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Isaan Eating: Satho and Frogs

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Excerpts from Four Weddings and a Coup

It was Songkhran and I was in Sakon Nakohn visiting my ex-girlfriend's family. On the first morning I bought a large box of Chang beer from the village store, and Penh’s dear ma proved what a wizard of fermentation she was by bringing out a huge bucket of satho she had prepared. It was Songkran. Actually, it was still a few days away, but hey, who’s going to know the difference this far from civilization.

We all sat around on the floor in the living room drinking beer and satho and eating sticky rice with grilled chicken. The garage-sized front door was wide open, and everyone from the village who walked past saw the farang and decided to come and say hello. When they saw the food and drinks, they decided to stay.

Word soon got around and by mid morning, the house was full and most of the village was drunk. I had a deep, meaningful conversation with the guy sitting next to me, whom I couldn’t understand. We both talked away happily to each other, although neither of us had the blindest idea what the other one was saying. It didn’t matter really.

“Have some more satho and chicken, mate. You’ll be alright.”

After a while and several drinks, he jumped to his feet, said something to me, smiled and disappeared. He reappeared about half an hour later covered in mud and holding two large, dead frogs. He smiled proudly as he handed them to me. I called Penh over, and she explained that he didn’t have any money but he wanted to pay for the beer he’d been drinking, so he’d gone and caught some lunch for us.

“Nice one,” I said. “Here, have a drink. You look like you need it.”

I’m not sure what he said, but he seemed pleased with himself. Penh took the frogs into the kitchen while the rest of us carried on drinking.

She came back out a while later, carrying a large pot. She put it down on the floor in the middle of everyone and announced that lunch was ready. We were still eating breakfast, but I didn’t think it prudent to mention that. Isaan people “graze.” That is they seem to be constantly eating something. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper all blur into one long communal activity. I love the Asian style of eating where all the food is placed in the middle to be shared amongst everyone. In the West we are pretty territorial about our food.

“If it’s on my plate, it’s mine, so keep your thieving hands off it!” Eating Thai style, you get your own plate and help yourself to the food before you, taking just enough each time for a mouthful. Usually you get a fork and spoon, using the spoon in your right hand to eat and the fork in your left hand to move the food about on the plate and help it onto the spoon. Most of the time in Isaan, they don’t use cutlery, instead rolling small balls of sticky rice in their right hands and then holding the ball in their fingertips and pinching up food from the shared dishes. By the way, if you don’t have any soap or water, rolling sticky rice balls is a great way to get your hands clean.

Inside the pot was some boiled water, a few leaves, some lemon grass and the two frogs, belly up. Penh took a knife and split the first one’s belly open. Its guts poured out. She seemed disappointed for some reason. What had she expected? Money? A mobile phone? The Man from Atlantis? Then she sliced the second one’s belly open and smiled triumphantly as she cried, “eggs!” She quickly grabbed a spoon and helped herself to the dubious delicacy.

She turned to me offering me the spoon and smiling as she motioned for me to tuck in. I was on a cultural mission, and I was drunk, but when those guts spilled out I was tempted to pass on this one. Then I saw my mud-splattered friend looking at me enthusiastically, and I knew there was no escape. I managed to scrape some meat off the leg and ate that with a handful of sticky rice before passing the spoon on to the frog catcher and making mmmmm noises to show my appreciation. When the spoon came back my way, I patted my stomach signalling how full I was whilst smiling politely. It worked. Phew, that was a close one!

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