30 August 2008

La Vie Boheme

Since our arrival in Thailand, we've been missing our routine visit to a weekend farmer's market and decided to fill the void by heading to Bangkok's famous Chatuchak Market. Covering 35 acres, Chatuchak is one of the world's largest weekend markets and a little slice of bohemian life with artists, alongside the requisite t-shirt stall and faux MAC cosmetics vendor, selling their handicrafts. 

We rose early last Sunday and prepared for a morning of exploration, crowds and heat. With our son in the backpack and our daughter at hand we walked to the Skytrain and after a short ride (and a one-stop journey on Bangkok's subway system), we arrived smack dab in the middle of a cornucopia of color, sound, scent and activity. 

Like markets we've visited in different parts of the world before and ones that we've grown to love in the many places we've called home, Chatuchak did not disappoint. This will be a place that we visit often and happily refer to as our local market.

It's easy to see why the market receives over 200,000 visitors per day. With more than 15,000 shops, everything you could imagine wanting to buy (and probably not wanting to buy, as well) existed there. We barely skimmed the surface of what the market had to offer, lasting only about 2 hours, but we were all enchanted by different aspects. T loved the overall thrill of being in a foreign market, comparing aspects of it to other markets he's visited in Asia. I loved the overwhelming amount of items that I haven't yet seen elsewhere in Bangkok (and the possibilities they brought for continued home decor!). C found bright globe lights strung together that I have a feeling will be coming home with us on a future trip to the market. And, F enjoyed taking in the musicians and all the cuddles that the vendors offered as he sat perched on mama's back.

In our short visit we saw clothing, custom made sandals, housewares, silks, exotic plants, food from every corner of Thailand, fabric, lanterns, sculpture, incense and the list goes on. Wide open air "roads" were only the start. Once you went inside the non air-conditioned buildings, narrow row after row after row featured vendors proudly displaying their goods from ceiling to floor. 

If it weren't for T's attention to direction, we may have spent another day and night inside the market. I had NO idea how to get out or where I was in relation to transportation that would ultimately take us home, but in some ways that perfectly describes the excitement that a market like Chatuchak brings. The ability to wander for hours, to negotiate prices, to become enchanted by the things that people make or the way they choose to display their goods, to wonder why someone would buy that!, and to let your mind wander a little further into an exotic land.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 7:
Green Chicken Curry
A perfect dish to build in the morning and let simmer in a crock pot (or on the stove) until you're ready for dinner. It's also a dish that tastes even better the second day, so don't worry if you have leftovers!

1 chicken breast, on the bone
1 cup of water
salt and pepper
1 can of coconut milk
1 cup of chicken stock
approximately 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
approximately 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
red chili flakes, to taste
green curry paste, amount will differ depending on the brand you use and your taste (begin with 1 tablespoon and add more as desired)
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 cup of bamboo shoots
3 green onions, sliced into 1 inch pieces
1 cup bean sprouts
1 carrot, sliced into rounds
1 cup of fresh or frozen peas
1 cup of roughly chopped broccoli
2 cups of greens (we use the local chrysanthemum greens, but any good wilting green, such as chard or spinach, will work)
1/2 cup of fresh basil leaves

In a shallow pan, place 1/2 of the onion, the chicken, a generous grind of black pepper, several pinches of salt and 1 cup of water. Cover and simmer over medium heat until the chicken is cooked through. Then remove the chicken, allow to cool to the touch and shred the meat. (Discard the liquid or save it in the freezer for future stock making.)

Meanwhile, in a large pot, saute the remaining onion in 1/2 tablespoon of oil until golden. Add stock, coconut milk, fish sauce, brown sugar and curry paste. Stir until well combined and warmed through. Taste. You are trying to strike a balance on your taste buds of sweet, salty and spicy. Determine if you would like to add more curry and/or the red pepper flakes (for more spiciness), more fish sauce (for more saltiness) or more brown sugar (for more sweetness). Once you are satisfied with your curry base add the bamboo shoots and the chicken. From here, you can keep the mixture it in a crock pot on low, let is simmer lightly on the stove or place in the fridge until you are ready for dinner. 

About 15 minutes before serving, add all the remaining ingredients and cook over medium until veggies are tender. Serve hot over rice.

