Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Ever since Huatulco, something has happened to my dreams. Not “what I want out of life” dreams. Those are coming true. But my good ole fashioned middle of the night dreams? Those have gotten strange.
All my dreams have become about travel.
In one, the four of us were staying in a hostel. The place was like a labyrinth, and at doorway after doorway, someone would stop us and ask to see our passports. When I explained our passports were in our room, the hall monitor would always get annoyed. But they would also let us through.
What do you make of that?
Jodie and I have always had something spicy on the table. A bottle of Frank’s hot sauce. New Mexican green chile. Sriracha. We both have a love for spicy food. Our last Christmas in Oregon? My stocking included a travel size bottle of lime and chile Tajin powder.
The children, therefore, have always had some sort of spicy food, if not on their plates or palates, at least as part of their lives. During their more exploratory periods as infants, they would even try a little spicy food, a bit of hot sauce, maybe a touch of dried chile powder. Sure, their young palates got more limited, as can be common in children. Whether in Oregon, Mexico, or Thailand, Aster and Connor love to joke that when they see the hot sauce, they back away.
Jodie and I joke with them, and we take their ribbing in stride. We don’t push spicy stuff on them—and we don’t trick them, either. We talk about spicy food, why we like it, what we like and dislike, and the balance we each seek when it comes to adding some heat to our meals. After all, part of our job as parents isn’t necessarily to get them to try something, but to at least make them aware of its existence. Then, when or if they’re ready someday, they can come to it on their own.
A couple of days before Thanksgiving, we sat back on the couch in our Chiang Mai apartment and looked at a digital card covered in the names of different Thai foods.
“Let’s pick out our dishes for our cooking class,” said Jodie. Soups, stir fries, desserts, appetizers—and above all, curries. In a couple of days, we’d get to make a selection of them all.
Throughout our weeks in Mexico and Thailand, the kids overall had kept up their usual schtick about spicy food. Except that, now and again, Connor’s gaze would linger on a bottle of hot sauce, or a spoonful of chile powder, or the bliss on my face as I ate something perfectly balanced in flavor and heat.
In Oaxaca, he had done even more. During our Día de Muertos tour, while we got to visit with a family and share their observance and celebration, Connor had eaten one of the black mole tamales. As tamales go, it was one of the milder ones. Still. It was a start.
Later in the week, Connor dipped a carrot stick into a clear glass jar. Connor’s orange carrot emerged with a little bead on the end, almost like the red on a matchstick. And that thick, brownish, translucent chile jam would certainly trigger a type of fire.
He ate it. Chewed thoughtfully. His eyes got big, and I’m pretty sure there was a little sudden sheen on his face.
“It’s too spicy,” he said. We gave him words and nods of support.
After all, when you’re spicy curious, it’s all about being supportive. Reinforcing that the hot stuff will always be there, and you can come to it when you’re ready.
As for Connor, he’s not ready. Not yet. But bite by bite, meal by meal, chat after chat, he’s on his way.
Scavenger hunt and night safari
Coffee or not, yoga or not, first thing in the morning or not, the clues were not going to write themselves.
Normally I start the day with a few minutes of yoga, but this morning I hadn’t even gotten out the yoga mat. The kettle was building toward the gurgling climax of its song, but I’d be the only audience for the time being. Connor was still sound asleep in his bed. Aster was snuggled up with Jodie—and I knew that once they woke up, Jodie would do everything she could to keep Aster shut away behind the closed door of our bedroom.
So, in the quiet, calm light of the morning of Aster’s eighth birthday, I looked around about a hundred and twenty square feet of combined living room, kitchen, and entry way, and wondered where in the world I was going to hide the few small gifts we had gotten Aster.
The bathrooms? No. Too easy for that to get gross. Nor the bedrooms, since they were occupied. But as I sipped coffee and worked the problem, I began to find the little places. The nooks, perfect for clues and wee gifts: In a tabletop houseplant, inside a coffee table drawer, on a shoe rack in a cabinet, on the bottom kitchen shelf behind a potato, below some art supplies by the couch, and, for the finale, on the seat of the high chair we had set on the balcony so we could stop tripping over it.
