Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Do More With Less

I plopped down in front of the T.V. for my mid-morning snack of toast with peanut butter.  (Unfortunately, it’s Skippy peanut butter and not JIF…my mom was always a choosy mom.)  But I quickly found out that television was not going to happen today.  It’s Memorial Day here in Israel, and let’s just say that it is celebrated very differently than in the States…although I don’t think “celebrated” is the proper term to use. 

In fact, as a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers, “celebration” is strictly forbidden.  Last night at 7:00, all businesses, stores, and restaurants closed.  If you didn’t already have food at home then I hope you weren’t hungry because you wouldn’t be able to pop into your local corner store. 

All T.V. channels pause broadcast on Memorial Day

I was told you’re not allowed to play music, or to have your business open, or you could be fined.  Additionally, the T.V. channels all show blank screens that state it is for Memorial Day, and broadcasting will resume at 8:00 this evening.  There was a siren this morning, signaling everybody to stop what they’re doing and give a moment of silence.  Although I wasn’t on the road…I hear that cars stop, even on the freeways. 

Actually, I was also in Israel last year (on the Hebrew calendar) during Memorial Day, but I think my memories were overshadowed by the Independence Day celebration (which is the day after), and the last few days of travel with my cousin, Robin.  It's interesting to be here again, under a different circumstance, experiencing these holidays again.

On a completely unrelated subject…now that Passover is over, I’ve begun to experiment with my cooking again.  I will admit that there are additional challenges I face here, in no particular order:
  1. Two electric burners rather than a big gas stove
  2. Grocery shopping – I can never read the labels for the things I want to buy to know if it is in fact what I’m looking for
  3. Decreased variety of brands and products
  4. The brands and products that I can find are usually imported, and significantly more expensive than they would be in the States.  Case in point – a 10 oz. bottle of soy sauce was about $6.50 USD.
  5. We have a mini-fridge with a small freezer cabinet, rather than a regular sized refrigerator
  6. No dishwasher = hand wash every utensil, dish, pot and pan

As a result of these differences, the good news is that I’ve become much more creative with my cooking.  I’ve learned to boil my water in the tea kettle heater before using it to cook pasta so that it doesn’t take too long to heat on the burners.  We did a major IKEA run (bless them) to maximize the space in the kitchen, I use chicken as a frequent substitute for pork, and I’ve learned to mix and match sauces and flavors to get closer to what I want – even if I can’t find it already bottled at the store. 

Just last week I recreated Za Jiang Mien, a ‘recipe’ that I copied down while visiting my grandfather’s friend in Texas a few months ago.  It was a labor of love, but with a few substitutes and a lot of patience, I finally got something that was stomach-able.  I’m not often proud of my cooking…but this was actually pretty tasty.

My bowl when we ate Za Jiang Mien in Texas

Wang Yeh Yeh dishing up noodles

Recreating Za Jiang Mien in Israel - with a few substitutions

Life doesn’t always hand you everything in a perfect Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, so it’s important to learn how to substitute and make do with what you have.  Today I challenge you to pick something in your life that isn’t exactly as you’d like it to be – whether it’s a broken heater but you need heat, a job that’s not perfect, or a cake that needs to be baked but you don’t have sugar – find a way to fulfill the need with the things you have at your disposal.  And if it’s the latter…try not to go all “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” on me… J

Za Jiang Mien (from...Texas?)

Technically I stumbled upon this "recipe" in Texas, although it is a Chinese dish.   I was there visiting my grandfather's childhood friend, and he was whipping up a typical lunch.  It was clear that cooking was an art to him, and not a science.  As such, I watched his every move and the ingredients he added, without asking for amounts or temperatures.  Much like when I recreated this dish in Israel, do what you can with what you have.  :)

Prepare the vegetables/toppings:

Slice finely and blanche:
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Bean sprouts (pick ends off first)
  • Cucumbers (don't blanche)
  • Edamame (optional).
Cook the meat sauce:

Put olive oil and a lot of finely chopped green onions into a frying pan.  Add ground pork and split apart with chopsticks or a spatula.  Add soy sauce.  Then add chicken broth and let it boil down a bit.  Then add superior dark soy sauce.  In a small bowl or mug, mix a bit of flour and water and then add the mixture to the meat sauce, stirring to thicken.  Let it cook a bit more.

