Saturday, January 30, 2010


I woke this morning just at dawn to see the whole Chiang Mai valley aglow. There are mountains in all directions, but they are often invisible in haze of various kinds. Not this morning though, when their finely etched blue outlines carved shapes against the pink radiance of morning. Thrilling. And as I was marvelling, suddenly the orange ball of the sun emerged from behind the eastern ridges, brilliantly aglow.

The lovely impermanence of dawn, its reliability (in my lifetime so far, despite Hume’s leaving us room for doubt) and yet its evanescence, are daily reminders, when I’m up in time, of the imperative to tune in and engage in the present. If I get distracted by a thought or an errand, only for thirty seconds, I risk missing the fine glow of light or the arrival of the sun or whatever else is briefly on offer to my wondering eye. This morning felt like a special treat, laid on as part of the general full moon beauty of the last few days.

Today is a recovery day, a time to breathe and clean up and take stock. The immersethrough tour ended with a delicious leisurely cooking and eating and drinking session last night. Everyone experimented with new ingredients or combinations, and we also made some Issaan (northeast Thai) classics: laap gai Issaan, in two versions (one with pla ra - fermented fish paste, known as padaek in Issaan - and one without); som tam (green papaya salad) in three versions, one northern, one Issaan, and one more to foreigners’ taste, with no crab and no pla ra; and moo nam toke, Issaan-style (grilled pork cut up and dressed with lime juice, fish sauce roasted rice powder, etc.

We also experimented with gin-based cocktails. I know, I know, you purists, we should have been working with lao khao (local rice liquor), but instead we infused a little gin with lime leaves and lemongrass and another small glass of it with chiles, then added spoonfuls of each to plain gin to see how things worked together. There were some delish combos...

Jacob it was who came up with the definitive one, which we agree should be named Chiang Mai Cosmo. This town is inclusive, very cosmopolitan, fun, and classy too, and the cocktail reflects that.

The drink is far from the cranberry, Cointreau, vodka, and lime juice in a martini glass classic Cosmopolitan. It uses about a tablespoon of gin infused with dried red chile (one broken up dried cayenne in a quarter cup of gin, infused for ten minutes or more) and two scant tablespoons of gin infused with wild lime leaf and lemongrass (two stalks of smashed lemongrass and several lime leaves cut in chiffonade, then muddled with about a half-cup of gin). Make a gin and tonic in a chilled glass with plain gin plus the infused flavours, pouring it over ice, stir, then add a splash of blended whiskey. (To keep the flavours clean and clear, remove the ice after a minute or less.) That’s it, a mild whiskey entry followed by aromatics and then the intensities of tonic, gin, and chile heat.

Now I am already missing the group, the energy of all of us together as well as the personality of each person. I guess people who do regular tours learn to hold back and not engage as intensely. But I do this only once a year (though I’d like to try to do two sessions next Jan-Feb) with a small group of like-minded people who come to Chiang Mai and north to Fang because they want to be immersed. And so it’s hard not to get intensely involved in squeezing the most fun and information and experience out of each day.

No wonder I’m feeling a little tired and languid today!

Tomorrow I have a flight directly to Yangon/Rangoon, a new service twice a week operated by Air Bagan. “My bags are packed, I’m ready to go” says the song, but in fact I still have a little sorting to do. I want to have only one small pack as well as my backpack-style camera bag. The temperatures this coming week in Mandalay drop to 11 Centigrade with highs of 30, so I’ll be working with layers! The lows are even lower in Hspipaw and other more hilly places further north.

I hope to be in Burma for three weeks, mostly in the Northern Shan States is my plan right now, returning February 21.

I’m pleased to be able to go back. We made some delicious clean-tasting Shan dishes up north at Fern’s farm in the Fang area this week. And we also figured out, with lots of help, how to make tua nao the disks of fermented soybeans that provide the flavour base for much Shan cooking, as well as some northern Thai dishes. Of course we had to experiment with different flavourings, pounding them into the soybean mash. The flattened sun-dried disks that we made were delicious, and interesting too because tua nao are a vegetarian source of deep umame flavour. I’m hoping to learn more about Shan cooking, in all its lovely variety, on this trip. And as with earlier trips, I’m asking you to wish me luck!

POSTSCRIPT: It was impossible to post here last fall when I was in Burma, and I assume there will be the same problems with internet access this trip, so I will probably not be posting again until Febrary 22 or so...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I spent a chunk of time the other day tidying up my e-mail inbox. The job’s not finished, not nearly. I've just made a little progress, down from over 4000 messages (pretty disgraceful, I admit!) to under 3600. I deleted some, and the others I filed in various categories: friendshome (Toronto and area), friendsaway (everywhere else), moneystuff, etc. As I scrolled laboriously backwards through my inbox, I got flashes and reminders of the events and expectations of the last six months. I didn’t stop to read any of the mail I was deleting or filing, but instead just allowed the re lines to remind me.

