Tuesday, December 23, 2008


It's eight days since I walked back in the front door here in Toronto, to a warm house and Jeff and Dom and Tashi and Ian, as well as a young visitor from Germany named Vanessa.  Vanessa was here for a visit, her first time in Canada, never imagining that she'd be here for the coldest snowiest December ever (or at least that's how it seems).  When we drove her to the airport today, she said to us on parting that she'd be back only in the summer - "if there really IS summer here!" was her parting shot.

The sun IS coming back, we said feebly.  Solstice is a time for hope, right?!?

The Burma proposal is coming together.  It feels so important to be doing it, for many reasons. And in the course of doing research for the proposal, we've realised how right it is from a food point of view.  Burma is such a crossroads, with influences from Thailand, Yunnan, and the Indian subcontinent on the various local cuisines.  It's ideal for us, for we're pretty well-grounded in the surrounding culinary cultures.  Burma is like the keystone, the place in the middle where our other books come together in a fascinating overlapping way.  So I think we're going to be able to navigate happily in the colorful patchwork that is Burma's culinary heritage, and to celebrate its richness.  I can't wait.

Meantime, since getting to Toronto we've had a rather heady bunch of encounters and emails and conversations, many of them because of Jane Kramer's piece in the New Yorker.  Among them was a one-hour radio interview, a live phone-in, on NPR, that ranks as one of the two or three best and most satisfying radio interviews we've ever done, separately or together.  We were on  show called On Point, last Thursday, the 18th, for the show's second hour (11 to noon Eastern).  It's out of Boston, and is available in pod-cast.  The host, Tom, was so skilled, and so at ease in the larger Asian world (he worked as a journalist all over Asia for a long time), that the transitions and conversations felt effortless and beautifully connected.  We all had fun, including the many callers. We're now going to make a habit of catching his broadcasts online.  When radio is good, it is so wonderful...

Another recent fun event was the solstice party we went to on the 21st.  We both love that feeling of swimming into a party where we know few of the guests.  It's a little like a treasure hunt.  This party was especially fun and engaging, with a great mix of people who were prepared to engage in fun conversation.  We even got in some dancing!

And the weather?  Well that's less hot - deep crunchy squeaky snow everywhere, and slush at the sides of the main streets.  Yikes!  Haven't had a white Christmas for awhile in Toronto, so I suppose we're overdue, but this year is a shocker.

Then in mid-January I'm due to head back over the pole to Chiang Mai.  I'll miss Dom and Tashi and Ian, but I so love the immersion in language, the chance to embark on the unknown.  And it's time to move to the next (less domestic) phase of life, to be out and about, with my eyes wide open.  Our eight-day immersethrough food cooking class starts February 1, and then by mid-February I hope I am in Sittwe, on Burma's west coast, hanging around...   

All suggestions welcome!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


It's a golden late-Saturday afternoon in Chiang Mai, the light of the setting sun catching the gold tips of the chedis and warming the faces of people heading west on foot, on motorcycles, in the back of tuk-tuks. Had another great market morning, first to meet a friend for breakfast at Talat Somphet, by the moat (we had sticky rice; and pork pounded with lemongrass then wrapped in banana leaf and grilled; som tam (green papaya salad, hot and succulent and crispy); pork and beef "jerky", which is first rubbed with spices, then air-dried, then quickly deep-fried; some tiny fried fishes... all with extra raw veggies, all yum!), and then to Warorot Market to shop for this and that to take back to Toronto.

Yes, it's time to leave (Monday the 15th), or at least that's what my e-ticket tells me. There's the 7 am flight to Bangkok, then the flight to HongKong, and finally the long extraordinary arc of the Air Canada direct flight from Hong Kong to Toronto. I expect the plane will be packed, since the holidays are coming. And all of us in that plane will be flying up over Siberia and then the north pole, and back down over icy wastes to the relative warmth of southern Ontario. Still, "relative" is the operative word. A guy today asked me if any rice grows in Canada and I had to admit to its impossibility(!!!) (wild rice doesn't count).

