Relics of the Future (Hong Kong, August 2003)

The first time I visited Hong Kong, I was in awe of the countless apartment complexes juxtaposed on the subtropical hills, the myriad roads that could easily double as parts of Manhattan’s Canal Street, and a health form asking me if I had a fever, cough, or other common ailments.

What?!

That’s right, the time was August 2003, when the SARS pandemic was still on every Hong Konger’s mind, even while case numbers were decreasing.

Although SARS did reach Ontario, Canada, it was mostly focused on China – where it originated, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  However, given that it was much less contagious, all I recall regarding plans to prevent its spread was a temperature check at Hong Kong’s airport, that flimsy health form, and some prescient leaflets at hotels and restaurants dotting the metropolis:

See anything familiar?  What’s it like eating out – if that’s still possible – in your area?

Local Drinks: Tejate and Pozontle (Oaxaca, Mexico)

I’ve trumpeted Mexico’s outstanding food before, but how about their drinks?  Does their array of natural juices, Prehispanic concoctions, liquors, and Jarritos nicely complement Mexican cuisine?  Yes, quite often, I must say!

On the topic of indigenous beverages, let’s look at a couple – tejate, and pozontle – which both originate in the present-day state of Oaxaca.

Fantasy: It’s a food market in Mexico, I am invincible!
Reality: It’s a food market (in Mexico), throw good hygiene to the wind.

Yes, tejate, the first of today’s two Pre-Columbian (before Christopher Columbus) drinks, is often seen in vats at markets and bazaars in Oaxaca.  Centuries before the Aztecs, the Zapotec peoples of contemporary Oaxaca were enjoying tejate.  Its ingredients include water, toasted corn, pixtle (ground roasted mamey pits; incidentally, pitztli means bone or seed in the Aztec language Nahuatl), fermented cacao beans, and cacao flowers.  The cacao was most likely introduced to Oaxaca from Chiapas state in Mexico through early bartering.

Generally, it is served in a bowl made of jícara, an inedible fruit from the calabash tree:

The Jícara Tree

I consider tejate a light and very frothy drink, a bit bitter and not too sweet.  Though there are indeed, differences in flavors, I had a similar opinion regarding the less well-known Oaxacan beverage, pozontle.

On a visit to a random market in Oaxaca, I stumbled upon La Pozontoleria, a small kiosk serving up this foamy and slightly sweet “shake” more easily found at rural wedding ceremonies in traditional hillside Oaxacan pueblos (towns).

Pozontle’s four more recognizable ingredients are water, panela (unrefined cane sugar), and ground specks of cacao and corn.  The cacao and corn are rolled into little spheres, which are then dissolved in panela water.  The fifth ingredient, called cocolmécatl, is a vine in the Smilax genus that when ground, causes the rest of the pozontle mixture to foam.


Many of us might be quite familiar with Mexican dishes.  But when it comes to Prehispanic drinks, that’s an entirely different world worth discovering.

Japanese Sewer Covers: The Trading Card Edition. Yes, Really.

Firstly, Happy 2021 everyone!

I’m kicking the year off with a post dedicated to a country to which I was supposed to have relocated last year.  Might 2021 make good on that?…

Oh, Japan, you weird, endlessly fascinating archipelago.  In one moment, you’re on top of the world, donating memorable antagonists to such movies as Gung Ho, and snapping up coal mines in such regions as Manchuria.  万歳 (ばんざい), banzai!

Next, however, you’re introducing to manic hobbyists sewer cover trading cards.

Manhole Cover/Card in Kodaira, Tokyo, Japan

Wait…WHAT??

In April 2016, the 下水報道プラットホーム, or Sewer PR Platform, decided to capitalize on Japan’s increasingly popular マンホールの蓋/ふた, or manhole cover designs, and introduced the first set of limited edition trading cards.  Although April Fool’s Day is not Japanese holiday – nor is it a holiday in any country, for that matter – the first edition was issued on April 1st.  And collectors are called manholers.

There’s got to be a joke somewhere in there.

