Last week I had the good fortune to visit a Hill Tribe village in Northern Thailand. This trip was not arranged by a tour agency, but by an industrious Thai family who want to help the Hill Tribe people to adjust to our changing world so they won’t be left behind. An opportunity surfaced when Nui, the brother of my friend, Toi, came up with the brilliant idea to organize a cooking class with sticky rice as its star and his sister, a creative cook, to direct the show.
Every February the Karen, Lisu, Arka, and Lahu tribes in the Mai Suai district have a Sticky Rice Festival to celebrate their culture and to make a little bit of merit. It’s no surprise that food becomes the main draw with the help of sticky rice, a staple in this part of Thailand. To add more excitement to their celebration, they hold a contest to determine which village can produce the most creative use for sticky rice.
Now the thing is – sticky rice, by itself, is almost tasteless, and truth be told looks like a ball of glue! Commonly known as sweet or glutenous rice…with no gluten in it….it is mostly used as a staple to every meal or added to other foods to make yummy desserts such as, mango sticky rice; as a vegetable mixed with beans or taro and wrapped in banana leaf; or an ingredient in wine. The challenge for Toi was to introduce a new way to use the sticky rice making it tasty as well as eye appealing…and help this village to win the coveted distinction of producing the most innovative way to use it.
When we arrived at the village, the ladies were all decked out in their finest clothing. Some were wearing their traditional dress which I was glad to see because like most Thai, even those in the more remote areas, they are adopting our Western form of dress. Some of the girls are into recycling old clothing creating their own clothes and shoes as shown in the picture below.
Then, there was this pair of two year old twins who were especially cute with their mother who is dressed in a traditional Karen outfit.
The first step to creating new ways for using the sticky rice was to take the already cooked rice (often leftover rice is used) and pound it to a pulp.
Aided by a heavy bamboo stake, we all took our turn which we discovered was the most tiring part of the process.
This also explained why we had some males in the class.
Once the rice was ready, the large sticky balls were cut up into small portions with a long piece of bamboo leaf. This was the perfect tool as the rice couldn’t stick to it as it would have with a knife.
Step two was to take the small rice balls and roll them out with a glass beer bottle. We discovered that the village didn’t know what a rolling-pin was so they had to improvise with the bottles. We decided then and there we would have to get them some rolling pins. Nevertheless and to our amazement, the finished patties or pancakes looked just like a tortilla.
Step three was to use the various ingredients provided by Toi, such as seasonal fruit, black beans, taro, pumpkin, pork, and mayonnaise… which the ladies weren’t familiar with but absolutely loved…. to create a filling for the patties. At first a they were a tad hesitant, but eventually caught on to the potential of what they could do with the food displayed before them and began to immerse themselves into the wonderful act of creating something new.
By this time the laughter and fun had drawn a considerable crowd of curious onlookers waiting to have a sample of their creations. Someone decided to take the finished product one more step so set up a wok, filled it with oil, and began to deep fry some of the wraps. They were delicious and gobbled up immediately!
At the end of the demonstration, we were treated to a typical Hill Tribe meal of… your guessed it!… sticky rice and various dishes consisting of copious amounts of green vegetables, some spicy and some not so.
The appreciation of the participants was still evident as we packed up and said our ‘good byes’. Everyone felt it had been a success which was confirmed not only by Nui, but also his assistant who was there representing the local Municipal District Council.
Bringing together the four tribes of women…and some men …. to learn something new and to have fun doing it with the thought that maybe they would be the winner of the contest was a beginning. However, Nui would like to see them take the idea and use it as a possible money-maker for the area. He has his finger in a few other money-making projects it appears, so this could be one more if they are interested. Up to this point the women and men have been making beautiful crafts to sell which has served them well, but it would be remiss if they didn’t get in on the growing interest that tourists are developing for eating local foods that are different and also tasty. He sees an opportunity for them to enter this flourishing market niche with sticky rice as the leader. Wraps could very well be just the beginning.
I think he and Toi are on the right track as the Thai government is recognising the need to alleviate the poverty that exists in the North by not only promoting more tourism there, but also providing more incentives for learning new skills. However, the most important thing here will be the follow-up to this wonderful day of fun and learning. The seed has been planted, but now the local ‘powers that be’ will have to continue to work with those who are eager to try something new. They will need more education and close supervision as to how to access information and enforce the laws regarding safe food preparation.
Change won’t be easy for them, but with encouragement they could easily learn the skills required for such a project to help them become a more sustainable village. In the meantime, we can wish them well in winning the prize for the most innovative sticky rice product at the upcoming Sticky Rice Festival.