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January 23, 2008

Thailand - Cooking 101

The moment my taste buds became intimate with Thai food, I was hooked. My quest to learn to reproduce these culinary delights began so that when the time comes to leave, I may take a part of Thailand with us.

Photo: Photo taken 2007/12/20 at 04:55 [CIMG4402]
I had always associated Thai food with an unpleasant and undesirable burning sensation that comes with eating spicy foods. Prior to being in Thailand, my tolerance level for spicy would reach it's peak after a few small shakes of a pepper mill. I have since grown quite fond of the green and red 1-2 centimeter long chili's which are used liberally, packing a punch to the dishes and sauces they accompany. Each bite leaving a tingle on your lips that can be felt well after the meal is done. I may go so far as to say that I am addicted to this tingle and mini influx of endorphins that are released in response to the bodies perception to a painful stimulus- otherwise known as a good spicy dish. It is sought out daily.

Our tolerance for eating fiery dishes has adapted significantly, our digestive tracts no longer fight back with a vengeance the morning after.

Restaurants that cater to farangs (westerners), purposely serve a milder version so as not to scare their clients away from the smoke that would undoubtedly exit all of their facial orifices. These modifications now leave us unsatisfied and yearning for the authentic Thai culinary experience.

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While there is truth to my previous association of Thai food being spicy, I have since learned that this generalization is just that. The ideal Thai meal is a harmonious blend of the spicy, subtle, salty, sweet,and sour, while being equally satisfying to the eyes, nose and palate.

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So how does one go about learning the secrets of a Thai kitchen? Cooking classes, of course!

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Learning to cook in a formal setting offered a good base in which to begin my culinary quest, but was it authentic? How much of the experience was tailored for the farangs ease and enjoyment in the kitchen?

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The introduction to so many unknown vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices only opened up the gateway to my curiosity and left me wanting to learn more, to learn the subtleties that make Thai cuisine so gastronomically pleasing.

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I soon figured out that this hunger for learning could be satiated through vendors' stalls.

Thai's eat almost every meal outside of the home. The majority of meals come from rot khen - vendor carts. Vendors specialize in a particular dish and can be found clustered together at day markets along the roadside. There are plastic table and chairs set up, but often the dishes are spooned into a take away plastic bag and shuttled off by their customers on mopeds.

Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/06 at 14:34 [CIMG5040]
Do not let these basic make shift kitchens fool you, these simple food stops are anything but. This is where the true authentic Thai eating experience is to be had and for a fraction of the price of farang restaurants. A satisfying lunch of fish, chicken or vegetable curry, heaping plate of rice and accouterments of fresh veggies that serve to cool the palate from it's spicy counterpart costs all of 30 baht- $1. It is here that I have been feeding not only myself, but with their open air kitchens, my culinary curiosities as well. Few words, if any, are exchanged. Standing along side, accompanied by their warm welcoming smiles, I learn through observation.

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I had developed such a nice rapport with one vendor, Oy, that Paul and I had the pleasure of going to her home one night, cooking and sharing a small feast together.

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Customarily, eating Thai food is done family style- it's a communal affair involving a group of people sharing common serving platters. The meals are served in whatever order the kitchen can prepare them in, unlike western tradition where all meals are brought in unison and placed in front of their rightful owners. Diners choose whatever they require for one mouthful from the shared dishes and add it to their own plate of rice. Soups are enjoyed concurrently with rice and other dishes, not independently.

Getting the food to your mouth also involves different customs than the west. Locals use a spoon and a fork but not in the way you think. Thais use a fork like we use a knife, to push food onto the spoon which then finds it's way to your mouth, followed by a huge grin. Dig in! Knives are never found on a dining table.

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Fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish are sold in open air warehouse type markets. These markets vary in size and complexity from a few hanging bananas to an array of goodies that would allow for a feast suited for the King and Queen of Thailand to be conjured up. I ride my bicycle to different markets almost daily finding new things to try or to learn about. With the ever present language barrier, my questions often get put on hold, but eventually someone is placed in my path who can show me the way, or at least tell me the name behind the mystery food, enter Wikipedia.

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Yesterday, Ole, the chef of the restaurant that is attached to the bungalows we currently call home, let me tag along to the markets with him as he loaded up on groceries. Upon our return, we unpacked them and then I proceeded to help him with kitchen prep. While my tasks seemed mundane, cleaning and chopping produce, my eyes were constantly darting upwards and in his direction hoping to catch a glimpse of his expertise and learn any new trick that he may impart my way. I smiled as the thought occurred to me, don't all apprentices start in the proverbial mail room? With this in mind, I continued to clean and chop with vigor, all the while enjoying cooking 101 in Thailand, in all the forms it takes.

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Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/08 at 12:05 [CIMG5073]

January 21, 2008

Thai massage

Ming, a stout Thai mother of three grown kids who came recommended by the yoga guru in Ko Lanta, Thailand introduced me to Thai massage this week.  Part stretching manipulations, part acupressure massage on specific pressure points, with a few cracking moves thrown in here and there to mix it up a little, Thai massage is unlike any I’d experienced before.   The stretching is like yoga, but where you lie limp as they manipulate you into a variety of sometimes contorted positions.  This is often accompanied by their driving a body part like an elbow, foot or knee into one of the outstretched large muscles to loosen it.  When I first learned this, I had the same reaction you’re having: this must be painful.  But surprisingly, it’s quite complimentary to deep relaxation and release.

It’s just 300 Thai Baht (about $10) per hour to have Ming come to your place and work her magic.

And magic it is!  At the start of my last massage, I could hear a symphony of chirping birds from our bed.  Very relaxing.  At some point during the massage, it began to rain. Hard. But lost as I was in the massage, I didn’t realize it until she did some power move on me, releasing something deep that coincided with thunderous lightning that shook the room.  We both gasped.  It was a surreal moment. 

