I'm up north in Loei and Nong Khai, looking out over the easy Mekong. Much to tell, but that will have to wait.
Check in after the New Year, and thanks for reading.
This, from the New York Times:
The agreements on Monday followed the decision by Cambodia on Saturday to deport 20 ethnic Uighurs at China’s request, despite Cambodia’s having signed a 1951 treaty banning the forced repatriation of refugees who face persecution at home.
The Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim group, were involved in ethnic rioting in western China in July that killed at least 197 people. They were smuggled into Cambodia about a month ago and applied for asylum at the United Nations refugee office in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur leader who is living in the United States, wrote in an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal on Monday that Cambodia’s decision to deport the 20 Uighurs was “no doubt influenced by enormous Chinese pressure, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
I think this is a trend the region will swiftly get used to. Just as the United States, during its period of rapid economic and political expansion in the years following WWII, spread its reach into Latin and South America, Europe and Asia, China is doing the same thing here, and in Africa and the Central Asia.
But the Chinese are far more pragmatic and less demanding than the Americans ever were - they don't even attempt to veil their strategic interests in good faith or idealism. Instead, the return of the Uighurs is merely a transaction.
What exactly is China doing in Southeast Asia? is a question more reporters should be asking. (The idea of the Chinese Communist Party funding the reconstruction of Buddhist temples in Cambodia, as the above article states, just rings with cruel irony; it's laughably depressing.)
Recently, I spoke with a Tibetan activist here in Bangkok, and she told me that the Dalai Lama has not visited Thailand since 1993. This is significant: Imagine if the Pope didn't visit the country with the highest proportion of Roman Catholics on earth in nearly two decades. While it's true that Thais and Tibetans study different schools of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is an enormously respected figure here, as there is no greater figurehead for Buddhism today. You want to know why he doesn't come? Well, let's just say Thailand's economic cooperation with China probably has something to do with it.
Another disturbing trend, in my opinion, are countries in this region looking to China as a model for controlled economic growth because it is anchored by a system that restricts freedom of information and free speech. Every time the Thai political machine starts to spin out of control, for instance (a problem that has to do with the spread of bad information, for sure, but also a convoluted political/military relationship, widespread corruption and a great socioeconomic schism) people here look to China and admire its rock-solid political footing. Bangkok remains static, while Beijing charges ahead...
Every time Malaysia sentences a woman to a few lashes from a bamboo stick because she drinks a beer, they can be sure the neighbor up north will not speak out. Or if Cambodia decides to harbor a political fugitive, or Burma imprisons a Nobel-winning pro-democracy activist. The greatest difference between American hegemony, which I am by no means supporting, and the emerging Chinese model, is that Chinese one has no moral code. It has no nuance.
And that is something to worry about, unless this government decides that their power demands some sort of social and political responsibility.
This is something to worry about. And it stifles progressive democracy taking root here in Southeast Asia. Which is just exactly what the CCCP wants, anyways.
Like this plate of pad thai, a usually too-sweet-and-simplistic dish that I almost never order, but enjoyed immensely, on a recent assignment in the Dusit neighborhood of Bangkok:
If you head to Dusit's Sri Yan Market (Ttalaat Sri Yan), duck out the back door of the market, walk about 100m, pass the motorbike queue, and you'll find a pink, open-air restaurant. That's where you should eat this dish. Thanks to David and Dtong for a tasty afternoon in the hood.
I’ve been searching for something for a year now.
Picking my way through this humid haystack of a city for something rare and true and honest and delicious and air-conditioned. I’ve been looking for a dope Izakaya joint. A Japanese spot where drinking and eating come together in an unpretentious setting. But yet the cooking has the grace and balance you might find in the sort of Japanese restaurant that costs far more. I’d like to think these sorts of restaurants exist everywhere the salaryman cuts a check (but I also know it's a lot to ask for outside of Japan).
