Thursday, January 31, 2013


Art has long had an important standing in Bulgaria’s history and goes back to the days of antiquity. The arts in general are seen as a means of expression. Some of the most best preserved pieces are from ancient Thracian art. The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak is a key piece that allows us to learn about their lifestyles and their culture. It’s been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.  The tomb consists of a long hall covered in murals, depicting funeral rituals, paintings of horses, and other scenes. It’s considered one of the most well-preserved artifacts of Hellenistic art of the Middle Ages. One of the murals is of a couple who are seated and holding each other’s wrists in a moment of good-bye. In fact, the woman in this scene was placed on the back of the 50-stotinki coin (issued in 2005).

Murals, frescos, and icon art have been an important medium throughout the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages which saw a large push towards the visual arts. And no doubt there was some outside influence from the Romans and Greeks.  Many art schools started popping up, especially in the old capital of Tarnovo which became a center for the arts. While it was similar to other schools of art, it actually was unique in other ways, especially when it came to realism and individualism.  Many artists around this time focused their skills on mural painting in churches. The Bulgarian National Revival of the 18th and 19th centuries brought another surge in promoting the arts, and as they gained their independence, they also expanded their repertoire to include other European art movements.

One famous artist is Christo, who studied art at Sofia’s Academy of Fine Arts before travelling around and eventually losing his citizenship. His wife Jean-Claude (who was born in Morocco) did large works of environmental art. Some of the famous ones are the Pont-Neuf Bridge in Paris, The Gates in New York City’s Central Park, the 24-mile “Running Fence” in California, and the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin.

The Gates -- looks like giant hurdles with curtains. 
The artist known as Pascin studied art in Paris (and especially the art circles in and around Montparnasse) and was best known for his influences in the Modernist movement. He created a lot of watercolor and sketches, many of which he sold to newspapers and magazines. He had long battled depression and alcoholism which had turned fatal with his suicide in 1930 at the age of 45.  He divided his estate equally between his wife and his mistress. I’m sure that left a few people in awkward situations.

One of the most prolific painters from Bulgaria is Vladimir Dimitrov.  Later in life, he simply became known as Maystora, or the Master.  He utilized many post-Impressionistic styles (as well as others) and tended to use bright colors in his work as well.  He was quite eccentric: he chose to live in poverty, never wore new clothes or shaved, and ate a vegetarian diet.  Some called him a saint, even while he was still alive.  Maystora Peak, part of the South Shetland Islands (Antarctica) is named after him. 

Bulgarian literature in general is any literature written in the Bulgarian language, and is one of the oldest forms of literature of the Slavic peoples. Of course, being the inventor of the Cyrillic alphabet sort of puts Bulgarian literature in its place at the top of the class of Slavic literature, and it led to the formation and expansion of literary schools, namely the Preslav, Ohliv Literary School, and the Tarnovo Literary School. Medieval literature is mostly centered around religious texts, treatises, hymns, letters, and historical documents.
During the Bulgarian National Revival, as with the other areas of the arts, literature also surged. One of the most important voices to come out of this movement is Hristo Botev, notable poet and revolutionary. Others include Lyuben Karavelov and Georgi Sava Rakovski (whose Gorski Patnik is considered one of Bulgaria’s first literary poems).

Ivan Vazov is considered the “father of new Bulgarian literature” in the years after the country gained liberation from the Ottomans. He’s most famous for his book called Under the Yoke which has been translated into over 30 languages.

Modern Bulgarian literature generally starts right around the time of their independence, or the beginning of the 20th century. It started to include and become influenced by other European philosophies, but maybe only in parts. Symbolist poetry became a very common catalyst for expressing political and social ideologies. Peyo Yavorov, Hristo Smirnenski, and Dimcho Debelyanov were three such poets who developed and made names for themselves as well as many others. The focal point of this movement is like offering an alternate plane for the bleak realities around them. It’s often full of emotions, yet intellectual with many historical and literary references. It tends to be descriptive, refined, and introspective.

The communist years after WWII certain had its effects on Bulgarian literature. Certain books were not able to be published and others were required to be changed. However, as communism began to fade from this area as a form of control, literature was allowed to grow and expand into many of the popular genres of the 20th century found in Western and European literature: surrealism, expressionism, existentialism, postmodernism, crime fiction, science fiction, and structuralism.  Elias Canetti, mostly writing in German, became the first Bulgarian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. He was known for his novels Auto-da-Fé and Crowds and Power.

Elias Canetti

Up next: Music and Dance

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Bulgarian holidays are an assortment of marking national and historical events, religious holidays and incorporating folklore into their celebrations.

New Years.  January 1-2.  Bulgarians like to bring in the New Year amidst family and friends. Many eat foods that are considered lucky (and avoid unlucky foods) and carry on old traditions, especially involving wishing for good health and prosperity.  A lot of people drink rakia, a type of grape brandy (because there’s nothing like toasting to good health with alcohol. I do it every weekend. So far, so good.). Some people take the twigs of a dogwood tree and tie colored pieces of paper to them. Children will give these twigs to their parents, grandparents, and family members to wish them a good new year, in exchange for candies, trinkets, and coins. Cheese banitsas with cornel (dogwood) buds baked in are also quite popular (but I’m wondering where would you get dogwood buds in January?)  It’s also a time for people to buy new clothes.

