Sunday, April 24, 2011

Can Eat

The other day I heard voices in the garden. I went out to see who was there and found a group of Lao Americans exploring the land that used to belong to their aunt. She later sold it to our landlady, who pulled down her house and built our place instead.

Even though they’d been in America for decades they’d retained the Lao sensibility when it came to “private” property. The Lao don’t seem to have the kind of boundaries we have when it comes to the land. Which is fine with me because I have two Lao neighbors who steward our garden.

For instance, when Lithang, the guard from the house next door, decides it’s time for the coconuts in our yard to be culled he takes charge of arranging guys who come, scale the trees and carefully slide the coconuts down on a piece of rope.

Here’s Lithang with the vegetable garden he’s planted on the banks of the Mekong. Nobody seems to care who actually owns the land, as soon as the waters recede after the rainy season this rich soil is planted by anyone who has access to the riverbank. The marigolds are to bring to the Buddha.

And this is Mai who lives in the house next door standing next to her papaya tree. Which has grown this tall in just six months. She explains to me all the things that are edible or useful in the garden. Like the property we moved into in Italy everything seems to have a use. No ornamentals, please. Here’s some of what we’ve got.

Lithang calls this mak antelope – at least that’s how it sounded - and told us it would be ready to eat in a few days. Sure enough after four days it became soft and turned out to be very similar to a custard apple which I wrote about in “Strange Fruit”. I’m not a huge fan of custard apples but a friend told me the texture, which I find slightly gritty, improves if you keep it in the fridge

Bananas. You can also eat the flower which is shredded into the famous Lao cold meat salad known as laap. You peel off the tough outer petals and then shred it finely into acidulated water so it won’t turn brown. Interestingly, although the Lao don’t cook it, when I did, it tasted very similar to artichoke. The leaves are used as wraps to steam food or even as disposable plates!

Taro. The starchy root is edible as are the young shoots and leaves but older plants have chemicals in them that create an allergic reaction causing burning and itching in the throat. Another friend explained that taro is a fallback plant grown in case there’s a rice crop failure and there’s nothing to eat. I’ve had taro as potato-like chips but they were pretty tasteless.

I’m told it’s very good luck to have a tamarind tree growing in the garden. Unfortunately, our tree is so old and tall the fruit is unreachable so we just end up with a lot of brown squishy pods on the ground. This is the kind of tamarind used in cooking; there’s another variety that’s sweeter and eaten as a fruit.

We have the same problem with our guava trees. Too high to pick which is a shame because their perfume is heavenly. I’m hoping that the new shoots closer to the ground will eventually bear some fruit. Traveler’s note: young guava leaves are a natural cure for diarrhea.

This is jackfruit similar to durian but not as pungent. Believe it or not these enormous babies are not yet ready to eat - jackfruit grows to be the largest fruit in the world. I guess this is why the fruit grows on the trunk, otherwise the weight would cause all the boughs to break. I have no idea what we’re going to do with all of these when they’re ripe. I guess give them to Lithang and Mai.

Here’s a mystery fruit, the Lao call it mak gnum. Very, very sour. Even more sour than a cranberry. But, as Mai says “can eat” so I’m going to try and make a jam or conserve with them to serve with pork.

This you can’t eat but it’s very useful. Inside these pods is kapok for stuffing into pillows and mattresses. It’s naturally flame retardant and a great organic alternative to plastic foam. Right now the garden looks as though we’ve had a slight dusting of snow as all the pods crack open and the kapok drifts down.

And here’s a close-up of the habaneros flourishing in our very own vegetable plot. We’re growing tomatoes, Italian basil, some broccoli and a whole lot of Mexican peppers – jalapenos, serranos as well as the habaneros. Plus tomatillos. Salsa verde growing along the banks of the Mekong! It could be a first.

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