Yet I hold onto the hope that there’s one in Bangkok, somewhere, lurking in the shadows. It’s cloaked in Mild Seven smoke, steeped in fry and grill scent, with a soundtrack of staccato chatter that gets looser and louder as the sochu vanishes.
Last night, I thought I’d found what I’d been looking for. Myself, my wife, and another seeker wandered up to a Japanese joint on Soi 11 called Shunbo Sumibiyaki.
First encouraging sign: They wanted nothing to do with us. Small Japanese restaurants sometimes bristle at the sight of otherness, and while this might upset a tender soul, it’s actually a good thing. The same rule goes for the best Thai street food spots.
A rule to eat by, in Asia: If you feel unwelcome, you probably ought to eat there.
“Aaharn Mot Leew!” said the waitress, implying that every single piece of food in the restaurant has been consumed. It was 8 pm. The room was full of Japanese men eating dinner. The restaurant closes at one. The grill was crowded with cuts of meat. I giggled.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Soong, sam chuamoong glap ti nii…” (come back in two, three hours) said the waitress with a sigh, as I smiled that annoyed smile you smile when you know that’s the only thing that might get you your way in this land.
An hour later, posted up at another, lesser Japanese on the street, my friend placed a call in his smooth Thai and reserved a table. He said he was copping a Japanese accent. I didn’t catch it.
When we entered the waitress looked confused, then realized the only solution was to seat us. So we sat and ate a parade of delicious dishes, and a few ordinary ones. What looked like a humorless tuna salad with a mustard and kewpie mayo dressing made me smile: hiding beneath were incredibly crispy, tiny whitebait. The ultimate crouton (see above photo).
We ate Kurobota pork ribs, that hung neatly from the bone like laundry on a line, and a slab of saba fish, blow-torched tableside. The smell of burning fish skin filled the air, sake was drunk, and a pot of daikon and fish cake bubbled in a bath of dashi.
I’ll return to Shunbo for the cooking, but it’s still missing something. The room is a little too slick, a shade too dark, and the food has a bit of forced refinement. Still, it’s good, and if you live in Bangkok, it’s worth a try.
Me, I’ll keep looking.
Shunbo is located at 33/5 Sukhamvit Soi 11, almost directly opposite Bed Supperclub. But, if you're hanging around Bed Supperclub, you're probably not eating at Shunbo. Oh, and if you know anywhere that fits my vague criteria for Izakaya (cheerful, intimate, unpretentious, delicious) drop me a line.
"It is no accident that Momofuku sounds like motherfucker," writes Peter Meehan, who deftly captures David Chang's voice in the opening of the Momofuku cookbook. I've just ripped through the book, and can honestly say that I've never read a cookbook quite like it. It's original, inspiring, and real. It was nothing like my first meal at Momofuku. Let me explain.
I was in NYC to see friends in - I think - early 2005. Momofuku was a buzzword in the downtown food world. And then the New York Times wrote an article on the transformative properties of Chang's slow-poached eggs and the tiny place blew up like mashed potatoes in the microwave. "You've got to go!" people told me in emails. I went. I ate. I didn't get it.
And that's because, at that point, there wasn't much to get. Not for a food writer in Shanghai, which is a town with a very decent Japanese ramen and yakitori scene. I can remember the meal clearly: I had Momofuku Ramen with Berkshire pork and a poached egg, a dish of heirloom tomatoes and tofu, and a bottle of sake. It was lunchtime. The sake and the tomatoes tasted great. The ramen tasted like ramen - not a particularly memorable ramen, save for the very succulent pork - but it was good (though not $12 good). I figured that people in New York's culinary spin-cycle were new to Asian noodles, and wrote this off as a passing fad.
But Chang wasn't a passing fad. The roots of his genius weren't in the bowl of ramen but in that Berkshire pork, and those heirloom tomatoes, and the creativity that was starting to spring from a very ordinary idea (a noodle bar). The next time I was in New York, maybe a year and a half later, I ate at Momofuku Ssam, his next restaurant. And that time, he knocked my goddamn socks off.