Cook the noodles:

Typically, you use a thick wheat noodle.  I've also had it with dried Chinese noodles, or most recently I used egg noodles (because that's what I could find!).

Set the table and serve!  Fill your bowl with noodles, then add your condiments and top with the meat sauce.  Enjoy!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Please Sir, I Want Some More

Waiting in the grocery checkout line for 13 minutes to buy bread is not something I would typically tolerate.  But, as my options are limited, I’m willing to make adjustments (I know…how big of me, right?). 

Passover in Israel has (finally) just ended, and after a week without bread and pasta, I’m willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get my fill of wheat products…if you call waiting in line for 13 minutes an extraordinary length.  But as the ‘ban’ on leavened products was lifted yesterday evening, the only bad news was that by that time most stores were closing for Shabbat.  Thus, my extra-long search to find bread today. 
When I woke up longing for a peanut butter sandwich, I hurriedly walked to the nearby corner shops (the two that are open on Shabbat), only to find out that they don’t sell bread.  So I took a longer stroll to the only grocery store that was open in the neighborhood.  It was packed with people, and the bread section had already been well picked over, some bags of pita even having been torn through and left with only a few pieces.  I carefully selected a full bag of pita bread, pasta and couscous and then waited patiently to pay so I could walk home with my bag of goodies.
You might wonder why I would participate in Passover observance if I’m not Jewish.  Well, first off, I didn’t have too much of a choice.  I was rather surprised to find out that stores won’t even sell any products with leavening during Passover.  At the beginning of the week when we went grocery shopping, there were huge pieces of white plastic wrap covering the products that were forbidden to purchase – bread, flour, seasonings, cereal, pasta, condiments, soups, etc. Towards the end of the week, however, some of the plastic wrap had been torn a bit, peeked behind, or removed – which made all the grocery stores look completely disheveled.  I assumed people were ‘breaking’ under the pressure and removing the plastic wrap to get to their coveted, ‘can’t-live-without’ products.  But I quickly found out that wasn’t the case.
Covering up the non-kosher food items

I picked up a stray package that resembled a mushroom soup base from a bin at the end of an aisle, and continued to pick out fruit, vegetables and potatoes (ugh…more potatoes).  When I went to check out, the gal at the register couldn’t scan my mystery mushroom soup.  She proceeded to tell me since it wasn’t registering, it wasn’t a kosher product and she couldn’t sell it to me. 
The grocery stores fooled me.  I thought their idea to “cover it in plastic wrap” was a poor attempt to keep people from buying non-kosher products.  Let’s be real…nobody here would abide by that if they really wanted what was behind “door #3”.  But they’d outsmarted me, and also removed the UPCs from registering on their computer systems.  Touché, supermarkets.  You win.
The second, and more important reason, I chose to stick to Passover kosher foods was because I’ve been trying to adopt the “when-in-Rome” mentality.  Since I’m trying my hardest to fit in here, and adapt to this culture, I am trying to respect their holidays, traditions, and practices.  So although I could have pulled the uncooked pasta out of the back of the cabinet, I chose to refrain.  (Admittedly, we weren’t completely kosher – because you’re supposed to remove any food with leavening from your house, but I just can’t throw out and waste something that’s still perfectly good to eat in a week!!)
Plus, a week without bread and pasta meant I’d have to expand my horizons a bit, get outside my comfort zone (as if I’m not already), try some different things, and have a greater appreciation for products with leavening when I got them back.  But I must admit that the hardest part of my “non-wheat” week has been the inconvenience…typically my ‘cooking’ consists of pasta, or salad (with pasta in it to make it more substantial), or sandwiches.  My breakfasts consist of yogurt, or fruit, but almost always toast with peanut butter.  And when I’m on the go and need something fast, I usually buy a slice of pizza or falafel in pita bread.  So the no-wheat thing pretty much ruled out my normal routine.
Trying to copy Mom and Grandma's recipe

Luckily, Easter fell within Passover so I was inspired by my own traditions of deviled eggs and potato salad.  But the novelty of potatoes quickly wore off – hash browns, baked potatoes, thinly sliced and fried chips, diced and boiled in salads.  So last night, after the sun fell, I was quite content to be reunited with my toast and peanut butter. 

