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Archive for the ‘Diplomatic days’ Category

In the early 1990s, the New Zealand Embassy in Bangkok was at the end of a lane shared with the Spanish Embassy, nestled under tall, leafy green trees. Sadly those trees are all gone now, replaced with concrete and steel high-rise buildings, but when I was there it was a kinder, gentler time, though even then we knew it wouldn’t last long. My office was on the second floor, and it looked out into the trees. I could sit at my desk and watch squirrels scampering along the branches, desperately madly chasing each other, and occasionally stopping to copulate. It was a little piece of nature in a city that was fast becoming a building site, cranes stretching across the horizon, in the midst of an economic boom; a city that was fast developing but at the same time – in a process replicated all over the world – sadly losing some of its more beautiful spots in the name of progress. My little spot of nature had squirrels, and I was amazed. Who’d have thought there’d be squirrels in Thailand? Certainly not me, who only knew squirrels from books and TV. I loved them. The squirrels in Bangkok though were lean. They weren’t the squirrels from the cartoons I grew up with, cute chubby little cheeks and bodies and brush-like fluffy tails, but they were squirrels nonetheless, real live squirrels in-the-flesh, and forever entertaining.

In the middle of our term in Thailand, we were given two weeks additional leave, to ensure we had a break from the temperatures, humidity and environment of Bangkok. We took the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time. There, in the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, we saw a squirrel. This first European one was much more like the chubby cartoon version, and we were entranced, as I have been since to see squirrels dashing about the grounds of the White House, or many years later in London, as I caught up with friends from those diplomatic days in Bangkok sipping tea together in Russell Square watching the squirrels hard at work preparing for winter, or most recently, posing perfectly for us here, in St James Park in London.

Previously only seen on TV

Previously only seen on TV

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Friday night here in this northern, beachside town, saw us at a photography awards show, and then dinner at a local Thai restaurant. My sister was taking advantage of our presence by insisting we eat at a Thai restaurant. The food was good, and I chatted to the waitress in Thai (though the occasional Italian “si!” slipped through). At the end of the meal, I got chatting to the owner, and another man.

Turned out that the owner’s friend and I had shared a car once, in a Ministerial motorcade in Bangkok. He was a much more senior diplomat than I, but was friendly enough to me, his junior colleague. I remember he looked out the window as the motorcade, flanked by white uniformed motorcycle outriders, sirens on and lights flashing, sped through Bangkok’s usually congested streets.

“You know,” he said, ” people complain about Bangkok’s traffic, but it really isn’t that bad, is it?”

I looked at him in disbelief. The streets we were travelling were empty, but I pointed out the police at all the intersections, blocking the traffic from entering our route until we had passed. I shuddered at the thought of the size of the traffic jams we had created, the gridlock that might take half an hour to clear to Bangkok’s regular, sluggish, traffic flow. We were racing along, taking only minutes to travel a route that might normally take an hour or more. And I shook my head. This is why people think diplomats are out of touch!

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The news this week of the attacks on the US Embassies, and the murder of the US Ambassador to Libya and some of his staff, was shocking to me. It has been about 18 years since I left our own diplomatic service, after only one posting in Bangkok. Even with such very brief experience as part of the global diplomatic family, I felt this deeply. When you’re away overseas, representing your country, you feel an affinity with those other diplomats. Because they too are overseas representing their countries, living in a strange land, learning (often) a strange new language and culture, missing their families and friends at home, setting up home wherever their government decides to send them.  So often the similarities between us all – whether we are from New Zealand, the US or China – outweigh the differences. We become friends and colleagues. And things that affect our friends and colleagues affect us too.

I was on the phone this afternoon to another friend who has only recently left the diplomatic service, and we chatted about this.  She has had a more than 20 year career serving in three different countries.  She has a friend and colleague in the US Embassy here who she met somewhere offshore years ago. This often happens. Friendships develop, rekindle, and deepen over the years as diplomats crisscross the planet.  And in the process, we become a family. A huge, disparate, diverse family. And almost 20 years later, I still feel part of that family. And I feel for those diplomats who were threatened, injured, and killed overseas.  I feel for the diplomats all over the world who will now be on heightened alert.  I remember walking past the gun-bearing guards and the small cannons outside the US Embassy in Bangkok during the first Gulf War.  I remember their vulnerability.  I remember my grief at the death of the head of the Red Cross, and international diplomat who I had met ten years earlier in Cambodia.  And I grieve for them all.

It reminds me of the AFS motto, taken from Sanskrit:

Walk together, talk together,
All ye people of the earth,
Then and only then
Shall ye have Peace.

