I heard Linda Wertheimer mentioning on NPR's Morning Edition today that Harry Potter has inspired some fans to create mash-up video parodies such as this one (listen to it here), and decided to take a look.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
We just don't get enough thrilling news these days - the sort that makes your heart leap and fill with hope. So even though I wrote about this item in the blog sidebar this morning, have now decided to give this an entry of its own.
Huge Underground Lake Discovered in Sudan, Could Bring War to an End
A team from Boston University discovered a huge underground lake under the arid, violence-ridden region of Darfur.
Some believe the roots of the conflict lie in competition for resources between Darfur's Arab nomads and black African farmers - thus this discovery brings hope of an end to the bitter fighting.
This underground lake still needs to be confirmed by drilling some wells, but if borne out, is a simply staggering discovery.
The five-thousand year old lake is the size Massachusetts.
It's as big as Lake Erie, the tenth largest lake in the world.
This, in a land where starving, suffering people must trudge water jugs daily - sometimes for miles - and risk rape, torture or death every time they venture out on this mission. Access to water is one of the primary problems for the refugees of Darfur.
The population is crying out for help. According to UNICEF, more than 2.3 million people, or 70 per cent of the conflict-affected population, has helped them in projects to gain access to safe water.
How their lives would change with abundant, clean water.
Geologist Farouk El-Baz and his team of 20 other researchers from Boston University used radar data to find the body of water. They identified possible streams running from the ancient lake, which was once replenished by rain and is now obscured by the arid sands of northern Darfur.
Baz says under hundreds of feet of sandstone there could be enough water to replenish the region for a century.
UPDATE: NPR's Noah Adams spoke to Farouk el-Baz Thursday morning on NPR's Day to Day. Listen to the interview here.
The timing of this find couldn't have been choreographed better.
Just last month, on June 16th, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a Washington Post editorial that climate change was partly to blame for the conflict in Darfur.
"It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought," Ban wrote. "Until then, Arab nomadic herders had lived amicably with settled farmers. A recent Atlantic Monthly article by Stephan Faris describes how black farmers would welcome herders as they crisscrossed the land, grazing their camels and sharing wells. But once the rains stopped, farmers fenced their land for fear it would be ruined by the passing herds. For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out. By 2003, it evolved into the full-fledged tragedy we witness today." (Read his full editorial here: A Climate Culprit in Darfur)
In that same month, geologist Farouk El-Baz showed Sudanese officials images of what appears to be an underground lake. It wasn't entirely new to him. Two decades ago made a similar discovery in his home country, Egypt. That led to the drilling of 500 wells, which now irrigate 150,000 acres of farmland. And upon this news from Sudan, Egypt has pledged to donate workers and equipment to drill 20 wells in Sudan.
That would be a tiny start, because the Boston team's discovery could lead to a thousand wells.
We won't know until November, when Baz plans to return to Sudan to scout sites by helicopter.
I, for one, will be watching, waiting....and hoping. And hoping that this resource doesn't become to source of yet another conflict.
More on how this lake was discovered, and its implications, in this BBC article, and in the Boston Globe.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
"I think it's fascinating that we assume sushi's all about the fresh, raw fish, but there are die-hard sushi aficionados in Japan who don't consider it sushi unless the chef has done something to his seafood ingredients, whether it's a slight parboil or pickling."
- Trevor Corson, author of The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket.
I found the above quote on Slate.com. Always glad to learn something new. Sara Dickerman's article notes sushi's shizophrenic character in this country: as one on the most expensive meals around (as found at Manhattan's Masa), and one as a workaday meal found in corporate cafeterias and delis.
"Sushi has saturated nearly every level of our food economy: How did this ostensibly Japanese food come to be so dominant? This season, two serious-minded books examine how sushi got to be one of our reflexive dining options, and how our taste for rice and fish affects our oceans."
The piece takes as its starting point Corson's book, and another delving into the same subject - The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, by Sasha Issenberg. (Incidentally, both books rated highly on Amazon: 5 stars for Corson, and 4-1/2 for Issenberg.)
Slate says "the books are complementary rather than redundant, although both circle back to themes of sushi as a multicultural phenomenon, rather than a pure Japanese tradition. We gathered them together for an interview on sushi: its history, its cultural status, its environmental impact, and its future."
