Wednesday, July 29, 2009
The trees have to be inoculated. Otherwise you don’t get the resin, no essential oil, nothing at all except soft white wood. It can occur naturally, but not always, and you can’t guess when. The trees will make agarwood when injured in any way, but the infection will be very localized. To make a real resin production you’ve got to not only injure the tree, but also infect it properly. How to do this would be problem number 1.
I can’t even begin to imagine how many different ways there are to infect these trees, but I know of a few and it gives a little indication of the variety possible. Most farmers seem to use their own creations, mixing ingredient “a” with ingredient “b” and a dash of something else….Some smart people have come up with “patented” processes and then sell (or attempt to sell) them to other farmers, of course. Some governments, such as Malaysia’s, to encourage this agarwood farming, will provide the entire kits, but the quality of any of this is pretty unknown. I think most people think or at least say, that they have the answer, the best and quickest fungi, the one that will produce good resinous wood and plenty of it, but the results of this are just starting to come in. Some people, the ones who jumped in blind, without any feeling or previous knowledge of agarwood, are often just trying to get out of the business, at this point, with as much of their considerable investments recouped as possible.
Often the farmed and manipulated trees will comply and produce the infected wood, and it will technically smell nice. But there is something odd about it. Very thin pieces, like skin. Very little smoke. This wood would probably be ok making incense sticks for Europe and North America but not at these prices. For the Middle Eastern market these rolled thin smokeless strips of wood are just weird. They do smell good, I don’t mean to say they do not, but contrary to the US, where “smokeless” incense is something that people actually want, here it’s the more smoke the better. And it has to feel substantial too.
This seems to be where we are now, in terms of quality, in Laos. I think the story might be different in India, but that will have to wait until 2010 for me.
There is still some harvesting going on in the forest, though, and wood is coming in, but there is no oil. The reason this is simple economics. The prices of low quality oil, i.e. farmed oil, which is usually hard oil, has dropped, thanks to the glut of farms. (problem number 2.) This oil can be any quality scent-wise but will usually become hard at a cool temperature. But it mixes well with other oils, both agarwood and other things, and can be made into “Oudh Cambodi” no problem. And there’s a whole lot of it. And even more theoretically existing, by which I mean just waiting to be harvested and distilled.
Meanwhile you’ve got people still looking for wild. You’ve got to pay these guys, remember, for their weeks in the forest. Whatever they bring out is going to have to be carried on their own backs. No donkeys or camels here in Laos. If you are not paying them, if they are freelancing, then it’s the same story. You’re going to roast and sweat and hunt and gather, and chop every step with your machete, and risk uxo, and malaria, and all this, for the price a load of white wood is going to get you? I think not.
So they are bringing out the best wood they can, and only this. Much of it goes straight out to people who have ordered in advance. And there are some very nice pieces indeed! There is also some low but still decent quality wood coming from Vietnam. But this is the quality which is used to make incense in the middle east, not to use as incense by itself.
So in general, the farmed oil is what you find, most of it adulterated of course, generally to make “Oudh Cambodi” and what exactly makes up the little tiny bit that makes it to the US is anyone’s guess. But the wild wood is still the one that matters. I know people will scream at me for saying that. But I think it’s true. The farmed wood is marketed to Americans I know, as this great sustainable, ecological, renewable green option. I think it’s debatable.
Generally, if wood costs more than 2000 Baht/kilo (in Laos,) it’s not going to be distilled. That’s about $60.
I’ve written before about the forests in Laos disappearing. Years ago I wrote about Chinese and Japanese timber contracts that still had years to go, and how the forests were being cut in spite of, not because of, agarwood. This is still true except the Chinese are more entrenched than ever. Those old 10 year timber contracts are quaint in comparison. Now it’s 75 year contracts ‘for farming.” 75 years with an option to renew for 25 more. The Chinese basically own Laos, like they do Sudan. The north of Lao is now ribboned with their roads, all leading back to China of course. They can take farming contracts, and first they have to clear the land for it, so that’s one thing, the timber. Then there are minerals too. Lao has plenty. Finally there is the farming. Rubber is the trendy crop of choice now. Most of the teak plantations are gone. And to add insult to injury, the Chinese even import their own workers! The benefits for Lao are well hidden. In exchange for being allowed to dam a river and own the contract to the power rights for the usual absurd amount of time, Lao got……a stadium. They are hosting the Asian Games next year. Like in Sudan, and probably many other countries, securing your place in government provides many fine financial opportunities. And the Chinese are seemingly always ready and eager to help one realize one’s full potential in this way. They are always in the market for natural resources. Timber, minerals, farmland; they need it all, and will bring their own people in to work it. Much more efficient that way I guess. If the foreman speaks Mandarin, I guess it’s easier for the workers to as well.
