31 October 2008

An expat Halloween accomplished

The weeks of paper mache pumpkin making, toilet paper ghost creating, spooky balloon jack o'lantern garland hanging, caramel apple dipping and popcorn ball rolling came to a grand end on October 31 in Bangkok.

My four year old began the day as one of the cutest bumblebees you've ever seen (complete with sparkling antennas and all) and ended the celebrations as a cat in a swimsuit (removing the antennas and applying eyeliner whiskers instead). My two year old son growled "arrrrr" and shouted "ahoy" for the majority of the day running around in a fleece pirates costume (yup, he was a tad bit warm by about noon in Bangkok's 100 degree heat!).

While Halloween is celebrated within the bar crawling circle with scary costumes and half price specials, kids activities haven't yet found their way here. Some of the larger apartment buildings do provide trick or treating I was told, but in our area, we were left to happily manufacture a Halloween for the kids.

Mama objective number one: Give the kids a chance to show off their costumes. The day began with a trek to the local Starbucks and grocery store, in costume. The baristas left their posts, with a very long line of waiting customers, tried on the pirate hat and oohed and ahhed over the satiny striped bumblebee. The kids were quite a sight with everyone (and I do mean everyone) stopping to stare and comment.

Mama objective number two: Provide some familiar festive fun. After cooking up some caramel and dipping apples, both kids proudly delivered plates of Halloween caramel apples to our security guards and neighbors. Then we returned home to bob for apples on the balcony. For my kids, the combined opportunity to get soaking wet and eat apples was too exciting. We spent a good forty-five minutes before returning indoors to decorate their bedroom doors with a few more spooky spiderwebs.

Mama objective number three: Create a party. T returned home from work and quietly assembled a safari guy costume. Just a bit earlier, I snuck away to create a spooky dinner (glow in the dark ghosts gathered on the closed curtains, pumpkin candles flickered on the table, millions of Halloween rings scattered across the tabletop and mingled with other Halloween goodies sent by wonderful family members from the States, while spooky cobweb soup and grilled cheese ghost sandwiches awaited). Then, both in costumes, T and I led the kids to their party.

Mama objective number four: Trick or treat. Easy. T and I took turns hiding behind various doors in the house, the kids did their thing and after collecting way too many goodies they sat down to loot their booty. Our little pirate really got the hang of it this year, tearing into the candy before paying attention to the stickers and play dough.

Still in my "one tired puppy" costume, complete with dog ears, a tail and sleep mask, my daughter looked at me and provided commentary on her first Halloween in Bangkok. "I love you mama. This was my best Halloween ever. And, I mean, ever ever ever." Ahhh... another mission accomplished.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 21:
Nam Prik
Requested by a reader, this recipe is for a condiment widely used in Thailand (and made differently from region to region). Firey hot, I'd recommend using this sauce sparingly until you develop a taste for it. Admittedly, not one of my favorite flavors, but one that my husband continuously requests more of when our fridge runs low.

8 cloves of garlic, finely minced
8 chili peppers, finely cut into small rounds
1 1/2 cups fish sauce
Juice of two limes
1 tablespoon palm sugar, optional

Add all ingredients to a jar that has an airtight cover (a canning jar works well). Seal and shake. Place in fridge for at least two days before serving. Will last for up to three months in the fridge. Serve over rice, noodles and meats as desired.

26 October 2008

Singapore Sling

"No gum? Then, I'm not going." My daughter huffed and sat cross legged at my feet as I threw a swimsuit into a backpack. That is exactly how my most recent Saturday morning began. 

After hearing that we were taking a quick "vacation" to Singapore and learning about the country's strict "no gum allowed anywhere" rule, my four year old decided that this was not the type of vacation she wanted to participate in.

Chewing gum is a new thing in our family and exclusively used for enticing young children onto various modes of transportation. (It began with an innocent enough two hour flight to California and has found its way into their mouths during difficult flights and tricky Bangkok Skytrain rides since.) Mentally smacking my hand upside my head and attempting to limit an eye roll, on this particular Saturday morning, I wish I could have taken back every nibble of gum I have given. And, so our quick dash for Singapore began. 

