How Not to Make Your Own Ginger Beer

There is a day devoted to the kitchen klutzes of America and it happens to be today, June 13th. I’m a little confused as to why this day is reserved only for those in America.  Does the rest of the world get a different day or are Americans just klutzier in the kitchen?  This celebratory compilation of televised culinary fails includes British chef Gordon Ramsay on The Ellen Show, so I guess it counts as long as it’s on American soil?

Aside from that time I set a dish towel on fire, I’ve largely avoided mishaps in the kitchen. But last night, on the eve of Kitchen Klutzes of America Day, I had a hilariously sticky reintroduction to the club.

I’m not sure if it’s related to my hair color, but I’ve always loved ginger.  (Sidenote: why is “ginger” a nickname for redheads, when ginger is not even close to being red?  Granted, I’ll take it over “carrot top” any day.)  Since it’s hard to find a ginger ale or even a ginger beer that’s more spice than sugar, and since I love DIY recipes, making my own ginger beer has been on my culinary bucket list for some time.

We’d been following a recipe from Imbibe magazine, but had to modify the finale due to our lack of a soda siphon. I happened to have some champagne yeast on hand, which was the alternative method. Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s recipe called for 25 granules for 16 ounces of liquid. My bottles were only 12 ounces, so I decided that should be about 18 granules of yeast.

Yeast granules are roughly the size of sand.  So 18 of them amounted to nothing.  We found a third recipe that, when scaled down, suggested we should use 1/12 of a teaspoon.  We probably used closer to 1/8. We shook it up, put it in a dark place, and dreamt of ginger beer that night.

The following evening my boyfriend took out the bottle, wondering aloud if we had added enough yeast.  He started to open it, and while some part of me wondered if this might be a bad idea, I didn’t have time to reflect on that before a spicy, sticky Old Faithful erupted in my kitchen.


The fountain of ginger beer had a radius of eight feet from the sink.  We cleaned ginger beer from the dining room table, from the ceiling, and from the floor to the left of the dog bowls all the way to the white double doors/bookshelves on the right.



I’ve scoured the web (there are a decent number of videos of ginger beer exploding), and the following is the closest to what it looked like, although I would say our geyser was a bit larger.

But at least the bottle did not spontaneously explode, which I’ve now read can happen, and no people or dogs were harmed in its making.  There was even a little bit left for us to try – and it was worth it.  Although next time, I’d like a larger yield.


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The British Obsession with Bunting (or how the Royal Wedding improved my vocabulary)

In the weeks leading up to the Royal Wedding, I began to notice some strange expressions in newspapers.  References to getting ready for a “right royal knees-up” became clearer in the context of pubs/clubs throwing them. But what the heck was “bunting”?

“The bunting is up and the champagne on ice as neighbours prepare to celebrate the royal wedding.”

So, it’s something you put up when you drink champagne?

“Co-founder of Ladies in Beef, Minette Batters, believes the Royal Wedding offers a great chance for consumers to get behind the campaign, string up some bunting and enjoy British beef.”

Or when you eat British beef….

“London is getting into the royal wedding spirit with flags and bunting going up throughout the capital.”

Or more likely some sort of decoration associated with flags…(that you put up as you drink champagne and eat beef).

I still wasn’t quite sure, so after seeing the word in the paper for the thirty-seventh time, I finally asked a Brit.  I can’t remember precisely what he said, something along the lines of “those strings of colored (he probably said coloured) triangular pieces of plastic you hang up.”   Oh.  I immediately knew what he was talking about – having seen it at various festivals or events, but I didn’t know there was a word for it, nor do I think Americans are particularly fond of it.

