Sunday, September 30, 2018

SLOVENIA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


Several years ago, I went to the Sister Cities festival downtown Indianapolis. I didn't realize that we now have seven sister cities and two friendship cities: Campinas, Brazil; Cologne, Germany; Hangzhou, China; Hyderabad, India; Monza, Italy; Northamptonshire, UK; Onitsha, Nigeria; Taipei, Taiwan; and Piran, Slovenia. I was really fascinated with Piran, Slovenia. At the time, I was just getting ready to cook food from Croatia, which borders Slovenia to the south. I remember talking to a woman at the booth about Slovenia and Croatia, and placed the coastal city of Piran on my list of places I'd like to visit.

Piran, Slovenia

Slovenia's name literally means "land of the Slavs," even though historical linguists aren't exactly sure where the term "Slav" originated from. It's thought that it stems from the word slovo, meaning "word" or "people who speak the same language." In contrast to their word for the Germans, which meant "silent" or "mumbling." As half-German, you probably don't want to know the sarcasm-laced remarks we mumble under our breath. But it's all true.

Slovenia is located in central Europe at the top of the Adriatic Sea (even though it actually has a very small coastal border on it). It's surrounded by Austria to the north, Hungary to the east, Croatia to the south, and Italy to the west. The country is known for its mountainous and karst landscapes. It's also the third most forested country in Europe and is known for its plethora of caves. I didn't realize that it sits in an active seismic zone too, so it's subject to numerous earthquakes. It makes sense given that Italy had a bad earthquake a number of years ago. Slovenia generally has a temperate climate with four seasons, but the farther up in the mountains you go, the more of an Alpine climate you experience. The closer to the coastline you get, you'll find a more Mediterranean climate.
 
World's oldest wheel
People have lived in this area for nearly a quarter of a million years now. Artifacts found in caves help pierce together its pre-historic times. The Ljubljana Marshes have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the location of the world's oldest wooden wheel. The Romans were among the first major civilizations to move into this area. Given its location, it was subject to invasions from the Huns and other Germanic tribes. The Slavic tribes moved in as the last of the Germanic tribes moved out. During the Middle Ages, a group of Slovenes were the first Slavic group to switch over to Christianity. By the 14th century, Slovenia was part of the Hapsburg lands. And to make matters worse, by the 1500s, the Turks were also taking a stab at raiding the area. It was all the rage. The peasants were also fed up with a lot of crap from the ruling class and spent quite a bit of time over the next couple of centuries revolting. That, too, was all the rage. By the 1800s, Slovenia had been handed off to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There weren't that many economic opportunities to be found during this time, so there were many Slovenians found their way elsewhere for work and to raise a family. Oddly enough, Cleveland, Ohio of all places became one of the largest concentrations of Slovenes in the US. Slovenia didn't fare well during WWI, and afterwards, it became part of Yugoslavia when Austria-Hungary was dissolved. During WWII, part of Slovenia was annexed by Nazi Germany, part by Fascist Italy, and part went to Hungary. If WWI was bad, WWII was horrific. After Yugoslavia got back together for the second time, it became part of the Eastern Bloc of socialist states. Obvious struggles and resistance lasted until 1991 when Slovenia became independent. They joined the UN, and roughly a decade later, joined the EU and NATO as well as the OECD later on.
Ljubljana

The capital and largest city in Slovenia is Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-BLYAH-nah). Once known as Emona by the Romans, Ljubljana has been the capital city since Slovenia's independence. It's not clear where the name of the city derived from, but some scholars believe it's related to the word for "love/like" and possibly named for a nearby river. Its architecture, parks, and bridges attract millions of visitors each year, and after looking at some photos of the city, I’d definitely lean toward that “love/like” origin. Not only a center of the government and commerce, it's also a center of education, the arts, and sports alike.

Slovenia's economy is among the highest in comparison to not only other Slavic countries but in Europe as well. Even after taking somewhat of a hit during the 2008 global recession, their economy has started to show some growth over the past few years. The rise in their construction and tourism industries is a promising sign. Other major industries include vehicle manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, electronic equipment, and fuels. You know, the good stuff.


The vast majority of Slovenes follow Roman Catholicism, while a smaller number adhere to Lutheranism. Because the country spent so many years as a secular state, it took a long time for churches to regain parishioners. Many people simply remained secular, but there were also many people who went back to Roman Catholicism, the majority religion prior to the communistic change. Even at that, there are also a number of Jewish communities, other Protestant churches, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and atheists.



Slovene is the official language of Slovenia. A member of the Slavic language family, more than 92% speak it in the home. There are several dialects of Slovene that are generally mutually intelligible with other Slavic languages. Several other minor languages are spoken in various concentrations throughout Slovenia, including Hungarian, Italian, Romani, German, and Serbo-Croatian.



As I read through a lot about Slovenia, I came to realize it’s a land of very old things. I mentioned it had the oldest wooden wheel at over 5000 years old, but it also has the oldest vine (at least 400 years old), the oldest stud farm (around 450 years old), the oldest linden tree (which is a symbol of Slovenia – coming in at over 700 years old), and one of the oldest musical instruments, a flute made from a bear femur (around 55,000 years old!).