Dickerman poses several questions to the authors, including the role of refrigeration in the popularization of sushi outside Japan, and how outside influences have always left their mark on the tradition. She also asks if there is any monitoring for mercury in the fish bought for use in sushi.
Read both authors' comments at Slate.
Trevor Corson wrote an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, which I quite coincidentally saw today. He writes: "With the depletion of bluefin tuna in our oceans now front-page news, people around the country have been sharing with me their confusions and fears about eating sushi. I think that we — and our fish — would benefit from a new deal for American sushi: a grand pact between chefs and customers to change the way we eat."
He says sushi in Japan encompasses a wide variety of lesser-known fish, but in AMerica sushi chefs just present customers with a small range of familiar fish. Whether in upscale joints or in neighborhood eateries, the American way of eating sushi has "deepened our dependence on tuna."
Corson's answer? "What we need isn’t more tuna, but a renaissance in American sushi; to discover for ourselves — and perhaps to remind the Japanese — what sushi is all about."
Read the whole op-ed, Sushi for Two.
As for Corson's claim that "die-hard sushi aficionados in Japan...don't consider it sushi unless the chef has done something to his seafood ingredients, whether it's a slight parboil or pickling," I found this on Wikipedia's article on sushi:
Narezushi (old style fermented sushi)
Narezushi (熟れ寿司, lit. matured sushi) is an older form of sushi. Skinned and gutted fish are stuffed with salt, placed in a wooden barrel, doused with salt again, and then weighed down with a heavy tsukemonoishi (pickling stone). They are supposedly salted for ten days to a month, then placed in water for 15 minutes to an hour. They are then placed in another barrel, sandwiched, and layered with cooled steamed rice and fish. Then the mixture is again partially sealed with otoshibuta and a pickling stone. As days pass, water seeps out, which must be removed. Six months later, this funazushi can be eaten, and remains edible for another six months or more.
Funazushi (鮒寿司) is a dish in Japanese cooking, which involves with anaerobic lacto-fermentation of fresh water fish, funa (鮒, crucian carp). The dish is famous as a regional dish from the "Shiga Prefecture", It is considered to be a chinmi, a delicacy in Japanese cooking.
Friday, July 13, 2007
In China, copyright pirates are racing to get out their version of the latest Harry Potter film before the real one makes it to theatres; and fake books are in the works too with no resemblance of the real thing.
NPR's Louisa Lim reports fake Harry Potter movies and books become a cottage industry in China, and sales of the knockoffs could be higher than the real thing! (Ouch. JK Rowling must be steamed.)
Here are links to my previous posts on counterfeiting in China:
More Counterfeiting Tales from China
Tip Your (Knockoff) Hat to Imitations and Counterfeits!
Counterfeit Blood Protein Revealed in China
Thursday, July 12, 2007
People who grew up in the Commonwealth (as I did) or in Britain, know the taste of Cadbury's chocolate, Kit Kats and Mars Bars. So do many Americans, since the same candy bars are available here.
But to expats, the stateside candies just don't measure up to the familiar products at home. Some can still recount their reactions to the first taste.
Before one screams "snob!" - let me add that there is material evidence of a different formulation in the products from the US, and those from the UK, Canada and Australia.
I was thrilled to read an article in the New York Times this week: The World’s Best Candy Bars? English, of Course.
Kim Severson writes:
"According to the label, a British Cadbury Dairy Milk bar contains milk, sugar, cocoa mass, cocoa butter, vegetable fat and emulsifiers. The version made by the Hershey Company, which holds the license from Cadbury-Schweppes to produce the candy in the United States under the British company’s direction, starts its ingredient list with sugar. It lists lactose and the emulsifier soy lecithin, which keeps the cocoa butter from separating from the cocoa.
"The American product also lists “natural and artificial flavorings.”
Every expat is screaming, "I told you so!!!"
People get passionate about this. A Bay Area man featured in the NYT article characterizes the discussions as “religious arguments.” “I haven’t met a Canadian who likes a Hershey bar, but Americans think you’re crazy when you say that, because they think everyone loves a Hershey bar.”
