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The fabric of it all: At home, we have an old cherry wood dresser where we keep treasures from the Mekong. In it there are Hmong baby carriers painstakingly embroidered in reverse applique. There are Mien cross-stitch women's pants, and Akha bodices, shoulder bags, and leg wraps, all in the rich earthy colours so distinctive to the Akha. There are indigo children's shirts and vests made by the Tai Dam, hand spun, handwoven, and bleached by wear and many a river washing. There are elegant silk sarongs, Lao phaa nung, as fine in our fingers as a string of seed pearls. Every once in a while we open a drawer of the dresser and simply browse, transported by a wonderful faraway smell of wood fires and kerosene lanterns, of clothing made by hand, of memories of a way of life very different from our own.
Food and textiles are for us equally full of meaning. Both are art disguised as domesticity, personal expression woven into necessity, care and nurturing transformed into colour, taste, and feel. We get the same tingly goose bumps watching an Akha family arrive in the Muang Sing market, dressed for the occasion, as we do being taught a new recipe by Mae in Menghan. There is a sense of a tradition kept alive, and there is also incredible beauty.
When we are out on the road traveling in Laos, or in Yunnan, or in northern Thailand, often at night we'll sit in our hotel room, or out on a porch somewhere, and simply marvel at a piece of embroidery we were able to purchase in a local market. Or we'll work at repairing an old handwoven bag, or a pair of falling-apart indigo pants made from hemp. It's so satisfying to feel the fabric, to decipher how the embroidery is stitched, tostudy the coarse weave of the cloth.
On several trips, we have taken with us a patchwork quilt in a state of semicompleteness, a quilt we can work on in the evening or when waiting for a bus to come. It covers our bed at night, it gives a simple two-dollar-a-day hotel room a sense of home, and it is fun to have something to share with women who are always curious and appreciative (even though our skills are so crude by comparison).
When we walk into a Mien or Hmong village, someone is always embroidering: a young woman, an old woman, a group of women. A mother will be standing in a doorway, keeping an eye on toddlers playing outside, and in her hands will be a needle and thread, working away at a piece of embroidery. When we look closely at the fineness of the work, a minuscule Mien cross-stitch or Hmong reverse applique that demands the tiniest piece of cloth being turned over and stitched down, it is unimaginable to us how someone simply stands there casually and sews so meticulously.
And if we walk into an Akha village, or a Tai Dam village, or into practically any village in the region and look around, sooner or later we will find someone weaving or spinning. And when we watch Dominic and Tashi watch a woman as she spins or weaves, studying her feet and hands as she manipulates the wonderfully mysterious and complicated process, and out comes cloth, we realize we are just like them. We're in awe.
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Coconut Milk Sticky Rice with Mangoes
Many people first encounter sticky rice in this classic Thai-Lao sweet. Most are astonished and delighted and immediately want to know how to make it at home. The recipe is very simple. As with most of the sweets in Southeast Asia, you can eat Coconut Milk Sticky Rice as a snack or serve it as a dessert.
3 cups sticky rice, soaked overnight in water or thin coconut milk and drained.
2 cups canned or fresh coconut milk
3/4 cup palm sugar, or substitute brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 ripe mangoes, or substitute ripe peaches or papayas
OPTIONAL GARNISH: Mint or Asian basil sprigs
Steam the sticky rice until tender [Soak sticky rice for 12 hours beforehand, or follow instructions on package].
Meanwhile, place the coconut milk in a heavy pot and heat over medium heat until hot. Do not boil. Add the sugar and salt and stir to dissolve completely.
When the sticky rice is tender, turn it out into a bowl and pour 1 cup of the hot coconut milk over; reserve the rest. Stir to mix the liquid into the rice, then let stand for 20 minutes to an hour to allow the flavors to blend.
Meanwhile, peel the mangoes. The mango pit is flat and you want to slice the mango flesh off the pit as cleanly as possible. One at a time, lay the mangoes on a narrow side on a cutting board and slice lengthwise about 1/2 inch from the center--your knife should cut just along the flat side of the pit; if it strikes the pit, shift over a fraction of an inch more until you can slice downward. Repeat on the other side of the pit, giving you two hemispherical pieces of mango. (The cook gets to snack on the stray bits of mango still clinging to the pit.) Lay each mango half flat and slice thinly crosswise.
To serve individually, place an oval mound of sticky rice on each dessert plate and place a sliced half-mango decoratively beside it. top with a sprig of mint or basil if you wish. Or, place the mango slices on a platter and pass it around, together with a serving bowl containing the rice, allowing guests to serve themselves. Stir the remaining sweetened coconut milk thoroughly, transfer to a small serving bowl or crute, and pass it separately, with a spoon, so guests can spoon on extra as they wish.
NOTES: You can substitute black Thai sticky rice for half the white rice. Soak the two rices together; the white rice will turn a beautiful purple as it takes on color from the black rice. Cooking will take 10 minutes longer.
Unlike plain sticky rice, Coconut Milk Sticky Rice has enough moisture and oils in it that it keeps well for 24 hours, in a covered container in the refrigerator, without drying it out. Rewarm it the next day by steaming or in a microwave.
Quick and Tasty Yunnanese Potatoes
This is slightly chile-hot and very, very good, either hot from the wok or at room temperature. Serve as part of a rice meal with grilled or stir-fried meat, some lightly flavoured Chinese greens, and a soup. It also makes great leftovers, cold or reheated. We like the leftovers topped by lightly stir-fried greens and a fried egg. No extra seasoning needed.
2 pounds potatoes (see Note)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
5 Thai dried red chiles
1 cup finely chopped scallions or a mixture of scallions and chives or garlic shoots
1 teaspoon salt
Wash the potatoes well but do not peel unless the skins are very old and tough. Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water until just cooked. Drain and put back in the hot pot to dry. When cool enough to handle, slide off the skins if you wish. Coarsely chop the potatoes or break them into large bite-sized pieces.
Heat a wok over high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the pan, then toss in the chiles. Stir-fry briefly until they puff, about 30 seconds, then add the potatoes and stir-fry for about 3 minutes, pressing the potatoes against the hot sides of the wok to sear them. Add the chopped scallions or greens and salt and stir-fry for another 2 minutes. Turn out onto a plate and serve hot or at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a rice meal.
Note: You can use leftover boiled potatoes for this dish. The proportions above are for about 6 cups cut-up potatoes. If you begin with less, reduce the amount of greens and chiles proportionately. And your potatoes may already be salted, so be cautious as you add salt to taste.