Thursday, November 26, 2009


It’s dawn here in Chiang Mai, the sun’s yellow blurred by haze on the horizon, the sky above a pale blue, and the lovely bulk of Doi Sutep that fills the northwest horizon (and the view from my north window) a soft purple-blue. In North America it’s still November 26th and still American Thanksgiving Day, but here it’s already the 27th, Tashi’s birthday. On Monday is Dom’s birthday, so in fact, unencumbered by any need for the exact days to arrive, I have been thinking about birthdays and my (now-grown) kids and spans of time.

For example, Dom turns 22 on Monday. The last time he was divisible by 11 he was in Grade 6, just finding his confidence in school; this time he is in the first year of a PhD. No wonder as we get older life seems less eventful and time seems to fly by. When I think of all that a child or young adult packs into a year, all the growth of new understanding, the learning, the whole-hearted engagement, it is truly astonishing. When we’re inside it, as young people, it’s all we know. That’s what life is. Then as we age into adulthood we’re busy, but we’re mostly managing time rather than living inside it.

Yesterday I sat in the grounds of a wat (temple) and tried to draw a naga, a dragon/snake that makes the railing and frame for one of the temple staircases. My friend Lillian, who is an artist, did some wonderful line drawings of temple details when she was here last year, and I wanted to try. The result of my efforts was a reminder of the place, but not particularly lovely. What was lovely was the experience of engaging, of losing myself in the effort. Every time I sit down to draw something this amazing thing happens. (And similarly, the focussed concentration on getting a word right in a piece of writing, or on shaping a poem, brings the same wonderful loss of self-consciousneess, this headlong plunge into the now.) It’s a gift, available almost any time, and I think it’s available to all. We need only choose to embark.

Focussed concentration, to the exclusion of almost all else, is the pleasure scholars feel as they wrestle with a text or a problem, and musicians, or artists, or anyone engaging single-mindedly or wholeheartedly with a task know it well. Children have a capacity for intently settling to one thing, playing or jumping or whatever. It’s one of the fundamental pleasures of childhood, that we mostly lose as we get distracted with meeting the social expectations of the adult world (“Come along now; we can’t stay here all day!”).

Just DOING without second thoughts or distraction is a great drug and a balm to the spirit too, for it reconnects us with ourselves, it grounds us.

I sat down in the dawn chill to write about being up north of here on a farm near Fang, the cascading bougainvillea, the glowing green wing-beans, the scent of the lychee trees, the complicated wonderfulness of the Fang weekly market, the village house where I finally learned how to make tua nao (the fermented bean paste that underpins northern and Shan cooking), the coming-into-paradise luminousness of the mountain-rimmed landscape to the north. So much for plans. I do love the way that threads of thought, ideas that have occurred to me during the week and that perhaps I have been mulling over subconsciously, surface and insist on expression as I settle to write each week.

I guess I have come full circle here, for it seems clear, as I reflect on the question of getting grounded by committing wholeheartedly to a task, that the process of teasing out these thoughts on the virtual page each week is one of the ways I find that pleasure for myself. I enjoy it so much, and today, in writing this, I’ve come to understand a little more where the pleasure lies.

We’re in highly self-referential territory here! My apologies if it’s irritating!

And for those of you who want something concrete to taste, in your mind’s eye or in fact, here’s a quick descriptive recipe for an issaan dish called moo nam toke (pork in a waterfall, meaning with a wet dressing). The issaan one uses dried chiles. There’s a northern version: just substitute fresh prik ee noo, Thai bird chiles, to taste.

There’s a vendor set up near the huge plant market (see my entry about the place in November-December last year) about a mile north of my apartment here. She sells grilled pork, som tam, sticky rice... Fern and I dropped by there one afternoon early this week after running some errands and asked for moo nam toke: Start with about half a pound of grilled pork, preferably several small pieces that are not too lean (brush it with a little oil and fish sauce, or rub it with fish sauce and ground black pepper if you wish, before grilling) and chop it into large bite-size. Place in a wide shallow bowl. Add a scant half cup of sliced red (Asian) shallot or chopped onion, some coriander leaf, some dried red chiles ground to flakes or powder, (to taste, say a tablespoon to start with), and about two tablespoons of roasted rice powder (dry roast some raw rice in a skillet, then grind to a powder in a coffee grinder or whatever). To make the dressing, combine fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind liquid (soak tamarind pulp briefly in hot water, then press through a sieve to get the liquid), to taste (about 2 tablespoons each should do it, if anything going more lightly on the tamarind and heavier on the fish sauce), then pour over. Toss to blend well, then serve and eat with pleasure...

