Making a Meal Magical

Hi guys~ Just a short post today…

One of the key things about making a great meal is the spectacle. Let’s face it: hardly anyone knows what real good food tastes like. As long as it’s above a certain level (let’s say, a soggy, fast food burger) your friends will accept anything you feed them.

You just have to make it look good.

So here’s a little example of what we can do with this knowledge.

Put some butter in a pan – just plain, unsalted butter is fine. Don’t bother weighing it; this is art, not science. Light the stove, let the butter melt.

What we want is something they can’t photograph – the hype will make sure you sound good to the friends who aren’t there, even though your meal may look ugly. If you have some sort of teapot warmer, that’s great. Do this at the table.

To impress them even more, carry on melting your butter until you get to the browning stage.

In the meanwhile, so you look busy, grab some of the old, shrivelled herbs from the back of the cupboard, and heat up your serving vessel in the microwave. You don’t want it to shatter from the hot butter! Make sure you decorate with a dangerous-looking kitchen utensil. You want your friends to know that you’ve had to do some hard work cooking for them. And that if they don’t like the food, you won’t like them. Very violently.

Now your brown butter is done, pour extravagantly but carefully over the herbs in the vessel – they should fizzle. This is the time for photos: make sure your friends know it.

Finish off with a sprinkle of salt (the big crystals are prettier). Tell your friends to drink it all in one gulp. You don’t want them lingering over the taste for too long, and if they burn their throats, then they won’t have voices to complain to you.

For dessert, make some sugar water with peppermint essence. Freeze it until only the surface is frozen. Serve sprinkled with sugar crystals and micro herbs.

Oh, and by the way, HAPPY APRIL FOOLS 😀 😀 😀

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The Seats on The Bus

“Tell me, as a more experienced resident of <location>, why do you think people tend to gravitate to the back of the bus?”

Alright. So I drop eaves on buses. The things you can hear are so interesting, especially on one of the buses I regularly take – each trip is guaranteed to have someone talking whom I’ve never heard before. It’s like a cultural festival, or TED, but with more screaming babies and inane topics…  

Back to the original question – Why do people tend to gravitate to the back of the bus? From the moment they step on (well, alright, after swiping their public-transport-card), they turn, eyes squinting a little, lips slightly pursed… Is there a seat back there? They walk, nonchalant, down the aisle, eyes flickering from side to side. Taken, taken, taken. But upon spotting an empty seat, their eyes lock on to it like a wolf’s onto a particularly vulnerable-looking lamb. Mine. And their eyes twitch to their seat-mate (if applicable), and size them up, and make a decision.

It would be great if I could say, ‘Well, actually, <scientist name> has published a paper calculating the probability that a particular person will choose a particular bus seat, based on the uncertainty of their trip, and the people already in the bus, and their age, and…’
But, alas, as far as I can see (pretty much just the scope of google) no-one has. (Future PhD students, take note!)

Anyway, here’s what I, personally, have noticed during my man, many bus rides. And this is limited to the buses I use – for all I know, the buses y’all take are arranged differently.

The very front of the bus, the seats in front of the baggage rack and directly behind the driver are for new bus riders wanting perhaps to look through the giant windscreen, or stay close to their bags. These puppies of the wolf pack that is the population of route-regulars have little to no experience with the route, and aren’t afraid to ask the driver for help in telling them where to get off.
Sometimes they’re elderly, but not if they have troubles with mobility: these seats are raised. Most of the time, the front-seat-bus-riders are in their mid-to-late 30s with kids just starting primary school. Maybe they think the separation from the rest of the bus provides a modicum of safety from the jaded wolves that take up the rest of the bus. Who knows.

After the baggage racks is the priority seating. These are the seats that can lift for wheelchairs or prams, and have a wider aisle in between. Here sit the parents with their babies in prams, the elderly groups on an outing, or those with mobility troubles. Mostly.
Actually, on the specific bus route I take, we don’t get many of those people, so a lot of the time I see just young adults in the very early morning, sitting there because the bus is full or it’s too early to be walking very far. We all know what that’s like.

The seats next to the doors are next – and of course you get the on-the-move business men, or students in a hurry (anyone in a hurry, really). It’s never a lot of people here, because there are only about four sets of seats and, well, there’s only so many people you can fit on eight seats without things getting uncomfortable.

