Wednesday, December 28, 2011


The last time I wrote I was readying myself for the trip from Thailand to Toronto, and my head was still full of Burma and the optimism about change that is growing there. Now here I am a long time later (almost two weeks), and we’ve got less than three full days of the old year left. I’ve been seeing friends and eating and drinking, and loving the winter light and crisp air - and the freedom of walking with no boots on, for we’ve no snow here yet.

All the cooking and baking I’ve been doing has given me time for reflection and wondering. I’ve been thinking about patterns and behaviours... obedience, flexibility. Here’s where it’s taken me:

I so rarely want to do what I’m told, and I certainly don’t look around for people to tell me what to do (though I often ask for advice about directions etc). It follows then that I don’t make fixed plans about menu or much else in fact. It’s part of why I like making bread, because it is so flexible and allows for all kinds of imprecision, in fact welcomes it often. My usual style with cooking, and with baking too, is to feel my way, decide as I go along, and then ride it all out adjusting and adjusting, until it’s done and there are no more tweaks and decisions to be made.

All in all, from menu to travel to cooking to household tasks, a set plan tends to feel to me like a strait-jacket, a command to do onerous and uninteresting (because already predictable) work.

So why is it that it feels so restful over this holiday to be following (simple, I grant you) recipes for various cookies and tarts etc? Partly it’s because they are my recipes, published in HomeBaking, so I have confidence in them and I know I love them. And partly I think it’s a moment’s ease, a rest from making decisions. I can just let the decisions be made by the recipe instructions. How many eggs? Ah yes, it says four. Fine. And in they go.

Of course there’s often still room for improvising, a little push-back to the predictability of a recipe-directed result. That was true on the weekend when I made pate sucree and then after chilling it overnight used half of my double recipe to make a custard tart topped with some fabulous cooked damsons, and some tartlets. The other half of the dough is still sitting in the frig, waiting for a decision about what to do with it. Should I make sablees to give to friends and eat in-house? Or another tart?

I also have in the frig a simple pastry dough made with butter and one egg, so I can make a tart with that. I am imagining a shallow apple tart, sort of Alsatian-style, with slices of apple open-faced, and a guelon (lightly shisked custard liquid - one egg and some cream, and perhaps a dash of cinnamon or vanilla if wanted, and sugar ditto) poured over part way through baking, to set and hold it together and add richness. It’s a technique I learned long ago from a Swiss friend from the Jura named Monique...


The time-travel that that reminder of Monique takes me on is a clue to why recipes are so comfortable at this time of year. They’re a way of repeating an experience, a way of getting back in touch with times past and people in the past. When I improvise and decide moment to moment, I am refusing repetition, wanting to work freshly and create in my own small way. But when I open HomeBaking to the page with Mandel Melbas (almond biscotti made only with eggs for liquid) or Greek paximadia with wine and olive oil, or Lime-Zest Macaroons, or Candied Peel, or any one of a hundred other sweet and savory pastry and cake and cookie options, I am re-engaging with past experiences of making and eating those same foods. And that link is precious, especially at this shortest-day fragile and vulnerable time of year.

In this part of the yearly cycle there are of course other links to past years: the repetition of the waning day-length, the arrival of thin winter light and hints of snow-flurries in the air. But those reminders are more instinctual and animal, rather than warmingly human and intimate. The scent of citrus peel simmering, or of spiced cookies baking, or the satisfying feel of fraisage (the wonderful method of blending butter and egg yolks into flour that is used for making pate sucree) as I smear the dough with the heel of my hand: all these are also sensory and sensual reminders and connections to the human warmth of feeding loved ones and layered memories of friends and family.

Am I going on and on about this?

I think it’s all too easy to be nostalgic or knee-jerk about Christmas (or other) holidays. But there is for sure something real, a real need and a real pleasure, to be had in making cross-connections back through time to people who are no longer with us, or places that have special resonance for us.

All of this capacity for specific memory, and also our ability to trigger memories at will (in my case by baking) is very human, something I cannot imagine animals having. We can relish our ability to create, and make new or different foods or events or environments, as I most often do with cooking; but we can also rejoice in the possibility of reconnecting with our earlier selves.

It’s the old interplay between the old and the new, the familiar and the exciting unknown, the comfortable and the uncomfortably scary, the calm of the inlet or the thrill of the open water. We need both, different things at different times, and I guess the trick is to remember that there is no magic single standard for conducting ourselves in this maze we call life and daily decision-making.

Now to get back to baking. It’s time to give the mandel melbas their second bake.

