Saturday, May 29, 2010


My last post was about transformation, the transformation of the space we live in by cleaning and music. Perhaps it’s the spring air and almost-summer heat, but as the flowers leap into bloom and the garden comes to full life, another life-pattern transformation has happened.

It’s a pretty trite and ordinary “passage” for many people, this one, but it feels happily momentous to me: I bought a car. You’ve had cars before, I can imagine you saying, so what’s the big deal? Well it’s the transition from no car to wheels that is big. The feeling of autonomy that you have when you own a car is so wonderful and somehow life-giving, but it’s not much noticed by car-owners. Once you have them, “wheels” become normal, you take them for granted. So, as with many things in life, I can appreciate having a car much more fully now that I have spent time without. Being car-less means being unable to offer a lift to a friend in need, or unable to at the last minute leap up the road to Grey County for a shape-note sing, or unable to take a load of discarded books or clothing to Goodwill, or... just fill in the blanks.

I feel like I’m back in business. And yet before deciding to do this, I had hesitated: money concerns, waste generally, I can’t even tell you exactly all that made me reluctant. Mostly though I had lost track of just how empowering it is to own a car. I had adapted to not-having, as one does, just like a cold makes you adapt to not-health and an ugly dorm room in residence makes you adapt to not-attractive, etc. The transition back to mobility, health, and attractive surroundings is a fabulous one. We see and feel freshly; we learn from deprivation to appreciate what we have...

The agenda for this car is a little different. Neither Dom nor Tashi has a driver’s licence, as many city-raised kids do not. They have been raised in the centre of a city which they can navigate on foot as well as by subway and streetcar. To learn to drive as a resident of this city (Toronto), just like in New York, you have to really want to. The guys never have felt the need, except in an abstract “it’s an idea, sometime...” kind of way. Enter the new car, which is not new, but used. I'm hoping it will seem so easy to drive that they will get really launched on getting a licence. I would love them to have that autonomy, and also of course self-interest is at work here: when I am old and decrepit, I'd like them to be able to drive me around occasionally!!

I bought the car with a friend and neighbour, who also wants the autonomy of owning wheels, while keeping money expenses, and consumption of other resources too, to a manageable level. We’ll share the cost of the car and of the insurance. It all feels like a sustainable way of engaging with car-ownership.

What did we get? A used Honda Fit, a 2007. It’s a small hatchback with great visibility, an automatic, unfortunately (because of the kids and my co-owner’s preference too), and a great gas mileage record. Let’s call it an environmental compromise, this shared used small car. But today, in the exhilaration of having checked Consumer Reports (thanks, Art!), test-driven a Rabbit/Golf,and several Fits, and then finally made a decision out there at the Honda dealership on the Danforth, and plunked down some money, I think of it as transformation. Welcome autonomy! Welcome mobility! Yeah!!

Oh, and I forgot to say, the car is red.

POSTSCRIPT: I'll be away for a week or so, leaving Dom in charge at the house, and the red car with my co-owner to get house-broken. I keep thinking of it as a puppy; next thing you know it will have a name!

I'm driving to Grand Manan for a few days with a friend who owns a small house there. Grand Manan is a large remarkable island in the Bay of Fundy, where New Brunswick and Maine and the Atlantic all meet. We're going there to see whether it's feasible to have a small "immersethrough" session there, hopefully this September, for three days. We'd base it around food, but instead of Thai markets etc, the side-interests and immersion would be in exploring tide pools, checking out the phenomenal French bakery on the island and the dulse industry, and just getting acquainted with a place where survival in a spectacular environment has shaped a distinctive local culture. Please keep an eye on the immersethrough site for updates.

An for those of you worrying about the Burma recipes, they are going really well. I am so pleased. A small part of me is reluctant to get pulled away from my engagement with them, even though Grand Manan is a place I've wanted to visit for a long time. So I'll be back and building up the repertoire soon enough! For now, just remember to pick those dandelion greens, as long as they are unsprayed. Wash them in a large basinful of water, or maybe do that twice, to make sure all grit has gone, and then chop them and stir-fry them with garlic and shallots or onions (which will sweeten them a little) and whatever other flavorings you choose. Endless green deliciousness from the plant so many still revile. How crazy is that?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


The back doors are open onto the garden, letting in the cool morning air. It's promising to be a scorcher today, a late June kind of day in late May, so I''ll close the windows and curtains later to try to keep the most intense heat out. Just a few weeks ago we were talking about extra-chilly nights and now we've leapt into full-summer mode. Mother Nature keeps us light on our feet and forces us to be adaptable; we complain as we adapt, but are lucky to have the ability to change and to transform ourselves...

