Thursday, December 31, 2009


There's a blue moon to end this decade, the oughts or noughts or whatever we end up calling these last ten years. Here in Toronto it's raining, weeping for us? or perhaps simply washing us clean? as we move on into 2010.

Last night we kicked up our heels and our hearts and danced with friends until the early hours of the morning. It was a very happy evening here with conversation and food, as well as dancing and laughter, with people of all ages and stages (we had every decade covered, from under ten-year olds to over seventy-year olds, a lovely mix).

This morning I woke up feeling a little stiffness in my shoulders and couldn't figure out what dancing effort might have caused it. And then I remembered the start of the day; dancing had nothing to do with it! I'd gone to Kensington Market to food shop and by the time I was walking back I was seriously overloaded with pounds of root vegetables of all kinds from Potz, a pound of Ethiopian coffee, two beautiful chickens from a new local butcher, and other oddments too, like pressed tofu, ginger, green onions, etc.

By seven-thirty in the evening the chickens were roasted and carved (and the carcasses immersed in water for today's soup); there was a large Le Creuset pot of mung dal (tart with tamarind and aromatic with Bengali seasonings and a secret shot of red wine) hot on the stove; the sticky rice was steaming and perfuming the house; two trays of mixed coarsely chopped root vegetables (beets, blue potatoes, black radish, parsnips, parsely root, rutabaga) had roasted in the oven to tender intense flavour (dressed only with olive oil and salt before hand) and were out in a large bowl (though the beets were in a bowl on their own, tossed with a little cider vinegar); two boxfuls of mandarins were heaped on a huge wooden bowl-platter; and friends were starting to arrive with various extra food and drink treats. Of course the party started all jammed up in the kitchen, but eventually, seduced by artfully spun music, some of us moved out into the cleared-of-furniture living room and the dancing began.

It's like a happiness treatment and celebration, dancing. And last night there was a lot to celebrate, apart from the wonderfulness of our extended family of friends old and new coming together. The best was the triumphant survival of a good friend KCC who this time last year had just been diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer. Things looked hopeless for him. Twelve months and experimental chemo and other chemo etc etc later, he is cancer free and looking and sounding like himself again. I like this kind of miracle.

Several of us were talking together late last night about his harsh year, and how hard it had been for his family too, of course. David said that for him the painful and scary passages of life are like a run of very bad luck in a poker game: "It's easy to play a good hand; the hard thing is to play a bad hand well," he said. "You just have to survive and stay solid until your luck changes." Great advice.

So as the numbers turn on the decade clock, and the moon glows full for the second time this month, I wish for all of you an interesting open-horizoned new year, with lots of stamina for enduring the rough passages and plenty of glad-heartedness and generosity for revelling in the smiling times.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


There's an aggressiveness to the cold temperatures of December here in Toronto, especially in contrast to the easy warmth of Chiang Mai. But at the same time the bite of cold air on my cheeks as I hurried along on foot this morning to meet some friends, the Sunday streets deserted, the campus at the University of Toronto people-less like a stage-set, was a great tonic. The world seemed to be saying 'Yes, you exist and so does the natural world and HERE, in this snap and burn of cold cheeks, this little shiver of a draught on the wrists because you've forgotten to pull your orange mittens up, is where we meet."

Winter. Tomorrow we turn the corner as we hit the shortest day and welcome the idea that the sun will return and the days will get longer. We have some months of winter cold and snow and ice, but at least we'll have longer days and eventually we'll start to feel warmer temperatures and see leaf buds forming on the trees.

This annual cycle in the northern climes is a lesson in patience and hope. The subtropical version, say in Thailand, is a three season cycle, where hot season is the killing time, when plants become dormant and the leaves have gone from many of the trees. There it is the monsoon rain that brings the world back to life; here it is the return of the sun, giving light and warmth too.

People from higher latitudes annually wait for the sun's return, and celebrate it with food and festivities, from Saturnalia to Christmas to Hanukkah. Tomorrow night in Kensington Market, a few blocks from the house, is the annual (it's been going for over 20 years now) Festival of Lights, with stilt people wearing mythic creatures' heads that sway above the crowd, children and adults carrying lanterns: light in the dark and excitement in the air.

Many of our foods of celebration at this time of year connect with the hope for a renewal of warmth and fertility, a new harvest, new life. At Ukrainian and Russian Christmas, there's kulcha, the wheat berry and poppyseed (often) and honey "soup", delicious ritual food that opens the Christmas eve feast. And there's also an egg-rich (yellow like the sun) Christmas bread, just as there is in Sweden.

