Saturday, February 27, 2010


Four weeks ago I was writing a last post here before leaving for three weeks in Burma. The moon was full. We're back again to a full fat moon, ripening in the sky each night. How wonderful.

I headed out this morning to the large wholesale market, the biggest market in Chiang Mai, called Muang Mai. It’s an easy ten or fifteen minute walk from here, right across the road from the American consulate, which is a kind of wild juxtaposition. (We took the immersethrough people there the first day. It took us about two hours to get our small bit of shopping done, so distracting and engaging was the market, and so full of questions and curiosity generally were our lovely people.)

This morning at Muang Mai, in the course of helping a guy pick up a fallen crate of young coconuts (they roll far, of course), I dropped my cash purse without noticing. Five minutes later, in another part of the market, I hear a woman call to me: she’s rushing up with my wallet in her hand to return it to me. The kindness of strangers is always a gift; I felt so grateful to her.

Markets aren’t always that forgiving to the careless, nor is daily life in general for that matter. And I was extra lucky to not have realised my loss, so that I never had a moment’s worry, just a flooding feeling of gratitude that warmed me for the rest of the morning.

Anyway, because I am leaving soon, I’ve already started that subtle process, both conscious and unconscious, of saying farewell to places and people and patterns of thinking and seeing. Muang Mai and Wararot Market, the old big downtown market are both important Chiang Mai anchors for me. I can only imagine how much a part of life and personal landscape they are for people who work there or who shop at the market every day.

As I was walking from Muang Mai across the river to get to Wat Kate, another place that goes back a long way in my Chiang Mai history, I had one of those kaleidescoping-memories moments, where flashes and glimpses of places and people from different times come bursting into the mind’s eye. And all that made me think about the tension or balance between the pleasures of the familiar and the urge to seek out the new.

We all live with these opposite pushes and pulls. And we respond to them differently, each of us, and our response changes over time. For example I sometimes think that turning points in our lives are connected to a need or yearning to move ourselves to some other point on the spectrum between the extremes of, at the one end, seeking the all-new, and at the other, staying securely in the all-familiar.

And at different points in the day, even, we have more energy for the new, or on the other hand, a sense of vulnerability or a longing for comfort that makes us seek out the familiar. That need for the familiar is probably why, after Muang Mai and Wat Kate, I found myself in the basement of Wararot Market having a bowl of kanom jiin, fine white rice noodles topped with broth. I chose a coconut-milk-rich fish ball-laden broth today. On the table were the usual generous plates of fresh herbs and raw vegetables, as well as pickled greens and lightly pickled beansprouts with chopped green onion. The familiar process of adding flavourings and turning and stirring them in is a ritual, a reassuring and calming way to start a meal.

Kanom jiin is the Thai equivalent or close cousin of the family of Burmese dishes called mohinga. Like kanom jiin, mohinga can be a morning start to the day, or an evening bowl of comfort, or a meal in between (though lunch, for most people in Burma who have the choice, is usually a main meal of rice with many “curries” and delicious side dishes of many kinds).

Speaking of morning foods, yesterday at the wonderful Haw market (only on Friday mornings, opposite the mosque just off Thapae Road here in Chiang Mai) I had a farewell bowl of the Shan specialty, which is often called “tofu” by the Shan and Burmans, and is a thick delicious chickpea-based soup, pale yellow, that goes over kanom jiin/mohinga noodles. The soup is then topped with flavourings: a little palm sugar water, ground peanuts, coriander leaves, fried garlic oil, dried chiles if you wish, and there’s no limit or rule about what else you might like to include. Yum. It’s one of the recipes I’d like to figure out in the next few months...

I was with Fern and Melissa, having a coffee to recover from our soups (Fern had had mohinga with lots of chiles on top) when Robyn and Dave turned up. They live in Malaysia and are here for ten days or so working on several Chiang Mai-related articles. Robyn (Robyn Ekhardt) has a wonderful blog you will want to explore called Eating Asia, and Dave (David Hagerman) takes the photos. They’re people you’re happy to take anywhere, but they’re of course especially fun to eat with...

And that’s my plan for my remaining time here, to enjoy each moment: savour the present and not worry about the future.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Still here in lovely Chiang Mai, the eastern hills a lilac blue against the early evening sky, and Doi Sutep looming large and blue to the west. I have some follow-up notes to the last couple of posts:
- My friend Cassandra liked the sound of the Chiang Mai Cosmopolitan (see my end of January posting), but is pre-diabetic, so avoids tonic water. She wrote to tell me that she infuses gin with real (as opposed to fake-flavoured) Earl Grey tea. Sounds like a good idea especially for people who find tonic too sugary. (By the way, Cassandra’s website is, an ongoing exploration of new ways for diabetics to enjoy food and eating.)
- I have heard from a number of friends who cry that buffer days are what they need, but can’t seem to structure into their busy-ness. Hmmm
- I had a comment from a woman named Bee, who with her partner Jai has a fabulous blog/website called jugalbandi, strongly anchored in South Asian food, but also very wide-ranging, intelligent, and generous. I loved their long exploration of oils and fats, at:

This morning’s trip to my Thai coffee "appointment" at Chiang Mai Gate market took me past a woman selling “miang”, fermented tea leaves, the specialty that Burmese overseas pine for and that they call “laphet” (pronounced lapay’). For five baht she sold me a small bag of olive green moist miang, topped with julienned ginger. She tossed a little coarse salt into a separate bag, to eat with it. I’ve been nibbling on it through the day, and sharing it with Fern, who is northern Thai and loves it.

