Oh Hey There!

So. This is embarrassing. I was all rah-rah, I’m a good blogger and planned ahead. And then February happened. And I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since my last post. I don’t even know the last time I wrote anything for the ‘public.’ Or even done much in the way of communication with very many people. February was a pretty insular month in this corner of the world.

I could regale you with epic tales that took me to far away places that kept me occupied and not blogging for most of the month, but really outside of accomplishing the extraction mission, going to the ear doctor a bajillion times, adventuring with Manfriend putting a few dozen Krispy Kremes under our belts, and my body revolting against me in what feels like nearly every medical issue possible… actually this turning out to be a pretty epic sentence description. For a time I thought would pass achingly slow in the usual, I spent a surprising amount outside of my ‘normal’ life in the village.

Actually, I’m genuinely surprised how the time is moving. I can not believe that I’m leaving the village this soon. For a date I’ve been looking forward to for 26 and a half months, it really managed to sneak up on me. The packing process is nearly complete and my brain keeps telling me that in ten days I’ll be back on US soil, but my heart/emotions haven’t quite caught up yet. I keep thinking, ‘I’m so ready, I’m so ready, I’m so ready,’ but in packing a weekend bag for one of my follow-ups with the doctor, a wave of dread came over me as I realized how foreign and difficult life in America feels right now.

Yes, I’m tired of Thai food, most Thai people, life in Peace Corps, and literally sweating my way through clothes, but it’s also the ‘known.’ It’s comfortable in that all of my needs are taken care of, but exciting and different enough from the 9-5 type of job I dread with every fiber in my being. And pretty soon, I’m just going to be floating along figuring out my next step. But luckily eating a lot of Western food to help with the stress.

So, back to our regularly scheduled programming. I don’t plan on ending my blog any time soon, because I still have a lot to say about Thailand, the transition back ‘home’ again, and stretching my one (minor) creative ability in writing, mostly about traveling and the lessons that you learn (and are sometimes forced down your throat) along the way. There will surely be a few more gaps here and there as I stumble my way through goodbyes, hellos, and some form of internal clock stability. Thanks for coming along on the ride with me so far. Let’s see where we end up next.

So glad I had my best beau to explore Bangkok with

So glad I had my best beau with me to explore Bangkok

My Thai Kitchen: Grilled Cheese

A simple American classic that I didn’t realize I could easily recreate in Thailand with a little forethought when in the bigger towns surrounding my little one.

Butter and bread I can get in my favorite little snack shop owned by another teacher from my school, both cost about a dollar. At site there isn’t much variety except for plain white bread from a brand called Farmhouse, but I’ll take what I can get. Cheese is obviously difficult to find at site, but luckily the two towns closest to me have slices of processed, shitty American cheese, but again, I’ve stopped being picky in Thailand. I try to buy a package or two every time we go into either of these towns so I have some backup and don’t feel bad about putting two slices in each sandwich.

Something note about the butter in Thailand (or at least the affordable for PCVs kind) is that it tastes a little, bizarre. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is edible. It just changes the taste a bit, so there is an adjustment there when making something like grilled cheese when the butter is a big component. Another funny thing about Thai butter is there is a kind with sugar in it! And I don’t mean lightly dashed throughout, but large sugar granules and it has very different in taste to it, compared to the plain kind as well.

Pink means sweetened in this case.

Evidenced by the blackened teeth on many children, Thais love things to be extra sweetened (most people won’t drink unsweetened milk and Thais usually give me a look when I ask for plain) and will put huge, heaping spoonfuls of sugar in nearly everything (I do mean everything, especially those dishes you think are so healthy get maybe three or four scoops of sugar). It’s actually a pretty serious problem as diabetes levels are soaring as diets move more towards sugary snacks and processed food.

But back to grilled cheese goodness. I don’t remember where the inspiration came from, but once I had my wok, I was ready to get grilling. It takes a difficult balance to get a ‘low’ heat setting on my on-off cooking device. And unfortunately, there are quite a few burned sandwiches and fingers. Because of this, the sandwiches don’t get too hard or stiff like Mom always did so perfectly. I’ve also started adding tomatoes occasionally for an added dimension and they can be so easily acquired at my market.

