Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wildlife Spotting: Macaques in Prachuap Khiri Khan.

The gulf-side town of Prachuap Khiri Khan is famous partly for its cheap, delicious seafood, but also for its abundance of monkeys. Around the city center, they can easily be observed wreaking quiet havoc: sifting through trash, starting fights, nabbing bananas.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Let it snow.

Growing up in New Mexico, I was accustomed to celebrating Christmas without any snow. Though it was always cold by late December, snow usually fell only a few times a year, rarely stuck, and melted quickly once it had settled on the ground; basically, statistics were against me having a white Christmas. The few rare holidays where we did actually have snow were thus all the more memorable.

Last year, we came absurdly close. I flew home from South Africa a week before Christmas: a long day and night of traveling that had began with an exhausting six hour delay at the Oliver Thambo airport in Johannesburg. After a rushed connection in Washington DC, I was almost stranded in Chicago with the news that the city of Albuquerque had been swallowed in a winter storm. Thankfully, our flight was granted clearance after only a two hour delay. I arrived in Albuquerque long after dark, to find my hometown blanketed in a sugary layer of pristine snow.

By the time Christmas arrived, however, most of the snow had melted- only shallow icy mounds remained, cowering in the shadows of houses and large trees. Christmas passed, and just before New Years another snow storm arrived- even bigger and more devastating than the first. Roads were blocked, businesses closed; I had never seen anything like it. Since our cars were encased in white cocoons on the driveway, we trudged out on foot, exploring the incredible white landscape of the city transformed.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas in New Mexico.

I spoke to my parents this morning; apparently they're getting a snowy winter in Albuquerque this year. Then, an hour later, I took the laundry downstairs, and found that two big packages from home had arrived, filled with Christmas presents. So my thoughts are on home now. Albuquerque, New Mexico is most beautiful in the summer, when the trees are full and green, and the vast blue days give way to sudden, dramatic thunderstorms. But Christmas-time also carries a certain charm. The weather is usually chilly if not snowy, with long freezing nights and bright days of biting cold sun. The city is at its most bare- leafless trees revealing sunbleached streets lined with modest pueblo-style homes. The cafes and boutique shops in Nob Hill provide a great walking street to pick up last minute presents, or to enjoy a Christmas cookie and a cup of coffee. Since my ideas of New Mexico at Christmas are obviously bundled up with a lot of childhood memories, I'm willing to admit I'm being nostalgic. But, in my defense, the city does have a number of local traditions for the holiday that make it special.

The most recognizable of these is the luminarias that appear everywhere around Christmas. Luminarias are brown paper bags, weighed down with sand and lit from inside with tiny votive candles. Toward the end of December, they appear along rooftops (which are traditionally flat, in New Mexico) all around town. Though they're just plain, everyday lunch-bags, they warm up with an unbelievable, orange glow when lit. Last year on Christmas eve, after a dinner of posole and enchiladas, we walked around Old Town. As a big tourist draw, it's always fully decked out for the holidays, and the huddled adobe buildings looked particularly charming in the glow of the luminarias. The massive snowstorm of the previous week had already melted away, and the air was feeling just as dry and crisp as the brown glowing paper itself.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bangkok Snapshot: Satay Seller on Rama IV

I eat breakfast every morning, so I'm never hungry on the way to work. But even so, the smoke coming from this woman's grill- heavy with the warm exotic scent of charcoal and spices- always smell tempting.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I'm say stop global warming.

Last week, I picked up three handmade postcards being sold by the students of my school. Apparently designed to promote several environmental messages, they had a charmingly simple, graphic style. The first was a cute drawing of an elephant, accented with plastic butterflies.

The second was a sweet misquoting of the "I am not a plastic bag" purse, which is currently one of the hottest knock-off bag designs in Bangkok.

And this one, of course, had obvious appeal.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Painted Stork.

Back in July, Bordeaux and I visited the Chiang Mai zoo, mainly so that I could see the beautiful Mekong Giant Catfish. While there were a few odd elements- a confusing layout and an abundance of concrete trees- it was a rather impressive zoo, with a wide range of animals scattered throughout the beautifully landscaped forest. One of the most intriguing aspects of the zoo was the use of hand-painted signs to identify animals. With their bold colors and dramatic lettering, they made even the penguins look like stars in an action movie.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

View of Lion's Head #4.