Breaking the bread fast...with PB!
And....(gasp) McDonald's...
SO happy to have a burger with REAL bread!

Although it’s a far cry from the same place, this week brought back fond memories of my time in Isandlwana, South Africa.  Sometimes it’s good to go without the luxuries and conveniences you’re used to.  If for no other reason, it definitely makes you appreciate them more. 
I challenge you to ‘go without’ for a few days.  Give up something you enjoy – whether it’s that precious daily stop at Starbucks that’s become routine rather than special, or your addiction to YouTube that’s got you feigning for the next version of “Jimmy Kimmel – I told my kids I at their Halloween candy” (which is amazing, I must admit).  And hopefully once you’ve gone without for a few days, then you’ll appreciate it more when you have it back.  And if you don’t….then you should probably spend your time and money elsewhere anyway! J

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Gift of Giving

I'm going to pull a little Marty McFly here and go back in time.  Last year, towards the end of my trip around the world, I had some phenomenal experiences that I never blogged about.  Please excuse the confusion and the jumping around, but I think there are some great lessons to be learned and funny stories to share.

(Written on 5/23/2011 from Hanoi, Vietnam)

I think I have a new boyfriend.  He’s about 6 years old and adorable.  I started “teaching” in his school today and he spent the majority of the afternoon trying to move his chair next to mine, kiss me on the cheek, and hold my hand.

A few weeks ago I decided to volunteer at an orphanage in Vietnam, and was given an assignment in Hanoi.  Originally I hadn’t planned on heading north, but when the opportunity arose; I grabbed the bull by the horns and booked a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.  To my surprise, a friend of a friend from Seattle is living in Hanoi working for Path.  And true to the hospitable nature of all the wonderful people I’ve met, Debbie invited me on a weekend trip to Sapa with some other friends visiting from Seattle.
Catfish spring rolls at Highway 4

After Debbie shared her love of catfish spring rolls from the Highway 4 restaurant, we caught an all night train to Lao Cai (closer to the Chinese border).  As I stood in the train station, turning down a million offers to buy water, snacks, and Seaweed Pringles (which turned out to be a total failure on my part), Debbie scurried around the station looking for the guy who was supposed to exchange her vouchers for tickets that she had already purchased. 

Despite the fact that Debbie speaks fluent Vietnamese, it seemed to be a rather confusing transaction.  After multiple calls to the original travel agents, lo and behold, we found out we were at the wrong train station.  Well…we were at the right train station (same name and all), but apparently the building for north bound departures is actually on the opposite side of the tracks, and you have to take a taxi to get there.

Thankfully, we shuffled out of the taxi and through the station doors to the open air tracks just in time. I was watching carefully to see if I stumbled upon Platform 9 and ¾ because I was certain these outdated trains had to be Hogwarts bound.

Our overnight cabin

While in Sapa, we hiked, gawked at the beautiful scenery, treated ourselves to massages (for $6!), ate like queens, and spent a lot of time laughing and reminiscing about things back in the U.S.  After another long evening on a train back to Hanoi, I was about to embark on a whole new adventure…

Not exactly sure how you get "925% Silver"...

The best pho I had in Vietnam!

All the kids had little babies strapped to their backs. 