Happy new year to you all. May 2012 bring more open tolerant government in Syria and Egypt, for now so shaken by repressive acts against extraordinarily brave demonstrators, and to Yemen and Libya and Tunisia and Bahrain... It’s a long and open list. And I hope that the remarkable recent loosening of the oppressiveness of government in Burma continues, with the release of all political prisoners and a negotiated reasonable agreement with the people and opposition forces who live in the border areas. It’s time that all these populations, whether in Burma or in the so-called Middle East, have a chance to live without fear and with hope that tomorrow will be an improvement on today.

A long new year’s wish, but no less heartfelt for that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


But I'm not feeling ready to go. I've just settled back into Chiang Mai and have been getting work done in the gaps between preparing to leave. I'd love to have another week or two here. This moment before departure can feel fraught. It's such a turning point in every way, the moment before we launch into new places and feelings and rhythms. I feel a little like a diver hesitating at the end of the diving board. The next days will bring the plane travel and then the disorienting cotton-brain of jetlag, combined with the intensities of reurning to a wonderfully full couple of weeks over the holidays seeing friends and getting caught up on their doings.

No wonder I don't sleep very well in the nights before a trip. It's not anxiety exactly, more like adrenalin, expectation, a certain repetitive reviewing of to-do lists and worries about forgetting something vital (the money? passport? ticket? computer & power cord? checklist of the day of departure has a longer more complex predecessor list that evolves in the days leading up to departure day).

Tomorrow I fly to Bangkok in the late morning (my Toronto flight leaves early the following day). But I'm trying to push back against the usual time-wasting hours before leaving here by going for an early visit to the Haw Market tomorrow morning I'm meeting Mrs Lemur there, she who writes the "The Lemurs Are Hungry" blog, very entertaining and food-obsessed. She and Mr Lemur are in Thailand for the first time, after years of deep engagement with Thai food in their kitchen. I'm looking forward to eating Shan Soup with her tomorrow, thick and creamy textured (but no cream) over fine rice vermicelli. And then I'll pedal back to the soi, hand in my rented bicycle, come up to the apartment to grab my bags, drag them back down to the soi, and find myself a rot daeng (means red truck), the shared transport that serves as public transit here. Once I'm in the truck, I'll be like the diver whose feet have just pushed off from the diving board, launched.

This morning, feeling a little congested, I went over to the Jok woman, who makes a heavenly thick rice soup with pork balls in it, laden with fine strands of ginger. She heard my slightly thickened voice, asked if I was sick, then chopped extra ginger and added it in, along with plenty of white pepper. Food as medicine is rarely as delicious as her gorgeous soup was this morning. I guess I won't be eating that well again until I get home.

I'm not complaining, you understand, just sayin'...

POSTSCRIPT FROM BANGKOK: I have to admit I was very wrong in my prediction about food between then and home. First, on Friday morning I had a delish Shan soup over kanom jiin noodles, with the Lemurs, and tastes of other treats including semolina cake (recipe to come in RIVERS OF FLAVOR, as is the Shan soup recipe) and tart rice with shrimp "cake", a great savory. It didn't end there, my mistakenness, for last night I met a friend at a restaurant she knows here in Bangkok called Gedhwara, on Sukumvit soi 35, very close to a Skytrain station. It specialises in Northern Thai food, is intimate and does beautiful presentations. I loved the lon, made with dao jiao; the very chile punchy veg soup; the green mango salad made with fresh red prik i noo. The shrimp ep was fine, but not as terrific as it could have been. Anyway, if you are passing through BKK, or living there, do check it out.

Finally, I stayed at the Atlanta, a place with a lot of history, an odd and quirky hotel, very central (Sukumvit soi 2, convenient to the SKytrain, just a walk down the soi). It has a great pool and fan rooms for those who, like me, don't like A/C much. And the price is right: 535 baht for my fan room with large double bed, balcony, shower etc , which is about $18.

But of course who sleeps well when the wake-up call is at 4.30 in the morning? SO I'll be dozing for much of this flight, with DOnna Leon books to see me through the gaps.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


My last post here was from Rangoon, the day before I left the relatively easy internet connections and the noise and bustle and openness of that lively city to travel to the Inle Lake region of Shan State and then on to Kalaymyo, at the foot of the Chin Hills. IMore about those travels in a moment...

I'm back in Chiang Mia and finding the traffic very soft-sounding, as if it's purring rather than roaring. And that makes me realise how loud and invasive are the engines of the rattling and wheezing old busses and two stroke agricultural vehicles and roaring long-tail boats, and aging exhaust-spewing cars in Rangoon. You get used to the noise, the cacophany, and so it took returning here to Thailand to make me realise just how raucous Rangoon streets can be. The other thing is that people toot their horns all the time there. Here there's barely a peep, except maybe a slight blip to warn you that someone's coming through or heading into a blind corner.