Melty, cheesy goodness is so rare to find in Thailand.

One day I hope to get brave enough to start adding meat to my cooking repertoire (still not brave enough for that) and step up to a croque monsieur instead of grilled cheese. For Thailand though, this is an amazing, doable treat from home.

My Thai Kitchen: The Jeff Jackson Special

I’ve mentioned my friend Jeff’s philosophy of women in the kitchen (feet up, with a glass of wine), but since I don’t have him on a daily basis to cater to my every need, I had to imagine rolling up my sleeves to get to work. Because, you know, it’s too hot to actually wear sleeves once you’re at home.

After my second visit to Jeff’s house, I decided to take better charge of my cooking life and this is the main dish that got me there. It’s the most Thailand acceptable dish (everything is bought from my market or local shops) of the MTK series and I still haven’t mastered it quite like Jeff has. The JJ special is vegetable centric meal and has been the spearhead meal to lose that layer of non-intensive exercise fat that has stuck around for the better part of a year.

It is also the only MTK with an actual recipe, provided by the master himself, in case you want to try it out:

  • Start heating your wok with about a tablespoon of oil for about two minutes.
  • Then throw in some garlic (chopped up to your liking) until it browns

I’ve learned negotiating the amounts of these three liquids can completely change the outcome of your meal. 

  • Toss in a few peppers (ha!)(Jeff thinks it’s funny that I still can’t eat moderately spicy food.)
  • Put in your vegetables.  I use eggplant, onions, baby corns … whatever. (I don’t use baby corns, but usually use the same veggies from the omelet MTK, sans cheese obviously).

I was not a big eggplant fan before Thailand. These are the eggplants (not yet cleaned) I pick up in my local market, but I’ve seen them bigger and different colors. It all depends on your region in Thailand and how large the farm is.

  • Move them around so they soak up the oil and then pour some oyster sauce on them.
  • Then pour in about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of hot water.  It makes a fun sound.
  • Add some soy sauce and let it boil and cook.
  • When the water evaporates, add more until you’re satisfied with how well it’s cooked.
  • You can add more hot water right before you’re finished to season your rice or you can serve it more dry. (I don’t have a rice cooker, so I usually just eat the veggies alone. Sometimes I get a little lump of sticky rice from my neighbor, but when I make it, it tastes fine without it.)

Voila! This particular one was a little carrot heavy since I had to finish one off, but it feels so good to be full from a plate of veggies.

Jeff suggests turning on your favorite baseball game and sometimes I watch a queued up movie (I have a strict no working while eating rule), but I’m finding myself going out to my porch more and more to take in the view, thinking about Thailand, Peace Corps, or finishing up a podcast, savoring the food I just made completely by myself.

As much as I hate to admit it, I will miss this view very much.

Friday Five

Five Favorite Foods in Thailand– These are my favorite gap-cao, literally translated as ‘with rice.’ Usually a dish is ordered or made for the table, placed in the middle, and people take spoonful at a time put over your rice.

Mango Sticky Rice
I can not believe twenty-two years passed until I tasted the tangy deliciousness of a ripe mango. My host mom in Ayutthaya first had me try the pair together, the drumbeat of taste from the mango (picked from our tree in the yard) softened by the sweetness of coconut milk mixed into the sticky rice. This has quickly become one of my all time favorite desserts. I have one more cold season with ripe mangos, I plan to eat as much as possible.

Sautéed Vegetables
A Thai staple, especially for breakfast, pad-pak is probably what I eat the most when I stay with Thai people. There is a lot of sautéing in Thai cooking. It’s up to the cook, but any kinds of veggies can be used, but the ones I see most often are carrots, baby corns, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms, and kale. Sometimes pork is added as well for some added weight to the dish. A nice, colorful meal.

Cashew Chicken
Cashews are expensive in Thailand, so it’s often hard to come by this delectable dish in the village. I have no idea how they make it, but I order it whenever possible in the city when I decide to eat ‘local’ instead of engorging myself with comfort (ie Western) food. I think pad-med-ma-muang might be my favorite meal in Thailand because I can so rarely get my hands on it.

