Go Jump in the River

After a delicious meal of snake in banana leaves, Lauren’s co-workers invited us to continue the celebration with a swim in the nearby river. Since it’s “almost” Songkran (i.e. about 6 weeks away), they’ve started setting up structures on the river for families to camp out on during the week-long throwing of water. Or so we’ve been told. We’ve yet to experience Songkran but have been told it will be wet. There’s nothing better than a river swim on these balmy 32°C days. The river is an easy bike ride from where we live, and we’ll be sure to take advantage of this as we enter the “hot” season (we’ve been told to expect average highs over 40°C come April).

Lauren in front of the Songkran huts
Lauren posing in front of the Songkran huts

Swimming in the river
Frolicking in the river

Snake in Banana Leaves

My co-workers invited us over for an office party yesterday, and they promised a particularly enticing entree: snake in banana leaves. I was a bit uncertain about eating snake, but had promised to at least try it. When we arrived, we learned that we were actually the targets of an elaborate language misunderstanding turned practical joke; we would instead be treated to a “snack” cooked in banana leaves. The snack started out as a mixture of spring onions, shallots, garlic, oil, rice powder, and water in a large bowl. My co-workers then taught us how to assemble envelopes using the banana leaves that they had been harvesting (from the office property) and cutting all morning.

Volunteers and other assorted expats assembling “snake” packets

Here Kenny models the process of assembling a banana leaf packet:

Step 1: stack a small banana leaf piece on top of a larger one
Step 2: spoon a dollop of snake mixture on top of the leaves
Step 3: use your fingers to make a lengthwise crease in the banana leaves

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Step 4: fold the sides to make a banana leaf envelope

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Step 5: hold the assembled envelope in one hand and use the other to pierce it with a half toothpick (for conservation purposes)
Step 6 (not shown): use scissors to trim excess banana leaf off the top of the envelope

Step 7: steam

Step 8: enjoy with fried garlic, spring onion root, coriander, and dried red chilies (one chili per bite, we were instructed)

During the steaming process, the rice mixture solidifies and the result is like an Asian tamale. We each ate two of them plain, and they were delicious. Then my co-workers taught us how you are supposed to eat them: garnish with garlic, chilies, and other condiments. This added deliciousness prompted each of us to eat about eight more. :)

If Your Idea of Cooking is Using a Rice Cooker…

After researching all of the choices available, I pulled the trigger yesterday on a much anticipated purchase: the Phillips HD4711/60 rice cooker. It had everything we were looking for (quality brand, glass lid with steam escape hole, nonstick 1.8L capacity, steamer basket) and, after some small negotiating, clocked in at just under $20.

This morning we made our first rice cooker meal: oatmeal. It was simple recipe, water + oats + milk in the cooker for 7 minutes, and it came out tasting great. Buoyed by our success, we planned to try a fried rice dish tonight where the rice cooker is used for frying with oil instead of steaming. I picked up the necessary ingredients of brown rice, vegetables, spices, oil and a few eggs on the way home from work.

Alas, our affair with the rice cooker turned out to be very short-lived. On my way to our room, I was stopped by the guest house owners. They said the chambermaid noticed the rice cooker and they wanted to make it clear that cooking wasn’t allowed in the room. I asked them to elaborate. For example, they had given us a hot water kettle for making tea, oatmeal, etc. I pointed out that making rice is not much different than making oatmeal. But it was futile, they were adamant that using a rice cooker is “cooking” (as opposed to “simple things”), and they draw the line at “cooking.” As shops here don’t accept returns they offered to buy the rice cooker from us for the price we paid. It was a frustrating and slightly stressful experience, but we’ve already pre-paid our first month’s rent, and it is one of the nicest places in town. Sigh.

Now that we have explicit criteria around what is regarded as “cooking”, our experimentation will be focused on salads and recipes that involve “add boiling water.” We’re going to scout the grocery store tomorrow to see what ingredients can be applied to this purpose.

Towers of Babel

So far this year, Lauren and I have chosen to situate ourselves in places where it’s difficult to immerse yourself in a local language. In India, while the north pretty uniformly speaks Hindi, the south is a veritable melting pot of linguistics. Each state has its own language and Bangalore, being very close to multiple states, has all of them represented. People speak Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Hindi. This actually worked out ok for us, as the situation results in everyone speaking English as a common language (plus the average Indian’s English skills are quite good).

At first glance, Thailand is a much simpler place. The national language (and most residents’ primary language) is Thai. However, there are a few complications for us. Lauren and I are both working with Burmese refugees, and the language situation in Burma is much like that of South India. While Burmese is the national language, each ethnic minority has their own primary language. So our foreign language exposure is:

  • Lauren’s NGO: mostly Burmese (since there are multiple ethnicities involved), and bits and pieces of two different ethnic minority languages
  • My NGO: a different ethnic minority language than either of the two at Lauren’s NGO
  • Restaurant and shop owners: Thai

On top of it all, all of these languages are tonal, which always throws us off. We are still picking up bits and pieces of each language (one of our waitresses is determined to teach me Thai), but our experience is definitely scattered. Our response – teach lots of English to the locals. :) Fortunately, that’s part of why we’re here anyway.

Getting Settled

After a weekend tour of all of the guest houses in town, we chose one of the nicest ones, with A/C, hot shower, refrigerator, TV, and a very comfortable bed (well, actually two beds that we had to push together). I almost feel guilty about how posh our accommodations are, but of course the room is still quite cheap by Western standards. We also thought the A/C would be nice once the mercury starts regularly blowing past 40° in April.

It also only took us a few days to become regulars at a couple of local restaurants. One is a small shop selling fresh Thai papaya salads (som-tam thai). We like ours “hot,” which is the highest on their spice scale, and served with sticky rice. They also make a delicious som-tam fruit salad. The other restaurant we’ve been frequenting is a brand new place near our guest house, with very high quality classic Thai dishes. It’s like our local version of Jamjuree, which we frequented almost as often in Seattle.

It’s a small town, but I think we’ll do all right. We just started our NGO assignments today; more about those soon.

Rice Cooker Cuisine

Kenny and I will be staying in a guest house for the next three months, and those who followed our India adventures will not be surprised that we are feeling a bit of angst about not having a kitchen. We presumed that our “landlady” (i.e. guest house manager) would not be amused if we installed a propane-powered stove in our room, so we’ve been trying to come up with a lightweight mechanism to get our cooking fix.

Strolling down the streets of our small town yesterday, we noticed a few shops selling kitchen gadgets, most common of which was the rice cooker. And as we browsed through the displays, it dawned on us that one can probably use a rice cooker to cook much more than just rice. After we got home, a quick web search for “rice cooker recipes” revealed all kinds of crazy ideas, like rice cooker potatoes, lentils, dumplings, fish, steamed vegetables, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, spaghetti, even carrot cake!

Here are a few sites that look promising:

As usual, you can expect that if we make any culinary breakthroughs, we’ll post them here. I don’t know whether our experiments with the rice cooker will be quite as exciting as those conducted with pressure cookers, but they should at least save us from having to eat out for every meal.

Just Flew in from Chiang Mai

And boy are our arms tired! We have arrived in our NGO assignment city, near the Burmese border. We need to check out the town and find ourselves a place to live for the next 3 months.

Criteria: Western toilet, hot water, comfortable bed, refrigerator.

Desirable bonus features: air-con for the “hot season” (it’s only 32°C now), good natural light, kitchen facilities (yeah, right!)