True escapism, it seems, not quite up to fairytale standards, but close! A Bangkokian traveller’s discovery of Mae Tui Pochana, or Mae Tui Restaurant (Khao Yoi, Petchaburi Province) marks the height of the unusual. We made a turn into a parking space right in front of a stilted home built over a pond ― literally, an ‘open home’ with no walls ― and this was where we had our meal, in the middle of a pond and surrounding fields. Let’s say the physical maintenance of the place was on the low side. One may possibly get a feeling of having slipped into a ‘bubble’ protected from the linearity of time. There are great advantages to not showing photography of the restaurant’s architecture, considering also that there is hardly any differentiation between the interior and the exterior. It is an outdoor restaurant in almost every sense of the word; the straw and dried reeds stitched together into the thatched roof over our heads were surely very ‘loosely and leisurely’ laid out ― so by way of sheltering us from the sun, the roof of such wild and organic materials was really just as good as an umbrella. But to say that looks can be deceiving is a huge understatement. Never, ever judge a restaurant by looks. Certainly judge a restaurant by standards of hygiene, but not by surface appearances, especially if you are travelling in rural Thailand!
I got very excited about my discovery of the chakraam vegetable, or the seablite (Suaeda maritima), which is a local plant that only grows in the coastal areas. I came to learn that the preparation methods in cooking the chakraam are almost identical to those used in cooking the cassia (Senna siamea); only the leaves are used (although the shoots of budding cassia flowers also make the most ethereal curries!), and it is a traditional requirement that the leaves must be boiled 2 – 3 times. There is no way the chakraam or the cassia can be eaten raw; in their raw state, the former is too salty, while the latter is too bitter and coarse. They must be boiled a few times before being transformed into ‘fine cuisine’. While I have always had an epic and enduring romance with the cassia, I will always argue that the chakraam, or the seablite, is the most elegant of uncultivated vegetables that this country’s urban-dwellers have either overlooked or forgotten about, completely.
After the boiling rituals, the texture of the chakraam becomes a cross between seaweed and spinach. The chakraam I had at Mae Tui Restaurant retained a moderate saltiness that the vegetable had absorbed from its birth environment of salt marshes. It was a special class of saltiness with its own subtle presence, subtle and humble in a sense that, whether used for stir-fries or curries, the saltiness of the chakraam would blend in gracefully, provided that the ingredients of the sauces or curry pastes involved are well-balanced. With the chakraam as a leading character, the stages of preparation are filled with intricacies, both improvised and deeply trained. Even for the spontaneous stir-fry, the intricacy of spontaneity in tossing and turning the chakraam lies in the meditative management of heat and air. Of course, one can say much the same thing about swamp cabbage, but it requires a far more intricate approach with the chakraam, precisely because of its distinctly delicate texture. There is no danger of over-cooking because the chakraam had already been boiled a few times; yet, I imagine that only tossing the vegetable in high heat would deliver magical results! The chakraam truly is the noblest of all peasant vegetables!