Bangkok, 23 November 2014

I must say, I am feeling very pleased with myself. When my wife and I first arrived in Bangkok, we did the time-honored thing of scouting out local culinary delicacies to taste. One that intrigued me was Tom Yum soup. It is described as a “clear spicy and sour soup”. It was the sour part that interested me. Sour soup …. What a fascinating concept, I had to try that. But the spicy part made me hesitate. As I have pointed out forcefully in a previous post, I hate spices, or at least hot spices like chilli. But my desire to experience the sour part trumped my distaste of the spicy part. And so I tried it.

Delicious, absolutely delicious! OK, with every spoonful I was making strange rasping sounds at the back of my throat to counteract the chillies, which after a while had my wife drumming her fingers on the table, and I had to drink iced water by the gallon to calm the fires in my mouth. But behind all this mayhem, I could sense the wonderful sourness of the soup. How was this done? I started scouring the web. The answer is: fish sauce meets lime (fruit and leaf), supported by lemongrass. As usual, different recipes add various other bits and pieces, the most common of which are shrimps, tomatoes, mushrooms, galangal (a sort of root like ginger), and coriander (as a final garnish). And of course, always, without fail, chillies.

I took a momentous decision. I was going to make Tom Yum soup WITHOUT chillies. I was going to show the correctness of a fundamental belief of mine, that hot spices actually add nothing to dishes, that food can be enjoyed quite as much without these terrible ingredients.

Today was the day. Yesterday, my wife took me to an upscale supermarket to find the necessary ingredients. I knew I was on the right track when we found that the supermarket helpfully offered packets of the core ingredients. The remaining ingredients were quickly rounded up.

This morning, after a good night’s rest, I got to work. After reviewing a number of recipes again, I decided on the course I would take, to whit:
1. Boil the water.
2. Cut several stalks of lemongrass into short segments. Bruise them so that they more easily exuded their lemony oils. Cut a few slices of galangal. Destalk the lime leaves and cut them up a bit. Squeeze the limes and collect the juice.
3. Ostentatiously throw away the chillies, the ones that the supermarket had added to the pre-packed set of ingredients.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce to the boiling water. Add the juice of 2 squeezed limes. Add the lemongrass segments, the slices of galangal, the lime leaves. Bring to a boil. let simmer for a while.
5. Add the mushrooms and the tomatoes. Bring back to a boil and let simmer a bit.
6. Taste. Feel the panic rise because the soup is not nearly sour enough. Add 3 more tablespoons of fish sauce and the juice of 2 more limes. Let simmer. Taste again. Better, but not there yet. Add 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and 1 more lime. Simmer. Taste. That’s better! Now we have that sourness!
7. Add half a dozen shrimps, cook briefly.
8. Serve, spreading chopped coriander on the surface as garnish.

We ate it with a side-dish of rice my wife made.

My wife was the official taster. She pronounced the soup to be absolutely delicious, and declared that the chillies weren’t missed at all. She concluded that henceforth I could be considered the official family provider of (chilliless) Tom Yum soup, along with mashed potatoes (my speciality). My breast swelled with pride.

Now that a few hours have passed and I have reflected on the experience, I would say a few things. First and foremost, I was right: you don’t need chillies! I will now attack various other dishes which I would like very much were it not for the spices that cooks insist on adding (maybe I should make a web-site of this culinary crusade of mine). Second, I think I panicked and made the soup too sour. It was really good at the first spoonful but beginning to get too much by the last. A lighter touch would have carried me through effortlessly to the end. Third, I wonder if something other than shrimps could be used. Their taste really gets lost in the sourness. I have to think about this one a bit. Fourth, I think I have to adopt the European habit of putting the ingredients you won’t eat in a muslin bag. It kind of takes away from the pleasure of eating to have to pile up the lemongrass segments, galangal slices, and lime leaves on the table cloth as you go along. Fifth, I think I should go easy on the coriander the next time. In fact, I might try parsley instead. Sixth and lastly, when I get back to Europe what am I going to use instead of limes? Lemon? Mandarin? Orange? I’m going to have to think about this one too.

Oh, in all the excitement, I haven’t added a photo of the soup. In our haste to try it, neither my wife nor I took a photo of my creation. And I hesitate to take one from the web, because they all are of soups made with chillies. But what the hell, here is a photo.


Also, one day I will write a post on how I make mashed potatoes. Promised.


