Trout Lake Farmers’ Market

It’s Saturday morning. Booths line both sides of a gravel path, selling produce, eggs, baked goods, and jewelry. Families with strollers and dogs on leashes filled the narrow walkway, and the smell of pizza and smoke from food trucks hung in the air. Welcome to Trout Lake Farmers’ Market.

East Vancouver Farmer's Market: Trout Lake Park
Trout Lake Farmer’s Market

Since moving to East Vancouver a month ago, I’ve wanted to explore the neighbourhood and get to know the people living here. The first booth I approached was one familiar to me and a common sight at Vancouver Farmer’s Markets: Sole Food Street Farms. They’re an urban farm with plots around Vancouver. In addition to growing food using organic practices locally, the organization is also committed to empowering individuals with limited resources. According to Lissa, who was staffing the booth, one such way they do so is by employing people living in the Downtown Eastside.

Sole Street Farms @ Trout Lake Farmer's Market
Tomatoes & Chili Peppers from Sole Street Farms @ the Trout Lake Farmer’s Market

A few booths down, Soban Organic Farm was selling an unlikely item: chopsticks. Soban, the co-owner of the farm told me that he made all of the chopsticks with wood from an 106-year old maple tree in his backyard. Making chopsticks by hand is a time-intensive process. First, the wood is cut into planks and allowed to dry for 4 years. Then, they’re cut to shape, grinded, and sanded until smooth. These chopsticks get coated with mineral oil to help repel water and keep them from cracking. I asked where Soban learned to make chopsticks, and he laughs as he said that he taught himself.

Choban Farm's Handmade Chopsticks
Soban Organic Farm’s Handmade Chopsticks

There’s Kay from the Other Eden, who started making soaps and lotions for her own sensitive skin, then gave away extras to her friends, and eventually started selling them to the general public.

Lemongrass Lavender Soap
The Other Eden: Lemongrass Lavender Soap

Fittingly, I found a food scrap drop spot at the market. A food scrap drop spot is a place for people without access to the organic composting program to drop off their compostable materials. This is perfect for those who live in apartment complexes without composting programs such as myself. What a brilliant idea to increase landfill diversion in urban areas.

Is it a TRAP?
Is it a TRAP?

Milan “The Tomato Man” sold only grapes and tomatoes. He had one of the most interesting booths at the market. From the plates shapes like the word TRAP which held free samples, to the “Tomato Man(ifesto)”, to the handwritten ode to each grape variety, every detail appealed to my sense of humour and curiosity. When I asked Milan about the signs, he said that he loved play with words, and if he took a career aptitude test, he probably would’ve been a CEO of an advertising agency. I don’t know if it was the influence of advertising, but I did pick up a few San Marzano tomatoes, which are famous saucing tomatoes of an Italian variety. I added them into a black lentil dal I was making, and also sneaked a taste. They were super sweet, very fleshy (almost seedless and pulpless), and just a pleasure to eat out of hand.

The Tomato Manifesto
The Tomato Man(ifesto).

My last stop was Jane’s Honey Bees. I asked Jay how the different “flavours” of honey were produced. He explained that bee farmers will rent out their bees to different farms when their flowers require pollination, so the honey collected during that time period will be primarily from a single type of flower. Anecdotally, Jay told me that a blueberry farmer’s yield increased from 7,000 lb/ year to 11,000 lb/year thanks to renting honey bees.

 

Raw and pasteurized honey
Raw and heated honey

Farmers’ Market

A place to receive nature’s bounty,

Nurtured by hands, hearts, heads.

Breathing, appreciating,

The world and work,

Which sustain us.

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Historical Tours: Los Angeles (Aug 9, 2014)

We weren’t even planning to do a walking tour of Los Angeles (LA). But at the suggestion of our Couchsurfing host, my friend and I joined a group on Saturday morning.

After gathering in Pershing Square, we began ahead of schedule. Throughout the course of the tour, our guide proved himself to be very knowledgable, and he was clearly passionate about preserving historic downtown LA.

Our Los Angeles Conservancy Walking Tour Guide.
Our Los Angeles Conservancy Walking Tour Guide.

The first landmark we talked about was the Biltmore Hotel, situated across from Pershing Square. Built in the beaux-arts style of architecture and completed in 1923, it’s one of Los Angeles luxury hotels.