I watched the inbox number drop in ones and threes and more as I checked off mail to be filed elsewhere, and hurried on, trying to get below 3800, then down to 3700, etc... It was satisfying in a mindless vacuum-under-the-rug kind of way. But more than that, it was a reminder of how different letter-writing is in this e-mail era.

(And perhaps because I am in Thailand, far from home base, I have more time to think about distance and letters, and more yearnings for good connections, heartfelt "hands across the sea" kinds of connections with friends and family.)

I write a lot more e-letters than I ever did snail-mail letters, and I receive a lot more. They are all there, filed or not, retrievable by a simple word-search. I feel in some muddled way that they’re saved for whenever I might want or need them. I love the idea that I can retrieve them, and somehow it makes me feel protected against loss.

In a cupboard at home I have letters of quite a different kind. There’s a stack of them, letters I wrote home when I was seventeen and living in France for a year. My parents saved them and put them aside. They’re so real, with their flimsy crinkly paper and my hard-to-read handwriting, with stamps from France, and the feel of a distinctive time and place.

My emails, on the other hand, though they’re easy to read, have no stamp of personalitiy, no distinctiveness apart from their word content. There’s a lack of tangibility too. That’s a real loss.

I love the concrete, the feel and smell of things and people and places. Images on a screen are so sterile and one-dimensional compared to paper and handwriting. They’re easier to read but harder to feel, I guess is one way of expressing what I’m trying to say. It’s almost as if, in touching and unfolding a letter, we’re reading it with our hands.

A letter is not a simple thing: There’s the object itself, with its specific paper quality and distinctive handwriting, individual and personal, and there’s the actual content of the writing, telling news or giving us facts. Both the object and the contents touch us and make us feel emotions, they both connect the reader to the writer. When we shift to e-letters, we get to keep and store forever the factual content, but we lose access to the tangible sense of place and time, and we lose the direct physical connection a letter gives us. On top of that, we no longer get the delightful sensation of recognising with a leap of the heart the hand-writing of a loved one on a stamped envelope addressed to us.

No I am not pining for an earlier era. I just trying to sort out there from here, if I can put it that way. I’m not trying to legislate for others, just trying to figure out what it means to have these feelings of loss about some aspects of the e-mail world. And if it doesn’t suit me, then I should do something about it, not whine!!

After all, if letters, real letters, are so precious and multi-dimensional to me, I am free to engage with the world that way. There’s nothing except my own inertia that stops me from writing letters in pen on paper, to friends far and near, and taking them to the mailbox at the end of the street.

What better sound than the soft slide of a freshly written letter as it heads off to its destination? The answer, of course, is, “the sound of a letter arriving...”

A FOOTNOTE: Once my Burmese visa comes through (I’m supposed to hear back in a couple of days), I hope to spend three weeks there, mostly in the Shan States. Since internet access, and especially access to blogspot, can be iffy in Burma, I may well not be posting here again until after February 21. By then Chinese New Year will have come. We’re entering the year of the Tiger, full of strength and power, at least so I like to think... (Can you tell that I’m a tiger?)

Monday, January 18, 2010


I’ve got a new favorite morning routine here in Chiang Mai. It’s evolving, rather than set, but the essentials include a brisk walk to the daily market at Chiang Mai Gate a generous mile away, and then a pause for a glass or two of traditional Thai coffee from a vendor there. The walk is great first thing in the morning, under usually hazy skies, the sun just coming up and the traffic light, people heading groggily to work and other chores, often wrapped in a scarf or jacket against the morning chill.

But there’s something a little dangerous, or perhaps the word dangerous is too strong, let’s say risky, about a routine. That’s why I try to keep it evolving, of course.

This morning I was given a much-needed kick in the pants in that direction by an email from a friend named Jim. I’d written him a quick note to say I was just headed out for coffee, and describing the coffee women: “She makes traditional Thai coffee and tea, also has soft-boiled eggs on offer, and that wild Thai "toast": white bread toasted carefully over low charcoal, than buttered with some kind of yellow grease, then dusted with white sugar and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, and finally put on a plate and cut into four or five "fingers".  The egg and the toast are 5 baht each (about 15 cents?) and the coffee is double that, and comes with a side of clear tea.  I never have more than two coffees at a time, and have never managed the courage to have the toast.  I just watch others eat it!”

Jim wrote right back: “Now there’s the difference between us: I’d have ordered the toast right off, wolfed it down and then had a second one!”

My timidity about trying sweet treats thus outed and exposed for the feebleness it is, I set off this morning with more ambition and in a different frame of mind. Instead of thinking of this morning coffee as a settled treat and routine, I was bumped back into that traveller’s mind/beginner’s mind attitude: look at everything freshly, and engage as much as possible. The alternative is to just find something comfortable and stick to it. That’s fine, but it eliminates a lot of possibilities for serendipity (and a lot of catastrophes too, yes of course!).

