Yea, the weather was a bit unusual…

We may have mentioned it in passing to some of you or maybe even somewhere in the depths of our musing here, but as near as I can figure we can’t say it enough. Signs of human impact on the world’s weather systems seem clear to us from our travels. While our evidence and stories remain anecdotal at best, I think they still need to be shared. Every voice on this issue should be heard. 

Two days ago in the NY Times, an Op-Ed piece by a farmer, Jack Hedin, out of Rushford, MN, shared his observations on weather patterns and their detrimental effect of an extreme nature over the past 3 years in a piece entitled ‘An Almanac of Extreme Weather’. This piece hits home here as we work towards opening a store and later small farm ourselves in the coming months to years. I highly recommend his piece if only to provoke some discussion on more thoughts on shaping our food systems here in United States. As conversations in and around the politics of food and sustainability in smaller farms gets more and more divisive with some posing it as a selectively ‘elite problem’ I want to suggest that soon, we may all be at the mercy of far greater issues beyond food price heading right down to food scarcity brought on by increasing extreme weather conditions around the world. Smaller farms that work towards sustainable practices, I’d argue are very much our hope for changing the weather systems to something more positive, if we can grow the base and add farmers that are interested in this. 

An unseasonably cool early summer in Northern Thailand

One of our first stops of our travels, landed us in a little known province of Northern Thailand called Isaan. There we were lead by Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents of Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance on a tour a famers that were working their land by paying attention and working to sustain their local ecological systems and have limited negative impact to these ecological systems they’re a part of and in turn were making positive impacts on their community. In our brief ‘Sustainability Study’ saw evidence of micro-climates that were preserving indigenous plants and animal life on farms such as Paw Jo’s, whose farm stood out in the sun drenched drought stricken fields of the Thai summer like an Oasis in the desert. And it literally was. Paw Jo had noticed that on his land he had a pond, a forest and the cultivated areas of land that he’d been using for a number of years and rather than clearing the land where the pond or forest sit he’d decided to let them stay and instead plant near and amongst these indigenous features. The pond and forest, being on his land, adjacent to his cleared and cultivated area acted as a barrier to pest and disease. At every turn of conversation he would chime in something about his garden and land as his medicine. And his strong hands, healthy body and clear eyes and sense of humor all spoke loudly in support of these claims. Take a look at the man Paw Jo and a few glances at his farmland and gardens.

Paw Jo, watching a few birds fly in over his test ‘dry-season’ red rice crop.

Paw Jo

Looking out from the entrance over his pond and into part of his forest.

 

The Pond and Forest Protect and Provide

A look across a neighbor’s farm over to Paw Jo’s in the background.

 

It Sticks Out

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Ciao Italia!

Maybe we mentioned that we really hit it off with an Italian back in Thailand. Tracie and I chatted with Francesco and another varied group of new friends which included a delightful Italian woman, Alice; a Frenchman,Sebastian;  a Russian, Alex; Jules, an Indonesian and of course a number of Thais that lived and worked on the farm and a few Americans, French and Canadians passing through. Several times a day over breakfast, lunch and dinner we ended up chatting with Francesco. We all worked on various aspects of volunteer work at Pun Pun throughout our stay there from watering the farm to seed saving and shared stories throughout the day and over the delicious and exciting meals of one another’s travels and dreams of the future.

One day, over a meal, it came up that Francesco had a farm back in Italy. I think we had been talking about earthen building and he was talking about which technique interested him for building an earthen  barn for his horse back home. He said it was a shame that we didn’t have Italy on our itinerary and that it would have been great to have us come and cook with his mother and aunt in their home kitchen. We mentioned while we hadn’t planned to go, our itinerary was up to us and open-ended and we probably could find a way. I mean, it’s Italy, right? Italy, farming, food, more adventure and a place to learn more, that fits into our mission for this trip. So, we told him that and he said, “..then you must come…no, you must come…you can come and cook with my mother…”  

Weeks later amidst the turmoil of Beijing we finalized the last of the when, where and how of Italy and set off for Milan. We were set to meet Francesco about a week out and decided to head to the Milan area where my friend Peter from NY was living and hopefully we would get a chance to see him as well. So, like that we shifted things around for the hundredth time it seems and headed somewhere we didn’t expect.  Francesco and his girlfriend were away when we arrived, so in the meantime we explored Milan and then headed out to Lake Como and basked in the glory of the Italian way of life. Ciao, Italia!

It’s funny, because up until like a day before we met up with Francesco, we weren’t certain it was all going to work out. While a wonderful and charming individual, and possible one of our luckiest finds on the trip, Francesco is more than anything Italian, and things tend to hang in the air a bit and succumb to discussion before ever finally being settled upon. So, the day before we finally got in touch with him over the phone and made arrangements for travel to his hometown and pickup from the bus stop.
Once, we sat down in his Fiat Panda 4 x4 and headed over to his home, the mystery of Francesco that had built up in our minds began to unravel and the treasures of the Calvi family began to unfurl.