I confess I've made none of the above this year. But I have been celebrating my return to Toronto and to friends and family with some winter cooking. I began, two nights ago, as a way of fighting jetlag-tiredness at eight in the evening, by making candied peel. I'd bought organic lemons and oranges and grapefruit, so it was easy, even in my dazed state, to peel them (cut off the peel at the stem end, then peel off tidy wedges) and then boil the peels in plenty of water for about an hour to remove bitterness. (I store the peeled fruit in a sealed plastic bag, ready to be eaten; all but the lemons have already gone.) I drained the peels then boiled them in more water for another twenty minutes or so. In another pot (non-reactive) I stirred three cups of sugar into one and a half cups of water and brought it to a boil, then let it simmer. Once I'd drained the peels again I added them to the syrup and simmered it for about an hour, pushing on the peels with a wooden spoon to immerse them.

The peels looked so gorgeous when I lifted them out onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets, all gleaming and rich-coloured, like stained glass. it's been two days, so they've dried out nicely and now I have most of them coated in extra sugar (put sugar in a paper bag and toss in the peels in batches so they get coated). The extra sugar stops them sticking to one another.

Freinds and visitors now have treats to snack on, and I have small beautiful presents to take to others. The leftover syrup, now beautifully citrussy, is delicious drizzled on ice cream for example, or just snuck, as a quickie spoonful, when the jar in the frig catches my eye. Of course it also makes a good glaze for fruit tarts. Hmmm - maybe I should move on to something like that next week?

The peels are also a reminder of earlier times, when precious oranges and lemons and citrons would arrive in northern Europe from the Mediterranean, just at the cold and dark time of year. What better way to make use of the whole fruit than by preserving the peel, with all its intense flavour? The English traditionally make mincemeat with the peel, and use it to flavour Christmas cakes and fruits cakes generally, and of course there's peel in many stollen, the German advent cake. Any other winter baking that you can tell me about that uses candied peel?

Perhaps made bold by the peel, and finding my Toronto kitchen reflexes again, I had slightly ambitious supper plans tonight that included a leekie pie. There's another welcome winter taste, those luscious leeks. After supper I used the leftover eggwhite to make lemon-zest macaroons then caught that cookbook bug (you turn the page and get inspired by the next recipe, and the next...). I was in HomeBaking, in the cookies section. So as I write there is the first stage (the loaf) of mandel melbas (four large eggs, a cup of toasted almonds, 3/4 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 cups all-purpose, all stirred together, then spooned into a loaf pan and baked at 350 F) chilled and waiting to be thinly sliced and rebaked (for fifteen minutes at 300 F) , and there are sweet Cretan paximadia, made with olive oil and wine and cinnamon and cloves, slowly crisping up in the oven.

I know they'll all get eaten, and quickly. And each bite of citrus peel or aromatic paximadia will connect us to warmth, and to the hope and promise of the solstice, that life will indeed be renewed again this year...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


It’s late on my last night here for awhile. Tomorrow evening I fly Chiang Mai-Bangkok, spend the night in a hotel near the airport, then catch a crack-of-dawn-flight to Narita and from there to Chicago. I go through the rigmarole of American customs and immigration then get on a plane to Toronto. While I’m doing that Tashi will be writing his last Christmas exam, Ancient Greek. With luck I get home on Wednesday in time for late supper with Dom and Tashi (if he’s still standing, as he said on the phone to me this morning!). How lovely is that?

Like every departure, this one makes me reflect and notice a little more than usual. I find myself reflecting back on the last five weeks, beginning with the intensity and whirlwind excitement of the Worlds of Flavor conference at Greystone in November, moving on to my first ten days here in Chiang Mai, and then from there to the extraordinarily interesting two weeks I spent in Moulmein and Hpa’an in Burma, and finallly to these last days back in Chiang Mai. A friend said to me this evening, “Do you actually LIKE this rushing around?” “Well, I said, I’d rather be slower paced, but there are some pushes and pulls involved. First, I really want to see my kids, so that’s why I am heading back to Toronto for the holidays. And I am still engaged in trying to make a living, so obligations related to that also play in. But I have no complaints. How could I? given all the freedom I have to choose my own projects.”

This life of travel is not a vacation, to do with exactly as I please or to be “lazy” in, but instead is a way of engaging with the world and trying to understand how people live in other cultures, other places. It’s a pretty privileged way of going about things, with no boss, and no schedule, but then that lack of structure demands that I structure myself, and set my own limits. Hence, I guess, the travel schedule, so at odds with the free-form life that many expats here in Thailand lead in their early retirement. Many soon get fed up and take on commitments of one kind or another. And then of course they get to complain about being over-committed...

So like eveything else in life, this matter of freedom versus constraint is a balancing act. With luck, each of us gets to figure out our own balance. Many of us have the luxury of complaining when the balance doesn’t suit us, or, even better, of doing something to tweak it so it works more comfortably.

As for the noticing, it’s more acute just pre-departure. For example, I walked across the footbridge to Wat Ket Karam this morning. It’s a temple with beautifully maintained grounds and a small school, and was the neighbouring property to the little wooden house we stayed in for some months the winter Dom turned two, so it’s wonderfully familiar. I try to get there several times each season I am in Chiang Mai. This morning the way the light hit the temple figures at Wat Ket felt magical, a serial spotlighting of details. Would I have felt so struck by it had I not been on the brink of departing? Hard to say. And then, on the way back across the footbridge, would I have been so ready to put money into the begging bowl of the old indigent guy who hangs out there?

