More than just a traditional way of farming is vanishing with the slow but inexorable decline of buffaloes in the North. Not being ones to waste anything, the people of the region are also rueing the loss of certain culinary arts of which the buffalo is an intrinsic part.
Buffaloes keep cool in a muddy field in Phayao. The animals are declining rapidly as modern farming techniques and demand from neighbouring countries reduce their numbers. The problem is also threatening the food culture in the North where people in many areas consume buffalo meat and skin. PHOTOS BY SAIARUN PINADUANG
Northern residents traditionally cook delicacies such as a distinctive-tasting vegetable soup using sun-dried buffalo skin as an indispensable ingredient. But with fewer buffaloes around, this prized ingredient of northern kitchens has become a rare and expensive commodity.
After the skins are cleaned, dried and cut into squares, they are shaved into long, curvy strips which are then packed by housewives in the village.
The soaring price of skin is causing considerable concern in many villages. Residents fear their "kitchen companion" could be lost forever and, along with it, some signature dishes in the North's cornucopia of culinary delights.
Phayao has a reputation as a centre for producing and selling dried buffalo skins. But the skins are harder to come by and this small but important industry is under real threat.
"It's so bad," one seller exclaimed when asked about his sales. "Buffaloes are on their way out."
He says he is feeling the pinch. Once commonly discarded, the skins have now taken on a certain local value.
The cost of the raw skin has increased continually over the years and the dried product sold for between 20 and 30 baht a kilo last year, double the level of just a few years ago.
"Early this year the price jumped again by 10 baht to 40 baht," said Sak Techayot, 44, who has sold dried buffalo skin for 12 years.
But on some days now, he said, "there often are almost no buffaloes to be supplied to the slaughterhouses".
Mr Sak is a resident of Ban San Pa Kang in tambon Ban Sang in Phayao's Muang district.
His village was once a major dried buffalo skin supplier, but no more. The villagers are threatened with the imminent loss of their livelihood.
The strips are put into plastic bags for sale.
Prices for the skin, which is an essential ingredient in several northern dishes, have jumped in recent years due to a shortage.
Large sheets of buffalo skin are laid out to dry under the sun.
Traditionally, the people of Ban San Pa Kang bought skins from Dok Kham Tai district to sell, Mr Sak's wife, Mua, said.
Mrs Mua's parents were among the first to get into the buffalo skin business. That was how Mrs Mua learned the value of what was regarded as a worthless part of the animal.
"The dried skin sold briskly because it can be kept for a long time," Mrs Mua said. "People use it for cooking many local dishes."
Mr Sak and Mrs Mua are concerned that without buffalo skins, some traditional northern dishes will disappear.
The family now has to travel further off the beaten track to buy skins. Even then, it is getting harder to find adequate supplies.
Mr Sak said when villages hold celebrations, he has to be there. Be it for a housewarming or wedding, a buffalo is often slaughtered and the meat cooked. He then jumps in quickly to snap up the skin.
Most vendors, he said, still rely on commercial slaughterhouses for regular supplies. But they have to scramble to be first in line to get the best quality.
Don Tharin's family has the same problem. Her husband leaves home almost every day to buy raw buffalo skins but he gets fewer each day.
Some traders go to the Northeast to buy skins but Mrs Don feels the cost of fuel makes it pointless.
The villagers of Ban San Pa Kang say they can only sit and ponder the diminishing number of buffaloes in the North caused by several factors.
First, the number of fields for grazing is shrinking. Buffaloes like to roam open fields and do not like to be kept in barns. But green pastures are being cleared for housing or cash crops.
The second reason involves changes to farming practices with the adoption of modern farming techniques which promote the use of tractors.
One indicator of the dwindling buffalo population can be seen in Kwan Phayao, the largest freshwater lake in the North, in Phayao's Muang district.
Adjacent to the lake are vast areas of pasture land covering more than 12,000 rai. In the summer when the water recedes, large tracts of land are exposed and are quickly covered with lush green grass.
In the past, farmers would take their buffaloes to graze in the fields.
But with the modern changes, people are raising fewer buffaloes and the animal is now a rare sight, Mrs Don said.
Today, people who own buffaloes do not raise them for farming but for sale, she said.
A live buffalo can sell for 10,000 baht. The price can go up to 60,000 baht when the animals are in short supply. Many buffaloes are also exported to neighbouring countries.
"This is the third reason why dried buffalo skins are running short and also answers the question of why buffaloes are disappearing from the North," Mr Sak said.
"A lot of buffaloes are sold to Laos, Myanmar and China," he said.
The animals are often transported through Tak's Mae Sot district and Chiang Rai's Chiang Khong district to neighbouring countries.
Villagers in Phayao feel that as the buffalo population continues to drop, their culinary traditions are coming under threat.
Making dried buffalo skins is a dying art and some of the staple dishes, which use the skins as principal ingredients which people in the north have enjoyed for generations, may need to be adapted or they may be lost forever.
Some experienced cooks claim there can be no substitute for buffalo skin, which provides a distinct taste and aroma.
The skin is an integral part of the kaeng kae spicy vegetable soup. The dried skin is soaked in water for a night to be reconstituted. It is then dropped into boiling water and vegetables and herbs are then added.
The skins softened from soaking are also used in salads tossed with zesty dressing.
Mr Sak explained the initial phase of preparing the skin involves sun-drying it for four to five days. If there is no sunlight, which is often the case in the rainy season, the skin sheets are placed over a fire until they are completely dry.
The skin is then cut into 40x40cm squares before being cleaned in water.
After soaking, each dried skin will have a clear, yellow colour.
"From a sheet of raw skin weighing 40kg, we reduce it into small pieces weighing only 3-4kg," Mr Sak said.
"To have pieces of dried buffalo skin packed into plastic bags ready for sale and cooking is not easy. It has to go through many steps."
Five years ago, the wholesale price of one bag of dried buffalo skin cost between 3.5 and 3.6 baht. But since early this year, the price has jumped to four baht a kilo.
With the grim prospects for the business, Mrs Don said her family needed to start looking for new jobs to earn more money.
However, as for Mr Sak and his wife, they have decided to go on making and selling the skins.
Today, they are among five remaining sellers of dried buffalo skin in Ban San Pa Kang and are always proud of the unique product, which flavours many dishes.
"Mixing it in kaeng kae [katurai chilli soup] or yam nang [skin salad] - it's all delicious," Mr Sak said.