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How to convert to Buddhism in ten Seconds

+++Exploring | Bangkok, Thailand

eatnologist
 
 

 

 

The Chao Phraya River is the lifeline of Bangkok and quite the simplest way to cross it, is by taking one of the water buses that travel up and down the river. All you do is jump on and pay on board. 

The relatively short distance to the opposite side of the riverbank is deceptive. The assumption might be on the western side that you are delving further into chaos stricken Bangkok, but when you get off at That Phrammok station, you find yourself arriving in a true oasis of tranquillity. Within minutes, it is as if you have entered another world.

 
 

After a short walk, I discovered the Buddhist Temple of Wat Khrua Wan quite by chance, as I was actually looking for something totally different on the other side of the river. My intention had been to discover a beautiful view of the Grand Palace, preferably from the terrace of a nice restaurant. 

And then all of a sudden, this temple stood before me. Immediately after the entrance I came across two bald-shaven monks behind a table. They were selling transparent bags packed with colourful balls, probably made from puffed rice, which were then dipped in delicious exotic fruit juices to give them a glowing appearance. In any case, these balls went like hot cakes because everyone who went into the temple bought at least one bag. Of course, I couldn't restrain myself either and so I bought two packs, greedily ripped into one of them and then popped several of these mysterious balls straight into my mouth. I was very excited. Were they perhaps a new culinary discovery? Or perhaps they were unknown pioneers of molecular gastronomy?

 
 

The two priests were wide-eyed when they saw me chewing. The small balls, which had both the consistency of Styrofoam and tasted like it, suddenly transformed into foamy liquid and stuck to my teeth. Oh no! It was such a disappointment. I needed to spit them out and then I saw that the priests, who were doubled over laughing, were not male priests at all...  they were women! What's going on here, I thought to myself.  As far as I knew, there were no female Buddhist monks or novices in Thailand. Using sign language, the two ladies directed me to the river where I could then spit out the balls. 

The small balls, which had both the consistency of Styrofoam and tasted like it, suddenly transformed into foamy liquid and stuck to my teeth. Oh no! It was such a disappointment.

 
 

A very pale thai student who was passing by tapped me on the arm, instructing me to follow her. While we were on the way to the riverbank, she explained what was going on. The balls were not intended for people, but for fish –  because the balls were good for the fish, they would also therefore be good for my karma. Giving me a quick crash course in Buddhism, the student enlightened me and explained that donations were commonplace. Normally, the monks received these donations. A donation of candles comes with the expectation of enlightenment, a donation of money should lead to prosperity, whereas a donation of books would result in wisdom, etc. 

Arriving at the shore, it took me ten seconds to empty the packet into the river. Fish immediately began nibbling at the contents. How on earth did that happen so quickly? Should I wish for something now? Just to be on the safe side, that's exactly what I did. The second packet, however, I kept for myself. My companion, who also emptied out her packet, ended her prayer with a small gesture and I did the same.

 
 

Following my new friend, we left the temple and we had barely gone any distance before my wish came true. Grilled fish. They were being prepared by a street vendor. “That worked quickly! Whatever you give comes right back at you!" I said, feeling convinced of this fact. I ordered one for myself and then asked my friend, Nok, if she -or was she a he?- would like one as well. Nok ordered also a Tom Kha Gai (a coconut chicken soup) but I did not the same. "You don´t like?"  she said. "Tom Yum Goong is my favourite, I ate it the first time in Kho Phi Phi and I love it, but It's just too hot. I cannot eat a soup now. Anyway, you have given me an idea, thank you!, I said .

I was very grateful to her, because who knows, I might just have found not only a new recipe and also my new "spiritual" home. And so we sat with our two fish on the banks of the river. The fish was delicious, a tasty meaty flesh flavoured with a filling of lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaf, all finished off with a crispy, salty skin. There was also a small beaker containing a marinade of chilli, lime juice, fish sauce and coriander, perfect for dunking or pouring over the fish. I felt as if my next stop would be Nirvana.

