Monday, May 30, 2011

Bangkok is Fishy

I woke up in a sandstorm. Having camped out on the rooftop to see the stars, by four in the morning my mattress and sleeping bag were soaring into the dessert as I ran for the cover of an outhouse. Twenty four hours later my plane descended towards the glistening rice paddies of Thailand and then the glowing skyscrapers of Bangkok.

The View from Lumphini Park

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”

“oh! Yeah…haha”

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.

Crawling out of the river in the Park

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.

Fruit invasion at Chattuchak Weekend Market

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.

Me and Poo discuss Pad Thai

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 cafĂ© where fermented foods are on the menu. You heard the customs man, I need to gain some weight...

Fish massage in the Night Market

(The expression on my face would reflect equal parts me being ticklish and experiencing extreme fear of being eaten alive)

Monday, May 23, 2011

High enough for ya?

Wachan is a small village perched over a canyon way up on the Nubra Valley side of the Ladakh range. How small is it? My host informed me that three people lived there year round. Looking around his kitchen I spied him, his brother, and his elderly mother. Yup, that’s it. Did I want to see how they brewed chaang? Of course…

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).

Barley Storage beneath the floor