Scavenger hunts have become a little St. Clair family tradition over the years, especially on birthdays and Easter. Jodie takes care of getting the treats or presents. I write the clues and do the hiding.
Yet on this morning, with my clues all set and the gifts all hidden, it turned out I wasn’t the only one who was prepping a scavenger hunt.
Connor emerged from his and Aster’s room, and began hiding little slips of paper all over the front room too. Then he went back into his room, got onto his bed, and buried himself in pillows and blankets.
Once Jodie and the birthday girl emerged, Aster went to work on the clues her brother had laid for her. Finally, after zigzagging and crisscrossing the little living room, Aster made her way to the doorway of the room she and her brother were sharing in Chiang Mai.
Pillows launched upward. Blankets were blasted off to the sides. And Connor sprang up from the bed like a jack in the box, throwing his arms wide and shouting, “Happy birthday, sister!”
Japanese street food fest at a Chiang Mai shopping mall
If we have figured out anything about Chiang Mai, it’s that this Thai city also loves Japanese food.
Whenever we have gone out, our hired car passes by restaurants with red lanterns outside, a traditional Japanese symbol noting a restaurant was at hand. Sushi, ramen, and more have beckoned. As much as we love Thai food, it is beyond wonderful to see one of our other favorite cuisines held in such high esteem in a country we adore.
Then, as it turns out, Chiang Mai’s love of Japanese food came practically to our front door.
About ten minutes walk from our rental, a stroll down an alley takes you to the entrance to the Central Festival, one of Chiang Mai’s most prominent shopping centers. You’ll find common household brand names here. You’ll also find a food court full of dozens of different vendors. Among the various booths, too, the Land of the Rising Sun has plenty of presence: Beard Papa’s creme puffs. A sushi place (that the kids ate at pretty much every time we came here for a meal). A yuzu-focused juice and smoothie bar. Even a food stall where you could order up hot, freshly made takoyaki (a sort of octopus-filled popover) and okonomiyaki, the “Japanese pizza” of cabbage, sauces, and mystical forces that may well tie the universe together. Well, perhaps it’s not that profound. But anything as versatile, delicious, and as inexplicable as okonomiyaki surely has a lot more to it than dinner.
Yet it turns out that timing was in our favor: Outside, on the main promenade at the Central Festival’s entrance, we found ourselves before rows and rows of pointed roofs, narrow wee food stalls at what a wide black banner said was for the Yatai Festival.
But what, you ask, is “yatai?”
Yatai, it turns out, is a Japanese word that literally means “shop stand.” Yatai are typically small, mobile food stalls, or what in the US we might call food carts or food trucks.
Now, just minutes from our rental, we could wander up and down a grid of dozens of yatai, serving up ramen, grilled squid on sticks, and even soulful, simple, earthy yellow Japanese curry.
Thai food is resplendent, transcendent, in its bright, aromatic combinations, where earthy and funky ingredients become a whole that is the best of all their parts. Yet Japanese food, and especially Japanese street food, is the satisfying, gratifying, soul food of life. It’s hearty yet light, restrained yet deliciously joyous.
Over iced soy milk, iced green tea, frozen slushy orange Fantas, pork and chicken skewers, and both pork curry rice and chicken curry rice, we sat on some steps next to a bunch of teenagers cosplaying as characters from a popular anime whose name I tried to catch but never quite made out. The warm evening settled over us, and the simply yet well-prepared food filled us. All around, a thick crowd sat at tables, wondered from yatai to yatai, and filled the aisles and rows of street food almost as thick as street traffic in a Bangkok rush hour.
Yet the same sense was all around us too. Appreciation. Delight. Hearty food, affordable, well made, and fun.
When you get down to it, that’s what captivated me about Thailand ever since my first visit in 2003. There’s a sense that food is good, and that food should be approachable, affordable, accessible. And a sense that, so too, should be life.