If only …

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First I was a resident, living in a Thai family, going to a Thai school, clad in the ubiquitous blue skirt and white shirt and Mary Jane shoes that branded me a Thai teenager (despite my towering height and pale skin). Ten years later, I was a diplomat, living the life of an expatriate, a life that I fitted (unlike the Thai school uniform) perhaps more appropriately, a life I loved. Over the next decade or so, I visited as a businessperson, and as a returning resident. But as time passes, the returning resident label wears thin. It has been 18 years since we left Thailand. I can’t believe I am writing that. And now when I return to Thailand, I fear that the former Thai teenager, former resident, former legitimate business visitor, is now simply becoming a tourist. A common-as-muck, everyday, annoying tourist. I’m getting to know Thailand in reverse. And that is not without pain.

Still, I’m not quite a tourist. I still find real joy in seeing the strange, and knowing it is familiar, even if I’m scratching to remember its Thai name these days. Walking down the street, past so much Thai life there sharing the pavement with us all, was a joy. Recognising things I’d forgotten I ever knew: the strange, neon-coloured desserts, the stalls filled with dried fish, each variety a worse stench than the other, the green spinach-like cakes, batangkor, fried bananas, candy floss and crepes, all the different varieties of noodles, banana cupcakes, the queues for the lottery tickets, the pushing as the bus comes. I loved that it all felt so familiar.

We stayed in an area of town we rarely frequented when we lived there as diplomats (or when we did we drove), but as students, we visited regularly, usually on the way to our weird, Austrian doctor or to the GPO. I was telling my husband about the Indian restaurant where we occasionally stopped for lunch, enjoying my first experiences of naan bread and dhal for just a few baht. A few days later I just about jumped for joy as we walked past that same restaurant on Charoen Krung Road. Still there, and 30 years later, it had changed little.

But there was something different this visit. Thailand has changed. In Bangkok, the pavements were well-maintained, easier to walk down. Even many of the roadside stalls now had concrete floors and low concrete block walls. Bangkok isn’t the horror it used to be to travel around. We stayed at the bottom of Silom Road by the river, and yet within minutes could whizz to Siam Square on the Skytrain, a journey that would have taken at least an hour or more (depending on the time of day) if we had driven it (remembering that most of that time would be spent at the traffic lights at the Lumpini Park/Dusit Thai intersection, the slowest-changing lights I’ve ever been stuck at). The Paragon shopping centre had good coffee, cheap English language books at Kinokuniya, a floor displaying luxury cars (BMW or Mercedes Benz looked cheap compared to the Lotus, Maserati and Lamborghini!). Local Thai favourite snacks and lunches could now be enjoyed at the food court, not on the street. I slurped on guay tdeeo naam (noodle soup) in the crisp, air-conditioned environment of the CentralWorld food court. It was delicious but lacked the atmosphere that once made it so special. For a start, Sharon, Madeline and Cee were missing. So too were the rickety chairs and tables, the din of the traffic, and the bus fumes.

Realising that I was getting to know Bangkok in reverse – from local pseudo-Thai to foreign tourist – was hard. The changes to the city I love bring the knowledge I don’t have a place here anymore and that, well, that hurts.

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My life in 10 dishes, continued
The first time that I remember having fried rice was Sunday 23 March, 1980. It was the day I went to live with my host family in Bangkok. They collected me (this might be the subject of a separate post sometime if there is any interest), and before going to my new home, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was a large, air-conditioned restaurant, and lunch was buffet-style. I saw this strange coloured rice and thought I’d try it. A lifelong love affair began.

Since then I have had many memorable fried rice meals, and many that have just blurred together. It was a popular lunch choice at school in Bangkok. A plate cost four baht (about 20 cents), or if we wanted an egg on top, then it was another baht. I have to point out that a fried egg on top of fried rice is one of the great culinary treats of living in Asia. The egg breaks open and the yolk oozes all over the rice. It was a favourite of mine, but it required decent Thai language skills. Mistakenly pronounce khai as gai and you ended up with the more ordinary chicken fried rice. It happened … too often. I remember eating fried rice with egg on the train to Chiang Mai. I was travelling second class with Sharon and Cee, it was delivered to our seats, and we ate fried rice as we chugged off into the night.

Ten years later, when I returned to Thailand, I introduced my husband to fried rice. He learned how to eat it the Thai way. You hold the spoon and fork just so, and push the rice onto your spoon. And you must never forget to squeeze lime juice over the fried rice. In my view it is the lime juice that makes Thai fried rice so much better than Chinese/Malaysian, etc (although the fish sauce and lack of soy sauce helps too). I even introduced my Malaysian sister-in-law to lime juice on fried rice. She thought I was mad, until she tried it.