Veggies, chicken, and cashews, oh my!
Photo (and they have a recipe, so I might be stealing that) From: http://www.aminglingoftastes.com/2007/07/thai-cashew-chicken.html

Sautéed Pumpkin
Another food transformed by my experience in Thailand is pumpkin/squash. Again, my host mother introduced me to pad-fuk-tong as I giggled and learned that ‘pumpkin’ sounds like an English curse word. All hilarity aside, I was a little dubious of squash-like vegetables, but was (obviously) pleasantly surprised with it. I like it most when pork and egg are made with it.

Photo From: http://www.kruaklaibaan.com/old_forum/forum/index.php?s=783c2d2a0bd3e8d1d6a64a24de08c448&showtopic=8575

Chicken Curry
The first time I saw this dish, I was not completely convinced that it wasn’t spicy/had any admirable taste qualities at all. I was wrong. In Thailand red dishes tend to be scary spicy, but this is actually a little sweet. This one dish turned me on to curries. Sometimes pumpkin is thrown in and adds to the fun.

Those leaves are not fun to chew on as I found out from eating one by mistake once
Photo from: http://graciocafe.blogspot.com/2006/07/thaikorean.html

My Thai Kitchen: Pasta

Although this is the easiest of the meals to actually make, getting my hands on the key ingredients is decidedly difficult. Though a beginner at the culinary arts, I did know how to boil pasta and pour sauce over it. When I became more interested in food preparation, my pasta started to step its game up.

Early on in the pasta days Jeff and I came back from Roi Et with pasta, wine, cheese and a baguette… pure paradise

I started adding a dash of salt to my boiling water. And then I read about adding garlic and then I heard about this thing called sautéed onions. It was kind of revolutionary to me. Even more advantageous was the discovery of a new kind of sauce in my own Tesco Lotus (Thailand’s Walmart) that made my pasta dinners taste even flavorful than before.

Newest discovery is this canned pasta, one normal red sauce and the goopy cheese counterpart, mixed together makes it… perfecto. I had to improvise in containers that would keep better than in open cans, so you’re seeing cleaned out peanut butter and icing tubs. Go, go recycling powers!

Thais know of some Italian foods and in most Thai cities you can find at least one independent/family owned place to find a small selection of farang foods. Given that most PCVs are not in areas with this kind of food available, we usually have to stock up when we are in our provincial cities at either Big C or Tesco Lotus for non-Thai ingredients. Naturally, the more foreigners in the city, the more selection there typically is for both farangs and Thais who are more aware of food other than Thai dishes. In Roi Et there is a Tesco Lotus that I buy my pasta (about 150 baht or fiveish US dollars) and this new kind of canned sauce (about 80 baht or a little over two dollars) making this a more expensive and inconvenient meal to buy (so after stocking up, I want to cry because of the cost), but so, so delicious and the best ‘comfort’ food I can make in my Thai kitchen.

Garlic and onions are obviously from my local market. For some reason I’m totally addicted to these twisty noodles.

This is also a good meal to make and share with Thai friends to explain how bread is not the substitute for rice like they think and it is possible to have a meal that does not include rice! Most of my lady friends that have tried it are not fans, but the students that have are, so I think an open mind helps. Sauce can be hard to find sometimes in Thailand, but I think a decent pasta dish is possible in any Thai kitchen with a homesick Volunteer at its helm.

I already dug in before I remembered to get a shot of the finished (delicious) final product! 

My Thai Kitchen: An Omelet of Hot Mess

A fairly simple and worldwide dish for our first MTK and one I knew before coming to Thailand, eggs. Prepared different ways, my favorite before I came to Thailand was scrambled with milk and cheese. Naturally I’ve had to adjust to the Thai way, an ordinary but nice addition to the palate called kai-jiao. I’ve tried my old standard once I had some freedom in the kitchen, but it didn’t work, so I needed to find some new things to add to what I started to call a ‘omelet of hot mess.’

All but one ingredient (cheese) I can find at my local market in the village, which makes this an often made meal, breakfast or not. Finding things in the market also means it’s quite cheap, especially by western standards. I can easily get a week’s worth of vegetables for under three U.S. dollars (definitely going to miss that) and all of the produce is local (whether that’s good thing or a bad thing I haven’t decided yet since pesticide usage is extremely high).

