Sunday, November 29, 2015


Given its location between the Arab countries, Africa, and Europe, Lebanon’s culture shares bits and pieces of all three of these regions. During the 19th century and early 20th centuries—even before the French mandate—painting was quite a popular art form in Lebanon. One painter stood out from the rest: Mustafa Farroukh. He traveled to Rome to study art and continued his studies in Paris. And while he traveled to exhibitions in Venice, New York, and Spain, he was highly esteemed in Beirut. Later on, he wrote several books and taught art at the American University of Beirut. 
by Mustafa Farroukh

After the Civil War (1975–1990), contemporary artists began to emerge in droves. Soon money began to be put into art galleries, exhibitions, and commissions for public art. Beirut became an artist’s town. Some of the contemporary artists of note include Walid Raad (video, photography, media), Ayman Baalbaki (expressionist painting), Akram Zaatari (filmmaker, photographer), Nadim Asfar (photographer, filmmaker), Lamia Joreige (painting, photography, video), Ricardo Mbarkho (digital artist), and Hanibal Srouji (painting).
by Ayman Baalbaki

One of the things about living in an area that has seen many changes in who controls the land is the influence on their architecture. A Druze prince who was exiled to Italy ended up coming back to Lebanon, modernizing the country by setting up factories and businesses based on what he saw while in Italy. Beirut and Sidon were two of the main cities to see this Italian (and especially Tuscan) influence on their architecture. The Phoenicians would also have a keen influence on their building styles. The Ottoman Empire spread far and wide and included Lebanon at one time, leaving bits and pieces of their culture and architecture on the Lebanese (as they did wherever they went). When the French took control of the area, they added their own French flair to buildings they erected while Lebanon was placed under a French mandate. Although some of these buildings have been destroyed through wars and through time, there are still many great examples of the centuries of foreign influence on Lebanese architecture, especially in the larger cities.


Much of Lebanese literature is mostly written in either Arabic, French, or English. And most of what’s been produced has been since the late 19th century. By far one of the most influential Lebanese writers is Gibran Khalil Gibran. His book The Prophet (1923) was written in English and was widely popular despite the meh opinions of critics at the time (it goes to show what critics know). Gibran made a name for himself as a rebel and literary revolutionary. He ditched the classical style of writing in lieu of more modern prose-style poetry. Gibran’s poetry was given a second wave of interest during the 1960s counterculture revolutions. Gibran Khalid Gibran’s poems are the third best-selling poems in the world, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu.
Often referred to as Khalid Gibran.

Today, there are a number of successful writers from Lebanon—both men and women. Many people who study Arabic literature note that the writers of Lebanon have a certain flair in their writing. There is a respect for the poetic nature of the language, and they use the language to the writer’s benefit. Lebanese writers excel in a variety of genres, from memoirs to historical novels to graphic novels to journalism. I came across one article written by a doctoral student regarding children’s literature. He basically said that the vast majority of children’s literature is written in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), but its style is far more classical than what people actually speak in Lebanon, and this can be somewhat problematic for children who are still learning the language. They need something they hear everyday to be reinforced. So, essentially, it’s up to the parent to be able to translate on the fly into Lebanese. I suppose it’s as if the majority of children’s literature were written in Shakespearean English or Chaucerian English. It really made me think of the function of language. But as a friend of mine pointed out, it’s probably true across the Arab world: local Arabic dialects can be quite different from Modern Standard Arabic, but children also need to be exposed to both varieties.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, November 22, 2015



In 2006 Anthony Bourdain traveled to Beirut, Lebanon to tape an episode of his show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. The first part of the show was business as usual, showcasing some of the best dishes that this international city has to offer. Halfway through their taping, things drastically changed when the Israel-Lebanon War trapped them in their hotel and limited their movements. Instead of killing the episode, they continued taping, documenting the war from their point-of-view of being a foreigner in a hotel during a war. They eventually got out safe and sound. But the heightened security was nerve-racking, and the regular staccato gunfire served as an ominous soundtrack. Skip ahead to last week (11/12/2015), the day before the infamous attacks on Paris: ISIS suicide bombers attacked the city of Beirut, killing 43. It was the worst terrorist attack in the city since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). But news of this attack got lost in the midst of the Paris attacks.

The origin of the word Lebanon is stemmed from the Semitic word for white, Ibn. It may have been a reference to the snow-white tops of Mt. Lebanon, located in the northern region of the country. The country has been mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, in papers at the library at Ebla (one of the early kingdoms in Syria), and in Ancient Egyptian texts. 

