As I cut into a pale, pink tenderloin from a grass-fed cow, my Thai friend Pim aired her discontent.
"These days, people work for the cows in Thailand, rather than the other way around." Pim is a vegetarian, and she wasn't feeling very good that day. But it wasn't the beef that was bothering her.
For the past 18 months Pim had been working with Hmong refugees from Laos, who had sought shelter in northeastern Thailand. The night before my cooking lesson, these Hmong were abruptly sent back to Laos, over the Friendship Bridge that spans the Mekong River two miles away. They were repatriated as dawn broke. That morning in Nong Khai many people were angry, afraid, and confused. So Pim and I didn't discuss what had happened. Instead, I sliced a slab of cool meat into strips, and listened.
"The other day I was going to work and I saw a man pull over into a field. He took out his machete, and started to cut the grass, piling it in the back of his pickup truck. When I passed by a few hours later, he was still there, still cutting, covered in sweat. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me was getting food for his cow. In the old days in Isaan, cows would work for us, plowing the fields and keeping back the grass, and when they got old we would we eat them. Now we bring grass to them."
As I massaged pepper, garlic, and salt into the meat, I turned over the idea of the slaving farmer in my head. Of the privileged cow on my cutting board. I thought about the convoy of Hmong refugees being returned under darkness, over that bridge down the road. It was a gloomy day in Nong Khai.
But the mood began to lighten as we cooked. First, my hosts A-Nong and Thew helped me assemble a dish of grilled beef with jiim jeow, a dipping sauce. At the previous evening's market, the women had asked if I wanted to cook the dish, and my enthusiasm surprised them. That's because jim jeow is made from chilies, herbs, garlic, and the digestive juices of a cow.
"Other Thais ask why we put shit in our food," Pim said, with a mixture of amusement and resentment. "Maybe it's because we're bitter people." She smiled. "We like bile." Most Isaan Thais are of Lao ancestry and were forcefully relocated to this region two centuries ago. That history, and the cultural assimilation that followed, still hangs in the air. And in the food, for that matter.
But the jim jeow tasted much better than it sounds—scented with lemongrass and ripe with spice. And at the end there was something reminiscent of barnyards—a grassy taste that balanced the brittle heat of the chilies. Farmers might work for their cows these days, but at least they're using all that the animals offer.
My favorite thing that afternoon was a thin curry called gaeng om. The dish is as pure an expression of Isaan produce as I've cooked, and one can easily imagine sitting around a fire in the forest a hundred years ago, eating gaeng om made from foraged herbs and wild game. It's a sort of jungle stew.
It began with a paste of lemongrass, shallots, chilies, and garlic, mixed with small bits of meat. We used beef, but any meat would work, and wild boar or venison would be exceptional. The mixture was fried in oil, to release the flavors of the herbs and brown the beef.
After that, we added about a cup of stock (water is also fine), fish sauce (use the freshwater, fermented kind if you're after true authenticity), kaffir lime leaves, crisp apple eggplants, and a startling amount of dill and lemon-scented basil. Cooks can add as much liquid as they like, as the dish ranges from a thin soup to a thick stew. Every home has a different recipe.
As we cooked in the family's house, Thew's two-year-old daughter, Lily, was watching a cartoon of ghosts dancing in the darkness. I was distracted by the bizarre looking creatures—heads attached to dangling digestive tracts. "Piiii Hiew!"—hungry ghosts!—they sang, and Lily laughed.
When we stopped to eat the gaeng om, the video began again. My friend Pim explained it to me as she picked the eggplants from our stew. "If you are greedy, and you never share your food, someday you'll end up being a Pi Preat," she said earnestly. "A Pi Preat is a ghost as tall as a coconut tree, but his mouth can only swallow one grain of rice at a time. He moves through the night, howling for food, and is never full. There's nothing worse than that."
Then we passed around a basket of sticky rice, and ate the gaeng om. It tasted slightly bitter, and strangely delicious.