A Celebration of Lao Food & Farming


Phonsavanh Food 11

Farming in Laos

Khao niaw, sticky rice. It’s the lifeblood of lowland Laos. The Lao phrase “to eat” specifically implies eating glutinous rice. To some, sticky rice is an integral part of national and ethnic identity.

Many Laotian meals are designed around glutinous rice, which is taken with the right hand and formed into little balls for dipping into sauces, salads, soups and stews. Most basic, most pertinent to the Lao table are jaeow—a pounded chile paste with endless varieties of herb and spice combinationsand padaek, fermented fish paste, a staple ingredient of many dishes.

In the highlands, it is mountain rice that sustains the farmers who plant steep slopes in an array of grains, ranging in color from red to brown to purple. Laos maintains one of the world’s highest per capita consumption rates of rice: somewhere between 247 pounds and 395 pounds a year, depending on the study and its methodology. More than 70 percent of Laotian families grow their own rice. In Laos, dinner depends on the land close to home.

Phonsavanh Food 17

A market vendor sells fritters in Phonsavanh, Laos.

Slow Food ABQIf you are in New Mexico, please join us Friday for a special celebration of Lao food and farming, hosted by Slow Food Albuquerque. (Click on the link to RSVP.) Festivities begin at 6:30 pm at the Center for Peace and Justice. We’ll have sticky rice, jaeow and a spread of Laotian foods for you to try (as well as a very special variety of tea).

Many people ask me how Lao food compares to Thai food, which is better known in this country. It’s similar… but not.

Phonsavanh Food 15

Most every Lao meal includes chiles—fresh or pounded, in sauces and pastes.

Lao food is typically less sweet, often spicier, sometimes bitter (bitterness can connote nutritional and health benefits), typically herbal and earthy. Traditional country food is home-grown (or hunted or foraged), hand-picked and freshly prepared. In Laos, a soup or stew will often come with a mound of fresh herbs, as we might see spinach or lettuce piled high in our own kitchens.

Phonsavanh Food 07

Fresh herbs and lime accompany many Lao dishes.

Please come—we’d love to share this food with you. Take a plate, then watch and listen for a while as we give a multimedia presentation on Lao farming and the long-term effects of war on the land. If you’ve been reading this blog or my other writings for a while, you probably already know the numbers: between 1964 and 1973, in an offshoot of the Vietnam War, US forces flew more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. Millions of pounds of bombs were dumped across the country in the equivalent of one bombing raid every eight minutes for nine years. Today, millions of unexploded bombs remain, making farming a risky endeavor.

Perhaps you have already seen one of our slideshow presentations on unexploded bombs in Laos. This will be different—more food photos, more color, more flavor.

We would love to see you on October 17.

VTE Food 22

A typical Lao assortment: pounded fragrant mushrooms with herbs and chiles, served with cabbage and boiled greens, to be eaten with sticky rice.

Hard Truths about Farming & Gardening

Spotty grape leaf 1

A few weeks ago we attended a screening of a documentary, “Growing Cities,” about the rise in urban farming across America. From rooftops to empty lots, from New York to Oregon, people are growing their own food (as humanity did for millennia until relatively recently on the evolutionary scale). The evening, hosted by Slow Food Albuquerque at the Skarsgard Farms warehouse, attracted a modest crowd of locals with coolers in hand, brats for the open grill, and cash for Skarsgard’s own hard cider. The rain came down and lightning lit the sky. It was a pleasant night in the big open room beneath the warehouse awning.

But a little something nagged me. Just a little bit.

I’ve watched hours upon hours of food documentaries through the years, and I’m always eager for the next one. Urban farming: it’s a good thing. Right? We want more of it. Right?

Yes, of course we do. But in order for that to happen, I think we need a little more truth.

Just a little bit.

Farming isn’t easy, and neither is gardening. Yet I find myself leaving so many of these documentaries feeling upbeat and energetic, ready to conquer the raised beds (or, rather, smooth talk them into abundant production). But then I start digging in the dirt and I find an endless tangle of bindweed. I start inspecting our grape leaves, and I find this:


Spotty grape leaf 2

I look a little further, and I find fruit that’s starting to show an ugly side…

Spotty grapes 2

…and strange little creatures huddled on the underparts of our pepper leaves (does anyone know what these are??? I haven’t been able to ID them).

Pepper bugs

Every day in the dirt is a battle with and against nature. We are rewarded with tomatoes (when they actually survive) and peppers (when they actually grow), bundles of basil (fingers crossed, two years in a row), and oodles of mint (people call it a weed but I welcome it). But day in and day out, the work grinds. There are at times more failures than successes. It’s a lot like journalism that way.

I wish more of these new-future-of-food documentaries would be a little more honest about the grueling effort it takes to grow a single head of lettuce—let alone enough to fill the family pantry. Farming isn’t all sunshine and roses, gardening isn’t all peaches and cream. Many people give up, and I don’t blame them. They’re tired. The Earth is tired. (That, in fact, is exactly what Shan farmers told us during our trek through the hills there: They love farming but the land is tired, the insects are thriving, and consequently farmers are responding with more and more pesticides.)

I’m not trying to be a downer or a whiner. I just think we all need to appreciate more the turmoil that happens behind the scenes… in the many hours between those lovely shots of planting seeds and the joyous smiles of farmers reaping great harvests.

It’s hard. If you know anyone who tries to grow food on a big or small scale, give that person a hug or a handshake today. And praise the little creatures that help them along, like this predator found on a stalk of lovage:

Praying mantis 2

(By the way, it turns out our grapes apparently were thirsty, despite abundant rain and ritual watering. Even a downpour that floods the surface of our yard won’t necessarily reach the extremely long taproots that grapes and other plants have developed.)

On Gardens Near & Far. And Summer Squash Soup.

