Saturday, January 05, 2008

We’ve just purchased a new digital camera!

After a lot of research we finally settled on a Canon IXUS 950 IS, which retails for 17,900 baht (just under $500.00 U.S. dollars). The camera is a trifle complicated, but we’re slowly learning to use most of its features and I’m sure we will enjoy the benefits of it in the long run.

About fifteen months ago Mam came home with three young papaya plants given to her from a neighbor. They were about two feet in height (I still can’t get used to metric measurements) and quite healthy, so Mam planted them behind our cottage in some moist shady soil. One has since died, but the other two flourished and we have several papayas growing on them.

It never fails to amaze me how easily things grow here in Thailand. We have numerous plants growing around our home (many varieties of orchids, hot peppers, vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers, and fungi) that come about from seeds tossed out, plants given to us, or from cuttings taken from larger plants.

I love papaya, so about six months ago Mam brought me a large ripe papaya from the local wet market, cut it and served it to me while I was working on my computer upstairs. I scooped out the seeds with a spoon and dumped them out the window, never thinking they would take root, but sure enough, about three weeks later, Mam showed me the small papaya plants growing outside our upstairs window.

We’ve since transplanted fourteen of them, most flourishing in and around our home, destined to provide us with fresh papaya in the future. Papaya grows very fast, and can produce fruit in as little time as a year, if the conditions are right. This photo is of Mam holding our largest papaya to date, weighing around two kilos (4.4 pounds) and providing us with sweet papaya fruit for well over four days.

Mam is cultivating lemongrass (an aromatic herb widely used in Thai cooking), an ingredient I could never seem to find while living in the U.S., attempting to cook Thai dishes. I’ve since learned that you don’t eat lemongrass, but only allow it to flavor your meal, since it is so pungent. Many of Mam’s plants, herbs or weird Thai or Issan dishes never come near my mouth simply because they are used in recipes too extreme for my taste.

Here at home, there is a distinct division: “Her” food, and “My” food. “My” food is purchased once every month when Mam and I venture into Hat Yai for our monthly grocery shopping. Although Mam does pick up a few things for herself, most of the trip is devoted to finding my farang or “foreigner” food. In the past two or three years, I’ve managed to nail down more and more locations in the city where foreign food is available. Our food forays have become much more complicated as a result, with the two of us venturing to many different sites in Hat Yai, chasing down various (often rare) food items.

Cheese, certain spices, imported sausages, specific legumes, black olives, processed and canned fruits, tortilla chips, sour cream, cottage cheese, and many other specialty foods are difficult to obtain unless you know where to purchase them. I love to cook and I am always trying to learn to cook new foods. Given that this great shopping day is often a hectic one, Mam and I usually treat ourselves by visiting a different restaurant while in the city.

One of our favorite restaurants is Namaste Orange ( an Indian food restaurant that recently moved and which we fear will eventually close due to poor patronage.

Since Namaste Orange sells some of their own Indian food ingredients, I have been delving into building up a small home supply of ingredients to cook my own Indian meals. The owner of the shop has given me some information of where in Hat Yai to purchase certain ingredients such as chick peas (Garbanzo beans), lentils, yellow split peas, Garam Masala, and other Indian food items. Indian food is easy to cook if you have the right ingredients.

Many restaurants in Hat Yai that were favorites are now closed, mostly because of the bombings and past terrorist activity in the area. So, I have begun to compile a list of certain recipes I can prepare at home, rather than rely on locally prepared foods.
My newest experiment is Chicken Masala, an Indian dish that is not only aromatic, but also pleasantly spicy and delicious when served with Indian breads such as Chapatti, Naan, or Roti.

The recipe is simple and straight forward, providing you have the correct ingredients:

Chicken Masala

1 kilo (2.2 pounds) boneless chicken breast (cut into bite size pieces)
100 grams ghee (a clarified butter similar to lard or shortening)
3 finely chopped (medium) onions
3 finely chopped tomatoes
½ teaspoon Deggi Mirch (Indian red chili powder)
15 grams Chicken Masala powder (a pre-mixed powder containing coriander, chilies, cumin, Turmeric, Fenugreek leaves, salt, Black pepper, Dry Ginger, Mustard, Bay leaf, Pulse, Cloves, Nutmeg, Caraway, Cinnamon, Cardamom seeds, Mace, and Asafetida).
Natural Yogurt (One small carton)
Lemon (or lime) juice to taste (I use one medium sized lime)
2 grams Kasoori Methi leaves (about five small leaves)

Wash, remove skin, cut the chicken and set aside. Heat 100 grams oil / ghee in a pan and fry 3 chopped onions until golden. Add 3 chopped tomatoes, ½ teaspoon Deggi Mirch & stir well.
Add 15 grams Chicken Masala powder & salt to taste. Stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Add chicken pieces and fry them for 10 minutes. Add yogurt, 60-ml. (two ounces) water & mix. Reduce to low heat, cover & simmer for 20 minutes. Prevent it from sticking at bottom. Add 15-ml. lemon (or lime) juice & 2 grams Kasoori Methi leaves, stir & serve.