I went out the other evening to several bars, with a friend. The bar scene here is full of young women (almost all from poor rural homes, usually in Northeast Thailand - Issaan) in search of a living. And "a living" usually means sex with a foreign guy, often an older and not-that-great-a-guy foreign guy. The goal is to get him committed to a long-term relationship. There's apparently a how-to list for the women: hold his hand and be physically close right away, etc etc. (When I get hold of a copy of the list, if ever, I will pass it on.) Looking around, I was seeing guys feeling great because they were being attended to solicitously, their jokes laughed at, etc. And for the women? Well it must be long and tedious, this life, and dangerous too of course. They mask their feelings a lot, their sadness, their neediness, playing at making everything feel fun. And the guys seem to lap it up.

One of the bars I was at is in a katooey area, (katooey are transvestites; one of the charms of Thailand is the open acceptance of katooey as part of life). Many katooey cross-dress, very fashionably and elegantly, and that's as far as they go, but some are now having surgery to make breasts for themselves, perfect breasts. There were some on show the other night, lifeless trophies is how they looked to me (framed on top by a beautiful heavily made-up face and below by a narrow waist and hips and long legs in high high heels). But of course I'm not the target audience. The surgery costs a lot, and the decision to have it must surely push them to engage fully in the sex business: the struggle to get a guy with money, preferably a foreigner, and then keep him, with all the attendant pressures and stresses.

Economic inequality fosters a lot of this open search for a sugar daddy. It's brutal. And it goes on, so it seems to me important to just keep reminding myself of this, as of other uncomfortable facts of life out in the world. Hope you agree.

And on a selfish note, I hope to get out one more time, tonight, to hear blues and jazz at the Brasserie, just across the river. (The bar is great because it is NOT a place of sexual commerce, at least not in a way I have noticed, but a place for engaging with music and having that kind of fun.) Time enough tomorrow for packing presents and camera and computer, giving the plants a last watering (Fern will mind them while we're gone), and friends a last greeting...

And then home to my lovely guys for awhile.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Jeff and I have been having a lovely time here in Chiang Mai.  The airports were closed for more than a week, so there was no possibility of making travel plans, which has kept us here and focussed on the day to day.  Turns out that's a rare treat.  Now that the immediate political crisis has passed, life seems to be returnng to normal, and people are feeling less worried, short-term at least. 

Jeff has started work on his second novel and is happy happy to be embarked.  I am working on my Thai, trying to get completely familiar with the alphabet (I now sound out street signs and labels, just like a seven or eight year old learning to read), and it is coming.  Have started doing some shared language lessons with Fern and another friend, Hoa.  They keep me in line, making sure my Thai pronunciation is on target.  Having the alphabet (Thai is a very phonetically written language once you penetrate the intricacies of the tone marks and letter combinations) really helps me understand too.  Fern wants to polish her (already good) English and to get her French stronger and Hoa, who understands a lot of English, wants to get comfortable speaking.  It feels lucky to have collaborators who are so nice, and also fun, so the time flies and it doesn't feel like work.

Had a good time the other day on my own at Gat Luang, the old market near us, buying sticky rice baskets and assorted other things for the cooking classes.  Can't wait to take people there for both food and equipment shopping.  Some of the traditional equipment, baskets and ladles, etc, is so beautiful.

One of the big highs of the past week and more has been two evenings of live music.  The first was with Jeff and Fern, at the Brasserie, a bar and restaurant across the river where nightly after 11 the owner, a phenomenal blues and jazz guitarist with an enticing voice, plays with a small group of musicians.  We danced and danced as they played and played... it was so intimate and so trance-y somehow.  A real treat.  Then a couple of nights ago we went with three friends to a Thai country music place out of town, a huge hall filled with tabels and chairs, and by 10.30 with people too.  At one end was the band on a high stage, brass and guitars and percussion, and always a singer (they took turns) in front, singing words that everyone knows, it seems.  The dancing was fun, long and fun, and with the two women singers in particular, every once in awhile, even with the crowd and the complexities and constraints of dancing by our table, it was possible to hit the lost-in-dancing place.  Lovely!