Lebanon is surrounded on the north and east by Syria and by Israel on the south. It has a long western coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Across the Mediterranean Sea to the northwest is the island nation of Cyprus (I covered Cyprus a while back—it’s the island that looks like a narwhal). It's located in an area often referred to as the Levant. Lebanon is divided into four areas: the coastal areas, the Lebanon Mountain range, the Anti-Lebanon Mountains (is this some kind of parallel universe? Like matter and anti-matter? Actually, it refers to the fact that it lies opposite of the Lebanon Range, which lies mostly in Syria, ironically), and the Beqaa Valley (the country’s major agricultural lands). Lebanon is known for its forests of cedar trees. In fact, it’s so important, it’s on their flag. However, these forests are constantly under threat of forest fire and deforestation. Lebanon is the only Arab country that doesn’t have a desert or camels. The summers are generally hot while the winters can be cold, and many areas, especially in the higher elevations, receive heavy snow. 


This land has been controlled by a myriad of other civilizations and kingdoms throughout history. During Biblical times, this area was part of Canaan and home to the Canaanites and their descendents, the Phoenicians who were a seafaring people. The area fell under Persian rule for nearly two centuries before Alexander the Great took control. The 4th and 5th centuries brought along a new change for this area: Maronite Christianity began to spread across the land. And because of their location between the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, many battles were fought here. Muslim Arabs took over Syria a couple of centuries later, and later on the Druze (a branch of Shia Islam) began to establish a stronghold in southern Lebanon. There was a lot of tension between the Roman Christians and the various Muslim groups during the 11th century onwards. When Anatolia (now most of modern day Turkey) became a Muslim territory, the Pope was asked to step in for guidance: thus began a series of battles called The Crusades. There was quite a bit of unrest between the various Muslim and Christian groups in Lebanon, and in fact, the Druzes killed about 10,000 Christians during the violence of the mid-19th century. WWI came and this area became known as Great Lebanon under the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon. Many people died of starvation during the war. Largely a Christian country at the time, France formed the Lebanese Republic in 1926. However, it wouldn’t be until the end of WWII until Lebanon would fully be an independent nation. The new Lebanon understood the sensitivity of its religious diversity, so it came up with this pact: its president is Maronite Christian; its speaker of parliament is Shiite Muslim; its prime minister is Sunni Muslim; and its deputy speaker of parliament and deputy prime minister is a Greek Orthodox. Just after this, Lebanon supported the Arab countries in a war against Israel. Regional conflicts led to many Palestinians to flee to Lebanon. In 1975, Lebanon would enter its own civil war that would last until 1990. Christians fought against a combination of PLO, Druze, and other Muslim militias for nearly 15 years. During the early 1980s, American, French, Italian, and British forces were deployed to fight against the siege of Beirut. US and French barracks were bombed by suicide bombers from an Islamic Jihadist group, resulting in 241 American soldiers killed, 58 French soldiers, and 6 civilians. In 2006, Lebanon entered into a war with Israel ending with far more Lebanese killed than Israelis. Shortly after this, other insurgent groups from Syria and nearby areas began operating throughout Lebanon and the general region. Lebanon has been on the edge of its seat, hoping the Syrian civil war wouldn’t spill over the border, but last week, it looks like it did. 


Beirut, Lebanon’s largest city and capital city, lies on a peninsula on the Mediterranean Sea, almost in the middle of its western coastal border. There hasn’t been a census taken since 1932, but estimates given suggest a population of around a million people, maybe twice that in the Greater Beirut area. The central district is one of the most vibrant areas in Lebanon and serves as the center for business, government, and culture. Some of the world’s best nightclubs and restaurants are located in Beirut. There are also more than 60 gardens in this area as well. Despite some shaky political and security issues, Beirut still ranks high on lists of cities to visit. There are numerous universities, business, and organizational headquarters located here, modern infrastructure, a number of world-renowned museums, sports arenas, and media outlets. 


The Lebanese economy fared pretty well during the global economic crisis of 2008. However, security and political issues in the region stemmed from Syrian Civil War/Arab States conflicts have a great propensity to weaken their economy. Many Lebanese have fled the country in the past decade and send back remittances to family members who are still there. Lebanon does have a large agricultural sector as well as a large number of skilled workers. Oil has been discovered in the seabed of the Mediterranean Sea, and Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt are in talks discussing the best way to move forward. They do rely on tourism, but the conflicts in Syria have dropped tourism numbers significantly. 

Lebanon has a fairly diverse religious make up. Although Lebanon had a Christian majority at one time, it now it has a slight Muslim majority, which is about equally divided between Shia and Sunni. There is still a large Christian population (a variety of denominations), followed by a smaller number of Jews, Buddhist, Baha’i, Hindus, and Mormons. 


The official language is Arabic, and the majority of the people speak a variety known as Lebanese Arabic. There are still a few instances where French is still used, such as a secondary language of educational instruction. And although France controlled the country as a mandate during WWI, there are a small number of people who still speak French in the home. Deaf people in Lebanon learn Lebanese Sign Language. A growing number of Lebanese youth are ditching Arabic to French or English who see it as more popular and more advantageous on a global scale. Smaller pockets of ethnic neighborhoods (mostly Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish) still speak their native languages. 


