“It’s said that people in Phrae eat so much blood that it makes us mean!” This from an otherwise kindly-seeming Decha Jankaew, restaurant owner and native of this small northern Thai city with a big taste for raw flesh.
I’m an American writer and photographer based in Thailand, and I’m sitting in Mr. Jankaew’s restaurant in Phrae in an effort to investigate the town’s gory culinary rep. Over years spent in northern Thailand I’d noticed that just about every town has a restaurant called Laap Phrae, typically a dark, often intimidating place where men eat the eponymous dish and drink cloudy alcohol. And although today many outside of Thailand are familiar with laap (also known abroad as larb or lahp), a Thai-style ‘salad’ of minced meat, herbs, lime juice and chili, few—even in Thailand—are familiar with the northern variant of the dish, a substantially more intimidating—and, yes, bloodier—offering.
“The real Phrae-style laap is made from beef and is served raw,” explains Mr. Jankaew. Yet as I learned, you can aside any notions of a chilled, artistically-plated steak tartare; in addition to raw minced beef, Phrae style laap also includes raw blood, assertively bitter nam phia (the contents of the rumen or first stomach of the cow) and even bitterer nam dee (the uncooked bile from a cow’s gall bladder), these in addition to rubbery strips of boiled tripe and a spicy/numbing herb paste. Less haute cuisine and more of a murder scene, it’s just one in a lengthy repertoire of dishes associated with Phrae and northern Thailand that revolve around uncooked meat, blood, offal, and bile.
Although the men (culture dictates that few women eat raw meat dishes) of northern Thailand have been eating laap and other uncooked meat dishes for a long time, they do so at a risk. According to Dr. Daniel Schar, an American veterinarian based in Bangkok, zoonotic pathogens—those capable of transmission from animals to humans—potentially transferable via the consumption of raw meat products include “trichinosis—a parasitic worm contracted by eating raw meat from an infected animal, usually domestic pigs, wild boar, or bear—and Streptococcus suis, a bacterial disease contracted during slaughter, or consumption of raw meat or blood, from infected pigs.” Dr. Schar adds that other zoonoses one can expect at the party include “anthrax, brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, salmonella, rabies, tapeworms and taeniasis, a parasitic tapeworm linked to consumption of raw pork (Taenia solium) and beef (Taenia saginata).”
Yet despite both deaths—there have already been four documented fatalities in 2014 in Thailand linked to Streptococcus suis alone—and government-initiated public awareness campaigns (one recent campaign enlisted Mike Piromporn, a Thai pop star whose father died from eating raw meat), Thais continue to consume raw meat, motivated by taste and tradition, and often remaining unaware or even skeptical about the potential consequences. According to Thanyaphorn Wongthip, a third-generation cook at Paa Maa, a restaurant in Phrae that serves a variety of uncooked beef and pork dishes, “We’ve been eating these things for generations now. We’re used to it, our stomachs can take it.”