As my parents live in Australia, I receive packages annually with these precious treats. Cadbury bars (in many more varieties than available here), my personal favorite - Cadbury's Flake, a stick of crumbly chocolate best stuck into a scoop of ice cream on a cone. Violet Crumble ("it;s the way it shatters that matters"), Mint Aero, and fabulous Australian cookies by Arnott's. Tim Tams in particular.
And, by the way - Tim Tam fans - where are you? Let's form a club, and eat our Tim Tams the way I saw on So Graham Norton: nibble off the opposite corners of a cookie, then dunk one of those corners into a cup of hot tea while you suck up the tea from the other open corner!!
ADDED: I just read on a Wikipedia article that this ritual goes by several names: "The Tim Tam Slam, also known as the Tim Tam Suck, Tim Tam Explosion, Tim Tam Orgasm, Tim Tam Straw, Shot-gunning a Tim Tam, Tim Tam Party, or just plain Tim Tamming is the main form of Tea Sucking and involves biting off opposing corners of the Tim Tam and then using it as a 'straw' to suck up a hot beverage (usually tea, coffee, hot chocolate, liqour such as Irish Cream, or Milo) and then, just before the biscuit falls apart, it is placed in the mouth."
Where can you get Tim Tams and all these other candies, if you don't have family or friends to send them to you? Well, look online, or head to Leavenworth, WA. Whenever I go there I try to stop in at the Australian Store (on Front Street) to stock up on these products. Yes, an Australian store is an oddity in a Bavarian town, but thank goodness it's there, for lovers UK/Australian chocolate and candy!
To some, there's also a difference in the taste between Coca-Cola made here and in the Commonwealth. To the best of my knowledge, it's because the US product is sweetened with corn syrup rather than with cane or beet sugar, as in the UK, Canada (and even Mexico).
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Tiramisu (stress on the last syllable please) means "pick-me-up." And who among us does not have lifted spirits after indulging in this dessert with so many notes - creamy, sweet, bitter and floral? It's not a dessert with a long history, believe it or not - and in fact, the man who first concocted it could possibly be this baker in Baltimore, Carminantonio Iannaccone.
The Washington Post's Jane Black
traces the origins of the dessert and upon meeting Iannaccone, says he could well be the Italian equivalent of the Earl of Sandwich!
"Iannaccone's story is simple. He trained as a pastry chef in the southern city of Avellino, then migrated to Milan to find work at the age of 12." (What? He trained as a chef before he hit puberty, then got a job at age twelve? Boy, times have changed!)
"In 1969 he married his wife, Bruna, and opened a restaurant also called Piedigrotta in Treviso, where he cooked up a dessert based on the "everyday flavors of the region": strong coffee, creamy mascarpone, eggs, Marsala and ladyfinger cookies. He says it took him two years to perfect the recipe, which was originally served as an elegant, freestanding cake."
Black writes that Iannacone's claim as creator of the dessert seems is unlikely.
"Why would the creator of tiramisu be operating a tiny bakery on the outskirts of Baltimore's Little Italy? And would the inventor even be alive? Italians pride themselves on their culinary traditions, not newfangled innovation (like those crazy Catalonians). Surely, a classic like tiramisu would date back to the Renaissance. Catherine de Medici gave us artichokes, truffles, gelato, even the fork. Surely, she would have had a hand in tiramisu, too."
So Black decides to examine the historical legends. "One says the dessert was invented in the 17th century in honor of the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de Medici, but soon became the favorite of courtesans who used it for a little extra energy before performing their duties and gave it the nickname "pick me up." Another says it was invented in Turin in the mid-19th century at the request of Italy's first prime minister, Camillo Cavour, a renowned gourmand who needed a pick-me-up for the trying task of unifying the Italian peninsula.
"Good stories, both. But neither is true, Italian food experts agree. Mascarpone, one of tiramisu's key ingredients, is native to the northern Veneto region and wouldn't have been found in Tuscany hundreds of years ago. Even in the 19th century, without refrigeration, a dessert made with uncooked eggs would likely have sickened more people than it pleased."
(I just love culinary sleuthing!)
