Wednesday, March 29, 2006

It's Getting Chili in Thailand

...and we're not talking about the weather
(100+ Fahrenheit right now).

I am referring, my-about-to-be-dazzled readers, to a recent extraordinary accomplishment from a brown-thumbed gardner who has trouble growing even weeds. When I first moved to Thailand, I bought a big bag of dried chili peppers to use in my quest to learn how to cook Thai dishes. When I later learned that Thai cooking in Isan is basically any stir-fry with 50% chili peppers, I abandoned the no-challenge project. However, three years later, I pulled out this bag of chilis from the fridge vegetable bin, and inquired of my friends what to do with them. "Throw 'em in your weed-patch, and watch what happens," was their sage advice. OK, I do grow a few weeds. My weed-patch looks more like a partially balding old man with tufts of hair sprouting haphazzardly here and there.

So, I threw the dried-up, deader-'n-a-door-nail chilis out into the balding weed patch and forgot about them. In a couple months, lo and behold, I had a half-dozen chili bush babies! Amazing how becoming a father changes your perspective and you start accepting responsibility. I got serious and started watering them every day.

A month or so later, I had teenagers in the family. Hungry teenagers. This momentous event now called for fertilizer to feed my hungry charges. I asked my Thai teacher the name of a good fertilizer I could pick up at the town garden shop, and how I should ask for it. With an impatient wave of the hand, he dismissed my idea immediately. He wasn't quite sure what the best word was, but he spelled out the only one he knew in very large letters on a scrap of paper and held it up an inch from my nose: "S-H-#-T."

"Uh, you mean the kind that comes from cows?" I naively inquired, screwing up my nose.

"Yes Ajarn (Teacher) J., Do you know something better?" His tone of voice was that of a pre-school teacher lecturing her toddler. Oh, cow manure to feed my chili bushes. I remember something vaguely about that in a history book. Didn't the American Indians give the early colonists cow dung for their corn? No, that was dead fish. I was catching on to this farming-in-the-country thing quite quickly.

"Of course!" I laughed a little too loudly, "I just remember hearing something about bat manure being the best possible fertilizer, right?" Incomprehensible stare from teacher. Yes, I'm learning how to save face in Asia.

Fortunately, cows and manure are everywhere in Isan (the latter usually on the bottom of your shoes). Mission easily accomplished.

A month following, so help me, a handful (batch? gaggle?) of adult chili bushes waved in the breeze in my little makeshift haphazzard garden. I couldn't believe it--from three year old dried chilis scattered about the garden--I had a sustainable crop which commands about $1 a pound on the local market. (I'm rich! I'm rich).

The real thrill came when the peppers started appearing just a couple weeks ago...first green, then yellow, orange, and finally bright red.

Today, was the crowning glory of my agricultural career. I picked two of the most beautiful, glossy, red chili peppers I've ever seen from the top of one of my tenderly cared-for chili bushes.

[Actual photgraph of actual first two chilis from actual garden grown by actual farang appears at the top of this blog. Stamp that photo: "EVIDENCE".]

Relishing the moment, and remembering that when chilis are red, they're fairly mild, I popped a whole chili into my mouth and chomped down. Arghhh! Cough! Choke! Gag! Oh yeah, it's the COOKED red chilis that are fairly mild, I remembered too late. Seven glasses of water later, I felt I had at least gotten my money's worth (and the equivalent of a burn-tattoo on the roof of my mouth).

Perhaps your local newspaper might feature in the near future about a teacher-turned-chili-business magnate who has taken over the market of Thailand's national vegetable, the venerated chili. Remember you heard it here, first.

By the way, my first bio-engineering job after above accomplishment? Tone down that fire. Gasp.


P.S. Pardon my over-simplification of Thai-Isan cooking. There really are some wonderful unique dishes that take some artful cooking and and involve a list of delicious ingredients. Something I have no patience for on the chef's end of things.


trangam said...

Cow Dung is almighty it has more uses than you ever imagined!! In the villages people collect it with hands and make cakes off them and dry them for later use... How did you collect it?!!

JD said...

As I said, some of it from the bottom of my shoes. For the rest: plastic bag, hand-shovel, and a walk across the lane to where the local restaurant owner grazes a couple of his contented, productive cows (which will later be on his menu, despite their current content).

. said...

LOLOLOLOL!!! What a giggle that story gave me .. eating whole chillis, two even. What a guy.

You do have a lovely way with the english language. What a pleasure it is to read something so well written and written with passion, no less.


Hugo Fuchs said...

An interesting aside about chile peppers is that they're milder if not fertalized, but can get painfully hot if well fertalized.

Also, cows porovide the best fertalizer, probably because having four stomachs breaks everything down so well.