Year of Grace, Day 65. Saikai and sunflower seedheads

I once read a Japanese story – I forget now who wrote it – titled Saikai (re-encounter). My memory is such that I cannot even remember what the story was about, but the event following its reading is what I do clearly remember. It was my first time to meet someone from high school days after graduation. It was the mid-1970s and I was then a student in Gaigodai in Tokyo. And this re-encounter was with one of my Japanese friends, Kazuko Nobusawa, whom I had got in touch with through her old postal address. There was no such thing as email or Facebook then of course. By good fortune, her mother still lived there. And Kazuko and I met in Shibuya, that I definitely do remember, just by the main entrance of Seibu Department Store by the designer scarf section – not at the usual meeting place which is the statue of the faithful dog Hachiko – where thousands rendezvous. I thought we would lose each other among the usual throngs there. And it was just as well, as she had not resembled the image I held of her in my memory; nor perhaps, had I in hers.

And it so happened that not long after, I was asked to write an article for a Tokyo English newspaper, and I chose to write about that reunion. Kazuko and I had our photos taken by the newspaper –  it could have been the Mainichi – and we were sent copies of the photos. Years later I was told that my story had found its way into an English study text for high school students. It’s a pity I don’t have a copy of that text nor have I seen it, but the point I wish to make is that the context of that story, about attending an international school in the Philippines, Makati to be precise – the American School, later called the International School of Manila – and its link with Japan is most likely what held the textbook compiler’s interest.

Yesterday was the occasion of yet another lovely saikai, and Japan and the American School/International School of Manila were again the common threads that drew me and two high school mates – siblings Marian and Silvester — together. And it is interesting how, despite distance and decades, we were able to reconnect, albeit on much more complex and deeper levels than those through which we were linked in our early years. I would call this way of creating or recreating manifold complex links, re-relating. There were links to shared love of literature – the Judge Dee detective series of van Gulik – whose author was a work colleague of the siblings’ father and, as a family friend, known personally to the siblings’ mother. Insights into van Gulik’s character and humility, as well as his ancient Chinese-mandarin-like manner, emerged from our conversation. M and I shared that van Gulik had been treated by the same physician as ours in Tokyo. Links within links!

After lunch with Diena, the siblings’ mother, we proceeded to spend a delightful afternoon in a museum surrounded by beech woods – carpeting the ground and, in some trees still clothing the branches above, with their warm coppery foliage. The way to the museum passed through a rolling and soothing landscape of fields of heather among pine woods and a few picturesque farmhouses roofed with new thatching – an untypical environment for those more used to the Netherlands’ expanse of canals and level fields. It would be lovely to bike through there in the summer, and perhaps camp as well.

I have long wanted to see the Kröller-Müller Museum’s collection of van Goghs – the second largest collection worldwide, and it was an opportunity not to be missed. As a gardener with an interest in botanical art, I have been struck most by van Gogh’s fascination with flowers, and at the museum, the one representative painting on exhibit was of dried sunflower seedheads.

Perhaps because van Gogh’s other sunflower paintings have become ubiquitous, I have become more partial to a different representation. But I believe it is also because — much as I love flowers at their height of beauty — I have also come to appreciate this downphase of a flower’s life: when it begins to die back and its beauty begins to fade. Then, a flower or a plant’s beauty of structure and form are shorn of the cosmetic effects of vigour and colour and scent, and it lies in unaffected natural grace.

So it is with people too, I find. That as they age, people take on a different aura – one bestowed by experience — by all the happenings and events that touch everyone’s life – the desirable ones and the not-so-desirable ones. And how each one of us deals with these elements of our personal history leaves its unmistakable trace on us. And I find that, as with van Gogh’s sunflower seedheads, I am drawn to the lineaments of maturity and wisdom and grace etched on people’s faces, and deep in their eyes I sense their innermost beauty and hearts softened by time and grief and joy. And love too. Perhaps that is why I am fascinated by the faces of older people, by the accumulation of wisdom and experience and compassion limned in their faces.

