Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Mango Chicken Curry For Wintertime Existential Despair

mango curry done 2

I’ve spent many years as a sworn enemy of fruit in curries. Too often, adding fruit to a perfectly adequate, flavorful Asian or South Asian dish renders it a sickly-sweet abomination geared towards the kind of people who think garlic powder is exotic.

However, I made an exception for this South Indian-ish chicken mango curry,  and I’m very glad I did. It’s delicious, easy to make, and produces superb leftovers. The combination of coconut milk, toasted Indian spices, and chili with fresh mango chunks produces complex, tropical flavors that are a pleasantly aromatic antidote to the pure existential misery of winter.

It is eminently adjustable to different palates and spice-tolerances, which makes this dish a good choice for both your flavor-phobic in-laws from Nebraska, and your chili-obsessed expat friend visiting from Southeast Asia who has thoroughly seared all their tastebuds off. (That would be me).

Due to either the boon or horrible imposition of globalization, depending on your political affinities, you can get a decent fresh mango most anywhere in the winter months. I guess you could use frozen mango if you were desperate.

Dark meat chicken is heavily suggested. The curry leaves are a brilliant addition if you can find them. The frozen ones work, too. It would be pretty good with shrimp if you were so inclined.

mango chunks detail 2

Chicken Mango Curry
Serves 6 (with leftovers)

3 pounds of dark-meat chicken, skinned and cut into chunks
1 ripe fresh mango, peeled and cut into chunks.
1 can of full-fat coconut milk (low fat is for weenies)
1 serrano or Thai green chili – add more if you like super-spicy.
Tablespoon of sambal chili paste.  Sriracha is a fine substitute. Omit if you come from the Delicate Stomach tribe.
2 large yellow onions
Tablespoon of fresh ginger
2 to 3 garlic cloves, according to taste
Vegetable oil – olive oil works fine.

1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
1 cinnamon stick
4 or 5 cardamom pods, broken open. 1/2 tsp of cardamom powder works fine as a substitute.
Curry leaves (if you can find them)

Chicken

If you have the time, marinade the chicken overnight in yogurt, combined with a tablespoon of curry powder. No one will die if you do not have the time to do this, so don’t sweat it.

Curry paste

1. Finely chop – using a knife or a food processor, I’m not judging – and then combine the whole Serrano chili, ginger, onion, and garlic. Set aside.

The Main Event

2. In a large, deep pan or skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Throw in the mustard seeds, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, and curry leaves, and cook for roughly a minute, until the mustard seeds begin to pop. If the oil is too hot, the mustard seeds will ricochet into your face, which is exceedingly startling.

3. Add the curry paste. Add the turmeric, curry powder, and cumin. Add the cardamom powder if you weren’t able to find the pods. Cook until the vegetables are aromatic and soft.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

Chicken added. Electric skillets are rad.

4. Add the chicken, and stir until it’s reasonably browned – roughly 3 to 4 minutes.

5. Add the can of coconut milk and stir to combine. Taste, and adjust the spices if needed. Add more chili paste if needed. Add salt and pepper as you see fit. Cook for 15 minutes covered at low heat.

6. After 15 minutes elapse, add the chopped mango. Cook for 5 more minutes at low heat.

Should look like this. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

Should look like this halfway through. No, I have no idea how to photograph curry attractively.

7. Taste again, and adjust as needed. Uncover, turn the heat up to high, and reduce for about 5 to 10 minutes until thick and slightly caramelized looking. Keep stirring it to avoid burning.

8. Eat it. I like to serve this with a raita made with plain Greek yogurt, diced cucumber, olive oil, and lemon. Good with basmati rice as well.

This makes beautiful left-overs, so I suggest making more then you can eat in one go, and keeping it aside for the next day. It also freezes very well.

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Buffalo Racing in Cambodia: So Very Majestic

 

man on a buffalo

You know it’s a damn good holiday when there’s a chance you might get run over by frightened livestock.

At least, that’s how it is in Vihear Sour Cheung village in Ksach Kandal district in the Cambodian countryside. Falling in either late September or fall on the Western calender, Pchum Ben is Cambodia’s Day of the Dead equivalent, when the gates of Hell open and the spirits of one’s relatives wander the earth.

Beyond the expected Buddhist ceremonies at Cambodia’s many wats (temples), people in the countryside celebrate with exceedingly rowdy buffalo and horse races. Myself and some photographer friends pooled together some cash and got a car to take us out of Phnom Penh and into the pancake-flat, electrically green Cambodian countryside to watch the action in Kandal Province. The races, we were told, began at 6:00 AM. Probably.

I made this video. I think I chose the right music.

We arrived and saw hundreds of excited people of all possible ages lined up along what seems to be a dangerously narrow corridor near the town’s main Buddhist temple. We had got there late (thanks to the usually vague Khmer-style time estimation) and managed to wedge ourselves into the eager, nervous-looking crowd. The animals, both horses and buffalo, were raced in laps along this corridor. A man with a whistle would blow on it a few seconds before the animals came into view, giving people a bit of lead time on leaping out of the way, or at least jostling their way into the crowd for a few millimeters of safety.

Double suspension.

Double suspension.

We got ourselves into position with our cameras, and soon the whistle blew: frantic gallumphing sounds heralded the arrival of the horses, slim chestnut and tan creatures being whipped into a frothing gallop by young men who looked somewhere between elated and absolutely mind-bendingly frightened. The crowd would emit excited sounds as the horses came by, low and then high and low again.

