Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chiang Mai: Gluttony Redefined

I don't even know where to begin explaining how I have taken to Chiang Mai. It's a far cry from the chaos and soupy humidity of Bangkok. I was settling in nicely to lazy travel mode while on my way here, but arrival in this ancient Thai capital to the north hastened the transition. I've really had a chance to assume the role of wanderer, while mingling with the gaggle of European backpackers staying in the same hostel who I affectionately refer to as the "youngins'." It's all well and good for hiking through the outskirts of Chiang Mai looking for elusive temples and sampling the night life, but for experiencing the local cuisine I've had to strike out on my own a bit. No worries though. I came for many reasons but let's be serious here; eating is a top priority and I can't have anyone holding me back. I never set out to make this a blog specifically about food, but I need to take a moment to recount a few dining experiences of the past week that have left my jaw dropped. I've eaten myself to the edge of sickness (the good kind, right?) a few times over and need to get this down in the public record before the details drift off into my next food coma.

I cannot for the life of me think of a better introduction to eating in Chiang Mai than the one I was privileged to have. Portland Thai food impresario Andy Ricker just so happened to be in the area when I arrived and was nice enough to let me tag along on that evening's trip out to drink and snack a little. His knowledge and passion for Thailand, the food and the people are peerless. I knew full well when he uttered, "there's a place I went last night I want you guys to try..." that I would not be disappointed. After a few cold Beer Lao and some sour pork ribs in the Old City, we headed towards the evening's focus. A small, outdoor set up on the side of the road not far from the city was where we ended up and Andy ordered for us in Thai. The business is a family affair with everyone chipping in. A small footnote here: hospitality in Thailand is a degree higher than I am used to seeing in the west, and I practice hospitality for a living. There is a sincerity to each beer poured and dish served that makes the whole thing seem so much more genuine. The speciality of our chosen drinking spot for the night is a slow cooked beef almost jerky like beef, probably skirt or flank, that is beaten with a club before serving to shred and tenderize. It's served with sticky rice, fresh herbs and vegetables, chili sauce, and a dried chili/galangal/shallot/garlic mix. We also had a plate of fatty roasted pork and sour pork and egg that had been steamed in a banana leaf to snack on. This was my first time really experiencing and understanding how and why the sticky is supposed to be used and why utensils are not really necessary when you have it. It's difficult as a tourist to get off the beaten path and really live like people do locally. We all say we want to do it, but how often does it really pan out. This experience not only hit the nail on the head, but was great motivation to seek out more just like it. Score!

A couple of days later, still buzzing from the roadside beers and beef, the director of the hostel I'm staying in said that it was all you can eat Thai BBQ night. I was skeptical to say the least. All you can eat BBQ is not really a term that inspires me while back home, but I decided to opt in. A bunch of other people were going and the price seemed right. Good choice! This is a local spectacle not to be missed. Endless piles of meats, seafood, vegetables and noodles are available to grab and bring back to your table where you will cook it over a blazing hot charcoal fire on a little aluminum grill that has a moat of broth around the bottom to simmer things in. If you're thinking that this sounds a lot like Korean BBQ joints found in suburban strip malls you're not wrong. The difference is the choice of ingredients. I had to take multiple stabs at the buffet line just to sample all the different offal available. I barely scratched the surface of fish and meat cake varieties. By the end of my meal the throngs of neighborhood folks eating and live music was getting hazy. I stumbled out, the term gluttony redefined.

An impromptu lunch yet a few days later became yet another milestone on this visit to Chiang Mai, and definitely what will be one of the most memorable experiences of this entire journey. The hostel director/owner Noom, invited me to join him for lunch. I had already made my love of eating known to him and also my willingness to try new things. There was a whole spread that the hostel staff was digging into. It consisted of the following: Sour pork with onions and chilis, a soup of beef offal simmered overnight, Northern Thai sausage, roasted pork, tuna with chili paste, cooked ground beef with herbs and chili, and my favorite dish; a tartare of sorts. One of raw ground pork, and the other of raw ground beef with an intense bitterness derived from boiling the bile gland of a cow and straining off the liquid. Not for the faint of heart, but balling up sticky rice was all that could slow me down from devouring as much of this as possible.