Luckily, the Chicken Masala powder, Ghee, Deggi Mirch, and Kasoori Methi leaves can be purchased at Namaste Orange. Mam and I prepared this dish today, and although Mam said she doesn’t like it, she changed her mind after tasting it, steaming and piled high over a bed of freshly cooked rice.

Food in our household is a central issue. From breakfast to dinner, we both try to become inventive and flexible. I am flexible when it comes to sampling Mam’s various menu items from the Northeast of Thailand, while she tries to be flexible with my various Western menu items, and my new experiments with other ethnic foods.

Breakfast is a sensitive issue for me since I cannot fathom eating certain items in the early morning, while Mam can chomp down upon items such as fish, pungent soups and stews, and a variety of strong tasting and smelling concoctions.

I’ve reverted to making my own breakfast sausage, which has proved to be quite a successful project, given the right ingredients. Jimmy Dean, I’m not, but given the mock recipes on the Internet, I’ve managed to create a close second. The only problem I have is ingredients. Some months you can find Marjoram, but other months it is absent from the market shelves, so patience is the key here in Asia.

I reflect upon my time spent living in China, where I was forced to purchase specialty foods at a small deli in downtown Guangzhou. Simple Western foods such as certain cheeses, taco shells, gravies, baked beans, various spices used in the West, soups, chips, tartar sauce and mustard, were available at terrifically inflated prices that severely lightened my pocketbook just for a taste of the foods I was used to eating. Local Western restaurants such as KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and the like, were all available, but expensive by Chinese standards.

Here in Thailand the situation is much the same, with imported foods typically higher in price than local foods. Eating Thai food at local restaurants is often limited to how much Thai you can speak or read, or to what degree you are willing to experiment. In my first year in Thailand, I quickly found out how to ask for a handful of different types of Thai dishes. Now, in my fourth year living here, I have expanded that repertoire to a couple of handfuls. But, I fully realize there are hundreds of Thai dishes I am effectively missing out on, simply because I lack understanding of the Thai language. It takes time and diligence to learn about different Thai dishes and to experiment with different restaurants.

One Thai dish in particular that I enjoy, is Laab Moo, a spicy minced pork dish containing finely chopped scallions, green onion, Thai peppers, lime juice and red pepper, all heaped over a giant bed of steaming white rice. But, although I favor Mam’s variety, I have found many different varieties in and around our home at various local restaurants, some tasty, and some not. Variety, I believe, in Thailand is the key to sustenance.

Foods here in the south of Thailand are not exclusive to the South, as many are cooked by ethnic Muslims, local Thai’s, transplanted Northern Hmong, Issan north westerners, and a rich variety of Chinese immigrants who add their own special taste to local foods.

I think if I were to return to the U.S. today, I would suffer a culture shock (reverse culture shock?) after living in these conditions for five years. Although I haven’t forgotten what it is like living in the U.S., my memory is fading somewhat, the longer I live here in Southeast Asia.


Belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!

I haven’t celebrated Christmas for years, but this year I did enjoy the holiday vicariously through my students who absolutely treasured our classroom Christmas tree and reveled in making holiday cards for their parents with Christmas music playing in the background. There’s just something about a Christmas tree; tiny flashing lights and Christmas music like, “The Little Drummer Boy,” that evoke good feelings in me.

I received one Christmas card this year, from my friends Ben, Joyce & Ellie from Bristol Laundromat in Bristol, New Hampshire, my old stomping grounds back in the states, with a promise they would write me a more in-depth letter in the near future. Whether other friends sent cards or not remains a mystery since the good ole Thai postal service is just as corrupt as the rest of the government services here in Thailand.

I sent out a few Christmas cards this year to people I know well, but Christmas is actually just another day to me. To be honest I didn’t even notice Christmas had arrived until I began to write the date on our white board at school. Even then, I realized that here in Asia it was Christmas, but the Western world was still a day behind.

I try to explain Christmas to my students using the commercialized version rather than the religious one, simply because my little ones don’t understand the complexities of Christian versus Buddhist or Muslim faith/belief. I strongly oppose bringing religion into the classroom having grown up in a confusing mix of Protestant & Catholic beliefs versus scientific teaching in the public schools I attended. I’ve since encountered many questions from the Thai / English teachers at our school who want to know more about Western beliefs, religions and traditions, testing my mediocre knowledge of the subject, while I have learned a lot from them concerning Buddhist and Muslim traditions and faith.

