Lights! Cameras! Weirdness! The Joys of Loy Krathong

Last Wednesday, Thailand celebrated the festival of Loy Krathong. Basically, this is a time where people make small decorated boats (krathong) and float (loy) them on bodies of water – preferably rivers, but lakes, ponds, or the local canal cesspool work equally well in a pinch. This is supposed to bring good luck and blessings. T-bone and I had seen photos of the festival before arriving in Thailand, and we were excited to check it out. In theory, we wanted to visit one of the major celebration sites down town, but in practice, the time it would take to fight our way through the crowds would seriously interfere with our family eating tour.

Unacceptable.

Instead, we decided to check out a celebration that was closer to home. We got a hot tip from Todd’s favourite hot tip source – the cashiers at the local convenience store – that there was going to be a rager of a celebration at a wat (temple) 15 minutes from our apartment. Say no more. We packed the parentals into a taxi and and booked it over to krathong paradise.

Where we were greeted by this friendly fellow.

We were a bit early for the real party to start, so we wandered around, taking photos of the lights and the few krathongs that were already floating in the wat’s pond.

And chilled out with this slightly demented dog.

It quickly became obvious that we were the only farangs in the joint, and we attracted a bit of attention. This – in my highly anecdotal experience – is typical of life in the ‘burbs. There are a lot of farangs downtown, and they sort of blend in/get ignored/are a nuisance, but in the suburbs, a farang is an exciting freakshow. Adults and children joyfully shout “Farang! Farang!” (although it usually sounds more like “Falang! Falang!”), and you get plenty of attention. This was certainly the case at the wat.

This dancer’s father was anxious for her to benefit from a chat with Mama “Farang” Jan.

As we wandered around, we noticed a small congregation of people sitting next to a massive fire. We simply wanted to see what was going on, but before we knew it, we were being ushered into chairs, and asked to sit down. A long piece of white thread was passed around, and everyone in the congregation held on to it. And that’s how we found ourselves part of an unknown religion ritual. Oops.

It was difficult to see the entire ceremony clearly, but we did catch one of its more interesting aspects. White robed men heated molten metal in the fire, and when it was sufficiently hot, they poured it into a mold. They did this multiple times, amidst much chanting. We were about to excuse ourselves, when suddenly it was over.

I don’t even know what to say about this. So strange.

Checking out the steaming, cooling molds.

We spent a little more time wandering around the wat, gaping and taking photos (because being farangs didn’t get us enough attention).

A minute women checking out elaborate krathongs that probably weighed more than she does.

School children release their krathongs.

It was already a strange evening, but then Todd decided to make it stranger by taking us to a local bacteria fest (aka: an all-you-can-eat grill). The concept had merit, but the piles of mystery meat were a little off-putting.

Am I right, little buddy?

We finished the evening by trying to fall asleep to the sultry accompaniment of blasting music, drinking, and fireworks. Just a wee party next to our local cesspool canal. Gotta love that Loy Krathong.

Prototypes ‘n’ Progeny

Our little shack on the khlong has been filled to the gills this week with two of our favourite family members – Papa Dawg Dave (PDD) and Mama Jan (MJ). These two well-traveled Canucks produced my math-loving better half, and we were stoked for their visit.

 

And the stoked factor doubled when they gave me this little slice of Canadian paradise.

They’ve already spent heaps of time living in SE Asia, and they warned us that they weren’t interested in doing the tourist thing. This was fine with us, particularly when we discovered what they wanted to do instead. Let’s break it down.

Eat:

It has been a wild food fest of pretzels/curry/pizza/local bacteria around here. PDD and MJ had some old favourites from their years in the region, and we had a few “must eats” in mind. The combination of these two lists has meant some dedicated eating for this crew. It is hard work, but we were ready for the challenge.