Because Lebanon reaches back to Antiquity, the people here have been doing amazing things for thousands and thousands of years. The first law school in the world was established in Beirut. It is mentioned numerous times throughout the Bible and in other ancient texts. The Bible mentions that Jesus performed his first miracle in Lebanon. The Phoenicians were the ones who built one of the first ships and many believe they sailed to America long before Christopher Columbus did. Lebanese people and those in Diaspora have contributed to the arts, technology, politics, sciences, and other fields. And since I love the food from this area of the world, I’m very excited about all of this.

Up next: art and literature

Monday, November 16, 2015


I decided to celebrate my son’s birthday early, so yesterday we opened up presents because I couldn’t wait to give him his Minecraft toys. Then somehow he talked me into making a TARDIS cake. I tried. I truly tried, but I really don’t know that much about cake decorating, and it’s pretty far from being professional looking. Regardless, I’m glad I went with a lemon cake base and cream cheese icing. It tasted good, and everyone else thought it was awesome. Then I caved and let them make a blanket fort in the living room to sleep in while I watched shows and drank a little too much cabernet sauvignon in solidarity with the people of France in light of the attacks on Paris.

Confession: I ate two of these for breakfast, two for lunch, and two for dinner today.

So, anyway today is Latvian food day. And I’m starting with piragis. To make this, I started out dissolving my yeast packet and 1Tbsp sugar in ½ c of water and setting it aside to let it proof. In a different bowl, I mixed together ½ c sugar, 1 ½ tsp salt, and 2 ½ c of flour before I cut in 1 stick of softened unsalted butter. Once I got the butter cut in, I poured in my yeast mix and 1 c warm water and stirred. Then I added enough flour to make it a soft dough (around 2 c). I kneaded my dough for about five minutes before I placed it in an oiled bowl and covered it with plastic wrap, letting it rest for about an hour and a half. While the dough is resting, I cooked my bacon (about 4 slices) and chopped it up when it was cool. Then I sautéed my chopped onions (about a half of a large onion) in butter and added in my diced ham (I used an 8 oz package) and stirred to mix it with the onions. Then I added in 1 tsp caraway seeds, 1 tsp black pepper, and my chopped bacon bits and took it off the heat. To put this all together, I punched down my dough and divided it into four sections. Rolling each section out to about an 1/8”–1/4” thick, I cut out circles, put a dollop of mixture in the middle, then folded it over to make a half-circle shape, pinching the edges closed. I put mine on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and brushed them with an egg wash. Into the 375ºF oven they went for about 15-18 minutes. I took mine out when they turned golden brown, which was closer to the 18-minute mark. These were heavenly. Absolutely wonderful! I think I had three while I was waiting on the soup. To be honest, I think they were supposed to be much smaller. Mine ended up being about 5” circles, but that’s how I wanted it. (The recipe called for circles that were about 2 ¾”.) I love caraway seeds; they make me very happy, and the combination of the caraway seeds and the bacon and ham were a great combination, especially with the light and flakey bread. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had that combination before, but it was pure genius. I might even bring this for Thanksgiving next week.

This was very, very good. A great way to get those leafy greens in your diet. I'm sure the sour cream was super helpful, too.

The main dish today is called sorrel soup. It is kind of hard to find sorrel, especially perhaps in the fall (I might have had better luck in the summer). I wasn’t able to go to Meijer, the one store I wanted to check because they usually have a great selection of leafy greens. I know they carry dandelion greens, which I read Latvians often use. (I love dandelion greens!) Regardless, I’m using a substitute for sorrel: spinach with a bit of lemon zest. I started out by placing my pork ribs in a large pot with boiling water and let it simmer for about an hour. (I actually used pork chops made from center-cut rib meat.) While my meat was simmering, I peeled my potatoes, cut them into cubes, and set them to the side. Then I took my spinach leaves and sliced them with scissors, removing any stems along the way, and set them off to the side, too. I also hard boiled two eggs and sliced those as well. And you guessed it, I set those to the side. And it’s probably a good time to get your lemon zest ready as well. You don’t need much. (See, there’s a pattern.) When the hour was up, I removed the pork from the pan and put it on a plate (you thought I was going to say “set it to the side,” didn’t you?). In the same pot with the simmering water the meat came out of, I added in my potatoes to cook. While the potatoes were boiling, I cut up the rib meat. After about 10 minutes or so, I put the meat and the spinach into my saucepan along with the lemon zest and some salt and pepper to taste. I let this simmer together for about five minutes before taking it off the heat. This is when I stirred in my chopped eggs. To serve this, I ladled it into a bowl and topped with a dollop of sour cream and a little cilantro. I loved all of this. The lemon zest gave it a little pop, and the sour cream added a creaminess to the broth. I think next time, I’ll do it the way I was going to do it (outside of actually making it with sorrel), which was to use half dandelion greens and half arugula. I think that would be good, too. It was very comforting.

It didn't turn out the way it should, but I didn't abandon ship. I did prevail. Just the rye dough went overboard.

