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A Fish and Rice Culture

Chapter 2, part 4, from Dancing Shrimp

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Although the consumption of fresh seafood is a relatively new development, fish has long been one of the most important sources of food for the Thai people and is inseparable from Thai culture, because Thailand, along with her neighbors in much of Southeast Asia, sits on a very fertile drainage basin and, for centuries, the vast network of rivers and waterways has blessed the people of the region with a wealth of freshwater fish, as well as freshwater crustaceans and mollusks.

Since the kingdom's early years, the daily meals of the people throughout the country have consisted of rice and fish. Fish as a food is second only to rice. It is said that both come with the water; therefore, they belong together as an indivisible pair. To eat rice is to eat fish, and, by fish, what is meant is freshwater fish from the rivers, streams, canals, ponds, lakes, and flooded fields during the rainy season.

An inscription on stone dating back seven hundred years to the days of Sukhothai, not long after the kingdom was founded, spoke of fish and rice, and how the abundance of these two natural resources was a measurement of the happiness of the people and the prosperity of the land. "...In the water there is fish, in the fields there is rice..." This famous line from the ancient inscription is still a standard by which rural people measure their contentment with their easygoing lifestyle. To some degree, it still describes the abundance of the land, an abundance that is water based, and the water comes freely each year with the monsoons.

Thailand essentially has two main seasons of approximately equal length – the wet season and the dry season. Every year, when the rains come in their full glory following months of dry weather, the rivers and canals overflow their banks, flooding the fields. It is at this time that farmers work the fields, planting their main crop of rice. When they are done working in the fields, the villagers band together and go out to wherever there is water to catch fish. This family and village activity is engaged in with great merriment. The season of working the fields is the time when water flows in freely. With the water comes fish, and, wherever the water goes, the fish goes. The villagers catch enough fish to eat fresh and to dry, salt, pickle, and preserve for the remainder of the year.

I still recall with great fondness my own childhood experiences with fish that flow in with the monsoon waters. Whenever a big downpour brought flash floods, my brothers and I wasted no time rushing out into our front yard, and even onto the streets, with our buckets to catch fish. The water was clear and fish were everywhere, even in the smallest puddles! Those excitement- and fun-filled days are forever engraved in my memory, and in the memories of many others of my generation, and those before us.

For centuries prior to the days of modern development in the second half of the twentieth century, the inland waters of Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries were indeed blessed by extraordinary abundance. By some accounts, this region was known to be one of the world's richest grounds for freshwater fish. There were countless varieties, too numerous to name, some very specific to particular streams and wetlands. Foreign explorers who pioneered their way into the region could not help but marvel at this natural bounty in the journals they kept and the letters they sent home to families and associates. Among them was Marco Polo, who described the freshwater fish here as among "the best in the world."

Much of the abundance can be explained by the lay of the land and its fertility. The innumerable rivers and waterways that flow through the region are surrounded on both banks by vast fertile flatlands and alluvial plains with natural contours and dips. During the heavy rains of the monsoon season, when the rivers flood their banks, nutrients from the surrounding land are washed into the water, providing a bountiful supply of food. The time of high water, from May through October, naturally coincides with the spawning season for most varieties of freshwater fish found here.

Fish, fish eggs, and fry flow with the water over the flooded flatlands and grow quickly in the nutrient-rich waters. Later in the season, when the water recedes, they become trapped in temporary ponds and waterholes, or in year-round lakes, where they fatten to a good-eating size. These temporary pools provide a welcome source of food and fishing entertainment for villagers until the pools gradually dry up toward the middle of the dry season, some not too long before the next rains begin.

During the early part of the dry season, when the weather is cool, the fish are fattest and richest tasting after months of endless feasting. This coincides with the time of year when new-crop rice, harvested following the monsoon season, is ready for eating. Hence, the common saying "new rice, fat fish" tells people the time for good eating and prosperity has arrived – a time for rejoicing in the bountiful harvest of both their favorite foods. The saying is extended to mean whatever is new is just right, much like the fullness and bliss a newlywed couple experiences.

Numerous other sayings and proverbs using fish as a metaphor reflect the importance of fish in Thai culture. "Dig pond, lure fish" is one especially rooted in the natural abundance that flows in freely with the monsoon waters. Instead of digging ponds to stock with fish, villagers who live in the flatlands dig ponds to attract fish from nearby rivers and other natural bodies of water to swim in with the flooding waters. This saying is extended to refer to concocted schemes that fool or entice gullible people.

Of course, in many parts of Thailand today, ponds dug for fish must be stocked with baby fry purchased elsewhere. The overwhelming abundance of freshwater life that once existed has dwindled with the coming of modern development, which has seen many dams built, drying up countless streams and wetlands that in the past supported bountiful water life, and brought industrialization to poison major rivers and their tributaries with untreated toxic discharges.

The destruction of habitat has meant the extinction of innumerable species of delicious freshwater fish, and the remaining varieties in natural bodies of water are being threatened. With the Thai love for the taste of freshwater fish, a growing aquaculture business has sprung up to ensure the supply of fish. Most of the freshwater fish sold in city markets today is farm raised. As expertise in aquaculture increases, it is hoped that many threatened species will be added to the numbers farmed.

Thai fish aficionados, however, insist that farm-raised fish are not half as tasty as those that grow naturally on nutrients in running waters, and make special trips into the countryside to savor the delectable flavors of wild fish, especially during the season of "new rice, fat fish." If you should happen into Thailand during the beautiful months of December, January, and February, join them in the countryside for an unforgettable feast, which may forever change your opinion about freshwater fish.

While modernization has brought about a decline in the abundance of freshwater fish, it has, on the other hand, greatly increased the availability of marine fish, which, in urban areas, has replaced many freshwater varieties. Because freshwater and saltwater fish, crustaceans, and mollusks cook up similarly, seafood will be used in the remainder of this book to include all freshwater species. Many traditional recipes for freshwater fish will likewise be applied to saltwater varieties.

Previous: (part 3) The Birth of Seafood  |  Next: (part 5) Fish and Rice: A Healthy Diet

Copyright © 2000 Kasma Loha-unchit in Dancing Shrimp. All rights reserved.

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