27 August 2008

Popcorn and Politics

This morning was spent simply. After T went off to work, we continued to lounge in our jammies and had some great video calls to the States via skype. Then, we prepared to party along with a huge crowd in the USA. 

The kids enjoyed pretending to be popcorn kernals, popping in unison with those in the kettle on the stove. I made a strong brew of decaf french press and, after the popping extravaganza finished, we carried both my coffee and the steaming bowl of popcorn directly to the television set. And, from there we waved our "pretend" flags and clapped along every time the crowd did (and there's a lot of clapping!). We were moved by video images of a young man making his way in the world and growing into a presidential contender. "Mommy, its a party!" the kids proclaimed. And, there we sat, kids clapping, mama listening for the next hour as Barack Obama spoke to this year's Democratic National Convention. 

We spent Tuesday morning in a very similar fashion, as Hillary addressed the world. The kids got their first taste of US politics this week and I enjoyed a moment of realizing how small the world can sometimes feel. From half-way around the globe, the importance of this morning's speech was not lost.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 6:
Curried Popcorn
Delicious no matter what your political opinion!

4 cups popcorn, popped
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon mild curry powder (any variety)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cumin

Mix the spices together. Toss the popcorn with butter, stirring well. Add the spice mix and toss until lightly coated. (Enjoy with extra napkins by your side!)

25 August 2008

The scent of Bangkok

After years of buying the occasional incense stick or two and always being overwhelmed by its intense smoky grab on my lungs, I now finally understand its use. Over 5,000 years old, incense plays an important role in Thai culture as a ceremonial tool. I have found it to be a rare day when I don't pass a roadside Wat (temple) cloaked in a mask of wafting incense.

But, today, when I say that I finally understand incense I'm referring to a much simpler observation. Spend a full day in Bangkok and you'll be treated to a cacophony of scents unlike any you've experienced before. While the individual components of Bangkok's nose easily conjure up a label of bad or good (Are you ready to play? Try it out: sewer = bad, curry = good, musty water = bad, tropical flora = good), Bangkok's scent is neither good nor bad. Instead, as I have learned, it is one of the ingredients that makes Bangkok unlike any other place. 

Throw the doors open wide in the early morning and you'll smell what I did this morning... the smell of a variety of curry dishes being started and left to simmer throughout the day. Then, an hour later, a drift of sewer and dampness permeates the vents, mixed with the faint smell of burning plastic from our under the sink, on demand hot water heaters. Wander the city at almost any time of the day and you'll catch diesel and deep fry oil and chilies so hot they'll make you cough from a good solid block away. The daily thunder and lightening storms, that we're experiencing in this monsoon season, bring a whole different scent to the late afternoon: a hot scorching scent of heat hitting both pavement and green trees, mixed with a dewy damp humidity. And, as the day winds down, the smell of both chlorine and some soon to be identified tropical flower clings to us as we exit the pool and prepare for our evening meal. 

Living in a city that provides such a beautiful assault on your senses, brings me to better understanding of incense. Sometimes you just want a scent that unifies all the good and seeps deep into the cracks to eliminate all of the not so good. A couple sticks of night jasmine incense and the smell of curry in the morning, heat in the afternoon and tropical foliage of the evening appear and everything else moves to the background.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 5:
Bangkok Watermelon Salad
A deliciously fragrant salad that combines the freshness, spiciness and sweetness of Thai cooking. We enjoyed this last night as an accompaniment to our fish and rice.

2 cups of watermelon, diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated finely
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped*
1 teaspoon of honey
1 teaspoon of water
black pepper to taste

Add watermelon, ginger and basil to a serving bowl. Heat the honey and the water until warm and pour into serving bowl. Toss thoroughly and add black pepper to taste (just a couple turns of a pepper mill will do). Toss again and chill until ready to serve.

* I like using Thai basil because its local and delicious, but any in-season basil will taste great.

20 August 2008

The containers are coming!

Word is that our shipment is arriving in just a couple of hours. I've started the day optimistically, but with a dose of caution applied. After all, I've heard that before and similar to a fat lady singing, the shipment isn't here until the boxes have cleared our home's security guard, ascended to the top floor and are escorted across our threshold.