Granny Martha Day.  March 1. Also called Baba Marta in Bulgaria. It’s based on a folklore story of Baba Marta, an old woman who was usually angry with January (a great horned beetle) and February (a small horned beetle). When she got angry, there was a change of weather. Tradition also has it that another old woman (April) was bringing her flock to the mountains toward the end of March and asked to borrow a few days, so Baba Marta made it snow and froze the flock. I have a feeling there are some gaps in this folklore story that I’m missing. People usually celebrate this folklore story by wearing red and white woven bracelets, the red representing “life or birth” and the white standing for “new,” so together, it means a “new life” or “rebirth.”  

Liberation Day.  March 3. This celebrates Bulgaria’s independence and liberation from Ottoman Rule. Known elsewhere as the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, it became known as the Liberation War in Bulgaria. The Ottomans had controlled the area for nearly 500 years, and it was officially declared freed with the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano. People celebrate by placing flowers and wreaths at liberation monuments, and for those cities which were ravaged during the war, it’s celebrated in a more subdued manner. Some places will celebrate with fireworks, though. Other places will celebrate with speeches and ceremonies (especially at Sofia’s Unknown Soldier Monument) as well as street parades.

Women’s Day.  March 8. Also known as International Women’s Day. It started as a day of appreciation towards women’s achievements in politics, economics, and society. It’s not considered a public holiday, but in Bulgaria, it’s also treated like Mother’s Day where children will give gifts (and especially flowers) to their mothers, grandmother, and other important women in their lives, like teachers, etc.

Good Friday.  Varies. Also called Orthodox Good Friday. Businesses and schools close for this day, and many will attend special church services. Churches will often set a table as a symbol of the coffin of Christ. Some practitioners will climb underneath it in hopes of having health and fertility for the next year. (I’m having trouble finding the correlation between the two. I suppose maybe it’s the climbing out from underneath it.) Bulgarians will dye eggs red either the day before (on Maundy Thursday) or the day after (on Easter Saturday), in hopes of good health and fortune and will keep it until the next Easter. (I’m certainly hoping they hollowed it out. Otherwise, I guess be careful you don’t drop it, even it is hardboiled.)

Easter.  Varies. Also called Orthodox Easter. For the roughly six weeks of Lent, people will fast from eating all animal and fish and their products (like milk, butter, caviar, eggs, etc.) – basically a vegan diet.  So, when Easter comes, they celebrate with a huge feast full of all the things they’ve been avoiding during the Lenten season. One common food is a braided bread called a kozunak (probably similar in concept and origin to the choreg I made from Armenia), and lamb is always served (one of my favorite meats).

Easter Monday.  Varies. Also called Orthodox Easter Monday. Many people take this day to relax from the events of the past Holy Week. Some call it Bright Monday or New Monday, since people are celebrating the joyousness of the holiday after Easter now. I really wish we had Easter Monday in the US, just because it’s so hard to run all over on Easter and then have to get up and go to work the next day.

Labor Day.  May 1. Celebrated in many of the ways it is celebrated internationally, Labor Day is a holiday celebrating the struggles of the worker and promoting fair labor practices.

St. George’s Day.  May 6. This day is in honor of the Bulgarian Land Forces. They were established in 1878 and comprised of mostly anti-Ottoman forces. They currently enlist on a voluntary basis, even though that has not been the case in the past (during the communist years, there was a required two-year conscription). Currently, there are peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. The holiday is named after St. George, one of the most prominent military saints. There are large parades held in Sofia. It’s also a popular tradition to prepare a whole lamb on this day.

Radio and Television Day. May 7. In Eastern Europe, most people credit Alexander Popov with the invention of the radio, as opposed to people in the West attributing the honor to Tesla and even going back further to Marconi.  In 1885, Popov gave a demonstration of his invention to the Russian Physical and Chemical Society. It’s an official holiday in both Russia and Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Literature Day.  May 24. More specifically, this is a day in honor of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the two saints who developed the Cyrillic alphabet while studying and working on translations in a school in Plovdiv in the mid-800s AD. It’s become a holiday that promotes pride in their own culture and using language as a means of making gains in the sciences and the arts.

Unification Day.  September 6. This day commemorates the uniting of Bulgaria and Eastern Roumelia. The Treaty of Berlin (a revision of the San Stefano Treaty) read that Eastern Roumelia (whose capital was Plovdiv) was returned to the Ottoman Empire after the Russo-Turkish War. Believing this to be unfair, Bulgarians waged peaceful demonstrations against this. However, on September 6, a small group of nationals marching in and retook over Plovdiv, and the word had gotten to the Ottomans and the rest of the world that Bulgaria had reunited with the Eastern Roumelia province. The holiday is especially celebrated in Plovdiv, but elsewhere throughout the country as well.

Independence Day.  September 22. This marks the independence from the Ottoman Empire. Even though Bulgaria had gained autonomy after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and had united with Eastern Roumelia in 1885, it didn’t officially become an independent sovereign nation until 1908. The old capital of Veliko Tarnovo, the site of the official signing of independence, is where many of the largest celebrations occur, but the entire country is decorated in white, green, and red and has their own festivities.

