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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


It’s a late Tuesday morning here in Rangoon, and one of the two days that lie between the birthdays of my two lovely now-grown kids. I’m away for both their birthdays, as I have been for three years now. This year Dom turns 24 and Tashi 21, significant birthdays in different cultures: Of course in the west 21 signifies majority, and there’s still an echo of that importance, even though voting and drinking ages are both 18; while in Chinese and related cultures the zodiac has twelve creatures and twelve years, thus the birthdays that are for years divisible by twelve fall in the same sign as your birth year and always mark the start of another “cycle”. Dom is about to enter his third cycle.

As you know if youve been reading this blog for awhile, I like dates and markers of time and place generally. They’re a kind of geography and context for everything else. And so, with Dom and Tashi both born in late November, this time of year, never particularly significant until twenty-four years ago, has become full of meaning and a good memory marker, as in my question to one of my kids, where were we on your tenth birthday?

This time, this year, is marked by very public significance, the huge positive change in the political climate in Burma. With the loosening of censorship, including the unblocking of many websites, the freeing of some political prisoners (though many remain), the new rules that have permitted and even invited Daw Aung San Su Kyi to engage in the political process along with her party the NLD, and the government’s suspension of the huge Chinese dam project on the upper Irrawaddy - all of these being changes effected in the last three months - it feels as if a logjam has broken and that Burma may genuinely be moving forward into a new more positive era.

In the weekly English language paper the Myanmar Times last week there was an article about a couple of guys who are trying to talk about reconciliation. They have formed a group called Metta for that purpose. One of them was quoted as saying that until now there has been a kind of chess game between the authorities and the opposition which operated in a series of stalemates. But now each side seems to have taken some steps toward flexibility. And now, said this man, the game being played is not chess, with its possibilities for stasis and deadlock, but instead the national game, chinlon.

It’s a great image, for chinlon is a game where a loose number of players keep a woven rattan ball in the air by kicking it with their feet or butting it with their heads, no hands allowed. The goal is to keep it in the air, to keep it moving. If the ball comes to you, you try your best to hit it up and send it on. That’s the point: everyone has a responsbility, everyone is a player, and everyone tries to keep it going.

It’s a lovely metaphor. Chinlon is difficult if you have little or no experience. And we know from our own experience in the west that even with years or centuries of practice we can still make a big mess of democracy. Often we find its complications frustrating, especially when we don’t get what we want. How much more difficult is it for a place where free speech and democratic openness has been outlawed for almost exactly fifty years? Add to that the fact that many people in Burma have paid a huge price in pain and suffering, prison time, and more during these last repressive oppressive years, and it’s easy to see that reconciliation and flexibility will be difficult, and necessary too.

As these weighty and vital-for-the-future-of-Burma questions roll around in my head, and in the hearts and minds of the millions of Burmese who are feeling bouyed by these optimistic changes, we all have to hope that progress continues and doesn’t get high-jacked by conservative elements in the army.

I used the phrase “roll around in my head” just now because an hour ago my head was being pushed and turned and massaged by the knowing iron fingers of a quirky-looking young woman. A friend had told me that one of the best things to do in Rangoon is to have your hair washed in one of the many beauty parlors/hairdressing shops. I’d never tried. So in I went this morning, into a shop in the neighbourhood of my hotel here in the east end. What great advice, thank-you Kyle!

The hairwashing happens as you are lying down on your back, all comfy. After the first warm water, there’s a lathering of the hair and then the massage really starts. She put pressure hard at various points on my scalp then moved to others, then rubbed and stroked, then more pressure. It was fabulous. She also did some work on my neck and shoulders. The arm and hand work, when she pulled on fingers and then squeezed and compressed my hand left me feeling invigorated and smoothed out.

I feel newly minted. And my hair looks so much better that it’s unrecognisable. The total cost was 3000 kyat (pronounced “chat”, for the “ky” combo denotes “ch”), which at 790 to the dollar is less than four dollars. Of course I gave her more...

All this is a reminder that engaging with a place at the level of basic needs and services is a great way to learn new things. I like coming without toothpaste for example, or soap. That way I have an excuse to go into a drugstore and look for what I need, see what’s availabe (and what’s not). But the haridresser was a new idea for me, one that I’ll keep trying in other places too.

In less than two days Hilary Clinton is due in Burma to meet with the current government, and also with Aung San Su Kyi. There will be a huge number of jurnalists covering this trip, a kind of circus is how I imagine the scene. For those of us who are not journalists, we’ll know it’s going on but will only know the details from reading the papers and perhaps watching the news or YouTube. Even though I have no expectation of seeing any of it, I want to stay in Rangoon until after the visit is over. There’s something about the intensity of people’s expectations, and the apparent significance of the visit, that makes me want to stay attentive, to not miss whatever crumbs come my way.

Meantime these days in Rangoon are filled with eating. I am going back to restaurants I know from before, as well as to ones new to me that friends tell me about. There’s always more to learn. And I’m happy to have another chance to compare the recipes in Rivers of Flavor with what I'm eating here. Writing about other cultures, other people’s food, is a responsibility I worry about. I’m sure that despite my best efforts, I will get some things that people in Burma will or would disagree with. I can’t worry about that, only hope that there’s not much to quibble about.

What I do know is that the food in Burma is good, delicious, and that it’s time the rest of the world tuned in to its pleasures and its distinctiveness.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It's late on a Wednesday evening here in Chang Mai. By this time tomorrow I should be in a (rather charmless) hotel room in Rangoon. I'm booked into my usual hotel, the Eastern, not far from the Botataung temple. I'm not really packed yet of course, but I think I have most of what I need assembled, including books to read, books for a friend, and my Burmese language book. Perhaps I should take a bigger bag, just to not feel squeezed? That's always the question. I like to try to get away with having just hand-carry, but it's a pretty silly objective when flying a short distance into an airport that's not big and not really busy. If these are the small things I'm wondering about, you'll say, then clearly I'm fine.

I agree.

Today I went with a friend to a talk/seminar at Chiang Mai University, CMU as it's known. It's a good bicycle ride away. In the morning rush hour it can be a slow trip in a rot daeng (shared taxi) or a car, but on bicycles, weaving in and out of the cars, we got there easily. The last part of the ride was through the leafy airy campus grounds, with a cool breeze blowing. The talk was about the Karen in the camps and other places along the Thai-Burma border, about their networks of relationship based on religion, and on how humanitarian aid is affected by and affects those networks and connections. Dry stuff you mght think, but the speaker, an academic from Germany who works in Mahidol University in Bangkok named Alex Horstman, had very interesting findings and analysis to share.

He linked his research, which is primarily with the Christian networks (his colleague is focussed on the networks and relations of the buddhist Karen), with the early conversion of Karen by missionaries in the nineteenth century. There's still very active missionary work going on amongst the Karen in Burma and in the camps, but the missionaries are Karen themselves. And much of the leadership of the KNU, the Karen army that is battling the Burmese, is also Christian. The speaker suggested that there's an increased militarisation happening amongst the Karen along the border, those who have come to believe that theirs is a struggle of good versus evil. He suggested to us all, but especially to the KNU guys who were there, that they think about changing the model, perhaps giving up their arms, and trying to work another way.

It's the old old problem of exile and the ongoing struggle of the persecuted: attitudes harden and it's hard to see another path. Meantime there's been sixty years of struggle and suffering and still there are refugees, and attacks by the Burmese army and a seemingly dead-end fruitless struggle.