But I don't really want to write about noise and traffic. No, instead I want to think about the extraordinary possibility that there could be reconciliation in Burma, a political solution to the intermittent very painful and inhuman battles that have been going on in the border areas of Burma for sixty years. How wonderful it would be to move forward from that! The human costs have been enormous, heart-breaking, not only the loss of life and the physiscal injuries, but also the loss of potential, of education and creative fulfilling lives, for the people who have been internally displaced or who find themselves living long-term in refugee camps or in internal exile along the Thai-Burma border and elsewhere.

When I was in Kalaymyo, I ran into a fair number of missionaries, from England, the USA, Canada, Korea, and from Chin State. They're all trying to convert people from buddhism, which seems wrong-headed and deeply patronising and disrespectful to me. And of course they're competing with each other for souls, which feels like some version of colonialism or business, or both. It's not an attractive picture, for sure. I was asked by one foreigner, while getting off the plane, if I was an "M". "A what?" I asked stupidly. "Oh never mind" he said. And then I realised, he was asking if I was a missionary. Good gried no! is my answer to THAT question.

The fact is that the peoples who live in the hillier parts of Burma are not Bamar and many of them are Chrsitains, converted by missionaries in the mid- and late nineteenth centuries. They include the Chin and Karen and Kachin. But the Shan (or Tai Yai as they know themselves) are mostly Buddhists. I am told by Chin people that the double strike of being Chin rather than Bamar, and Christian rather than Buddhist means that they can never advance very far in government service or even in private companies in Burma. That may well continue, of course. But what needs to die back is the opposing of Christianity to Buddhism, in any kind of good vs evil scenario. That kind of Manicheistic view does NOT help with reconciliation. And yet it's the view instilled by the Christian elements among the Karen in exile, for example.

It's hard not to demonise people and a government who have done so much damage and behaved so outrageously toward their fellow citizens for so long. But that demonising is a dead-end and not helpful.

Easy for me to say; I haven't had my village burned before my eyes and I haven't lost years in a refugee camp.

But sill, the need for a negotiated political settlement and an open Burmese society is screaming at us. The same can be said of Syria, where the government is killing and torturing its own citizens every day, trying to re-instill fear and helplessness in them.

Which brings me to the question a young Burmese student asked me when I was helping a teacher of English, the father of a young Burmese friend, to teach his afternoon class. The question came after I tried to get the students to talk by inviting them to ask me questions, any questions. At last one student asked, "what do you want to do with the rest of your life?"

It's a great question, one that I seem to have been asking myself all my life. Do we all do it? As life gets shorter, the question feels even more urgent. Not to say that it doesn't press on us when we're young. Today in a phone call from a young friend, she talked about what she'd really love to do if she were free of financial worries (if she won the lottery say). It was thrilling to hear that she knew so clearly where she wanted to aim. Because then all she has to do is aim. Yes, the question of how to earn a living while doing what she wants is there. But the vital thing is that she knows what she wants to do.

I do believe that if you engage with an idea or a project, if you grow into a clear idea of what you want to do, then you should do it, and figure out the money question later . Yes, I understand that this is a luxury and perhaps I am discussing what my kid calls "First world Problems". But I think it's important to look at these questions, be open about them and about our uncertainties. And then to forge ahead trying to do what we dream of doing.

Now to get clear about my dreams....

Friday, December 2, 2011


Dusk and nighttime in Rangoon are enchanting, welcoming, and full of life, especially on a Friday evening. The sky glows a faded pink, the air cools slightly, men in white walk in pairs and groups, freshly washed and wending their way to a meal or homeward after Friday prayers at the mosques.

As I walked west this evening along Mahabandoola Street headed for Chinatown, the gleam of Sule Paya, the tall golden dome that sits at Rangoon’s major downtown intersection - a reminder of the central role Buddhism plays in the life of the country - pulled me forward. I passed vendors frying snacks, small hotpot stands steaming in the dusk, with a few small plastic stools around the pot, flower sellers, shops gleaming with watches or cameras or packaged snacks, as all the while buses streamed past, their tired engines roaring and groaning, the ticket collectors shouting out the bus destinations.

Once past the huge Sule Paya roundabout, I was in India town, where most shops are South Asian, the restaurants sell pulaos, little shops with Indian sweetmeats invite the esily tempted passer-by, paratha-makers stretch and flap their springy thin gelaming-with-oil sheets of dough, then fold them with several graceful twists of the wrist and toss them onto a hot griddle, and men sit in tea shops or in the doorways of small shops and sip tea and chat and laugh now that the weight of the day is almost done. There are scents of sandalwood and fresh orange, fennel and hot oil and hints of cardamom as I walk past the small vignetted shopfront scenes.

