LEMONGRASS

Bangkok, 20 August 2015

One of the things I always do when I go to a new country is to inspect the vegetable section of the local markets or supermarkets, to see what fruits and vegetables they have on display which I have never seen before, and then I try to figure out how the locals eat them. I also play this game with fish, where one can see interesting variations around the world. I normally don’t bother with meats, since there is much less variety here. Chicken, pork, and beef probably cover more than 95% of all meat products sold over the counter. Throw in a few other fowl, like turkey and goose, and you’re probably up at 99%. I’ve never seen meat aisles where you can buy camel or llama or hamster or dog (although I was once in a place where I could have bought kangaroo).

In any event, I played the game when we arrived here in Thailand, and one of the things that immediately jumped out from the vegetable aisles was lemongrass – it’s not a vegetable really, more a spice, but it tends to sit alongside the vegetables, so that’s where I saw it.

lemongrass bunch

Anyone who has lived in Thailand for more than a couple of months will quickly realize that lemongrass plays an important role in Thai cuisine. I’ve mentioned in a previous post one Thai dish in which lemongrass plays a not unimportant role, Tom Yum soup.

tom yum soup

There are other Thai soups which have lemongrass in their recipe, lemongrass coconut noodle soup for instance.

Coconut Lemongrass Noodle Soup

It also finds its place in the green and yellow curries which are omnipresent in Thailand and which Thais will eat with various meats and vegetables. Here they are accompanying chicken.

chicken green currychicken yellow curry

Lemongrass also plays an important role in various sauces, in this case as a coconut and lemongrass sauce accompanying mussels.

mussels in coconut and lemongrass sauce

In truth, it is not only in Thai cuisine that lemongrass finds a role. It is common to much South-East Asian cuisine. In Viet Nam, for instance, in pork meatballs the meat is mixed with lemongrass and other herbs.

Vietnamese Lemongrass Pork Meatballs

Or there is Indonesia’s beef rendang, where beef is cooked slowly in a mix of spices which includes lemongrass.

Indonesian beef-rendang

In Cambodia, there’s the national spice-mix paste called Kroeung, which almost always includes lemongrass, and which is used in many dishes, for instance in the fish-based Amok trey

cambodian fish amok trey

For Laos, I cite stuffed lemongrass, the one dish where lemongrass plays a star role.

Laotian stuffed lemongrass

Myanmar gives us as one among many examples Mont Di soup, from Rakhine state

Myanmar Mon Di soup

And let’s not forget the Philippines, from which I’ll cite Lechon Cebu. Lechon, a national dish, is a whole roasted pig. Among its many regional variations there is Cebus’s, where the pig is stuffed with a mix of spices and herbs which includes lemongrass.

Philippine lechon cebu

This enthusiasm for lemongrass is not surprising really. The two forms of the plant which are edible, C. citratus and C. flexuosus, both have their tap root buried deep in this part of the world. Anyway, it’s super for me because I have a great fondness for lemongrass. This affection goes back a long way; I first came across the plant some 50 years ago, as a ten, eleven year-old child. It was in Cameroon, in West Africa. My father had moved there after his stint in Eritrea. One afternoon, at tea time at someone else’s place, I was served this delicious pale yellow infusion, which smelled and tasted softly lemon-like.

lemongrass infusion

After I’d oohed and aahed about it for a bit, I was shown the plant, a rather spiky big grass

Lemongrass Plant

whose leaves gave off this wonderful lemon scent when you rubbed them between your fingers.

I did not consume lemongrass in any other form while in Cameroon, nor did I ever consume it any other way until I came to Thailand. In fact, an exhaustive search on the internet has led me to conclude that nowhere between Cameroon and S-E Asia does any traditional cuisine include lemongrass (I stress traditional cuisine; with the globalization of cuisines many people are now trying S-E Asian recipes, either straight or fusing it with their own cuisines). Everywhere in the world, there is much enthusiasm to consume lemongrass but only in the form of infusions. I had high hopes to find traces of lemongrass in the Berber regions of North Africa, where their traditional form of cooking, the tajine, is very much a form of stewing, which is quite close to the way lemongrass is used in this part of the world.

tajine

But no, I found no trace of cooking with lemongrass in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. Not even in India have I found any trace of lemongrass being used in traditional cuisine, even though the subcontinent shares many culinary traits with S-E Asia – curries being the obvious one

south indian curry

and even though the lemongrass plant grows well there (to the extent that C. citratus is known as West Indian lemongrass while C. flexuosus is known as East Indian lemongrass).

I was somewhat astonished by this finding, but also rather disappointed – I had been looking forward to showing pictures of yummy dishes from around the world in which lemongrass plays a role. My first thought was that the consumption of lemongrass infusions the world over was a result of colonialism. In this narrative (a favourite word these days among the chattering classes), Europeans would have discovered the lemongrass infusion (I suspect in India, given the name we Europeans gave the plant)

english lady drinking tea in India

and carried the plant off around the world and hooked our colonial subjects on the drink (the plant’s anti-mosquito properties may also have helped in this diffusion; more on this in a minute).

english lady serving west indians tea

(OK, my pictures show the imbibing of the even more famous herbal infusion, tea, but the general process would have been the same.)

