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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Thai Traditions Gone By

Air Date: Week of

Banana leaf packaging. (Photo: Pim Techamuanvivit)

Food blogger Pim Techamuanvivit remembers the natural food packaging of her childhood in Thailand. She laments that plastic, styrofoam and staples have increasingly taken the place of natural containers such as banana leaf and bamboo tubes.


CURWOOD: On the streets of Bangkok, Thailand food is on almost every corner. Pim Techamuanvivit grew up in the city eating the delectable treats. Pim now lives in California, but when she returns to Bangkok for a visit, she sees changes in the way the food is being presented.

Kanom krok more often comes in boxes these days rather than in banana leaves. (Photo: Pim Techamuanvivit)

TECHAMUANVIVIT: When I was a little girl in Thailand, my favorite street snack, Kanom Krok, was sold not in a styrofoam or paper box like it is today, but in a little boat made of Bai Tong, banana leaf. Back then, so many desserts and even savory foods were served in packets and containers made of everything from lotus leaf, banana leaf, or even the long, thin pandan leafs woven into a basket.

Spatchcocked chicken. (Photo: Pim Techamuanvivit)

Those were the original green packaging, local and sustainable. Then plastic became less expensive, and the even cheaper styrofoam arrived. The opportunity to pollute the environment was equalized for all. These days when I go home for a visit, I find fewer and fewer of these natural packages. When I see them, I can't help savoring a little taste of time gone by.

There used to be charcoal-grilled chickens sold at practically every street corner. Each chicken is spatchcocked--the backbone is removed and the chicken is flattened. It's then kept in place with a tricky maneuver of splitting a thick stick of bamboo into two layers of connected prongs. The chicken is slipped in between the layers, with the strong bamboo prongs securing the chicken in place. When you buy one, you can take home the entire chicken-on-a-stick, no extra bag needed.

Khao lahm is now covered with plastic rather than a thin membrane from inside the bamboo tubes. (Photo: Pim Techamuanvivit)

Among the best Thai desserts was Khao Lahm – tubes of bamboo stuffed with sticky rice and coconut milk, sweetened with palm sugar. The tubes are filled with the cooked rice then left to burn in smoldering ash, until everything caramelized and turned deliciously gooey.

Banana leaf packaging. (Photo: Pim Techamuanvivit)

Another old favorite of mine is Kanom Jaak, made of the meat of the Jaak palm mixed with coconut milk and flour, then wrapped in the leafs of the Jaak palm itself and secured with little sharpened sticks. Kanom Jaak is cooked on the grill, with the elongated Jaak leaf not only giving a unique aroma, but also making it easy to hold on to the ends while turning the package over the fire.

Kanom jaak (Photo: Pim Techamuanvivit)

These little tricks are quite ingenious. They are simple yet elegant solutions that take advantage of local and renewable resources. Unfortunately, even among these few examples that remain, there are signs of the inevitable. Looking closely, I can see that the thin Kanom Jaak packages are now closed with stapler clips instead of the sharpened sticks. The Khao Lahm in a bamboo tube used to be topped by bamboo leaves folded like a giant cork. It's now covered instead with gaudy plastic.

It's only a matter of time, I suppose, before these beautiful traditions disappear completely. Meanwhile, I am savoring every one that I come across. I'm never sure if it will be the last time I'll ever see it.

CURWOOD: Pim Techamuanvivit writes a food blog called “Chez Pim.” To see photos of some of the delicacies she mentioned, go to our website, Living on Earth dot org.

[MUSIC: Architecture in Helsinki “One Heavy February” from ‘Fingers Crossed’ (Bar None – 2004)



Pim’s food blog “Chez Pim”


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