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, September 23, 2018

SLOVAKIA: THE FOOD


I’m officially the mother of a teenager. My daughter turned 13 years old a couple days ago. Hard to believe that when I started this blog, she was 7 years old. She’s really grown quite a bit since this began, and not just literally (she’s now an inch and a half taller than I am): she’s a talented artist, gifted in math and science and a high-level reader, and has no patience for your shenanigans. I couldn’t ask for anything more, other than to watch her tone of voice and stop being mean to her brother.

I wonder if you eat a lot of these poppy seed rolls if you'll fail a drug test?
And I’m so grateful that it stopped being 90 degrees in September. It’s high time it start feeling like fall. Yesterday, the high was 68 degrees. It’s the perfect time for food from Slovakia! The first thing I made was Rožky, or Slovak Bread Rolls. I started out by proofing my yeast in my milk, but for some reason, it never really did froth up. But I poured it into a larger bowl anyway along with the flour, vegetable oil, sugar, and salt. I stirred and adjusted it so that it came together to make a smooth dough, letting it rest for about an hour. When this part was done, I divided my dough into four parts, rolling each one until it was about a ¼” thick. I cut each disk into quarters. Taking the long ends of each quarter and tucked it in, I rolled it up like a crescent roll but making sure I pinched the seam together. Then I curved it slightly and laid it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. When I had finished all 16 of them, I covered it and let it rest for another 45 minutes. While the oven was preheating to 375ºF, I brushed the top with an egg wash (a little water mixed with egg whites), and I sprinkled the top with poppy seeds. (I had to make four without the poppy seeds because my husband thinks they look like fleas.) It took about 20 minutes for it to be golden brown, but I may have also had my oven set at slightly cooler than 375º. Regardless, these were amazing, and the crumb was practically the height of perfection. When Buddhists seek nirvana, they’re actually just looking for these.
Reminds me of my childhood, in soup form.
My main dish today is Kapustnica, or Sauerkraut Soup. I took a large jar of sauerkraut and cooked it for 20 minutes with a jar and a half of water (using the same jar as the sauerkraut). In a skillet, I sautéed my diced onions and mushrooms together before adding it to the sauerkraut along with my smoked sausage, black pepper, a few bay leaves, salt, and caraway seeds. While that’s cooking, I made my roux in the same skillet I used for the onions and mushrooms. To make the roux, I fried some flour with some oil (I just eyeballed the measurements) until it started to look brown, and then I added in some paprika. When it looked creamy, I added it to the soup and let it boil. Then I added in my potatoes to let everything cook for another 15-20 minutes until the potatoes were soft. My mom used to make a similar dish, except it wasn’t soup and it didn’t have onions or mushrooms in it. So, needless to say, I thought this soup was fantastic. It was hearty and the vinegar flavor from the sauerkraut was apparent but not overwhelming.
Still think these would do nicely in a chicken noodle soup.
To go with this, I also made Bryndzové Halušky, or potato dumplings. I took one potato and grated it into a bowl. I added in some flour, an egg, and some salt, stirring everything together until it was smooth. I tore off bits of the potato dough, rolling it into a small ball, and put it in a pot of boiling salted water. (To make it easier to do this, I put a little oil on my hands.) It takes about 7-8 minutes for them to get done enough that they float to the top. While the dumplings are boiling, I took about five pieces of bacon and fried it, then crumbling it after it cools. Once the dumplings are done and I fished them out, I put them in a bowl and mixed together with crumbled feta cheese (I used feta instead of bryndza cheese), topping it with the crumbled bacon and drizzling the bacon grease on top of everything. I liked these a lot. And the feta-bacon combination was really good. The flavor of the dumplings were a little tough, but not so much that it was problematic or that it effected the overall flavor or mouthfeel to it. I could definitely see this added to a chicken soup.
These were really good. I wished I was able to find some fresh dill to put in it.
Finally, as a cooler side dish to cleanse the palate, I made a Cream Cucumber Salad. I sliced a cucumber into very thin slices and mixed it in a bowl with some salt, vinegar (I used red wine vinegar), a little minced garlic, some chopped parsley, and a little bit of heavy whipping cream. The water that naturally forms from the cucumbers and the vinegar will thin out the cream. My mom has made vinegar cucumbers and onions before, but this version with the cream was really good. It was a nice change from the heaviness of the other two dishes.
Overall, this meal was fire. Like, I loved everything about this. I'm going to have awesome leftovers for lunch tomorrow.
I actually had another dish I wanted to make, which was a poppy seed and sour cherry strudel. I made an apple strudel when I did Austrian food, and it was amazing. So, I really wanted to try my hand at this one, but I just ran out of time. I saved the recipe to try for another day. I typically don’t like cherry-flavored candies, but actual cherries are one of my favorite fruits.

Up next: Slovenia

Saturday, September 22, 2018

SLOVAKIA: MUSIC AND DANCE

Because of Slovakia's history of being part of many different cultures and kingdoms, there have been many different groups of people living in what is known as Slovakia. And all of these cultures contributed something to Slovak music, making it similar to the musical traditions of neighboring countries.