Manhole Card Sign at Fukui City Hall

Roughly every quarter since then, a new batch has been introduced, showcasing manhole cover art from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. To get them, it might be as simple as going to a visitor information center next to a train station, or more awkwardly by paying a visit to a city/town hall or sewage treatment information center.  Whatever it is, the cards are free, and you’re limited to one per visit.  As far as I know, English versions of the cards also exist.

Having first noticed these sewer covers a number of years back, I just wish that these were printed way back then, if for no other reason than to learn the background story to the designs.  The front of a card shows a colorized manhole cover and city coordinates (and some type of manhole card collection legend in the lower right), and the back, a description of the art, as well as when the design was first executed:

Fukui City Manhole Card, Front Side
Fukui City Manhole Card, Reverse Side

After checking the invaluable Sewer PR Platform website, I decided to check out one of these sewer cards with my own eyes, this time in Fukui, the prefectural capital of Fukui…prefecture.

Although it’s best known for dinosaur fossils, according to the above, with Fukui suffering from the calamities of earthquakes and air raids, the city government adopted the 不死鳥 (ふしちょう・fushichou), or phoenix, as its symbol, and as the design on its manhole covers.  Though plenty of other Japanese cities could join them in choosing the phoenix for the same reasons, the backgrounder goes on to note that the phoenix was selected in 1989, to celebrate the centennial of the establishment of Fukui as a city.  Huzzah!


If you’re a Japanophile and keen to learn more about its history and pop culture, you’ll probably want to grab a couple of these manhole cards…or, you could do simply as a secondary source of vending machine income.

Coins, Coins, Obnoxious Coins

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 1Coins are obnoxious.  It’s not their fault…no, no, it’s because governments ’round the world can’t resist weighing down our jeans or handbags – or not, as you’ll see shortly – with coinage.  Is it in deference to those of us easily distracted folk, eager to make music out of the clanging currency?  Or, are they still produced so that cuprolaminophobics – look it up! – can amble over to the nearest train track to have their way with coins?

Kudos to Canada for stopping the minting of the tangible penny.  (As an aside, I like how their official mint website has a section for “our products.”)  Denmark’s central bank doesn’t produce paper money or coins.  On the flip side, too many countries around the world accept US or foreign coins.  Plus, quarters are so darn useful, whether it’s for one-armed bandits or one-night stands.

Getting back on track, I guess I used to be something of a numismatist, or coin collector.  The majority of my collection consists of coins more useful these days as paper weights than legal tender – for instance, pre-euro, and something from Zimbabwe in the ’80s – but that’s part of the point of it being a hobby, no?  What follows is a sampling of some of the less welcome members to pockets worldwide (and yes, I realize that they’re still money)…

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 2The left column, with examples (top to bottom) from Hong Kong, the Maldives, Zimbabwe, and the UK, are ones that have not been eluded by the American diet.  However, if one of those ever fell from your hand or pocket, you’d definitely notice it.

At the same time, are those any more obnoxious by their extremely light opposites in the right column? We have the Japanese one (y)en, the Indonesian 500 rupiah, and the bane of my consumerist existence while in China, the fen.  If a cashier gives you a fen, it’s a euphemism for the country laughing at you.  Bad advice: try spending it in Taiwan.

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 4With the US quarter as a guide, the left column, with Costa Rica and the UK again, as well as the right column with Hong Kong, Belize, and the same 50p from the UK, display coins that are too darn big.  Though we’re nowhere near the scale of the monolithic currency of some Pacific Islands, what’s the reason for this?  Save for Costa Rica, it seems as if imperialism isn’t the only category in which the British got carried away…

The right column also shows some of the funkier shapes of coins.  Someone was asleep at the switch one day, and now his/her handy work gets the attention of bloggers.

Money (Coin) Collection - Numismatist 3Starting from the left, we have the Japanese five (y)en, the US dime, 50 cents from South Africa, 5 sentimo from the Philippines, one tetri from Georgia, 5 koruna from the Czech Republic, and 20 colones from Costa Rica.