But the British definitely are.  Not only did newspaper articles imply that it was necessary for any celebration of the Royal Wedding, but it was described as a “crisis” when stocks ran low.  And this led to “disruption as shoppers pulled bunting off supermarket displays, with consumers fighting with each other over the product….A Tesco [grocery store chain] spokesman said: “Bunting is in very short supply and is running extremely low in some areas. There is a reasonable amount left in London – a key area for street parties…”

Uh, what are we talking about – supplies of water and food after a natural disaster?  Calm down people.  I’m as excited about the wedding as the next (American) girl in slight awe of all things royal, especially if they involve a Prince/becoming a Princess, but this just seems a bit silly.  Unless, of course, we’re talking about bunting of the Union Jack with Will and Kate pictured in the middle.  Then you’d best get out of my way…

BUNTING! Thanks to R. Chesney

Actually, I have not (yet) purchased any Will and Kate memorabilia.  This is because I haven’t decided if I want the magnet, mug, tea towel, t-shirt, or toilet seat cover.  (Any suggestions for what I should buy to commemorate the fact that I was there for the wedding?)

And by “there” I mean London, not the streets near Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, or even watching the screens in Hyde Park.  I went to a friend’s house for a brunch party/viewing, after which we went to the street party in front of her house.  I would have gone to Hyde Park, but my friends seemed slightly less enthused about sharing the Park (and its Port-a-potties) with 300,000 strangers (not to mention the Tube with 1 million).  And I was excited about going to a street party (apparently they’re as traditional as bunting for such occasions) with locals. Maybe when Harry gets married I’ll come back and go to Hyde Park.  (Unless, of course, I’m joining him at the altar.)

Speaking of which, Ladies – if you’re sad it wasn’t you at the altar, these guys clearly want to be your Prince.

Thanks to R. Chesney

 And he looks a little sad he’s not marrying Kate:

Thanks to R. Chesney

 So you could just pretend to be Kate and Wills yourself:

Thanks to R. Chesney

Although they were nice enough to make an appearance at our party:

Thanks to R. Chesney

 And it was a good day.

Thanks to R. Chesney

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Why Studying Food is Relevant

When I told a neighbor that I was moving to London to study the anthropology of food, she responded, “that sounds like underwater basket-weaving.”  I quickly realized that I did not like her.

I still do not have a succinct answer to everyone’s first question, “what is that?” or a meaningful answer to the follow-up question, “what are you going to do with that?”  However, my lack of ideal answers is not because studying food is underwater basket-weaving.  Rather, the anthropology of food (or at least my course) has a very broad focus, covering among many other topics: state agriculture and food policies; international trade agreements; famine and food security; and biotechnology.  Consequently, there are theoretically any number of jobs I can pursue when I graduate.

In practice, finding a job may prove difficult, (insert comments about recession), but the world is finally focusing on food in a way that it hasn’t before.  Yes, there are lots of celebrity chefs and books/movies about food, like Julie and Julia.  But more importantly, people are paying attention to the numerous issues surrounding food production/consumption and how to fix them.  (But then again I may just be paying attention to an elitist group that wants to take away dessert and fast-food.)

Anyway, as proof of the increasing attention on food and the incredible relevance of its study, I offer the following articles published within the last ten days.

If you read one, make it this piece by Mark Bittman: A Food Manifesto for the Future.  (One comment I have, though, is that it appears to be a manifesto solely for Americans – it does not address how our international trade and food-aid policies affect those in the Global South.  Granted, these policies are linked to domestic farm subsidies, but Bittman seems to call merely for the end to subsidies for “processed” food.)

Other articles:

Government’s Dietary Advice: Eat Less (NYT Business, 1/31)

Protests and the Pump: The Egypt effect may be more pronounced for food than oil (Economist, 2/3)

U.S. Says Farmers May Grow Engineered Sugar Beets (NYT Business, 2/4; Kind of like the USDA’s decision to approve GM alfalfa on January 26th.)

Raw Milk Cheesemakers Fret Over Possible New Rules (NYT Business, 2/4)

Restaurant Nutrition Draws Focus of First Lady (NYT Politics, 2/6)

Draughts, Floods, and Food (NYT Opinion, 2/6)

U.N. Food Agency Issues Warning on China Drought (NYT Business, 2/8)

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People do some interesting things in the name of religion.  (As an anthropologist-in-training, I’m not allowed to call these things “crazy.”)

