Saturday, June 11, 2011
From Bangkok to Ko Chang, a photo essay on why I am digging Thailand.
My Lumphini Park neighborhood in Bangkok. It was so hot and humid the camera lens started to fog.
Fried morning glory doused in fish sauce and chilies.
Yen Ta Fo- a noodle soup full of all sorts of things from fish dumplings to tofu to ingredients I have yet to familiarize myself with. This particular bowl is from a street vendor on Sukhumvit road, per suggestion of Austin Bush, by way of his amazing food blog.
Fried squid on Khao San road at about 1 am.
Assessing said squid with characteristic sweat stain from messenger bag, 1:15am.
During bus ride to Trat, we stop at a roadside market/restaurant, where I gesture to a tasty looking mysterious curry dish...delicious of course. I taste basil, lemon grass, and whoah chillies!!!
Trat is actually a pretty little town, but this picture was taken from my room while they were spraying the streets for Dengue Fever and it looks quite eerie.
Why I loved Trat...
Fried rice from the Trat Night Market indicated in the previous picture.
The pier in Ao Bang Bao, on the southern tip of Ko Chang. My hotel is lost in the hubbub somewhere out near the left end.
Monday, May 30, 2011
In the airport the Indian customs official looks up at me, and then back down at my passport photo, then back up to me, and back down. Something is wrong. Could it be my hair? It’s long in my passport photo, but I cut it so I wouldn’t have these kinds of problems. Or maybe it’s something to do with my VISA?
“You have lost 10 pounds”
“Since this photo, you have lost ten pounds”
He stamps my passport and hands it back to me. At first I am skeptical, but later in front of a mirror I notice that after 11 months of traveling I now bear a slight resemblance to Christian Bale in the Machinist. Better gain some weight in Thailand. Of course, this is not exactly a herculean task. Between mango with sticky rice and coconut chicken curry (marinated with the ubiquitous kefir lime, chili, basil, galangal, and lemongrass), I have returned to my passport photo weight in under a week.
Bangkok is hot this time of year, and nowhere more so than the slum of Klong Tuey. But it is here where one of the biggest fresh food market in all of Thailand (maybe all of Southeast Asia) does a brisk trade. Whether you are in the mood for fried insects or spiky fruits which are clearly the first wave of an alien invasion, there will be row upon row of producers offering stacks, piles, buckets and bags for fewer thai bat than you can believe.
Today I got a guided tour through the Klong Tuey market by Kun Poo, a local chef who has started her own cooking school in the slum (nicknamed “cooking with Poo”). What I am looking for specifically is Pla-Ra, an indispensable ingredient in northeastern Thai (especially Issan) cuisine made of fermented fish. For a hilarious introduction, check out this ad for the Thai post office. In case you didn’t know, the Thais are crazy about their fermented fish, even when it’s consumption poses a huge health risk. I missed it at the market, but when Poo hears that I am interested she runs to get her stash so that I can put it in my green papaya salad.
Most Farangs (foreigners) are less than excited about eating fish that has been rotted on purpose, but it’s why I am here. In the next few weeks I hope to follow Pla-Ra, and it’s more refined counterpart Nam-Pla (fish sauce) from bowl to boat. Which is why next week I will be cruising down to the eastern coastline to search out the factories where this stuff is fermented (often for a year or more!) and maybe even jump on an anchovie fishing sloop. We’ll see. For now, I am sampling liberally from every street vendor and hotel café where fermented foods are on the menu. You heard the customs man, I need to gain some weight...
(The expression on my face would reflect equal parts me being ticklish and experiencing extreme fear of being eaten alive)
Monday, May 23, 2011
Wachan was just one stop on my recent week-long wander through the Nubra Valley. Located northeast of Leh, Nubra is a majestic river valley carved by the confluence of the Shyog and Nubra rivers. To get there, you have to take a share taxi over Kardung La, the dubiously self-proclaimed highest motorable pass in the world at 18,630 ft. I didn’t throw up, and that was an accomplishment.