All the more reason to be impressed by the willingness of the opposition in Burma to be flexible, to agree to participate in elections and engage with the current government. It's very difficult to step back from a hard-line position, even when the other side gives a little. For they never give all that one wants, just a little. Instead of holding out for the moon, Aung San Su Kyi and her party have engaged in dialogue (while asking for more openness, a stop to bloodshed, etc) rather than digging in their heels and refusing to be at all flexible.

How can we ask people who have suffered a lot to move on and compromise? Well we do ask it all the time. In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn't end people's pain. It did allow the victims to face the aggressors and murderers, but that's all. And for some it must have been excruciating and unfair and impossible. But they did it. And somehow that country has managed to move forward rather than staying locked in the past.

I know all this is simplistic talk in some ways. But it seems important to acknowledge how difficult, almost impossible, it can be for people to move past old pains and grievances. (Look at how divorcing couples can stay angry and bitter for years, even when it damages their children and their mental and physical health to stay so angry and stuck.) And how much more difficut to move forward when the conflict has been going on for three generations, as it has with the Karen, and when people on both sides are so committed to their version of the story?

Human beings are creative and have a great capacity for problem-solving. But when the emotions are engaged so deeply, it takes a huge effort of will, personal and political, to move forward beyond the patterns of thinking and reflexes of the past. it hasn't happened in israel-Palestine; it hasn't yet hapened in Burma; it has happened in Ireland and in South Africa.

So there is hope, at least conceptually, for us all.

And meantime, to get down to the level of basic human pleasures, I have been eating very well these last days, especially because I've been out with Eating Asia - Robyn Eckhrdt and Dave Hagerman - several times, and in between I've been frequenting some of my favorite roadside/streetside stands. Last night with Robyn and Dave I was at a small place at the edge of town that specialises in fish laap. We had that, and a brilliant village-style northern tom yum with chicken, a plate of pla som (soured fish patties that had been fried), and some pak kana, Chinese kale, stir-fried with crispy pieces of pork belly. Yum.

And now I'm headed to the land of brilliant noodles and fab lunchtiime rice meals featuring lots of condiments, as well as curries and salads, etc. I probably won't be able to post here while I'm gone, though occasionally I've been able to break through the firewalls or whatever they're called, while in Burma. If I don't find a way around, I won't be posting again until after I fly back to Chiang Mai on December 11...

Happy Thanksgiving to the Americans among you (I admit to being thrilled at not having to eat turkey at all this year). Let's hope that we all get better at compromise and at reconciling ourselves to a less than perfect relationship with our more difficult neighbours.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


They’ve been of biblical proportion, the floods in Thailand, and they’re far from over. A friend here in Chiang Mai had saved newspaper clippings for me about the floods. They start in October, more than a month ago, and give snapshots of the hardships and horrors faced by millions, not hundreds, or thousands, but millions of people in central Thailand. Although the water is receding in places around the north and east of Bangkok, on the west side of the Chao Praya River there’s no sign of relief: the land is so low that it’s still below the river’s height.

Until I got to Bangkok I hadn’t understood what the floods were. I had in my mind a swollen river breaking out. But this 2011 flood of the century is far bigger than that.

My overnight stay at a small hotel near the airport gave me a first insight into the flooding. The hotel is in a small village, a few streets that run between a canal and a busy road. All the buildings were buttressed with sandbag walls; some were encircled with low cement walls reinforced with sandbags. Near the entranceways there’d be a stepped stack of sandbags, each layer topped with a plank. They were like sandbag stiles, a place to step up and over the buttressing.

Pumps churned monotonously, pulling water from under the ground into large flexible piping and out into the canal. The canal flowed swiftly and was within an inch of the edge. Water seeped up through cement in a few places. It was those pumps, and the seeping water, that straightened out my understanding of the flooding. It’s not that the river overflowed its banks (it did in places too of course) but that everywhere there was so much water in the ground that there was no way it could drain away.

Bangkok is built on a swamp and used to be laced with canals. The pressures of the growing city, and a lack of planning, and lots of greed, led to those canals being filled in and turned into roads. Hydrologists gave warnings, but no-one paid much heed.

With all thse canals in place, the water that saturated the ground would have had a place to drain to,. Those canals might occasionally have overflowed, but they’d have done the job of draining the water out to sea. Without them, the water could only end up on top of the ground, flooding every piece of low-lying land.

And so the call as I read the newspapers about all this, apart from for more help for victims, is still for more pumps. The water is being pumped out of the gorund into waterways including the Chao Praya, anything to get it moving toward the sea.

Looking out the airplane window as we slowly ascended I could see water everywhere, blurring the edges of the human geometries, from roads to canals to fields. It was one giant grey-beige reflecting surface, with occasioanl solid-ground interruptions: rooftops, a raised highway ramp, power far as the eye could see to the north. As we crossed the Chao Praya the picture grew even more dire. You couldn’t tell where the riverbanks had been on the west side; the river water just flowed right over the land. There was stillness, not the movement of small-ant-sized cars and people down below that is the usual sight out the window as you fly over Bangkok.

The newspaper clippings give the on-the-ground and in-the-water close-up view day by day and it’s shocking in places. Yes, there are kids having fun in boats, and the army is looking friendly and helpful as it rescues people and animals, but the reality is that houses and small businesses are wrecked, many of them irreparably, and people have been exposed to unknown toxic chemicals that were washed out of factories upstream as the waters rose. The death toll is at around 600 now.

Thai manufacturing and exports have taken a hit and that will go on. A lot of the rice crop, estimates are 40%, in the central regions has been lost to the floods. (In October-November the rice crop is drying out and ripening and then gets harvested; with inundated fields the plants rot, and/or fail to ripen, and of course no machinery, and often not even human harvesters, can get on the fields to harvest what grain remains.)

The biggest hit may be to people’s mental health. When you see your home wrecked by water and are helpless, and when the situation goes on and on, drearily, and when it puts your children at risk of disease, and threatens you with financial disaster, I imagine that people crumble. Not now, in mid-crisis, but once the intense time is over. it takes energy and optimism to rebuild and move forward. Thais are resilient, they’ve ived through social and political and economic disasters and upheavals, and come to laugh about them, but this huge calamity is going to exact more pain before it’s over.

Meantime, up here in Chiang Mai, where there was some flooding near the river in September because of heavy rains, everyone is now dry and gateful to be.

As I rode along a small road near the river yesterday, I was dodging water grates every ten metres or so, and pedalling past houses built up on stilts, all a reminder that water, and flooding, and monsoon deluges, are part of life in Thailand, giving life to people and rice and this rich culture, and from time to time, as if to embody the Buddhist idea of impermanence, wreaking havoc in unimaginable ways.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


It’s the middle of November already. Yikes. I’ve been in Thailand nearly a week (I got to Chiang Mai six days ago) and already I feel settled. I’ve found a Raleigh to rent, too small for me, but so upright that my knees are nicely clear of the handlebars. The tires are good and the pedals on straight, more than I could say of the bicycle I rented last time I was here.

Today I headed north up the Ping River. It was late, after rush hour, so there was little traffic. The disadvantage of setting out after 9 am is of course that the sun is higher. But I never got really hot and sweaty, because of that lovely cyclist’s breeze that cools even as you work at pedalling in the sun. Coming back down the western bank of the river I was in shade a lot of the way, and that too was a treat.