We dropped our bags that day and headed out just to visit and feed the animals and water the plants at the farm or cantina as they kept referring to it here. Because, of course, on the farm there sits a cantina, where the wine is made. In the Calvi’s case it’s a two story rock house, built over a century ago by his great grandfather and used in generations since in continuation of their family tradition in making their own wine and caring for and raising their own food.

The Calvi’s farm is a bit over 3 ½ hectares, it doesn’t sound like much and many would probably think it isn’t, but it’s more than enough for this small family to keep a lovely vegetable garden, grow grapes, care for a vast array of fruit trees and raise chickens, ducks and a horse.  Francesco just wanted to show us around that day, kind of get us the feel for their farm.

He showed us his beautiful horse of 19 years Artu, who had rolled around in the mud that afternoon after Francesco washed and brushed him before we arrived. He walked us over to their vegetable garden and we helped out with watering a bit. His brother Giovanni had just started a spiral shaped design garden bed where he was practicing the principles of bio-dynamic farming to raise some of the vegetables for the season to come. Then walked us over to his own area where his girlfriend, Chiara, and he had started their own plot, having just returned to Italy after a long trip abroad.

After, the garden, we walked across the fields to see the full breadth of the property. A small grove of grapes grows just above the vegetable garden, about ten rows deep, enough to make wine to last the family over a year. A few fields seeded with hay for the animals and laying low for the plans ahead. A gentle jaunt and we were down in a forested creek area where he shared a wonderful sala he was building. He was amidst constructing the platform for retreat from the hot days under the sun, or simply to retreat and meditate on the life rushing around him. We sat there for a bit listening to the light wind rustle the leaves above and the lull of the spring nearby, settling our souls down into our stay.

Next, we were off  across the field where we happened upon one of the many cherry trees and within moments Francesco was up in the tree ripping fresh ripe cherries from the tree. Cherries that burst forth the fragrance of Italian hillsides and floral bouquet of the ripest summer. The flavor was sweet balanced by a bitterness and slight acidity that kept us as reaching for more. From there, we took a lolling walk across the span of trees and listened carefully as his spoke of all the varieties. Peaches, Pears, Apples, Figs, Walnut, and Almond.

That evening was meet the family night. As we alighted up the stairs Francesco, grin a mile wide, braced us with a “…are you ready to meet the family?”  We were of course, actually I was elated with anticipation with meeting the Calvis.  Francesco had been up until our arrival a bit of a mystery in the background department. While we stayed with Peter, on the day we left he had become so concerned that we were heading into the arms of a serial killing stranger that he told us his apartment was ours if we needed a place to escape. Of course, we knew Francesco it’s just what he did for a living and pretty much all of his past that we were clueless about. He’s one of those humble people that actually don’t talk about themselves all the time. It was his heart and open arms that attracted us to visit and it was his family’s open arms and welcoming table that let us know we were safe and at home.

That evening we sat down to nettle lasagna made by Francesco’s mother Carmen. Wait, saying that lasagna was made by his mother may not really get across the the full effect. They harvested the nettles from the family farm, Carmen made the pasta and the nettle filling and the bechamel sauce that gorgeously blanketed the perfectly cooked noodles. We shared wine that Francesco’s dad Pepimade the previous year and finished it all off with a lovely torte she had also made earlier that morning.

The next few days we helped, but mostly watched, Francesco build his platform down in his forest by the stream and finished off our days off weeding, building trestles, picking cherries and watering the garden before setting off for delicious meals whipped up by Carmen. Every time we all sat down, the conversation around the table always wound back around to…”ok, what are we going to eat tomorrow for lunch, what for dinner…?” I joked with Francesco about it at the table when I was listening to his family I could only understand about 10-15 percent of what they were saying so I said “…I’ll bet your talking about what to cook for tomorrow, right?”  He laughed and said they were and then his Mom was curious what we were laughing about and he explained it to her and she said “…Well of course! We have to plan what to shop for and what to pick from the garden!”

I can’t stress how central food is to the Italian day. I mean, you can count on one thing in Italy when you are traveling if you want to eat lunch, you better do it when everyone else is or you won’t be eating for a long time unless you can cook somewhere for yourself.  Lunch is from about 12:30 to 1:20 or 2pm. After that it’s shuttered grates and closed shops. It’s like the whole country goes on break for two or three hours.

