A Chinese New Year’s Story

Once upon a time, in a far away place, a small village lived in the shadow of a giant mountain. An even greater shadow loomed over them, however– the threat of the monster whose name mimicked the high, shrill wailing it made during the coldest of the winter nights — the dreaded Nian.

As the winter bore on, and the nights grew ever longer, the sound of the wailing Nian grew more and more intense, more plaintive, more piercing. Soon, it would not be able to help itself. It would descend upon the village in the height of winter darkness, smashing doors, swatting aside men, and swallowing their small tender children. And thus the villagers lived in fear for the day of the lunar new year.

One day, a traveling monk happened upon the village. He was wrapped in silk and fur to fight back the sudden cold of the mountain shadow, and wondered why the townspeople had such downcast looks and sidelong glances from behind their window panes. Old Zu, Hongjun Laozu to be precise, was in search for the Gate of All Wonders, but that is a story for another time. Instead, tonight, he just wanted a place to sleep and eat. So why were the people putting large bundles of food in front of their doorways? After traveling for such a long while, he had put his hopes in hospitality.

A local farmer told Old Zu that the people tried to hold the Nian at bay by distracting it with such food laid at the door. But night after night, the Nian would swallow up some offering and leave the people one step closer to starving and helpless.

That’s when the Nian’s cry lanced through the mountain twilight and bit into the people’s hearts.

Just like winter itself, Zu noted, which sups on our strength with its biting cold, until year by year, winter by winter, we weather away, children gobbled up by time.       

Hmm. Yes, well, the farmer had hoped for more encouragement than that. Maybe one of those warrior monks could wander by, instead of these philosophical scholar types? Old Zu nevertheless swore determinately see this beast for himself.

Under the light of the waxing moon, Old Zu struggled up a ragged stretch of cliff, with nothing more than a ration of water and his tall staff. But as he found a place to allow for a rest and a long sip of water, the darkness before him suddenly withdrew to reveal an even darker void, as if the night itself would shy away from the great beast that moved within– the Nian had appeared.

It’s massive frame was like a grotesque bull’s, it’s wide head a nightmarish lion. Two baleful eyes, fish-like and clouded, rolled toward the old monk, and its jaws popped open and shut, sending waves of rotten stink into him.

“Old man, frail man,” its voice was high-pitched wail of death, “Tonight you warm my belly!”

“Oh, Nian! You are such a powerful beast! But no one can be more powerful than man! I dare you to meet three challenges! If you can indeed overcome each challenge, then I promise, as the weaker creature, I will have no choice. I will submit and fill your belly.”

The Nian produced a squeal that sounded like a scratch against a slate, and bounded forward, forcing Old Zu backward up the cliff a few steps. His baleful head seemed to have no expression, but its head twisted and bounced, excited, like a dying leaf on a vine.

“Oh, Nian! If you are indeed powerful, I dare you to swallow the dangerous snakes of this mountain and survive!”

Indeed, the Nian bounded down the slope and found a deadly snake. The snake hissed with gleaming poison on its fangs, but with a quick gulp, the snake was gobbled up by the Nian’s wide, flat mouth, swallowed whole like wet, fat noodle. Laughing, the Nian leapt upward back to Old Zu, who barely managed to climb down a few steps himself. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

Old Zu extended his staff toward the beast. “Oh, Nian! Your body may be strong enough to survive a poison, but is your brain adept enough to guess my name?”

The Nian’s bouncing head tossed its giant, hair-tipped ears, catching wind of some slight whisper. Indeed, far away and below the people of the village were chanting prayers for Old Zu and his mission, which the monster heard as plain as day over the stretches of miles. Roaring in triumph, the Nian jumped ever closer again. “Hongjun Laozu!” and again it’s high-pitched voice pierced the night. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

The man scrambled back up the cliff just a little bit more. “Oh, Nian! Powerful by far! And I have dropped my prayer beads somewhere on the mountain in my haste to meet you. They are the color of fresh-tilled earth, and polished to darkness from countless mediations. I dare you to find them among the dust and dirt of the ground!”

