Chiang Mai Pad Thai

I thought I’d share a video of the cooking class I took in Chiang Mai. It’s just a “taster”- a few minutes long- but you too can feel like you were there. It’s one thing to google a recipe and read all about how to make your favorite dish, but another experience entirely to see it made right in front of you.

Here you can see exactly how to cook a delicious pad thai. Yum.

Chiang Mai and cooking Thai!

Aaaannd we’re back!

I tell you, eating all day is hard work. As I started writing this post, I was at The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking school, and was absolutely stuffed on delicious Thai food. But I still had two more courses to go. I’d already made a curry paste, cooked a cashew chicken stir fry, used the curry paste to make a yellow coconut curry tofu dish, and even created tom kha soup.

Next up was my favorite- pad see ew, and then mango with coconut sticky rice for dessert.

But someone would have to roll me back into the kitchen to make it happen.

We started the day with our group being picked up at our various hotels and proceeding straight to a tour of a local farmers market, where our instructor, MB, explained the different types of rice that Thais eat, the reasons for the variations in curry color, as well as the difference between fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, etc.  After the lesson, we got to wander the market for a little sightseeing of some gorgeous, exotic fresh fruits and veggies, as well as some amazing-looking sweets and dried… stuff. 

I tried some warm bananas in coconut milk for breakfast. In a bag. Weird, but tasty.

The plastic bags tied to the fans over some of the tables (particularly the fresh meat) were an interesting solution to keep the flies off.  After the market, we headed out to the farm and got a tasting tour of the various herbs and veggies in the garden.

But though we were at their farm, we didn’t have to pick anything ourselves. 

Everything was already neatly assembled ahead of time. The ingredients for each course were pre-measured and delivered to us on a pretty tray or cutting board.  All we had to do was chop it all up and throw it in at the right time.

We didn’t even have to make the rice ourselves. When it came time to start enjoying our creations, we were served some special sticky rice with our meal. The rice had been steamed in this little wicker basket that looked like a head with a hat on it.

But now we had to move on from our first few courses and get down to the business of cooking again. MB was fun and full of energy, which is just what you need when your stomach is full and you need the motivation to get up and cook more food!  Most of the prep was already done, and dirty dishes and serving/measuring devices were whisked away quickly.

 I took some notes and videos, but was reassured to learn that there would be a recipe book to take home at the end of the class.

I met some great people at the class, and give many thanks to those who shared their own creations with me. We all got to choose what we wanted to make, so we had some menu variations in the class, and people generously shared their unique dishes. And extra thanks to people like the spring roll-making German couple, Doris and Mario, who took some photos of me so I can prove I was there, cooking up a storm.

I was very excited to learn how to cook a couple of dishes in particular, but I have to admit that my favorite dishes didn’t taste quite as good as I expected. Surprisingly, the other courses actually tasted much better than I thought they would, even though they weren’t the ones I was lookig forward to.

 

And now that I’ve made these things myself, I might be able to tinker with the ingredients to get it right next time and even make everything at home. Anyone know where to find fresh galangal and lemongrass? There may be some substitutions in my future, though it’s possible that all the good Asian markets near me might have everything I need. Now I just have to find that perfect thin Thai consistency of the large rice noodles for pad see ew.

That dish was particularly fun to make, as it involved literally getting my hands dirty.

 

I got to massage the molasses into the rice noodles!  That was strange- I’ve never had to actually use my hands when cooking noodles before.

The pad see ew has been out of this world in Thailand. And I tried it at least 10-15 times. Kim and I ate it almost every day.

What?  It was much-needed field research!  I just never knew research could be so delicious.  🙂

Khao San Road

This street/area is ridiculous. It’s wall-to-wall Westerners, and it’s crazy.  Loud, brash, commercial, crowded… but really, really fun. But I’m so glad I didn’t start out my time in Thailand here, because it really is its own unique neighborhood, heavily dominated by and catering to Western backpackers. It has little in common with the rest of Thailand. The food isn’t even authentic, but the shopping and people-watching is great. It came to be only about 20 years ago, but has grown beyond its couple of blocks into several streets around it. And of course it has all those lovely lights and lamps that attract me like a moth to a… well… lamp.

