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The Habanjero Sushi Incident of 2013 June 27, 2013

Filed under: Cuisine,Sushi — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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I have to admit that when my sister first suggested that we go for sushi, I was a touch repulsed.  Her experience with the exotic food had been limited to a brief stay at the Seattle International Airport and I couldn’t help wondering whether her love of the rolled rice was more the result of the need to fill her stomach than actual affection.  Still, she insisted and, after some effort, I managed to convince myself that eating raw fish just once probably wouldn’t kill me.  She selected us a well-respected local sushi bar renowned for its “fusion cuisine” and we set off.

I admit that I was a bit surprised to discover that there was much more to sushi than I had originally imagined.  While sushi rolls are actually quite recent (dating to 1824), the Japanese art of seafood preservation goes back two millennia to a time when fishermen sought to maintain the freshness of their stock sometimes for a period of several months.  Hats off to the genius who came up with the idea of using rice (a natural desiccant) and vinegar and, in the process, accidentally invented a worldwide culinary phenomena!

It is to the rice (not the fish) which the word “sushi” actually refers, so if you visit a local sushi bar, you’re likely to discover a nice range of appetizing tidbits for even the most squeamish.  (I recommend letting the chef know that you’re new to sushi and allowing him to make some appropriate recommendations.)  Cooked seafood is a common ingredient as are vegetables, though I would encourage anyone to try a spicy tuna roll just once.  (These actually became one of my favorites after I discovered that, unlike regular supermarket filets, sashimi grade fish are flash-frozen upon capture: a practice which prevents the growth of bacteria and preserves the fresh, crisp flavor of the seafood.)

The local sushi bar quickly became a lunch-time favorite and their “vision rolls” which were each a unique creation of the on-duty chef were a must-have staple of every outing.  Each roll was graded by “heat-level” only and this is where what my sister and I affectionately refer to as “The Habanjero Sushi Incident of 2013” really begins.

On our previous trips, my sister elected to experiment with the heat scale and determined that a 7 was not quite hot enough and that a 9 was much hotter than she enjoyed – so it only made sense that on this particular day, she ordered an 8 which, like Goldilocks, she anticipated would be “just right”.  Of course, the difficulty with a heat scale is that “hotness” (unless you’re referring to an actual thermometer reading or the Scoville scale used to measure the heat of individual chili peppers) is quite relative.

Our sushi rolls arrived and, grabbing her chopsticks, she quickly spread wasabi over the top of her vision roll and popped a piece into her mouth.  What happened next can only be equated to a scene from a cartoon.  My sister’s usually cheerful smile wavered, all the color drained from her face, and steam began to blow out of her ears.  Sweat poured from her brow as she grabbed for her water, hoarsely uttering the immortal words, “What’s in this????!!!!!”

I frowned, certain that the sushi couldn’t be quite that hot, and readily accepted her offer of a piece.  I have to admit that it had an excellent balance of flavor, the enjoyment of which only briefly preceded the sensation that an atomic bomb had been set off in my mouth.  It was clear that the chef on duty either didn’t know that the number 8 came before the number 10 or that he had a vendetta against anyone seeking the perfectly spicy roll of sushi.

With more than a little curiosity, my sister and I began to pick the roll apart to determine exactly what had been placed inside.  Along with the standard fish (which neither of us had been able to taste), we came up with more wasabi (a relative of horseradish), sriracha (a blended chili sauce), jalapeno peppers, and… habaneros.  The combination was explosive.

While my sister (now pale as a vampire) fought with stomach problems, I finished the roll.  All of this, of course, only goes to prove that sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we expect it to.  Turns out, I do like raw fish!


Bucket Flush and a Full Moon June 20, 2013

Filed under: Philippines,Travel — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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I stretched out flat upon the cool, white tiles of the veranda and tucked the sheet in around me.  This wasn’t where I’d planned on spending the night, but then very little of what had happened during the last day had been a part of my plans.  I was on a journalistic adventure on the Philippine island of Luzon – a whirlwind tour of everything Filipino – and I was sick.

Not just ordinary sick, mind you, but an “everything-inside-of-me-has-turned-to-mush-so-please-don’t-block-the-bathroom-door” kind of sick.  That this was the result of wheat consumption was undoubted.  Our American guide had been doing her best to convey my dietary needs to those whom we encountered, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the fusion of the Tagalog word “walang” (without) and the English “wheat” was really going far enough to explain that I had Celiac Disease.