But indeed, the Nian danced and tossed its body through the night of the wilds, sending whirls of fecund leaves swirling through the air. WIth his powerful wide nose, the Nian easily sniffed out that which didn’t belong in the underbrush, the monk’s string of beads! With a toss of a mighty paw, the beads were kicked unceremoniously at Old Zu’s feet. The Nian galloped back in just five sweeping strides, to lord over Old Zu with a whining shriek that must have been laughter. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”   

The monk sighed. “Oh, Nian! Such powerful ears, such powerful body, and such powerful nose! What creature could ever hope to overcome your strengths! We humans must have no choice, then! If I must warm your belly, please allow me to strip bare, as a clean gulp would go better for me than a long and laborious chew.”

First, Old Zu took off his white outer robe, folding it and putting it on the ground. The Nian grumbled low.     

Next, Old Zu took off his reed-woven sandals, placing them together beside the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground,

Next, Old Zu took off his orange silk tunic, folding it too and placing it on top of the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground, it’s anticipation flying off of him and hitting Old Zu  like wind off a newly dug grave.     

Finally, Old Zu took off his tan pants, revealing red underpants beneath.

At the sight of the red underpants, the fish-like eyes of the Nian rolled back in horror, and his whole body nearly twisted to follow, recoiling from the brightness of the color.

With a pointed scream that nearly split the rocks nearby, the Nian send all his breath out in lament. “Old man, old man! Old man, with my most hated color!”

“Ah-ha!” Old Zu laughed, proud of his red underwear. “I knew it! This is why the Nian must swallow the babies and old men he eats! There can be no blood nor sight of red! You are surely the most pitiful and toothless creature of all!”

The Nian did not wait until the end of Old Zu’s gloating. Blinking and balking, choking and gasping on the sight of pure red, the beast receded into the darkness.

In his excitement, Old Zu didn’t realize he leapt, danced, and sang his way back to the village, still clad only in his underwear!

As Old Zu exclaimed, every year you must remember the Nian.

Remember his belly, and on the coldest night, beware that he will come, seeking people to swallow whole!

Remember his ears and nose, and in the coldest hour on the coldest night, light firecrackers to create explosions of sound and smoke!

And Remember his eyes! And every day hang lantern of red in the streets and banners of red on your doors!

And remember Old Zu, saving the town with his bravery, wisdom, and silly, lucky underwear!     


Story by Danny Wall, adapted from Chinese legends

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Once Upon a World: Taiwan’s Moon People

Telling stories over a cocktail in a loungey bar? It’s no wonder I try to drop into The Moth Story Slam whenever I find myself back in LA. It’s just too bad that the synchronicity of such events is not simply like catching lightning in a bottle, but chasing down that damn firefly and all you got is some narrow-necked empty Corona. The last one I went to was Summer 2014, and the theme was “Altered,” which you’d think would lead to some crazy stories, being LA and all, but in fact resulted in far too many “and what altered was my perspective on life” kind of stories. Here’s my attempt at some kind of story, although it’d never make it on stage as a story of “real life,” since it’s embellished with more than a little bit of dramatic license. I’ll leave it to you to figure out to what extent the story is “altered” as such, but that’s a going a bit meta for the theme, so I’ll stop the prologue here and just begin with…

tawiansupermoon

TAIWAN’S MOON PEOPLE

I should have known better when the conversation during the first date involved stories of her psychiatrist and the medication she was using.

Normally, that would be a deal-breaker, but then again, I was already breaking my own rules about deal-breaking with such a date. Rule number one: Don’t date a local girl. Rule number two: Don’t date anyone “younger.” Yet, there I was, walking down the shopping streets of Ximen in Taiwan, with a college girl who went from friendly tour guide to something more– so seamlessly but so quickly that the result was a heady rush usually expected from cheap wine.

As a consultant for design engineering, Taiwan had great opportunity– one of the five largest and growing economies in Asia, with decades of dealing with Western counterparts while remaining decades behind in infrastructure. And while my company had many positions available for a whole team of consultants, I had never been placed in a company so deliberately with such a lack of support. While there was more than a simple curb-side drop-off on my arrival to my furnished, temporary apartment, it wasn’t *much* more than that.