Transformation is where I've been this week, engaged in the task of transforming this house from a much lived-in student dwelling to a clean and airy space. The impetus, apart from a growing urge to clean things up and spring-clean clutter out the door, as the spring sunshine highlighted the dirt on the windows and the dustballs under the furniture, was a rather wonderful offer from a faraway friend named David Trasoff, a sarode player who lives in Los Angeles.

We'd met in Kerala, at Kovalam, in 1999, just before the turn of the year and the millenium, and then kept in sporadic touch. He wrote in the winter this year to say that he'd be in Toronto to perform at a Bengali wedding and would I be interested in hosting a house concert? Sure, I wrote back, How do we do this? He designed an invitation and then as the time got closer I wrote to friends and acquaintances, attaching the invite. it fell in the middle of the Canadian 24 May weekend, so I expected many people would be out of town. But with an unknown number of friends and strangers coming, I knew it was time to take on the layers of dirt in the house.

A good friend did a big chunk of the labour, vacuuming rugs and floors and wiping down surfaces. It's hard work, strenuous exercise that makes my morning jog look very easy. And once you start this kind of process, I find, it extends itself to other areas, of the house and of life. The urge to tidy and sort, to come to grips with long-avoided messes, becomes irresistable, a kind of cathartic purging. Maybe this is what those addicts of colonic irrigation feel about their bodies? I wonder.

As I washed the windows and carried out bags of discarded clothing and other unwanteds, I had time to think about all the effort humans around the world put into keeping chaos at bay and protecting ourselves against encroaching dirt, disease, disorder of all kinds. It's the primary struggle for survival. In tropical villages it's important to sweep up dead leaves and burn them, so that snakes have nowhere to hide themselves; everywhere in the world we clean up our food carefully to keep rats and mice away; and in cities especially we wash our hands when we return home from being out in public places to protect ourselves from disease. (Of course these days many people in North American cities carry hand-cleanser with them wherever they go, which feels like fearful over-reaction somehow; you may disagree!)

There's a mental health aspect to this too. Perhaps it's evolutionary. We know that safety and wellness depend on our taking charge of our environment. Because keeping destructive nature at bay can be a matter of life and death, disorder and dirt make us edgy and unhappy. And the converse is true too: having things clean and in order can make us happy, and can be very relaxing. So my thoughts went on, as sparkle returned to my windows and clarity to my house.

Then it was time to empty the living room completely of chairs and tables etc. And onto the clear open space of the floor we laid overlapping layers of rugs, covering the floor completely. It reminded me of my grandfather's apartment long ago, which, because he loved rugs and buying them and giving them away, was often three layers deep in rugs, a rotating population of richly coloured and patterned Persian and Caucasian rugs. It also looked like a prayer room, a place of airy ease, with cushions by the walls, and rugs nothing but rugs everywhere to sit or lie on: an invitation.

At last came time for the house concert, late on the sunny Sunday holiday weekend afternoon... People found their way in through the garden, took off their shoes, and the house filled with life and talk. Then it was time to start, so they found a place, each of them and made themselves comfortable on the rugs or perched on stools. The music - David, a master of the sarode, whose great long-time teacher Usted Ali Akhbar Khan died just last June, playing sarode, and Ravi Naimpally, arguably the leading tabla player in this part of Canada, on tabla - was astonishing. It was like an intense infinitely unwinding meditation, as they took us into a lovely long afternoon raga...and more ... Afterward, conversation with friends and visitors was easy and happy in the soft warm air of early evening, all of us transported to a new place and space by the music.

And now? Well now I have a house that is not just clean and airy, but also transformed by the music, given fresh life and breath and energy. Thank-you, all who helped and all who came, and especially, thank-you David.

ONE: Here is a link to David Trasoff and to his music.

