Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A brief trip to Japan again, October 2010

The onset of fall is always a wondrous time to drive out of Westchester County for travel.  The early morning is chilly, though not unduly so, the light has started to turn, as have the colors on the trees, and the winding two lanes are scattered with the amber, russet, and golden hued leaves, not yet plentiful enough to billow out in huge puffs with the wind.  I have a short trip to make to Tokyo, and on this chilly morning M digs deeper under the covers, as I fix my bags, grab the half eaten bagel that my son forgot to take when he left earlier in the morning, and head out of the driveway.  It is a Saturday morning that begins slowly during the early hours, but by the time the car reaches the city bridges, there is a healthy flow of traffic.

Frequent travel imposes a ritual, like the protocol of a religious ceremony, or the actions of a batsman as he settles down on the pitch.  The ritual of the rental car return, the monorail trip to the terminal, the flurry through the x-ray scanner at the security check.   There is no better screener of personalities than the approach to the x-ray scanner. The calm ones, unflustered, loading jackets, bags and shoes on the belt at an unconcerned pace; the eager ones--preparing for this audition minutes in advance--, hitting the rotating belt in a frenzy of a finish, winning some imaginary race against themselves; the hapless ones stuck in a morass of their own confusion; and finally, those with perfect pitch, whose lives, bathed in flawless suavity, were cast to approach the belt, their carry on possessions just an elastic extension of themselves that leaves no mark, just a whisper, a whisk of a caress, in and out of the x-ray scanner.

I have been here long enough now that the train ride into the city on the Narita express has also become part of this ritual.  We pass by thick bamboo forests, set behind grey embankments built of rectangular stone set at an angle, and green paddy fields.  It was only some months back that I had passed such fields in Assam, the scenery similar yet set against a different background of human construction with none of the trappings of the modern and wealthy society that I see before me.  Impeccably maintained, fairy tale like houses neatly set out in little villages; narrow, uncluttered roads dense with signage.  We travel on, slowing down in deference to approaching villages, then picking up speed once past their little station platforms.  As we approach Tokyo, the paddy fields give way to compact commercial development, baseball practice fields with tall vertical netting, and dense, chicken coop-like housing. 

Tokyo is immense.  Viewing the city from a restaurant on the top floor of a high rise on a clear night, the city spreads out with an enormity that seems unique to the big cities of Asia.  Enormous energy densities of human habitation, it is a city choked in traffic despite its super efficient network of roadways and public transport.  Most people I meet commute upwards of an hour to and from work.  One gentleman lives just 10 kms away, yet it takes him 40 minutes and a train station change to get to work.  On a good day, during office hours it takes him 40 mins to drive his own car.  There are waves of pedestrians during the office going hours, each ensconced in a personal privacy zone, some wrapped with headphones, some thumbing iphones, and others with white filter masks strapped across their noses; stylish young men with styled hair, and pointed suits, and tight slacks of the kind that you see more in Europe than in the States.  I walk in the early morning through Akasaka to my favorite noodle bar for breakfast, and I cross the busy intersection where there is a young man sitting on a chair pushing buttons on an array of counters, carrying out a vehicular market survey.  There are a few homeless men who sleep underneath the bridge—I have seen them on previous trips.  This morning they are neatly folding away the flattened cardboard packing boxes that form their mattress, and tucking them behind a gash in the concrete work. 

Baseball is the favorite sport in Japan and there seems much interest in following the fortunes of Matsui, the homeland hero from the Yomiuri Giants, and a big star with the Los Angeles Angels.  He is a conversational ice breaker, a piece of land connecting different cultures.  Sumo remains intensely popular, though tainted by a recent series of betting scandals.  In this homogeneous country, where there are very few immigrant professionals, Sumo is an exception.  Many of the top wrestlers are foreigners.  In the eighties they would have been from Hawaii, the mammoth Konishiki and Akebono, the first “gaijin” (foreign) Yokozuna (the highest title afforded to a sumo wrestler); today there are no prominent Americans, but they come from countries as far away as Bulgaria or Mongolia.

I experience nothing but impeccably politeness and patience at the foreigner’s air gesturing in asking for directions.  There is widespread unfamiliarity with English, yet the piped music in restaurants or public places is invariably western.   The level of honesty and civic efficiency is jaw dropping.  My young colleague dropped upwards of ten thousand yen on his seat on the Narita Express on the way to the city, which then headed off in the direction of Yokohama after dropping us off.  Missing the money he contacted the lost-and-found section at the immense Tokyo station, and, in a day’s time they tracked the money down—an honest citizen had deposited it at a small railway station some distance away.  Young children, barely 8 or 9 years old walk alone or in unchaperoned groups through busy suburban streets, unafraid and unconcerned, protected by the vast anonymity of surrounding adults. 