In a country where, according to Al Jazeera, half the children suffer from malnutrition, you’d think the government would be able to manage this better. Link included at end for this short video clip.
I did get to spend a couple of days with my distiller’s partners, and this was very nice. I came over and saw some of the newest pieces just out of the forest, and tried a sample of oils, both from infected wood, and mixed with a little of the last wild. There is still some good quality oil, but it’s from the infected trees, and production has not quite begun commercially. Took a lot of samples of different things, and now I’m back in Oman, waiting to see what people think.
Friday, July 24, 2009
I went to have a look and a visit with our Vietnamese distiller, who is perhaps Vietnamese in his heart, but French in his distillations. We have been waiting for some months for this entire order to be assembled and ready, and here we are!
Lolo does herbs, and water/steam distillations, and now some alcohol extractions; no absolutes. He and his partner and his partner’s family now have a farm a few hours south of Hanoi, along the Ho Chi Min trail; the trail the North used to supply the South during the American war in the 1960s and 70s.
Although this farm is not certified organic, all farming is not only organically done but done by hand, except perhaps the initial plowing to turn the earth to ready it for sowing. Otherwise all is done with human and buffalo.
I had a chance to see fantastic soft and sweet Artemisia, and a whole forest of spicy shiso (Perilla.) Growing nearby is palmarosa, patchouli, verbena basil (Ocimum basilicum v Verbenum,) which is really fresh and verbena like, nothing like lemon basil. I’ve even got a little oil coming from just the flowering tops. It’s difficult to find someone who cares enough to do this sort of harvest: just the flowering tops. I can count these distillers on one hand. Additionally, there are several kinds of herbs that grow mostly for culinary purposes, (one just to serve with dog meat!!!!) and these are all being distilled too. Growing around a pond we find ambrette, and a really delicious little white flower no one knows the name of, that’s found in the forest, and apparently very slow growing. After 10 years you can still put your fingers around the trunk so this is not really a sustainable thing to make. It’s too bad because Lolo has made some alcohol maceration with it and all I can say is Holy Hell. You could rule the world with an oil of that! But we will have to content ourselves with the alcohol…..It’s a fruity flowery little happy sweet one but useless to try and describe at this point.
We drove quite a long time for this, but fortunately I wasn’t driving so I could ignore the terrifying Vietnamese driving habits. I never once saw a person look before they pulled out on to the road on their scooter, which was always precariously balanced with at least two people, and often many kilos of lumber, fodder, flowers, gas (!), or huge bales of something.
One thing about Vietnam, the Vietnamese are so completely industrious. Unlike Laos, for example, where you rarely see even small cultivated areas, in Vietnam it’s continual. It seems there is not one square metre of land that does not do its part to ensure the prosperous future of the Socialist republic of Vietnam. Rice, Bananas. Papayas, Coconuts. And more. The shimmering green rice paddies are the trademark of this country, with people in those excellently designed conical hats bent over toiling in ankle deep water. It’s actually a horrifying way to make your living. Just imagine bending over like that for an hour, never mind day after day, sunrise to sundown. And in the sun. And when the rice is harvested that’s not all. Then you’ve got the winnowing, And it goes on and on. Of all the things to automate, this is one the things that actually should be, I think. But our priorities lie elsewhere.
Land is usually worked with the help of a buffalo. I don’t think I saw a single tractor but I do imagine villages own them collectively. I did see plenty of buffalo wallowing though, That’s always something nice to see: the happy buffalo sink into the mud like heaven, nostrils flaring and eyes rolling. I think, although I may be wrong, that buffalos are one of the only creatures who actually respect women more than men. I have seen buffalos go after men (especially western men) who dared to speak to them. Even Lolo was insulted as we walked past the lovely creature in the mud. But 6 year old girls can boss them around without question. Even I elicited no response from her as I followed Lolo about.
