On a crisp Wednesday morning in Fang we rose when the sky still bled black and blue, and walked the few blocks to the once-a-week, everything-sold-here market. We first hit this market two years ago while collaborating on a piece about Naomi Duguid's northern Thailand 'Immerse Through' cooking course/adventure (for the story and slideshow, which are are still online, go here). It's what I would call a "destination market", one that justifies the trip to Fang -- huge and heaving, drawing Thais and minorities from villages ringing the town. This year we had the added pleasure of wandering the market's aisles with a staff member from a nearby seed bank/agro-forestry center whom we'd met the day before.
After passing a splendid two hours browsing and tasting, taking notes and talking with vendors (more on the market to come) Dave and I and our new friend Ruth sat down to breakfast: Shan-style rice noodles doused with thick yellow bean 'soup', all garnished with Sichuan-ish la jiao (chili oil), cilantro, green onions, and garlic oil. I purchased 5 baht worth of pickled mustard greens from a nearby vendor to eat alongside our noodles. Such a warming, comforting way to end our Fang market tour.
After saying our good-byes Dave and I hurried back to our hotel to pack up. We were eager to be on the road to Mae Salong, a tea-growing town not far from the Thai-Burmese border that was settled in the 1950s by former Nationalist Army (Kuomintang / Guomindang) soldiers from China.
The drive from Fang to Mae Salong is easy, just a little over an hour. And it's beautiful: hills and swooping curves that straighten out to endless views over far northwestern Thailand's hilly, forested (and increasingly tea plant-terraced) terrain.
We had no guide book and no reservations, but soon after rolling into town we lucked onto a gem of a little hotel/guest house (one of the advantages of traveling off season), with a big upstairs room with a balcony. We unpacked, settled in ... and realized that we were ill. A "hairball" is what Dave and I call it, that feeling in the gut that something is stuck, not moving through the system as quickly and easily as it should.
So began the most unusual case of food poisoning we've experienced. There were none of the usual associated food-borne illness associated "pyrotechnics", no mad dashes to the bathroom. Just a pain that grabbed hold like a vice across across our mid-sections and got worse as the hours wore on, culminating in chills and fevers and then, in the early hours, drenching sweats. When we woke the next morning we knew that the worst had passed.
Except for one thing: the hairballs lingered. We weren't nauseous, but we had no appetite. None at all. And that didn't change for another 4 days.
So there we were in lovely Mae Salong, where we'd gone to taste tea and feast on Yunnanese food (those Nationalist soldiers were from Yunnan). There isn't a lot to do in the literally one-street town but trek the surrounding hills, visit tea plantations, and eat. But we were too exhausted to tackle for former, and without appetite for either of the latter. We napped. We read. We ventured out for 15 minute walks, and recovered with more naps.
But our lodgings came with a wonderful family. And here, perhaps, our bout of illness was a blessing in disguise.
Mom and dad, both descendents of those Nationalists from Yunnan, grow tea on the hills below their house and sell it (and other things) in the tea shop out front. Son Number One, in his mid-twenties, studied hotel and hospitality at university in Chiang Mai. He designed our very swank accomodations and is working on plans for an addition to the hotel. Son Number Two and his sweet shy wife manage the inn. There is also friendly mutt Jackie and irresistable English boxer puppy Yogurt.
When we first suspected something was amiss, I went in search of a slice or two of fresh ginger to to ease our stomach aches. Mom offered ginger tea instead, sitting us down in her tea shop and offering cup after cup. When we'd had enough she gave us the rest of her stash and insisted we take it to our room.
On Thursday evening we returned from a short walk. Headaches told us we were hungry but the noodles we'd eaten earlier in the day hadn't settled. We knew we should but couldn't think of anything that might appeal. Enter mom, to the rescue: "Would you like some tea? Go sit behind our house, there's a great view," she said.
We followed her to the family's rear verandah -- which was actually the heart of the house, the dining area connecting living and bedroom to the kitchen. We drank our tea and watched the sun set as a musical racket and tempting aromas drifted past our noses. Yogurt romped about our chairs and a table was set behind us. When mom announced "Chi fan le!" -- "Let's eat!" -- we didn't think to argue.
The meal certainly wasn't prepared with our tender tummies in mind, but it might have been. Simple dishes incorporating fresh vegetables, excellent locally made tofu, and just a bit of meat and fish -- everything tasted clean and healthy and good for us. The highlight: a familiar Chinese-style soup of dou miao (pea tendrils and leaves) in light broth.
We ate in small bites and conversed with our hosts. The next morning the scene was repeated over breakfast. With this family, who had been strangers less than 48 hours before, we felt welcomed, comforted, and cared for -- exactly what we needed in our recovery state, and everything we hope for as travelers.
Comforting and Reviving Chinese Vegetable Soup
Serves 2 with a stir-fried or steamed dish (easily doubled, tripled, etc.)
Most every home-style meal in China includes a variation on this theme: a vegetable or several, perhaps an egg or two, in an uber-light meat-based broth.
I've heard foreigners equate this weak soup with "dishwater", but they miss the point. It's not meant to be the hearty centerpiece of a meal, but a digestion-aiding finish. It's also a great way, when serving a stir-fried dish, to add leafy vegetables to the meal without having to fire up the wok a second time. It makes a regular appearance on our table, especially if I'm making something as rich as this corn, edamame, and bacon stir-fry. I prepare the soup first, cook the greens (choy sum/yellow flowering mustard leaves usually) till not quite done, and set it aside while I stir-fry the main dish.
There's no real "recipe" -- it's open your own interpretation depending what's in season and what you have on hand. A bit of meat or vegetable stock to season the broth is preferred, but I sometimes substitute a ginger-tomato broth instead. When it comes to vegetables, feel free to mix and match a couple types. But don't overdo it -- simplicity should be the very essence of this dish. Keep the flavors straightforward and few.
Serve in one bowl at the center of the table so that diners can pull vegetables from the broth with their chopsticks. A ladle or two of broth drunk from your rice bowl (or clean bowls) at the end finishes the meal.
1/4 cup any meat or vegetable broth combined with 2 cups water OR 2 inches ginger, sliced, boiled for 10 minutes in 2 1/2 cups water
1 tomato, thickly sliced or cut into thick wedges
2 or 3 green onions (scallions), sliced lengthwise
One bunch (a big handful) leafy greens: pea tendrils, mustard leaves, bok choy, sturdy leaf lettuce, collards sliced very thin, etc.
1 egg, beaten (optional)
- For the broth, combine water/ginger or water/meat broth mixture in a medium saucepan with tomato, green onions, a grind or two of black pepper, and a bit of salt if using. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat, and simmer 2-3 minutes or until tomato has softened.
- Add the leafy greens and continue to simmer until not quite cooked to your liking. If using the egg, bring the broth to a very low simmer, push the vegetables to the side of the pan, and pour the egg into the broth in a steady stream. It will "flower" into a sort of floating pancake. Let it solidify, then gently stir the broth to lightly break up the egg.
- Serve with a stir-fried or steamed dish and rice.