rest my poor legs. The best part about the whole festival was that I never saw the first-month baby, the closest I got to one was to this friendly mother and toddler. Mrs Lu told me that it wasn’t necessary to see the baby and she was vague about how they were related, so we headed back to her house for tea.

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