Monday, 26 January 2015

Checked into Circus School

Pai Circus School
             762 curves, bends at high speeds, sometimes hearing the squeals of the wheels as the minibus threatens to go up on two wheels. A bit of advice is to abstain from drinking the night before, I’m not one to get car, sea or flight sick but this ride hung over almost changed that. Not sure how though, like most of the bus rides throughout Asia I arrived in Pai. A small quaint town, a hippy haven surrounded by the mountains of northern Thailand. 

Stunning viewpoint
             Eager to get off the bus and avoid anything with wheels for a bit, I asked for some directions to walk up to where I had planned to stay. Either I was too stunned to follow simple directions (probably the case) or if I was just misguided, I ended up in the opposite direction to where I expected. Everything happens for a reason. Turns out the hostel was booked solid and I stumbled upon the Pai Circus School getting the last available bed. About forty bungalows and a few dorms, just about everything made from bamboo, the bunk beds, floor giving a feeling of sleeping outside. Protected only from rain, the cold at night crept in, this was my kind of place.
 A dozen or so people practicing poi or staff in the common area overlooking a view of the town and surrounding landscape caught my attention immediately. A view few if any other places had to offer. This was something I’ve always wanted the chance to learn with some basic instruction and what better place to do it. They taught a total of twelve different ‘circus acts’ from poi, devil sticks, hula hoop and more. For me it was all about the poi, staff and practicing my juggling and introducing juggling clubs to myself. For only six hundred Baht, about twenty dollars, you could have full access to their equipment, lessons every day and the chance to use fire once confident enough that you won’t burn yourself. It’s actually a lot safer than you would think with a few simple guidelines. 
Pai Canyon
Pai is one of those perfect towns to jump on a scooter for the first time if you’ve never had the guts to do so before. The town itself is not too busy, but most of the driving is done in the countryside, weaving through the mountains. Waterfalls are dotted around the area all accessible by either scooter and/or a short trek. Only a short ride out of town was the Pai Canyon, which is what struck my interest. A spectacular sunset view, and completely different from what I had expected. I guess though when I think of a canyon my mind goes directly to the Grand Canyon. Ultimately dangerous which always makes things more worth it, you can walk along the raised rock walls that have been carved out over time. Free of safety railings you must watch where you tread. A simple misstep could send you for a thirty meter fall, but the further explored the greater the rewards.
Teeth in the cave wall
Being a stop on the Mae Hong Son loop, many rent a bike from Chiang Mai. Pai being the first stop then continuing on to Mae Hong Son and so on. On quite a tight budget myself, I couldn’t afford to do this unfortunately. A common stop on the way sixty kilometers from Pai is the Tham Lod Cave, the biggest cave in Thailand. The drive alone is well worth it, cruising through rural Thailand at your own pace with some beautiful viewpoints along the way. Once at the cave, a local lady guided us through with a little lantern emanating the dimmest light. Pointing out different rock formations, some even resembling different animals, it was about a one hour hike with a bamboo raft back to the entrance.

Practicing staff
             Most of my time in Pai was spent relaxing, practicing poi, staff and juggling over the view around the Circus School until my ninth and final night. It was time, let’s light these things on fire! A quick dip in the liquid paraffin, hold it to the flame and then slip into a trance. The flames swirling around, just you and the fire. It feels as if you’re moving so quickly, the rest of the world temporarily frozen. Just moving with the music until the flames slowly fade and extinguish. Slipping out of the state of trance, focus comes back to the rest of the world. I have always loved playing with fire and now have a legitimate reason to continue to do so into my adult life. Nine days was more than I had planned here, but still not enough. I see why people remain forever, but unfortunately for me it was another 762 curves back down to Chiang Mai.    

Watch my first attempts spinning fire on my YouTube page.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Handful of Thai Recipes

Nam Jim Thale – Spicy Seafood Dipping Sauce

Nam Jim refers to dipping sauce in Thai, and there are many different ones, this one used primarily for seafood but is great with fresh rolls as well. Traditionally done with a mortar and pestle, it can easily be done in a blender. As with a lot of Thai dishes, there should be a balance between salt, spice, sour and sweet. 
Thai Eggplant
10 cl garlic, chopped
10 small green chilies, chopped
1-2 bunches coriander, chopped, the roots chopped as well
60ml fish sauce
60ml lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar 
In a mortar and pestle pound the garlic, chilies and coriander roots to a paste. Add fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, mix until sugar is dissolved. Adjust to your tastes so it is balanced. 