And then, after the piles of oranges and bananas and avocadoes and pineapples at the end of tk street, Mahabandoola becomes Chinese. Suddenly the shops are selling ginseng root and strings of dark red Chinese sausage and tall tins of English style biscuits (not quite Peke Freans, not quite Cadbury or Mackintosh, but close enough to be familiar-looking), and there are small eateries along the sidestreets with trays of meat and fish waiting to be grilled, and people sitting at low tables drinking beer and having a night out. Chinatown by night is the most lively scene in Rangoon. It doesn’t last long: the fruit vendors pack up by eight. But on the sidestreets the grilling and hotpots and noodle places, and the beer halls, stay lively until ten or so.

I meet a friend on the corner of Latha and Mahabandoola, by the large Chinese Temple, and we stroll, picking our way along the bumpy lumpy sidewalks and navigating the fruit stalls and small vendors. She wants me to try the grilled stuffed fish, so we pick one out (tilapia, now being farmed not far from Rangoon), and order hand-cut Myeik noodles and a lime juice each, as well as skewers of grilled garlics, then sit at a low table streetside. The noodles are spectacular, flat rice noodles tossed in a wok with a few small beans, small fresh shrimp, slices of Chinese sausage...delish. The fish is tender and perfectly grilled. The finely minced filling seems to have saw-tooth herb and minced shallot and some minced sour fruit. My friend says it’s called a quince in Burmese; you could use green mango, mashed to a paste, or perhaps a very tart apple or plum. We sucked the fish off the bones, using hands as well as chopsticks to navigate it all, greedily and happily.

We wandered some more, had another pause for another lime juice, and then it was time to part ways. I decided to walk back the way I’d come, about 30 blocks. But now it was quite dark and shadowy in many place. The only light came from some still-open shops and the headlights of cars, as well as the occasional streetisde paan vendor with a small cnadle lighting his stand. The streets near Sule were lively with people, but most vendors had packed up or were in the middle of closing down. The headlights lit the uneven paving stones of the sidewalks, casting shadows and setting them all in relief for a moment, before vanishing and leaving me in darkness again. I ploughed on eastward, past the Immanuel Baptsis Church with its blue neon sign, and wider patches in the sidewalk where people sat at low tabes eating noodles.

Walking on rough ground, where there’s the occasional hole, steep curbs, and generally rough unpredictable terrain, is a lot slower than moving swiftly along a sidewalk in Toronto or London and takes more concentration and more effort. I was sticky an sweaty by the time I got back, even with a small pause to shoot some video of the action near 37th to 40th street, with honking buses, shouting vendors and conductors, and people walking in both directions along a sidewalk busy with small evening vendors. I’m looking forward to showing it to people at home. I realise that my few words can’t paint the scnene nearly as effectively as a short bit of video can.

And yet I always feel the urge to try to put some of all this into words. I want to convery my wonder at the life and good humour in this place, and the current surge of optimism.

Earlier today, just after dawn, Hilary Clinton was due to come and talk with her at 9.30. went out in a taxi with some friends to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house to see the media scrum. It was amazing to have a pack of journos at the gate, all waiting to get in; the State Dept person had a list, and some got in and some did not. Just over a year ago this house was a prison in which Daw SU was confined, and now here she is the focus of the world’s press, and free to meet with the world leaders.

Meantime there was endless traffic on what is normally a quiet street, as now-confident Burmese drove slowly past, smiling and waving, and craining their necks to see what they might see. Old NLD guys (the oppostition party Daw Suu heads) arrived one by one, dignified after years of jail and struggle. And then came the press corps in buses and after them the Clinton motorcade, all SUV’s, swept through the gate.

Here’s hoping that the world keeps Burma in mind, and that Burma keeps on opening up, maintaining and strengthening its openness, regaining free speach and the rule of law, and frees political prisoners, in short becomes the powerhouse and remarkable place its people deserve.

Meantime, I feel very lucky to have been here in these early optimistic times.

I am heading north to Inle Lake (where I first was over thirty years ago, on my first trip to Burma; and then again with my kids in January 1999), and after that west to a town just on the edge of Chin State called Kalaymyo. I doubt I’ll have much reliable internet access while I’m away, and in any case I’m leaving my laptop in Rangoon. The next posting here won’t be until December 11 or so. Hope you have your Christmas shopping done by then....I haven’t even started.