Meal 117: Myanmar

Burmese food is intense. Funky, fiery, crunchy, soupy, tangy, herby…a full meal is a real workout for your palate. It bears some resemblance to Thai food, but with more crispy bits, more turmeric, and a lot more fermentation.

It’s also a good amount of work to prepare! A birthday gift of an outdoor street-vendor-style wok was extremely well timed, as there were several smelly, splattery things to be fried up. I’m never going to claim my cooking is authentic, but as I squatted next to the wok in the driveway in the mid-afternoon mid-summer heat, I felt like my approach was a bit closer to the on-the-ground reality than my normal induction-range cooking.

I’m also super lucky that there is a Burmese market in town. I’ve sung the praises of the highly global selection at Mingala before, but man, they really came through with every last ingredient I was looking for! I was the most grateful to find the fermented tea leaves, so I wouldn’t have to ferment them myself from scratch. (Though maybe I should have, as you'll see.)

(To address the Burma/Myanmar confusion: according to the BBC, they're essentially the common and literary version of saying the same word: "B" and "M" are both voiced consonants made with closed lips, for instance. The former is both the British colonial name as well as the democracy movement's preferred name, while the latter was instituted by the military junta and codified via its UN membership.)

It was a loverly summer evening so we enjoyed it outside with Pat, Debbie, Jeff, Denise, Chelsea, Al, Pan, Quinn, Lisa, Trish, Douglas, Kristen and friends.

Mohinga | Breakfast fish noodle soup | Recipe

The phrase “breakfast of champions” is overused, but a bowl of this rich, intense stuff is a pretty powerful way to get a day going — I certainly wouldn’t have conceived of it as a breakfast food were I not told it was. Yet this was a dinner, not a breakfast, but I cooked it anyway because pretty much everyone says it's the national dish.

You make a base from simmered catfish, aromatics like ginger and lemongrass, and shrimp paste, and then when it’s time for soup you simmer some of that paste with fish stock and then throw in some noodles. (I left out banana stem because I couldn't find any, and frankly I've never knowingly had it so I'm not sure what if anything we missed.) But arguably the best part is the crispy topping and tangy lime on top — I made beans and shallots, but there's a whole sub-cuisine just of of toppings you could do!

There's no question that there's a number of ingredients and several steps involved in making these soupy noodles. But if you're inspired and have the time, it's a great blend of flavors and textures.

Ohn-No Khao Swè | Coconut chicken noodle soup | Recipe

A different sort of noodle soup, more similar to Thai, with egg noodles and a coconut-curry base. (Though some Burmese might say that it's the Thai who got this dish from them and renamed it "khao soi"!)

Yes, I made two noodle soups. But they're so different! And I'm so glad I didn't let the first one get in the way of making this second one. It's a totally different type, with toothsome egg-wheat rather than soft rice noodles, and a rich, creamy, and subtler flavor rather than the much more punch-in-the-face mohinga. You could definitely make this with ingredients available at any Western supermarket: if you can't find gram flour just use a bit of wheat flour (preferably pan-toasted), and if you can't even find Asian egg noodles, any egg noodle (even the dry kind) would make for a decent substitute. In any event, I hope I remember this next time I'm jonesing for a chicken noodle soup with a twist, because it's pretty easy to make yet so satisfying to eat.

Pork curry | Recipe

Even after nearly 120 meals, I'm still finding novel cooking techniques. In this case, it's to separate the juice and the solids of the aromatics (onion, garlic, ginger) by blending and straining, using the liquid for simmering the meat, while separately frying the solids. For a curry, this has few seasonings — really, the only spices are turmeric and chili — and also requires quite a bit of attention to avoid browning the solids. I've never met a dish made with pork shoulder I didn't like, and this one was for sure tasty with that caramel-y depth from solid-sauteeing, though it didn't bring quite enough punch to make me want to make it again.

Lahpet thoke | Tea leaf salad | Recipe

If you’ve had the tea leaf salad at a place like Burma Superstar in San Francisco, with intriguingly tangy strands mixed in with cabbage and crunchy beans, apparently you were served the Westerner-friendly version. From what I’m led to understand, a true tea leaf salad in Myanmar is deconstructed, with a little pile of spicy, fermented tea leaves in the middle and surrounded by all sorts of other things to mix in.