I was remnded as I sailed along by the moat towards the end of my outing that each time I start into something new I have moments of apprehension: Will this work? or, Can I do it? or, Will I goof badly and hurt myself or someone else? The fears or doubts may take different forms, but they all spring from the same place of anxiety... And so it was this morning. I got worried because I don’t have a helmet, wondered about being too hot at the later hour, wondered if the bicycle was any good. And yet in my first minute, not more, of pedalling, all that fell away and I was truly rolling.

The same kind of thing happened with my travels in Burma. Yes, I’d been before, but still on my first trip three years ago for the cookbook I felt oppressed and a little fearful. I was under no illusions that the junta was paying me any special heed or that I mattered to them. I admit that the oppressive totalitarian-ness of the regime is enough to oppress and to create anxiety, just the mere thought of it, of course, but that wasn’t it.

I don’t think my anticipatory mild dread had much to do with those realities. Rather, it was just exactly that: anticipatory anxiety/dread/doubt/self-doubt. And once I had landed and found my way into Rangoon, it all vanished in a puff of smoke. I was there, I was still putting one foot in front of the other, and even though I was no more enlightened or clued in about what I was going to do, or how I was going to proceed to learn what I needed to learn to do the cookbook, the anxiety was gone.

Perhaps there’s a useful biological basis to anticipatory anxiety. Maybe it stops us from taking too many risks? But I think it’s just a trick, a way of making us uncomfortable, a kind of mean thing that some people suffer from way more than I do. I am lucky that mine goes away quickly, once I’m embarked. For some, every day, every dawn or perhaps every waking moment, is filled with a dread or anxiety of what comes next.

I feel for people in that state. Even the minor worry that I have felt at the start of something new, whether relatively major (Burma) or quite minor(getting back on a bicycle in Chiang Mai) can weigh on me. But it lasts only a short while. A more substantial worry is truly paralysing. People who feel that way a lot have to be brave just to get up in the morning. And they must get so exhausted pushing back the dread enough to function.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this right now. Perhaps it’s because I’ve just come through my small bicycle worry and am exhilarated to be on the other side of it, pedalling freely through the small lanes and busier roads of this complicated animated place. I don’t plan to bicycle at night, but I now feel freed up to head out in the morning for explorations in and out of town, sitting upright on my Raleigh, with my floppy sunhat on, looking somewhat ridiculous!

FOOD AFTERWARD: I’ve been eating a lot of grilled pork here in Chiang Mai, succulent and irresistable, and som tam too, and sticky rice, but I have to say that at the moment my mouth is remembering the taste of the perfectly ripe papaya I ate today. It wasn’t big, a nine- or ten-inch-long cylinder, with dark red flesh and mottled yellow skin. I cut it crosswise, then scooped out the seeds of one half, to make a deep cup. I squeezed half a juicy small lime into it and then slowly spooned out the flesh, each mouthful with a little of the lime juice from the bottom. What I was left with when I’d finished was the hollowed out cup of fine skin, thin enough that light passed through it in a stained-glass kind of way. I saved the other half for later. Yum.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I’m sitting in a cool breeze, the trickle of a small fountain in the background, with poppings and small bangs and muted whizings from the fireworks, rockets, roman candles and every other kind of pyrotechnic large and small being set off on this full moon night in Chiang Mai. The dark sky is dotted with floating gently moving lights, the fire-heated paper lanterns that are being set off by the hundreds here this evening. They hang in the sky, moved by small breezes, drifting and eddying, making a shifting pattern of constellations that is mesmerising and enchanting all at once.

It’s Loy Kratong in Thailand, the full moon festival in November that marks the start of dry season. Kratongs are tiny rafts, decorated with flowers and banana leaves, and lit with candles, that are set afloat in rivers and streams, sent off with a wish for the future and the job also of carrying away the bad things from the previous year as they float down towards the sea.

This year, with the flooding that afflicted not just Bangkok but much of central Thailand, and is still going on, the idea that water is everywhere and needs to be acknowledged is even more potent. To put a kratong in the water you need to kneel on the bank and reach out and place it carefully on the surface. You want it to float and be carried off by the current, so you give it a little push, and perhaps also splash the water to make waves that will carry it away from the shore.

Yesterday I went to Warorot Market to shop for kratong-making supplies. The base is round, made of a short length of banana stem, about 2 inches thick and anything from 5 to 15 inches in diameter, like a round cutting-board in shape. (People had started to use styrofoam instead of banana stem these last years, but not a concern over pollution and trashing the river has led people back to banana stem.) I also bought several large bundles of banana leaves, long folded-green and supple, as well as small pins and finishing nails to use as attachers. Then what about flowers? I bought some orchids (magenta ones and white ones) and a bag full of marigolds, large full orange ones. Then I needed sparklers and incense, a bag of small clay and wax candles, and a box of matches, and the shopping was done.

Today I sat on the floor with three friends and we figured our way into kratong decoration, starting with wrapping the whole banana stem platforms banana leaf (so the banana stem absorbs water less quickly and lasts longer). Then came the decisions about which flowers? and arranged how? Symmetrically the Thai way? or not? We each decorated two or three. Each had personality and was a reflection of the moment and of the person who made it.

Then in the late afternoon we put each in a plastic bag for easier carrying (taking care not to crush the flowers around the edge or to knock over the incense batons etc), and set off for the river. I knew the crowds would get dense and intense, so I was happy to set out just as the fat moon was rising over the trees in a limpid sky.

We headed down Thapae Road to the river, then across the bridge and north. The place I had in mind for us to float our kratongs was the riverbank at the Brasserie, best known for its bluesy jazz in the late night. We sat sipping lime juice and other easy drinks, watching the light fade, with the big blue mound of Doi Sutep against the western sky, and meantime too, a stream of flickering-lights - kratongs - was already floating down the far side of the river.

As darkness fell we carried our kratongs to the wet post-floods-smelling river bank and one by one we lit the candles, the incense sticks, the sparklers, and knelt and placed them on the water, then gave a push to encourage them out into the deeper water where the current could catch them And one by one they made it: tippy-teetery, carrying their toppings of marigolds and orchids, their spikes of incense and their flickering candles, they valiantly headed out to join their colleagues, then floated quickly off down the river.

They carried wishes with them, and hopefully carried off all the negatives and difficulties and regrets from the last twelve months, leaving us free and fresh to begin another cycle of life and hope.

Later we walked along the river banks, the dark water now alive with lit kratongs and with the reflected dots of light from the hundreds of paper lanterns floating aloft. And everywhere there were people lighting candles, holding lit paper lanterns as they waited for the hot air to build up and carry them away, eating and drinking, laughing and living in the now.

How lovely. How special.

AFTERWARD: I wrote all that last night, and now it is once again evening, and there are again firecrackers banging and popping and in the distance I can hear a marching band playing loud ly and rhythmically as it makes its way down Thapae Road. This is the third parade in as many evenings! Ah well. I kind of feel sorry for the police who vow endlessly on their whistles as they try to redirect traffic from blocked-off roads.

This morning was the Haw market, as it is every Friday here. There were custard apples, and heaps of pickles and Shan tou, and creamy Shan soup, and Burmese sweets, and dried meat, and vegetables and greens of every description, and people with faces from the hills and valleys of many parts of SOutheast Asia, as well as the odd foreigner. I had a thick creamy Shan soup and then an hour or more later a noodle soup with a meat sauce heightened by chile paste. Yum, and YUM!

Oh, and the big fat glowing full moon has just come up from behind the eastern hills...;Happy full moon day everyone.