The buffalo came more slowly – a pace better described as sedate, really, with their large whitish-grey heads up in the air. The buffalo were decorated with jingling golden bells and muti-colored beads and fringe. Their jockeys (notably, rather more senior and tubby than the guys on the horses) whapped them animatedly on the butts with switches to keep them moving. Everybody cheered when the buffalo shuffled by. I have no idea how water buffalo perceive their sense of personal dignity but I feel this kind of thing might be corrosive to it.

A terrified looking horse on the way back from one of the heats pulled up and backed into the crowd, which made everybody scream, whether they were in any actual danger or not. It is always very fun to scream in a crowd situation, as anyone who has been eight knows.

man on a buffalo bw

None of my journalist friends managed to be run over by a horse or a buffalo, although I suspect some of us were taking private mental bets on who would incur some sort of embarrassing injury. Maybe a close call or two. “There was a hoof print on her BACK!” I overheard one of our party say about someone else.

With poor judgement, I crouched on the red-dust track with a camera on a tripod and shot the animals from below, trusting that I’d hear the whistling and the gallumphing before a very small and very anxious horse trampled my head. I declined to fly my drone over the affair, cool as the video might be. I didn’t want a water buffalo to startle.

Having a Wonderful Time

Having a Wonderful Time

The races may not last much longer, or that’s what I heard. Horses have limited utility in a Cambodia where even poor people can usually manage to afford a motorbike – mirroring what happened in the US as cars pushed out horses in the 1940s and 1950s. The buffalo, meanwhile, have greater value as slightly gamy steaks and as rice-growing helpmates than they do as racing mounts to country dwellers.

I certainly hope that this rowdy and highly amusing tradition continues in some form in Cambodia. Perhaps someone should create a Buffalo Jockey for a day tourist program, or something like that – the total immersion Livestock Wrangling Experience. Everyone gets a certificate and lots of selfie opportunities.  There will only be a few tramplings.

It works for Pamplona.

gunning the horse

 

 

 

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Some Thoughts on Cooking Beef Rendang

Beef rendang. You should try this.

Beef rendang. You should try this.

There was a time when I was convinced I would become a professional food and cooking writer. I had a food blog through my teenage years, and read lots of classic food writing – M.F.K Fisher, in particular – and figured it was my destined path in life.

This all changed at age 18, when a certain Iraqi professor at my first college verbally tore my head off over it, when I told him I was really just interested in food journalism, thank you very much. “There is all this suffering in the world, and you want to write about FOOD?” he shouted at me.

I cowered. And rather quickly shifted gears.

Now I write about depressing things related to geo-politics and drones (so much with the drones) – but occasionally, the desire to write about food again re-emerges. In this case, it’s because I made a really fantastic beef rendang and I’d like to let everyone know about it.

Rendang is probably the best known Indonesian dish out there, derived from the excellent, spicy Padang cooking of West Sumatra. In simplest terms, it’s a caramelized coconut milk beef curry that is braised for a very long time, breaking down the beef and giving it a remarkably deep, complex flavor. If you’ve had Thai massaman curry before, it’s a lot like that, but better.

While easy to find in Asia and Australia, for some perverse reason, Indonesian cuisine has yet to become popular in the US. So you’ll have to make it yourself. Let me explain. For this dish, I modified it to my own taste from a few different versions online. I believe the fresh curry leaves were probably my brightest idea, as they lend a delightfully peppery,  smoky, South Indian influence. They are well worth hunting for.

Most credit  is due to Saveur’s version, which had the brilliant idea of using macademia nuts. Some other versions include toasted coconut, star anise, cardamom pods,  and Kaffir lime leaves, among other modifications. You can find all the ingredients listed below at any half-decent Asian/South Asian grocery store.

It's kind of hard to make cooking beef rendang look alluring, as I found out.

It’s kind of hard to make cooking beef rendang look alluring, as I found out. Trust me.

My first rendang tasted good but came out much more soupy than the versions I’d had in Indonesia. I realized my error was cooking the rendang at low heat for the entire four to six hours I let it go – it needs a period of reduction at higher heat to really get the caramelized flavor. The cooking technique, conveniently, helps to preserve the meat for long periods, and beef rendang tends to mellow pleasantly over the course of a few days. Make lots.

WHAT YOU NEED:
2 lbs beef. I used half beef spare ribs, and half chopped beef stew meat. Chicken will do nicely as well, although it will require less cooking time.
1 whole nutmeg, roughed up a bit in a mortar and pestle.
5 whole cloves.
3 chopped Thai chiles (green). Dried chiles work as well, or Mexican chiles.
5 chopped shallots.
1 tablespoon palm sugar. You can buy dried “cakes” of it at the Asian market, which can be simply thrown into the pot.
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp, moistened with water and zapped in the microwave for a minute.
5 macademia nuts.
3 cloves of garlic
Tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger
6 or 7 fresh curry leaves. Frozen works, too.
Minced lemongrass – roughly a tablespoon. If you can get whole lemongrass, trim a stalk, tie it into a knot, and throw it in for flavoring.
2 cinnamon stick, broken in half.
2 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut milk.
Salt and pepper at your own discretion.

Chop the cloves and nutmeg until fine in a food processor – and yes, you use the entire nutmeg. Add the shallots, Thai chiles, ginger, minced lemongrass, garlic, and macademia nuts to the food processor, and run it until you’ve got a nice paste.

Throw the paste in a skillet and sweat it for a couple of minutes at high heat, softening up the vegetables. If you’re using a big soup pot for this dish, which I advise, put some oil in the pot and begin to brown the beef on all sides as you are stirring the vegetables.