Early instruments found in this area are related to the Celtic influence. Music must have been an integral part of their society because archeologists have found evidence of drums, bone pipes, bells (made of both iron and bronze) along with their own variations of the jaw harp, bagpipes, and an instrument called the fujara (like a contrabass fipple flute). As we head into the Medieval Period, sacred music is the big thing, and often sung in Old Church Slavonic. Like other areas in Europe (I'm thinking of Germany and Austria), Slovak composers and musicians also utilized polyphony into their compositions. Bratislava became an important city under the Hapsburgs, which helped to really define formal music and bring it to the smaller towns around the countryside.



Even throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the church remained one of the more important patrons of music during this time, but the court music and members of the aristocracy were also important in commissioning music as well. As a musician and composer, this was where the money was at. However, as things were changing politically, 19th century composers didn't want to completely give up on their national pride and started integrating more folk songs into their classical works. One of the more important names from this era is Ján Levoslav Bella, a composer working around the same time as the well-known Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček. Bella wrote the first opera ever to be performed in Slovak (performed in 1926), even though it was originally written in German during the 1880s.


Many composers of the 20th and 21st centuries took the traditions of those who set the stage and built upon them, following the musical trends in modern Western classical music. To get a good grasp of Slovak composers during this time, take a listen to Eugen Suchoň (one of the more important 20th-century Slovak composers), Alexander Albrecht (important during the first half of the 20th century), Ján Cikker (widely known for his operas), and Vladimír Godár (known for his contemporary classical and film music).



Folk dance has long been a source of entertainment, especially in the rural areas. And while some of the dances may seem ubiquitous to Central Europe, regionally speaking, the variations and nuances differ within different areas of Slovakia. For example, in the Orava Region, two dances that are popular are the Cepovy (an energetic harvest dance acting out the threshing of cereal grains) and the Olasku (a girls dance with sticks). And the Saris Region has an energetic dance by the same name as the region, The Saris, and is performed by couples. The Horehron dance from the Horehronie Region is an energetic dance characterized by stamping out rhythms.


I came across quite a bit of music from Slovakia on Spotify. The first one I listened to was April Weeps. It is a metal band with some guttural screaming in it, but it reprieves itself by adding piano and a female singer to it. In the midst of loud rock, there is a slight classical element to it. I actually kind of liked what I heard.

Then there were several rock bands I listened to. The lead singer for Dorian Gray has a very deep voice that reminded me a little of the band Crash Test Dummies. However, their music had a strong 80s sound to it at times. Dežo Ursiny’s music sounds like a cross between disco and rock. I really liked what I heard from Desmod. They just had a nice driving rock sound. But they also use strings in their songs, and that always wins points with me. I’m normally not a fan of live albums (because of the sound quality and audience participation), but I listened to a live album by I.M.T. Smile, and it wasn’t too bad. It also seemed like it was all-acoustic from what I could tell, maybe?

There’s an odd genre called art rock. It sometimes works and sometimes not. I listened to an album by Marián Varga, and it reminded me of having to sit through the Contemporary Music Festival when I was in college listening to god knows what. Just because you can do it on an instrument, doesn’t mean you should. It was… interesting, though. 


I was also happy to find a few punk bands from Slovakia because punk makes me happy. One I listened to was Slobodná Európa (which literally means “Free Europe”).  Horkýže Slíže is another one I listened to that leaned more toward a heavier metal-punk sound, while Inekafe had more of a skateboard punk sound to it. 


There are a couple of rap musicians I sampled as well. The first one I listened to was Kontrafakt. The music underneath it seemed simple (not a lot of layers to it or mixed with a ton of effects), and I noticed that the lyrics were in both Slovak as well as a bit of English mixed in there at times. I also listened to Miky Mora. There were more effects mixed with this one, but it was done well. I thought his flow was done fairly well. Some rappers sound like they’re just trying too hard to be rappers. But I like this.


Up next: the food

Thursday, September 20, 2018

SLOVAKIA: ART AND LITERATURE


Slovak art draws influences from many of the cultures around it. Many of its artistic styles are similar to that of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine. In fact, Slovakia has taken quite a few measures toward preserving its local folklore and folk art.


Wooden folk architecture can be seen throughout the country. One of the best examples of this is in the village of Vlkolínec. Even UNESCO has deemed it worthy of being a World Heritage Site. This village stands out because its 45 log houses and churches have basically been preserved this way since the 18th century. The completeness of this collection is what makes this village extraordinary.


Visual art comes in all mediums from painting to photography to performance art. The mega cathedrals, like St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Košice, were not only fantastic feats of architecture, but artists also contributed their paintings and sculptures as well.

by Karol Miloslav Lehotský
The Austro-Hungarian Empire formed in the late 1860s, and it was a time in Slovakia where a lot of things were happening. However, it did spark a national revival that showed up in their arts. Some of the important names to know from this period include artists like Peter Michal Bohúň (portraitist), Karol Miloslav Lehotský (landscapes), Maximilián Schurmann (impressionist), Vavrinec Dunajský and his son Ladislav Dunajský (sculpture).
by Andy Warhol
As European artists began to experiment with taking art to new levels in the modern age of the 20th century, Slovak artists were right in the mix. Symbolism, expressionism, art nouveau, graphic arts, print art, photography, and pop art became wildly popular among artists. One of the most famous 20th century artists ever was the iconic Andy Warhol, known for his pop art and whose parents were immigrants from Slovakia (he was born as Andrew Warhola). Some other artists of this period to note include Mikuláš Galanda (one of the pioneers of modern Slovak art), Blažej Baláž (text as art), Koloman Sokol (printmaker), Martin Martinček (photographer), Ján Koniarek (sculpture), among many others.