Monday, October 31, 2011


The thing I failed to mention in the last post is that I dug up the back garden this weekend. I always have trouble doing that. It's not about the labour, it's about the loss. When I turn the soil and pull out the last herbs and tomatoes etc, I am saying good-bye to hope of renewal; it's the end, the final point of the growing season. I don't like it. And so often I have tended to avoid committing to the finality. I often leave the digging too late (which means I have a mess to deal with in the spring). (This year it's all done, and as well, I have rye seed to plant as a cover crop for over the winter. I'll let you know how it goes.)

But this year there were some great finds in the fading garden and somehow a feeling of ease about it all. I came on some heads of tender fresh garlic for example. And I pulled a number of green and growing dandelion plants. I've been harvesting those leaves all summer, since the spring, to chop up and stir-fry as part of my breakfast (rice underneath, a fried egg on top). Now pulling them out feels like a definitive good-bye.

I was due to go to Dawn the baker's and Ed's for supper the other night. So I took along some dandelion greens and garlic from my garden tidying. They had cooked merguez from Sanagan's and wanted to turn it into a form of Thai salad. So I sliced the merguez, then sliced the shallots thinly and tossed them with the merguez and some fish sauce and vinegar and lime juice, as well as some Vietnamese coriander leaves (so delicious). Then I sliced the tender young garlic cloves and fried them in a little olive oil, along with finely chopped dandelion leaves (there was a little arugula from the garden in there too). It went onto the salad as part of the dressing, both the wilted greens and cooked garlic. Wow. Something wonderful happens when you had a bitter greens to the sweetness of the lamb in the merguez.

We can safely call this fusion food, and in my view it's the best version of all: solid ingredients, meshed with some insight, and with pleasure!

All this is another piece of the Thanksgiving process that fill October, from early on all the way to Halloween. So lucky! So lovely!


There’s a guy drilling cement outside the building across the street. If I find the noise penetrating from inside my office, how much of a beating are his ears taking? He doesn’t look like he’s wearing ear-protectors. The intermittent drilling aside, it’s a beautiful day, with golden leaves fluttering against a mostly-blue sky, now softening with a little cloud cover. This evening will be fairly mild for Halloween, and dry, a blessing for the small people who will be out trick-or-treating.

I associate Halloween with Thanksgiving and harvest, partly just because of the time of year, and more specifically because pumpkins and apples (remember when apples were part of Halloween?) are such a part of harvest time.

On the weekend I drove out for the day to a friend’s place north of the city. On the way I came across an honour-system pumpkin stand loaded with huge pumpkins. The sign said, $3 per pumpkin, Thank-you!” and there was a small cash box with some change in it. I had no change, so I left a twenty dollar bill, took back three dollars in change, and lifted five pumpkins into the car. When I got to my friend’s place I told her she now had two more pumpkins to do with as she wished. No choice!. ANother is going to a neighbour. That leaves two to be carved later today.

But back to the country. Once I got there and had a coffeee, we walked out to the back of the property, a rolling twenty-five acres, very beautiful, with a small river running through it. I always say it’s the largest twenty-five acre property I know, for it’s so varied and full of lovely mysteries.

We crossed the stream on flat stepping stones then climbed up out of the valley on the far side and into sunshine that warmed us into shedding our jackets. There was work to do, for a number of the trees at the edge of a field and along a wide path were encumbered with wild grape vines. They grow and twine and proliferate, eventually weighing the tree down so much that it sickens and weakens. And of course in winter the extra twining vines mean that there’s more surface for snow to rest on, and thus even more weight for the tree to bear. So we snipped and cut and broke the grape vines, then pulled them off and left tangled heaps here and there.

The last tree we did was a huge old apple tree. The apples (no I can’t tell you the variety) were crisp and beautiful and full of flavour. Their red was in fine stencilled-like strips. The windfalls that lay under the tree made a dense patterned splash of colour, and were aromatic where we stepped on them and crushed them. The deer in the forest are eating well these days, is all I can say!

We hacked away at the grape, then gathered apples off the tree and trudged on back to the house to make a late lunch.

The apples were calling out, so I cut some of them up, squeezed on lemon and lime juice, and piled them into a small oven-proof dish. I made a mixture of oatmeal, flour, sugar, and a generous amount of butter chopped into small chunks. Once the mixture was a fairly even crumbly texture I added a little water, so that it came together, nearly, as a kind of dough. The mounded apples were mixed with some sugar and cinnamon, then the streusel-pastry-ish mixture went on top and it all went into the oven.

Of course it’s hard to miss when you’re working with apples and sugar etc, but this was an especially wonderful treat, because those apples had such a complex dynamic flavour. The rest of them have just gone onto a pair of skillet cakes. Yum. And the hot oven, after the cakes came out, is now baking two small pumpkins, halved and deseeded and baking face down, lightly oiled on their cut sides. Once they come out and cool, I’ll lift off the peel and puree the flesh with a little extra water.

It makes a great soup, flavoured with olive oil in which I have cooked some garlic or shallots, whatever is to hand. You can include potato too, for even more thick unctuousness, but I find the pumpkin does well on its own.

Some friends are coming by for supper. We’ll take turns handing out treats to whatever kids come, and in between we’ll sip some wine and spoon up thick orange pumpkin soup. Not sure what the rest of the menu is; it will take shape as I forage through the frig!

Happy Halloween everyone.

POSTSCRIPT: A friend just called and will drop by with some tagine she made yesterday...and I forgot to mention the pumpkin seeds, the other wealth that pumpkins give us. Mine are toasting now...

Thursday, October 27, 2011


We’re still in October, and the basics seem to be staying pretty constant. The main themes of life this month continue to be art, culture, and friends, all under a chilly rainy sky. We’re not drowning in floodwaters, as the people of central Thailand are, but we too have had enough rain and dampness to last us awhile. I’m ready for some sunshine!

Meantime that warmth and optimism has to come from other sources. Just yesterday I went with a friend to a free concert at the Opera House here in Toronto. There’s a kind of amphitheatre two floors up. That's where the free noontime concerts are held. This one was by the Zodiac trio - have you heard of them? I hadn’t - who are American and French: clarinet, piano, and violin. They were terrific, and so was their program. The concert title was “Music from a Silenced Nation: Soviet Composers.” I knew Shostakovitch and Stravinsky, but the other two were new to me: Edison Denisov (one movement of an amazing sonata for solo clarinet, moody and impressionistic with slides and quarter tones, completely remarkable); and Galina Ustvolskaya, whose Trio, written in 1949, was haunting, each movement tailing off into silence, a questioning suggestive absence.

Then there’s the Chagall, the AGO show on Chagall and other artists who were born in the Russian empire and worked in Russia and then mostly in France, in the first half of the twentieth century. In my ignorance I knew nothing about many of the artists in the show. Apart from Chagall paintings and drawings, there was a wonderful Lipschitz bronze and some lovely Kandinsky’s, but it was the work by the others, called collectively the Russian Avant-Garde in the show’s title, that was new to me and sometimes took my breath away. I didn’t know about Sonia Delaunay or Natalia Gontcharova, nor about Tatin, Malevitch, Rodtchenko... If you have a chance to get to Toronto’s AGO before January 10, do go. And try to make time for two visits, because ther’s a lot to absorb.