And staying with Francesco was no different, every day we met around the table at the same time 1pm. Carmen would always time it to be done right as Pepi walked in the door. It was crazy.  And everyone ate at home generally; the only two times that we ate away from his house for lunch was once on the second day of our visit and once when we traveled for two hours to spend the day at the river, both of those days we picked up Salame and Prosciuto from a local butcher, bread and gathered fruit that we picked from the farm.

On Friday evening of the second night of our stay with the Calvi’s on our way back from the farm we ran an errand to get a specific cut of meat (brasato) from a particular butcher that Carmen had requested for our planned  team ravioli production for Sunday morning. That evening she seared it off and started the cooking, a short two or so hours, just until tender. That was put in the cooler for the next two days. On Sunday morning, we started ravioli production. This commenced around 10:30AM, we had to have lunch on the table by 12 on Sunday, I mean come on it is a day of rest. I walked into the kitchen and Carmen had already measured out the dry ingredients and mounded them on the table for the pasta and I caught her as she was cracking the few last eggs into the mountain of flour (these recipes follow people).

She mixed about a kilo worth of pasta dough, working the whole for about fifteen minutes. Then Carmen showed me how to take the Brasato that she’d braised and minced it down super fine and added  some of the braising liquid to taste, a few eggs and a good helping of Parmesan and I mixed it into a velvety farce for our ravioli to come. We spent the next forty minutes or so and made about 300 Brasato Ravioli, a specialty of Liguria, as nearly all the dishes Carmen shared with us were, rolling out the pasta paper thin and filling them full of the farce. By 11:50 the raviolis had hit the pot and the sugo was already done. She had even made a Porcini and tomato sugo especially for Giovanni, Francesco’s younger brother who is a vegetarian.

I feel like with Carmen’s Ravioli, I just barely am starting to understand the meaning of what it is to make great pasta and great ravioli. And I’ve made pasta for years now. In fact, everyday I learned something new about cooking and about myself and my relationship to cooking for others. I could cook with Carmen for years and learn something new everyday. Now, you probably would love to hear about all the other food she cooked, all the textures, all the subtle changes in flavor and the bright and freshness of it all, but my eyes are tiring as I expect yours are as well so I’ll try and list everything she made for us: Cotoletta di Milanese, Risotto di Milanese (rabbit liver and peas – amazing, truly), nettle lasagna, Brasato Ravioli, lentil soup, Torte di Ciocolatto , Torte di Albicoca (Apricot), nettle noodles, and i’m sure I’m forgetting something.

The food was amazing! And everyday we spent some time at their lovely farm. Even after spending a whole day at the river, we took a back road to the farm to feed the animals and water the garden. That day, Carmen and Pepi were both already there and had watered some of the garden. After we helped out with the rest we walked over to help Carmen and Pepi cherry pick. Pepi has got to be in his late sixties. The man hopped up into a cherry tree like he was a ten year old. Mind you he’s probably been picking from these very trees for years, but he made me in my silly sandals feel like an invalid. My extra height and weight only served to make me dangerous in picking cherries from up in the tree and I resorted to reaching at them from the ground.

When time came to leave and say our goodbye’s, as I gave Carmen a hug, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an Aunt I wasn’t going to see for a while. She seemed to have a bit of glassy eyes and we were sad to go too. Serendipity brought us to Francesco and the Calvi family and well wishing and a lot of love sent us away.

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Face It

This is the first time that I've been to China in my whole entire life. I was born and raised in the States, a Jersey girl at heart. When I was really young, all I spoke was Cantonese. But basically when I hit nursery school, the rejection started. I hated going to Chinese school on Saturdays, I just wanted to be like the rest of the kids. I wanted to fit in and speak English, goddamn it! So my Cantonese slowly declined to the point where now all I can do is order verbally at restaurants in Chinatown. And forget about Mandarin, I can barely count to ten even though I took a semester in college. 

So I knew it was going to be tough traveling through China without being able to speak or read. But the actual experience has been a lot more nuanced than I thought it would be. Weirdly enough in Hong Kong I felt like I fit in. I could understand at a basic level what people were saying, more than I thought I would. People didn't bat an eye if I spoke to them in English or if I replied in mangled Cantonese, it was all good. Being illiterate in Chinese was not a problem, there was usually some sort of translation into English that was good enough. The only places where it was an issue were some of the small restaurants, but perhaps if I had had enough time I would have gotten up the courage to go in and try to ask for recommendations.

Mainland China is a whole other ballgame. Sometimes it's been so frustrating I want to cry. Or at least have a giant sign that says "我不会说中文" ("I don't speak Chinese") so I don't have to say it again for the ten millionth time. Everyone automatically assumes that I speak Chinese, which is fine and normal. At first I would say "I don't speak Chinese very well" and they'd talk a mile a minute and still expect me to understand. So I switched to "I do not speak Chinese". Period. End of story. However, they still launch into a whole long dialogue. Very unhelpful. 

