The meat of the matter

The past two months have exposed a great number of frailties in systems we’ve long taken for granted. From child care to health care, we’ve learned firsthand that most – if not all – of our societal structures are built on debt-ridden quicksand. Nowhere has this fragility been more apparent than in our food supply, long the envy of less-developed nations.

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Mmmm…meat in tubes. Delicious.

If you’ve ever traveled in the Caribbean or Africa or Asia – really, anywhere outside of the U.S. and Europe – you know that a standard Western grocery store is a thing of miracles. The glossy, perfect produce, appealingly stacked in lush displays. With artificial thunderstorms! Acres of cold-storage, displaying hygienically shrink-wrapped packages of beef, pork, chicken and fish, none of which resemble the animal they once were. The deli abounds with cheeses and olives and overflowing dishes of prepared foods, enticingly displayed on beds of ornamental kale.  Aisle upon aisle of boxed mixes and snack foods and sodas and candy and cookies and chips, plus thousands of cleaning products and toiletries and other various and sundry items, all brightly-colored and stocked in abundance. A standard Western grocery store never has bare shelves, because that violates its very reason for existing – that we have so much, we can replenish each item before it’s even made its way to the check-out.

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Manger et boire à Paris

Of course we went on a food tour while in Paris. How could we not? This is the city where I learned to cook (and drink), and there are far too many delicious choices to navigate on your own. Many thanks to Jennifer from Paris by Mouth, who escorted us through the Saint-Germain neighborhood with grace, hospitality and true passion for food and wine.

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Our first stop: the esteemed Poilâne bakery, the most famous boulanger in the world. Poilâne is operated by Apollonia Poilâne, who took over the company when her parents died in an accident in 2002. She was eighteen, and she ran the company from her dorm room at Harvard until her graduation, four years later. Interviewed during that time, she said, “The one or two hours you spend procrastinating, I spend working. It’s nothing demanding at all.” Words of wisdom, indeed.

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Cooking Class: Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’re excited to be headed out on the road again, and in that spirit we wanted to revisit some of our favorite moments from our adventures earlier this year. Some weeks back, we shared a cooking class we had taken in Udaipur, India. And as we’re in nostalgia mode, and I’ve got Thailand on my mind since I just spent time talking to a friend about his trip, let’s return to Chiang Mai and a fabulous cooking class we experienced there. Like our Indian class, this day out was one of the highlights of our trip to southeast Asia.

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Looks like Thai green curry, but it’s actually dessert: sweet rice pudding with bananas and coconut milk.

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Dozens of varieties of rice are for sale at the market.

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Fish sauce, a key ingredient in southeast Asian cooking.

We started our cooking class at one of the many local markets, where we sampled various ingredients and drank cold, sweet Thai iced coffee. While the cooking school has an extensive garden and grows many of their own herbs and spices, they still need to shop for a few things. Many Thai homes don’t have refrigeration, so shopping each day for fresh ingredients is both a pleasure and a necessity.

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We’ll grind our curry pastes and chop our ingredients here.

We left the market and traveled by minibus to the school, where we were offered iced jasmine tea and given a tour of the property. The cooking school is perfectly set up to accommodate guests, with spaces for prep, cooking and eating together.

Thai garden chilies

Tiny, fiery Thai bird chiles. Typically, the smaller the chile, the bigger the punch.

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Fresh herbs and aromatics, just harvested.

The cooking school has acres of gardens, where they grow lemongrass, basil, coriander, mint, galangal, ginger, kaffir lime, chiles and many other ingredients for their classes.

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Our indoor-outdoor kitchen, with cooking stations set up for each student.

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All of the components for the recipes we would make in class were neatly laid out for us. I emphasize this classical French technique a lot in my own cooking classes: it’s called mise-en-place, and it literally means “to put everything in its place.” When you’re cooking, assemble all of your ingredients like this in advance; it may seem tedious and time-consuming, but it actually makes preparing your dish much, much easier. Trust me.

Thai cutting board spoon

Fresh herbs and tamarind paste, like fish sauce, are key to classic Thai cooking.

Thai pestle mortar table

Although you can of course make curry paste in a blender, traditionally it’s prepared in a stone mortar and pestle.

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Grinding aromatics for red curry paste.

Thai wok stir-fry veg

A wok allows for quick, high heat, so vegetables and proteins remain crisp and fresh.

Thai wok stir-fry tofu

Pad thai, a favorite Thai dish. In Thailand it’s not quite as sweet as it often is in America.

Thai red curry

Vegetarian red curry soup. Good Thai food is most often a delicate balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.

Craving some Thai food after reading this? Me too. Try here, here or here. And if you have the chance, definitely book a cooking class on your next adventure. It’s well worth the time and money to cook and eat like a local, if only for a few hours.

