Friday, March 29, 2013


I feel full to bursting with ideas and thoughts. That’s partly due to my once again having left a large number of days between posts and writing here. But it’s also perhaps because it’s springtime, with sharp light and new energy, and fresh thoughts, all of them seeking expression.

I’m caught with a lot of possible entry-points. One of them is my aunt’s birthday a couple of days ago, that took her to 91. She’s not in a place where she can appreciate it, having slipped into some verison of dementia a few years ago. And yet she lives on, walking and eating and responding a little to smiles and simple stimuli. Another is the distracted place I find myself in, with projects that take my thoughts in opposite and complicated directions. 

I am giving a talk on Burma at Cornell, another quite different demo-talk at the IACP in ten days, also on Burma, and yet another in Toronto on April 11. In between there is a story to write that takes me back to a butchered moose. And as a backdrop, I am waiting around until Nou-Roz (Persian new year) is over, so that I can hear whether or not I have a visa to Iran. If I do, I then need to sort out travel arrangements, including the finding of an appropriate “manteau” or light overcoat, the basic decorum required of women along with a head scarf.

This is not a complaint, quite the reverse. I am just trying to describe the kind of time travel and geographic and idea disorientation that sometimes grips me. It’s like a kind of drug trip or stoner experience. And that would be fine – “just enjoy it by letting go” – except that I also need to be solid, straight, focussed, in order to meet some deadlines and not mess up.

Still, it’s all fun too, that life can throw up all these sometimes contradictory messages and rhythms. It’s a learning and adapting process.

This evening I went to see a film. And it, the fact of it, was a huge reminder that it’s valuable if we can push ourselves beyond the boundaries of what we know and into taking chances and risking ourselves. The film is by my friend Kathy Wazana, and called THEY WERE PROMISED THE SEA. It’s a documentary that looks at the exodus of the Jewish population from Morocco after 1956, and especially in the early 1960’s despite their reluctance to leave, and the deep unhappiness of their Muslim neighbours to see them go. The picture of Muslim-Jewish neighbourliness and collaboration in daily life, including music, is powerful.

Kathy took on the film project even though she had never made a film before. Yes she had help and advice from friends and professionals. But the fact is, she embarked bravely to make what is a wonderful powerful and persuasive film, just because she felt it should be made. She has unearthed an important and unacknowledged part of Arab-Jewish history, and has made everyone the richer.

I wrote the above last Sunday, and now here it is already Friday. I’m back from Cornell, about five hours each way with the border wait-time (under half an hour), and stimulated by the conversations and interactions I had there. It is a treat to be with people who engage seriously with ideas. There were religious studies people, rice scientists, a government studies person, Southeast Asian specialists of other kinds…there at my talk, and a dinner the previous night, because they have an interest in Burma. I felt very welcomed, very lucky to be there.

Still no news on the Iran visa. And that means that I will probably end up using my April travel window to go to Georgia instead. Each starts with a direct flight to Istanbul (Turkish Airlines flies out of Toronto, so lucky). And Georgia gives visas on arrival, thank heavens, so that last minute planning should be OK.

In this mishmash post of the fragments on my to-do list, I should mention too that the BURMA book is headed into a second reprinting. I'm thrilled that people are finding it accessible and engaging. This time I’ve been able to make some some corrections and tweaks, which feels good. They come from new understandings I’ve gleaned about beans and peas, the dried ones that are cooked and eaten for breakfast in Burma.

And finally, last, but not least, I owe a recipe for my simple skillet cake to a reader who wrote to me several weeks ago, because I had referred to it in my “Global Pantry” column in the April issue of Cooking Light magazine. Here then are instructions, in a shorthand version of the recipe:

The cake is shallow, and not hugely sweet, so it gets eaten at all hours of the day and night as food rather than sugary treat. I usually put chopped apples on top; you can leave it without, or top with cooked rhubarb, leaving out most of the wettest juice, or with berries... It's a very forgiving cake. That's the point.

 Preheat the oven to 400 fahrenheit. Oil a wide cast-iron skillet (9 inch or 10).

In one bowl beat ¼ pound softened butter with 1 cup sugar (I like to use brown) until smooth, add 1 cup plain yogurt and beat a little (you can instead use canned coconut milk - my Global Pantry suggestion - with the juice of 1 lemon, an acid for the baking powder to work with), then whisk 4 eggs in a separate bowl and add them. Add a dash of vanilla if you want. Set aside.

In another bowl combine 2 cups flour (I use a mixture, usually 1 cup whole wheat pastry floour and 1 cup some blend, or else all-purpose or whatever you want), ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder, generous cinnamon, a dash or more of powdered cloves, and stir.

