Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From tom kaa gai to a cookie Coolatta

Pounding curry paste. I think my arms might be a little "stronger."
Final chapter of trip report:

In Chiang Mai, Isabel and I took a daylong class at the Thai Farm Cooking School, which is located on a working organic farm where mangos are wrapped in paper to prevent birds from eating them before they fully ripen.
It seems like a lot of work, wrapping up every single mango.
The class was fascinating and I discovered just how efficient and simple everyday Thai cooking is. The same small handful of high-impact ingredients come together in slightly different combinations to create very different dishes. For instance: coconut milk + yellow curry paste + fish sauce + chicken = yellow curry. Coconut milk + lemongrass + fish sauce + chicken = tom kaa gai. Coconut milk +  sugar + bananas = dessert. Coconut milk + sugar + mango + sticky rice = another dessert.

Everything is cooked super quickly, too. A few minutes on the stove, nothing more. We each got to make our own soup, curry, stir fry, pad thai (or spring rolls), and dessert from scratch and we did all this in a few hours and ate all this in that same few hours and since everything contained coconut milk, we got very, very full.
Recipe for delicious banana dessert: in a small pot heat 1/2 cup thick coconut milk, 1/2 cup water, a chopped pandan leaf (optional), 1 tablespoon palm (or brown) sugar, a big pinch salt, and two small, thickly sliced, peeled bananas. Cook until bananas are soft. Serve warm. Serves one.
Our teacher, Benny, had an insinuating, sing-song voice and would swivel her hips when she added extra chili to a curry, smile this wicked smile, look around the room and say, “More spicy more sexeeeeee.”  
frying spring rolls
She had a lot of little sayings she'd deliver in that same voice with her saucy smile. I won't lie, Benny was a trip. I don't think anyone in the class knew quite what to make of her at first because you don't meet people like her in the West, ever. Her act just isn't part of our cultural repertoire.

But by the end of the class, I liked her immensely. Underneath all the mugging and bawdy joking, she was an excellent, serious teacher and we learned to make dishes I plan to replicate now that I am finally, as of yesterday, home for good.
Isabel made sticky rice with mango. The blue comes courtesy of a butterfly pea.
Our other Chiang Mai adventure: a day at an elephant rehab center where we watched, bathed, fed, patted, and respected the elephants.

Elephants are awe-inspiring animals and a bit scary. They are not Babar.

We spent our last three days on a beach on an island where we splashed around in the warm water, ate, read, and otherwise did nothing. Really and truly nothing.
What were we supposed to do?
Start to finish, it was one of the best vacations I've ever taken. Isabel and I are solid. I didn't know it when we left, but I know it now, and it means the world to me.

We got home to California and almost immediately left for New England to hang with Mark's family on the shore of another ocean where, again, we did almost nothing.  What is it about the beach that makes people want to do nothing? Even in winter, you go to the beach to do nothing.

I didn't do absolutely nothing at the beach in Massachusetts. I did cook one night for a small crowd, but it wasn't the kind of cooking you write long blog posts about.
Simple, quick, and satisfying is sometimes the right call, but one I've been loath to make in the past.  For dessert: Rice Krispie treats. This meal plan freed up many hours for doing nothing.
On my last day in New England, after a week of sitting in a Dunkin' Donuts for an hour or so every morning, the marketing finally got to me and I caved and bought a Chips Ahoy Coolatta. It was like a chocolate chip cookie slushie and little granules of chocolate chip came up through the straw. Weird, but I liked it. I wanted to stop drinking for health and calorie reasons, but found it hard to stop.
Here's to Northern California.
It's been a great summer. Now I'm home for good and very happy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

From the land of cookie-flavored iced coffee

timid eater no more
I'm writing from my summer office at the Dunkin' Donuts in Marion, Massachusetts where they're blasting the air conditioner and pushing cookie-flavored iced coffees and Coolattas. It's hard for me to believe that a couple of weeks ago Isabel and I were driving across Thailand eating santol fruits and blue vermicelli, but there's photographic evidence. I wish I'd written about all this when it was fresh, but I've been flying, driving, busy, sick, and jet-lagged.