I am grateful to have reconnected and re-related on so many levels with high school mates Marian and Silvester, and to have spent hours conversing – finding always something to talk about and share. I am thankful too that I got to meet their mother, Diena, whose shared love and knowledge of the Judge Dee series and their author added gloss to an already well-appreciated and beloved author. I believe that my re-acquaintance via Facebook with Marian and Silvester and our sharing of different aspects of our current and past lives on our daily status postings are what made the transition from childhood to mature adulthood an effortless and smooth one. Although there are those who would take a dim view of social media, in our case at least it has served as an important bridge linking and re-relating our past and distant lives and our present ones. To a shared love of good food and drink, to a shared love of certain aspects of art, and to a heartwarming day filled with much affection and warmth and grace and laughter – thank you, Marian, Silvester, and Diena! Oh and a belated happy 87th birthday to Diena, and to many more grace-filled years! Another note of thanks to the Kröller-Müller Museum for the wonderful collection of van Goghs and pastels of Odilon Redon — a hauntingly lovely portrait of a young girl and a three-panelled screen with a pegasus.

Year of Grace, Day 64. Thanksgiving and harvest time

Thanksgiving is a family-focused holiday in the US today, but its roots lie in a much older festival celebrated at the community level.  It took place after a very important event of the farming year – harvest time.  And indeed the very first Thanksgiving in  America was celebrated with the first Americans who had taught the English migrants  to raise endemic crops and poultry – corn, pumpkin, turkey, and other edibles. Without their help, how would those new migrants have fared in the New World? Does anyone give a thought about the original Americans on this day?

In the days before mechanization, harvest time was a community affair: everyone helped everyone else get their crops in before the frost and the rain. And once all the products of the year’s farming activities had been stored, preserved, salted down, or dried for the winter, everyone celebrated together as a community – to give thanks for the earth’s bounty and to hope for similar blessings for the coming year. In Germany there are still communities that celebrate the Harvest Festival (Erntefest) with traditional dancing and of course plenteous drinking and eating. In England, in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, the Harvest Festival in the little Anglican Church of St. Paul’s invites church members to bring baskets filled with products from their own gardens, and these fruit- and nut- and vegetable- laden baskets are auctioned, and the money thus collected is spent on food items to be distributed to families in need. My quince tree was usually full of golden fruit at this time, and I used to fill a couple of baskets with them, with instructions for making quince jelly tucked in.

Today I give thanks foremost for my family and for our continuing good health. In terms of harvest, I am told by neighbours in Leamington that my quince tree has been very fruitful this year, and for that too, I am grateful. My lemon tree and calamondin tree have been generous this year too, and so have the artichokes. I am thankful that the bay trees and herbs have done well and continue to supply our needs. It is wonderful to nip outside and take a leaf or two of bay and pop it into a stew or Bolognese. The flavour of fresh bayleaf is altogether richer and deeper and more complex than dried.

I passed by the Christmas Market at the Münsterplatz today – it’s been on for a week now. It is lovely to have this outdoor market full of lights and interest and merriment, particularly at this time of year when night falls very early. It’s been our tradition to have a pork steak grilled over coals and a glass of Glühwein (mulled wine).

I wish you all a lovely Thanksgiving Day, and may everyday be an occasion for giving thanks!

 

Bonn Xmas Markt plane tower best_0504

 

Bonn Xmas Markt pork bbq place_0496

Year of Grace, Day 63. A taste of home — pichi pichi

I’m rather chuffed at my first successful attempt to make a Philippine confection called pichi pichi. This easy-to-make delicacy is based on cassava and coconut. Dead simple! Cassava is Manihot esculenta, also known as manioc, yuca,  or kamoteng kahoy in Pilipino. It is also sometimes called tapioca, though technically the real tapioca is from another plant — a palm. I ate pichi pichi for the first time at a Filipino gathering in Los Angeles years ago, and I risk repeating myself with my frequent sampling of novel foods — it was love at first bite. I’ve never tried to make it and the other day I had a hankering for it, prompted by a high school mate’s  rice cakes. Searching online for recipes, I found them fairly straightforward. Most used just 4 ingredients — grated cassava, water, sugar, and grated coconut. Pandan flavouring is optional, but since I like the flavour and colour of pandan and my first pichi pichi were thus flavoured, I decided to have a go, with fresh or frozen leaves if I could find them, or ready-prepared essence.