Danu girl with tomatoesA Danu girl sorts through her family’s home-grown tomatoes in Shan State, Myanmar.

Hello there. It’s been a while. I apologize for my absence from this space—not that I’ve forgotten it, or you. It’s been on my mind a lot in the last many weeks. But you know how life takes us in multiple directions and we can’t always be everywhere, do everything, we’d like. Sometimes, the immediate needs our attention. Sometimes, we really can’t multitask. But then, if you’re like me, you eventually feel a nagging need to “catch up.”

Yet I dislike that term because it’s packed with negativity and the implication that we are somehow failing, somehow falling behind, even when we pour every ounce of ourselves and our energy into the hours and days as they pass. “Being in the moment,” as they say, attending to timely needs. Is that failure? It shouldn’t be.

So, let’s not catch up. Let’s just be, here, now.

Here, for me, is at home in New Mexico once again after a three-month journey through Asia. This trip felt longer than others. Longer—but busier, more intense. Just a few weeks ago, we trekked through Shan State and talked to farmers about their lives (thanks, in part, to SEJ’s FEJ grants). Now we’re home, digging our hands into the summer soil in a garden growing abundantly, thanks to new rain. Worlds apart, but not that different. There is a universal connection among people who work the land to grow food on a small scale. There is something unifying in that purpose. Though our histories and cultures and languages differ dramatically, every small-scale farmer, gardener and garmer understands how to watch the sky and feel the soil. We all fear pests and drought. We all cheer for good harvests.

Pa-O garlicGarlic stored in the home of a Pa-O family, Shan State, Myanmar.

I took the snapshot above on the ground floor of a Pa-O house in a village where just about everyone grows garlic. Garlic lay in mounds on the living room floor. Garlic scented the air. Garlic, everywhere. Farmers worked the fields on steep slopes across high mountaintops. Where garlic didn’t grow, ginger and turmeric and peanuts did.

Here at home everyone grows chiles, of course. Chiles along with corn, beans and squash—the three sisters (although we’re growing none of the sisters this year). We started our garden late, but already our first jalapeno has arrived….

First jalapenoOur first garden jalapeno of 2014, New Mexico.

…and the farmers markets are abundant in squash. One night shortly after we got home, I inadvertently stumbled into a new (to us) way of eating calabacita squash: grilled and puréed with complementary spices. I’d asked Jerry to grill the squash, envisioning thin slices lightly toasted. Instead, he’d sliced them in half lengthwise and charred them, akin to eggplant. So I cut away the char and scooped out the flesh. Then I mixed it and mashed it with a bit of onion, garlic, oregano, salt and olive oil. It was delicious, and we ate it with steak tacos.

Grilled mashed calabacitasGrilled & smashed calabacita squash.

Last week, we applied the concept to yellow summer squash soup with plentiful garden herbs. Here’s what happened. I recommend it for those summer weeks before other veggies come in and everywhere, it seems, there is squash to be devoured:

Grilled Summer Squash Soup

2-3 large summer squash (I used yellow but any will work), split lengthwise
several cloves of garlic, minced
1 white or yellow onion, chopped roughly
1 healthy handful of fresh sage leaves, minced
1 healthy handful of fresh oregano, leaves minced
1 handful of sundried tomatoes, diced
a healthy sprinkling of dried chile powder (heat to your liking)
a dash of cumin powder
cooked sausage, chopped (optional)
butter or oil for frying
glug of white wine
salt & pepper
drizzle of olive oil
crème fraîche (1 dollop per serving)

Grill the squash until skin is charred but flesh is soft and smoky-sweet inside. Times will vary depending on squash size and grill temperature. When ready, remove from heat and let cool. Scrape away blackened skin and discard. Roughly chop the remaining squash and set aside.

In a deep pot or pan, heat the onion and garlic in butter or oil. Add squash and wine. Stir frequently until ingredients soften, then cover with cool water. Purée mixture with hand-held mixer or in a food processor. Return to low heat and stir in sage, oregano, tomatoes, chile, cumin, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add chopped sausage if using (I added a leftover brat from the 4th of July). Drizzle with olive oil if needed for taste, and serve with a dollop of crème fraîche.

Hungry Farmers Are Losing Land

©2014/Jerry Redfern

Meet Chhek Sambo. She lives in a village not too far from Siem Reap, a burgeoning town of tourists who flock to the ancient Angkor temples. It’s a hip place to be, routinely noted as such on lists of the world’s top tourist cities. You can get a $2 hour-long foot massage, drink $2 happy hour cocktails and eat $1 tacos. On the other hand, you can drop $100 on a Siem Reap dinner any night—pick your cuisine, this city will have it.

But Sambo lives in a different universe down the road, where she and her neighbors are fighting to keep their land. All their lives, they have grown their own food. Farming is the only job they’ve known. It’s all they say they want to do. But a previous village chief sold their land, without their consent, to a wealthy buyer. Now, the villagers are fighting for land titles that would give them legal standing in this struggle.

©2014/Jerry Redfern

It’s a story played out ’round the world, every day, by family farmers whose biggest aims are to feed themselves.


Sambo and her neighbors raise chickens, geese and cows. They grow plentiful mangoes…


that cling to their shady trees. It’s not an easy life, but it’s a life they say makes them happy. Still, they hunger. Some days, dinner is nothing more than rice with chile paste…


This fight to keep their land exacerbates their troubles.

It’s popular these days to talk about feeding the world, and a future population of 9 billion people. Ask Sambo what she needs to secure her future, her food, and she is clear: It must start with land.

She is not alone. You can read more about this issue in my story for Slate.

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

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

For use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY - NOT FOR REPOSTING OR REUSE

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 SciDev.net. 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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Supang Galih cutting wild asparagus.