Either way, the damage was done and I now found myself in a lovely little resort hotel which, according to the website, boasted hot and cold running water and flush toilets.  That this was a minor exaggeration became evident the first time I’d turned on the shower.  Cold water dripped from the faucet… then dribbled… then dripped some more.  Beneath the tap, sat a bucket which caught the excess gray water and it didn’t take too long to realize that this was the “flush” for the toilet.

Growing up in the northern U.S., I had never encountered a “bucket flush” before and it was with some distinct interest that I took a crash course in what appeared to be an art form.  It worked something like this: in order to flush the toilet, you have to hold down the handle and literally throw the water from the bucket into the bowl.  If done properly, this forces the contents of the bowl into the pipes and gravity then draws everything down towards what I presume was a septic tank.  (I was honestly too sick to care.)  If done improperly, i.e., with the wrong amount of force or at the wrong angle… well, you got a mess.

I had been up and down all night practicing the procedure and had just finally started to drift off to sleep when my travelling companion (worn out from fear that the gecko which had invaded our room might drop on her in the night) began to snore like a chainsaw.  I stuffed a pair of earplugs in and covered my head with a pillow, but to no avail: it was like trying to sleep with a construction crew.  After what felt like an hour (but was probably only ten minutes), I gave up, tore the sheets off my bed, and headed out onto the veranda.

It was actually quite cool out here and, surprisingly enough, relatively bug-free.  I tucked myself in, placed my hands behind my head, and gazed up at the sky.  The moon was full and the equatorial stars blanketed the blue velvet. I listened attentively to the tropical birds housed nearby while, in the distance, I could hear the waves of the West Philippine Sea lapping the rocky shore.  It was a world of wonder so very different from my home and filled all at once with things so foreign and so familiar.  It was as if the world had ceased its turning, leaving me there alone in the moment.  And I could feel it: the joy of discovery that had brought me on this trip to begin with.  The sheer wonder of a bucket flush and a full moon.


The Great Gatsby June 13, 2013

My sister’s eyes nearly bugged out when I announced my desire to see Baz Luhrmann’s new film, “Gatsby”.  Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby” (a book which I had never read), it seemed an odd selection, and my sister immediately seized the opportunity to expand my literary horizons.  Digging out her copy of the book, she informed me that if I could read it in the three days which preceded our movie-viewing appointment, my ticket would be free. I of, course, could not turn down such a generous offer and what I discovered in the process was simply put, “enchanting”.

Fitzgerald used words like a painter uses a brush and it was not long before I was able to see all of the glorious extravagance of Gatsby’s home, the brilliant lights and colors of the raucous parties, and the sunlight glinting from the windshield of his bright yellow car as if it were all laid out before me, tangible and real.  His world sucked me in, not because I would choose it for my own, but because the description kept begging me to immerse myself ever deeper in a narrative that left me questioning the moral rectitude of nearly everybody!  It was flamboyant and excessive and it absorbed me.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I had only made it half-way through the book by the time of our appointment.  Upon the conclusion of a brief interview, however, my sister determined that I had, indeed, been reading the book and, more importantly, paying attention.  She decided to purchase my ticket anyway and I was treated to a movie almost as enrapturing as the words printed upon the page.

Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation left little to the imagination.  Though the first part of the film seemed a bit “trippy” (a sensation created by Luhrmann’s distinctive filming techniques), I couldn’t help feeling that this only helped to draw viewers into the production.  If the day was hot and the characters drowsy, we were hot and drowsy as well.  If the characters were lost in the chaos of the party, so were we.  And if the characters got drunk, we got drunk with them.

These sights and sounds only confirmed us as Nick’s companions.  The rest of the tragic story unfolded… a story that, like the best of adaptations, was so close to the book that any departure seemed to blare like a siren.  While I understood the literary reasons for most of the alterations (like cutting Gatsby’s station wagon from the picture or changing Tom Buchanan from a footballer to a polo player), others left me wondering.

Why, for example, did Wolfsheim’s molar buttons become a tie-tack?  Was there simply not enough money in the budget to make three or four matching buttons?  Was it fear that the audience would be more aghast at the excess of human teeth (presumably wrenched from their victims’ mouths by Wolfsheim’s henchmen)?  Was there some particular need to turn Gatsby’s vibrant pink suit to a dusty, near-white?

