Doing Fieldwork on Fermented Foods in the World

(Mar.22-Sep.24, 2022, Nagoya University Museum)

Part 4. Fermented foods as refreshments

Fermented foods can serve as staple foods or as side dishes to compliment the staple, playing a role for humanity as a source of nutrition. Japan, however, has seen a boom in fermented foods in recent years as a means of boosting immune strength. In Mongolia as well, airag, which is produced by fermenting mare’s milk, is enjoyed for its health benefits. Eating and drinking fermented products in itself is enjoyable, provides a means of communication, boosts relaxation effects, and is anticipated to achieve health benefits. Thus, their use as refreshments beyond the goal of obtaining nutrients is being seen in various places worldwide.

Chapter 8. A “chewing tea” culture and how it has changed in Northern Thailand*

When you hear the word “pickles,” what kinds of food come to mind? People put all sorts of food ingredients through fermentation to improve the flavor of food, to preserve them long term, or to use them in cuisine. Pickles with which we are familiar could also be said to be the fruits of that knowledge and ingenuity. Here we introduce the people who eat and produce “tea leaf pickles,” the various forms of this culture, and how it has changed.

■ Tea leaf pickles

By processing the leaves of tea plant (Camellia sinensis) of the Theaceae family, people have brought forth green and black teas, oolong tea, and a variety of other teas, while enjoying their flavors. Classified by processing method, black teas are called “fermented teas” and green teas, “unfermented teas.” This use of the word “fermented,” however, does not have the same original meaning as when it is used for natto or cheese, but indicates the gradual oxidation of the enzymes and other components found in the tea leaves.

On the other hand, in the mountains of Asia, a “post-fermented tea” is produced in which the tea is fermented according to the original sense of the word (Photo 1). People eat post-fermented tea or chew it like gum, enjoying its bitter sort of astringent-like tartness.

■ Thailand’s “miang” chewing tea

In the mountains of northern Thailand, in Southeast Asia, an edible tea called “miang” is produced (Photo 2). Because the fermented leaves of miang are chewed for a long time and their flavor is enjoyed, it is also known as “chewing tea.”

The villages where the producers of miang live are called “miang forest villages” because that is how they appear, as the tea bushes used for producing miang are grown in the forest (Photo 3). The miang producers harvest the tea leaves and steam them on the same day in wooden steaming vessels. When the steaming is completed, the leaves are arranged on a bamboo belt, stuffed into a pickling barrel (which can be a bamboo or concrete tank, a plastic bucket, etc.), weighted down and left to ferment for several months.

Miang is consumed to cleanse the palate after meals, as a cordial reception for guests, and when smoking cigars. It has the effect of “clearing the mind when chewed,” so it is chewed on during breaks from simple manual work or farming operations. In addition, the people living in northern Thailand have the custom of using their own refreshments as offerings to the gods and Buddha as well. For weddings and funerals and in daily worship it is common for them to bring offerings that include miang.

Miang is a refreshment that is really essential to life in northern Thailand.

■ Is miang a “refreshment” or an “offering”?

Thailand, on the other hand, was the first country in Southeast Asia to industrialize, and the modernization of lifestyles there has progressed, with changes such as the population concentrating in the cities and foreign-affiliated supermarkets making inroads. In the midst of this, it has become clear that the custom of consuming miang is gradually waning in localities near cities. More than half of those interviewed recently responded “I have never tried miang” or “I am not in the habit of consuming miang.” Nonetheless, at the same time, almost all of them responded “I purchase miang for offerings.” In other words, miang has gone from being treated as a refreshment to be eaten in northern Thailand to being something for use in offerings.

In the future, will miang become a fermented food not for consumption? What impact will this have on the lives of people living in the “miang forest villages”? It is thought that research on miang needs to continue from various perspectives including tea culture, mountain agriculture, and forest preservation.

* The English title has slightly been changed from the panel.