That little house is Wachan, The Hundar Druk
By traveling this route, I was unwittingly reenacting a centuries old migration, whereby traders from the southwest –carrying wool, barley flour, marijuana, etc.- would make their way slowly up and over the endless glaciated peaks and passes of the Karakoram spur down into Xianchiang, China, to sell their wears in towns along the silk route. The mountains that rise majestically up from this alluvial plain support the Siachen glacier (largest outside the arctic?), the battle field between India and Pakistan which stretches all the way to K2.
Me and my Favorite Travel companion...Kamb
For five days (one day of travel on each end) I scrambled up scree slopes and threaded my way through endless seabuckthorn -nature’s own razor wire- to find myself peering down the prehistoric valley, the towns like tiny green jewels strung along the azure thread of the Shyog river. When thoroughly coated with butter, Tagi Kambhir - a Ladakhi bread which resembles a thickish pita pocket- is a perfect meal for hiking. Take two steps, now two breaths, now two bites, two breaths, two steps, rinse and repeat…
A Spunky Amale shows me how she brews Chaang
Wachan Chaang, A recipe:
1. Take a sack of barley and boil it for three hours
2. Let sit until cool
3. Add four yeast balls purchased from Leh Market
4. Let the Chaang “sleep” for four days
5. Drain off water and bingo, barley wine that is good for up to three weeks. Drink liberally with tsampa (extra barley flour).
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Mike, my trekking partner, was a 43 year young sailor, surfer and music enthusiast from Philly. He carried in his backpack: a sat phone, GPS, topo maps, cliff bars, wet wipes, etc. I carried: a non-functioning water purifier (you did test it before we started right?) and several novels. But I spoke 30 words of Ladakhi, so I considered it an even partnership.
The trip began in Alchi, a tiny village on the banks of the Indus dotted with 11th century Buddhist temples and the pinkish-white blossoms of apricot trees in full bloom.
The man who ran our homestay smiled patiently and with a dismissing wave, shook his head “Mangyu la, Hipti La, not possible”. In our defense, this is the kind of pittying, you-helpless-foreigner reply that often greets such modest and wholly accomplishable tasks such as walking into town (not possible), digging a hole (not possible), or doing anything for yourself ( definitely not possible). In retrospect, I wish he had jumped to his feet, pointed his finger at us ominously, and declared in a mysteriously amplified vibrato “You are idiots! If you attempt such a feat of ignorant naivate, your future holds naught but endless scree slopes and icy butresses, each foot-fall will be more uncertain than the last, your bones will ache and your head will spin, you will go through many high calorie energy bars without reaping sustained levels of capability so advertised on the packaging! DOOM, DOOM, DOOOOOOOOMMMM!!!!”. But he didn’t…and so the next morning we set off bright and early for Mangyu.
At about 12,000 feet or so, Mike and I found a tiny spring, sending forth what we assumed was a miniature stream of pure Himalayan glacier melt. Pleased with our good luck, we filled our water bottles, and despite the out of order water purifier, toasted to the fresh taste of clear clean mountain waters. Just around the next bend we discovered the partially buried pipe from which our “mountain spring” had flowed out through a leak. When we reached the opening of the pipe, two dzhos (half cow half yak) stood perfectly content, munching hay and relieving themselves gratuitously into the little stream. When Mike got sick two days later we blamed it on the chow Mein.
We finally proved our host in Alchi wrong by reaching the Hipti La at about six thirty in the evening.
Cold and stunned by how exhausted we were, we descended towards the village of Tar at a reckless pace. It was pure luck that the first house we came to in Tar happened to be a homestay. That night, as we drank chaang by the cooking stove, Mike looked over at me, and with a silly grin he muttered “That was one of the hardest things I have ever done”. I nodded sagely and allowed my cup of chaang to be filled again.
In the morning, planting began. Thus, we were privilege to the planting ceremony which is supposed to bring good luck in the coming season. Mixing Tsampa (barley flour) with chang, the family made an offering of several large dough cones, each topped with a bit of butter. Then, every person (including Mike and I) was anointed with a dab of this chang-shul, and sprinkled with Tsampa. The son was adorned with a full face mask of changshul, and after being coated with an auspiciously exorbitant cloud of tsampa, led the team of Dzho’s around the field as they pulled the plow behind them.