But no matter. Within a few weeks, I had found for myself a routine for work, a new gym, and familiar faces at my regular coffee shop. In fact, seeing my favorite barista recognizing me and knowing my order made me smile the most. What was it that some famous guy said? Something about somewhere everybody knowing your name? Well, hers was Love. Really, it was PengWen, but her “Western name” was Love.

Coffee orders evolved to conversation, then to a connection. “Oh!” she almost yelled with the laugh, “You know Doraemon?” Of course I recognized the blue cartoon cat in the pin on her apron. He’s a robot cat from the future with a doorway to another dimension in his stomach. “Isn’t that just hilarious?” she said, knowing it was so, in that ironic psuedo-hipstery kind of way. Exactly.

Why, yes, I would need someone to show me around the city. And why, yes, we did share the same likes and dislikes of food. And movies. And music. And the moon. “Daylight is so harsh. And so bright? What is up with that. The moon is so much more mysterious. You can rest in the moonlight.” The night was filled with more conversation, too, and later, kisses. And later, more. Maybe the mention of the medication at some point days ago didn’t seem so important, not when we also talked of family, her life, her school major, graphic design. There was also her plan to move to the States. And after all, I didn’t want a girlfriend. That was against the rules. She didn’t want a boyfriend, either. That wouldn’t be according to the plan.

I told her those rules. She told me those plans. Semi-regularly. We were meeting nearly every weekend. We were Skype chatting every night. She wouldn’t end Skype until we had both got ready for bed, and I would lay my head on the pillow with her face in the laptop beside me on the bed. She refused to go to sleep first, since I was so “old,” I obviously should be the one more sleepy, despite it being 1 am already for the both of us. “You logout first.” “No, you logout first.”

Good Lord. I was dating someone. A local girl. I didn’t want to do the math to find out she was 12 years younger. It would be just one more reason to not do this. But there was a bigger reason telling me the opposite. I think I was falling in love. Months were passing, and my worry about the relationship went from “should this be happening?” to “when should I tell her?” Our conversations were growing deeper. Her graduation was approaching. There was a threshold coming.

Also coming to Taiwan’s skies was a “supermoon.” I would secretly plan that it would provide an excuse for a nighttime hike, holding hands and kissing under clear skies and giant moonlight. Instead of Skyping, though, I saw a Facebook message from Love. She apologized for becoming my friend, that this friendship was not what she thought it was. She wanted to make it quick; she wrote that she had no “good” friends, was not a good person, and was ending all her relationships.

Once upon a time, in the first couple of weeks when first lived alone in my own apartment, I looked at the pile of dishes in the sink and decided I would rather just buy a whole new set, dumping all those in front of me into the trash instead.

I tried to parse the message; nuance and playfulness are hard to communicate through a second language, after all. But the words dind’t change no matter how I looked at them. All my replies were being “seen” but not answered. That night, I went to sleep on the bed with the laptop closed on the far side of me and stared at the equally blank ceiling.

The next two days, my feet carried me through the city and back home again. My hands did the CAD drawings and emails they were supposed to. My mouth idly ate some food for me. My eyes watched the world as if it were some strange foreign film.

Well, if there was one thing I was good at, it was goodbyes. The final word between me and Love would not be the question mark and crooked head sticker sent to elicit a response from social media. I prepared a multiparagraph missive so I could rehearse as best I could my understanding of her feelings, my guess at my own failings, and my attempt to hold her to higher standard, to not give her the easy out. At least we would always have Starbucks.

She left the coffeeshop at the end of her shift more promptly then she usually would have. Her head almost buried in a high collar ill-suited for Taiwan’s heat, and her attention buried even more into the private world allowed by her muffler-style headphones, she almost didn’t see me. Or maybe she chose not to. I had to step in front of her to give her whatever it was that I remembered from my rehearsal.

After dutifully giving her time to react, she explained, still without really seeing me, that she was drunk that night, but it helped her to say the things that needed to be said. It was a decision she had to do for herself, she said. That it was completely selfish and rude and it confirmed she was not a good woman but it had to be done. For her future.

“Yeah, well. You’re right, then– You are selfish. But in a relationship you don’t get to be selfish. It’s not a lightswitch you hit as you exit a room. That’s not the way it works.”