It was learning/practicing how to chop these different kinds of veggies that gave me a little trouble. I (and many others) don’t really trust myself with a knife in my hand, so things are taken pretty slowly. For that though, I allow myself a non-rushed morning (or any time of day really) and pop in a podcast or two to talk to me. It’s helped me to enjoy cooking more instead of finding it a waste of time.

Didn’t get the garlic, but seeing this plate of colorful goodies makes a newbie cook step back in pride. This particular cheese didn’t bode well for the omelet hot mess, but quite ‘Tasty’ on its own.

Given that I’m not exactly skilled in the sense of traditional omelet making (that’s just the English word Thais use to describe kai-jiao but I don’t think it’s actually very omelet-like at all), I tend to just throw it all together in my mini-work with a little oil and stirring often. My mornings tend to look like this.

A heaping mound of vegetables, egg, and milk in boxes. Yummy.

This can easily keep me full most of the day when I make it for brunch and only have a light dinner the following evening. What’s your favorite homemade brunch food?

Bird’s Eye.

The Road

One year from today, you’ll be happy you started today. That’s what I’m telling myself this evening. You see I made this little discovery last week. Discovery is too intentional a word, more like stumbled clumsily upon. After lamenting for nearly my entire PC service about a lack of roads deemed suitable for running and resorting to biking aimlessly for school break exercise, I took a side road. A side road that cut through rice fields I took on a whim. Then I realized it looped back around to behind my house, just a hard to see turn from what looks like a dead-end.

I’m a shy person and an even shyer exerciser. Thais are not the type to hold back their exclamations about your activities either, whether walking down the street or doing something so peculiar as exercising. It gets to the point that walking out of the house can feel like a burden, much less exposing yourself in the vulnerable state of out of shape exercising.

I had pretty steep qualifications for a road. It should have very few houses so there aren’t many spectators, but some people on it for safety reasons. Shade would also be nice because lets face it, this is Thailand, it’s really fucking hot and the sun is very strong. Dogs should also be minimal because it is much harder to put the Mario super star power when running for the first time in well over a year rather than on the bike. To be honest, I had given up on finding this elusive road and had decided to wait to lace up my shoes back in America.

The scouting mission I went on with my bike. First sign I came across and it seemed a little out-of-place on this tiny rice paddy road.

 

But all this time, it was right there! ‘So much time wasted!’ I thought at first, until I realized I wasn’t in the mental state to keep up any physical regiment as my sporadic attempts at yoga demonstrated. This feels different though, like the cosmos all aligned, and I don’t want to run, I feel a need to.

I had heard about a nine-week program called Couch to 5K that starts you off very slowly with interval training. Once I had found my road, I did some more in-depth research. It looked a little easy to me as someone who had been doing competitive athletics for more years than I haven’t, but my body has also steadily declined to mush in Thailand. I had my road, I had a doable program, I was ready to go.

I tried to put my enthusiasm on ice. Traveling, in my opinion, can be seriously debilitating to running. With my month-long trip with my Mom planned, it would be better to start once I got back home in December and could establish a routine. But I worried by then I would have lost my need and put it on the back burner again until I went back to the U.S. in March. Combine that concern with a kick in the butt from Manfriend and today I took those first (painful) steps.

Within the first five minutes of a light warm-up, muscles in my legs that typically aren’t used during bike rides were politely voicing their concerns. After the first run interval, they became more along the lines of angry pro-life protesters outside of an abortion clinic. This continued until I hobbled through the last bit as my jelly legs eventually cut off communication with the rest of my body. It hurt, I’m still feeling the effects hours later and it was fantastic.

I hope to keep this up while on the (metaphorical) road with my Mom and keep the excuses down to a minimum (I am a little nervous to run in urban areas) because this is something that I want, to be in running shape again. There is no perfect time to start something that is not easy, only right now or putting it off until later. Out of those two, now is the only viable choice.


Love this fake commercial from the movie, What Women Want.

I’ll keep you updated with my relationship with my road and experience with the C25K program. If you’re interested in the idea, I got a lot of information from this website and a good overview from this one.