Ok. From Bangkok, which I wrote about in the last post, Isabel and I drove to Chiang Mai, the big city in northern Thailand. Three days. Seventy thousand calories. When he wasn't showing us temples, Mongkol, our guide, kept feeding us. He bought us wonderful fruits I'd never even heard of and salted puffed rice snacks drizzled with caramel and green puffed rice squares that tasted like Kellogg's Sugar Smacks. We tried grass jelly, dried bananas, and fried bananas. Pink cupcakes and fluffy eggy cupcakes. Barbecued duck and barbecued pork. If I asked what something was, he'd buy it and then we'd eat it and even if I didn't ask what something was, he'd sometimes buy it anyway. By the end of the journey I felt like a foie gras goose and became cautious with my questions lest I end up with something else to eat. This is the kind of "problem" you want on a tour. He was the best guide ever and if you go to Thailand, email me at tipsybaker@gmail.com for his contact info.
an ancient Buddha head around which a tree trunk had grown
At one temple we saw an extensive display of life-size statues of people suffering for their misdeeds. This didn't  jibe with my admittedly shallow understanding of Buddhism.
Some culinary highlights: In Ayutthaya, we stopped at a nondescript storefront where they specialize in crepes colored with either green pandan or midnight blue butterfly peas and wrapped around long, dry wisps of caramel. Women made the crepes:
While men made the candy floss:

The strands of caramel were tucked inside the crepes to create a textural combination that is totally foreign to the American palate: Soft, petal-like pancakes containing crispy strands of sugar. First bite was puzzling, but you wanted a second bite, and a third, and later Isabel ate the remainder of our crepes and candy floss in the hotel room.

At the century-old Samchuk market, Mongkol introduced us to these freakishly big meatballs with the smooth consistency of hot dogs:
They look like bread, but were pure protein and extremely heavy. I almost dropped the skewer when I tried to hold it upright.
another Samchuk specialty: rice wrapped in lotus leaf with chicken, egg yolk, and vegetables
One morning, not long after breakfast, we stopped for a mid-morning snack of multi-colored rice vermicelli that came with six types of curry, including a sweet peanut curry, a mild chicken coconut curry, and a fiery pork curry. You ladled some curry on a small nest of vermicelli and popped the whole thing in your mouth. This meal managed to be both filling and refreshing,
all colors tasted the same
Right after we'd finished, Mongkok decided it was time for us to try some noodle soup at another restaurant, our second mid-morning snack for the day.
just some of the things they put in the noodle soup

We could not do justice to this fantastic soup.
my noodle soup (egg noodles)
The ubiquitous condiments at a Thai noodle shop include chili, vinegar, turbinado sugar, and fish sauce. I generally added a little of everything while Isabel didn't add anything.
I didn't ask what this was as I wasn't 100% sure I wanted to try it.
That was our drive from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a blur of temples, greenery, and colorful, strange, delicious foods.

And monkeys.

They were cute for about 30 seconds, then scary.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bangkok, Oriental city

one night in Bangkok
Until recently, everything I knew about Bangkok came from John Burdett's crime novels, this Murray Head song, and Lawrence Osborne's memoir, Bangkok Days, in which he wanders around the city by night consorting with hookers and ex-pat sleazebags.

Unsurprisingly, I expected Bangkok to be a grimy fleshpot full of prostitutes and paunchy white male sex tourists on scooters and I'm afraid this is a common perception of the city among Americans. My father said, "When someone says he's going to Bangkok, you almost feel compelled to smirk." Yesterday, I ran into a friend and told her where I'd been and her eyes lit up and she asked me about a sordid Thai sex performance she'd heard about.

In fact, I hadn't caught one of those shows and couldn't provide any details unavailable on wikipedia. I explained, instead, that despite its reputation, Bangkok has a lot more to offer than the sex trade. SO MUCH MORE. I want to shout that because the SO MUCH MORE came as a complete surprise. Isabel and I almost didn't go to Bangkok on account of what I'd heard and read, but it turned out to be the clear high point of our trip.