There’s often discussion in art and literature crcles, and argument, about whether knowledge of the artist or writer is important or should even be a factor in appreciating the work. At the end of the Chagall is a long (fifteen-minute, maybe twenty-minute) film made in the 1970’s I think, when he was living in the south of France (he died in 1980 at the age of 98, a beautiful looking man). Somehow, watching him talk about his work, watching him work, and hearing about his first stay in Paris (1910-12) when he met Braque and Picasso and the other painters in that then-vibrant art community, helped me get a handle on his achievement. Until then, to me the paintings were whimsical or amusing or sad or sorrowful, sometimes all at once, and their colour and vibrancy and life-force was extraordinary, but I’d never been able to get hold of them for myself. I sat on the surface, you could say, but didn’t “get” them, most of them.

After the film somehow things fell into place: the pictures aren’t disciplined workings out of a theory or a geometry, they’re pure expressions of how he was feeling. In them there are elements of the painterly schools or techniques (the newspaper seller has a cubist feel in parts, in the papers he carries, for example), but he has digested all that others were doing and remained himself. He’s always Chagall, the man from Vitebsk, not contained or constrained by theory or specific techniques.

Now to go back and look at the whole exhibition with fresh eyes. What a treat to have the show waiting for me a few blocks away.

All this Russian art and creativity, from the AGO show to the Zodiac Trio program, is a reminder of how much the world lost in the twentieth century because of anti-Semitism and the totalitarian politices of Stalin et al. Artists were persecuted, some of them managing to flee, others not surviving. (Of the artists in the Chagall show, almost all died in France; one died in 1944 in Auschwitz; I wonder about all that got buried in history, whose work we don’t know about) It’s also a reminder, as the Zodiac clarinetist said in some opening words, that human creativity is remarkably tenacious. Even in difficult circumstances, many artists manage to produce work and to keep their integrity. They’re valuable to us all, a reminder of the larger view, the bigger horizon, the potential in all of us.

That’s the warmth we find in art and music in this chilly damp weather.

Other warmth comes from the glow of the leaves, still clinging, many of them, despite the rain and winds. The huge maple out my back window, a squirrel high-rise, is a blend of red and green against the sky, wind-tattered at the edges of its generous canopy.

And then there’s Diwali, the festival of lights, which was last night. We aren’t Hindus, but we did have tiny candles lit and other lights on. It was dark and chilly outside but the house was full of welcome conversation as we talked and ate mostly leftovers with good friends in the warmth of our shared humanity.

AND AS FOR THE DETAILS: We ate well, in many stages, with a backdrop of roasted pumpkin (I was cooking small pumpkin halves to soft, to then puree them for soup), very autumnal altogether. The "menu": dal with cauliflower, reheated with some water and olive oil, and thickened with leftover rice, comfort food at its best; leftover Italian sausage from Sanagan's, sliced fairly thinly, wok-fried to reheat and tossed in the wok with leftover tubetti; multi-colourd fresh carrots cut into sticks, for crunch; and fresh rice to take care of the lovely sauce on some leftover Thai chicken curry, red curry, small pieces of chicken, and delectable. For afters I simmered chopped Grey County apples in brown sugar and a little water, then served them with a dollop of very unsweet stewed damsons and a long lick of maple syrup.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I just got word that the City of Toronto is proposing to sell several Toronto Community Housing buildings, all the ones in my neighbourhood in fact, as a short-term money-raising scheme.

terrible idea.

I just sent a letter to the CEO and another committe member, and this is what it case anyone else wants to send a letter too, opposing the idea:
Dear Sir and Madam:
I am a long-time resident of Henry Street. I moved onto the street as a tenant in 1983 and .. I have been a home-owner on Henry Street since 1984. I raised my children on the street, sent them to the local pubic school and to University Settlement House for after-school programs (and now they are at the University of Toronto), and I am a customer at many of the businesses on Baldwin Street.

All of this is to say that I am anchored in this community and I know my neighbours and my neighbourhood.

The proposal that Hydro Block and the houses on Beverley-Dundas currently operated by Toronto Community Housing be sold is expensive and short-sighted. All studies confirm my experience here, which is that mixed neighbourhoods, made up of people of many backgrounds and from many layers of the socio-economic spectrum, are healthier and cost less in all kinds of ways, than separate homogeneous enclaves of the wealthier and the less well-off.

My children went to school with kids from Hydro Block and the Beverley community, and that was good for all parties. There's a social cohesiveness to an integrated neighbourhood that produces peaceful community, reduces violence, and makes schools productive and again lower-cost.

The proposal that a one-time sale, and hence a one-time cash-in, of these properties is good for the city is, frankly, ridiculous. It will raise social tensions, as people lose their housing, and it will create ghettos where we now have integrated communities.

We know from some of the ghetto-like enclaves in the suburbs that such social isolation leads to violent crime, high drop-out rates in the schools, and much higher costs in terms of policing and other security issues. But the highest cost of all is the human cost.

People of all walks of life should continue to be entitled to live downtown, with easy access to all that is there. The handicapped
people who live on the top floor of the Hydro Block are especially in need of housing that is easily accessible to shopping and transit, but so are the families that now thrive in the Beverley-Dundas houses.

The Hydro Block, and the Beverley-Dundas houses are a model of how the city should be handling low income housing. And the neighbourhood is a model of lively safe streets, productive schools, and flourishing community.

Please vote against any proposal that includes the sale of Toronto Community Housing. It's an expensive and short-sighted measure. It may be designed to raise revenue, but it will in fact do the reverse, for it will have a huge price tag: both money costs (to be born by taxpayers) and human costs (to be born by those least able to defend themselves).

Thank-you for taking the long view, rather than grabbing at short-term band-aids.
Yours sincerely,

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The leaves are drifting down in the drizzle, with pouring rain and high winds promised. Already the sidewalks near ash trees are paved with little golden leaves. But many trees will be stripped bare before their leaves have had a chance to thrill us with colour. Last year's autumn was such a spectacular one, I suppose we can't complain if this year is an off-year.

In my last post - mostly about the Mega Quarry and fabulous Foodstock - I said I'd write soon about some encounters I had in early October. The month started with Nuit Blanche, and I guess that first of October event was a preview of what my month has been since: a composite of often-chilly weather, friends old and new, and serendipitous encounters with people and art and food and new ideas.

A couple of days after Nuit Blanche I took a day flight to London on Air Canada, a huge treat, and headed into town on the Tube to stay at my cousin's flat near Victoria. There was time the next day for lots of conversation with him, and a visit to the British Museum as well as wanderings through Bloomsbury and Covent Garden and more.

The following morning I took a train to Devizes to visit a friend I'd met travelling in Burma. She took me to Stonehenge (I'd never been, so missed the hundreds of years when it was freely open; it's now visitable but only from a distance). The winds blew cold and fierce, across Salisbury Plain and the shifting sky was dramatic and beautiful, so that Stonehenge held its own, even with polite little fencing around it. There were lovely sharp shadows, intensely green rounded hills, and the wind, always.

The market in Devizes, which is on Thursday mornings, was charming, nd loaded with the best of English and Scottish fresh food, from raspberries and strawberries (yes really) to quinces; and from Whitby crab to Shetland scallops. We bought lots of scallops, still with their beautiful orange roe, and cooked them lightly with a little olive oil and garlic for supper. Not shabby at all! But even with that caliber of competition, the winner in the memorable food competition in Devizes for me was the butcher's shop Walter Rose's. It's stunning, small, beautiful, and with an astonishing selection of meats. I bought a pork pie, a deceptively simple-looking pork pie. And I have to say that the taste and texture of it haunt me still. What word to use besides delicious? succulent? perfect?

