Junk food of the week: Ice Cream with Corn

It’s one of life’s little ironies that while everyone in the States is reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and freaking out about the role of corn in their diets, everyone over here thinks corn is pretty cool. It’s the trendiest vegetable. In shopping malls you can buy little cups of hot, sweet corn to munch on.

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that someone would put corn on ice cream, another mall staple.

In case the ice cream isn’t sugary enough, they add a dollop of sweetened condensed milk, a favorite dessert ingredient.

The corn is hot and the ice cream promptly starts melting.

I wouldn’t really call it good. But it wasn’t as weird as you might think. My problem was the high corn-to-ice-cream ratio. Once the petite scoop of ice cream was gone, what remained was a pile of corn in melty goo. Eww.

Singing Ramadan Lady

Last week I went out and bought a funny little cheap videocamera with A/V inputs. And now, after 2 and a half years of unsuccessful attempts, we finally have a system that allows me to bring you the wonders of Indonesian television! As always, let me know if you have any problems with the video:

The Singing Ramadan Lady is used to fill time between programs during the Ramadan month on one of the local stations. The phrase at the end, “Subhan Allah,” roughly translates as “Glorious is Allah.”

I love the Lady’s psychedelic clothes and makeup, which represent the flashiest end of the Islamic clothing spectrum in Indonesia.

Only about a quarter of the women in Jakarta wear Muslim clothing. Some stick to subdued styles, but quite a few opt for bright, shiny or sparkly headscarves with matching outfits. When I did a story on Islamic clothing a couple of years ago, everyone boasted that Indonesia had the coolest Muslim fashions, and in particular “much more stylish clothes than Malaysia!”

As for the voluminous head-to-toe coverings worn in places like Saudi Arabia, they were not at all interested.

“What if Islamic leaders here said women had to wear the burka?” I asked.

“Indonesian women would never do it,” they laughed. “We are much too fashionable!”

Market lunch vs. bus lunch

I always like to check out traditional markets, so on our last day in Thailand we identified one on the map and set out to find it. At first we weren’t sure we’d come to the right place. It seemed to be just a little side street with some stalls. But as we worked our way in, we saw that it went on for blocks and blocks.

They had a little of everything, from brooms and mops:

To live poultry (and a sleepy poultry-seller):

To kids’ clothes:

A child’s outfit with a cartoon of US Army bears calling in bomb attacks. This doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

What interested us the most, of course, was the food. I hadn’t had real street food since getting to Thailand, and I was hoping to find something as delicious as the legendary bus station green curry I’d had on my last trip.

We got off to a strong start with these fried rice-starch cakes (on the left) stuffed with a dark green vegetable similar to kale. They came with a salty-tart-sweet-hot dipping sauce. When you factor in the crispy-chewiness of the exterior, the soft blandness of the interior, and the bitter greens, you’ve got most of your major food characteristics covered. Somehow all of those qualities were held in balance. It was a food symphony.

The big bowls of stir-fries and curries were a little disappointing, though. Certainly not terrible, but lacking the complexity I was hoping for.

Plus they skimped on the sauce a bit; why make a big vat of curry sauce if you’re not going to ladle it out with abandon?

Dessert came from the sticky-rice family again: sweetened blobs of gooey rice starch. They were making big piles of them, stacked in pairs with the tops together so they wouldn’t slime all over each other. I find things like this a bit bland, but the sticky-chewy texture is surprising and funny, in a good way. It’s a texture that will always remind me of Southeast Asia.


After a heavy dose of jungle at Khao Yai, I felt a little disoriented. I figured I needed a bit of urban grit or my soul might go into shock from all that greenery. So we headed down to the bright lights and ample diversions of Bangkok.

The ladyboy show at the Mambo Cabaret is by no means a cheap night out. The tickets were about 25 dollars each, and the “complementary drink” was a microscopic glass of beer.

The show, however, did not cut any corners.There were tons of big production numbers with fluffy, slinky, feathery, tiny or sparkly costumes. They were designed to appeal to the different national origins of the audience members: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Arabic, Korean, Western.

China got particular attention. Laura figured that was a good job of targeted marketing. “The whole two front rows are Chinese,” she whispered. “I can tell because they’re not clapping.” (Apparently, applause is Just Not Done in China.)

Some of the women were a bit mannish, but some were real knockouts.

“It’s not fair!” Laura and I complained afterwards. “They’re more woman than I’ll ever be!” But since I don’t even own a hairbrush, never mind makeup and definitely never mind having any kind of cosmetic surgery, I can’t really complain.

What I didn’t expect was the sort of sentimental glow I felt about the whole thing. After all, for some of these dancers dressing up hot and being admired as a woman by a whole theatre full of people must be the culmination of a lifelong dream. It was fun to put myself in their stiletto heels for a while and experience the thrill of girliness.

Junk food of the week: Sticky Rice in Banana Leaf

So much depends
upona blob of sticky

graced with a dollop of

inside a banana

They served these little packets of sweetened glutinous rice as the mid-morning snack on our wildlife trek. All hikes should have such treats. As a perfect finishing touch, instead of dumping our banana leaves in the jungle, they collected all of them to dispose of later. Those guys really know the way to my heart!

*with apologies to William Carlos Williams

Birdman and gibbon songs

When I went to Thailand to see my friend Laura, we headed right up to Khao Yai National Park, three hours northeast of Bangkok. We stayed at a place called the Greenleaf that’s well known for its wildlife tours.

In the morning we piled into a covered pickup truck with some other hikers. A spotter stood on the tailgate to scan for wildlife on the way to the trailhead.

These guys are pretty amazing. From a moving vehicle, they can pick out monitor lizards way off in the jungle that I could only see with the help of high-powered lenses (and sometimes not even then).

After several stops to ogle wildlife, we got to the trailhead and set out. The forest was dense, beautiful and clean — there wasn’t a candy wrapper or cigarette butt to be found. It reminded me a bit of Borneo, with its thick foliage and slightly wet, clay-y soil.

The hike leader, Mr. Nine, carried a new camera he’d just gotten that nearly killed me with camera envy. He also carried his cellphone — not so he could call people and shout “Hey! I’m hiking in this awesome place and it’s so peaceful and quiet,” as some people do. Instead, he used it to play bird calls. He did attract some birds, but they remained fleeting, flitting presences in the canopy.

Mr. Nine used to be an accountant. Then the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 hit, and his work dried up. He was hanging out in the countryside one day when someone handed him a pair of binoculars and said “Look at that bird.” It was love at first sight. Ten years later, despite leading hikes into the woods every day for a living, he still spends his free time tromping along the trails looking for wildlife. He is still delighted when he can show you a new bird or animal.

The lizards and hornbills were great, but the undisputed stars of the day were the gibbons. They were swinging through the trees in groups and calling to each other in a range of sounds — from hoots, to something like a siren, to a low mournful keening.

Gibbon calls are often compared to songs. They are even believed to contain some of the elements of human speech.

Their faces are definitely eloquent too.