In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you something green: Shan mustard. We found these little bags at a roving hilltribe market near Kengtung, in Shan State. It’s a simple recipe, really — raw mustard leaves pounded with water, mixed with onion, chile, salt and sesame powder. So simple, I shall try to make it when I return home. It’s served as a condiment with rice, fish, meat and vegetables.
Mustard grows abundantly in the Shan State hills. Tribal farmers told us they often plant mustard close to garlic, as the two plants share a symbiotic relationship that nourishes the soil. Each grows better when planted together, they said.
After spending an early morning in the market, we trekked that afternoon to an Akha village on a steep mountain slope. There, a 45-year-old woman named Poo Ber welcomed us to her porch.
She served us tea and homegrown rice, which we ate with the mustard (tangy, fresh, earthy) and other goodies we had purchased in the market: chile-smothered fermented tofu cubes that tasted of cheese, steamed pork with onions, minced pork salad with onion and chile, sticky rice with peanut and sugar, and a special red rice with coconut shavings. We nibbled as Poo Ber talked of her life. Of her seven children, two survive. A medicine man lives in her village, but he cannot cure malaria. The trip to town and hospital are long and expensive. Poo Ber and her neighbors are well accustomed to a life of hard times.
The Akha are enterprising farmers, our guide tells us. But these days, in order to make a little money, the villagers open their homes to a small trickle of tourists — one or two a day in the busiest of seasons. When the Akha women see a local guide followed by foreign footsteps, they hustle to erect makeshift shops selling bead necklaces and hand-woven cloth. After the tourists pass, the trinkets are packed and it’s back to work in the garden.