A bit more about the beaux-arts style, it evolved during the Renaissance period and was influenced by Roman architecture. According to our guide, it is sophisticated, intelligent, and bourgeoisie. This style became popular in the US between 1890-1920, with the earliest examples found in New York.

Basic elements of LA beaux-arts buildings include:

  • Elaborate details and artwork at the building base
  • The first story features high-ceilings, arched windows, grand entrances and foyers.
  • Simple shaft of the building
  • Substantial ornaments at the roof, echoing the base

Can you spot these features in the photos below?

The Biltmore Hotel (1923) built in the beaux-arts style, designed by architecture firm Schultze & Weaver.
The Biltmore Hotel (1923) built in the beaux-arts style, designed by architecture firm Schultze & Weaver.

Although the tour group didn’t go inside the Biltmore Hotel, our guide strongly recommended that we do it later, and so we did. The interior was beautiful, but don’t take my word for it, go look for yourself!  

Entrance to the Biltmore Hotel
One of the entrances to the Biltmore Hotel. This one leads to the Rendezvous Court, which used to serve as the hotel’s lobby.
The Rendezvous Court inside the Biltmore Hotel. Set up for afternoon tea service.
The Rendezvous Court has been seen in numerous TV shows and films, including: Daredevil, The Nutty Professor, and Mad Men.
Bronze and crystal chandelier, imported from Italy in 1923, hangs inside the Biltmore Rendezvous Court.
One of two bronze and crystal chandeliers, imported from Italy in 1923, which hang inside the Biltmore Rendezvous Court.

The next location we learned about was Pershing Square. In the 1850s, it used to be a tent city, a landing point for immigrants. The settlers tolerated the campsite as it was far away from the town centre at the time. As LA’s population grew, and the campsite became more noticeable, the poor immigrants were forced to move, and the location was turned into a park. In the 1950s, due to the popularity of the automobile, the entire park was razed to the ground to build a 1800 car underground parking garage, which still exists today. This construction left only a thin layer of topsoil in the park, making it impossible to support large trees. The entrances to the park were also raised above street level, thus discouraging pedestrians from wandering in. Now, Pershing Square hosts concerts in the summertime, but otherwise doesn’t appear too exciting.

In the 1930s, Art Deco followed the footsteps of beaux-arts. Influenced by Islamic, Asian, Aztec, and Egyptian art, this style featured materials such as lacquer and glass. Examples of buildings in the Art Deco style include: the LA Central Library and One Bunker Hill (see below).

Pyramid, mosaic roof. Totally Egyptian inspired. LA Public Library.
LA Central Library mosaic roof, Totally inspired by the Egyptian pyramids.
An intricately painted ceiling and one panel featuring the history of California inside the rotunda of the LA Central Library.
An intricately painted ceiling and one panel featuring the history of California inside the rotunda of the LA Central Library.
A sphinx statue in the LA public library
A sphinx statue in the LA Central Library.

The Million Dollar Theatre, opened in 1918, features a large concrete arch (read more about the building here) and many Baroque statues of theatrical and mythical characters. Is it beautiful, or is it tacky? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. It was a grand theatre back in its day, and more recently, has housed Latino plays. Since the 1980s, its been largely underused. 

Million Dollar Theatre
Million Dollar Theatre.

The same company that owns the theatre also owns the Grand Central Market. A bustling indoor shopping area with plenty of inexpensive produce and fast food joints.

Grand Central Market
Grand Central Market.
Grand Central Market.
The produce-selling side of the Grand Central Market.

Our tour guide mentioned there’s an interesting mix of food stalls in the market, with one side being dominated by the old mom & pop shops selling mostly Mexican or Chinese food and the other by the new businesses frequented by the younger generation such as the ever popular brunch spot: eggslut.

Bradbury building: the most romantic office building I've seen.
Bradbury building: the most romantic office building I’ve seen. Note the period after the BRADBURY.

One of the most beautiful and unique buildings on this tour was the Bradbury Building (1894). It was built in the Romanesque Revival style and still functions as an office space today. If I’m not mistaken, our guide mentioned the skylights was inspired by the science fiction utopian novel: Looking Backward: 2000-1887, where offices were lit by skylights. Other noteworthy details include the mixed use of iron, brick, and wood for the interior, and the decorative wood borders which is characteristic of the Chicago style. My favourite tidbit about this building? They filmed the last scene of 500 Days of Summer here! You know, the one where Tom meets Autumn at a job interview.

