Tuesday, January 31, 2012


It's the last day in January, and what a long and full month it's been. I just felt I had to post a brief note now, to mark the passage into February. This evening, in the heart of dry season, it rained hard here in Chiang Mai, clearing the air and leaving us, I hope, with bright sharp-etched light tomorrow.

Early in the morning I'm heading north to Fang with a group of very nice and interesting people who are here to immerse themselves in food. They're taking the immersethrough course that Fern Somraks and I co-ordinate here each year. We've had two days of marketing and cooking and eating in Chiang Mai. The Muang Mai Market was especially intense this morning, with huge trucks loaded with everything from squashes to ginger to coconuts to cabbages inching their way through the crowds, squeezing us all against the vendors' stands with their displays of every kind of herb and stacked shallots and mushrooms and garlic and eggplants of many shapes and colours and...and... But now we head out of town at the crack of dawn to an entirely different world.

We'll drive north through the mountains to Fang, spend hours wondering at and wondering through the weekly market there, and then head to Fern's lychee farm to cook Shan food outdoors in the clear country air. We have a couple of days at the farm (and an overnight at the Pumanee Hotel in Fang, owned and run by Lahu people). Each time fern and I take people up to cook with Jam and Boon-Ma, who are the Shan food teachers, I learn a lot. And there's still such a lot to learn.

Food is one of the basic human artifacts, and as such has many layers, so it's infinitely interesting, at least to me. There's not just the practicalities of how something is made, but the whys and wherefores of the method, and the history of how different dishes or techniques evolved, and the different words for ingredients, etc etc.

And each day all over the world people are making food to feed themselves and others, sometimes as a resented chore and other times with creative energy and pleasure. It's dizzying.

Many of those who come to the weekly Fang market are from the hills, often refugees or the children of refugees who have fled Burma or perhaps from China, over time, and sought safety and more security in Thailand. I look at their faces and know that I don't know and will never know, much about them... We can only ever understand such a small sliver of the life that unfolds before us. So I guess I feel that my task (and pleasure, I admit it) is to appreciate that fact and press on trying to learn and explore as much as possible, and to be grateful for the chance to do so.

Happy end of January everyone.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


The moon was smiling a slender crescent-curved smile in the western sky yesterday evening as I sat outside at a rooftop bar with a friend. Five full days after the new moon and Chinese New Year, that moon was still looking new and fresh and fragile. Tonight, suddenly, the smile is much fuller, almost a half-moon. How does that happen, a slow-seeming gradual evolution becoming “suddenly” a quick change? Maybe I’m asking the same kind of questions as all those philosophical ones about when is one plus one plus one, etc stones no longer some stones but a pile? What’s the turning point amount at which a bunch of stones is a pile or heap?

Oops! How did I get here?

I meant to start out with that skinny smile-in-the-sky and move on. I wanted to talk about the luck of being here in Chiang Mai and being able to feel each day that I’m a beginner, always looking to understand the human and physical landscape. This state of not-knowing is a privilege. It enables me to ask questions without embarrassment, and to continually feel that lovely edge that happens when I’m challenged. Is it a kind of adrenaline pleasure? Is there dopamine secreted when we engage with the unknown and try to understand it? Must be something like that, surely, because I love that feeling of edge so much.

Today, this evening, we started a week of immersing in culture through food. We began by eating and talking, moved on to the market for looking and shopping and eating, and more shopping, and ended with eating back at the apartment, and lots more talking. A great start.

The good will of people who are curious about the world, who want to learn more about food and culture here in Northern Thailand, and are prepared to be challenged, is a lovely thing. It means that people come together and make something new, a temporary world of cross-connection and mutual appreciation. And it’s exhilarating to watch and be part of.