In Thailand people mistook me for being native – which I was surprised about since I don't think I look Thai, but I soon found out that people thought I was Chinese Thai. So people would start speaking in Thai, but at least when I indicated that I didn't speak it, they backed off a bit, tried English or hand signals, and things worked out. They weren't rude in their reactions, maybe a bit curious, but it was easy to deal with.

In China people are totally confused and have no idea what to do with me. It has never in their minds occurred to them that a Chinese person could be Chinese without speaking it. So I've gotten to the point where I've figured out how to say "My grandparents are from Guangdong, I speak Cantonese, but I was born in America, I'm an American" in Mandarin. (Of course, being in Western China, they snort at the Guangdong part.) And they STILL don't get it.

If I don't open my mouth I look like every other Chinese person on the street, even if I dress slightly differently. In fact, when I'm not with Wayne it's like nobody sees me, I'm just part of the crowd. I think it confuses them even more that I'm with Wayne. Just tonight, I was sitting on a rock waiting for him, and this little kid comes over and starts climbing on the rock next to me. OK, no problem. Wayne shows up and we're talking, and the little kid looks over and I swear he fell off the rock with the most horrified look. (The "OMG I've never seen a white person before in my life and I'm going to stare at him for an uncomfortable period of time" is a whole other blog post completely.)  "White person with Asian person? DOES NOT COMPUTE!!" and you see smoke coming out of their ears. Sometimes I think they think I'm his tour guide or something. 

The most frustrating thing about it is that I want to communicate. I want to be able to ask about how the noodles are made, if they like the city they live in, where's a good place to eat, what they recommend doing, what's village life like. But I can't. So I have to stay in my role as a tourist, just passing on through and gawking. Which is fine for now, but I'm looking forward to being able to converse on a deeper level with people like we had the opportunity to in Thailand and Hong Kong.
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Reflecting on our Thailand Sustainability trip from China…

One of the most difficult things about traveling for me, has been taking time to reflect on what we’ve seen. Especially in big cities. In the city, coming from the city,  it very easy to fall into the rhythm and pace of a big city whereby our play acts as a substitute for work. We work hard to find places to go, things to see, good places to eat. It’s not as easy as you think. I hear some of you laugh, but I challenge you to try it. You learn something about yourself and one another when you’re lucky enough to travel with the love of your life.  After all, what it comes down to, is we’re living, simply living. Sure we’re not in a production mode right now, we’re not “producing” anything for the better of humanity, but how many of us, when we are, truly are anyways.

But every place we’ve visited has left an impact on us and I think we have something important or at least interesting to share about every place, it is getting to writing about that that is the hardest thing on the road. When, there is no internet, we’re focused on traveling and when there is internet, we’re focused on planning traveling. It’s a weird thing. So, today we’ve taking a moment out from traveling, to do a bit of reflecting and relaxing. Also, taking time to actually pay attention to where we are and what’s happening here and now.

This moment, I’m thinking about Thailand and how our Sustainability Study trip in Northern Thailand and then our extended stay at Pun Pun has impacted our ideas and thoughts about what we’ll do when we return and also, how we can approach everyday a little differently, even while we travel.

Tracie spoke a little about Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents, but I’ll quickly go back over a little about them from my perspective. From the moment we met Jo in the Isaan province of Thailand, we felt a sense of peace and comfort. Jo is one of those people who exudes wisdom and calm from his pores. It is hard to explain, but his energy and sense of caring for others and the land are something some spend entire lifetimes trying to achieve. A sense of enlightenment. Filled with humility, wisdom, sense of humor and itinerant knowledge. But he’s just a man, just this farmer from Thailand, who is willing to share his experience and hope to create a more sensible world.

Peggy takes that humility and warmth and brings it down to earth and balances it with a touch of realism and well rounded jovial punches and laughs. She’s come to Thailand, fallen in love with the people and the land, and become a native Thai. What Jo lacks in style, settling for a more simplistic and
utilitarian view on life, Peggy comes balances out with a sense of style and grace. You see it in how she raises her son Thon, in the finishing touches of the buildings and systems of Pun Pun, and in her everyday dress. Yet when it comes to teaching self-reliance, she’s on par with Jo, taking no-nonsense approach and sharing her willingness to jump into the mud pits and give a hands on tutorial on earthen brick-making or how to make soap from common ingredients. Not only was our trip a tour of sustainable communities, it was also an in-depth immersion in how to become self reliant.