"Next, I scoured authoritative cookbooks for a recipe that would predate Iannaccone's claim. But, as he predicted, niente: British cookbook author Elizabeth David makes no mention of the dessert in her Italian Food (1954), nor does Marcella Hazan in The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973).
"Indeed, it wasn't until the 1980s that published references to tiramisu began to appear. Two Treviso restaurants get the credit: El Toula (from cookbook authors Claudia Roden and Anna del Conte and Saveur magazine) and Le Beccherie (from several Italian magazines and cookbooks)."
Le Becchierie ownder Carlo Campeol is adamant that the dessert is his restaurant's own creation; Iannaccone is just as adamant that it is not. So Black turns to Pietro Mascioni for help. She says he became "an amateur tiramisu-ologist after reading about Iannaccone's claim last year in foodie newsletter the Rosengarten Report."
Mascione finds the first printed recipe for tiramisu in a 1981 edition of "Vin Veneto," contributed by respected gourmet Giuseppe Maffioli.
"Born recently, less than two decades ago, in the city of Treviso is a dessert called Tiramesu which was made for the first time in a restaurant, Alle Beccherie, by a pastry chef called Loly Linguanotto."
Mascione traveled to northern Italy last fall to talk to the Campeol family, and concludes the story is credible. But he finds that tiramisu as made at Le Beccherie never contained Marsala.
The dessert that won fans around the globe, though, "has a hearty dose of the stuff," writes Jane Black. "It's the Marsala's depth that balances the strong coffee and the creamy zabaglione and gives the dessert sophistication, or as the gourmet Maffioli acknowledged, a certain "refinement."
"And that's the way Iannaccone says he's always made tiramisu. The ladyfingers are dipped quickly in coffee so they hold their shape. The zabaglione, a mix of egg yolks, sugar, Marsala, lemon zest and vanilla extract, and the pastry cream, made from milk, egg yolks, sugar and flour, are made separately, and allowed to chill overnight before being gently folded with mascarpone and whipped cream before assembly.
"That may seem complicated to Mascioni and others, but Iannaccone explains that's only because we're used to making tiramisu "the cheap and easy way."
A long and bitter feud over tiramisu brews along with the espresso.
Want to make it yourself? Here's Carminantonio Iannaccone's recipe.
Notes from my kitchen: I've not found a really good Marsala, but have successfully used grappa, Grand Marnier, coffee liqueur and cognac instead. The best chocolate for sprinkling (unless you grate it yourself) is Droste. Use the best, freshest eggs available - it really makes a difference. When I raised my own chickens I'd use freshly-laid eggs. They were best in early spring, when the birds would feast on fresh young grass, and the eggs would be a gloriously deep orange. (I haven't made tiramisu since I stopped raising chickens!)
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Islamabad's Red Mosque, Lal Masjid, sits in a residential part of Pakistan's capital. For the last week the quiet neighborhood has been shaken by a violent battle battle between government security forces and radical clerics and students. The siege began a week ago and ended today. You can get some background about the pro-Taliban mosque in this profile from the BBC
However, that standoff is not the subject of this post.
As I ran a search for "red mosque pakistan" looking for pictures of the building, I came across another mosque that is called by the same name in English. This one is in the country's cultural capital of Lahore, striking for its majestic architecture and its veneer of red sandstone.
(Picture by Ali Imran at answers.com)
Gorgeous. I simply had to find out more.
The Badshahi Mosque is a fine example of Mughal architecture - grand, awe-inspiring structures. The name means the King's Mosque, the king being the sixth Mughal Emperor, Shah Aurangzeb Alamgir. The Mughal empire covered much of the Indian subcontinent and portions of modern-day Afghanistan, where many examples of their architecture and influence remain to this day.
The Mughals loved to build - Aurangzeb's father Shan Jahan poured his sorrow and mourning for a dead wife into construction, thus giving the world the sublime Taj Mahal. (Incidentally, just days ago that structure was named one of the new seven wonders of the world.)
Badshahi Mosque was severely damaged in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the area was under Sikh Rule. The building was converted to military barracks and served as an arms dump. To add insult to injury, Muslims were not allowed to enter the mosque and instead had to worship outside.
