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.