Nam Prik Pow – Chili Jam

Chili jam is added to numerous Thai dishes such as salads and soups. Can be used in stir-fries or as a condiment. 
Chili Jam
100g garlic – peeled and roasted
100g shallots – peeled and roasted
15 big, red dried chilies – roasted and rough chopped
250ml oil
40g palm sugar
10g sugar
Pinch of salt
In a mortar and pestle, pound the chilies until a powder, then add the garlic and shallots. Continue to pound until smooth. Heat the oil in a wok and cook the chili paste for about 5 minutes. Add the sugars and salt. Let cool and store in the fridge for up to 6 months.

Tom Yam Goong – Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup, serves 4

This soup is famous and is a great example of the bright flavours of Thailand. This version is quite spicy so depending on your spice tolerance you can definitely cut back on some of the chilies. Adding a spoonful of the chili jam from above is a great addition to this soup.
300g prawns, washed, peeled and deveined. Keep peelings and heads
Tom Yam Goong
750ml water or chicken stock
6 cl garlic, crushed
6 shallots, sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, lower 1/3 only, 1 inch pieces
10 thin slices ginza (galangal), ginger can be used
200g straw mushrooms, halved, can be replaced with other mushrooms
2 tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
20 small green chilies, whole for less heat, halved or minced for more
45ml fish sauce
5 kaffir lime leaves, stem removed, torn into pieces
30ml lime juice
10g coriander, chopped
Place prawn heads and peelings in stock or water in a pot and bring to the boil, simmer 5 minutes. Remove prawns, then add the garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and ginza, simmer 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, tomatoes, chilies, kaffir and fish sauce, simmer 2 minutes. Add prawns, simmer 1 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in lime juice. Garnish with coriander.

Nam Prik Gaeng Kheo Wan – Green Curry Paste, makes 100-130g (4-5 tbsp)

Something you rarely see done properly or fresh anymore, it really makes a difference. A blender can be used, but the mortar and pestle is traditional and more stress relieving.
Dry – 1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted
½ tsp cumin seeds, toasted
Making Green Curry Paste
½ tsp black peppercorns, toasted
½ tsp salt
Fresh – 5g ginza (galangal), chopped, ginger can be used
15g (1 tsp) lemongrass, lower 1/3 only, chopped
5g (3 tbsp) kaffir lime peel, chopped
20g (1 tsp) coriander root, chopped
10g (2 tbsp) shallots, chopped
5g (1 tbsp) garlic, chopped
5g (1 tsp) shrimp paste
5g (1 tsp) turmeric, chopped
20 small green chilies, chopped
30g (1 cup) sweet basil leaves
Put dry ingredients into a mortar and pestle and grind until a powder. Add fresh ingredients and pound for about 10 minutes until the paste is smooth. 

Gaeng Kheo Wan Gai – Green Curry with Chicken, serves 4

One of the most spicy and well known dishes of Thailand. This dish can be made as thick or thin as you like it. Often it is served thinner almost as a soup. A couple things that make this dish stand above others is the use of fresh coconut cream and fresh green curry paste.
Tip – To make your own coconut cream is the most expensive method, but you also end up with the coconut water to drink and the best flavour. Open 2-3 coconuts, scrape the meat from the shell and place in a food processor. Press through a sieve to remove any bits left. If you don’t want to go to these extremes for the natural separation that occurs in the wok, any oil can be used, but the flavour won’t quite be the same.
300g chicken breast, thinly sliced
Pea Eggplant
250ml coconut cream, keep 30mls aside
250ml coconut milk
100g (4 tbsp) green curry paste
3 large Thai eggplant, cut into ½ slices
50g pea eggplants
40g (2 tbsp) palm sugar
30ml (2 tbsp) fish sauce
2 kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces discarding the stem
30g (1 cup) sweet basil leaves, save some for garnish
1 large red chili, sliced
Put the coconut cream into a wok and fry for 3-5 minutes, continuously stirring until the oil begins to separate. Then add the green curry paste and fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the chicken and cook until the outside has turned white. Add the coconut milk and bring to the boil, then adding the eggplants. Simmer for 4 minutes. Add the palm sugar, fish sauce, kaffir and basil leaves. Turn of the heat once well combined and garnish with slice chilies, basil and a drizzle of the remaining coconut cream.