An example of Old Church Slavic
Slovak literature today is mainly written in the Slovak language. But we have Saints Cyril and Methodius to thank for that. These two brothers, who were Byzantine Christian theologians, were tasked with the project of translating the Bible and other religious texts into what came to be known as Old Church Slavonic.


During the Middle Ages, most of the literature consisted of religious writings mixed in with epic tales, folklore, and lyric poetry. Keep in mind that even though written Slavic languages now were becoming a thing, Latin was still heavily used (as well as some Czech), even as they moved into the Renaissance period. The first printed book in Slovak ("The Book of Oaths" by Vašek Zaleský) was produced in 1561. A definite division between religious and secular literature began to take place. A good example of baroque literature is Hugolín Gavlovič’s work Valašská škola, mravúv stodola, which contained 17,862 verses.


The rise in literary nationalism after the French Revolution was felt in Slovakia as well, and they followed in on the Classicism movement that was sweeping Europe at the same time. The Slovak language was still being settled, and much of it was more similar to Czech with a few key changes made to make it a bit more like Slovak. Customization, if you will. But during this time it was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary. The first Hungarian paper was published in 1780, and the first Slovak one a few years later. Poetry was still going strong during the mid-1800s when modern Slovak began to emerge. Janko Kráľ was one of the first poets to publish works using this brand new modern Slovak form. During the latter part of the 1800s when they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, poetry fell to the wayside in exchange for more literary realism in prose. Things were changing quickly, and the political scene was driving toward chaos. There were many writers writing in Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak during this time.


The 20th century, and in particular, the years between the two world wars, brought a ton of changes to the country, and this showed in its literature. As the creation of Czechoslovakia came to be, there seemed to be two strains of literature: those of lyrical prose, and those of surrealism. For some reason, I wasn't able to find much on latter 20th century authors. I'm sure they're out there, though. Here are a few names I managed to come up with: Peter Pišťanek (known for his trilogy River of Babylon, The Wooden Village, and The End of Freddy), Juraj Červenák (novels and short stories, known for his historical fantasy and Slavic mythology), Juraj Kuniak (mostly known for poetry but had also published some prose), František Lipka (widely known as the diplomat who helped create Montenegro's independence, he's also a poet and translator), and Martin Rázus (poetry, drama, writer, but he was also a politician and Lutheran priest).

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, September 16, 2018

SLOVAKIA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


Slovakia: the country that made one-half of Czechoslovakia, and the one that many people get confused with Slovenia (which is the next country on my list). Home to castles and folk stories, I always think of Slovakia as one of those lesser traveled European secrets, offering the same spectacular mountain views as Switzerland, exceptional food and drink as Germany, and historic architecture as Italy or England -- but for a fraction of the cost. 


The name Slovakia is stemmed from the Czech word Slováky and was first mentioned during the 15th century. It went by a few different names, but it all generally referred to it being the land of the Slovaks, even though for much of its early existence, it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. But it was quite diverse at that time, and perhaps they were just giving some homage to the people there.


Slovakia is located in Central Europe. It’s surrounded by Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east, Hungary to the south, and Austria and Czechia (formerly Czech Republic) to the west. The Carpathian Mountains run across the northern part of the country and are most noted for the high Tatra mountain range as well as the Fatra mountain range. The Tatras are one of the most visited areas in Slovakia and form the border between it and Poland. Because of this mountainous region, Slovakia is also dotted with tons of caves, rivers, and lakes. Plenty of places to dump a body. (Just kidding, of course.) It also has four distinct seasons, and the temperature extremes really depend on your relation to the mountains.


The earliest evidence for people living in this area dates back to 270,000 BC. During the Bronze Age, the people figured out how to utilize copper as a way to create tools and weapons and jewelry, making them very prosperous at that time. Several different groups came to chill for a while: the Celts, then the Romans, the Huns, the Avars, and finally Slavic tribes. A few of these Slavic tribes got together and formed the Great Moravian Empire. During this time, Christianity became the thing, and the Byzantine Empire sent Saints Cyril and Methodius to help translate religious text into the Slavic language for them, thus coming up with Old Church Slavonic. Of course, like a bunch of siblings, the fighting didn’t stop. This time it was the Magyar and Bulgarian tribes. And by the 10th century, they were included as part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and they would stay “Hungarian” until the end of WWI. During this period, the Ottoman Empire expanded into the area, and Bratislava became the capital of Hungary for a while. The Reformation took place, and many Slovaks became Lutherans. Things changed in 1918, and they were now part of the newly created Czechoslovakia that formed after break-up of Austria-Hungary. Nazi Germany annexed off part of Slovakia, which became the Slovak Republic, the first Slovak state in history. Germany used it as a place to hold death camps and forced labor camps for nearly 75,000 Jews. The Soviets and Romanians liberated it in 1945, and many changes took place in the years after WWII. In 1948, Czechoslovakia came under the influence of communism, which lasted until 1993 when the Velvet Revolution dissolved it. Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004.