A POSTSCRIPT: My Burmese visa has come through, hurrah! This trip I'm headed to Moulmein (now in post-colonial times written Mawlamyine), on the coast southeast of Rangoon (now Yangon). That requires a flight on Saturday to Bangkok, then another to Rangoon, then bus or train along the coast. (The land border between Thailand and Burma that is closest to Moulmein, is at Mae Sot, and is still closed to foreigners.) I am due back here late on December 10. Since internet access is unpredictable in Burma, I may not be able to post until I'm back, though last March I was able to, amazingly, from Myitkyina, so we'll see.

Monday, November 23, 2009


This evening here in Chiang Mai a bunch of us sent light up into the dark. What am I saying? you ask. Well there's an amazing phenomenon here, a kind of cross between a balloon and a firecracker, that you can buy to celebrate an event or just for fun. It's made of paper, a large sack like a balloon nearly four feet in diameter, but with an opening below it. Underneath hangs a paraffin lamp. You light the lamp, holding the paper globe away from the flame and over it. The hot air from the flame fills the ballooning paper, inflates it, and then eventually lifts it into the air, where it floats upward.

Some days here there are a lot of these being launched, other days there's the occasional one or two drifting in the night sky.

Gary and Trish had bought the lantern, shaped like a monkey's face, to honour the baby daughter than Boom and Jayan had four months ago. We were all there, lighting the lantern or watching, The baby was happy and oblivious of the fuss. Once the paraffin was lit, we stood there holding the paper away from the flame and waiting for the hot air to inflate it. In that slightly anxioous moment the moneky's face seemed to leer at our hopefulness. (Of course there's the idea that if it inflates and floats well up into the sky, it's a harbinger of good luck; a failure to rise up is the reverse, so there is a little tension around these lightings.)

Finally we let the lantern go, and up it floated, brilliantly light against the dark sky, the growing crescent moon the only decor. It floated over toward the apartment building and seemed to hover, hesitantly. Argh! Would it get caught on a balcony? Surely not! Would it rise up over and beyond the building? Perhaps? And yet? Eventually, after some heart in mouth moments, it drifted up onto the rroof and then on up into the midnight blue sky from there.

So she's well launched, this lovely baby!

All this light and fire in the dark comes just three weeks after another time of light in the dark in Chiang Mai, this one Loy Kratong. Chiang Mai is a big place for Loy Kratong, a festival of lights at the full moon in November. A kratong is traditionally a small leaf raft with a candle on it. Now you can buy elaborate kratongs of course, but at its origin it's a simple candle on a leaf Each person launches a kratong, sets it floating down a stream or river. Bad deeds and bad luck float down the river on the little raft, freeing each of us. It's a lovely concept, and a relief too.

Now what are we going to do with this freedom?

Talking today with Tiger, a man in his eighties who settled here in Chiang Mai about twenty years ago, I was reminded of how differently each of us engage with the world and with the future. Tiger set off from the UK, after retiring in his fifties, to travel and engage with the world. He didn't have a plan. Eventually, a good ten years later, he settled here in Chiang Mai. But he started out with the confidence that he'd find his way, and also with the urge to be surprised, to not-know and to find out and trust to luck that what was coming next would be interesting.

Another approach at retirement or even any time in life, is to try to make sure, to tie things down and aim for certainty. I sort of understand that urge for security, the wish to have a sure outcome. But how uninteresting, too. If the future consists only of what I have planned for it, then it's llimited to what I can imagine, and that's so puny compared to all the possibilities the world has to offer (possibilties good and bad, yes, I agree, but wonderfully unknown and infinite).

So when we launch a little raft with a candle on it, or send a fire-powered paper lantern up into the dark sky, we're gambling and hoping, launching ourselves metaphorically into the future, eyes open, hope surging, fingers crossed, that the light will float on upward and that we will have good luck and find our way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The softness of the air is what happens first, an enveloping welcoming softness and warmth, when the plane doors open in Bangkok late in the evening. And so it was last night at around midnight. The rest of arrival, stairs and the bus to the terminal, and queueing up for passport control and waiting for luggage, etc, passes in a kind of dream, partly induced by the dislocation of jetlag and what day is it? tiredness, and partly by that soft air.

I stayed at a small hotel near the new airport. It's in a kind of small village still surrounded by rice fields (I say "still" because probably development will come soon and cement them all over, but for now...), with temples and small street vendors, like a slice of Thailand in the eighties. I strolled out at 7 this morning looking for my first meal of the trip. There were school kids in uniform walking along the village lanes, and women doing early shoppig, and men and women walking out to the main road to catch the bus to work.