“I’m almost done clearing my friends,” she said without a shrug, “I just don’t have friends basically.”

And, “You know, I’m not a cold-hearted person. This is the worst thing ever, but I have to do what must be done. 加油, Jiayou… good luck to you.”

I grabbed her by both shoulders, turning her out of her walk. “No, I can’t accept that. I don’t like the sound of what you’re saying. Are … are you going to hurt yourself?” I searched her eyes, trying to peer into the bottom of the pool. The strangest fact was that there was nothing strange there. They were completely normal, clear pools after all.

“I have never made those kinds of plans,” she said.

But nothing more came out of either of us. Eventually, “what would you have me do?” she asked simply.

I let go. Shaking my head, in order to keep the rest of my body from shaking, I didn’t know what else to say. “You need to do this? Fine. You’ve already said this was a selfish choice. I will still be your friend even if you don’t want it. You can message me when you’re ready, then.”

She put her headphones back on, faint strains of Adele’s Chasing Pavements wafting by, and continued on her way.

That night was the supermoon, the night my heart was broken.

Later, we did in fact get in touch with each other again. She was waning herself off her medication and was suffering extreme paranoia, apparently, and talked a bit about that journey. There was a brief, new phase of relationship, but by then, however, even coming back to friends was too arduous a journey, and it would never be what it once was. The next break-up turned out much more mutual, and much more natural.

As it turns out, these days, I much prefer the daylight.

Bright Orange Baby Jesus — Based on a True Story

coloring_mary_joseph

In December of 1979, there was a problem because the 8-pack Crayola brand crayons did not have a “peach” color. And now Ms. Davison and her classroom assistant Miss Bess had to lead a class of Kindergarten students in coloring a nativity scene coloring book without the “peach” color.

Little Bobby Blevins wasn’t aware of this, of course. His eraser was in the shape of a flower, which was both intriguing and disappointing, and this was about the extent of his worry at that moment.

He also didn’t know that Ms. Davison had coordinated with the other Kindergarten teachers and, yes, even the whole lower elementary, in the Kindergarten’s contribution for the Christmas party, the culmination of their Christmas unit. Each classroom of Kindergarten students would be following the same instructions to create the same nativity scene book as a gift for their parents. Ms. Davison, her assistant Miss Bess, and the neighboring teachers and the neighboring assistants would all guide the students into coloring and binding their books appropriately “just so,” so as to ensure all the parents would be getting the best nativity scene that could be possibly be produced by a micro-managed five year-old.

Ms. Davison took care to explain this to her students in a slow and appropriately soothing high-pitched voice, with some editorial removed to make it more persuasive to this particular audience. She displayed the blue crayon so that all could behold it. Everyone would start on page one, with the color for Mary’s robes.

Little Bobby Blevins knew this of course. He had already started the moment Ms. Davison pinched the blue crayon between her crinkly old forefinger and thumb. His hand went quickly, in jerking back and forth movements, laying a swath of blue with each rhythmic spasm of some internal sing-song only in Bobby Blevins’ brain.

This only produced a heavy sigh from Ms. Davison. She explained with a strained “You know wha-at?”, her favorite opening line when talking to young children. As was often the case, however, what Little Bobby Blevins knew and what Ms. Davison knew were apparently not the same thing at all. Bobby Blevins’ production of the color blue was compared kindly to chicken scratching, and it wouldn’t do that Bobby Blevins’ blue was not contained within the lines of Mary’s clothes. Miss Bess was asked to get Bobby Blevins a new page one.

Little Bobby Blevins blinked at the paper in front of him. It suddenly occurred to him that his blue was, in fact, going outside the lines for some reason. It was taken and replaced with a blank one from Miss Bess.

The other students must have done okay, as Ms. Davison and Miss Bess circled over them. But Little Bobby Blevins didn’t notice that. Now, he was determined to do better, and he concerned himself with redoubling his efforts, which meant paying close attention to keep his hand moving more slowly and his crayon gripped more firmly.

Ms. Davison moved on to the other areas and other pages, soon adding instructions for Joseph’s robes (brown,) the hay (yellow), and the stable walls (red.) There were, after all, only eight colors to choose from, and you can’t make the wooden slats and walls of a stable green, now, could you?