Whisk the wet again and then add to the dries and stir just until everything is wet.
Pour into the greased skillet, and if not topping with fruit, sprinkle on some brown sugar for crunch.
Put into the top third of the oven.
If topping with fruit, put in the oven and let cook while you core and slice four or five apples (I leave peel on, or partly peel them) or pears, or either with a few frozen berries… and mix in a bowl with a little brown sugar or maple syrup, and perhaps a squeeze of lime or lemon juice if you want.

After 15 minutes lower the heat to 385.
If topping with fruit, add it now: take the skillet out, gently strew the fruit on top, staying clear of the edges, and put back in to finish baking.

The cake will take 50 minutes, not quite an hour. Check it at 45 minutes…the edges will be starting to pull away from the sides. Do the skewer test, to make sure the centre is cooked.

Take out and let stand for ten minutes. Run and dull knife around the edge to make sure there are no sticking places, then place a large plate over and turn over, so it sits out on the plate. Use a second plate to turn it over, so it is fruit side up.
(If you didn’t use fruit, you might want to leave it upside down; you have a smooth surface if you want to ice it…; that said I usually prefer to have it right side up).

Happy spring, Easter, Passover, Holi, and Nou-Roz to all…

Thursday, March 14, 2013


It’s a week plus since I flew into Toronto from Hong Kong on the last leg of my journey from Chiang Mai. And then I left town for two plus days of escape, so that really I feel I have just re-entered. Those first re-entry impulses: laundry, cleaning the kitchen, looking at bills and other mail, have now been exercised and it’s time to get down to work.

Because of the BURMA book, and because a lot of people have decided to head to Burma in the last year, I’ve had a steady stream of people asking for advice. Mostly they are very nice with their requests: “some ideas about where to stay, where to eat, what to eat…” is the usual request.

And so here I am writing a very straight blogpost, to give some basic info, opinionated, of course, on my views of what where when and how? to travel and eat in Burma. The advice will fall out of date fairly quickly at the rate things are changing, but still the restaurant names should mostly be useful.

Before I get started, I’d urge any of you who are interested in local food to have a good close read of my BURMA book. I’m not talking about the recipes, though they can be very useful as a guide in a new country and culture. (For example it's useful if you understand about shrimp paste as an element of flavour, umami-giving, and come to appreciate just how those curries and salads are made.) No, I’m talking about the section in the front that gives general information about the structure of meals and eating through the day, as well as the annotated bibliography at the back of the book. 

 And so I am assuming that you know that the main meal of the day, centred around rice, is usually eaten at noon. Go looking for a good Burmese or Shan restaurant for your noon meal, and be prepared to eat widely and well. The snack on the street or in noodle shops or tea shops the rest of the time.

The exception to this occur mostly in Rangoon, where there are a number of restaurants that serve big rice-based traditional meals in the evening, mostly I gather because they have become used to serving ex-pats or people eating in an ex-pat pattern.

The general rules for looking for food in another culture or place are always:
Notice what time of day people eat particular dishes or kinds of meals, and then copy them.
Go looking for food markets in the early morning.
See if there’s an evening market to explore.
If you taste something you don’t like, ask yourself why you don’t like it. Then try to figure out why or how it tastes good to others. It’s a useful exercise in understanding the elements of a cuisine and traditional eating and cooking patterns and practices.

All right, now here’s a small list of nice eating etc ideas, mostly about Rangoon:

In Rangoon/Yangon, be sure to stay somewhere reasonably central so you can walk around; tho taxis work fine)

Yegyaw Market in the east end (the extension of 49th Street north of Bogyoke Road), is small and easy to get hold of. Once you’re familiar there (try the fried doughnuts of many kinds) then you might want to poke along the huge market downtown, that runs south from the Kali Temple that is on Mahabandoola; the street market open-air part is the most fun, but in the rabbit warren of the market building there are amazing sights.

Scott Market (also known as Bogyoke Market) is for souvenirs, pearls, jade, etc shopping. Closed on Mondays. Check out Yoyamay upstairs in the SE corner, for amazing textiles; and next door the lacquerware shop, for antique lacquerware. A great place.

I love tea shops, and especially I love Mercury Tea Shop, on Anuwratha Road on the south side at about 46th Street. Go in the morning for flatbreads and beans; or have a dosa…I like their black coffee (it comes with a wedge of lime). Skip the steamed dim sum type things.