And then we have the mid-back, where school students, and virtually everyone else likes to sit. Far enough not to be the centre of attention, not too far from the doors so that one has to walk very far to get on or off. These seats are my territory (unless I’m in a hurry, of course).
No-one likes to mention it, but these seats also mean that you’re less likely to have to give up your seat to someone else – front seats are always risky. I also see lots of tourist groups here, because the seats are all in one big clump so the groups can talk amongst themselves. And I can listen to them. 😉

Finally, we get to the very back of the bus. Contrary to what the guy in the beginning asked, hardly anyone sits here. Only if the bus is completely full (and people are desperate for a seat) do they make the trek up to the last row of seats across the back. Rebel school students, however, love this spot. You can lie down, put your feet up if the bus driver isn’t paying attention, and watch the rest of the bus population from your all-seeing perch. You can sit with your friends, on your friend’s lap, talking amongst yourselves without a pesky aisle getting in the way.

Speaking of the aisle… As well as those in a hurry to get somewhere, when the bus is completely packed and there’s nowhere to sit, the aisle is filled with a motley bunch of people who would most likely normally sit somewhere else. You can find the business yuppies mixing with the cool teenagers and the university students. Everyone stands in one giant, wobbling mass, each silently perfecting the art of bus-surfing. There is a certain dignity in standing, unaffected, as the bus hurls itself around corners.

So. Where do you sit?

Ghoti

Trout

Okay. This is probably going to turn into a rant, so if you think ‘ghoti ‘ is the best thing ever and you can’t stand to see it criticised, leave now. Come back next week when I post something less inflammatory 🙂

If you haven’t heard of ‘ghoti’ before, it’s basically made up way of spelling ‘fish’, used to apparently test people’s intelligence. Generally, someone shows this to someone else and asks if they know what it spells, generally accompanied by a knowing laugh.

This usually results in A) the victim’s — I mean, recipient’s — fist making high-velocity impact with the asker’s nose, B) the recipient spontaneously bursting into hysterical sobbing, or C) the recipient answering correctly. There are three kinds of people in the world; which one are you? 😛

ghoti
= gh + o + ti
= f (e.g. ‘rough‘) + i (e.g. ‘women’) + sh (e.g. condition)

The problem I have with this is that it implies that those who don’t understand it or can’t work it out are stupid, ignorant, or, worse, apathetic. Uh, no. Turning ‘ghoti’ into ‘fish’ relies on a naïve view of the English language. What fanatics don’t realise is there are extra, implicit rules that govern our pronunciation. And this is why Watson is pronounced ‘wot-son’, not ‘what’s on’.

  • ‘gh’ only sounds like ‘f’ at the end of a root word, never at the beginning
  • ‘ti’ only sounds like ‘sh’ when followed by ‘o’

There are, of course, exceptions. One of the most famous of these would have to be the name ‘Cholmondeley’. The temptation is to pronounce it ‘Choll-mon-deh-lay’. Resist it! It’s ‘Chum-lee’, presumably because no-one in old England could be bothered with such a long-winded name.

And then you have foreign names: in German, ‘sch’ is pronounced ‘sh’, while in Dutch, it’s pronounced ‘sk’ – this carries over to English, where we have ‘Übermensch’, ‘schedule’ and ‘school’. Similar things happen with ‘w’ in English, which is replaced by ‘v’ in many other languages, and the ‘a’ in many Asian names. In English, you often hear this pronounced as the ‘a’ in ‘apple’ or ‘bank’, but a more correct pronunciation would be the ‘a’ in ‘lark’ or ‘celladoore’ 😉

So next time someone tries to use such a false intelligence test on you, link them to this blog 🙂 Or just, you know, take option A. Whatever’s easiest.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s talk about languages, and in particular, accents.

We’ve already seen that the same letters can be pronounced differently in different languages. So how does this lead to different accents when someone learns to speak a second language?

A good example of this is the letters ‘l’ and ‘r’, or ‘b’ and ‘p’ in English, which are replaced with an amalgamation of the two in many Asiatic languages. Although, as babies, we can all understand and have the capacity to make all of these different sounds, through use and disuse we ‘forget’ how to make certain sounds, and when we try to make new sounds later, it’s very difficult.

Obviously, with practice, a Frenchman can learn to speak with a strong American accent and so on, but that’s the point. It takes practice to learn to pronounce this particular letter here like that, but when it’s there to pronounce it like this. I myself experienced this when trying to say goodbye to a Slovakian. Apparently, despite my best efforts to mimic the recording I’d used to learn off, there were some sounds I just wasn’t getting completely correct.

An example is the mispronunciation of Mandarin words by English speakers. The word ‘zhang’ in Mandarin is pronounced something like ‘jung’ (rhyming with ‘sung’), but it is common to hear it pronounced as ‘zang’ (rhyming with ‘sang’) by inexperienced English speakers reading the pinyin. It’s not that the English speakers are stupid, ignorant or apathetic (well, at least not all the time). It’s because their brains are hard-wired to see ‘zh’ and treat the ‘h’ as silent, and to see ‘a’ and pronounce it as ‘a’, as in ‘sang’.