Where can one find all these exotic ingredients in Bonn? Ten years ago, there was a dearth of Asian food shops; now there is a wider choice. Luckily the Thai-Viet food shop on Rosental in Altstadt had fresh pandan leaves, grated cassava (frozen) and canned thick coconut cream. The pack of pandan leaves  was labelled “Pandang Blätter”. I had to ask for them because the leaves were not immediately noticeable in the misty chilling cabinet. They don’t stock bottles of pandan essence. There were frozen coconut slices which I also bought, mistaking them for grated. Later I found proper grated coconut, also frozen, at the Indian food shop behind Karstadt Department Store, near the Flower Market. This was in a 400g package, with 4 separate portions of 100g each — very convenient.  The Indian food shop is more expensive than the Thai-Viet shop for similar items by a few cents, up to 1.5 Euro more for a box of powdered coconut cream, which I found rather exorbitant. I prefer to shop at the Thai-Viet shop.

I like my pastry a bit richer and decided to try using coconut cream instead of water. No other pichi pichi recipe uses coconut cream by the way.  Another consideration for using coconut cream is that pastries, especially those based on rice flour, that only have water tend to get hard once refrigerated. I wanted these pichi pichi to last a day or so in the fridge without losing their desirable softness.

Those with access to fresh cassava and fresh coconut are welcome to use those and I truly envy you. But using frozen substitutes makes it easier for those of us far away from home who yearn for these delicacies.

I was amazed that the resulting pichi pichi were truly divine — a delicate green with a mild pandan flavour as I had wished. I prefer pandan not to be too assertive. My first Philippine pastry made in Bonn — and I wonder why, with my adventurous baking, I was hesitant about making these lovely pichi pichi myself. Making them was easy-pichi (sorry couldn’t resist the pun!). These take to refrigeration well, but it’s probably best to eat them as soon as they’re made or the following day.

The best bit about making these Philippine native pastries is that the aroma of pandan carried upstairs — a warm and gentle scent reminiscent of woodruff or hay. I’m so glad and grateful that these pastries came out perfectly the first time around. For those on gluten-free diets, these pastries are ideal as cassava has no gluten. And for those who want to cut down on refined sugar, honey or palm sugar (available at the Thai-Viet shop too) can be substituted.

Pichi Pichi Recipe

Makes about 15 (5cm x 3cm) pieces

Cassava batter

250g (1 cup) frozen grated cassava, thawed and drained

250g (1 cup) thick coconut cream

1/4 cup sugar (or honey or palm sugar)

pinch of salt

Fresh pandan essence

2 leaves about 30cm long fresh pandan, finely chopped

1/2 cup water

Final stage

3 or more fresh pandan leaves for steaming

200g (about 3/4 cup packed) freshly grated coconut (if frozen, thaw before use)

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Procedure

Mix the batter ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Prepare pandan essence: put chopped leaves with water in a small pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, or until the aroma comes wafting through. (This step can be done in a microwave.) There will be only a few tablespoonfuls of liquid. Turn off heat and let cool. Puree the pandan essence mixture in a blender, pass through a fine sieve, and add green liquid to cassava batter. Press pureed solids thoroughly to get all the green juices.

The color of the batter will be just barely green at this point — rather imperceptible — but will deepen once cooked.

Prepare the pan or bowl that fits into your steamer by lining it with pandan leaves, cutting the leaves to fit snugly at the bottom. This infuses the batter with pandan scent without overdoing it. Spoon batter over the leaves. Don’t worry about batter seeping in under the leaf layer. Place extra cut leaves gently atop the mixture. Cover the pan tightly with cling film.

Place pan in steamer and steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the batter sets into a translucent and solid paste. There may be a bit of clear or translucent moisture remaining in the pan. Don’t worry – this will be absorbed as the mixture cools. Let pan stand for about 15 minutes to cool.