I stopped at a street stall where a woman was grilling pork on bamboo skewers to ask if she also had sticky rice and som tam (pounded green papaya salad). With a yes answer, I went and sat down at a table in the back. Soon the pork came, succulent, with a little fat here and there to give it flavour and moisture, and so did the sticky rice.

Meanwhile another woman got the som tam ready. She asked me whether I eat chile heat: "gin pet mai?", and then showed me the three chiles she proposed to add when I answered "gin pet dai" (="I can eat chile-hot"). Other ingredients at the start include peanuts, dried shrimp, garlic, and tomato (they can include small crabs, but I don't like them so asked her to leave them out). Because it was early, she hadn't yet prepared the usual pile of shredded papaya, so she had to start by peeling the fruit, then chopping it with long paralllel cuts, then slicing off the thinly chopped flesh. The result, a handful of long julienne-like shreds, then got added to the large ceramic mortar and pounded with a pestle to soften it and blend flavours.

The salad came mounded on a plate, sweet with palm sugar, hot with chiles, acidic with slices of tomato and the green papaya and lime juice, and salty and pungent with fish sauce and small dried shrimp. What a wonderful opening to a trip to Thailand: sticky rice, moo yang (grilled pork) and som tam!

And it was a great reminder, after my three days of immersion at the Worlds of Flavor conference, which was focussed on world streetfoods, that there is indeed something magical and special about food made on the spot with skill and care, to order.

I want to say one more thing too, about the conference (there are so many things I could be adding here, about great conversations, new poeple met, old friends, new ideas, great energy and creativity...). There was so much going on: sessions about streetfoods and comfort foods from many places, from Peru and Brazil and Mexico (and John T Edge on streetfoods in the USA) to those from the Mediterranean and southeast Asia. But as Jessica Harris emphasised in her talk on Saturday, we are all very ignorant of African food traditions, even though they are the original underpinning of many foodways in the Americas. She's right of course. But as she was talking about acaraje (from Brazil) and other foods of South America, and linking them to west African foods, I realised again how long and slow the process is of getting familiar with new foods new vocabulary.

We take it for granted that most people will know penne from rigatoni from fettucine, but in the sixties all pasta was spaghetti, or maybe lasagna. It took a good while for the new vocabulary and new dishes to penetrate. How much longer and more difficult will it be then to get a handle on the African and Latin American ingredients and dishes? And that means we had better get started!!

It's good to be a beginner, to not-know, to experience the disorientation of not-knowing and the pleasure of slowly coming to new understandings about things that others know well. Outsider status, or beginner status is what keeps us reminded that we are not all-powerful. It keeps us tuned and humble, and hopefully respectful of others too.

So let's make a commitment to start engaging with the unfamiliar, whoever we are, wherever we are, in at least one part of our lives. In the food world, there's a lot to learn everywhere, but Jessica is right to push us to engage with African traditions. We'll be so much more appreciative, and we'll be enormously enriched too, by what we learn...

Now I'm here in Chiang Mai, the sky clear, the hills that rim the valley visible despite a little haze, the light turning golden in the late afternoon. I've already seen a few friends, and hope to catch up on more of the news this evening at supper. But I do want to remember to just be here, breathing it in, looking out for bigger horizons. It's too easy to get caught up in setting targets, in rushing to get the next thing done, the next appointment made and kept, the next plane trip booked. Those things are important. And I agree that ambition and plans are what get us doing things and completing them.

But targets and goals, specific ones, are also limiting. I want to leave room for the serendipitous things, the events and people that I can't anticipate ahead of time. For those, the lovely unplanned in life, are the things that enlarge horizons, extend the possibilties beyond the boundaries that I can imagine right now...

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Some of us are slow starters. No I’m not talking about the fact that I’m a day or two late posting this week (though there IS that too!), but about techno experience. For as I type this I am on an Air Canada flight to San Francisco, my laptop happily recharging from the plug on the seat in front. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked on the plane and felt so free about it. It seems so civilized and calm somehow.

And from this moving perch in the sky, I feel as if I’m taking in a bird’s-eye view of events and time, rather than of landscape (the one below me right now, probably somewhere in Nebraska, is lightly wrapped in cloud, in any case). Part of my mind’s-eye/bird’s-eye is in November 11 mode: Remembrance Day as it’s now called, Armistice Day as it was called when I was growing up. In those days it was quite focussed on the First and Second wars, with images of Europe and poppies, and set in a time past.

