Mieng Kham

Food with a concept

A while ago I was served a French artisan cider (at farmhouse temperature) in a traditional ceramic bowl rather than a glass. Having spent some time cycling in Brittany, I was familiar with this tradition, but the bowls left my guests somewhat confused prompting an explanation from the proprietor: ‘It’s how they do it in France’. Although I appreciated the bar’s commitment to authenticity, my guests immediately dismissed the bowls as a concept, lamenting the days when food and drink was free of ideas like this to help sell or publicise it. I disagreed, without concepts – especially those that require an explanation of how to eat or drink something – I would have missed out on many authentic eats like mieng kham a Thai appetiser.

Meals in Thailand often start with a do-it-yourself mieng kham, a beetle nut leaf wrapped parcel of dried shrimps, shallots, chilies, diced limes with its peel, ginger and roasted peanuts. Although no single ingredient is spectacular – I ate them all before being told to form a funnel using a beetle nut leaf to put the ingredients in – they tell me when combined the flavors meld into a delicious bite. If only I hadn’t eaten the leaves first.

Another appetiser I’ve had trouble with is carpaccio – being the international name of a typical Italian dish made with raw meat. Although eating the common thin slices is a relatively straightforward affair, when served in the Piedmont tradition, carpaccio resembles minced meat with garlic, the so-called ‘carne cruda’. I was recently served this in Turin. Being cautious of bacterial contamination in minced meat, I sent my hamburger back to the kitchen for a few more minutes on the grill only to be told it was best enjoyed raw.

Deconstructed deserts; Am I supposed to reconstruct them? I’ve just made my own tacos; Is this any different? What have you been told how to eat?

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Thank-you to Dorami Chan for making her photo of the mieng kham available under a creative commons license.