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Food blog #4: Cooking doesn't get tougher than this


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

What do you get if you cross Masterchef with Ray Mears? You might be thinking of a strange TV survival challenge in which the contestants have to keep John Torode and Greg Wallace alive in the jungle by feeding them Michelin-star bush meat, berries and roots. In our case, the answer was the ever-cheerful Kiem, our guide in the tropical jungle of Thailand's Khao Sok National Park. On the second day of our tour, he gave us a masterclass in jungle cuisine. We had journeyed by boat to a tributary of the Cheow Lan Reservoir, and then on foot upstream. This involved a fair amount of bush-whacking, stream-crossing and leech-dodging. By the time Kiem announced that we had reached our lunch spot, our clothes were sticking to us, and on our exposed skin the leeches were doing the same.

Kiem finds his rice steamer

Kiem finds his rice steamer

First task: collect your bamboo. You don't have to go far, for it grows everywhere in the jungle. The bamboo is not for eating, it's much too valuable for that. Its first use is as fuel for the fire, which is Bin's responsibility (Bin is our boat boy and Kiem's sous-chef). Whereas Mears would waste hours rubbing sticks together and blowing into kindling, there's none of that malarkey here. Kiem and Bin are both smokers, and the fire is soon burning merrily.

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Packing the rice parcels into the bamboo

Next: get the rice on. It's washed, parcel-wrapped inside large leaves and stuffed inside a length of green bamboo with a little water. The top is sealed and it's placed upright on the fire. Hey presto, one rice steamer!

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Tying on the marinated chicken with an expert touch

Time to crack on with the first of our three dishes today: barbecued chicken. Kiem fumbles deep in his rucksack and, in a flourish, produces a bag of chicken portions that have been marinated in spices overnight. Now all we need is a skewer to hang the meat on over the fire. Kiem reaches for the bamboo again. A thin cane is split lengthways over most of its length and the split ends are tied together with bamboo twine to hold the chicken pieces securely.

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Here's a photo you can almost smell

Now, it's time to prepare the serving dishes and plates (the only crocks in this jungle have big eyes and big teeth). For this we turn to - yes, you've guessed it - bamboo again. Sections of green bamboo are cut above and below adjacent joints, then split in half lengthways. This takes advantage of the fact that a thin membrane of fibres grows across the stem at each joint, so the chopped up pieces form hollow half cylinders – perfect for dividing up the grub.

Raw material for the plates and dishes

Raw material for the plates and dishes


Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Kiem's wok, one of the few nods to modern technology

Dishes two and three are a sweet and sour pork curry and stir-fried vegetables. Unfortunately nobody has yet learned how to make a bamboo wok, so Kiem has to cheat. When each dish is ready, it's transferred to the serving plates. The only remaining task is for us to get to the grub before the wee jungle beasties do! Every dish is a winner, but the prize goes to the barbecued chicken, which was finger lickin' good.

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork

Dishing up the sweet and sour pork


Succulent chicken straight from the fire

Succulent chicken straight from the fire


Jungle lunch is served

Jungle lunch is served

But we're not done yet. There's fresh fruit for afters: the remainder of the pineapple used for the sweet and sour curry (eaten with bamboo cocktail sticks) and rambutans, fruit that looks like it was brought to earth from Mars.

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

The afters, rambutan and pineapple

All this gluttony was thirsty work, and for a quenching drink, Kiem returned us to the bamboo. Within each jointed section is a small quantity of water – the older the bamboo stem, the sweeter and fresher the water tastes. To get at this precious liquid, Kiem cuts a hole a few inches above a joint, and we suck it out through a straw (made from bamboo, naturally).

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

Bamboo, the plant that keeps on giving

So as you can see, the humble bamboo is worth its weight in gold. Next time you forget your pressure cooker or your fine bone china when you go into the jungle, you'll know just what to do.

Before we headed back to the boat, Kiem showed us his party piece: the bamboo gun. He placed a long stem horizontally on top of the fire and told us to wait. The fire heats the water in the bamboo immediately over the flames, causing it to boil and pressurize the sealed section. Eventually the pressure rises so much that it explodes with a loud BANG, causing every animal within half a mile to flee. Hang on though, aren't we supposed to be wildlife spotting this afternoon? D'oh!

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:06 Archived in Thailand Tagged food jungle cooking curry

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