My grandfather was in the artillery in the first war, and went on to write history books about the army in that war. I remember as a child asking him something about the trenches or a battle, and he said, “I have the memory of that horror in my head; there is no need for you to have it in yours.” That war experience gave him an appreciation for each day, for he hadn’t expected to survive it. So many did not.

And my father was in the second war, starting as a nineteen-year-old in 1939, becoming a major at a too-young age, and leaving the army only after it was all over. Only a couple of years ago I discovered that he’d been in the landings on D-Day, on Juno Beach, and then in the fighting as they advanced inland.

But when I was growing up, the Canadian Army was not engaged in active warfare, just in various peacekeeping efforts. Those had their complicatios and their horrors, but still were not “war”.

These days the Canadian Army is in southern Afghanistan, the Americans in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the toll of dead mounting, and the toll on families and on the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan immeasurable. Remembrance Day has come very alive for many Canadians and Americans, as we see the horror of war in the statistics and in some of the reports that filter out.

At Dom and Tashi’s high school on Remembrance Day, instead of speeches about long-ago wars, kids who had come from various war zones around the world and were now settled in Toronto would talk about where they were from. Perhaps they still do. It seemed to me to be the best kind of Remembrance Day, far from “true patriot love” (for non-Canadians reading this, those are words in our national anthem, O Canada) and the sometimes mindless militarism that that inspires. Instead the school was reminded each year about the pain and loss, and the disruption of ordinary people’s lives, that war and conflict inevitably entail.

Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, there are plenty of smaller wars and conflicts around, and plenty of related suffering. When effort goes to building civil society, rather than supporting dictatorships; when villagers are given a hope that tomorrow can be more peaceful than today; when kids everywhere can hope to pursue education and engage in the free exchange of ideas, then we can talk of celebrating Remembrance Day and of meaningful peace. But for now we are in a quagmire of war, with no real end in sight and a lot of posturing going on, from Jerusalem, Tehran, and Kabul to DC, London, and Ottawa... I want Mr Harper gone (such a tight-minded ungenerous right wing guy, aiming to wreck our social fabric if ever the electorate is foolish enough to give him a majority), and I want us out of the war. ASAP.

Meantime, we still must eat and love and exchange ideas, so, on a more domestic topic, Tashi’s dal last Friday was spectacular, worth trumpeting about. There was some pork sausage from our meat CSA in the freezer and I had assumed he’d cook it separately. Instead, once the dal was cooked, he cut the sausages into short lengths, heated oil and panch phoran, then cooked the sausage, adding chopped cauliflower and the remaining purple carrots to the mixture, before adding the whole pan’s worth into the dal. Another few minutes simmering until the vegetables were tender and we had the best deeply flavoured one-dish meal. Wonderful! All of it went over fresh rice of course.

On the weekend I finally dug up the back garden, added manure, and dug it in a little. In the course of doing that I came across some unharvested garlic, tender late-planted little pale treasures, and I discovered that the greens I’ve been culling to cook with my morning egg are beet greens; I’d forgotten that the seeds I planted in that row were for yellow beets. So we ate them on Monday evening, as one accompaniment to dal, along with some beef burgers prepared roughly as they appear in Mangoes and Curry Leaves (tender with a little yogurt in the mix, and aromatic with ground coriander and cumin as well as ginger and garlic). The beets were small, and so were perfect thinly sliced and cooked with the garlic and with their greens, tasting of both freshness and freshly dug earth!

The weather was the imperative that got me out finally on the weekend, for we have had balmy soft days, tender light and air in which the whole city seems to bask. Each day has felt like a gift, and for once we all know it (last year’s snow and cold are recent enough to make us grateful!), so the happiness level on the street and in people’s faces is tangible.

But I am not staying for the rest of the sunshine. Instead I’m headed to Greystone for the Worlds of Flavor conference and then on to Chiang Mai next week. I talked to Fern last night on the phone, Fern who is the anchor-person in Chiang Mai for immersethrough. We plan to get a lot of prep done for the late January session. I’m also hoping to get a short trip to Burma, before I fly back to Toronto in mid-December. And then in mid-January I’ll head back to Chiang Mai...

It feels like the best kind of luck, to be able to move between worlds and to cross-connect, learning from each, and hopefully giving back, too.

And a footnote: I went to the Royal Winter Fair on Friday and again on Saturday. It’s huge, and still feels real despite the new soulless display halls. The cattle barns, the pigs and sheep, etc, are as before, and I’m glad. Lovely to have something stay wonderfully itself over time!

On Friday there were the Cuisine Canada book awards, and luckily Beyond the Great Wall won gold in the category Books about food and cooking. It’s always a privilege to win an award, and I’m grateful.