Sunday, November 30, 2008


It's cool here in Chiang Mai in late November.  "Cool" means long sleeves in the evening and early morning, bright sun in the day, and a refreshing breeze all the time.  Perfect weather for gardening.

Two days ago I went to the plant market in a song tiew, a kind of truck taxi, with our friend Fern, who knows about plants as if she was born to garden.  The plant market is dazzling.  And it's vast, about eight wide alleys with plants on either side, some out in the sun, others sheltered by an awning, all beautifully organized by the different plant store owners.  There are recognizable plants like roses, pointsettas, marigolds.  But then my eye is distracted and amazed by huge tall trees, thirty foor tall trees, and thickets of bamboo, and tropical vines with enormous hanging leaves, and ferns of all kinds, in a lush bewildering variety.

Fern and I were looking for plants for the apartments and for the open-air hall that connects them.   We wanted decorative plants, yes, but even more we were looking for edible plants to make a kind of kitchen garden.

The difficulty was making decisions of course, but in the end that morning we came home with: two bai makrut trees, wild limes (more commonly known by the ugly name "kaffir lime") whose leaves are used to flavour curries and more, and whose knobby fruit is intensely perfuned; one prik thai plant (pepper, which grows as a vine with draping branches from which hang trailing lengths of green peppercorns); three clumps of lemongrass; several kaa plants (galangal, that resin-scented cousin to ginger and turmeric); a cute little papaya tree that we know will shoot up quickly; several Vietnamese coriander plants; and several Indian borage plants.  We also had to buy pots and huge bags of soil.  We found another song thiew to take us back to the apartment building, and by the time we'd hauled everything to the elevator and then down the hall, we were pooped.

But, said Fern, "We should finish everything today, don't you think?"  Had to agree.  One by one we potted the plants, first pouring out some soil (already mixed with a little vegetable matter in the form of rice husks), then adding more humus (chopped coconut husks, all rusty brown) and mixing it all together well, and filling each pot with some soil, then a plant or two, then more soil, and tamping it all down.  Yes!  Suddenly the hallway felt alive and full of promise.

"Shouldn't we go back and get the rest of what we wanted?" asked Fern.  This time Jeff came too.  By the time we'd done acquiring more plants, and pots etc, we had: four banana plants (two different kinds), to plant two to a pot; a chiang tree, which has umbrella shaped delicate leaves,; and three or four more tree-ish plants, including one with scented small white flowers.  We also bought a small fountain, simple and lovely.  The plants are now all potted and look happy.  And the fountain?  We've assembled it and filled it with water, and now, beside me here in the open air of the hall, water is plashing gently out into a tall urn-shaped terra cotta pot and overflowing down its sides into a wide basin, making quiet music.

Now we feel ready for anything, including being "stuck" here because of the PAD political action, which has closed the airports in Bangkok, and with which we sympathise.  Jeff was supposed to leave today and be home for Dom's 21st birthday, but he's still here and won't get out for at least another few days, or maybe a week.  It's a little like being in a bell-jar, out of time, with no control over events.  We're happy NOT to have deadlines and anxieties about time.  Our concern is that the situation resolve itself peacefully in a way that strengthens democracy here, through negotiation and strong leadership.  Fingers crossed.

And meantime we work on our Thai language, fine-tune our plans for the cooking classes in February, and start sketching out a book proposal.  It's a lovely combination of things to think about, in between watching the hard news from Mumbai, Bangkok, and yikes!!! Canada, where at last the opposition seems to be taking effective action to stop the ghastly right-wing ideologue Harper from ruining the country.  More fingers crossed in hope!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Just back, on Saturday night in gusts of wind and rain, from a trip to New York.  The excuse was a conference jointly sponsored by NYU and the James Beard Foundation that focussed on food and China.  The title? Dumplings and Dynasties. 