Chopstick warriors ready for battle

Prepared to do our bit for the good of humanity

Shop:

I really hate it when people buy me Christmas presents, but for my in-laws, I was willing to make a sacrifice. While they admired my amazing hot-plate-stacked-on-a-microwave-stacked-on-a-fridge, they thought our kitchen was a little lacking, and bought me a rice cooker. It even has a setting to cook brown rice. The hippie region of my heart just warmed up by ten degrees. My simultaneously practical but strange husband asked for dirt and a pot. The man is all about back-to-basics. We’ll see what he finds under our non-existent tree.

Dang it, T-bone! Get excited about the hippie cooker!

 

Less practical but more fun than dirt and a pot.

Clean:

Sadly, my kitchen has never been as clean as it was this week. I make it a rule to always put my guests to work as often as possible, and I told PDD that I expected him to sweep our kitchen floors at all times. He took this task seriously, and even threw in some bonus dish-washing to mix it up a little. They are seriously upping the ante for any future visitors.

Get back to work!

 

Observe Excellent Home Maintenance Methods:

PDD and MJ’s favourite part of their visit has been witnessing the joy of our strangely constructed apartment, and the even stranger attempts to repair it. They noticed that the back of the toilet was leaking, and we reported the problem to the downstairs office. The manager sent someone promptly to fix it. When I peeked into the bathroom to check on the progress, though, the maintenance man was applying caulking to my shower. Nothing like a little welcome caulking to get the visit off to a good start.

They call this maintenance?!

 

PDD and MJ leave tomorrow, and we are anticipating a return to a life characterized by fewer calories, more brown rice, a dirty kitchen, and a pile of caulking. Sniff.

Class is in Session

You guessed it. I am officially a substitute teacher. It happened one hazy, sultry, Bangkokian morning late last week: Kevdeep, CTP Beth, and I were hauled down to the local education bureau and issued work permits. It took less than 30 minutes, and after months of frustration, $$$, lack of communication, and despair, it felt almost anti-climactic. “I’m a substitute teacher,” I muttered to myself, in a daze. When you have to convince yourself that you have actually reached the lofty heights of substitute teacher-dom, you know something’s askew in your career-planning process, but that’s a post for another day. In the meantime, Ms. Ruth is ready to influence young minds.*

“Sawasdee-khaaaaaa. Welcome to class, children.”

I had my first subbing experience on Wednesday when I “taught” a high school science class. After all these months of waiting, I realized that I actually had no clue how to substitute teach, so I went straight to the source: T-bone. This man knows all the tricks, and he helped me out. Our conversation went something like this:

“Gahhh!! Todd!! How do I sub??!”

“Say hi to the students.”

“Then what?!?”

“Take attendance.”

“Then what?!?”

“Give them the test that the teacher left for them.”

“How do I turn on the projector?”

At this point, it was starting to dawn on Todd that his wife lacks even the most basic life skills. He took pity on me, though, and gave me further brilliant tips, such as “write your name on the board.” All his coaching paid off, because the class was a breeze.

“This is my name, children.”

The students asked me numerous difficult questions, such as “can I listen to my iPod while I take notes? Can I use youtube videos instead of my textbook?”, but I sailed through with aplomb using the following tactic: when in doubt about whether certain dubious privileges are allowed in a class, always try to make eye contact with the teacher’s pets in the front row when you ask “does your teacher normally allow that?” Speaking as a reformed teacher’s pet, I know that the overpowering desire for adult approval far outweighs the consequences of sucking up in front of your peers.

“Look at me, adult! I can even read in Thai! Let me show you!”

Lucky for me, my first week of subbing coincided with a school holiday/teacher’s Thanksgiving dinner. As a staff member, I felt that it was my duty to support my American colleagues by eating grotesque quantities of curry-flavoured mashed potatoes.

Lining up at the trough…

Curry/chickpea flavoured mashed potatoes, raspberry jam instead of cranberry sauce, coke, neon-coloured pumpkin pie (I shared that plate with Todd, FYI). It’s the Thai-American way.

