We’ve been at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam for a couple weeks now, and have finally started to feel settled in. The village is a small community, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and just about on the border of the West Bank. Given our backgrounds–Palestinian on one side of the family for me, and Jewish for Bonnie–Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam seemed like the perfect place for us to settle down for a while. That’s because it’s an intentional community where Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs live and work together, and it’s been really great to see evidence of how well that can work out on a daily basis. There’s also a primary school with classes in both Hebrew and Arabic, and regular programs and retreats conducted at the village’s hotel. As people keep reminding me, though, the rest of Israel and the West Bank aren’t always the same as here….
We’re sharing a space with two other volunteers and two interns–we each get a bedroom (Bonnie and I are the first couple to come, so we share a room with twin beds pushed together) that surrounds a courtyard, and there’s a common area with a nice kitchen. This is also the first place we’ve found while traveling abroad that’s similar to the WWOOFing we so enjoy at home, wherein you trade your work for room and board–as opposed to other “volunteer” opportunities we found throughout Asia that wanted us to pay to work. So in that vein, each volunteer and intern gets a share to spend at a grocery store once a week in nearby Modi’in, and we trade off who cooks dinner each night; we also get to borrow the village car every once in a while, say, for seeing a movie on an evening or for a daytrip around Israel. We’re also excited to go into the West Bank and see where my mom grew up! We’ll need to use public transportation for that, but luckily we can get around by bus and train, although it’s a bit of a trick to work around Saturdays, when most of Israel shuts down.
Two of the volunteers work in the hotel, cleaning rooms mainly, and the interns work in the village’s administrative offices doing a number of administrative tasks. We, however, work in the Garden. While there is actual gardening involved, what it really entails is all of the village’s landscaping, trash, recycling, sewage, infrastructure, and more (including, possibly, gravedigging!). We very much enjoy it! It’s a great to be outside all day, and we love working with plants, and even the more onerous tasks (eg, work involving the sewage plant that I won’t describe for the sake of sensitive stomachs) is pretty educational. Also, I get to ride around on the side of a tractor and basically get my exercise for the day in hopping off periodically to lift and drag whatever our boss points at–Bonnie seems to appreciate the effect it’s had on my muscles (and vice versa for me with all the squatting and lifting…mmhmm).
Other bonuses include dance and movie nights we haven’t yet been able to attend, and Hebrew lessons! There are also Arabic lessons, but they’re unfortunately way above our current levels in the language (aka, nil), so we’ll keep looking into that.
Considering how long it’s taken to write this post, you might have guessed that India was…let’s say…challenging. I had wanted to visit India for as long as I can remember, and I know that Frank had similar feelings, but it was definitely by far the most difficult place we’ve traveled. To be honest, I think we were both slightly traumatized from the experience. And this was after expecting the worst–it’s just so different to actually experience it. Rather than complaining, though, I want to try to concentrate on some of the more practical and positive details.
We started in Kolkata, mostly to visit the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, which was a good introduction, but also quite a different experience than the rest of our trip. From there, we traveled to Delhi to meet up with our parents. It was great to see them, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend spending as much time in Delhi as we did. After a couple days just the 5 of us, including a rickshaw food tour of Old Delhi, we were able to join our parents’ tour for a couple days in which we visited many sites including the Jama Masjid, Red Fort and the Gandhi Museum and Memorial.
After we said goodbye to our parents, we took a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. This was definitely our favorite spot that we visited. Rather than rushing around and trying to see all the sites in that area, we decided to just spend our 3-4 hours entirely at the Taj Mahal, and we were so glad we did. The building (and surrounding buildings) are incredibly beautiful, and the grounds compare. It’s large enough that we were able to find some seclusion away from the crowds (but it is also great for people watching), and I think it was the first time we’d experienced actual quiet since we’d arrived in India. For those who’ve never been, Indian drivers use horns constantly. I actually think if someone played that prank where the brake is connected to the horn, you’d hear it less than you do now. Hearing the horns incessantly, you just never feel completely calm or relaxed.
Our next stop was Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) where we’d signed up to take an Ayurveda course on cooking and nutrition. After meeting very few other travelers in India, we were excited to meet the other students. Little did we know that we were the only ones in the class. Once we realized that, we were excited to at least get to know the students in the yoga teacher training program. Unfortunately, only one of the 7 days did our lunch break line up with theirs. We thought we’d get to know them better, but it almost felt like the staff were purposefully keeping us separate…oh well.