While my husband's passport had been stamped many times since our initial entry into Thailand, the kids and I needed an update. So, it was off for a quick stay in Singapore where we would be granted, upon return to Thailand, shiny new stamps in our passports allowing us to continue our adventure in Bangkok.

After a fairly uneventful flight and a few train rides on yet another world-class public transportation system (why don't these exist everywhere?), we threw ourselves down into an open air cafe sporting huge green awnings and bearing the famous siren's logo. Sipping blissful refreshment, we soaked up cafe culture, Singapore style, and surveyed the scene. 

The sidewalks alone were enough to make my mind spin. Having grown used to Bangkok's crumbling pathways, I was shocked to remember that smooth, wide, easy to navigate ones exist in other places. And, after our elevated train ride into the heart of the city, I would not be shocked to learn someday that yoga really is practiced, or at least sold, on every corner of Singapore and that the papayas growing in the trees beside the tracks are among the largest in the world.

As for the anti-gum upset? My daughter completely forgot about her protests when she laid eyes on the slide leading into our hotel's cool, blue swimming pool.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 20:
Fried Bee Hoon
I tried this Singapore noodle dish at breakfast yesterday (in Singapore!). I loved it so much that I came home and created the following recipe so I could replicate the dish in my own kitchen. A yummy alternative to fried rice, it makes for a complete meal at any time of the day.

1 package thin rice vermicelli noodles (bee hoon)
5 dried mushrooms 
3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
4 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons oyster sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1-2 bird's eye chilies (optional, to taste, chopped into rounds)
pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon veggie oil
vegetables of your choice, cut into thin strips (carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, etc.)
meat of your choice, cut into thin strips (or extra firm tofu, cubed)
egg, cooked omelette style and cut into thin strips

Reconstitute vermicelli by soaking in warm water for about 15 minutes, strain and set aside. Reconstitute dried mushrooms by soaking in 1/2 cup of warm water for about 15 minutes, then cut mushrooms into thin strips and reserve water. In a bowl, mix soy sauce, oyster sauce, reserved mushroom liquid, sesame oil, bird's eye chilies, pepper, salt and chicken stock. Set aside. Heat a large wok, add vegetable oil. Stir fry garlic, mushrooms and vegetables until tender. Add meat or tofu and toss until cooked and seared. Add vermicelli and just enough of the sauce mixture to coat the bottom of the pan. The sauce should sizzle and evaporate. Toss well and add a bit more stock. Continue this process until the noodles won't soak up anymore sauce. You want the pan to remain fairly dry to achieve a toasted flavor (you don't want the noodles soaking in sauce, they should be dry and "fried" a bit crispy on the edges when done). Serve and garnish with egg strips and extra sesame oil, if desired.

20 October 2008

The trundlers

Time for a confession. Recently, I've received a lot of mail with comments alluding to the fact that all sounds really great in Thailand and "wow, not a lot of bad to report." Lest you think that it is all sunny skies and blooming orchids in Bangkok, I thought it was time to note a four legged creature that is regularly making my hair stand on end.

Prior to moving here, I kept my phobias well hidden from most people (don't let a close sibling or a well connected mother tell you otherwise). But, several times a week, I have to take a deep breath as goose bumps rise on my arms, a chill comes over me in the 100 plus degree heat and I come toe to claw with my nemesis.

While I am fortunate that our home seems to be an enemy-free zone, it only takes a couple of blocks on our daily walk before I find my shoulders tensing in anticipation of a possible encounter.

In the very early days of our time in Bangkok, I was cautiously optimistic that I would never run into a rat (while my husband was realistic in knowing he'd eventually cross paths with his nemesis: the deeply hated cockroach). Rather quickly, my eyes were opened and I realized, with great fear, that the Thai rat was even worse than my previously stated phobias allowed.