The Thai food in this area isn’t very good-it’s been changed and Westernized to a level that falls short – Thai food in Chicago is much better. But they have some unique things that are tasty (besides the insects, which I avoided). You can actually get cheese wontons- like crab rangoon, but without crab, and with real cheese instead of cream cheese. But the best are the crepes/pancakes/roti.

And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can accept one of the many frequent invitations to take part in the most bizarre stuff on this road.. Ping pong shows, insects as snack food, (see photo above) it’s crazy.  And seems to border on the questionably legal side of things, as well. But that may be half the fun of it.

Oh, and don’t worry if you’re away from home and think you’re going to miss the big game. You can always catch it in the middle of the street- on the back of a van. And you can order beer 5 litres at a time while you’re watching it. Just in case your team is doing poorly, 5 litres should be a sufficient quantity of beer to quite literally drown your sorrows. Enjoy!

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One Night in Bangkok…

This city is huge! And it’s nothing like the cities in Vietnam. It feels very Western. I walked out of the terminal at Suvarnabhumi airport and into the main building and an involuntary giggle escaped my lips as I spotted a Boots (British drug store), Dunkin Donuts, Subway, Baskin Robbins, etc, etc. Within my first 2 hours here, I had already heard more American accents than I did in a month in Bali and Vietnam.

This is a gross over-exaggeration, but Bangkok feels so much more western than Vietnam that it’s almost like I’ve just returned to “civilization” after a month of camping. There are McDonald’s and Starbucks everywhere. And the prices are up.  It’s still cheap compared to the West, but just not AS cheap. And nothing is as cheap as all those stories I read about people traveling in the 80’s.

The dollar was so strong then, and SE Asia so less developed. But there are trade-offs:  the main train line that links the city here (the BTS)didn’t even exist then. In fact, it’s only been here since 1999 and they are still adding to it. My Lonely Planet guide incorrectly lists the train line’s end point, which has already been extended in just the last year.

So, then I start thinking to myself that this is a city that’s really growing and coming up in the world.  And then I walked into a mall. And another involuntary giggle escaped my throat, as I gazed on the luminous altar to capitalism and modernity. And this is just one of many malls here- the big ones are all in a row in one area of the city, oddly enough. I can’t believe I thought Bangkok would be like Vietnam. It’s completely different.  Some of the streets feel the same- dirty little stalls and food cooking alongside the road, but it’s clear that many parts of the city are just as modern as the US.

In fact, I was jealous that there are stores here that I don’t even have at my fancy mall close to home. Especially the nice British ones like Whittards of Chelsea.  Wow.  It’s going to be difficult to reconcile these two very different sides of Bangkok, and my other experiences in SE Asia.

 

Incidentally, you would never think to head to the mall for good food in the US, but in many parts of SE Asia, there is a food court level with really, really good food and also high-level restaurants, to boot. It’s nice to find a place that serves the hygenic equivalent of the local street food, too.

 

I had an excellent mango with sticky coconut rice (black rice!) at one spot, and Kim and I ate the best Pad See Ew in the world at another.  Really.  At a mall.  🙂

 

 

 

 

Yangon highlights

It’s time to catch up and move on to posting about Thailand , but I still have many more little things to share about Yangon.  Here are some thoughts and highlights:

In a confusingly anachronistic, Vegasy way, the Buddhas at each of the compass points in Sule pagoda had bright chasing lights radiating out from their heads like some odd cross between halos and Christmas and pinball machines all mixed together. Very eye-catching, but it sort of detracted from the traditional and reverent feeling I associate with ancient places of worship.

Another aspect of the day that stood out was watching the worshippers toss cups of water or hand-bathe a different set of smaller idols  throughout the paya. I later saw a photo of Hillary Clinton doing the honors, as well. The statue you wash/worship is connected with your day of birth. I like that the day has importance in this religion.

The only meaning I have for my day of birth is the old British rhyme, “Monday’s child is fair of face…”

Less happy was encountering the women selling birds outside the pagoda. Tiny little finch-like birds were packed into a basket, which the women would roughly plunge their hands into to grab a bird and thrust it at you to purchase. Essentially, you got to buy the bird’s freedom as a good deed. They broke my heart, so I bought one and let it go immediately. I’ve read about people buying every bird in the basket and setting them all free, but the catch is that you’re just rewarding the evil bird lady, who will pocket the cash and immediately procure more birds to sell the next morning. Or possibly only 10 minutes later, which is what we realized when we walked a block away, and passed a frantically cheeping crate filled with these poor little things packed much more densely than in the basket.