Many of the Ayurveda courses you can find online are geared toward tourists and not necessarily authentic. I think we did manage to find an authentic course, for better or worse… This was a real, local Ayurveda center that was definitely not geared for tourists. Our teacher even left sometimes in the middle of our theory session (in which she basically just read from the book) to consult with patients, leaving us waiting sometimes up to 10 minutes. Our favorite part for sure was the practical session every afternoon in which our teacher and 2 assistants demonstrated the various food items and explained how they helped the body and for which body types. We loved learning to make and getting to try lots of different South Indian foods that we probably won’t see in the US (most Indian food in the US is from the North). We learned all sorts of soups, rice dishes, curries, dosas, snacks, desserts, drinks, etc. that we’re definitely going to make for our friends and family when we get back to the US.
While we were staying in Trivandrum, we did our best to see the local sites, but it seems to be a city that’s much better for living than for visiting. The best trip we took was to Kovalam Beach, about a 30 minute bus ride and seemingly a world away. We, having dressed modestly, were by far in the minority. I think it’s the first time we’d seen that much skin in public in quite a long time. Anyway, it’s a beautiful beach and made for a really nice afternoon visit.
After a week in Trivandrum, we took the train to Kochi. It was an ok experience, but again, even though there were some other travelers around, it’s just not set up for meeting people very easily. We wandered around a lot, visited some of the historic sites and went to the beach that would have been beautiful if not for the trash everywhere.
All in all, I just don’t think the overall culture or the structure of the cities was our favorite among the places we’ve visited. We both wanted so badly to like it there, and maybe if we’d spent more time in smaller places, we would have had a different experience, but even then, I’m really not sure how different our experience would have been. This trip gave us a good preview and next time we’ll find some more out of the way places to visit.
In Kolkata, we were often not quite sure whether the haze that would sometimes obscure the streets was benign, foggy moisture, or smog.
Back in Malaysia and Singapore, the more omnipresent haze had a very distinct source: the horrible forest burnings in Indonesia. It often smelled like a giant campfire, and felt like someone had punched us in both eyes.
In Delhi, we’re pretty sure which kind of haze there is based on a few things: its smell ranges from “fire smoke” to “outhouse,” we feel like we got in a bar brawl again, and we’ve got red eyes, scratchy throats and coughs, and runny noses. The traffic actually makes us a little wistful for Kolkata’s chaos, and the horns seem more omnipresent and strident.
It’s a pretty rough city.
But we’ve been trying to make the best of it
Number one, we met our parents here! They’re doing a long tour through several Indian cities and were able to meet us for a few days before it started. We went on a shorter bicycle rickshaw food tour in Old Delhi with them through When In India to start. It was pretty fun to explore the famous spice market and tour a Sikh temple, but we were so full to bursting with food that we all promptly fell asleep for hours after.
There were a couple more days of touring, for which I was unfortunately laid up in bed…India finally caught up with me and my stomach – that’s the sickest I’ve been in a long, long time. Bonnie and our parents, however, got to explore some of Delhi’s landmarks, like the Jama Masjid, the India Gate (from a distance), the Red Fort, Qutub Minar, and the Gandhi Memorial and Museum. Those tours really don’t mess around…and neither do Indian bacteria, apparently, as I spent most of that time in bed.
The highlight of Delhi that I got to participate in was a visit to Indian Accent. It’s been rated as the 77th best restaurant in the world and the 22nd best restaurant in Asia. Bonnie and I had been inspired by watching Netflix’s Chef’s Table to want to visit restaurants that treat food as art, where the whole visit is an experience and it’s very worth it to put extra energy into appreciating with all of one’s senses – luckily, the currency conversion rate made that possible for us here!
And the Taj Mahal
Indian trains and train stations: I’m not sure what to say: it’s like the rest of what we’ve experienced, but more so? The thing where there are people constantly cutting in lines is definitely worse. I had a manspreading battle and Bonnie got a half-decent train breakfast; all in all, it was an alright way to get to Agra.
Agra is about like wikitravel and other sources describe it: not a place you’d want to stay or spend any extra time in if you can help it. The park around the Taj Mahal was nice and relatively quiet, if still filled with touts who seemed surprised by Bonnie’s gender despite her wearing a skirt. Apparently, they’ve never seen a woman with short hair before.
