Eating at the Chia Tai Agricultural Fair

It isn’t enough to just go and see the fruits and vegetables being grown in the Chia Tai demonstration gardens.  You have to eat them, too!

It turns out that they weren’t too happy when I attempted to pull a carrot out of the ground and see how it tasted.  Instead, security suggested I head over to the food tents to satisfy any hunger pangs.

Sure enough, amidst the rows and rows of processed foods manufactured and sold by parent company CP Foods (they audaciously sell their label of frozen entrees called CP Fresh Mart, which you could select from a freezer case then they would microwave them for you on the spot – not a hundred steps away from acres and acres of fresh produce!), there was actually a few stalls selling freshly-prepared food items.

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I counted three items for sale made from (presumably) local produce: steamed pumpkin buns, pumpkin donuts, and steamed corn on the cob.

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The pumpkin buns, made from a yeast dough in a process described in the video below, were light and tasty and I could have easily eaten a dozen of them.  The pumpkin donuts, below, were even more amazing.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a lighter, less oily donut.  Krispy Kreme take note!

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Here’s a two-minute video that will tell you all about it.

Hope you enjoy.

Trip to Chia Tai Agricultural Fair

Thailand_Kanchanaburi Last Saturday Tawn and I made a trip up to Kanchanaburi province to attend an agricultural fair.  Kanchanaburi is about 150 km northwest of Khrungthep – roughly a two and a half hour drive if you include a stop to stretch your legs.

Kanchanaburi is one of the largest provinces in the kingdom.  Nestled along the border with Myanmar, the province is mountainous and is home to the famous “bridge over the River Kwai“, part of a 400 km railway built by the Japanese Empire during World War II using POWs and conscripted Asian laborers at the cost of more than a hundred thousand of lives.

Two interesting notes about the bridge over the River Kwai:

First, the movie starring Alec Guinness was an awful bastardization of history.  A much more accurate telling of the story and glimpse of the person played by Guinness can be had by reading Peter Davies’ 1991 book The Man Behind The Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai.  

Second, the Anglicization of the name of the river (“Kwai”) is terrible, too.  The Thai name rhymes with “way” not “why”.  Make note of that next time you’re talking with friends about this topic.  You’ll be certain to come across as a know-it-all.

Trivial tidbits aside, we arrived at the Chia Tai test gardens just outside Kanchanaburi town in marvelous time, among the first few hundred people to carve parking spaces out of the dirt shoulders of the two lane highway 323.

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Sponsored by Chia Tai, the largest producer of seeds in Thailand and a part of the CP Foods conglomerate, the fair is a biennial opportunity to open the test gardens’ gates and let the public explore many of the four hundred different types of fruits, vegetables and flowers that Chia Tai sells seeds for. 

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P1130555 With the still cool (relatively) winter weather, some twenty thousand visitors come each weekend day to explore the vast gardens, pavilions and greenhouses, taking pictures, admiring many unfamiliar varieties, seeing demonstrations, signing up for “harvest your own” tours of the gardens, and buying seeds and fresh produce for their own consumption.

There were plenty of families enjoying the fair and a good number of students running around with workbooks, completing homework assignments.  These two boys (left) were charged with writing down as many different types of fruits and vegetables as they could find. 

By the time we found them, they looked to have already found more than two dozen different varieties, all of which seemed to have grown to gargantuan size.  Maybe this was just a matter of the rich volcanic soil of the province, maybe they had been allowed to grow past the normal point of maturity, or maybe there was just a lot of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in the soil – who knows?  But the gardens will certainly lush.

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Above, Tawn tries his hat on one of the head-sized hanging gourds.  Above that, an homage to the River Kwai railroad, replete with a cargo of fresh vegetables.

P1130616 A row of greenhouses was open for inspection.  Unlike most greenhouses I’m familiar with, which are designed to keep temperatures warmer, these had the opposite purpose: to cool the vegetables.  A huge radiator was built into one end of the buildings with water circulating down corrugated metal fins.  At the other end of the greenhouses were large fans, sucking air from the north side of the building, through the radiator and then out the south side.

Needless to say, the greenhouses were quite popular with the crowd as even though it was winter, standing out in the midday sun was still pretty warm.  Left, two children pose with some of the “wart” covered gourds.

The greenhouses were each dedicated to a different type of vegetable or fruit: melons in one, gourds in a another, pumpkins in a third.  The pumpkin greenhouse had an interesting range of colors and shapes.

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In the watermelon greenhouse, there was a large display educating visitors about the development cycle of watermelons.  In addition to a half-dozen different varieties of watermelon, we were told in no uncertain terms:

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“Please read this… read then have understanding.  We do not use GMO [genetically modified organisms].  We do not have anything dangerous.”