Cape Town is a great city in which to fall in love, perhaps if only because the backdrop of Lion's Head can make any outing into an exceptional date.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Punjabi Family Mela.

Yesterday morning, as I slowly finished my mug of coffee, I scanned the events listings in the back of the BK magazine. I'm living in a city that is still strange to me, and one of my personal goals is to search out new experiences in order to get a better sense of it. Nothing caught my eye until I came across a minor post: "Punjabi Family Mela. International Family Fun Fair in a Punjabi cultural environment, with bargain shopping, fantastic food and games." While the words "fantastic food" intrigued me, I was equally put off by the words "family fun." I read the advertisement to Bordeaux, and within minutes he had decided that we were definitely going.

We took a taxi, and after some confusion, arrived at the gates of the Sikh International School. We were a little early, but most of the activities were already set up. At the center of the grounds was a stage, watched over by rows and rows of empty plastic chairs. There was a large grassy field, on which were scattered a bouncy castle, a ferris wheel, and several booths offering carnival games. There were two uninspired gift stalls, one offering brightly colored plush toys, and the other with a range of kitsch Indian products. Most significantly for us, however, there was an impressive range of food stands being operated by a number of Indian restaurants from around Bangkok and Thailand. So since we weren't in the market for incense, and didn't feel like playing 'human foosball', we took the opportunity to spend the afternoon enjoying some delicious, cheap, Indian food.

For our first course, we sampled two different kinds of chat. One was a plate of thin pastry puffs, which could be filled with a sugary potato and chickpea dressing, and dipped in a sour-minty sauce. The second was a mix of puffed rice cereal, tomato, crackers, and spring onions, mixed in with the same minty sauce.

Within an hour, the crowd had grown steadily. Hundreds of Sikh men and women strolled the school's gardens, stopping to chat in the shade, and encouraging their children to go play. Bordeaux and I explored the games area once a crowd had developed. The human foosball court was still abandoned, but a few lone riders were taking part in the rather desolated amusements. A surprisingly large group had gathered at the "Dunk the Guy" booth, however.

Worn out by the midday sun, we decided to return to the shade and try a more substantial meal. The offerings at the stand catered by Bawarchi looked particularly delicious. They had a large team of cooks working at the grills, making bright red chicken and lamb tikka. We ordered two dishes from them: a Sikh tikka, and a dish of paneer and roasted vegetables. Both were served on plastic plates, with two large drops of chili and mint sauces. The Sikh tikka was a little strange- the lamb had a slightly rubbery texture, and a strong kaffir lime flavor that made it taste more Thai than Indian. The paneer, however, was incredible. The spicy sauce that coated the cottage cheese was delicious, the paneer had a nicely grilled flavored, and the tomatoes, onions and peppers were perfectly roasted.

But as good as the paneer was, the highlight of the day were the beverages we tried. Earlier that day, upon our arrival, a man working at Ali Baba had beckoned us, and recommended that we try the Badam Charbat (pictured left), which he described as an almond drink. It had a thinner texture than I expected, more like soda the milk. While I could detect the flavor the almonds, the strongest taste was the rich spice of cardamom. It was perfectly refreshing for the already hot day, and started the mela off on an invitingly exotic note.

Later in the afternoon, as the heat began to rise, we each ordered a mango milkshake (pictured right) from the same stand. We took them with us as we sit in the audience of the stage show. Earlier that day, the stage had been occupied by several impressive Punjabi singers, and a group of teenage girls performing a lackluster folkloric dance. As we sat down on the wamr plastic seats, a team of teenage boys were just finishing their dance routine. As they walked off the stage, they were replaced by two hiply styled men, who announced it was time for the children to play a game. They called all the children in the audience to come to the stage- resulting in dozens of shy, protesting young girls trying to hide next to their mothers. The men on stage admonished them for not coming up, and their parents tried to harangue them into going. One poor girl two rows in front of us was urged by her mother and aunt, and eventually admonished by an unrelated women seated nearby. We sipped the creamy mango shakes, enjoying the relief from the heat, and grateful that we weren't there with our families.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Rice porridge for two.