TWO: Another week of agony and violence has unravelled in Thailand, with anger still at the boil, though the streets of Bangkok are calmer and clean-up has started. It's a huge toll this has taken on everyone, but especially on the poor. There's a comment in the Herald Tribune, republished today in the NYTimes, about it all, the larger picture, that points out that China which benefits from Thailand's loss of stability... (it's here), Thailand that has for a long time been an anchor of non-totalitarian and often democratic government in southeast Asia. Let's hope that the social and political fabric can get knitted together enough that people can move forward with hope and some confidence. It's not hclear ow things will unfold in the next months, but it will be bumpy, for sure. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


The miracle of laptops means that I can be sitting here in the dappled shade in Kensington Market, sipping an americano, hearing the garbage guys as they rumble the wheeled trash cpntainers to the huge truck and then press the button that makes the truck whirr it away. This is a kind of village within a village, this corner of Kensington Market. I'm in front of a charming and important bookstore that recently moved here from the east side of downtown called This Aint the Rosedale Library. It's a Toronto landmark for many, a source for poetry, quirky travel and art books, and current culture of all kinds, and a pleasant place to hang around. Next door is Ideal Coffee, another classic, recently bought out, but still quirky and relaxed and full of conversations of all kinds. At the end of the short block are Shoney,'s brilliant thrift store for clothing, and 4-Life, a source of local food and food conversation.

I've been thinking about village and the connections that weave us together, people and places. On the weekend I went for a long bike ride with a friend. We headed south to the lake and then west, and farther west, across the Humber River. I had never been to the lakeside there, with its butterfly park and sheltered bays and marshes. What a treasure. The cooler lakeside climate means that flowering trees come out later than those in my neighbourhood a mile from the lake. This year the lakeside trees are still in bloom, for the storms that came through and ravished my neighbourhood plum and cherry and apple blossom were finished by the time the lakeshore trees came into flower. Next day, out on Toronto Island for a shape-note singing (glorious in the cottagey comfort of St Andrews Church, the doors open to the sun and spring breezes), I pedalled past lilacs and apple blossom, still safely in bloom by the cooling moderating lake. How lucky we are that there are microclimates. Like all differences of place and culture, they enrich us and make us notice and appreciate our surroundings.

Microclimates, I have been thinking, are like villages. They are intimate settings where life (plant life) unfolds in some kind of coherent unison. SImilarly in a city village like Kensington Market, with its daily pattersn of store openings and neighbour greetings and comings and goings of outsiders, has a coherence that weaves us together. It creates a sense of confidence in tomorrow and a warmth of belonging. We bloom in that warmth, just as our gardens come to life in the spring sunshine.

Back to bicycling: My trusty DiamondBack, dating from that incredibly lucky 1986 trip from Kashgar to Gilgit, over the Khunjerab Pass, is still alive and well. And I have gained confidence since I began to ride in the city a year ago. I have come to love whizzing along in the dark with my little mini flashing lights blinking front and back. At this time of year the geography of the city can be written in scents, especially in the soft damp evenings of this month of May. So when I can I choose routes that will take me past a particularly wonderful lilac-blooming corner or yard of lilies of the valley, or under a canopy of blooming chestnuts.

Bicycling has also expanded my horizons, taking me to new places, like my Saturday Humber Bay excursion. I'd been nearby, in a car, but on a bicycle I see and feel so much more.

It's great to break pattern. I often have to remind myself to do it though. I get comfortable with the walk I take to Spadina and into Kensington Market; I find myself following familiar patterns on my various jogging routes, shorter and longer; my thoughts and anxieties, too, follow often-tedious predictable paths! There's comfort in the familiar, but if we let it imprison us, then where are we?

The other day, somehow, and without consciously planning it, I found myself breaking pattern, and was wonderfully rewarded. I was on foot, not bicycling. I discovered a whole world in a narrow strip of land, the boulevard up the centre of University Avenue. Again, it's a place, or series of places, that we all rush past in cars, between stop-lights. As I walked up it (from Adelaide to Elm, just south of College) I discovered that it is thoughtfully designed, carefully gardened, and a distinctive set of environments that feel intact, because of trees and stone walls and artfulness, despite the cars rushing past.

I love discoveries, small and large, of places, people, ideas. So it's up to me to remind myself to look outside my box, my pattern, my expected path, and launch open-eyed into engaging with whatever comes next.

Monday, May 10, 2010


My hands are chilly as I write this, as if it were a wintry day. Along with many people, I've found it difficult and uncomfortable to adjust to the cold temperatures and wind and sleet and generally unfriendly weather of the last few days. Can this be May??It feels like an aggressive attack.