In Thailand, women are not allowed to be official priests or monks. They are also not allowed to wear orange clothing as that is only permitted for male priests, monks and novices. In this way, even the youngest of male novices is more important in the scale of values than a female novice.

I asked Nok why the women wore white dresses at the temple. “They are novices. In Thailand, women are not allowed to be official priests or monks. They are also not allowed to wear orange clothing as that is only permitted for male priests, monks and novices. In this way, even the youngest of male novices is more important in the scale of values than a female novice. Far more than those who maintain their relationship with God for years through prayer and working in the temple.  The only female monk in Thailand is a former university professor for Buddhist philosophy but even she is not really recognised as such, although she does make a point of wearing orange. She has been ordained abroad and is called Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. She leads a monastery in northern Thailand and has already been nominated for the Nobel Prize. 

Quickly, Nok finished eating her fish, thanked me and then left, needing to return home. She had still to work tonight and wanted to rest a little bit before.  I remained a while. I wanted to take a little look around the area, observe the hustle and bustle of the people on the nearby canals, and make some notes. It seemed quite right to me that Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East. 

 
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Salt-roasted whole fish with herbs

Salt-roasted whole fish with herbs

Sweet, crispy and delicious: Flower Tempura

Sweet, crispy and delicious: Flower Tempura

Sweet Sticky Rice wrapped in Banana Leaves

Sweet Sticky Rice wrapped in Banana Leaves

 

I was still hungry and wanted more fish – should I throw my second packet into the river for this? But no, I wanted to keep my colourful balls a little while longer for myself. I went back towards the exit of the Temple in the hope that my street fish vendor was still there. Fortunately, he was still there and I bought a big juicy fish, which tasted just as good as the first. I bought also a delicious, sweet and crispy flower tempura

On the way back to my guest house in the Taewez quarter, I travelled up the river on the water bus. This time it was so full that I had to stand at the front. The boats are open at the front, and so what normally happens is that you end up really quite wet. The sun was setting, and it was a beautiful day. 

Feeling like the King of the World, at least for a short moment.

Feeling like the King of the World, at least for a short moment.

Standing there, I felt a Titanic moment coming on. When we passed the Royal Palace I had a daft grin on my face and shouted "I'm the King of the world". But it was at this very moment that a passing ship sprayed me and I almost choked.

I woke up in the middle of the night. I had severe abdominal pain and wondered, "Was it those colourful balls? Or maybe the flowers or the fish that I ate?

I woke up in the middle of the night. I had severe abdominal pain and wondered, "Was it those colourful balls? Or maybe the flowers or the fish that I ate? Yes, the fish, that must have been it", I said to myself. Buddha has surely punished me. I should have wished something else, something more profound when I threw those coloured balls in the river. After numerous trips to the toilet, I went to reception, thinking that perhaps the receptionist could give me some tablets. I told him what had happened.

Unusually bad-tempered for a Thai, I had just woken him up and he explained to me in broken English that first of all, Buddha would not punish anybody – maybe my God would, but not Buddha. Secondly, I didn't understand his religion, something that I had already suspected, and thirdly, I should never swallow water from the river. This is because it is so heavily contaminated it can really make you ill. "Just in case, take this pills" he said "With a bit of luck, it will be over tomorrow". I thanked him and ran once more in the direction of the toilet.

 
On the way back to my guest house

On the way back to my guest house

 
 
 
 
The Happy Meal

Exploring | Rasdu Atoll, Maldives

©_eatnologist_maldives_food_travel_fish_recipe_seafood_paradise_maldivian_food26b.jpg
 

Paradise (definition):

- a very beautiful, pleasant, or peaceful place that seems to be perfect

- a place that is perfect for a particular activity or for a person who enjoys that activity

- a state of complete happiness

 

"...what about Maldivians who live here? Are they always happy? What do they dream about? What is their idea of paradise on earth?..." 

 

 
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The water is crystal clear. I see my footprints fading in the sand. I look around. The breeze is blowing through the palm trees. The air is warm and humid and there is a delicious smell of fresh, charcoal-grilled fish. I want to try every single Maldivian seafood dish. It´s all just too perfect here. Am I dreaming? 

