Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tom Yum Soup Redux

Yes, I have been away from the blog for muuunths, and what do I post when I come back? Food porn.

A certain Mr. AA recently accused me of having an inexplicable obsession with food. "Everywhere you go, you have food with you. It's like you're afraid of starving to death."

Both sentences are true, but the latter does not necessarily result in the former.

Let's face it, blogs about what you're cooking or what you're eating are boring. And ninety percent of blogs in the world are either food porn or cat porn blogs. It's true because I went to the trouble to make up that statistic.

With all that in mind, let me not only share this recipe for tom yum soup that I made tonight, but let me also point out that I've already posted about tom yum soup on this blog.

The thing is, the first time I talked about tom yum soup here, I was in Thailand, where tom yum ingredients were everywhere. This week I went to the Chinese grocery store near me, where I spotted fresh lemongrass, fresh kaffir lime leaves, and galangal, and finally decided to buckle down and try my tom yum soup recipe Stateside, with Stateside ingredients.

Actually, that's a little misleading. I used to make tom yum soup in New York. But fresh kaffir lime leaves were hard to come by, as was galangal. I only knew of two Thai grocery stores in Manhattan, and one told me to go to the other to get kaffir lime leaves, which turned out to be frozen.

I am posting this recipe for a second time because I want to make an important note to myself, which I'd forgotten after all these years: don't add lime juice until you've dished the soup into your own bowl. Otherwise the citric acid wilts some of the ingredients. If you're a true Thai, you wait until you get to the table to add the lime juice, fish sauce, and chili peppers.

Thai ingredients procured Stateside. That is a massive bag of kaffir lime leaves.
Today's soup:
kaffir lime leaves
pork short ribs
3 kinds of mushrooms (white, enoki, something called "seafood mushrooms" in its Chinese packaging)
mung bean vermicelli noodles
chili pepper (I used jalapeno but Thai people use Thai chili peppers, of course)
lime juice
fish sauce

The fresh stuff - lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime - isn't nearly as fragrant as what you get in Thailand. I was worried the soup would end up flavorless, so I used more kaffir lime than I usually do. It turned out to be just the right amount.

Usually I find kaffir lime overpowering and only use a few leaves, but apparently here in the States I can be generous and not worry about giving myself a kaffir lime headache. Yes, it has happened.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dollar-a-Bag Secret Is Now Out

This is probably not much of a secret, and if it were, posting on my nearly-never read blog isn't going to blow anyone's cover. More than anything else, it's blog-worthy only because it's a discovery deeply aligned with my appreciation for deals.

The un-secret is: If you go to the Civic Center farmer's market around 4pm, when they're starting to break down, you can get some crazy cheap deals. All sorts of produce for a dollar a bag, fruit for a dollar a pound. 

The un-secret within the un-secret: At the stone fruit stand, the lady taking your money will complain if you don't fill your bag as full as possible and tries to make you take extra after you've paid. If you buy ten pounds of fruit it's even cheaper, and don't forget to mix and match varieties. They really don't want to cart this stuff back to the farm. 

It's really hard for me to control myself if I happen to be down there on a Sunday afternoon. Today, for example, I made off with this stash.

Five pounds of farm-fresh peaches, nectarines, plums and pluots; zucchini, yellow squash, Japanese eggplant, tomatoes and a bottomless bag of chilies for the low-low price of $10. 

Usually I just walk to the Grove Street farmer's market near my house. It's small and on par with normal farmer's market prices, so I can only get one or two bunches of leafy greens, a loaf of bread, and some cut flowers before I've unloaded $12.

But on the rare occasions when I make it all the way to the Civic Center on Sundays, it occurs to me that if I made the 4pm farmer's market stroll-by a regular habit, I could be basking in a steady supply of organic vegetables for less than what I pay at my uber-affordable but sometimes inconsistent Korean-owned corner store that I love. (Which was also featured in this cool photojournal article about corner stores.) The Civic Center market even has Asian vegetables, so I really have no excuse not to do my weekend groceries there.

The Civic Center farmer's market (apparently called "Heart of the City," presumably to avoid drawing attention to the fact that the Civic Center is also the heart of homeless), is what farmer's markets are supposed to be. Affordable for people who most need access to fresh, healthy locally-raised food. They claim that 75% of food stamps spent at farmer's markets are spent at this farmer's market.

The Ferry Building farmer's market is beautiful, but there's a visible difference in the kind of people who prefer to get their produce there compared to those who prefer the Civic Center farmer's market. For one thing, dodging ranting drunks and disoriented head cases is common at the Civic Center market. So is hearing vendors arguing with customers who try to pocket an extra melon or two without paying.

Interestingly, the two farmer's markets are down the street from each other (down Market Street from each other, for that matter) and occur not coincidentally on alternating days, so you could feasibly go to a farmer's market downtown six days a week. On Mondays you're out of luck in most of the Bay Area; hope you stocked up on the Sunday afternoon dollar-a-bag deal.

The best part of today's visit was when one of the vendors started yelling at a customer standing next to me.

"No seventy-five cents!" she yelled. "One dollar a bag, no seventy-five cents!"

I love me some good discounts, but even I wouldn't try to haggle down the late afternoon dollar special.

And the customer standing next to me? Small elderly Chinese lady. Naturally.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tidepooling, Part II

Went down to Fitzgerald Marine Preserve with some friends for more tidepooling. Still amazed that this is a thing people do, since it involves getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday.

It turns out I've now been to two of the three Bay Area tidepools that made KQED's list of Bay Area Tidepools. Pigeon Point (#2 on said list) is where I discovered tidepooling as a gerund.

And now, tidepool universes from the most recent excursion:

There's a real name for this guy, but to me he's a starfish with webbed feet. Like a duck.

Sea anemone, not an enemy

Sunflower sea star. Eighteen legs, count 'em.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

One Tiny Step Forward

This is old news by now, six hours later: The Supreme Court upholds the individual mandate and pretty much all of the Affordable Care Act. Yes we did!

