A Veritable Feast in Xi’an

I just came back from a visit to Xi’an and Beijing with my wife and younger son.

My friend Dr Chen Keyu’s hometown happens to be in Xi’an, though the Cardiff PhD lives in Singapore and seldom visits Xi’an nowadays but his dad, Chen Zhaopeng, a very highly regarded and famous calligrapher, and somewhat of a living national treasure of China, is a big kahuna in Xi’an. His official title is “The Inspector and Principle Secretary of Xi’an Federation of Literary and Art Circles.”

Mr Chen picked us up from the airport the night we arrived, and throughout our stay in Xi’an, arranged for our accommodation, meals and transportation and for museum directors and archaeologists to serve as our personal guides.

Our sojourn included visits to the terracotta warriors: an amazing army of 8000 life-size statues of soldiers and hundreds of chariots and horses buried with Qin Shihuang emperor, the first emperor to unite all China. They were discovered in 1974 by local farmers who were digging for wells.

But our Xi’an adventure all started with Mr Chen hosting us and a couple of local museum and archaeological luminaries to a welcome banquet the likes of which are seldom seen in Singapore. Eight-course meals are not uncommon where we come from, but this extraordinary feast in Xi’an was something else! There were at least 20 mouth-watering dishes! Beverages included cognac, the best Chinese baijiu (Wuliangye), tea, and to our surprise – milk! What a rare sight to see grown men and women drinking milk at dinner!

There were many exquisite and delicious dishes: pork, chicken, pigeon and beef, even sashimi done in ways that we are not normally done in Singapore. It is a wonderful experience to realize that what we interpret as Chinese cuisine in Singapore is so different from what people in Xi’an consider Chinese food! As the say “same same but different” and delightfully and pleasantly different!  Click on each picture for an enlarged view and do keep a lookout for a fish I have never seen before, and unique only to that region. It is the platypus-looking duckbill fish, a lip-smacking (pardon the pun) fish with a mouth that resembles the bill of a duck and whose bones were later boiled with rice porridge to make yet another tasty dish:

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Ephemeral and Temporal

In the end, everything is ephemeral – the stuff you own, the relationships you cling to.

It is said that attachment is the root of all sufferings.

It is also said that one must be detached – this way, you won’t be hurt.

But does it mean we must run to some mountain top and meditate till we levitate or take refuge in some remote cave and escape from the world?

I don’t think so.

I believe you can be in the world but not of the world.

I believe it’s all about your willingness to let go.

It’s tough to let go, they say.

Really?

I have no qualms doing so.

My wife notices that I hang out with different people at different stages of my life.

She says it as if there’s something negative about that.

I believe that’s only natural. That I have different friends and acquaintances at different times of my life, that’s only normal, isn’t it?

Unless extra efforts are made to nurture friendships, most friendships will not stand the test of time.

That’s a reality and let’s not be naïve.

More than 30 years ago, a friend named me as his son’s godfather but after a while, it became almost impossible to meet up with my friend – very busy this week, very busy next week, next month doesn’t look good too, the month after is bad as well, etc.

I got the message.

After a critical examination and analysis to determine that it wasn’t my behavior that caused this attitude in my friend, I stayed away.

Got out of his life.

Fuck him!

Let go of that friendship.

Helped a friend set up his vintage tea shop, contributed stocks from my family’s collection for him to sell, bought furniture for his store,  and contributed to his business by buying him several pieces of very expensive equipment.

Also spent time helping him man his store when he went back to his home country to visit his parents.

Zero compensation. Did it as a favor. Not once, but numerous times.

Once when I was there, sales skyrocketed.

I mean who would go to a dark corner in an obscure mall to source out vintage tea?

Friends sought me out, and spent tens of thousands simply because I was running that store temporarily.

But now that he considers himself a runaway success, he no longer has time for me.

Wanted to meet him for a quick bite a few months back but busy, very busy, you can’t imagine how busy, oh so busy, super busy I actually had to hire a couple of helpers.

