Sunday, January 22, 2012


A couple of days ago on Facebook, I made an entry about a visit to the weekly Haw Market in Chiang Mai, and said that I planned to write a blogpost about it, a post that would be like the New Yorker articles that consist of endless lists of things.

Well here I am at last, thinking about the Haw market and all that there was to see there, and also thinking about lists, and descriptions, and what they achieve...

As we (I at least, and I think many others, from what I hear) get increasingly impatient with dense paragraphs of description and explanation, the power of the written word to convey a scene or a set of descriptive facts dwindles, is no longer a power. Am I wrong about this? Does it mean, if I am right, that the photograph or other graphic, holds sway and displaces the written word? I don't like to think so, for photos have become so un-mysterious, so sharpened and hyper-realistic, that they may contain "factual" content but they have lost the power, usually, to move us.

So perhaps in wondering about the power of a dense long paragraph of description to reach us, I am asking the wrong question. Perhaps it's never, or rarely, about the factual content, and far more often about the emotional content. Those long "Along the Avenues" pieces written about Christmas shopping possibilties etc were then not just about listing things available but about giving an overall sense of plenty or sense of wonder? Were they reassuring? They were certainly NOT replaceable by a photograph, so perhaps it was the hypnotic accumulation of detail that charmed.

In which case, you need to jump on a plane and come to spend time in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city the capital of the north. Burma lies not far away to the west and north, then there's Laos to the east. The ethno-cultural landscape is diverse and endlessly interesting to me, for there are not only northern Thais (Tai Koen) and central Thais, and Shan (Tai Yai) but there are also Kun Haw, Yunnanese, mostly Muslim, who came here and settled to do more trade; Pa-O; Burmese; people of South Asian descent; and more. Many of the non-Thai people get themselves to the Haw Market every week.

The Haw Market happens every Friday in a parking lot opposite the Mosque. It's alive with people from all the marginal, minority, and otherwise generally unacknowledged peoples who live in and around Chiang Mai. The faces of both sellers and buyers are very different from the crowd at Wararot Market or the large bustling wholesale market Muang Mai. Cheekbones are higher, skin often much darker, and many walk with the easy rolling gait of a hill person or farmer. Some speak Thai, others operate in Yunnanese or Mandarin or Burmese, or Shan.

And what they are selling is equally a blurring of the lines and a widening of the boundaries: celtuce, large and healthy, and spinach ditto; strawberries now in season; eggplants long or round, pale mauve or yellow; cherry tomatoes larger than small and all shades of red merging into pale green; piles of purple-red shallots and ginger and every kind of herb, from sawtooth herb and Vietnamese coriander to Thai basil and coriander and herbs I can’t name; masses of greens of all kinds, including pea tendrils and Chinese kale and other brassicas with white flowers and yellow flowers, as well as round pale cabbages and Napa cabbages, and more. There are red and pink and almost-mauve fat large radishes; squahes of yellow or orange with green speckling; long beans and sword beans; red rice and brown and black and white rices of varying qualities and prices.

The blue chickens by the Chinese woman stare across at the large plastic vats of pickles surrounded by a crowd. The seller, Chinese-speaking, is trying to get people to be orderly. But it's hard to hold back when you see deep barrels being emptied: the barrel of fermented tofu, four feet deep, was being scraped clean. The vats of pickles were also going fast.

Then there was the prepared food, being cooked right there. Women in headscarves fry beautiful little samosas and Shan tofu, others serve soup in wide white ceramic bowls or grill flattened black rice cakes, or fresh corn fritters. I bought a small bag of freshly hot black sticky-rice doughnuts, as a tip of the hat to Robyn Eckhardt and Dave Hagerman, whose favorites they are; I knew they were at the same time in a plane flying to Turkey, headed far from the delights of palm sugar syrup and rice doughnuts. I also had a generous bowl of mohinga, Burmese soup over fine fresh rice noodles, with bits of banana stem in the soup and crispy wide soy bean crackers to break up into it for crunch. Even full to bursting I couldn't resist a couple of pieces of semolina cake, a Burmese treat. I ate half one piece with my traditional Thai coffee and scarfed down the rest later in the day.

But then other temptations appeared as I kept wandering: small cubes of fried tofu; some nanpyar, Burmese style flatbreads... I resisted the air-dried strips of spiced beef, the Shan tofu, both fresh and deep-fried, the luxurious smooth Shan soup, usually my choice; as well as stacks of fresh fruit. I did buy a beautiful almost perfectly round avocado, hass -style. And to go with it I picked out a handful of small limes.

The crowd was dense and very focussed on the food. Chinese New Year meant there were more buyers and more sellers that usual. I saw several young Lisu men in New Year's finery: one had lime green draping swaying pants on; the other had shiny pale blue with silver speckles pants,very dashing and eye-catching.

Now two days later I've just eaten the avo, shared it with Fern, my friend and collaborator on immersethrough. We mashed it coarsely, added a dash of fish sauce, lots of squeezed lime juice, and some freshly pounded black pepper that my friend Allison gave me. She'd bought it in Cambodia, a place known for its peppercorns. The avo was perfect (Fern has taken the pit away to see if she can get it to germinate) and I'm feeling very well fed.

The firworks have started pop-pop-popping and bursting with a loud bang as the town revs up for Chinese New Year. We’re headed out of the year of the rabbit and into the year of the dragon, traditionally viewed as powerful and very auspicious. I’m just hoping for a year with fewer world-wide catastrophes, better outcomes in Syria and Egypt and neighbours, and continued progress in Burma’s process of opening up and democratizing. I guess I’m saying, let’s hope for some reasoned and reasonable peace in Burma and everywhere else, and for the strength to cope with grace when things don’t go our way.

Happy new year everyone….

AND A POST-SCRIPT: My Burma cookbook is now in design, so exciting, and we now have a title, for sure and final, which pleases me enormously. It's called PINCH OF TURMERIC, SQUEEZE OF LIME: Recipes and Travel tales from Burma
I can't wait to see the galleys, which are due to arrive in a week or so. Whew!

1 comment:

Robyn said...

Thanks for the tip of the hat, Naomi, but I would have preferred one of those donuts. Even if we were on our way to Turkey. ;-) Lovely post!