The Taj Mahal, though, was everything it was chalked up to be – and even bigger than we’d ever imagined. It is just a massive, gorgeous structure, and it’s flatly astonishing to ponder it being built back in the 1600s, the sheer cost of it (the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars), and the fact that nothing’s really happened to it in the intervening centuries. And, there are green parrots and funny squirrel-slash-chipmunk creatures that try to climb up your leg. We’ve heard that you don’t need more than a quick visit, but we enjoyed spending several hours enjoying the grounds and the view and the people watching – it’s a really nice place.
On the way back to Delhi, we had to thank our lucky stars and a guardian angel of a fellow (who’s only reaffirmed our already existing feeling that Sikhs are awesome) that we got on the correct train. We’re still not sure we understand, but there were two trains with the same number, one arriving shortly after the other – we got on the right one, but only after a confusing series of dashes back and forth and the gentleman’s help. If you’re ever in trouble, look for a turban!
We visited Dakshinesvar Kali Temple while we were in Kolkata, just outside the city proper. We were up before dawn to avoid the crowds and the beggars; I suppose that alone is telling. I’ve read an entire book on this temple, and several on its famous saint, Sri Ramakrishna.
By all rights I should have felt more excited about finally arriving. I felt wary, pensive, contemplative. I felt no urge to buy flowers or incense or plastic trinkets from the hawkers all competing to sell their identical, dilapidated things by trying to out-shout one another.
I recognized the courtyard from my books, the row of domes dedicated to Shiva, the place where Ramakrishna followed a cat for hours (“She is Kali!”), the room where his wife Sarada Devi stayed, the veranda dedicated to Krishna (they were singing there as we we walked by), and the temple to Kali herself.
It is a beautiful building, in the Bengali style, with towers all embellished and walls like terra cotta with a kiss of red, or magenta. We waited in a line – a line that can supposedly stretch for kilometers on some days. We were there early enough, though, that there was still a heavy fog, and only a small crowd in front of us.
We watched people in the line throw trash everywhere. We kept from looking at our bare feet, dismayed by the powder-film of subtle black on the tiles and cobblestones.
We were pushed past the Kali statue – only a quick glimpse after years of waiting. Out of confused impulse, we handed a man – not a priestly-looking one at that – ten rupee notes, and let ourselves be pushed aside. He called us back to hand us marigolds and a little pad of sweet. I have no idea if prayers or puja were involved. I recognized the idol from my books. It was indeed a lovely statue, bigger than I imagined; just a statue in that moment, all the same.
We took a ferry down the river to the Belur Math. A crippled man sang into a PA, ear-splitting and accented with feedback, then asked for money; the river would have been quiet, otherwise. The Math’s small temples held the relics of and places where various saints of Kali were burned at their deaths – Ramakrishna, Vivekenanda, Sarada Devi, Bhramananda. I respect them – the people who lived in these temples changed the world; they are beacons of religious pluralism and the value of a spiritual life. I have never been able to subscribe to any cult of personality, though.
In the Kali temple, we sat on steps and took in the courtyard, the crowd, the faces, the trash. I remembered stories, a hundred years of this same worship, every single day; the queen that built the temple because of a single dream. I did my best to stay open – to the temple, to the history, to the goddess…I only felt pensive. Shouting, detritus, Indian tourists sneaking photos of us; the best I could manage in all that was to feel contemplative.
The next day, we sought out the last synagogues of Kolkata, in slums and cheap trinket markets and hordes and hordes of people. They were beautiful – Italian architecture built by Baghdadi Jews, who came here around the same time the Dakshinesvar temple was built.
The synagogues were completely empty – there are only twenty or thirty Jews left, here, in a city of millions. The buildings and their grounds were spotless, cared for by local Muslims – more religious pluralism, I suppose. More history, as well: the Jews were paragons here, of education and commerce and philanthropy, especially the women.
I was happier in the synagogues, in a sense – they were a quiet refuge from the Kolkata chaos outside, but again, no depth of profundity nor glimmer of enlightenment sprang up in me. I just was, for the moment. I was there, staring, quiet, contemplative.
In both of those moments, I arrived at the same sort of thoughts. Even after all the years of reading and research and thinking about visiting, I wasn’t necessarily disappointed – I didn’t really expect any grand spiritual epiphany just by showing up. The temples were different than what I’d read about, anyway, more a historical and tourist site now than a place where people live monastically anymore.
The closest I had to an epiphany was the sharp highlighting via contrast of something I’d been increasingly realizing as we’ve traveled: my spirituality isn’t in religious places, or saintly figures, even with the weight of history pressing upon either. It’s rather more akin to something my mother beautifully once described: the sense of connection she felt upon walking up a hill before dawn and taking in the Tucson vista, of having a sense of the divine, and in that moment being able to interact.