T-bone and I sat with our friends from Taiwan and Korea. They had never tasted turkey before, and had lots of questions about Thanksgiving foods, namely “is this food actually the same as what you eat in North America.” It’s a good thing I’m a teacher, because I had to walk the tightrope between tact and fact in explaining that the Thai take on Thanksgiving was…. “same same but different.”

Todd explains to Katherine – “this ain’t the way mamma makes it.”

And there you have it. Enriching young minds and eating free/”unique” foods. My horizons are just opening right up over here. I’m a substitute teacher, y’all.

Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of your class.

*in Thailand, people use Mr. or Ms. plus their first name, not their last name.

Tofu ‘n’ Greens: How to Spice Up that Favourite Estrogen Enhancer

Sometimes, after I’ve had one too many servings of pad thai, my gut starts crying out “tofu and greens! Tofu and greens!” I’m not exactly sure why this is – perhaps it’s a throwback to my high school vegan adventures, or maybe it’s the fact that my mother raised her chilluns on a strict diet of hippy food. Anyway, when the urge hits, I turn to one of my favourite tofu recipes. It’s so simple that it’s almost an exaggeration to call it a recipe. Let’s just say it’s a way to make tofu taste like delicious ambrosia – not estrogen.

Ingredients:

  • Garlic cloves to taste (if you’re like me, 10 should do it. If you’re like T-bone, stick to half a clove)
  • Red Chillies to taste (I like to add 2 small ones to this recipe)
  • Sesame oil
  • Soy sauce or oyster sauce
  • White vinegar
  • Ginger root to taste
  • black pepper
  • extra-firm tofu
  • leafy green vegetables (I used a rapini/broccoli Thai hybrid, but you could use anything from broccoli to bok choy to kale)
  • cooking oil (I used soybean cuz that’s what our convenience store sells)

I deliberately did not give exact quantities for this recipe, because the proportions really depend on the amount of tofu and greens you wish to cook, and your personal spice preferences.

1. Press the tofu

In my efforts to become more fully acquainted with these pasty blocks of jiggling delight, I’ve learned that tofu absorbs marinade more easily if it first has the water squeezed out of it. This is easy to do, but takes some time. Put the tofu on a plate, place another plate on top of the tofu, put weights on top of that plate, and leave it to sit – the longer, the better. I often get impatient, and let it sit for less than an hour, which still tastes fine, but you will get better results if you let it drain for a few hours.

Oops. In spite of my healthy recipe, I still drink coke zero. Hopefully they cancel each other out?

2. While you wait for the tofu to drain, make the marinade.

I like to make this in a tupperware-style container – that way I can shake the mix to make sure that all the pieces are coated. Grate/grind/press/chop the ginger, garlic, pepper, and chillies into the container.

Using my mini grater because my TESCO brand garlic press was a complete bust.*

Add the soy or oyster sauce, sesame oil, and vinegar. Normally, I start with a few sloshes of sesame oil and a few sloshes of soy/oyster sauce, and then add enough vinegar so that the mixture will at least partially cover the tofu. A taste test at this point would not be amiss.

Garlic soup – my dream come true.

3. Dice the tofu

When the tofu has finished draining, discard the juice that it oozed (mmm. how’s that for a descriptor?), and cut the tofu into bite sized pieces.

And a dark shadow passed over the plate…

4. Marinate the tofu

Dump the tofu into the marinade, and give it a good shake to coat all the pieces. The longer you let the tofu marinate, the stronger/better the flavour in the end. An hour would be great. Shake the tofu occasionally to ensure that all the pieces get coated.

5. Get yer greens

While the tofu is marinating, chop your green vegetable.

6. Fry the tofu

Heat a little oil in your frying pan. I would use soybean, canola, or another mild-tasting oil. Don’t use sesame, as it begins to smoke at high heat. Use a slotted spoon or your fingers to take the tofu out of the marinade – don’t discard the marinade! – and dump it into the pan. An important step to ensuring tasty results is to make sure that you brown the tofu on every side (or if you’re impatient, on at least a couple of sides). The goal is the make it crispy.