But, for some perspective, now that I’ve seen where they live, maybe people here don’t have the means or the will to coddle their birds like I would.

We took a local train trip and made it into a tourist attraction for ourselves. There’s a 3 hour circular route around the city- the journey just takes you in a wide loop, and comes right back to the central station.

Three hours is a long time to sit on a hard wooden bench, but the exposure to greater Myanmar is priceless. Even though it’s technically a “city” train, it’s not long before you feel like you’re out in the country and seeing little villages on the outskirts of the tracks’ range. Those views are quite different from the center of Yangon, and make you realize anew that the city is not really representative of the country as a whole. The train itself is pretty interesting, too. It felt really rustic and sort of like I’d imagine a cattle car might be.

The interior of the train car was filthy, and people kept bringing on things like large cartons of eggs and crates of vegetables, so the flies were a bit of a challenge for a while. But mainly, we were really struck by the daily life of those around us, and the living conditions visible from the train tracks.  When you show up in a city, you can be fooled into thinking a place is more modern/urban than it really is.

Remember my post on the sidewalks in Ubud, Indonesia? Well, Yangon’s not much different.  And when it rains, you suddenly discover the reasoning behind all the little bits of brick and concrete that are laid out like stepping stones in front of each high curb. They are the only thing that will get you dryly over the moat that forms during the storms. I love how the dog is watching Kim traverse the lake in the second photo…

 

…now stay tuned for reports of our Thailand adventures!

Karaweik Hall

We attended an amazing night of never-ending food and a lovely three hour cultural dance show at the Karaweik Hall floating barge restaurant. It’s located in a park with perfect views of the Shwedagon pagoda across the Kandawgyi Royal Lake. So, if you don’t already have reservations at the restaurant, you have to pay an entrance fee just to get in the park.

It seemed like a beautiful place, and if we’d known about it in advance, we probably would have arrived a little earlier to take advantage of the serenely landscaped greenery. Not to mention the impressive views of the barge itself.

The show began at the entrance where we were greeted by people in traditional and ornate costume, demonstrating Myanmar traditions.

The cultural dance show was made up of many short and colorful scenes of traditional Myanmar dance. It reminded me of the Balinese dance show I saw, but it was less stylized.  The end dance was a showcase representation of all 8 ethnicities in the country, and their traditional clothes and work.

The international buffet was terrific, if light on Burmese dishes. We got to sample things like:  green fish ball curry, coconut rice, Singapore style chicken curry, spicy papaya salad, Century old egg salad, yankee potato salad, glass noodle wood ear mushroom broth, a seafood terrine, various breads, roast chicken, Congee, Thai noodles, Taiwanese tofu and mustard greens, Traditional Myanmar tasting plates (coconut rice, butter beans, roasted chilies, cucumber salad,), nasi goreng, garlic butter prawns, sauteed fish, fried hokkein noodles (big round deliciousness), pumpkin soup, mutton with apple gravy, and others I can’t even remember.

Desserts included a delicious sago pudding with coconut sauce, an assortment of fancy little cakes, a coconut pancake crepe to go with ice cream, watermelon and other fruits, and little glutinous rice desserts with a sweet maple sauce.

I also ordered a “spy wine”, which turned out to be a Thai wine cooler. Who knew?

I loved that we got to taste a little of everything, and then head back up again over the course of 3 hours to get seconds of our favorite dishes.

 

We shoveled in as much as we could, but ultimately were defeated by the awesome power of the buffet.  Perhaps even more filling was the realization that at 20,000 kyat, ($24 – ten times the cost of our meal the first night in Yangon) this was a night that most Myanmar people could not indulge in. I really felt like one of the “haves” that night (especially after a very enlightening train trip we had taken earlier in the day). This wasn’t as high-class as, say, the opera, but it was a big event nonetheless.  We were treated like important people of means, instead of backpackers, and all because of our Western levels of disposable income.