Pad Prio Wan Phak – Sweet and Sour Vegetables, serves 4

45ml (3tbsp) oil
Sweet and Sour Vegetables
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, cut into bite size pieces
100g cauliflower, cut into bite size pieces
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into thin slices
1 cucumber, cut into 1 inch pieces
8 baby corn, halved lengthwise
220g pineapple, cut into bite size pieces
1 large red chili, seeds removed, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, cut into bite size pieces
70g snow peas
60ml (1/4 cup) water or stock
Sauce – 15ml (1 tbsp) lime juice
30g (3 tbsp) sugar
15ml (1 tbsp) fish sauce
15ml (1 tbsp) oyster sauce
15ml (1 tbsp) soy sauce
45ml (3 tbsp) tomato sauce or ketchup (might need less sugar if using prepared ketchup)
Heat the oil in a wok and fry the garlic and onions. Add the cauliflower and carrot followed by the cucumber, baby corn, and pineapple. Stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, snow peas and stir-fry 1 minute longer. Add water or stock, bring to a simmer. Add the sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust if necessary, serve.

Som Tam – Papaya Salad

Very popular among both Thai people and foreigners. This can be made as spicy as you like it and is traditionally prepared with a mortar and pestle. Locals generally eat this with sticky rice.
200g green papaya (unripe mango could be used), peeled and grated into thin strips
3 cloves garlic
Papaya Salad
10 small green chilies
2 long beans (green beans can be used), cut into 1 inch pieces
5g (2 tbsp) dried shrimp
30ml (2 tbsp) fish sauce
30ml (2 tbsp) lime juice
10g (1 tsp) palm sugar
1 tomato, slice into thin wedges
30g (2 tbsp) peanuts, roasted
Place the garlic, chilies and long beans in the mortar and pestle and pound roughly. Add the green papaya pounding again to bruise the ingredients. Then add the dried shrimp, fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and stir together with the pestle and spoon until palm sugar is combined. Add the peanuts and mix together. Serve with sticky rice.

Khanom Kluay – Steamed Banana Cake, serves 6

A very simple cake to prepare and a nice alternative to the traditional banana bread everyone is used to. These can be steamed in banana leaf boats or little individual bowls. If you don't want to grate your own fresh coconut, you can used unsweetened desiccated coconut, just soak for 10 minutes before hand. This is also gluten free!
Banana cakes getting ready to steam
5 bananas, mashed
120g (1 cup) rice flour
30g (1/4 cup) tapioca flour
130g (1 ½ cup) sugar
½ tsp salt
125ml (½ cup) coconut cream
100g (3 cups) grated coconut
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl until well combined, saving ¼ of the grated coconut. Place into banana leaf boats or bowls, sprinkle remaining grated coconut on top and steam for 30 minutes. Can be served warm or room temperature.  

Friday, 9 January 2015

Working in a Thai Kitchen

            I’ve been working in restaurants for over ten years now, most of them spent cooking, working my way from a dishwasher to a sous chef. For anyone who knows me or reads these blog posts of mine knows that when I travel my main purpose is to learn as much as I can about the food. I’ll take cooking classes when possible, talk with locals about where and what to eat and search out local cuisine and strange delicacies trying just about anything I can get my hands on. It’s not all amazing but it’s all worth a shot. So when the opportunity came to help out briefly in a local Thai restaurant in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, there was no chance I was going to pass it up.