Meanwhile put the grated coconut in a large serving plate. Test for sweetness by taking a teaspoon of the cooked cassava paste; roll it in the coconut. Taste and if needed, mix the 3 tablespoons of sugar with the coconut, or add more to your taste.

Using two tablespoons, scoop the cassava paste to an oval shape with one spoon and push it off the spoon with the other, dropping it and rolling it onto the grated coconut to completely cover it. I prefer ovals, but you may wish to shape them into balls with a teaspoon. I scraped all the paste that adhered to the leaves.

Set the finished pichi pichi to one side of the plate. Repeat with the rest of the cassava paste.

Eat at once. Any leftovers can be refrigerated, tightly covered with cling film; best eaten within 2 days.

Notes:  If you don’t have a steamer, improvise with a wok or large pot with a cover. Place a rack to set your pan on. Add hot water but ensure that the boiling water does not touch the bottom of the pan. Top up with additional hot water during steaming.

Some recipes use commercial pandan essence — add just a few drops, mindful that the color will deepen with cooking. The pichi pichi from this recipe are delicately green and have a mild pandan flavour. The pandan flavour becomes more pronounced the next day.

Serving suggestion: serve with warm or hot coconut cream.

Pichi2 all

 

 

 

 

Year of Grace, Day 62. Too old to rock and roll, too young to die

Jethro Tull – the band, not the English inventor of the seed drill and pioneer practitioner of scientific agriculture – played at the Beethovenhalle last night. Ian Anderson was in top form: how he manages to balance on one leg, lifting the other so gracefully, while playing on the flute is such a wonder! I am 4 years younger and standing on one leg for longer than a few minutes is beyond me. The songs – Bourree; Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die — took me back and I could barely keep still in my seat – no one else twitched so much as a muscle – as if it were a classical music concert — except for one mid-thirtyish man seated in front of me who bobbed his head in time to the music. The audience was, as expected, mostly of a certain age – silver and grey were the predominant hair colour. Salt-and-pepper ponytails and hair buns were much in evidence on ageing men. I thought we would be among the oldest, but no – there were wheelchairs aplenty and venerable citizens with gravitas — even a rock-chick matron in a shiny black leather jacket and over-the-knee red skirt with black pointy-toed boots. There was also a solid group of thirty- to forty-somethings and even, possibly the youngest there, a pre-teen girl with her mother. Jethro Tull responded to the standing ovation with such a rousing encore, I expected the staid audience to erupt into some sort of spontaneous physical response to such stirring music. After all it was the end and they were already standing, some in the aisles and the space in front of the stage. But no. “Too old to rock and roll”? Och, man!

Perhaps it was because the performance was at Beethoven’s Hall. What would Beethoven have said, were he alive today? He’d be sorely disappointed, I would’ve thought. He was not one to stand on ceremony. One famous incident had him turning his back to visiting royalty, and when asked, he is reported to have said: “Royalty you have aplenty, but there is only one Beethoven!” Which is why it is said his statue in the Münsterplatz has him with his back to the building behind, once a Royal Palace, now Bonn’s main Post Office.

Lately I have found time to do some things I’ve been putting off. One is mending – somehow it seems so time-consuming, sewing on a missing button or stitching a frayed seam. But I found that it is actually quite pleasant to take time – it only takes a few minutes – to sit down and sew and mend beloved pieces of clothing. And when, every so often, I can lift my eyes from my sewing and can gaze at the garden where there is always some sort of action – blackbirds and robins and wrens scrounging about on the lawn, or blue tits and magpies and jays sampling the peanuts and suet balls dangling from the yew – it is time and attention well spent.

Another long-put off thing that I’ve finally accomplished is planting the spring bulbs that I’d bought earlier. Although I have until December theoretically to plant them, I am glad I’ve done it. Into a large clay pot (to deter the resident moles and voles) I’ve put in layers, from the bottom to the top, tulips – dark purple, almost black to go with pale apricot ones; grape hyacinths – a deep blue almost black on top and paler lower down, at least the photo shows them to be so; and blue crocuses. The button alliums (Allium sphaerocephalum) I’ve planted among the lavenders and rosemary in front, where their pale green and purple bubble heads will go nicely with the silver- and blue-greyish foliage of the herbs, the Elijah Blue Festuca grass, and the nearby artichoke (which I hope will survive the winter again). I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the voles find these tiny onion bulbs not to their taste (or so I’ve read, but I don’t know whether the voles read the same publications I do) and that the moles do not dig them up before they’ve bloomed and seeded themselves. I love having these spring bloomers to look forward to during the cold months.