We had a wonderful lunch on the farm, with plenty of vegetarian food for us, and Lolo got his boiled pigs feet, which he apparently looks forward to for months at a time. The huge black spider perched above us eats the mosquitoes, but there are plenty of other, more venomous creatures about, like the nearly foot long centipedes, or maybe they’re millipedes, but they are the reason you should wear big heavy gloves as you stick your hand in places you can’t see. They are even used as their own anti-venom. Somehow they are caught and stuffed into bottles of alcohol, which is then left to macerate, and should you be stung by one of these very scary indeed creatures, then you can apply millipede alcohol as soon as possible to the bite. Perhaps then you will not die. Fortunately we talked more about flowers and herbs.
Too bad for us there was no distillation to photograph on the day we were there. It had rained the night before; good for the basil, but not for distillation. But no matter, I have seen plenty of Lolos distillations before. I know he takes a lot of care of and treats every plant as it’s own unique being, getting to know and understand their personalities. He was the first one I know to distill the fresh ginger, and fresh anise. Both of those oils are usually found dried and from China, which probably partly explains why they are not the oils uppermost on people’s mind when they come to Enfleurage. But smelling either of these when distilled fresh and from Vietnam…..well, it becomes another story. Then they become magnificent, desirable essential oils, unlocking creativity and inspiring people to try new blends.
The next day I went to see Lolo at his house, which is also his lab. In the past he has been well known for his liquors made from local fruits: Guava, Passion Fruit, Apricot, Raspberry, Green lemon and the like, but this time the emphasis was more on the essential oils, so I ordered fantastic new oils for the store: One of these is Turmeric, Curcuma. This staple of Indian cooking is sometimes found as an essential oil. It’s not too common, but Lolo had an idea about this particular Curcuma, from a particular guy, and a particular place and it was supposed to be so special we waited for months for it. Well, it is amazing, absolutely delicious and divine, deep earthy, robustly orange and very complex. I also ordered Black pepper, something we always have, and this time also white pepper.
I don’t even know what to say about white pepper, except that it is one of those spices who changes incredibly. My father used to cook with white pepper in the dish, black pepper on the dish, and so I do too. It always smells so different in the jar when I use it but adds a lively sharp excitement to the dish and here as an essential oil it’s the same. Smelled in the bottle, I didn’t even recognize him, but when I tried one of Lolos blends with white pepper featured he was thrilling and unmistakable. Hard to describe now as I’m on a plane.
I’ve got fresh new Litsea Cubeba, distilled from fruits, always an excellent and refreshing oil, and a tiny bit of a new distillation, this time done with the flowers. Shiso leaf is also waiting for his trip to America, as is an incredibly delightful, mouth watering, and utterly complete Cilantro. We have more fresh ginger coming, and the incredible and missing in action for so long lymnophillia, which some people call gingergrass, but this is apparently incorrect.
A lemony note is continuing here, as we’ve got Melissa coming back, and also a really nice and exceptionally sweet and refined Citronella, believe it or not.
There are a few more oils, none of which I can remember the names of at the moment which is no matter. I will get them later and write a newsletter when they come in. They are all wild from Indochina and there are 4 besides the white pepper. I think we might only have the Vietnamese names anyway…
Vietnam, as always, is a challenging place to be, but I got to eat my favorite dish, Cha Ca, which is probably not spelled right. It’s a Hanoi specialty, of small pieces of fried fish, cold noodles, peanuts, and fresh herbs, which seem to vary from place to place although for sure someone will write to me and say which herbs precisely are the ones used to make correct and traditional Cha ca, but they seem like basil, dill, cilantro, and the like, but not exactly these as we know them, but something very like them. I do love my Cha Ca. I even ate a dish of it in the taxi on the way to the airport!
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
So we drove 2 hours, which was only about 80 km from Vientaine on small but main roads, to reach this lovely spot overlooking the lake. Restaurants on stilts perched all around the cove. Longtail boats, orchids, shimmering water, islands in the distance.
We found ourselves in one of the many wooden deck restaurants specializing in fish, and sitting out in the water itself.
First came a plate of condiments, crudities, but as with all lao food I think, it’s just what you weren’t expecting. Leaves, from a forest tree. We saw one of these trees later, at a temple, and they have a little bitterness and then a soft full flavor. Raw baby eggplant. A mint/shiso type of lettuce, cucumber I recognized.
