Chiang Mai, Thailand – The Silent Beauty of Flowers
On a market visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, it was as if I was in fairy land! All I could see along the market street was a heady profusion of colours –like a big assembly of silent, beautiful flowers. They only spoke in colours. There were bright reds, butter yellows, dainty pinks, and delicate white, lavender and golden and brown hues. Flowers of all colours, shapes and sizes flooded the street market, awaiting their final destination.
Flowers- aren’t they the silent and beautiful creation of God, I mused to myself.
The bustling and popular Tom Lanyai flower market runs along the river Ping. Taking an early morning walk down the narrow town streets, I was eager to meet some vendors and buy some fresh flowers. Seeing, flowers neatly bundled in newspaper reminded me of how new-born babies are tightly wrapped their warm blankets. I stopped to linger in the morning rays, as they gently kissed the half-open buds just about popping their heads out of the bundles.
Ton Lamyai market is situated next to the famous Worarot market. Both locals and overseas buyers come here, claiming it was the best market in South East Asia. The market is open all 7 days of the week. Some stall owners literally sleep here, rising at 2 am to receive fresh arrivals from the neighbouring farms. After that, business is brisk -same day deliveries to any region in South East Asia is highly in demand. Farms are located in the cool highlands of Mae Sa and Samoeng towns. Just imagine, they are home to over 300 species of orchids! Thanks to the Royal Doi Kham project. It has helped create many jobs for the rural poor and uplifting Chiang Mai’s environment. Thailand is home to largest orchid farms. In fact, the purple orchid is the unofficial national flower – airline and official uniforms, as well as fashion attires pay tribute to the deep purple orchid bloom that silently becomes a fashion statement.
Having purchased some purple and white orchid sprays, I asked the young Thai lady to share some tips for caring for flowers. ‘Don’t put them in ice water, they like moist climate, like dance in rain. ‘Rain falls, orchids happy ’ she replied hesitantly in her sparing English.
There were big water containers at every stall. Colourful chrysanthemum flowers in every hue -pink, deep magenta, yellow and white. Exotic flowers like Bird of Paradise, fiery red Poinsettia, pink streaked Tiger lilies sat high on the back shelves away from harsh sunlight. These flowers are mostly ordered by hotels, hospitals, corporate offices to beautify their spaces.
‘There are many beautiful things, but the silent beauty of flowers surpasses them all.’ quotes Emerson.
Flowers have lot of symbolic and spiritual meaning in Thai culture. Jasmine garlands are synonomous during weddings, carnations and roses are friendship gifts, and the popular orchid finds place in almost every thing – art and craft, souvenirs or fabric motifs. The lotus is regarded as temple flower. It’s place is at the feet of Buddha. It signifies purity. In Indian culture it signifies Moksha or salvation. The golden bunches of popular ‘yellow shower’ or Ratchaphruek is the national flower. The tree bears beautiful cluster shaped flowers in summer. The colour of flowers is shining yellow, similar to the colour of Buddhism and the favourite royal colour of His Majesty King of Thailand. In fact, during the royal birthday and wedding ceremonies streets are filled with flowers in yellow colours. People hang beautiful wreaths, flags or garlands in homage. The culmination is heady during the annual Chiang Mai flower festival, wherein huge floats and dancers are dressed in stunning floral displays!
Walking past dozens of similar flower stalls, I stood admiring little white jasmine garlands or Phuang Malai. It reminded me of the word malai, meaning garland in South India. Special mammoth sized jasmine garlands, decorated with tiny rose buds or marigolds are customarily exchanged by the Thai brides and grooms. Their soft fragrance attracts closeness and white signifies purity.
The gentle lady, dressed in traditional Batik sarong, wasted no time. Sensing my delight, she wrapped some loose flowers in a large, green lotus leaf. Tearing away a fibre from the underside of banana leaf, she used it to string the green bundle before handing it to me. ‘Fresh till tomorrow, put in your hair’ she said happily. Humbly, she greeted me with folded palms and refused any payment. A humble Thai gesture ! Just said with flowers.