So bloody busy he even uninvited me from a previously-arranged lunch.

Okay, got the message.

I’m not stupid, okay?

I’ll get out of your ultra-busy life.

Let me not be an interruption as you progress towards your first billion.

Some cocky foreigners have no idea how precarious their position is; they have no idea they can be kicked out of the country and asked to leave within 24 hours.

No need to be high and mighty, you’re just a tea merchant.

Realize you need locals as friends who can bail you out of trouble.

Asshole!

There were others.

Quite a few others.

I am a magnet for assholes, yes sir!

Once they sucked the maximum out of you, you are persona non grata to them.

Your usefulness to them has expired.

Why would I want to continue having such fucktards in my contacts, on my LinkedIn, on my WhatsApp?

Also, sometimes, I knew right from the very beginning, that I had no intention whatsoever to keep in touch with anyone after I have left a company or an organization.

It’s not that I have moved on after making use of people.

It’s often because the company or organization was so full of shitty Neanderthals to begin with.

IBM is a case in point.

I spent 10 years there, but the culture was so toxic, filled with smiling tigers holding hidden daggers, waiting to stab you in the back, scumbag bosses whose number one priority was to protect their own jobs, and who won’t hesitate to steal your ideas and your thunder or to throw you under the bus if that worked in their favor and colleagues who talk to you only if and when they needed something from you. No one was authentic. Everyone was a phony and completely plastic. Very few people – especially overpaid C-level political animals – actually knew anything or did any real work. The IBM name was a clutch without which these meatheads would not stand a chance in the real world.

I can count on the fingers of one hand, after spending 10 years of my life there, people I genuinely like and respect and whom I consider true friends. Very few indeed. Just a handful.

Why would I want to have anything to do with those other retards after I have served my time and paid my dues?

Recently one such idiot who showed zero emotion or concern when I left seven years ago, suddenly contacted me out of the blue to say that this was his last week in IBM and that we should meet for coffee soon.

Should meet for coffee? Should? Fuck you, was what I was thinking. For seven years you kept quiet, didn’t even bothered to say goodbye when I left, didn’t care how I was doing, and now that you are going to be jobless, you remember me?

Because you want to know how I am able to charge clients 10k a day?

Fuck you!

A week later the same shithead sent me a text and said “I’ll be in the vicinity of Changi Village tomorrow afternoon; we should have our coffee at 2pm.”

Oh you wanted to see me but it has to be at your convenience?

Changi Village is in the boondocks.

Well, go fuck yourself!

Am I a bitter old man?

Nah.

Just a realistic old man who has learned his lessons.

As I grow older, I appreciate solitude.

Let the world go on living their lives like “showreels.” Let them brag about the thousands of Facebook friends they have, their expensive watches, their Harleys, their second homes, their costly handbags, their exotic holidays, their delicious meals, blah, blah, blah.

Know what? I’m so not impressed.

In fact, I have to fight hard to hold down my vomit.

Trying to show me you are wealthy by flaunting your possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping food all over your body.

What are you trying to prove?

It is totally gross, and it is such a pathetic indication of how secure and hollow and empty you really are inside you.

What a sad human being you must be.

Thank God for earplugs ha ha!

There is beauty in quietness.

There is serenity in silent contemplation.

The sound of silence is mesmerizing and therapeutic.

It delights the soul.

A pipe or cigar in hand, a good book, sips of single-malt or cognac.

And total silence.

Who needs more?

Often, I wish I could unmeet some people.

These include relatives.

And in the last few years I have made several attempts to decouple – for want of a better word – from some people.

I don’t give a shit if these are people I’ve known for decades.

Time means nothing to me. How long I’ve known you means nothing to me.

If you were a crook 30 years ago, you are still a crook today.

Often a worse one.

Stop bothering me and stop asking me for help.

