Go South: A Taste of Hala-bala Cuisine

Journey into the “Amazon of Asean”, spot graceful hornbills, and sample Hala-bala cuisine.

Located in Yala’s Than To district, Chulaborn 9 village is tucked away in the lush mountains bordering Bang Lang National Park. What once were the old stomping grounds of The Malayan Communist Party have become more than a tourist attraction. This is also where food resources and raw materials can be found in great abundance.

Chana Saeu or Lingping, 24, is among the new generation of tour guides operating in this area. With more than seven years of experience under his belt, he told us about different excursions, activities, and, of course, food.

Food is a “tourist attraction”

“For me, the relationship between food and our community is clear when visitors from Bangkok or elsewhere come here and they want to sample the food they’ve never tried before. Our cuisine is prepared with purely local ingredients. Our vegetables are all organic and our fish come from the local dam. Our food tastes great and I see it as a kind of tourist attraction that keeps visitors coming.

Community-based tourism with the focus on local cuisine and ingredients 

“Originally, the food we made for our ‘comrades’ (a term of endearment referred to the tourists from ex-Communist countries) was quite fancy. We had to go buy ingredients at the market, located some 90 kilometers away and it takes two hours to get there. This definitely added to the overall cost. However, once we gained more knowledge about community-based tourism from experts in the field and from a workshop I personally attended 5-6 years ago, we understand more about the locals’ way of life. The fact that we can actually grow and use local ingredients helps lower the cost, generate more revenue, not to mention make our food taste great.”

The garden dictates the menu

“The remote location of our community is indeed a blessing in disguise. When you’re living so far away from the city center, it forces us to grow our own veggies. Our village is established based on the sufficiency economy philosophy and each household grows their own produce–things like string beans, corn, and bird’s eye chilies. Since we’re close to Bang Lang dam, we also have access to many different kinds of fish. The abundance of food that we have available allows us to feed both ourselves and visitors.”

The 5 signature hala-bala dishes not to be missed 

Tai Li Wang soup: Made with Chinese wolfberries and traditional Chinese medicine, Tai Li Wang (meaning “strength potion” in Chinese) soup is deliciously mellow and fragrant. It’s believed to give your body a healthy boost. 

Battered Jumping Fish: If you go on a boat ride in the Bang Lang dam, you’ll see these little tubtao fish jumping alongside the boat. The fish is commonly dried, battered, fried, and served with a tasty dipping sauce. Irresistible crispiness incoming.

Pak good stir-fried in oyster sauce: Freshly picked from the garden, this local paco fern gets tossed in a tasty oyster sauce. A simple dish that has won over the hearts of many visitors.

Betong-style stir-fried noodles: A secret recipe unique to the local Chinese community, this rare dish is often served as breakfast.

Yau ja gwai: Unlike pa tong goh which has a shape that can be split in halves, this deep fried bread comes in a round shape similar to fried salapao. Served with homemade pandan custard, this goes perfectly with tea or coffee.

It’s all worth it 

“We know that visitors make it a point to pay us a visit because our community is not really a transit town nor a mainstream tourist attraction. You have to book in advance. And since this is community-based tourism, they know that the money will go to people in the neighborhood and they’re happy about that. We’ve been using local ingredients to cook for them for the last 7 years. If I were to rank it, the local produce would come in at the second place after the natural beauty.”

Community kitchen

Na Sabai is in charge of food here. I’ve tried her cooking before so I know that she is good at that. I told him to gather a team and come up with a menu based on the local ingredients that are easy to find, affordable, and cost-effective. At first we were worried that the visitors would find our food too basic. As it turned out, they actually took an interest in what was on our menu. This has become a bit of a standard now, and we try to make every dish presentable while making sure that the money paid by the guests will benefit everyone in the community.”

Revenue all around 

“We’re doing a fixed 10-person trip, so the cook knows exactly what to cook for them and what and how much ingredients are required. There are 5-6 people in charge of fishing locally, and we usually get our fish from those guys. We also buy all sorts of veggies from morning stalls. Some sell eggplants while others sell bird’s eye chilies or gourd. Some also sell their produce through a local shop and the shop’s owner would, at the end of the day, give them their earnings. Plenty of two-way distribution of ingredients and revenue. Members of the Sakai tribe would also go forage in the woods and come out with all kinds of herbs and mushrooms. They would then barter for rice or dried goods. Not only we’re helping our own community, we’re also helping our neighbors.”

Last words for EQ readers 

“I’d like to invite everyone to come visit Hala-bala here at Chulaborn 9 village. Our village is actually quite diverse, we have Thai Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, and Muslim people. This means that our food is equally diverse and special. If you happen to be in Yala, come pay us a visit. We’ll be waiting for you at Chulaborn 9.”

After our conversation ended, I immediately wished that I could make that trip once again. I remembered Hala-bala’s natural beauty, diverse cultural heritage, and a great abundance of food sources. It was such an ultimate trip. Lingping also told me that “Everything is connected. If the soil is healthy, the weather is nice with year-round humidity, whatever you grow will thrive.”

My mind is made up. I’ll be going back to sample the tasty Hala-bala cuisine again.
Keen to sample some hala-bala cuisine yourself? Get in touch with Chulaborn 9 here.