Somewhere in the netherlands of Chainat Province, it’s early November, the ragged end of the rainy season and unseasonably cold. In heavy cloth pants and a woolen jacket buttoned up to the neck, Swai Rodtavorn is primed for the 22-degree chill. She stomps in flip-flops through an overgrown tangle of 100 trees, both coconut palms and kaffir lime, the latter better known here as makruut. “This is the worst season for makruut,” she huffs. Actually, there are plenty of the shiny double-winged green leaves that she can sell in nearby fresh markets for use in soups, curries and stir-fried food.
But she’s talking about the fruit. She makes a beeline for a laden tree. Since this mature tree is five years old, the lowest branches are higher than our heads. She needs long-handled clippers to cut one of the thorny branches. Citrus hystrix is one homely fruit. The size of a handball, it has the lumpy wrinkled surface of a shrunken green brain. No Thai will confess to eating it. It’s too bitter and “strong” smelling.
Thailand has never been a nation of tea drinkers. So much for stereotypes about Asia. There have been a few exceptions. Chinese immigrants and their children always drank tea–andnot only tea brewed from the leaves of the familiar Camellia sinensis bush. They also drank tea made from chrysanthemums, ginger and ginseng, to name just a few alternatives. Some hill tribe people not long out of China were recreational tea drinkers as well.
But for the vast majority of Thais, living in farming or fishing villages, plain water from the rain jar was the only refreshment at meals and work breaks. For serious relaxation, there was homemade rice whiskey. Those age-old practices have only changed in the past twenty or thirty years as the habits and advertisements from the city have soaked through the countryside.
In Bangkok,the upper class and the emerging middle class were the first to acquire the leisure habit of tea-drinking, probably from their Chinese immigrant neighbors. They moved on in the 20th century to coffee, fruit juices and soft drinks. When electricity, refrigeration and ice finally reached rural areas, Continue reading →