But what about Maldivians who live here? Are they always happy? What do they dream about? What is their idea of paradise on earth? 

 
 
Faraha and Anha

Faraha and Anha

 
 

Faraha, Anha and Ahusan.

Later on I met Faraha and Anha on a neighbouring island where locals live. The two little girls were going to see their older cousin Ahusam play soccer and they invited me to follow them.

Ahusan was wearing an old Real Madrid T-shirt. He came to greet us and I took the chance to introduce myself.

Ahusan, may I ask you something? If you imagined yourself in a paradise, what would it look like and what would you like to eat there?

- Chicken McNuggets.

Sorry?

 
 

"...Ahusan, may I ask you something? If you imagined yourself in a paradise, what would it look like and what would you like to eat there?

- Chicken McNuggets.

Sorry!?..."

 

- Chicken McNuggets, says Ahusan again.

Are you serious? Is this your idea of Paradise?

- Yes. My idea of Paradise is to eat a box of Chicken McNuggets while watching a game between Real Madrid and another team at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. That would be my dream.

- Yeeeeees, Chicken Mc Nuggets! - yelled the two cousins.

But why??

- We saw these Chicken McNuggets yesterday on tv!

:-/

 
 
 
 
Gaudi, Food and Religion

Exploring | Barcelona, Spain

 
 
 
 
 

Barcelona | Spain

A conversation with Etsuro Sotoo, sculptor-in-chief of the Sagrada Familia about the links between him, Antoni Gaudi, architecture, religion and food.

I met the Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo at his studio not far away from Gaudi’s crypt, in the non- public space of the Sagrada Familia, surrounded by an infinity of sketches, drawings, plans and miniature models. Sotoo has made it his life's work to carry on the master's project since 1978, when he began as a stone mason. Later on, as sculptor-in-chief of the Sagrada Familia, he was commissioned to follow Gaudi's unmistakable style –”but there were times where I did not know how to follow him“, confesses Sotoo to me on a short walk through the construction site.

In fact, Gaudi did not leave detailed plans for the many high reliefs that decorate the fantastical façades when he died, so designing new sculptures can be sometimes “a monumental headache”, as Sotoo says. He himself has often felt hopeless and confused and not known how to follow Gaudi ´s mostly non-existent guidelines for the design of the church. One day, while standing in front of Gaudi´s tomb, Sotoo heard a voice. ”The voice said to me: ‘Don’t look at what I have done, look at that what I would want to look at.’ He showed me a path that I could follow. Since them I speak to Gaudi every day. Now I have the formula to interpret and continue Gaudi’s work. “

 

 
 

Gaudi did not leave detailed plans for the many high reliefs that decorate the fantastical façades when he died, so designing new sculptures can be sometimes “a monumental headache”, as Sotoo says.

 
 
 
The Sculptor Etsuro Sotoo in his Studio with Gaudi's death mask: "One day, as I was in front of Gaudi´s thomb, I heard a voice. „The voice said to me: Dont´ look at what I have done, look at that what I would look at. Since them I speak everyday to Gaudi. He gave a path that I could follow. Now I have the formula to interpret and continue Gaudis work."

The Sculptor Etsuro Sotoo in his Studio with Gaudi's death mask: "One day, as I was in front of Gaudi´s thomb, I heard a voice. „The voice said to me: Dont´ look at what I have done, look at that what I would look at. Since them I speak everyday to Gaudi. He gave a path that I could follow. Now I have the formula to interpret and continue Gaudis work."

 
 
 

Etsuro Sotoo has since converted to Catholicism and he is known to many people as the Asian reincarnation of Antoni Gaudi. However, the Japanese national, who is Spanish by choice, is not only devoted to the religion but also to Spanish cuisine. His love for Iberian cured ham lead him to work together with Joselito, one of the best –if not the best –Spanish cured ham manufacturers: he has been in charge of designing a luxurious chest for the company with the ancestral Japanese technique of urushi.  The otherwise silent and reserved Sotoo glows when it comes to food: “One thing I really love about Barcelona is that you get very good quality fish at reasonable prices (compared to Japan)! And tuna sashimi. I love those superb tuna blocks in the Boqueria market. “Stone blocks, tuna blocks, stone cutting, Iberico ham cutting..., hmm, I assume there are some parallels between his work as a sculptor and his preferences as a foodie.