Back in London on Saturday, I headed out early to Borough Market, almost a cliche destination for food tourists. I'd been warned that it would be crowded, but early on Saturday it was anything but. The website is great, by the way. I ate fresh oysters - bracingly chilled and briny - from Mersea Island (in Essex); bought some Extra virgin olive oil from Greece, and some olives; ate a pain au chocolat, and then another; and also bought a delicious slab of Comte, aged 22 months, to take to friends.

Fortified(!) by treats I walked to the Tate Modern to see the newly opened Gerhard Richter retrospective, just dazzling and amazing, especially for someone like me who hadn't been very clued in about his work before. Here's the link to info about the show It's on until early January. And of course there's lots else to marvel at at the Tate Modern, if you have the stamina.

In the next couple of days I got to another two exhibitions, one on Degas at the Royal Academy, info here; and the other at the V&A, a huge retrospective view of the movement in art and architecture, music and design, called Post-Modernism. It was so enlightening to realise a little more about where aesthetic and design elements arose that we now take for granted. Here's a link to info about the show.

As if all that weren't enough, I had fun with food people too. One, whom I'll call Mrs Lemur, has a wonderful blog called The Lemurs are Hungry, here. I'd stumbled on it awhile ago, and made a couple of comments, so then we agreed to meet while I was in London. Have a look at the blog, which gives recipes that Mrs Lemur makes, often Thai or other Asian, always clear and interesting. Good writing generally. I met Kay Plunkett-Hogge, who is deeply knowledgeable about Thailand, having been raised there, and writes and teaches, also based in London. Her blog and website are here, lively, opnionated, wide-ranging.

I had the pleasure of a making a foraging expedition with the wonderful Anissa Helou, whose book on Offal has just been re-published. We headed north to Baldwin's, a butcher in the far north of London, north of FInsbury Park somewhere, in a largely Turkish and Kurdish area. Before the shopping we had to fortify ourselves with lachmajun, hot and delish. The butcher was very sweet, and also had a fantastic array of lamb and sheep and sausage and more... We picked up the order Anissa had phoned in, which included testicles, heads, a whole young lamb, brains, tripe, and more. Anissa needed it all to prepare a feast the following day. She wrote about the tripe in her blog Anissa, which I think all food people should bookmark.

I know, you think I've said enough about all this food and art and stuff in London. I have just a few more: I was so happy to be able to spend time with Jake Tilson, whose book about fish and seafood and a lot more besides - In at the Deep End - is now out. The writing, recipes, design, typography, art, and photographs are his - a spectacular achievement. His website is here. His partner, the amazing Jennifer Lee, is a ceramic artist, and her website is here. It's a place to marvel at her work...

Finally, I am always happy to see Richard Jung and his family. I had supper with them on my last night in London, which was extra-welcome because it was Thanksgiving Day in Canada. No, we didn't have turkey, thank heavens (not my favorite food at any time). Richard made all the wonderful natural-light studio shots for Hot Sour Salty Sweet; HomeBaking; Mangoes and Curry Leaves (where his black and white location shots also featured); and Beyond the Great Wall. I'm hoping he's available to shoot for Rivers of Flavor, my new book, about Burma. Meantime you can admire his work here.

I've come to the end of this link-littered post. Thanks for your patience: I so much enjoyed the opening out that my trip to London gave me that I wanted to pass it on.

And now I'm back in Toronto and listening to pelting rain outside. I'm happy to be snug and warm, grateful for the comforts and familiarity of home.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


It’s chilly this evening, as we pass the halfway mark in October. Perhaps I’m feeling the chill a little more because I’m tired this evening. It’s been quite a day.

I woke early, at around five (because I’m still a little jetlagged), then drove out of the city headed north. Foodstock, an event designed to raise money and awareness to help stop the Mega-quarry that is being planned for a huge area of farmland north of Shelburne, in Ontario, took place today. There are many problems with the quarry, among them its scale and also the fact that the quarry is planned to be so deep that it will destroy the water table of an area that is the source of many rivers.

So this is serious. It’s a food issue, an agriculture issue, an environmental health issue. The land has been assembled on behalf of a large US company; those who sold were told the buyer was planning to farm. Now what?

Well some locals, chefs and food people and others, decided to fight the Mega-quarry, and to do that by holding a huge event. They sure succeeded. Latest estimates are that 28,000 people came out to “Foodstock”. It’s an unimaginable number, when you think that they travelled on country roads to get to muddy fields, where they parked, then walked miles in the harsh wind to a forest, where at last they found chefs stationed under trees serving all kinds of different foods, all freely available for the suggested entry fee of ten dollars. The generosity of the chefs and farmers and others is hard to comprehend. The chefs work to make a living, and so do the coffee and tea people and other purveyors who were there, and the farmers who donated produce. And all of them were donating their livelihood to the cause.


Now the next thing is to figure out how to stop the Mega-quarry once and for all. Definitively.

In the meantime the sight of people from near and far eating pulled pork in a freshly made tortilla; or Monforte goat cheese on an artisanal cracker from Evelyn’s Crackers, topped by saskatoon berry jam, or crabapple tkemali; or Hungarian goulash served in freshly boiled cabbage leaves; or black cod on rounds of daikon from Sakura; or buffalo prosciutto (a whole beautiful leg of it) from Buca; or the stunning rillettes from a place in Collingwood (sorry I forget the name, but dazzling, young people of the best kind); or “Ontario Salad” a mix of many ingredients, fresh and lively and local, one of my faves of the day; or chowder served in a carved out bun/roll; or fresh oysters shucked right there by guys with stamina to burn; or sunchoke soup; or warming pasta e fagioli; or Jamie Kennedy’s fries, made with potatoes grown on the farm we were on; and then lots and lots more; was just wonderful, because everyone was so pleased to be there.

In between the cooks there were musicians: singers, guitarists, drummers. It was like a medieval fair on steroids. We were in a hardwood forest, with the scent of fallen leaves perfuming the damp air, and you could see the colour and movement as the crowds walked along paths in the distance, peopling the landscape.

In the middle of all those people queueing for food and eating or serving it, there was Michael Schmidt of raw milk fame, looking a little gaunt in the face. Why? because he’s on the fifteenth day of a hunger strike (he’s on water and lemon juice only). He’s trying to get the government to shift its crazy and destructive stance on unpasteurised milk. Raw milk in Ontario is treated as toxic and dangerous (while processed meats routinely sicken people with no-one criminally charged). There does seem to be something wrong with this picture, no?

In any case, there was Michael, a non-eater surrounded by a horde of people enjoying the best the province has to offer.

Meantime in the City of Toronto the Wall Street protest continues to take shape; and today the Marathon happened, thousands more people not protesting, not out eating, but instead running their hearts out.

Maybe the whole city feels like I do tonight, a little windblown and weary! Time for a hot bath, or a nip of Scotch perhaps? I have bought a new-to-me single pot Irish whisky, 12 years old, called Redbreast. That’s what I’ll start with, followed by a bath.

And in the next few days I’ll write about what I’ve been doing in the more-than-two-weeks since I last wrote here. There are pork pies in the story, and offal, there are double-decker buses, as well as thoughts of change and evolution. At this falling-golden-leaves time of year there’s the exhilaration of colour and dramatic skies, and the pang that they signal the fact that cold weather and shorter days are upon us.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I'm sitting in a nice corner hotel room in Glens Falls New York. It's been a long good day, following a beautiful day yesterday driving from Toronto to Charlotte, Vermont. I woke this morning at Susan Stuck's house, its beautiful old farmhouse proportions so welcoming, and felt rested and at ease. That's partly the effect of Susan's company, and the welcome embrace of her house, but also because I feel clear for now of the complications of the Burma manuscript, Rivers of Flavor. I've now reviewed the edited manuscript, made my own changes and rewrites etc, and just before I left home I got it all photocopied (in case the original gets lost along the way). Once I'm home, tomorrow night, I can package it up and FedEx it back to NYC.

