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    Northern Thailand’s Raw Food Movement Involves Blood and Guts

    “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.

    Photo by Austin Bush
    Raw buffalo meat being chopped finely for inclusion in northern Thai-style laap, a “salad” of minced meat. Although cooked versions of the dish exist, the vast majority of diners prefer the taste and texture of raw meat.

    “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.

    Photo by Austin Bush
    A dish of Phrae-style laap, a “salad” of minced meat, which includes raw pork and uncooked pork blood, is served the traditional way, with a basket sticky rice and a platter of fresh herbs.

    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).”

    Photo by Austin Bush
    The iced storage container at a Paa Maa, a restaurant in Phrae, holds the ingredients essential for northern Thailand’s meat-based dishes. Starting at the centre and moving clockwise, it includes raw pig’s blood, nam phia (the boiled contents of a cow’s rumen, or first stomach), nam dee (uncooked bile taken from the gallbladder—the latter also shown here—of a cow), raw cow’s blood, raw beef, raw tripe, raw cow offal, boiled pig’s skin and raw pork.

    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.”

    Photo by Austin Bush
    Bags of cow bile and pig’s blood are bagged up for to-go orders at a Jin Sot (“Fresh Meat”), a restaurant in Phrae. The bile is added to dishes to provide a bitter flavor, while raw pig’s blood is the main ingredient in luu muu, a soup-like dish.
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    A dish of luu muu, raw pig’s blood combined with a spice mixture and served over crispy deep-fried noodles, intestines, pork rinds and kaffir lime leaf. According to Bangkok-based veterinarian Dr. Daniel Schar, “Streptococcus suis infection following consumption of raw pig blood may result in fatal outcome in upwards of 15-20 percent of cases.” The doctor adds, “Generally, consumption of raw blood is not advisable, which is why you won’t find it commercially available in countries with reasonable food supply chain oversight.”
    _DSC1931
    A cook displays a dish of Phrae-style beef laap, which includes minced raw beef combined with uncooked blood, nam phia (the contents of a cow’s rumen, or first stomach), nam dee (bile from a cow’s gallbladder), tripe, and a spice paste.
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    A dish of saa, strips of raw beef mixed with uncooked beef blood, nam phia (the bitter liquid gathered from the rumen or first stomach of a cow), raw liver and tripe, coarsely sliced herbs and a spice paste. “People eat raw meat dishes while drinking alcohol,” explains Thanyaphorn Wongthip, a cook at a restaurant in Phrae. “It kills the bad stuff.”
    _DSC1900
    A cook at Jin Sot, a lauded laap restaurant in Phrae, displays a bowl of nam phia, liquid gathered from the rumen or first stomach of a cow. At Jin Sot, the liquid, which provides meat-based dishes with a desirable bitter flavor, is boiled with fish sauce and pandanus leaves before being used.
    _DSC5185
    A bowl of luu phia, a bitter/spicy soup consisting predominantly of nam phia, the contents of a cow’s rumen, or first stomach, supplemented with raw offal and a spice mixture, and served with a platter of fresh herbs.

    Topics: Bangkok, beef, bile, blood, death, health code, laap, luu muu, Northern Thailand, pathogens, Phrae, Pok Pok, pork, raw, tripe