Down Sukhumvit Road, near the On Nut BTS station, there is a string of food stands gathered under a long awning. I pass them daily, and have for some time been curious to try them, but since they're only open during the day while I'm at work, the opportunity never seemed to present itself. Recently, I noticed that one of the stands sells rice porridge- and that it seemed to be extremely popular in the mornings. So, to satisfy my curiosity, Bordeaux and I left for work a little early today, and stopped for two bowls of rice porridge.

There was an impressive line at the rice porridge stand when I arrived, but the husband and wife team were working quickly, so I soon reached the front. I ordered two bowls of rice porridge- with egg- while Bordeaux bought too cups of hot coffee and two twisted donuts. Within a minute of sitting down, the two large white bowls were brought out to us. Perhaps based on my memories of oatmeal, I had imagined that the rice porridge would be a flavorless gruel. I was rather surprised. The dish was piled with grated ginger and sliced spring onions, which added a strong, delicious flavor to the milky porridge. The egg had been cracked raw into the bowl, and was slowly cooking in the hot dish. It added a nice flavor, as the yolk swirled in with the grainy broth. While the pieces of liver (and other, unidentified pieces of meat) were a little chewy for me, they added a nice hint of flavor to the porridge. The donuts we had on the side were also nice- if a little oily. And in fact the porridge was actually such a generous serving, that we didn't really need them. All together, it was a surprisingly flavorful breakfast.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Bangkok Colors: Blue-green

While not really a single color on its own, this family of hues reflect Bangkok's aquatic nature. The faded aqua doors and chipped sea-foam shutters of old houses are revealing of Bangkok's past, when the city was originally aquatic, and navigated by swampy canals. And while perhaps more commuters now take the bus or the skytrain than the river ferries or khlong boats, this past is practically relived during the rainy season, when the sois and highways flood with rainwater.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Bangkok Snapshot: Pineapple truck.

As the sun faded over the umbrellas and stands of the Khlong Toei market, I noticed this guy picking pineapples one by one out of an open truck. The light hit him perfectly- bathing him in a golden shine that made him match his pineapples.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Black sticky rice.

Yesterday, after loading up our shopping bags with fresh vegetables, Bordeaux and I came across an old couple selling black sticky rice at the Khlong Toei Market. I had first seen black sticky rice in Chiang Mai, during a market tour taken with my cooking class. Black sticky rice (kao niow dhom), or purple sticky rice as it is also called in English, is unhulled; the dark pigment of the hull bleeds in cooking, giving the rice its deep crimson color. I encountered it again among the markets of Laos; and though I ate countless balls of white sticky rice during my journey along the Mekong, I never got to try black sticky rice. So, more out of curiosity than hunger, Bordeaux and I bought a bag.

Our black sticky rice was scooped into a plastic bag, and topped with a quarter-inch slab of caramel colored custard. Together, they created an interesting combination of textures and flavors: smooth and coarse, sweet and wheaty. The rice actually tasted best on its own, as the hull that gives it its color also gives it a grainy flavor that white sticky rice is lacking. The difference in taste between white sticky rice and black sticky rice is less like the difference between white rice and brown rice, and more like the difference between white rice and it's non-relative wild rice. I will definitely keep an eye out for black sticky rice again in the future, and I would love to see if I can find it in any savory dishes, where I imagine its grainy flavor would serve it well.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Spicy ice cream.

Siam Paragon is such an enormous shopping center that there are many corners I doubt I have ever seen. Today, on the way to check out the Beard Papa stand, Bordeaux and I stumbled upon Spice Story, a colorful shop tucked away on the ground floor near the Food Hall. It appeared almost unreal- an invitingly perfumed spice merchant, appearing out of place in the air-conditioned uniformity of the shopping mall. The shop front was decorated in a bold mix of lurid reds and purples, with glowing silk lanterns hanging in front of saturated paintings. Inside, under photos of Chinatown spice shops, baskets were heaped with bags, and shelves were lined with glass bottles, all filled with an amazing range of spices. Flavors on offer were both local (dried lemongrass, galangal, holy basil) and exotic (Chinese five spice, wolfberry, curry leaves, mustard seed). And somewhat surprisingly, the prices were drastically cheaper than at any Bangkok supermarkets.

