Cold Coconut Cheers


Happy New Year to all! We are here in Southeast Asia as the masses celebrate the end of one cycle and the start of a new. In typical dry-season fashion, it’s a scorcher of a month. We spent yesterday playing tourist, tromping about the Angkor temples with 63 million of our fellow peeps. (OK, 63 million might be an exaggeration, but it felt like such a crush of humanity.) I can say with 100 percent assurance: there is nothing so welcome, so necessary as a cold coconut after a hike up a stone temple in the mid-day heat. $1. One coconut. Two straws. This, friends, is the wondrous coconut water that has so many health-conscious Westerners in a craze. Here it is, straight from the tree.

And here we are, in Cambodia. Not what we’d originally planned—but many a wise person before me has said it: Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. A travel snafu had us switching course (if you’re interested, you can read my thoughts about it here). And the new blog design was muffled in the mess. More snafus. The new look is still coming… but not just yet. Right now, we’re on the road, working, living, gathering stories. We both want to be in the moment doing that—not fixing design glitches. So I will continue posting bits and bobs here, and I will post blurbs to the Facebook page and Twitter, until our course shifts again and we’re in a spot where we can devote attention to our computers.

If you’re interested in everything else that’s been keeping us so busy these months, have a look here and here and here and here. Further: Jerry’s adding new tidbits to 63Beds.


Meanwhile, best wishes to all for good health, peace and happiness in the next year.

P Bakheng

Blueberries w:chevre & Naga chile chocolate

Hot Naga Chile-Chocolate Sauce, Oh My

Naga chile half

Hello readers,

I’m here! (Some of you have asked.) I haven’t abandoned you, or this site, or my commitment to food. But the year so far has kicked me in the pants with deadlines, book promotions, travel prep and plans for a little shake-up here at Rambling Spoon.

The next time you come around, we should be on our way to Yangon. And you’ll find a little something different here on the site. I’m thinking more interactive, more video, more sounds. And more opportunity for a mix of long-form stories with daily blurbs.

If you follow the Rambling Spoon Facebook page, you know that’s where I like to post daily tidbits on all things food—the politics of what we eat, threats to farm and field, people who grow our goods, recipes that make our kitchens come to life. (You’ll find some of these things on Twitter too. Come join us on Twitter if you haven’t already!) If you’ve followed the Facebook page for a while, you might have noticed… that you’re not noticing it as often anymore. That’s a problem, and this explains why. The Facebook gods aren’t showing you everything there is to see, and they’re hoping folks like us pay to change that.

Well, that’s not what Rambling Spoon is about. Frankly, I give enough of my heart, soul and—yes—dollars to the work I do and the issues I think important. (Eternal Harvest never would have come about, had we not paid out of pocket for the reporting that went into it.) So rather than pay Facebook to reach you, I’m going to reshape this space to accommodate the content I want to offer—short reads, long reads, links, blurbs, tidbits, quotes, comments, photos, videos, sounds and snippets from the world of food. (I’ll still keep the Facebook page too, but you’ll be able to start using this site as a regular source of newsier information.) It’s not all set in stone yet, the wheels are in motion. But soon, very soon, Rambling Spoon will offer something new.

FIRST, though, I want to tell you about the Nagas and the chocolate.

That photo up top is half a Naga chile, grown last summer in our New Mexico garden. We’d purchased two bhut jolokia plants from a local vendor after several unsuccessful previous attempts to grow what once was, not so long ago, the world’s hottest chile. (If you’ve been around this spot for a very long time, you might recall the story we did for Gourmet in 2008, traveling to Nagaland to meet the farmers who grow those wicked-hot chiles.)

Well something in the air, the water (or lack thereof) last summer worked wonders…

Naga chiles in basket

…and we ended up with a bumper crop of Nagas. Pequins, too—those little guys beside the biggies in the basket above.

Bunch of pequins & Naga chiles

The pequins I like to crush into just about anything. They’re fruity and aromatic, with just the right amount of heat to appease my spice-liking taste buds without overpowering. But the Nagas present a dilemma.

We have a whole jar of them, dried and waiting. But this isn’t the sort of chile to just crumble into a morning smoothie (as we do pequins) or toss into a stir-fry with the tofu and veggies. This chile’s a killer. (Read the story.) We’re talking more than a million on the Scoville scale. We’re talking bleary eyes, scorched tongue, dizzy head and borderline dementia.

What do you do with a chile like that?


One day last month, my dear sister-in-law arrived with a jar of her version of “5-Star Hot Fudge Sauce,” based on a recipe belonging to a longtime family friend. Except Joanna’s recipe used spices and chile, and it had kick. But here’s the thing: she took the chile out after a few minutes in the pan. It merely mingled with the cream and sugar, just long enough to infuse the mixture with flavor (and plenty of heat).