Interior of the Bradbury Building: French ironwork, Belgian marble, and Mexican tiles.
Interior of the Bradbury Building: French ironwork, Belgian marble, and Mexican tiles.

The last building I’ll take you to is One Bunker Hill, which was originally the home for a utility company: the Southern California Edison Company. The building was completed in 1931, when the Great Depression was at its worst, so the elaborate decorations and expensive materials inside probably weren’t great for the company’s public image at the time. Although it is still very pleasing to look at today. 

Inside One Bunker Hill, marble everywhere.
Inside One Bunker Hill, marble everywhere.
One Bunker Hill: amazing ceiling tiles, gold everywhere!
One Bunker Hill: ceiling tiles in a beehive pattern!

Our tour concludes near Ancels Flight, located in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood. Once people figured out how to get water over Bunker Hill, the area above it began to develop. There were large, Victorian houses built and it became the neighbourhood for upper-class people. As LA urbanized and the population grew, Bunker Hill’s houses were subdivided to accommodate renters, and the wealthy moved out to neighbouring suburbs. By 1955, further suburban development pulled most people away from Bunker Hill. Soon, the entire area was demolished (including the removal of 30 feet of topsoil) for redevelopment. Two Victorian houses were saved and relocated, only to perish in a fire later. Nowadays, the area of Bunker Hill is filled with modern commercial skyscrapers, lofts inside repurposed office buildings, and cultural venues such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Ancels Flight: an elevator/ tram that was used to pull people over Bunker Hill.
Ancels Flight: an elevator/ tram that was used to transport people over Bunker Hill.
One reminder of the old Bunker Hill neighbourhood: the retaining wall.
One reminder of the old Bunker Hill neighbourhood: the retaining wall.

We bid goodbye to our tour group around noon, and left with a curious eye for every building around us. The LA Conservancy showed me that historical remnants and the stories behind them are hiding in plain sight in downtown LA. With a knowledgeable guide and a willingness to learn, it’s all just waiting to be discovered. 

Historical Tours: San Francisco’s Chinatown (Aug 4, 2014)

What makes San Francisco? Is it the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, or the hills? Perhaps the LGBTQ communities, the tech start-ups, or the art scene? For me, it’s the story of this city and the people who built it. To experience one part of San Francisco’s history, I took a walking tour around historic Chinatown.

Our tour guide Nancy Rios was full of energy. She didn’t have a microphone, but her enthusiasm carried her words loud and clear. We started out at Portsmouth Square, at the corner of Walter P. Lum Pl. and Washington St. Being a few minutes late, I joined at the back of the group and hope I haven’t missed anything too important.

IMG_3732
Nancy Rios, our SF City Guide.

I begin this story with the Mexican-American war, although the history of this region goes back further. In 1846, Captain John Montgomery landed the ship USS Portsmouth in San Francisco (SF), which was then known as Yerba Buena. He planted a US flag in what is now Portsmouth Square and declared it US territory. Only the base of the original flagpole remains, although if memory serves me right, another US flag flies nearby.

Present day, I see lots of senior women and men sitting on benches in the park, chatting in various dialects of Chinese. Card games take place between friends and acquaintances on small, portable tables. Loud traditional Chinese music blares from stereos, competing with traffic noises from the streets nearby. I am transported back to my paternal grandparents’ city in China.

A playground in Portsmouth Square.
A playground in Portsmouth Square.

Back on the tour, Nancy asks if we know why the SF football team is called the 49ers. They were named after the 1849 gold rush, the catalyst for SF’s growth. The town’s population exploded from 1000 to 25 000 in one year as people rushed to Sacramento to pan for gold. The Chinese arrived in SF before the gold rush, in fact, they built the first public school in 1848. Due to segregation laws at the time, it was a Chinese-only school. The school was in operation for about 2 months before it shut down– the gold rush had begun by then and parents withdrew their kids from school to look for gold instead.

The bathroom where a scene from "The Pursuit of Happyness" was filmed.
The bathroom where a scene from “The Pursuit of Happyness” was filmed.