Revival Day.  November 1.  The first Revival Day was in 1908, just after gaining independence. At one point, just after WWII, it was almost a non-existent holiday. However, after escaping from communist rule in the 1990s, Revival Day made a comeback. It’s not such a glamorous holiday with fireworks and parades and such. It’s more of a holiday geared toward the hope that their country can come together and become more stable politically and economically. 

Christmas Eve and Christmas. December 24-26.  The odd thing is that Bulgaria is mostly an Orthodox country, which normally celebrates Christmas on January 7, but Bulgarians celebrate it on the same days as Catholics and Protestants.  Christmas Eve dinner is an assortment of grains, fruits and vegetables, and nuts. Twelve different dishes were prepared to represent the twelve different months. Walnuts are especially cracked to use as a prediction for the coming year. They also bake a round bread with a coin inside, and whoever gets the coin is rewarded with good fortune (which will come in handy for those dental bills from biting into a coin). There’s one belief that Mary actually gave birth to the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve, but just announced it on Christmas Day. Another legend says that she was actually in labor from December 20 until she gave birth. (I was in labor for 19 hours with my daughter, and that was exhausting enough. So four days is beyond me.) Christmas Day brings an elaborate meal (with meat, usually pork).  Koledari are carolers, usually men dressed in traditional clothes, who go from house to house singing carols. It’s thought to ward off evil spirits. (As a music major, I think singing in and of itself wards off evil spirits. But only if it’s in tune. And in good taste.)

Up next: Art and Literature

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Years ago, I had volunteered as a tutor in adult ESL classes held in a suburb just south of Indianapolis, and I had made many friends from all over the world. It always amazed me how many people from all over the world were here in the Indianapolis area. One of the students who sat at my table for a while was from Bulgaria, a country that the only thing I knew about it was that it was in Europe.

And I wasn’t exactly wrong. Bulgaria lies in southern Europe, but north of Greece and Turkey and next to the Black Sea. It’s considered part of the Balkans, and also borders Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia to the north and west respectively.  The Black Sea is actually an interesting body of water. There aren’t any high tides or low tides, leaving the water level fairly even.  It’s also one of the few places (and the largest) where the water is anoxic, meaning it’s depleted of oxygen (and basically dead underneath the top layer of water). So the creepy part is that when people have died in the numerous shipwrecks that have occurred over the centuries, their bodies will remain more or less intact since the rate of deterioration is extremely slow from lack of oxygen in the water at the bottom of the sea. Anyone want to go deep-sea diving?

Some of the oldest artifacts in the world have dated to Bulgaria, including the first Germanic language book (the Wulfila Bible from the 4th century). The city of Plovdiv is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, dating back to around 6000 BC. The coastal city of Varna is the site where the oldest gold treasure was found.

The Bulgarian Empire has seen many transformations since the beginning, and given its proximity to Turkey was also part of the Ottoman Empire at one time as well. It wasn’t until after WWII, when Bulgaria changed from being a monarchy into a republic but was highly influenced by the Russian communist mode of government. With the collapse of communist Russia in the late 1980s, Bulgaria became its own free state and held its first democratic elections.

There are several theories as to the origin of the name Bulgaria. One is from the Bulgur peoples who originally inhabited in the area.  Another may be from a Turkish origin meaning “mixed” since they believe this to be a mixed race of people. Yet, another theory is that it may stem from a possible meaning of “people from the Bolg [Volga] River.” 

The country itself is mostly mountainous with a couple of ranges arching its way through the country. It’s also countered with a few plains areas as well, and has a very wide array of temperature changes in different areas of the country because of its landscape. Three main rivers cut their way across Bulgaria: the Iskar, the Struma and the Maritsa (this one made my daughter happy knowing there’s a river that almost sounds like her name).

Bulgaria is the fourth-largest producer of gold in Europe and the sixth-largest producer of coal. It’s also the world’s largest producer of perfumed essential oils such as lavender oil and rose oil. For years, I used oils rather than perfumes. But chances are if you have some perfume, lotion, body wash, etc. with a floral scent, the oil in it may have also likely originated from Bulgaria.

Even though Bulgaria declared itself a secular state, most of the people practice Orthodoxy, but you’ll find followers of all religions there. The official language and most-widely spoken language is Bulgarian which uses the Cyrillic alphabet (many years ago before I became a sage, I used to just call it Russian; I was sorely mistaken. While Russian does use the Cyrillic alphabet, so does 29 other languages. In fact, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, Cyrillic became the third official script of the EU, after Latin and Greek.)

The capital and largest city in Bulgaria is Sofia. (The city’s name is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable [SO-fee-a], as opposed to the women’s name [so-FEE-a]). Sofia has slightly more people than the Indianapolis metro area, about 1.2 million people. It’s known for its mineral and thermal springs (another reason why I’d love to vacation there). Sofia has many high-quality art museums making the visual arts scene a really popular attraction. They used to have a thriving film industry as well, and even though it’s waned in recent years, several large films have been partly filmed in and around Sofia, including The Expendables 2, Hitman, The Black Dahlia, and Conan the Barbarian.  They also have one of the largest IMAX theatres in Europe. (I just took my kids to see their first 3D movie at the IMAX last year. They loved it!) The city has been passed over three times for the Winter Olympics, but they did host the FIVB [men’s] Volleyball World League finals in 2012, which Bulgaria came in fourth. 