Kolkata flower market

Early on the morning of our first full day in India, we took a tuk-tuk to Kolkata’s wholesale flower market, near the city’s famed Howrah Bridge. What a bold introduction to the country! Flowers arrive around sunrise each day and are sold by the kilo to retailers who then resell the blossoms for weddings, temple visits and puja ceremonies.

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Kolkata’s flower market as seen from Howrah Bridge.

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Making a delivery.

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Many of the market’s vendors also live in their stands. 

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A rare female vendor selling fresh greens for cooking.

The market is almost exclusively male; we saw very few women. As in most parts of India we’ve traveled – except in the larger cities – women remain largely behind the scenes, caring for the home and the children.

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Let the haggling begin.

Marigolds are the primary flower sold at the market. The Portuguese introduced marigolds to India in the 1600s, and they’re now ubiquitous at all sort of ceremonies. Their rich shades of saffron and gold dominate the scene.

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Stringing a marigold garland.

Marigolds now bear enormous cultural significance here; the blossoms are threaded onto string and used as temple adornments and offerings. They’re also made into necklaces and given as gifts to welcome honored visitors, similar to Hawaiian lei tradition.

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The white garlands are made of jasmine flowers, and they smell absolutely amazing.

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Immense quantities of flowers are sold every single day; the market operates around the clock.

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Women negotiating prices with the seller.

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Loose blossoms are sold by the kilo.

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Unsurprisingly, a market like this generates a lot of waste.

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Marigold blossoms are used in offerings like these aartis, which are set alight and floated on the Ganges.

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The streets of India are filled with small altars; shops selling flower offerings are always nearby.

Like everything else in India, the market was loud, hot, chaotic and messy…but completely worth a visit!

 

 

Street food

After the markets, street food vendors are one of the most colorful sights in southeast Asia. From fresh fruits and vegetables to juices, meat and snacks, just about anything you fancy is available from a street stall. Although you might not know exactly what you’re eating, it’s worth watching just for the show.

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A lobster stall in Nha Trang setting up for business.

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Crocodile farming – for both meat and leather – is big business in central Vietnam; the industry is definitely not PETA-approved. This enticement is outside a restaurant in Nha Trang.

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These delicious little packets contain sticky rice stuffed with bananas, eaten as a snack or dessert.

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These lovely women are running a rotee stand. Rotees in Thailand fall somewhere between a crêpe and a pancake and are filled with sweet or savory ingredients.

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Carts are set up along just about every street.

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This woman is making Vietnam’s world-famous banh mi sandwich, sold for about 75 cents.

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These tiny bananas (about the length of a finger) are so much more flavorful than the standard Cavendish variety we get at home.

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Fancy some whiskey or red wine with your street food meal? You can have it.

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Perhaps you’d like a meatball skewer?

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Salted whole fish, ready to eat.

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Fried sweet potato, banana and other tasty treats.

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The “special meat” restaurant outside of Siem Reap. Sit, stay…good dog.

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Little sweet cakes, served hot.

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Skewers and more, ready for the grill.

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Baling sugarcane on the streets of Phnom Penh.

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The sugarcane is crushed through a press to produce delicious juice, which is flavored with fresh lime and sold in little baggies as a refreshing drink.

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Chefs demonstrate their stir-fry skills at Siem Reap’s night market.

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Honestly, I don’t know. But what colors!

 

To market, to market

For a chef and a photographer, traditional food markets are a wonderland. We visit markets whenever possible and do our best to capture the scents, sounds and tastes through our words and photos. These markets are often messy, fragrant, hot and noisy, to say the least, but they capture a place and its people the way few other tourist attractions do.

P.S. If you’re in the Denver area, I’m teaching an incredible cooking class on exploring ethnic markets in June at the Botanic Gardens. Learn more here!

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Chile paste, fresh chiles and ground turmeric.

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This little piggy went to market…

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The morning fish market in Hoi An.

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Fresh herbs, delivered by bicycle.

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Rice is the staple food for more than two-thirds of the world’s population, unsurprisingly, there is a lot available for purchase here.

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Know where your meat comes from.

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Siem Reap’s famous Night Market.

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Fresh pineapples are often sold peeled and cut for an easy to-go snack. 

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The “blackfoot chicken” is just one of the many poultry options available. Every conceivable type and size of bird is eaten here.

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Lots of unusual fruit varieties that I’ve never seen before!

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This is what chefs mean when they talk about “nose-to-tail” cooking.

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Most markets we’ve seen are conducted primarily on the ground.

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This is not the gluten-free section.

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Spices ready to blend into fiery curry pastes.

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Markets in southeast Asia aren’t just for food; Cambodia and Vietnam produce a great deal of the world’s “fast fashion,” typically in abysmal working conditions.

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Everything you need to garnish pho.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to cooking again when we get home!