One remnant of the gold rush that surround the square are single-room occupancy hotels, also known as SROs. Built to accommodate Chinese men who came to mine for gold, they now serve as low-income housing. In the past, these residences didn’t have kitchens, private bathrooms, or laundry rooms (I’m not sure if they do now either). Sensing the miners’ need for food, bathing space and laundry facilities, Chinese merchants set up restaurants for a quick bite. barber shops for washing up, and laundromats to clean clothing. Walking around Chinatown today, one can’t help but to notice these shops’ presence around every corner.

The Goddess of Democracy, erected in 1999 on the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
The Goddess of Democracy, erected in 1999 on the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest. Locals chat and play cards in the background.

“Okay, good?” Nancy asks before leading us away from Portsmouth Square. “Follow me quickly!” and we begin to walk around the streets of Chinatown. One of our first stops was Salt Fish Alley, officially called Wentworth Alley, Chinese name: 德和街 (roughly translated to integrity and harmony road). Can you guess why this is called Salt Fish Alley? Before 1906, there was a vibrant fishing community which used to hold its fish markets on this street. Perhaps as a result of the earthquake, or for other reasons, the fishing industry changed after 1906. Salt Fish Alley then housed herbalists which distribute Traditional Chinese Medicines, but the name stuck. After giving people an opportunity to check out the oldest herbalist shop (photo below), Nancy asks about people’s impressions of the store. “Very fragrant”, someone said. I secretly laughed to myself. Although I didn’t go into this particular shop, I’ve been to enough similar places to know they smell stronger than “fragrant”. Nancy picks another person, who said there were lots of different things in the shop. Then Nancy explained how a Chinese medicine shop wasn’t so different from a Western pharmacy: the doctor writes a prescription for the ailment, the patient takes the prescription to the drugstore, someone behind a counter reads the prescription and gives the drug to you in a brown paper package. Hearing this, I smiled and thought “ahh, I hadn’t thought about it this way before.” What a great way to help others understand the similarities between cultures!

The oldest Traditional Chinese Medicine shop in Chinatown, which has been in operation for the past 150 years.
The oldest Traditional Chinese Medicine shop in Chinatown, which has been in operation for 150 years.

A part of US history includes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese labourers from entering the US and effectively reduced the number of Chinese immigrants. This reflected anti-Chinese sentiments of the time, as immigration of persons of other races were unlimited (Chin, 1998). Despite racial tensions, Chinatown in SF was a tourist attraction even during this time. Nancy shows us a tourist brochure of Chinatown dating from 1893, which outlined some of the very streets we walked through.

In 1906, much of Chinatown were destroyed due to the earthquake and subsequent fire. Fearing a relocation to the south of the city, the Chinese community quickly rebuilt in its original location. In three years, much of the buildings were reconstructed in an oriental style unique to SF, which includes the red-green pagoda-like roofs seen in the photo below. This was also purposefully done to improve the public image of the Chinese community.

Orientalization of Chinatown: buildings with characteristically colourful red and green roofs, window decorations, and plain walls.
Orientalization of Chinatown: buildings with characteristically shaped, colourful roofs, window decorations, and plain walls.

We walk through a few more alleyways and learn more about daily life in Chinatown. There was St. Louis Place, also known as Love Lane, which auctioned women up until the 1920s.

Dragon dance school & Chinese association
Dragon dance & martial arts school (left) & Lim family Chinese association (right) on St. Louis Place.

We passed by Fortune Alley, officially called Ross Alley. Formerly the gambling street, now it houses the only fortune cookie factory in the US where fortune cookies are still shaped by hand. There’s a passage in one of Amy Tan’s novels where a newly landed Chinese immigrant describes her first experience inside a fortune cookie factory: the novelty of the machine which plops a bit of batter on a very small pan, the metal conveyor belt which carries the pan through an oven, the heat-desensitized hands which peel the hot pancake from the pan and fold the still-soft cookie around a strip of glossy paper. All this I saw with my own eyes in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. The dim room where the three ladies worked was mostly taken up by the oven and conveyor belt. A lot of cookies were being discarded as they came out of the oven. I asked the lady who was working closest to the entrance, she said that there are lots of cookies, so she doesn’t use ones that aren’t perfect.