Maybe I’ll stick to the Westernized version. The pre-prepared tea leaves were insanely intense: sour, spicy, and ferment-y in equal proportions. They were also were like spinach in how they make the back of your teeth feel. Really, it was more like an intense condiment than a salad. If anyone’s feeling adventurous, I’ve got one extra packet of these leaves that we didn’t end up opening… Though we didn't save you any of the crunchy fried-bean mix, that stuff was MSG-licious and went a long way in overcoming that intense tea-leaf flavor.

Many thanks to Emily for the advice on what to cook and buy!

Meal 103: Malaysia

It turns out there's a subtle but important distinction between "Malaysian" and "Malay." The latter refers to an ethnic group and their language; the former is the name of a country composed of many ethnicities of whom the Malay are but the largest. There are large populations of both Chinese and South Asian origin, as well as indigenous groups. And naturally, all of them, plus the English and Dutch colonizers, have sprinkled their spices and poured their sauces into an extremely tasty, and surprisingly deep, melting pot. Indeed, the hardest part of this meal was choosing just a few dishes from the pantheon of dishes to represent the country.

This meal was very popular, so we tried out a two-table arrangement for the first time. We were fortunate to have two Malaysians in our midst: Robert, a forester from Borneo learning from his counterparts in Oregon, and Christina, the mom of our dear friend Laura, who was there with her husband Craig. Also present: Will, Caitlin, Laura, Jill and her husband, our realtors Scott and John, Dede and Chris, and Robyn, Miles, and Aliza.

Teh tarik | Black tea with condensed milk

Brew some black tea (the cheap crumbly kind, not the fancy leafy type; normal stuff in a teabag is fine), mix it with a lot of condensed milk, and pour it in a thin stream back and forth between heat-resistent pitchers — after all, "tarik" means "pull," which is what you're doing. The milky-sweet tea will cool off to drinking temperature as you pour it back and forth, and get all wonderfully frothy. Yum.

Nasi lemak | Coconut rice with garnishes | Recipe

This dish is hugely popular in several countries in the area, and Malaysia claims it as a national dish. It can be eaten anytime, hot or room temperature, and usually for breakfast. The name means "fat rice," referring to the rich coconut milk in which the rice is cooked, but this dish is much more than that. While there are many variations, we made the classic: a spicy sambal with tiny anchovies, and toppings of plain fried anchovies, peanuts, and cucumber to accompany. 

It made for a great appetizer, an introduction to the rich coconut and spicy sambal flavors we'd encounter throughout the meal. The crispy garnishes were fun nibbles between more substantial bites while listening to a room of sixteen people introduce themselves.

Christine’s curries

Christine made two curries: one in the style of the South Asian population, the other more of a Nyonya (Chinese) variety. She can't find the recipes. Oh well, they were tasty!

Sarawak laksa | Seafood and chicken soup | Recipe

Laksa is a hugely popular dish in Malaysia and Singapore from Peranakan cuisine, the food of the descendants of Chinese migrants. While there are dozens of varieties, based around either coconut milk or a sour broth or both, what they all have in common is being a complex, usually spicy noodle soup.

The version I cooked is from Sarawak, the most westerly state on Malaysian Borneo. Peninsular Malaysia, the part between Thailand and Singapore, gets most of the attention and has most of the population. But the majority of the country's land mass lies across the South China Sea in East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. The rich red color comes from both chilies and that near-ubiquitous shrimp paste block known as belacan, and it's a hybrid laksa in two ways: it's got both coconut and sour elements, and it features both seafood and meat.

Most Malaysians would start a laksa from a store-bought sambal paste, but given my habit I made it all from scratch. Yet despite the dozen-plus ingredients in the sambal and all herbs and meats and whatnot, I found the flavors of the soup to be fairly flat. Not bad, but just a disappointment. Was it me, or the recipe? I don't know, but I won't be making it exactly this way again.

Char kway teow | Seafood and sausage noodle stir fry

I can’t decide whether this dish is more fun to make or to eat. It’s a whole lot of work to do it from scratch, to make the sambal, prepare all the various seafood, and get all the ingredients strategically positioned. But it’s that last few minutes of a fast-moving sequence that makes this one of the most entertaining dishes I’ve ever made: start with lard, stir fry garlic and sausage, add seafood and just barely cook, throw in noodles and sauce, push the stuff to the side, add more lard, crack in eggs, roughly scramble them into the noodles, throw in that sambal you worked to hard on, and finish with bean sprouts. All that in the span of just a few minutes! It’s intense and rewarding and smells amazing.