Hungry yet?

Here’s the recipe. Thank you, Joanna (and Mrs. Ess).

5-Star Hot Fudge Sauce with Chile & Spices
Based on a recipe by Conni Ess

2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
8 ounces bitter or semi-sweet chocolate
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 teaspoons unsalted butter cut into bits
2-3 teaspoons dark rum, if desired
1 Naga chile (if you dare)
2-3 smaller, less potent chiles such as pequins
1 cinnamon stick
seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods

In a medium-large saucepan, cook the cream, spices and chile over medium-low heat until it is reduced to about 1 1/2 cups (about 15-20 minutes). Do not let it boil. This requires some attention and stirring to make sure the fat stays incorporated.

Once the cream is reduced, whisk in the brown sugar until it is smooth. Remove the pan from heat. Strain the spices and chile through a sieve to remove them from the mixture.

Put the cream mix back in the pot, and add all the chocolate. Stir until it is all melted (over low heat, if necessary). Do not boil the mixture at any point.

Whisk in the butter until smooth. If using, add the rum.

This makes about 3 cups of (Joanna’s words) “amaze-balls fudge sauce.” Keep in an air-tight container in the fridge if you need to store it. Great with ice cream or straight out of the jar.


with blueberries and honey chèvre, served in a cocktail glass. Like this:

Blueberries w:chevre & Naga chile chocolate

Happy Holidays, With Chile Jam

RS Holiday Bird

Above, a view from Christmas past: Wisconsin 2012. From all reports, something similar is happening there this year. Meanwhile, we’re at home in New Mexico now, beneath bright blue skies with a bit of snow on the mountains and luminarias to light the streets at night. Wherever in the world you are, may the season bring you peace and love. May the year ahead bring wonder.

I spent a bit of time in the kitchen yesterday, before our family outing to the Nutcracker (colorful, playful performance, this one!). I’d had this idea that cranberries and citrus would pair well with New Mexico chiles for a sweet-spicy jam. And then I made something a little more Asian style. Enjoy: two chiles for a lively new year:

New Mexico Chile-Cranberry-Orange Jam:

1 bag of fresh cranberries
2 cups dried red New Mexico chiles
3 juicing oranges
1 cup brown sugar
pinch of salt

Douse the chiles in boiling water and let sit until softened; drain liquid and reserve.

Juice the oranges, discarding seeds but keeping the pulp.

Meanwhile, boil the cranberries in 1 1/2 cups water (or as needed to cover the berries) for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and pour through sieve into a separate dish. Smash the cranberries through the sieve. Skins can be added to the juice if you prefer a chunkier, more rustic jam; otherwise, discard. Add sugar to cranberry juice and stir well while still warm. Add salt. Add orange juice and pulp, as well as the softened chiles. Blend well in a food processor or using a hand-held immersion blender. Add chile water as needed to achieve the consistency you desire.

Use with cornbread or pancakes, drizzled over vanilla ice cream, rubbed on grilled pork or…. ?


Southeast-Southwest Chile Paste:
This recipe blends flavors of the Southwest US and Southeast Asia

1 1/2 cups dried red New Mexico chiles
3 cloves garlic
3 lemongrass stalks, minced
1 large hunk ginger
1 1/2 cups peanuts

Douse the chiles in boiling water and let sit until softened; drain liquid and reserve.

Peel and mince the lemongrass finely; if the pieces are too large, they will not mix well with the other ingredients.

Blend all ingredients in a food processor, or using a mortar and pestle or hand-held immersion blender. Add chile liquid as necessary to create a smooth paste. Add salt to bring out the flavors; you want the paste to have a salty flavor.

Use in grilling or baking chicken or pork. Rub on tofu for frying. Eat as a chip dip (perhaps adding a bit more chile liquid). Eat with rice. Stir-fry with vegetables. Or… ?

Chili Jam B

Lessons & Recipes from a Holiday Kitchen


This year, we decided to spend Thanksgiving at home, alone. Just the two of us. We don’t hate our families, we’re not anti-social. We’ve just had months and months of travels hither and yon, with multiple visits to relatives east and west, and more planned for Christmas. We were tired. Still are. But we had one laid-back feast at our own kitchen table, at our own pace—which included an afternoon hike in a new-to-us open space. We’d passed the parking lot on our way to Oakland last month. Thanksgiving was the perfect day to check it out—one of those crisp, clear New Mexico afternoons with brilliant blue sky and not a cloud.