The first dish that came was laap paa. That’s the Lao national dish, and usually made with raw beef but this was the fish version and it would be hard to find something tastier. It was sort of like a ceviche but only sort of like it, it was far more complex and this is not a conclusive list but it was mint, basil, tiny wild spring onions, ginger, garlic I think, galangal I think, lemon, it’s actually useless for me to even guess. But it was one of the best and oddest things I’ve even had. Just the mix of flavors was so unexpected and never tasted before, it was really exciting.
The next dish that came out looked like eels, but it was a deep fried fish from the lake we sat on. They were a little intense looking as they snake-like heads, still visible, but I figured this was no time to get squeamish and whiney so I took one, and some of the garnish, which was deep fried garlic and deep fried ginger pieces. These, and the fish, were unreasonably good. I couldn’t help myself picking at the ginger pieces, and we ordered another dish and I probably ate most of that too. The fish was crackling crisp and sweet white flesh, This dish was as good as the laap pa, but I don’t have the name of it. I kept meaning to ask and now I am on a plane.
We also had a fish soup, I think it’s made with fish heads, and very sour, and it was really good but I couldn’t keep my hands out of the other two. And there was sticky rice, which I love, and a sweet and spicy sauce for dipping. I especially like that sticky rice is eaten with the hands. I miss eating with my hands, like we do in Oman. Have to say I’m not crazy about cutlery. Food tastes better when there’s no metal instrument between you. If I do have to use an artifical implement I prefer chopsticks, but I really have come to dislike forks, even more when they are used with knives. Something very prim and prissy about them, although maybe not so much in Buenos Aires or Paris. I guess it depends on the environment.
That was the bulk of our lunch. And, oddly, Lao has great coffee, really tasty locally grown, roasted and brewed but for some reason it’s really hard to get. We tried to find it for the rest of the day with no luck.
Driving to and fro from this little Lao lake, along the small, often still unpaved roads of Laos, slowly, in the rain was sweet and restful (at least for mea as I was not driving.) We stopped at a temple later, with lots of water to play in, and here is a statue, a shrine really, of Laos’ Earth Goddess, Lantudineh. I have never seen her, but always wanted to. She is your protector if you are working in the forest, whether mining, or agarwood, or what.
There was one more little food thing I want to mention if anyone reading this is in Vientaine and wants a delicious lao snack in the evening. There is a banana pancake man (although you can have your pancake with egg instead, or just plain,) and he cooks right on his little cart just down from the Indian restaurant (which I would NOT recommend, next to the now gone and boarded up Just For Fun.) The pancake man is delightful and fun, and his pancakes are thin and flaky and crisp. He pours a little condensed milk and sugar on top, chops it up into bite-sized pieces and sticks them in a little bag, with a skewer. It was really great, delicious comfort food. And it’s a great deal at 2000 kips.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
It seems difficult to believe with all the hellishness one can find in the world today: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Congo, Bosnia, Lebanon, etc, that this little landlocked country, a country that had no infrastructure, no industry, no real (known) major and exploitable natural resources, or quarrel with anyone, that this little jungle Kingdom, could have metastasized into the Most Heavily Bombed Country on Earth. Quite a feat. According to The Mines Advisory Group (MAG), up to 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped here between 1964 and 1973, with 30% of it unexploded. Half the country is still covered with this stuff.
Much of this bombing was simply the American bombers jettisoning their loads on the way back to their bases (in Thailand) during what we call the “Vietnam war.” (In Vietnam they call it the “American war.”) We didn’t even mean it. Our planes couldn’t land I guess, heavily armed, so this garbage was just dumped onto Laos—we perceived them as a threat anyway, since the Communist Pathet Lao threatened to make this little country the next “domino” to fall to the Soviet sphere.
When I was first here, in 1994, mine clearance was just beginning. There were a lot of mines, and other uxo—much of the country was off-limits. Most of the mine-fields were not even marked. In some places, like Phonsavan, so much uxo remained that people used empty shell casings for vegetable planters, key rings, lanterns, legs for grain silos, etc. As the plane descended at Phonsavan airport, (it was not possible to drive there,) you immediately saw the land pockmarked with round craters. In addition to the lethal mines, bombs, bombies (from cluster bombs,) and other uxo, these craters were ideal mosquito breeding grounds, contributing considerably to the malaria mosquito population. Bombs: the gift that keeps on giving.