The word I'd use to describe Bangkok is layered. We stayed in a small hotel with lush gardens, a pool, and a resident cat. In the morning we sat on the patio drinking coffee, peeling rambutans, and listening to the neighborhood chickens. It was idyllic. Step out the front gate, though, and we were in the middle of a huge, chaotic metropolis, just a short walk from the Skytrain, tantalizing street food, movie theaters, malls full of fabulous clothes by Thai designers, and people, people, people. It was like midtown Manhattan, but moreso. With chickens.
Nahm restaurant in Bangkok is worth every baht. I didn't take pictures of the food because everyone else was taking pictures of the food and they looked silly, but in hindsight, I was the silly one. I wish I had pictures! 
One day we ate an intricate multi-course lunch at David Thompson's Nahm. Thompson is an Australian chef and cookbook author, and at Nahm he serves ultra-refined renditions of Thai classics. What I remember best are little rice pancakes with spicy seafood, some exquisite salads, and a dessert of mangosteens and lychees in crushed ice. Every morsel was perfect and the meal cost a pretty penny.

We tried everything except insects and deep-fried chicken heads. It was almost all delicious.
Later, we had an equally incredible late-night dinner of noodle soup and hot doughnuts with pandan custard on the street in Chinatown with about 117,000 of our closest friends. Every morsel was perfect and the meal cost basically nothing.

In Bangkok, you get the high and the low and both are really, really terrific. What I hadn't realized was just how much of the high there is in that city. We stumbled on galleries and artisanal coffee shops and fancy gelato and fascinating Thai designer clothes that I would have coveted desperately were I twenty years younger and twenty pounds thinner. I'm betraying myself as a complete ignoramus because I hadn't expected any of this.

What I'd expected was sleaze. In three days of nonstop walking in Bangkok, we saw school kids in uniforms, colorful Chinese temples, teak houses, ex-pats, coconut vendors, tuk tuk drivers, a grisly museum that you should avoid at all costs, women exhorting us to get our feet massaged, artists, fashionistas, clotheslines, mysterious back alleys, and a lot of nice, everyday people who helped us read our map and cross the street without getting killed. What I didn't see was a single man, woman, or child whom I could positively identify as a sex worker.

I know they're there. But if you want to find them you might have to look harder than you think.

We loved Bangkok.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Mingalaba, friends

We visited a lot of Buddhist temples on our vacation. By "a lot" I mean maybe fifty or sixty. By "a lot" I mean a few too many. 
I write to you from a hotel patio on an island off the coast of Thailand. Palms are rustling, tropical birds chirping, some French kids splashing around in the pool. I can hear, but not see, the ocean. It's pretty nice, but not quite paradise because it's also roasting hot and we're totally lethargic and covered with mosquito bites. My bathing suit is too tight and we keep nervously joking about tsunamis. Did you see The Impossible? Don't! It will subtly darken any future visits to the beaches of southeast Asia.

I won't bore you with a long blow-by-blow account of this beautiful trip Isabel and I took to Myanmar and Thailand. Just a short blow-by-blow.

Day 1: Yangon

I'd decided this trip was a huge mistake about a week before we left. I worried Isabel wouldn't enjoy it, that she'd sigh and complain about the heat and exotic food, I'd lose my temper, we'd bicker and have a miserable or even just mediocre vacation together and then she'd go off to college and I'd never see her again. Something like that.

We arrived in Yangon after twenty hours of sleepless air travel and our guide took us straight from the airport to see a Burmese white elephant. Standing there in the soupy heat looking at this white elephant (actually, pinkish beige) I began fretting about Isabel's state of mind.

They call this a WHITE elephant?  
Was she weary? Was she hot? Was she sighing? Should I ask the guide to take us to the hotel so she could rest? I glanced at Isabel to read her mood and in that instant my worries all evaporated.  She smiled at me, totally radiant. She was into it. Not minding the jet lag, not minding the heat, just dazzled and fascinated by the strangeness and beauty of this new place like any sane, curious person would be. Why had I doubted her? I knew then that this trip was going to be wonderful and haven't worried about anything except dysentery and tsunamis since.

There's more I could say about Yangon -- about the lovely British colonial architecture, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, the Reclining Buddha, how quickly you become accustomed to women with thanaka paste on their cheeks and men in longyis -- but I promised to keep this short.