For not knowing much about this country, it has fascinated me right away with just this initial look. I found my recipes quickly, even though it was hard to narrow it down. Bulgarian cuisine has a lot of overtones from Greek and Turkish influences and is a culinary montage of southern Europe. In fact, up until the late 1980s, Bulgaria was the number two exporter of wine. (I’m definitely going to be taking a little tour to my favorite liquor store to see if I can find any.) So, brush up on your Cyrillic, grab some wine, and get ready for Bulgaria.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Monday, January 21, 2013


This weekend has been busy with meetings, doing a little overtime at work, and we finally got a cat. (I let my 7-year-old daughter name her: she named her Morocco. I’m ok with that.) But it’s also a 3-day weekend for Martin Luther King’s birthday, a holiday that – now that I’ve moved up a little in the company – I get off now. Perfect for some Bruneian food, right?

As I sifted through recipes, there were a lot of recipes that used seafood, which makes sense seeing how it’s on an island. They also use a lot of spices in their cooking, but if you’re in the middle of the spice route, I think it’s to be expected. However, it was harder to find recipes that didn’t have a lot of hard-to-find ingredients.
Yu choy sum, since they apparently didn't have choy sum. This is my substitution for rape. 
For the main dish, I went with a recipe for Brunei cutlets. It’s actually flake tuna, onion, green chilies, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, salt, pepper, cardamom, and potatoes all mixed together in a skillet. It called for curry leaves, and I was pretty sure I could find some at the international grocery store, but I didn’t feel like driving all the way there. (This crazy weather is taking a slight toll on my energy levels.) But I did find that some substitutions for it would be either bay leaves or basil, both of which I have readily available, but forgot to put it in. (Argh!) However, after it’s cooled a bit, form it into a patty and dip it into a beaten egg mix and again in bread crumbs and fry it until it’s a golden brown color. It turned out so good, that even my finicky 4-year-old son ate it! (High-five for me!)

Brunei cutlets. And my kids thought they hated tuna. 
The next dish I made was called Noodles & Tofu. Even though I had studied Japanese for nearly 20 years, and have eaten a lot of Japanese food, I had never actually bought tofu before. This dish called for both firm tofu and dried tofu. I never did find dried tofu, but I did find what was called a fried tofu cutlet. And fried and dried rhyme, so that should count for something. It called to take both kinds of tofu and fry them in sesame oil anyway, so… it was ok in my book. I mixed some ginger, my substitute for asadoetida powder (heaping ½ tsp onion powder and level ½ tsp of garlic powder), choy sum (Meijer had a sign for choy sum, but had yu choy sum in its place – it’s a leafy green that I think is similar to chard, but has a flavor more like spinach. It’s good that they called it choy sum at the store; another name for it is rape, as in rapeseed, and I’m pretty sure a Google search for “substitution for rape” wouldn’t help me here), cooked Chinese noodles, soy sauce, lemon juice, the fried tofu, and bean sprouts. I stir-fried it for several minutes until it was all mixed thoroughly and everything was warm. I really liked it, and so did the kids. My son also ate a few pieces of tofu (not sure if it was unknowingly or purposely, but he ate it.) The recipe called to mix in a little sambal oelek, a spicy sauce made from red chilies and salt that I left out. Unfortunately, my husband and kids are wimps.

This was so good, but the best part is that I could add a variety of other vegetables and meats as well. 
As far as bread recipes go, I only found a couple. One was for these brightly colored cupcakes, but I wasn’t sure if I could’ve found fermented cassava, so I went with custard tarts. You make the dough, and then you roll it out until it’s fairly thin and cut a circle out of it. Then you take these circles and spread it out inside of a muffin cup. I pinched the tops to make it look more tart-like. The custard part goes in the middle: a mix of eggs, sugar, a little salt, and some milk. After it goes in the oven for 30-35 minutes, it should be ready to take out.  Of course the custard was bubbled up, but after it cooled down a bit, it all collapsed. I did (at the request of my husband), add a little cinnamon and allspice to the custard, which made it taste a little better. Next time, I’ll use a ½ cup of sugar instead of 1/3 cup of sugar (also at the request of my husband).

Really surprisingly good. Better when it's completely cool, as I found out . 
For a country that I knew very little about, I found its diversity fascinating. In doing research, I came across a lot of mentions on how tolerant they were about their diversity, from ethnic diversity to religious diversity. I came across an article regarding how Christians weren’t treated fairly in Brunei, and it caught my attention because it seemed anathema to what I had been reading. So, I read it to find out if there was possibly another side of a story; however, the comments section was filled with Bruneians denouncing that fact. They truly try to live up to their official name: Brunei, Abode of Peace. They have found a way to live among each other and share in each other’s differences, and that their country recognizes that if there’s something they cannot provide, then they will help you find it elsewhere. It’s too bad that idea has trouble establishing itself in other places. And the best part of being in a diverse area is the impact on its music, its art, its literature, and of course, its food.

The finished product. 

Up next: Bulgaria

Saturday, January 19, 2013


The music and dance traditions in Brunei share many similarities and cultural origins as those of Malaysia and Indonesia. Folk traditions are the oldest. It seems that one slightly unifying trend would be a sort of call-and-response style, and I say that in very general terms.