If you think you are the only one with problems and want to be a pain in my life, please, you are not the only one with issues.

What’s your problem? Suck it up and deal with it, the way everyone else does.

Oh, was that insensitive? Did that hurt you? If so, grab some tissues and get out of my sight.

Stop bitching and moaning about how unfair your life is.

Stop whinging about how tough things are.

Yes, stop bothering me.

With smartphones and laptops, it’s so easy to get rid of people like you, it’s almost fun.

Those days you simply cross people out of your address book and don’t enter their details again the next time you start a new one.

Nowadays all you need is a click or a couple of keystrokes and they are gone.

Poof!

Out of sight.

Forever.

Yes, I have made many people vanished in the past few years.

Some irritated me like hell – so they get deleted, blocked and they disappear from my world.

Yup, piss me off and you’re history.

Some were freeloaders from day one, thankless bastards who ate my food, smoked my cigars and drank my booze and who still have the gall to say bad things behind my back while robbing me blind in my presence – deleted, blocked and now gone for good!

Hallelujah!

Others were simply those who were ungrateful and who betrayed me or cheated me and did me harm – deleted, blocked and now gone!

I hate to say this, but I have realized – prove me wrong if you will – that most people are ungrateful.

They would even bite the hand that feeds them.

Yes, in the end, most people are plain unappreciative and ungrateful. They will take advantage of your generosity because they think you are a fool whose kindness they can exploit.

Ingrates!

Who exactly are these people?

Let me just say that sometimes the persons you’d take a bullet for are the ones behind the gun.

Know what I mean?

I no longer have time for such people.

I have enough of meaningless friendships, forced interactions and unnecessary conversations.

The knife some people stuck in my back became useful when it came time to cut my ties with them.

Wait for my memoir – all will be revealed in explicit, graphic details, names will be named – to be published after I have died.

And talking about death, it is a known fact that the number of people who attends your funeral all depends on the weather.

By the way, I don’t give a rat’s ass if no one shows up.

No expectations, no disappointments.

It is as it is.

Now let me light up my 200-dollar cigar and chill while you can go ahead and polish your Harley which you have bought via hire-purchase.

Ah, catharsis!

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Fermented Tofu, Taiwan

Fermented tofu (bean curd) has been unfairly called “stinky tofu” because you can catch a whiff of the dish from afar. The dish has gotten an undeserved bad rap mainly due to the exaggerated western reaction to the dish. But the uniqueness of fermented tofu is when you eat it, there is absolutely no unplesant smell, a fact conveniently ignored by the drama kings and queens. Compare that to blue cheese, for example – which I enjoy, by the way – and you’ll realize the difference: blue cheese’s stench can be said to be really foul compared to that of fermented tofu.

This can’t stop multitudes of clueless westerners making fun of the dish, and uttering absolutely idiotic, insulting, insensitive and rude comments about it. Voyeuristic TV shows for those with very low IQ, like the Survivor series, show westerners yelping and howling and puking when asked to eat Filipino balut or sea cucumber or Chinese century eggs. How dramatic! I’m sure these over the top behaviors helped with the ratings. Even if those retards on TV were not acting, their reactions show a false sense of cultural superiority at its worst. How would the Sardinians feel if I make jokes about their delicious Carsu Marzu (only to be eaten when the maggots are present and alive and crawling) or how would westerners in general feel if I condemn them for eating veal – meat from newborn calves? What if I feign a heart attack when confronted with the super strong odor of  Surströmming that some Swedes still eat? How would my French hosts feel if I make a face when they serve me foie gras? After all, it is liver from geese that have been forced fed until their livers enlarge abnormally to enormously monstrous size?

No culture should deride another for its food. Period.

Fermented tofu is usually served fried, with pickles but I do enjoy this spicy soupy version from Taiwan:

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Shin Yeh Restaurant, Taipei 101

Shin Yeh is a fine dining restaurant right at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Taipei 101.

