Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Homebody Travels - Denmark

Denmark, a member of the Scandinavian family, was an international powerhouse from the 13th to 17th centuries.  The past 400 years of lost battles and forced concessions have reduced the size of it's once large empire and it's global influence.  The nation's origins date back to the Viking Age, and the first hunters arrived to colonize the territory back in 12500 BC.  Denmark stayed neutral during the First World War, was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War, and is currently a member of the European Union.

Some of the more interesting factoids:
  • The highest point in Denmark is only 170m above sea level.
  • The nation is compose of the mainland in 406 islands.
  • 64% of Denmark is farmland.
  • Denmark was the first European country to abolish slavery.
Efterklang (Danish for "remembrance" or "reverberation") is an Danish indie rock band formed from 3 childhood friends.  One of the more unique artistic endeavors of the band took place in 2011.  The band packed a recording system and boarded a boat to Piramida, a former Russian coal-mining settlement, and went on what one website called an "audio treasure hunt," recording sounds in empty building around an abandoned town.  NPR has an article that describes the article in depth, including and interview with the band and a video of one of the tracks that resulted from the project.

Both my flatmate and I have a fond affection for rhubarb, so when we found a Danish recipe for rhubarb with meringue...we were sold instantly.  This was our most successful cooking endeavor yet, but mostly because we adore I suppose it was to be an instant win with or without the meringue.  If you have never tried rhubarb, now is your chance, and don't you be missing it.

1. Slice up 2 stalks of rhubarb.
2. Beat two egg whites until the peak. Then add in a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, and 1/4 cup of sugar.  Beat again until a firm meringue forms.
3. Spread the meringue on top of the rhurbarb. 
4. Bake in an oven at 350 degrees F for 15-30 minutes, or until the meringue is toasty brown.
5. Serve warm and enjoy. nom.

The European-history nerd in me was bound to love this film regardless of the quality of it's cinematic is based on the Danish resistance movement against the Nazis during the German occupation of Denmark during the Second World War.  History aside, it is beautifully filmed, with a very film-noir vibe: muted colors, trench coats, and shadows.  And an important aside: I covet Citron's glasses intensely. 

Any of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales give you a good literary journey into Danish culture.  One you might recognize, or falsely think you know is, The Little Mermaid.  The original tale, by Andersen is quite a bit different than the Disney version most of us are familiar with...I'll avoid plot spoilers, but you should give it a read...prepare for disillusionment.

A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny.



Sunday, August 11, 2013

Homebody Travels - Russia

I will exercise considerable restraint in this post, although it'll still end up being longer than most. Russia has long been at the top of my "long-to-see" list.  I spent a good amount of my academic years studying Russian history and culture and writing research papers on the subject.  I have spent a good amount of my leisure time reading Russian literature, watching (and re-watching) movies with a Russian-related theme, and listening to Tchaikovsky symphonies on repeat.  So much of this country is alluring to someday. But until then, I'll just keep traveling there in the ways mentioned above...and in the ways you'll read about below.

First, some interesting tidbits about the country.  Geographically and historically speaking, it is unique in that it could be considered part of Europe or part of Asia, or both.  It has a culture that fuses that of two different continents.
  • While Russia is the world's biggest country (in area), it has only the 9th largest population.
  • The country is so large, that it covers nine different time zones.
  • Siberia contains 25% of the world's forests.
  • Russia has borders with 15 countries.
  • Russia is the only state in the world that on it's territory has borders with 12 seas.
  • Russia has over 100 nationalities.
  • The country is home to the world's largest active volcano (over 15,000ft tall).
  • It is known as the "lungs of Europe" because it has the world's largest forest reserve, and the amount of CO2 it absorbs is second only to the Amazon.
My flatmate did most of the work on gathering some good sound bites for this week (so I'll forward your thanks).  I listen to Tchaikovsky more often than is likely a healthy habit, but she found a little more variety that is worth a listen.  Russian symphonies in general have a sort of brooding overtone, in our opinion, are sometimes almost in the vein of creepy, but our favorites are all those that are delectably melancholy.  A link to one of our favorites is linked here.  She found an overview of Russian classical music which was also rather insightful :)

This week we chose our culinary adventure on appearance alone.  Holodnik, cold Russian beet soup, has a vibrant magenta color, which was impossible to overlook in our image searching of Russian cuisine.  We were skeptical of how it would taste, based on it's ingredients, but were certain it would make for good pictures if nothing else.  We found an informative recipe on a blog called "Olga's Flavor Factory," and the name of the blog alone made the recipe all-the-more appealing to try (note: we amended Olga's recipe slightly to better serve two people by cutting all ingredient in half)

1.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Wash one medium sized beet and cut off the tip and stem.

3. Drizzle the beet with a little bit of oil, add salt, and completely cover with foil.

4. Roast the beet for 30-60 minutes or until the beet is tender enough for you to easily stick a fork into.
5. When the beet is soft, allow to cool.  Then peel the skin by rubbing it off with a paper towel or using a paring knife.

6. Grate the beet with a grater into a small bowl.

7. Combine 3 cups of water, 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice, and the grated beet into a pot.  Bring to a boil (ours produced some lovely, whispy steam clouds). Season with salt.

8. Chill the soup until cold in the fridge or freezer (if you are more hungry than patient, as we were).
9. Meanwhile, hard boil 3 eggs, and then chop the eggs.

10. Chop 2 large cucumbers (leave skin on).

11. When beet soup is cool, add the copped eggs and chopped cucumbers to the pot.

12. Serve into bowls and garnish with dill (we weren't fans of dill, so we omitted this) and chives (we love chives, so we added double) and a dollop of sour cream.