I’m salivating all over again.

7. Add greens and stir-fry

Once the tofu is adequately crisped, dump the greens on top of the mixture, and give it a good stir. At this point, add the leftover marinade to the mix. Stir-fry until the greens are crisp-tender.

Apologies for Todd’s foot – not the most appetizing sight.

8. Dive in for a hippy fest of estro-enhanced deliciousness.

Becoming more feminine by the bite.

9. Ignore your husband’s complaints that you used too much garlic. There is no such thing.

Happy Eating!

*This is not another estrogen joke.

Stuff Thai People Like: Makro!

It’s time for another addition of stuff Thai people like! I’m going to apologize in advance for the photos in this one – they contain neither me nor my more studly other half. I’m sure you’re all deeply disappointed.

For some reason,* when I moved to Bangkok, I expected that most people would do the bulk of their grocery shopping in cute’n’tiny markets. While markets are popular (see, for example, this post), massive North American-style grocery stores are ubiquitous. I have easy access to the Thai equivalents of Safeway, Superstore, and Walmart. Sometimes their offerings are a little different than in the west (an entire aisle of fish balls, for example), but the concept is the same.

In spite of the massive stores right in front of my eyes, my brain still harboured doubt – “They may have duplicated Safeway, but surely Thailand does not contain a Costco clone.” Costco was our dear friend and neighbour in Calgary – there’s some part of me that always wants to prepare for a potential famine. By now, though, you know where this tale is going. I was forced to abandon my doubts when I was introduced to the joys of Makro (thanks, Tut and Erin), Asia’s answer to Costco. When a new location was built directly across the street from our local grocery store, we knew that we would never again have to go without enough food to feed an army in wartime. While they operate on the same principle of largesse, Makro is uniquely Asian, so I thought I’d give you a tour.

Starting off with the outside: Makro is built right next to a massive temple. I feel that this is particularly appropriate for Thailand, because shopping is pretty much its national religion.

The orange roof in the background is part of the temple, but really, it could be part of the store.

And the inside. Concrete is de rigueur, as in all Costco-esque stores. It just screams “bulk!” It also has an appliance section that is pretty straightforward, although it’s heavy on the rice cookers and electric food steamers.

And washing machines and salespeople and bad lighting.

It starts to get a little more intriguing when you head to the meat section. Thais are less squeamish than Canucks when it comes to acknowledging the deadness of their animal protein sources.

“Pick me! Pick me!”

“Pick us! Pick us!”

And in true Thai style, multiple freezers full of tentacles.

Because who doesn’t like a good frozen brick of suction cups?

The fruit and veggie aisle is fairly similar to Costco, although you won’t find these in Costco:

The bland-but-beautiful dragon fruit. Sort of like a pretty girl with no brain.

Plus the produce workers wear nifty rubber boots and enjoy hacking up fruit with large cleavers.

They also like wearing hats.

The spice centre is full of fun. It’s here that you can finally buy enough powdered chillies to satisfy your family’s needs. Nothing but options and choices, folks.

The most important section in the store.

You can also pick up a heapin’ helpin’ of goji berries, which are apparently a super food. You’d never guess that based on the price – $5 for a couple of pounds.

The alcohol section is smaller than Costco’s, and demonstrates the Thai penchant for random bluntness:

Apparently they want you to chug the sickly sweet wine coolers on the spot?

And finally we come to the bakery, which I have to say, contains a lot of pretty mediocre baking. Thailand does a lot of foodie things incredibly well, but the baked goods still need work.

White, white, white, blah, blah, blah….

And that sums up the highlights. The rest of the store is an interesting mix of ingredients that I find exciting and useful (20lb bags of peanuts for homemade peanut butter), and stuff that I just don’t get (how does anyone need an entire aisle of oyster sauce or instant coffee?).

Either way, I’m relieved that Makro has arrived, because the one thing that was really missing from my new Thai life was massive massive quantities of random food items that I do not necessarily need.

*ignorance/stereotypes/being dumb