These little suckers are tame and act as though you should provide them with a mini lounge chair and a drink with an umbrella in it. Thai rats are what the animators at Pixar had in mind when they created Ratatouille. Let's just say, while not as photogenic as Pixar's version, you can just imagine them having full conversations in their little communities with one another. And, my daughter seems to think they're cute (shiver!). So, to avoid my daughter's request of one coming home as a pet (ahhhgg... shiver!), the name "the trundlers" was born. 

Let me explain, all parents will recognize the spelling phase-- you know, your children's vocabulary increases and you look at your significant other and say "Should we go to the T-O-Y-S-T-O-R-E?!" Well, my daughter is particularly adept at now understanding that spelling equals a secret. So, in this scenario, we can no longer spell "R-A-T" and we don't want to point them out due to my earlier point of having to have the pet discussion (ahhhgg... shiver again!). Thus, my husband and I have created a series of code words, as needed. In this case... "the trundlers." There goes another trundler. There sure are a lot of trundlers today. Watch out: trundler at 1 o'clock.

Now, I can say that I am no less phobic and no more comfortable with rats than I was when I first landed here. However, the presence of trundlers in the street after a storm, walking lazily along the sewer lines every once in awhile or crawling past an orchid is something I try to ignore. My daughter's interest seems to be waning, but I'll continue to speak in code for as long as it will last.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 19
Fish wrapped in leaves
How do you follow a posting on rats with a recipe? You ignore it, move on and provide a fantastic recipe that everyone should try!

For the fish:
8 leaves cabbage
1 fillet of white fish (cod or snapper work well), cut into four individual portions
8 green onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
about 1 Tablespoon ginger, minced
red pepper flakes, optional to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
1 mango, sliced thinly

For the sauce:
1 mango, mashed
1/4 cup coconut milk
fish sauce, to taste (about 1 tablespoon)
red pepper flakes, to taste

Bring a full pot of water to a boil and add the cabbage leaves. Cook until tender and pliable. Remove from water, cool, pat dry and set aside. Add salt and pepper to the fish so that it is well seasoned. Place one leaf of cabbage on a work surface, add one piece of fish, top with two green onions, a pinch of garlic, a pinch of ginger, optional red pepper flakes and two slices of mango. Wrap the leaf around the fish, add another leaf and wrap so that the fish is wrapped like a package. Place in a well oiled small sized baking pan. Continue with the other three fillets, placing them closely together in the baking pan. Place in a 350 degree oven and cook until the fish is opaque. Cooking time will vary depending on the size and type of fish you selected, but generally takes about 20 minutes. While the fish is cooking, combine the sauce ingredients in a pot over very low heat. Stir until well combined. Serve by placing the wrapped fish on top of a thin layer of rice and top with the heated sauce.

Yield: 4 servings

14 October 2008

I was a human pretzel

For years I've been hearing about traditional Thai massage. And, what has made the activity so interesting to me is that everyone seems to have such a different story to tell of their experience. So, naturally, I was looking forward to finally entering a traditional Thai massage into my life's adventure log.

For those of you who have not partaken in Thai massage, its a wild ride. I am still recovering from yesterday's trip to the spa. However, for the remainder of this entry, I will attempt to keep my opinions somewhat neutral and allow you to decide, if presented with the opportunity, whether one should be a part of your future. Here are the facts, as I experienced them at a serene, reputable, highly referred spa.

Upon entrance, I was greeted by Liao-- a tiny, fifty-ish, Thai woman with a huge, beautiful smile. I was told she'd be my guide for the journey ahead of me. She led me to a sparsely decorated, quiet, dimly lit room that smelled faintly of eucalyptus oil and closed a curtain. I adjusted to the dim and took a look around. After changing into the traditional Thai pajamas left for me, I reclined on the floor mattress and breathed deeply until she returned. So far, so good.

