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.



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