Really, how is this possible? Yet, there it is, we did it, other countries do it, and, incredibly, it still goes on! I am not sure if this has changed under the Obama administration, but our previous governments did not sign any of the agreements designed to stop land mine use, especially against civilian populations, which would basically stop their use anywhere, because that’s who they are used against.
Therefore it must be okay with us. So try that on and sit with it for a while.
Mines are cheap to make and easy to distribute. Removing them is always someone else’s problem; needn’t figure into the accounting. They can lie quietly for years, maybe 20, 30, 40 years or more, and then perhaps a rain uncovers them, or they float through a rice paddy. Or maybe it just takes that long before someone comes walking along in exactly that place. And then all they hear is a “click.” When the weight is released, ie, the person takes a step, the mine detonates. You are 100% guaranteed to lose your leg at least. That’s with great medical care immediately available, which is never the case here anyway. So your leg is blown off in the best case scenario. Then what? Well, if some luck is in, you’ve got people with you—you are not alone in the field, or forest, in which case you’re probably just going to die, probably from either loss of blood (quicker) or gangrene (very slow.) If someone’s there with you, they can get you to a hospital. How? Maybe they can carry you. Or maybe they can lay you across the back of a buffalo? Or strap you to a motorbike? But you have to get to the road first, and chances are you’re not near one. But I’m willing to bet that 10 feet seems like a really long way if your leg is blown off. And maybe you have to go 100 metres. Or longer, maybe several kilometers. Then, laying in the back of a truck, to the hospital. And the road might be very bumpy. I think there might be a lot of pain involved here. No one is going to have pain-killers for you, after all. You’ll be lucky to get them when and if you finally reach the hospital, maybe 8 or 10 hours after stepping on the thing. And remember this hospital won’t be a modern facility—you will probably have to provide your own medicine. But they will likely be well versed in amputations.
Then what? Your leg (or legs) is (are) gone. It’s not uncommon to also lose an eye either, or an arm, if you were reaching for something, maybe pulling up a stalk of rice for example. Chances are you were doing something that contributed to your family’s welfare when you stepped on the mine. Now you’re useless. You’ve got a long rehab in front of you, and you’re not going to be worth much in the field, or the forest. But you’re still going to need to eat. So now you’re a burden, another mouth to feed, and medical bills, and maybe something toward your prosthetic. Maybe you were the only breadwinner. You might have to pull one of your children out of school so he or she can go to work. All because you stepped on a landmine.
This is a hideous enough scenario. But it can go on. Maybe your wife steps on one. Or your daughter, or your son. Small children can be blown up just as easily as adults. Your adult child could step on one, leaving his or her family destitute, and then what? You’re going to have to pick up the slack with one earner less. So more time in the fields, or digging for scrap metal.
Even if it’s not a human member of your family that steps on a mine, it’s still a disaster. What happens if the family buffalo steps on one? Chances are most of your wealth is tied up in that buffalo. Perhaps you still owe money to the person you bought him from. How do you supplement your children’s diet without buffalo milk? And without that income (from selling buffalo milk) how do you pay for other staples? Perhaps you can sell scrap metal. This is another great way to encounter uxo and probably just as, if not more common, than stepping on one in a rice paddy. In fact, due to the poverty endemic in these mine infested areas, due at least in part to the restrictions of activities because of the presence of mines and uxo, this is probably the most likely way to blow yourself up, hitting a bomb with your hoe, or trying to disarm some ticking thing so you can sell it for a couple of dollars.
And don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be a human, or domestic animal. Elephants step on landmines. Can you imagine this? Deer too. And tigers. Any wild creature.
But we like mines, apparently. It’s okay with us if our military uses them “for defensive reasons.” Really we’re no better than the Chinese or the Russians. Some clown can always come up with “positive” reasons to strew land mines, but the real reason is that they’re cheap and ugly and distribute death, dismemberment and horror indiscriminately. What could be more terrifying? They are idiot-proof. They cost pennies to make and any fool can sow them about. Then they just wait, and we don’t ever see the outcomes, unless we go looking for it. Financially speaking, it delivers the maximum misery per dollar.