The 85th floor restaurant is where I take VIP clients and special friends to. Service is impeccable: when I took my 87-year-old father there earlier this year, they asked if he would like his food made softer, an offer which my father – who is very healthy for his age – politely declined; I mean my old man can chomp through steel!

I was at Shin Yeh again last week and the restaurant continues to live up to its name as the mecca to showcase some of the best of Taiwanese cuisine. Some dishes served are shown below. Click on each picture to enlarge:

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Goose Meat, Taipei

Across the Raohe night market in Taipei is my favorite goose meat eatery. It is another one of those places I must visit each time I visit Taipei, and not just because goose meat is rather scarce in Singapore. In fact I have been jokingly persuading the fellow running the place to open a restaurant in Singapore, and who knows, if I have the funds, maybe I’ll work out something with him one day?

In the finer dining establishments in Singapore, I never order the same dish twice. But I have forsaken high-end dining for years now because I can no longer stand the superficiality and pretensiousness often attached to these places where snooty and haughty waiters behave as if they are catwalk models and try to prove that they know more than you and mediocre mere cooks consider themselves world-class chefs deserving of millions of Michelin stars so they swagger around dropping names (“The Lee family ate here the other day”) and bragging like pricks.

Yet, in Taiwan, I never fail to visit this little modest eatery serving goose meat – just the one dish, some noodles to go with it and nothing else fancy.

Food is the taproot to happiness. Bad food can make me lose my temper and friends have seen me throw down the napkin and storm out of restaurants. I’m not kidding. When a man sits down for a meal, he doesn’t want to get fucking pissed off! He doesn’t want to get ripped off too! He wants food, not crap! So, familiar places and familiar food – good food – bring so much comfort and good feelings. I am therefore never tired of visiting the same old eateries over and over again although I am very open to try new ones.

Every three or four months, I go to Taipei, and an intimacy develops amongst the various people I interact with. Hotel employees, restaurateurs, cigar lounge staff, food stall operators, even limo drivers become faces that make me feel at home. Friendships like that warm the heart, making the places I visit even more welcoming.

This eatery selling goose meat is one such example: it is a family business, the patriarch is busy chopping and slicing away while the wife is the “minister of finance.” Another man serves as a waiter of sorts – I am not sure if he is the son or a relative or just an employee. Each time I go, we all greet each other heartily though I do not know any of their names, and they do not know mine.

But the warmth, the recognition, the authentic greetings and of course the superlative food draw me again and again to this simple establishment. I sense joy when I visit.

Good cooking involves honesty, simplicity and integrity, as my friend Spike Johan – a super classy gentleman who really knows food and is not a poser or pretender – will no doubt agree. And at this eatery this is what I get. No idiotic chefs trying to serve you some fusion crap, and gouging you till you are broke but leaving you still hungry, but honest, simple food, cooked with a passion.

The pictures below show the eatery, a plate of goose meat, and the final picture shows goose liver and gizzard covered with greens like ginger, coriander and basil; foie gras on the cheap! As always, click on each picture for an enlarged view. You will notice that unlike in Hong Kong where goose is often roasted or in Shantou, where it is often braised with soy sauce, Taiwanese goose meat is simply boiled the way the chicken in Hainanese chicken rice is cooked. This no-frills cooking method brings out the real taste of the delicious meat, best eaten accompanied by a bowl of soupy rice vermicelli.