 
 Located on the west side of the country on both the River Danube (yes, like “The Blue Danube” by Johann Stauss II) and River Morava, it’s the only national capital to border near two other countries: Austria and Hungary in this case. While it was known by many different names throughout its history, its name as we know it is stemmed from the misreading of Braslav as Bratislav when Pavel Jozef Safáik, poet and literary historian, was taking a look at medieval sources. Today, the city is a mixture of old and new: modern architecture with ancient towers in between. There are several castles still standing (and some not so much) and other popular tourist spots. It’s also the center for everything from government offices and commerce to transportation to education, the arts, and sports.


With a focus on car manufacturing and electrical engineering, Slovakia has a high-income economy. Its economy is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and was ranked as one of the richest countries in the world in 2017 (39th out of 187 countries ranked). Unemployment is now at the lowest it’s ever been. For those who love architecture and outdoor sports like skiing and hiking, tourism is dependent on you; the country sees over 5 million visitors every year, mostly from nearby countries. Slovakia also has a prolific scientific community, cultivating scientists who have been in on the ground floor of many scientific endeavors. 


The majority of Slovakians are Christian. About three-quarters of the population follow the Catholic Church (by far, the largest denomination), Slovak Greek Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, Orthodox Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Almost a quarter of the people doesn’t follow any particular religion, are not religious at all, or follows other religions (mainly Islam, even though it remains to be the only EU member that doesn’t have a single mosque in its country).


The official language of Slovakia is Slovak, part of the Slavic language family. In the southern regions, Hungarian is also widely spoken, and Rusyn in parts of the northeast. Understandably, the most common foreign language is Czech. One of the things I didn’t know was that even though Czech and Slovak are closely related (and in some dialects, intelligible), Czech Sign Language and Slovak Sign Language are not. 
 

In looking around the Internet, I came across something that said that members of the Slovak and Slovenian embassies meet once a month to exchange wrongly sent mail from people who got the two countries mixed up. I was shocked. However, upon further research, I found that’s not entirely true. They do meet monthly, but not to exchange mail. At least, not really (I bet they kept all the good coupons, though). Google, people. If a story sounds sensational or crazy, Google it. Gooooooooogle it.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, September 9, 2018

SINGAPORE: THE FOOD



I had been looking forward to going to the Scottish festival because over the past couple of years, I had really gotten more interested in my own family histories. I had also been trying to learn German to cover the other side of my family (mostly because German seemed easier than Gaelic, which is a near-impossible language to learn). But yesterday was one of those days where the rain lasted nearly the entire day and into the night. So, I stayed home and drank coffee and read. (I mean, I’m not mad.) 

My not-so-marbled cake. Mer ner.
But to make up for some foiled plans, I’m made food from Singapore. The first thing I’m made was Singaporean Marble Cake. At first glance, it doesn’t seem Singaporean at all. In fact, marble cakes are German in origin, I believe. But they are popular throughout Malaysia and Singapore. I read a couple posts from Singaporean women who talked about often buying marble cake from local bakeries. And I’ve never made a marble cake, so I was intrigued. In a bowl, I mixed together my butter and sugar. When it was all mashed together, I added in 4 eggs one at a time and mixed it well. Then I folded in the flour, milk, and vanilla extra and stirred until it was smooth. I poured half of this batter into a separate bowl, adding in some cocoa powder and stirring it together. Now comes the fun part. And by fun, I mean, not as easy as I thought. I greased a cake pan and laid parchment paper in the bottom. I though I was going to alternate a chocolate layer with a vanilla layer, but when I poured my batter, I realized my cake pan was too big. So, it ended up being only one layer of chocolate and one layer of vanilla. And even though I tried to marble it, you can’t tell AT ALL. In a 350ºF oven, I put my cake in to bake for 45 minutes, and it was just too long. I took it out and let it sit, and it just got hard on top and was kind of dense in the middle. But it might be really good to have with coffee or tea. 

You can smell this from a half-mile away. Mmm, oysters.

The next dish I made was Or Luak, or oyster omelette. First, I beat my eggs with soy sauce and set aside. Then I mixed in 3 Tbsp of rice flour and a pinch of salt in 125 mL of water to make a watery batter of sorts. In a hot skillet, I heated a little oil and poured in my batter and let it set up for a bit. Then I poured my eggs over that, and when it was almost set, I mixed it altogether and pushed everything to the side to make a well in the center. I added in some more oil and stirred the minced garlic in and added in some chili paste and oysters, seasoning with some salt and pepper. I stirred to make sure it was all mixed and cooked together. I served this warm, garnished with cilantro and some extra chili sauce. I liked this dish, but then again, I like oysters. I think the combination of the eggs and the flour mixture gave it a dense, almost sticky texture. But it was still good. 