Getting to this stage before I left Toronto yesterday was a huge boon. My head feels clearer and my step lighter.

I enjoy working hard at things. So why this pleasure at having finished this intensive stage of work? I think it's because I get anxious when I owe something to someone else. When I work hard at something for me, it's not so fraught. But when I owe the ms back within a certain time, it feels like a load. At the same time I think deadlines are desirable and useful things, constraints to keep me in line. But why this over-reacton to them? Why do they weigh so heavily? I suppose it is doubt, an undermining doubt that I will get done what I have undertaken, so I get impatient to be finished, impatient to be reassured that in fact I can and will come through in the way I need and want to.

And then I turn on the TV here and who is on? Aung San Suu Kyi talking to Charlie Rose, live on Skype. Amazing. Now there's a person who has come through. I'm sure she's had doubts, and fears. And yet she has delivered. She's talking now about democracy, clear-thinking, human rights...and the need to go step by step. An amazing world, this, in which a very closed-off place Burma can be linked to the rest of the world. This cross-linking feels like a powerful weapon against totalitarianism. She's talking about the need for awareness, the need for the rest of the world to follow what is going on in Burma, and to really pay attention. "We need change in the right direction that is steady and sustained." Listen to hear what the people of Burma want, and then help us get what we want: that's her request to the people of the rest of the world. "We need a better education sytem, better health care, a more open society...[in Burma]". "I had to learn not to let fear control me." "You have to get over the fear in order to get committed to your ideals."

It's a good reminder. Let go the anxiety, admit the fear and then try to shed it, in order to be free to take action, move forward, commit... Some people need a lot of courage, people like the demonstrators in Yemen and Syria, who are being shot at and tortured by their governments. But we all need some measure of courage every day, and that takes admitting that we all feel fear and anxiety from time to time. It's not shameful, just reality.

Thanks to everyone who came out this evening in Glens Falls to hear me talk about RIce and taste some rices, and ask questions. It was a lot of fun. I love engaging with people, especially about basic foods. So, as I say, many thanks, and to the Crandall Public Library too. I'm looking forward to my drive back across New York State tomorrow. The landscapes are so beautiful, the greens intense with all the recent rain, and the leaves just starting to turn. The Adirondacks frame the horizon here...and will keep me company for the first part of the drive. What a treat.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


It has been a full more-than-week since I last wrote here, not just because of the Toronto film festival (TIFF), though the five films I saw did take chunks out of my week, but more centrally because I am now working my way through the edits on my Burma book Rivers of Flavor. I should be spending my days and nighst at it. But of course there are only so many hours of high quality concentration time available in the day. The mind and body are very limited I find, when it comes to this stuff.

Anyway, as the person doing the line editing and generally overseeing this process said to me in a note: remember to take breaks and breathe and enjoy the spaces in between (or something like that). This evening the "break" was a meeting up north of the city of the Women's Culinary Network. There was a panel on social media and new media and I was one of three speakers. Those of you who know what a luddite I am will be surprised, I'm sure. I know nothing about using the internet for self-promotion, or about marketing generally. The two speakers who went after me talked about all that.

I wanted to remind all of us there that Twitter and Facebook and all the other connecting tools are a wonderful way of getting access to new ideas and fresh information about creative people, unheard of projects, etc as well as to hard news. I rely on a number of curatorial people, like @brainpicker on Twitter for example, who find and put up links to interesting sites or articles or videos. I am constantly astonished by what she has links to. I reminded the meeting that lots of links are not related to food, but are still important, and they can enlighten us and be relevant in unexpected ways. One such link I came across just today; it's about our sense of smell . Pretty interesting, and a surprise because it's not the way we've assumed smell works in humans. [NOTE: I put the link in, but somehow this time blogspot doesn't recognise it. If you want to have a look cut and paste the link in. The URL is" - more tech incompetence here, sorry!]

And then at the other end of the spectrum is, which gives access to in-depth articles of various kinds, real reading! Those of us who dash from item to item can soon lose the capacity to hang in for a long concentrated exposition of ideas. Longreads helps keep us tuned-up, as well as furnishing us with new ideas and concepts.

All this I mentioned, along with a list of my favorite tools and sites and Tweeters. Hope it was useful.

I also reminded myself as I was preparing for the panel, that I enjoy taking a day away from all this follwing and connecting stuff. Often it's the day I write here... A day off enables me to imagine and think about things in a longer-arc more reflective and introspective way. That's valuable, as valuable as any particular insight or piece of information that I might come upon as I explore new links online.

Sorry to go on and on about this; it's all so self-referential and suffocating after awhile, this talk of social media. I'm reminded of how often that chat sounds like people are rehearsing for life. And that's a waste, for this is it, now. We're not rehearsing for a bigger and better stage down the road once we understand things better. The whole of life is happening as we talk about it.

I think sometimes that we've been infected (or maybe just I have been infected) by the implicit and explicit message in primary school, that we'll grow and learn and improve and eventually be more able, more capable, more responsible. But in fact that message gives us less-than-useful reflexes. All of life is life. The preparation and the living out of it are all one. That's true even of our two-year-old selves. It's not a rehearsal.

And so whether it's the mundane details of social media and self-promotion, or the deeply important emotional connections we have to our nearest and dearest, it's all happening in the now, and we get the privilege of taking it on, being responsible for it, enjoying it, appreciating each breath and each moment.

Once more I'm back at this idea of balance, reasonableness, or perhaps we could call it sustainability. It's up to us to balance our screen time with our other work. And that means not being needy and greedy about tweeting and FB'ing.

Last night I had dinner at a friend's place. Her cousin was visiting from Vancouver, and that was a treat, for i met them both when I was an undergraduate at Queen's. And then a third of that band of women I knew in first year so long ago came by. I had seen her only a few times since undergrad, and the last time was nearly 25 years ago. Unbelievable! we said to each other. And yet with all those years gone by, we were each recognisable to the others, each essentially the same person, even though marked by age and scars of various kinds. How lovely, the privilege of knowing people over time, and of reconnecting with them unexpectedly at a later stage of life.

It was pouring rain last night, but I was wearing my father's wool dinner jacket, which kept me warm and dry as i walked to the subway. The chill in the air, despite today's sunshine, gave me the urge to make a skillet cake, as did the damson plums that a friend had found for me. This afternoon I made two medium-sized skillet cakes, one topped with the plums and the other with chopped apple on top. It is a sign of cold weather, this cake-baking. Another was the bread I made last week. There was some leftover white rice that was on its second day, so just starting to ferment. I added lukewarm water, covered it loosely, and left it to ferment for a couple of days. Then that water plus rice became the base for a bread dough. It included whole wheat pastry flour as well as all-purpose. NO oil. It made wonderful bread, after an overnight rise, even though there was no yeast, just the leavening of wild yeasts and the fermented rice.