And it’s not just mines. Another delightful war invention is cluster bombs. These efficient little death arcades release hundreds of tiny bombs, often called “bombies,” each of which has its own lethal potentiality. Not all bombies explode, of course, and using the percentage I quoted previously, 30%, we can imagine the following: 100 cluster bombs are dropped on a village. Each cluster bomb contains 300 bombies. That’s 30,000 bombies (small bombs.) 30% of those is about 10,000 bombs. So 20,000 might explode immediately and 10,o00 sit waiting patiently for an unsuspecting foot, or a curious child’s hand, and they just sit and wait and wait and wait.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has projects going in many countries around the world, including Laos and Cambodia, and previously, Vietnam. They even operate all female teams for village awareness and mine discovery and disposal. Since men and women usually have different priorities, even when it comes to removing landmines, this seems like a sensible approach.
You can click on to their link and find information about mine and other uxo removal, here:
Mines Advisory Group
Or watch a 9 minute video all about mines, by MAG, Conflict Recovery
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
I don’t know how many people can fondly recall the days of the Soviet Union. I don’t mean that those were great old days, or anything like that. I don’t mean to be so serious about it, just a certain fondness for travel in those poor countries huddled unwillingly under the umbrella of the fraternal brotherhood.
I particularly enjoyed my first foray into this part of the world in 1994. Both Vietnam and Laos were still strongly socialist. Or rather, Vietnam was. I’m not sure what Laos’ government was other than invisible. There was not too much evidence of the great Socialist experiment, except a few peeling hammers and sickles on some dingy and decrepit buildings. But it was as poor as a socialist country, that’s for sure, and the main square of Vientaine, the Namphu fountain, although surrounded by a few hardy western style restaurants catering to NGOs, was an overgrown, rat infested malarial breeding ground. Technically you could get yourself a BeerLao, and sit there with a nice view of decaying party headquarters, but it was nerve wracking, with the weeds rustling and all.
Vietnam was even more extreme, in particular the state run department store in Hanoi, the one by the lake that is now a Chanel boutique. Years old cardboard window displays, gnawed at by rats, slept in by rats, shat on by rats, died next to by rats…….it was thrilling to walk by this, even if a bit uncomfortable as one didn’t want to be caught gaping by locals who were probably quite sensitive about it.
But Vientaine wasn’t too shabby as far as the influence of the socialist brotherhood. One walked the nighttime streets at ones own peril, as human size holes punctuated the unlit sidewalks, offering an immediate drop into the gray sewer below. Not that there was much to do anyway. If you didn’t eat noodles on your block, then you probably went to L’Opera or one of the other Namphu Fountain restaurants.
Now this has changed of course. Seems I’m often crowing and crying about great changes here and there but just let me say that if you think New York has changed, or Santa Barbara, then you are a babe in the changing woods. Oman has changed. Nepal has changed. Vietnam has changed and yes, Laos has changed. Here is the namphu fountain today.
I walked into a modern coffee shop today that was not only sleek but lovely and had great coffee, and a of course free wi-fi, and a whole bank of computers, and a menu so enormous I rebelled and wouldn’t look at it. We don’t have anything like this even in Muscat. It’s like something you’d find in a well-endowed New England college town. Multiple cuisines line the streets, Mexican, Swiss, Swedish, Italian, it’s like Bangkok. Extremely sophisticated and utterly charming teak wood shops sell the finest silk and Lao handicrafts with complete traceability. Last time I was here it was rare to find a window with glass in it. Now you see visa and mastercard signs on sliding glass doors. Someone is making a lot of money and I hope a few of them are Lao.
I feel very lucky to be as old as I am. It’s true that now things are facilitated and in some ways they are probably better—I saw all sorts of institutes for communication and even a flyer for daily interactions between travelers and monks, a “cultural interchange.” There are a lot of earnest farang (foreigners) here facilitating this communication, and teaching (or reviving) lao arts, and this is good, I guess, as everyone benefits. And if your goal is to see and actually understand these temples and all, then probably it’s better and easier and more thorough now that everything is facilitated.