Context is everything, or at least matters so much, doesn't it? This weather in February would feel mild, if gusty. But now that we've been lulled into a relaxed basking in spring sunshine and warmth, we're undefended. The cold and wind have their way with us and we shiver and are tired and, if you're like me, we are hungry all the time!

Speaking of which, I have been deep-frying the last couple of days. It is a response to the cold, for sure, and also an important technique in some of the food from Burma that I am trying to figure out. Street snacks in Burma are often deep-fried, as in many other places, but it's more than that. The classic noodle dish, mohinga (rice noodles in fish or other broth with many options as toppings) often comes, at a streetstall, with the possibility of shrimp fritters or a kind of chickpea cracker-fritter, among other choices. It's about texture for sure, as well as taste and succulence. The contrast between the welcome tenderness of the rice noodles and the aromatic broth on the one hand, and crispy savory fritter-crackers crumbled on top on the other, is one of the major pleasures of mohinga in all its forms.

Today I tried shrimp fritters, two versions. In Rangoon they are flat and crispy, but I still haven't got them fine-tuned. Mine were lumpy and too thick, and not crispy enough. Back to the drawing board!

Another kind of deep-frying happened yesterday morning, and was a huge success. I have to go back another step: There's a kind of tofu-like food (that we wrote about in Hot Sour Salty Sweet) found in southern Yunnan and northern Burma and Laos. In Chiang Mai it's sold at the Friday Haw market (see my posts about the market from January I think, and late Feb too). Sometimes it's made of rice flour, but the Shan version, also found widely in Burma, is made from chickpea flour (known also as besan, or else as channa flour). (Besan is the flour used in the batter that coats pakoras, those deep-fried north Indian fritters. And besan is widely used in batters in Burma too.)

The "tofu" that is made from besan is a simple cooked batter. I'll put a recipe here when I have it completely tested and clearly written. It's made of besan and water and salt, and resembles a plain (unflavoured) version of that great Ethiopian vegetarian food called infirfir shiro (there's a recipe for it in Flatbreads & Flavors). In both, the proportions are one part besan to three parts water, by volume. The "tofu" sets after the slow-cooked smooth batter is poured into a pan and chilled for an hour. Then it firms up to solid and can be thinly sliced.

How to serve it? It's perfectly plain, flavoured only with salt, so it can be thinly sliced and dressed as a salad (shallot oil, fried shallots, chopped coriander leaves or mint or lime leaves, vinegar, a little soy or fish sauce and/or salt); or instead it can be deep-fried. Aha! It is spectacular as a deep-fried snack. I tried frying thin slices, and they were crispy and tender all at once; and I tried making slightly thicker pieces, in rectangles or triangles, and then the texture was a crsip surface and melting interior. All good, all terrific in fact.

I was so pleased with the results that I hurried over to 4-Life, in Kensington Market, to show Potz. I had told him about the besan tofu the day before and he'd said he wanted to see it and taste it. Various customers who happened to be there at the time had tastes of the salad and the deep-fried versions. The verdict was like mine: delish! And also, and this was interesting to me, people said things like, I feel there's so much soy product around, I am happy to be eating a tofu-like food that is NOT soy.

HMMM Do we go into business? No I don't think so. Let's just start making this at home.

I promise I'll post a recipe in the next week. Please send me a note of complaint if I am late!

And meantime, as spring has slowed to a halt, let's enjoy the freeze-frame (literally!) chance to have flowers that last more than a day and leaf-unfurlings that are now happening at a snail's pace.

On another subject entirely, last weekend marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of VE Day, the official end of the war in Europe. It was the start of new plans and ambitions for many, and the end of the road for others. Germany now dominates Europe economically, a different kind of victory, that comes with complicated responsibilities too. And this weekend, at last and belatedly, Germany and other EU countries finally came together to try to bail Europe out of financial catastrophe.

My father, who landed on the Canadian beach on the first day of the D-Day landings and made it all the way to Holland, where he spent nearly a year, would have been fascinated by the evolution of the world, especially as it is now playing out in Europe. I can't entirely imagine how he would have reacted to specifics, but he sure would have had opnions!