What a curry plant looks like.

What a curry plant looks like.

Put the softened vegetable paste into the pot with the beef. Add the coconut milk, which will ideally cover but not drown the meat. Put in the tamarind pulp, the palm sugar, and the fresh curry leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Stir it, taste it, and modify it as you see fit.

Let it cook for at least 3 hours, preferably longer, ensuring the meat is very tender. After at least 3 hours have passed, raise the heat to a medium rolling boil. This will reduce the sauce. Let it rip for about 30 minutes, stirring every 4 or 5 minutes or so to ensure it doesn’t burn. (This is a good time to catch up on TV).

Once the sauce has reduced and taken on a dark appearance and a richly caramelized flavor, it’s ready to serve.

Garnish with curry leaves if you’d like. It was nice with eggplant sauteed with sweet soy sauce, and an Asian slaw.

 

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The Weirdness of Haw Par Villa – Singapore

haw par villa gate

Singapore is not a place renowned for its eccentricity, its exoticism. This gleaming, modern city where everybody is above average (or would like to be) takes great pains to be pleasant – and pleasant, as most of us are aware, is the direct enemy of the funky, exotic, and surreal.

So it is a great irony that within a city that appears to be striving to become a heavily-populated offshoot of Disney World, there resides what is one of the more freaky tourist attractions I’ve ever come across: Haw Par Villa, the vanity project of the man who gave the world Tiger Balm.

Kids love it.

Kids love it.

Haw Par Villa is a theme park in the early 20th century sense, before over-priced rides $80 entrance tickets became the standard way of things. Brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, of Burmese-Chinese descent, decided to use some of their fortune gleaned from Tiger Balm sales to construct the place, framing it as a place to teach traditional Chinese values to the good people of Singapore.

The brothers commissioned a entire park full of large, gaudily colored statues portraying Chinese legends from the Journey of the West to the Legend of the White Snake, with added portrayals of the Buddha (in various forms), huge white stupas devoted to the duo’s parents, and ponds full of ferociously reproducing water turtles.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

All fine enough – and eternally overshadowed by the park’s portrayal of the Ten Courts of Hell, a remarkably graphic romp through what happens to very, very naughty boys and girls. Middle-aged, Singaporeans, I’ve been told, seem to share a collective memory of being dragged through these subterranean chambers and summarily lightly traumatized at very young ages.

Which, you can kind of understand why from looking at these pictures. As I peered at the various layers of hell and contemplated why “refusal to pay rent” is considered a much more serious crime than “inflicting physical injury,” I watched a Chinese father guide his small array of children through the exhibits.

The Volcano Full of Prostitutes. No, really, that's what it is.

The Volcano Full of Whores. No, really, that’s what it is.

“See, THIS is what happens if you lie,” he said, pointing to a portrayal of little clay people being poked to death by colorful, fanged demons with pronounced eyebrows.  The kids look worried.

In alignment with wimpy modern sensibilities, signs now warn unsuspecting parents of the impending trauma that awaits them from venturing into the Hell dioramas. The strategic problem with this is that the rest of the park is just about as baffling and potentially distressing to anyone under the age of 10 who has yet to deeply contemplate sin, mortality, and what happens when you take psychedelic drugs for extended periods.

haw par tiger car

For example: I was particularly struck by Aw Boon Haw’s tiger-themed car, which does in fact feature a molded tiger head, orange and black paint, and a horn that emits roaring sounds when pressed. It’s a 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop, in case you are one of the weirdos who keeps track of these things. This is weird, and yet, not even the weirdest thing by a long shot.

 

animal war

While I wandered, I came across this particular nightmare fodder tableaux, which portrays adorable woodland creatures warring with one another, complete with gore.

If you are the type of parent who is eager to fill your offspring in on certain harsh Darwinian realities of life, it’s hard to imagine a better pedagogical tool than this type of thing – the perfect antidote to friendly, singing animals in Disney movies that always stop short of showing the gore.

“This is the true face of existence,” one can imagine this parent telling their little child, as the two of them look stone-faced upon furry animals murdering one another. “Being adorable will not save you from terror.”

Thanks, Aw Boon Haw.

cricket elephants

Right around the corner from Adorable Rodent Mutually Assured Destruction, there was this quite frankly baffling scene.Far as I can tell, it portrays tiny elephants in Dad outfits forcing horrifyingly large crickets to kiss one another, as mean looking rat men look on and jeer.

Maybe it’s a metaphor.

crab people haw par

A major theme of Haw Par Garden’s exhibits is people who are also crabs, or perhaps crabs who are also people. They are joined by turtle men, fish ladies, and other examples of people fusing with animals in distinctly unsettling ways. I have no idea if this is a theme of Chinese literature but it’s probably going to regularly haunt my dreams.

turtle man fish woman

Haw Par Gardens is, rather sadly, declining in popularity, as modern parents conclude they’d rather not outsource teaching morals to their kids by way of distressingly graphic visual aids.I was just about the only person there on the weekday on which I visited, with a small smattering of mainland Chinese tourists wandering through the exhibits with me. It’s still free to enter the park, and it’s conveniently located off its very own Singapore Metro stop.

As for Haw Par Villa’s appropriateness for children. Of course it is appropriate for children, especially those children who are prone to dark, horrifying ruminations on the nature of existence – which is pretty much all children with an IQ higher than that possessed by a celery stalk.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

If I had been brought here as a small child, I would have likely experienced a month of existential terror, and come out of it on the other end with nothing but fond, rosy memories and warped sensibilities.

