SEED HUNTING ALONG THE MEKONG

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The morning was cool, but the rising sun, revealing a solitary kingfisher gazing into the muddy waters of Chiang Rai’s Mae Kok river, promised light and warmth, something absent from England. Boxing Day had been spent in the air and this was my first day of an eagerly awaited month-long vacation to Laos and Cambodia.

But, before heading off to the Laos border and the Mekong River some three hours drive to the north, there was an important expedition to the main market in the centre of town to make.

Chiang Rai is an unassuming place, dusty now in the dry season, a small town that is a launch pad for tourists heading into the hills. Fortunately it retains an aura of Thai normality and purposefulness. The main market, housed in a dingy, cavernous concrete enclosure the size of a football stadium, is a maze of narrow isles that lead one past people selling everything from fruit and vegetables to fake watches and flip-flops; from clutches of colourful hens tethered to a table leg to great mounds of dried fish and belligerent bright blue and very much alive crabs.

Having the good fortune to be able to travel I can satisfy my passion to collect and grow native and indigenous vegetable seeds. I am especially interested in capsicums, cucurbits and legumes, although anything unusual that takes my fancy, especially if I don’t know what it is, invariably finds itself secreted in my suitcase. On this holiday I was to find something quite astonishing.

A very large number of vegetables that are a core part of Far-eastern cookery were introduced from the Americas, first by the Portuguese and later by other explorers on their global adventures to colonise the New World. 400 years ago people throughout the Far East and Indo China had yet to embrace chillies, peppers, tomatoes, ground nuts, sweet potatoes, the humble cabbage even.

My interest in seed-collecting is two-fold. Firstly I am keen to see how the growing habits of these introduced varieties vary from region to region – comparing for example, the difference in the vigour, habit, taste, colour and adaptability of chillies grown in East Africa with those that have a similar appearance in Eastern Europe, the Far East, and the Americas. I am also always on the look out for varieties that are possibly unique to a region, even though they are certainly not native. For example I have found a chilli on the island of Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean which is no more than a centimetre long and is grown exclusively for pickling when green. I have found a hot, sweet pepper in the Ukraine that bares similarities in size, taste and vigour to a pepper I discovered in an oasis in Morocco, but is four-lobed, rather than three-lobed. I found a potent chilli in Kenya that is no more than five centimetres long, but is the thickness of a knitting needle.

Secondly, I like to see how adaptable my discoveries are to growing in the UK. I have had some spectacular failures but also many successes and saving seed over several generations I have often found improvements in vigour, earliness and hardiness. So it is always exciting to bring more seeds home and see just how they will perform.

Chiang Rai market on that dusty, cool, early December morning was packed with locals. There wasn’t a ‘farang’ in sight. Those ‘western foreigners’ still in bed didn’t know what they were missing! I was like a kid in a sweet-shop, checking out everything edible, searching in the dim light for someone selling chillies, someone selling seeds. Commercial Chinese seed is sold widely, but it wasn’t brightly coloured packets of listed varieties I was after. In these markets there is nearly always someone selling little packets of home-save seed but this morning was not to be as fruitful in that regard as later along the Mekong. What I did find were two stalls selling a wide variety of locally grown chillies and peppers. I counted more than sixteen sacks brimming with goodies. Fat, long, almost black peppers, pale orange small fiery chillies, others slender, elegant, blood-red, pink, short, all in all I was in pick-n-mix heaven. Having determined with the help of an English-speaking passer-by that these goodies were all grown locally I spent the princely sum of sixty pence and bought a handful each of half-a-dozen different varieties. On this occasion I was unable to determine if the source seed was from a commercial supplier. Even though the provenance of this selection from Thailand is unclear, a good growing season back home will reveal their individual secrets. Seed hunting was soon to be a very different experience, however. It was time to head off to the Mekong and a trip along a river that has a very clever trick up its sleeve to make this gardener green with envy!