In the scheme of things, Obamacare is only a tiny step towards what needs to be done to reform our health care system. I won't make this my grand forum for arguing about that, but today is only radical in the sense that it beat back rabid opposition to the miniscule progress the Act makes towards equitable and quality health care. We're still a long way from universal, from affordable, and from reform.

But every hard-fought victory is worth celebrating no matter how seemingly small, so today, I say hooray, and walk with a wide grin.

Here is the giddy white board at work, an office full of health policy wonks:

Most importantly: Champagne after panel session tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Yes, please.

S.F. Market Street car ban urged by city agencies
By Michael Cabanatuan

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 -- Cars have already been pushed off stretches of Market Street downtown, but they could be banned altogether under a revitalization plan being designed by a collection of city agencies.

The Better Market Street plan aims to improve the city's central boulevard from the Embarcadero to Octavia Boulevard and "re-establish the street as the premier cultural, civic, transportation and economic center of San Francisco and the Bay Area," said Kris Opbroek, project manager for the Department of Public Works during a presentation to the Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors Tuesday.

I'm hopefully hopeful. Based on the comments, this doesn't seems to be a very popular idea. And based on the comments, there's always someone hating on bikers, homeless people, buses, taxis, pimps, drug addicts, prostitutes, politicians, Occupiers, cars, MUNI, and San Franciscans. But mostly bikers and homeless people. Sort of telling, if you ask me.

I don't understand why anyone drives on Market Street anyway, unless their final destination is the Ferry Building or somewhere else on the Embarcadero. You can't turn left anywhere on Market, and if you're going north and want to turn right, it probably would have been faster for you to have taken Mission.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Return of the Food Porn Chronicles: Three Cups Chicken and Shrimpy Spicy Dip

The world's best recipe site: http:\\rasamalaysia.com.

Malaysian food has influences from all over Asia, including Taiwan, Thailand, India and China, so these recipes are pretty authentic, though often with a Malaysian twist (chilis, for example).

I'm trying this Three Cups Chicken recipe tonight, a quintessential Taiwanese dish also found in Malaysia due to the large population of immigrants from the southern Chinese province of Fujian, the same place a lot of (real) Taiwanese people came from 300 years ago.

 I don't remember my mom ever making this at home; it's one of those dishes that I only came across at large gatherings or special occasions - dinners at other people's houses, church lunches, buffets, etc. Three cups chicken was never really on my radar screen until a few years ago when I was living with a Taiwanese American woman in Brooklyn. I came home from work and she was cooking it for a dinner guest. Mmmm. Soy sauce, sesame oil and a flood of memories filled my kitchen.

My first ever attempt at Three Cups Chicken was a success, but
I'm still wondering how this chili got to be the star of my photo.
Oddly enough, it's incredibly easy to make, which is probably why Taiwanese people always make it for large gatherings. I'm not sure why they don't seem to make it at home for themselves as much. It's always a dish for special occasions. It does taste just like a celebration.
Ohh man! Looking for recipes online turns up more and more good stuff. I just came across this Thai recipe website. These dishes are the real deal, researched, written, tested (and eaten) by an American expat. I find that it's easier to find Thai vegetables* and ingredients in San Francisco than it was in New York, so I may be trying out some of these recipes soon.

(*Except for banana blossoms. These amazing things are always served with pad thai in Thailand but I've never seen them anywhere in the US. They fall in the same category as Australian Tim Tams: Why in the land of plenty don't we have banana blossoms or Tim Tams? Sadness ensues.)

These recipes take me back to the too few months I spent in Thailand wandering night markets, eating unidentified deliciousness, and wondering what it all was.

This spicy shrimp paste was one of my daily staples, perfect for setting my face on fire after dipping raw or blanched vegetables and my daily fried mystery fish. As in,

Me in my broken Thai: What kind of fish is this?

Lady at the market: Thai thai thai thai thai.

Me: I see.

Oh, hello. I just reached back into the photo archives and discovered that I had brilliantly thought to take a picture of the fishy dippy yumminess back in the Thailand days. Oh, pornographic food memories.

1. Dip. 2. Bite off delicious fish head. 3. Feel face catch on fire.

And speaking of things not found in the land of plenty, when I was in Thailand some of my Burmese friends got wind of the fact that I am a fan of fermented tea leaf salad. They were mainly just thrilled that I had even heard of it. They invited me to a Festival of Lights celebration at their temple, sat me and my visiting American friend down and served us tea leaf salad...from a pre-made package. It was delicious. Then they sent me home with five more packages of this pre-made, do-it-yourself tea leaf salad. The packages were all in Burmese, but I gathered from the pictures that there were three different flavors. To me they were the pink flavor, the green flavor and the blue flavor.

"You can buy them anywhere in Thailand," my Burmese friend Caroline told me. "Just go to a Burmese market."

Burmese markets, it turns out, exist mainly in Thailand and Burma. If I had know I'd never find these pre-made tea leaf salad packages in New York, I would have gone through them more sparingly.

Fortunately, though not particularly conveniently, it seems that there are some not-quite-underground packaged tea leaf salad suppliers in the Bay Area, of the "go into the jewelry store and walk to the back and ask for Kyin" variety. I may be sleuthing for these things soon.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tourists, Part II

Apparently Alamo Square residents are not as fond of tourists as I am. I see the big red tour buses go by everyday, bound for the Painted Ladies. It seems the buses stop in the middle of quiet residential streets, making a lot of noise and blocking traffic. Probably pretty annoying.

Alamo Square is only two blocks away, but has a very different feel than where I live. Tranquil, mainly. My street is a major thoroughfare with far more obnoxious sounds than any of the streets around the Square. Like parked cars with alarms that go off in the middle of the night when a heavy truck roars by. BAWNK BAWNK BAWNK BAWNK BAWNK BAWNK BAWNK. Has anyone's car alarm ever been set off by an actual car thief?

Or motorcycles. I plan to buy a bag of potatoes and stand on the street corner in front of my apartment. When the light turns red, I'll be the like ball boy at Wimbeldon, running up to motorcycles and stuffing spuds into their exhaust pipes before they realize what's happening. What kind of asshat invents a mode of transportation that's powered by loud noise?

Or people standing in front of my window talking on the phone at three in the morning.

