Many people travel to eat exotic food directly from the source. Those who are even more adventurous stay for extended periods to not only enjoy the food, but also to learn to prepare it and to understand how it defines culture. Food writer Jeffrey Alford is one of those adventurous eaters. Chicken in the Mango Tree (Douglas & McIntyre, 2015, $26.95) provides a glimpse into an agricultural year in the Thai village of Kravan that he has called home for over four years. Kravan is near the Thailand-Cambodia border, and Alford describes the food as being in a culinary niche that is uniquely Khmer, a derivative of Thai cuisine that strays from the characteristic pad Thai of Bangkok noodle shops.
Alford himself is a North American hybrid — born in Wyoming, with childhood memories of the United States, and living a good portion of his adult life in Toronto. He has co-authored a number of well-known cookbooks, including Hot Sour Salty Sweet and Flatbreads and Flavors, which have both won the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year. This year he has his sights on further recognition. Chicken in the Mango Tree is on the 2016 shortlist for Taste Canada’s Culinary Narrative award. Going beyond a traditional cookbook, Alford beautifully blends a memoir-like narrative to bring cultural context to 30 Khmer-Thai recipes that he has gleaned from observing his partner, Pea, who is a skilled farmer, forager, gardener, and home cook.
About Pea, he surmises “that 90 percent of the time, she’s either thinking about the farm, the back garden, cooking or eating.” In the village, food is not something that can be picked up at a drive-thru window and eaten on the fly. The approach to food in their household is integral to the entire structure of one’s day — collecting ingredients, planting and harvesting rice, communal eating. Alford often wakes up to the sound of Pea grinding sauces and pastes with the mortar and pestle for the day’s meals. Even with years of experience researching his own cookbooks, he believes that his cooking does not compare to Pea’s. Scaling and filleting fresh fish from the backyard pond for Grilled Salted Tilapia does not come as naturally to him as it does to Pea, who has spent a lifetime preparing food in Thailand. One dish Alford does contribute to the village is popcorn. It is something the locals have never seen before and they quickly learn to add Sriracha sauce to make it even better.
Few people in the Western world fully appreciate the “free food” that Alford experiences at every meal. Obtaining free food requires the agility to catch fish in streams and grasshoppers in fields with your bare hands, which Pea does with great proficiency. The variety of foods available in modern supermarkets pales in comparison to the variety that foraging offers, not only with plants, leaves, flowers, and vegetables from their neighbourhood, but also with a range of critters from frogs and shrimp to crickets and scorpions. Their diet is vegetable heavy; platters called pak are filled with whatever vegetation is in season, on the farm or in the wild, to become the core of most meals. The recipes Alford offers include simple instructions and short lists of ingredients; even though he includes the regional items to make the dishes authentically flavourful, he does provide substitutions for more accessible ingredients from North American market
Ingredients that have no substitute are the crickets and grasshoppers used as a main source of protein in the Khmer diet. Alford proposes that Canadians could possibly purchase crickets from farms, similar to that of a friend of his in Grey County, Ontario where they are raised as live snacks for exotic pets. The topic of using insects as a food source is piquing some interest in North America and Alford writes, “the problem is not getting people to like eating crickets; it’s a problem of getting the approval of government food inspectors.” He also likes a salad made with the eggs of red ants, which he equates to Thai caviar. In his mind, this dish is the ultimate payback. The ants are known for biting humans without any harmful effects, except for annoyance, and Alford eats the ant eggs with vengeful thoughts, knowing the adult ants have been responsible for ravaging his body with bites over the years.
The photos in this book provide further reason that Alford’s work is award-worthy. Baskets of food sold in open-air markets; Pea’s family harvesting in the rice fields; cooking over an open fire in the outdoor kitchen — all images that paint the backdrop to village life. The photos also beautifully illustrate the food that is found in this part of the world, which Alford has discovered is hard to break away from. He may not be coming home any time soon, but with this book he has found a way to share the flavours and stories of Kravan.
The Taste Canada Awards are in the 19th year of honouring Canadian culinary writing. The Gold and Silver winners in all categories, including Culinary Narratives (that Jeffrey Alford is nomiated for), will be announced at an awards gala on November 14th.
Darin Cook is a freelance writer based out of Chatham. He keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.