Other Rangoon noodle stops include any busy-looking mohinga stand out on the street on Mahabandoola or Anuwratha or a sidestreet, especially west of 40th Street; or else a vendor selling noodle salad. The latter will have a net-covered display of all kinds of noodles, including pale yellow “tofu” that is a Shan tradition and is made from chickpeas or other beans, and is, like the rice noodles, completely gluten-free. Noodle salads are a common and delicious snack at any time of the day, dressed with lime juice, roasted chopped peanuts, herbs, chile powder, and lots more.

And then there’s Osaka, a great little noodle shop open 5 am to 5 pm, on Bo Myat Thun Street, about 1 ½ blocks north of the railway line (four blocks or so north of Bogyoke Road). Order the shwe daung khao swe, coconut milk sauce-bathed pork on home-made (made in the shop) noodles, with broth alongside and great condiments; and the people there are very sweet.

For a spectacular sit-down meal, on any evening but a Sunday, head to Myit Sone (means “the confluence”, as in the confluence of the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State) for a Kachin feast. Have the pounded beef, a Kachin fish curry, potatoes, the steamed mixed vegetables…anything the sisters suggest to you. It’s a completely different cuisine, and a real discovery. Myit Sone is at 22 Baho Road, opposite the Chinese embassy.

The other evening place to eat, this time central Burmese food, is Feel Myanmar near a number of the embassies and very close to downtown (124 Pyidaungsu Yeiktha Street). You can pick out your dishes, food is made fresh all day, including for the evening; there is a huge range of choices, a relaxed generous vibe, and lots of flexibility. And if you’re fine with being in a tourist-oriented place, the Padonmar Restaurant on Kha Yae Bin Road has a lovely garden setting, a pleasure in the evenings in dry season.

Most other big rice meals are to be found at noontime, when traditionally the food is very fresh-made. Try Aung Thuka near the Savoy Hotel, or Khaing Khaing Kyaw (the latter takes reservations). For Rakhine (Arakan) food, with lots of delish seafood options, head to Minn Lan at lunchtime (closed the 23rd of every month). There are a number of branches of Khaing Khaing Kyaw and of Minn Lan; your hotel can help you find the closest one.

If you head out of town, I have a few recommendations. Mostly, look for the early markets; ask about market days and schedules. And be sure to find a stall with a good view and sit down for some mohinga or other noodles.

In Bagan, eat your noontime rice meal at the famously excellent open-air place under the tree in Old Bagan (and rent a bicycle to get around). Be sure to buy the local palm sugars (flavoured with coconut or with sour plum powder) and also the tamarind flake candies; you’ll be happy to have a stash to give away to friends.

In Yaunshwe (Inle Lake) where the markets operate on a five day schedule, get yourself informed about the places and days. Eat at the markets, on dry land or on the lake. Look for the delicious rice steamed (in a lotus leaf) with mashed potato and fish; and the darker coloured steamed rice that has been mixed with blood and then cooked. Try the steamed rice dumplings and ask around for peanut soup. Out in the lake, Heritage Restaurant is an upmarket elegant setting that serves an excellent lunch; reservations recommended (ask your hotel for help). The Four Sisters guest house by the river has a good dinner, simple grilled fish usually, prepared with a light hand; quirky people but nice.

In the rest of Shan State, Hsipaw for example, and also in the far eastern Kengtung (ChiangTung) north of the Golden Triangle, eat Shan noodles for breakfast: rice or egg noodles with a tomatoey meat sauce and fresh greens and herbs on top.

And for hotels etc in Rangoon and elsewhere:
In Rangoon I stay at the nice-people-but-not-beautiful Eastern Hotel on Bo Myat Thun; the East Hotel seems OK too, more central, but is more expensive .

In Bagan I stayed a couple of years ago at the Aung Mingalar (near the bus station) and liked its location and the people; reasonable price too. The market in Nyaung U is great, and busy, but now there are touts because of greater tourism. Just ignore them and head for a noodle soup near the back. Take a trip to Pakkoku, by boat or road (now that the bridge is built) where things are quiet and not at all touristed in the market.

In Yaunshwe (Inle Lake) the Gold Star is another hotel in the unfancy but perfectly nice category, and not too expensive. It’s also a great location, an easy walk to everywhere; rent a bike to excursion around. The same goes for the Four Sisters, which is small and less money than Gold Star.

In Hsipaw, Mr Charles still seems to be the best place; in Myitkyina, in Kachin State, if it ever opens again to travellers, the YMCA is very basic and a great place for conversation about all kinds of news; in Hpa’an in Karen State, the Soe Brothers is another very basic warm-hearted landing place; in Mrauk U (another place that is closed at the moment) plan to stay four or five days at the Prince Hotel, rent a bicycle, and take your time.