Over the course of ten days we visited five different farmer communities/families, all of which had one major theme intertwined: “Self Reliance”. Jo used this phrase repeatedly as did many of the farmers we visited. As Peggy and Jo explained it to us, many of the farmers that had returned to the land to farm, and do so organically, were committed to more than just a return to farming. They are very committed to showing and sharing with other Thais and communities ways to become self-reliant and become independent from the consumer driven economies that are seeming to tear the natural world apart. This is not to say that they are against all technological advancement or many aspects of modern society; rather, they have found that for all the good that a consumer-based economy produces, it is not outweighed by the free time lost. In farming, the consumer-based economy has meant a life full of debt, here in Thailand and abroad. Farmers have to buy a specific seed that the government wants one to grow, which requires a certain amount of fertilizer, which increases over time as yields decrease, the inputs into the system become greater and greater, and the debt to keep up becomes ever greater. Many farmers left the farm to pay off their debts by working hard in the city, only to return to the farm with an economic collapse in the early 90’s in Thailand. Jo, and many of the farmer’s we met were directly influenced at this time, to reflect and figure out a way to do it on their own.

For them it wasn’t about disconnecting from society – that is not self-reliance, in fact it’s the opposite. It is about connecting with your communities and sharing with them in the methods each other use, to increase yields in the fields, to sharing of water purification ideas, irrigation, water supply issues, waste management, and the list goes on. It took a gross failure of a consumer based society structure to give people the TIME to figure out better ways. Self-reliance for all of the farmers we met equals more free time, which for farmers like Jo means more time to conduct workshops, to go visit other farmers, to share ideas, to share a meal, to share a story. To live. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? And the fact is, for most of us it sounds like just a dream, but if you really take a look at your daily needs and what makes you happy, you may find that this sounds more possible than impossible.

Take a look at some of the photos from our Sustainability Trip and our stay at Pun Pun that we’ve posted over on <a href://http://www.flickr.com/photos/emptyhighway/>flickr.com</a> that we’ve linked below. Talk to you soon, the sun is coming out in rainy cool Chengdu and it may be time to go out for a walk and enjoy the day.
Isaan, Thailand: Photos from the Province and photos from Pa Jo, an amazing farmer there…

Bahn Si Than: Jo Jandai’s village

Suan Song Fan: An Organic Farmer’s Collaborative in Isaan Province

Pun Pun, Northern Thailand (Outside Chang Mai)

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The King and I

In Thailand, the King is everywhere. And when I mean everywhere, I mean you can't go a day without seeing some image of the king on a poster, a banner, money, calendars, you name it. Every time we entered and exited a town, you'd see a giant banner over the road in royal yellow with his portrait, and everyone had a calendar with images of him and his family in their homes and businesses. The nostalgic black and white photos from the 50s seemed especially popular.

People really seem to love him – he is like an uber popstar beyond Michael Jackson status. Legendary to the nth power. I sort of felt like he was a benevolent spirit watching over us as we traveled through Thailand. And I think I figured out why all of the portraits are from the three-quarters view – he's got an ocular prosthetic!

Random trivia fact: he was born in Mount Auburn hospital in Cambridge, MA. 

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Everyone’s a Designer

A few months ago I had been reevaluating my understanding of what the practice of design is. I had been so focused on the web for the past couple of years that it was hard for me to see beyond the pixels – usability, elegance, web standards, etc etc. After attending the Better World by Design conference in September I realized that many of the projects I was interested in were collaborative, contextual initiatives that were focused on a process rather than just the end result, and some had nothing whatsoever to do with the web. I was totally lamenting my lack of skills and knowledge in other mediums because it seemed like so many of the presenters had such specialized knowledge. Then I sort of shelved all this thinking because I was like, dude, we're going on a trip!

But! Once we got going of course I couldn't stop thinking about design. Some of the things that I've seen on this trip now have me completely convinced that everyone can be a designer – if I just tweak what my definition of design is.  It's not about years of schooling, in fact it's quite the opposite. It's really about jumping in, trying things out and learning from mistakes. It's about knowing a little something about everything – from physics to plumbing to chicken wrangling to business basics – or asking somebody who knows about it or reading up on it. It's taking your resources – whether it's skills, people, materials, knowledge – and figuring out a process to serve some kind of purpose. It takes creativity to mix those things together and to see constraints as a positive aspect. And  it's being honest with yourself about the success of a process, and figuring out where you can make improvements or even to start all over again.

We saw ingenious solutions for dealing with water, from capture to storage to irrigation to filtering to making it hot, and they were created with a minimum of technology and parts so that maintenance can be easily done by many people. Various composting processes take advantage of the climate or properties of different microorganisms. I could see the design evolution of the earthen buildings at Pun Pun, where successful features like termite-proof concrete foundations and spaces under the eaves for air circulation have been incorporated, and formulas for exterior finishes have been refined over time. It's also been helpful to have other community projects that I've visited in the past like Bulungula to compare with to see how specific environmental and cultural conditions impacted the solution to similar problems.