Seeing how I was super tired after the piragis and the soup, I continued my Latvian food adventure the next day with sklandrausis, or potato and carrot rye tarts. The first thing I did was make the fillings, which comes in two parts. The first part is the potato filling: I boiled a couple potatoes and then mashed them with some milk, butter, and salt. The second part is a carrot filling: I boiled baby carrots and mashed them with some honey, sour cream, and eggs. Then I made the dough: I mixed together butter, warm water, caraway seeds, salt, and rye flour, kneading it until it was consistent. Then I rolled this out so that it was about a 1/8”—1/4” thick, cutting out circles and turning the edges up a little. Except, my dough was far too crumbly. I added a little more water, and even though it sort of helped, it still fell apart for what I was trying to do with it. So, needless to say, it wasn’t on rye bread. I was going to scrap the whole thing, but after watching this episode of The Great British Baking Show, I realized the fillings were fine, just the bread didn’t turn out. So, I used some store-bought Italian bread (definitely not the same, but definitely bread. It’ll be like a vegetable Manhattan, right?) Then I placed the potato mixture on top of the bread and the carrot mixture on top of that. I covered the top in a sour cream mix: sour cream mixed with honey, vanilla extract, and cinnamon). 

A very good meal for a chilly fall day.

As I just mentioned, I’ve started watching The Great British Baking Show through Netflix. I’m actually learning a thing or two from people who are much better bakers than I am.  It’s interesting how each of the baker’s personalities comes through in their bakes. I’m only halfway through the first season, but I like this show very much. So, to follow on their format, clearly the piragis were the star dish for Latvian Food Day. The combination of flakiness and meatiness and spice was right in every way. And I’m saddened to say that the sklandrausis did not bring its A game today. There was so much potential, but it just wasn’t working together as a team. There’s always next time. And as they always say, “Keep baking!”

Up next: Lebanon

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Music has long been an important aspect of Latvian life. Latvians have written thousands upon thousands of folk songs, and the majority of them have been catalogued. Their folk music is based on poetry, and some 1.2 million texts have already been identified, matched with nearly 30,000 melody lines. The type of poetry that is most associated with Latvian folk music is called dainas. It’s typically short and without a rhyme scheme. Many of the topics are related to indigenous mythology and religions and is often about their deities and nature. Traditional music is especially popular at life event celebrations: birth and death and marriages. 

Kokle used by the band Skyforger
These life events were also tied to their dance traditions as well their day-to-day activities. Some of these dances incorporated their pre-Christian beliefs and nature. For the vast majority of these dances, the dancers wear elaborate costumes that are based on where the dancer’s hometown is, and the headdresses that are worn by women vary depending on whether the woman is married or not. Dances that are intended for social environments are typically choreographed so that the dancers are forced to switch partners. And many of these folk dances are showcased during the Song and Dance festival. 


Choral music is a keen part of their music traditions. Not only are there professional choirs across the country, but there are thousands of amateur choirs for everyone else. Every five years, Latvia holds a national festival called the Latvian National Song and Dance Festival. It's extremely popular with 20,000-30,000 people participating in this Herculean event. The music incorporates traditional folk songs as well as a cappella singing and modern songs as well. In 2014, Riga was the host of the World Choir Games. This is the largest choir competition in the world. Their motto is “Singing together brings nations together.” What I wouldn’t give to attend. Apparently, it’s held every two years in a different country. Before Riga, it was held in Cincinnati in 2012 (about an hour and a half from me), and I’m surprised I didn’t even know about it. And the next one is in Sochi, Russia next summer (2016). 

As far as instrumental music goes, there are several instruments that are native or widely used in Latvia. However, the most important one is the kokle, which is a type of zither. It had lost its popularity except for a few regions across the country until a few musicians had brought it back during the 1970s. Throughout the years, there have been many variations on the instruments, such as the addition of strings and the ability to add halftones. Purists think this “concert kokle” ruined the instrument, but others think it expanded its function. 

Rock music became extremely popular during the Soviet years. Young Latvians saw this new music form as a form of expression. And rock and pop are still popular today. I made my playlist a lot later than I usually do, and I wish I hadn’t have forgotten until the last minute because there is a lot of great music from Latvia out there. I found a ton of music on Spotify. What I listened to typically fell into three categories: indie rock, pop/synthesized music, harder rock, and jazz/contemporary/traditional. 

In the indie rock category, I listened to Ainars Mielavs (incorporated traditional instruments and styles of playing with modern indie rock music), Aparats (sometimes utilizes interesting chord changes and 1980s music effects), Autobuss debesis (good at merging different styles and instruments), Astro’n’out (good use of varying the percussion line and chord changes, sings in both English and Latvian), Borowa MC (actually a combination of rock and hip-hop), and Prata Vetra (has a nice beat, kind of chill).

As far as pop goes, it’s not quite exactly what I would call pop from an American point-of-view, but it’s close. I listened to Collide (almost a combination of pop and hard rock at times, except it uses synthesized fillers and mixes), Dzeltenie Pastnieki (very much of an ‘80s minimalist pop-synth band), Hospitalu iela (mixed accordions and strings with Eastern European sounds and rock/pop styles), Lauris Reiniks (could also be indie, pretty catchy at times), and Tumsa (it’s more like rock-pop). 