My spirituality is in those moments – in feeling small before desert monsoons, in hearing my mother and brother’s voice, or reading a poem that makes me pause and stare. It is in perceiving the unique beauty, however fleeting, in the taste of something truly delicious, or the few minutes of sunset light, or in a loving glance from my wife or a friend.
And so I’ve traveled all this way, it seems, not so much to see what’s in front of me, but to realize that what I’ve already begun to know in that much deeper a way.
Kolkata is a noisy, crowded, chaotic, smelly, trashed, glinting, arguing, confusing, hot mess of a city – especially so after the relatively urbane and spotless Chiang Mai. This post may or may not follow that format; I’ll do my best to organize it into coherent points. As Bonnie so sagely points out, it doesn’t do well to complain or judge, cultures and practices are just different in different places, but here are our observations:
- Just getting from the Kolkata airport to our hotel was illuminating in a particular sense: Indian traffic. It makes me want to rewatch Mad Max: Fury Road again with Bonnie so she can get the references I wanted to throw out as our cab driver battled for position as if his life depended on it with motorbikes, fancy cars, more incredibly retro taxis like his, overstuffed buses, fancifully painted trucks declaring “BLOW HORN” and “Obey the traffic rules!” on their running boards, bicycles, auto-rickshaws and even a horse drawn carriage. Even now as I type this (and quite literally 24/7) there is an unending cacophony of horns blaring; Bonnie’s napping with ear plugs because of it.
- Which doesn’t stop people from adding to the noise in every way possible, from incredibly loud sneezing to screaming arguments to more basic but still shouted conversations. Which, admittedly, we’re a part of: our normal speaking voices, even indoors, are almost inaudible murmurs, and so, we join in the yelling.
- But not in the spitting. We’ve begun to wonder: is there a genetic predilection for having lots of extra saliva around here? It’s almost bizarre when we haven’t seen at least three guys spit in a minute for every minute we’re walking. Someone please tell us why we’re always having to dodge other people’s fluids…please?
- Speaking of guys: in Kolkata it often seems that there are way more men than women, both on the street and working in businesses. Speaking of people in general, they are everywhere, all the time, at all hours, everywhere – it’s almost impossible to take photos of things unless you’re basically just taking photos of people, walking, getting shaved, arguing, rushing, staring, sleeping, cooking, bathing…
- And in that, they’re often living right there on the sidewalk: the poverty here is utterly shocking after Thailand, where there are essentially no homeless people at all. Here, however, they’re washing in gutter puddles, raising toddlers inches from intersections, cuddling for warmth with stray animals as people step over them…it would either require books of comment to do them justice, or, just as we sadly end up having to do on the street, turning away from the issue just to save ourselves for a moment.
- Stray animals everywhere, mostly dogs but a few cats and a few goats. The dogs basically all look like they’re related, which maybe they are, and we even saw a mother with 8 or so puppies nursing under a bench. Later on, they playfully chased our feet as we walked by. We don’t even want to think about what they have to eat in order to survive.
- So much color everywhere, especially in women’s clothing.
- So much delicious food (and it’s almost all vegetarian), in restaurants and along the street. We’re still working up the courage to eat a full meal at a street stand, but so far, we’ve had some delicious samosas. Unlike what we’re used to in the US, most of the restaurants we’ve been to here seem to focus on the various starches–dosa, uttapam, idly and vada–which are quite delicious. We agree that our favorite so far is the masala dosa, a large, crispy, thin, slightly sourdough flavored pancake with a very savory potato and onion mix inside. It’s served with coconut chutney and sambar.
- Kolkata’s a bit like Vietnam in several senses, one being that we find the horde of people somewhat off-putting in aggregate, but when we encounter individuals – as servers in restaurants, or friendly fellow diners like Raksha and her family, or adorable students at historical sites – they’re unfailingly polite, happy, and generous.
I am someone who’s always loved Thai food, and I can’t even count the number of Thai restaurants I’ve been to in the US. As much as I’ve loved the food in Thailand, strangely, it’s often not necessarily better than what I’ve had at home–that’s not an insult to local Thai cuisine, but rather, a compliment to the Thai cuisine in the US. Thai restaurants I’ve been to in the US always have an assortment of soups, noodle dishes, curries, stir fries, salads, etc., but the one thing I don’t ever remember seeing is khao soi. After being in Chiang Mai for quite some time and getting to try a variety of options, this dish has become one of my absolute favorites.
