Chicken in the Mango Tree
Food and Life in a Thai-Khmer Village
In the small village of Kravan in rural Thailand, the food is like no other in the world. The diet is finely attuned to the land, taking advantage of what is local and plentiful. Made primarily of fresh, foraged vegetables infused with the dominant Khmer flavours of bird chilies, garlic, shallots and fish sauce, the cuisine is completely distinct from the dishes typically associated with Thailand.
Best-selling food writer and photographer Jeffrey Alford has been completely immersed in this unique culinary tradition for the last four years while living in this region with his partner Pea, a talented forager, gardener and cook. With stories of village and family life surrounding each dish, Alford provides insight into the ecological and cultural traditions out of which the cuisine of the region has developed. He also describes how the food is meant to be eaten: as an elaborate dish in a wedding ceremony, a well-deserved break from the rice harvest, or just a comforting snack at the end of a hard day.
Chicken in the Mango Tree follows the cycle of a year in Kravan, and the recipes associated with each season—steamed tilapia during the rainy season, mushroom soup, called tom yam het, during the cold season, rice noodles with seafood during the hot months and spicy green papaya salad as comfort food all year round. With helpful substitutes for the more exotic ingredients and cooking methods, Alford’s recipes and stories blend together to bring a taste of this little-known region to North American homes.
One of Alford's chickens inexplicably likes to roost in a mango tree. His neighbors often borrow his unlocked bike without asking and gawk at him wearing summer clothes during their cold season. Such is life for a Westerner in a Thai-Khmer village. Alford, coauthor of six international cookbooks (two of which have won James Beard Awards for Cookbook of the Year), left Toronto to travel to Thailand in 2009. He eventually wound up living near the Cambodian border with his new partner, who happens to be an adept cook, skilled at foraging for wild food. What Westerners think of as Thai cuisine is far removed from Alford's daily diet, which includes tree leaves, scorpions, toads, and ant eggs. Happily, the recipes Alford includes in this memoir are authentic but entirely feasible for Western cooks, taking ingredient availability and Western palates into account. This is far more than a cookbook; the recipes supplement the backstories. Alford immerses readers in a microcosm of Thai-Khmer life, where seemingly everything revolves around food and family. His writing is evocative, and photos of the people, food, and locales make his story all the more lush.