Gaining experience doesn't have to take a lifetime, either. A short tutorial with a morning practical of building adobe bricks, and then plastering and painting a bench in an afternoon, made building so much more approachable, tangible and possible. It seems like the key is to have hands-on workshops where people can get a taste for a particular process and then they can take it as far as they want, and to constantly circulate people back into the community to share new techniques and successful methods.

You can't discount the power of collaboration in this definition of design either. Nobody knows everything, and it's so much better to share that knowledge; people who are new to it may have some great insights into a process because they're fresh to it. And above all a successful project is dependent upon possessing complete confidence that everyone you're working with is one hundred percent capable of being a great designer. 

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Addicted to Chilies

OK, I'll admit it – I've been adding chilies to my breakfast lately. My tolerance for spice seems to be getting higher the longer we're in Thailand and food seems to be missing something when there isn't any heat. Dare I say…boring? When we're in the States, I eat Thai (or at least Thai-style) food at least once a week (shout out to my former coworkers/lunch buddies at Six Apart!), and have been dying to know what makes it so addictive. Beyond the chilies.

When I think of Tom Yum soup, or any of the curries, or Pad Thai, the fiery spiciness is always mellowed by a sweetness. And the sweet is never too clingy because there's a sour-fishy-pungent-ness that follows. At least if you go to a good Thai place that gets the balance right. To find out what makes Thai food tick, we joined a vegetarian cooking course at Yousabi, which is now part of Pun Pun farm (which I've written about here). Krid, our awesome teacher for the course, led us through eleven dishes in two days. As we made our way through the dishes I kept adding more and more chilies – MOAR  SPIZE PLZ!

The basic pantry of the Thai kitchen is very straightforward: palm oil, palm sugar, fish sauce (although we used soy sauce as a substitute during the course because it was vegetarian), and coconut milk. Palm oil gets a bad reputation but is actually a really good oil to cook with because it has a high smoke temperature and has a neutral flavor. This also makes it ideal for frying. Palm sugar is an ingredient that I've never encountered before, but it was in almost every dish we made – and I think it made a big difference in melding all the flavors together and what's been missing in my former attempts to make Thai food at home. Fish sauce is used instead of using straight salt and gives the food that pungent flavor. Coconut milk provides the sweetness that balances out the heat.

Key herbs and spices include chilies, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and galangal. If you can't find all of these fresh then you're shit out of luck for making fresh curry paste. We also made use of tamarind juice and lime juice to add sour notes. Other handy ingredients include kaffir lime/kaffir lime leaves/kaffir lime peel, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and black soy sauce. The most time consuming part was making the curry paste. I definitely wouldn't skimp on that part, it makes a huge difference in flavor when you make it yourself – and of course with a mortar and pestle, food processors don't really allow the ingredients to release all of the flavor.

Then pretty much it's the combination of the basic ingredients, either as a curry or a stir fry or as a soup, with tofu and veggies in a wok, either with rice or noodles, and you've got homemade Thai food. It seemed amazingly simple and I wondered why I've never done it before. Pad Thai is a breeze! Green papaya salad, no problem! Even making soup was quick because we weren't laboriously making stock, we were just boiling a lot of the herbs together to make a light broth. Once you've got the ingredients prepped, the actual cooking part happens very quickly. Thai food seems to be about using cooking heat to release the maximum amount of flavor and color in a short amount of time.

Here's the recipe for Penang Curry, my favorite dish we made. Amounts can be adjusted to your liking, don't be afraid to eyeball it.

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PENANG CURRY
For the paste:

  • dried red chiles, soaked for a bit and then minced
  • lemongrass stems, chopped
  • large chunk of galangal, sliced
  • shallots
  • garlic

Combine these ingredients in a heavy stone mortar and pestle. Mash until it's almost smooth. Then add

  • 1 tsp. Coriander seed
  • 1 tsp. Cumin seed

Preferably these have been dry roasted beforehand. Continue pounding the mixture until is is a paste.

For one serving:

  • 1 ½ tsp palm oil
  • long beans
  • eggplant
  • tofu
  • ¾ cup coconut milk
  • 1 tsp palm sugar
  • ½ tsp fish sauce (or dark soy sauce)
  • roasted peanuts, crushed
  • slices of fresh red pepper and kaffir lime leaf for garnish

Add palm oil in a wok over low heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add at least a heaping tbsp of curry paste, or to taste. Fry the paste for a bit. Just before it starts browning, add 2 tbsp of coconut milk. Continue to fry the paste until the oil from the coconut milk begins to separate from the paste. Add vegetables to the wok (long beans, eggplant, tofu). Add the rest of the coconut milk.