Khao soi is a Northern specialty soup that consists of a yellow coconut curry broth, flat egg noodles and a variety of garnishes (any mix of fried noodles, shallots, cilantro, green onion, lime, fresh chili and pickled vegetables). The meat version is usually served with meatballs, and the vegetarian versions can have anything from meat substitutes to tofu and all sorts of vegetables.
For some quick further background, Chiang Mai is a vegetarian’s paradise. To give you an idea, I’m pretty sure I could eat at a different dedicated vegetarian restaurant for every meal for weeks and still not try them all. That’s why I’m not doing a survey of vegetarian restaurants in general; it’s just far too overwhelming. So instead, I decided to try as many different vegetarian versions of khao soi as I could during our time there. Some I tried after deciding to write this blog post, and some I tried before that, so I didn’t get photos or detailed information about all of them. Anyway, here goes!
These are listed in no particular order, and prices are approximate because I didn’t always remember to write them down. (30 baht = $1)
The first thing I noticed about this dish was that it seemed somewhat small, and there was very little broth. The broth itself was pretty spicy but not super flavorful otherwise. The crispy noodles on top were quite good, obviously house-made. Not my favorite but still good. (60 baht)
This one was piled high with fresh-looking garnishes (cilantro, green onion and fried shallots), so I knew I was going to like it. It had a generous amount of broth which wasn’t spicy but was very flavorful. The broth was actually almost over seasoned, as if they’d used a bit too much curry paste, but was still very delicious. This one included some fake meat and broth but no vegetables. One of my favorites. (90 baht)
Luckily, I actually ordered this one by accident the first time because it’s not listed as khao soi on the menu. This was probably one of the largest portions I sampled and also one of the creamiest. It had a light, delicious flavor and some vegetables. Garnishes were shallot, cilantro and lime. Another favorite. This one was also particularly special because it was shared with several friends, a great accompaniment for tying on friendship bracelets! (85 baht)
This one definitely took the cake for the greatest quantity of garnishes, which included red pepper, pickled vegetables, purple onion, cilantro, lime, cilantro and house fried noodles. I would actually venture to say that this was more a bowl of garnishes with a few noodles, broth, potatoes and carrots at the bottom. It was actually almost hard to eat because of all the garnishes. The thin creamy broth had a kick and was very flavorful. (90 baht)
Free Bird Cafe supports Thai Freedom House, a non-government, not-for-profit, language and arts community learning center in Northern Thailand dedicated to assisting families and individuals who are refugees from Burma and members of minority groups of Thailand.
Aum’s khao soi has been voted the best in Chiang Mai. Frank said it was his favorite, and I liked it a lot as well. The broth was very flavorful and slightly sweet with medium creaminess. It included baked tofu, potatoes and mushrooms. The top was garnished with green onion and coconut cream. Garnishes served on the side were lime, shallot and pickled vegetables. (70 baht)
I tasted this one before I started the research for this blog post, so I don’t have any detailed information about it. It included vegetables in addition to the typical ingredients, and it was delicious.
Many people rave about Blue Diamond’s vegan baked goods and nice patio atmosphere, but most say that the food is just ok. I would mostly agree with that. The khao soi was decent but not super memorable, but it did include lots of vegetables and tofu. The broth was somewhat thin but had a decent flavor, especially after I asked for a lime wedge.
I’m grateful that a friend recommended this place because it’s quite hidden and I never would have found it otherwise. Their vegetarian version of khao soi is the pumpkin khao soi. It had a relatively thin broth which was somehow also nicely creamy. It has a complex, slightly spicy, slightly sweet flavor. Vegetables included were carrots, green beans and pumpkin. Red chili, green onion and cilantro garnished the top, and served on the side were pickled vegetables, shallot and lime. My only complaint was that it was a slightly small portion, but I guess at that price, you can order 2! Another favorite. (55 baht)
I tried this one all the way back in August and almost forgot to include it. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything specific about it, but I remember enjoying it. I’m pretty sure it was the first one I ever had, so it must’ve been good for me to want to try so many!