Earlier today, I had the chance to wander one of Chiang Mai's local food markets, presumably where most of the afore mentioned meal came from. It's a cross between a farmer's market and a food court. Fresh produce, fish, meat and prepared foods are all available in endless varieties. Slightly different than an American version of these entities, most people at the market were buying food to bring home. I actually felt a little funny eating things I had purchased straight away, even if they were prepared right in front of me. I was certainly the only one doing so. I did have the chance to sit down in a little restaurant adjacent to the market and sample food that I am told usually sells out quick! In America we pine for things to be produced locally, fresh, sustainably, by artisans and the like. Yet, we still shop at supermarkets. What I've witnessed here in Chiang Mai is people actually living the ideals we espouse. It's part of every day life and it's not inconvenient to anyone at all. You buy what you need for that day, and the next day you go back for more. I watched someone who is probably cooking catfish for dinner right now buy a live fish, which was killed, cleaned and gutted right in front of me. That's a type of fresh that even the Slowest of Foodies in America rarely experiences. I'm not going to go so far as saying that I could see myself living here. Isn't that what we all think to ourselves when on vacation in a wonderful place? I could however, transition easily into buying and eating food like this. No problems....

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Getting Oriented in Bangkok...pun intended!

There are all different sorts of people in the world, many of whom have no problem existing in the midst of chaos. For the rest of us, it takes some getting used to. I flew for two days, across the U.S., over the ocean to Taiwan and finally into the heart of South East Asia, Bangkok. Not my first time in this sprawling city, but almost ten years removed from the previous visit, I didn't readily remember how emphatically chaotic Thailand's capital is. I say emphatically because more than just a circumstance of its population, weather, commercialism, etc., the collective attitude in Bangkok is certainly on purpose and a point of pride. Exceptionally friendly, fast paced and always, always going. Whatever it is, it never stops.

Culture shock is not the term for what I felt my first few days in Bangkok. I had no plans of sticking around, but there was some visa business to sort out before getting out of the city and so I was effectively stuck for a few days. The size and pace were intimidating in themselves, but I'm no stranger to navigating big cities. My real problem at the moment was utterly unexpected. What am I supposed to do with my time? Sounds like a stupid question. Those of you who have longingly listened to me describe this extended getaway are giving this blog post a collective sideways glance at the moment, I'm sure of it. Read through my earliest post on this site, though. All I've known for the last few years has been endless prep lists and inventory sheets. When you exist solely to bang out task after task for a long period of time, the extreme shift to no obligations can be fun, exciting, relaxing and also supremely frightening. There's an undercurrent of guilt when you feel as though time is being wasted lounging around in a hostel common room, and I'm not talking about the lacy, lilting guilt that white folks feel after watching Avatar in 3D. I'm referring to a persistent buzz that is supposed to be alerting you that SOMETHING important is not getting done. For me...not so easy to turn off. Bangkok is full of things to fill your time with, but most of it involves shopping or touring temples. Shopping is out; I'm on a tight budget and certainly do not want to carry anything extra (remind me to tell you some time about clothing I promptly identified as unnecessary and mailed back to the U.S.). The temples are captivating, but one can only see so many, especially in the midst of intense heat and humidity. I imagine no one will be surprised to read that I found solace in the food.

I've eaten street food almost exclusively since arriving in Thailand. It's cheap, exciting, outstandingly delicious and everywhere. It's difficult to describe why street food is different in Asia than in America. The best I can come up with - to avoid getting all geeky on the subject - is that food carts in America are a dining genre unto themselves. When I was in Portland we spoke often of the food cart "culture," and I would take my out of town guests to the late night carts on Hawthorne merely for the experience. In Asia street food is much more. It's part of the social fabric. Tiny stands line the streets at all hours of the day and night. Most specialize in one or two things. There may or may not be a few tiny (kiddie sized) plastic tables and stools nearby to rest on while eating. Fresh fruits and juices have almost completely edged candy and processed foods out of the dessert market. There is no pomp and circumstance. They are often family affairs - on more than one occasion a young daughter taking my order while her mother prepared the meal, other children taking on tasks in the background. The neighboring vendors exuded respect and good will towards one another, not competition. I don't mean to romanticize the subject, but there is something about what street vendors have to offer here in Asia that will keep me out of a proper restaurant for most likely my whole stay in the region.