We decided to minimize the dishes (we're the dishwasher). T made fried eggs to top of rice that had been left to warm overnight in our cooker. While I prepped a special treat of a breakfast, that my mom recently reminded me of, for the kids. Basically a fast rice pudding, it has been a great way to use up leftovers and make the kids welcome yet another bowl of rice. C made place cards for our table, customizing them with each of our names. F attempted to scale one of the kitchen counters, with what I think was an original plan to summit at our drinking water container (a 15 liter sanitary water bottle with a battery operated pump).

After breakfast, I placed a few local calls to check references that will hopefully result in the hiring of some domestic staff. And, then....

.... the boxes began to cross our threshold and the parade of belongings began. In a completely neat and tidy manner, seven shoeless Thai men efficiently dispatched our packages to the appropriate rooms, opened them and created nice tidy stacks on every conceivable surface. There are books stacked on the family room coffee table, perfect rows of baby dolls covering every inch of C's bed, bikes lining our formal entry, picture frames in perfect corner to corner alignment on our living room couches, little matchbox cars parked end to end on the built in shelves, candles in orderly rows across the breakfast bar, serving platters and dinner dishes and multiple pots and pans and my great cooking knives (oh my!).......

Ahhhh. Exhale. Our shipment is here. The move is officially over and we will happily be spending several days establishing our new home. Now you'll have to excuse me, I am catching a whiff of that amazing gardenia candle I packed a month back.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 4:
Instant breakfast rice pudding 
I used to eat this occasionally as a kid. Thanks to a reminder from my mom, my own kids are now enjoying this as the occasional special breakfast treat. (And, I now have another recipe in my repertoire to use up any rice that I cooked in overabundance the night before!)

cooked rice (white or brown), about 1/2 cup per person, heated
brown sugar
your choice of milk or cream

Dish the rice into individual serving bowls. Sprinkle with desired amounts of cinnamon and brown sugar. Top with milk or cream. Stir and enjoy!!!

16 August 2008

Serenity is here

Serenity is here: lush tropical foliage, golden wats (Thai temples), inviting swimming pools, deliciously scented wafts from street side food stalls, and peaceful looking, fabric swathed monks are all common place. But, that being said, Bangkok is also anything but serene. Bangkok is hip and trendy and fast and colorful and LOUD: a complete sensory overload. 

Bangkok is truly a city of unbelievable contrasts. Prior to departure, I read similar phrases in travel journal after travel journal. But, never did I grasp exactly what that phrase meant. I am now beginning to comprehend and understanding that the contrasts exist makes everyday life a bit easier to navigate.

Bangkok is both dirty and dusty, while also sparkling and pristine. It is deliciously scented, at times, and horribly stinky at others. It is full of traditional open air markets and sleek, modern, glassed-in mega centers. And, birds chirp, foliage waves in the morning heat, all the while giant construction sites are full of pounding and sawing. And, while pickups full of produce and meats display their goods in a movable feast of sorts, the Skytrain zooms overhead and cars stacked sometimes six or seven rows deep (on streets built for three or four lanes!) honk and idle in the sun. 

It is an amazing experience for your brain to take in all at once. Today was a perfect example of the city's contrast and how it affects us. 

T started breakfast at the other end of the house, while the kids and I stretched slowly out of bed this morning, waking up to 'mama's bird'. Yes, I now have a bird named after me. It's the little bird that sings 'Woo-Hoo!' when the sun rises and when the sun sets. And, like every other day so far in Bangkok, the kids opened their eyes and said 'Mama, it's your bird!' I am convinced that this little bird was created to shout 'woo hoo' purely for my enjoyment because I can't help but smile when I hear it calling out. I love that little bird. 

After stretching a moment more, we made it to the dining room and were treated to a flavorful concoction of fresh, local ingredients. If I didn't already know it, I do now... T is a genius. His spin on French toast was absolutely delectable and one that you should treat your family to this weekend (see below).

After what was a completely peaceful weekend morning, we loaded up our day pack (which mainly consisted of water and our son!) and were off to Skytrain. The quiet, fresh tropical morning of our neighborhood sub sois (side streets) was gone and we entered the dusty, humid, noisy intersection where we ascended high above the traffic to catch the sky train. Just as our cheeks start to grow red in the heat, ahhh... the train arrived, we entered and were greeted by blasts of air conditioning. Zoom... we are off to Siam Paragon, a mega, mega, mega shopping complex that is all glass and glitz and manufactured water falls (a relatively short distance in miles, but a long ways away from the look of our neighborly sub sois!). And, much to the kids excitement, home to Siam Oceanworld. This is our second visit to what is the best aquarium I have ever visited.

