(In two parts)
About a year and a half ago Dave and I went road tripping in northern Thailand, and stopped for a night in quiet little Phrae. It's an architectural treasure trove, the best place in the country to see old-style Thai buildings -- houses and temples -- made entirely of teak.
Beyond these wooden beauties, Phrae doesn't have much to offer the traveller. Nonetheless, as is the case with most all Thai towns "upcountry" (any place not Bangkok -- whether north, south, east or west), Phrae's residents are laid-back and friendly, and its lodgings cheap, clean, and comfortable enough. And like the rest of Thailand, in Phrae delicious food can be found on every corner, and at several spots in between as well.
The day after we arrived in Phrae we woke early to beat the heat that, by late morning during Thailand's hot-dry season, rises from the pavement in undulating waves that sear the nostrils (and to catch the best light for taking photos). We toured a fairly well-preserved teak mansion in the center of the "old house district" and took another turn through the backstreets we'd walked the evening before, revisiting (and re-photographing) our favorite teak structures. We made a pass through Phrae's small wet market, surprisingly quiet for a Sunday morning,
bought a big bunch of luscious lychees (another reason -- mangoes are the first -- to bear the heat and travel in Thailand in April and May) off the back of a truck parked on the main drag,
and suddenly realized we were famished.
Just up the street, a glass display case of curries beckoned. Rich, mild green curries with tiny eggplant or bittermelon, fiery coconut milk-free "jungle" curries with fish or pork ... and a beige pork curry packed with olive-colored leaves: gaeng ki lek (ki lek leaf curry). We'd run into gaeng ki lek only once before, at a touristy restaurant off of Bangkok's Silom Road that serves insipid, uninspired versions of Thai favorites (phad thai, green papaya salad, green curry with chicken) and exquisite renditions of lesser-known dishes (black peppercorn-fried pigeon and gaeng ki lek). Ki lek leaves are unbelievably bitter, almost medicinally so; but in a spicy curry made slightly sweet with coconut milk their extreme bitterness becomes strangely alluring.
These leaves were a mystery to me. I'd never encountered them in a market in Bangkok, and I'd never seen them uncooked. So I couldn't determine their plant origin (and no one I asked knew). Finding an English translation for the plant "ki lek" was stymied by the fact that the leaves and/or plant are named colloquially in Thai ("ki lek" literally translated is "iron shit").
Fast forward to last week, when Wan (our maid, fount of knowledge of Thai food esoterica, tutor in proper Thai behavior, and loving nanny to too many pets for going on four years) returned home from an evening walk with a grin on her round face, a twinkle in her brown eyes, and an armful of tree branches.
(to be continued...)