Hard/alternative rock bands I listened to include Detlef (pretty good alternative rock band, performs in both English and Latvian), Double Faced Eels (a pretty good ska band that kind of reminds me of Third Eye Blind—I like them a lot), Fomins & Kleins (on the border of alternative and indie rock), Jauns Meness (general rock, can do some vocal jumps), Labveligais Tips (I like the use of the trumpet and Latin guitars, not afraid to merge genres), Janis Grodums and Livi (reminds me a little of late 1980s-early 1990s hard rock bands at times), Satellites LV (one part electronica, one part hard rock), Skyforger (the closest thing to folk metal that I’ve found), and The Mundane (a pretty good hard rock band, does a nice job with texture in their music).


And finally, these are bands that fell into my jazz/contemporary/traditional category (in other words, not fitting into the other categories): Aisha (sort of a cross between jazz and French cabaret music), Ilgi (relies heavily on mallet percussion and vocals, uses polyrhythms, mesmerizing), Ieva Akuratere (soprano with acoustic guitar), Kaspars Dimiters (I have no idea where to categorize him, sometimes traditional but then he’ll break out into other genres like quasi-bluegrass), Karlis Kazaks (guitars and accordion with vocals), and Linda Leen (I listened to an album where she did acoustic jazz/blues renditions of pop and rock songs: I'll just leave you with this one).

Up next: the food

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Traditional arts in Latvia are generally centered around crafts and craftwork. These crafts can be broadly divided between the ones that women generally do and the ones that men handle. Craft art such as textiles, embroidery, pottery, weaving, and other types of needlework were generally done by women. Men also do pottery, but they also handle heavier hands-on work such as woodworking and blacksmithing. Although the traditional arts aren’t quite as encouraged as they used to be, there is still quite a following by those who want to keep these old Latvian crafts alive. Today, these types of handicrafts and woodworking products are produced for arts fairs and tourist shops. 

Latvia is also known for its architecture. The Old City section of Riga is picturesque in its closely built multicolored buildings. The German-influenced Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals and castles gives the city center the feeling of stepping back into time. Many of the older homes were completely wooden; foreigners moving into the area introduced them to masonry techniques. They’re also widely known for their Art Nouveau style of architecture with its characteristic ornamental flowers, faces, swirls, and curls. 

After Latvia gained its independence, one of the first things they did was to establish a Cultural Foundation. This foundation saw to the promotion of Latvian arts and also provided financial assistance toward artists and art schools, galleries, and events. The arts were one of the key things they used to help solidify their identity as a Latvian people. 


However, when the Russians moved in and took over, the communist government kept a close eye on the artists. Because artists are such scary people, right? Their works were heavily censored and had to promote a sense of nationalism per the views of the Russian government and philosophy. When the country regained its independence once more, the arts were able to freely flourish again. Today, Latvian artists spread the gamut of all mediums—from painting to sculpture to photography to contemporary art displays. 

by Igor Maikov
Latvian literature is mostly written in either Latvian or Latgalian. In the earliest days, stories and folk songs were passed down generation to generation by word of mouth. Written literature didn’t really become popular or a widely practiced art until about the 19th century. The works of literature were mostly poetry. Many of the Baltic-German members of the upper crust viewed the Latvian language as the language of peasantry, which partly influenced Juris Alunans to write his work entitled Songs. Not long after this, Andrejs Pumpurs produced the classic epic poem called Lacplesis.
Lacplesis is also the name of a Latvian beer, apparently. I don't see why we can't have both.

The 20th century saw many changes in literature, but it was mainly reflecting the turmoil and the social-political changes taking place around them. Themes surrounding Latvian nationalism seem to be the core topic in poetry, prose, and drama. During Latvia’s first bout of independence, literature took on the modernity that rivaled other parts of Europe. Poverty and the seedier sides of life were often romanticized in such as way to make it seem almost desirable. Or at least recognizable and familiar. Some of the writers popular from this period include Aleksandrs Caks, Eriks Adamsons, Linards Tauns, and Gunars Salins.
Knuts Skujenieks

Writers suffered during the Soviet years. Their works were by far more scrutinized and censored. And many writers who were deemed as a threat to the Soviet government (or the possibility of a threat) were sent out to the emptiness of Siberia. This caused many Latvian writers to flee the country to friendlier places such as Stockholm, London, other areas of Europe, and the U.S. (particularly, New York). Many of these writers wrote about their experiences in respect to their views on the political scene. Not all writers left; there were many who stayed. Notable writers during this period include Ojars Vacietis, Vizma Belsevica, Knuts Skujenieks, Imants Ziedonis, Klavs Elsbergs, and Mara Zalite. There were also a group of Latgalian writers who write in Latgalian in order to keep the language alive. Every year, this group of Latgalian writers publish their works, mainly through the same publishing house, and the best of their work is published in the Latgalian Literary almanac.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Latvia, to me, has always conjured up images of cold, snowy woods with struggling families bundled up sitting close to preserve heat, drinking hot chocolate laced with booze. In July. (Just kidding. It’s probably in May.) All I know is that my husband tried to find a set of headlight covers for my Mitsubishi Outlander, and the cheapest ones we could find were in Latvia, and they weren’t cheap. 