One type of folk song is a group work song performed by only fisherman called the adai-adai.  If you watch the dance, it certainly looks like it's telling a story. Most music is performed in conjunction with something else, either work (like with adai-adai) or with dance. Some of the more common instruments used are the dombak (a type of drum that is shaped like a goblet), rebana (a type of tambourine that’s especially used in Islamic devotional music in this area of the world), different kinds and sizes of gongs, various types of percussion, and coconut shells.

Since European occupation, Western classical music and their instruments have had their place for a long time. The Brunei Music Society has been promoting and giving classical music concerts in Bandar Seri Begawan since 1972. 

As far as popular music goes today, it seems that there is quite a bit of popular music on YouTube. Rock, pop, and R&B/hip-hop seem to be favorite genres. Spotify and iTunes have very little of current Bruneian music. But through some Google searches and YouTube, I did find a few groups that I liked. One very popular singer is Maria. She has a few songs out that are pretty popular on the radio airplay charts. Neff Aslee is another name that keeps popping up too.

Another band I discovered is D’Hask. I was really kind of disappointed that iTunes didn’t have any of their albums. They remind me a little of the Japanese band GLAY, both in sound and in looks. (I adored GLAY when I went to Japan back in 1998.)  I like this video mainly because of the motorcycle clothing, and the weird fact that Marilyn Manson is in it but is a minor character (or merely the name of a character listed as Marilyn Manson with a hairstyle inspired from Gary Oldman's character in The Fifth Element -- who can tell when you're wearing 1990s shades?). 

Here's another one, just because I like the song better. Even though I'm trying to figure out why Pamela Anderson is in the video (bragging rights maybe?). She just doesn't look like she fits in with the rest of the crowd. 

This song by Kuj called “Kleopatra” is really catchy – almost like an R&B song mixed with house/dance. I tried to find more of his stuff on Spotify or iTunes, much to my disappointment. I've decided that I really need this song to add to my collection. I guess I’ll have to listen to the YouTube video of the song forever. Or travel to Brunei and buy it. Maybe he’ll just read this blog and send it to me. (I’m also looking at you, D’Hask.)  I did find on Spotify a 39-song album called HipHop Brunei Darussalam, which I like a lot of the songs on: I'm surprised how American it sounds. But I couldn't find any information on who the artist is. 

The Kedayan people were spread all over the island of Borneo. Their language is actually the de facto language of Brunei.  Most Kedayans either work in the rice fields or are fishermen; they’re also very knowledgeable about the medicinal properties of herbs, something I have a great interest in myself (I just found an herb book while shopping at a local antique store today). But one of the things they are most known for is a ceremonial dance called the aduk-aduk. It’s performed around holidays, and during the times at the end of the harvest season. Many times, dancers wear the traditional red and black clothing of a warrior and the beat is borrowed from a type of Malay martial art called silat.  If you can get past the shaky camera work, it's really something to watch. I really like this: I'm not sure what it is they're holding (some kind of wooden instrument), but it gives it a deeper resonance than the claves -- probably better for a large crowd or outdoors. 

The Malay peoples have a dance called Jipin (or Zapin) dance. It’s performed by six men and women and uses many indigenous instruments, namely different types of gongs and the dombak drum and rebana (tambourine). In this short video, it does give you the opportunity to see the musicians as well. 

Up next: the food!

Thursday, January 17, 2013


The art in Brunei span across all mediums: paintings, sculptures, architecture, photography. A lot of their arts are a mixture of the old and the new. Some of the more popular items that are sold are silver items, bronze work, and hand-woven baskets. There’s a really popular open market – both with locals as well as tourists – in Bandar Seri Begawan called Tamu that sells art and other locally made items.

Much of the earliest Bruneian art goes back to the Kenyah and Kayan civilizations who occupied much of Borneo. The Kenyah and Kayan peoples populated the island, and animals were an important part of their art. Art is shared among both sexes: men traditionally work with wood and metal, while women are pretty much the only ones who work in bead work and textiles. Their spiritual world shows up in much of their art and architecture. Many times they decorate their homes, clothing, and objects they use with protective spiritual images as a means of using the protective powers they exude.

Men make these certain masks with really scary faces and ferocious expressions to protect the rice fields. It’s thought to be used as a way to ward off evil spirits that damage crops. They also developed a “soul-catching” mask, which they believed that when you sleep or are unconscious, your soul can escape from your body causing you to get sick. If they believe this is happening, they will send a shaman to catch it.

Women are exclusively the ones who do beadwork. It’s actually a very complex art, utilized in clothing, hats, baskets, and their unique baby carrier they have called a ba’. Many of these items use the tiny seed beads to make intricate designs. Beads were even once used as a means to purchase things, and it’s thought that certain kinds of beads have special powers and used as an amulet.

Most literature in Brunei is either written in Malay or in English. (I’ve read several English-language articles from The Brunei Times, one of their largest newspapers, to get information for these posts.) The most popular form of literature is a poetry style called sajak. No, not Pat Sajak, but close. (Actually, no. Pat Sajak is of Polish descent and grew up in Chicago.) Sajak is a Malay free-form style (meaning “rhyme” in English) that was full of nationalistic symbolism once used as a means of propaganda during the days when the Japanese occupied the island during WWII. There aren’t many Bruneian writers that are well-known outside of the region, but the most famous work that came out of Brunei is the epic poem called Sya’ir Awang Simawn, about a famous hero to their culture. However, there are a few books mentioned which use Brunei as its setting. One is a book called Armageddon by Dale Brown. Another is an Anthony Burgess novel called Devil of a State (I believe it’s the same author of A Clockwork Orange.). 