Then we raced back home before dark, just in time to put the turkey on the grill. Honestly, I figured we’d be eating around midnight (and we’d chalk it up to our obsession with all things Spanish, including dinner times). But it turns out, that was a fast bird. Jerry spatchcocked it, and it cooked in 45 minutes. And that leads me to my list of lessons learned in our holiday kitchen (for next year, or the next feast, whichever comes first…):

1. I grew up with the whole turkey intact on the Thanksgiving table. It’s tradition. But now having eaten two spatchcocked turkeys, two Thanksgivings in a row: there’s no contest. The spatchcocked bird is juicer on the inside, crispier in the skin, and I feel no real need to go back. Plus…

2. Grilling is a fabulously tasty way to cook a holiday bird. Especially when garlic-sage-butter is rubbed beneath the skin.

3. I also grew up with my Mom’s cranberry sauce—tradition, too. It’s a simple sauce, just 12 oz of berries boiled in 1 1/2 cups of water and a pinch of salt, then mashed through a sieve and mixed with 1/2 a cup of sugar. But I had my suspicions. It seemed to me rosemary would add a nice touch. So this year, I “adulterated” the recipe (in my mother’s words). I minced rosemary and added it to the berries along with the sugar, and it was YUM.

4. And then we had this:


I do believe this is the best fennel recipe I’ve ever tasted. Thank you, Simon Bryant. You have taught me the wondrous flavors of crispy coriander & fennel seeds mixed together. And we have discovered there is perhaps no better pairing for the holiday mouth than a bite of turkey with a bite of this fennel. Transcendental. These flavors combined create more than the sum of their parts.

Here’s what you do: you take the fennel bulbs, slice in half and place in a cast-iron baking dish with cut sides up. Then you douse the dish in olive oil, lots of olive oil, so the fennel is partly submerged. Top the bulbs with roughly ground coriander and fennel seeds along with some salt. Cook for 20 minutes or more at about 400 degrees F. Then add a whole bunch of green olives and return to the oven. Cook until the bulbs are tender. Then, for the last couple of minutes, broil. You want a nice, crispy top. You want the seeds to crunch but the fennel to melt. Serve hot. (Recipe adapted from Simon Bryant’s Vegies.)


And then, you do this:

5. You make homemade butterscotch pudding with pecan-piñon-chile brittle, and you wonder why on earth you’ve waited your entire life to do this. Because it is the best. These stem from the Blake Spalding & Jennifer Castle cookbook, With a Measure of Grace. They’re both really simple recipes with really simple ingredients. Be not afraid of sugar and fat. Every now and then, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Start with the brittle. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. In a cast-iron skillet, toast 3/4 cup of piñons until golden, but not burnt. (We added pecans, too, crushed into small pieces.) Then, mix 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, chile powders of your choice (we had a mix – including chipotle for a nice smoky flavor), 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 cups sugar in a skillet on medium heat. Stir constantly as the sugar melts. It should turn rich and brown, making a smooth caramel. Don’t burn. When it’s fully melted, quickly stir in the nuts and immediately pour the mixture onto the baking sheet. Let it cool; it will harden into a breakable brick.

Now, for the pudding: Measure 1/2 cup heavy cream and set aside. Melt 1/4 cup butter on low heat. Stir in 3/4 cup dark brown sugar and a good, big pinch of salt. (The recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon, but we found more is better. You know those sea salt-caramel chocolate bars? You want salt like that. Salty and sweet.) Cook until the butter bubbles and acquires a slightly burned aroma. Gradually stir in cream. Keep stirring. Add 1 1/2 cups whole milk and at least one capful of bourbon – real bourbon. We added quite a bit more. Stir until blended, then remove from heat. Measure 3 tablespoons each of cornstarch and water; mix into a paste. Stir into milk mixture, then cook, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat until it starts to thicken. Simmer and stir vigorously until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. You want a very faint almost-scorched scent—but not burnt. Pour the whole shebang into a bowl and press plastic wrap onto the surface (this will prevent it from forming a skin). Serve with brittle shards and real whipped cream, and you just might cry—it’s that good. Again, that recipe book: With a Measure of Grace. We will make this again before the holidays end.

6. And that leads me to the final kitchen lesson of the season: In the end, despite all this lusciousness, it’s not the food that matters. It’s the people at the table—whether there are 20 or 2.


butterscotch pudding

Olives & Everything.

Azeri Olives-1

It’s the little stuff, life’s petty displeasures—muddy floors, email glitches, lost time, lack of sleep, bikes with flat tires just when I want to ride—that ruffle me and make me that person I don’t want to be. The person who lacks perspective.

But it’s also the little stuff that does just the opposite: makes me see the universe through the tiniest of actions in the smallest of moments. The things that make us human. The phenomena that make the world a glorious place to be.