Then came the most precarious moment of all. Ms. Davison held up the orange crayon and explained, carefully and patiently, that students needed to use the orange crayon to color the faces of the Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus. But it was very important to only press very lightly, as only a light orange color was needed. There were no peach-colored crayons in the student’s packs, remember.

But Little Bobby Blevins knew this of course. He had been coloring since pre-K, after all, and he had long since figured out this special trick. In fact, he had already started the moment Ms. Davison had raised the orange crayon in one hand and a pointed index finger with the other. Little Bobby Blevins was in the zone.

This produced another sigh from Ms. Davison, but in truth it was much more of a gasp. Little Bobby Blevins blinked at his paper and suddenly noticed that Baby Jesus was caked with bright orange skin, thanks to a layer of crayon that had been slathered upon him as if by a trowel.

Well, this was just perfect. Ms. Davison now had another thing to display to the class, and she held up Little Bobby Blevins’ paper so the class could behold an example of the improper light-orange skin coloring technique. “This is what happens.”

The other students laughed to see such a strangely orange baby, and Bobby Blevins fiddled with his flower eraser, staring at it intently while trying to appear very small. He thought he must have succeeded, because that was how he felt.

Maybe he was given a new paper by Miss Bess, maybe he succeeded at finally figuring out what Ms. Davison wanted, and maybe he completed the rest of the pages and bound the book with ribbons and brass brads, with paste and construction paper. That stuff, Robert Blevins doesn’t remember nowadays. He does remember the pages that were taken from him, he remembers that orange crayon, and he remembers the flower eraser.

In fact, Robert Blevins doesn’t remember the rest of that day at all. He doesn’t remember the recess that he spent playing, running, and trading Matchbox cars. The snack of carrots, celery, and Ranch dressing. After-school cartoons of Hanna-Barbara. The fact that he must have given the finished Christmas book to his parents and they must have hugged him and told him how much they loved it.

In fact, Robert Blevins, in-house software manager for Bank of the West’s Southwest Region, only remembers on that day staying in the lines, coloring items as directed, and keeping everything a light shade of orange.

Such a thing even made him a forerunner for manager of the year in 2010, if you can believe it.

It’s just that sometimes, Robert Blevins wonders. Some days when he’s straightening his tie or grabbing new Post-its from the supply cabinet in the breakroom, he wonders what would have happened if he colored Mary’s robes purple, the walls of stable green. The “What If” of a shiny, thickly bright-orange Baby Jesus.

 

Once Upon a Bangkok – A Street Scene

sathon bangkok

If you want to cross the intersection at Sathon Road and Naradhwas Rajangarindra, you have to pass the plaza where there’s a Christmas tree made of bicycles.

The plaza covers the intersection entirely, accessed by pedestrian bridges that are your only way to the BTS-Chong Nonsi station and elevated train. And anyways, it would be impossible to pass below, through the steady sea of cars that never obey the lines painted on the road, and the mopeds that never pay attention to the steady stream of cars, and the ever-flowing taxis pushing their way through all of that. Even when it’s past 11 pm.

At that time of night, the Christmas tree of bicycles are brightly lit with slowly-changing LED lights, from green to blue to purple and red and back again. All the more helpful to read the sponsors’ logos on the white wheels, from CitiCorp to AIG to HTC and D-Tac and back again. There are still people from time to time, mostly couples now, not the masses of commuters headed to and from the terminal.

At one end of the plaza, a couple lazily walk in a close embrace, both shuffling by in sandals but one in lanky pants the other in a flowing dress. He stops to get her picture near the bike-tree with his cell phone, motioning her to cross over the little sign and low bar that’s meant to keep the lesser bold from better close-ups. They have to look at it huddled together to make sure it’s right. He must have said something funny because she pushes him away, but only laughingly. Then it’s his turn for a close-up.

Five other youths are at the other end of the plaza, where it steps down to meet a pedestrian walkway before narrowing into the passage to the trains. Two or three run up to the wheelchair access area, skateboard down, and ollie up and over the steps. The others somehow got a hold of some cigarettes and feverishly pass them back and forth like candy they secreted away before dinnertime. It’s hard to tell who’s waiting their turn for a skateboard run and who’s waiting for another drag.