I gave a talk with slides about the regions Beyond the Great Wall, with intro and questions from Jim Oseland, the well-travelled and engaged-with-the-world editor of Saveur, who is a good friend.  But the stars of the show for me were two academics: Joana Whaley-Cohen who gave the opening talk, setting Chinese food in an historical and cultural context that was fresh and wonderfully clear; and the always-wonderful Sidney Mintz, anthropologist and clear-thinker about food and culture and the politics of both, who gave the closing address.  (In Japan artists who are very very special may be named national treasures; I think Sid Mintz should get that designation.) 

There was time, too to see Ann Bramson, our wonderful editor (at Artisan).  Got her out of the office to MOMA, a treat for us both (the Miro exhibit, and also the Van Gogh by night).

Now, this week, comes the annual Food issue of the New Yorker, with Jane Kramer's profile of us.  We're of course very curious to read it and to see what photos there are etc...  (Our copy hasn't come yet, and I can't wait, but we've heard nice things from people all over.)  The best part about all this was that we got to spend a lot of time with Jane last May, a real pleasure for everyone in the family and for our friends, too.

I'm headed to Thailand tomorrow, and will try to post from there.  We've got some getting ready to do, for the cooking immersion courses we're doing in February in Chiang Mai (see the Chiang Mai page in immersethrough.com for details).  I'm looking forward to warm air on my skin, fresh papaya, and hot sour salty sweet everything!

chowk dee!

Monday, November 10, 2008


Last week was so momentous that it's hard to write about.  After all that anxiety that things would go wrong in some terrible way, I watched and cried, with millions of others, as Obama won and gave his fabulous speach on November 4 in Chicago.

The next day I flew to Charleston South Carolina for an East-West conference on the Asia-Africa connection that was put on by Trident Tech out on Seabrook Island.  Some time perhaps I will write about the details of the conference and other good things that happened on land while I was there, but for now I want to talk about rebirth. 

At dawn last Friday morning, 6 in the morning, I walked with Nancy, both of us in swimsuits and wrapped in layers of warmer clothing, out to the beach on Seabrook Island.  It was low tide, the sea a gleaming smooth silver sheet, the beach firm under our feet.  We walked west along the shore, but walked backwards a lot so we could face the glowing pearly eastern sky that slowly turned into a persimmon glow, intensely orange, gilding the silver sea.  We were looking for dolphins, and suddenly there was one, and then another, sending little breathy percussive grunts into the air as they surfaced.

I unwrapped my wool shawl and left it on the beach with my towel, then waded in, the water cold but not impossible.  I took some quick strokes, thinking I'd soon just leap back out of the water.  But then, surprise, the cold was tolerable, and so Nancy and I floated, and paddled and floated some more, carried by the current east toward the glowing sky, the dolphins' breaths and small triangular fins not far away.  

And then the birds started coming, flying westward toward us out of that glowing dawn sky, right over our heads, and low.  They were black silhouettes against the brightness, the sound of the air in their feathers, and the creak of their wings, loud and clear in the quiet dawn air.  The ducks flew in V-shaped wedges, twenty to fifty at a time.  The pelicans, large slow-beating frigates in the sky, flew in an offset line four or five at a time.  They kept coming, the birds, another wedge, a small line of pelicans, two more V's of ducks, and more still.

It was like the dawn of time, the world freshly minted, the dolphins swimming, the birds winging their way past, the light intensifying.  And two very happy women immersed in it all, unable to believe their good fortune at being a part of it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


We headed out on a flight to San Francisco earlier this week, destination San Mateo, an attractive small town not far south of the airport.  That unbelievable blend of eucalyptus air and clear blue skies and slanting shadows that is California in the fall, was like a tonic.

We were in San Mateo to talk at a cooking class/supper at Draeger's.  The people who came were engaged and interesting, and the people doing the cooking were a delight.  We felt very taken care of.  The menu included Napa and Red Onion Salad; Uighur Lamb Kebabs; Tajik Flatbreads, beautiful, and full of flavor because the dough had been made the day before and had done a long slow rise; Tomato Salsa, with its hint of sesame oil; and Black Rice congee, topped with chopped persommin and ginger, a great idea from Terri, who was in charge of the kitchen.  We did no work, just chatted to people.

