Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, January 2013, updated March 2016
Phennapha a close friend cooked me an Akha meal, which I ate at her and her sister Phing Phing’s wonderful tribal textiles shop at the bottom of Anusarn Night Market in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The shop is the third one in from the Charoen Prathet Road Gate. A couple of week’s later Phennapha invited my nephew Paul, his girlfriend Yui and I for another meal, while they were in Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, Yui was ill. So it was up to Paul and I to support the team, though we could make little dent in the mass of food.
I searched the web for Akha food the following day to identify what we had without success. Many of the greens Phennapha says only have Akha names and: ‘are not available in your country.’ She also said Akha food is plain and simple, but it does not look so to me. Though it certainly, fits into my own personal myth of ‘international peasant food’, as amongst the best food in the world.
The Akha.org website has little information but does say two things:
- ‘Akha food is full of variety, little of it processed, most all of it is natural without chemicals, sprays or preservatives.’ Akha food is basically organic, as Phennapha says, because we don’t use chemicals in the village, nor in our garden in Chiang Mai.
- ‘Chilli peppers and salt,’ the Akha website says. But upon closer examination we find much more variety. In the village Akha food is mainly vegetarian without eggs even. Meat and fish are usually for special occasions. You can’t be killing a water buffalo or pig everyday.
In town of course things are different. Phennapha has told me as a young teenager of taking a pony into the jungle and cutting bamboo leaves and coming back with both her and the pony heavily laden. It’s easy to romanticise village life but I suspect it was very tough. My friend Rukmini in India, when she was very young needed buffalo milk, so an old man and a young boy walked three days from the village to bring the buffalo.
I chided Phennapha with her contention that Akha don’t eat hot food, with the chilli quote above, but she is too smart for me and brought out the Hill Tribes book (hers is in Thai but we have an English one at home) pointing out again several relatives who are pictured in the book. (There are also pictures of the swing festival in her village. It is in September and one day I’d like to go and see it.) She reminded me that the Akha are divided into three broad divisions (with several sub-divisions). The Akha Loimi and Akha U Lo and Akha China or Phami (her branch; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akha_people). The Loimi and U Lo do indeed eat lots of chilli.
The photographs below are what we ate. In the first photo with more dishes the pork is at the bottom right and the fish in the centre. Both dishes have similar ingredients and both are cooked in a banana leaf. The pork is steamed and the fish is barbecued. The pork has young green spring onion, coriander, lemongrass, a little chilli and salt. The fish the same ingredients plus garlic and I sprinkled lemon on mine. Both were delicious and tasted quite different.
The beans in the middle of the second picture were from Phennapha’s mother’s garden. They are a particular variety and were cooked by stir-frying slowly in oil and garlic with young spring onions.
The pumpkin was relatively plain but ‘more-ish’.
The sour dish bottom right was sour bok choy with white radish. The three mushroom dish in almost a soup was young pumpkin leaf, with green ginger leaf (smashed). The three fungi were: he nam fa (white), he lom (hard and slightly yellow) and he ghnum (brown mouse-ear). There were also three types of jungle leaf (without a known English equivalent, one sour, one with a strong smell). Not a great description but the best I can do.
For desert we had papaya and watermelon and also lots of pineapple juice with the meal. The better papaya came from a friend.
I won’t tell you what I ate at Phennapha’s at Chinese New Year last year, you’d be green with envy, besides I can’t remember all the dishes! I was plied with wine. The women at the party didn’t drink and the men only drank beer.
I have known Phennapha for more than a decade and Phing Phing for several years and consider them as close friends.
March 2016 Update
I returned to Chiang Mai for 3 weeks in March 2016 and found that many things had changed as outlined in the March 2016 update in Food in Chiang Mai 3: Khao Soy. I spent some time on and off with Phennapha and Phing Phing and managed to take them out one lunch time to MK Restaurant in Airport Plaza where we stuffed ourselves on steamboat and roast duck. Phennapha invited me home for another Akha meal.
The meal comprised six dishes and rice (bottom right). The rice was of a red-brown variety. There was a pork stir fry (bottom left), snap peas (right), crumbed fish above them, grilled pork then roasted, soup (far left), bok choy (top). the meal was more Yunnanese influenced than the previous one.
The roasted pork an Akha-Yunnanese mix was cooked with sour bok choy leaf from the garden. The sugar snap peas also from the garden were stir-fried with garlic, spring onion (shallots) and coriander. The stir-fried pork was with ginger, spring onion and coriander. The crumbed fried fish is not really an Akha dish. The fish was farmed fish (probably Tilapia). The other green dish was Bok Choy also from the garden, but looked more like a thin-stalked vegetable, though it has yellow flowers according to Phannepha and must be Brassica pana but in a different form to what I’m familiar with. Delicious with crushed peanuts sprinkled on top.
The soup was a good addition to the relatively dry other dishes. It was made from two large leaved green vegetables and three types of mushroom, brown mouse ear mushrooms and two common white mushrooms, one common in thailand and one from Japan.
For desert we had fresh yellow watermelon.
I have now written six articles on food and restaurants in Chiang Mai and have barely scratched the surface. The articles are, respectively: 1 Akha Tribal Food, 2 Pho Vieng Chane, 3 Khao Soy, 4 French & Italian Restaurants, 5 Airport Plaza, 6 2017 Update.
Although my latest visit to was in 2018, I maintain contact and to date all the information contained is current. Places do change and shut down in Chiang Mai but not as frequently as in Bangkok. To my knowledge all the articles are current. The main change in Chiang Mai since 2015 has been growth and the massive impact of Chinese tourism.
Key words: Akha people, tribal food, Anusarn Night Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The definitive book on the Akha and other hill tribe peoples in Thailand is Paul and Elaine Lewis, Peoples of the Golden Triangle: Six tribes in Thailand Thames and Hudson (1984 and 1998).
Jakarta Post Article has been taken down