There is a guard for the plaza, a short, squat man in a neatly pressed olive-colored uniform, complete with officer’s hat. He strolls up and down the plaza and its passageways, with a barely-perceptible randomness to his meandering. His steps are small, like he gets paid by the step, but his speed is slow, like he gets paid by the hour. His face is pudgy, but only in his cheeks. He is doing his best not to look at anyone in the plaza.

And still more people come, even after the BTS has closed. And still the steady stream of cars and scooters below.

Homemade Peanut Butter

There are a few things you take as a given in life. Death, taxes, and the fact that no one really eats peanut butter outside of North America.

I can’t say no one eats it *at all,* because you can find peanut butter if you look really hard. Usually in your friendly corner Costco or in an upscale, foreign-food friendly grocery store. Heck, one of my favorite places is a sandwich café that boasts a pretty tasty BLT that uses peanut butter. But as you can see, all of these require a bit out-of-your-way planning, especially if you forgot to pick some up and are staring at a thoroughly-scraped jar that you put on the shelf instead of throwing away the last time you used it…

Aside from scarcity, you got other problems of price and brand. It’s not uncommon to find a normal-sized jar ranging from 8 – 12 US dollars, and that’s pretty much universally going to be Skippy brand peanut butter. My favorite brand used to be Trader Joes All-Natural Unsalted peanut butter, but obviously that’s not going to work. You can’t even take those things on airplane carry-ons anymore. I will hold out to the bitter end to avoid anything Skippy, mostly due to the presence of the hydrogenated oils that mute the taste of what should be, you know, tasting like *peanuts.* There’s another reason, too, in that I can’t really look at Skippy and not be reminded of the nearly full century-long trademark battle that occurred because Skippy used to be an American icon and popular comic character, until someone ignored a court order and kept using the mark for their peanut butter. True Story.

But here’s the thing– peanuts are readily available and used throughout Asian cooking, as is peanut oil. I can make my own homemade peanut butter for almost a quarter the cost. Better tasting, more healthy, and cheaper. And all I have to do is spend a little time at the blender and deal with the clean-up afterward. Hmm. On second thought…. Ah, just kidding.

Peanut peanut butter

Homemade Peanut Butter

2 cups peanuts (unsalted, shelled)
1 1/2 tbsp peanut oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Step One: Pulse the peanuts in the blender until they are reduced to crumbs.

Step Two: Add oil and blend. You’ll need to stop at several intervals to use a spatula to manually stir in the more creamy stuff at the bottom.

Step Three: When the peanuts are nearly broken down (when you don’t have to use a spatula anymore, after about 4 minutes), set the blender aside. Let it cool about 10 minutes or so, and then continue blending for another two minutes. Add a dash or two of sea salt at this point if you want.

That’s it!
Not many recipes call for the vanilla, but it really enhances the flavor when you eat it with fruit or jams. I sometimes add another 1 tbsp honey as well, but I don’t always like having have a sweet peanut butter.

Enjoy!

Cinco de Mayo – Homemade Adobo Steak Marinade

As I’ve said, I’ve made it a point to celebrate Thanksgiving and Cinco de Mayo no matter where I’m at in the world at the time.

The Thanksgiving part I’m sure any American can recognize– there’s something about that holiday and its traditions of family and comfort food that make it synonymous with “home.” And this “home” is so necessary for the soul when you’re being a global nomad. If you get to share it with fellow Americans, it’s a wonderful time of bonding and fast friendships. If you get to share it with non-Americans, it’s even more special, as you get to share a part of yourself that they would never get to see otherwise. Well, it’s the same with Cinco de Mayo, since growing up in Southern California it was almost as pervasive as Thanksgiving. And coming in at the start of May, when the month is still coming in like a lamb, it’s often the first time you get to break out the barbecue and lawn chairs.

Now, imagine you are living overseas, where it’s sad to say that most Mexican and Central American cuisine have not exactly taken by storm. Some ingredients are actually easy to find– like cilantro, since coriander is used in much of Thai cooking. Others, even as staple as tortillas, can be very hard to come by indeed. This is the third reason I make it a point to celebrate Thanksgiving and Cinco– it takes me on a treasure hunt to gather everything necessary. And sometimes it makes me get downright creative.