A few weeks back, I traveled again to Azerbaijan. And I met a young man who told me the story of his mother’s olives. We were talking about writing with all of our senses; of putting an audience in a scene through sights and sounds, tastes and smells, textures and associations. So much of what we interpret of the world depends on the memories we form through the experience of a particular sense: The way bad tequila puts me back in college, on nights I’d rather forget. The way a televised football game sends me to my parents’ couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The way the thump thump thump of a mortar and pestle reminds me of our condo in Chiang Mai, where our neighbor pounded her curry during the early morning hours in an outdoor kitchen.

The young man—a human rights lawyer by training but a poet in his words—told me how the scent of olives reunites him with the memory of his mother. Not salty olives as we might instinctively think, but the sweet, spicy olives of her unforgettable jam. In Azerbaijan, mothers turn a savory treat into a candied delight. Pits and all, the olives soak in syrup with an array of spices, nuts and citrus peel. Two types of olives are used, one firm, the other not so. Regardless, the end result, after much time and attention, is an aroma that puts this young man straight into his mother’s arms, in her house, in the place he knew as a child. Every time he goes away, it’s the olives he craves on his return. I cannot convey the full sense of his message; I cannot do his story justice. I didn’t memorize his poem. But when he spoke of olives and scent, his mother and memory, it was the essence of gratitude. An olive, such a small thing. But everything, to this man who loves his mother so.

On my last day in Baku, the young man brought me an overflowing jar of his mother’s olive jam—a giant container. She’d asked him where the jam was going, and when he told her, she said, “Well, if it’s traveling all the way to America, we have to give her a REALLY BIG jar!”

The jam survived the trip; the jar emerged a bit sticky but intact. And now our refrigerator is honored with this gift of the senses.

This week, I heard from a colleague who just learned he has cancer. But his message was not bleak; it was full of hope. This man has spent much of his career reporting in one of the world’s poorest countries, a place routinely in the news for the worst of natural and human disasters. But there, my colleague says, he has learned perspective from people who face “higher mountains” than he.

Azerbaijan is one of those places, too, where the mountains are high—seemingly insurmountable at times. But the olives are plentiful, and so is the jam. I want to remember that as long and as often as I can.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, wherever you are.

Azeri Olives-2


A Borneo Food Diary


Lunch, Day 10

I should never write a blog post while hungry!

If you’ve been coming ’round here for a while, you might recall a post I did several years ago, A Rural Lao Food Diary. We’d just come off a nine-day trip to the hinterlands in Phongsali, way up near the Lao/China border, where we camped with a bomb-clearance group working in a small village. I posted a record of everything we ate—fresh, local, homemade, repetitive.

Now I’ll treat you to a rundown of our meals in Borneo—more variety, equally fresh, much of it plucked from the fields and forests surrounding the Kelabit villagers we visited (thanks to ICFJ!). I thought it appropriate to post this today, just as our multimedia piece, Supermarket Jungle, is now live on Please check it out if you’re interested in more on the sustainable Kelabit diet and the twin threats of logging and cultural change.

Here’s what we ate:

-wild spinach soup
-fried rice with scallions and wild boar, a few cherry tomatoes, onion and tiny black beans
NOTES: The soup reminds me of others I’ve had in Myanmar’s Shan State and rural Laos, coming from kitchens so smoky that smoke IS a flavor. It makes the soup. The pineapple is a burst of sweet, then tart. Low acid. The boar is like pulled pork but very tiny pieces.

-wild boar fried with onion
-stewed tomatoes with a bit of sugar, like soup
-softened sautéed leeks
-thinly sliced green beans
NOTES: The boar has a rich, gamey flavor

-crispy twisted pastries
-thick rice porridge with green beans and spinach
NOTES: The spinach has a very earthy taste

-Rice vermicelli with boar & vegetables (eaten in the forest)

-deer (for sale from the back of the pickup that morning) with thinly sliced ginger
-the smallest and tenderest species of young bamboo
-a mess of curled ferns
NOTES: Hosts Stephen & Tine chop the flat-leaf greens into one-inch slices. “We call it grass because we don’t know what it is,” Tine says. Indeed, it has a grassy flavor. The bamboo, she says, is the youngest variety. It ranges in color from pale yellow to pink to mint ice cream green. It squeaks on the outside but it’s firm and sweet to bite into. The ferns taste rich with their funky furled texture.