Thaipusam is a Tamil Hindu festival that is banned in India, but still practiced in Singapore and Malaysia.  Supposedly, the origins of Thaipusam relate to a myth in which the goddess Parvathi gave a lance to her son Murugan, who then vanquished three demons, thereby becoming the destroyer of all evil.  During Thaipusam, devotees give thanks/penance to Murugan by making offerings of milk or honey.  However, they may also pierce their cheeks or tongues with metal skewers several feet in length, which are said to represent Muruga’s lance. Still others bear a kavadi, a wooden or metal shrine that is attached to the body with hooks, chains, and needles. (This is a simplified version, as there are other rituals and prayers involved with these actions.)

What are you looking at?

In Singapore, participants gather at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India to assemble their offerings and/or kavadis and then walk for four kilometers to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Siak Road.


You thought the cheek piercing was intense? Try walking 4 km with his kavadi. (The picture isn't clear, but he's pulling the wooden kavadi, which is somehow attached to him via piercings.)

Thaipusam is celebrated during the Tamil month of Thai, which coincides with January or February, on the day  the star Pusam appears.  For 2011, it will be this Thursday, January 20th.  So, if you’re in Singapore, go check it out!  And if you’re not, here’s a 30-second video of scenes from last year:

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Yes, I am still alive.  And despite the fact that I have not written an entry in over two months, I do still plan to keep this blog alive.  (Can you smell the New Year’s Resolution?)  There are two main reasons I haven’t been posting as frequently.  First, the combination of grad school and a two-day/week internship was kicking my butt for awhile.  Second, my life in London does not seem as interesting as my life was in Singapore/Asia.

I don’t run into celebrities. I don’t see menus advertising “a pocket of treasures” or people dressed like clams. No one tells me that I “have a lucky forehead.”  No one asks me to marry them. (Link forthcoming.) And unlike Kate Middleton, I won’t be marrying a British Prince this year, so I might have to rethink my thoughts on marrying a Malay prince.  My eating expeditions involve scones and other items less exotic than durians and fish-head curry.  And finally, I can’t go to hell for $1.  (The tube costs at least $3!)

However, I am nevertheless building up signs and stories from life on this side of the pond.  (Not to mention the back-log I still have from travels around SE Asia.)  So, I hereby resolve to start posting more regularly (while not dropping out of grad school or my internship).  Because as a sign from Mustafa Center (Singapore’s 24-hour mall) declares, “You were not made to dig in the dirt with chickens, but to soar the clouds with the wings of an Eagle.”

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KF Seetoh is a Hypocrite

I’ve actually been meaning to write (rant?) about this for awhile, but was finally prompted by an article in today’s New York Times.  In the article, Julia Moskin outlines a stingray crawl around New York City, for which she relies on the help of an expert.  Of course, whenever anyone needs an expert on Singaporean food, they call KF Seetoh.  For those who don’t watch Top Chef, Seetoh was recently featured on the season finale of Top Chef DC, which took place in Singapore. (He was also on th Singaporean episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and has been consulted for other NYT articles that relate to Singaporean cuisine.)

Seetoh’s reputation as an expert on Singaporean food is not unfounded.  He started a guidebook to hawker centres, called Makansutra, which I found incredibly helpful for its description of each dish.  His company has expanded since then and now includes two food courts designed to look like hawker centres - one in Singapore and one in Manila.  While I think these recreations of hawker centres have similarities to EPCOT’s versions of other countries (commercialized, sterilized, and a tad-bit touristy), I support the idea of the preservation of hawker centres and hawker fare. To that end, in coordination with the Singapore Food Festival in 2005, Seetoh designated as “Hawker Food Legends,” 12 of the “best and most popular hawkers who have been dutifully dishing out their cult signature flavours for decades.”  These awards appeared to be annual, although they were renamed “Street Food Masters” and  sometimes included  newer hawkers.  However, as far as I know, no such awards were announced in 2010.  (The Singapore Food Festival, when the awards are generally announced, is held in July.)