Oh, and it tastes great too. I’m writing this as I return from two weeks in Southeast Asia, where I tried three different attempts at this dish, in Singapore and Indonesia. I’m not sure whether Malaysians just have a better style or if this recipe in particular is fantastic, but I missed the char on the noodles, the richness of the spicy-fishy sambal, the sweetness of the Chinese sausage. Maybe the difference comes down to the lard, which those halal eateries didn’t use? Dunno, but I have some sambal left over and I’m gonna make this again soon.

Agar agar gula melaka | Palm sugar and coconut jelly

You’d think I’d have learned from the Borneo starch disaster that tapioca is not an appropriate substitute for palm sago, but no. My attempt at making a boiled dessert requiring the latter turned out to be a gloppy, tasteless mess, and was useless except for fueling my backyard compost. Thankfully, I have absorbed another lesson, which is to make dessert first, especially if it needs time to chill, so I had time to change course, and desperately searched for more Malaysian desserts.

I hit upon the Southeast Asian answer to Jell-O, and by a stroke of luck I had all the ingredients. Coconut milk was no problem as I’d bought a huge can, and I happened to have palm sugar left over from a previous meal. The agar agar, like gelatin but derived from seaweed, came from a molecular gastronomy kit Laura gave me two birthdays ago. Ten minutes later and this sweet and creamy dessert was sitting in the fridge, on its way to Jiggletown.

It was a hit! In fact, it probably went over better than my original choice would have. Being fairly intense with all that sugar and richness, a small square was enough for most, a godsend after such a big meal. Except for Aliza, who couldn’t get enough of it, and after eating several portions took the leftovers home.

Meal 91: Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is the very definition of landlocked. It's farther than any other in the world from the sea, its rivers end in lakes rather than flowing toward the ocean. The vast majority of the country is situated over 5,000 feet, with massive mountain ranges covering most of its modest expanse. Yet the country hardly isolated: this land played host to part of the Silk Road, and several nomadic groups have called the area home. As with so many other countries, a land named for one ethnicity neither fully encompasses that group's expanse, and also incorporates other peoples. Accordingly, the menu I planned for Kyrgyzstan samples from various influences on the country. (Also, were I to go for a strictly traditionally Kyrgyz meal, it would have turned out a lot like what we had for Kazakhstan, which we didn't enjoy so much.) 

Our guests were Sarah, Estel, Alondra, Heidi, Ken, Miguel, Ana, and Maya. We're pictured doing the traditional gesture of thanks after the meal: you raise your hands in the air, say "omen," and rub your open palms slowly down your face.

Lapyoshka | Flatbread | Recipe

Though the name has a classically Russian sound, this is a truly Central Asian bread, puffy and substantial. I found it pretty fun to make, especially since I've recently developed the touch and patience to do rolled breads slowly. Letting the bread rest for even just 3o seconds when it feels like it's about to rip makes a world of difference. Not having the traditional tandoor-like stone oven, I opted for a pizza stone as the surface, which did the trick. It only takes fifteen minutes to bake, but by the time I took the second loaf out of the oven, the first was nearly gone! Clearly a successful, if unfancy, appetizer.

Laghman | Soup with hand-stretched noodles | Recipes: noodles, soup

The patience I've learned with flatbread was ten times as important with these amazing noodles, an incredible demonstration of the magic of gluten. (Don't even think of trying to make this one gluten-free, it won't work!) These come from the Dungan people, who came from eastern China and settled across the region and are known for being farmers, in contrast to nomadic herders, which may explain their association with a grain-based specialty. Though their percentage of the population is small, their impact on what people eat is big, as these noodles are really popular. With good reason!


Assuming you have lots of time and patience, they're not difficult to make. The trick is to let the dough relax, once when it's in a big mass, again after it's rolled out and cut into chunks, and maybe even a third time while you're in the process of stretching. What a pleasure it was to take a piece of dough that shaped like a slightly oversized piece of Trident gum, and pull and stretch it nearly effortlessly into a strand over two feet long! Toward the end I was trying out the showier and speedier technique of wrapping the noodle around my hand to accomplish the stretching.