I mean, I was taken to the Salvador Dali Museum on multiple occasions when I was very small and there’s nothing even vaguely weird about me.  Take the kids to Haw Par Villa, and do report back on the ensuing conversations.

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The Joy of Padang Food – Singapore

nasi padang yay

Nasi Padang at Sabar Menanti.

“What the hell is Padang food?” you may ask yourself one day, if you happen to be looking for lunch in Singapore, Indonesia, or Malaysia. “Does this have something to do with Penang?”

Ah, you fool, it has jack-all to do with a charming city in Malaysia, but in fact describes a style of cuisine typical of the Minangkabau people of  Western Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Typified by robust spices, long cooking times to ensure maximum flavor, and considerable quantities of coconut, it’s a style that many overseas associate with all Indonesian food. Padang food is available just about everywhere in Indonesia, and is exceedingly popular at lunch time.

The title “nasi padang” usually describes restaurants that function rather like point-and-shoot buffets: a wide array of items are presented behind a glass counter, and you point at what you want to flavor your rice, which is usually served in a whimsical cone shape. Prices are low, service is instant, and it’s a marvelous way to inexpensively sample a wide array of different Indonesian flavors. Some up-scale restaurants will bring all the dishes to your table right off the bat, and you only pay for what you actually touch.

Singapore, thank God, has a healthy assortment of Padang restaurants, and you’ll find most of them in the antique and pleasantly walkable Kompong Glam neighborhood, an easy stroll from multiple metro stops.Certainly Singapore’s most well-known Padang joints are clustered here, and working stiffs on their lunch breaks filter into the area in packs starting around 11:00 AM on any given day. Kompong Glam, with its candy-colored shop houses and beautiful old mosque, is well worth a visit in and of itself.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

SABAR MENANTI

  • 778 Northbridge Road, Singapore
  • +65 6294 4805

I wanted to try a new padang place this visit to Singapore, and a quick perusal of the usual Internet food-related forums convinced me to give this one a go – based on its reputation for fresh food, and its remarkable 50-year longevity. No one, of course, had mentioned that it moved. I went to the old location on Kandahar Street, stared at it for a bit in bovine, hunger-induced confusion, and decided to wander around Kompong Glam’s profusion of fancy carpet and fabric shops for a while.

sabar menanti

Quite accidentally, I found myself at the new storefront, where a chipper, seeming member of the family that owns the place just about pounced at me when I paused outside the door. I had found the right spot, and everyone seemed very happy to see me. All of this struck me as particularly pertinent, considering that the restaurant name translates roughly into “Good things come to those who wait”. (They could stand to do a better job of communicating to their public that they’ve moved).

I’m terribly glad I stopped, because Sabar Menanti is serving just about the best padang food I’ve ever had – and it’s not even in Indonesia.  Chew mussels were cooked in a slightly sweet red chili sauce, while cucumber and carrots were sliced up and tossed in a rich, eggy yellow concoction.

I was particularly delighted by the three kinds of fresh sambal on offer: a chunky red chili paste, a smooth, vibrant classic red sambal, and an incendiary green variant. The entire plate was delightful to look at and entirely irresistible: I inhaled it within 10 minutes, and briefly considered seconds.

Anthony Bourdain, who gives me minor rage headaches, seems to agree: he’s got a signed plaque on the wall. I vaguely recall that episode of No Reservations but I believe I’ve blocked it out. Bourdain phobia aside, I highly suggest you give this place a whirl when you’re in the area.

minang storefront

RUMAH MAKAN MINANG

  • 18 & 18A Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198884
  • +65 6294 4805

 

Rumah Makan Minang is one of the stalwart Nasi Padang joints in Kompong Glam and certainly seems to attract the longest, most devoted lines. I clearly remember first  stumbling upon this place during a gloamy evening in 2010 and thinking “I have got to eat here.” Everyone seems to feel the same way, considering that it’s been in operation since 1954 with little sign of lacking in popularity.

Which I did and do, seemingly whenever I return to the area. Minang specializes particularly in Indonesian tofu dishes and beef rendang, but this time around, I simply ordered from what was behind the window.

A man at the next table and his friend were digging into a gigantic concoction I had always wondered about but had never ordered, and I asked him, as I walked to my table, what it was.

“You must have some!” he demanded, placing some on my plate. He then pretended to take some of my chicken, and we all laughed at each other. It was in fact an excellent and monumental rendition of Tahu Telor, fried tofu mixed with eggs, topped with bean sprouts and carrot, and served with dark soy sauce.

Standouts included stir-fried greens with sambal belacan (shrimp paste), braised chicken in sweet soy sauce with a hint of chili, and flaky tofu with chili. Still, it wasn’t as good as Sabar Menanti: the flavors weren’t as fresh, and there wasn’t as much variety. Perhaps I’ll try ordering off the menu here next time, especially if the rendang isn’t up at the counter.

minang plate

Beyond these two stand-bys, there are sundry great padang options in Singapore, and it’s not to be missed if you’re in the city and want to try something different.

I maintain that the first person to realize that padang food is profoundly marketable to obnoxious Silicon Valley types will get obscenely rich – especially if they serve their food out of a graffiti-adorned food truck at music festivals.