(Picture at left of Badshahi minaret by Aqeel Ahmad at Wikimedia Commons)
When the British conquered Lahore they gave Badshahi back to the Muslims. Subsequently it was turned over to the Badshahi Mosque Authority for restoration to its original glory.
The interior has rich embellishment in stucco tracery (Manbatkari) and panelling with a fresco touch, all in bold relief, as well as marble inlay.
The exterior is decorated with stone carving as well as marble inlay on red sandstone, specially of loti form motifs in bold relief. The embellishment has Indo-Greek, Central Asian and Indian architectural influence both in technique and motifs.
Recently a small museum was added to the mosque complex. It contains relics of Muhammad, his cousin, and his daughter, Hazrat Fatima Zahra.
The vast Badshahi is the largest mosque in the Indian subcontinent, and can accomodate fifty-five thousand worshippers.
Below is a picture of Pakistan's other Red Mosque, Lal Masjid, in Islamabad. (It's the only picture I could find that didn't include siege images.) Lal Masjid is the pro-Taliban institution with affiliated madrassahs involved in this week's deadly siege.
Monday, July 2, 2007
One of America's greatest and dearest opera stars has died. Beverly Sills, a star from childhood, was 78. Her manager said she succumbed to an inoperable form of lung cancer.
I first heard of Beverly Sills when I was growing up in Singapore. That was in the 1970s, when I was a kid with no interest in opera, something I thought of as a very crazy European prima donna thing. Then one day, watching the Carol Burnett Show, here was this sunny, American soprano, hamming it up in a manner not consistent with the diva stereotype. She was singing something non-classical - a Broadway tune, I think, but in her trademark voice: rich, brilliant, thrilling...and she was funny. (Watch her Sills hamming it up with Danny Kaye here.) That caught my attention, and from then on I was more attentive to opera voices. That led to purchases of my first opera LPs, but sadly, I couldn't find any of Ms. Sills in the stores. It wasn't till I was a young adult working at Singapore's classical radio station that I heard her recordings. That made me a definite fan - maybe especially because of warm, real presence. In large part, I owe my current interest in opera to Ms. Sills.
The New York Times says "Ms. Sills was America’s idea of a prima donna. Her plain-spoken manner and telegenic vitality made her a genuine celebrity and an invaluable advocate for the fine arts. Her life embodied an archetypal American story of humble origins, years of struggle, family tragedy and artistic triumph."
Ms. Sills was born Belle Miriam Silverman in 1929. From Wikipedia:
"At the age of three, Sills won a "Miss Beautiful Baby" contest, in which she sang "The Wedding of Jack and Jill". Beginning at age four, she performed professionally on the Saturday morning radio program, "Rainbow House," as "Bubbles" Silverman. Sills began taking singing lessons...at the age of seven and a year later sang in the short film Uncle Sol Solves It (filmed August 1937, released June 1938 by Educational Pictures), by which time she had adopted her stage name, Beverly Sills."
WATCH the seven-year old Sills singing "Arditi: Il bacio" in "Uncle Sol Solves It".
At the age of 10, Sills, known affectionately as Bubbles Silverman (supposedly because she was born with a bubble in her mouth), won CBS Radio's Major Bowes' Amateur Hour for that week. The nickname persisted: her 1976 autobiography is titled "Bubbles: A Self-Portrait."
"At a time when American opera singers routinely went overseas for training and professional opportunities," reports the Times, "Ms. Sills was a product of her native country and did not even perform in Europe until she was 36. At a time when opera singers regularly appeared as guests on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” Ms. Sills was the only opera star who was invited to be guest host. She made frequent television appearances with Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye and even the Muppets."
Sills was a pioneer, establishing her career for the most part outside America's sacred temple of opera, the Met. That allowed many other singers to follow that path - wholly trained in America, yet succeeding without Met certification.
Her repertoire eventually encompassed more than 70 roles, and she recorded 18 full-length operas and several solo recital discs. Her "Manon" received the Edison Award for best operatic album of 1971, and her Victor Herbert album won a Grammy Award in 1978.
From the Los Angeles Times:
"She had a silvery, lyric soprano that she intelligently employed in creating a character, narrowing the sound to evoke a younger woman or widening and deepening it to reflect greater maturity. She sang more than the usual number of coloratura embellishments — including perfect trills — with ease, agility, accuracy and clarity, but always in the service of a role.
