Why We Smile

by Liz on April 28, 2012

in Opinion,Travel

This past winter I traveled to Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, and I thought I owed it to myself to write a few thoughts that have lingered on. Travel took place mostly by land, on roads that were at times littered with rubble or sometimes crowded with ox carts that were a throwback to the bas-reliefs of Bayon. It was quite the adventure.

In many ways, and even before I began my travels I expected the food to be sublimely delicious and the sights show stopping. After all, Angkor Wat was on the itinerary, but the one thing I didn’t expect were the smiles. The miles and miles of smiles of ordinary people that made sense in those cultures, but perhaps not anywhere else, and particularly in a city like New York: large, impersonal, and generally free of obligations to your fellow man.

And I feel so bewildered. Perhaps we used to smile like that too. Once upon a time. But when I think of the smiles of Cambodians I met, I think I can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting the headache-inducing headlines of newspapers and CNBC ticker tape updates. Whenever that simple greeting of unspoken words came my way, I thought, why not? After all, what is there to frown about? I was on vacation after all, and so I smiled back. In fact, I ended up smiling all the time, even when there was really nothing to smile about. And I’m pretty sure I looked like an idiot.

A Khmer family enjoying the vista at Angkor Wat.

But the Cambodians I met were hardly on vacation. Most people live under the heavy hand of political corruption. The Khmer verb to govern literally means, “to eat the kingdom,” and now as it was back in the days of the powerful Khmer kings, the many live in rural poverty, taking on the backbreaking work of planting rice. Meanwhile modern mandarins collect significant fortunes by selling teak and other valuable resources to the Thai.

Check out my belly button! Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Which pretty much left me to grapple with the other side of this perplexing equation: the seeming impossibility of that smile, from amputees serving as a daily reminder of the land mines, but who walked around Siem Reap with a bright smile waving a friendly hello. Or the little girl in a boat in Tonle Sap who smiled into my camera with abandon, because this is what two people do when they meet. They greet each other. But this wasn’t Eden. Obviously. There was some squalor, and the feeling most inhabitants were just getting by, but the instant friendliness of everyone took me completely by surprise.

So maybe Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorer countries rich in other ways. Coming from a country (or countries) that has a love/hate relationship with wealth, money, and good looks, I guess I’ll never completely understand why humble Cambodians smile as they do. But there is something powerfully liberating about drawing from a well of enduring satisfaction, and extracting happiness from a place that’s never too far away. Perhaps that’s what it means to be alive, just to be here.

And I’m grateful.

Thai monks walk by colonial buildings in Penang, Malaysia.


When bananas go ripe…

by Liz on August 10, 2011

in Food

Banana bread with cardamom, nutmeg, and coconut milk.

When bananas go ripe, you make banana bread.

This recipe was inspired by my travels to Thailand, and the flavors of the banana desserts I tried in Bangkok and Phuket.

Of course, banana bread tastes nothing like Thai fried bananas, or bananas in coconut milk. But once you fall for the fragrant fusion of both, it’s hard not to crave the sweetly perfumed notes of Southeast Asian cooking. With slight hopes that I would be transported to the coastlines of Phuket at first bite, I tweaked around with a traditional banana bread recipe spotted on Saveur, by substituting coconut milk for buttermilk, and adding fragrant teaspoons of cardamom and nutmeg. Cardamom, by the way, smells like absolute heaven, a fact I’m quick to forget, but just as quick to remember when I use it to cook.

I’ve also been experimenting with Thai and other spices in my baking for almost a year because I thought it was a fun way to play around, and experiment with new flavors on a foundation of American recipes. The great thing about banana bread is you can play around with the top note ingredients. I used three ripe bananas as directed, but you can always use more. Sugar? You can adjust that too. The recipe below calls for 1 cup of sugar, but I just used half a cup. Thanks to the presence of ripe bananas, the bread was not lacking in sweetness.

Then there’s the coconut milk. It tastes great in baking, but I also know that buttermilk gives the bread a wonderful tanginess and fluffiness. The choice is yours.

ASEAN Banana Bread (adapted from Mom’s Banana Bread Recipe, Ben Mims, Saveur Magazine) Serves 6 – 8

Butter, for greasing pan
1 cup flour, plus more for pan
3⁄4 tsp. baking soda
1⁄4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. cardamom (more if you like)
1/2 tsp. grated or powdered nutmeg
1 cup sugar (I used just ½ cup and it was fine.)
1⁄2 cup canola oil
1⁄3 cup buttermilk (I substituted with 1/3 cup coconut milk, but I’ll leave that up to you.)
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
2⁄3 cup chopped pecans (All nuts welcome! Dried fruits too.)
3 very ripe bananas, mashed

1. Heat oven to 350°. Grease a 9″ x 5″ x 2 3⁄4″ loaf pan with butter and dust with flour; set pan aside.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, cardamom, nutmeg,and salt; set aside.