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Some Things I Approve Of in Chiang Mai – Sausage, Khao Soi, Night Markets

khao soi accompaniments

Khao Soi

Khao soi is my favorite noodle dish in Asia, and that’s really saying quite a lot, considering the dizzying biodiversity of noodle soups in this region of the world. Thought to be of Burmese origin, the dish has been modified in Northern Thailand, and is, I think, superior to the original.

The essential deal here is a combo of spicy and richly flavored coconut milk broth flavored with a pungent curry paste, tender chicken or pork, chewy yellow noodles, and a topping of crispy deep fried noodles, sometimes substituted with fried pork skins. With a bowl of khao soi, you’re also given pickled cabbage, raw shallot, lime juice, and usually additional chili paste, which can be applied to taste.

Yes please.

Yes please.

The final result, with plenty of lime juice and supplemental chili in my case, is among the more sublime lunch specialties in the world – a perfect mix of spicy, sweet, tangy, and crunchy. I’ve found myself managing to work in two bowls of the stuff a day in khao soi country, especially as every restaurant seems to make it in a slightly different way. Chicken is usually the more common variety on offer, especially as it’s considered a Muslim-influenced dish, but I’m partial to the pork version when I can get it. Sometimes, chunks of blood are also thrown into the broth as well, especially up near Chiang Rai. You are welcome to quietly pick them out.

Hunting good khao soi is a pleasant endeavor, but I can suggest a little cafe right off the city wall with excellent khao soi. I didn’t get the name, but you’ll see it on the left if you are headed towards Arak Road Lane 5 on the main Arak Road (on the side of the city walls), right after you pass Sinharat Road Lane 2.  Here’s a Google Maps link to the approximate location.

I came upon the place after unsuccessfully hunting another khao soi joint, and was glad I gave it a whirl: deliciously flavored, thick broth, and pork chunks as well as meatballs in the soup. I believe I *maybe* paid the equivalent of $3.

chiang mai art market

Saturday Night Market

Chiang Mai is home to a number of well-known universities, and with higher education, comes hipster kids with weird aesthetics and  a burning desire for pocket money. This means that while the Saturday Night Market on Wualai Road (near the Chiang Mai Gate) does contain the usual assortment of generic Thai crapola – wooden frogs, obscene key-chains, those horrid elephant pants – there’s also a pleasing variety of interesting stuff, produced by young, local artists.

I usually come away from here with a pleasant selection of eccentric, cheap things. This time, it was a tote bag with watercolor paintings of fish on it and the word “Mackerel,” as well as a large sticker of a tiger’s head with “FUCK COMIC SANS” written on it. It’s the vastest night market I’ve ever run across in Asia, bustling along until well after 10:30 PM, and walkable for what seems like almost a mile. Tentacles of night time commerce spread off into the side streets from the main event, prompting pleasant wandering out of the heat of the day.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

Soup seller at the Saturday Night Market.

The Saturday Night Market also has a nice selection of food stalls, with authentic Thai specialties and not-so-authentic, as well as buskers and performances. The vibe of the event is perhaps its biggest selling point, with a particular, local energy that is quite fun to jump into as a visitor. Finally, there’s spectacular people-watching — well, if you like seeing backpackers clash with Thai hipsters, annoyed looking elderly food sellers, and befuddled looking middle-aged Aussies in singlets. And of course you like that, everyone with any taste likes that.

chiang mai sausages better

Died and found myself alighting in Pork Heaven.

 A Dizzying Array of Delicious Pork Products

chiang mai pork rinds

Thai pork rinds.

My family hails from the Southern United States, a part of the world with a deep, spiritual relationship with eating pigs. Northern Thailand shares this intense porcine affinity with Appalachia, and Chiang Mai’s food markets offer a delightful array of pork products, all at highly reasonable prices and with intense flavoring.

A particular standout is sai ua or Northern Thai sausage, produced with a combination of minced pork, curry paste, herbs, and Thai spices. The end result is a delightfully fresh and unexpected snack that is likely unlike anything you’ve tasted before, at least if you hail from the West. Sai ua is usually sold in long links, and is typically eaten plain, although some clever person needs to take this Thai hot dog concept to the slavering, food-truck besotted masses of Silicon Valley or Portland.

Yet another delightful Northern sausage product is fermented pork sausage (sai krok Isan), which is made with a combination of pork and rice – for you Louisiana people, it’s essentially Thai boudin with a tangy, funky additional kick from the fermentation process. It’s completely addictive and I find it very difficult to step away from stalls that sell it, usually packed into small balls that can easily be scooped up with a cabbage leaf and a fresh, incendiary green chili.

Also worth seeking out are meaty pork rinds, which are of course nothing more or less than deep-fried pork skin. Much of the world seems to find the idea of merrily consuming fried pig epidermis to be deeply disturbing, but both my noble Southern ancestors and the people of Northern Thailand consider them to be a marvelous delicacy, perfect with a beer or three. Not all pork rinds are created equal – some are fresher and meatier than others, while some feature a nice dusting of spicy chili – so it’s worth experimenting from Chiang Mai’s sundry meat-selling ladies. If I can, I like to toss them with some vinegar-based hot sauce, in the finest New Orleans style, but they’re quite delectable without.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Tamarind leaf salad.

Isaan Food

It’s tragic, but the Isaan food typical of Northern Thailand and adjoining regions of Laos is very little known outside of Southeast Asia. True: it’s spicy and often features ingredients that can charitably be described as eccentric, but I’m very partial to its freshness and unabashedly pungent nature. Pungent, rustic-style fish sauce, chili, pickles all sorts, fresh herbs, sticky rice, and smoky flavors are all typical of Isaan food, as well as “jungle” curries more reliant on herbs than they are on rich coconut milk and large quantities of meat.