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Jin Fu Sushi, Taipei – Prepare to be Teased

I have visited Taiwan numerous times in the last couple of years, and during each visit I would make it a point to eat at Jin Fu Sushi, which is located at a residential area in Taipei. It is a small little family-run eatery with a counter seating only 12 and helmed by a camera-shy chef whom people love to hate but love at the same time. He has a horrific sense of humor best described as caustic and if you are not mentally prepared, you may even feel insulted by his teasing. “Don’t swallow the spoon!” he’ll yell at you and once when he saw my wife biting into a piece of fish, he screamed “Don’t bite! Put the whole piece into your mouth!!!” This is the same chef who once bragged to me that Japanese people fly in from Japan to eat his sushi. (Yeah, like I was born last night.) Be that as it may, I always find it a delight to eat there, knowing he uses the best and freshest local Taiwanese seasonal ingredients available at whatever point in time I visit. The chef’s hometown is Yilan (home of the award-wining Kavalan single-malt) and he occasionally throws in a piece or two of delicious non-sushi related morsels from Yilan that he has prepared himself. I also find his prices very reasonable as I have been gouged many times before by over-priced and over-rated Japanese restaurants.

Read this and this, but when I go to Jin Fu, I know it is not as if I will be handling him a samurai katana and inviting the chef to slice me any which way. That is often the feeling at some Japanese restaurants I have been to in Singapore and some of the worst are those managed by local (non-Japanese) Ah Bengs who think they can teach the Japanese masters how to suck eggs.

So here’s a recent omakase lunch I had and pictures (click to enlarge) are those I have remembered to take; a few I have forgotten since I was busy stuffing my face and experiencing the throes of culinary orgasm:

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Esoterica’s Penzance by JF Germain

About 30 years ago, Steve Richman began importing into the US, tobaccos blended by JF Germain & Son of Jersey, the British Channel Islands. These tobaccos were available for private labeling and Steve used the name Esoterica Tobacciana as his brand name. With the exception of And So To Bed, he named the blends after English coastal towns. One of the blends, named Penzance was once sold in the US way before that by Smoker’s Haven as Krumble Kake. Smoker’s Haven has long ceased business dealings with Germain for reasons nobody really seems to know. (The company has also changed hands since. Today my acquaintance Premal Chheda is the owner.)

It is said that Steve didn’t have the resources to distribute the Esoterica tobaccos very widely. A few years ago, after opening a retail shop in Oakland California (The Piedmont Tobacconist), he sold the distribution rights to Butera Pipe Company because he felt that tobacco blender and pipe maker Mike Butera could give the tobacco the attention that it needed.

Yet a few years later, Butera, I was told, sold the Esoterica series and other tobaccos to Mike Gold of Arango.

Penzance, and other Esoterica tobaccos are forever unavailable. There are many rumors and speculation as to why this is so. And their rarity has caused a hoarding frenzy for the longest time. Today, small amounts of these blends change hands at ridiculously high prices. Those kept for years are especially every much wanted as they smoke so well. Of all the blends, my favorite is Penzance. Thankfully, ever since I started to take notice of it, I have been buying tins and bulk packages of Penzance whenever I see them being sold. Despite the stash I have, I reserve this English mottled flake consisting of Latakia, Oriental/Turkish and Virginia tobaccos only for very special occasions. It is an extremely satisfying and creamy smoke that any attempt to describe it using words can never do it justice.

To commemorate a special personal milestone, I broke open a vintage tin recently.

 

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Tahlequah and her Baby

A pod of 75 killer whales, or orcas, roams in a huge territory that includes waters off Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria, British Columbia. Orcas are among the earth’s most socially sophisticated animals. They live in matrilineal groups that include four generations, with the “grandmothers” in charge.

J35, a 20-year-old mother whale from that pod – nicknamed Tahlequah by whale watchers – gave birth on July 25th, after 17 months of gestation. (Orcas gestate for anything from 15 to 18 months.)

The 400-pound, orange-tinted baby that wriggled out of Tahlequah that morning was the first live birth in the pod since 2015.

But the baby died 30 minutes later.

However, Tahlequah did not let her emaciated calf sink to the bottom of the Pacific, but rather balanced it on her head and pushed it along as she followed her pod.

This is an animal that was grieving for her dead baby, and she didn’t want to let it go.

The hours turned into days, and still the next day, and through the weekend, and into the next week; the grieving mother was still seen pushing her baby to the water’s surface.