These questions haunted me in light of the excruciating detail which allows us to see the only briefly mentioned Negros with their white chauffer or the gigantic eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleberg which watch over the film with an almost god-like omniscience. Perhaps someday I’ll have my answer, but not today.

Despite these notable oddities, however, the film was an excellent one.  With dialogue copied directly from the book, it felt every bit the “Gatsby” I’d come to know.  It was loud, gaudy, extravagant, and moving… a film worth seeing, whether you’ve read the book or not.  Like its literary counterpart, it served as a stark reminder that, those things for which we sell our souls are, in the end, merely illusions – things of yesteryear forever beyond our grasp.  Yet for some reason “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


Don’t Miss Podcasts June 6, 2013

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably perform at least a few tasks during the week which don’t require a lot of attention or care (like housework, automotive repair, or that unpleasantly long walk on the treadmill).  To detract from the boredom, I often plug in a podcast or two and in this week’s post, I’m going to feature a few of my favorites.  In no specific order they are:

America’s Test Kitchen  I LOVE to cook and this podcast has it all.  From advice on recipes and ingredients to kitchen gadget reviews and a bit of weekly “food history”, you’ll find it an hour of pure (and informative) entertainment.

Travel with Rick Steves  While it doesn’t contain the visual appeal of its television counterpart, “Rick Steves’ Europe”, this podcast does provide a bit of everything the saavy traveler needs.  From great insights into culture and history to tips on enjoying foreign foods, it combines the native know-how of guest speakers and travel guides with Rick’s decades of practical travel experience.

Car Talk  You don’t have to be an automotive genius (or even really care about auto repair at all) to enjoy Click and Clack’s playful banter.  Combining practical advice with random facts and a bit of humor, it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the program is a comedy routine or a helpful guide to fixing anything and everything that ails your vehicle.  A must-hear program for anyone who wants a reason to smile.

Cycling 360  A great, short program targeted towards helping good cyclists become better ones, Cycling 360 provides listeners with a nice mix of cycling news and practical advice.  It’s a good dose of the road even on a rainy day.

Philosophy Bites  This is the perfect podcast for the would-be philosopher without the time to actually read books on philosophy.  Short and concise, each week’s episode features interviews with modern philosophers on a variety of subjects ranging from the abstract (how do we know that we really exist) to the practical (is vegetarianism more ethical than eating meat).  The podcast retains a friendly openness towards a wide range of ideas and is easily accessible to everyone, regardless of personal perspectives.

This Week at NASA  Yes, I admit it: I’m a space geek.  This charming, podcast does a great job of keeping viewers up to date with everything going on at NASA.  From interplanetary mission and the manned space program to practical application of technology and encouragement for young scientists, this podcast will keep you riveted to your seat!

Planetary Radio  A production of the Planetary Society, this weekly program offers a little bit of everything for the space enthusiast.  Catch up on worldwide space news, enjoy discussion about the latest discoveries, and find out more about “What’s Up” as you gaze into the night sky.  Combining the joy of practical astronomy with the thrill of discovery, it’s sure to get you excited about the universe in which we live.

A Prairie Home Companion  Garrison Keillor’s unique story-telling style almost inevitably makes me smile.  From the exploits of Pastor Liz to tales from the Chatterbox Café, each week’s episode serves up a bit of homespun, hometown news that leaves listeners feeling just a touch nostalgic.

Wild Ideas  I stumbled upon this one by accident and am extremely glad that I did.  Produced weekly by the Wilderness Society, Wild Ideas provides a broad and entertaining look at the natural world.  Listen as hosts discuss everything from ecology and conservation to species profiles and family-friendly outdoor activities.  It’s like a nature magazine for the ears!

Aboard the Knight Bus  This one isn’t an accident.  Join me each week as “Your Friendly Neighborhood Slytherin”, her Hufflepuff friends, a Ravenclaw, and an assortment of guest hosts take a light-hearted and fun look at the “Harry Potter” books chapter-by-chapter!

So there you have it: my top ten “don’t miss” podcasts.  Feel free to give them a try.  And if you have a podcast favorite of your own, don’t forget to share it in the comment box below!


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