When living in Bangkok, we were very lucky and had a maid five days a week. She cleaned, and washed and ironed and generally made our lives easier. She cooked dinner too, and it was always a happy day for us when she was feeling a bit tired, and made fried rice for dinner. A big bowl that we went back to a couple of times during the meal. I can’t remember if she introduced us to fried rice with Chinese sausage, or if we told her. But this was my husband’s favourite – slices of pungent, sweet, Chinese sausage (goon chieng) scattered through the rice, the lime juice cutting the flavour. It was always a hit with visitors too.

Fried rice is the perfect, on-the-go lunch when you’re travelling. You can find it everywhere, it is made hot each time, and in Thailand, prawns are cheaper than pork. I remember eating it on the side of the river in Ayudhaya, and with my in-laws in the Golden Triangle near the Burmese/Laotian border. I’ve eaten it on trains (more than once), in five-star hotels and at stalls by the beach.

Since I returned to New Zealand, I make it regularly, serving it in the same large bowl our maid used. I plan* fried rice days ahead. I have to buy limes first (not always easy), before the pork (my husband prefers it to egg, I compromise … sigh). Then I have to cook the rice the day (or two) before. Fried rice is to us a treat, and brings back so many memories. I’m going to share my recipe here.

Ingredients
Vegetable oil (canola, soya, sunflower – not olive)
1 chopped onion
1 tsp sugar
Two eggs
Several cups of pre-cooked rice, at least the day before. Jasmine rice preferably, but otherwise long grain. Don’t use short grain rice, the texture won’t work.
One or two tomatoes, chopped
Some chopped capsicum
Some steamed/microwaved corn/peas (frozen is easiest)
Fish sauce
Chili sauce (or tomato sauce/ketchup at a pinch)
A wok or large frying pan

Method
Fry a chopped onion slowly, till soft. Push it to the side, and sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar on the onion, leaving it till the sugar melts.
Whisk a few eggs together (one per person) and pour into the pan. Let it cook into a kind of omelette, then with your spoon/spatula just chop up into bits.
You probably need to add extra vegetable oil, then add the pre-cooked rice, crumbled in your hands if necessary to separate the grains, and stir-fry to mix with the egg and onions. When it is hot, add the chopped capsicum, and stir-fry to heat through, then the cooked corn/peas (or whatever vegetables you want really, as this is a one pot meal), and the chopped tomatoes.
Add the fish sauce and chilli sauce, and keep stirring. Ensure it is all piping hot before serving, with at least half a lime on the side for each person.
Squeeze the lime over, and enjoy!

It is also great heated up the next day, provided you have some extra limes.

*   2018 update: These days, I’m not quite so organised, and sometimes cook the rice at lunch time, then spread it onto baking trays/flat baking tins and refrigerate or even freeze for the next five or so hours. Then it is fine for frying. Also, I cheat sometimes and buy a bottle of lime juice – that way I can make it on impulse! 

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My life in ten dishes, continued…

Bangkok in 1990 was at times a grim place to live. Heavily polluted, congested with traffic, noisy and crowded, a literal concrete jungle. Like other Western governments, the New Zealand government rented a property on the beach a few hours to the south, for the R and R of the Embassy staff. We were allocated use of the bungalow every 6-7 weeks, and so would brave the Friday night traffic for a weekend of fresh air, peace and quiet by the beach.

The bungalow (as we called it), was a basic holiday home, built in the traditional Thai style on stilts, in a compound with other similar, privately owned houses. There was nothing fancy about it. There were three bedrooms, with rickety but functional air-conditioning units, a simple bathroom with a shower, and a rudimentary kitchen downstairs. The joy of the bungalow was the large, open air living area. We could lie on the couch and read or snooze, breathe the fresh air, listen to the waves lapping against the shore, or entertain friends and family.

But all good things come to an end, and by Sunday morning, we knew it was time to go home. We usually began heading back to Bangkok about mid-day, simply to avoid spending hours in the Sunday afternoon returning-to-Bangkok-after-the-weekend-away traffic that set in later in the afternoon. Our treat was stopping at another beach (Bang Saen) further north, about half-way back to Bangkok, for lunch. Bang Saen was, in 1990, a beach frequented by locals only. It was quite common for us to be the only foreigners on the beach.

Right next to the beach, there were lines and lines of street vendors.

Food vendors at Bangsaen beach

So much to choose from, but we always knew what we would order. We chose khao neeo, gai yang, and somdum – sticky rice, barbecued chicken, and green papaya salad.

Gai Yang vendor

Gai yang … mmmmm

I think this is the best picnic in the world. Yes, it even beats bacon and egg pie.