Lately, Mam has met and befriended a woman across the street who is the village shaman of sorts. I’m delighted because it has opened up a new world for Mam, whom I believe was getting a trifle bored living way out here in the boonies with not much to do except read, clean house or go shopping. Now she chatters on and on about things she has learned from the “old woman,” as she is affectionately called in our home, including anything from health remedies to numerology.
Mam bristles when I don’t go along with her convictions, labeling me a nonbeliever, often beginning her sentences with, “I know you don’t believe me, but…” alerting me that she is about to tell me something she learned from the “old woman,” or share some superstitious belief she has concerning ghosts or spirits.

I might be a skeptic, but I’m truly happy Mam has found happiness in her dealings with the old woman, whom although I am reluctant to take seriously, I must admit she does have a few things going for her and I am often flabbergasted at some of the results of her so-called magic. Mam often traipses over to the old woman’s house when I am busy doing something, offering, “I’m going across the street to eat Khanom Jean, (or Durian, Jackfruit, Papaya, Jampada, Som Tam, etcetera). But I know her time spent with the old woman is mainly informational since the old lady tends to treat Mam as somewhat of an apprentice to her tricks of the trade, so-to-speak.

Mam has suffered from occasional dizziness ever since we first met over two years ago. She takes medications prescribed by local physicians, but refuses to go to the hospital, not wanting to undergo expensive medical exams. She complains the medications prescribed for her rarely work, and has resorted to traditional Chinese medicine at some of the local Chinese pharmacies, which appear to work better.

Recently she suffered a persistent attack of dizziness while I was taking a nap in the afternoon. Medication she had on hand didn’t work, so she went across the street to see the old woman, who gave her some mysterious powder to mix with water and drink.

Upon arising from my nap I was ambushed and enthusiastically lectured on the knowledge and healing properties of the old woman’s cure for Mam’s dizziness with this mysterious powder, which appeared to work very well for her.

I listened to her story for a while before asking to see the powder. When Mam produced the small plastic bottle, I examined the brown powder and opened the bottle to smell it. After a good whiff, I sat back in my chair with a déjà vu that I had smelled that scent somewhere else. It was a matter of minutes before my memory banks settled upon it….

I had it!


Having stuck my face into many a baggie in my earlier years, I surmised that the old woman was manufacturing something that either included the illegal substance, or was a close substitute. I then remembered reading a scientific journal years ago, which extolled the healing properties of THC, which surprisingly enough, included dizziness.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it is just some aromatic herb that smells similar. So, I kept my mouth shut, because it meant more to me that the powder seemed to help Mam, than to burst her bubble trying to tell her that her local shaman may be growing some illicit weed somewhere on her property and reducing it to a powder to sell to local villagers. Meanwhile, Mam is delighted with the mysterious brown powder and is now using it even when she’s not dizzy, saying it helps her sleep and affords her many other good benefits.

Yeah, I’ll bet….

Of late, the old woman has been coming around our house more often. It seems she is interested in Mam’s dreams. Mam told the old woman of a dream she had involving her grandmother and a Buddhist monk who, in the dream, presents a number to her in prayer. After the old woman and other local villagers played the local lottery numbers using the numbers in Mam’s dream, they actually won, each player paying a small portion of their winnings to Mam. Since then, Mam’s popularity has grown at a surprising pace here in North Klong Tong village. The old woman has given Mam a numerology chart so she can figure out her dreams and interpret them numerically so everyone can play the two and three digit lottery based on her predictions.

A fair amount of money exchanges hands here and there, most of which I am ignorant to, having tuned most of it out. But, I caution Mam, reminding her that the two and three digit lottery is illegal, and she must be careful.

Lately the old woman has been teaching Mam about local plants, insects and wildlife. Mam follows the old woman around absorbing everything she says. I have noticed that Mam’s green thumb has been glowing of late, cultivating many different flowering plants along the path to our house and bordering the main road. She has put this new ability to test by selling the flowers to our landlady who uses them in floral displays and flower alms for the monks. So, although Mam doesn’t have a job per-se, she is making a little money from her plantings and numerology predictions.

The old woman stopped by last week to deliver a gift to me, although I have never formally met her. Mam met her on the main road and came back to our house announcing that the old woman had delivered a gift of a papaya to me. I asked Mam why she didn’t come to the house, and she told me the old woman knew from her dreams that I enjoyed my privacy, so she would only call Mam from the main road.

This startled me, since it is true. I have always been a die-hard private person and revel in my privacy. Here in Thailand I’ve struggled with privacy issues since many Thai’s don’t seem to understand the concept of true privacy and often impinge upon personal space without realizing they are doing so. Explicitly, this concerns the cultural difference in Asia of Interdependence (Asia) versus Independence (Western Culture).

So, although the local shaman has some pretty wild ideas, Mam is adopting a few of them, and I am learning that many of them may have a purpose in this life. Although I a skeptical of many things foreign to me, I try to have an open mind when it comes to Asian beliefs and life here in Thailand, and given the fact Mam treats me like a King, it’s the least I can do, to honor her beliefs.


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