We ate our fill. And finished it all with a few mochi. Then we wandered the lights and stalls, content and together, full in belly—and full in heart.
Happy Thanksgiving Thai cooking class
Away from the USA over Thanksgiving with no oven and no turkey?
That was definitely going to be different. No dressing, Jodie’s favorite, full of bready goodness and savory sausage and herbaceous vegetables. No roasted sweet potatoes, sweet and creamy. We wouldn’t even make Anthony’s signature beer cheese dip, which a set of friends in Oregon has joked is the only reason they invite us for dinner.
No, this Thanksgiving was going to be unlike anything we have ever had before. But it would have the most important elements: A good meal. And each other.
For us Thanksgiving is typically full of cooking and togetherness. Some years we’ve dined with friends in Eugene, or sometimes family in other parts of the country. Other years we’ve made our own meal at home, and shared with neighbors. But not this year. This year we would have no traditional Thanksgiving.
We were still in Thailand though, a country that reveres food. And even if we weren’t with some of the other people we love, the four of us were together, in the same place, on a day we consider one of our favorite of the year.
So in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we decided that if we couldn’t make Thanksgiving dinner, we would instead take a 5-course cooking class. After all, we’re used to cooking on Thanksgiving. It wouldn’t be turkey and trimmings, but it didn’t need to be. It would still be a meal, made from scratch, together, that our family could enjoy.
On Thanksgiving afternoon, Apple from Cookventure picked us up. Prior to founding Cookventure, she had also worked as a teacher at the same place where, years prior, I had once taken a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai.
Now, Apple wandered with us through the Ming Muang Market. Old timbers held up a high corrugated metal roof, the last market of its kind in the city. Herbs and aromatics for soups weren’t just available, they were bundled by the type of soup you wanted to make. Eggplants came in dozens of varieties, some long and slender, almost more like summer squash or zucchini, but with pale purple-pink skins. Others were the size of blueberries and came in green bunches like grapes.
The kids wrinkled their noses as they smelled fish sauce, oyster sauce, chiles, garlic, and lemongrass. At another stall, we cracked coconuts together, and watched the meat get ground up, then bagged for us to use later.
After the market, Apple drove us through the streets of Chiang Mai. On a cloudy day that teased rain but never gave a drop, we stopped on a narrow street lined with houses, in a quiet residential neighborhood. Bushy green plants along the street sprouted large flowers, some pink, some yellow, some white. In an empty lot, banana trees rose.
And we started prepping ingredients for the first of five courses.
“The thinner you slice the chile,” said Apple, “the hotter it will be in the final dish.”
“Daddy will slice his an atom thick!” said Connor.
From pad thai to chicken stir-fried with cashews, we soon had finished our first courses. Aster chopped up fillets of white fish, to be roughly chopped into the base for fried fish cakes that she had chosen. We crushed aromatics and simmered lemongrass and galangal in coconut milk, for savory seafood soups.
At the table, we tucked into our soups. Aster even tried some enoki mushrooms and cooked tomatoes. Though when it came to the chile jam, sweet and translucent brown, with a deep, funky heat, Aster politely waved it away.
“Nobody’s perfect,” I joked, and winked at her.
Connor replied, “That’s exactly how I would describe you.”
On a low bench, Apple and her assistant had set up slender, heavy, stone mortars. Each could easily hold a quart or a liter, and inside each was a heavy stone pestle about the size of my forearm.
We all sat before a mortar like a potter before their wheel. Apple came by to each of us, dropping in chiles, or garlic, or dried shrimp, or lemongrass. And we pounded. Scraped. Lifted and dropped. I don’t know how long we worked the mortars and pestles, but pound by pound, minute by minute, the whole ingredients surrendered their shape and form to become something new, powerful, and fragrant. Curry pastes. Jodie made a green, with rich color from small, slender green chiles. My panang was a sunset red, gleaming from the red, long, dried chiles that I pounded. The kids made yellow curries, a little tamer, but no less fragrant.
“I still see chile pieces,” Apple told me at one point. “Keep pounding!”