On Saturday I was back, as part of a series of demos from this year’s nominated books, giving a demo at a small stage. We made Kazakh hand-stretched noodles from Beyond the Great Wall. The people watching all got involved, stretching noodles and hanging them on a clothes rack, then six of them (by answering some questions correctly) “earned” a sit-down bowl of the noodles freshly cooked in chicken broth. I like it when kids and adults can take real pleasure in physical tasks, together, without hierarchy. Noodle-making is one of those easy kitchen skills that is not age-related and is genuinely fun to do with friends and family, a chore that becomes a pleasure. We want more of life to be that way, don’t we?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


We've just passed through a momentous milestone, the period known in France as the Toussaint holiday (because November 1 is All Sants, and November 2 All Souls' Day in the Christian church). In North America Hallowe'en tends to grab all the attention, the night before All Saints, and in Mexico and area it's the Day of the Dead that is foremost. All these are connected to this magical tipping point, the time when we are halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter Solstice.

Long ago I spent the Toussaint weekend in Paris. I was seventeen, a time when everything feels clear and memories get sharply etched. My memory of that time is of older women dressed in black walking to church, a dull grey sky with occasional drizzle, Notre Dame and other churches grey with chill and stone and centuries of prayer and incense, and a feeling of claustrophobia (all that belief, all that black-garbed sorrow) together with exhilaration (I'm here, in Paris, and isn't the stained glass amazing, and the gothic stone and the sense of timelessness!?!). So the Toussaint always resonates for me, forward and back, and becomes a time to remember the dead and treasure the living and all the possibilities in life.

Yesterday afternoon, just as the moon came full (at 2 in the afternoon here in Toronto, I was told), a friend was telling me that this was a particularly powerful full moon, given that it falls at Pagan New Year. Aha! It can be no accident that northern European christians celebrate the saints and the souls at the same time of year as their pagan ancestors (and modern pagan descendents too of course) celebrate the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and of the dead is at its most transparent... WIth the full moon overseeing it all this time, let's hope we're well launched into a productive fruitful year.

(And this same full moon marks the Thai festival of Loi Kratong, when everyone makes a small raft of banana leaves, places a flower or other beautiful thing on it, and a lit candle, and floats it down the river in the evening; the idea is that all one's bad thoughts and bad deeds and bad luck get carried away, a lovely idea... almost as lovely as the sight of all those little barks and their flickering fragile candles bobbing their way downstream and out of sight.)

Last night at Robert Lepage's Stravinsky production (of the Nightingale and other stories), there was another huge full moon hanging in the sky, with the members of the orchestra on stage below, and then in place of the pit, a huge volume of water, a giant pool, sent little reflecting ripples of light across the ceiling. It was fabulous, the music, the staging, but still nothing human-made can compete with that magic of a fat autumn moon in the sky, the scuttering sound of dry leaves blown by the wind, and the sharp clarity of chilly autumn air.

I find myself wanting to swallow it all so I can hold it in my mind's eye and not lose it. One way to do that is to keep an eye open for landscapes or sights that are especially wonderful, like the glimpse as I drove to Grey County last Friday of a line of trees on a green grassy slope casting a golden "shadow" on the grass, made of the golden leaves that had fallen from the trees in the last couple of days.

Another is to cook and eat the treasures of the season. The best this week has been a pumpkin soup made of organic small pumpkins bought from Potz, a version of the Silky Coconut Pumpkin Soup in Hot Sour Salty Sweet, with chicken stock and coconut milk as a base. It was great the first day, but predictably my favorite has been as leftovers, the soup used to poach a farm-fresh egg. The soup is golden anyway, but then the colours get richer as the egg yolk adds another deeper golden note to the mix...

And up there in Grey County, apart from general loveliness, there was a really good visit with my Aunt Libby; an intense sauna in the forest, including a walk through the trees just in my bathing suit, so warmed from the bones outward was I; then a feast with Jon and Lillian; then a truly wonderful session of shape-note singing; followed by a long easy drive home through the dark to Toronto and a welcoming house.

On another topic, but so connected to my feelings of happiness about my time in Grey County, I read a short essay this week by Todd May, at about the way in which limits give things value. He's saying specifically that the fact that we die, all of us eventually, gives life more meaning and makes it more seriously treasured. I think that's right. Each sensation, each relationship, each good moment (and a lot of bad ones too) are precious because life is finite, time is short, and it's up to us to give shape and meaning to the time we have.

And if indeed we've just passed through Pagan New Year, it seems a fine thing to head into the dark of winter with a sense that it's up to us to light our own way in the world.