During a Thai massage (known at nuat phaen boran, which translates to ancient-manner massage) your masseuse puts your body into various yoga-like poses. Then, moving very slowly, she applies pressure to different points of the body while you are to stay completely still. The masseuse uses their feet and hands to do the massaging. According to an official definition (which, for the record, I read after going to the spa) Thai massage includes pulling fingers, toes, ears, etc, cracking the knuckles, walking on the recipient's back, and arching the recipient's back in a rolling action over the masseuse's body. 

With fear for stating the obvious, let me just say this, I have discovered that forearm bone pressed at full body weight against a shin while your body is perched sideways and your head is looking the opposite direction is not comfortable. 

While I was busy cursing at myself for scheduling a two hour massage (why? why be so greedy... you could have been out of here in an hour!), my masseuse moved to my back where I literally had my breath taken away. With a woman walking on top of me and my lungs expelling guttural sounds, I buried my face deep into the pillow and began a series of non stop laughter. What was I doing here?! 

I composed myself in just enough time to be hoisted by the elbows, and rolled backwards over my masseuse. After being wadded up into a pretzel shape (which was already slightly uncomfortable) my masseuse stood straight up, reached for the sky and launched her body on top of mine (remember, I was already awkwardly curled up into a pretzel). I heard joints crack that I didn't even know existed. A few moments in that position, a few deep elbow digs and she removed herself. With a deep bow and khap koon kah later, she exited.

While I do now understand the thrill of Thai massage (an odd combination of adrenaline rushing through your body, with deep intense stretching does leave you feeling invigorated), I also understand that I was more thrilled to exit the spa in one piece. So entry number 1,824,644 in my life's experience book: Get Thai Massage. Check. Been there, done that.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 18
Mee Goreng (pronounced Me-Gor-Ring)
This is one of my favorite newly discovered noodle dishes. I'm told that this recipe is locally regarded in the same light at chicken soup is to most Americans-- good ol' comfort food and exactly what the doctor ordered after a potentially bone breaking experience.

10 won ton wrappers, cut into thin pieces and fried until golden
3 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili sauce
pepper, to taste
2 eggs
2 packets of ramen noodles, cooked until al dente
1 tablespoon coconut milk
tsp of veggie oil
5 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup choice of meat (pork, chicken or beef), sliced thinly
2 bird's eye chilies, finely chopped
1/2 cup carrot, julienned
2 cups spinach (or as my kids now like to call it, as it is more locally referred to, "rocket")

Combine the soy sauce, sugar, chili sauce and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside. Add coconut milk and veggie oil to a wok with the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add carrots, meat and chilies and cook until meat is done. Add spinach, cooked ramen noodles and previously mixed sauce combination. Toss until warm and dish into large individual serving bowls. In a hot fry pan, fry eggs until desired doneness is reached (most authentic version calls for sunny side up). Place one egg on top of each noodle serving. Add fried won tons on top of the egg and serve immediately with extra soy and hot sauces on the side. Makes two very large servings.

11 October 2008

Pardon me, you have a little wing in your teeth

A fantastic morning out was made all the more brilliant when I came upon the fried bug vendor. If you've kept up with the blog, you already know my adoration for the mighty street vendor. But, this morning's discovery tops them all. I'll keep this short and let the pictures do the talking. Hold on to your stomach if you're not a big fan of a little wing in your teeth.....

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 17:
Vodka tonic with thai limes
After some encounters, you just need a stiff drink mixed expertly by your significant other!

1 shot of vodka
tonic water
juice of two thai limes (if you can't find thai limes, use juice of two regular limes with a twist of lemon)

Fill a glass with ice, add vodka and lime juice. Fill with tonic to the top.

09 October 2008

Hold on to your stilettos!

For all of those who love me, I feel oddly compelled to apologize for my actions today. Zipping through our sub sois on the back of a motorbike taxi was thrilling!