"Sills needed contact with an audience. She was far more comfortable onstage, where she could amplify her characterizations with subtle facial expressions and physical gestures, than she was making recordings."
She wasn't just a pretty voice either. As administrator of New York City Opera, Sills turned a desperate financial situation around. Fundraising was another of her talents, which she gave to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. As as a mother of a deaf daughter and a mentally disabled son, Sills also served for many years as chair of the board of the March of Dimes Foundation.
Rest in peace, Bubbles. You will be sorely missed.
NPR's Morning Edition remembered Beverly Sills Tuesday morning. You can listen here. That afternoon on All Things Considered, Carol Burnett talked about losing her friend.
The Washington Post's Tim Page describes Sills as a complicated person in his remembrance, A Voice That Carried Weight.
Below is video (grainy, but with good sound) of Ms. Sills as Cleopatra in the Handel opera Giulio Cesare, one of her defining roles.
This weekend, the New York Times' Timothy Egan wrote that the majestic swath of the country I call home "may be the most overlooked part of the West — the Big Empty of north-central Idaho." This is the area bounded roughly by the St. Joe to the north and the Middle Fork of the Salmon to the south.
In The Last Wilderness, Egan writes about a grove of ancient cedars, pools of gin-clear trout water, and: "natural showers, courtesy of hot-spring waterfalls along the way. Of course you can soak in deep-pocket boulders — nature’s hot tubs. But there is nothing like standing next to polished basalt under a cascade of 105-degree water at the end of a day."
Egan correctly describes the area, which in may places is "as wild today as it was 200 years ago, full of jumpy rivers kicking out of the Bitterroot Mountains...[but] it may be safe to say that the wilds of the Idaho Panhandle, like much of the West, are deep into a new chapter — the microbrews and mountain bike phase. It has its hook-and-bullet enthusiasts, yes, and count me among those who get more excited chasing cutthroat trout with a dry fly than listening to Broadway show tunes."
Egan suggests driving across the Panhandle on US 12, which I agree is one of the prettiest roads anywhere in the country. I especially enjoy it in late October, when the weak sunlight enhances fall colors along the Clearwater River.
South of Lewiston is the heart of Nez Perce country. "These natives impressed Lewis and Clark more than any other people they met along the way," writes Egan. "Not only did the Nez Perce basically save the Virginia Men, as they were sometimes called, from starving, but they impressed them with what may be the finest breed of horse in the West — the appaloosa."
Let me add: "appaloosa" literally means "a Palouse horse," the Palouse being the stunning plateau of rolling hills, at the heart of which are the college towns of Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Idaho. In 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal that the Appaloosa he saw on the Nez Perce range "appear to be of excellent race, lofty, elegantly formed, active and durable; many of them appear like fine English coursers, some of them are pied with large spots of white irregularly mixed with dark brown bay."
"Unlike some tribes left with only a casino or a small reservation, the Nez Perce are not a mere passive presence in this part of the West. Their imprint is big.
"There is the history, notably that surrounding
Chief Joseph and his epic 1877 running battle that is commemorated at sites along the Nez Perce National Historic Park. And then the culture, through powwows and numerous festivals open to the public in reservation towns like Kooskia, Kamiah and Lapwai throughout the summer months.
"For me, the most stirring of the Nez Perce sites is White Bird, along Route 95 south of the reservation. This is the Indian Gettysburg, where one of the few real pitched battles between natives and the American Army was fought. The army was routed at White Bird, while the Nez Perce did not lose a man. But it was bittersweet, as Chief Joseph’s people — about 750 men, women and children — were later chased more than 1,500 miles throughout the Rockies and finally gave up, hungry and cold, just short of the Canadian border.
"It does not take much to look down into the canyon from the roadside historic site and imagine the battle unfolding, or to stare into the wilds of the Salmon River country, the mountains snagging wayward clouds, the River of No Return at its center, and see why they fought so hard to hold on to this place."
You can read Egan's article here. You might also enjoy exploring this website on the region from the PBS series New Perspectives on The West.