This week we're hopping around Thailand's far north (Fang the last two days, Mae Salong for the next two, and then ... ??), taking a break from the research we began last week in Chiang Mai's Gat Luang neighborhood.
If you read our Happy Year of the Rabbit post, you know that this year we're collaborating with several Chiang Mai residents on a book that will be published in commemoration of Warorot Market's 100th year. Warorot (and its sister market Don Lam Yai) anchor the neighborhood of Gat Luang. Though Chiang Mai's "old city" (located within the crumbling city walls) is in fact the city's oldest section, it is Gat Luang -- which is located right on the Ping River -- that has long been its commercial heart.
While our Thai colleagues pull together a "History" section for the book, Dave and I will be collecting "snapshots" of daily life in Gat Luang. After our first week "on the job" it's really begun to hit home what a complex area Gat Luang is -- a neighborhood of multiple ethnicities and religions, diverse businesses and commercial interests that date back decades, of long-timers and newcomers and sojourners just passing through.
While it was Gat Luang's food markets which initially drew us there seven years ago our interest in the area is widening with each day spent in the 'hood. So many people to meet, so many stories to tell, places and personalities of significance not usually noticed by the visitor.
For the purposes of Gat Luang Diaries -- a new EatingAsia series highlighting our experiences in the neighborhood, which we intend to update every few weeks or so throughout 2011 (look for a sidebar banner soon that will link to all Diary posts) -- we'll start with last week's "big event": Chinese New Year.
The majority of Gat Luang's residents trace some family ancestry back to China -- Chaozhou to be exact. The neighborhood has two Chinese temples. And last week, in the lead-up to the first day of the Year of the Rabbit, home kitchens were active with the preparation of food for merit-making in the home and at the temples.
Offerings may vary house to house, but only to some extent. Several items must be included, such as fruit, kanom (sweets), and proteins -- duck, chicken, and pork. For those who choose to prepare the latter themselves (as opposed to ordering out or accepting items prepared by friends or relatives) this means almost a half to a full day of cooking, depending on how many pieces are to be cooked.
As part of our research we sat in on the preparation of "the three proteins" (that's my own term, not an official Chinese New Year term) in one Gat Luang household. The lady of the house is a graceful and gifted cook, and with the help of her daughter-in-law she turned out gorgeously glossy five spice-cooked chickens, ducks, and slabs of pork belly.
This type of Chinese stewing is fairly standard (and not at all limited to the new year): chickens, duck, pork belly are cooked till very tender in water combined with sugar, soy sauce, dark soy sauce, five spice, cinammon, star anise and perhaps a few other items. In this household the Thai touch takes the form of galangal stuffed into the duck, and unrefined local brown sugar and a thick bundle of cilantro roots and stems added to wok.
What most struck me as I watched this woman patiently, and with evident love, teach her new daughter-in-law (married less than a year) how to prepare these all-important foods was her concern with appearance. Of course -- when you're offering something to the spirits, gods, and your ancestors it must look its best!
And so, before the raw ducks were cooked their feet and heads were carefully arranged (feet crossed over breasts, heads tucked in and beaks down). Then they were carefully slid -- breast down to fix their positions -- into the simmering scented bath. And after a couple of hours they emerged from the wok tidy and peaceful-looking, a beautiful addition to the New Year offerings tray.