After the pounding, the mixing. Apple brought out the ground coconut we’d gotten at the market earlier, from the coconuts we had cracked with a few poundings from our own fists. After mixing the coconut with water in a large bowl, the kids began to knead and squeeze the mixture, until gradually what was clear became milky, then a rich white.
On the stove, the rough beauty of the curry pastes combined with the fresh, sweet coconut milk. And that alchemy, that brilliant soul and chemistry of Thai food, showed us all the power of its everyday magic.
We enjoyed bite after bite, of our curries with rice, but also of our desserts—mango and sticky rice, with a sweet coconut milk sauce, and deep-fried bananas.
I spent the evening mostly grinning. Taking my own cooking class in Chiang Mai nearly twenty years ago had been one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and had done much to shape my love of Thai food. Now, I was not only back in Chiang Mai. I was sharing a cooking class, enjoying homemade, from-scratch Thai food, with my three favorite people, on one of our favorite days of the year.
On Thanksgiving, a day where gratitude is the most important ingredient of all, I knew exactly what I was thankful for. But Connor beat me to it.
“I’m thankful,” said my son, “for the people I’m with.”
Was it a Thanksgiving completely different from any we’ve ever had? You bet. And I’m sure it won’t be the last that is different either. But whether it’s the same or different, roast turkey or Thai curry, doesn’t matter. The spirit of Thanksgiving is the love we share, and what, and who, we are grateful for. It’s embracing the challenges of the day—after all, it is a lot of cooking—but also the joys.
We embraced both. And each other. Then we took that day into our hearts, our Thai Thanksgiving, different, and delicious. Beautiful—and above all, ours.
My son’s two worst swear words
The trouble began, as it so often does, at bedtime.
Connor and I were in the living room of our Chiang Mai rental. He had brushed his teeth and gotten ready for bed. Yet, instead of reading, now his eyes took on a puckish glint as he beamed at me.
“The two worst swear words I know start with the same letter.”
My mind froze. Connor’s mouth paused. The world stopped, or at least seemed to slow and sharpen, like your perception when you deal with a difficult situation, or a bullet-time scene in The Matrix.
It’s not that we shy away from swearing in the St. Clair family. We’ve always tried to be somewhat measured about our language. Though, as a man who prides himself on a share of flaws but relatively few actual vices, a good cussing is about as much as I let my short hair down.
When we or those around us have cussed around the kids, we’ve never bothered about it. If they have then gotten self-conscious, such as smacking their hands over their mouth after dropping a big ole F-bomb around the kids, we’ve simply asked them not to worry about it. It’s better to move on with an “all is normal” vibe.
Kids respond far more to the feeling behind the words, than the actual words themselves.
It’s also not the first time Connor and I had discussed swearing. We’ve had discussions about cuss words, what they mean, how they’re used, and how if he did want to try using any, it could only be with me or Jodie, and he had to use the word correctly.
Now, though, I wondered what in the world he had in store for me. Maybe something had come up in a video he and Aster had watched. Maybe he had heard something I had said, or Jodie had said, or something some tourist in the market had said too loudly.
I braced myself. And let the world go back into normal speed mode.
“Okay,” I replied. “The two worst swear words you know start with the same letter. What are they?”
He leaned in toward me. Grinned a little. And let fly.
“Hell and hate,” he said. “They both start with H.”
I hugged him.
“Two big ones indeed,” I said.
Hell, not a big deal after all. If anything, I felt grateful and relieved. Sure, he would come to know, and I’m sure use, swear words that our culture considers far more intense. (Besides, I’ve insisted that if anyone gets to teach our kids to swear, it’s me and Jodie. If you don’t teach your kids to cuss, who will?)
Yes, I was thankful. Thankful that even at a young age, my son knew the worst swear word, the word, and the concept, that was more toxic, gross, corrosive, demeaning, and offensive than any other.
I won’t even say it again.
Connor hugged me back. And my gratitude grew. At least he also knew how to counter it, what was better than it, and what we can always choose when we want to choose a better way.