I think I got a flavor for what it used to be like for foreign journalists on expense accounts in SE Asia in the old days. It just didn’t feel like real life to be taking part in such a relatively elite event. On the other hand, we were seated next to an enormous group who were celebrating a 1-year-old child’s birthday party, which included little boys running around and jumping on the side of the stage.

And at one point, I spotted a 6-year-old girl taking photos of the show with a DSLR with a fancy zoom lens that I certainly couldn’t afford. I thought at first that her parents were very trusting to let her hold a camera that valuable… until I looked back and saw her father walking up to her with an even pricier camera and realized that the one she was holding must be hers. Wow.  Everything is relative, right?

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Eating Yangon

Deciding that we really wanted to sample true Burmese food, we consulted several sources to find the most authentic restaurants to visit on our trip. The first night, we put ourselves in the hands of the locals and ended up at a little neighborhood place down the street from our hotel, at the hotelier’s recommendation.  Thanks, Ocean Pearl!

We had an excellent introduction to the country through our fried noodles with chicken and vegetables- only about 2,000 kyat (“chat”). The exchange rate is $1 = 840 kyat.  And there was no menu- the host/owner just walked up and politely told us in English that we could get fried noodles with chicken, or chicken noodle soup, or vegetables.

Someone brought us a free little table starter of (wet or oily?) peanuts with a separate dish of salt. Tasty. And the table very much enjoyed their Myanmar beers. They went well with the chewy savoury noodles.

The people who worked at the restaurant were really friendly and helpful. I got the impression that they don’t see a lot of Westerners, though they were certainly able to handle us, and thankfully spoke far more English than we spoke Burmese.

 

 

The next night, we hunted around the city for the restaurant that Kim ably researched- a highly recommended local place- Danubyu Daw Saw Yee. It was a plain, cafeteria-like place on 29th street, where we also had no menu, but a helpful waiter walked us in and showed us over to the pans of delectable food sitting out at the edge of the kitchen.

He explained what each dish was, and tried to answer our questions about the level of spice in each option.

 

We ended up choosing a very tasty chicken curry which tasted 100% differently from the other curry we ordered- a langoustine-looking “lobster” curry. It was easily one of the top 15 things I’ve every tasted.  The meal came with bowls of a spicy soup (that tasted like collard greens to me), plates of rice, and a shared plate of assorted veggies, including something leafy, some cucumber, some variety of mango, and some things I couldn’t possibly identify.

What a unique meal!

 

My lemon juice was a little on the savoury side, but very refreshing.  We were the only Westerners in the place when we arrived, but word must have gotten out to others, because two girls showed up (one from Florida, and one from Columbia) later into our dining experience, and they got to enjoy the feast, as well. But they live in Bangkok, so I’d almost consider them insiders.

The next dinner was equally wonderful, and the atmosphere was even better.

 

Kim found a place called “Feel Myanmar Food” which was on a random road (Pyidaunysu Yeikth street) with nothing else around it but about six other restaurants (including Mexican!) that were all lined up together on the same side of the street, with seating spilling over between them like a gigantic outdoor food court.

We sat inside in the cozy, lodge-feeling wooden interior and enjoyed another visual tour by a helpful waiter who pointed out and explained each pre-made dish sitting out in pans on warmers.

 

We chose the chicken curry, a lamb curry, a sweet corn dish- almost a pudding, and when a girl walked past carrying a tray of toasted golden buns, we quickly asked what they contained and ordered them. They turned out to not be buns at all, but a sort of smooth mashed potato casing surrounding yummy chicken, with a sweet, slightly tomato-ish sauce on the side. And, again, we had a spicy soup, plenty of rice, and a plate of greens. And free tea.

 

The cucumbers were a nice counterpoint to and relief from the curry, while the colorful green almost-lettuce was very herbal in flavor. Kim said the mango-looking thing tasted like soap, and there were other vegetable-like things which baffled me, yet again.

Still, excellent food all around, and so much variety! It’s so nice to get to try so many authentic Myanmar dishes, (like Yangon tapas) though I couldn’t tell you the real names of any of them, since we only ordered by pointing.

Which left us with only 1 known dish for our food goal in Myanmar- the elusive ohn no khao swe.