I have only limited sympathy for the folks living around the Square. Tour buses and tourists only come by during the day. Unless you work from home, you wouldn't even notice except on weekends.

Diesel engines, car alarms, tractor trailers, motorbikes, yacking pedestrians, throbbing car stereos, garbage trucks and skateboarders rumbling down the sidewalk -- these sounds happen round the clock  outside my window. I sleep with earplugs. I'd trade all this for the daytime-only tourists and picturesque Victorian architecture of Alamo Square in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Water Brush

A water brush is a plastic hollow paintbrush that essentially makes you a mobile watercolor-painting fiend. Instead of having to carry around cups and filling them with water to clean your brushes, just get yourself one of these handy little things.

Unscrew the brush tip, fill it with water, and when you're ready to paint, squeeze the barrel. Water flows out of the brush tip similar to the way ink comes out of a pen. You use it like a regular paintbrush but you don't have to swirl it in a cup of water every time you need to clean it, and you're not always worried you're going to spill gray brush water all over the table and onto the light-colored carpet.

I bought one of these last year and just got around to trying it out today. The plastic construction feels a bit made in China, but it turns out it's well designed and you have a lot of control over the water flow. The brush tip is good quality as well, and allows for a lot of flexibility, from washes to fine lines. I'm still getting used to it (and watercolors in general), but overall it has exceeded my expectations.

Here is a drawing I did today using watercolor pencils and my not-so-new water brush.

Kitty Von Quim at Dr. Sketchy's

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sax In A Tunnel

Admit it, you're reading this post because you thought it said sex in a tunnel.

No such luck for you, but I was lucky enough to catch this guy on my bike ride today out to Point Bonita. He was playing saxophone in a tunnel at the top of Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands. The acoustics were incredible, and I shot a short video of him (below).

It turns out that I caught a lot of noise from the wind, too, so what you hear isn't as spectacular as the real deal.

(Coincidentally, he was riffing from A Few of My Favorite Things, and my last post was titled Three of My Favorite Things, though none of my lists included saxophones or tunnels.)

Sometimes I come across a street performer whose music feels like a gift. The guy missed some notes but the sound of the sax in the tunnel was so deep and melancholy. I wanted to drop a couple of dollars in his bucket but he didn't have one. He was there out of love.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Three of My Favorite Things

This is my latest go-to website for things to do when I want to do something other than drinking pints with my forearms resting on a sticky bar.


And it combines three of my favorite things: San Francisco, fun, and cheap.

The only thing better might be: San Francisco, bikes, and food. Or Zanzibar, fish markets, and snorkeling. Or mornings, tango, and chameleons. Or monsoons, trains, and snapdragons.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Solar Eclipse

Yesterday my brother and I went to the California Academy of Sciences to see what kinds of solar eclipse goings-on were going on. We almost talked ourselves out of it.

Bro: So do you have any protective eyewear? How were you thinking of seeing it?

Me: I was just going to poke a hole in a card and project it.

Bro: Oh.

Me: You can also just look at shadows from trees.

Bro: I see.

Looking at a spot of light the size of a pinhole wasn't sounding too exciting. I was also hoping to take pictures, but after reading photography tips online I realized it was too technical for my limited skills. And cameras don't like to look directly at the sun, either.

We went anyway, with my homemade pinhole in tow. Along the way we saw a few drunken party-goers from the morning's Bay-to-Breakers milling around, trying to look directly at the sun using all the tricks listed under "Unsafe Ways to View the Eclipse." There were lots of sunglasses stacked together, lots of attempts to peer through empty beer bottles.

It turned out the steps in front of the Cal Academy were packed with amateur astronomers like us. Some more advanced amateurs had brought their own fancy telescopes, or made them out of FedEx tubes and aluminum foil. We made eclipse-shaped shadows on the ground with our fingers, snapped photos of other people's telescope images, tripped over dogs.

It was just as cool as the last eclipse I saw, in 1984. The actual image you see is just a crescent of light, even if the cause is cosmically spectacular. I remember it being brilliantly fascinating to me in fourth grade, before my child-like wonder was muted by decades of human wear and tear. But I'm happy to report that apparently, the child-me is still alive and kicking. Check out the neat-o photos I took.

The eclipse seen through the pin hole I made all by myself

Friday, May 18, 2012

Give a Nini

Let's travel back in time six or seven years to the the Peace Corps office in Nairobi. Some volunteers had started a communal giving box called "Give a Nini, Take a Nini." The idea was that you could put anything into the nini box that you didn't want but deemed fit for inheritance by another volunteer or Peace Corps staff, and anyone was welcome to rifle through the ninis and take any treasures they discovered. One American's trash, as the saying goes.

Nini in proper Swahili means "what," but is often used by Kenyans as a stutter word when they're trying to think of what to say next, or as a filler word that essentially means "whatchamacallit."

As in, "Mzungu, you will give me your nini when you leave Kenya."

Which translates to, "Mzungu, if you're so inclined, I would be deeply grateful if you would leave me your laptop when you leave Kenya."

Music, clothes, food, terrible movies, old meds, flip flops, tampons -- anything was fair game for the nini box. Including P-MATES, the portable, disposable pee-anywhere-standing-up cups for women. Finders keepers.

It turns out that my current office also has a Give a Nini box, but you might guess it's not called that.  It probably yields about the same proportion of actual treasures as the Peace Corps nini box. About half an hour before I took this photo, there was a burnt, moldy, half-English muffin sitting on top of the Sports Illustrated. Someone must have wanted that.

The sign says: Free Things Table. Here you may leave useable items, books
and other freebies for anyone to take. Similar items left on the kitchen
table will be moved here as well. Please note that any unclaimed treasures
will be discarded or recycled, usually after a week or so. Thanks.

I'm still pretty excited about the huge unopened bag of loose leaf Earl Grey tea that I scored a couple months ago from this box. You can see from the packaging that it was from a different season. Mokka, it turns out, is a coffee shop in Berkeley that sells what else but fair trade, organic coffee beans and teas. I can't speak for anything else they have, but the Earl Grey is pretty good stuff. This bag will surely last me until next Christmas.