Although I am a sun lover, I do relish the subtlety of a foggy early autumn morning and the aesthetic effect of a translucent veil on the back garden and nearby woods. Amazingly, even the sounds of traffic seem deadened. Despite the lack of sun, it is lovely.

For all of these that have made my days enjoyable – stirring music from my youth, planting spring bulbs and anticipating their blooms, morning fog veiling the trees, the regularity of bird visits, and even the homely but satisfying and strangely comforting task of mending – I am thankful. The sun has finally burned off the fog and the crow is on its perch atop the fir. Unbelievably, it promises to be yet another sunny day!

Year of Grace, Day 61. Kottenforst via Melbtal

Yesterday was the third consecutively sunny day in Bonn in weeks – such a blessing – and a rare one at that — at this time of year, often rainy and dreary grey! A foray through Kottenforst, the nearby forest, passing through Melbtal was definitely in order.  A larch – that rare deciduous conifer — with its reddening leaves soon to turn yellow, was brilliant in the sun. I was blessed to uncover several fungi – beige, brown, and white – emerging from their thick camouflage of fallen leaves. Had they been certifiably edible, it would have been possible to make a regal feast out of them – they were enormous and succulent. However, since they were growing by the path and most likely fertilized by passing horses, not to mention dogs and other livestock, it was probably best not to consider them for the table.

Leaves are still on the trees and with the low autumn sun behind them, they were splendid! A walk through Kottenforst and Melbtal – at any season – never disappoints, and on a glorious autumn day like yesterday, a leisurely stroll through truly lifts the spirits.

For mild autumn days and invigorating sights, for the sounds of a woodpecker and birdsong in the woods, to walk through a colourful layer of fallen leaves and revel in their crisp crunchiness underfoot, to discover varied fungi – the crowning glory of every forest walk – I am overjoyed and deeply grateful.

Today began dark and dreary, but the sky is gradually turning a pale blue and the sun is shyly peeking in. A crow — perhaps the same one I’ve been seeing daily — is back on its perch on the Douglas fir; it might have a nest somewhere inside there. The birch has lost most of its golden leaves, but its bare branches form a lovely filigree against the sky and several birds — difficult to identify from this distance — made it a stopover point. A wren and a black tit are foraging among the rain-drenched needles of the yew. A kite, once again in search of prey, circles overhead, but the birds on the birch have gone and taken shelter elsewhere. In the diffused light of today’s cloudy sky, the Kerria’s yellow leaves and the contorted hazel’s orange ones seem to glow. I am blessed with these sights as I write and look out onto the back garden. Thank You!

Year of Grace, Day 60. Glorious autumn sun

When the sun shines on the turning leaves and trunks in the back garden like it does today, it is magic. The blue, blue sky, with not a single cloud to mar its blueness, is a magnificent backdrop to this autumnal splendour, and the birds cannot get their fill of it. Neither can I. I am transfixed at this evolving show and I am reluctant to get on with chores – not very pleasant ones such as gathering the fallen leaves of the oak, now piling up in front. And it is not even our oak – but the oak just across the path. But I do not begrudge it its fallen leaves – it is such a handsome tree.

A magpie flew in and sat on the very top of the poplar; a wood pigeon perched atop a fir just beyond the birches; and once they had both flown away, a crow found a viewpoint on the very top of another fir. I am aware they are surveying everything for food or predators, but I would like to think that — like me — they are also enjoying just being – not doing anything with any purpose. Just sitting and looking.

It is enough just to gaze on this lovely scene. To be witness to all this beauty. To be alive on a day like this.