The first time I noticed a perforated coin was in Japan.  Curious about why some coins have a hole in them?  Necklaces are one reason, sewing coins into clothing, another.  Thinking about it another way, the Japanese 5 en coin isn’t worth much – particularly outside of Japan – but string it onto some jewelry, and watch your coffers grow.

As for the middle column, that coinage is ridiculous small; the US penny – for its size and its denomination – and the 20 colones, were placed in the photo for comparison.  I’d feel sheepish (particularly outside of their home countries) trying to pay for something with tetri, or the colones for that matter.  Can you imagine a coin-only checkout line?


I hope that you enjoyed this brief tour of coins around the world.  Are there any standouts in your book?

Welcome to Chinatown

As a child, I used to think that the Manhattan Chinatown was one of the coolest neighborhoods to wander around, be puzzled by the Chinese characters written all over the place, and to visit a vastly different culture without needing to hop on a plane.  Later on, I learned that you could get ersatz versions of Western desserts for low prices, but the standout for me was always the (Portuguese-inspired) egg tart.

In any event, after starting to travel, I realized that New York City’s Chinatowns were missing something prominent that other 华埠 (huábù) /  唐人街 (tángrén jiē) proudly displayed– a paifang (牌坊 páifāng).

朝陽門 (Chaoyang Gate), Yokohama Chinatown, Japan

Historians believe that paifang, aka pailou (牌楼 páilou) were influenced by the ancient Indian torana gate, in which four gates – representing four important life events of Buddha – were placed at the four cardinal directions, on paths leading to a stupa.

Breaking down the word paifang, the pai refers to any number of communities in a fang, or precinct.  Originally, they served as markers to designate individual fang, but eventually became more ornamental in purpose.

西安門 (Xi’an Gate), Kobe Chinatown, Japan

Paifang were historically inscribed with specific moral principles to obey, and/or praise the government for recent accomplishments.  Thereafter, icons such as plants and animals whose sounds were homophones with auspicious words – e.g. fruit bat, which also sounds like “blessing.”  Though, modern ones take a more…hospitable approach to phraseology.  For example, a number of paifang have carved into them the idiom 天下为公 (天下 tiānxià “everywhere below heaven,” “the whole world/China;” 为 wèi “for;”公 gōng “the public,” collectively owned”)– this roughly translates as the world is for everyone.

With that background exposited, let’s dive into some Chinatown paifang photos from around the world…with a couple of surprises added to the mix.

What?!  A paifang in China?  Of course!  This one leads the way to the Ge’an community (隔岸村), in the Bao’an district of Shenzhen.  If you’re a tourist and you ended up here, you’ve got quite the wanderlust.

The joke’s on all of us…this paifang is the entrance to a restaurant in Istanbul.  Or, maybe Chinatown will simply “annex” this district.

Latin America++

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Manchester, United Kingdom

 

Busan, Republic of Korea

USA

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But, the questions remains– when is one of New York City’s Chinatowns going to receive its first paifang?

Baikal (Байкал), the Soviet Coca-Cola?

Baikal (known in Russian as Байкал “bai-kal”), was first created in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s’  partially as a response to Coca Cola’s rapidly expanding presence throughout the world.  Although Coca Cola wasn’t even being sold in the country at the time – even Pepsi beat them to the punch – Baikal’s producers wanted to instill pride in the nation. Thus, they adopted the name Baikal, showing deference to the storied Siberian lake, the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume.

How would I describe the flavor?  Different.  It had a hint of coniferous tree, processed sugar, and some unusual mix of herbs which I couldn’t quite place at the time.  Apparently, Baikal’s ingredients include black tea extract, lemon oil, cardamom oil, eucalyptus oil -what?  can we even consume this one? – and eleutherococcus senticosus, aka Siberian ginseng aka devil’s bush, known to be both an adaptogen and part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

You may not think of Russia these days as a soda powerhouse, and that’s possibly because you didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union, or in a Russian-speaking neighborhood.  They’ve got quite a loyal following for some drinks – if I can find the picture, I will also write about the neon green tarragon-flavored soda – and the flavors from decades ago sound equally tantalizing.