I, for one, don't much care for Asian fusion (unless it's a deep-fried piece of cheese in an Izakaya). It's usually pretty stupid. But Chang had a knack for it that was more Japanese in execution than American. That is, he took universal comfort foods - cheese, ham, tofu, bacon, whatever - and presented them in a context that wasn't necessarily American, but wasn't really Asian. It was just good and fatty. Delicious like the best crossover Izakaya stuff is.
"Is it fucking dericious?" was the motto of the kitchen. Most everything I ate, from oysters to kimchi consomme to slices of Virginia ham (Virginia Ham?!?!) was fucking dericious. So much so that I approached Chang and tried to tell him how totally dericious it was, and how I wrote about food in Asia but hell I'd never experienced flavors like this, and he sort of scowled at me and walked away. A forgivable offense when you're that busy and that good. I guess.
The most amazing aspect of this cookbook, which everyone who cooks seriously should buy, is how it functions as a compelling coming-of-age story about America's most talked about chef. It's candid and it's funny. It's full of useful information and the sort of hard-edged kitchen wisdom that you encounter in only in the presence of professional cooks that you know well.
I stayed up late, ripping through the pages, unable to sleep because of the possibilities of cooking that this book captures in its pages. It made me want to thrown this laptop out the window, stop ruminating about food and telling other people's stories, and get in a kitchen and cook. And I might just do that.
After reading the first half, I ran to the market, bought a kilogram of chicken livers, and started picking them apart, smashing spices, infusing the chopped livers with Thai ingredients like lime leaves and lemongrass, fish sauce coriander root and bird's eye chilies, until I had a fragrant pate that made a very good banh mi. And that's just the beginning. The best part about cooking, unlike reading a riveting story, is that there is no end.
Incredible funk and soul and jazz and blues - the kind of music that brought white and black folk together in dusty clubs and hotel dance halls. The kind of music that white men got kicked off the radio just for playing. Louis, Fats, The Meters.
And though New Orleans was chock full of disappointments great and small it somehow seemed hopeful, and beautiful, in spite of that. And without all those disappointments, all the violence and poverty and heartbreak, it wouldn't have been what it was and is. That beauty illuminated in the amber light of hard lives.
So I was drinking beers, and sitting there, immersed in this film and my thoughts, and swatting at mosquitoes that were nipping my ankles. On my way out to smoke a cigarette I stepped in a muddy puddle, nearly slipped, and found myself in an alleyway full of rats and cracks, mansions and tenements and Bangkok's own music.
And as I sat there alone and smoked, listening to the honks and two-stroke roars of Rama 4 - I started to think about Bangkok - a city not unlike the Big Easy. A city that holds on tight to beauty in spite of itself. A beauty that many people can't see, because that can't see past cracked sidewalks and exhaust, or brothels and corrupt cops.
The rhythms of Bangkok and New Orleans are different, for sure. But as I sat in that alleyway I thought about all that entangles me in this city - about the shoeless motorbike driver with the club feet that giggled as we sped down the soi earlier that night; about the blind man who stumbles by with his pan flute collecting working man change as I sit on the cantilevered curb eating papaya salads with kind strangers; about the forces of proximity and poverty and promise that have assimilated Mon and Chinese and Indian and Lao and Khmer and Muslims. I thought about the beauty queens and the mighty Garudas, the steady river and the silent temples and the shoulder-wide passageways and wide smiles. And the strange and wonderful smells of this melting pot of food over flame that - in my mind - plays bass in Bangkok's own irresistible rhythm.
That's life in The Big Sleazy.
I only spent a few hours with the old fisherman, but was really affected by his resolve. The pride he feels for his conservation efforts in Tamarind Cape seem more tangible because they've not only benefited nature, but have also improved the local fishing economy. Huge thanks to Pisit at Yadfon for introducing us, and thanks to Babu and his family for a morning spent cruising the mangroves that I won't soon forget.