-fresh pineapple, papaya, passionfruit
-cassava cakes – oval-shaped patties, sticky inside, crispy outside, fried in oil

-canned chicken curry
-Lara bar
(On hike in the jungle)

-fried chunks of boar
-clear soup with winter melon
-ginger and boar
-water greens fried with small dried anchovies

-rice fried with beans and boar
-greens with shallots, small dried anchovies & garlic
-more boar
-sticky rice packets


Leaves used for wrapping rice  

-more boar
-melon soup
-leftover fried rice
-boiled wild spinach
-leaf-wrapped rice pounded to a paste

-sliced red mushrooms sautéed with garlic and salt
-wild asparagus with pineapple shoot slices
-boar fried with mild melon
-wild spinach soup with water and salt
NOTES: The asparagus is young, tender and small. The mushroom is meaty and rich, and it gives and incredible red burgundy sauce. The pineapple shoots are slightly bitter yet with a faint hint of fruitiness.

-sticky rice packets in laves
-tapioca fried and shredded like a hash brown pizza
-packaged rice crackers
NOTES: The tapioca tastes like thick, gluey, sweet, potato-y hashbrowns.

-pineapple curry
-tengayen (wild green) leaves
-pounded tapioca leaves
-pounded rice in leaf packet
NOTES: The tengayen is cooked soupy with rice and salt, sometimes with ginger flower. It’s mucilaginous, almost like okra. Leaves are chopped but not crushed. Salty, earthy like collards but not bitter. The tapioca leaf is pounded to a pesto consistency with added oil.


Tapioca leaves

-fragrant ginger paste
-boar soup
-BBQ boar ribs
NOTES: I have no idea what the ginger is when I first taste it. It’s white and pounded to the consistency of rough curry paste. Turns out it’s just young ginger cooked with oil and salt. The ferns are thin, vine-like strips, red and green, giving the juice a vibrant cherry color.

-ferns (fried with garlic and small dried fish from the coast)
-wheat pancakes (made for tourists)
-red mushroom soup with onion

-fried rice (eaten in Bario town)

-pineapple shoots
-chicken curry
-onion leaves
-bamboo shoots

-pineapple, banana
-rice flour cakes

(Eaten in Bario town)
-pounded rice in leaf packets
“ayam kicap”
-melon with eggs

-wild asparagus with corn and carrots
-pineapple curry
-pulled boar (the local pulled pork)
NOTES: The boar is deliciously tender and smoky.

-steamed rice packets
-passionfruit, pineapple

-rice vermicelli
-tomato/potato/onion soup

-deer meat with ginger and wild spice berries
-cherry tomato soup
-young bamboo
-green beans

-rice packets from food market in town
-tomato soup

-fried mouse deer
-fried pork
-bamboo shoots
-tapioca wedges
-long beans fried with cabbage
-fried fish
-ferns with onion
-canned fish in tomato sauce

DAY 10
-pounded rice packets
-wild mushroom soup
-wing beans fried with long beans, tomato, onion
-chicken and lemongrass soup

-Leftovers from breakfast & dinner

-leftover bamboo
-leftover beans with bamboo
-leftover pork fat
-mouse deer soup
NOTES: The mouse deer: thick wads of unidentifiable meat and bones, but with incredibly rich flavor. Like lean venison steak, slightly smoky, tender. Very dark meat.

DAY 11
-cinnamon tea
-popcorn! (bought)
-mushroom porridge


Cinnamon leaves used for tea. The trees grow wild in the jungle, and villagers move them to their gardens.

-rice packets w/boar (eaten in the forest)

-pounded rice
-deep fried little fish
-creek fish soup
-pounded tapioca leaf with chile
-spicy chile/onion paste

DAY 12
-mouse deer soup
-chile paste
-fried small fish
NOTES: The deer tastes fresh, sweet, muscular like it had an active life. Chewy. Our hosts’ son hunted it late the night before.

(On the road to the coast)
-coffee candies
-pounded rice in leaves
-durian snack balls, they taste like fruity Cap’n Crunch

And that’s it. On the evening of Day 12, we ate at a Muslim food stall in Miri, blinded by lights, shaken by noise. I hadn’t expected our departure from the jungle to be so jarring, but it was, even after 12 days. For a few days more, I felt an odd sense of mourning—the same sort of loss we feel when departing a loved one.

It’s a special place, the Kelabit Highlands.


Supang Galih cutting wild asparagus.

What is Rain?

Bario Rain A

A woman gazes through a window at the Bario Asal Longhouse as rain pummels the area.

I started this post a few days ago, before this and this and this. Before nature smacked Colorado with a torrent of “biblical” proportions, a storm of the century, possibly the millennium. Here in New Mexico, too, we are seeing unprecedented rains, bulging rivers, and reservoirs filling fast (this, however, does not necessarily mean an end to our multi-year drought). Parts of Colorado had 12 inches or more of rain in 24 hours – half or more the area’s average annual rainfall in just one day.