The country of Latvia is named after the Latgalians, one of the original Baltic tribes who inhabited the area. The name for this country in other languages is usually some derivative of Latonia or Lettland, which is based on the original word Latgalian. 


Located in northeastern Europe, Latvia is surrounded by Estonia to the north, Russia to the east, Belarus to the southeast, and Lithuania to the south. It also has a fairly long coastline along the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. Roughly half the area of Latvia is forested land—in fact, there is still much of these lands (including wetlands, lakes, and rivers) that are untouched. And subsequently, Latvia is one of the world’s most environmentally friendly countries. 


This country also enjoys a temperate climate albeit cold in the winters. However, the winters can be slightly milder closer to the coast and harsher the farther inland you go. The summers are still not quite as warm in Latvia: the average July temperatures are only about 67ºF. But they do experience four distinct seasons, each about the same length. 


There were several Baltic tribes, including the Latgalians and the Livonians, who were settled in this area as early as 3000 BCE. During the Medieval period, the city of Riga became an important port city and trading center. The three centuries after the Medieval Era was a period in Latvia’s history that saw many changes. Livonia at that time encompassed the modern-day countries of Estonia and Latvia, and they later succumbed to Polish and Lithuanian rule. Later on, Sweden entered into the fight for this area and won: it became known as Swedish Livonia. As German influence began to infiltrate their culture, Lutheranism spread as well. The 19th century brought changes to Latvia’s social structure in the form of land reform as well as movements to promote a Latvian nationalism against Polish, Russian, and German social and political influence. However, Latvia became swept into the Russian expansion. At the same time, they did see a gain in its economy and infrastructure with the building of ports, banks, factories, schools, parks, streets, museums, theatres, and railway. Latvia remained under Russian control throughout WWI; after the war, they fought for their own independence and won. However, they were again part of the Soviet Union during WWII and immediately invaded Poland. Nazi Germany invaded Latvia to fight the Russians, and by the end of WWII, tens of thousands of Latvians had been killed. Even after the end of the war, Latvia remained under Soviet control; nationalists were shipped out to Siberia and the rest were forced into collective farms. When Russia broke apart in 1991, Latvia was once more its own country. Those who were citizens (and their descendents) before 1940 were granted citizenship again. However, those who arrived during the Soviet years (including many former Russian nationals) were not granted the same citizenship status. They were, however, able to naturalize in and become citizens later, but there are still many non-citizens still living in Latvia. The country did join the European Union and has become a cultural capital of Europe. 


The capital city is Riga, the largest city in the country. It’s a port city located on the Gulf of Riga just at the mouth of the Daugava River, which runs through Latvia, Belarus, and Russia. The city itself was founded in 1201, and parts of its old city center are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Riga has been the host of several international music, film, sports, cultural, and governmental events. In the eight centuries it’s been a city, Riga has been under control of 12 different governments. Riga is also the center of government, housing an international airport and public transit, museums, universities, parks, theatres, and stadiums. Riga is renowned for its architecture, especially art nouveau buildings. 

Latvia had a fairly growing economy until the global economic crisis of 2008 proved too much. Rising housing costs was one reason their economic bubble burst and soon their unemployment rose to nearly 22%—the highest in the EU. Latvia’s economy is fueled by transportation and transit of goods. The three main ports of Riga, Ventspils, and Liepaja are some of the busiest ports in Europe. Latvia deals with the transport of crude oil and its products, but also deals with hydroelectric power and is also the location of one of the largest underground gas storage facilities in Europe. 


Most people here speak Latvian, the country’s official language. Latvian is one of the Baltic languages, related to Lithuanian. The Livonian language is nearly extinct and is protected by law along with Latgalian, which has become a dialect of modern Latvian. There are still a number of Russian speakers in Latvia. All schools use Latvian as the language for education, but they also teach English (which is widely understood and used in business and in touristy spots) and either German or Russian. 


By far, the vast majority of Latvians are Christian. And more specifically, Lutheranism is the largest denomination, followed by Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodox. There are also a smaller number of Latvians who practice a type of paganism called Dievturi, which is stemmed from Latvian mythology. Latvia also has a significant number of people who don’t practice any particular religion at all. 


Latvians have made some very important discoveries and inventions that have helped shape the course of the world. For example, Latvian scientist Juris Upatnieks invented 3D holography. (Star Wars has everything to thank for this.) And one Latvian tailor invented a type of material you’re probably wearing right now: Jakobs Jufess came up with jeans (Levi Strauss was the one who supported his invention financially). Although they didn’t invent ice hockey (that is widely attributed to England or Scotland), Latvia is also one of three countries where ice hockey is the most popular sport (the other two are Finland and Canada—I would’ve thought there’d be more). Their culture overall is similar to Lithuania and other areas in the region, and I’m very excited to try the Latvian recipes I picked out.