B1 level of Maya Mall, near the glass elevator
This one was probably the most authentic, which meant that it was less creamy than others but also more savory and spicy. It was a large portion that included mushrooms, several kinds of fake meat and was garnished with celery leaves. (40 baht)
I decided to include this one last, not because it was necessarily my favorite (it was very tasty though), but because of the relationship I had with the cook, Mile (pronounced more like Mai). Frank and I visited this vegetarian stand at the Maya food court almost daily for lunch for quite a while, and we developed a relationship with the family who runs it. The mother, son and daughter who run the place are always cheerful with genuine smiles on their faces. Mile always called me “Bonnieeee!” and she called Frank “Bonnie husband.” Seriously, we loved them. After the brother’s wedding one weekend, they gave us a special cake they’d saved for us from the wedding. It’s supposed to bring good luck to couples who eat it together.
Anyway, if you go to Chiang Mai and you’re a vegetarian (or you like vegetarian food), you have to visit them; they’re very popular. They have probably 20 delicious dishes available every day, all vegan, and you can add a fried egg on top if you want. These include vegetarian versions of many northern Thai specialties, such as lemongrass-y sausage and a chili tomato dish that’s just delicious. Everything tastes fresh, and if it’s not hot enough for your taste, they’ll pop it in the microwave for you. Rice and one item costs 30 baht, and each additional item costs 10 baht more. And just remember, 30 baht equals $1–it’s really impressive.
If you might recall, we met some wonderful people in Malaysia – Tobi, Carolin, and Max! They’re traveling the world in a van that is completely covered in grass. They keep a blog in German at Somewhere Over the World, but they’ve also recently opened a shop – check it out at The Grass Van! They’re selling scented oils, scrubs, balms, soap, and super cute t-shirts. Have a look and support their awesome adventure!
Mindfulness has been a buzzword over the last couple of years, but what does it really mean? And more importantly, how does being more mindful actually impact our day-to-day lives? Watch our new animation narrated by Dan Harris, and you’ll understand why it’s one of the single most powerful things you can do for your wellbeing.
Purple-y mauve spheres with blushes of scarlet. Surprisingly lightweight – may induce an urge to juggle. Light, subtle fragrance. Slice open down the middle to effectively create two bowls of yellow-gold goop and delicately crunchy seeds. They’re still good even if outwardly wrinkled a little!
- Pros: the burst of aroma that is released when they are cut is downright scent-ambrosia; tangy and fun to eat their weird insides
- Cons: sometimes too tangy, or too goopy, or on the other side of the spectrum, almost-hollow and empty duds
*if you’re really, really lucky, you might also get to try supremely sweet yellow and pink passion fruit straight from the tree in your amazing Thai host’s garden
Light, flourescent green/yellow. American football-shaped, with five ridges that form a five-pointed star if the fruit is cut into slices by width, which is the best and really the only not-getting-juice-all-over-your-face way to eat them. Also the prettiest way to cut them.
- Pros: decoratively exciting, light and refreshing flavor, very juicy
- Cons: can taste excessively green if unripe; occasionally overly astringent, does not make a very good tasting juice
Green or yellow (or both), lopsided egg or kidney shape, thin skin, big pit that can be sliced around with special technique, flavor in yellow-orange flesh.
- Pros: pleasantly soft texture, great in fruit salad, sweet floral flavor, great with lassi and sticky rice
- Cons: can be stringy (which can lead to the worst smoothie ever), surprisingly not particularly great in Thailand or even cheap to buy the whole fruit
Vibrantly brown teardrop shape, bristly with hairs poking out between reptile-like scales, often sold in bunches, grey-white lobes of stiff flesh inside
- Pros: bizarre appearance is kind of fun
- Cons: kind of smells and tastes like ammonia that went bad, bristles are hella pokey
Like a red apple and a pear and a delicate ballerina baby, surprisingly lightweight, subtle and delicate scent, very crisp and light flesh
- Pros: light and refreshing in texture, pretty to look at and cut
- Cons: tastes goofy…just…not a great taste; it’s wacky
Big and heavy, yellow-orange when closer to ripe, can be sliced lengthwise to reveal a yoni-like shape, black spherical seeds and goop need to be scooped out, when unripe can be shredded for use in a delicious salad called som tam
- Pros: soft texture and darker flavor are great for fruit salad; versatile in use when green, which makes for a fantastic, spicy salad, great for “cleansing,” so eat them it the morning
- Cons: can be musky, slightly foot odor-y; avoid the som tam with the black, fermented crabs in it at all costs!