All it takes to correct these kinds of errors is practice. Obviously, the younger and more plastic your brain is, the easier it is to learn. But this also works in reverse. Learning a language that has very little in common with your first language can have profound effects on the youthfulness of your brain, staving off things like dementia (and boredom).

When they say learning a language expands your mind (metaphorically), they aren’t lying. What’s more, language isn’t the only way to maintain your brain’s plasticity. Similar effects can be gained by learning in other fields you’ve never experienced before.

However, the most important thing when deciding to learn something new is that you have to enjoy whatever it is that you’re learning. So, yes, if you’ve always secretly harboured a delight in advanced theory in mathematics, go for it; if mathematics disgusts you somehow, then don’t.

In the end, as much as your brain governs you and how you pronounce and interpret things, you can govern your brain too.


Featured image based on “Trout Fish Animal Biology Ichthyology Zoology” by OpenClips, CC0 1.0

The Woes of Food Poisoning

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for embracing foreign cultures and mingling with the locals. But the one thing I always worry about when travelling is food poisoning. Initially, I’m the one you’ll see settling for warm drinks even on the hottest day, because I’m avoiding ice; the one washing my hands with bottled water; and using hand sanitiser even if I’m using cutlery.

But it doesn’t last long. By the end of the trip, I figure I’m well-adjusted to the local microscopic flora and fauna and I’ll be drinking fruit smoothies with the best of them.

Unfortunately, things don’t always go to plan. My friend, who is a lot like me in terms of hygiene managed – somehow! – to get food poisoning the night before we flew out, and ended up spending the morning of our return hunched over the toilet.

As I’m a food nut, my main focus was how she’d have to eat bland food at least until the antibiotics kicked in and the nausea subsided. The following is a poem/song about her experience.

The Woes of Food PoisoningSung to the tune of Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

It wasn’t easy, I went insane
abstaining from full-flavoured meals.
A burden of illness brought on by bad food.

I couldn’t help it,
All I could feel was the nausea
rising up from my poor belly’s depths,
Threatening to let the food flow.

I couldn’t let it happen, I had to take
what was flavourless and savourless and plain.
Refusing curries with spices, and raisins with rum.

So I ate tasteless,
Nibbling at crumbs, and feeling so blue.
And nothing impressed me at all.
I never expected it to.

Chorus
I want to eat spicy pizza!
The truth is I’m sick of light food.
All through my mild days,
My bland subsistence,
I spurned great flavours,
A sad existence.

And as for sickness and food pois’ning
I never invited them in
though it seemed to my mum I had welcomed them.

I was stupid.
I wasn’t careful with food bought offshore.
I neglected to check the hygiene
and for some days had to eat like a bore.

Chorus
I want to eat spicy pizza!
The truth is I’m sick of light food.
All through my mild days,
My bland subsistence,
I spurned great flavours,
A sad existence.

Have I said too much?
I think I’ve said enough to put you off your food.
All you have to do now is check your meals,
And not let every mouthful through.

Insert orchestral conclusion Here.

Just a spoonful of sugar

It was on a recent trip to rural Vietnam that the thought came to me. We were spending a night at a homestay, in-between hiking downhill through rain on muddy tracks. It was very early in the morning, still dark from the fog clouding the sun.

For breakfast, our hosts gave us bread with fried eggs, strawberry jam and bananas. I, always the sweet-toothed one, went ahead and spread my bread with the jam, squashing the egg on top and taking a bite of the sweet, yolk-y goodness.

To me, it was quite good. To the others, it looked disgusting.

But, I said, why?

Why is egg and jam so terrible, when we have jam-glazed ham? Bacon with maple syrup? Cheese with fruit?

To me, cooking is about the basic flavour of ingredients. We like salted caramel, yes? Basic flavour: sweet and salty. The jam was sweet, and the fried egg salty. The creaminess of the yolk added texture, without detracting too much from the taste.

Try this with other food, too. Boiled eggs taste good with salt. So how about soy sauce, or Worcestershire instead? Instead of pineapple on a pizza, how about banana?

I have my own preferences. When I have something bland, I like to pair a stand-out flavour with it – avocado and Worcestershire, custard and apricots, tomato and Vegemite.

Just because something is typically in desserts, doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a savoury ingredient. One of my grandmothers uses nutmeg in custard; the other puts it in her mashed potato.

So go out and try some different flavour combinations.
Add some coriander to your grapes (plus a pinch of salt), or have chocolate with your cheese.

Edit: 30 Jun 2014 – Apparently, a 50:50 ratio of fat and sugar is what makes us love food so much… Fried egg and jam = fat and sugar (plus some yummy salt 😛 )