Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Taste of Thai: Celebrating Food, Culture, and Communities

by Stephanie Rudeen, Grant Writing Intern

Often when an organization enters an impoverished community, it is easy to put aside the country, the culture, and the people that have existed there before the organization, and will continue to exist after. Even for any person, when he or she presses the donate button on a webpage or places a few wrinkled dollars into a Haiti relief jar, it is easy to focus on the immediate problem, and not think about the rich history and past of that community or group of people as well.

While many things make up the complex and rich culture and history of countries and communities, I can’t help but always be enraptured by a community’s food. For me, food is a complex and vital component of any community, and a looking glass into a community’s very structure and survival. Plant With Purpose sees the complexity of cooking and food to a community, and does its part by offering fuel-efficient stoves to many of the communities it works in. Beyond even the environmental, economic, and health benefits of these stoves, fuel-efficient stoves also help marriages grow since husbands spend more time with their wives in the kitchen because there is less harmful smoke. Recognizing the importance and complexity of cooking and the kitchen is recognizing that the heart of a community lays within what has been there all along – the traditions and culture of that community.

One of my personal favorite foods is Thai, a country that Plant With Purpose has partnered with to bring about lasting change. Although I often go to Thai restaurants, I had never researched the traditional foods of Northern Thailand, the part of Thailand where Plant With Purpose works. According to asiarecipe.com, “the northern breakfast [is] known in the local dialect as khao gnai consisting mainly of steamed glutinous rice. Cooked in the early hours of the day, steamed glutinous rice is packed in a wicker baskets made from bamboo splints or palmyra palm leaves. The farmer takes the packed basket to the working rice field and eats the glutinous rice as lunch, known in the dialect as ‘khaw tom’. Dinner or ‘khaw lang’ is served on [a] raised wooden tray or ‘kan toke.’”

As a child I would often watch my own mother bake pie at home, her specialty, and watch her while she delicately pushed the tissue paper thin crust into the bottom of the pan. Yet, as I grew older, I stopped helping and observing my mother as she cooked and baked, and I began to stop recognizing the art that exists within the kitchen. I believe it is important to recognize and observe the art of cooking, and it is also important to listen to the story and culture that is behind each flaky piecrust and grain of rice.

I feel as if lately, an American food staple has been take out from a local chain restaurant, and my mind cannot help but wander off to thoughts of my own family’s cooking. There is no comparison between a greasy, pre-made hamburger wrapped in yellow wax paper and served in a brown bag, and the complex and intriguing story that emerges from each bite of one of my mother’s pies or a grain of cooked rice in Northern Thailand.

Plant With Purpose strives to help communities grow, while at the same time not interfere with what makes each community unique. So next time you press the donate button, also take some time to get to know a different community, because every aspect of the culture, even just a bite of its local food, represents a community with a complex and fascinating story to tell.

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