Speaking about as much English as I speak Thai, communication was primitive.  After the massage, the best I could muster was a “Kawp Khun Crap” (Thank you), which was entirely insufficient to express the gratitude I felt for her mastery of release.

Would you be surprised that I’ve already booked the next appointment?

Here are some photos from the massage environment:

Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/12 at 10:42 [CIMG5191]
Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/15 at 08:38 [CIMG5281]
Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/16 at 12:08 [CIMG5292]
Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/19 at 13:46 [CIMG5317]
Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/11 at 18:26 [CIMG5174]
Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/10 at 18:21 [CIMG5151]
Photo: Photo taken 2008/01/11 at 18:51 [CIMG5188]

January 13, 2008

Climb on! Ton Sai, Thailand

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Every climb begins with the climber and the belayer (the person the climber is attached to via rope and harness) doing a little routine check of each others equipment set up. The climber will then signal his readiness to commence by saying,  "climbing" and if the belayer is prepared, will respond with, "climb on".

These 2 little words ensure that the belayer, the climbers lifeline, is ready to take up slack in the rope centimeter by centimeter as the climber reaches new heights over head. When the belayer is doing his job properly, should a fall occur, the distance that the climber free falls off the cliff is minimized so that only 1/4 of his life flashes before his eyes instead of his whole life.

From the moment you hear the words "climb on" and make contact with the rocks, EVERYTHING  changes.  Suddenly, all you can see is a few feet in front of you,  your hands grasp for their next hold, nothing suitable to close a fist on?  What about a few fingers or their tips? The same holds true for your footing.  All fissures, holes and out jutting rock of any size become fair game for toes, heels, or any part of your body to make contact with, securing yourself just long enough to make your next move.

With heart racing and adrenaline pumping through every cell of your body, you are constantly evaluating if it is best to reach, grasp, shimmy, pull, push, move upwards, sideways, diagonally, or a combination of any one of these maneuvers to advance just one more centimeter.

Mentally, the right and left hemispheres of your brain are having an all out boxing match. One side is telling you to quit while you're ahead, or while you still have a head and get your feet back on solid ground. The other side, the side that is thirsty for a little shot of adrenaline, urges you to continue on your quest to conquer this climb.

The hemisphere that dominates depends on the challenges presented by the rock terrain currently in your path. Are there good hand or foot holds available? Charge on!! But within moments the tables may turn. Suddenly,  you find yourself in a precarious contorted position seeking frantically for the next move while fatigue is quickly setting in. Whichever muscle group happens to be working the hardest at this very moment is sending you unmistakably clear signals, it can not sustain this position for much longer.  Now you must do the unthinkable and move a hand, foot, elbow or a knee in order to quickly reposition yourself in an attempt to find a way to gain a more secure spot and give your shaky muscles a much needed rest.  There is no obvious foot or hand hold, physically you are spent, you are fully aware that there are but a few precious moments left until full exhaustion sets in and you will fall off of Mother Nature's limestone jungle gym.

In this very moment, mentally, it is clear which side of your brain is winning the argument. You have gone as far as you can, this climb has come to an unfortunate early end.  But then, you find what you have been looking for, the right combination of push and shimmy or maybe a diagonal maneuver and pull, whatever the magic bullet was, the immediate goal of advancing a centimeter has been achieved and not a second too soon. This is a victorious moment, the climb shall continue.

No matter how challenging mentally or physically a climb was, the moment you reach the top, the obstacles become a distant memory.  The reward is an awe inspiring birds eye view of the surrounding majestic karsts, green lush tropical forests and inviting crystal clear waters.

When climbing, the goal is to meld yourself with the rocks so that you may become an extension of them. This intimate union imprints itself on your body as a collection of  bruises, cuts and scrapes.

Descending is the opposite. A thumb width rope passes through your harness, an anchor in the rock above and the belayer's harness below.  The transition from clinging to the rock for dear life to  letting go of it requires overcoming the screaming voice of logic in your head telling you not to.  Inevitably, the voice of reason is ignored. The belayer controls the speed of your descent by giving slack in the rope while you are  leaning all of your weight back away from the cliff. Suspended by the rope and your harness, your feet making the occasional contact with the wall to push off of it, the descent begins.

Any trepidation that was present just moments before leaning back turns into pleasure. The combination of being lowered while intermittently tapping your feet against the wall is what I might imagine walking in a low gravity environment would be like. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Watching from down below with both feet planted firmly into the ground, it is without time pressure and great advantage that the observer sees the route in it's entirety. From this perspective it is easy to visualizes what you think the next maneuver should be for a smooth and successful climbing journey.

The challenges that the route entails can not be judged until having experienced them first hand.  As the saying goes, until you've walked a mile in someone else's shoes...

Speaking of shoes, climbing shoes are purposely worn 1-2 sizes smaller than your shoe size, giving your painfully  curled under and often blistered toes greater melding capabilities with the rock. I assure you, while I would NEVER  want to walk even a few blocks let alone a mile in these shoes, after having had these  adventures, I definitely  want to "climb on".

If the idea of chalk, harnesses and ropes is all to cumbersome for you, then there is always the option of deep sea soloing- kayaking to a cliff and climbing without any equipment as high as is desired, or as you can, then jumping off or falling, whichever comes first, into the deep blue waters down below.  Deep sea soloing is not as dangerous nor as scary as conventional rock climbing.  The waters underneath offer a much softer and more refreshing landing than land bound cliffs.  Well, that's what I kept telling myself when we tried it New Year's eve with some friends. As the song says, what goes up, must come down - sploosh!