This is strictly an “eat with your hands” meal. The chicken is marinated, squashed flat and barbecued on sticks. There are as many recipes as there are cooks in Thailand. Ginger or coriander root, garlic and lemon grass, are common ingredients in the marinade. The khao neeo or sticky rice is soaked overnight and steamed, and when served cold, you can mould it into small balls to use almost as a spoon, to pick up the salad and juices, or to dip into the sweet chilli sauce. Somdum is a very famous north-eastern dish. When the staff at the Embassy would have it for lunch, I was the only farang (foreigner) invited. Someone once scoffed at me for eating “peasant food.” They miss out on a lot if they never figure out that so-called peasant food is usually the best food in the world. Somdum is made from green papaya, peanuts, fish sauce, lime juice, dried shrimp, and of course, plenty of chilli. I find I can take a “one-chilli” pack quite easily, though still with a smarting mouth and running eyes at times. My husband was never a fan, so there was always plenty for me!

So in Bangsaen, we would order our food, sit under the palm trees, enjoy the gentle breeze and listen to the waves, and enjoy. Just last weekend we were talking about our next trip overseas, and whether we would fly via Thailand or Singapore. My husband sighed, yearning, and said “it would be nice to have khao neeo and gai yang again.”

At home in New Zealand, we try to recreate this most-loved of dishes. We’re rarely organised enough to soak the rice overnight, so follow a Thai friend’s advice and soak the rice (Thai glutinous rice) for about 30 minutes in warm water, drain, then cook in the microwave with a smaller amount of water than with normal rice. This can be done quite quickly. A barbecued chicken from the supermarket takes the place of the gai yang, and grated carrots take the place of green papaya. It’s not the same, but it brings back the memories.

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When I returned to Bangkok in 1990, I loved introducing my husband, and those family and friends who visited, to the delights of Thai food. Or more specifically, Thai food cooked in Thailand. There are Thai restaurants all over the world but, perhaps because of the difficulty in getting the genuine, fresh ingredients, they never taste quite the same. In Thailand, the local food has an extra tang, an extra burst of flavour that takes the joys of Thai food into the stratosphere, far above the cuisine of its neighbours.

When we had visitors, we would almost always take them to a favourite restaurant off Sukhumvit Road. On cooler nights we’d walk, on hot humid nights we’d drive, unashamed, the short distance to Soi 12. In 1990, this restaurant was filled with local expatriates and Thais alike. It was a small, wooden building, in the style of a traditional Thai house. The food was cheap and delicious, the restaurant air-conditioned and clean. It was run by a charity, the Population and Community Development Association, that did extraordinary work in rural Thailand aimed at family planning and more latterly AIDS prevention. The head of the DPA was a man named Mechai. Throughout Thailand, condoms became known as mechais. When we ate there, we knew we were helping the community. An added bonus.

The restaurant was appropriately named Cabbages and Condoms, more tactfully known amongst locals as C&C. The tables were decorated with small vases of flowers made from coloured condoms, the walls with humorous photographs promoting contraception, breast-feeding (elephants), etc. I still have their T-shirt – “Our food is guaranteed not to make you pregnant.” We liked the sense of humour.

C&C\’s condom flowers

(A few years later I was disgusted to see a reference to it in the Lonely Planet Thailand edition. They referred to Cabbages and Condoms as a brothel frequented by expatriates. The article had obviously been written by someone who neither knew Bangkok, nor researched their task. For that reason I have always avoided Lonely Planet guide books since then! If they got a landmark like C&C wrong, how could you rely on anything in their guide books?)

In the three years we were in Bangkok, C&C grew in popularity. It expanded into the car park, setting up an open air section of the restaurant. We have since returned and seen that it has expanded even further, an upstairs floor and a number of souvenir stores alongside. Profits still go to charity, but it has lost the charm of the early 1990s. The food is still good though, and the prices are still reasonable. If you go to Bangkok, try it. You’ll like it.

I had a number of favourite dishes at Cabbages and Condoms. Their Dom Kha Kai (my favourite soup in the world – a coconut chicken soup) was divine, their Hor Mok Talay (a curried steamed seafood custard concoction) was served cooked and wrapped in banana leaf and a delicious treat. But it was their Massaman Curry that we never failed to order. It always had to be beef, tender beef that fell apart in the sweet, peanut curry. My husband loved the pieces of potato that were always in the dish, as they soaked up the flavour of the curry. The sweetness was offset by a unique flavour that I cannot explain, and sadly cannot recreate. I just yearn for it.

I make it regularly, and we almost always order it in Thai restaurants, but it never tastes quite the same. I was recently asked what my last meal would be – Massaman Curry was my main course. Cooked by C&C of course.

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