I've only had one brand of Earl Grey that's better, the Mighty Leaf that usually costs anywhere from $10 to $13 for a box of 15 teabags. Amazingly, I found it for $7 a box at a Chinese grocery store on Clement Street. I snapped a photo of the display with the price tag, but seem to have deleted it, so here's a photo from their website:

I think a lot of the yuppie tea drinkers in the neighborhood have gotten wind of this secret, because I after grabbing one box and walking away, I decided to go back and get more. Only 15 minutes had passed and there was only one box left.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

New Green Things on the Wiggle

I was biking on the Wiggle today and saw the new bright green bike "sharrows" (share the road + arrows) they've started painting on the street to point bikers along the zig-zagging route. I'm a big fan of green but I find these a bit gaudy. I do think they guide bikers who aren't familiar with the route, and they're certainly more helpful than the Wiggle PSA that flashes street names MTV-style across the screen (see my previous post).

Not surprisingly, lots of people seem to be upset this new development. My recent experience on the Wiggle is that bikers seem more cautious than ever. They stop at intersections and let cars cross. They take turns slowly. I'm sure there are still idiots on bikes, just as there will always be idiots in cars. I don't think ugly green bike markings on the street make bikers less conscientious or give them a greater sense of entitlement, as some of the comments claim. The arrows seem to be having the opposite effect, as far as I can tell.

I've always thought that adult bikers and drivers should be required to go through some sort of training on how to ride/drive safely and considerately. The content for drivers could be incorporated into driver's ed, and perhaps bikers would have to take the class and get a sticker on their driver's license or ID showing they completed it.

I do think there are a lot of people who get upset every time they see something that might make the city more bike-friendly. The mentality seems to be that if bikers are allowed to become an accepted part of traffic, that it somehow threatens drivers' and pedestrians' right to be on the road. (Who has the sense of entitlement now?). It's similar to the idea that letting gay people get married somehow threatens straight marriages. It's as if some people never learned to share - the road, the community, the institutions of society that are meant to be for everyone.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Wiggle

The Wiggle, San Francisco's well-known bike route for cutting across the city without having to go over any hills, now has its own PSA! The Wiggle has evolved quite a bit in the last ten years or so, going from a nearly unmarked local biker secret to getting its own bike path markers, green painted lanes and bike route signs.

And now it has its own video featuring ironic hipsters and a catchy jingle. I think it's hilarious and fun, but if I were actually trying to learn the route based on the PSA I'd have to watch it at least ten times. Its entertainment value is exponentially higher than its educational value. And the folks doing the world's dorkiest Wiggle at 0:58 manage to make even me, the girl who wears clear safety goggles when I ride my bike, embarrassed for them.

Today was Bay Area Bike to Work Day, known to me as Another Day I Biked to Work. I'm not really the target audience for Bike to Work Day, whose main purpose is to encourage people who are a bit intimidated about commuting on their bike to start doing it, but a part of me is sad I didn't catch any of the festivities.

Said festivities apparently involved "energizer stations" offering snacks, drinks, commuting-related freebies, perky experienced bikers eagerly offering advice and encouragement, and some manner of bike repair. There were also bike convoys leading timid newbie bike commuters along safe, comfortable routes to their workplace. I missed all of it. My route to work goes up several hills, and no bike convoys seemed interested in going my way.

Bike to Work Day is one of the many things that I love about San Francisco. So many people here think biking is a great idea. The cycling community here is large, diverse, well-organized and politically active. (Don't be misled by the PSA, which makes it look like only white hipsters ride bikes.) Cyclists are generally well-behaved, law-abiding and careful not to be aggro in traffic. Naysayers are always desperate to point to the one shithead outlier and claim that the remaining 99% of bikers are the same. Folks, don't hate on the bike. I have no doubts that dude is a deep douchebag off his bike, and a complete jerkface in his car, but I don't hear anyone accusing all drivers of being like him. Oh, the prejudices we embrace.

A well-articulated article about bigotry against cyclists. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Macro Setting

I bought a new camera recently to replace the one that was swiped from my apartment in December. It's a Canon SX260 HS, which doesn't really mean anything to me, but if you're into cameras, there's the link for you. I was looking for something that had most of the same features as my old camera, which was a Canon S2 IS. I fall about in the middle of the photography competency spectrum - I take photos in different light settings so I like being able to adjust things manually if I have to, but if the camera can do something automatically, I'm not going to complain either.

My only major requirement for the new camera was that I wanted a zoom upgrade. I've always had a bad case of zoom envy, so six years ago when I bought the S2 IS I made sure it had one of the longest zooms for its class.

My new camera is a smaller camera with a bigger zoom, and technically falls in the point-and-shoot category. There's no viewfinder. There's no flash that you can manually flip up and down rather than setting it using the buttons and screen menus. There's no lens cover - a big source of anxiety for someone who likes to walk along sandy beaches exploring tidepools and chasing sea birds.

Also, one of my biggest complaints is that it's so small and the casing so smooth that I feel like I can't really get a professional hold on it. Its size and smoothness also make it hard to take arm-length self-portraits, which I do shamelessly despite nearly always getting poor results. It takes better video, though, but most of today's cameras do compared to six years ago. And although I haven't tried it yet, it has GPS for geo-coding photos if you're the kind of photographer who occasionally goes on whirlwind six-country tours in seven days.

Overall I preferred the feel, shape and weight of the old camera. It was bulkier and less convenient to stow away when traveling or trying to snap photos while riding my bike (yes, what?), but ergonomically it was a photographer's camera, instead of a tourist's camera. I really miss the whole physical and tactile aspect of photography that I had with my old camera.

However, the one thing that I find amazing on the new camera is the macro setting. My old camera had a pretty awesome one:

Slide Mountain, Catskills, NY (Photo by P. Cuce)

But I think the new one has it beat:

Who knew flower petals had hair? And spider webs? (Usal Road, Sinkyone Wilderness, Mendocino)

This may not have been the macro setting. It may have just been the 20x zoom. (Land's End, San Francisco)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Things Thai People Like

Work consists of reading lots and lots of articles about needle exchange programs implemented in different countries to prevent HIV infection. Today I was scrolling through a long report about programs that try to minimize risks associated with injection drug use, and this photo caught my eye:

The caption on the photo says, "Thai activists in a moment of celebration at a harm reduction training in Bangkok."