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory: defective fortune cookies= free, photos= $0.50 each.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, where defective fortune cookies are free, and photos cost $0.50 each.

My attention drifted from listening to the stories to taking photos as the tour drew to a close. I thanked Nancy for a great tour and walked around the area, soaking in the sights and sounds of this neighbourhood.

YMCA in San Francisco Chinatown. Architect: Julia Morgan. First indoor swimming pool and first YMCA in the city.
YMCA in San Francisco Chinatown. Architect: Julia Morgan. First indoor swimming pool and first YMCA in the city.
Willie "Woo Woo" Wong Playground, named after the Chinese-American basketball player. His fans would shout "Woo Woo" when he scored, hence the nickname.
Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, named after the Chinese-American basketball player. His fans would shout “Woo Woo” when he scored, hence the nickname.
Willie "Woo Woo" Wong Playground, named after the Chinese-American basketball player. His fans would shout "Woo Woo" when he scored, hence the nickname.
Children playing at the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground.
Waverly Alley, also known as the Painted Balconies Alley, was the setting for some of Amy Tan's historical-fiction novels about Chinese-Americans.
Waverly Alley, also known as the Painted Balconies Alley, was the setting for some of Amy Tan’s historical-fiction novels about Chinese-Americans.

Bibliography

Chin, G. (1998). Segregation’s Last Stronghold: Race Discrimination and the Constitutional Law of Immigration. UCLA Law Review, 46(1), 1-74. Retrieved August 24, 2014, from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1121119

Everyday is F***ing Day

What if I told you that was part of a class shirt along with “F***★THAT★ALL”, “f***ing & funny”, and “just do it”?

Welcome to Dong Sheng Second High School.

The story began when I expressed interest in experiencing a day in the life of a Chinese high school student. Luckily, one of my cousins is in her last year of high school, and her teacher agreed for me to sit in on her classes.

A bit of background about education in China: students usually go through 6 years of elementary school, in their last year, theres an exam that determines which middle school they will attend. After 3 years of middle school, there’s an exam that determines which high school they will attend. After 3 years of high school, there’s yet another exam that determines which university they will attend. This last exam (or rather series of exams) is known as gao kao (高考). Getting a high score in this exam is necessary to get into a good university, getting into a good university is usually the first step to getting a good job, and getting a good job is what everyone wants. I could go on about the politics, the cultural attitudes, the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese education system, but there are other people who are far more informed than myself writing about those topics (an example comparing Eastern vs. Western attitudes here). So instead, I’ll focus on what I experienced.

School starts for senior high school students 6 weeks earlier than other high school students. This is to help them better prepare for gao kao. So even though it was only Aug 5, my cousin had been attending classes for almost a month already.

My day went a little something like this:

5:33 am – 6:00 am- Wake up, get ready, walk to school

6:00 am- 6:20 am- arrive in class, group run (800m)

Morning jog
Morning jog in sync with your ~50 other classmates.

This was really interesting, it was quite an experience to be running while packed in an an invisible sardine can. I think I had to do this once upon a time in elementary school too. Periodically, the student head of the class would start a chant and the class would yell while running. It’s a good thing it’s not too hot in Dong Sheng!

6:30 am – 6:40 am- reading English out loud

A student stands at the front of class, reads a sentence of a passage, and the rest of the class follows along.

6:40 am – 7:20 am- morning self study (Math)

This consisted of students finishing off any unfinished homework, or working on problems quietly.

7:20 am – 7:50 am- breakfast break

During the breakfast break, my cousin gave me a tour of the place. We walked past the student dormitories where out of town students stayed. There’s one building each for boys and girls, and rooms are shared between 6, 4, or 2 students.

Student dormitories
Student dormitories
Students in cafeteria
Students in cafeteria during breakfast break.

No time for breakfast before running off to class at 5 am? No worries! The school cafeteria offers congee, fried rice, noodles, and other delicious breakfast options.

Students lining up at the cafeteria
Students lining up at the cafeteria

Forgot your notebook at home, ran out of shampoo in your dorm, or wanting some chocolate? Head to the convenience store!

School-run convenience store
School-run convenience store

7:50 am – 8:35 am- class (Math)

Needing to catch up on sleep? Class is the perfect time! Just kidding… (sort of). Math class is not the best time to sleep, mostly because the teacher is (apparently) scary. He’s also the head teacher for the class, so don’t get on his bad side!