Looks like a particularly fabulous dragon had a baby with a cactus fruit, bright pink skin with yellow and green highlights and “scales,” ovoid, easy to peel skin surrounds a uniform ball of flesh that is white or magenta with thousands of miniscule black seeds, very light and subtle malty flavor
- Pros: fantastic for breakfast in being light and refreshing, gorgeous whether cut into slices or peeled, really pops with the addition of lemon zest, subtle yet delicious flavor, satisfying texture
- Cons: can be flavorless on occasion, but texture is still nice; the magenta variant can be gummy, and is much bettter in Malaysia than Thailand
Small, green, slightly flattened egg shape; hard flesh, often found littering the ground beneath trees, tastes like leaves…green leaves
- Pros: supposedly healthy, most often used in juice, which at least tastes healthy if not great
- Cons: ….tastes like leaves…green leaves
A short, fat banana, often sold in fanned arc bunches, rarely has Siamese twin bananas contained within a single peel
- Pros: custardy, addictive flavor and texture, ripen nicely and last long
- Cons: it’s very challenging not to eat the entire bunch all in one go
Come in similar fan arc bunches to custard bananas, but are tiny and more slender, almost bite-size
- Pros: make for a nice little snack, strong banana flavor
- Cons: don’t ripen nicely or last too long, have to eat a lot of them to feel ike they register on a having-eaten-a-banana scale
Basically green beans that seem to be the length of the endlessly long Red Vines you used to get at minigolf places as a kid
- Pros: that’s a whole lot of bean in a conveniently connected and one-dimensional package, you get green beans without the need to cut off all the ends
- Cons: it’s kind of tempting to whip things with them (maybe a pro?)
Gigantic, irregularly shaped spiky, smelly green things that look like they would kill someone if they fell from a tree, pale yellow flesh that looks like someone was liposuctioned and smells like onions, body odor, and worse
- Pros: people might think you’re more macho for eating it?
- Cons: everyone around you will be wrinkling their noses and slightly gagging as you eat it; also, you’ll more than likely reflexively spit it out in a projectile fashion
Jackfruit (and Cempedak)
Vaguely cousin-ish to durian, but with much less aggressive spikiness, and to quote a friend, “feels like you’re doing an autopsy on an alien when you cut it open” due to glossy, slimy lobes of yellow flesh
- Pros: can be made into really interesting fake meat products for vegetarians
- Cons: when fresh, tastes like bubblegum that went very bad
Green, bumpy approximation of a soursop, with similar sweet-creamy flavor and white flesh, easy to pull apart with hands and share with friends while dripping juice everywhere
- Pros: tastes like a sweet milkshake version of a fruit, easy to eat
- Cons: sticky, delicious juice, everywhere
The evil doppleganger of the custard apple! Beware!
- Pros: may make you feel a bittersweet melancholy for the fruit you thought it was
- Cons: hard to cut or peel, lots of annoying seeds, gritty and grainy and irritating skin and flesh, easy to accidentally eat some of the skin, which is super bitter
Butterfly Pea Flowers
Beautifully indigo flowers with a hint of white/yellow in their center; resemble their genus name in shape, or a Georgia O’Keefe painting, if you will; served and used dried, but often seen growing in gardens and alleys
- Pros: can be used to dye food (especially rice), and makes gorgeously blue tea, or bright green if added to green tea, dark purple if combined with hibiscus, and bright purple with lemon juice
- Cons: it does need a little sugar or other flavor, as it’s more aesthetic than flavorful
Not…actually sure what the actual fruit looks like; sold in orange-ish, dried, circular slices with holes that might have held seeds
- Pros: makes for a tea that tastes like iced-tea with lemon, supposedly very healthy
- Cons: kind of looks like a disconcerting sea creature in your mug
Small, tan spheres commonly sold in bunches, still attached to their twigs. Hard shell can be cracked to reveal a small, lychee-like fruit (ie, a slimy translucent eyeball with a pit in the center)
- Pros: very cheap, possibly better dried than fresh, good for throwing at people
- Cons: often end up being well past ripe, and thus too soft and gooey and off in taste
Look very much like longans unless closely inspected, and are often mislabeled as such; longsat, however, have a subtle teardrop shape and smell slightly more acrid – inside their skin, they resemble a translucent garlic bulb complete with “cloves”
- Pros: sweet, floral and heady flavor that is very hard describe; it’s fun to peel apart the cloves
- Cons: you might have accidentally bought longans; also, if you don’t get all the skin off, it’s super bitter
Crimson hairy balls with yellow-green highlights – they seriously look like alien eggs or larvae or who knows what; more like a lychee inside than longans
- Pros: while similar inside to longans and lychee, not as slimy as either; really weird and fun to eat
- Cons: sometimes a bit of the pit sticks to the flesh, no big deal but some people don’t like it
Cutely bulbous crimson-purple fruit with an adorable stumpy little stem; press the bottom to pop open the uniquely cake-like skin and reveal pillow-y white lobes with the occasional black, shiny seed
- Pros: easy to eat once you know the trick, ambrosia flavor that is addictive, and yet light and refreshing
- Cons: pretty hard to eat if you don’t know the trick, only available for a very short season
In part 1, I talked about why everyone in Chiang Mai should cook, even though eating out may be cheap, convenient and delicious.