Now add the palm sugar and fish sauce, stir to combine. Add a bit of water if it's too dry. Turn the heat up and cook until the vegetables are cooked but firm/crisp. Add the crushed peanuts. Garnish with the red pepper and kaffir lime leaves, serve accompanied with rice.

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I will be hitting up the Thai grocer on Bayard St. when I get home, that's for sure.  I  really have no excuse for being lazy and not cooking at home and going out for cheap Thai food, because now I can make it exactly how I like with as many chilies as I like. Anyone ready to come over for dinner?

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You mean you’re not from around here? You don’t say…

We haven't really said much about what it feels like to travel around in lands where we're mostly illiterate and probably come across as more deaf mute than anything with all of our pointing, grunts, waving and facial movements that we use to get our ideas across. 

Singapore, was more of a slight introduction to Asia, with it's clean lines, new buildings, ordely systems and missing old people, but where is the chaos and the brash shouting and lack of concern for who was first and who's turn it is anyway? Where's that vibe of foreign that rings so true in small places in the states like NYC's Chinatown.

Oh, here it is, Welcome to Bangkok, Thailand. Sawadi Kup/Ka! This is where that familiar surliness you've been waiting for comes out from yours truly. 

Actually we got a good dose the chaotic feeling in Hong Kong, where our connection to Singapore was so close that we were shuttled through the staff security checks and through immigration just so we could make our connection, but that was even laden with tones of organization that were latent from western values. (Which I have to say, we could learn something from back in the states about their ability to do this. I mean people were actually waiting for us and had a list of the passengers that needed to rush over there. That has never happened in the states, it always equals a missed flight.) 

Savvy travelers that we are, using the “if you walk to the empty line far away technique you'll move faster” logic, we quickly saw where our cultural ideas could be stripped away. The queue we chose for immigration for our tourist visa, while short, was the longest wait, as one person belabored over each passport and traveler. Our line seemed laden with United Arab Emirates, who because of their Arabic wrap and dress, and passport origin, were drilled a barrage of unknown questions. Once they were proven non-threats, they were allowed passage. 

Once through, we walked to several information booths, finally inking out information from one of the last, where we purchased tickets to an airport express bus that carried us to the city rather quickly (about 20 minutes) for a mere 150 Baht each (about $5  US each). Getting to the hotel from the bus station was pretty much a breeze or at least the haze of traveling memories leads me to believe it was.

Once, settled into our most expensive hotel room yet, we relaxed a bit and then headed right back out into the heat to find a day market and find some food. After about a 45 minute trip across town on Bangkok's surprisingly quick and efficient train system (BTS) we found the Sunday market that held forth every item one could ever need. House furnishings, clothing, kitchen ware, food, fresh veggies, fresh meat, shoes, all the antiques and knickknacks one could ever dream of. 

We wondered around the market in a travelers haze leftover from flying in from Singapore early in the morning and the Bangkok heat and after deciding that our bargaining skills left something to be desired we settled on a hawker stand directly across from the market, where Tracie ordered sensible cold noodle dish and I mistakenly ordered a bowl of hot broth soup with noodles and pork and apparently some delightful stomach bacteria, which left me toilet bound most of the night.

From there we took a stab at exploring Bangkok with zero knowledge of bangkok and ended out by the railroad tracks, dehydrated and tired. I took some of my first photos there under and from the overpass of a roadway interchanged (show below) and from there we hopped a free bus (no one else paid, so why should we?) back to a train stop and back to out hotel.
 

After a brief nap we headed over to a night market a minute walk from our hotel, and Tracie ate a fresh mortar ground papaya salad and I got some fresh grilled prawns. All accompanied with little air-poofed baggies of spicy sauces. Sorry no-photos, we were exhausted.

After chugging the local guaranteed hangover beer, Chang, I popped some Imodium and we headed off the next day for an “8hr” bus trip to Isaan Province to a town called Yasathorn in Northeastern Thailand, where our Sustainability Study Trip began. Sure, 8 hours, after zipping over to the bus station from train and taxi, we arrived and asked for a train to Yasathorn, blank stare number one, moved onto another booth, “ahhh…Ya-So-TORN…follow man…”. We were lead to one of hundreds of windows with Bold Thai writing everywhere, no English (welcome to Asia finally), where the woman scribbled the cost down and handed us two fledgling pieces of paper with thai print all over and a time circled. We said,”…when is is leaving?” blank stare. Hand motion to watch. “NOW…GO…THERE (pointing towards the gates)”. Of course, we had just used up almost our last Thai baht, we had 40 left, about a 1.20 USD, and then commence our scramble to find an ATM. After, more hand motions, we found an ATM and scrambled to get money out of it and back to the gates in time. Let's stop right here….