He mostly reviewed answers from problems assigned previously. I didn’t understand much of what he was talking about. This was mostly because I didn’t learn their grade 12 math in 1st year university math, partially because I’m not good at math, and at least a little because I don’t understand Chinese math terms.

8:35 am – 8:45 am- break

I went to the washroom, walked around the school. Not sure if I was feeling more awake or more tired.

8:45 am – 9:30 am- class (Math)

They seemed to be doing proofs. One of the smarter students in the class corrects a mistake the teacher made after he continued on for a few more steps and wondered what went wrong. The teacher told the class to tell him earlier when they notice a mistake.

9:30 am – 10:00 am- flag raising ceremony (Mondays only)

Normally, the national anthem plays and students assemble outside for announcements. But since only grade 12 students were in class, this was another break time. The boys went outside to play basketball, and I took a nap.

Flag pole and courtyard
Flag pole and courtyard

10:00 am – 10:45 am- class (Chinese)

The teacher was very young and probably no more than 5 feet and 100 lbs. She was reviewing grammar exercises with the students. Unfortunately for her, the students were really disruptive. After 20 minutes of trying to correct the homework, she told a historical Chinese story to get the class’s attention. It was truly a struggle for her to maintain the attention of the students. She ended up confiscating a few copies of students’ English homeworks and a cellphone.

10:45 am- 2:00 pm (approx.)- lunch and nap break

Napping is customary in China. Workplaces and schools usually have a 2 hour lunch break so everyone can take a nap after lunch. My cousin and I went back home for lunch, where my aunt had prepared rice and stir-fries for us to eat.

I did not attend school in the afternoon, my cousin caught me nodding off in the morning and suggested that I stay home instead. I kind of regret not attending, I was looking forward to sitting in on their English class.

For the rest of the day, students attend class until approximately 5 pm, they have another break for dinner, then there’s evening self-study in school until 11 pm.

Overall it was definitely an interesting experience. Compared with my high school in Canada, there is much more structured studying time built into the day. This is perhaps part of the reason why parents in China feel like their children have no “real life” experience coming out of high school. There was barely any time left over after studying, sleeping, and eating. While the total time for classes were approximately the same, the content for math was significantly more advanced. I wonder if the great emphasis placed on mathematics in China is why some immigrant parents have high expectations for their children in math in particular.

Personally, I am more than grateful that I got to experience all the things outside of class during my high school, and that’s something no amount of extra book knowledge can change.

How to Cook in a Tiny Kitchen

My love for cooking did not waver when I went to Malaysia this summer. Living in the intern apartment, we had a very cute mini kitchen to work with.

Our tiny kitchen in Malaysia!
Our tiny kitchen in Malaysia!

It came equipped with all the basic necessities, including a fridge, a sink, counter space, cabinets, and this single burner camp stove.

Camp burner where we lovingly fried rice and noodles
Camp burner where we lovingly fried rice and noodles. Yes, we did need the lighter because the ignition was broken.

I accepted the challenge of cooking in Malaysia. At first, I was alone in my quest to prepare meals that included 3 or more food groups. Soon enough, a fellow intern and I decided to embark on the journey together, and so began the cooking adventures.

Once we joined forces, our meals got a lot more creative. I usually preferred cooking Chinese and Indian dishes while my friend suggested things like pasta and pizza. It was great to have another person’s input to increase the variety rather than having the same thing day after day (a good tip if you’re considering cooking with roommates!).

Pita pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, corn, and parsley
Pita pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, corn, and parsley, Photo credit: Dominika.

So this was probably one of my favourite dishes we created together. The idea was suggested by my friend. We opened up a pita into two halves, smeared on a base layer of homemade tomato sauce and topped it with canned corn, sliced mozzarella cheese, and Italian parsley. The most complicated step was getting all the ingredients prepared. First, we cooked some chopped onion with diced tomatoes, ketchup, and water to create the sauce (not the most authentic, but it tasted great!). After loading the other ingredients on the pizza, we carefully transferred it into a small frying pan and slowly heated it with a turned plate acting as the lid to trap the heat. This helped to melted the cheese and gently toasted the bottom.