When our Harry Potter express pulled up to the Hanoi station at 5 AM, the volunteer coordinator was supposed to send a taxi to take me to the house for volunteers where I’d be staying while on my new duty.  Debbie kindly and patiently called the coordinator who called the taxi driver who was late.  When he pulled up a half hour later to take me away, we were all hoping he knew where he was going.  I said goodbye to my new friends, and crossed my fingers as I put my life in the hands of the driver.
The taxi driver wound around roads that led us outside the city and entered a side street alley, where he abruptly stopped the car, unloaded my luggage and prompted me out of the car with hand gestures.  Still in a daze from not sleeping, and without any clue where I was, I found myself speechless (shocking) and unable to mutter a word – let alone a word in Vietnamese – that would keep the driver there.  So as he zoomed off into the distance, and I stood there with my luggage pressed up against me, stranded in an early-morning fog in a deserted alley, I looked up at a gated entry to a house, and rang the doorbell…hoping that I was at the right place.
No answer.  Fabulous.  I managed to steal wifi from the University next door and I placed a Skype call (thank goodness for technology) to the volunteer coordinator.  Apparently the live-in coordinator was still sleeping, and wasn’t expecting me, so she asked if I could wait in the alley until somebody woke up.
At this point I wasn’t thrilled.  But to keep myself from going crazy, I continued to abuse the free wifi and called my family back home…who kept me awake, kept me alert, and kept me happy, until 45 minutes later when another volunteer at the house came and let me in.
I was trying to reserve any judgment about the volunteer organization until I met the kids and found out what I would be doing - but so far I wasn't too pleased with my reception, or the dingy accomodations.  At about 1:30 PM I followed two of the other volunteers to the school.  The “organizer” at the school didn’t know I was arriving, and she didn’t have any assignments for me.  She picked a classroom at random with 2 teachers and 7 kids.  She said something to the teacher in Vietnamese and then told them my name and left me there. 
Now the disappointment set in.  Let me be clear that I adore the kids – they are sweet and playful and friendly and energetic.  But, I paid for this experience to make a difference in others’ lives.  And from what I was told, developmentally challenged children frequently end up as orphans in Vietnam and are not treated volunteers are valued for their mere presence, and showering the children with love and joy.
My program was advertised as volunteering in an orphanage, but I quickly came to find out that it is actually a school that has mostly (but not all) disabled children.  Their parents drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.  The parents look loving and happy and excited to pick up their kids every day.  The kids are treated well at school and shown lots of love.  It seems like they are in a fairly affluent area  as the school is gated, and equipped with many supplies, chairs, desks, decorations, food, etc.
I’m pretty sad this volunteer experience isn’t turning out as I had hoped. Fatal error number one - having expectations. Generally I have very few expectations, and therefore am pleasantly surprised and hardly ever disappointed.  But after dropping some big money with the organization to get placed for volunteer service, I did have some expectations….for my welcoming, for my lodging, for my food, for my ability to make a contribution, and for the ability to use me as a resource in some way.
Since I can't understand the teachers or the kids, I don't feel like I'm making any impact.  I’m really just an additional body in the room.  And I’m not sure if when I’m playing with the kids they should be listening to the teachers and I'm a distraction, or whether I should continue playing with them. 
I can’t help but think that there is some organization (or multiple organizations) making a killing from international “volunteers” that are willing to pay an arm and a leg because they want to do good.  I can't speak for all organizations, because obviously there are many that have greatly helped communities in need (and I've witnessed them in action), but I don't feel like this is one of them.  The consensus amongst the other volunteers is very similar - and many are disheartened by their high hopes of making a difference in this developing country.
I've reasoned that I will give it another day to see if my time here is well spent, or if I'm better off looking for a more enriching experience.  I'm considering abandoning this effort and travelling, even though it breaks my heart to step away from an opportunity I was so excited about where I thought I'd be of help. 
Especially while travelling, the blessings in my life become ever more apparent.  And thus I feel compelled to share my blessings in some way with others - time, money, effort, etc.  But when my best of intentions falls short, or when my contribution no longer seems valuable, I question when to walk away and focus my efforts in another area. 
So my question for you today is...what blessings in your life do you share?  And do you feel that your effort is valuable?  Whether you're giving money or time or knowledge or resources, it's important that your contribution is making a difference.  I enourage you to evaluate the outcome of your giving, because your resources are valuable and limited, and you should use them wisely.  If it's not lining up with your desires, then seek a new outlet where your contribution will be appreciated and used to someone's benefit as it should be.

Catfish Spring Rolls (from Vietnam)

Compliments of Highway 4 Restaurant

I was never given an actual recipe for these spring rolls, but they seem like pretty simple, yet delicious concoctions!  My best guess...


Fry a few small pieces of catfish.  Take a thin piece of rice paper, dab your finger in water and smooth over the sheet to wet it.  Smear on a bit of mayonnaise, add a piece of the codfish once it has cooled, and add a sprig of dill.  Then roll the rice paper up like a burrito.

Dipping sauce:

Mix 1 part hot mustard and 1 part oyster sauce.  Since this is just a guess, you can modify to taste!


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