But, and perhaps this is snobbery, but this internet, as great as it can be, and without which I would not be able to be away from New York, doesn’t it rob people of some of their experience? I mean, if you can just chatter away to your parents, keep up with daily gossip from your friends, interact on the LonelyPlanet forum, and even watch your favorite tv shows, then just how far away from home are you really? I remember feeling a lot of things, only some of them pleasant, back when I was a youngster with all my crap on my back, but there was no way out of it. Once that plane had landed, there I was. I could maybe check American express or the GPO for mail but there was rarely, if ever, anything. I could call home, sure, but it was a big deal, and only possible from some places. Whatever happened, happened, and by the time I checked in with anyone who might have cared, the event was already over and processed. Loneliness, sickness? Too bad, it would probably pass eventually. By the time I came back to the US I was a different person. I missed great swatches of cultural phenomona.
Months at a time, and everything that occurred, as far as popular culture went (I always paid attention to politics) passed without my knowledge. None of that stuff ever became a part of me as an American. In the absence of any “real” culture, such as the rest of the world might recognize, we are largely the sum of these pop cultural experiences. People of my age and background, for example, might all relate to certain TV shows from the early 70s. It’s good for a conversation or two, but that’s about it. It’s great in a way, since we can be whomever we want to be, but also sad, since we’re lacking something that we don’t even know we lack. Good and bad, difficult to put a label on it.
I suppose anyone who wants some of that good old fashioned adventure can still go off to Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia, but now I think you have to really want it specifically. We just went, and the world closed over our heads like the ocean will do as a ships sinks. If we were lucky we got spat out at some point in the future. I guess there was less control. To the extent that any of us have control over anything, now it’s possible to feel as though you’re in control. Atms, internet chat, mobile phones, but all that has to happen is the electricity to go out. For me, it’s great the way it is now. I can cavort through country after country, and keep in touch with my store. If I want to do something away and alone, I can go to Africa, or just into the depths of Oman. But for today’s backpackers, I think they have to work a little to get away from this spoon fed “experience” of travel.
I ate well tonight, again. It’s more than any human has a right to expect. I managed to order fish from the Mekong, steamed in the “Lao style” and ‘Pak Bung Fai Dang” which is morning glory vine sautéed with lots of garlic and chilies. The fish was absolutely succulent, and heaped with fresh ginger strips, dill, cilantro, baby spring onions, and who knows what else. Hopefully it will counteract whatever hideous toxins were in the fish. The Mekong is my favorite river but I know it’s not clean. It comes from China and Burma and Northern Vietnam, and that doesn’t bode well. But pcbs, lead, mercury, sewage and whatever horrible toxins I’ve never heard of be damned. That was good fish…..It was almost suspiciously white and meaty and moist, the herbs were delectable and the morning glory vine was hot as hell and spectacular. My nose kept running, my mouth burning , and I’d just take another handful of sticky rice and dip it in the sauce, and wash it all down with another sip of BeerLao.
Monday, July 06, 2009
My point is that you just can’t imagine what “Thai Food” means until you’re here. We need a Thai person in Salalah just to fry little coconut and banana things the way they do here. Tonight was a fried night. No getting around it.
What I got? Some kind of ball of some sweet paste, fried, but not greasy at all, with black and white sesame seeds. I’ve seen these in New York but forget the name. Also, a deep fried (but not a trace of grease) taro mash ball with popped watermelon seeds. I mean, what the hell? Who cooks with watermelon seeds? And why don’t more of us? Why do we now have seedless watermelons in the US anyhow? And how does one come up with the amazingly delicious coconut/pandanus little green cakes? They also use pandanus in Lucknow, in the biriyani. We might know pandanus as Kewda (Hindi) or Kadi (Arabic) but do we cook with it? For gods sake.
I had a whole assortment of little tiny coconut based fried spongy things. And another box of those crazy little coconut milk discs, with corn this time, and runny milky on the inside, so sweet, I love love love those and you can find them everywhere but God help me they are different everywhere too! I got another order (which I couldn’t even touch) of sticky rice with mango. That's what's pictured above. There is coconut cream in the little white container. Doesn’t get more delicious than that dish. I saw juicy sweet luscious corn and got a cob. They boil or roast it, them take the kernels off and put them in a plastic takaway cup with a little butter so it’s like a dessert. Spectacular and its just corn, it’s ridiculous. I found some kind of a fried fish loaf and she cut it up, stuck it back in the fryer (but again, not a trace of oil, how is this done?) and popped it into a bag with a skewer. I nodded to whether she should pour the spicy garlic sauce on it, only to find that it was sweet sauce! (Foreigners aren’t supposed to like chili) but I asked her to pour chili on it too….I figured it wouldn’t be very good, with that sweet sauce, but I was wrong as usual. It was great.