Up next: Music and Dance

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Brunei, being a mostly Muslim country, celebrates many Muslim holidays as public (non-working) holidays. Since Brunei is actually very diverse, you’ll find local celebrations representing many different groups around the country as well throughout the year.

New Year’s Day.  January 1.  New Year’s Eve is celebrated like in most places in the world, minus the drinking part, of course (since alcohol is banned). People stay up late and go out to clubs and restaurants (which may stay open later than usual) to bring in the New Year. Just this past New Year’s Eve (a few weeks ago), the prince of Brunei – who is a fan of celebrities apparently – paid Lindsay Lohan $100,000 to attend his New Year’s Eve party. That girl owes so much money in back taxes, she didn’t have any choice but to attend. I hope she was sober enough to enjoy it and realize what a cool thing that was. I’m also hoping he’s a fan of her early days.

Chinese New Year.  Varies.  Because of Brunei’s large Chinese population, it’s no surprise that Chinese New Year is also celebrated here as well. China and Brunei have had a long relationship for many centuries. This year in 2013 is the Year of the Snake, and will be celebrated on February 10. Celebrations usually last for about a week. There is usually a parade, paper lanterns are lit, and a fireworks display at night. Cultural displays, like music and dance, are also performed. People gather with friends and family, sharing in traditional meals and participating in the festivities.

Maulud (Birth of the Prophet).  February 4.  In Brunei, mass gatherings in honor of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday are spread across all four districts of the country.  Women will often gather in their own places to have their own celebrations.  Many people who are able will participate in a procession through the streets and will sit in on special prayers and speeches at the mosque in honor of the day. They will not only give homage to the Prophet, but there will also be a theme, such as engaging the youth in the community to become more well-balanced individuals in their spiritual and religious studies.

National Day. February 23.  This day marks the independence from Britain in 1984.  There are famous ceremonies that take place, which people plan for months in advance. It’s a combination of music and dance and other cultural arts. You’ll find the country decorated in yellow, black, and red (the colors of the flag) and many people will attend special prayer services at their local mosques. The actual proclamation was announced on January 1 at the stroke of midnight, but they celebrate their  Independence Day on February 23.

Anniversary of Royal Brunei Malay Regiment.  May 31.  This day commemorates the establishment of Brunei’s armed forces. In Brunei, the sultan is both head of state as well as the head of the army.  Originally, the army started out with only 60 members, but Brunei has since expanded not only the army, but also created a navy and an air force. Each branch is voluntary, but only citizens of Malay ethnicity can join. On this day, there are several large military parades held by all branches that the sultan will also participate in.

Israk Mikraj (Ascension of the Prophet).  June 17.  This holiday commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey from Masjidil Haram to Masjidil Aqsa and his subsequent ascension to the heavens.  Each year, there is a large celebration, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs will set a theme. For example, last year the theme was “Praying repels wrongdoing.”  There are also performances held throughout the ceremony by various groups, especially youth groups.

Sultan’s Birthday.  July 15.  The sultan of Brunei is considered one of the world’s wealthiest men. For him, it’s nothing beyond a reasonable expectation to go out all for his birthday. The day starts off with a nationwide prayer, followed by a royal address to the nation. The streets are decorated in the country’s colors and pictures of the sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, adorn every corner. Everyone in the country celebrates the sultan’s birthday, and dignitaries and celebrities from around the world come to celebrate the sultan’s birthday – extending the celebrations for a month.

Start of Ramadan.  July 20. Ramadan is the Muslim holiday that is centered around a month-long fast during the day. For non-Muslims, you would probably have your pick of restaurant availability during the day. After sunset, Muslims are finally allowed to break their fast with a meal, called iftar. There are variances as to what people eat at iftar, but for most people it’s a variety of fruits and grains, soups, chicken, nuts, and some kind of dessert. And then again, some people eat Western foods like hamburgers and pizza. After starving all day, it’s whatever you feel like, I suppose.

Anniversary of the Revelation of the Quran.  Varies. This marks the anniversary of when the Prophet Muhammad presented the Quran. The day is usually spent in quiet reflection and reading passages from the Quran.

Hari Raya Aidilfitri (End of Ramadan). August 19.  This is one of Brunei’s largest holidays of the year.  Shops, bazaars, and street vendors will sell their goods, often sweetening the deal to prepare for the holiday.  People will often buy shoes and sandals, clothing, and special food.  Banks, government offices, and schools will close for the festivities so that families and friends can celebrate together.  Many people will also travel to their hometowns during this time as well.  On the actual day, people will attend prayer services at the mosque, and there are special foods that are prepared (although it varies by region).