              Originally only coming here to see the Bridge over the River Kwai, I was introduced to the owner of the Jolly Frog. A guesthouse catering to budget travellers, but the restaurant in front brought in many locals from all over town. I asked if I could poke my head in the kitchen for a couple days, but it turned out we both had something to offer each other. We discussed what he wanted which was a very simple and recognizable Mexican menu. I told him I would return in two weeks after a visa run with a template and ingredient list.
              Upon my return, I handed over my menu in which he chose five dishes. Enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas, black bean and rice burritos and nachos done with the choice of pork, beef or chicken were the winning items. Time to source what we could in the small city and improvise here and there. Instead of nachos it became the normal toppings over French fries. Having about one to one and a half dollars for each dish I had to cost the menu. Something I hadn’t done much of since culinary school. Good refresher.
Sunset from the garden of the Jolly Frog
              This is where the fun began! Back into the kitchen after seven months away from knifes. It was an amazing feeling to spread my travelling knife roll across the counter and put them to work again. At first I was a little nervous to ‘invade’ a local kitchen, that in twenty four years never had a ‘farang’ (foreigner) working behind the line. The kitchen staff was made up of local women who spoke as much English as I spoke Thai, so I knew this would be an interesting experience to say the least. They accepted me openly into their kitchen with the expected smiles, talking and giggles amongst themselves, eager to learn something new and teach me what they knew. I could do the same since they wouldn’t understand me either but I would have looked crazy since I would have been talking and laughing to myself. 
Pad Kra Pao
              They picked up everything quickly for the prep/cooking just by watching and always taking notes, since I couldn’t explain what I was doing. It’s unbelievable how much communication can be done with your hands, through demonstration and a genuine interest in learning. To them they found it very humorous to have a farang in their kitchen, trying to help where possible, watching over shoulders as they prepared their dishes so effortlessly, or attempting to speak the Thai that I was slowly learning. 
              As time passed they began to let me control the wok with certain dishes such as Khao Pad (fried rice), Pad Kra pao (meat stir fried with chili and basil), Pad Prio Wan (sweet and sour), Pad Thai, Pad Siew and more while simply watching with many others taking notes. As well as watching the menu items be made, I got the chance to watch and eat the dishes they made for themselves for the daily staff meal. Every day they made sure I sat down with them to eat, I think for their amusement more than anything. They would watch me try things and break out in a sweat from the intense amount of chili, or different dishes not usually enjoyed by the western palate to see how I would react, such as ‘nam prik kapi’ a spicy shrimp paste dipping sauce. I always enjoyed what they prepared and appreciated the opportunity to eat them. It definitely gave my heat tolerance a workout.
Nam Prik Kapi
              Walking into a foreign kitchen of any kind respect has to be shown in the way that things are done. Watch and observe, maybe it is a better way then you previously knew, or perhaps you can improve upon their methods. This especially goes for a foreign kitchen of another culture. Many things if not just about everything was different from what I knew. Health and safety standards are at the opposite end of the spectrum from North America, not that I agree with the ridiculousness of our standards but that’s not for me to decide. Nevertheless, everything I had been taught throughout my time in culinary school and as a cook were temporarily thrown out the window. Coming from more than one kitchen I’ve poked my head into, cross contamination doesn’t exist in the same manner. The length of time product can sit out at room temperature is extended. We had cats running through the kitchen scavenging scraps, which I didn’t mind (I know some would), but on the upside I never saw a single rat near the premises.
Most of the kitchen staff
              In the end I was extremely sad to be leaving this tremendous group of ladies, but felt so blessed that they welcomed me into their kitchen and taught me some of their cuisine and were happy to learn some of mine. I learned a lot in such a short time and look forward to returning to maybe spend a day or two behind the wok again. This was such a unique experience that I’m sure most chefs don’t get and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Back to the Land of Smiles

            Landing back in Suvarnabhumi, an airport I’ve been inside a handful of times. I rushed outside, this time looking to embrace that heat wave that smacks you in the face once you step out. After being on the road for about six months, it’s nice to have a sense of familiarity. Where to go, how to get there, what to do, the basic formalities. It’s a small sense of comfort even though it has been two and a half years since I’ve been in Bangkok and I know new and unexpected things still lurk around every corner.

Khao San Road
              For a few reasons I was heading to the notorious backpacker area of Khao San Road, the gateway to Southeast Asia for probably ninety five percent of backpackers. To start with, I never actually spent a night here on my last trip, so I thought it was time to see what all the hype was about. Last time I only saw the aftermath as I was dropped off around five in the morning. People staggering back to their hostels when they realized the sun was up and a few working girls trying for a last minute grab. Secondly the accommodation can be very cheap depending on your standards (mine are quite low), and lastly I didn’t want to be here long. Most of the tourist buses leave from the area and I was heading south as soon as I could.

The scorpion pusher
           After getting off the flight, out of the cab and finding a place for about six dollars, I thought it was time to hit the street, join the crowd. At this point I had little idea of how this night would play out. I planned on a few beers and probably a bucket for old time sake, but due to the world cup football match that was on, that was just the beginning. Next thing I know there’s scorpion in my belly, the sun is in my eyes and somehow I’m helping someone get to the hospital in my state. After this I realized maybe I should quit while I can still walk and hit the bed instead of the pavement.
Silk worm pupae
             When I managed to crawl from my bed, I went straight to buy a bus ticket south. I didn’t need a repeat night. Khao San Road is a wild place where you never know what shenanigans will ensue, but for me it’s a place of one or two days before I need to leave. I was going to meet one of my best friends on Koh Pha Ngan, for the world renowned Full Moon Party in a couple days (another thing I missed on my last trip), and thought a rest might be a smart choice. I must be getting wiser. 
Being back in Thailand has been something I’ve dreamed about since I left Southeast Asia. From the moment I got home, I was inspired to see more of Asia and immediately started saving for this trip. It’s so nice to return with a smile on my face!