Nov 26, 2011

Return to Jakune Mai

Some days start out bad and get better, rather that than the other way around.

I get up early. Nature calls. Everyone else has to get up to take a leak too but I prefer to get out while it’s still mostly dark. Others are doing the same, young pregnant moms hitching up their skirts, and old guys like me ducking behind a pig sty or old fence. The village is surprisingly without smells for a place without toilets. Dogs and pigs and cats all have their place and serve multiple functions in what I guess you’d call a traditional village. Maybe I’d just gotten a little too used to things.

When viewed over the perspective of time, most of our existence as Europeans has been as a crop growing metal working people living not so differently than the Akha do. Only in the last hundred years of so have we developed telegraphs and computer chips. Pigs and chickens under the house are kept in at night, dogs are free to roam but mostly outside of the house, they guard for danger, chase rats, and assist in the hunt. Cats live in the framework of the house assuring a lack of large insects, snakes, lizards, mice or rats. I was comfortable to be in the house of a friend in a village I’ve been to before with sounds and smells and a rhythm familiar and predictable.

I used my bit of private time to clean and apply new tape to a blister that had been bothering me for a few days. I’d been ignoring it. Out on the porch of Lao Pao’s house there was some light and I intended to wash and air my feet. First I peal off my old layers of bandages in the light of my headlamp and some of the syrup from my blister spills on the split bamboo floor. White blood cells I guess it is, I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.
Things were worse than I’d thought. What had been a bothersome distraction for days, was, on closer inspection a big hole in the skin on the inside of my left foot. The mother of all blisters. I used some of my water to wash.

Tui my guide wasn’t overjoyed to see my foot no doubt he was wondering how this big old falang was going to get over the hill and back to the road. When shown to Lawboa my foot garnered no more than a moment’s look-see. People live and die in Jakune without recourse to doctors or hospitals, on a scale of one to ten a nasty blister barely twitches the seriousness meter. As my wife tells my kids when they get a scratch, it’s a long way from my heart.

What was obvious was that walking was going to be a problem. My desire to revist Mongla further down the Nam Fa was out of the question. Sompanyao on that long high ridge above Xienkok would wait for another day. We were still a long way from the Mekong or a road. There’s a way over the side of Phou Mon Lem from the old townsite of Jakune Gao, then a long downhill to a town of Lanten people with a road, it’s the shortest way out.

I gathered my washing stuff and headed up to the village spring. Before I left Loubi’s house I asked Tui if I could  buy a young shoat for dinner. This was a rest day and we hadn’t had much meat. Good way to lay some cash on the owner of the piglet and for all in the house to have a mini feast.

The water was piped down to the upper end of the village via a system of hollowed bamboo trunks. Still when it arced out over the tiny bridge it was freezing cold. I’ve no idea how people take showers in it every evening. I wore a wrap around type sarong everyone wears for modesty, still a young girl who came to fetch water ran away in fright. Shortly thereafter the new village headman came walking up to the spring to say hi, I should have already been to visit him, but what with arriving late and staying in the former headman’s house I’d been ignoring the niceties.

I’d barely started back to the house when Tui met me part way very excited about a deer that had been shot, he wanted me to make sure I had my camera. After a quick glance at the butchering job in progress I ducked inside fetched my camera and took this photo.

Law Pi’s two eldest sons had gone hunting with the two guys from the next house. The heart is beside the pan and the liver and lungs are in the pot. Notice that they are discarding the contents of the upper intestine, they’ll save the casing to make sausage.

One front leg goes to the new headman, and another leg goes to the house of the oldest man in the village, that’s the way it is. That still leaves a heck of a lot of meat without refrigeration. No parts are wasted.

I’ve read reports by nutritionists saying the upland people get half their sustenance from the forest, not only in the form of various fauna but also the wild plants, especially the ones that predictably grow up on old rice fields gone to weeds.

Every single male hunts.

The government has outlawed the hunting of endangered species as well as market hunting. That leaves quite a few species, and almost all of the ones that have been traditionally hunted for food. Muntjak which is a small primitive deer with a forked set of horns, and wild pig are the two big game species. Smaller animals include squirrel, all the birds, snakes, bamboo rat, porcupine, civet, and so on.

Above are the jawbones and other parts of some animals stored with plants and leaves tied about them. Normally there would be the horns of muntjak and the larger ones of the sambar which is a larger deer. Sambar horns fetch $100 at the market, no doubt muntjak quite a bit less. The term trophy hunter used as a pejorative in modern western society. But I’ve yet to see a people who don’t value and save the horns of a deer. Notice the round wheels of suet from deer or pig.

