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Fishmonger recounts life in the raw

The sound of vendors chopping pork and fish echoes around Nongduang market in Vientiane as Ms Toun Inthavong uses a big sharp knife and a pestle to hammer the knife and cut big pieces of Mekong fish for the local and foreign customers who wait in lin e at her stall.

After buying fish from her quite regularly for a long time, I observed that she uses professional methods to cut and chop the fish, just like you might see on a television programme featuring presenters preparing fish in the manner of Japanese chefs. Ms Toun's method of chopping up fish is noticeably different to those of other vendors in the market.

Ms Toun smiles as she cuts up fish for her customers.

She cuts the fish very quickly with rapid chopping motions, depending on the particular cut requested by her customers. She takes pride in her work and ensures that her efficiency brings back shoppers time and time again. People don't have to wait for long, as I have noticed every time I visit her stall.

Ms Toun, 45, says she's been slaughtering aquatic animals such as fish, frogs, and eels since she was 10. I was very surprised to hear that she did this at such a young age. This was quite different from my own experience as a girl, when I could do simple household chores such as steaming sticky rice, washing dishes and cleaning the floor, which my parents taught me. I certainly didn't know how to despatch aquatic animals. Every family leads a slightly different lifestyle depending on their circumstances. I'm quite sure that many children didn't know how to kill aquatic creatures at such an early age, while others would be able to cook food and do other tasks.

Ms Toun picked up the necessary skills because her family made a living from fishing in the Mekong. Her father was a fisherman. She was born in Borikhamxay province but now lives in Vientiane and her childhood was strongly associated with riverine creatures.

“I learnt how to kill animals from other members of my family when I was very young. I remember that I was just nine when I start ed learning how to do it. I was familiar with several creatures and was not afraid of them. Some people can't bear to touch frogs, fish, eels and other things,” she said with a smile.

Ms Toun continued to hone her skills and uses them in her chos en occupation, enabling her to make a comfortable living.

“I was born to be a slayer of aquatic creatures because I enjoy it. I'm not afraid that it's a sin because they are the natural food of human beings,” she said, laughing.

Many people are used to seeing Ms Toun at Nongduang market every day as she has been selling fish to thousands of customers for the past 20 years. She also has a lot of experience in cooking fish and other aquatic species. She never took a course on the subject like many of her foreign friends in the same business.

“I don't know why I like this work so much. I just enjoy it and I'm happy when I do it. But I know that many people don't feel the same way,” she said.

Her children have not followed in her footsteps but they do know how to cook fish and other freshwater creatures because she has taught them.

“They don't want to have this kind of job, selling fish in a market. Many people can choose what they want to do but they can't choose to be born,” she said.

In her 20 years as a fishmonger, Ms Toun hasn't encountered any difficulties. She's had many small cuts on her hand from sharp dorsal fins, but this has been a lesson for her.

She sells several kinds of fish, mostly Mekong fish from Pakxan district in Borikhamxay province. Her stall is open from 3pm to 7pm every day. Ms Toun says she intends to continue with the trade, with a focus on fish in particular, because she enjoys making money from selling fish.

By Phon Thikeo
(Latest Update September 23, 2017)


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