So this is a report on my toast and coffee: it was just spectacular! I had thought I could imagine what the toast would taste like, and anyway I’m not that big on very sweet tastes, and especially not in the morning. That was my excuse for skipping the toast possibility. And I do know that taste of sweetened condensed milk on bread, from eating the Thai classic ice cream sandwich: coconut ice cream served in a sweetish hamburger bun style bun, drizzled with sweetneed condensed milk. It’s a wild and crazy and quite delish combo on a hot day!

Nothing had prepared me for the deliciousness of this morning’s combo though. First of all, the toast had a little tender crsipness at the edge and a faint smoky taste from being over the charcoal embers. It came on a small plate with a small fork alongside and had been cut crosswise in half and then the other way in four, so there were eight perfect squares of toast. I impaled one, dipped it lightly into the coffee, ate it, and immeditaely felt very grateful to Jim for goading me into trying the toast. The sugar that is dusted onto the toast has a vanilla aroma, perhaps that’s the thing, but I think it’s just somehow a good marriage, the smoky mocha taste of Thai coffeee with this improbable Asia-Fusion toast. The coffee comes with clear tea, so you can rinse your mouth clear after each rich bite, and then start in and get another hit of intense flavour, eight times in all.

No, I did NOT order a second toast, nor even a second coffee. It felt perfect, the pairing, one to one. I paid my 17 baht, about 50 cents altogether, smiled my thanks, and headed off into the market, delighted.

I think I'll have to take the immersethrough people over for coffee and toast next week, don't you think?

Monday, January 11, 2010


Eggs are a very personal matter said my friend Dina the other day. We were talking about my love of a fried egg on greens or on leftover reheated dal, or on anything that catches my eye really. From there we went on to talk about omelets and scrambled eggs.

I don't scramble eggs often, in fact really never. But a couple of weeks ago I was staying with friends in the country, and bacon and scrambled eggs was on the breakfast agenda. "Sure, I'll do the eggs if you'd like," I found myself saying. And then I realised that as a non-scrambler of eggs, I was operating under false pretences. Ah well, these are close friends, so why not try it anyway, expertise or not? (And my friends have, over the years, become very tolerant of my approximateness!)

I broke six eggs (good farm eggs) into a glass bowl, whisked them, then added a generous quarter cup of cream and whisked some more. In went salt, pepper, a dash of soy sauce... not much really. I heated a mix of olive oil and butter and tossed in a little chopped green onion, then poured in the whisked eggs. I did the slow pulling of the cooked edges inward method, then at the almost last-minute, sprinkled on some small pieces of smoked salmon (leftovers from the night before, lightly tossed with a little lemon juice first).

The egg was lush and tender, still moist in many places, but not runny. And it was delicious!

Hurrah for the cook who takes a chance! It seems to me that if you love eggs, as I do, and have confidence in them, then you can't go far wrong. So take your preference for eggs and go forth with valour and determination! If others criticise your way with eggs, let them make their own. You know what you are good at, and you just go right ahead in your own way!

It's now January 13, the birthday of two good friends, precious, both of them... and tomorrow I catch a plane to fly to Thailand. It's a direct Toronto-HongKong flight on Air Canada, a thrilling route over the pole. This time last year I wrote about the flight and also about the January 14 date, because it is my father's long-ago death day. And this year I'll actually be flying through the air in a kind of timeless limbo on the 14th. I'm glad. I don't feel the weight of the "surly bonds of earth" as the poet refers to them. But I do love the between-places feeling once I am fully en route.

There's also something about the turning of the year that is freeing, don't you think? As we enter the year of the Tiger, my birth year, and wonderfully associated with strength and good fortune and energy, I find I'm feeling revitalised and ready for whatever comes next. I hope you are too.

POSTSCRIPT: But of course there's no way that anyone can be ready or should have to be ready for the kind of extreme tragedy that the people of Haiti are living through right now. It seems from reports that the most effective way that outsiders can be of help is to donate money, rather than material help such as clothing; the time for that will come later.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


I’m in the latest version of limbo. That is, I am at the airport, having checked in online, gone through US immigration, dropped off my small (checked) bag that in earlier times would have been easy light hand-carry, passed through airport security, had my boots polished by the shoe-shine guy, passed through secondary security (a pat-down and detailed search), and now find myself with two hours to kill before the flight leaves. Yikes!

All this should be good for train travel. The cushion we now need to leave before a flight means that even this short hop to New York from Toronto will take me about eight hours door to door. Yes, of course I could have been less cautious about the time I allowed for all the security, but why risk it? At least I have a book and my laptop, so I can get work done or other wise distract myself.