Well, part of the charm in visiting a new country is to find out its cultural traditions, food habits and its people up close, and where else, but in a market !
It was now time to buy flowers to take back home. I paced back and forth visiting the stalls again, unable to choose from the variety of flowers. Yellow roses or pink carnations? Fresh flowers or dry flowers? Just bunches or a classic floral display ? Ah… I stood aside at one big stall, quietly watching the young Thai lady adjusting flowers in an arrangement, with such ease and swiftness. She must have taken a course I thought approaching her to help me. She spoke not a word of English, but quickly busied herself in studying colours and length of stalks, thinking on her toes, literally. Some carnations and yellow roses, some baby’s breath, some delicate green fern leaves she picked up, held out and observed. Swiftly using her sharp scissors to tame the length and tuck them into a sponge dripping with cold water, she let her fingers flow to arrange them. Adding some soft sprays of jute and bamboo grass to give it an extra element and design she finished it neatly. Voila !
Amazing, the only training she ever had, as a drop-out school girl, was her mother’s constant nagging to help her at the stall! However, if she could save enough money ‘One day I want go Singapore big school and teach flowers’ she said shyly in English. Greeting me a quick Sawadee , a Thai greeting she prompted me to buy the two popular garden dolls. Flowers bring a meaning to her life – she earns her living. She has no money or time to gift them to anyone.
Next time you buy flowers, remember they are silent. They speak only through their fragrance and colours. They communicate love and romance, friendship and good will, birth and death.
Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful;
they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.
World Palate Series
This popular Thai curry is usually a soupy dish. Coconut milk and water forms the thick base and variety of vegetables, meat or fish float in it. In contrast, Indian curries have a lentil puree base, and mixed with ground spice. As a tourist, I had fun attending a Thai cooking class. Firstly, we visited the local market and introduced to variety of herbs, spices and pastes. In class we pounded, cut and cooked. Lastly, we sat down ‘Thai style’ to enjoy our culinary adventure.
Thai Green Curry (Kaeng khiaw – waan kai)
Ingredients for paste:
- 7 fresh green chillies chopped finely
- 2tsp chopped garlic
- 2tsp chopped shallots
- 1tsp chopped lemon grass
- 1tsp chopped galangal (type of strong ginger)
- 1/2tsp chopped kafir lime peel
- 1tsp chopped turmeric pieces
- ½ tsp roasted peppercorns
- 2tsp roasted cumin and coriander seeds
- ½ tsp. salt to taste
- ½ tsp. light soya sauce (or shrimp paste) Optional
Vegetables of choice could include – small brinjals with green skin, snap peas, broccoli florets, red bell pepper and chunks of cabbage and baby corn.
Put peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a mortar and pound well. Add remaining ingredients and pound further. And shrimp /or soya sauce and blend all together. Our chef noted that Thai household ladies gather in the kitchen or backyard to pound pastes. Jokingly he added, either they share recipes, but if sharing unpleasant family matters, the pounding resounds stronger! However, on festive occasions, many hands lighten work!
Put oil in a pan on low heat and add green curry paste and bring to simmer, add coconut milk to stop burning and stir till fragrant. To dilute thick coconut milk add 1/3rd part water. Add vegetables and cook gently. Add some water if required. Do not make very thin. Add remaining coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and stir occasionally. Season with sugar and salt and (fish sauce – optional). Sprinkle sweet basil leaves on top and turn off heat. Garnish with diagonally sliced red chillies. Serve with hot rice.
Decorate your table with some fresh orchids. Serve food with traditional wooden ladles.
Somehow, I thought of a similar Indian curry called Sindhi Kadhi . However, the gravy is made with roasted gram flour, whipped in yoghurt. Popular Indian vegetables like drumstick, beans and okra and carrots can be used. I tried making some and it tasted great. Here is the link http://sindhirasoi.com/2008/02/10/sindhi-kadhi/
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