As an added bonus, this shop featured a small cafe, which had an ice cream counter. They had only a few flavors, but each one was intriguing: chili, cardamom, ginger milk tea, lemon grass, green tea poppy, cinnamon and orange, and black pepper. According to a posted sign, each ice cream has its own curative properties, covering such ills as stress, fever, and stomach pain. We ordered two scoops to share, deciding that cardamom and chili would go best together, and sat down at one of the tables inside the store. The couple sitting next to us were enjoying lunch, which appeared to feature a mix of dim sum and one-pot dishes. It looked delicious, and gave off a strong, exotic fragrance. The waitress brought our ice cream in two glass bowls. The cardamom sorbet had an intriguingly citric sweetness that lingered after the first note of cardamom faded, making for a nicely refreshing dish. Served with a dash of chili powder on top, the chili ice cream was intensely creamy, with a rich milk flavor that faded into a sharp chili after-bite. We enjoyed both, and I'll likely be returning to sample more- if I'm able to find it again.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Yellow Chicken with Rice on Thanon Convent.

The thing that I love most about my job- more than shaping young minds, or the challenges of teaching- is my schedule. I have time after my job to relax and pursue other interests- and on Wednesday, I even have an extra long lunch in which to see what Bangkok is like during the work week.

On this past Wednesday, Bordeaux and I met in Sathorn, an attractive urban neighborhood. We headed down to Thanon Convent, a tree-lined street that is lined with cafes and street-food stands. We weaved among the queues of office workers, to a stand selling kao moek gkai: yellow rice with chicken. We were tempted by the sight of the yellow rice, which the chef scooped out of a giant metal drum. We placed our order, and a minute later the waiter set down two heaped plates in front of us. Of Southern Muslim origin, it is very similar to a biryani. The chicken was juicy, and the rice was richly spiced with tumeric and a suggestion of cinnamon. It came with a dish of sweet-spicy chili, a salad of cucumbers, and was garnished with a topping of carmelized shallots.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Breakfast at Lumphini.

Though I'm not nearly as nocturnal as I was in college, I'm still not an early riser. Waking up at 6:40 in order to commute to school is a fair challenge for me, nearly impossible without a strong cup of coffee. Yet last night when I read a note on the Nancy Chandler map mentioning breakfast stands in Lumphini Park, I convinced Bordeaux that we had to set our alarms for 5:45 in order to go.

Set beneath the high rise towers of Sathorn, Lumphini is the definition of urban-exotic, with unusual trees and tropical palms clustering along well laid out pedestrian paths, and with ornate pavilions and pagodas resting on the banks of a placid lake. As described in the guidebooks, the grounds of the park were crowded with people exercising in the pale early morning light. There were older women slowly moving their bodies through tai chi practice, young people biking, and dozens of older men in too-short running shorts. There were also less expected sights, like elderly women wielding swords, and several couples stepping through ballroom dance moves to a blaring big band record.

Though there was much to distract us in the park, we were in search of breakfast. We crossed the park, and stepped out onto Soi Sarasin, where a number of food stands clustered against the park's northern fence. We walked past several stands, who offered dim sum, noodle soups, porridges, and many other highly fragrant dishes under wide umbrellas. Coffee was our first priority, however, so we waited to choose one until we could find a stand brewing coffee in tin kettles.

We stopped at a roti stand, which featured a kitchen built into the back of a truck. Two girls were working in the back: one rolled out balls of roti dough, and the other flipped them onto the grill. Bordeaux asked if they had 'kaafae thung'- the thick, rich bag coffee- and one of the waitresses nodded yes. As we tried to figure out what to have for breakfast, a helpful jogger stopped to translate for us. He asked if we wanted coffee and, pointing to the grill, asked if we wanted the breakfast combo. There were several plates going out at the same time, so it was difficult to tell what we would be getting, but we hoped it would be something with roti.

