At Border Lines

Food and reflections, along the Northern Thailand-Burma border.


Mae Sot, border town to Burma. I experienced life at the borderlines, stunning amalgamation of foods from the interactions of diverse food cultures — ethnic Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Lahu, Mon, Shan and Thai-Karen.

Breakfast was at Lucky Tea shop. A morning medley of Burmese karaoke blasting through the television set. Freshly made roti, naan, accompanying dhaal and teas, before a long journey back to Chiang Mai. A familiar scene, from Singapore too. By this time, I cannot pinpoint the origins of my breakfast, save that it was from the Indian subcontinent. Along the way, a travelling Burmese was taken off the bus when she couldn’t produce any identification.

Burma Study Centre, Chiangmai. Whilst browsing through literature on Burmese history, writings, and Burmese cookbooks, an English class took place, led by a Shan youth. I had a glimpse into Shan culture that afternoon, and the struggles of the community assimilating to Thai society.

Yam. Translating as salads, arinatucs, Spices, Herbs. North of Chiangmai, it was well in the hills (national parks), that was where I was introduced to wonderful vegetarian takes on Thai cuisine, learnt the spices and herbs of the north, and watch the forests ablaze at night. I found myself settling into the routine of harvesting tomatoes, marigold, cilantro. Herbs. Applying the use of the mortar, the clay number, and familiarising myself with the heady, citrus aromas from ma-kwaen, zanthoxylum limonella, and numerous curry pastes conjured up by hand.

The forest, where the locals forage, the other day women from the neighboring hill tribes came by and found weaver ant eggs. It is also said that the villagers burn the forest to aid mushroom hunting — to which I found none, when I hiked the hill ranges, gazing at the stripped land. These umami rich, well textured mushrooms I saw the market.

Another example of this intermix of cultures is som tam, what we know as green papaya salad. Its origins are hinted at Laos, finding its way to Thai cuisine by means of the Isaan culture, where the people are ethnically Lao.