I wasn't as much as a fan of this, but my husband liked it.
The next dish I made was Sayur Masak Lemak, or curry vegetables. I left out the shrimp paste because I couldn’t find it where I was shopping, so I hope it doesn’t make a huge difference. Instead, I mixed a little bit of salmon roe furikake with some water and mashed it together, hoping it would do the trick. I mixed that with some diced onion, and chili paste in a bowl and pounded with a mortar until it was like a paste. I chose cooked salad shrimp in lieu of prawns and let them thaw and sprinkled them with sugar, setting them aside. In a small saucepan, I heated some oil and sautéed the chili paste I just made and then added in my shrimp and shredded cabbage (I used a pre-made cole slaw mix, so it had some bits of carrot in it too). I let it cook down until the cabbage was almost done. Then I poured in 180mL of water along with 120mL of coconut milk and a touch of salt, letting it boil for several minutes before removing it from the heat. I served this with some white rice. I thought this was moderately bland in flavor, and the shrimp got tough when I heated everything up. But it wasn’t bad. I always expect anything labeled as “curry” to be spicy, but it’s not really.

I think I'm the only one who liked this.
Finally, I made Steamed Tofu. I had eaten some similar dishes when I was in Japan. In a pot, I mixed together some minced chicken with some mushrooms, onion, minced garlic, ginger, corn flour, soy sauce, sesame oil, a little wine, and a little bit of pepper. I let this mixture cook for about a 10 minutes because I was using canned chicken, stirring occasionally. While that was cooking, I cut my tofu into nine squares. In each square, I used a teaspoon and scooped out a hole in the middle of it. Then I took a little of the chicken mixture and filled it in the hole, topping it with a couple of dried cranberries. I actually had forgotten to steam it. But I ended up just garnishing them with parsley and drizzling them with a sauce made of a little water, soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch, and a dash of wine. I liked this: the combination of the cranberries with the chicken and the parsley was fantastic. The kids had a hard time with the texture, and I remember my first time eating tofu. It was certainly an experience.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good meal, but with some minor changes. 
I enjoyed this meal, but then again, I like Asian food. I realized this meal was heavy on the seafood, but that’s ok. I also found out that canned oysters aren’t as expensive as I thought they were going to be. I loved fried oysters, but whenever I order them from a restaurant, I get like five of them. Granted, they are usually larger than what was in the can, but I can get two or three cans of smaller ones, and that would make for a good meal. I’m so excited about this roundabout way of making my favorite foods. And I was finally able to use that can of coconut milk that had been in my cabinet for months.

Up next: Slovakia

Saturday, September 8, 2018

SINGAPORE: MUSIC AND DANCE



Pop music may seem to dominate Singaporean music these days, but every single one of these musicians are the product of its diverse musical history. 

 
One of the dominant musical cultures in Singaporean music is the numerous genres and styles. Music of the Hakka people and Chinese opera (especially Hanju opera and Teochew opera) are especially popular, combining music and stories with performance. Some of these may be on a smaller scale performed at festivals, while others may be a large-scale event. There are also quite a few amateur or community-based Chinese orchestra organizations throughout Singapore.

 
Malay music, like Dondang Sayang (a love ballad performed by a chamber group of sorts) and Kroncong (a style using a ukulele-like instrument and others in an ensemble along with a singer), is also a part of Singaporean music. Other Malay vocal forms like Malay opera (called Bangsawan), ghazal, and dikir barat are also popular in the Malay communities. Even Hindustani, Karnatica, and Bhangra style music from India are also heard in many areas.

Peraranakan music is a blend of styles stemming from a mix of Chinese and Malay traditions, introduced by the Chinese who intermarried with the local Malay people. This mix of Chinese and Malay traditions and culture is often mixed with the English language. One of the most striking examples is a song called "Bunga Sayang" that was popular in 1994 and became an anthem of sorts for the National Day Parade and the 117th International Olympic Committee session for host city selection.


If you’re a fan of Western classical music, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to listen to classical music in Singapore. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra performs at the famous Esplanade Concert Hall, but it also gives free performances in local parks. Several other orchestras and opera companies perform around Singapore, and music education is encouraged in Singapore. Several high-profile and talented musicians have performed with these groups.


Dance in Singapore incorporates the dances of many of its neighbors as well as traditional dances of its ethnic communities. The Lion Dance, a Chinese dance, is performed more often around New Years festivals. The Malay national dance is the Zapin, introduced in 1937. The Bharatnatyam and other south Indian dances are taught in the Tamil communities. 


I came across a number of modern musicians. Probably one of the most recognized musicians from Singapore is Stefanie Sun. Singing in Chinese, her music is pop but utilizes quite a bit of classical elements in her music. At least from the album I was listening to. I liked her style and will probably listen more this week.


Another pop singer I liked was JJ Lin. Also singing in Chinese, his music is more in line with pop with some minor influences from EDM. I enjoyed the few songs that I sampled from him. I can tell there is quite a bit of expressionism in his music. Like, it’s not all dance-pop, but there are some darker and quieter songs included on the album.