Does pine-flavored soda intrigue you?  Or, have you given up on sodas all together and go straight for the sugar packets?

Nirvana Under the Covers in Osaka, Japan

Have you heard about the latest trend in Japan?  That being, to not have kids?

Forget I said that, but stay on the same wavelength for a moment.

Osaka - Daigo (Nirvana) Love Hotel
Oh look, it’s Osaka Castle~

Tokyo might be my favorite city in the world (thus far), and part of the reason is due to the randomness that can be found on just about every block.  It could be a sampling of dyed tapestries in the middle of an unlit alley (can’t recall where exactly, but it was near Nihombashi), a Statue of Liberty near Odaiba, a bowl of coffee-flavored ramen, or that Balinese-themed love hotel in Kabukicho.

Yes, that last one is a Japanese mainstay, and although the Tokyo area has plenty to choose from, I might have to give Osaka the point for its collection of zanier architectural styles.  Come to think of it, “love hotelism” should be a neologism in an architect’s vocabulary.

However, today’s emphasis is not on the exterior of the hotel.  We’re going to have a brief look at the meaning of the word on the sign; Warning– this language lesson might be slightly off-color.

The two characters that make up 醍醐 (だいご “dye-go”) refer to cream in its purest form.  Thank you, you’ve been a great audience.

If you’ve heard of the Indian staple food ghee, – which may also be known as the greatest flavor of all – that’s one definition.  Staying in the same region of the world, 醍醐 has adopted another, more transcendent meaning- nirvana.

Never thought Buddhism would pay a visit to LearningFeelsGood, but here we are.  Though, if nirvana is supposed to be the point where one’s sufferings and desires are extinguished, what kind of name is that for an Osaka love hotel?

Then again, if the owner was going for the unattainable goal definition, perhaps it’s surrounded by a moat?

Eating Out in the Marshall Islands

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Marshall Islands.  After a seemingly endless series of red-eye flights from Fiji on Our Airline, I made it to Majuro, capital of the tropical archipelago– highest elevation, just under 10 feet.  For a brief 20th century history lesson of the Marshall Islands, you may want to read this tear-jerker.

While in the Marshallese commercial, cultural, and political hub, being in a new country and region, I just had to try some of the local Marshallese food.  And if you’re thinking it’s simply coconuts and fish… partial credit.

The first local meal I recall trying was at The Tide Table restaurant of the Hotel Robert Reimers.  Being jet-lagged but peckish, I chatted with the waitress about Marshallese eats; surprise, surprise, coconuts and fish came up, in addition to the Hawaiian dish known as “loco moco.”

Loco moco consists of boiled white rice, a hamburger, scrambled eggs, and some mysterious brown gravy.  It’s not local, but then again, it was the most regional dish on their menu (take that, Caesar salad).  I kinda liked it, but perhaps the drinks menu could offer something nuanced?

Eureka!  Pandanus juice– that’s the orange liquid in the mysteriously unlabeled bottle.  It was delicious!  But describing the flavor of pandan(us) – an ingredient common to Southeast Asian desserts, too – is a bit difficult.  Quite sweet, and probably a better name for something that people eat than its synonym, screw pine.

Now, if we take pandanus and put it on the delicious side of the Marshallese spectrum, what’s at the other end?  Easy peasy: the noni fruit.

Where’s my neck?

The noni fruit – native to Southeast Asia and Polynesian islands – might be known to some of you in pill or extract form to treat various maladies.  I know it better as a disgusting, vile food that might even put some durian to shame.

For background, I went to a beach party, and found one of these pock-marked fruits lying around on a table.  Ever the adventurous if naïve eater, I took a bite.  Yuck!  It tasted of rotten bleu cheese.  One of my peers saw my reaction, and brought a fresh coconut over to drink.  If a friend invites you to some noni and shirako, you might want to start interviewing for new amigos.