In the course of the evening, May, who was in the class but in fact runs the restaurant kitchen at Draegers (the restaurant is called Viognier), talked about the homeless and their food culture.  She contrasted their relatonship to food with that of all of us in the room that evening.  The homeless need to spend a large part of their days figuring out how they can feed themselves, while we work to earn money which we can then go and spend on food.  So there's a huge cultural difference that doesn't get talked about.  We told her that she should consider writing a book...

Now I'm back in Toronto, while Jeff, who flew west from San Fran, is happily in Chiang Mai, in the warmth and last rains of early November.  Lucky guy!

Monday, October 27, 2008


We're heading out tomorrow morning early, on a flight to San Francisco.  We're giving a talk and slide show at an event at Draeger's, in San Mateo, tomorrow night.  The next day Jeffrey continues west, to Thailand, and I turn around and come back to Toronto.  

How strange, that we can fly around like this, transporting ourselves around the globe.  It is a little unsettling, and it should be (and not just for carbon footprint reasons).  The moment we start taking travel for granted, we're in big trouble.  It still has a magical feel to me, even trips like this, to a place in North America that I have been to a number of times...  

Maybe it's the possibility of encounters with strangers, unexpected conversations, glimpses into other lives.   That for sure is a big part of it.  And perhaps too it's just the remarkable transplanting that happens when we arrive by plane somewhere completely other, and then are able to walk and drive around as if we'd always been there.  Surely it should show, I sometimes think, the fact that I've just stepped off a plane and am finding everything new and different here.  But it rarely does, or at least not so that anyone would notice!

And of course it's always good to remember what a small proportion of the people in the world ever get to fly in a plane.  This Tibetan nomad girl, whom we met in the Changtang, the huge plateau of western Tibet, probably never will, for example.

On another subject, our friend Kaz dropped by today, a lovely surprise.  She's begun to write poetry again. As she says, it comes from an entirely different place than prose.  I find myself envying that deeply sure artist's confidence of hers, and also grateful that she is enriching the world for all of us.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Last night Jeffrey and I drove to Waterloo , about 75 minutes west of Toronto, for a book tour event for Beyond the Great Wall (and without specific directions I managed to get us to Cambridge and Kitchener, before we finally made it to neighbouring Waterloo).  We were in plenty of time, so it wasn't stressful, just a lot of extra driving for Jeff, and two askings of directions for me.

The event was very pleasant, and fun for us too.  WordsWorth books put it on, and it was held at a charming restaurant called Hannah's Bella Bistro, on King Street, right downtown.  Hannah is a young chef-owner with years of restaurant experience under her belt already.  She made a lot of recipes from the book.  She picked Tajik Nan as the bread, then several starters: Cheese Momos, with a side relish of Lhasa Achar, made with pickled daikon radish shreds and so delish; and a fresh Tomato Salsa.  We moved on to three beautifully presented salads, served on a long plate for two, from which we could help ourselves.  The salads were the Dai Pea Tendrils, a Uighur Salad from the Silk Road oases, made with red bell peppers, and a cucumber salad dressed with black rice vinegar.  Mains were equally interesting and diverse: A Mongolian Hotpot, made with beef simmered in a light lamb broth with mushroons and pressed tofu, and served with condiments of minced ginger and fresh chile salsa; and a pulao of chicken with punpkin, succulent and rich-tasting, smooth too.

It's always a treat for us to see what cooks and chefs pick from the book, and how they interpret the recipes for their own particular needs.  Hannah's take was fresh and inventive, and pleased the room.  

Thanks to everyone there for making us feel so welcome!

Monday, October 20, 2008


Thanksgiving weekend was spectacular, soft and warm, the leaves glowing on the trees.  Meant to dig up the last of the potatoes at the farm, but instead got distracted by working in the woods, taking photos with our new digital camera, so that now I feel comfortable with it.  I've got a long way to go.  I also did some line editing of Jeff's novel.  It's so engaging, the world of characters and events that he has created.  Next step is to print it, photocopy it, and hand it in.  And then we'll find out if there's an editor who likes it and wants to publish it.  I'm confident.  
Meantime Jeff can't wait to start writing a second novel.  Amazing.