She was forever picking up the body as it sank, hoisting it out of the water to take a breath, and repeating.

Tahlequah carried her dead calf through the choppy Pacific Ocean in a journey that has astonished and overwhelmed much of the world.

She finally dropped her dead calf, which she’d been pushing with her head for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles off the Pacific Northwest coast, in an unprecedented show of mourning.

This tour of grief has struck an emotional chord in many of us and made us lachrymose.

The death and loss of a child is frequently called the ultimate tragedy. Nothing can be more devastating.

Tahlequah’s behavior was heart-rending. But other orcas, and similar cetaceans like dolphins – and even primates like gorillas – have been seen apparently mourning their dead, though this is by far the longest recorded example of such behavior.

People wrote poems about Tahlequah, and drew pictures. People lost sleep wondering about her. A scientist cried thinking of her. Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca, said “I am absolutely shocked and heartbroken…I am sobbing.” Tahlequah also inspired politicians and essayists – and a sense of interspecies kinship in parents who had also lost children.

People love to anthropomorphize animals, often fallaciously.

Scientists say that anthropomorphism (projecting our own feelings onto animals) could even be harmful, especially when we evaluate their inner lives on our own terms. Try patting a wild lion because it looks like a cute cat that craves affection and see where that gets you. But studies have found that orcas really do possess high levels of intelligence and empathy, and emotions that may not be totally alien to our own. Science has proven that the orca brain is more elaborate than ours. The orca’s paralimbic lobe is highly developed, as is its insular cortex, both of which relates to social emotions and awareness. Like the human brain, the orca brain contains von Economo neurons: rare, specialized cells that relate to empathy, among other human-like emotions.

Often, in reality, animals are more human and humane than us.

Recently, a humpback whale and her calf were chased by five male whales swimming off the coast of Flinders Bay, on the southwest coast of Western Australia.

A pod of bottleneck dolphins showed up and surrounded the female humpback to protect mother and child.

One of the dolphins even flashed its teeth toward the male humpbacks in a sign of aggression.

Success for one of the males could have separated the mother from her baby, leading to the calf’s death.

But the dolphins intervened and both mother and child remain safe.

They are lots of lessons we can learn from nature.

But we MUST learn.

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A Veritable Feast for the Eyes

Singapore-based Taiwanese tech entrepreneur David Yu – a real gentleman and a truly loyal friend – frequents Indonesia for work. This neighboring country with more than 18,000 islands harbors many serious pipe makers and smokers. David knows quite a few of them.

When German pipe maker Peter Hemmer visited with us recently, a special viewing of a selection of Peter’s latest hand carved masterpieces was arranged exclusively for friends. Peter’s pipes are par excellence and to compliment the exceptional event, I invited David to display some pipes he has painstakingly carried over to Singapore from Indonesia:

These pipes were not only made by hand with the best material known for smoking pipes, ie, briar, but what makes them so exquisite is that the talented Indonesian pipe makers have also deployed gifts of nature unique to their country to craft some truly extraordinary pipes. Pipes with the most unusual shapes are made of palm and other rare and local wood; in addition, many incorporate special Indonesian bamboo specifically harvested for that purpose.

The conventional may find these pipes “different” or “interesting” and some may even question the bold avant-garde shapes but it’s not my place to criticize if some pipe smokers and collectors want to remain old-fashioned uncles all their lives and stick to the usual.

Enjoy the pictures below, courtesy of collector extraordinaire Bodo Falkenried:

Several other world-renowned pipe makers – whose names are sure to cause reactions – are scheduled to visit with us in the near future in a program I have put together and as always, invitations to these exclusive viewings are private events only for friends and collectors of impeccable taste. The amazing fact about friends and relatives is that while I cannot choose my relatives, I am free to choose my friends!

Ain’t life great?!

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A Pipe by Peter Hemmer

Peter Hemmer is a German pipe carver from Munich who once lived in Rome. He is a good friend who has been to Singapore three times already.

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