Deliciously Poor: Isan and Acadiana
In 2001, I visited Thailand and felt magic in the air. Humidity, hospitality, and spicy food: this Cajun boy was right at home.
A year later I married Natthinee Khot-asa and became part of Thailand, but not the land of pristine beach resorts or raucous Bangkok nightlife. Natthinee is from Si Sa Ket Province, in northeast Thailand, and that region is called Isan (EE-san), which can be translated as “the land of Shiva,” illustrating the influence the Khmer Empire and its Hinduism had in the area before Buddhism became the dominant religion and modern national boundaries were drawn.
Likewise, the southern region of Louisiana, the home of Cajuns, is called Acadiana, which is a variation on “Acadia” or “Acadie,” the area that now consist of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and northern Maine. Acadie is believed to come from the Mi’kmaq’s suffix –akadie, meaning “a place of abundance,” and the 17th century French settlers used this name for their new home. These folk developed their own New World culture, freely married with the Mi’kmaq, and became known as Acadians. In the 18th century, Great Britain took control of Canada and exiled the Acadians, many of whom immigrated to south Louisiana, purposely choosing the remote southwest area around Attakapas—if they were difficult to find, then another government could not easily remove them.
The Acadians provided the French foundation for Cajun culture. Acadian men again married women from local tribes—my great-grandmother was Coushatta—and immigrants, many from Spain, Ireland, and Germany arrived. This co-mingling of Acadians, Native Americans and Europeans developed into Cajuns. New Orleans is not part of Acadiana. The Big Easy has its own unique Creole culture, but there is carry over between the languages, cuisines, and overall joie de vivre as in Cajun culture. While not exactly identical, for this essay’s purpose, I consider the Big Easy and Acadiana sister locales.
Natthinee’s first language is Khmer, and her father’s family is ethnically Khmer. Growing up, she spoke Khmer in the house, learned Thai in school, and Laotian from a classmate. Demonstrating how language is connected to social status and self-image, as a child, when Natthinee and her friends wanted to pretend to be movie stars, they pretended in Thai. “To speak Thai,” Natthinee told me, “was to be high-class.”
In Louisiana, my mother’s first language was Cajun French. She refused to teach the language to me because she grew up in the 1940s, when the government attempted to eradicate the language; when caught by a teacher speaking French, Mom was made to write lines: I will not speak French on school property. Mom, like many of other Cajun parents, feared that if her children spoke French, then employment opportunities would be limited. English for Mom, like Thai for Natthinee, represented status.
Susan Fulop Kepner, translator of the award winning Thai novel A Child of the Northeast by Kampoon Boontawee, states in her introduction: “In Bangkok, the very word ‘Isan’ is almost a metaphor for poverty” (8).
When I proposed to Natthinee, she said, “Are you sure you want to marry me? My region is very poor.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m from Louisiana.”
Due to poverty, throughout Thailand, Isan’s residents are notorious for eating strange fare.
Poor and eat strange foods: Sounds similar to Louisiana.
An example of a “strange animal” that is consumed in Isan is eung-arng (Asian Bubble frog). Behind our house in Coke Luck Village is a low area that during the rainy season (the summer) fills with water and eung-arng. Last summer we arrived at the end of July, and on the first night I couldn’t sleep. The blackness boomed: I thought monks performed guttural chants, but Natthinee informed me it was eung-arng croaking. The following morning my nephews went behind the house and caught a mess of eung-arng. Some were grilled and the rest made into a breakfast soup—morning dishes are very similar to those of lunch and dinner. The legs on a eung-arng are tiny; on the grilled ones I removed them and sucked the meat off the bone—succulent and light. The grilled torso had a bitter after taste, from the innards, I assumed. Due to the spices in the soup—chilies and garlic—the eun-arng in the soup had a muted bitter flavor. The broth was clear with a yellow tinge and a smooth flavor. The bitterness of the eung-arng did not penetrate the broth. I spooned a lot of broth.
Dee-Do, my youngest nephew, enjoyed the grilled eung-arng, and seeing him made me think of my childhood eating frog legs while being regaled with gigging stories by my father, uncles, and cousins—somehow I missed out on all of those legendary times knee deep in a bayou. Until meeting Natthinee, I’d only eaten fried frog legs. But she sautés them in oyster sauce with asparagus, garlic and chilies and we eat it over jasmine rice. Without the batter, the aquatic-chicken flavor of the frog legs comes through and harmonizes with the spices.
Environment and poor economic conditions lead to the consumption of strange fare in Isan and Louisiana. I know many dislike humid jungles and mosquito infested swamps, but they are places of natural bounty. I appreciate the ingenuity and resourcefulness demonstrated in Isan and Louisiana. My Cajun heritage is rooted in French peasant stock, the roux for the cultural gumbo that developed in Louisiana, and surviving with delicious yet often hard fought food is my inheritance. Natthinee’s cultural inheritance is similar, making us a wealthy culinary couple.
In 2003 we attended New Orleans Mardi Gras. I had been several times before, but this was Natthinee’s introduction to Carnival. We went down the weekend before Fat Tuesday and attended parades for three days. On the night of our last parade, Bacchus in the Garden District, Saint Augustine’s marching band could be heard three blocks away: bass drums announcing their arrival, and when they marched in front of us, the snare drums and bass drums danced while the horns punctuated. After the band passed, Natthinee told me, “I like the African American marching bands. They have power.”
Flash forward to 2013: While similarities between Thailand and Louisiana swirled in my head, I feared that they may be forced. Perhaps I only saw what I wanted to see? Wednesday is market day in Khu-Khan city, a provincial city of about 100,000 and a twenty minute drive from our house. The market was on the south side of the city, on a street off one of the city’s main intersections. On the market street sat my nephew’s old middle school. The nephew, Ngim, was with us that day, helping his aunt and uncle who live most of the year in America carry bags of fruits and vegetables. Vendors lined both sides of the street selling a wide array of products: children’s clothes, book bags, pet birds, and silk. A din filled the thick, moist air: shoppers and vendors haggled, scooters’ engines, shrill horns; smells from open air cafes: cilantro sprinkled over noodle soup, grilled chicken, spicy papaya salad.
The midday tropical sun burned my neck, dissolving my ability to enjoy the festive vibe. I perpetually wiped my face with a white washcloth—my constant travelling companion during a Thai summer. I felt weak, sweated profusely, and feared that I would faint in the middle of the street. Natthinee took my hand, asked if I needed some water or food. Through the throng, I saw an ice cream vendor pushing her cart towards us. In addition to the cooling ice cream inside the cart, on the outside was an umbrella; I stood in the shade awaiting ice cream topped with condensed milk served in a hot dog bun. Yes, a hot dog bun. While I know that sounds disgusting to some, perhaps many, when one is about to faint due to heat exposure, the sensation is exquisite. Thai ice cream consists of a lot of corn starch, and thus there is not that much melting. Quite a feat in the tropics.
While the ice cream cooled me, from a window above the street I heard the middle school band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”At first I thought my ears deceived me—a heat induced aural illusion. I ate more ice cream, enjoyed a breeze under the umbrella, and was certain that I heard that most identifiable New Orleans jazz song. Not only were these youngsters playing the song, they owned it: driving drums, horns strutting on top. What Natthinee said about Saint Augustine’s band held true for these youngsters too: They had P-O-W-E-R!
Cooled by the ice cream and refreshed by the sound of home, I raised the washcloth above my head, formed a single-person Second Line, and shuffled through the market.
Essay by Hardy Jones
Photography by Natthinee Khot-asa Jones