If you’ve had and enjoyed tangy, eye-bleedingly spicy papaya salad (som tum) before, you’ve had a bit of exposure to Isaan food. In the Lao and Northern style, it’s made with more fish sauce and chili than the versions you’ll find in the South. It’s been written that Isaan food is so aggressively flavored in an effort to make residents of the traditionally poor region be content with padding their meals out primarily with sticky rice. It sounds legitimate enough, especially when one takes into account the fact that sticky rice has a habit of expanding in one’s stomach.

Pleasingly, Chiang Mai is a great, central place to sample good Isaan food in all its variety, and there’s tons of restaurants to choose from. Some places may bill themselves as Lanna or Northern Thai in lieu of Isaan, but there’s considerable overlap in style between them.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or "salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Nam phrik (Thai dip or “salsa) with tomato and eggplant.

Considering that most Isaan restaurants are fluorescent lit mom-and-pop affairs – which is fine, but sometimes you’re perversely interested in a hint of ambiance, or at least clean tables – I was particularly impressed with the contemporary design of Tong Tem Toh, a Northern Thai restaurant located close to Chiang Mai University.

Up the almost painfully hip 11 Nimman Haeminda Soi 13, it’s popular with young Thais, and has an extensive menu of dishes that are distinctly hard to find elsewhere – though in the evening, there’s plenty of charcoal grilled meats on offer for those in your group with cowardly palates. Always be sure to emphasize that you want your food spicy when dining as a Westerner in Isaan establishments,, as Thais, usually correctly, assume that foreigners can’t hang.

I’m fascinated by the array of nam phrik (Thai “dip” or “salsa”) specialties available in the North, which are a handy answer to Mexican-style salsa bars. Here, we enjoyed a bowl of nam phrik ong, which is best described as Thai bolognese: minced pork, tomato, and smoky chili, served with fresh vegetables for dipping and scooping. It was entirely addictive and I’m learning to make it. The menu also has nam phrik num, a green Thai “salsa” made with roasted green chiles that would fit in beautifully on any given enchilada.

issan bamboo shoots

Bamboo shoots in coconut milk with pork.

We also tried fresh, herbaceous tamarind leaf salad with a fish sauce dressing and a liberal topping of pork rinds, as well as bamboo shoots cooked pork and a little bit of coconut milk and chili (which could have been a little warmer). Joining these dishes was a tasty serving of egg, rice, and pork sausage (jeen som mok kai) with peanuts and fresh garlic on the side, as well as a tasty version of sai ua with lots of pungent flavor.

Best of all was the Northern style pork belly curry, with big chunks of tender, fatty pork in a complex, smoky-tasting sauce, with peanuts and tamarind juice and a bit of coconut milk. We offset everything with little balls of sticky rice from nice woven bamboo containers, and a hefty quantity of Chang beer.

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No Real People – Comic

I always think this when somebody makes this comment at a bar.

no-real-people-man

Part of another comic, expressing what I think is a common 20-something sentiment.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 9.12.47 AM

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Flying the Drone at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai

wat u mong stupa

Wat Umong is definitely my favorite temple in Chiang Mai. Set a bit outside of the center of town in a lush forest, the 700-year-old Buddhist temple attracts relatively few tourists and has a delightfully jewel-like, slightly eccentric character – commemorative stupas overgrown with greenery, a curious worship area dug into an underground tunnel, and gardens set with tiny, crumbling effigies of both the Buddha and Thailand’s venerated King.

I came here with my Phantom 2 UAV (drone) fully expecting to not be allowed to use it. Much to my surprise, when we asked a monk if it was OK to fly it near the main stupa, he shrugged and gave his assent – and in fact, kept on sweeping leaves off the ground surrounding the stupa with nothing more than a vaguely disinterested glance in its direction once or twice. Noted.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Naga statue at Wat Umong.

Here’s the aerial photos. The flat area above the stupa in the image is the roof of the underground tunnels, which were said to have been built by the Lanna King to help keep an absent-minded (or likely dementia afflicted) monk from wandering off. Indeed, the word “umong” translates into tunnel, naming the temple for its most curious feature. The walls of the tunnels, so it’s said, were even helpfully painted with botanical scenes to complete the illusion for the wayward monk.I haven’t the slightest idea if this is true or not, but it’s a good story – and the tunnels are a nice, cool place to poke around for a while.

wat umong
And another, with a slightly better view of the tunnels and their ventilation outlets.

wat umong straight down stupa

Wat Umong is also home to a remarkable variety of animals, from cats to dogs to chickens to ducks, all of them kept to a fat and luxurious standard. The dogs wander from place to place accepting head pats from monks and tourists, and perching themselves luxuriously on the mossy walls of the old temple structures. (Their ranks included a purebred bull terrier on my latest visit, whose origin I would love to know more about).

wat u mong chicken

There are also an unusual number of pretty, pugnacious roosters here, which squabble with one another noisily at random intervals, making for excellent photo ops. Cats and kittens emerge at random intervals from the bushes to push their foreheads against your leg and demand you stop this photography bullshit immediately. Animal lovers will be fond of Wat Umong.

Chicken and stupa.

Chicken and stupa.