This week is also the time that the first galleys of my Burma book, PINCH OF TURMERIC, SQUEEZE OF LIME are due to arrive. Nothing like having all my most intense obligations happen at the same time! I’m told I can take two weeks with the galleys, and I’ll need all of that and more. But first, before I start worrying about corrections and amendments (for example, given the recent movement toward more political openness in Burma, the history section, happily, needs altering), I want to take a day or two to just enjoy the galleys. I want to hold onto my sense of wonder and pleasure that they exist, rather than leaping straight into practical tasks.

I’m sure they’ll be beautiful, too, for the sample early pages I saw three weeks ago were stunning.

Perhaps all this good stuff – the start of immersethrough with all its good energy, and the imminent arrival of a FedEx parcel of book galleys (oh, and getting a Burma visa for another trip there) – is what that moon has been smiling at. I like to think so…

Sunday, January 22, 2012


A couple of days ago on Facebook, I made an entry about a visit to the weekly Haw Market in Chiang Mai, and said that I planned to write a blogpost about it, a post that would be like the New Yorker articles that consist of endless lists of things.

Well here I am at last, thinking about the Haw market and all that there was to see there, and also thinking about lists, and descriptions, and what they achieve...

As we (I at least, and I think many others, from what I hear) get increasingly impatient with dense paragraphs of description and explanation, the power of the written word to convey a scene or a set of descriptive facts dwindles, is no longer a power. Am I wrong about this? Does it mean, if I am right, that the photograph or other graphic, holds sway and displaces the written word? I don't like to think so, for photos have become so un-mysterious, so sharpened and hyper-realistic, that they may contain "factual" content but they have lost the power, usually, to move us.

So perhaps in wondering about the power of a dense long paragraph of description to reach us, I am asking the wrong question. Perhaps it's never, or rarely, about the factual content, and far more often about the emotional content. Those long "Along the Avenues" pieces written about Christmas shopping possibilties etc were then not just about listing things available but about giving an overall sense of plenty or sense of wonder? Were they reassuring? They were certainly NOT replaceable by a photograph, so perhaps it was the hypnotic accumulation of detail that charmed.

In which case, you need to jump on a plane and come to spend time in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city the capital of the north. Burma lies not far away to the west and north, then there's Laos to the east. The ethno-cultural landscape is diverse and endlessly interesting to me, for there are not only northern Thais (Tai Koen) and central Thais, and Shan (Tai Yai) but there are also Kun Haw, Yunnanese, mostly Muslim, who came here and settled to do more trade; Pa-O; Burmese; people of South Asian descent; and more. Many of the non-Thai people get themselves to the Haw Market every week.

The Haw Market happens every Friday in a parking lot opposite the Mosque. It's alive with people from all the marginal, minority, and otherwise generally unacknowledged peoples who live in and around Chiang Mai. The faces of both sellers and buyers are very different from the crowd at Wararot Market or the large bustling wholesale market Muang Mai. Cheekbones are higher, skin often much darker, and many walk with the easy rolling gait of a hill person or farmer. Some speak Thai, others operate in Yunnanese or Mandarin or Burmese, or Shan.

And what they are selling is equally a blurring of the lines and a widening of the boundaries: celtuce, large and healthy, and spinach ditto; strawberries now in season; eggplants long or round, pale mauve or yellow; cherry tomatoes larger than small and all shades of red merging into pale green; piles of purple-red shallots and ginger and every kind of herb, from sawtooth herb and Vietnamese coriander to Thai basil and coriander and herbs I can’t name; masses of greens of all kinds, including pea tendrils and Chinese kale and other brassicas with white flowers and yellow flowers, as well as round pale cabbages and Napa cabbages, and more. There are red and pink and almost-mauve fat large radishes; squahes of yellow or orange with green speckling; long beans and sword beans; red rice and brown and black and white rices of varying qualities and prices.

The blue chickens by the Chinese woman stare across at the large plastic vats of pickles surrounded by a crowd. The seller, Chinese-speaking, is trying to get people to be orderly. But it's hard to hold back when you see deep barrels being emptied: the barrel of fermented tofu, four feet deep, was being scraped clean. The vats of pickles were also going fast.

