…because “jungle beast” doesn’t always mean wild pig.
Since starting my volunteer placement with Karenni-Burmese, I’ve eaten off the typical radar.
First, everything comes with rice. Three meals a day, and always “More rice? More rice? Don’t you want to be stronger?” If I politely indicate the stretching of my stomach, someone simply spoons a pile onto my plate for me.
And when the staff and students cook, they use parts of the plant I never imagined edible. Bamboo roots, pumpkin stem, mango tree leaves. No need to run to the local produce stall- they walk out the front door and snatch a handful from the garden flora.
As a rule, everything is mixed with chilli – one of the first things I learned to say was “a hey te key” a little spicy – which, by American standards, means “sweat pours out your eyeballs merely by breathing in the fumes”.
Finally, myriad meat parts find their way into my mouth, and I will attempt one bite before declining more. As an omnivore who’s spent a bit of time in Asia, I’m no longer as wary of chicken stomach or pork intestines. Unfortunately, my inquisitive diet does not always lend itself to proper translation.
“What’s that?” “Little fishes with heads- it’s ok to eat the bones.” And eyeballs. And fins…
“What’s in this?” “Fake meat.” Mmm, sausage balls…
“Is this beef?” “No, teacha, jungle meat.” “What kind of jungle meat?”
- “Like a mix of wild boar and a wild deer…” I was told the first time we ate it.
- “Little birds…like, a sparrow?” I was warned next time it graced our plate.
- “Wild cow.” “The kind with the humps? Or water buffalo?” “Not sure how to say…they were left on farms when refugees moved to Thailand?…” One teacher explained the third time we had “food from the forest”.
“Ahh, wild pig again?” I asked, on the most recent occasion “jungle meat” appeared on the menu. Trying to fit in, I scooped up a hunk and stuffed it in my mouth. My students burst into giggles.
“Oh, teacher, I did not know you ate monkey!”
I struggled to swallow. “Um, what kind of monkey?”
“Burmese kind. Very expensive, someone brought it over last week. You like?”
Yes, I love trying all the foods you give me, but most especially: wizened, old, un-preserved Macaque, which has been killed with a slingshot, wedged into a dirty backpack, and portered across the Thai-Burma border. Num num num!
Wow! What an experience. Food is such an intense part of culture! I am so lucky that I didn’t move to a country where spicy food is everywhere (I can hardly eat pepper), and of course, I am relieved to not be eating monkey- but then again, you have such better stories! 🙂
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