The Limitations of Eggplants

This afternoon, I helped one of my co-workers write a grant proposal for an HIV/AIDS prevention training program that she wants to conduct later this year. She explained to me that many people in the villages in Burma don’t like to use condoms or don’t understand why they should use them. As part of an HIV/AIDS training course that she has given in the past, she used an anatomically correct model to demonstrate how to use a condom. She told me that previously, an NGO had given a similar training in the refugee camps, but had used an eggplant for the demonstration instead of a realistic model.

Neither the NGO nor the trainees were thrilled with the results. One of the trainees complained that she “put the condom on the eggplant like you demonstrated, but the eggplant died and I’m still having babies!”

Lychee

I ate my first fresh lychees over a decade ago at Tropical Chinese in Miami, and I remember the experience vividly. They were served over ice and tasted sweet, fleshy, and very refreshing.

Since then, I have rarely encountered fresh lychees, though we’ve certainly had our share of rambutan (which are often referred to as “lychees” in these parts). This week they’ve been flooding the markets, with a big bunch going for 20 Baht (~$0.60). I bought my second bunch today. They are more acidic and sweeter than rambutan, and also have a crustier skin and thinner flesh. Delicious chilled, I bet their strong flavor would make for a great ice cream (and I know they are awesome in vodka martinis).

Lychees!

Lychees!

Fruitilicious

Just as we are nearing the end of our stay in Thailand, many of our favorite tropical fruits are coming into season. Just after Songkran, rambutan started appearing in the market, and Thursday marked the beginning of mangosteen season. It is also prime time for mangoes, both green and yellow.

We intend to take full advantage of this bounty until the day we leave Thailand. Though there are a few fruits that we have had our fill of after a single bite, when one of our favorites hit the fruit stands, I celebrate with a kilogram purchase. Lauren has declared that we will have two mangoes a day, and I have been stopping at the market daily to procure said mangoes as well as whatever new treats are available.

This past weekend in Chiang Mai, the fruit gorging took on a whole new level of ridiculousness. Jessica had just discovered mangosteens, and was an a fruit rampage for her last 48 hours in Thailand. She probably consumed more mangoes and mangosteens in that timeframe then Lauren and I have in a week. This afternoon I saw lychees for the first time this year. Guess what we’re eating right now?

Breakfast
Chiang Mai breakfast: Jessica’s banana-chocolate birthday cake with goodies from the market (rose apples, rambutan, bananas, mangoes, and mangosteens)

Tropical fruit Today’s haul: 1 kg each of lychees and green oranges, 1/2 kg each of mangosteens, yellow mangoes, and rambutan. [Not pictured: 1 kg bananas and 2 green mangoes from yesterday’s leftovers]

Salak

After purchasing an assortment of fruits for dinner last night, I noticed a basket of prickly teardrop-shaped brown fruits. I asked the fruitman what they were, he said what sounded like “slaa” and gave me a free sample.

When I arrived at Lauren’s NGO I found out that it is called salak, or snake fruit, and comes from a species of palm tree. Lauren’s co-worker (who loves salak) told us that people either love or hate them, like so many other things. Opening it up, the skin was thin and crumbly, which made it difficult to peel. Inside, the pulp smelled like stinky cheese. The taste was somewhat acidic, both sour and sweet. Lauren and I each had a taste, and then happily handed the rest over to her co-worker to enjoy.

Salak
Self portrait of me and my salak

Peeled salak
Inside, looks a bit like a chestnut, but tastes completely different

Babelfruit

Continuing our Monday night tradition, Kenny came by my office for dinner tonight. He brought a few treats that made him the most popular guy at the compound: one pineapple, one kilogram of mangosteens, and half a kilogram of rambutans. After dinner, one of my NGO co-workers taught us the names of several of our favorite tropical fruits in Burmese:

Burmese fruits

All of the names end in “ti” because ti means fruit.

Fun fact: the Burmese name for rambutan (ja-mok ti) refers to the crest of a rooster.

Rom Jinda

Rating:

When we arrived in Mae Hong Son, our guest house owner recommended a nearby restaurant called Rom Jinda. For our first dinner in Mae Hong Son we stopped by to check it out. The environment was warm and inviting, with cushioned seating available inside and an outdoor seating area with a fountain and lots of foliage.

The expansive menu includes Thai, Chinese, and pizza/pasta choices. Our first meal consisted of spicy fish with basil and chilies, and pad see iw. The fish was indeed spicy, with ample chilies and ginger, though river fish is not particularly exciting (we hadn’t yet internalized our landlocked location). The pad see iw was amazing, and was the first time I had pad see iw that rivals my hometown favorite at Jamjuree. The noodles are seeped in dark soy sauce and prepared with very fresh morning glory, carrots, cauliflower, and tofu.

We quickly became regulars at Rom Jinda, which we affectionately nicknamed “RJ” by our second week in Mae Hong Son (at which point we had probably eaten there six times). On our second visit I realized that the Thai dishes on the menu were separated into two sections. The  three-page section at the front was labeled “Thai food”, and towards the back was a single page of dishes labeled “Easy Thai Food”. While the only commonality that I originally noticed among the “Easy Thai” choices (which included pad see iw) is that they were all 35 Baht, I later learned that the “Easy Thai” section covered a set of dishes on offer at most local food stalls.

While the menu listed the dishes in English, over time the wait staff educated me on the food’s Thai names and pronunciation. I think this was partially because they were really nice and partially because they got a huge kick out of correcting me when I’d err on my farang pronunciation (tonal languages are hard!). We learned a few off-menu specials such as yam rom, the house salad of greens, fried mushrooms, onions, mint, peanuts, and the traditional Thai dressing of lime and chilies.