Eventually, I was able to explore Majuro, primarily to investigate local bites. The Marshall Islands accepts US dollars, so I was free to spend the wad without forex fees…but the question is, what to spend it on?

Coupled with one of the most random newspaper ads I have ever seen, I sat down at a casual place for a very filling meal.  To start, I ordered a predictable coconut water, some pumpkin porridge, and grilled red snapper.  Simple fare, both fresh and welcoming.

Note the condiments on the left: tabasco sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.

Since the porridge and snapper tasted nice, I wanted to give them more business.  Above, we have mashed sweetened sweet potatoes, and on the left, a staple starch of the Marshall Islands, the breadfruit.  Having never tried a slice of breadfruit, I was blown away by its billowy French toast texture, just-right sweetness, and tropical abundance, for the next time I should have a craving.

Right before leaving Majuro, I went with a few peers to go fishing.  Our local contact gave us a sampling of his home-smoked swordfish jerky, and some mercilessly hacked coconut meat.

Individually, they tasted pleasant, but combined they were even better, reminding me that cities like New York City and London might have flavors from all over the world, but the quality from the freshness is sorely lacking.

Another thing, you may not want to eat too much coconut meat, as it’s fattening like no tomorrow.

After one week touring Majuro and a few of its islets, it was time to take the long journey back to the states, starting with that trippy flight to Honolulu.  You know, one of those take-off in the evening of Day 1, and land in the early morning of Day 1 flights.  There was a problem, though.  I forgot to buy edible souvenirs!

No worries, Majuro Airport has you covered.

Rum, Rice Krispies Treats, and eggs.  Wow! This flight is going to be blast.


Have you been to the Marshall Islands?  Which of the above foods would you most want to try first?

Unforgettable Breakfasts in Sapporo, Japan

We have both been duped by today’s title.

I wish I could say that my breakfasts in Sapporo, Japan were unforgettable in the positive sense – then again, I did have control over what was to be eaten – but to be fair, it was only one day’s selections that were unique.

I was drawn to Hokkaido’s largest city by, what else, food, and indeed sampled more hits than misses.  Down the line, we’ll cover more of what I ate, but today the focus is on one of my multi-breakfast days.

A short walk from my hotel led me to Nijo Market (二条市場), arguably Sapporo’s most famous.  A relatively relaxing place compared to other markets in the country, it also has products much harder to find outside of Hokkaido…

Sapporo - Nijo Market GoodsCase in point, over at the Nijo Market, you can buy bear-in-a-can ( kuma in a kan), seal (海豹 azarashi) curry and tinned Steller’s sea lion (todo).

Sapporo - Steller's Sea Lion and Onikoroshi Refined Sake

It was a tough decision, but I went with stewed sea lion, served in the 大和煮 (yamato-ni) style, which means stewed with soy sauce, ginger, and sugar.  How do you wash that all down at 7:30 in the morning?  With a US$.80 juice box of sake called “Demon Slayer.”

The stew was well-seasoned – nothing surprising for Japan – and you definitely knew it wasn’t your standard issue beef or pork.  Or tube-shaped fish paste cake.


Sapporo - Yamazaki Pan, Chocolate Wafer & Whipped CreamGetting my daily dose of bread was next on the list, so I flocked to the nearest convenience store for inspiration.  The brand Yamazaki Pan comes up with rather bizarre crust-less bread creations, and if you couldn’t read Japanese but knew about Japanese food, you might be forgiven for thinking that they are all stuffed with mayonnaise and yakisoba.

That is unless you noticed the handy graphics depicting what is likely inside.  In this package, we have Fujiya chocolate wafers and whipped cream.  The wafers seemed a bit stale, but on the whole the sandwiches did the trick.


One of my favorite aspects of eating in Japan is hunkering down at a kaitenzushi restaurant (回転寿司/conveyor belt sushi).  Not only do they have nearly unlimited tea and pickled ginger (made easier because they are self-serve), but you can also often find ネタ (neta, toppings/ingredients for sushi) unique to that establishment.  I’ll go over this in more detail another time, but matsutake mushrooms, raw chicken and hamburgers have been spotted in addition to seafood.