Enjoy! and take things as slowly as you can...

Friday, March 1, 2013


Here it is already March 1. Lots of birthdays around this time, including my lovely mother-in-law Ann (Feb 28) who died over twelve years ago, and my father Adrian (Feb 29) who died in 1969 at a too-young age. There are lots of still-alive people, close friends and some relatives too, to celebrate as well, but they should probably remain anonymous…a lovely collection.

The turn into March feels momentous every year, perhaps a little like the turn into September. It’s not yet the end of winter, but the promise is there, of springtime and renewal.

Of course I am writing all this with pictures of winter and spring in my mind’s eye that don’t at all match what I see out my window. For I’m in Chiang Mai, where it’s already hot, with a haze from stubble-burning greying the sky and thickening the air. On the other hand, this dry season blending into hot season is also, like winter, a kind of dead-plants time, that will end with the “spring” that early rains bring, greening the ground and the trees.

Meantime the first durians have appeared in the markets, a little stenchy in an inviting way, and mangoes and papayas are showing up too. Yum. Every season has its disadvantages and its compensations. I’m inclined to focus on the compensations, especially the seasonal foods, for they need to be appreciated while they’re available.

And I leave here on Tuesday, so my awareness of the glorious fruit that I’m about to miss is acute!

Toay I dropped by Akha Ama coffee for a cup of some of the best coffee anywhere (no, I know I’m not an expert, but I have to say it…) and there was Lee, the man who started it all. He’s Akha, young and loaded with creative imagination and energy, and some years ago he persuaded his family and his village to start growing coffee commercially. They’re doing very well. I can only imagine the strain and effort it took to persuade the village to embark on all this. After all, the Akha haven’t survived for centuries by being pushovers or flighty adopters of each new thing that comes along. Instead they have been tenacious survivors, brilliant and thoughtful agriculturalists with a rich material culture.

And now here they are growing world class coffee in Northern Thailand.

I wonder what this will all look like in five years…

I stopped in for coffee because I was in the area, having pedalled out to Niemenhamen soi 13 for a meeting at the best Friends Library. They are the sponsors and arrangers of my two BURMA book speaking events tomorrow. The afternoon session is small, at the Library (which has very little space). In the evening there will be more room – it’s at Documentary Arts Asia. Garrett of the Library and I met today to talk about room arrangements, food (he is doing most of the cooking, with help from friends), and the timing of the events.

It was hard for us to get focussed on those details, since we had so much else to talk about, mostly centred around the current crises in Burma – the war in Kachin State and the ongoing Rohingya situation in Rakhine (Arakan) – and the seeming failure of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be effective or even speak out with any clarity, about either. There seems to be a problem, and perhaps it’s to be expected, that the qualities that made her strong and dynamic as a persecuted opposition leader in a kind of internal exile are not ideal for dealing with the complex realities of ongoing politics. A leader needs people who argue and disagree with her/him, and needs wide-ranging discussion. She also needs a team to deal with the day to day practical details, handlers of various kinds. But Saw Suu apparently refuses to have handlers. And a leader needs to develop sophistication and strength in a team, so other people can carry part of the load and develop necessary skills. This also seems not to be happening.

It is heart-breaking to see how let down by and mistrustful of Daw Suu the non-Bamar peoples of Burma have become. It weakens the country.

Of course there is often let-down after the first euphoria of success or freedom or election. But this is deep distrust and dismay. It makes all of us who worry about Burma feel great concern.

So if you are interested, I suggest that you read news from the Irrawaddy and from Mizzima. Both are independent papers, published outside Burma.

I hadn’t intended to write about all this. It is a subject people talk about amongst
themselves, but not out loud in public much, not yet.

Instead I had intended to write about the people I saw today at the Haw market in Chiang Mai: the older Shan woman who works at the soup place I like, who walks awkwardly on legs a bowed from malnutrition in her childhood and yet works non-stop; the young women of various kinds in their platform shoes teetering through the market; the Muslim woman by the gate with a wooden leg and a baby, waiting for alms from passers-by without asking or even looking up; the mountain-grown vegetables green and bursting with life; the many languages, most opaque to my ear, though I recognise northern Thai, Yunnanese, other Chinese, Shan, Burmese…  It’s a rich brew, every Friday morning, this market opposite the mosque. There are stories and stories, I am sure.

And like most things in life, all I can do is look inquiringly, try to tune in, and know that all I am seeing is the surfaces of things. For each of us has our own story and perspective, and how much of anyone else’s can we hope to understand?