 

And what about Gaudi and his preferences for food? Is there also a connection between his work and food?

 
 
 
 
After the meeting with Etsuro Sotoo I went to Cal Pep for a Tuna Tartare.

After the meeting with Etsuro Sotoo I went to Cal Pep for a Tuna Tartare.

 

And what about Gaudi and his preferences for food? Is there also a connection between his work and food? Who else if not Sotoo could give me an answer:  “Gaudi lived as an ascetic and refused the joy of food. There are some stories about that. Food was apparently not important for him”- says Sotoo, continuing:-  “But I have been thinking about your question since the day  you contacted me, and yes, maybe there are some links between food, the Sagrada Familia and Gaudi. Can you see those semi-finished sculptures of fruits and cereals over there? You will see many of them all around the Sagrada Familia. Here, at the lower part of the Church you will find sculptures of buds and sprouts, but in the upper part you will see sculptures of all those sprouts blossoming and the very top fruits and cereals, the result of the harvest.  

“To grow physically you need food, to grow spiritually you need religion.”

What do you think Gaudi wanted to say to us with that? “, asked me Sotoo. “I don’t know” I replied. “For me –continued Sotoo– the symbolism is now clear. To grow physically you need food, to grow spiritually you need religion.”

 
 
 
 
 
The Mojito Theory

+++Exploring

 
 
 

Havana | Cuba

The Mojito Theory. 

Where does the name Mojito come from?

I push through the local dance club. It’s full. It’s hot. It’s dark. To the right and left of me, before and behind me, there is a mass of sweat-soaked bodies in all possible shades of skin colour. They dance the Rumba, Son, and Cuban Reggaeton, also called Cubaton. Liquid flows out of every pore. The air is so thick you could cut it with a knife. I need to get out of here. I finally make it. My head is pounding as I leave. Why is everything so bright? It has got so late… Or is that early? Whatever. The street is empty. I feel dizzy. I wonder how many mojitos I've drunk in the last few hours in this dance club. Was it six? Seven? Eight or more? 

Swaying, I walk down the street to the Malecón, Havana's seaside promenade. Hopefully the breeze of the sea will do me a world of good and I want to see the sea before I finally go to sleep. It has been a long day. It all started at 10 o'clock this morning in a bar in the centre of Havana... with a Mojito. It might sound strange to you, but I am in Havana...

 
 

Swaying, I walk down the street to the Malecón, Havana's seaside promenade. Hopefully the breeze of the sea will do me a world of good and I want to see the sea before I finally go to sleep. It has been a long day. It all started at 10 o'clock this morning in a bar in the centre of Havana... with a Mojito.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Guillermo, the "Isleño"
“I couldn't really say where you can drink the best mojitos in Havana", says Guillermo, who like me, is from the Canary Islands and works since a couple of years as Hotel Manager in Miramar, a quarter of Havana. He had a few hours free for me today and so we're sat in the bar in the Calle Obispo. "In Havana, you can drink good mojitos pretty much everywhere. He reckons that in the Bodeguita del Medio the mojitos are famous because of Ernest Hemingway, but they taste the best where there is a good mood and atmosphere". There appears to be an excess of good mood in the ‘La Lluvia Dorada’ bar. The guests, a mix of tourists and locals, drink and dance to the live music. There is flirting and some groping, and it is not even lunchtime. On the orders of Guillermo, the bar keeper served me a mojito, while Guillermo himself quickly downed his morning coffee. I look at the man behind the bar slightly puzzled. "Don't worry! When you're dancing, you'll sweat the mojito right out", he adds with a wink.  "You're an ‘Isleño’ as well aren't you, like Guillermo?" asks the waiter, apparently having already recognised my dialect. 