Ever since our arrival in Bangkok, I have watched our neighborhood burst with life. And, a huge, colorful part of that life includes the motorbike taxis. In our neighborhood, this means about 15 guys wearing orange cotton vests rapidly riding, sans helmets, through the side streets, picking up passengers and then delivering their passengers to main roads. The incentive for the passenger? Cheap fare, fast and readily available service.

So, since it was too early for our driver and I had already spent numerous weeks declining the request for a motorbike pick-up, I figured it was time to take part in the motorbike taxi experience... just once.

Local women sit side saddle, with their 3-inch stilettos daintily crossed, holding on with one hand as they fly down the middle of the street. Truly an impressive feat and one that I appreciate even more so after today. I opted for the "jump on the bike, hold on for dear life (in my 3-inch stilettos, naturally....) and wrap my arms way to tightly for his comfort around the driver" position. This barely served me well enough as we careened down the streets at what I gathered was farang-pace (aka slow, for the scared foreign gal). 

Frankly, though, the combination of fear for my life, running over already squished frogs in the roadway and sweating from the grip I had on the driver was enough for me from the local motorbike scene.

As thrilling as it was, for the sake of my family, it will be a long, long while before I hop on the back of a bike again.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 16:
Philippine Ribs
A new friend cooked these for us and my kids lives have never been the same since! They devour these and then ask for more.

2 racks of spare ribs, cut into seperate pieces
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup terriyaki sauce
3 tablespoons brown sugar
Juice of 4 limes
1 bird's eye chili, diced

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and marinate overnight. To bake, place ribs on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Cook for approximately 30 minutes at 375 degrees (or until meat is tender and almost falls off the bone). Serve with rice, fresh pineapple and a lot of napkins!

03 October 2008

Oil Slick

For the sake of this blog entry, I decided to subject myself to serious investigative journalism this morning. I kissed the kids and headed out for a morning of pampering at one of the local spas. Now, I must confess, I'm not a first-timer to the spas here. But, again, for the sake of really making sure I had the facts straight, I thought I should check it all out again before I posted an entry.

After a quick car ride under very gray skies, I arrived for my ten a.m. appointment. Kicking off my shoes upon stepping onto the salon's glossy white floors, I was greeted by a spa guide who escorted me to a raised massage chair. I sunk my feet into the bubbly water bath, ordered a complimentary roselle tea from their beverage menu, dipped my hands into the awaiting salt water dishes on either side of me, leaned my head deep into the cushioned chair and closed my eyes.

After almost two hours of intense arm and leg massages, a couple coats of beautiful metallic silver lacquer, at least several buckets of salt scrub and almond oil, my pedicure and manicure ended. I continued to bliss out as I paid about a fourth of what the experience would have cost me in the US.

Feeling treated myself, I stopped at the local grocery to pick up an item that's been heavily requested by the kids and not responded to (yes, they wanted the "macaroni in the blue box, plllllllease"). Then, I headed home. Finally, the thunder cracked overhead and knowing what that meant I picked up the pace. Already committed to walking home, rather than taking a taxi (which were now in short supply as I entered the smaller side roads that led home), I felt a twinge of anxiety and discomfort. The thunder grew to an intense rumble (boy, that happened fast today) and my feet began to slide around on my flip flops as the humidity further liquefied the salon's pedicure oil. Helpful Note: When in Thailand, don't wear already slippery flip flops to a pedicure... especially during monsoon season!

And, then it happened. Still several blocks away from home, the first pellet of rain struck. And, just as it had done on days previous, the sky opened up, sheets poured and my oily feet began to create a slick. Pushing panic to the side, I threw my flip flops off, grabbed my grocery bag closer (to protect the precious blue cardboard box inside) and moved a little further into the street. Watching my sparkly toes hit the now very wet pavement and feeling my stringy soaked hair stick to my neck, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. I wanted to throw my arms up in the air and say to the heavens, "I'm in Thailand, walking to my home in the middle of a monsoon... and I'm having the time of my life!"

Cooking in Thailand: entry no. 15:
Thai "BBQ" Chicken
A really easy and delicious take on one of our favorite street vendor's "gai" (chicken). A great dinner when served with rice and fresh fruit.

