Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More Flowers

... and probably the last of the flower posts for this spring. A few more examples of Mother Nature's finery have caught my eye (and in the case of the lavender, my nose) as I cut through the nearby apartment complex:

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These, by the way, were taken on my iPhone camera at "HDR", but they turned out quite good, I think.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival 2014

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As I have every year (see last year's post here), I attended the Spring Blossom Festival this morning. Unlike previous years, they changed the dates, because unexpected warm weather tricked them into blooming early. The original dates were April 14 to 20, by which time there will not be a single flower still on a tree. Last year, the blooms came late. The NPS used to have a webpage showing a formula for predicting the peak blossom dates, but they've replaced it with this one.

Both Korea and the US received their cherry trees as a gift from the Japanese government around the turn of the last century. In Washington, they placed them around the Tidal Basin, and in Korea they are near the National Assembly.

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I went expecting to see flowers but no festival, but the usual goings-on were going on. Balloon giveaways, photo ops with chartoon characters, free drum-banging, Spiderman, some guy with a cardboard box on his head ...

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A popular attraction is the street portrait artists:

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Here I am being murdered by a ninja made of Legos:

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But the star of the show remains the cherry blossoms:

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The greenery in that last shot is but a reminder of the passage of time. The blooms will soon fade away and fall off. In fact, each gust of wind produced a flurry of pink petals that twisted and hovered for a moment before gracing the ground.

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If you want to see them, better hurry!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring Has Sprung

As if yesterday's Opening Day of the KBO season (more on which later) wasn't proof enough, I now present pictures of some blooms, illustrating that spring is here. Some have poo-poo'ed my annual post on the first flowers (see some examples here, here and here) but I find it nearly magical that the dry brown twigs of winter sprout little green buds that blossom into color so predictably, as our hemisphere nods its greeting to the sun.

The 개나리 kaenari or Japanese cornel dogwood:

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Beneath this stand, some variety of native violet is growing:

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Another harbinger of spring is the 진다래 jindalae, the Korean azalea, L.: Rhododendron mucronulatum:

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I'm not sure what this one is; it looks like a cherry, but if so it's three weeks early--perhaps some variety of apricot:

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And last, though certainly not least, the majestic magnolia, creamy white blooms the size of your hand!

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I must say that passing by these bushes during their blooming period really livens up my short walk to school through an otherwise drab apartuh danji.

Last autumn, though, some government workers came along and gave a facelift to the retaining wall outside my school. I personally would prefer if this was student artwork, but it still provides some welcome color during those dreary winter months.

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Happy Spring!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Singapore: Street Scenes

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I arrived in "Singers" in mid-february, and the Chinese New Year celebration was still going on.

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The neighborhood I stayed in is called "Geylang", and it is a red-light district,not as polished and spiffed up as, say, the Marina or Raffles area, but my hotel was convenient to the subway, it was clean, the air-con and hot water worked, and I felt completely safe.

The Hotel:

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The Neighborhood:

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I'm not sure what that last picture is all about, but around this particular corner, several people set up shop blanket every day selling ... pills, whether sexual aids or energy boosters or what.

Anyway, speaking of the subway:

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The subway is excellent; I noticed that there are quite a lot of big-bellied men here, and I also noticed that the seats are significantly wider than in Seoul--correlation, and possibly causation.

Due to history, there is an interesting cross of roads and place names here. A major street called Eu Tong Sen is met by Smith Str and Neil Rd, Church Str and Temple Str; subway stations like Mountbatten and Marymount rub shoulders with Toa Payoh and Potong Pasir. But no one except the most reprehensible bigot would see a stop called Joo Koon and thereafter refer to it as Sammy Davis Station in his head.

Haji Str:
This is a nice little spot off Beach Str (where NOX, dining in the dark was located) with a cool vibe and some nice little bistros, some of which I sat at to enjoy the breeze after dinner.

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Later that night: "I found a place on the main drag away from Haji Lane, operated by Bertie, an ethnic Chinese gent with stories to tell. 7 Tigers there cost $S46.00. We were joined by Norwegians named Paul and Roger who are winding down their Asian tour of HK, Thailand and China with Singapore. They are staying at the Marina Bay Sands. Interesting, far-ranging conversation, including Michael Fay from the Singaporean POV. (Were there really effigies of Singapore's PM burnt in America at that time? I don't remember it). Taxi ride was S$7.00."