Kit Chan stood out, not for sounding close to what the Japanese sometimes call Hello Kitty (kittii-chan), but because the first song on the album I was listening to is piano jazz. I know the Japanese have a thing for jazz, but apparently it’s popular in Singapore, too. The rest of the album wasn’t jazz, but it did use the piano quite a bit.

There were several musicians whose music is a mix of a variety of rock/indie rock or pop styles with some traditional influences. And almost every single one uses the piano. Some of them sang in Chinese (Tanya Chua, Mavis Hee) but many sang in English (Corrinne May, Sophie Koh, The Sam Willows, Gentle Bones, The Steve McQueens, Pleasantry, HubbaBubbas, Sam Rui, Leon Markcus, Nathan Hartono).

There’s actually a hardcore punk scene in Singapore that got started during the 1980s. I love punk, and I was not disappointed in listening to the band Radigals. It sounds like they might be an all-female group, which totally makes me happy. I may have to jam out to them later on. It kind of reminds me of that anime Aggretsuko.  They need to make a longer album because I definitely need more of this in my life.

Up next: the food

Thursday, September 6, 2018

SINGAPORE: ART AND LITERATURE



Singapore's history has been one long story of sharing this tiny space with people from India to Malaysia to China to Britain and others. Each of these groups' art and culture converged on Singapore and became something uniquely Singaporean. Art in Singapore incorporates many different Asian cultures along with a variety of European influences as well.


Although their art has been influenced by many different cultures, there is one culture that dominates their art. Chinese immigrants who moved to Singapore introduced calligraphy, sculptures, and the art of porcelain, many of which are based on the Nanyang art styles. This form was highly dependent on expressionism but also used folklore and indigenous beliefs as part of their art. 


example of Nanyang style
The turbulent times after WWII was a major blow to all of the cultural arts. For the most part, it was nonexistent as Singaporeans rebuilt their country. As they moved into independence, multiculturalism was a prominent theme. Soon, the acceptance of the commercialism of public and private art crescendoed into an explosion of Singaporean artists creating art on a world stage.

by Ng Woon Lam
Today, Singaporean art takes in all modern art movements of its many ethnic groups found in this small country. It has become a hub of Asian and European art. Some artists include Chua Ek Kay (thought of as the "bridge between Asian and Western art," uses many Chinese-style techniques), Cheong Soo Pieng (prominent artist in the Nanyang style, helped drive modern art), Georgette Chen (known for Post-impressionism), Ng Eng Teng (known as the Grandfather of Singapore Sculpture), Lim Tze Peng (artist and teacher, awarded Cultural Medallion in 2003), Ho Ho Ying (known for avant-garde Chinese calligraphy and Abstract Expressionism), and Ng Woon Lam (member of National Watercolor Society and American Watercolor Society). 

by Ho Ho Ying
Literature in Singapore is generally written in one their four languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, or Malay. There is a strong tradition for the written word in Singapore, but it doesn't necessarily mean traditional novels, poetry, and written text. It also includes spoken word and performance art.


Many of the Chinese immigrants to Singapore brought their poetry with them, and it certainly has been a medium for choice for many of the Chinese living there. Soon, writers began to publish modernist poetry in English, the first of which (Teo Poh Leng's "F.M.S.R") was possibly published in London in 1937 under the pseudonym Francis P. Ng.

After Singapore gained its independence, there was a renewed push in literature. Several writers emerged and led the way, embracing expressionist styles and not only publishing their works in Singapore but the world. Writers began to produce poems, novels, and plays about the life and culture of Singapore as well as address intimate or taboo topics like sexuality, social issues, and gay rights.
 

Genres like children's literature, science fiction, graphic novels, and drama are growing in popularity for writers. Several writers have won numerous awards for their work in these genres, even making it on the international stage.  A few notable authors include Pao Kun Kuo (playwright, founded three arts and drama centers), Haresh Sharma (playwright, has written more than 100 plays), Catherine Lim (fiction writer, touching on themes about Chinese culture in Singapore society), Michael Chiang (often considered one of the more successful playwrights), Goh Sin Tub (wrote numerous novels and short stories in Malay), Goh Poh Seng (novelist, playwright, poet, also has a medical degree), Ng Yi-Sheng (poet and writer, won awards for his work on LGBTQ in Singapore), among many others.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, September 3, 2018

SINGAPORE: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


When I was a freshman in high school, a high-profile case out of Singapore made international news. An American teenager going to school there, only a few years older than I was at the time, was caught as part of a group of rowdy kids vandalizing cars, tearing down street signs, and doing other stupid things. What was controversial was the differences in punishment between the US and Singapore. Basically, Singapore doesn't mess around when it comes to this kind of behavior: he was assigned to 4 months prison time, a fine of more than US$2000--and six strokes from a bamboo cane. Many Americans thought the caning was too excessive for a teenager. They did compromise and reduce it to four strokes. Although many Americans were upset with the way it rolled out, there were also many Americans who made the point that you are subject to the laws and ordinances of wherever you visit. 