...... I wrote the above twelve hours ago. Now it’s already past noon on the day I go. I had a long walk this morning to Chiang Mai GAte, where there’s a lively daily market and also a woman who makes traditional Thai tea and coffee. I think of Ed Rek when I’m there, for he’s a big fan of Thai tea, orange-coloured and then sweetened with condensed milk. I had two glasses of coffee today, each tasting as great, earthy and rounded, as the other. It comes always with a glass of clear “Chinese” tea, that gets refilled endlessly. The tea is to quench thirst and clear the mouth after the rich intensity of traditional tea or coffee (especially when served the classic way with sweetened condensed milk).

On the way back I cut through back lanes and then came out on Thapae Road near Wat Bupparam where a woman had set up selling sticky rice and a couple of options to go with, “sai tung”, that is, to take away in a bag and eat elsewhere. I chose the makeua tam (literally “eggplant pounded”), roasted eggplant pounded to a smooth texture, with fish sauce and grilled shallots and garlic, topped with a piece of hard-boiled egg and generous amounts of fresh herbs, in this case mint. It was the breakfast I needed, smoky tasting eggplant and always welcome sticky rice. And it made a lovely pause in a day of errands, sitting in the sun by the door of the apartment, the fountain trickling gently nearby, and a world to travel around just waiting.

Friday, December 11, 2009


There's a white cotton blessing string tied three times around my right wrist. As I sit here at my little white laptop (so pleasant to be back with familar tools!) it is in view, an ongoing reminder of Burma. I was given it at a monastery - "paya" is the Burmese term - called Ta-ma-nga that in Burmese style is built on a hilltop, with a steep long flight of stairs leading up the wooded hillside. It's about 40 miles southeast of Hpa'an, in Kayin (Karen) State. The monk who presided there until his death a few years ago was revered for his wisdom, and respected too for his firm support of Aung San Suu Kyi. His portrait is often pasted up in the front of busses, along with a buddha photo or two, and the monastery is a busy pilgrim place and also somehow remarkably peaceful.

Right now I'm still in "just landed" mode, with a jumble of impressions that will in time I hope get a little more sorted out. The photos will help, as I sort through them, and now that I have a few words of Burmese in my head (and more noted down phonetically in my notebook but not yet pounded into my brain!), I can somehow "replay" the texture of encounters and the feel of the street much better than after my last trip.

It's such a slow (and interesting) process, getting a little familiar with another food culture. And in Burma, with its diversity of peoples, from Rakhine and Karen to Bhama and Mon, to Kachin and Shan of many kinds, the picture is wonderfully complex. That's so even before you get to the foods that originate in the Indian subcontinent and are now staples in Burma, subtly transformed in many cases, from their original model. I'm talking about biryani and dosa and porota and paratha and more. Fun!

It was a treat this morning, a Friday, to be at the Haw market here in Chiang Mai, a place where Burmese refugees of various cultures, as well as hill people and Yunnanese, come to sell and buy food. So here, back in Thailand, I had a breakfast that was Burmese, a bowl of mohinga. It varies from place to place, but is most often fine rice noodles (that are known in Thailand as kanom Jiin) with a fish-based broth and then toppings sprinkled over it to add flavour and texture. Here the only choice was a crisp fried cracker as well as coriander leaves, but in Rangoon at the small street stalls there's a wide array of toppings and flavorings ro choose from, including a kind of fried shrimp cracker, and slices of banana flower heart, and, and... The other treat for breakfast at the Haw market is various kinds of khao foon, firm smooth tofu-like squares made of mung beans or chickpeas that have been cooked and pureed and jelled, that are sliced into noodles and then topped with flavourings (shallot oil, lime juice, soy or fish sauce, chile oil, etc). I had some khao foon strips on top of my mohinga today, just for the pleasure of their texture.

The Haw market made me feel welcomed back and also somehow reassured that the cultural and historical cross-connections here in the region are alive and real. And as I try to figure out some of the dishes and techniques I came across in Burma, there should be some help and insights to be found here in Chiang Mai... What a wonderfully lucky thing it is, to be able to be here and trying to learn.

POST SCRIPT ON IMMERSETHROUGH: We have a small group this year for the tour (January 24 to 30, 2010), so we can be portable and flexible. I'm really looking forward to it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


A quick note to say that I'm in the airport in Bangkok and headed to Chiang Mai in an hour. I should be able to get a post written and up in the next twenty-four hours.

On the last post I included a postscript saying that I might not be able to get access to blogspot in Burma, and so it proved to be. But apart from no access to blogspot or yahoo (and frankly, it's kind of wonderful to have email taken mostly out of play, a return to a version of earlier days of travel when leaving meant being out of touch!) this was a smooth and wonderfully interesting and generous trip. I am so grateful.

More later...