In earlier times, pre cell phones or pre telephones at all, people put in long waits and just assumed that travel took time. With no way of phoning to change a plan or let people know you’d been delayed, you made extra-sure to be on time, leaving cushions for weather delays or transport problems.

With telephones and now especially with cell phones and Blackberries and i-phones etc, we’ve moved into an era that kind of mirrors the way in which manufacturing is now organised in many companies. It’s called Just in time ordering. Instead of keeping inventory in case they receive an order, companies instead hold off manufacturing a product (a car or a fridge or stove, say) until they receive an order for it.

Some years ago I was in Greenwood Mississippi, home of Viking, the maker of high-end and thoughtfully designed stoves and fridges, when I first heard the just in time concept explained. It makes good sense to not have resources tied up in products until they are ordered and paid for. But it also assumes that the manufacturing will go smoothly and quickly, and most of all it shifts any waiting or delay onto the consumer. Instead of the manufacturer waiting for orders, it’s the customer who must wait until the product is made and delivered.

And the cell-phone analogy? Well if I can call you and fine tune the when and where of our ten o’clock coffee date, then I will be more casual about being there on time, and I think I’ll be sloppier generally about making sure I don’t inconvenience you. Young people, who have grown up in this last-minute decisions and changing-arrangements world operate so differently. They take the flexibility for granted; the just-in-time last-minute arrangements are normal life to them.

So how will that impatient generation handle this long-delay universe of line-ups and unpredictable airport delays and hassles? I guess they’ll distract themselves by spending more time on the phone as they wait. But they may also opt out: Who wants to be a hostage to an unpredictable and coercive schedule? Who wants to lose hours in waiting?

Perhaps we’ll end up with better train travel, if this era of high security continues... or maybe we’ll all slip into taking mobility less for granted. That will mean perhaps more car trips, and train travel, and less plane travel. So is all this going to mean that the carbon footprint of those who have in the past taken air travel for granted as an easy right will shrink? There’s a consoling thought!

It’s an interesting example of unintended consequences, perhaps. Or, put another way, maybe it’s a confirmation of the saying my friend Arlene told me yesterday, when we met for a ten am coffee, punctually, as is our way: the bad, however bad, always always has some positive effect too ...

And speaking of positive: We all so loved the oatcakes I made over the holidays that I made another batch. Last night we all kept nibbling on them and the pile shrank a little. It seemed a good thing to still be eating sweets and feeling festive, for last night was Christmas Eve for members of the Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic Churches, as well as followers of the Eastern (Orthodox) rites of Greece, Russia, Serbia, etc, and for western Christians, it was Epiphany, the day that celebrates the coming of the magi. In Barcelona on January 5 there’s a Wise Men procession, complete with camels, through the streets to enchant children and adults alike.

Here we shovel snow and return to school and tend to forget about these things. But on our street is a Russian Orthodox church (used as the church in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, incidently), so we are always reminded of Christmas Eve. Last night the street was packed with cars until late, and the church filled with dressed-up worshippers. And inside our house, we were talking and happy and sustained by oatcakes and loving warmth.

NOTE ON OATCAKES: There's a recipe in HomeBaking, but if you don't have a copy, here's how to make them:
Use rolled oats, 2 cups, and pulse them in the food processor until ground more finely (alternatively you can start with 2 cups steel-cut oats).
Add 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 cup light brown sugar, 1 cup whole wheat flour (I use Red Fife) and 1 cup all-purpose, and process to blend. Cut a half-pound (225 grams) cold butter into small chunks and add, then process until it is blended into fine crumbs.
Stir a teaspoon baking soda into 1 cup hot water. Start the processor (or stir it in a large bowl) and pour in the hot water, processing or stirring as you add the water. Stop once a ball of dough forms and all the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened.
Turn the (now-sticky and soft) dough out onto a floured surface and knead a little to pull it together. Put in a plastic bag and refrigerate for one hour or as long as three days. (The dough firms up to a stiff mass as the butter solidifies in the cold.)

Heat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit with a rack above centre and another below centre. Lightly butter two bakng sheets. Cut the dough into four equal pieces.
Lightly flour your work surface. Press one piece of dough flat with the heel of one hand, then roll it out with a rolling pin until thin and relatively even.
Transfer the dough to a baking sheet and then use a pizza cutter to divide it into squares. (You can instead cut out rounds with a cookie cutter or fine-edged glass, rerolling scraps as needed; this dough doesn't get noticeably tough even when rerolled.) Place in the oven and bake for about fifteen minues. Repeat with the remaining three pieces of dough.

When the oatcakes are done they will still be pale on top but will be firm underneath. Transfer them to a rack to cool and set (a wide spatula is the best tool for this job). When they have completely cooled and firmed up, store in a wax- or parchment paper-lined tin or tins.

Delicious on their own or with a sharp cheese... at any time of day or night.