Since our trip to Borneo, I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of rain. Or, rather, our perception of it—how our ideas of rain depend on place; how context determines the language we use to describe precipitation. And how that precipitation, of course, defines what we eat and grow, how we spend our time outdoors. How we see our corner of the world.

We traveled through the Borneo highlands in the dry season, a season of no “rain.” Yet, locals told us, droplets of water typically fall from the sky an hour or so each day. Every day, this dry time of year. We drove 15 hours through the mountains on a slick logging road that turns to a river of muck when precipitation falls. But that wasn’t rain, our driver told us. All the while his truck—with three bald tires and 4-wheel drive he preferred not to use because he didn’t like the sound of it (!)—slipped and skidded sideways down the road, he said, that wasn’t rain. That wasn’t rain hitting the windshield and obscuring his view. When it rains, he said, the road turns dangerous. When it rains, he said, the logging trucks stop in their tracks and wait out the hours before it’s safe to move.

I started this post on Sunday night. We’d spent the afternoon cycling along the Rio Grande, a beautiful late-summer day with a crisp sky and still air. We crossed a bridge, then turned to gaze east toward the Sandias. There were pockets of rain in the distance, isolated sheets of gray, and a small rainbow arcing over the mountains. A beautiful sight.

When we returned home, I went to the garden, stooping to pull up tangles of bindweed and the long, seedy arms of arugula gone wild. I felt a splatter on my back—cold, welcome. The drops kept coming, plopping on broad eggplant leaves until finally there we so many, the ground began to puddle.

I kept working, drenched, harvesting the day’s yield—itself a rainbow of colors. I filled a giant tray, the sort used in Southeast Asia for winnowing rice. The rain continued to fall, but the sky grew luminous with a yellow slant of day’s-end light. Pearls of water collected on the vegetable skins.

Wet Veggies II

And I thought about rain, its shifting definitions from place to place. The skies indeed opened most every day we trekked through the Kelabit Highlands. But life went on unobstructed. Real rain, when it comes, will turn the trails impassable. The Kelabit world will flood. There will be rain and more rain and more rain for days on end—not the showers we saw, interspersed with long hours of drying sun.

Here in New Mexico, we get roughly 8.5-9.5 inches of rain in a year. In Borneo, the hilly slopes of the inland highlands get significantly more: in excess of 5,000 mm. That’s 196.85 inches.

All that rain feeds life. It fosters an incredible biodiversity in the Highlands we saw—the intact primary Borneo forest contains some 1,200 species of trees, 220 species of birds and, in just one village area we traveled called Pa Dalih, a documented 650 species of plants collected for food, medicine and materials.

One afternoon, we were caught in a non-rainy season rain in the Bario Asal Longhouse with its metal roof. I tried to interview some of the elders, but no human voice effectively could be heard amid that din. For more than an hour, water gushed and ears rang from the incessant noise. No one spoke. We just nibbled on taro cookies, drank sweet tea, and waited.

Bario Rain B

Rain falling off the roof of Bario Asal Longhouse.

Rain. Here at home, we are intimately in tune with its presence or absence. Like the Kelabits, we monitor our land and sky. Extreme environments, wet or dry, demand notice. In this house, we are a bit obsessive, checking daily forecasts and regular reports on the river’s ups and downs. When it disappears entirely, when the Rio Grande runs dry, a dismal fog veils our mood, if ever so slightly. But when it rains, we celebrate. Precipitation means hope.

I remember June, when there was no rain in this yard. That month, we’d watch clouds converge; they blossomed and grew, dense and dark. But then the winds would start, whipping in from the west. The sky went taupe in a sickly hue that meant neither rain nor reprieve. Instead, the earth became sky and air became grit. Fifty miles an hour, that noxious mess of sand and wind whipped across our yard and into our home. We rushed to shut the windows, but still it blew in. I felt it in my teeth and tasted its earthy, chalky flavor on my tongue.

There is no comfort in such extremes. This week, especially, as nature cascades through so many lives, it is hard to fathom, harder yet to accept. Still, as a lover of the outdoors, a gardener with too many weeds, a hiker with the remnants of leech bites on her heels and scrapes across her shins—there is something so potent in all that rain (or lack of it), so alarming in its enormity. Despite everything, we, as people, are tiny in its face.

What is rain to me? It is a power I will never control.

