Tuesday, May 5, 2009

found in translation

Today was a public holiday and we decided to buy a little camera for easy quick shots. We want to document all the great food we eat and places we go on the spur of the moment, and the lovely big Canon is just too heavy to carry around most of the time. It's also currently under the weather with a broken lens. I don't know when we will get that fixed or how much it will end up costing, and we want to just be able to take quick shots every day. So... reviews indicated Sony Cybershot was the way to go and we headed to Pantip Plaza to negotiate our way through the madness of a million shops. As well as electronics it's full of DVD stores selling illegal copies of movies, tv shows, games and software and we decided to pick up something from one store in a long line of them. Just after we collected our dvd's we saw a bunch of people running around frantically, pushing store fronts around and moving their merchandise behind the counter.. it was crazy, within a minute or two everything was moved and gone - a raid. Some cops must have been coming through and they all worked together to make sure nothing was showing. Very amusing. Lucky we got our dvd's in time!

After getting the nifty new camera (and Sony is *not* cheap in Thailand), we went to Siam Paragon to go to a place we'd been drooling about all afternoon. The famous Oriental Hotel has little cafes in various places around the city, and the one at Paragon serves amazing food. The bread they serve is delicious.. Gagan was just waiting for it. He also ordered a Java Dream mocktail, while I had a green tea.

My sandwich was the mouth watering garlic ham and smoked mozzarella with a side salad (balsamic vinegrette - my fav!) and the most amazing baked garlic. The whole garlic bulb is sliced at the top and baked so that each clove becomes juicy and melty like mashed potatoes. Yum!

Gagan ordered a roasted chicken and hummus pita wrap. It came with little side dishes and fries. Everything perfectly presented and blends of flavours so nicely balanced.

I'll leave you with this. When we bought the camera, they talked us into getting a protective film on the LCD screen. As they were putting it on, I picked up the packaging and had a quick look at it. I think it takes the prize as the best ever translation. I really have no idea what they were *trying* to say. I leave it to you. This is what caught my eye straight away.

If you would like to enjoy the entire document in all its glory... read away!

feliciano's kitchen caper

Last night as I went to wash some dishes and make a cup of tea after such a good meal... I had a close call in the kitchen. A small visitor dropped by and he almost didn't make it out alive! Feliciano the gecko scuttled out from under a dish in the sink and began to panic. He ran down the plug hole - came back out, tried to get up the side of the sink and failed and ran around and down the plug hole again. I was frantically turning off the tap, grabbing dishes and trying to make sure I didn't flush him down. He was positively minuscule! A wee little guy... very tiny and fragile. I finally got him out of the sink but he jumped onto the floor and ran around like a banshee. We got him onto some paper and through a hole in the wall to the safety of the outside. Phew... it was craziness! We did manage to get one picture of him in the middle. Very sweet little thing he was... I bet he's telling all the other lizards about his caper right now. He is *very lucky*!

Monday, May 4, 2009

two for one

I got to fulfill two dreams today. Both entirely unrelated and both very satisfying. Firstly we got Gagan's Thai resident visa... he is now able to stay in Thailand as long as I am and no longer has to keep returning to India. To say we are relieved is like that old thing about bears and what they do in the woods. Yes... we are! He can now be here happily. He can travel in and out of the country. He can (and this is a biggie folks) apply for visas to other countries *from* Thailand... which means not having to deal with the bureaucracy of Indian visa applications *anymore*. The enormity of that one is bigger than I can describe here... but any Indian who has had to go through the inhumane humiliation of filing a visa application in their own country will know what I'm talking about. Thailand may have its own share of red tape but it is far more straightforward and we can really see the horizon ahead. We might even be able to plan some trips as tourists... what a concept!

Oh yes... the other dream? That has a little history behind it. Now I'm not going to pretend it has quite the weight of a visa to it... but my stomach will probably argue its importance in the Comestible History of Jude, placing it solidly in the top 5 or 6 top meals of the last 40 years. Nothing to be sneezed at certainly! So - the history behind the post. Years ago in Los Angeles I came across a book called Untangling My Chopsticks. It's a pretty incredible journey of a woman going to Kyoto to learn the ancient art of tea kaiseki... which at the time I had never even heard of. I am a *big* Japanese food lover and her detailed descriptions of these small delicate dishes of seasonal ingredients perfectly prepared and artfully presented sent me mad with desire. I searched Chowhound for kaiseki restaurants all over the greater LA area but there didn't seem to be anything. I just had to put it at the back of my mind and hope that one day I'd get to Japan.

So a couple of weeks ago we're leaving our favourite ramen noodle shop on Thong Lor, a major street in our area so densely packed with eateries you don't know where to start. Ramen is wonderful... those soothing japanese noodle soups just like in Tampopo (you know "poke the pork") which if you haven't seen and you like food, drop everything and rent it *right now*. We're full and satisfied, even though it is raining cats and dogs and we are getting drenched. We can't get a cab to save our lives so we just keep walking up the street... walking walking.. wetter and wetter. Suddenly, a little side lane shows up and the dark wooden entrance to a restaurant appears.
Covered by noren, the japanese curtains, it looks different to all the other places we've seen.. and it's out of the way and looks fancy and authentic. I think at the same time I see it I also see the sign... Maru Kaiseki!