The Mekong is the longest river in Asia, starting its 4,200 kilometre journey to the South China Sea in the highlands of Tibet. I joined it after the river had already journeyed some 2,500 kilometres to a point just south of the Golden Triangle, the place where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet. Here the river runs unhurriedly yet purposefully and in January is already some 5 metres lower than its normal height at the peak of the rainy season in November. The entry point into Laos is at Houay Xai – no more than a village across the river from the small town of Chiang Kong. A 200 metre trip in a long-tail boat across the muddy, swirling waters brings one to a concrete slipway and Laos customs. In January it’s as pleasantly warm as a blissful summer’s day in England; the evening chill begs a sweater to be worn, no more. I watched my first Laotian sunset from a monastery perched on a hill above the river, the balmy air mellifluous with the sound of chanting monks.

After a night in a local hotel we boarded our river transport that would take us the 150 kilometres south to Luang Prabang. A two-day trip through some of the most spectacular scenery one could wish to soak up, with stops en-route to visit the odd tribal village and check out the vegetable gardens. In this climate you can grow just about anything and in northern Laos, rice is grown in paddy fields cut out of the forest near the river. Black mountain rice is grown on the slopes further away, irrigated by mountain streams. Vegetables like onions, garlic and greens, herbs, principally dill and mint are grown all year round, and gardeners have taken the art of cultivating raised beds to literally, great heights. Everyone in Laos, it seems, keeps chickens, ducks and black pot-bellied pigs. None of these animals are corralled, but happily peck, scratch and snuffle through the villages and around the houses, all of which are built on stilts to keep from being flooded in the rainy season. Every hen I saw had a brood of chicks that scavenged in carefree fashion, rubbing shoulders with all the other animals including the most laid-back dogs I have ever come across. Likewise, the ducks would hang out together in gregarious and talkative gangs hoovering up whatever was to be found in the dust as well as by the river. I digress. Having that lot around is any gardener’s worst nightmare because, as we know hens will gladly scratch up a seed bed, ducks will shovel their way through a row of greens hunting for slugs and pigs… well, need I say more. In order to protect cash crops like spring onions, lettuce and dill, all of which grow at a furious pace in the perfect climate, everyone has at least one raised bed which is two or three feet wide and up to six feet long, made from slats of wood, about six inched deep and supported on posts up to six feet off the ground. A ladder is essential for good management. An effective and animal proof plot.

Every year as the snows of the Himalayas melt and water pours off the Tibetan plateau through the precipitous gorges in the north, the Mekong does something truly miraculous. As the waters of the swollen river rush to the sea scraping and gouging at its banks two things happen. Firstly, the river sweeps away the deposits of alluvial soil that were left behind during the previous year in its bends and shallows. Then, as the rainy season comes to an end and the waters recede the Mekong leaves behind its remarkable gift – brand new beds of fertile and weed-free sandy loam.

As soon as these new gardens are revealed by the subsiding waters everyone is out planting. Along the length of the river for thousands of kilometres, wherever there is exposed ground, pocket-sized plantations of sweet potatoes and ground nuts rapidly take hold. Stands of maize, ordered rows of onions, tomatoes, capsicums, squash, beans and peas, brassicas, lettuce, spinach, Pak Choi, Kai Lan and Chinese greens of all types plus herbs like coriander, dill and morning glory grow in joyous profusion from beds created in the drying mud. I was surprised at the half-hearted and seemingly ineffectual enclosures that surrounded some crops. But usually no effort was made to protect the plots from predators and I can only presume that stray animals didn’t need to go to the trouble of digging up veggies to feed themselves.

This is organic gardening at its purest and most perfect. Everything I saw growing along the Mekong was from home-saved seed. The only nutrients the plants got were from what the Mekong provided. Insecticides were unheard of and unaffordable herbicides unnecessary as the fresh deposits of rich alluvial soil were, for the most part weed-free. Besides, pushing a hoe around occasionally as the crops grow in such conditions is a leisurely and convivial pursuit.