Just at this point, a kite – that splendid predator – flew over the garden. Passing breezes set the golden leaves of the birches and hazels dancing and fluttering — some sail gently to the ground. I’m entranced and play with some photos of the birches and a stalwart nasturtium flower I’ve just taken — tweaking them until they are abstracts of colour and form.

On this the 60th day of my gratitude journal, I give thanks in the form of a very ancient blessing – blessed are You, Creator of the Universe, for bringing us to life, for ensuring our existence, and for extending our lives to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

Year of Grace, Day 59. Paradise lost

On a grey day like today – a typical autumn day in Bonn – I long to be by the sea. And not just any sea will do – the sea that will always be the sea in my mind is that just by my grandmother Lilang Pacia’s beach.

The place is no longer what it was when I was a child, and a major resort has been developed across the bay — a huge hotel complex owned by a politician.  The hotel and cabanas had been intended to create another Boracay, but apparently have not.  A paved street now runs through what was once white sand, cutting across my grandmother’s property.  Typical of my grandmother, she generously donated the land so that the street  could be built.  It would have been an equally generous gesture on the part of the town to have named the street after her, but they haven’t.  And in contravention of public hygiene (the sewage drains to the sea!), the town put up a public loo that blocks what would have been an unobstructed view of the sea.  Paradise lost….

Here are some reminders of that (once)  idyllic sea, and I am grateful that I have these photos to enjoy and despite what the place has become, it will always be — in my mind at least — the paradise of my childhood.

 

Year of Grace, Day 58. Encounters with uni

That’s  “oo-nee” – the Japanese for sea urchin; not “yoo-nee” – the British shortcut for university. It is, as I have mentioned frequently, my mother’s favourite. It amazes me how much of my mother’s taste in food and other things have affected me, all the more so as I approach the age my mother was as I remember her.

I adore sushi and sashimi now, but my first encounter with sushi — or rather a sushi counter — was confined to an artistic one. It was my first year in Japan and I lived in a dormitory with 37 other foreign students in Nakagawara, a little community just outside Tokyo. Occasionally the dorm’s dining room would close – for the cook’s and other kitchen staff’s holiday or for a thorough cleaning and inspection. And on these occasions, students had to fend for ourselves: either do their own cooking in the dorm kitchen – there was one on each floor – or try one of the small eateries not far from the school.

It wasn’t possible to cook immediately: I had yet to buy my own cooking equipment and investigate the offerings at the supermarket. And so off I went with my Filipino colleagues to check out two eateries on the main road. The colourful display of a chilling cabinet at the first place caught my eye – rows of slices in solid and stripey pink, white or cream edged with red, deep reds – all nicely framed by green. There was also a slab of bright yellow. I was so drawn to it, remembering a photo from one of my older sister’s cooking books of such beautifully arranged delights. Despite my reading addiction, cookbooks were not then part of my preferred repertoire. So it was with great surprise and even greater disappointment when one of my colleagues said, “Ugh, you don’t want to eat that! That’s raw fish!”

My encounters with fish and seafood up to then were the typical ones of Philippine cuisine. Or to be precise, a mix of Ilocano and Manila metropolitan cuisine – grilled over coals either wrapped in banana leaves or not; fried on their own as slices or if they were small, then whole; if they were large then they could also be stuffed, sewn shut, and then fried; steamed; or as one of the ingredients in the sour fish and vegetable soup called sinigang. I was used to seeing whole crabs and prawns in their shells that turned brilliantly red or pink when boiled or steamed. Squid – baby ones sautéed whole with their ink in the standard Filipino flavoring triumvirate of garlic, shallots, and tomatoes – were a childhood favourite. My gastronomic experience, such as it was in my late teens, certainly included oysters, taken out of their shells and marinated in sliced onions and vinegar or calamansi – I relished the oysters, but left the raw onions alone. Nearly ignorant of cooking then, I had not known that those oysters had not had the benefit of cooking before they were placed in their onion and acid bath.