It was also at RJ that I received my introduction to pad prik giang, a stir fry with red curry paste that is prepared slightly differently everywhere and is top-notch at RJ. Most of our meals at RJ consist of pad see ew, and either pad prik giang or giang kiew wan (green curry), or both if we bring another friend along for dinner. I’ve also enjoyed their spicy seafood salad and their pad thai.

Overall, I love Rom Jinda. It’s certainly the best atmosphere in town and, while not every dish is a standout, I dream about their green curry, pad see iw, and pad prik giang. We no longer live two blocks away from RJ, but it’s worth the uphill bike ride to get our regular curry and pad see iw fix.

Shawn loves RJ
Shawn loves Rom Jinda

pad see iw tahoo
The best pad see iw (that we’ve had) in Thailand

giang kiew wan gai
Awesome geang kiew wan gai (green curry with chicken)

pad prik giang gai
Pad prik geang gai

Rom Jinda
Corner of Nivet Pisarn and Ratchatampituck
Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Daily: 12:00PM-3:00PM (Lunch), 5:00PM-10:00PM (Dinner)

Hot Hot Hot

One of Lauren’s NGO co-workers has a pet phrase, “hot hot hot” (it’s always three “hot”s). It’s usually said with a smile, and can refer to eating really spicy food, handling hot chapattis (or other hot items), or the weather on extreme days.

While today’s forecast was revised downward from a brutal 46°C to a mere 42°C, I still managed to have a few “hot hot hot” experiences of my own:

  1. The lady at my favorite Thai food stand is getting familiar with my love of spicy food. Today she added spices for my noodles to the wok while she was frying them, rather than giving me the normal Thailand experience of “spice it yourself” noodles. Turns out that two scoops of pounded chilies in your noodles are much spicier when they’re added up-front to the frying pan! They were my first five-star-spice noodles in Thailand and they were delicious (though my tummy is still burning).
  2. This morning I heavily roasted a pound of peanuts, and after lunch I went through my normal peanut butter making process. However, it turns out that roasting peanuts for a half-hour not only makes them delicious, but also makes them harder to grind (they don’t release as much of their natural oils). When I was done, I almost burned my fingers wiping the extra peanut butter off of the grinder blade.

Green mango and homemade peanut butter
The extra-roasted and finely ground peanut butter came out looking like melted chocolate and the roasting gave the taste some distinct coffee overtones

Snake on a Plane

I just saw the family off at the airport for their 2PM flight. Since they had a huge breakfast of Thai favorites at 8AM, and some bonus dishes at Lauren’s NGO around 10:30, we skipped out on lunch. But just in case they got hungry on their way to Chiang Mai, I sent them off with a parcel of snake in banana leaves, complete with all of the garlic/chili/cilantro trimmings.

It was a great having Shawn, Jessica, and Moose here for the past five days, and I am sad that they’re gone. Fortunately we’re going to meet up with them in Chiang Mai on Friday afternoon for a few more days of Thailand fun!

Snake
Snake at Lauren’s office, not on a plane

Durian

Durian. Perhaps the most infamous of the tropical fruits. And the most polarizing – I’ve never met anyone who expressed only a casual like or dislike of durian. Due to its strong smell, it has been banned from hotels in Malaysia and airplanes in Thailand.

Durian at the market

I don’t think I’ve ever even heard two people describe its flavor in the same way. I’ve heard comparisons to gym socks, stinky cheese, and rotting flesh. Lonely Planet calls it “an acridly pungent delicacy.” People either describe the texture as creamy or mushy. My co-workers have told me that the taste is certainly an acquired one – none of them enjoyed it as children living in Burma, but since they’ve moved to Thailand they have learned to count it among their favorite foods.

After seeing (and smelling) durian in the markets over several stays in SE Asia, I decided it was finally time to try it. My Dad, Jessica, and Shawn had a similar curiosity about it, so they picked up a small sample in the morning market today. Perhaps you can tell from the expressions on their faces how everyone felt about it:

Jessica eating durian
Jessica liked the taste but not the texture

Moose eating durian
How do you think my dad felt about it?

Shawn about to eat durian Shawn eating durian
Shawn, before and after

Kenny eating durian
Kenny wasn’t so hot on it either

As for me, I liked the soft, creamy texture but the taste didn’t do it for me. It’s hard to describe, but the closest comparison for me is very strong raw garlic.

More Burmese Snacks

During Songkran, my co-workers were excited to reintroduce us to snake in banana leaves, and they also taught us how to make another traditional Burmese snack. This one was even simpler:

  1. Hand-shave the flesh of several ripe coconuts.
  2. Make dough using a combination of rice powder, sticky rice powder, and water. Mix well with your hands.
  3. Tear off a small chunk of dough.
  4. Embed a piece of dried palm sugar (seems very similar to jaggery) in the dough and roll it into a ball.
  5. Boil the balls in a big pot of water. When they rise to the top they are ready.
  6. Serve with shaved coconut.

Songkran snack

They taste like little mochi balls with sweet syrup inside. I liked mine with lots of coconut. There’s also an element of excitement, caused by the fact that some of the dough balls have chilies inside of them instead of sugar! We made these snacks again this weekend for my family, and I tricked my brother with a very spicy one that I made just for him:

Shawn was not happy
Shawn’s snack wasn’t what he expected