Up next: art and literature

Wednesday, November 4, 2015



So, it’s been an interesting couple of weeks. I turned one year older: I’m now on the down slope of my 30s. It’s also got me thinking philosophically about where I’m supposed to be in life and that sort of thing. The same kind of thing I think every birthday. The only place I know I need to be is writing at the computer and cooking or baking something in the kitchen. That part I do know. 


And now after a slight delay, I’m ready to make food from Laos today. It’s a little strange cooking on a Tuesday, and it was a little hectic since I had to shop today and go pick up the kids from school halfway through my day as well. (It’s also Election Day in Indianapolis, so I had to make sure I work that into my schedule as well.) After my mad dash to buy my ingredients and some birthday presents for my son who’ll be seven in a few weeks, I was finally ready to cook. The first thing I started was my bread: Hmong Sweet Bread. In an aluminum roasting pan (I used a disposable one from the Dollar Store), I mixed together a ½ can of evaporated milk (I may have used too much), a ½ can of sweetened condensed milk (I may have used too much of this, too), 5 eggs, 2 ¼ c sugar, 5 tsp vanilla extract (it actually calls for 5 packages of vanilla sugar), 1 can coconut milk, 1 can water (using the coconut milk can), 1 Tbsp baking powder, and 1 yeast packet. Then I added 4 c all-purpose flour to this mix until it was the consistency of a really thick pancake batter. Covering the pan with foil, I let it rise in a 170ºF oven for about an hour. After this hour was up, I took the dough out of the pan and set it on top of the stove while I went to go get the kids from school. When I returned, I thought it would have solidified enough to break it into pieces, but it was still the same pancake batter consistency. I even put in about two more cups of flour and stirred, but it only got marginally thicker. So, what do you do when your batter won’t thicken? (Besides curse. I tried it. Didn’t work.) I decided to make cupcakes out of them. (Truthfully, they may be more like muffins. I’m not quite sure of the difference.) So, I spooned in the batter into a greased muffin pan before putting them into a 350ºF oven for about 23-25 minutes. I ended up making about 36 cupcakes with a little batter left over that I threw out. And now, I wanted to try my hand at filling pastries based on one of the suggestions. I decided to go with vanilla pudding (I used an instant pudding mix.). Luckily, I found a cake decorating kit with a long tip at the Dollar Store (all I had were some regular tips and star tips). After discussing this with my husband, we figured the best way was to probably fill this from the side, and after a few tries, I think I got the hang of it. I topped it with a little powdered sugar dusted on top. And adding a few drops of chocolate syrup made it awesome. I loved the flavors in this. It was sweet, but not overly sweet if you can believe it. The cake was soft although some of the outer edges were a little crisp. The vanilla pudding was really good, but I think I would like to try other flavors next, like lemon pudding perhaps. 

Who doesn't love a little pudding leaking out? That's the best part.

My main dish today is Kao Soi (Northern Lao Noodles). It comes in two parts: the pork sauce and the broth. I started with the pork sauce. Because my kids and husband are wimps when it comes to spicy foods, I left out the chilies. Using my mortar and pestle, I pounded my garlic and shallots (and added in a little crushed red pepper in lieu of the chilies), throwing in a big pinch of salt and pounding for another minute. Then I heated a little oil in my skillet and added this shallot-garlic mix and fried it until it started to turn brown. Instead of fermented bean paste that I couldn’t find, I added in some miso to the mixture and stirred for another couple of minutes. Now I added in my ground pork to the mix and let it brown for a few minutes before adding in some water. I added in a little salt and some chicken broth and let it simmer to thicken up. Now comes time for the noodles and broth. I bought already cooked Thai-style rice noodles, so I didn’t have to spend any time worrying about that (pierce the bag, heat it in the microwave for 90 seconds, and I’m done. Don’t judge.). In a separate sauce pan, I brought my water to a boil. Instead of making my own chicken broth, I just boiled 3 c water with 3 c of store-bought chicken broth. Then I added in the French-cut green beans and the watercress. After a couple minutes cooking altogether, I took it off the heat. Now it comes time to assemble it: I divided the noodles into each bowl, pouring two spoonfuls of the pork on the noodles. Then I added the chopped green onions and cilantro, followed by the cooked vegetables, and lastly the broth. I served this with a little crushed red pepper and a lime wedge. The lime wedge was what did it. I was the only one who added any crushed red pepper to it, but it made it superb. After I had two bowls, I realized I could’ve used some sriracha sauce in it. 

I wish there were more left over. I loved everything about this.