What images did my young, culinarily untutored mind bring up at the words “raw fish?” A whole milkfish – the most common fish on any Filipino table — to be scaled and gutted, its gills blood-red, oozing slime and blood, and the smell – that unpleasant, fishy, slightly metallic smell termed malansa in Tagalog. That sordid image turned me off eating sushi and sashimi at that first encounter, even though my eyes had been so fascinated by the aesthetics of the display. I settled half-heartedly for the safe and slightly familiar — an omu-rais at the neighbouring place where my colleagues had already gone off to –- fried rice enclosed in an omelette topped with a squirt of ketchup.

It was uni – my mother’s favourite food – that turned the tide (pardon the pun). Encountered unexpectedly at a friend’s house, it changed altogether my image of raw fish. From then on, I took my sushi education in hand seriously. Alone, I would sit in front of the wooden counter and begin at one end of the display, going on until I had actually tasted everything. Not all on the same day of course, but intermittently, frequenting the same sushiya and having a few at a time, relishing those delicacies slowly, educating my palate with each piece as I cleansed my mouth each time with green tea and the ginger pickles. Chatting with the itamae who must’ve been delighted by my curiosity, I learned to eat as Edokko do as he suggested – to begin with kohada – but I also learned that I didn’t really like to end as Edokko do – with tamago, the sweetish egg omelet. I always ended my sushi forays with uni. Always and ever uni, my mother’s favourite. If funds were low, then I ended as I began, with kohada.

Uni can be so addicting that it can affect some people to behave in socially unacceptable ways. My mother had a pet project in her 90th year – building a community centre for her hometown, Santiago, Ilocos Sur. And when the building was finished, a party was held to mark the occasion. Knowing that uni, or to be accurate, maritangtang as they are called in Ilocano, were her favourite, a cousin had a huge bowl of them prepared. The bowl was given pride of place at the table. An old couple – respected elders of the town’s Methodist Church – sat themselves in front of the maritangtang. No one else, not even my mother, got to taste even one of those maritangtang.

I am grateful that my mother imparted by example her taste in food to me. Otherwise, had uni not been her favourite and had I not had uni in sushi, I might never have learned to love sushi and sashimi or, more significantly, embarked on one of my preoccupations – thinking about and writing about food and how we come to appreciate and develop a taste for the strange and the unfamiliar.

 

Copyright ©Jeanne R. Jacob. Text and photos, unless otherwise noted, are the author’s. Please notify me if you wish to copy or use any material on this blog.

Year of Grace, Day 57. A walk through Südstadt

There are days that are full of delight for all the senses, and yesterday’s walk through Südstadt was one such. It was the annual Artists’ Open House in this charming historical quarter of Bonn. It was drizzling when I left home with M but by mid-afternoon, the sun – a rather watery one – came out and lightly tipped the trees with heightened colour.

This part of Bonn reminds me so much of Leamington’s Victorian and Georgian architecture, even the interiors – the narrow entryways and stairwells, the carved wooden banisters, soaring ceilings – that with their subdued lighting bestow on everything and everyone there a romantic chiaroscuro effect. There were canvases depicting clouds over the sea, pastels of watery scenes à la Monet but with a different colour palette, mixed media detailing bits of rust on ironmongery, prints and aquarelles of leaves, and collages of handmade paper and dried leaves – all a delicious feast of inspiration for the eye and the soul.

I found the most engaging and charming works were those of the ceramicists. At the first venue, garden snails – a bit larger than those that gorge on my plants and slightly smaller than those that end up on your plate of escargots – playfully featured on vases and statuettes. I was especially taken by the artist’s personal display in small cubicles – a tanuki (Japanese badger); a hina ningyo – a classic Japanese display doll for Girls’ Day, not the modern type with their chubby faces; Indonesian masksnot for sale and not made by the artist him or herself — I assume this eclectic collection feeds the artist’s imagination as they did mine. I hankered after my similar ones in storage in Leamington. Downsizing is a worthwhile and noble concept and I do like the simplicity of minimalism, but oh, sometimes, how I long to have some of my beloved pieces around me…

At the second ceramicists’ venue, again there were whimsical pieces – several reminded me of Mycenean figurines. There were two plates that struck my fancy – a small one with a glaze of blues and greens, as if of an underwater scene of waving algae. The larger one, suitable for serving food — I can envision bits of this and that on it — had a copper oxide glaze of swirling greens. I was assured by the lady potter that it would be safe to put food on it. I fell in love with those two.