Note: Fellow travelers, nothing points you out as a potential sucker more than rushing around. Hesitate at all times from looking hurried or rushed. Keep a calm air about you and things will work out.

…Yea, you'd think that would prevail from my kitchen job back home, but nope, we scrambled, and when we asked where the Yasathorn bus was…a guy motioned us over and examined our ticket…he then took our bags and loaded them onto a bus that had UBON as the final destination. I said “…YA-SO-TORN?” He said, “…yes…ya-so-torn…sit here (pointing to rows of chairs)”. And so we waited…
and waited. We watched him, for the next hour and a half, try and fill his bus to wherever. We had been swindled off the direct express bus to a long local bus, but we wouldn't figure that out until our next bus trip, that was so much smoother.

For 11 hours, once we got going, we were tormented with uncertainty and this liquid syrupy sugary thai pop music, until finally, the guy who shall forever be known as the prototypical Thai bus attendant type, motioned us to get off. We were nearly 4 hours late. It was dark and in some small town in a land where few spoke English.

We tried a phonebooth to call Jo Jondai, the farmer that was going to lead our Sustainability Study Trip. It didn't like the amount we put in…we hand motioned for someone to change our bill to some change and tried more money. No dice. We spied another booth a block away. No dice.

This booth was in front of a beauty supply store where a transgendered lady, who happened to speak a little English, let us use his cell phone to call Jo.  A little bit later after a nice chat with the lady and a young girl, who walked Tracie over to the local radio station they ran, where she introduced a song, Jo walked up and anxiety melted away. There are some people that have something about them that relaxes you and makes you feel welcome and at home. Jo Jandai is that kind of man. We shuttled off into the night in the back of a pickup he had talked into taking us out to Bahn See Than, in the province of Isaan, where his family farm was and our trip was to meet and begin.

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Beyond Pad Thai

OK, people. Pad thai is NOT everywhere in Thailand. In fact, we’ve been here for more than two weeks and I haven’t seen it anywhere. Granted we’ve been mostly eating communal vegetarian meals but we’ve hit some markets up too. The food here always seems so fresh and light – so many vegetables, and everything is quickly cooked so that the veggies still have a bit of crunch. Fragrant, clear broths either with vegetables or with noodles seem common, and curries can be soupy and mixed with coconut milk, or are more on the pasty side which gives it a lot of kick. The spices and herbs are fresh, there always seems to be lemongrass and ginger and garlic lurking. And of course the chilies. (for breakfast one morning I had a run in with a raw garlic clove and a chunk of fresh chili in the same bite. I cried.) The variety of vegetables is also really nice, with many varieties of greens from bitter to herby to sweet and different types of squashes and eggplants. I don’t think I’ve eaten such a variety of vegetables in my entire life.

Lots of things are wrapped in banana leaves or pandan leaves with sticky rice and then steamed. My favorite is a sticky rice/banana/fresh peanut steamed wrap thingy that’s just the right amount of sweetness. I loved trying the wrapped/rice ball items at the market, some stuff I had no idea what they were and some that I thought would be sweet were savory and vice versa. Lots of desserts involve coconut milk or shredded coconut, but tend to be on the sickly sweet side for me. And everything comes in plastic bags puffed up with air and sealed with twisty ties! What is up with that? Sauces, dumpling like things, drinks, vegetable mixes. I guess it makes the product look more attractive?

At the market there always seems to be a lot of meat on offer, like fried chicken or what appears to be fried pork chops. However it all seems to be room temperature and I haven’t felt the desire to try any of the fried stuff, as it seems unappealing. The other common meat item is ground meat, either in the form of sausages or balls on wooden sticks. The sausages are apparently fermented. I tried the fried pork balls at a bus stop/cafeteria type place and it was…gross. Room temperature, overly oily and full of gristle but with little flavor. Maybe my mistake was trying it at a bus stop rather than the fact that they were pork balls, but either way room temperature meat on a stick just doesn’t do it for me.

Drinkwise, I’ve fallen for young coconuts that you hack open with a machete. The coconut juice (which is now apparently all the rage in the States) is very refreshing and cooling with a subtle taste – it doesn’t really taste like coconut at all. Then at the end you can scoop out the coconut meat or jelly depending on the age of the coconut. Delicious. There’s also this soy milk that comes in an old fashioned glass bottle that you can get everywhere that’s the perfect drink when it’s super hot out. Fresh fruit shakes are the bomb, they’re made with coconut milk and mysterious powders and little stands that make them seem to be everywhere.

I’m not really missing food at home. Er, perhaps that’s a bit of a lie. I miss breakfast foods like yogurt, sometimes a savory breakfast like noodle soup is…weird. And yes I miss cheese. But that’s about it.

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