After making the bread and the noodle soup, I was completely worn out. So, I made my second dessert the next day: banana rice pudding. I know the bread is a dessert in and of itself, but I couldn’t pass this one up. First I cooked a cup of white rice. The recipe called for brown rice, but all I had was white. In a separate sauce pan, I added two sliced bananas, water, honey, vanilla extract, some cinnamon, and some nutmeg and brought it all to a boil. I reduced the heat and let it simmer for about 7-10 minutes. Then I added in the cooked rice and milk and mixed, bringing it to a boil and letting it simmer for 7-10 more minutes. Because I deviated from the recipe slightly (it called for one banana and a can of fruit, but it didn’t specify as to which fruit to use, so I just used two bananas), I don’t think it was quite sweet enough. I poured in two serving spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk that I had left over (at my husband’s suggestion). That did the thing: this was amazing!! It’s served warm, and I thought the spices were exactly the right amount; all the flavored meshed well. And luckily I got the rice the right consistency. I hate when I get it undercooked, and some pieces are hard. But this was wonderful.

What a warm and wonderful way to end this section of the blog.

So, even though it took a long time to finally make all of my dishes being delayed from the start, I did manage to get it finished. And everything was amazingly tasty. I really like the cuisine from this part of the world, and I’m such a fan of Asian soups. I quite admired the different color greens in this soup. And I think their food is built upon the subtleties of flavors and fresh herbs. When I think of Southeast Asian food, I often think of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and fresh herbs and spices. It seems to be a very “clean” cuisine without the use of much processed foods. I mean, I’m sure they have their own junk foods and such, but overall, they seem to use fresh foods as a basis for their dishes. Of course, living in a tropical environment probably helps give them access to longer growing seasons, I imagine. Whatever it is, it’s amazing.

Up next: Latvia

Sunday, November 1, 2015


If there’s one instrument that defines Lao music, it would be the khene (pronounced “ken”). It looks like a set of pan pipes, except unlike its more familiar Andean variety, the khene has much longer pipes. They’re usually made of bamboo and use a free reed that is typically made of brass or silver. Because of this, it’s closer to being related to a harmonica rather than Andean pan flutes and has a sound like a violin. According to folklore, the khene was created by a woman who was trying to imitate the sound of a type of local bird called the garawek. Other instruments you’ll hear in Lao music are fiddles, bells, oboes, gongs, xylophones, drums, cymbals, and flutes. 


Lao folk music is known as lam, and the singers are called morlam. These songs can be either quick or slow and is centered around the lyrics. The melody lines are created around the natural pitches of the language, making it more of a conversational/lyrical style. Common themes include humor and love (often unrequited love), and there is also a kind of moral message behind it. Some critics of modern lam claim that these songs have become more sexualized than moral. The khene is often used as accompaniment to lam songs. There are also many regional varieties that vary in form, meter, make up of singers, and which type of scale/mode is used. Lam music is also popular in neighboring Thailand as well. 

Folk dancing is also tied to the lam style of music, and dancing is often associated with theatre traditions as well. Several dance-theatre styles are often stemmed from telling stories, such as from many of the epic tales and folklore of the region. The most popular dance—and often considered the national dance—is the lam vong. It’s characterized by a circle of men dancers on the inside surrounded by a circle of women dancers on the outside moving in slow, graceful movements. It’s often performed at important life events like weddings and births as well as festivals. Shadow puppetry (less dance, more theatre) is another art form used to tell their folklore stories that shaped their literary foundation.

Modern Lao music varies in style, and even though there are (or may be) some restrictions based on the fact that it’s a communist country, their musicians are influenced by American, Canadian, and French music. There are several rock bands and pop musicians who have become popular as well as hip-hop musicians. 

I listened to Aluna’s self-titled album from 2005. For a Lao pop album, I thought it was pretty catchy. Some songs, like the song “Stand” was sung pretty much entirely in English, while other songs on the album were sung in Lao. At times, it reminded me a little of J-pop music from Japan, and other songs kind of reminded me of 1990s US pop music. But she has a good voice for pop music. 


There were several Lao musicians who moved abroad and became known in their circles there. Several of these musicians gravitated toward hip-hop when they got to the US. One musician, Supasang, raps in both English and in Lao on a few of his tracks. I kind of liked his music; it was very “American” in his style. Another Lao-American rapper goes by the name of Gumby. I watched his video for their song “Shut Em Down.” It was a pretty good representation of a merge of cultures. Willy Denzey is a Lao rapper who is based out of France. I listened to several of his songs, and pretty much all of them are in French. His style is more on the side of R&B rather than rap. I liked several of his songs, and I think overall, he (and Supasang to a degree) had the most complete package as far as singing, style, and presentation. I’ve seen several videos for various Lao rappers, and it always seems like the women in the give me the impression that they didn’t feel comfortable with what they’re doing at all. And maybe they don’t. I don’t know. Maybe they just need to relax and flow with it.

Spotify only had a few musicians available that I could listen to. There were several listings I found but couldn’t be 100% sure that it was the same Lao musician or not. YouTube has far more choices to be able to find examples of Lao music.

Up next: the food