After rendezvousing with the gargantuan sea turtles, staying far away from the Python (that our daughter enjoyed petting!), seeing a giant fish that can actually survive a draught (by crawling into a hole and breathing air), and wondering why nutria (the giant rats... i mean rodents... really they look like giant rats... and people were all gathered around for their feeding time... hmmm... I'm obviously missing something because I don't get it) exhibit even exists, we went in search of lunch. 

Bangkok's sensory overload was completely apparent over lunch. Sitting in a food court type environment where at least 5o different restaurants sit side by side, music pounds, light shows flare across the walls, giant fish tanks and media screens compete for your attention while a loud speaker announcement requests your attention please (to something that I'm sure was important, but I couldn't hear it!). While trying to have a good (scream) conversation, I started to laugh and realized that this was what Bangkok is currently all about... preserving the serenity of past cultures, while attempting to also develop into a modern, competitive world. Sometimes it's hard to feel at home in both environments, but when I can learn to transition between the two, I think serenity will be mine.

p.s. The picture above is of the view from our home towards the our neighborhood Skytrain station. The station is towards the back of the picture. The foliage covers our sub sois that lead us to the station.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no 3:
Thai Toast
Today, T woke up early and concocted this dish for our family. It is delicious and is sure to be repeated again and again and again.

1/2 inch thick slices of fresh french bread, at least two per person
1/4 cup coconut milk
the juice of one orange*
4 eggs, well beaten
salt, to taste
butter, for the skillet
mango or papaya, finely diced, and shredded coconut for garnish, optional

Mix the milk, orange juice, eggs and salt in a large shallow dish until frothy. Place the sliced bread into the mixture and flip to coat completely. Melt a couple of pats of butter in a skillet and heat until hot. Add the bread slices and cook over medium heat until lightly golden on both sides. Serve hot with desired garnishes.

* T used Thai oranges, which are slightly bitter. You could use regular oranges and add a few drops of Angostura bitters if you want to achieve a similar flavor.

13 August 2008

A birthday party and a pirate ship

After one day in his new job, T returned home for a day of rest (tough life!). Although, let it be said that he loved his first working Monday in Thailand and he was a tad disappointed to not return to the office early the next morning. Yesterday was Queen Sirikit's birthday, partnered with Mother's Day. And, what a birthday it seemed to be. The Queen was honored with a celebration that included a candlelight ceremony, in which it looked like thousands gathered after dark to sing and be together as they honored their Queen. The ceremony was followed by fireworks that exploded over BKK's high rises. Point to Bangkok. The kids are hard pressed to find something that they don't like about this place! The city seems to deliver at every new moment, even after dark. 

And, while our shipment has supposedly arrived at port, we're still awaiting its arrival at home. So, whenever there's a natural opportunity to provide entertainment for the kids, we jump on it! Which leads me to yesterday's torrential rainfall. As soon as it began, I smiled in eager anticipation of an afternoon on the decks. In case you're not following my reason for excitement, let me explain further. Our home has several great balconies, but I've been a bit squeamish to set foot on them as they are covered in unrecognizable filth. So, rain, a dash of detergent, some mops and a quick tapping into the psyche of two young children with a new found fascination for pirates makes for a surprisingly entertaining (and productive) afternoon. We now have sparkling clean decks, filth-free.

And, in honor of yesterday's birthday, here's a gift for you:

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 2:
Pad Thai, made in traditional Thai-style*
After a day of running around town (or swabbing the decks!) this makes for a comforting, filling main dish. We, unfortunately, omit the peanuts because of family food allergies.

1 package dried rice noodles (thickly cut, about 4 oz)
2 tablespoons veggie oil
Your choice of protein (about two chicken breasts, cubed, two hand fulls of prawns, half block of tofu, cubed, or a combination) seasoned with garlic powder
3 eggs, blended with salt and pepper to your desired taste
2 cups bean sprouts
2 cups green onions, cut into approximately one-inch pieces
1/8 cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
5 teaspoons brown sugar
red pepper flakes, to taste
lime wedges, chopped cilantro sprigs, sliced white radishes and crushed peanuts, for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add rice noodles. Cook until al dente (do not overcook... they'll get mushy and ruin the dish) and drain under cold running water. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon veggie oil in a large saute pan and add choice of protein. Saute, on low heat until chicken is cooked through, prawns are opaque and/or tofu is golden (cook each item separately if doing more than one). Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon veggie oil over low heat and pour eggs into pan. Swirl around the pan and allow to set into a flat omelet. Flip, cook for 20 seconds more and remove from pan. Place onto a cutting board. When cool to the touch, slice into thin strips and set aside.