Later that morning we climbed out of the canyon which separates Tar from the Indus, and pulled ourselves across the fat green river in a basket suspended from a cable. Then it was on to Lama Yuru, another pastoral village with yet another 11th century monastery perched on cliffs above. Naropa came through here on his travels and meditated in a cave, still preserved within the monastery’s walls.
Here, Mike got sick, so instead of hiking over the Prinkiti La, we caught a cab to Wanla, which, surprise surprise, is a picturesque little town with an 11th century Gompa high up on a spire overlooking the valley. The next morning Mike recovered, so we set off up the Prinkiti La, a barren labrynth of tight canyons, pock marked with the tracks of goats and snow leapords.
Exhausted but happy, I am back in Leh for the day. Lassi's are on the menu. More to come the next time I can get an internet connection.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Amitov Gosh: The Hungry Tide (audiobook)- a novel set in Sunderbans area south of Kolkatta, uber articulate, good for 10hr train rides through sparse scrubland.
Arundhati Roy: Listening to Grass Hoppers- New Delhi novelist’s non-fiction essays on Democracy, Progress, and Nationalism, again uber articulate, depressing but fills you with righteous indignation.
Ramachandra Guha: Makers of Modern India- historian provides intro to selected writings of influential Indian politicians and philosophers, Gandhi and beyond. It’s shear size makes me grateful that I am not trekking at the moment.
Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom – Indian Nobel laureate in economics argues that freedom is both the end and means of development. The articulateness in these books is stupefying, and this is no exception. To balance this out, I have been switching back and forth between these titles, and two equally substantive, if not as expressively eloquent, textbooks on microbial ecology (intro to theory and lab procedures).
Anand is a smallish town (pop 200,000) in southern Gujurat which just so happens to be the center of the Indian Dairying Universe. In 1947 Dr. Kurien started the AMUL dairying cooperative in Anand, and through his influence, this model swept the country in the “white revolution”. Now, AMUL is one of the worlds largest dairy cooperatives, processing over 500,000 liters of milk per day. On a recent visit to Anand, I got to visit the AMUL plant along with the Institute of Rural Management, and the Microbiology Department at the Anand Agricultural University. At AAU, I the good fortune of meeting Dr. J. B. Prajapati, coordinator of the Swedish South Asian Network for Fermented Foods (SASNET), and head of the lab at (get ready, take a breath) ICAR Niche Area of Excellence Functional Fermented Dairy Products with Synbiotics, Department of Dairy Microbiology, SMC College of Dairy Science, Anand Agricultural University (or…ICARNAEFFDPS,DDMSMCCDSAAU). It was awesome…
To begin with, two of Dr. Prajapati’s graduate students showed me around the lab. In one room: the CO2 chamber where they cultured anaerobic strains of probiotic lactobacilli bacteria. In the next room, the High Performance Liquid Chromotography apparatus used to analyze the metabolites produced by those cultures. Imagine a weirder and much geekier “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Max and the Microbe Mill?) except that the stuff in the test tubes won’t turn you blue, just improve your digestive health and possibly boost your immune system. I couldn’t believe it-there were actually people who were more excited about the science of fermentation and probiotics than I was. When my guide showed me his freeze drying set up for packaging commercially available probiotic bacterial strains my heart skipped a beat, and when a student explained how she was doing her thesis on a probiotic whey drink with a mix of bacteria and yeast cultures I had to be resuscitated.
After lunch in the mess hall, and the full tour of the Ag college, I got to sit down with Dr. Prajapati for a brief history of SASNET and a general survey of fermented foods in India. SASNET is a network of researchers who meet biannually to promote the study of fermentation and its connection to human wellbeing. From what I can tell, they have their work cut out for them. The list of fermented foods that have originated in the subcontinent, or have successfully transplanted here is stunning; Handwo, Khaman, Dahi, Dokla, Dosa, Idli, Jalebee, Kulcha, Bhaturar, Warrie, misti-dahi chaas, uttapam, bhallae, vadai, chaang etc… and this is not including the hundreds of regional variations, or the over 10,000 different kinds of ferments that Dr. Jyoti Tamang has catalogued across the Himalayas. Which is pretty exciting, considering my plans traverse this geography from Rajasthan to Kerala, and K
olkata to Laddakh.