They read my mind.  I’m inherently suspicious of food conglomerates (and pretty much any other sort of conglomerate) as I think their mission is more about profits, efficiency and productivity over biodiversity and food safety.  But who can argue with such a frank statement as the one printed above?

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In one of the educational halls, though, I found this exhibit about the different types of fertilizers Chia Tai sells.  It seemed to confirm my fears: grow monocultures on your farms and slowly deplete the natural health of your soil, ensuring you grow dependent on the use of our fertilizers.

The general public, home gardeners, were not the target audience for the agricultural fair.  We saw busloads and busloads of people arriving from around the Kingdom: farmers, agricultural cooperatives, students studying land management and agriculture from various technical schools and universities, and development organizations such as the Population and Community Development Association, for which Tawn’s father has worked for many years.

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The buses are worth mentioning.  They are decked out in all sorts of wild paint schemes, blaring with music, lacking proper air conditioning – karaoke parlors on wheels.  And they arrived, one after the other, from all corners of the country.

It is easy to be skeptical about Chia Tai’s intentions.  But as I looked around the test gardens, I saw many varieties of vegetables and fruits that are not normally available at the corner market.  Certainly, no heirloom tomatoes to be found, but enough varieties of other fruits and vegetables to encourage farmers to expand the diversity of what they grow, to develop new markets and pique the Thai consumers’ interest in new and different fresh foods.

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This being Thailand, there was plenty of fun to be had.  Not only nonstop blaring announcements and music, but raffles, games of skills and chance, picture taking opportunities, heart-shaped watermelons (grown in a box) and vegetable carving galore.

Vegetable carving is actually a traditional Thai craft.  Here it was taken in some unusual directions.  Funny note about the penguin playing football, below.  A mother brought her toddler over to see the carvings and said, in Thai, “Look, a football.”  The toddler then promptly kicked the “ball” and it rolled away.  The shocked mother promptly scolded her child, “No, no, it isn’t a real football!”  Poor child – probably wishes mum would make up her mind.

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And, since this is Thailand, of course we had the requisite “We Love the King” carving:

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We had seen all we needed to see by lunchtime and after having some food – more on that in another entry – we bought some souvenir melons and then turned the car’s nose back towards the City of Angels.

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Here’s a 4-minute story about the trip.  I hope you enjoy it.

Why Airline Employees Should Be Compensated As Professionals

Thursday afternoon, US Airways flight 1549, an Airbus A320 with 150 passengers on board, took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.  Just a few minutes later, after an apparent double bird strike that disabled both of the plane’s engines, Captain Chesley Sallenberger III and his co-pilot executed a flawless emergency landing, ditching the plane in the frigid Hudson River between midtown Manhattan and New Jersey.

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16crash3_190 First off, let’s give kudos to Captain Sallengerger (file photo right) and his co-pilot for bringing the plane down in one piece and avoiding the densely-populated surrounding areas.

Second, let’s recognize the superb performance of the three flight attendants, who performed their primary function – protecting the safety of the passengers – and evacuated everyone quickly and safely.

Those five crew members demonstrated why airline employees need to be fairly compensated for their work: because they are entrusted with the lives of their passengers.  99.999% of the time, everything goes smoothly.  But in that 0.001% of the time when there is an incident, their training and professionalism are critical.

15crashmap_large (Consider also the case of Air France 358, which overshot the runway in Toronto in 2005 and burst into flames.  The flight attendants evacuated all 297 in less than three minutes without any life-threatening injuries, even though the entire plane was destroyed by the subsequent fire.)

As a former airline employee, son of an airline employee, husband of a former airline employee, and friend of many, many people who have worked and continue to work in the air transport industry, please consider the following two points:

plane_kostoff1 First, the rush in the U.S. airline industry to turn everything into a low-cost operation, cutting salaries, demanding much longer work hours with much less time to rest between employee shifts, may get passengers lower price tickets in the short term.  But in the long term, this “rush to the bottom” puts the lives of passengers at risk.

Second, an important note for passengers: Even if you fly weekly, take the two minutes to stop talking and reading and pay attention to the safety demonstrations at the start of the flight.  Count the number of rows to the two nearest emergency exits and reach under your seat to confirm the life vest is there.

Even if you are a seasoned traveler and don’t feel you need the review, paying attention to the demo sets an example for other flyers who may not be as familiar with the safety of the plane.  In an emergency, this information will be critical to your survival.

I’m thankful everyone survived this crash with no major injuries.