1 whole chicken, cut into parts
1/2 cup of soy sauce
3 tablespoons ketchup
1/4 cup terriyaki sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, minced
2 bird's eye chili peppers, diced (use only one if you like a little less spice)

Mix all of the above ingredients together in a large shallow pan, to be used for marinating. Add the chicken and turn to coat. Cover and set in fridge overnight. Line a baking pan with heavy duty aluminum foil. (Ideally, use a pan that is only large enough to put all of the chicken in so that the pieces touch and form a tight layer. You don't want the chicken to be spread out.) Place in a preheated 350 degree over, uncovered, for about 35 minutes or until the chicken is opaque in the center (depending on the size of chicken you use, the baking time may vary a bit). Remove and allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Also good cold.

02 October 2008

Aging gracefully

My daughter is exactly 4 years, 6 months and 7 days old and she knows how to hail a taxi. I'm not sure about you, but I never saw that developmental milestone coming so early!

We've had a bit of conflicting advice on how to pronounce the name of our street (in Thai). So, for the past several days, I've been using our taxi ride home from the Skytrain to try out all of the different variations. 

Each day, after we descended from the Skytrain stairs, I held my arm out and produced a downward waving gesture (a local gesture I've been instructed to use to hail a cab). And, day after day, the kids and I were greeted by a friendly driver. "Sahwahdee-kah!" I started. "Soi.... (insert variations on the pronunciation here)- kah." 

After each and every try I was met by a confused expression and I resorted to dropping my bags and holding up the appropriate number of fingers to communicate our street name. From there, understanding was reached and I was able to happily "trong-pai" my way home ("go straight"). And, every day, we got home, but apparently none of the pronunciations worked coming out of my mouth.

So, yesterday, my daughter looked at me as we departed Skytrain and said "Mama, let me take care of the cab today." Hmmmm, let's see what happens.

Her little feet hit the pavement and, without missing a beat, she identified the car that would be hers. A miniature version of the wave I'd done on days previous was thrown into the world for bait and, much to my surprise, she caught her taxi. Looking at me with an odd combination of hysterics and fiery accomplishment in her eyes, she said "Mama, this is mine... I got it, I got it!" Far be it for me to get in her way. 

I opened the door, she leaned in and, in perfectly understood Thai, she greeted the driver and politely directed him to our street. He spoke back a signal of exact understanding and we were home about three minutes later.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 15:
Egg Fu Yung
For anyone who picked up on the pun, linking my blog entry's title to this recipe, I'm sorry... I couldn't resist! Plus, this has quickly become one of my, and my kids, favorite breakfasts! 

3 tablespoons veggie oil
3 eggs, well beaten
1/2 carrot
8 mushrooms
1/2 cup bean sprouts
4 green onions
salt and pepper to taste
oyster sauce, about 1 teaspoon per person
a set of chopsticks

Shred the carrots and mushrooms (using a food processor makes the job really fast) and add, with 1 tablespoon of the oil, to a large saute pan. Cook, adding water if the pan becomes dry, until the carrots are tender. Add the green onions and bean sprouts, cook for about 2 minutes more so that they are hot to the touch. Move veggie mixture to outskirts of the pan and add the remaining oil to the center of the pan. Heat. All at once, add the eggs, using your chopsticks move the mixture quickly in a figure 8 pattern, adding the veggies into the eggs. The eggs should be firming up and the veggies should be well distributed. Use the chopsticks to push the sides of the egg down from the edges of the pan. Once the mixture becomes firm, use a large spatula and flip it. Cook for about a minute more. The Egg Fu Yung will look like a large pancake. Transfer it to a cutting board and let rest. In the meantime, heat the oyster sauce in the same pan you cooked the Egg Fu Yung in. Slice the Egg Fu Yung into wedges, serve with rice and a small dollop of oyster sauce (the sauce is strong so use lightly).