The miang has a taste almost of sorrel, lemony. This is “miang som” which is pickled (“som” meaning sour). In nothern Thailand there is also “miang wan” meaning sweet. The third one in the family, the word for which I forget, is miang that has fermented a long time, so that it’s stenchy, at least to non-lovers of it. (I think of it as the miang equivalent of lustfiske, the fermented-in-the-ground fish of Sweden, or Limburger cheese or durian fruit: heaven to afficionados and “difficult” for everyone else.)

In Burma, laphet is the essential ingredient in a delicious salad called laphet thoke. The other ingredients vary but usually include fried garlic and peanuts and sesame seeds and soybean halves, as well as chopped fresh tomato and ginger. The ingredients are mixed and blended together, in one presentation, or they may be served in separate piles, so each person can pick up the blend s/he likes. It’s often eaten at the end of a meal, as a refreshing finish.

All of this is to say that I’m hoping to figure out an equivalent. It won’t/can’t be the same, but I would love to get that same mouth-watering acid-lemon taste, together with the lovely crunch of the fried ingredients and freshness of the tomato. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m increasingly thinking about how much recipe work and photo work lies ahead once I get to Toronto. I have at least backed up my photos onto a small hard drive (and I of course still have a film photographer’s reflexes, so I also keep my “originals” in the form of the miniature cards that go into the camera.) Once I’m back in Toronto I’ll do another back-up onto another hard-drive, and then hope that I’ve placated the e-gods sufficiently.

After that of course the images need to be sorted and labelled, the rejects tossed firmly into the trash bin, and the others tidied up. None of this is my favorite thing to do, not at all!

Compared to the computer and techie work on the photos, the recipe work and research feels extremely inviting, a great pile of yummy exploration for spring and summer. Hurrah!

Sunday, February 21, 2010


It feels like such a soft landing! Here I am after a brief less than ninety-minute flight from Rangoon, sitting in comfort and airy privacy in Chiang Mai. Whew!

Many thanks to people who posted comments this last month. I could not get any access to blogspot during my three weeks in Burma, so couldn't post anything. The comments are now up. Thank-you for your patience, all.

Of course while I was away there was a lot of time, on bus rides or train rides or just generally in the course of unstructured days, to think about all the things I might write about here... But I kept coming back to an idea that Dom, my lovely older kid (now a man of twenty-two, so kid is not exactly the word) came up with and talked about in December. It's a concept he calls "buffer days" and for him, and for his brother, both students with heavy work loads, it's about allowing ahead of time for days when you can or will get nothing done.

If you don't allow for buffer days, as a student, say, then you are always in the position of getting less done than you intended: "I wasted Saturday"; or "I planned to read ten chapters but couldn't concentrate so I'm four chapters behind"... etc. You get the picture, I'm sure, since we've all been there, haven't we? If instead you assume that there will be days when you cannot work or cannot make yourself work, then you save yourself from that terrible feeling of always coming up short. I guess, put another way, you make your ambitions more realistic and achievable.

But the concept of buffer days is more powerful than that, I think. It's about generally giving ourselves permission to daydream or change plans or be less than strictly "productive." And surely it's in those in-between spaces that we rest and have creative dreams and new ideas. As parents we need to give our kids the confidence that time out and time off is good, wonderful in fact. And we need to take the advice seriously for ourselves too.

Of course as we age, life seems shorter, is in fact shorter in prospect, so perhaps the idea of "slacking off" or "wasting time" seems even more threatening because there's less time available. But if life is about enjoying what we have and where we are, then we need to give ourselves the buffer day or buffer time to raise our heads from our immediate tasks and laugh or play or talk to our neighbour, or daydream.

Don't we?

Just back from a place where most people have to work hard to maintain themselves, because infrastructure is not there (so water has to be hauled, or the generator turned on when the electricity cuts out, as it does so often, even in Rangoon), I am reminded of how easy life is when we have health, a relatively comfortable living situation, and are not deeply beset by money anxieties or worries about war or violence. It's a privileged situation.

I guess, in talking about buffer days, I'm suggesting that we take more opportunity to enjoy the moment, or pause to talk to a friend or a stranger, rather than perpetually hurrying to get the next thing done.

Talking of taking things slowly, I spent time pottering around on a bicycle in Mandalay. I don't know why I forget, in between times, how pleasurable it is to ride around, in a new place or a familiar one, looking at things. Ivan Illich thought the bicycle was the perfect mode of transport, slow enough that we can see and be attentive to the world as we pass by, yet much easier than walking. I can't disagree. It was a real treat to explore small back roads and lanes (all in a grid pattern, but otherwise unregimented and varied) and come upon little markets or morning vendors or monks making their rounds or...

The street food and food generally in Burma is so interesting and varied that I'm all fired up to start trying to figure out recipes. I promise to post the odd descriptive recipe, once I feel I'm getting somewhere. They range from salads that are in the Southeast Asian idiom, but a distinctively Burmese take, to south Asian dishes like dosa and samosa and dals of all kinds, to inventive sweets, to wonderful simple deep-fried snacks that give texture at every time of day.
Oh, and then there are all the noodle dishes, and the "curries", and, and... It's a rich food culture that I feel I'm only starting to get a small idea of.
Yes, you're right, I'm looking forward already to getting back to Burma... not sure when, but soon, I hope.

Happy Year of the Tiger everyone!