I really wanted to find chipotle peppers to repeat a marinade I whipped up last year– except after scouring the city, I came to realization that I only had them because a can of them were part of a care package from the States! Time for an alternative– making my own spicy jalapeño adobo sauce.

ADOBO STEAK MARINADE

1 can crushed tomatoes
4 – 5 jalapeños, diced, with seeds
6 cloves of garlic, diced
1 tsp. crushed sea salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. crushed black pepper
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. pimentón (smoked paprika)
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. oregano
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 bay leaves

Step One: Mix everything together. To save time on the dicing, run everything except the bay leaves through the blender.

Step Two: Remove about 3/4 cups and set aside. Mix that with half a can of tomato paste to create a thick basting and/or dipping sauce for the table.

Step Three: Pour the marinade into a plastic bag and add your flank steak that has been cut into thick strips (or chicken, or whatever.) Marinade overnight, or 3-4 hours in a pinch, and tote that bag to the barbecue picnic area in your local park!

***

I was almost ready to give up on chipotles after my treasure hunt was proving fruitless (pepper-less?) That’s when I remembered they were really just smoked jalapeños in the first place. My first instinct was to try searing some Thai red chili to try to replicate them but I stumbled upon some pimentón and the recipe idea just fell into place. Sure enough, I could find jalapeños, but they were the pickled kind. Thankfully, the smoked paprika compensated in flavor and make a smoky, richly spicy red sauce. In fact, my only problem was that it wasn’t spicy enough for me! When I try this again, I may have to consider the Thai red chili after all, or make sure a care package arrives in the nick of time!

Sakura Shandy – a Springtime Beer Cocktail recipe

Soft sakura petals
Wafting through the hushed courtyard
Stillness before change

Just a little haiku to start us off– as I remember how important springtime is in Japan.

Spring is embraced as a season in Japan the same way Christmas is embraced in the West. The stores will suddenly be decked in pink and white; special flavors will arrive in grocery stores and Starbucks; new clothes and festivals are rolled out.

But it’s more than just commercialism and moving heavy blankets back to the closet. Because the winter is gone, with its coldness and darkness that force people to hide away in their homes, and the days start to warm and elongate. The trees begin to grow green and to flower, especially the sakura, or Japanese cherry trees. In the space of a day or two, entire fields of trees, park-wide orchards, the lines of the highways and roadside, all of them burst into cloud-like pinky whiteness of sakura blossoms. And throughout the following weeks, the petals drop like snow in the soft breeze.

It’s no wonder that “hanami” is such an important event. Literally “flower viewing,” the hanami is, in essence, a picnic under a sakura tree. However, the celebration of hanami has reached epic proportions, as the picnics can last hours and can require a cast of dozens– your family might have a hanami, your classmates/best friends, your office, any “in-group” might have its own hanami. What can be better than lounging on blankets in the parks, fields, or, yes, even cemeteries, with snack foods, small cakes, and, of course, beer, with your friends and/or family? (So it’s also no wonder that hanami have often a reputation of getting pleasantly drunk with such friends and/or family!) We’re not used to drinking alcohol in the park in the U.S., so you may have to enjoy this hanami-inspired cocktail in the comfort of your own yard.

Konpai!

sakura shandy

Sakura Shandy (Hanami-inspired BeerCocktail)

1 bottle / 12 oz. C.C. Lemon (or carbonated lemonade)
30 ml / 2 tablespoons rose syrup
2 can (12 oz. each) Kirin beer (or other pale ale)

Make sure you have chilled ingredients! Pour the beer in a small pitcher, then add the lemonade soda and rose syrup. Mix well, and pour into tall glasses (“over ice” is optional, but may be necessary on a humid spring day!)

A more stronger lemonade could be used, of course, or add some fresh juice and lemon slices to the pitcher. The tastes are balanced here for C.C. Lemon brand carbonated lemonade and Kirin beer, so I’m not presenting them here for any “halleluia!” moment of discovery or anything. I just really wanted to use only the Japanese ingredients, out of my nostalgia for sharing hanami times during my time in Tokyo.

Thanks!