Monthly Archives: July 2018

Buffalo Skin

Category : Food

 

One of the things I love about local produce markets is the amazing variety of things on sale that are completely new to me. In Laos, it was clear that buffalo skin was the front runner in terms of amount and variety on display. Stall after stall had up to a dozen different types, yet I had not seen this on menus or even being eaten from the bag.

It turns out that you need to do a fair amount of preparation before you can reach the point of tasting buffalo skin, which as you might expect is very thick and hard. You can roast it over an open fire until it is charred black, then pound it until it softens and the charred bits have fallen off. You can boil it up in a stew or soup, or you can marinate it with fish sauce and bake it slowly until you have something resembling jerky. You can even deep fry it.

Always game, I bargained for a small bag of pale white strips, but was not prepared for the appalling stench that greeted me as I opened it. There are limits. Not wanting to waste it, I sent samples to daughter #1, whose dog did eat it but promptly threw up. (Daughter #1 already treats my souvenir parcels with suspicion, now I am really in her bad books…)

Whilst part of me is sorry I failed to sample what is clearly a Laotian speciality, it appears I may have had a lucky escape!


War Spoons

This is a story about war and peace…

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States fought to stop the spread of communism across Indochina, a ‘war’ which wreaked devastation yet has largely been forgotten. Except by the people still living with the consequences.

In Laos, recorded statistics show that between 250 and 260 million bombs were dropped over that 9 year period, of which a horrifying 30% did not explode. Many of these were cluster bombs, tennis ball sized and easy to overlook, until you dig one up whilst ploughing, or stumble on one in the undergrowth.

Forty five years later, dedicated teams are still working to clear fields of lethal unexploded ordnance, and a steady stream of famers and children are killed or crippled by bomblets. In the Mines Advisory Group centre in Phonsavan, the chalk board notice of ‘this week’s casualties’ makes devastating reading.

The locals, however, are making the best of things, and a whole new industry has grown up based on recycling the debris. Scrap metal from the salvaged bomb casings is being turned into all manner of useful things, from spoons and chopsticks to souvenir bottle openers, bangles and beads.

There are half a dozen stalls at Luang Prabang night market devoted to these, and whilst the recycled metal is a strange, silvery and fragile material, it is a real feel-good thing to buy  – not just as a cool gift or a fascinating souvenir, but also as something that will help the community.

Even better, if you head up-country to the heart of the devastation, you can not only see the mine clearing in action but also try your hand at making some of these souvenirs yourself.

At Ban Napia, or ‘War Spoon Village’, in the region of the Plain of Jars, hut after hut has an area at the back where a small kiln is constantly in use melting down bits of wartime scrap. In the most low tech way, ladles of shimmering molten metal are poured into wooden moulds – by the time you’ve done the third, the first is ready to remove and you start the process over. A small but very efficient little production line was going on at the one I visited, with the son pouring and unmoulding spoons, the mother filing off the rough edges once the metal had cooled.

It did not take much persuasion for them to give me a chance to try this myself, although it soon became clear that it is way less simple than it appears. I am not going to be invited to make spoons again any time soon, and the one specimen I did finally produce is something I am hanging on to but will probably never dare use in case it collapses and pours soup into my lap.

All the night market stalls have the slogan: Buy Back the Bombs. I certainly did my best!


Wasabi Ginger Ale

I’m not big on fizzy drinks but I do like ginger ale once in a while (preferably in whisky…) and of course I am usually entranced by new things from Japan. So obviously I did not hesitate to sample this fascinating new soda from Singapore’s ramen king, Keisuke.

Wasabi can be an acquired taste, and whilst I do like it I don’t like too much of it on my sushi because I want to be able to taste the full flavour of the fish as well.

But ginger has a similar spicy kick, and I was delighted to discover how very well the 2 flavours go together. The wasabi is almost at the bottom of the ingredients list, so there clearly isn’t very much of it in there, but what it does is somehow enhance the spicy flavour of the ginger without overpowering it. It makes the whole thing richer and tastier than regular ginger ale, and I shall definitely be ordering more.


Bonsai Cookie Tree

One of the things synonymous with Japan is how beautiful the details are, and how exquisitely things are presented. It can be anything from an elaborate tea ceremony sweet that looks like a folded leaf, to the way the shop assistant angles the paper before wrapping up a gift.

In the food hall of Takashimaya department store I was brought to a standstill by this ‘tree’, looking like a bonsai but with ‘leaves’ made up of cookies. And not just any old cookies, but intensely flavoured matcha cookies with white chocolate sandwiched inside.

Better still, instead of just broken pieces to sample, entire cookies were being handed out as an enticement to buy…

Just another of the million reasons why I love Japan so much!


Clip Markers

As a person whose travel guides bristle with mini post-its marking the really interesting pages, I was thrilled to spot this very efficient clip.

Ready loaded with slim sticky strips just the right size for the job, it attaches firmly to the cover of your book or magazine, so you need never put said book down to hunt around for your markers again.

I found it in Tokyu Hands, in a variety of colours, for less than $8, and promptly snapped it up. Best of all, it comes with a refill set I am sure to be needing soon.


Golden Beauty

Category : Beauty

Gold was being used in Chinese medicine more than 4000 thousand years ago, and in India forms part of longstanding Ayurvedic treatments designed to rejuvenate older people. In the early part of last century, before more ‘modern’ scientific drugs were developed, gold was even used to treat tuberculosis, rheumatism and syphilis.