The soup was fine, a fairly basic broth of lamb and vegetables (including that pretty watermelon radish, which is the closest I could find to the "green radish" the recipe calls for), but the noodles were really the star. The texture was great: enough tooth to provide substance, but still soft and easy to slurp. Next time — and there will be a next time — I'll try them pan-fried.

Paloo | Rice with lamb and carrots | Recipe

Paloo, plov, pilau, polo, many languages, so many nearly identical ways to refer to rice with stuff in it. Compared to how intricate this sort of thing can be in Persian or Indian cuisine, this version with carrot sticks and lamb may seem pretty modest, but this felt like a big step compared to the utter blandness of Kazakh food. The dish wasn't as exciting as the noodles, probably in part because I discovered after everyone had left that I'd forgotten to distribute cloves from the garlic head that I'd steamed on top!

The drinks were just about the same as for Kuwait: watered down kefir and tea. After the hyper-caffeinated experience with the last meal, Laura and I took it easy with the tea this time!


Meal 43: DPR Korea

Nothing about making a North Korean meal is easy. First of all, it's even hard to find someone from North Korea to talk to: estimates say that only 14,000 people have managed to escape the totalitarian state in the 59 years since the end of the Korean War, and there's virtually zero Internet access within the country. Secondly, except for a particular noodle dish, most (South) Koreans aren't really aware of which of the foods they eat originated across the DMZ. And thirdly, when you search for "North Korean food," you tend to find information about famine and international relations, not recipes. Needless to say, this meal is a feast of an abundance that probably only a privileged few would ever enjoy in North Korea.

With help and research from my officemate Soo Young, whose grandfather hailed from the north of Korea, and some clutch advice from my Korean foodie friend Monica, I managed to cobble together a menu. But that's not to make the darn meal! I made the kim chi the week before, and the beef broth a few days before. We took a trip all the way to the H-Mart in Flushing, Queens on Saturday for ingredients, I spent most of Sunday afternoon prepping, and then Soo Young and I spent the evening frying, folding, steaming, and cooling. I've never seen so many prep bowls used in one meal!

Before we continue, a note on the meal order. You may be wondering, "North Korea? But you just cooked Croatia, how's that alphabetical?" Well, we go by the strict alphabetical order of this UN member list, and the official name is Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Yes, we have three more C's to go, but for a variety of reasons we have to do those later.

Along with Soo Young, we had Lauren, Padraig, Jens, Melanie, Angad, Michele, and Rachel — she's the one with the headphones and microphone, recording for an upcoming radio segment!

Bindaetteok | Mung bean pancakes | Recipe

If you'd handed me a bunch of yellow split mung beans, I'd never have thought to soak them in cold water with a bit of rice for a few hours, then puree it, add some preserved fiddlehead ferns, onions, pork, and seasoning, and then fry it like pancakes. But Koreans have been doing exactly that for at least three hundred and fifty years. And I can see why! (And not just because it's fun to mix.) From these basic ingredients a wonderful richness emerges. The crisp outside contrasts with the soft inside, too, which makes it all the more fun to eat.

Mandu | Dumplings | Recipe

So many cultures wrap things in dough that you'd think everyone figured it out on their own. But apparently everyone from the Turks to the Koreans learned to make them from the Mongols many centuries ago — and they have virtually the same name in Turkish and Korean! These ones are made primarily of ground meat and chives, kept separate in the bowl to preserve texture and flavor until being stuffed, which Soo Young did so beautifully. You can pan-fry them, make them into a soup, or steam them as we did.

Pyongyang naengmyeon | Noodles in cold broth | Recipes: Kim chi, beef broth, noodle dish

Apparently, if you ask a South Korean to name the most distinctive dish from across the DMZ, most will mention these chewy noodles in a cold broth. From their unassuming appearance, would you have guessed that this probably took more prep work than any other single United Noshes dish? I mean, I could have used the broth packet included in the package, but that's just cheating.