I think anyone who has ever been at a work-related event in Thailand will instantly recognize that the photo is not "a moment of celebration." It's a bunch of Thai people singing karaoke. Because no gathering - professional or otherwise - in Thailand is complete without a whole lot of karaoke. (And usually whiskey.)

Then again, I suppose that qualifies as a moment of celebration.

Screenshot source: IHRD (2008). Harm Reduction Developments 2008. New York: International Harm Reduction Development
Program of the Open Society Institute.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tourists, Part I

I don't understand local disdain for tourists. At least not in the U.S., where people who live in touristed areas have similar income levels as those who come to visit. (Local disdain for tourists who are exponentially wealthier than the people living there -- that's much easier to understand.)

I live off a MUNI line that runs right past Alamo Square Park, site of the iconic Painted Ladies. There are always a few intrepid tourists on my bus, clutching MUNI maps and nervously jumping up at every intersection to make sure they're not missing their stop.

The Painted Ladies. You've seen them before. Now see them
in a photo I took that looks like every other photo you've seen of them.

Big red tour buses also pass by every day with shivering tourists in the upper deck, taking pictures of anything they can, which sometimes includes lil' ol' me pedaling along in the bike lane. I think it's cute and sweet that people come from all over the world to admire the place I call home, snap terrible pictures with their point-and-shoots, and return home renewed and impressed, with a little more sparkle in their eyes, a lot less heaviness in their heart.

Beyond that, I'm proud and grateful that I've been lucky enough to make a life here when other people have to take vacation time to visit. And in case you don't fully understand what that means to me, allow me to reach into the archives for a moment.

So I don't understand when people like the folks riding my bus one night complain about "all the tourists."

"They just come in, don't know anything about the place. Years ago when I was growing up here, Alamo Square Park was a nasty place. Things happened there at night that you don't ever want to know about. And now, because of all the damn tourists, they spent all this money to put a nice, clean bathroom in that park."

Our bus driver chimed in, "I hate these tourists. I only say that because I can tell no one on this bus is a tourist. Why do they come here to look at these houses, like they're something special or something? We got these houses everywhere. What's the big deal?"

Admittedly these are not two of San Francisco's more eloquent or thoughtful complainers, but I've heard these sentiments from others.

Folks, lighten the hell up.

Tourists are not only coming from afar see what all the fuss is about, which is a huge compliment in itself, but they're also on vacation. They're in a good mood. They're friendly and curious and open-minded and chatty. They're not native English speakers, yet they speak English better than the dude who sells me kale at the farmer's market. When I travel abroad, I'm hard pressed to find American tourists at all, much less any who are similarly good-natured and likeable.

So stop bitchin', neighbors. Just because we live in the greatest city on earth doesn't mean we look down on those who don't.

I welcome tourists with open arms. Please, be my guest. Ride the streetcar, marvel at seagulls, eat clam chowder from a slightly stale sourdough bowl, puff up hills in sneakers you bought just for this trip, never wander beyond the trinket shops in Chinatown, shop on Haight-Ashbury, pay way too much for mediocre chocolate at Ghiradelli Square and go home feeling like you've had the authentic San Francisco experience. You haven't, but you might notice you've managed to fall in love with the place anyway. And there's nothing inauthentic about that.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Grody Fascinating

I have a fascination for things that some people apparently find gross or disturbing or unappetizing or smelly or awkward or impolite.

 Like, all things gastro-intestinal. Like, big spiders. Cool bugs. Snakes, lizards, frogs, banana slugs. Decomposing vertebrates on the beach. Bodies: The Exhibit. Taboo body functions. Supportive communities for stigmatized activities.

So when we swerved around this former raccoon over the weekend, I nearly rolled out of the car with camera in hand before we'd even come to a complete stop. I've seen plenty of roadkill and ravens, but I've never seen a turkey vulture so close before. They're not particularly attractive in flight, and even less attractive in person. This one looks like he's wearing a black sleeveless turtleneck, but it turns out that's just the way they're colored.

Man that is one cool, ugly mother.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


I just learned that "tidepooling" is a verb. Actually it's a gerund. But either way, it's an activity that people do. People meaning someone other than me. I used to think I was the only one who had ever wandered along rocky beaches and discovered the great secret about tidepools: Each one contains an entire universe of life.

When you think about it long enough, it's humbling.

What's happening in this bustling tidepool?

It's hard to tell from a still shot, but this tidepool was a hotbed of hermit crab activity.

Our stubborn starfish friend, latched on tight.

Photos taken at MacKerricher State Park, Mendocino County.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Random Garbage I Found In My Fridge

Some of the best meals come from my deep sense of urgency about rescuing old food from the back of my fridge. I didn't grow up during the Great Depression, and neither did my parents (though they did grow up fleeing to the mountains to escape Japanese bombers during World War II), but I have a strange Depression-era anxiety about wasting food. Don't ever do it. Something was born, grew up and died so that you could take pictures of it, post it on your blog, and eat it.

I tried this amazing-looking dino kale and quinoa salad recipe I found here. It's crisp and refreshing, though you'll need a bit of a taste for mildly bitter kale. You know quinoa has hit mainstream popularity when my disdain for hippie-wannabes isn't enough to stop me from finding it delicious.

Quinoa and kale salad: Two days in the
fridge and it still looks delicious.

I also had a chunk of beef in my freezer for months, so I used it in one of my mom's specialties, Taiwanese beef noodle soup, or hong sao niu rou mian. This recipe is the closest to my mom's. She doesn't use any of the chili ingredients because she has never liked spicy foods, so for years I thought this was a savory but not spicy dish. Also I've never seen tomatoes used, but for some reason the recipe calls for it. Strange and unnecessary, in my opinion.

The key flavor in beef noodle soup comes from Chinese five spice powder, a very standard flavor in many Taiwanese dishes. In terms of my list of comfort foods, anything with Chinese five spice ranks up there with fresh ginger and scallions, and sesame oil.