In a saucepan, heat fish sauce vinegar, brown sugar and pepper flakes to create desired heat. Bring to a rolling boil and remove from heat. In your saute pan, add noodles, sprouts, green onions and pour hot sauce over top. Stir until well combined and heat until sauce is absorbed by the noodles (should only take a few minutes). Add meat/tofu and egg, stir and pour onto serving platter. Garnish with lime, white radish, peanuts and cilantro sprigs. Serve hot.

*Thai style does not involve the use of ketchup, as most American recipes do. In addition, the egg is pre-cooked as an omelet, rather than scrambled as you'll more typically find in the States.

10 August 2008

Thirteen Days in Bangkok

As I start this entry, the sun is making its final descent over Bangkok's skyline and the air is still heavy and humid from today's rainstorm that threatened but never materialized. The kids are just winding down as we prep for bed and my husband is in the kitchen, happily finishing up tonight's dinner dishes. We've now been in Bangkok for 13 days and the big news is that we're still anxiously awaiting our shipment. Let me be the first one to say it... yes, life is adventurous and exhilarating as you learn how to adapt in a new environment (lots of tales to tell in future, more rested days). But, after converting the cardboard corner covers that came with our mattress delivery into pirate hats, car ramps, musical instruments, pirate hat version 2.2 (and dodging the request for mommy to please make them into a new stuffed animal), lack of belongings with two young children in tow gets old verrrry quickly. So, with each passing day we hope that our shipment arrives on our doorstep soon.

The flights went well and we are already loving our new home, feeling in a lot of ways that we belong. We're exploring the city each morning, attempting to pick up a newly needed item on our outings and then returning to relax and swim. With just a few suitcases full of odds and ends to our name, we're learning to live with our beloved rice cooker, a set of sheets, a few of the Fisher Price Little People and some paper plates! This, though, has given us plenty of opportunity to figure out public transportation, investigate our local market (they deliver!!!), and try out the few words of Thai that we know. 

We're all just exiting the jet lag that accompanied us and the week ahead will be one in which I attempt to restore the kid's pre-move routine while T begins work. The enormity of the adventure (the prep of the last several months, the good-byes and the arrival in a foreign city) is sinking in and our bodies and minds are fatigued.

Since I love to entertain and I have found myself far and away from loved ones, this blog will be my way to not only document my journey as an expat in Thailand, but also as a way to play virtual hostess. My first gift to you...

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. one: 
Snapper in Coconut Mango Cream
After living on a diet primarily consisting of steamed rice, this was one of the first new dishes I've tried using fresh, local Thai ingredients. The recipe is adapted from a leaflet at our local grocery. And to make it fun, you can attempt to cook it in the method that I like to call 'sans-shipment' and use two plastic forks to flip the fish in the lava-like poaching liquid (paper plates make for a beautiful serving platter)!

2 mangos
2 green scallions
1 cup of coconut milk
1 teaspoon of red chili paste*
2 small fillets of red snapper

Place two mangos, roughly diced, and two green scallions, chopped, into a dry saute pan. Cook over medium heat until mango starts to turn golden (the consistency will grow soft as well). Turn the heat down and add one cup of coconut milk and one teaspoon of red chili paste. Simmer over low for about two minutes, stirring to combine flavors. Add two small fillets of red snapper, cover in liquid completely and slow poach until fish is opaque (you may wish to flip the fish to encourage quicker cooking, but it is not entirely necessary). Serve hot with rice.**

* The chili paste I found at my local store included ground chilies, fermented shrimp paste, ground ginger and crushed garlic. If you can't find something similar, I recommend using a bit of red pepper flakes, a touch of ground ginger, a dash of garlic powder and a tiny splash of fish sauce to recreate the flavor.

** We enjoyed Thai Black Forbidden Palace Rice with this dish, which is traditionally used to make black sticky rice pudding. Serve with your favorite steamed rice (a wild rice blend would be tasty).