Thus, Seetoh is generally credited as being not only an expert on Singaporean hawker food, but also as the leading figure in a crusade to save it.  According to the NYT, “One of Mr. Seetoh’s primary goals is to preserve such dishes, which he sees as a product of diverse, resourceful and often desperate communities. The hawker food will be lost, he fears, as the population becomes affluent and aspiring cooks can afford Western education — culinary or otherwise. Asian cooks are opening French and Italian restaurants in the cities now, he said, and the traditional hawkers are aging. ‘They are old, and their sons are old, and their grandsons go to Harvard,’ he said.”

I agree that hawker food may be a dying tradition - and have the research to prove it.  Consequently, I respect the work KF Seetoh has done to promote hawker food.  However, one day in Singapore I discovered that my hawker-food hero had let me down.  And here is why:

KF Seetoh Preserving Local Food?


<end rant.>

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You Know You’re Not in Singapore When….

This post is the result of an experience I had at a pub recently.  I walked into the bathroom and was apparently looking down, because the first thing I noticed upon entering the stall was a step.  My immediate thought was, “Darn.  A squat toilet.”  I then looked up, saw the Western toilet, and remembered that I wasn’t in Singapore anymore, Toto.

This is not what London looks like.


So, You Know You’re Not in Singapore When…

10. You’re more likely to find someone from the small Polish town you taught English in, than you are to find a squat toilet.  (That being said, I’ve heard a rumor that there are actually some squat toilets at my school, but I haven’t seen any yet.  I did run into someone from Stalowa Wola.)

9. Good cheese is plentiful.

8. You can get to nearby countries quickly by train.

7. You overhear the word “lah” and get excited.

6. You’re cold inside and you can’t blame it on (excessive) air-conditioning.

5. You’re cold outside.

4. The public transportation workers strike.  (On your first day of school.)

3. There are no amazingly bad PSA music videos to watch while waiting for a train. (Like this one or this one.)

2. Your school’s student organization fair includes booths for Communists and Socialists. And Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, etc. 

1. Alcohol is cheap and food is expensive.

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Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

In Korea, you’ll have so much fun that two years will only feel like one!

(Apologies for the blurriness.)

Ad on the back of a bus in Singapore

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A Soul-Crushing Search

I’ll eventually write about how I almost got married in Myanmar and why I wound up moving to London, but here’s why I’ve been MIA for several weeks.

Trust me, they're all gone! (Estate Agent Overload by blech/Paul Mison.)

Combine the pain of looking for a job with the suffering of going on blind dates and you know what it’s like to flat-hunt in London.  (Job Search): First, you spend hours online scouring every related website.  Then you send off dozens, if not hundreds, of emails.  The response rate to your emails is maybe five percent.  From these, you manage to make a few appointments. (Blind Date): You put on a nice outfit and find your way to the appointed place at the appointed time. Within the first minute you know if you like what you see.  There is small-talk involving questions such as, “where are you from?” and “what do you do?”  At the end there are promises to contact each other.  You never hear from some of them again, although this isn’t always a bad thing.  Other times, even if you didn’t think it was your soulmate, you still feel a little rejected when they email to say they’ve found someone else.

I didn’t really want to deal with someone deciding if they liked me more than 50 other people they’d just met.  After all, I’m not  a contestant on The Bachelor.  Even though my housing budget steadily increased every hour as I realized how expensive London really is, I still felt studios were a little out of my range.  So after a few days of going through this, I found someone else in the same situation and we started looking for 2-bedroom flats to rent.  This would be easier because we just had to be the first ones to hand over money and sign a contract, right?

Well, theoretically that’s how it works.  Except it seemed we had arrived in time for the Great London Housing Shortage of 2010.  We saw nice flats advertised online, but when we called they were no longer available.  I saw a lot of “To Let” signs, like the ones pictured above, and called them.  They were no longer available, either.  I asked if there was anything and was told, “No, it’s student season.  We have nothing left in Central London for less than £1000/week.”  Right.  I’ll ring you back if I win the lottery.

