Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Sometimes a breakfast is so perfect that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to eat anything else but that particular combo in the morning. There’s great bread lightly toasted and eaten with cold butter and home-made marmalade, and good coffee alongside; there’s my home-standard leftover rice with fried greens and fried egg on top flavored in various ways; there’s mohinga streetside in Burma somewhere, with fresh little crunchies to be stirred into a perfect broth and tender noodles; and today there was “jok”, what we in the west often call by its Hindi name “congee”, or else more prosaically call rice porridge.

I was out for a short jog at about seven this morning, the sun still hidden by dense mist on the eastern hills. (Tashi just asked me on the phone if running here in Chiang Mai is very different from running in Toronto (apart from the snow of course, he said). The answer is yes and no. Yes, it’s different because the sidewalks are rough and uninviting so I often run on the street, dodging oncoming cars when there are any, and watching for bumps and obstacles when I am forced onto whatever passes for a sidewalk. And yes, it’s different because the people who are out on the street give me a smile or a wave as I trot past, in a friendly inviting companiable way, whereas in Toronto I am as invisible as every other jogger. And no, it’s not different in a basic way: I am still stuck with myself, my thoughts and anxieties and uninteresting morning ponderings, including my thoughts about whether to take a break and walk rather than huffing and puffing on at a slow jog, all sweaty!)

A guy I met recently here told me that he does a brisk walk very early, before dawn, past the moat and north a bit to the “stadium” that is used by the PhysEd Department at Chiang Mai University. He goes round the track four times before heading home. I’d never been there and so decided to head out in that direction this morning. I took back streets and found my way to the stadium, ran once around, and then took a winding exploratory route back. Fairly close to home I came on a street-side stall run by an older couple, with pots on the boil, a sign that said “JOK” in Thai, and a couple of tables with plastic stools set out on the edge of the road.

I ordered a bowl of jok to eat there (the person ahead of me took his away in a heavy plastic bag), “sai kai, ka” - with an egg please. The woman took a large ceramic bowl in one hand and gave the huge pot a stir with the ladle in her other hand. She scooped up a full ladle of steaming hot smooth white rice porridge and poured it into the bowl, then set it down while she broke a fresh egg onto it. Then on went several more half-ladles-ful of hot jok, some pork broth with a few meat balls, and a generous sprinkling of chopped green onion and slivered ginger. The egg of course poaches in the middle of the dense hot porridge, so the trick is to leave it without stirring too much, until it has cooked enough for you. I like my yolk liquid and my white set, so it take several minutes.

As I waited for the egg to cook, I explored the table condiments: plain vinegar, powdered dried red chiles, sugar, and rice vinegar with a paste of minced green chiles and a little coriander in it. There was also a bottle of soy sauce and a full shaker of white pepper powder. I spooned on some of the vinegar-chile paste and then started to turn the thick soupy porridge, turning the edges in to the centre. Finally, a first spoonful went into my mouth, hot and steamy. Fabulous. And from there it continued, the egg yolk a rich country-egg orange, the strands of ginger warming on the tongue, and the mild green chile paste too... There’s something about the smooth thick texture of jok that is comfort food, like baby food anywhere perhaps?

It’s coolish here right now, especially in the morning, and so, though when I sat down I was hot from running, with sweat patches on the knees of my pants and on my back, I was already feeling chilled by the time the bowl of jok was in front of me. The hot soupy porridge warmed me right back up, a gentler version of the direct hit of hard liquor, hitting my gut and then travelling out to my extremities... Perfect winter food.

As I walked on home I thought about this question of perfect breakfast and wonderful streetfood. The thing is, a simple perfect breakfast at home is easy, manageable, but this streetfood, whether it’s mohinga or jok or some other wonderful breakfast, is not so simple. I mean it takes expertise. Part of the pleasure in eating it is that someone else has made it, and made it beautifully. I can just ask for it and it miraculously appears.

Yes, I would be happy to make good jok for myself and others. But that extra treat of being taken care of, especially when it comes to comfort food, adds a layer of pleasure that’s a whole other ingredient.

And speaking of ingredients, I have a new strategy for jet-lag, something I’ve fallen into by chance. Just before I left Toronto last Friday a close friend lent me her copy, soft cover, but still fat and very attractive, of the 2009 Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It went into my checked luggage, as a book to savour rather than to glance through junk-book fashion on the plane. And so it was waiting for me when I unpacked, and into it I dived, head first.

An engaging beautifully written slightly challenging (keeping the names straight and trying not to miss out any of the lovely details) book is a great companion and walking-staff kind of assistance for the jet-lagged traveller, I discovered. I could read it without falling asleep, so I could stay up until a reasonable bedtime. And it could entice me out of an afternoon nap, when needed, so I stayed on track.

Beyond these rather dreary practicalities, it is the most fabulous book. My friend’s spouse had said he was irritated by the dangling “he”, for the author doesn’t dot every “i” in the course of the narrative, so who does “he” refer to in this sentence? is sometimes the reader’s question. But I found it clean, a wonderfully immediate read, with no obtrusive author’s voice in the way, no knowingness to mar the intimacy I had with the scenes as they unfurled in my mind’s eye.

It is truly stunning.

Of course there’s a wild disconnect between the court of Henry the Eighth (the novel is centred on the amazing Thomas Cromwell, who rose to power in that era) on the one hand, and present-day sub-tropical Chiang Mai on the other. That gap between the world I was transported to by the book and the place I was in when I raised my eyes made my dreaming quite disorderly and wild! But why not? since jet-lagged sleep can be so trippy anyway...

In ingredient terms, then, the recipe for long-distance travel includes melatonin (which I always forget about, but which really helps many people get to sleep, even when their sleep-cycle is out of wack); drinking lots of water on the plane and taking it easy with alcohol; having a comfy place to sleep your first few nights after arrival; and now, the last ingredient, having a fascinating book to sink into when you can’t do much else besides read or sleep and you don’t want to sleep just yet.

But I’d also say, don’t wait for a trip to get started on Wolf Hall. And if you can, read it slowly, luxuriating in the tapestry of it all and the style too. I rushed through it, and wish I had it to read all over again for the first time. Maybe in a year I’ll reread it, in a more leisurely way, and reimmerse. Now that’s something to look forward to.

Happy full moon everyone!

1 comment:

Trent said...

Glad you're enjoying "Wolf Hall." Your reaction to all those ambiguous "he"s is very generous--I remember being somewhat annoyed myself! Also recall how hard it was to keep names and plot straight at first, especially since it was the first book I ever read on a Kindle (and an object lesson in the kind of narrative that should be read in print). Best, Trent