Any kind of mild leafy greens can be used in the soup, though bok choy is the most popular. I found some Swiss chard wilting in the fridge so I used that tonight, but I've also used spinach, napa cabbage or watercress in the past.

Finally, I boiled up a few eggs and threw them into the soup, then let them simmer on the lowest flame possible for about 45 minutes. We called them "brown eggs" just because they turn out brown, but I guess they're actually called lu dan, or soy sauce braised stewed eggs.

My rendition of beef noodle soup, with Swiss chard and a braised egg.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My New Favorite Blog

I just discovered this and will be spending the next few days combing through the archives:


It's a collective of over 20 writers, journalists, grad students, academics, music and culture critics and others who share their views on current events, sports, art and pretty much anything else coming out of Africa or relevant to it.

Their Facebook page says, "Beyond the project of ‘re-imaging’ Africa, the blog is a project of re-imagining a nation-ness that exists outside the borders of the classic nation state and continental boundaries. While counterproductions like ours are hardly ever ‘networked’ within existing power structures, we use the image field of the blogosphere to construct a new vision of self vis a vis networks outside the mainstream."

I have no idea what any of that means. Clearly, there are some academic types involved here.

Basically it sounds like they try to share, discuss and analyze news from Africa that represents the diversity of the continent, in an attempt to show people that it's not just a land of AIDS, famine and genocide. The guy who started it is South African and is now a professor at The New School in New York, and most of the contributors are somehow connected to Africa or have a strong and informed interest in it.

So far the content is fresh, intelligent and inspiring. Far better than the pseudo-analysis that shows up in The Economist and even less informed publications. Don't get me wrong, I love me some of that Economist, but it's still only a slightly more educated, British version of Newsweek.

Oh man, I feel like I just sliced a hole in a canvas sack full of beans. Through the first blog I just found another Kenyan blogger, who guest-blogged a wonderful article about the Kenyan presidential campaign at Africa Is A Country.

His own blog is here, and I love it already. Here's one of his posts, called Things That Bug Me about Kenya(ns) that I relate to both on a personal level and through many of my Kenyan friends, who expressed similar frustrations.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

75 Degrees

Post-ride pulled pork sandwich
and Prohibition Ale. Perfect.
I'm always more appalled than impressed by people in San Francisco who wear mini skirts, shorts or tank tops when it's 50 degrees and foggy outside. I see it more among women than men, which I suppose is  unsurprising yet puzzling, since women are usually the ones that want the thermostat turned up.

Personally I'm too curmudgeonly to put up with even a few minutes of feeling like a popsicle for the questionable satisfaction of showing off questionable assets to questionable audiences. Nothing makes me more cranky than being cold.

Except maybe being hungry. Or being subjected to loud motorcycles roaring past my window at three in the morning. Or slamming doors. Or 2-year-old future dictators of East Africa screaming until blood vessels pop in their forehead. Or people talking in shrill voices. Or entitled New Yorkers. Or trendy dance clubs full of drunk people dropping drinks on your feet.

Well, so lots of things make me cranky. Curmudgeon, that's me. The point is, in this town I like to stay bundled up most of the time, both to protect against the cold weather and to protect against the colder weather moving in later in the day.

But about once a year, San Francisco is sunny and 75 degrees for almost six hours in a row. Today was that day. I busted out a tank top and shorts, packed an extra hoodie, leggings, wind-proof jacket and beanie for later, and set off to Speakeasy Brewery. The entire city was outside in sundresses, shorts and wife beaters, all the tattoos on their arms exposed. There were lots of sunburns by dusk. Who thinks about putting on sunscreen when most days only your face and hands are exposed?

Warm weather somehow flips the gratitude switch to high. For those few hours of cloudless blue skies, I was in love with everyone I knew and everything I had and everything I was. I was accepting this magnificent gift from the universe. I had a beer in my hand, friends at my side, and sun warming my skin. I was joyful, breathing. Smelling, laughing. Present.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Good Racism, Bad Racism

 Some days are just a treasure trove of fascinating news items.

There's a new Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia that just opened in Michigan. It sounds like it's not for the easily offended, or for anyone who is unable to understand the educational value of displaying artifacts (and not-so-old artifacts like an "Any White Guy 2012" election t-shirt) with cultural significance in the context of racism against African Americans.

I don't know if I'll ever find myself up in that neighborhood but if I do, I plan to visit.

Yikes. Just yikes.
Then, the flip side. There's the photo and news story from Sweden so appalling that it even managed to make me cringe.

It's the story of an Afro-Swedish artist who staged a performance in which Sweden's (probably soon-to-be-former) Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, is asked to slice a piece of cake shaped as the body of an African woman. And she is asked to slice the vagina. And as she does, the artist, Makonde Linde, whose head and face is painted in blackface and poked through a hole in the table to appear as the head of the African-woman-cake, begins to scream as if in agony. The intent is to portray female genital mutilation. Then the Minister feeds the cake to the artist. And the audience of white, blond Swedes laughs and cheers. Admittedly, the fact that it is a crowd of blonds only makes it that much easier for me to write them off as stunningly idiotic racists.

It's true you can't assume too much about people you don't even know, but the fact that this crowd thought laughing was an appropriate response says a lot about what they know about racism: nearly nothing.

Some have come out in defense of the Minister and the audience, saying they are most likely "kind-hearted, noble-minded people who oppose racism." Yes, they probably think they are. But what does it mean to claim to oppose racism when you have such a poor understanding of it that you laugh and cheer when confronted with it? These are probably the same people that will then vehemently deny being a racist if you suggest they are. At best it's absurd; at worst, it's the worst brand of ignorance. Sweden is an overwhelmingly ethnically homogenous society. It's largest minority are Finns, who make up 5 percent of the population. I frankly doubt many Swedes have ever been challenged by race.

Racism is such a complex and nuanced concept that outrageously overt displays like blackface really don't go very far to show that someone understands what it is. It's far more than disliking someone because their skin is a different color than yours, or they have a different faith. More importantly, these days it's usually far more subtle, allowing people who know nothing about racism to claim they they're not racist just because they've never burned a cross on someone's lawn.