Getting a visa seems more than enough reason to go out for a nice meal. I knew from poking about the net that Maru was not going to be cheap, but today was a good reason to go. We didn't know if we'd get a table but we got there early and had about 200 women in kimonos welcoming us.. okay okay... I am prone to exaggeration. There were maybe nine or ten. The recession has hit Bangkok and tourism is down, so high end restaurants are very glad to get business. They seemed very happy to see us - no reservations needed!

The menu was all pictures - which was lucky as we took ages to choose and it was hard enough with a very big choice. Everything arrived looking just like its photo and tasting quite sensational. We started with something traditional - some hamachi, or amberjack which was beautifully presented in a handmade bowl over ice and seaweed. The fish was fresh and firm and tasted... perfect.

Next was a delicate bowl of micro thin sliced radish, cucumber, onion and seaweed with lemon all soaked in a small pool of a soy vinegar liquid. The star of the dish was juicy fingers of snow crab which also soaked up the tangy vinegar, a flavour that brought out the sweetness of the crab and gave a burst of cool freshness in your mouth. The sauce was light and not too acidic to be overpowering - it all worked together so well that all we could do was look at each other and raise our eyebrows in surprise.

From the same menu group was an unusual dish that also had us nodding in agreement. Yam with sea urchin (uni) and vinegar. The yam was a white variety, it seemed raw and crunched like an apple. With very little flavour, it mostly provided a textural difference to the soft and slimy uni that was some of the best I've tasted. It was sweet and tasty, still with the hint of the beach. Gagan had never tried it before and this was a good way to start. Microslices of nori (dry seaweed) was piled on top and proved to be very hard to pull apart with small pieces of uni and slices of yam. Not an easy dish to share, but tasty none the less.

The next dish was unexpectedly good. We wanted some vegetables and ordered asparagus. They came looking like something you would want to decorate your house with. So perfectly made and smelling so tasty! Two rows of about 7 stalks each - lightly fried in some yummy batter not unlike tempura, but all over the bottom half were stuck little golden rice crackers - perfectly round balls - about 2mm wide. Being fried, the whole thing now held together like a little bamboo wall and they looked as well as smelled, wonderful. Dipped in the small dish of salt the effect was pretty spectacular.

Two more courses to come. The next to me seemed like the ultimate dish. Japanese comfort food meets Top Chef. It's hard to believe such tastes could come from such a simple dish. On the bottom, almost like a crab cake, a patty of mashed potato - a yellow potato like a Yukon Gold - mixed with tiny pieces of cucumber and minced shrimp. The potato cooked to be warm and golden on the outside. On top of that a perfectly cooked piece of salmon - to look like a giant piece of nigiri sushi - the salmon moist and melting in the mouth. On top of *that* a meringue of whipped egg white, cooked to perfection and atop that... nestled in to the foam of eggs... giant orange salmon roe. Every bite just exploded with flavour. The roe would burst a little bubble of salt water to top off all the other tastes and the mix was just amazing. It was warm and comforting and fancy and familiar even though I've never had anything like it. Genius!

Lastly, in a bowl of his own, one giant ball of happiness. Well, pumpkin actually. The size of a baseball. The pumpkin was mashed and had big pieces of scallop and giant shrimp hidden away inside, then lightly fried and placed in the bowl with slightly sweet gloopy sauce that had a little tang to it, drizzled and poured over it. A strong onion was cut into thin slivers and placed on top. Simple... and delicious.

It was a perfect meal. We were not too full and we enjoyed every single bite. An excellent way to celebrate a visa and a great introduction to kaiseki. The menu at Maru is large, and our appetites are endless, so I expect we'll be back to try more. Maybe next time we'll take some photos. For now though, I think it's time for some tea and putting my feet up. A good day :)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

illusive muse

So I’m watching Elizabeth Gilbert give a TED talk on inspiration and the illusive muse, and it makes me think about how often I am struck to write at a time I can *never* actually put pen to paper.. or fingers to keyboard in my case. It’s always the middle of the night when insomnia bites, or worse, sitting on the loo, when the most prosaic little bit of prose pops into my tiny noggin and starts wobbling about, taking form and adding adjective after adjective. Sometimes I’ll be talking to someone and a thought comes to mind… something I would love to capture. Too late… it’s come and gone. When I sit down later it turns into a flat and boring essay, stale bread and moldy cheese. I leave dejected and don’t come back to the writing table for a long time. What causes it? why is the timing always off? Why are my energies so out of balance?

My thoughts turn to my Mum. In the last few years she has started to write. She always did, but it’s become something serious and amazing. She started with amusing poems, somewhat in the style of Roald Dahl. I can see them as large books in a children’s library with wonderful illustrations and tongue twister rhymes. Since then she has gone on to tender and delicate haiku and all sorts of various short stories and essays. She’s not a mother, a wife, a manager… she’s a writer… a *good* one… a prolific one too.

