Samut Songkhram is the smallest of Thailand’s 77 provinces. The Mae Khlong River dispenses nutrients into a vast network of streams and irrigation canals, making the flat land extremely fertile. Along with a breathtaking array of fruits and veggies grown inland, coastal fishing villages contribute briny salt, fish sauce and pile after pile of fish and alien-looking crustaceans.
But what makes the area magical is an old-style central Thai way of life that makes good use of thin wooden sampans, bamboo hats, clay charcoal grills and teakwood homes that bend over the waterways. Floating markets like Amphawa and Damnoen Saduak (actually in Ratchaburi but same general area) draw hordes of tourists, both Thais and foreigners. Chin leads a tour to lesser known spots, including Tha Kha.
While many of Thailand’s modern floating markets use boats only as props and display countless trinkets and T-shirts alongside the food, Tha Kha still supports farmers who know no better way to sell their produce than by rowing it here. The market takes place on the mornings of full and new moons, a throwback to days when heavenly bodies were clocks and calendars. Even on weekends, when most floating markets rip-roar well into the afternoon, Tha Kha gets going at first light and is pretty much finished by 11:00 am.
The produce sold here goes way beyond the usual stumpy bananas and bright red rambutans found in Bangkok’s markets. Most goods are not mass-produced but grown casually in backyards, or even foraged from fields and forests. Savvy foreign foodies have probably never seen or even heard of much of the produce, with flavors that you don’t come by every day.
Chin has a passion for obscure herbs, fruits and vegetables. A walk in the woods for her is an opportunity to point out the edible mushrooms and leafs. She always comes home from Tha Kha with a trunk-full of goodies, often things that are unfamiliar to me. After I lug it upstairs, she whips all of it up into a dependably tasty meal. She has a knack for showcasing subtle flavors without drowning them out. Last night, the unusual ingredients were:
Chakram: A green weed that resembles cha-om (climbing wattle) but has an earthier and less pungent flavor. It grows near the sea amid brackish silt and is reminiscent of some types of seaweed.
Som-sa: Best I can tell, this is a cross between makrut (kaffir lime) and som kiao (green orange). It has a thick and lumpy green peel that makes it look like an over-sized kaffir lime; the leaves look similar as well, but the som-sa leaf has its own aromatic taste that cools the tongue like a mint leaf. The pale yellow flesh is tangy and slightly sweet, sort of like a rebellious Meyer lemon.
Yod maprao on: This fleshy white stuff comes from the inside of coconut tree branches. Chin gets it from a farm that produces coconut sugar from the tree sap and also sells the fresh green coconuts. When these are chopped down (her customers have been known to climb the trees, machete in hand), some of the long, spindly leaves often fall down in the process. Slice open these to reveal the white “meat” inside, which doesn’t have a strong flavor but isn’t bitter and works sort of like tofu, as a nice sponge for other flavors.
Taking bite-size pieces of chakram and yod maprao on that were blanched in water with a sprinkling of the local salt, she added slivers of sam-o (pomelo, like grapefruit but so much better) and som-kaeo, an especially plump orange that also comes from Tha Kha. All of the above was tossed with a few squirts of som-sa juice along with a little lime juice, coconut sugar and fish sauce — all produced in this same tiny province. A sprinkling of ground pork and three fresh shrimp plucked yesterday from the Tha-Jeen River added some sustenance.
The result was really something special. Citrusy notes rose up to meet earthy tangles of chakram. A dollop of gooey gold coconut sugar chaperoned sour and salty flavors onto the meaty slices of yad maprao on and the proteins. Peanuts added some crunch, bird’s eye chilies contributed tangible spice, and a ring of edible pink lotus petals made the dish almost too pretty to eat. Apart from the pork and peanuts, everything came from the countryside west of Bangkok.
This thrown-together dish also provides a first-hand lesson in the region’s traditional way of life. Still today as in the old days, farmers row (or drive their pick-ups these days) to the riverside markets and trade a bit of what they’ve harvested for a bit of what others have brought. Throw this and that together with a little sugar, salt, fish sauce and chili — as a yum (Thai “salad”) or perhaps as a soup or relish — and you’re simply making the most of what the land gives. This is rustic, unpretentious food, and it tastes incredible.