The Edible Jungle

©2013 Jerry Redfern

There is a place in the hills where domestic meets wild, where humans meet jungle. Where the fertile valleys between forested mountains shelter villagers who plant fruit trees and rice and kitchen gardens across the acres they tame. But the wild – the jungle – also harbors a biodiversity that has long supplied the people’s needs: meat and fish, insects and vegetables, rattan for baskets, leaves for plates, sturdy wood for the community longhouse. Daily life is a balance between home and forest, here and there – so much so, the lines are blurred.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Scientists are just beginning to understand more of this interdependence between people and land, which has sustainably existed for thousands of years. Here in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, villagers are not just farmers, not just hunter-gatherers. It’s not an either/or. The people do it all. They hunt, fish and forage for their food. They grow rice by hand, in verdant plots fed by mountain waters. They transplant wild spices and herbs from the jungle to the village. They toss pineapples onto the ground, and the fruits grow abundantly – without any additional help, so rich is the soil.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

The daily search for food entails a trek from home to paddy with pack on back and parang on hip.

JungelPreview 27

The trail inevitably passes through a variety of forests and fields – some young, some old. Some dense with edible gingers and wild greens; others open to the sun, where brilliant berries grow near at hand.

Pa Lungan Raspberry

In this way, the Kelabit people have lived and eaten from the land for ages.

But life changes; it always does. Borneo’s forests – particularly those across the border in neighboring Kalimantan, Indonesia – are losing out to loggers. In lower elevations, miles upon miles of palm-oil plantations replace that old-growth forest. (See here for the Schuster Institute’s recent investigation of human-rights abuses and environmental destruction related to palm oil.) In the Highlands, where oil palms won’t produce so well, lands are often logged and left; gouges dug into the heart of intact terrain.

We first visited the Highlands in 2006. If you’ve been reading here long enough, you might recall our Archaeology story of burial urns scattered throughout the jungle. Or our encounter with a wild boar on a trek that quickly turned into a hunt. Or my descriptions of edible ferns and water-filled bamboo.

That summer seven years ago, villagers told us they worried about the encroaching loggers. They wondered how long their forests and food supplies would last. Ever since that trip, I wondered what became of the people we met. This summer, thanks to the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation, I received a generous International Reporting Fellowship to strap on my pack, lace my boots and head back to the Highlands to find out. (Fellows traveled far and wide this summer to cover all manner of issues all over the globe – check out the group Tumblr.)

We found families we met seven years ago…

Pa Lungan Rice Packets

such as Moriaty Udan (here, preparing pounded rice in a forest leaf) and

©2013 Jerry Redfern

her husband, Walter Paran, with daughter Mujan (who was just about three years old when we last met). They served us feasts of wild boar, pounded greens, sweet young bamboo and rice. And they told us how their village, Pa’ Lungan, is continuing to change as the younger generations leave for school and jobs far away. Mujan, home for holiday break, spends most her days and nights with other kids in boarding school, a five-hour hike from home.

In the past four weeks, we found many complex stories in this region in flux – stories of food and environment, aging and cultural change. Those reports will emerge in the coming months – we will let you know when and where and how to find them.

For now, I’m beginning the long-haul work of weeding through piles of notebooks, too-big files of recordings and video. My desk is cluttered with old-fashioned books and maps in print and PDFs on the iPad. But a part of my head remains in the jungle. It was hard to leave – harder than I’d expected. Despite leech bites, bee stings and bucket showers (cold water, of course), there was comfort in that land. Maybe it was the pitch-black nights of deep, restful sleep. Or the vast distance from cell phones and Internet, and all the frustrations big and small that go with those technologies. Maybe it was the sound of a thousand forest creatures singing through the day. Maybe it was all that fresh food (yes – it was local and organic and wholesome and sustainable, the epitome of modern-day food-movement buzzwords, but way out there in the Borneo boonies, far from the hubbubs that divide other food-minded folk.). But when we reached city again (after a terrifying all-day drive down a mud-slick mountain logging road) I literally stumbled on the sidewalk. Pavement, lights, honking horns – so quickly, it felt so foreign.

So quickly, it reminded us how lives and cultures can change.

Stay tuned. More to come.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Ginger: both flower and food.


Introducing: A Farm, a Website, a Recipe for Grilled Padróns

 RS RoastyPadron


Confession: every time I look at this site lately, I’m socked with guilt. Guilt, because I see the expansive gaps between my posts. Guilt, because I miss my time with food and words, words and food. We’ve been busy. We’ve had a gazillion things going on in life – as everyone does – and my moments here have been squeezed to bits. But no more guilt. Let’s focus on the positives.

The positives are above: can you smell them? Can you taste that sweet-spicy allure of the Spanish padrón? What’s a padrón, you ask? It is, I think, the perkiest little pepper I ever did taste, and it harbors something mysterious inside. Something addictive. Toss a handful of freshly picked padróns into a hot wok of coconut oil, mix and stir, sprinkle with salt, then pop them into your mouth, one by one. Eat with drinks. Eat them all. You will drink more because of this pepper.