It’s also popular for Westerners who are out to learn to mediate, as I figured out a bit embarrassingly late in the game while wondering about the number of silent, confused looking foreigners ambling around the grounds. I can’t say I’ve ever felt a burning desire to do so myself – I mean, you can’t use the Internet – but here’s the link if you feel so inclined.

wat u mong trinkets

My favorite part of Wat Umong is the dilapidated and wonderful garden of small Buddha and royal figurines to the right of the entrance to the tunnels. It’s a weird, jewel-box like place and makes for great photography experiments. A Thai group was filming what appeared to be a soap opera here when I visited, allowing me to view a pretty Thai woman pretending to have a hair-rending mental breakdown over a Buddha image. Then, cut. And she did it again, and again. I admire the energy of actors. for it all looked exceedingly exhausting.

Faceless stone Buddhas.

Faceless stone Buddhas.

Please do visit Wat Umong if you’re in Chiang Mai, encumbered with a drone or otherwise. It is a delightfully peaceful, eccentric little place, one that is in some respects made for a decent book and a sojourn with a friendly dog or a cat, or at least a minimally judgmental chicken. There is even a man who sells ice cream. There is not much more you can ask for in this life.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.

Hidden Buddha in the trees.

 

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An Ode to the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai

lovecraftian insect museum
I have been entranced by the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders in Chiang Mai since I first set foot in the place four years ago, drawn in by a terse Lonely Planet entry, and a large wire-frame statues of mosquitoes and dragonflies stuck to the top of the brick building it sits in.

It is not so much a museum as it is a collection: encompassing a formidable array of preserved insects, a litany of arcane and useful information on mosquitoes, shells, psychedelic paintings, and various editorial notes from the owners. It is one of the strangest and at the same time most genuinely charming attractions – or collections – I have ever come across. You must at least poke your head in if you are in the area.

kissing mosquitoes

The Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders is owned by Manop and Dr Rampa Rattanarithikul, a  now-elderly Thai couple who rank among the planet’s foremost experts on disease-carrying mosquitoes. Their careers in medical entomology have ranged across Southeast Asia to the Smithsonian in Washington DC and all the way to Osaka, where Dr. Rampa earned her PHD in the 1990s. Dr Rattanarithikul eventually published one of the seminal texts to which all who battle and study mosquitoes refers to – and she has named over half of the Smithsonian Institution’s mosquito species herself. It is rare to encounter a couple on this earth who are so singularly devoted to another organism, and at that, one of the planet’s least charismatic ones.

The museum has two floors, the first with a display describing both the benefits and the various nasty things mosquitoes do to people, including vivid images of the fell effects of elephantiasis and hemorrhagic dengue fever. A porch has a remarkable assemblage of hornets and bees nest, as well as “art” created by the incessant nibbling of ants onto wood. There are also Manop’s psychedelic, cheerily neon-colored paintings of pretty girls, his wife, and the natural world, interspersed with Christian themes. The entire effect is slightly Lovecraftian – twisting natural forms, crawling things, tentacled things, and the papery nests of flying insects – and yet, entirely affectionate in its intention. The couple love these weird and terrible things, and wish to convey this love to you.

Manop and Rampa in their youth.

Manop and Rampa in their youth.

It is to this end that Manops’s cheerily optimistic and slightly maniacal writings have been tacked up all over the place, printed out near whatever object seems to warrant it – rumination on the benefits of mosquitoes to humanity (hard as they are to see), how he and his wife met, a stone his grandmother had given him to get him to sit still for an archaic camera, and various anecdotes and musings and slightly twee poems.

When I was there the first time, Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul was wandering the museum chatting with profound animation about the stuff he and his wife had amassed. I lingered at the stag horn beetles, which I have always loved, and he eventually appeared besides me and began describing their many positive features. “You know, I’ve always wondered where I can catch one,” I said, quite sincerely – giving voice to a long time, vague childhood dream that had been helped along by a library of natural science books and a particularly vivid jigsaw puzzle.

Stick insects, sundry.

Stick insects, sundry.

“Oh, it’s easy, especially around here. You must go into the bamboo forest and shake the bamboo,” he said. “When they feel the vibration, they go Eeengh! and stiffen up, and they fall out of the bamboo and onto the ground. You can collect them that way.”

Thus began a good four years of my surreptitiously shaking bamboo plants whenever I see them. This practice did not result in any fruit for a good long while, and I attributed it to a lack of technique, quite realistically. Until I visited the Bamboo Sea in Sichuan in August, a place that is lousy with both bamboo, and as I joyously discovered, stag horn beetles. I spent a long evening collecting them from light sources and letting the immensely heavy, charming things crawl up my arms, to the shrieking bemusement of the Chinese people drinking beer at my hotel restaurant. Anyway, that day I thought of Mr. Manop Rattanarithikul, and his museum. Partially that is why I came back.

Moth and bird.

Moth and bird.

During my visit last month, Dr. Manop Rattanarithikul  was sitting in the foyer wrapping silk purses in plastic with one of her museum employees. She welcomed me warmly, only appearing a bit disappointed when I admitted I was not actually a entomologist but a journalist. I came down from the museum and we chatted briefly about Chikungunya Fever, which I told her in the spirit of chipper scientific endeavor that I had come down with in Manila last year.

She was quite interested in this, and we discussed how Chikungunya is most prevalant in areas with lots of sugar palms – perhaps the swampy aspect of the Manila suburb of Quezon City, where I was staying, explained my little brush with malignant mosquito disease.

A sampling of Manop's prose style.

A sampling of Manop’s prose style.

I felt comfortable enough to ask her why she and her husband had decided to devote their retirements to their singular, wonderful museum. “We always liked collecting things, me and my husband, and we opened the museum,” she said when I asked her about their motivations. “We didn’t really expect it would come to this.”