Day 2-3: Bagan

There are more than 2,000 pagodas in the ancient kingdom of Bagan and we visited a good number of them. (My picture does an ok job capturing Bagan's splendor, but this one does it better.) We climbed pagodas, circled pagodas, admired carvings outside pagodas and murals in the cool, dark interiors of pagodas, where you could hear and occasionally see the resident bats. Has David Quammen's Spillover been translated into Burmese? It should be.

Overheated dogs slept on the terraces of the pagodas. The dogs in Myanmar appeared to be dead all day and then came to life when the sun went down.
Bagan is astonishing. If you have a bucket list, Bagan belongs on it.

In my favorite Bagan temple, an enormous buddha was packed as tightly as a chick inside an eggshell. Super-weird!
It was in Bagan that Isabel and I made our first foray into a Burmese restaurant. The place had been recommended by both a tour guide and hotel receptionist, so we assumed the menu would include dumbed-down Burmese dishes translated into English.

Wrong we were. Myanmar isn't all that touristy yet, and I'm ashamed to report that authentic Burmese food terrified us.

Not only were there no English translations on the menu at this restaurant, there was no menu. We sat down and scowling waitresses began smacking dishes on the table in front of us. Dish after dish after dish of murky, room temperature mystery food. Seventeen dishes in all, including dessert. We finally identified some chicken and pork in oily sauces and a pile of leathery fried fish. There were also pastes and pickles that resembled those we'd just seen an hour ago, mounded in baskets and dotted with flies at the local market.

The hot food definitely wasn't hot, nor was the cold food cold. 
At nearby tables, big, chatty groups of Burmese were happily gobbling up their lunches, but all I could think was: DYSENTERY. We picked at our meal, some of which was tasty enough, like the stir-fried greens, but most of which was repulsive, like the gristly gobs of tepid pork. After we'd made a polite dent in maybe a third of our dishes, we paid up, skulked off into the blazing afternoon, and didn't venture into another Burmese restaurant on our own for the duration of the trip.

Sad, but true.

Days 4-5: Inle Lake

Inle Lake is a vast lake in the middle of Myanmar where villagers live in stilted teak houses built on the water and travel around on long, skinny boats. We saw lots of babies during our time on Inle Lake, but no barriers or baby gates between the living spaces and the water. I'm a product of my (anxious, death-fearing? sensible, life-loving?) culture and couldn't stop thinking about the dangers. Eventually I asked our excellent tour guide if babies ever fall out of the houses and drown. She answered promptly and cheerfully, "Sometimes they do, yes."

And that was that.

There are really easy measures one could take to prevent babies from drowning, and I would certainly take them if I lived on Inle Lake. But then where exactly do you stop? I thought about this a lot in Myanmar, where they have come to very different conclusions than we have.

No answers. 

Because it was monsoon season, we were among the only tourists on the lake and while we were drenched by the rains, it was absolutely great.
In a temple on Inle Lake you'll find a museum that contains valuables -- cash, watches, jewelry -- that devout visitors decided they cared too much about and gave up.
These buddhas in the same temple were originally shaped like humans, but have been so thickly layered with gold leaf that they have become blobs.

Day 6: Mandalay

A few of Myanmar's 3 million monks waiting in line for lunch in Mandalay.
If there's one thing I hate, it's tourists who visit a country for a few days and come away with simplistic generalizations about a whole people. Without further ado, here are my simplistic generalizations about the people of Myanmar: There's a gentleness and languor to the Burmese that was startling and disarming and made both Isabel and me feel jaded, worldly, and slightly sad about the state of our anxious modern souls. I don't want to romanticize underdevelopment and isolation, but you can't spend a week in Myanmar without noticing that the people are strikingly tranquil when compared with people you meet almost anywhere else in 2015. The Burmese drive slowly and calmly and walk slowly and calmly. They don't worry about seat belts, life vests, or, as I've mentioned, baby gates. You will see more people laughing and talking on the street in 10 minutes than you will in Mill Valley, California in a month. I don't think we once heard a child cry or whine during our time in Myanmar, and there were children everywhere. Although everyone we got to know even slightly complained about the repressive military regime, they did so sort of cheerfully.

It would be easy to chalk this up to Buddhism, but Thailand is also Buddhist and we sensed no such tranquility among the Thais.

Make of my facile generalizations what you will.

Next post: Bangkok.