Unfortunately, it was not. We were first brought the coffee, which was actually Nescafe. We were then brought our breakfast, two platters of an 'American style' breakfast of eggs, ham, and a sausage, clustered around a salad with mayonnaise dressing. While not terribly exciting or flavorful, the meal benefited greatly from a heavy dose of chili sauce, and was perfectly satisfying. We enjoyed the breakfast slowly, listening to the conversation of the old men and women sitting around us, and the calls of the lottery ticket sellers.

As we were eating, an older gentleman sat down at the table with us, and showed us what we should have ordered: a plate of scrambled egg and roti, dripping with condensed milk. After finishing our large breakfasts, we were feeling satisfied- but I was too curious to leave without ordering the roti scramble. Despite what the picture above suggests, it was incredibly delicious: buttery roti coated in fluffy scrambled eggs, sweetened with the syrupy milk. We managed to finish the whole plate without trouble.

Despite the challenge of waking up early, I'll certainly return; and next time I'll make sure to get a cup of real coffee, and to order the roti scramble.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shawarma on Soi 3.

Somewhat peculiarly, one of my favorite Bangkok street foods isn't Thai, or even South-east Asian. The small alley off Sukhumvit known as 'Little Arabia' is distinctive for its abundance of Middle Eastern restaurants and businesses. Walking down the tightly packed alley, among the calls of touts and the sweet scent of hookah smoke, I feel more like I'm in Syria than in Bangkok. This atmosphere spills out of the crowded alley into the surrounding area, and along neighboring Soi 3 are scattered a number of Middle Eastern restaurants.

Down Soi 3, across the street from the Grace Hotel, a small Lebanese shawarma seller stands squeezed between the Bamboo Bar and a take-way pizza window. There are only two options, beef or chicken, but both are so delicious that you would never wish for anything else. After selecting, you take a seat at the metal sidewalk tables, while the sharply-dressed chef carves the meat, wraps it in two layers of pita, and grills it briefly to toast the outside of the wrap. The meat is perfectly flavored and textured, and significantly better than most 'Middle Easten' food stands in Bangkok. But most impressively, each sandwich comes with its own set of accoutrements: the beef is sweetened with a minty yogurt and a suggestion of parsley, and the chicken is complemented with pickled vegetables, crisp french fries, and a deliciously creamy garlic sauce. Such incredible attention to detail can only be the result of the chef's true love for shawarma, which will surely by shared by anyone else who eats here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

View of Lion's Head #3.

I can't imagine that Sea Point would look nearly as glamorous without Lion's Head providing a surreal backdrop for its modern apartment blocks.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Photo Essay: Loy Krathong at the Golden Mount.

Though I missed Thanksgiving, I got to enjoy a Thai holiday this weekend: Loy Krathong, the festival of floating lights. Celebrated after Thailand's khlongs and rivers have been flooded with the rainy season's bounty, Loy Krathong is meant to pay respect to Phra Mae Khong Kha, the water goddess. To celebrate, people set adrift krathong, candles floating on bases made of either banana tree trunk, bread, or polysterene. Loy Krathong is most famously and scenically celebrated in Chiang Mai and Sukhothai, but can be seen all over the country.

Bordeaux and I spent the day walking around old Bangkok; from the moment we stepped off the Chao Phraya ferry, we began to encounter tables lined with krathong for sale. Throughout the day we explored Thonburi on foot, and encountered many temples fairs began set up; we saw carnival stands being erected at Wat Kanlanyamit, and crowds of teenagers at Wat Arun wearing t-shirts with anti-alcohol messages. In the evening, as we waited for the krathong to be set afloat, we got caught up in the temple fair at the Golden Mount. One of the most famous temple fairs in Bangkok, the narrow alleys and lanes were packed with carnival games, food stands, and masses of people. With the fair's throngs of people, neon lit amusements, and tables full of knock-off goods, it was an unusual introduction to the holiday.

We waited just long enough to see the krathong being set afloat on the green waters of the khlong. We watched the candles drifting and slowly burning out on the water, enjoying the peace and tranquility after the chaos and frenzy of the fair.