I had never seen anything like this before and was eager to get to the market at Luang Prabang as soon as possible. I had to wait until after the New Year and a cookery course, when I was able to not only explore one of the most extraordinary and diverse markets I have ever seen, but could check the provenance of every vegetable I saw. Laotians eat every part of an animal so the ‘meat section’ was colourful, and to some perhaps, a little gruesome. But for me, to see bags of buffalo blood and buffalo bile along side piles of pigs ears; mounds of melancholy frogs harnessed together with cotton in large enamel bowls next to families of ducklings sitting on the ground eyeing passers-by nervously– and with good reason along with mean looking giant cockroaches destined to be turned into paste to eat with sticky rice, was fascinating. But what I wanted to see most where the veggies. The Laotians eat a great many herbs, usually by the handful; loose lettuce is a staple as are Chinese greens. They grow many different gourd and squash including two varieties of cucumber. In the north during the dry season a small gourd-shaped type I have never seen before. It has a strong but sweet cucumber flavour without any bitterness. In the south during the rainy season a squat, smooth-skinned type. I found some locally grown chillies and was able to confirm that the seller had also grown them from her own seed. My first purchase that morning. There were also two types of tomato, one small, the other of medium size, but as I had no means to dry the seed I reluctantly passed them by. Also, throughout Laos and Cambodia locals tend to eat tomatoes very under-ripe as they do mango and papaya as they like the sour taste. It was hard to find really ripe specimens, so it wasn’t so hard to deprive myself!

I nagged my guide that morning to find someone selling seeds and before long, in a dimly illuminated corner of the market sandwiched between a woman selling loose tobacco and sachets of cheap shampoo on one side and a fruit seller on the other, squatting amongst mounds of mandarins from Vietnam and bunches of grape-sized Longon from orchards on the edge of town, a toothless old dear had little packets of all sorts hanging from her awning. There were soya beans harvested last year from the banks of the Mekong, as well as seed that yield long green beans like cow peas from blue-flowered vines I had seen growing through hedges of convolvulus and hibiscus that border the paths between allotments by the river. The old lady also sold fennel, dill and black mange-tout seed, something I had never seen before. And the price for a bag full of palm-sized packets? Just thrity pence.

It was another week before I was able to feed my habit in the main market of the Laos capital Vientiane. The location is undergoing a complete makeover so the central market was closed for re-building which meant the stalls were overflowing into th bus station and waste-land around the new market building site. As ever, I was in search of a seed seller. Using our guide as an interpreter I asked a stallholder if such a place could be found and she just pointed behind us. There in a corner under a stairwell was another old lady with a plentiful supply of local and imported seed. This was where I found my second real surprise, red coriander seed. She couldn’t tell me if the seed would produce red leaves but I am ever hopeful of something magic sprouting! She also had seed of a gourd I saw being sold nearby – green, bottle-shaped and about 4 inches long. I will be interested to see if this vegetable is in fact the same as the gourde-like cucumber seed I found in Luang Prabang. Only later this summer will I know!

Part of our journey through Laos took us to the Bolaven plateau, an area in the south about the size of Yorkshire itt is situated between the Mekong River and the mountains along the border with Vietnam. This area of highlands situated at an altitude of between 1000m and 1300m is a veritable Eden for temperate crops. The French introduced coffee production 100 years ago and as well as some rather – in my opinion – over-rated Arabica and genuinely filthy Robusta, there are also large tea plantations producing black tea but best of all, delicious green tea. So, travelling through the region was a horticultural delight, especially as January is peak harvest time for coffee so the roads were lined with great sheets covered in red beans drying in the sun. I saw large groves of bananas, fields full of cabbages, orchards of cashew, orderly rows of pineapples and wonderful vegetable gardens and the ubiquitous raised bed verdant with cash crops. I also saw acres of new rubber plantation and land being cleared to plant more as well as swathes of rice fields. But there was one truly organic product I didn’t see any evidence of on the plateau – elephant dung. Earlier we had spent a few days on a reserve further south which offered elephant rides to the tourists. Everywhere you went along the trails used by the elephants the locals would collect the dung in large fish-food sacks. These bags would then be taken to a collection point in the centre of the village where a truck came regularly to carry the load up onto the plateau for use as an organic fertilizer… allegedly!

Whilst on the plateau we stopped to visit a coffee co-operative where along with huge mounds of beans being dried and de-husked I spied a tray of chillies drying in the sunshine. Needless to say a handful was pocketed – with the owner’s permission of course! Then, in the local town of Paksong the market yielded up another interesting herb, celery leaf. This time the seed came in its own little tin! One for the herb garden this summer methinks.

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