We all agreed it was a treat to once again have home-made bread on hand. Now here's the question: how to make bread fairly regularly, without it becoming a chore or a burden? If I figure out the answer, I'll let you know!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


We're been returned to summer by the weather gods these last few days. I've been out in the evenings on my bicycle under huge radiant sunset skies and luminous dusks lit by the fat moon. This is mid-autumn festival time on the lunar calendar, but really so far there's no autumn feel to it at all. The axe will fall this week I think, with rain and chillier weather. So it's a very live-in-the-moment few days.

Of course this date also reminds us of the fragility of things and that living in the moment and appreciating it fully is one of our main tasks as thinking imaginative beings. Today, brilliant with morning sunshine, clear blue sky, and still-green leaves is very like in feel and weather that day ten years ago.

A wonderfully obsessive and energetic friend spent yesterday canning tomatoes, which of course involves cooking them down and then being very careful about sterilising the jars etc. She had worked her way through one whole bushel of tomatoes by the time I got there at the end of the afternoon. Bowls and pots of them in various stages were all around, brilliant gleaming redness. We had supper, then I stayed for a little while to help with the first batch of 6 one-quart jars. They got lowered into a large pot of boiling water, then had to stay there for 45 minutes. There was a lot more to do, and from a note she sent very late last night I gather she stayed up for ages putting the rest into jars.

We labour at these things, putting food by for winter, preserving in our small way the warmth and immediacy of summer by sealing tomatoes and peaches, pickled cucumber and more, and jams too, in glass jars. They're like jewels on the shelf, as richly beautiful. They are the promise of a hit of summer sunshine and optimism when we need it most, in the dark days of winter. It takes imagination to visualise that moment of need vividly enough that it prods us to engage in the long laborious work of canning and preserving. And that's why most people no longer do it. There are tin cans of crushed tomatoes we can buy...but once you taste the homemade version, and see it in a glass jar, the tins no longer seem a good substitute for home-made.

It's a question of flavour, yes, but also something about identity and meaning and connection. Food is more than a "product" or "input". If we production-line produce food, as we might a car or a computer, the end result is not comparable to food made by hand by you or someone you know well. This point is made with far more elegance and developed over several pages, in the article that opens this issue of Lapham's Quarterly, the one on Food. I often find the collections too much of a pastiche, but the food issue has some real treasures in it, such as the description by a sufragette of her experience of being force-fed. Horrific, yes, and a process that continues to this day. For example there's the woman in India, whose story appeared recently, who has been suffering force-feeding because she has been on a politically motivated hunger strike for years. Yes, years.

On this day that marks a very public violence, it's important I think to remember that there are ongoing instances, many of them state-sanctioned, many of them occurring behind closed doors, of humankinds's cruelty to fellow human beings. ("Man's inhumanity to man" is an elegant expression, but somehow feels so incomplete; so many victims are women, and also a good number of perpetrators, let's admit.)

The Toronto International Film Festival, most often referred to as TIFF, opened this week. The downtown and uptown are abuzz not just with students returning to university, but with the news of which film is wonderful and which star or director was last spotted coming into or out of this or that bar or restaurant. I've been to one film so far, with a friend who gets pass tickets. I Have another three to look forward to. I saw the second showing (a morning screening) of the Vietnamese film Lost in Paradise. It's a love story, set in contemporary Saigon, in the milieu that is toughest: the street. The central relationship is between two young guys, one of whom is a prostitute. There are many kindnesses in the film, but also many cruelties. Beautifully shot, not as tightly edited as it needs to be, and with strong acting, it's one to look out for.

No, I have no pretensions to be a movie reviewer, I promise! But the unfreedom of the lives of many of the characters, the virtual slavery of the prostitute whose woman pimp comes round to berate her and beat her if she's not on the job, for example, was a reminder that slavery exists in many forms. It's not an institution from before, but an ongoing possibility and reality for many people, in varying degrees.

Freedom and transparency are both fragile plants. They can't just be preserved in glass jars and put on a shelf; they have to be actively defended and fought for.

Meantime, on the home front, it's time for my annual small preserving routine, time to start putting up basil in olive oil. That intensity is so welcome once the cold weather comes and the garden is fallow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


As we shift into the cooler days of September, the students are arriving at the University of Toronto (just up the street) and streaming around in flotillas, some bewildered-looking, others trying to be cool... There are cars pulled up to the curb by the various residences, harried or puzzled-looking parents and spacey-looking kids unloading crates and bundles of possessions, while frosh leaders in coloured T-shirts call out info and try to direct traffic.

This annual renewal of optimism and fresh-start enthusiasm is a wonderful sight to see. I feel so lucky to live near the university, so that I am immersed in it every time I step outside. The buzz will continue for three weeks, as the new students get their feet wet so to speak. Soon they'll become accustomed to it all, cool, maybe even jaded!

I've had a great transition this week, from working on last recipe tests and retests, to actually sending the re-dos in to Judith the copy editor. Now to fill the last holes in the Glossary. There's Buddhism for example, a large topic, you'll agree. I want to give a sense of what it's about, and make a place for it in the Burma context, all while trying not to sound trite or glib. hmm And then there are the technique questions: how much to put in about deep-frying? or cooking in a double-boiler? for example.

As this stage relinquishes its grip, I am trying to get ready for the next, which is the check-the-copy-edited ms crunch. It will start in about a week. I'll have three weeks or so to get it done. In the middle of that I'm heading to Glen's Fall's New York to give a talk (on September 29, at the Crandall Public Library, if any of you live nearish-by and are interested). I need to pull my talk together, as well as images, slides they'll be, and mostly about rice, that great staple and social organiser. To grow rice with irrigation requires, when there is little or no mechanisation, a strong social organisation. People have to maintain ditches and terraces and work co-operatively. Bali is a great example of rice landscape, both physical landscapes and the social landscapes that underpin it all.

I had supper with three remarkable women on Saturday night, a last-minute assembling of a visitor, a returning friend, and two of us who've been here the whole time. We sat out in the warm night air and ate and drank and talked and laughed...losing complete track of the time. And then, amazingly, another version of the same scenario happened the next afternoon. I was at lunch at a friend's place, four women again, all of us in food in some way, with long knowledge of each other but not necessarily close friendship. And again, in the humid warm air, we ate well and drank wine and were present to each other.

I love those sorts of meals that become ships or train compartments, worlds unto themselves. And now I go back to each of them in my mind's eye and do what I like to do with old perfume bottles: lift out the stopper and have a transporting sniff, or equivalent, that takes me right back.

Labour Day is for not-work, but I spent it retesting recipes; this time my success rate was 100%, a nice change! I am particularly pleased with the steamed savory rice crepes, and a tapioca pudding with coconut cream custard on top; both of them took many tries. Tashi was great about eating sample, but it was a little gruelling, even with a guinea pig taster! Neither of them is difficult to make. The problem for me is figuring out proportions and technique, and now it's done.

I kept the computer turned off all Labour Day, for a total of thirty-six hours, until this morning in fact. It was interesting to realise how much time I put in here at the screen, looking at messages and responding, looking at Tweets and clicking on the links they throw up, etc etc. It's all part of the environment these days that is so distracting; I wrote at length about it last week.

The result of my lovely long encounters with friends together with my thirty-six hours without email or other computer connection, is that I now know I want to take a computer and internet holiday once a week, at a minimum. It will help keep my head clear I think, able to work steadily at one idea. Today my Glossary task was Buddhism and also a scattering of new entries I am discovering I need in the Glossary. I love the feeling of productivity when I can sit and engage with a task unstintingly. But then that's what life is all about, that's when we feel at our most alive: when we're deeply engaged and committed.