3. Whisk together sugar, oil, buttermilk (or coconut milk), vanilla, egg, and egg yolk in a medium bowl until smooth. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. Add pecans (or various nuts, fruits) and mashed bananas and whisk gently to combine. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the loaf comes out clean, 60–65 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes before slicing and serving.



Erawan Shrine | Bangkok

by Liz on January 26, 2011

in Travel

There’s one in every major city in Asia. A religious shrine of the Buddhist/Confucian/Shamanist persuasion, right in the center of a burgeoning city of unstoppable skyscrapers. It doesn’t budge, despite the hounding of real estate developers or a powerful government. Its spiritual significance makes capitalism look like a passing fad, and reminds its visitors to look beyond the materialism of shopping malls.

Erawan Shrine is situated in a small corner plot by the opulent Grand Hyatt Bangkok. Once you enter you become submerged in billows of smoky incense, burning by the shrine dedicated to Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. My Time Out Bangkok guide states matter-of-factly it was erected in 1956 to appease the spirits of those who died while erecting the old Erawan Hotel. It also quickly adds in 2006 a man received instant karma after smashing the statue of Brahma. An angry mob reacted, and swiftly beat him to death! Fortunately, the morning we visited there was no such drama: just a small throng of Thais hoping their prayers would waft gently to heaven with the clouds of incense drifting ever upwards. There were even costumed dancers in their silk finery, singing a pious melody that I couldn’t quite comprehend.

A city pilgrim deep in prayer.

Costumed dancers in performance.

Gold Elephants.


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(from L to R, top to bottom): KamKam's Dressed Up Furniture, Sung Yeon-ju's edible fashon, Chalmer Johnson's last book, Anna Wintour in China, Monsoon in a tea cup, K-pop group 2PM, and a somewhat disarming North Korean security guard.

@The New York Times has a very succinct summary of the work and life of Dr. Chalmers Johnson (1931-2010), the renowned Asia scholar and Korean War veteran, whose work on Japan, China and the United States is all too relevant today.

@David Pilling of the Financial Times captures Dr. Johnson’s scholarly essence in a neat package of an editorial: “”The road ahead for Asia need not run west.”

@Speaking of roads not needing to run west, Shanghaiist reports Anna Wintour’s road ran east ahead of the Thanksgiving holidays, where she met with her counterpart, Angelica Cheung of Vogue China.

@Fashion à la Global Asianista: trust a young and fabulously talented South Korean artist to take food to new, glamorous heights. Sung Yeon Ju’s website had crashed at press time, so try here and here for a taste of her delicious creations.

@The New York Times takes seriously the conclusion of Monsoon:The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power: that the global system’s center of gravity is shifting rapidly, and not just because more honeymooners are heading for the Maldives.

@Contemporist suggests you get a new wardrobe, literally, from Korean design studio Kamkam’s adorable Dressed-Up Furniture series. It’s furniture, except it feels like clothes.

@Fast Company gives Taiwanese music mogul Jay Chou a coveted spot on their annual Most Creative People in Business list. (via Shanghaiist)

@Little Red Book dissects a viral marketing campaign in China, that (spoiler alert!) turned out to have a false albeit convincingly ridiculous protagonist. The young woman in question had placed a personal ad seeking eligible bachelors, stating “People who are working in CNPC, Sinopec or other worldwide top enterprises or banks are preferable.” Chinese netizens speculated she was beautiful and (obviously) very snobby.

@Richard Ehrlich chronicles the rise and rise of Korean popular culture in Thailand. “For most Thai fans, a slightly longish haircut — often permed, even for males — is all you need to project the ultimate symbol of coolness. Thais who are obsessively following the fad are easily identified by the puffed-up, coiffed, unisex hairstyle, which self-consciously sweeps long straight locks diagonally down across half of the face.”

@On the subject of K-pop, if you’re in New York, mark your calendars: on Dec. 2, Wired Rebels and My Ninja! are throwing a back-to-the-K-pop-90s partay at hip Indian restaurant Pranna. For tickets, see here. (via Angry Asian Man)

@…and on the Angry Asian Man front: Asian America’s leading blogger condemns the North Korean attack on South Korean civilians at Yeonpyeong Island, then goes slightly weak in the knees at the sight of a hot North Korean security guard. For shame!