NOTE: the sour cream, when stirred into the soup, is what gives it it's most vibrant magenta coloring.  However, we preferred the soup without the sour cream, after trying it both ways.
In the end, it was well worth the risk of sampling, and it wasn't that we disliked it, we just didn't go for second helpings.  It is a very light soup, I suppose the Russian-version of gazpacho.  And we found the eggs to be surprisingly good within the mix.

Russian Ark covers 300 years of Russian history and is filmed entirely within the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  Besides the consuming, cinematography, and historical artifacts being visually captivating, the film is worth watching purely for the fact that the movie was created in a single take - a 96-minute steadicam sequence shot.  A unnamed narrator follows a "European" through the various rooms of the museum, and the various significant historical moments of Russian history throughout the film.  Much of the dialogue and interactions between characters is perfectly Russian, and odd in that charming foreign way.  And as a lover of Russian history, any time I watch this I'm convicted of how much Russian history I have forgotten...and gets me to researching it anew.

Goodness. Where to begin? And how can I possibly end.  I am a rather huge fan of Russian literature, which, certainly isn't going to be everyone's cup of чай (tea).  It, of course, also depends on what era of Russian literature you explore, but as far as works from  the Golden Age (19th century) and 20th century, the works tend to be rather poetic, spiritually introspective, and also full of political commentary embedded throughout.  It proved trying to select one favorite Russian author to write about, so instead I'll include a few well-loved quotes from my top few favorite authors. (Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov)...I think a more in-depth post on a review of these authors is in due order soon... not because I think my opinion matters to anyone (least of all myself), but because I just can't get enough and to write about them is a indulgence I cannot resist.

“I don't think I could love you so much if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret. I don't like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and of little value. Life hasn't revealed it's beauty to them.”
-Pasternak, "Dr. Zhivago"

“But I always liked side-paths, little dark back-alleys behind the main road- there one finds adventures and surprises, and precious metal in the dirt.”
-Dostoyevsky, "The Brothers Karamazov"

“You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”
-Tolstoy, "War and Peace"

“He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.”
-Tolstoy, "Anna Karenina" 

But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if
evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows
disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the
shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings.
Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because
of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You're stupid.”
-Bulgakov, "The Master and Margarita"


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Homebody Travels - Thailand

Thailand has a diverse geography including highlands, river valleys, and expansive coastline.  Thai culture is a combination of Chinese, Burmese, Cambodian, and Indian influences.  Thais first began to habitat their current homeland in the 6th century. Thailand's primary religion is Buddhism, and it is the only country in South-East Asia to never be colonized by Europe.

And in a final interesting factoid:

"The longest place name in the world is the full name of Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. It means “City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of Gods Incarnate, Erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s Behest."**


When researching into Thai music, I was most drawn to the Thai rock scene, and the band Carabao (1970s) came up a few times.  They were known for their "songs of life," or protest songs, that became common during the political upheaval in Thailand in the 1970s.  The genre is described as a fusion of Thai folk music, reggae, western rock, and warrants a listen and certainly feels like a sound-bite time warp. You're welcome.

As soon as we drew "Thailand" for this week, my flatmate immediately advocated that we make thom kha gai (coconut soup). So we did.

It is typically made with chicken, but since I'm vegetarian, my flatmate insisted we do a tofu-mushroom version. The only other short coming with creating an truly authentic version was our inability to locate galangal (good luck pronouncing it) and kaffir lime leaves for purchase.  So our soup went without both.

1. Add 14oz (1 can) of coconut milk, 2 cup vegetable stock, 3 stalks of lemongrass (white parts only, copped), a couple of dashes of black pepper to a pot. Bring to a boil and then simmer (with cover on) for 30 minutes.

2. Strain through a sieve to remove aromatics and return to pot (*note: we didn't do this and boy do we wish we did...the lemon grass does not tenderize...which makes for a rather chewy experience of the final product).  Add 8oz of chopped mushrooms, 1 shallot (thinly sliced), 1 cup of diced tofu (either fried or baked to make firm), 1 Tablespoon soy sauce, 1 Tablespoon sriracha, 1 Tablespoon fresh cilantro (chopped).

3.  Simmer for 10 minutes or until mushrooms are cooked through.  Add 2 Tablespoons lime juice, stir, and serve.

We found ours a little bland at first, so we added some additional lime juice and sriracha.  The soup had a delicate tang to it, with a muted spicy kick, but nothing too intense (I could handle it, so pretty much anyone could).  It is a light meal, doesn't sit heavy on the stomach, but I think the end product was a close as a vegetarian-version can get to the original.

Ok...maybe not authentically Thai, but it is yummy and it has "Thai" and "Coconut" in the it went well (title-wise at least) with our soup ;)

It was a pleasant discovery that one can 'travel' to Thailand and a "galaxy far away" at the same time.  The approach over the Battle of Kashyyyk, in Revenge of the Sith was formed from aerial footage of the limestone karst mountains in Phang Nga Bay.  While not my favorite of the series, it is always fun to escape into the Star Wars epic.  To Thailand you can travel, if Star Wars you watch.
It was a bit difficult to find Thai literature in translation...but Anna and the King of Siam is set in Siam (present day Thailand).  I have (regretfully) not yet read this, but I found one passage to give us all a taste:
"Between the mountains and the Gulf of Siam lay a plain like a patchwork quilt, with squares of rice land stitched around by betel and sugar palms to make a pattern in varying shades of green and yellow and golden brown."