Now let’s get down to the practical stuff.
This post is specifically directed toward people living in Chiang Mai, but many of these tips may be useful for others.
You can make a kitchen anywhere
I worked for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, in Tucson, for several years, two of which involved regular cooking demonstrations. My job often required basically carting around an entire kitchen. This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. I had a variety of supplies available to me, but most of the time, my mobile kitchen consisted of an electric frying pan (with extension cord) and a large plastic tub filled with various other kitchen essentials (knife, cutting board, spatula, large spoon, bowls, etc.). And depending on what I was making, I sometimes had a wheeled cooler as well. I became adept at setting this up quickly just about anywhere, including on a folding table at a farmers’ market. And if I didn’t have electricity available, a propane camping stove worked great outdoors.
What I’m trying to say is that if your place doesn’t have a kitchen, it’s very easy and pretty inexpensive to set one up. Hopefully your apartment has at least a kitchen sink, small counter space, and a refrigerator. If not, I know this can all be done on a table. (If you don’t believe me, see the previous paragraph.) And if you don’t have a refrigerator, stock up on the things that don’t require refrigeration, and then just buy what you need for the day.
- small countertop
- kitchen sink
- decent sized refrigerator
- electric kettle
- 2 glasses
- 1 spoon
- 1 cabinet above the sink/counter
- electric wok (came with a lid)
- rice cooker (cheapest, smallest one we could find–only has an on/off switch–we can make about 4 servings of rice at a time)
- surge protector/extension cord (our kitchen area has no convenient plugs)
- 1 small sharp knife
- 1 wooden spoontula (thanks, Brian, for the name)
- 1 small cutting board
- 2 glass bowls (deep and large enough to double as plates)
- 1 spoon (because we already had 1)
- 2 forks
- 3-pack storage containers (which can also double as bowls for cold food and for serving fruit)
- 1 sponge
- 1 small bottle of dish soap
All of this came out to about 1500 baht (about $45 USD). We bought all of this at Central Department Store inside Central Kad Suan Kaew Mall. If you shop around, I’m sure it’s possible to find these things for less at local markets or smaller stores, but we were on foot that day and enjoyed the convenience of this option. Ours are also pretty decent quality and have held up well so far over a month of continuous use.
We later bought:
- 2 mugs (for hot beverages for ladling soup)
- 1 larger knife (not completely necessary but nice for mincing garlic, cutting carrots, etc.)
We purchased these items for approximately 100 baht total at Tops.
- brown rice
- dry noodles
- textured vegetable protein
- dried mushrooms
- quick cooking oats
- spices (coriander, cumin, black pepper, salt)
- soy sauce
- cooking oil (we use soybean)
- sesame oil
- mushroom sauce
(if you’re not a vegetarian, fish sauce and oyster sauce are often used locally instead of soy sauce and mushroom sauce)
Other foods we like to keep around:
- all sorts of fruits, whatever looks good and is a good price
- variety of vegetables for cooking and for salads (again whatever looks good and is a good price)
- bird’s eye chilies (if you like spicy food)
- green onions (aka: scallions or spring onions)
- cilantro (or other herbs that look good)
- peanut butter (no oil added)
- jam (only fruit, sugar, and pectin if possible)
To give you an idea, we spend about 500 baht ($15 USD) every 2-3 days and get about 6 meals (between the 2 of us) and several snacks from that. Those trips are mostly for fruits and vegetables and sometimes the occasional staple that ran out. We’ve made a huge effort not to let anything spoil, so we buy only what we think we can use within a couple of days, and it’s really paid off. We find throwing food away quite painful, especially since it’s not really practical for us to compost at the moment. There are some chickens nearby that we’ve considered throwing scraps to, but we’re not sure how their owners would feel about it.
In the next post, I’ll give you some more practical tips for cooking with electric appliances, as well as some of my go to recipes.