I’ve no doubt that the leaves tied to the jawbones of prey are somehow related to a ritual either for luck in future hunts or to the life given up to eat. I’ve heard the Akha believe spirits to be in all things, no doubt they exist in deer too.

Photo of the cutting up.

Inside the house many willing hands were cutting and chopping the dear to be made into a huge dinner.

I’ve never eaten at such an elaborate Akha feast. At least four different kinds of meat dishes, two different jeaos (spicy sauces) and a huge soup. The rice is from the mountains, with a little imagination you can taste the smokey flavor of slash and burn.

photo of laid out dinner

I was surprised the guang (muntjak) tasted exactly like the deer back home. Below a photo of a muntjak caught in a Wildlife Conservation Society camera trap down south. This one is a red muntjak, there are many varieties.

photo WSC

The muntjak is the oldest deer species. Like many tropical deer it’s horns are mostly for defending the territory of a foraging specialist.

As often happens when I have the smell of lots of fresh meat and blood in my nose for too long I wasn’t so interested in eating meat. I tried one of the minced meats, then settled into the soup on top of my rice. Laobi’s wife seeing that I wasn’t eating much meat reached down into the soup pot with her chop sticks and deposited a largish hunk of meat in my bowl. It was extremely tender and mild with a small bone in it’s center. Deer embryo leg. Soup was probably fluid from the embryonic sack.

I’m mostly ok eating different things, if they taste ok, I’ll eat them. Tui my friend mentioned afterwards that he’d always avoided that dish before.

I dozed through the afternoon in a “belly full of meat” kind of daze. I was tired from days of hikes that lasted into the night. I was trying to rest up for the next day when I’d try to walk out to the road. I’d been on much of tomorrow’s route before. In making a beeline to the town the trail cuts up over the highest piece of real estate around, for the first couple miles it goes up and then up a lot more.

I carefully made a two inch diameter cut in the side of my boot where my foot had been rubbing. Better to give up some protection from dirt and water in exchange for an end to the rubbing on my foot.

In the late afternoon I went out to take some photos in the late afternoon light. First  Lawbao’s wife then quite a few of his family and the guys next door asked me to take their photos. I’d taken some pics of my host and the headman of a close village on a previous visit, and brought them back and given them to people as gifts. Maybe word had gotten around.

Many of the poses were stiff and rigid, as if they were redying themselves for something painful, others were clowning. None of the women wore make up. They live too far from the road to have seen many magazines or how women use make up in “civilization”. It has been almost 3 years, I’m waiting for the day I can return and give them their photos.
Lawpao on R, his wife and youngest children.

This post is part of a series of posts about a long walk I did mostly in Muang Long district of Luang Namtha Province Laos in the winter of 08/09. Below are the links to the other posts.

Nov 17, 2011

Som Guang

Som Guang

With fresh deer in the freezer all kinds of foods are starting to appear. To the right are most of the ingredients of som guang or in English “sour deer”.

Today the chef mentioned she was making hamburger with a couple packages of deer. “Why not use the meat grinder?” was my question. I guess the flavor is better if chopped with the cleaver like laap. The hamburgers for the kids never materialized, instead they had Cosco Pizza, and all the chopped meat was used in the preparation of som guang, probably the original plan.

When I got back with the pizza the meat was chopped and I finished peeling the garlic. Maybe a kilo of meat and 3 heads of garlic. Yes heads not cloves. Note the garlic press over on the right? Garlic is important to the “cure” of the meat. The dry ingredients were the usual, salt, bang nuah, a tiny bit of sugar even though you aren’t supposed to, a couple cups of cooked sticky rice that had been whetted with water to make it break apart and mix easily. The rice is also very important, I think it feeds the right kind of bacteria to make the meat sour instead of rotting.

Meat squeezed and mixed with all ingredients, looking carefully you can see the sticky rice.

There was also an additive that helps keep the water in meat sausages. I think it might have been some sort of phosphate. As soon as the ingredients are mixed the garlic robs the meat of it’s red color. It becomes more brown.

The concoction is all wrapped into long fat rolls of about an inch or more in diameter with plastic food wrap and set on the counter to age. It will sit there for three to five days until sour. It’s tested for done by frying a tiny piece. When at the proper ripeness all of the uneaten meat is frozen in the plastic until needed.


In Laos the sausage would be wrapped in banana leaves and tossed in the coals of the cooking pot. The meat will be cooked long before the banana leaves burn.

In a few days these rolls of meat will be som guang. Takes longer in winter, colder room.

Also.... Links for reference.
For all food Lao
Also Lao Cook had a great video on how to make som moo, which is similar but using pork instead of deer. I can't get it to play now but here it is.