Past the weir that runs around one side of the Bonn Botanical Garden, the leaves made lovely patterns in the water, with the pale setting sun behind them. A late lunch or very early supper at Tuscolo downtown, just behind the Münster, capped the day. We were seated in the “train” section – complete with traditional luggage racks, including vintage suitcases (!) and little gas lamps. So quaint!

I had a full view of one part of the open kitchen and one of the cooks — the one with a red beret (it made him look quite French), very relaxed and calmly going about his work with none of the ulcer-causing intensity that many performing cooks seem to take on. He would take a pinch of this or take a step away and take a pinch of that – no fuss made, no wasted effort, and no self-consciousness of being on stage. I took comfort at the sight of his prodigious enbonpoint — attesting to his own perhaps unabashed appetite. I loved seeing the flames fly up as he drizzled wine or other alcohol into whatever it was he was preparing. I do like the informal atmosphere at Tuscolo – the waiters and other staff – all of those you pass as you are led to your seat — greet you “Buona Sera!” in the same manner that staff at a Japanese restaurant would heartily say “Irasshaimase”. And the same when you leave – even the cooks joining in smiling with “Arrivederci!”

A leisurely walk through a gracious and endearing part of Bonn, a cornucopia of aesthetic delights that inspired and pleased my eyes and heart and lifted my spirits, the sun coming out to bless the day, a nice simple meal in convivial surroundings and dear company – for all that have made my day an extraordinary and satisfying one, I am grateful.

Year of Grace, Day 56. Praise for the world

The first book of Louise Erdrich’s that I read was The Beet Queen. I think I bought it in a bookshop in Palo Alto during one of my visits to the family. I don’t recall much of the book’s plot but I was struck by the focus of the book on the lives of ordinary people in a small farming community.

I am now reading another of her books – The Painted Drum –bought as I’d mentioned earlier from one of Bonn’s last few remaining local bookshops that stocks English books. It’s the one just across the sculptures of two gigantic severed heads of early Christian martyrs behind the Münster. I don’t believe Witsch, Behrendt, and Schweitzer carry bestseller fiction, as the little bookshop at Bonn’s Central Station specializes in, but they do cover an enormous range. It seems to me they stock most of the recommended reading for the English department of Bonn University, as well as for the linguistics and other foreign languages departments.

As a high school student addicted to books – I used to come home with a tall pile of books from the school library (Mrs. Freeman, the librarian, was so welcoming) – I would often read all night to finish a book – after I’d finished my homework. I don’t often do it now – motherhood, job, all sorts of responsibilities have made me moderate my reading addiction – and I have made it a habit to pace myself and savour my pleasure slowly — reading a few pages at bedtime until I fall into sleep.

There are certain books though which cause me to revive this voracious habit. Books that for some reason touch a certain part of my heart. And The Painted Drum is one such. I quote a passage that has struck me:

“All we crave is a simple order. One day and then the next day and the next after that, if we’re lucky, to be the same. Grief is chaos. Death or illness throw the world out of whack. …. To proceed with and keep that order is a gesture of desperate hope. Protect us. Save us. Let our minds remain clear of sorrow so that we can simply praise the world.”

It is the last sentence that sits on my mind at this moment. “Let our minds remain clear of sorrow so that we can simply praise the world.”

The greedy bookworm in me was tempted to read on to the end of the book – Louise Erdrich weaves such an engaging, fascinating tale of an American Indian family. But I stop right there, at that sentence, and let it seep through me.

I had other plans for today, but they’ve had to be changed because of other people’s circumstances. Perhaps it was for the best. As now I can still take in the last day of the Artists Open House Exhibition in Südstadt. I’d missed it last year, as we were away.

It is raining today — a steady, gentle veiling of the finest mist. In the Kottenforst — the forest nearby — the trees are ablaze with leave-taking. Their leaves seem to be gloriously praising the world as they bid us farewell for this year.

I give thanks and clear my mind on this day to simply praise the world. It is glorious!

Kottenforst in autumn

Kottenforst in autumn