Her discipline makes me think I should be more determined. Elizabeth Gilbert talked about how creative people are internally tortured and scared of the constant possibility of rejection. I don’t consider myself creative, but I do want to write for my own satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if what you write is good, bad or indifferent, as long as something has made it out from inside the vacuum. If I can grab one bit of these things as they come into focus and dance out again it will be worth it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

one night in bangkok and the world's your oyster

We seem to spend so much time smiling now. Sometimes I think I am going to burst from smiling so much… big goofy silly smiles. It’s good and nice and I’ll admit I think we deserve it. There was a time when I never thought I would smile again. You partner up a bad situation with depression and you have a cocktail that is enough to knock out even the toughest prize fighter. It’s hard to describe what depression can do… how its icy tendrils latch onto your innards and just zap all your ability to cope, to fight back, to move forward through the mirk. I was painfully aware that it was brain chemistry gone awry, I knew it and recognised the symptoms, but couldn’t change it or fight it… just sank deeper and deeper. The best I could do was close my eyes and hold on to Gagan… I didn’t think I would get out of it.

Never say never, though. We’re in Bangkok living a very treasured and lucky life. With a lot of work and support my fibromyalgia is getting under control and I am starting to lead a reasonably normal life again - for the first time in .. well, lets not go there. The depression has disappeared as suddenly as it arrived - high tailing it on that express bus out of town to some unknown destination that I hope is far far away. I know it has my number though. I’m on the lookout. But I’m medicated and prepared - you wanna fight, then meet me at high noon at the OK Corral baby, I’m ready for anything! Well… I think so… ;)

Our days go something like this - we walk to the main road and catch the tiny little green bus to work. It’s a hurtling crazy whirlwind of a ride. For 6 1/2 baht each (about 18 US cents) we spend 5 minutes holding on to the ceiling hand rails as the driver swings the bus from lane to lane Formula1 style. Just getting on is a challenge as there is a reluctance to stop so you jump on and hold on for dear life as one foot may still be hanging out the door as the dinky wee bus takes off at speed and you’re away! It’s a hoot and a miracle we make it off alive each day. We joke about doing a ‘jump, tuck and roll’ to get off.. and are always a bit breathless as we get to the pavement.

After a fun day at work, we wander back to the main street, pass by lots of street food vendors and climb the overpass to cross the road. Resisting the mango and sticky rice stall is always hard. Has to be one of our most favourite things to eat here… mangoes that are sweet and juicy and plump, and sweet sticky rice with coconut milk and toasted lentils to sprinkle over the top.. the combination of tangy fruit, sweet rice, and crunchy salt all making for a delectable mouthful. The Thais are masters of these blends of flavours, and we are their willing guinea pigs.

We take a cab home. The traffic is always really heavy and the 5 minute morning ride takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or more. The cabs are amazing. Mostly very new and comfortable (lemony fresh scents and sometimes all pink seats with Hello Kitty *everywhere*!) and they come in every colour of the rainbow. Predominantly pink (eecks, my nightmare), I have to say it really brightens up the streets of Bangkok to see all the colourful cars - purple, green, yellow, blue. An explosion of colour…. a fiesta. And the congestion is considerable. At peakhour it is like any major city at its worst, with hundreds of motorbikes and scooters whizzing through the stalled cars at high speed. But after 2 years of the chaos of India, where you sometimes feel your brain will explode from the constant assault of noise on the road, it is so quiet here it’s almost eerie. In LA there was always a honk or two, but here it’s deathly quiet. No one is impatient, everyone is polite and calm and just waits their turn. We have never seen anything like it. Refreshing is hardly the word for it. Mindblowing might be a little closer!

Having no cooking facilities in our kitchen, we have to eat out every night. This is pretty common in Thailand… and taking a look at the City of Food (as I have officially renamed Bangkok) it’s not a surprise. The entire place is just all about foooooood. My kinda town! So we come back to our little ‘settlement’ which is mostly known for really cool looking nightclubs and bars, and go to one of the restaurants. I am happy to say Thais love their Japanese food as much as I do, and there seem to be one Japanese restaurant per head of population. Perfect! There is Thai food we can bring home - freshly made to order and so tasty. Most of it costs just over a dollar. We basically eat Thai or Japanese every night and our minds and hearts are happy, our bellies full and our clothes not big enough anymore.

The weather is at its hottest right now. The high 30’s every day (that’s near 100 for those not ‘metricated’ yet) and very humid and heavy. Sometimes big clouds gather, erupting in brilliant and violent storms of thunder and lightning and heavy rain that flood, and then stop after half an hour. The view from our 8th storey apartment is wonderful. The heat keeps us inside a lot. But as I am getting healthier it makes us start to plan our weekends and getting out to see more of Bangkok again. The city comes alive at night, looking like an alternative Blade Runner, one where the apocalypse didn’t happen. We have so much we want to see and do. Every bit is precious and we feel alive and happy and lucky. You *can* go from the ridiculous to the sublime apparently… and that is why we smile!