Tag Archives: Tamarind

Singular moments and nuanced epics

We’re back in Laos – we arrived yesterday towing a mixture of emotions in our wake. I’m a bit sick of every experience and transition bringing both good and bad with it. What happened to the days when I felt sheer, unadulterated, joy at something? Or even pure happiness?

Who am I kidding, I rarely do unadulterated anything. Possibly the closest I’ve ever come to unadulterated joy was finishing my end of year exams when I was sixteen and realizing that I wouldn’t have to study for eight, heavenly, weeks. And I do taste pure happiness now but it’s in tiny moments, like this morning at 5:30am when Mike heroically got up to deal with our whining puppy (who’d already woken the whole house at midnight and had to be installed in our room to settle him down again). Mike opened the door to his crate and Zulu shot out – a golden blur propelled by a wagging tail – and promptly scooted under our bed. There he settled down to eat a snotty tissue and pretend he couldn’t see Mike on his hands and knees, commanding him to come out. For some reason I found the sight of Mike, kneeling on the wooden floor in his pajamas and trying to look stern, hysterically funny. It was a small, light, bubble of pure happiness that was all the more startling for having formed in pre-dawn darkness.

It’s in tiny moments like these – moments that often last no longer than a couple of seconds – when I feel a singular something. Big, epic, things like moving countries or getting married or returning to Laos never bring singular emotions. They are magnifying glasses, enlarging both the good and the bad. And so it has been with this return.

The good has been great. Stepping off the plane to find Luang Prabang crisp and cool was a wonderful shock. Mike had told me that the weather this time of year would bring relief, but back in June I had no framework for understanding this. I’ve never lived anywhere so overtly tropical where the weather really does change drastically from an unrelenting steamy to a clean and edgy chilly.

Seeing Zulu so excited to see us that he peed himself, and so mystified to have us back that he didn’t try to chew on us with his sharp little teeth for eleven whole minutes after we walked in the door, was gratifying.

And dining last night at one of my favorite restaurants here, Tamarind, was gastronomically celestial. The monks were halfway through their evening chanting as we arrived, snagged the last free table, and waited for our feast, and what a feast it was. Lemongrass stalks stuffed with ground chicken and herbs and then grilled. Blackened pork wrapped in bamboo and served with a tart tamarind dipping sauce. Green beans seasoned with oyster sauce and fresh chili, so crisp they squeaked between my teeth. A glass of lime juice with a lemongrass-stalk straw. A creamy pumpkin and coconut soup. A dipping platter of smoky eggplant, tart salsa, sesame-studded dried riverweed, and something I’ve learned the hard way to stay away from – a paste made of buffalo, chilli, and jam. Oh, I almost forgot the sticky rice served in woven baskets. I love the sensuousness of those warm, fat, grains between my fingers and the tactile communality of eating mostly with our hands.

Yes, the good here is great. But there is always, always, the other hand with epic adventures. And on this other hand are moment like the one last night, when I went to wash my cold face before bed and realized anew that we have no running hot water anywhere but the shower (when the wall mounted hot water heater isn’t playing up). And when our neighbors play their radio yesterday afternoon much more loudly than I think is strictly neighborly, for hours. And when our unsettled puppy wakes up at midnight and refuses to stop crying. And, right now, when I’m busy typing this and an electric saw starts grinding away on metal about twenty feet away.

Oh yes, we are back in Laos and it is a mixed bag. But, then again, that’s pretty much adult life I suppose.

Other parts of adult life are unpacking after a trip, and filing, and completing paperwork, and cleaning up the office, and invoicing clients, and feeding myself instead of just trusting that my Mum will throw lunch together, so I better go. But, first, what about you? When is the last time you felt an uncomplicated emotion?

Saffron Robe

A king asked a sage to explain the Truth. In response the sage asked the king how he would convey the taste of a mango to someone who had never eaten anything sweet. No matter how hard the king tried, he could not adequately describe the flavor of the fruit, and, in frustration, he demanded of the sage “Tell me then, how would you describe it?” The sage picked up a mango and handed it to the king saying, “This is very sweet. Try eating it!”

(A Hindu Teaching Story)

Mango. Ice. Tamarind. A little bit of cinnamon. A blender.

Try it.

The existence of poo

On Friday night Mike and I had a hot date. As you all know by now that we live in Laos, and that Laos is often very hot indeed, it would be overkill to add the word “literally” here. I will just move right along to the many other things that made this date hot.

It was a gorgeous, velvety, night at the tail end of a long week, and we decided to go somewhere special for dinner. So we left the guesthouse and wandered up main street – through the colorful carnival of the night market, past the lady who makes great mango shakes, past the stall where we buy nutella and banana crepes, past the air-conditioned wine bar that serves warm eggplant and carrot appetizers drizzled with olive oil, past the place that offers ‘three for the price of two’ cocktails during happy hour, and past the French bakery that serves chocolate au pain dense enough to tide you over until lunch if you eat it at 7am.

And to think that my mother and my husband were so worried that I’d never be able to find my way around Luang Prabang without a GPS.

After passing that parade of gastronomic delights we wandered down a couple of side streets towards the Mekong until, opposite a gold-glazed temple, we reached Tamarind.