A week ago I made the mul kim chi, which unlike the red-slathered stuff you're probably more familiar with, is only moderately spiced and is fermented gently in a brine. (Mul means "water.") It was actually not as hard as I'd expected, you pretty much chop up a bunch of stuff, throw it in the brine, let it sit for two days, and it magically ferments on its own. Perhaps the hardest part was clearing out enough space in the fridge for the big pot.

Then a few days ago I made the beef broth. Unlike in the Western tradition, where the bones are first roasted and thus the broth has a rich color, the Korean way is to do an initial boil to get off the gunk, dump that water and scrub the pot, and then do a second boil for several hours. The broth ended up almost clear, and Emmylou has been very happy to have some bones to chew on.

Finally to make the noodles, made of a combination of buckwheat, sweet potato and wheat. After just a few minutes they get chewy, and you immediately strain them and run cold water through them to prevent overcooking. Cop them with Asian pear and marinated cucumber, gently place half a hard-boiled egg, pour in a mix of beef broth and kim chi water, and serve this labor-intensive bowl of pure cold refreshment.

Oh, and I made a hot sauce to put on top of it too! Red pepper paste, Asian pear, and lots of other yummy stuff.

Bulgogi | Marinated grilled beef | Recipe below

According to Soo Young, a survey or study showed that this is the dish North Koreans most wish they could eat. Thinly sliced beef is marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, etc., and then grilled, or in this case quickly pan-fried. We enjoyed it ssam style, wrapped in a lettuce leaf and spread with a particular sauce. Really tasty.

Sujeonggwa | Cinnamon-ginger drink | Recipe

If most of the rest of this stuff was really complicated, this was shockingly and deliciously simple. Just simmer cinnamon and ginger (separately), add sugar, chill together, sprinkle with pine nuts and dried persimmon if you can find it, and you've got summertime refreshment that tastes like Christmas. Just for fun I turned half of it into sorbet, which was really refreshing too. What a pleasure to have a light dessert after four different tasty and filling dishes.

It will likely not surprise you that it's extremely difficult to find North Korean music online, so alas our soundtrack was lacking — but given that we were recording for radio that's probably for the better. Next week we turn to the only other country in the world where you can't buy a Coke: Cuba.

Photos by Laura Hadden, who regrettably forgot to sip Hennessy in honor of the late Dear Leader. 


Soo Young's guide to Korean beef

For Bulgogi, get bulgogi sliced meat at the Korean grocer, or thinly sliced tenderloin or sirloin works best
- For Kalbi, use sliced short ribs (with or without the bone), typically double the thickness of bulgogi
- For LA Kalbi - LA stands for "lateral axis" cut, bone-in cut, which you can find at the Korean grocer
- Other - you can use this marinade for chicken (but I'd probably include some ginger and pepper for the chicken marinade). i do not recommend this marinade for pork. there is a spicy pork recipe that is better for pork.
marinade essentials:
There is nothing EXACT in Korean food, so approximate and adjust to taste;
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar/brown sugar, or substitute some of the sugar with natural sugars like a fuji apple pureed. I'd choose a fuji apple or asian pear.
1/2 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons fresh ground pepper
4 minced garlic cloves
optional, but in order of recommendation:
2 chopped scallions - personally, I like to chop them longways at an angle (optional)
1 tablespoon ground roasted sesame seeds (optional)
1/2 onion chopped - personally, I like to cut the onion in half from top to bottom, and then chop longways, but you often see restaurants also slice the onions down the middle - good for grilling
king oyster mushrooms, sliced - especially great when you're grilling
Make the marinade in one bowl. Dip each slice into the marinade and then put into a container for storage. That way, no matter how much meat you have, you get an even distribution of marinade. Let the marinade do its magic for at least 1-2 hours for bulgogi, and longer for kalbi since it's a thicker cut of meat. I like to often put my marinaded meat in a large ziploc bag, marinade overnight (and even freeze it if I'm headed to a barbecue the next day).

how to cook your bulgogi:
stovetop on a pan (gets you a juicy version)
- charcoal grill
- gas grill
the meat is served well done.
how to serve:
- Bulgogi dup bap - You can serve it over rice (bulgogi dup bap). Typically you serve the stovetop version, so you've got some juice for the rice.
- Ssam - Serve with red leaf lettuce and red bean paste, soy bean paste, or my favorite: ssam jang, which is a combination of the two. Sometimes restaurants serve other types of lettuce/leaves and vegetables and a scallion salad to go with the ssam.
- Main Dish with ban chan - Korean food is typically served family style, so this could be your main protein dish, and you'd serve it with other banchan (side dishes) including kimchi
- Other: I've seen people get really creative and use bulgogi in fusion food, including bulgogi burritos, bulgogi hamburgers, bulgogi topping on pizza. The bulgogi burritos were my favorite of the three