We repeated this process over and over.  In response to one phone call, we heard that something had just come across the agent’s desk and he was heading to see it.  Could we meet him there?  Forget The Bachelor, we were now on The Amazing Race.  We dashed across town.  We hadn’t even had time to ask questions about the flat; while it was nice, it was a little out of budget, and a pain to get to from school.

We ran across town, managing to scarf down a sandwich in the 5 minutes before our 3pm viewing – the only other one we had been able to set-up.  But the flat wasn’t available until November and so we moved on.  At 4pm we managed to arrange another viewing for 5:30pm.  However, at 5, we got a call that an offer had just been made and our viewing was cancelled.  At this point, we were ready to sign a lease for a box in Trafalgar Square.

And then it turned out that yes, Virginia, there is a housing god.  After dejectedly returning to campus to plan our weekend (let’s start at 9am Saturday!), we got a call from a private landlord we had emailed earlier.  We looked at the pictures , fell in love, and mentally moved in.  We tried not to get our hopes up – clearly the people who saw it before us would make an offer and it would be gone.  We arrived ten minutes early - the landlord was talking to the previous viewers and asked us to come back.  We paced the nearby street, plotting ways to eliminate the competition. (Now we’re on Survivor?)

After viewing the flat, we told the landlord we wanted it.  She said she needed to think about it, as the people before us also wanted it.  However, after asking us a few more questions, she decided we could have it over the other couple.  (Apparently our efforts to be charming had worked.)

But let’s not get too excited.  More drama ensued, during which we convinced ourselves it was actually too good to be true and a scam.  The landlord wanted a holding deposit  so that she could stop showing the flat.  While she seemed very nice, she didn’t have ID on her, and we needed to either wire her money or get her cash immediately.  Neither of those seemed particularly appealing, especially since we had heard about a lot of housing scams in London.  We finally worked out a compromise whereby we could bring cash/wire receipt to her house and sign the lease that night.  We roamed the cold, wet streets of London trying to work this out, which was complicated by the fact that I discovered I didn’t have my ATM card on me and my roommate couldn’t reach his U.S. bank on the phone.  We were rescued by my English aunt and finally made it to the landlord’s house at 9:30pm, determined to see her ID and to look for baby pictures (she claimed she had 3 kids).

There were baby pictures, we saw passports of the entire family, and had a lovely chat with the landlord and her husband over tea and biscuits.  I got home around midnight and ate dinner, relieved it seemed to be settled, but worried that something would still go wrong – I wasn’t considering it a done deal until I had working keys in my hand. We got those Monday and are happily settling-in.  Now, if only I can figure out the temperamental hot water in the shower…

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Discovering a New Species (and wine) in Myanmar

I discovered a new species in Myanmar.  And I didn’t even have to go into a jungle and get bitten by malarial mosquitoes.  Instead, I made this exciting discovery at the grocery store (and got bitten by infectious insects at my crappy hostel).

In the refrigerated section, I noticed the following package:

Obviously, chicken person was some sort of amusing mistranslation – although one wonders why the label was translated into English anyway.  My mother solved the first mystery – it should be chicken parson’s nose.  I have never heard this term before, but it apparently refers to the tail end of a chicken.   (It’s also called a Pope’s nose or Sultan’s nose, depending upon whom you want to offend.)  Now I know, although I’m still not certain how one should prepare them.

Perhaps they might pair well with Burmese wine, which I wound up buying in Myanmar, but trying in the Tokyo airport.  (Despite the fact that the bottle was in a sealed duty-free bag and I had taken it through the Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Da Nang, and Singapore airports without a problem, Tokyo security would not let it through.  I pleaded to be allowed to try it.  At first, I was refused.  But I persisted, and was finally led out of the security area and left to my own devices.  I tried it after first recording the bottle’s description:

“The decent Muscat aroma in combination with a trace of Hollander and Acacia flowers dominates the overall aroma.  Extract-rich, full-mouth taste reflects the berries at the moment when they were freshly harvested.  The ensuing elegant acid structure gives this wine its full and famous and lasting after-taste.”

It certainly had a lasting after-taste – a pretty horrible one.  Oh well, what was I really expecting from a $3 bottle of Burmese wine?

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