Final Thoughts:
* Singaporeans are happy with their Nanny State: the government provides housing blocks at extremely subsidized prices, live in it for five years, pay your rent and taxes, it becomes yours--you can sell it if you like, and make a good profit (but then you have to find new lodging). Roads overcrowded? Complain to the government and they introduce an electronic toll system on busy roads during high traffic times to discourage their use. Worry about water quality? The government will introduce strong fines for the kind of littering that filters trash into the reservoir. They act as though they're doing everyone a favor by simply being good government--adding bus lines, resurfacing roads, etc. At the same time, they're nearly as willing a Seoul government to bulldoze traditional spots in the name of progress. It has to be said, though, that Singapore scores low on the corruption scale, it is pretty clean approaching its fiftieth year.
* Tiger may be the national local beer, but there is a distinct preference for Carlsberg, at least around Geylang.
* The people are more polite than friendly--at least comared to what you are likely to see in the Philippines or Thailand. English isn't what you hear people speaking, either, even though it's the official language.
* I was surprised by the number of people that were surprised I would go to Singapore on vacation. It's small, It's boring, There's nothing to see and do ... Well, I hope to have put that to rest--there's certainly enough to do for four or five days. No beach, though, so it was on to Thailand for 12 days of sun and surf. In addition to several landmarks/places of interest, Singapore offers amazing food, different culture and cool people.
* Characters: --Sonny (sp), native Singaporean of Chinese extraction, retired bus driver who's now a cabbie. Drinks Guinness, good English but hasn't traveled. Age 66.
-- John, claims to be a Singaporean who lived in Australia for 17 years, but seems Aboriginal. Said he's a musician at the Hyatt three days a week, complained about Filipina girl bands moving in on his jobs. They show their "knickers" and charge half-price. He kept trying to sell me a camera and bumming $10 off me. I bought him some beer instead, which is the correct thing to do with panhandlers--give them cash, they'll just spend it on food or something.
-- Joe, aerospace engineer based in Shanghai, who spends months at a time in hotels in various outposts. Lived in san Diego for several years, perfect English.
-- Lisa, the Carlsberg girl at my local, who came to sxpect a tip (tipping is not done here, really), in exchange for which she was quite friendly with me.
-- But for every John, there was one like the lady who, upon seeing my despair that a vending machine (F&N) wouldn't take my bill, put some coins in so the thirsty tourist could get a drink--and all she would accept was my thanks.

Well, thanks again, anonymous lady! And thank you, Singapore, for a good time!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Singapore: Food

Hawker Centres
During my preparation for the trip, I read and heard about hawker centres and food courts, but they really weren't what I imagined, which was a concentration of tents and mobile vendor stalls. But they are actually permanent structures, even multi-storey ones. Anyway, the first morning, I made my way to Chinatown, and the hawker centre located thereabouts, for breakfast. I spied this:

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...which was soon converted into this, with the exchange of about S$3.00:

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So a hawker centre is filled with a variety of food and beverage stalls:

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Those first two pictures are from Chinatown, the bottom two from Little India. While in Little India, I had a lovely mutton masala with a piece of naan bread so light you had to keep the bowl on top so it wouldn't float away. I got it from this stall:

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The procedure is to claim your seat at a table, almost certainly shared, by placing a little packet of napkins, which little old ladies sell three for a dollar. Then go to the appropriate stall and place your order and go sit down. Soon enough, someone will bring it to you. I had no sooner sat down than a little old man came along and took my order for a freshly-squeezed lemonade with ice for S$1.20.

A food court is similar to a hawker centre, but typically is more enclosed and is air conditiond, and therefore a bit more pricey. Additionally, food courts often have only one stall in each category, where a hawker centre may have five or even more. A few even have more international fare:

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And here is one of the quintessential Singaporean foods, the peppered crab, fantastic!

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One more note: almost anytime you get a fresh fruit drink, they use a machine whereby you watch the fruit going in--so you know it's genuine. When it comes out, it has a plastic seal over it, and you're given a sharpened straw. I'm not sure whether this is for spillage control, or hygiene or what, but it's a bit irritating to get to your ice at the end.

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10 @ Claymore
Sunday brunch is "must" in Singapore, and I scanned TripAdvisor carefully before making my reservation. This restaurant is in the lobby area of the Pan pacific Hotel--Orchard, and at about S$85.00, I wanted my money's worth, so I worked up quite an appetite that morning roaming the Tiger Balm Gardens. I ate so much I had to rearrange my schedule and go to the Botanic Gardens the next day, and sleep it off a bit in my hotel room.