Then there was the prepared food, being cooked right there. Women in headscarves fry beautiful little samosas and Shan tofu, others serve soup in wide white ceramic bowls or grill flattened black rice cakes, or fresh corn fritters. I bought a small bag of freshly hot black sticky-rice doughnuts, as a tip of the hat to Robyn Eckhardt and Dave Hagerman, whose favorites they are; I knew they were at the same time in a plane flying to Turkey, headed far from the delights of palm sugar syrup and rice doughnuts. I also had a generous bowl of mohinga, Burmese soup over fine fresh rice noodles, with bits of banana stem in the soup and crispy wide soy bean crackers to break up into it for crunch. Even full to bursting I couldn't resist a couple of pieces of semolina cake, a Burmese treat. I ate half one piece with my traditional Thai coffee and scarfed down the rest later in the day.

But then other temptations appeared as I kept wandering: small cubes of fried tofu; some nanpyar, Burmese style flatbreads... I resisted the air-dried strips of spiced beef, the Shan tofu, both fresh and deep-fried, the luxurious smooth Shan soup, usually my choice; as well as stacks of fresh fruit. I did buy a beautiful almost perfectly round avocado, hass -style. And to go with it I picked out a handful of small limes.

The crowd was dense and very focussed on the food. Chinese New Year meant there were more buyers and more sellers that usual. I saw several young Lisu men in New Year's finery: one had lime green draping swaying pants on; the other had shiny pale blue with silver speckles pants,very dashing and eye-catching.

Now two days later I've just eaten the avo, shared it with Fern, my friend and collaborator on immersethrough. We mashed it coarsely, added a dash of fish sauce, lots of squeezed lime juice, and some freshly pounded black pepper that my friend Allison gave me. She'd bought it in Cambodia, a place known for its peppercorns. The avo was perfect (Fern has taken the pit away to see if she can get it to germinate) and I'm feeling very well fed.

The firworks have started pop-pop-popping and bursting with a loud bang as the town revs up for Chinese New Year. We’re headed out of the year of the rabbit and into the year of the dragon, traditionally viewed as powerful and very auspicious. I’m just hoping for a year with fewer world-wide catastrophes, better outcomes in Syria and Egypt and neighbours, and continued progress in Burma’s process of opening up and democratizing. I guess I’m saying, let’s hope for some reasoned and reasonable peace in Burma and everywhere else, and for the strength to cope with grace when things don’t go our way.

Happy new year everyone….

AND A POST-SCRIPT: My Burma cookbook is now in design, so exciting, and we now have a title, for sure and final, which pleases me enormously. It's called PINCH OF TURMERIC, SQUEEZE OF LIME: Recipes and Travel tales from Burma
I can't wait to see the galleys, which are due to arrive in a week or so. Whew!

Friday, January 13, 2012


There’s been radio silence on this blog since the turn of the year. My apologies. My only excuse is that life got intensely busy through the holidays, busy with both work and friends. I had a short trip to New York City early in the new year, for a Beard Cookbook Awards committee meeting. That is always a pleasure, but in this case there was more. I took an extra day and went to Artisan, where I saw the first designed pages of my Burma book. So exciting. Susan Baldaserini has launched the book in a lovely direction. I can’t wait to see more.

The other treat while I was in New York was a visit to the Met to see the exhibit of African sculptures, Iconic Africans I think it’s called. It’s on until January 29, and if you have any chance to see it, rush straight there, “do not pass GO” as they they. I am still haunted by, maybe dreaming about is a better way of saying it, the wooden sculptures, especially those of the Hemba of eastern Congo, the last culture in the show. As is so often the case (the Chagall exhibit at the AGO was an exception to the rule), many of the moving and beautiful scultures were from private collections, and we are unlikely to see them again, ever. (All but a few of the pieces in the Chagall show were from the Centre Pompidou).