Sapporo - Kaitenzushi Shirako

Those toppings are head-scratching enough, but what about 白子 (shirako)? 

Shirako, or milt, is the seminal fluid of various fish.  Yet, it wasn’t so much what I was eating but the texture of it.

That’s a lie.  It was both.

Needless to say, that was the best lemon I have ever eaten.

Hallucinogens and Heat: A Brief Guide to Eating in the Maldives

Beaches, at least while I’m traveling solo, are somewhere near the bottom of the list of priorities.  I might head towards one for a sunset shot, to try local seafood, or to admire the terrain, but not to kick back for hours on end.

Thus, you can imagine my…imagination’s surprise when I flew to the Maldives a some years back.  I was on my way to Colombo, Sri Lanka, so why not fit in a rapidly disappearing archipelago on the way?

Beyond snorkeling between schools of tropical fish and rubbish floating by a jetty near Hulhumale’, and getting nauseous from diesel fumes from the ferries, I wasn’t sure what else to do.

Oh, right.  Let’s explore Maldivian food.

Right off the bat, you should know that fish, specifically skipjack tuna, is THE staple of the Maldives.  The canned (tinned for British English viewers) variety is more and more common, but traditionally the tuna was cured – in this case, boiled, smoked and sun-choked – into a product called ari.  Coconuts are also par for the course, which raises Maldivian food to level awesome.

Secondly, I was glad though not surprised that English was often present.  I had no idea how to say anything in Dhivehi, and the written script looked like one’s breath was trying its damnedest to communicate.

That said, here’s when I had a generally good sense of what I ordered:

Food in the Maldives -  (2)

The first meal I ate in the Maldives was appropriately a tuna-centric one.  It tasted canned, and the chapati – known locally as roshi – was lukewarm at best.  What a disappointment.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the food.  I drank the water, so that’s probably where the disappointment set in.

Food in the Maldives -  (3)

The server knew me well.

Food in the Maldives -  (7)

Oops, more water.

Wandering around downtown Male’ on one of my empty stomachs, I sought refuge in a bustling short eats hole-in-the-wall.

What’s on the menu?  Fried things, round fried things, fried round things, and tuna.  With fried coconut.  And heavily sweetened tea.  And tuna, grilled that is.

The first plates come by.  The lighter things in the lower-left are called gulha, made with tuna, coconut and chilies, and the darker ones are kavaabu, fried with tuna, potatoes and lime.  To the right, we have riha folhi, curried tuna rolls, and in the back, unfortunately I don’t recall the names.  The yellow item that looks like a swimming turtle is NOT an egg, and the glutinous cubes behind it didn’t have much taste.  It’s safe to say that neither of those contained tuna.  Can anyone identify those snacks?

Food in the Maldives -  (4)

Add the fish curry to the list of foods that made me suffer dearly.  I couldn’t speak for a few minutes because it set my mouth on fire for some time.  That the rice was boiling hot didn’t help things, nor did the spicy vegetables (including red onions, another Maldivian favorite).  Which is to say, I’d order that curry again, if only I knew the name!

Food in the Maldives -  (5)

Papaya shake.  Although I often think papayas have a Bubblicious aftertaste, they are refreshing in shake-form.  No sugar, no ice, all fresh…just hope that the glass was properly cleaned.

Now it’s time to go into the “doldrums of food” category:

Food in the Maldives -  (6)

You’re supposed to spit it out

This potent combination of a stimulant – the areca nut, cinnamon, cloves, and calcium hydroxide (to help with absorption) usually follows a Maldivian meal. That is, I thought it was a dessert, so down the hatch a handful went.

Another afternoon wasted.

Food in the Maldives -  (1)

The warning notice should have been a red flag, but I still dared to try a thimble’s worth of khaini, ready-to-roll tobacco.  Who needs Amsterdam when the Maldives are ready to serve you; they’ve even just introduced a points system for frequent travelers, so watch out Sabena!.


Have you tried Maldivian cuisine?