Best part of this was definitely the combination of ingredients. I’ve never put corn on pizza before and the sweetness of it was perfect to balance the tartness of the tomato sauce. The cheese was the mellow “glue” that held the pizza together and the parsley gave a fresh finish to the pizza.

Stir-fried rice with tofu, scallions, and sweet potato.
Stir-fried rice with tofu, scallions, and sweet potato. Photo credit: Dominika.

Another dish that was more Asian inspired was this lovely stir-fry. It was actually 2 dishes that got mixed together. The first was tofu with oyster sauce, cubed tofu gets lightly fried with some oil before getting sprinkled with oyster sauce. For the fried rice, we sauteed the sweet potatoes first to thoroughly cook it before adding the already steamed rice.

The key to preparing meals in a small space and with a limited amount of time is to “prepare once, eat twice”. For example, leftover steamed rice gets turned into fried rice, another good idea is to cut extra veggies and store them to use another day. I cut extra sweet potatoes here and sauteed them with a little cumin for a Mexican-inspired dish.

Dominika (R) and I (L) in Malaysia
My partner in food Dominika (R) and I (L). Photo credit: Laura.

The food may be gone, but the memories remain!

Thank you previous intern for leaving us a rice cooker!
Thank you for leaving us a rice cooker!

The real secret weapon in Malaysia was our beloved rice cooker. It’s essentially an insulated, self-heating pot with two settings: cook and warm. To cook rice, just add rice and water, set the pot to “cook” and the pot will automatically turn to “warm” once it senses that the water’s evaporated / absorbed. In addition to cooking rice, we also used the “cook” setting to boil eggs, pasta, lentils, and vegetables. It came in handy when our beloved camp stove ran out of gas.

Sitting down to dinner!
Interns sitting down to dinner! Photo credit: Dominika. 

This was our family dinner! We all sat down and had homemade food together! One of my favourite memories with the interns in Malaysia.

Bowtie pasta with tomato sauce, vegetables, and parsley
Bowtie pasta with tomato sauce, vegetables, and parsley. Photo credit: Dominika

Benefits of cooking with a larger group of people: it’s social and fun, if everyone contributes, it’s less work for each person, I usually learn something new or help others learn something new.

Got a small kitchen? No time to cook? I hope this post gave you some ideas for how to overcome these issues! Let’s stop making up excuses and start making real food!

Life in a Square

One of the biggest differences between China and Canada is how life happens in the public squares and parks.

In Canada, activities in parks or public spaces are mostly limited to a small number of people who know each other. One exception would be New Year’s Eve parties or protests.

In Dong Sheng, I had a completely different experience. Every evening, a group of people would gather in the public square, turn on loudspeakers, put in an instructional recording, and start doing light aerobics.

Public Square in Dong Sheng
Public Square in Dong Sheng

Professionals in uniform are joined by people from the city in plain clothes. The speakers blared popular music (mostly Chinese songs, but I did hear Gangnam Style) and a voice announced the name of the move everyone was supposed to be performing.

Professional Aerobic Performers
Professional Aerobic Dance Performers

The result? Hundreds of people form a long line that wrapped around the perimeter of the square. They’re all performing the same move while slowly marching forward to the beat of the song. When I saw this for the first time, I thought it was the funniest thing. It was like a Chinese Zumba class. What made this even funnier? The names of the aerobics moves included softening the arteries, improving memory, invigorating circulation, and helping kidney function. Hmm… I wonder how this messaging plays into the participants’ perceptions of their health and how likely they are to continue these exercises.

I’m not quite sure what cultural things can be extrapolated from this aerobic dance. I have several hypotheses: people are more attracted to collective activities in China; people have no choice but to participate in free collective activities due to population pressures and higher cost of living (relative to earning). This was probably partially intended as a preventative approach to public health, I wonder how effective a similar approach would work in an urban centre in North America?

Recreational aerobic dancers in public square in Dong Sheng, China
Recreational aerobic dancers in public square in Dong Sheng, China

I went with my aunt a few times, and eventually I stopped laughing hysterically and taking photos every five minutes. Its novelty wore off and I accepted it as part of my daily life as well.

In Dong Sheng, dancers, singers, martial arts performers, and walkers would all gather in a large park in the city centre in the morning. It was pretty cool to watch them practice.

