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...


Edmund Rek said...

Sounds great! Travel well. Look forward to stories and photos over a few Chiang Mai Cosmos!

jgi said...

for the Chiang Mai Cosmo: try decorating the drink with a few pieces of chile, lime leaf and lemongrass sprigs (and I think it would look very nice poured into a martini glass)

thanks Nom for such a great week!

bee said...

look forward to reading about your trip to burma, naomi. i love your work (as stated here):

naomi said...

Thanks so much for your comments everyone. And Bee, I love your post about Mangoes and Curry Leaves, so kind and so thoughtful too. I will definitely be following your blog from now on....