Burroughs Backyard

Backyard biology from a field ecologist's perspective

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Lost in translation: food

Heading to Asia, I knew that food would be an adventure.  In fact, the countries I’m visiting are renowned for their cuisine.  Think about sushi and ramen, Peking duck and Sichuan spices.  Bento, hotpot, mochi, matcha, and sake.  I also knew, not speaking or reading Chinese or Japanese, that what I ordered or put in my mouth might not always be vegetarian.  I was ok with that thought; I don’t want to unnecessarily miss out on cultural experiences, and also don’t want to be rude by turning away what’s in front of me.  Though my preferences are vegetarian, I assumed that I’d occasionally end up with fish, chicken, or beef on my plate, and that I would eat it with as much gusto as possible.  I’ll admit that it’s ended up a little more adventuresome than I anticipated.

My first day on this side of the world, during my long layover in Taiwan, I made it north of central Taipei to Beitou (I’d meant to get to Kangamingshan National Park for the day, but had bus confusion that delayed me too long…that’s another story).  Finally stopping to eat after wandering along a gorgeous river park for a while, a very kind man took my order for “one noodle”.  Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that dishes probably contain meat unless specified otherwise, so a gorgeous bath of brothy noodles came out topped with several chunks of carrot and several slices of beef.  The noodles were delicious, and the beef was tender and, well, it would have been delicious, I’m sure, if I liked beef.  I ate it anyway and went on my way.  An hour or so later as I boarded the subway that would take me back to the airport, I felt self-conscious as I tried to scratch an unwieldy number of bug bites that I’d acquired on my walk.  I didn’t want the people on the subway or plane to think I had bedbugs or fleas!  …And then realized that I wasn’t dealing with bug bites, but that I was breaking out in hives.  Oh, man!  Benadryl didn’t immediately solve the problem, but by the time I’d gotten on the plane my itching was gone.

This reaction was interesting to me: I hadn’t expected it, since periodically over the past year I’ve had meals containing venison.  If I’m not allergic to one red meat, I shouldn’t be allergic to another, right?  But something tripped my body off.  Probably a combination of the new food, perhaps its origin, combined with my lack of sleep, etc etc.  So I decided to be more careful about trying to keep meat out my diet for now.

Which (more or less, as long as we don’t count small bits of fish in some sushi) worked until 3 days later, on my day visiting Himeji Castle.  What an amazing site (and sight) to see!  I’d never been to a castle before, and this one epitomized defense tactics.  Layers of thick stone walls, topped with plaster walls with myriad holes for guns and arrows.  A keep in the middle with hallways and rooms lined copiously with weapons holders, and windows with trapdoors at the bottom to throw rocks onto attackers below.  It was like an over-fortified Lego castle come true!  I’m still not sure where everyday life was carried out, but was immensely impressed with the ability of the ruler to hole up! Himeji-jo

Anyway, having gotten carried away touring Himeji, I found myself wandering back to the train station around dinner time, not having had any lunch.  Not wanting to spend long, though (I didn’t want to get to Kyoto *too* late!), I looked around the arcade to find some food.  Everyone was eating these, and there was a picture I could point to without needing to know any food names in Japanese, so it seemed like a good option:

Fried octopus 1

The cooks were pouring batter into little trays that looked a bit like muffin tins and frying them.  I like fried food!  But when I was served, here’s who was hiding inside:

Fried octopus 2

Oh, man!  The taste wasn’t so bad, but the gooiness of the inner batter put me off a bit.  Oh, well.  You live, you learn!  It ends up these are a regional specialty, so I can say I enhanced my cultural understanding.

The next day was one of my intense sightseeing days in Kyoto.  I was visiting temples and shrines, and had a serious hankering to make it to another part of town to walk through a bamboo grove and garden before things closed at 5.

Arashiyama bamboo forest

Not wanting to spend the time for proper lunch, I ducked into a convenience store.  They’re everywhere here, and have a pretty wide selection of food, often including bento, packaged hot dogs, and boiled eggs.  This looked promising:

Surprise rice ball

Sushi-wrapped rice with egg and beans in the middle.  Yum.