 

A response from Farmer Gasper

P1130156 You will recall that, while in Kansas City, I bought some grass-fed meat and a dozen eggs from Gasper Farms, a small, sustainable-run family farm near Lawrence, Kansas.  In an entry here, I wrote about my comparison of one of their eggs and a standard supermarket egg.  In the end my test (admitedly very unscientific) didn’t show much of a conclusive result.  I also noted that the sustainably-produced egg had a much paler yolk than I expected.

Well, I’m not sure what clipping service he subscribes to, but Pete Gasper – Farmer Gasper himself – responded to that entry.  Here’s what he had to say:

The thing with sustainable food is it changes with the seasons. I like to see darker yolks than that, but in the winter the chickens just don’t get the grass and bugs they normally would.

The industrial outfits just fake it by feeding things which artificially color the yolk.

So there you have it, folks: a good explanation and nice follow-up.  Two cheers for the family farmer!

 

A visit from the country mice

Another first: Ajarn Yai, the retired director of the country school where I used to volunteer as an English teacher, came to the big city to visit me.  For more than a year, she has said she would come see our new house.  But I was actually surprised when she called last week to tell me that she and another retired teacher from the school would visit on Monday.

P1130512 With the worry that most people save for visiting in-laws, I tidied up the house, prepared some small snacks and brewed both iced and hot tea.  It took several phone calls to clarify driving directions and I finally had to wait downstairs to wave my arms when they drove down the street.

In the back of her former student’s pickup truck (he had agreed to drive her) were gifts for me and Tawn: two dozen coconuts and a dozen large bags of palm sugar made on the student’s plantation.  Additionally, she had a large bag of a local snack mix that includes tiny dried fish, rice crackers and peas.

The visit was interesting: I showed them around the condo, which Ajarn Yai pronounced beautiful but then went on and on about how it must be so expensive.  Houses in her town are much less expensive, of course.  Houses in her town are also at the end of an unpaved trail behind a temple, several kilometers from the town itself.

I served tea, invited my guests to sample the different snacks, and tried to carry the conversation mostly in Thai.  The other teacher and the driver sat on the sofa much in the same way you might sit on your Victorian Aunt Millie’s lace doily lined sofa: musn’t muss things up!  The atmosphere felt kind of stilted and I never was able to convince anyone to snack, although they liked the tea.

After a few minutes, Ken arrived, which livened things up considerably. 

We headed to lunch at a local Thai restaurant.  I had originally thought it might be nice to take them for Japanese or Italian, but am glad I didn’t as that would have been a fish way too far out of water.

At the restaurant, everyone had menus but deferred to me – the farang and the youngest at the table – to order.  I tried to see what everyone would like or if there was anything catching their interest, but kept being deferred to.

I ordered as best I could, trying to remember what Tawn has taught me about creating the proper balance of Thai dishes.  When the food arrived, which was delicious and plentiful, the Thais ate with uncharacteristic timidity.  Normally, when I eat with the teachers at a restaurant in Samut Songkhram, appetites are hearty and people serve others and themselves, eating with gusto.

Monday afternoon, however, it was a very “refined” dining experience.  They seemed to enjoy the food and ate plenty in the end, though.  I tried to engage the other teacher in conversation, but she wasn’t very responsive.  Ajarn Yai did relax a bit and we ended up having a good conversation, mixing Thai and English and translating for Ken as necessary. 

Tawn laughed when I told him about the experience.  He explained that both the other teacher and the former student were there to make sure Ajarn Yai had a good time; it was her trip, after all.  So he wasn’t surprised they were so quiet and kind of “melted” into the background.  He also pointed out that the restaurant, which I consider to be just a mid-range restaurant, would be very high end by their standards.  So their “discomfort” was the same thing I might exhibit when I go walking in to the fancy home of some friend’s well-off parents.

All in all, though, it was a nice visit and I’m glad she made the effort.  Ajarn Yai still harangues me about taking her to the United States.  Maybe one day.  If she felt out of water just on this short visit to see me in Krungthep, imagine if we were in the US.

 

Temps Hit Nine-Year Low

P1130505 As much as you folks in the further reaches of the Northern hemisphere may scoff at it, Thailand has been in the grip of a high pressure trough which has dropped down from China, bringing with it the chilly Siberian air. 

Temperatures Sunday night hit an nine-year low in Khrungthep: 15 C / 59 F.  The last time we were colder was on Christmas Day 1999: 13.2 C / 56 F while the coldest I could find on record was January 12, 1955 at 10 C / 50 F.

“Oh, that’s nothing!” scoffed one of Tawn’s former colleagues, a British expat still living in our tropical paradise.  “Thais don’t know what cold weather really is!”

Put it into perspective, though.  Our average low temperature in December and January is 21 C / 70 F.  So we’re significantly cooler than the norms and much cooler than I’ve experienced since I moved here in October 2005.  People aren’t used to this and even I closed the windows today for fear I would catch a chill from the cross-ventilation. 