Tamarind is a small nook that serves traditional Lao food along with a dash of cultural orientation. The menu, written in English and Lao, tells you that it’s impolite here to put your fork into your mouth – the fork is intended only for shoveling food onto your spoon. It tells you not to buy rice from the street vendors to give to the monks in the morning – that the monks consider that rice tainted and will not eat it. And it explains one of the reasons why Lao cuisine is so different from Thai – because the staple, sticky rice, is better suited to thicker dipping sauces and pastes than the soupier Thai curries.

It was at Tamarind that I first sampled a tall glass of cold tamarind juice, and a stalk of lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken and herbs and grilled over an open flame. It was also where I first tried those ubiquitous brown triangles of dried riverweed studded with sesame seeds that you are meant to dip into tiny bowls of chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. The latter was not such a transcendent epicurean moment, but I guess you can’t win them all.

Despite the occasional appearance of buffalo skin in the dishes, I love the food at Tamarind. But, so far, the food at Tamarind has not returned my affection in equal measure. The first time we went there I was already unwell, probably sick from something I’d eaten in the market the previous day. And on Friday – although I was feeling perfectly perky when we sat down to dinner – I suddenly felt markedly less perky about halfway through our feast.

There are few things more deflating than suddenly becoming aware that you may need to make an emergency toilet run in the middle of a hot date.

Mike – a water and sanitation engineer and himself a veteran of giardia in Tajikistan – was sympathetically no-nonsense. We got the coconut sticky rice desert to go, walked down to the road along the river, and caught a tuk tuk back to the guesthouse. After we got there I made a beeline for the toilet. Then I collapsed, petulant and groaning, onto the bed.

“What?” Mike asked. “Don’t you feel better?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Asia is forcing me to acknowledge poo.”

“What about poo?” Mike asked.

“Its existence,” I said.

“Wait,” Mike said, genuinely baffled. “Let me get this straight. Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the existence of poo.”

“Yes,” I said.

Then Mike busted up laughing so hard I really thought that he might fall over.

“I love poo,” he taunted, when he once again had enough breath to speak. “Poo is my bread and butter.”

“Ugh,” I moaned. “I can’t believe you just said that. You’re disgusting.”

“You are unbelievably quirky,” he said. “I can’t believe that you just said that Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the operational outworkings of a normal bodily function that you have, on average, been experiencing at least once every two days since you were born.”

“Mere existence doesn’t mandate open acknowledgment,” I said. “And I am not the only one. This is a widespread woman issue.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“What do men do when they feel the urge and they’re out somewhere – at the office, or at a friend’s house?”

Mike looked at me as if trying to figure whether I was asking a trick question.

“You use a toilet,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for – to deal with our body’s normal waste in a sanitary and efficient manner.”

“There are some exceptions to this, obviously,” I said. “But women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo. It is generally understood that you do not do the poo anywhere where other people may surmise what you are up to – much less anywhere you may be heard or smelled. Ideally you do not do the poo unless you are at your own home. Alone.”

Mike did not want to believe me on this. I had to tell him about women I know who will never use a public restroom. I had to tell him about women I know who regularly go to an entirely different floor of their office building to use the toilet if they simply cannot wait any longer at work. I had to tell him about women I know who spent their entire honeymoon constipated because they refused to use the bathroom in their hotel room.

“No!” Mike said, horrified, upon hearing this last tale of poo-shame.

“Yes!” I said. “They made covert runs to the bathroom in the lobby.”

“Did you…?” he asked.

“No!” I said. “I wasn’t that bad. But I get it. It’s hard to suddenly acknowledge the existence of poo to someone else when you’ve spent much of your life working to hide it.”

“How can there can be that much shame around something everyone experiences?” Mike asked.

We both lay on the bed for a while, staring at the ceiling, pondering this question.

“What else is up there on your shame index?” Mike wanted to know.

“Crying,” I said. “I don’t think this one is nearly as female-universal. But I hate crying in public. I hate crying in front of you.”

“But that’s my favorite.” Mike said. “When you’re such an angry little ball of woe it’s really sexy.”

“Shut up,” I said, whacking him on the head.

“You’ve had a bad week then, haven’t you?” Mike said, still far too amused to pretend much straight-faced sympathy. “You’ve cried in front of me. Asia has forced to acknowledge the existence of poo. And poo, come to think of it, has probably forced you to acknowledge the existence of Asia.”

“It’s been great,” I said. “And tonight’s been the best date ever.”

“You’re welcome,” Mike said.

“What exactly am I supposed to be thanking you for now?” I asked.

“For helping you get over your quirky issues,” he said.

And to that, I had no good comeback.

I still don’t have a good comeback, but this week will doubtless bring more opportunities to come face to face with those quirky issues, and perhaps I will find one. For tomorrow I’m traveling with Mike four hours north, to spend a couple of days in a village in Viengkham province. Mike will be performing the final inspection of a gravity-fed water system there, and he assures me there will not be any air conditioners or internet present, but there will be a blessing ceremony, lots and lots of local food, and way too much beerlao.

I can hardly wait. I just hope they also have toilets.