Only they weren’t beans.  Maybe you guessed that by now.  They were bits of pork.  Luckily not too much; I didn’t break out, just had a minor stomachache for a bit as I rushed on to the Arashiyama bamboo grove.

But I’ve gotten better with this game.  I’ve learned to ask “Ego wakari maska? (Do you speak English?)” when there’s no menu with English subtitles, and try to ascertain whether something contains meat (“beef? Chicken?) or whether the picture was descriptive enough (“vegetable?” “cheesu?”)

Here are a few successes:

Mochi bites

I don’t know what these are called, but they’re gelatinous rice balls, sweetened, with different flavors.  The brown one has red bean paste on it; the green ones have matcha (green tea powder) mixed in.

Wild Vegetable Ramen

This was linner on a day that I did pause my touring to eat, and it was absolutely great.  Ramen with “wild vegetable.”  I couldn’t identify any of them but a small piece of fern, but it tasted delicious.  That pinkish blob on the right?  I think it was made of rice; regardless, it wasn’t made of meat!


When I felt myself coming down with the cold my friend’s toddler had shared, I thought some high-vitamin juice was in order.  Move over, V8 – this juice has not only 30 vegetables, but 3 fruits and also one other thing that I have no idea what the picture represents but it must be good.  Especially when paired with crispy snack things.

train food

Convenience-store food success!  These yummy rice balls indeed had egg and seaweed inside; no meat!  And the snacky things were rice chips with barbecue flavoring.  Also no meat!

Here’s to food!

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Time Travel: beginning my Asia adventure

Dear friends and followers,
I am traveling in Asia for 6 weeks, hopping from Japan (2 weeks), to China (2 more weeks) to Malaysia (2 final weeks). What a wonderful and amazing opportunity! With my present adventure, this blog will turn, at least for the time being, into a travel blog. Of course, I’m obsessed with natural history and many of my reflections will still center around my natural observations. Some portions, though, will have to do simply with culture, travel, and new experiences.

To begin, a reflection on time and space written while on a plane en route from New York City to Taipei, Taiwan:

Time travel makes me sleepy. “Today” as a 24-hour period becomes somewhat meaningless, and the amorphousness of dates sets in. I move one direction as the sun moves the other, and it leaves my clock confused. To me, “today” began when I woke up at 8:00am this morning (EST) in Hurley, NY. I went hiking in the Gunks to the Mohonk sky tower. I packed and swept my room and threw flowers into the river. I said goodbye and got on a bus, which took me to the subway, which took me to JFK. Now, almost 15 hours later, I’m about to touch down in Taipei. I departed New York City at 1:30am on Sunday, May 3. I will touch down at around 5:00am on Monday, May 4. I’ll spend about 12 hours here, then fly to Hiroshima; I will arrive around 8pm on May 4.

Because our plane is flying the opposite direction of the sun, and because of the route we’ve taken, we’ve been in some version of night for approximately the entire 15 hours in the air. Until I saw the in-flight map display, it hadn’t occurred to me that we might not fly over an ocean but instead follow coastlines up and over the top of the Earth. From New York, we flew northwest across the northern coast of Canada, then Alaska, then, crowning the Arctic Circle, continued in a straight line southwest along the coast of Russia and China. (Of course, when I saw the lifejacket demonstration as part of the safety presentation upon takeoff, all I could think was “if we land in any water around here, hypothermia will obviate any worries of drowning”). The geographical progression of the plane, coupled with the difference in time between my personal progression and the Earth’s days and nights, makes my brain spin a little bit. We just changed cardinal directions by going in a straight line (well, an arc). We just passed through an entire day by staying in night.

But for me, “today” will not end when we touch down. I want to take advantage of my time in Taipei; who knows whether or when I might make it back to this country? And the timing coincides with leading a normal day; I will be on land from approximately 5:30am to 5pm. Later, after flying to Hiroshima, I will take the bus to my friend’s apartment in Kure and arrive around 10:40pm. I suspect that’s when my continuous “day” will end. It seems like one single entity because it is unbroken by a true “going to bed’ experience, yet it will have encompassed something like 48 or 49 hours.