Tawn even reported that one rider on the SkyTrain was wearing earmuffs, although that may be just because the air con is often quite cool on the train.  We would see this at the cinemas, too, but then the digital sound (which is cranked up to 10, by the way) would be muffled.

Thailand In Loei province, in the more mountainous north, the overnight low was 2 C / 36 F.  Provincial governors have been coordinating the emergency distribution of blankets.

And last night a monk in his 70s died from exposure in Ayutthaya, about ninety minutes by car north of Khrungthep.  He had only a knit cap and a jacket to add warmth to his robes, and was discovered in his cell by other monks when he failed to show up for the early morning alms collection rounds.

Speaking of knit caps and jackets, Tawn has dug deep into his closet and is enjoying this opportunity to layer and dress in a more wintry fashion.  Above, a wool vest purchased at Macy’s while in the US.  Below, an ascot and sportscoat keeps Tawn warm while enjoying his morning oatmeal on our balcony.

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Oatmeal isn’t the only cozy food we’re eating.  Last night I heated up the Dutch oven and cooked some split pea soup.  I’m perusing other hearty recipes that will help us get past this cold front until the warmer days of the hot season return.  Tis the season for braising!

 

Bargain of the year

The trip to the US last month included a lot of shopping, a fact about which I was reminded when I went to pay my credit card bill online yesterday.  Ouch.  But I’m glad to say that we didn’t shop impulsively.  Between trips overseas we keep a running list of things we’re looking for that we haven’t found in Khrungthep, or which we think are just too expensive here.  So when we do arrive in the US, purchases are purposeful and long-considered.

Along the way, we also hunt for bargains.  This trip, we managed to score what I roundly consider to be our bargain of 2008, short of that free dinner we received from Patrick when we met at Ember on Soi Langsuan.

One of the things we did when I grew up, something I’m told is very Midwestern (despite having been raised in the Bay Area by parents of midwestern origin), is to keep a compost pile.  Compostable matter, scraps from veggies, peels, stems, eggshells, etc. would be placed in a container, to be taken to the compost pile each night.  Likewise, “wet” garbage – chicken bones, meat scraps, other things that would otherwise foul up the rest of the trash – we segregated, usually in a milk carton, and taken out the night before the garbage collectors arrived.

That’s a habit I continue to this day.  No compost pile (no garden in our condo, I’m afraid) but I do place our wet garbage in a separate container.  This is something that took a long time for Tawn to get used to.  But I finally won him over when he observed that our building’s janitorial crew actually sort through all the trash, pulling out recyclables.  As such, if wet garbage is mixed in, it not only contaminates the recyclables, but it makes for a very unpleasant job sorting.

Even as he was won over on the value of separating the wet garbage, he didn’t think the milk carton is very pretty sitting on the counter.  So ever since we moved into this condo more than a year ago, we’ve been looking for an acceptable container, something ceramic, with a tight fitting lid and straight sides, that could replace the milk cartons.

Several initial selections by Tawn were very decorative, but were utterly lacking in practicality.  The size was too small, the neck of the container too narrow (so that you couldn’t pull the bag of garbage out after it was full), etc.

So “wet garbage container” has been on our mental shopping list for many, many months.

While we were in Kansas City, we stopped by Dean and Deluca, the famed foodstuffs store out of New York City.  On a rack near the dessert counter, set way up high and covered with a layer of dust, were three ceramic crocks, about 15 inches high.  The crocks contained biscotti from De Camillo Bakery in Niagra Falls, NY, the expiration date of which had passed six months earlier.

P1130502 The price tag reinforced the reason for a layer of dust.  The price had started at $120, marked down to $80 and then again to $60.

We discussed whether or not to buy the crock, which at $60 was still a bit pricey.  But after a year of looking, we had not found anything that seemed to meet our expectations so nicely, so maybe this was worth paying the money for.  We decided to get it.

When I stepped up to the register, the cashier scanned the bar code but it didn’t register in the system.  Looking it over, she asked where I had found it.  I pointed back towards the dessert counter, “On that shelf over there.”

“Oh, the discount shelf?” she asked.  I had not noticed that next to the dessert counter was another shelf filled with discounted, mostly holiday, items.  Not knowing whether or not my purchase was in fact a discounted item, but considering the dust and overdue expiration date, I replied “yes”.

The cashier manually entered the last price, $60, and then a code giving a 75% discount.  Final price was $15 down from the original price of $120. 

We’re back home and the crock is in use.  It is large enough to hold several days’ worth of wet garbage.  The lid fits tightly to keep any smells in and any flies out.  All in all, a very satisfactory purchase.  And, at 87.5% off the original price, my bargain of 2008.