By the time I had my travel visa for Vietnam dialed-in and was on my way out of Bangkok on a slow train, I had been able to calm my nerves and drown out the buzzing almost fully. I've got many months ahead of me to see things, do stuff and move around. Free time and even a healthy dose of laziness is all good once in a while and I certainly don't want to regret missing out on what might be my last opportunity to just do nothing for a bit. Better in an exotic locale, right? As I wrote earlier, food always helps me reference a time and place in the past and how I was feeling then. The street food of Bangkok will forever and always be tied to helping me let go of that persistent drive to be working on something and learning to relax a little. Stumbling on Lumphini Park - an oasis in the middle of Bangkok - helped quite a bit too. And that's just the first few days...

Monday, March 15, 2010


It occurred to me early on that the time spent between leaving Portland and leaving the country would be great preparation for the daily grind of world traveling. I've grown comfortable with having a safe place to keep my stuff, a warm bed and the ability to not constantly be moving. I'm excited to leave that all behind for a bit, but much like easing into cool water at the beach one toe at a time, it's been nice easing into the discomforts of budget travel little by little.

I lived out of my car while driving cross country and made a habit of repacking my bag every few days as I learned new tricks for maximizing space. I also realized quickly which items would not be essential. Just the other day I spent some time bouncing around New York City - In the rain, no less - which I felt readied me for navigating strange and busy places and taking public transportation. With all these minor tests of my ability to move lightly and freely, it's fitting that a pop quiz would be thrown at me just before taking off for Southeast Asia. The persistent rain and wind I encountered in NY was more like hurricane force winds just a short drive away in Connecticut. I arrived home late one night to find trees down everywhere and electricity nowhere to be found. Almost two days later and one before I catch my flight I'm bouncing all over the place in search of electricity for phone charging, wireless internet, hot water and food that hasn't been sitting in a dead refrigerator. If I'm lucky we'll get power back long enough before I leave for a last minute load of laundry. It could be worse, though. Many people live without any of these comforts I'm lazily trying to ween myself from, knowing they'll all be here when I get back. Deeper than the annoyance I feel is a profound sense of appreciation for what I've got. If you're reading this, then there is a good chance you're a person that I appreciate knowing. Thanks, and stay tuned for my next post from a place yet to be determined.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cross Country Excursion Part 2

So here I am in Silver Spring sitting for the weekend. I've traded in endless Texas landscapes, hostel living, old friends and roadside BBQ for 6:00AM barking and picking up....well, never mind what I have to pick up. You get the picture. Any desire I've had in the past to one day take care of my own furry companion is dashed. All for the better, though. Pets don't really fit into my visions of forever wandering.

My last post outlined the first few days of driving away from Portland. The fun didn't stop. Everyone has their own methods to traveling and forming memories of that travel. For me it is definitely food. Most details will slip away over time, but I'll remember what I ate for years to come. The day is often planned around meals and indulging in what people enjoy locally is a must. The hardest part is planning what to do in between meals, and I say "hardest" only because there's often too much to see in a strange new place. In Albuquerque I went hiking through desert snow pack and toured what is an incredibly charming southwestern city to fill the time between breakfast burritos, huevos ranchero and sopapillas, all smothered in green chilis. In Texas I didn't do much outside of driving, but punctuated each stint in the car with large piles of smoked meat, eggs, grits, biscuits, gravy, meat smothered beans and toast thicker than the Sunday New York Times, because of course everything is bigger in Texas. In Louisiana I wandered the French Quarter of New Orleans and marveled at the awesome spectacle that is LSU football in between enormous portions of crawfish ettoufe, blackened alligator, a disgustingly large roast beef po' boy, beignets, and an overpriced bloody mary dressed with pickled everything and some great bar side conversation. In Atlanta I met up with an old friend and made some new ones, but at the center of it all was dinner at a southern comfort food institution and certainly a hot krispy kreme donut. I capped off the trip with a long arduous drive from Georgia to Maryland, making sure to stop for a plate of award winning ribs in North Carolina, as I would otherwise not have anything to remember an all together forgettable day by.

Food will always be my strongest connection to times and places. I've been asked over and over again by friends, family and even strangers I encounter if my upcoming world journey will involve cooking. It's a fair question considering what I do for a living. I'm certainly open to the possibility, but the truth is that eating, not cooking is why I'm taking an extended vacation. Food inspires me in the professional realm. Not only a catalyst for new creations, eating something simple and well executed spurs my desire to create the same simple, well executed cuisine. Essentially, I want to create the same type of connection to a time and place for other people that I feel when eating something great. While my aim is to drag out the upcoming travels for as long as possible, a small part of me is very excited to see what will happen when I eventually get back behind the line, primed with the memories of a thousand meals in foreign places and everything I did in between them.