This is what our friends at Thunderhead Farms are growing. You can read all about them and their story at the all-new, in-progress Thunderhead Farms website. It’s an all-new, in-progress design by Jerry himself, the man behind Redcoates Studios web design and development (plus photography). Soon enough, the site will include recipes for all Thunderhead Farms produce. Farmer Jon walked into our kitchen one night, handed me a bag of peppers and said: “Here! Make a recipe!” It was the best darn excuse I’ve had  in a long time to get back into the kitchen with my thinking cap on.

I just kept thinking peppers, pine nuts, cotija. Then: peppers, pine nuts, cotija, lemon, anchovies. And sundried tomatoes, right? You need the sweetness of sundried tomatoes to balance the tart lemon, salty anchovies, and hot peppers. Right?

And so it went from there.

This is what the kitchen looked like, in mid-stream recipe development:

RS PadronPrep

And this is the recipe in its final form:

Grilled Padróns with Pine Nuts, Anchovies, Sundried Tomatoes & Cheese

6 cups medium-sized padróns
3 cloves minced garlic
1/2 lemon, juiced with flesh
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
1 small tin anchovies, minced
3/4 cups minced sundried tomatoes
cotija cheese
sea salt

Wash peppers and grill high off the coals, careful not to scorch them. Padrons have thin, delicate skins that can easily burn. You want them toasty, not blackened.

Meanwhile, whisk together garlic, lemon, salt, olive oil and anchovies. Set aside.

After peppers have cooled slightly, trim off stems and chop into bite-sized pieces (if desired). Drizzle with dressing. Toss with sundried tomatoes and top with crumbled cotija. Serve warm.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Rhubarb and strawberry sauce on yogurt with fresh mint leaves.

Rhubarb & Rain

Rhubarb and strawberry sauce on yogurt with fresh mint leaves.

A summertime strawberry double whammy: berries topped with yogurt, mint and rhubarb-strawberry sauce.

Here in New Mexico, we are living in exceptional times – “exceptional” being the word weather monitors use to describe some of the nation’s worst drought conditions: rivers gone dry, ditches of dust. We’ve seen some relief this past week with afternoon and evening showers, and the apparent start of the monsoons. But it’s not enough.

There is, in fact, debate as to whether this is drought. A drought, by some definitions, is a “deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time.” It’s described as “an insidious hazard of nature” with characteristics that vary from place to place (drought in the rain forest is different from drought in the desert). Its beginning and end are determined by detailed analysis of weather data and the degree to which precipitation veers from local averages. But what if low rainfall is the norm? What if, here in New Mexico, we’re not experiencing an aberration – but the way things typically were and will be?

It’s hard on people, plants and animals. Our gardens shrivel in the sun. They need careful attention, or they will not survive. The Rio Grande, less than a mile away, dwindles to a trickle, then nothing at all.

What a switch to the soggy, muggy summertime Midwest, when we visited family in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago. It rained almost every day. We stopped at a store one morning, parking beneath heavy, leaden clouds. By the time we’d finished our errands, the sky crackled and growled as an opaque cascade pummeled the ground. Water pooled and puddled everywhere. It hung around for days. Plants grew lush and green…

©2013 Jerry Redfern

©2013 Jerry Redfern

…fragrant and tall. I’d almost forgotten what the Midwest could be, in summertime. I’d forgotten what it was like to know the rain would come without all the hoping and fussing.

I found a turtle crossing the road, then helped it back to the woods…

©2013 Jerry Redfern

©2013 Jerry Redfern

…while the resident red-bellied woodpecker regularly showed its colors (curiously: a red cap but no red belly). Day in and day out, Jerry sneezed, in fits of five or 10 or more, thanks to this burst of verdant growth.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

©2013 Jerry Redfern

And he picked rhubarb in the garden for my Mom to make sauce. Rhubarb: we don’t get much of that here in the desert Southwest, where it wilts in the heat. It’s a cool-weather plant that needs a good winter to stimulate later growth. The tangy sweetness of that simple sauce (rhubarb and strawberries mixed) was something I hadn’t tasted in a very long time. We brought it back to the desert and ate it on cornbread. And somehow, breakfast that morning felt a little more humid, a little more Midwest.

Here’s the recipe, adapted from the old tattered green-covered cookbook my Mom has had since her early days of marriage: Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, published in 1952.

Rhubarb-strawberry sauce:

2 pounds chopped rhubarb stalks and strawberries (about 8 cups)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water

Boil ingredients gently for about five minutes. Cool and serve.

Rhubarb and strawberry sauce

Garden rhubarb with strawberries