Surprisingly, it also appears to have many properties which are very useful in beauty treatments, and there are increasing numbers of (very expensive) products out there literally sparkling with promise. I was not sure how far to believe the claims I was reading, but there does seem to be a lot of reputable research around.

So, those little flakes of 24 carat in your face cream may well be worth the price. Because it seems that gold not only has antiseptic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, it boosts circulation and helps the absorption of other skincare ingredients. Add to this its ability to help firm the skin, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and thus delay the aging process, and you have what amounts to magic in a pot.

I found this trial set, from Hakuichi, Japan, at Haneda airport, and thought it would be a fine way to spend up my remaining yen. The sample sizes were also very convenient for my next trip, and in fact lasted for literally weeks afterwards, which was a nice surprise.

All the products contained a liberal sprinkling of golden flecks, although I soon discovered that if I used a cotton pad to apply them, the gold stuck to the cotton and did not go on my face. Using my fingers got around this problem very well.

The highlight of the set was the folder of gold leaf sheets, to be applied to the face. The trick is apparently to apply serum first, then – using the clean end of the paper slip so that your fingers do not touch the gold leaf – apply the gold to your face. After about 10 minutes, you can then apply a little more serum and massage the gold leaf into your skin.

I was amazed to see that the gold leaf really did seem to vanish into my skin, because I was fully expecting it to be crumbling off into the sink and sticking to my fingertips. Whether just a couple of applications has any noticeable effect remains to be seen, certainly nobody was commenting on my new sparkle afterward, but I enjoyed this range very much and – if the normal size wasn’t so expensive – would consider buying it again.


Dessert Pizza

This seems to be a ‘thing’ right now, which is interesting. I mean, why not serve a pizza with sweet toppings as opposed to savoury? It’s like saying you can only eat bread with the likes of ham and cheese, which would thoroughly disappoint the jam on toast eaters in my family.

Having decided this was a good idea, I have been spoiled for choice in sweet pizzas to sample. Clearly, I bypassed the durian version (not being entirely certain you could class any durian as sweet…) but was more than happy with the various concoctions of fruit and chocolate that I tried.

In Singapore, you get what you are given, and this seems to mean orange with chocolate or Nutella with banana, both excellent combinations.

At Max Brenner’s Chocolate Bar in Tokyo, however, it was very exciting to be able to create one of a kind pizza slices from a vast range of options. These start with the base, which you can get coated with milk, dark or white chocolate, or milk or strawberry cream cheese. Add marshmallows, sliced fruit, candies, cookie pieces and all sorts of sprinkles, top it with ice cream if you like, and tuck in!

In retrospect, this all sounds to be completely over the top, but after a hard afternoon shopping in Harajuku, it was a delicious and energy boosting treat. Let’s hope this particular idea is one that catches on!


Cigarette Incense

It was a real puzzle working out what these strange little sticks were when I saw them in Hanoi airport – they looked very intriguing packed into bottles and arranged in gift boxes. It took the combined efforts of three shop assistants and some entertaining sign language before I got the picture, so they must have been a bit disappointed when I decided not to buy…

But it is a fascinating concept, and I’d be interested to hear from someone who has bought them to discover if they really do work as advertised.

Essentially, the sticks are tiny slivers of agar wood, which is sometimes called oud and is used in the production of fantastically expensive perfumes in the Middle East. And not just any bits of wood, but heartwood from certain species of the aquilaria tree which has been transformed by mould into a dark, dense resin-like substance which contains a crucially important aromatic chemical compound.

What you do is (using a special cigarette needle if you have one) insert an agar wood stick into the centre of your cigarette then smoke as normal. The effects are apparently fairly special: the perfume from the burning wood covers the normal smell of smoke, making things more pleasant for both the smoker and other people nearby, it also acts as a breath freshener. Not to mention that it apparently reduces nicotine damage and provides some sort of detox for the whole body – especially in the case of wine and beer drinkers. In fact, it is touted as improving male health in general.

I did manage to track down some information online once I was home, and discovered that you don’t have to put these in your cigarette and smoke them to reap the benefits. Apparently some of the same benefits can be gained by simply burning the sticks as you would incense, or making them into tea. Maybe I should have bought some after all…


‘Sweet Meat’ Soup

Category : Food

This is a euphemism. It sounds a great deal better than ‘dog meat’ soup, although there is nothing sweet about it.

People tend to have strong reactions when it comes to the idea of eating ‘pets’. Let me say right away that I don’t really see the difference between eating any sort of animal. I have kept and loved rabbits, guinea pigs and horses, yet have happily eaten the meat of all three when I had the opportunity. The sort of dog that crops up on Asian menus is not, incidentally, the sort you keep as a pet – these dogs are generally bred for their meat in the same way as chickens or cows.

In many places, like Vietnam, dog meat is a delicacy which is expensive and tricky to track down. In North Korea, where the soup is offered at only 5 euros a bowl, it proved hard to refuse the chance to try a brand new culinary experience.

So did I like it? The straight answer is no. It arrived at the table looking murky and unappealing, like particularly dirty dishwater, and some fishing about was required to find the slightly purplish strands of meat at the bottom of the bowl. Then it did not really taste of much, even when I scooped in the entire accompanying saucer of chili paste. My main objection, however, was the texture. This was like too-soft lamb which came apart in my mouth in a way I really did not care for.

I could not finish this, and will not be ordering dog meat soup again. If anyone offers me something slightly different, however, like maybe roasted dog, well, who knows….


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