One of the huge losses, when we lose family and friends, is the loss of the chance to talk about the unfolding of events in our lives, both personal and large-scale political. Engaging in discussion with friends and peers and family is a huge treat for me. And I guess one of the positive things that comes out of the pain and loss we feel at the loss of a beloved of any kind is that we are driven to find new friends, new family, to share and engage with. Life goes on!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Late last night as my taxi turned down my street, in through the open window came the heady scent of May on Henry Street, a mingling of chestnut blossom (the blossom-candles are out in pinky-whiteness on the towering horse chestnuts all across the city); lilac; and lily of the valley. Parfum de printemps is the name of this scent, intoxicating for sure. The heat has brought everything along quickly, so the blossoms are early. They come early and then as quickly fade. This is spring in fast-forward mode. Blink and it's gone.

Well I did blink. I went to New York City for three days for the James Beard Food Media and Cookbook Awards, now very successfully combined in one gala evening. It turned out to be a great chance to see people I've known for a long time but not embraced for awhile, as well as to meet those I know through their work or the internet, but whom I hadn't seen face-to-face before. It's often a solitary life, writing, and these kinds of events are a treat. For those of us who come in from outside New York, it's also a chance to get energised by New York and reminded that however complicated life seems to be, other people's lives are even busier and tighter and more difficult.

The scenes on the street were wonderfully distracting, with some people out in flip-flops or sandals for the heat, others clinging to "May-appropriate" wear and looking sweaty. It was hard to go inside when the weather and the scene outdoors were so engaging, but I did make it to MOMA for the Marina Ambramovic' show "The Artist is Present". I've been tiresome ever since with friends, urging them all to go and take it in. And now I'm telling you, too: go and see it if you can, right away!. I was stunned by the artist's focussed energy, her urgent insistence on attentiveness and on the present moment. It is shocking and moving and awe-inspiring. The show closes at the end of May.

Speaking of the present, Tashi is in Athens, where there is a general strike on and where people are demonstrating how angry they are. I have sent him an email saying please stay out of crowds and tight corners, but do try to find a vantage point from which you can watch some of what is going on. He is lucky to be there to catch some of what it feels like when politics becomes urgent and people are frustrated.

The calm back-waterish feel of Canadian politics does not give our kids any idea of how different politics can be in other places. I was lucky enough to be in France in the spring of 1968 when les evenements unfolded. It was a crash course in politics for a seventeen-year-old from Ottawa. Through the winter there was the commentary in the French papers about the Vietam war, especially once the PAris Peace talks started. And then in the spring I got to watch the optimism and idealism of the students and some workers and then the undermining of their enterprise by the true hard-core pols from the far left, who preferred to stick with the status quo rather than risking giving any power or legitimacy to other political parties or to the students. It was a lesson in the fundamental conservatism of those who have senior positions in the institutions of government, including the oppostition. Conservatism is not always a bad thing. It does help maintain stability. But it can be such a dead hand, holding back social evolution and dampening hopes for change.

I came home that summer with fresh eyes and with my ears unplugged for the first time. Suddenly media bias and issues around point of view and deeper agendas and all those strands that are now raised in media courses etc, were clearer to me, and that marked the start of my adulthood, I think.

Tashi has had a year (it's such a difficult language!!) of Ancient Greek, which he loves, but he does not know any modern Greek, so he'll be depending on English-language-speakers and -news-coverage. He has a Lonely Planet Greek phrasebook of course. I don't think it stretches to "is the demonstration today peaceful or violent?" or "when will the strike be over?"!!!!

POSTSCRIPT: I had an interesting excursion to Queens yesterday with an eating-explorer friend named Jacob, to eat Malaysian food at a small resto called Good Taste, on 45th Street near the Elmhurst train stop. The bendi belacan (okra in a pungent sauce/coating made of shrimp paste, onion, etc) was outstanding, the Assam laksa not as sour as it might have been, but good, especially once it had cooled to room temp. We were given a taste of beef short ribs in a dark sauce which were fab, succulent and tender. It was a problem being only two; on an excursion like that it's more fun and more satisfying to have a lot of people, so you can really explore the menu. The place is owned by Chinese from Kuala Lumpur. From there it's an easy walk along Broadway to the predominantly South Asian shopping near the Forest Hills station (where I caught the E-train for four stops and then the Air Train to JFK, so easy and inexpensive). I just had time for a superficial look around one large grocery store and a peer in to some shop fronts. It's a great place to explore.