Tom Yum soup: (in


Bangkok, 19 November, 2014

I was in Myanmar last week for the first time in my life, with a team of colleagues. Unfortunately, our trip coincided with an ASEAN Summit in the new capital Nay Pyi Taw, which was attended by sundry political worthies, including President Obama and Premier Li Keqiang. We seemed to have spent most of the week fleeing from these worthies. We hurriedly visited various government Ministries in Nay Pyi Taw in the two days before the Summit started and rode out of town to Yangon the night the politicos started arriving. We were congratulating ourselves on having missed the craziness which usually accompanies the presence of political heavyweights, but we had not reckoned on President Obama following us down to Yangon. His motorcading around the city to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and do various other things like visit a church snarled Yangon’s already chronically congested traffic and made our lives a misery as we threaded our way through back roads to arrive more or less on time at our various meetings.

But actually this post has nothing to do with President Obama or any other Big Cheese. It has to do with a stop we made somewhere in all this threading, at a market. One member of the team had made promises to his wife to bring a little something back to her, and the other team members thought this was an ideal occasion to pick up some Burmese bibelots. Unwillingly, I tagged along. As I feared, the market was a tourist trap: store after store of rubbish and store keepers hovering ready to pounce. But I preferred to walk around grouchily than sit in the van grouchily.

I had a faint glimmer of hope when I came across a store which sold lacquerware from Bagan. I’d read about the ancient Burmese king who had conquered his way through northern Thailand, Laos and over to Yunnan, and brought back skilled lacquerware craftsmen in his baggage train, using them to create a new luxury industry in his capital Pagan. Might I find something worth contemplating in the store?

Alas not. For one thing, I cannot stand places which look like this.


All that stuff pressing claustrophobically in on you! The feeling of being the proverbial elephant in a china shop, bumping into something and bringing mounds of breakables crashing down around your ears! My immediate reaction is to run out of such places. But I controlled my urge to run and looked. And liked not what I saw. This picture shows the typical designs being offered for sale.
Too much, too much! Too – damned – much! All those dense, dense designs. It makes me think of Australian Aboriginal art, which I wrote about in an earlier post. In art, in design, the KISS principle applies (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Now it could just be that modern makers of Bagan lacquerware use these designs because tourists have shown a preference for them, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. But a look at older designs suggests that the Burmese kings and their aristocracy also liked busy designs, although this is a good deal better than the modern stuff.
No, give me Japanese lacquerware any day. Look at this bento box in the maki-e style
Or this box in the Aizu style
Or this tray in the Negoro style (where the upper red layers of lacquer are intended to gradually wear away with use, revealing the black lacquer underneath).
These are old fashioned if not antiques. Modern Japanese lacquerware is just as lovely. Look at this:
Or if you find that this has strayed too far from lacquerware, how about this vase?
Or if you find the design too modern, how about this?
Beauty is in simplicity of form and of pattern.

I have spoken.


Myanmar lacquerware store: (in
Typical modern Bagan lacquerware: (in
Yun lacqerware tray: (in
Maki-e bento box: (in
Aizu box: (in
Negoro tray: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-1: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-2: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-3: (in


Bangkok, 8 November 2014

We were up in the north of Thailand two weekends ago, very close to the border with Myanmar, up in the high hills (or low mountains?) behind the town of Mae Hong Son. Lovely, really lovely … We stayed in the small village of Mok Cham Pae, perched on a hillside overlooking a small river and its bottom lands. In the UK they would have been turned into hay meadows. Here, they had become a patchwork of rice paddies.


Around Mae Hong Son, the rice was already ripening. But up in Mok Cham Pae it was relatively cooler, so the rice was still green, that intense green which you only get with rice paddies.


But rice paddies, for all their beauty, are a monoculture, where all other species are kept at bay. After walking around the edge of the paddy fields, seeing only some banana trees marking the edge of “rice country”


and some very smelly pigs (which turned out to be owned by our hostess), we ventured out along a dirt road which wound its way up the river valley.


The paddies narrowed down to a strip along the water, for a while vegetables took their place, and then finally what was left of the forest straggled down to the road’s edge.


We saw no elephants browsing in the forest, or tigers moving in for the kill (my memories of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli are getting the better of me). But what we did see in profusion were butterflies, fluttering in and out of the bedraggled forest, chasing each other around, or settling on the road close to water. On that walk, which was no more than two hours long, I swear we saw at least 20 different species of butterfly. In Europe now, you’re lucky if you see three different species in a whole day. There were never that many species to begin with, and intensive ploughing, pesticides, and the tearing up of hedgerows have put paid to the few there were. I’ve had a look at various web sites dedicated to Thai butterflies to identify the ones we saw, but it’s hopeless. Did we see a Common Grass Yellow or a Tree Yellow? Was that one by the bush a Gram Blue or a Plains Cupid? Or maybe a Forget-me-not?? In the end, who cares? They were just lovely. I invite readers to visit the following flickr site to get a taste of what awaits you in this part of the world, butterfly-wise.