Dancers practicing in a park in Dong Sheng, China
Dancers practicing in a park in Dong Sheng, China

Every late afternoon, older men and women would gather in another city square to play Chinese chess, cards, or sometimes perform songs.

Chinese chess players and onlookers
Chinese chess players and onlookers. Paternal grandfather (L).

For chess and cards, it’s not uncommon to have a group of strangers play together. After a while, the strangers become friends. There’s usually a large number of onlookers, especially for chess. This is another thing that never happens in Canada. I’m not sure if this is because Canadians are more reserved in this sense, or because there aren’t enough people to get a good game going, or because there are fewer public places where chess playing is commonplace. Culture is everywhere and impacted by everything.

Musicians at the Square
Musicians at the Square

The musicians were actually pretty good.

Singers @ the Square
Singers at the Square

I couldn’t understand anything they were singing. But they weren’t bad either. People took up the mic as they pleased. There were usually quite a few patients from a nearby hospital there as well.

Exercising at the Square in Tian Jin
Exercising at the Square in Tian Jin

Moving a few hundred kilometers southeast, we leave Dong Sheng and arrive in Tian Jin. I lived not near the city centre, but in a suburb. Although there was a large square there as well, activities were decidedly less exciting. They did not have any organized aerobic exercises, perhaps because mosquitoes become problematic once the sun starts setting, or because it’s perpetually hot and muggy during the summer. There were a lot of people in the morning exercising in the square though. I remember rollerblading there as a kid, and I was happy to see many other kids continuing to do so.

My grandma's awesome
My maternal grandma’s awesome

Durian, the (Stinky) King of Fruits

Memories fade over time, and that’s why I’m writing about durian while its scent still lingers on my fingertips.

Durian fruit in shell. Image from: https://i0.wp.com/www.thingsidigg.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Durian-Fruit-Thai.jpg
Durian fruit in husk. Image from: http://www.thingsidigg.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Durian-Fruit-Thai.jpg

Durian is a large fruit native to Southeast Asia. Unbeknownst to me before this trip to Malaysia, there are many different cultivars of durian, some commanding a higher price than others. All durian varieties have a hard husk that is covered by numerous short, hard, spikes. The colour of the shell ranges from green to brown. Inside, one finds yellow or red coloured segments with a distinct smell.

In my experience, most durian sellers will open the fruit and extract the edible segments for you. This makes eating durian a lot more accessible than trying to open the whole frozen durian sold in Asian supermarkets in Canada. The durian I tasted was was bought by my friend Reema. The segments came in a white styrofoam container. On the advice of a local, we refrigerated the durian before eating it.

Durian segment composed of 2 smaller pods
Durian segment composed of 2 smaller pods

Love it or hate it, durian has a very strong scent. Wikipedia has an excellent article describing the flavour and odour of durian. To me, it smells of sulphur, sweetness, and something rotting all rolled together.

The texture of a durian depends on its ripeness. The segment I had was ripe, hence soft. The edible portion was covered by a very thin membrane that held together the mushy flesh. The membrane was slightly rubbery in texture, but yielded easily to the tearing pressure of my teeth. The flesh was very soft and rich, the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes. Next to the seed, there was another layer of thin membrane similar to the outer membrane surrounding the segment.

Durian seed (L) and pod (R)
Durian seed (L) and pod (R)

The taste is harder to describe, and many factors influence how it tastes, including the variety of fruit and its ripeness. When I first tasted a segment, its flavour was very mild. Because of both the texture and the taste, I was reminded of eating an avocado. The aftertaste that lingered was similar to the smell of a durian, which is not entirely unpleasant. A few hours later, when I tried a different segment, the taste was completely different! I wasn’t sure what caused this. Maybe the second segment came from a different durian fruit? This time, I tasted the pungent punch of onions, garlic, and garlic scapes. As I tasted different parts of the fruit, I noticed areas that were particularly bitter or stinky. Strangely, I did not notice any aftertaste of the smell.

Unlike many who have tried the fruit before me, I have neither fallen in love with the fruit nor sworn it to be my natural enemy. I probably will not seek it out, but I wouldn’t mind eating durian candy or ice cream. And who knows, maybe I will change my mind about durian, just as I have about avocado and olives. If you are ever in Southeast Asia, the fruit is definitely worth a try, but split a container with a friend or two just in case!