I don't intend to make this about food, at least not about recipes, but I do want to pass on how delish green tomatoes can be when stir-fried.  I heated peanut oil in the wok (could have used olive oil, but because of the spices opted for peanut), tossed in mustard seed until it popped, then nigella, and fenugreek, then some chopped onion, minced ginger, and a chile from the garden.  When the onion had softened I added the chopped green tomatoes and stir-fried them.  I added a splash of water at some point, covered them and steamed them briefly.  I seasoned them with salt and a dash of soy for depth.  They were tender in about ten minutes, and ended up a cross between a vegetable side and a condiment.   Next day I had the leftovers on rice, with a fried egg on top.  What could be bad?

On a related green acidic vegetable: Fabulous Potz, at Food 4 Life in Kensington Market, told me he cooks tomatillos under the broiler, a good idea if you don't want to grill.  I usually poke them several times with a fork and cook them in a pot with a splash of water.  Once they've softened, a little salt, some chopped coriander leaf, and if you want, chopped onion or a chile...  Again, like the green tomatoes, they are a treat on rice or as a side with grilled meat, or a base for a fried egg, always my default option!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I'm out on book tour this week, first in Ottawa and then in Montreal.  I grew up in Ottawa, so it's deeply familiar, even though it has changed and grown a lot since I last lived here.  I get taken by surprise by how different some street corners look...yet can still find my way around town as if by instinct.  I find myself the remembering the fire that took out that building, and then startled by the new construction that has finally replaced it.

This evening I gave a talk and slide show about Beyond the Great Wall, our new book.  The event was at Nicholas Hoare books on Sussex Drive, shop with loads of books that call out to be bought and read, and stacks of CD's too, all enticing.  Better still is the feel in there, welcoming and comfortable.  We sipped wine and chatted, then we dimmed the lights and I talked about people and places beyond the great wall to the thirty or more people who'd come. I'd recognised one old friend in the crowd before we started, but then when the lights came up there were several more.  And there we were, all older, maybe wiser, but still recognisably the same people as when we'd first met.  The person who went back the farthest was Flora, whom I have known since we were both ten years old.  That's a long time ago! 

And like the whole process of being in Ottawa for several days, visiting my Alzheimers'-afflicted aunt and being reminded of events and people long gone, seeing old friends and acquaintances was both sweet and disturbing.  It's a reminder of the passage of time, of our mortality and the impossibility of stopping the rushing on of the years; it's also an affirmation that we aren't alone, that others do know us from times past and remember us, and even make the time to come to an event to reconnect.   So this evening my thoughts are jumbling around: I'm thinking about my long-dead parents, and I'm remembering, in quick flashes, trips across town in the car when I was a child that I haven't thought about for years.  And then my mind moves to the future, to ideas about the details of our Chiang Mai cooking classes (see the chiang mai page at our website: www.immersethrough.com).   Strange to be caught up in thoughts about the past and also tangled in ideas about an imagined future.

I'm reminded that even when we can't travel in a physical sense, all we need is our imaginations to travel in our heads.  And sometimes that kind of travel is the most strenuous and surprising of all.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Here we are three weeks into our new website (www.immersethrough.com) and realising that we need to have blogs, rather than trying to treat our individual pages ("jeff's place, naomi's place) as blogs.  

I find I want to add little extras: I think of another book I'd like to recommend, or have a thought that is travel or food related or something, and now I realise that that kind of entry is more easily kept track of in a blog format than on the website.  There will be interplay, and I may move or copy entries from the blog to the site., I imagine.

On blogspot, as in other similar hosts, the blogs have a table of contents and it's easy to search back to look at earlier entries.  On the website, if we continue making entries without deleting others, things could get cumbersome.  So I will continue to make changes on my page (and other pages) on the website, but will be doing more writing here.  This page is linked to "naomi's place" on the website, so hopefully it will feel like a seamless extension of that page.  We'll see.  Once more we're in "nothing ventured, nothing gained" territory!