Ketupats (rice inside of woven palm leaves and then boiled) are popular at Aidilfitri. 
Hari Raya Aidiladha (Feast of the Sacrifice).  October 26.  The holiday ultimately is tied to Abraham sacrificing his only son because God had asked him to (but was spared at the last minute).  I found a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office on Aidil Adha that summed it up as this: “Aidil Adha is a symbol of sacrifice and extraordinary courage.  This special day of the Muslim calendar is also seen as a driving force for Muslims to be steadfast (istiqamah).” He also said, “Matters that are good must be expedited, and this is the meaning of change. Though it may be hard and challenging, it must be done. … There are many challenges and work that we have to face, let us accept these challenges.  We must be ahead of time, let us work to move forward.”  These are profound words to follow, even for non-Muslims.  Improving yourself and your community transcend any one person’s religion.

Hijrah (Islamic New Year). Around November. This day is in remembrance of the Prophet Muhammad’s trek from Mecca to Medina to avoid a plot to kill him. Since this was an important event, it marks the beginning of the Muslim New Year.  This day isn’t for large festivities, but rather a time for reflection. It’s more about getting rid of the bad habits of the past year and creating good ones for the new year (like how we make New Year’s resolutions).

Christmas Day. December 25. Even though Brunei is mostly a Muslim country, it is also known for its cultural and religious diversity. Christmas is celebrated in the usual exuberance as other countries that celebrate Christmas, although it’s not celebrated for as many days as in other countries. Most of the Christians reside in the capital city and in the Belait region, and they usually spend the holiday having large parties with friends and family.

Up next: Art and Literature

Saturday, January 12, 2013


The island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world and famous for its spices and aromatics (as part of the infamous Spice Route), is occupied by three countries: part of Indonesia, part of Malaysia, and the entire country of Brunei Darussalam.

Brunei has been deemed by Forbes and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the fifth richest country in the world due to its petroleum and natural gas fields. It’s actually divided into two areas, three states in one area, and the state of Temburong separated from the others by a narrow strip of land belonging to Malaysia (it was lost to them in a war).

Legend has it that when Awang Alak Betatar discovered the area that later became Brunei, he yelled, “Baru nah!” which has been loosely translated as “that’s it!” or “there!” and later became Brunei.  Another theory is that it was derived from the Sanskrit word “varun” which means “ocean” (where the word Borneo is also from). Because Brunei is a majority Muslim nation, the second part of its official name, Darussalam, means “abode of peace” in Arabic.

The Sultanate of Brunei was at its strongest between the 15th and 17th centuries and was once a pretty influential power in the area. However, the Spanish declared war to take over their lands, including many of the islands that are now part of the Philippines, and Brunei lost several of those islands to Spain. The British also attacked Brunei a couple of centuries later over a dispute as to who was the rightful Sultan, but then several years later, Brunei was placed as a protectorate of Britain in 1888 and remained so for the next 96 years, until their independence in 1984. During WWII, the Japanese overpowered the British who were stationed in Brunei and occupied the small country until it was liberated in 1945. However, through all of these changes, the same family has ruled Brunei for nearly six centuries.

The capital of Brunei is Bandar Seri Begawan, probably one of the longer capital city names. Not only is it the capital city, but it’s the largest city in Brunei, with almost 297,000 people in the metro area (about the same size as Cincinnati, Ohio). This city is home to Istana Nurul Iman, the home of the Sultan of Brunei, one of the wealthiest men in the world. It also holds the record as being the largest palace in the world. Although it is not open for tourists, its expansiveness is impressive in that it stands in at over two million square feet (which is larger than China’s Forbidden City and three times as large as the palace at Versailles in France)! Among its features are 1700 rooms, a dining room to seat 5000, its own mosque, an air-conditioned stable for his 200 polo ponies, 5 swimming pools, 18 elevators, 257 bathrooms (if you can’t find one, you’re not looking hard enough), and his 2000 cars (including 20 Lamborghinis and 165 Rolls-Royces). His car collection alone makes Jay Leno seem like an amateur.

While the Sultan is obviously living very well, the people aren’t hurting that bad either. Citizens in Brunei pay $1 for a consultation with a doctor through its national health care plan, and if a service or treatment cannot be done in the country, then they will send you overseas for the care that you need at the government’s expense. Education from preschool through high school is also free. There are several trade schools, vocational schools, and a few universities in Brunei, which are also free to its citizens.  And if there is an area of study where there are no programs in Brunei, the government will send you overseas to get the education you want – for free. This is what’s called giving back to the community and to its citizens.  If you give the people access to affordable (or free) healthcare and education so that they’re not in debt for these basic amenities of life, then they will have more disposable cash to buy things, putting it back into their own economy, therefore strengthening it. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and kudos to Brunei for understanding this.

Universiti Brunei Darussalam
Because of Brunei’s proximity to Malaysia, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that much of its culture is similar. The official language is Malay, although the most widely-spoken language is Malayu Brunei (or Brunei Malay). English and Chinese are also widely-spoken languages as well.

The warm tropical weather makes Brunei a wonderful destination for that perfect unforgettable vacation.  The diversity in its cultural influences represents all of Asia. And since its independence, it has continued to improve upon itself, like showing progress in women’s rights and equality, for example. But don’t let the tropical winds fool you – there are some things they take very seriously. Alcohol is banned (from the Islamic influence on their laws), and drug trafficking and illegally importing controlled substances carry a mandatory death penalty. However, although it may be small, the country is much richer than can be counted monetarily.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations 

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Last year, I started a tradition of serving up Brazilian feijoada for New Year’s Eve because I thought it should be a rule you start your new year with a belly full of good food. (This was all before I even thought about making this blog.) And it just happened that New Year’s Eve this year coordinated with me doing Brazil.

