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Fishy business

Rice fields offer a rich bounty. Throughout the year there is much more food to be foraged from the land than just the national staple.

Insects, birds, mice, the odd snake, and crabs can all be found lurking in the depths of the fields at one time or another, but this week’s flavour is fish. Catfish, in particular.

Yesterday, Ma, the mum of the family, ventured out into the fields in the morning to see what she could find. She came back with a decent haul – 4, maybe 5, small catfish.

Word must have got out and by early evening, in the pitch black of a lightless field, the flash of torches could be seen along with the occasional sound of excited, laughing kids. Word had got out. Fish were in abundance. Unable to go out in dark conditions, Ma quietly scowled at a missed opportunity.

Sanya, her son, also appeared, torch fixed on head and ready to hunt.

The fish aren’t under water as the once flooded rice fields have long since dried. They skulk in the mud, slithering snake-like to keep themselves moist, waiting for wetter days. They’ll have a long wait. Our last rain was on October 19th. It will be March, or even April, before rain falls again.

Without water, no line is needed. Or bait. All you need is fast, grippy hands.

If you haven’t already, just imagine what it’s like, standing in muddy ground, trying to get a firm stand on the land, while bent over, feeling about for fish. Snap ... suddenly one was there; immediately it’s gone. Any catch needs to be commended. This is a time-consuming, laborious, and physical job.

Ma is 70.

I saw her as she returned from the fields today. She was smiling. In fact, if there was something more than smiling then that’s what she was doing. Sib tua, she said. Ten fish. Ten good sized catfish had been squeezed into her ข้องใส่ปลา – a fish basket. Wide-based and narrow-necked to prevent agile fish from jumping out.

Ma’s ten catfish

The ข้องใส่ปลา – or fish basket - full of fish

It’s fair to say she was pleased, so I took a photo. I could see her mind buzzing about what delicacies could be rustled up.

This is a woman who makes crickets taste good – me eating them is the only time I’ve seen her as happy – so ten fresh catfish offered endless possibilities. I was also pleased – good fish dishes beat insects any day of the week, if I’m honest.

But I made the mistake of showing the photo of the ten catfish to her daughter, my wife. I’d say she’s ‘more Buddhist’ than the rest of the family. Her first thought was to release the fish for good luck, luck which is probably multiplied since its new year.

I was to go back to mum with an offer. Daughter will buy the fish rather than eat them.

I didn’t give much hope to the offer. These fish had plans, or rather, there were plans for the fish. Ma had had too much time to think about how she and her sisters were going to enjoy them. My wife knew this too. The offer had to be worthwhile.

When it came, there was no hesitation. Sold. One hundred baht per fish. A nice round 1,000 baht for mum. This time there was no missed opportunity. The deal was done.

Without a minute to spare Ma loaded up the fish and took them to the spot they’d be set free. She’s canny, is Ma. These fish may be free for a limited time only, I thought. Is she really heading to the pond where she can catch them again tomorrow?

Of course she is.

It’s a wonderful way of keeping everyone happy. Daughter gets to do a good deed, while also helping mum with some cash. Mum gets to keep daughter happy, make a few baht, and potentially still have a good new year meal.

Will they be caught again tomorrow? Probably.

But I doubt she’ll be showing off so much, and there definitely won’t be any photos.

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