The name Singapore comes from the Malay word Singapura, which is based on the Sanskrit words simha ("lion") and pura ("town"). For this reason, they're often known as Lion City, even though there were never really any lions in this area. The main central island is known as Pulau Ujong and means "island at the end" because of its location on the end of the Malay Peninsula.



Besides Pulau Ujong, Singapore consists of 62 other islands located in the Singapore Strait at the end of Malaysia and across from the Riau Islands of Indonesia. The Johor Strait separates Singapore from Malaysia and is so narrow, it pretty much looks like a river. Because of urbanization on this limited landmass, Singapore has lost nearly 95% of the forests that were once there. However, in the late 1960s, the government started promoting more green space and gardens, thus giving itself the nickname Garden City. The islands are in a tropical climate, so there are no distinct seasons outside of rainy and dry.



In ancient times, it has been referred to by many names and included as part of local poetry. Once referred to as Temesek, it was considered part of the Indian Kingdoms. Portuguese sailors arrived in the early 1600s and burned down the settlement known as Fort Canning, and the island was generally left alone for the next couple of centuries. Sir Stamford Raffles, a British statesman known for establishing British settlements in the East Indies, arrived in Singapore in 1819 and thought it would be a prime location for a new port for the British East India Company. The sultanate was unstable at the time, and through some shady finagling, he was able to secure the exiled older brother back into Singapore as long as they let him build the port. They did, and Singapore got its start. In 40 years, the population grew from around 1000 to nearly 80,000 as many people from all over arrived to work on the plantations (mainly pepper and gambier at that time). By the 1890s, rubber had become a cash crop, and this area became a global hub for it. After WWI, the British began building a large naval base there; it was finally completed just at the onset of WWII. With the Japanese invasion of British Malaya, the base proved to be moderately useful when the Battle of Singapore took place in 1942. However, it was a huge loss to the British, with about 85,000 captured and 5000 killed (mostly Australians, though). After the war, there were riots and revenge killings and general pandemonium. Food shortages, damaged infrastructure, unemployment, and disease didn't help either. The failure of the British to help rebuild didn't go unnoticed in the eyes of Singaporeans, and thus began talks of anti-colonialism and independence. Chinese communists began to fight against the government during the 1950s, and in 1959 they voted to be a commonwealth with Lee Kuan Yew as their first Prime Minister. At that time Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia (made of Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, North Borneo [British territory], and Sarawak [British territory]). However, Singapore disagreed with Malaysia on some key issues, and basically they were voted out. They became the Republic of Singapore in 1965 with that exit, and their first few years started off on a somewhat rocky start. However, it didn't take long for them to establish their place in the world. Their higher-tech economic policies helped push them from a third-world country into a world leader. The Port of Singapore is now one of the busiest ports in the world. Although they weathered through some natural disasters, public health and financial crises, they recently made the news a few months ago as offering a neutral ground for Trump and Kim Jong-un to hold the first meeting between the US and North Korea.


Supertrees a the Garden by the Bay

Singapore is a city-state (like Monaco and the Vatican), so it's capital is... Singapore. However it's divided into planning areas: 55 areas across five separate regions. Of these planning areas, Bedok is the largest with nearly 290,000 people. Singapore has become a world center for finance, education, trade, tourism, and often is ranked high on a number of global lists.


Singapore's economy is not only ranked as one of the highest in Asia, but in the world. It's often ranked as one of the freest and one of the easiest to do business with, and it has shown immense growth over the past several decades. However, it's also ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in (they're also known for having the largest percentage of millionaires). It's viewed as a tax haven with low unemployment and is known for its zero tolerance when it comes to corruption. And it's for these reasons that nearly 7000 multinational companies have chose to create branch locations in Singapore. Because of and leading to this multi-ethnic environment, around 44% of the workforce consist of foreign or immigrant workers. There's no minimum wage in Singapore, believing it adds to the competitiveness of business, but what it really adds to is a larger gap in income inequality. 


Buddhism is the main religion of Singapore, with nearly a third of its population practicing it. Because of its location and history, there are quite a few followers of Christianity as well, followed by Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism. Surprisingly, there are a significant number of people who do not adhere to any particular religion at all. A Pew Research Center study concluded that Singapore is one of the most religiously diverse, yet conservative, countries in the world. 



There are four languages in Singapore that have been granted official status: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Of these languages, English is the most common language in terms of government, business, and education. Documents may be written in the other languages, but it also has to be translated into English as well. So, it seems like while they're all official, English (which is based on British English) is a little more official, although Malay has been seen as a national language in the past. And most Singaporeans are bilingual between English and one of the other languages. 


I'm not a fast walker. Well, ok, I'm generally faster than kids under 10. But that's mostly because I'm only 5-feet tall. Anyway, I came across this article about a British study of which countries produce the world's fastest walkers. It studied adults who were not on their phones or carrying excessive bags and timed how long it took them to walk 18 meters (about 59 feet). Singaporeans came out on top, averaging the trek in about 10.55 seconds. That just seems insane to me. I would die. I'm only hoping that means they're on their way to eating some fantastic Singaporean food somewhere. Now, I MIGHT walk that fast if there’s food or drink at the end.

Up next: art and literature