So our kind-hearted, noble-minded anti-racists mean well, but they don't really know what it is they mean well about? I'm profoundly unimpressed.

The end result of the performance, I assume, was to open up discussion about female genital mutilation and race. The story has gone wildly viral around the world but people seem to be talking more about the arguably poor execution of the performance than the bigger issues it meant to highlight.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Broccoli Rabe

It's convenient that leafy greens are highly nutritious, low in fat and cholesterol free. Because I love me some dark green leaves all of the time.

When we were kids my mom cooked lots of Asian vegetables, quickly stir fried with garlic or ginger, lightly salted and planted on the dinner table piping hot. Our favorite was kong xin cai, which some people call Chinese water spinach and other people call morning glory and other people call eng cai and other people call pak bung.

We grew up appreciating the subtle flavors of all sorts of green leafy vegetables in a way that my mom claimed "normal" Americans didn't.

"Americans don't know how to cook vegetables to make them taste good," she'd say, spooning more bok choy or Chinese mustard greens or broccoli onto my plate. "They just boil them until they're mush, so of course they don't like them. That's why Americans are fat, because they don't eat vegetables."

Well, Americans are fat because they eat fat, not because they don't eat vegetables. (And also because they don't exercise enough.)

Anyway, I have a long list of leafy greens that I love, but at the very top of the list, perhaps in the #1 slot, in a close race with kong xin cai, is broccoli rabe.

I discovered broccoli rabe when I was living in New York and it showed up next to some pasta I ordered. It made an impression so I looked for it at the grocery store. I was disappointed when I realized that it was only in season for two or three weeks, around early spring. Because there was such a tiny window when I could find them, they became this rare commodity in my mind, which of course made me savor them even more when I had them around. It's probably a big reason they rank so high on my veggie list.

In California broccoli rabe seems to stay in season longer, or we've just had two great broccoli rabe growing seasons in a row. This year, I spotted them in early March at my Lucky Supermarket and they appear to be going strong yet. I still can't get over the idea that at any minute they'll disappear from the produce section, not to be seen again for ten long broccoli-rabe-free months, but I may be a bit less anxious about it after this year's long residency in the produce section.

Here's some broccoli rabe deliciousness I made for dinner:

You can google all sorts of fancy recipes, but a simple sautee with garlic, olive oil and a pinch of salt is about as perfect as it gets. Broccoli rabe can be slightly bitter, so sometimes I blanch it in boiling water first, then lightly sautee as mentioned. I like my leafy greens to be slightly crisp in the stems (to avoid the dreaded American mushiness my mom warned us about, as if it would signal our failure as true vegetable connoisseurs) so it can be a bit tricky to get the bitterness out without letting the mushy in.

Other amayyzing greens:

beet greens
brussel sprouts
jungle fern

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bearded Lady

Did she look like this? Maybe not exactly.
But the goatee and hair are spot on.
I saw a bearded lady on the bus this morning. It was actually more of a goatee, though. A pretty cool one. And I started thinking that if I could grow a beard, it would be cool to go around with a beard.

I don't imagine many people would agree with me. But think about it. Men who can grow hair on their faces like to landscape it. Why not women?

I was a bit surprised that it didn't take much for me to decide that gal-beards might be cool. This woman had her hair cut short and spiky. The goatee matched well. It didn't say feminine, to be sure. She wasn't really going for feminine. But it did say, "I've thought about it, and the goatee works. And I don't really give a shit what you think, so stop staring, you rude freak."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Yeah, so it's a cliche to say that sunflowers make me happy. Of course they do. They're so sunny and bright and big. Sunflowers are what you get when you plant laughter in cool black soil. Wait for a bit and a bunch of silent, fat smiles pop out of the ground.

Must be at least this tall to invade a field of sunflowers
I found this photo in one of my Kenya albums. I think we drove by a bunch of sunflower farms on our way to Mt. Elgon. The plants were so gigantic that we had to stop so we could pile out of the car and stand next to them in awe. Those guys look like they could uproot themselves, start running up to people like us and laughing in our faces as if they were Hafiz of Shiraz.

and I have become
like two giant fat people living
in a tiny
keep bumping into
each other

- From "The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master"

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Going Back To Sleep

I'm the worst at waking up in the morning. I could probably give some reasonably plausible explanation for it, maybe going back to when I was in elementary school and my Mom would roust me from sleep really early in the morning in her bossiest voice, instilling a lifetime of resentment about having to wake up on anyone's terms but my own.

Whatever the reason, it turns out that now I can't get out of bed without first going back to sleep. There's something so satisfying about crawling back under warm blankets to savor a few more minutes of sleep, burying my face into my pillow, heavy with the smell of recent dreams. There's something satisfying about knowing I snuck in a few more ZZs when I wasn't supposed to. Every morning I get out of bed with the knowledge that I defied the rules just a little bit, if only for an extra eight or 16 minutes.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

No Dumping, Says the Pretty Sign

A friendly watercolor to remind you not to dump toxic crap into the sewer. Corner of Wildcat Canyon and San Pablo Dam Roads, Oakland.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lightning Storm

 I got caught in the rain on my way home from the gym yesterday evening. We're having some late season precipitation this year, perhaps to make up for a rare dry winter. It's always a bit inconvenient to get rained on when I'm on the bike. Brakes start squealing, pants are wet, the mud stripe gets painted on your back.

Last night though, there was lightning. And about ten seconds later, thunder. According to those kiddie science books, that means the storm was ten miles away.

It has been a long time since I've seen rain with lightning and thunder. That kind of drama is rare in the Bay Area. Winter and spring rains are pretty much a cold, steady drizzle for days at a time. Except this year, when it was cold and steady for a few hours at a time.

Lightning hitting the Bay Bridge, April 12, 2012. Photo by Phil McGrew.
Growing up in semi-monsoonal Houston, Texas, where every summer afternoon at exactly the same time the sky would crash open, explode in violent flashes of light, and dump sheets of rain for about 30 minutes, I used to think that rain always came with lightning and thunder. Our street flooded on a regular basis. The gutters on our roof would pour water like a pitcher. Then like a temper tantrum tapering off, as if the weather got distracted by something more interesting and shiny, the storm would roll away.