 
 
 
 

The descendants of expatriate inhabitants of the Canary Islands – which belong to Spain – are lovingly called "Isleños" (literally, "those who came from the Islands”) in Cuba, which sounds a little strange given that Cuba itself is an island. In Cuba, the Isleños and their descendants form a large community. Canarian Spanish, which is known as the gentler form of Spanish dialects (and which very often uses the diminutive "-ito"), contains a number of Portuguese loanwords, including among other Mojo, originating from the Portuguese molho. In Portugal, molho is a specific sauce consisting of olive oil, salt, water, wine vinegar, garlic, paprika, chillies, and various spices such as cumin and coriander, all prepared with a mortar. Portuguese seafarers brought Molho sauce to the Canary Islands, which was modified in Spanish to Mojo. Since then, Mojo sauce has played a large role in Canarian gastronomy (Mojo Picón is with pepper, and Mojo Verde with coriander).

Mojo Canario (Canary Island Mojo) arrived in Cuba with the Canary expats and turned into Mojo Cubano (Cuban Mojo), which is prepared with garlic, onions, olive oil, oregano, salt and a mixture of the juice of limes and oranges.

In the Caribbean, these fruits are much more common than the wine vinegar used in the original recipe from the Canary Islands. The Mojo Cubano is a sauce or marinade that is served with Lechón asado (grilled pork), grilled chicken and many other meat dishes, and of course there are almost as many variations of Mojo Cubano as there are Cubans on the island: Mojo Criollo, Mojo Tomate, etc. are just a few of the famous varieties.

 
 

So where did the original name for mojito come from?

Some sources say that the name Mojito also has Canary roots, just like Mojo Cubano sauce. Canarian expats to Cuba worked in the sugar cane plantations where sugar cane was processed into rum. 

One theory goes that the word for the drink comes from "Mojadito" (something wet) and from there it became Mojito (Wikipedia: "...the name Mojito is simply a derivative of mojadito (Spanish for "a little wet") or simply the diminutive of mojado ("wet"). Due to the vast influence of immigration from the Canary Islands, the term probably came from the mojo creole marinades adapted in Cuba using citrus vs traditional Isleño types"). 

But "Mojadito" (something wet) makes little sense to me. More so, I think that "Mojito" derives from “Majadito" (with an "a" instead of an "o" after the M). "Hacer un Majado" or “Majadito" in the Spanish dialect of the Canary Islands means "something crushed”, and that's exactly what you do if you want to prepare a "Mojo" sauce in a mortar. When preparing a mojito, you lightly crush the mint leaves in the glass, most often using a spoon.

In this way, you can clearly see how the progression from “Majadito” to “Mojito” is made. 
Because people speak very quickly in the Canary Islands, they end up swallowing their letters and even whole syllables when speaking out loud — in Cuba they do that too — so that a word like “Majadito” quickly becomes shortened to “Majaito”, which then mutates to the much shorter version of “Mojito”. The name Mojito is thereby a diminutive form of something in a compressed form.

 
Mango Soup

Mango Soup

 

“Today I’ll drink and be patriotic" I say to Guillermo after explaining my mojito theory and already feeling the urge to get my dancing feet on the floor. The band was simply so good and carried everyone along with it. "Okay, so if you're interested in mojitos, then come to the hotel bar this evening where we are about to test the new cocktail menu, including the classic one and some other unusual variations on mojitos. You can also eat typical Cuban food in the restaurant as well". 

And so that was the story of how I ended up testing various mojitos and eating mango soup and grilled chicken with Mojo Cubano in Guillermo’s hotel restaurant, before then moving on in the early hours to a different bar where I drank six or seven mojitos. Or eight or more.

 

 
 
About Thaification and Whiskyfication

Exploring | Luang Pragang, Laos

 
 
 
 

+++Exploring

Luang Prabang | Laos

 

The small, charming Buddhist temple city of Luang Prabang is located in the mountainous north of Laos. I'm about thirty steps from my guesthouse, which is on the banks of the Nam Khan, a tributary that flows into the Mekong River a few hundred metres further on.