Meal 29: Cambodia

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I had more than my fair share of many southeast Asian cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese, even Burmese. But I'd never really encountered Cambodian until this meal. The core ingredients are pretty similar to those of its neighbors, especially the triptych of galangal, kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass. Yet as the Wikipedia page observes, the country is full of wetlands and floodplains, a geography which is reflected in a culinary style where solid and liquid frequently coexist.

We were super fortunate to have two Cambodians on hand, Navin and Melanie, who suggested what to cook and swept in to correct flavors — which involved a lot more fish sauce! — and finish up the presentation. Also attending were Christen, Nikki, J.P, Tennessee and Bill.

Somlor machu kreung ktih sach chrook | Sour pork rib and lemongrass soup | Recipe

For both this and the amok, I made a kreung, a paste with fresh herbs and roots including turmeric, galangal, garlic, shallots, and very notably lemongrass. With a long and slow stewing of the pork ribs, and later on some tamarind, this soup had a super rich flavor. Melanie added a few limes at the end, probably because I got sweet tamarind rather than sour. In the end, it was rich and tasty and appropriately spiced, and with rice below and greens on top, it did indeed resemble those wetlands, so far as I can surmise.

Trokuon | Water spinach

This plant is known by so many different names, including morning glory, swamp cabbage, Chinese spinach, and ong choy. Despite the fact that I bought it at one of Chinatown's biggest supermarkets, it turns out that this plant is classified as a "noxious weed" by the USDA due to its ability to spread quickly out of control, and is technically illegal to sell or purchase. Anyway, it's a novel plant for me: the stems are hollow, and are more prized than the leaves. Our friends wanted to sauté it with oyster sauce, but since I didn't have that, we improvised with garlic and fish sauce.

Amok trei | Steamed fish custard | Recipe (and observe comment below, and add a few eggs)

Most recipes I read for this, commonly called Cambodia's national dish, mentioned that it's traditional to steam it in leaves but the recipe author usually just steams it in a bowl. Well, how often are we gonna make this? Let's do it right. Our guests very creatively crafted these boats out of banana leaves and toothpicks, which were perfectly watertight for holding the mix of fish in coconut milk and spices. Although the recipe doesn't call for it, Navin advised adding a few eggs to make it firm up, and that was great advice. The final product was very soft and tender, with a lovely flavor, and just firm enough to quality as a custard.

Num pa chok tari trey | Fish curry noodle soup | Recipe

Like much of Southeast Asia, curries swept east from India into Cambodia. This version puts a local twist by adding lemongrass and the like to a yellow curry paste, and the noodles were a good contrast from the rice of the rest of the meal The recipe called for fish but I subbed shrimp just for variety.


Luckily it was a good day for fruit in Chinatown! Up and down Canal Street, vendors were selling beautifully exotic dragonfruit, musta been a shipment that just came in. One website I found accuses them of being the "Wonderbra of fruit" in that they promise so much but deliver so little, but I'll be darned, these were just as subtly tasty as what I had in Vietnam many years ago.

The star of the show was durian, the famously spiky and pungent fruit. Note how Navin used a garden glove to hold it, and after making a few slices from top to bottom, she peeled back the ridiculously sharp skin to reveal pods that look somewhere between raw chicken, half-molten ice cream, and alien larvae. And the taste? Well, the Cambodians enjoyed it, a number of us really didn't like it on first taste, and J.P. ate two of them and still couldn't decide if it was repulsive or alluring.

To round out the fruit course, we had a ripe and tart mango with salt and chili for dipping, and segments of jackfruit, whose pods look like smaller durian segments but are unambiguously delicious and far less mushy. But let's admit it, while the flavors are fun, it's really the crazy colors and shapes that bring the most enjoyment:

Now attention turns to Canada, for which we'll be throwing a big party celebrating Laura's birthday. Can't wait to report on poutine and much more!