But so it has, and their efforts are a singular, small monument to eccentricity and to the natural world. It is, I think, a little more than just a love letter to weird things that creep and buzz and bite. More than that, being inside the museum is rather like walking into the collective consciousness of two people who have lived long and very intertwined lives: Dr. Rampa’s work and touch combining with Manop’s weird, exuberant, art and writing.

beetle on a stick

It is, one imagines, the natural result of two dedicated, single-minded old people deciding to render their innermost beings into the real world – and for this very reason, it is fascinating to a degree far beyond the rather erratic sum of its parts. It has flaws, heavens knows: it is rather small, and costs perhaps a bit too much to get inside. It could use a tank of living insects or reptiles or some sort of creature to counteract the dusty deadness of most of the other occupants. But that is not, entirely the point – the specimens themselves are less the point then the representation of two long, curious lives.

The museum, in summary, is a delightful paean to not only insects but also to all-encompassing human weirdness. May the  Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders last forever, and may you go pay it a visit if you are ever in Chiang Mai.

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Anti-Vietnam Protests in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Oct 6th

monk iphone pics better

Protests against a Vietnamese officials statement about the historical ownership of Kampuchea Krom – what is now Southern Vietnam – continued into a third day on Monday, as members of various groups allied against the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia gathered outside the Vietnamese Embassy on Monivong Boulevard.

By my estimation, around 100 people were at the Embassy by 11:00 AM, and I was told that other activists had convened at the French Embassy and at the National Assembly – I’d appreciate it if someone could verify that for me.

Monks pose with an image of Kampuchea Krom hero Son Kuy.

Monks pose with an image of Kampuchea Krom hero Son Kuy.

Many monks had turned out to support the nationalist cause, and they had brought sundry burnable items with them. First to go was a flag, set ablaze to shouts denigrating the “Youn,” a term for the Vietnamese many feel is pejorative. (One of the monks told the Phnom Penh Post that the flag burning, while effectively symbolic, was also rather expensive).

People smiled and laughed as the flag burned, snapping photos with their mobile phones and tablets. The monks added a rather showman-like element to the burnings, posing dramatically for the cameras, and shouting their complaints about the Vietnamese and their spokesman’s statements about Kampuchea Krom into a large white microphone.

Riot police seemed disinterested.

Riot police seemed disinterested.

As the day wore on – punctuated with occasionally bouts of heavy rain – the monks brought out a sheaf of conical hats, meant to represent Vietnam, and proceeded to write upon then destroy them. “This blood is black blood” read the hats, which were alternately sat upon, spat on, and crushed beneath the sandaled, sticker-adorned feet of the activists present.

A young boy shouts his anger at the Vietnamese into a loudspeaker.

A young boy shouts his anger at the Vietnamese into a loudspeaker.

I chatted with a few of the activists who were present there, including 26-year-old aluminum factory worker Rakin Sok, who told me he works in South Korea and recently returned to participate in the protests.  “Cambodia is not a free country – it’s Communist like Iran or China,” he said, noting that the government prioritizes benefits for foreigners (such as the Vietnamese) over those doled out to its own people.

“If we don’t have negotiations, we will burn the Embassy,” 45-year-old retiree Pearun Nuon told me, taking a harder tack that has been stated publicly before by the activists. “All Cambodian people, they don’t like Vietnamese people, you know – they’re thieves, they stole my country, they stole my land.”

Stamping upon a conical hat, a serious insult in Khmer culture.

Stamping upon a conical hat, a serious insult in Khmer culture.

There is, perhaps, some precedent here: in 2003, the Thai Embassy in Cambodia was sacked and partially burned, after a Khmer newspaper claimed that a Thai actress said Angkor Wat historically belonged to Thailand.

Nuon told me that there are “now around 4 million Vietnamese” illegally living in Cambodia, and expressed his desire that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party take power in the next national election. “I hope some future new government will send them back to their country,” he said.

Chantou, a 29-year-old local government volunteer for the Chankarmon district, claimed that the Vietnamese largely control the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and by proxy, Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Ho Chi Minh always tried to drive away the government of Vietnam, to get Cambodia to belong to Vietnam,” he said.

Monk tending a conical hat bonfire.

Monk tending a conical hat bonfire.

While he believes that the Vietnamese enjoy special privileges, he prefers that the problem be brought to the Hague, rather than violently dealt with. A new government might help accomplish that, he said, albeit with the people’s consent. “Sam Rainsy has lots of promise, but if he doesn’t follow that promise, the people will protest, and Mr Sam Rainsy will stop his powers.”

Eighteen-year-old Em Chhuna told me he’d come to demand an apology from Vietnamese officials, claiming that the government is “under the slavery of the Vietnamese.”

Preparing to stomp on hats.

Preparing to stomp on hats.

“Last year I read a book by William Shawcross,” he said. “Even my King, Hun Sen, and others, they vote for Vietnam. Everything is prepared by Vietnam. I absolutely want Vietnam to leave Cambodia.”

Chhuna lamented that his neighborhood along the Tonle Sap in Phnom Penh was being taken over by the Vietnamese, but said he would be willing to accept a small number of Vietnamese immigrants if they arrived legally.

What does he think of these protest tactics? “It could become a violent demonstration,” he told me.

“Are you OK with violence?” I asked him.

“Maybe,” he said, with a thoughtful look.

Burning paper Vietnamese flags.

Burning paper Vietnamese flags.

 

 

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