Feijoada is often considered the national dish of Brazil.  The main part of it starts with boiling a variety of meats – usually various cuts of pork and/or beef – I used thick cut bacon and boneless pork spare ribs this year and added some onion, garlic, and a bouquet garni. It simmers for about an hour before you put in the black beans. I probably could’ve gotten away with only a pound of beans instead of the two-pound bag. Black beans are really good for you; studies have shown that they are really good towards the lower digestive tract and colon health and may even prove lower rates of colon cancer. After I put in the beans, I let it simmer for another hour and then pretty much served it right away.

Feijoada -- black beans and meat, simmering 
The beans are served on top of steamed white rice. I had found a recipe which I modified a little by adding a little bit of minced green onion (I used just the white part; I put the green part in with the beans) and salt in with the rice and stirred before making it as normal. It added a little bit of flavor and aroma to the rice. After the beans are served on the rice, it’s usually topped with manioc flour. I couldn’t find it, so I mixed some bread crumbs that I found at a Latino grocery store, mixed a little onion powder, garlic powder, and parsley flakes in it. It worked for me.

Who doesn't like greens? Seriously. 
Feijoada isn’t just rice and beans alone: it’s always served with a side of couve de mineira (collard greens). I found a better recipe this year, and I used fresh greens. I started with sautéing minced garlic and kosher salt in olive oil. (It called for 5-6 cloves, but I only used four, and to be honest it would’ve been better with three.) I learned how to roll up the leaves and slice it to create strips, then put these strips in the sauté skillet as well.  And at the end, everything is served with a side of a few orange slices.

Feijoada completa. A picture of happiness.
Brazil is also famous for a drink called caipirinha. Based off of a word for “countryside,” it’s a drink that starts with lime wedges and sugar smashed together in the bottom of a glass (I used a wooden spoon in lieu of a pestle), then a shot (or two) of cachaça poured on top. I cut mine with some water – I want to try it with coconut water next time – and a couple ice cubes. Cachaça is a type sugarcane rum that can be found at larger liquor stores. There are also a variety of ways to make the drink, from using different fruits to using different liquors.

There's never a wrong time for a caipirinha. Too bad my work has a different idea. 
I saved the bread for today; the recipe was easy to choose: pão de queijo. After boiling milk, salt, and butter, I mixed in tapioca flour and parmesan cheese and two eggs. I had to add a little more milk because it was too dry to mix together. I put a little of the mixture in mini baking cups before baking. The outside was hard and the inside was gooey, and tasted pretty much like I remember, but the kids didn’t like the texture. I guess that means there is more for me. I was told it’s best to try it with black coffee. I’m seeing this as my breakfast tomorrow.

My breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 
And finally, I made brigadeiros (I’ve sometimes seen it called negrinhos). I had made these before for Partners of the Americas ( and for work pitch-ins. It starts out with sweetened condensed milk, butter, and egg yolk and cocoa powder boiled on low heat until it loosens from the bottom. I do it until I can scrape the bottom with my spoon, and it doesn’t immediately fill back in. At that point, I put it in a greased pan and let it cool completely (usually about an hour or so in the refrigerator). Then I roll it into little balls and roll it in chocolate sprinkles and put it in mini muffin cups.

So beautiful. (Wipes a tear away.) 
As I was making these different dishes, I kept thinking of all the other Brazilian foods that I miss and should probably be mentioned. First of all, there are churrascarias, which are also found here in the US. Churrascarias are restaurants where they serve different meats off of a skewer to your table in a rodízio style, that is, where you pay a fixed price, and they serve you until you burst. Many restaurants give each customer a card – red on one side and green on the other – and will only serve you if the green side is up.

Another drink that bears mentioning – and having went to Rio Grande do Sul, I don’t think they would let me forget – is chimarrão. It’s an infused tea of yerba mate (similar to the mate tea from Argentina) that is packed into a gourd and cool water is poured in.  Once the cool water is absorbed, hot water is poured in and then drank using a metal straw. It’s a communal drink, drank in social settings, and passed around the group. It’s brought out especially when there was a reason to celebrate or when guests come, or simply just celebrating life. Some people add sugar or honey, but I was told that the “real” way to serve it is bitter.

One day, I will learn how to make/serve chimarrao. It's on my bucket list. But I can drink it pretty well. 
Tropical fruits, such as maracujá (passion fruit), açai, pineapple, oranges, mango, papaya, guava, are really popular in many dishes and desserts. I had wanted to try to find caju, the fruit that cashew nuts come from, but unfortunately, it was out of season for where I was and when I was there. And of course, there’s always a snack I associate with Partners meetings which is Romeu e Julieta, slices of white cheese served with goiabada (like a gel made from the guava, the consistency of canned cranberry salad). All of these things reminded me of Brazil, and it was really good to look through my pictures, learn a few things, especially some of the history of how things got to be that way, and relive one of the best trips I have ever taken. Now, I think I’m going to go study up on my Portuguese again. But not before one more brigadeiro.  Boa noite!

Up next: Brunei Darussalam