They have a great selection of meats (my first plate has roast beef, picnic ham and prosciutto, next there is some amazing spicy crab. The cheese board is most unusual, and awesome as well.

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Still, the best thing may be the desserts--lots of quality chocolate. There's a chef making me a durian and nutella crepe:

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NOX, Dining in the Dark
Literally no point in showing photos of this culinary experience, though it is one I will long remember. You begin in the light with an amuse-bouche and an aperitif. I was joined by two young couples as we were led to the upstairs dining room (there are I think five of them, for a capacity of about fifty diners at a seating), hands on the shoulder of the person in front, the server leading us. The servers are all visually-impaired. As you go up the stairs, it gets darker and darker, until you turn a corner and it's pitch black. I was seated, oriented to my flatware, the glasses and the water bottle. The food comes in three courses, appetizers, mains, and desserts. Each course consists of four small dishes. The dishes are arranged on the cardinal points, and you are instructed to begin at S and go clockwise to E.

See, the thing is, you don't know what you are being served. Not just because it's pitch black, but because they have a set menu for the month--you tell them dietary restrictions, and they make substitutions--but the menu is a "secret". The idea is that devoid of visual clues, your senses of taste and smell and touch/texture are enhanced. At the end of the dinner, there is a debrief where a hostess talks to the group and tells you what you've just eaten.

I'm just going to copy directly from my travel journal: "It was quite remarkable, though with add-ones bringing the total to S$150, I can't swear it was worth it. The food was outstanding, though I had only an approximate idea on half of them: I knew the linguini was with mushrooms (only it was some kind of clam that is often mistaken for mushroom), I knew the wagyu beef, even though I spilled half of it, and the bacon; I knew that I had chick peas and lentils (even if the lentils were left out), and I thought the deep-fried pig's ears were chicken. I did do well on guessing the desserts, but by then I had given up the guessing game and was just enjoying the flavors and textures--and trying not to spill anything else. There was a small red light, but it illuminated nothing, and the room was completely dark. It is impossible to imagine what it must be like to exist like that all the time--all the dining room staff are "visually impaired". Amazing! I would definitely do this again, but please take one-third off the tab!"

Food Playground
I do love taking a cooking class, especially a top-notch one like this. Again, I'm just going to quote my travel notes, and sprinkle in some photos. "Had a great time at the Food Playground class this morning: staff members Lesley and Helen were great, and my partner Helen, a British expat housewife, was adventurous enough; the other pair came together, Jermaine and Jiho, Koreans, though Germaine is UK-raised, and they were fun too (and are staying at the Fragrance Hotel Ruby, as I am). After an acclimation session, we started with dessert, since it was a custard that needed chilling: we made pandan-leaf boxes, heated coconut milk, dissolved sugar in it, then added mung-bean flour and a touch of salt. The mung bean flour was tinted green with pandan leaf extract. Then we filled the boxes.

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"The main course was Singapore-style chicken rice. The trick here is flavoring the rice. You rinse, soak 10 min and drain long-grain rice, then boil in equal amount of chicken stock for about 6 min, until it craters, then turn down to for another five to simmer. To go with the chicken and rice, we made sweet chili sauce, pounding in a mortar and pestle a clove of garlic, a slice of ginger, one red pepper, some sugar, a pinch of salt and a bit of oil.

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"We also made wontons stuffed with minced prawns, chicken and veg, for soup. (The photo shows the stuffing mix, and also raw water chestnuts, which I had never seen before.)

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"It was delicious and a lot of fun. This guy Daniel started the operation about 1 1/2 years ago, but instead of using professional chefs, he uses moms who've been out of the job market for a while and appreciate the flexibility of the schedule. And if L and H are anything to go by, he's done an outstanding job of staffing! At $S99.00, it is pricey, but it's comparable to the other one-shot courses I found, and is kind of special, besides."

The completed meal, me and my pard Helen, and the whole group just before we dig in:

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For comparison, I simply had to try this ubiquitous dish in the wild, to see how ours compared. Here is the chicken rice from the stall at the Victoria Food Court, near my hotel in Geylang. Oh, it was very good! But ours was better ...

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Finally, here is a shot of the "Turtle House", empty during the day, but doing a fair amount of business at night. I had the crocodile tail claypot here, at a hefty S$28.00. Tasted a lot like chicken.

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