STYLE

Award-winner Jeffrey Alford describes life in remote Thai village in new book

07/02/2015 04:19 EDT | Updated 07/02/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Depression and anxiety drove award-winning cookbook author and photographer Jeffrey Alford to Thailand from Toronto.

He and then-wife Naomi Duguid had won prestigious James Beard Foundation awards in 1996 and 2001 for best cookbook of the year for two of their six books, along with Cuisine Canada cookbook awards in 1999 and 2004.

But he'd grown to feel suffocated by life in downtown Toronto.

Globe-trotter Alford, now 60 and originally from Laramie, Wyo., was very familiar with Thailand, having first travelled there when he was 23. He and Duguid, who met on a bike trip in Tibet in 1985, had a condo there.

"When Naomi and I broke up — it's not something I ever expected or she ever expected to happen — the only place I'm going to go is Thailand, really. It's kind of home, in a way," he said during a rare visit to Toronto.

He eventually met Pea, a forager, gardener and cook, in a pool parlour in Chiang Mai. Three days later, they were on a 15-hour bus trip to her remote village, Kravan.

His book, "Chicken in the Mango Tree: Food and Life in a Thai-Khmer Village" (Douglas & McIntyre), is a narrative about his new life.

The book covers an agricultural cycle, but it took Alford almost five years to complete it. They had to move to a small town 24 kilometres away so he could have Internet access. Alford, who spoke Thai, learned the Khmer language.

He includes culinary adventures and recipes associated with each season along with a glossary of ingredients with Latin names.

But the local food he describes isn't what most Canadians would be familiar with. Though Pea was born in Thailand, her culture, language and cooking are Khmer.

It was a steep learning curve for Alford.

"It's not food that we would eat. It's beyond, beyond, beyond hot. I eat hot, but Pea's food is beyond hot. I don't think I'll ever get used to it."

There is steamed tilapia during the rainy season, rice noodles with seafood during the hot months and spicy green papaya salad as comfort food year-round. Common ingredients include bird chilies, garlic, shallots and fish sauce.

He says the area is "flat-out dirt poor."

"When you don't have any money you learn to pick leaves from trees."

Pea also seeks seasonal aquatic greens and herbs, rice-field crabs, crickets, frogs, snakes and baby fish.

He laments her skills will be lost in subsequent generations. People are having smaller families — Pea, for instance, has one teenage daughter — and the young people go to cities to work.

In "Chicken in the Mango Tree" he describes screwing up his courage to catch fish with his bare hands and noshing on scorpions, though he writes that he finds large grasshoppers tastier.

"It drives me crazy a little bit," he said. "People say, 'Oooh, you eat these crickets and stuff.' There's nothing exotic about it. This is what people eat.

"Right now in particular we eat these eggs from these red ants, and when I first saw it, I thought, 'No, thank you, no, no.'

"Pea was like 'Eat, try.' Now I love red ant eggs."

They are harvested from nests found most commonly in mango trees.

"They kind of taste like caviar, I think."

Another treat is eating the odorous durian fruit and deep-fried baby frogs and washing it down with Johnny Walker Red Label.

But there are certain foods he misses.

"I miss things like Parmesan cheese, kalamata olives, salamis, those things that have big flavour.

"But I can go to Bangkok to the supermarkets. It's six hours by bus. So every once in a while I'll go and stock up."

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