You can’t even imagine the cornucopia here, until you see it for yourself, and most of it is meat! Even with what’s left it is so plentiful and varied that I am completely at a loss. I just wander around, grinning like an insane person, staring and pointing. Please understand, I'm coming from Salalah, and no disrespect meant, but dining choices are limited there.
I can’t understand why the Thai people are not all huge and fat. They should be. They eat constantly and they eat tons of sweets and tons of fried. Yet so many Omanis are overweight, and they seem to eat nothing, like birds. They must eat in secret. And they must eat a lot of junk. But still. Is this fair?
Other than the food, and buying some airplane tickets, I spent the day on a wild goose chase. But nearing the end of the day, I found a goose. Now if they’ll just sell it to me, I can see if it’s the one that might lay a golden egg…..
Sunday, July 05, 2009
In this last month in Salalah, I distilled different batches of Frankincense, by grove and freshness and found that even though the Luban is not dried, and will always show moist inside as long as its fairly fresh, there is a big difference between fresh-ish and really fresh. These 2 super wet batches, one of howjary and one I’m just calling small black and wet, have a crispy freshness, like a fuji apple. So it has an apple note even though there is no apple note. It’s more of a pine-y charcoal citrus serious note. (but definitely not lemon!) It’s fresh and twinkling though, and really happy.
And none of my frankincense oils have that deep lung hit-man with a weapon attitude. This was something I discussed with a man who happened along one morning, a distiller from Nairobi who distills for Young Living. He was in Salalah for Luban, of course. I don’t know how successful he was or what his goals were, but we did discuss Luban a bit. His oil has that note that it seems almost all frankincense oils have—that low deep yet sesquiterpene-rich oily middle and base. Even though many people expect this note in their frankincense, I’m really happy ours doesn’t have it. We are sweet paradise and love. Sparkling effervescence direct from the frankincense tree. I think actually water distillation doesn’t have it—I know Jack Chaitman, who distills in glass, doesn’t have it either.
For the first time ever, it wasn’t a horrible drama leaving Salalah. I think I managed to get some things straight and this was nice. It’s terrible to know there is foul work afoot and not to know what or how or from where it comes. I spent most of the 6 weeks trying to figure out what the problem was, and where and why, but I got the answers all right. It’s a very difficult place to set oneself up. And that’s the truth.
Muscat was delightful, always a well-earned treat. I did nothing but sit in cafes and restaurants for obscene amounts of time, talking talking talking and drinking, eating, smoking. I sat in garden at Kargeen for 10 hours one day with a friend, and we never ran out of things to say. And that was after spending 3 hours in a coffee shop in the morning with someone else. Yes, it was grand.
After a few days I left Muscat and here I am in Bangkok. It’s a place I really like, but I still miss Muscat, and Oman. I’m here to shop and that I did, all day at the Chatuchak weekend market. And I’ll be here another two weekends! Last night I went to someplace easy, since I had had no sleep, and was not vigilant, and didn’t want to be out in it, with my Omani sense of well being and so ended up at Siam Discovery feeling up some indigo cotton fabrics from the Northeast and behaving like a freak in the food court downstairs where they were having a multi table Discover Thai Food promotion. Discover Thai Food? Oh Okay, if you insist.
Even though I am completely at sea with the language, more than usual, I managed to get a bowl of some meat free noodles with coconut milk, shrimp paste, chilies, and a bunch of stuff I don’t know, but it was divine. Went on after that to those little fried coconut milk discs with crab in them, and onions, and some hot sweet chili sauce. Then I saw a guy frying a pancake out of green noodles and eggs. One please. With some tasty rice, and an assortment of condiments. Next was mango and sticky rice which you may be able to get in other countries but it’s not the same as it is here. Last I scooped up some green sticky rice with coconut strips. There are no photos of this since I did not have it together yet.
I swear I feel Omani. When we got off the plane, an Oman-air direct daily flight, Muscat-Bangkok, the attendants made sure we all had little cards with the Bangkok address of Oman Air and the time the daily flight goes back to Muscat. Like concerned parents making sure we have carfare to get home after the big party.