And now I’m sitting in a little diner on the other side of the world, in Bangkok, eating khao tom (congee) for breakfast. I got in late last night, the taxi from the airport an easy ride on the expressway until the last mile or so, when we crawled along Sukhumvit in heavy just-pre-midnight traffic, past sidewalks lively with people and streetstalls, under the elevated Skytrain tracks, the neon lights of the tall buildings flashing confidently against the dull night sky.

This is another world, for sure, and the fact that the transition from North America can happen in twenty-four hours is still amazing. I always read who-dunnits on the plane. They transport me to other places while the plane crosses ice and oceans and waves of cloud. The best paperback on this trip was a Barbara Nadel (set in Turkey, and this one mostly in the southeast in and around Mardin, intensely engaging). I am now in the middle of a fairly recent Donna Leon, in Venice with Inspector Brunetti, a book to read in the sleepless hours caused by jetlag; I get engrossed and then raise my eyes to realise with pleasure that I am already in Bangkok.

Last night I was unable to get my computer to connect to the wi-fi in the lobby of the hotel. I felt bereft, unreasonably so, since there was nothing especially important that I needed to check. It made me realise just how dependent-minded I’ve become about my connectedness, my ability to check mail or make a call. It’s lovely that I could call Tashi from Bangkok airport when I arrived to wake him (to receive a parcel we’re expecting), but it’s also reductive in some way, I find myself thinking.

And then I realise that I am locking myself into a set way of thinking that isn’t helpful. My sense of wonder about travel used to come from the fact of away-ness and cut-offness. The clear difference between where I’d come from and where I’d arrived I measured partly by my degree of cut-offness (a week or more for letters, phone calls pretty unthinkable, etc).

But the real differences between where I’ve come from and where I’ve arrived are still there. It’s just that there is now easier communication between the worlds. I realise that I mustn’t be sloppy and think that, because I can talk or write across the distance instantaneously, the distance, physical, cultural, emotional, is not there. The differentness of places, their distinctiveness, is still a fact, however much it may seem to be blurred by global business and instant communications.

Such a small proportion of the world’s people ever get on a plane. We tend to assume that everyone is us, whereas those of us who travel are the exception, we’re kind of time-travellers, while everyone else retains a stronger sense of place and an anchoredness.

All of which brings me to feel grateful that I can move between worlds, but also mindful that I should never take it for granted, and that I should be always alert to the differences, the fundamentals that make each place and each person distinctive. In fact, it brings me to the reminder that I will always be a beginner, never really knowing all that goes on, just getting glimpses of what motivates people or how a particular cultural situation can be understood.
After all, our understanding is always imperfect; even insiders only understand part of what they see. That’s why we have novels, to explore all that we glimpse but don’t truly understand, and to give us a sense of wonder at life’s complexity.

On another subject, there is cause for rejoicing on the Burma front. The government there is continuing to follow-through on its promises of loosening the repression people have lived under for years, as well as starting to negotiate with the Karen (an agreement with the KNU was just announced), Kachin, Chin, et al, and freeing political prisoners so that the country can genuinely move toward real democracy. It won’t be easy: old habits of repression die hard, and the country is short of infrestructure, lacks any kind of reasonable education system or health care etc. But people are motivated and feeling so optimistic... And the signs are good that the momentum is being maintained. Here’s hoping.

And a footnote: All the good Burma news last fall, including Hilary Clinton’s visit, meant that Burma was front and centre in the news, from the New York Times to everywhere else. That meant that suddenly people who had not given Burma a thought were planning trips, or articles in their magazines etc. I’ve had calls and requests for advice on Burma travel and Burma food, and sometimes actually paid work too.

This is how the world seems to work: some kind of news attention, and then suddenly we find the place on a map and it becomes more real to us. And so now Burma has emerged into awareness of people in the twenty-first century, about fifty years after it sank from view (in March 1962, with Ne Win’s coup). Such a long time of silence...