These are brief, quick whiskey shot trips, intense in the utilization of time and changes in surroundings.  And so it was, that I soon found myself heading back in a large limousine bus bound for Narita Airport past the grand Disney Tokyo resort, fairy tale buildings rising, as Disney buildings do, in faux grandeur from the outskirts of large cities.  It is time to go through the rituals again, in reverse order, starting with the cleansing penance of the security procedures.  I have come to know this airport only too well, the bookstore with its slim case of English books, the Ramen restaurant, the giant Akihabara duty free store, and the liquor stores that always showcase excellent Japanese single malts, at unwavering price and an advertised discount that is, it would appear, always in strict and constant enforcement.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Quinoa, East Indian food, Bengali food, and the village life

I love rice, the staple of choice for the consummate Bengali.  A pointed heap of rice occupying a good fifty percent of a brass dinner place, a little hole indented into the top to pour gravy, ghee or dal into; such are the memories of meals in Bengal.  The near instant energy that its simple carbs liberate rejuvenated our rural ancestors after the long day of toiling the fields, or herding their buffaloes across the river.  To me and my urban contemporaries who have retained these dietary habits but cast away the physical effort, this indulgence brings nothing but grief.  Rice has a high glycemic index (impact that a food has on your blood glucose content) and glycemic load (that also factors in the carbohydrate load).  This is not good news.  Bengalis have one of the highest incidences of heart disease and diabetes.  So, a good 5 or 6 years ago, with wisdom settling in along with a receding (or rather a deeply incursive and collapsing) hairline, I decided to switch and join M for a couple of chapathis (rotis) every night instead of rice.  Hand made whole wheat tortillas from Trader Joe's.  The healthiest I could find.  This was not fun.  Rotis are fine for a restaurant meal, but not at home for dinner. Yet,  I kept at it.  Rice I recoursed to only for special occasions, sometimes dipping into my sons’ supplies for dinner. Being Bengalis, they too prefer rice, especially the younger one whose predilection for anything that goes from dish to glucose in the time it takes to pass your esophagus, is downright scary—donuts and potatoes included.

Then one day, a scientist friend of mine, and someone with diabetes, told me about some experiments that he had been conducting.  He would ingest various grains and staples, and then do a time dependent measurement of his blood sugar.  Rice was bad.  Whole wheat tortillas were not that great either.  But he highly recommended quinoa (“keenwa”).  M of course already knew about quinoa.  And various other assorted grains and staples with healthy sounding names that seemed to come from the middle east.  Quinoa originates from Peru and it is technically a grass, not a grain.  So next time, at Trader Joe’s, we picked up some quinoa (it is also available at Mrs. Greens).  Get the white colored ones and not the dark ones (I don’t know the technical difference, just go with this optical inspection for now). 

M cooked it like rice.  Two parts water and one part quinoa.  Cooktop or microwave both work.  On the cooktop it take a bit longer to cook (about 10-15% longer).  I use it just as rice, mixed with East Indian dishes.  It is somewhat less firm than rice, so you cannot form it like you can with rice.  And of course it does not have the aroma that some rice grains have.  It take a couple of tries to get used to, like switching from left full back to right full back in soccer.  But the game, and the thrill, are about the same.  Quinoa blends in perfectly with the meats and curries of Bengali dishes and you can even mix in pickles or yogurt.  It goes very well with East Indian food.  I say East Indian and not just Bengali, because M sometimes cooks Assamese food.  A light delicate, tangy gravy called Tenga, a cross between Bengali curries and Thai soups, cooked with fish like Arctic Char. 

The name quinoa itself sounds as if it was made for the Bengali lexicon. In the patois of my forefathers, I can imagine myself hear them say, “Aazkey kwinwa khaitey mon kortasey”, if only the Peruvian trader could have unloaded his produce at the docks by the Ganga, after a new trade route had magically opened up between Lima and Bengal in the 19th century.  M cooked some khichuri the other day, a rainy day food, a mush of cholar dal (a kind of gram) and rice cooked together.  Except this time she substituted half the rice with quinoa.  Even my younger son did not complain.

I do not miss rice, and I feel good these days about quinoa.  It is a grain (nay, grass) whose time has come. It makes you feel healthy, it has that urban health nut ring to it, its grains staring at you from plastic bins in Mrs. Greens, screaming out restraint.  It is an oats swirling, pilates flexing, no antibiotics in my milk world, a return--as a housing development ad screamed at me this weekend in the newspapers--to the “village life”.