Finally, Dr. Prajapati had to say goodbye. But, to top it all off, I got to hop on the back of a motorcycle and visit the market for some tasty Khaman (fermented gram flour, fried with spices, sprinkled with cilantro)-a specialty of Anand. Then it was back on the bus to Ahmedabad, to catch a train to Udaipur early the next morning. Which is where the story will pick up next time.
Dosa dough spinner
P.S. I wish I could recall the names of the two graduate students who graciously served as my guides and interpreters. They were fantastic and I can’t thank them enough, though unfortunately anonomously.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Getting to know the city can be tough. To explain why, I need to cite a well-known neuroscience experiment referred to sometimes as the “kitty gondola study”. In this study, researchers manipulated the ability of kittens to explore their environment and found that the ability to process visual information was contingent upon the kitten’s agency. In other words, if a cat is unable to explore it's environment through its own volition, the visual cortex develops abnormally. Even if the freedom-deprived cats are put in a sling coordinated to mimic a free partner's movements, those ‘gondola kitties’ are unable to develop the fully functional visual cortex’s necessary for spatial reasoning. Analogously, I find it impossible for me to know a city, to perceive its atomic units and their logic, until I have navigated it under my own direction. This makes Ahmedabad a bewildering place for me. The city is nearly impossible to walk through. Perched in the back of a rickshaw like a human version of the “gondola kitten”, my mental map of the city undergoes daily permutations something like an urban Rubics cube.
So, for the last few days I have ditched the rickshaw as much as possible and taken to the crowded streets by sandal. Most walks have been unplanned and haphazard, but this morning I was able to participate in a guided heritage walk through the old walled part of the city. Ahmedabad is divided in two by the Sabarmati River. On the east bank lies the old city ca. 1400, a warren of interconnected neighborhoods known as Pols (ie: house). With ancient terraces (girded in mythical elephant-dragon-lion figures hand-carved from Burmese teak) overhanging narrow alleys, the old city is markedly different from where I spend most of my time here- the bustling broad-laned sprawl to the west of the Sabarmati. However, there is an underlying rhythm to life that unifies these disparate arrangements of space, and it has a sound track.
For me, space is intricately linked to pace, and I am beginning to orient myself to both by way of sound. Ahmedabad starts it’s day like an old car, increasing noise with motion. Put. Put. PUT!. With the highest density of two-wheeled transportation in south Asia, the symphony of horns begins at six, builds till 10, and crescendo’s until after midnight. For a few moments in the evening, when the sun goes down, the speed of the city downshifts audibly. Roadside temples open up, people crowd around blocking traffic, and the music(?) begins- drums, gongs, symbols, bells- so loud it hurts. Then it is back to random firework explosions, cows mooing, and the constant undertone of a million differently tuned rickshaw horns. In a funny way, my spatial perception of the city- it’s distances and volumes- grows and shrinks in coordination with the landscape’s musical score.
Now I measure the distance to Gandhi’s ashram on the Sabarmati by tamber and tempo. At ten in the morning, it is ten minutes of soft rickshaw rumble. By mid-day, it is a twenty minute free jazz solo by a Million Mediocre Miles Davis Mimics (car horns), and at sunset the full band has taken over, but the length of the song depends on how many people are getting married along the way (nightly wedding processions gleefully take over entire roads, with the groom riding on horseback to his brides home, accompanied by a marching band and firework tossing mobs).
In the unification of space, time, and noise, all of this is but a prelude to the real show (as far as I am concerned). Setting the stage for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. This post is long enough as it is, so I will leave the gustatory highlights of my experience thus far until next time. But, as a preview I can tell you that the Thali has rocked my world, and that fermented foods of mention include Dosa’s, Idli’s, and Dahi. For now though, I can tell, by picking up on the intro to a tune I have titled “Slight Lull in Mobile Saxophone Burping”, that I have to go to lunch.