When I was a kid the thunderstorms were terrifying. I thought the thunder would rip the roof off our house, and the lightning would fry our TV and electrocute us while we were watching afternoon cartoons. Somehow, summer after summer, our house withstood the onslaught.

Now that I'm old enough to know that thunder and lightning can't do any of those things, but that lightning can still strike you when you're standing on a treeless plain, or when you're sitting helpless on a plane, thunderstorms are pretty damn cool. As long as I'm indoors, and I have a place to hang my pants to dry.

Scale of the Universe

This is amazing. It's an interactive Flash animation called "Scale of the Universe 2" that lets you see the size of a bunch of different objects in our universe next to each other. You can use the scroll bar to zoom from the smallest to largest things in our universe. The smallest thing that appears in the animation is a string -- the string theory version, not that thing that keeps your teabag accessible in your mug -- which is 1 x 10-35 meters. If you scroll to the opposite end of the scale, the size of the measurable universe is 1 x 1027meters.

You can also click on each object to get a description and size. Clearly these folks have a sense of humor - click on Pluto and it says, "Pluto used to be a planet, but now it's not. Why do people feel sympathy for it? It has no feelings. And if it did, why would it care what the people way over on Earth thought about it?"

Relative sizes are pretty fascinating. A human egg appears to have the same diameter as the width of a human hair. A Japanese spider crab, if it were to hold its legs out as far as they'll go, appears to be as wide as a human is tall. How delicious.

As I was zooming out to objects in our solar system and beyond, I started to get that anxiety I get whenever I think too hard about things that are too big to comprehend -- death, infinity, time, chance. It reminds me of this Calvin and Hobbes strip, which always somehow manages to re-ground me, if only in the knowledge that for now, while I'm alive, I'm not alone.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Trumpet Kid

I've seen this kid in front of the Ferry Building on weekends. Personally I think he's a great entertainer. He tap dances, he spins his trumpet, and he plays fun tunes. Puts a big smile on my face every time.

He was first featured on SFGate a few months ago. Yesterday there was a followup blog post about him being invited onto the Ellen Degeneres Show. When I scrolled to the bottom, I was bit disappointed to find a lot of not-so-flattering reader comments about the Trumpet Kid.

A lot of people have a lot of unkind words for the 12-year-old. They think he's being exploited by his mom, they think he's not that talented, they think he's only trying to rake in tourist bucks, they think he should be in school.

I haven't seen him often enough to have a sense of how true any of those things are. I'm generally pretty cynical, but I can't deny that this kid's performances make me really happy. I actually gave him a couple bucks and a compliment once, and anyone who knows me knows how hard it is to squeeze even one crumply faded dollar bill from my hand. So that has to count for something.

Whatever else people say, I love him. I hope he dreams big, and I hope those dreams are filled with trumpet-playing. The dude's got his whole life ahead of him and none of the nay-saying accusations should hold him back from what he wants.

Watch him on Ellen and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hunky Jesus

I'm not sure how I've passed eight Easters in San Francisco without attending the annual Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence celebration in Dolores Park. Every year the "leading-edge order of queer nuns" hosts all-day events for kids and grownups including an Easter egg hunt, an Easter Bonnet Contest, a Bring Your Own Big Wheel contest where you try to fly down a hill on a plastic tricycle faster than everyone else on a plastic tricycle, and my favorite of course, the Hunky Jesus Contest.

And more photos here.
This year, like the last seven, I missed the whole event. I had already spent the week before pestering Amir to let me hitch a ride with him to visit those ghost towns on the Delta on Sunday, so when my friend reminded me the Dolores Park festivities were the same day, I decided I'd have to wait yet another year to be a Hunky Jesus spectator.

While I personally find the irreverent themes witty and fun, I don't imagine most serious fans of Jesus do. I don't care enough what the perma-frowners think to spend any time trying to "defend" Hunky Jesus or cross-dressing nuns though, as if either of those were somehow morally corrupt and needed defending.

What appeals to me about The Sisters and their Easter party is that it's a celebration of the freedom to be who you are, or to dress up as someone you're not just because you want to, a chance to have fun while rejecting the idea that everyone should be the same, that if you're somehow different from the statistical or social norm by choice or by birth, than you are also somehow inferior or wrong. These kinds of iconic San Francisco events (gay pride, Folsom Street Fair, How Weird Street Faire, Bay-to-Breakers, Halloween in the Castro to name a few past and present) also represent safe havens of accepting and diverse communities for those of us who have ever felt marginalized.

I find it difficult to believe that anyone -- even middle-class, white, straight, non-immigrant Christian men -- could have gone their entire lives without at some point feeling disregarded or persecuted, part of an outnumbered minority unfairly judged or discriminated against by those who simply belonged to a bigger group or who had more power or wealth or who embraced a set of values most easily palatable to the average majority.

Which is why I find it hard to understand that anyone wouldn't relate to the spirit of these kinds of events. I say that, but at the same time my own experience has proven repeatedly that those who are mostly never marginalized rarely seem to remember the few times when they have been, and therefore are rarely willing to acknowledge they have anything in common with people who've chosen to transform their oppression into something positively joyful and inclusive.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Penguin Cam

The Cal Academy has a South African penguin exhibit with a live penguin cam. Hands down insanely cute every time.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Stumbling Upon A Secret

So many places in this massive state that I didn't even know existed.

The California Delta? Apparently it's where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers flow together, creating a vast estuary that carves through Central Valley farmland.

Spent the afternoon poking around some of the ghost towns along the Delta waterways. Not sure if it was because of Easter Sunday or because of economic depression, but they were mostly deserted save for a few bars and restaurants.

We started out in Locke, a town built in 1915 by Chinese levee builders who wanted a place to call their own after their homes in nearby Walnut Grove burned down. Most of the original buildings still stand, giving it the look of an old Western movie.

After a beer at the famed Al the Wops, we wandered downstream looking for dinner and happened upon Isleton. You can still see remnants of the old Chinese communities in many of these towns, though most of the original residents have moved onto more happening locales (China being one of them, apparently).