It’s quiet, almost unusually quiet and peaceful in comparison to other Asian cities. I draw in my sketchbook. The landscape on the opposite bank shimmers in the still bluish morning light. A group of Buddhist monks and novices cross the river in small boats. Some of the ones who go past me, especially the younger ones, stop for a second and look at me silently over their shoulder. 

 
 

I get hungry and want to eat something… local cuisine, of course. I arrived last night and I want to immerse myself in the cuisine of Laos. There are many small restaurants along the banks of the river and so I choose one with a beautiful terrace. The restaurant is almost empty and there don't appear to be any menus. Further ahead, on the table diagonally opposite to me, a couple sit quietly, waiting for their meal to arrive. I told the waiter that I wanted to eat the same as them. After a while, the dishes arrived, including a Som Tam salad and Laarb. Aren't these classic Thai dishes from the Isan region? I think to myself "Hmmm… this is Thai food, isn’t it?” I ask the waiter, somewhat disappointed. "Noooo, this is original Lao food!" he responds, placing an emphasis on "original" and sporting a broad grin.

Som Tam, the famous spicy papaya salad is actually, as I later learn, not from Thailand but from Laos and the locals call it Tam Mak Hoong. Also Laarb, the salad with its marinated meats and various herbs is one of Laos national dishes.

So how is it that these Laos dishes can be found on menus throughout the world posing as classic dishes from Thailand?  

 
Papaya Salad: Tam Mak Hoong

Papaya Salad: Tam Mak Hoong

Lao National dish Laarb

Lao National dish Laarb

 

Of the approximately 25 million people born in Lao, only about 6 million live in Laos, with the rest living abroad, mainly in Thailand.

 
 
Sun Dried Sticky Rice on bamboo panel at Luang Prabang

Sun Dried Sticky Rice on bamboo panel at Luang Prabang

 
 
 

Of the approximately 25 million people born in Lao, only about 6 million live in Laos, with the rest living abroad, mainly in Thailand. Many of them live in the northeast of the country in the Isan region or have migrated from there to Bangkok. Over the course of the forced and aggressive Thaification policy employed by Thailand to ensure expats from Laos were assimilated in the country, the culture and language were repressed and even became taboo. Quite a few people from Laos/Isan was so ashamed of their heritage and language that they began to feel inferior. As a consequence, those involved in gastronomy preferred to identify themselves for branding and marketing purposes with Thailand rather than Laos. When it comes to Thailand, everyone has a basic image of the country, moulded and shaped by the tourism industry, films and culture. But how many people are able to make a connection with Laos? In all honesty, the Isan-inspired Thai restaurant around the corner is probably a Lao Restaurant.

 
 
 
 

A day later, I'm sitting in a boat travelling up the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves. Along the way, the driver of the boat asks me whether I want to visit a whisky village. In the whisky village, they make a whisky distilled from sticky rice. The question is, of course, whether whisky aficionados would define this as whisky – I politely refuse.

The taste is reminiscent of a cheap and strong rice wine, but it seems to work.

 

 
Landscape with Aubergines

Landscape with Aubergines

 
 
 
 
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The Isan-inspired Thai restaurant around your corner is probably a Lao Restaurant.

 
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That evening, wandering through the night market at Luang Prabang, a number of shelves on stalls are full of whisky-filled bottles, just waiting to be whisked away by tourists. Sometimes they're also filled with snakes and scorpions.

The sellers call out, “whisky, whisky” instead of using their own language of “Lao Lao”, meaning “alcohol” (the first ‘Lao’), “from Laos” (the second ‘Lao’). Although they are written the same, the “Laos” are pronounced differently. It’s actually a bit of a shame, because “Lao Lao” just sounds catchier and that little bit more authentic and cute on its own than having a “Scotch”. But maybe, just like their cuisine, it simply needs a good dose of self-confidence and some time to establish itself as Lao Lao.