And I choose just two to represent the class


I chose these two very deliberately, because they each bring back to me two distinct butterfly-related memories.

The first is from Mexico. It was some 35 years ago, my wife and I – and mother-in-law – were travelling around the country. We mostly took buses and the occasional train. But in Yucatan, we decided to hire a car. We got a Volkswagen beetle – I remember it well, they had recently been phased out in Europe – and drove from one Mayan temple to the next. And along the road we drove through these clouds, these drifts, of green-yellow butterflies. I was in agony at the butterfly holocaust I was causing, but what could I do? They were just sitting there on the road, sunning themselves.

I feel particularly bad about killing butterflies because – and this brings us to the second photo – I have a very vivid memory of when I was a child – six years old, I would guess – in our garden in Africa. It was full of butterflies, and like all children I liked chasing them. But this time, one, of about the color in the photo, had settled on the ground and was sunning itself. I crouched down, picked it up, and slowly – pulled – its – wings – off. Yes, I did that. Even as I write about it, I feel a strong sense of guilt at such a casual act of gratuitous cruelty. Perhaps the rest of my life as an environmental engineer has been an act of atonement for it.

Tree yellow:
Orange lacewing:

all other photos: ours


Bangkok, 1 November 2014

I think it must be a scientific law that the closer you get to the equator, the more species you will find per square metre (or foot, if you wish) looking for their space in the sun. All that steamy heat seems to lead to a sustained biological ebullience. Certainly, in a totally unscientific survey, my wife and I have agreed that the number of species wishing to share with us our hot and steamy Bangkok apartment is considerably higher than it was in Beijing. There, over a period of five years, we catalogued a few, relatively small, cockroaches making a frantic getaway over the floor and that was it (although the rare cockroach sighting led to apoplectic calls to the front desk and demands for a thorough chemical spraying). Here, in just one month and a bit, we have seen:

– A little lizard, very pale, almost albino, which we first sighted peeping out from under the dining table, then from behind a column that we have in the living room, then in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. He looked very similar to this little fellow.
I have had a soft spot for lizards ever since I used to chase them as a boy across the walls of my grandmother’s garden in France, so I was pleased to see it. But my wife is not a lizardophile and demanded that I get rid of it. I rather reluctantly chased it around a bit and was secretly pleased when it disappeared of its own accord.
– A horribly large cockroach, which luckily was flat on its scaly back, dead, in the shower. But I have seen them horribly alive, skittering ahead of me across the pavements, always in the darker corners of the neighborhood. Disgusting creatures, I refuse to grace them with a picture ….
– A number of wonderfully large moths, which flutter in at night from out over the river and settle down for a rest. They are really beautiful, nothing like the dreary little things we have in Europe, so I’d be pleased to share my living space with them.
But my wife is having none of it, so with a sigh I shoo them out, using the pasta drainer to catch them and carry them out.
– Several species of bird which use the balcony railing as a favorite stopping place. There are those pesky pigeons which crowd our squares in Europe. But there has also been a beautiful bird, which I think is also a type of pigeon although my wife disagrees.
Cheeky little sparrows also hop on and off the railings, beadily eyeing any crumbs which might have fallen off the table that we carry out onto the balcony for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
– swallows, which my wife says she found early one morning twittering around on the living room parquet (we had left the windows open). Imagine that! I see them dive and swoop over the river
as I have seen them dive and swoop over summer fields in Europe. But I have never seen them stand still.

All this in the few square meters (or feet, if you wish) of our apartment. Expanding out a little, we’ve seen beautiful little birds, black with white tufts on their wings, fluttering silently on and off the clumps of water hyacinth which drift past us on the river. They have recently been joined by a lovely white egret.

And then there’s the Asian koel bird which I’ve mentioned before. I keep on hearing it, but I’ve never managed to see it. In the dirty, oh so very dirty, canal which runs behind the office, I’ve seen what I think is a monitor lizard swimming lazily (or sickly?) in the watery gook: the water is greyer than in this photo.
The same canal teams with fish, which some enterprising (or mad?) people fish from time to time. And we have a couple of next-door fishermen who put out their nets in the river while we are having breakfast, well out of the way of the busy river traffic. I’ve sometimes caught a gleam of silvery scales in the bottom of their shallow little boats.


But I presume that the number of species we can stumble across in the concrete jungle of Bangkok would be nothing compared to what is present in the real jungle – or what is left of it in Thailand. That pleasure awaits us still.

Lizard: (in
Moth: (in
Bird on the balcony railing: my wife’s picture
Flying swallow: (in
Egret: (in http://c
Monitor lizard: (in