This tidy narrative of mine got a rude shock, however, when I picked up another, insistent, narrative on the internet, which held that already 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians, and through them later the Ancient Greeks and Romans, were familiar with the plant. And there was a big difference. The Egyptians did not eat it, they used it for incense mixes. Incense was big business in Egypt (as it was indeed in all ancient religions). We have here, for instance, Ramses I burning incense as a ritual offering

Rmases I burning incense

and what the Pharaoh did, every man, woman, and probably child, did the length of the country (the country did not have much breadth).

If the Egyptians used lemongrass for incense, I suspect they also used it for their perfumes and perfumed oils. After all, this is also how lemongrass is used today, especially by our friends the aromatherapists.

lemongrass oilI couldn’t find an Egyptian mural showing someone using oils or perfumes, so instead I throw in a picture of ladies using cosmetics more generally.

ancient egyptians using cosmetics

But now the question is, if the Ancient Egyptians were indeed using lemongrass, how did they get it from its place of origin, S-E Asia? I have to think that the answer lies in the spice trade, which was already flourishing in the time of the Pharaohs. Spices like cinnamon and cassia were finding their way to Egypt from Sri Lanka, so it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that lemongrass and other spices were being picked up in S-E Asia and shipped westwards, eventually coming up the Red Sea.

egyptian ship

My personal view is that contrary to many spices, where the product and never the plant was shipped (the plant being treated almost like a state secret), the live plant also eventually made its way to Egypt, perhaps overland through India and Iran, along the Fertile Crescent, and then down into Egypt (and from there I would guess eventually along the coast of North Africa). I say this, because lemongrass has another very valuable use, one which I alluded to earlier, and that is as a deterrent to mosquitoes. The little buggers don’t seem to like the odour given off by the plant, and a strategy still in common use today is to plant lemongrass around a house to keep them away.

lemongrass with mosquito

Where does that leave us? Well, with a gigantic culinary opportunity. The S-E Asian countries should plunge in and promote the use of lemongrass in cooking everywhere where the plant is now growing, which is just about anywhere where there is no frost (the plant is not frost hardy). I’ll be happy to help out, throwing lemongrass into anything I find cooking.

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Lemongrass bunch: http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/shutterstock_107826104.jpg (in http://www.ashlyns.co.uk/shop/lemongrass-bunch/)
Tom yum soup: http://greenpawpaw.efe.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/ctg-amb-128.jpg (in http://greenpawpawthai.com.au/menu/)
Coconut lemongrass noodle soup: http://www.lafujimama.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Bowl-of-Coconut-Lemongrass-Somen-Noodle-Soup.jpg (in http://www.lafujimama.com/2010/09/coconut-lemongrass-somen-noodle-soup/)
Chicken green curry: http://sushibeveren.com/online/image/cache/catalog/05.%20kip-500×500.jpg (in http://sushibeveren.com/online/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=90)
Chicken yellow curry: http://rachelcooksthai.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/yellow-curry-5.jpg (in http://www.rachelcooksthai.com/yellow-curry-with-chicken-and-potato/)
Mussels in a coconut and lemongrass soup: http://www.taste.com.au/images/recipes/nb/2010/09/25589_l.jpg (in http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/25589/mussels+in+coconut+and+lemongrass+broth)
Vietnamese meatballs with lemongrass: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Asn6_ojGAY4/UxzHHvW1oAI/AAAAAAAABLQ/XGg1oUmlMf8/s1600/Vietnamese+Lemongrass+Pork+Meatballs.JPG (in http://alwaysinthekitchen.blogspot.com/2014/03/vietnamese-inspired-lemongrass-pork.html)
Indonesian beef rending: http://cdn.noshon.it/wp-content/uploads/2012-10-17-r-beef-rendang.jpg (in http://noshon.it/recipes/beef-rendang/)
Cambodian Amok Trey: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-nWM9m8GUofk/U6r1rqzgBMI/AAAAAAAAPH8/TBOl0hNPnXA/s1600/cambodian+fish+amok+trey+8.jpg (in http://wendyinkk.blogspot.com/2014/06/amok-trey-cambodian-fish-mousse-aff.html)
Laotian stuffed lemongrass: https://gallivance.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/stuffed-lemongrass.jpg (in http://gallivance.net/2012/11/10/a-global-gumbo-ethnic-food-adventures/stuffed-lemongrass/)
Myanmar Mont Di soup: http://www.hsaba.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/rakhine_moti.jpg (in http://www.hsaba.com/recipes/rakhine-moti)
Philippine Lechon Cebu: http://tenminutes.ph/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Cebu-Ayers-Lechon-Order-Online-Manila-Shipping-Contact.jpg (in http://ww90.trafficads10.com/)
Lemongrass infusion: 5240254223_8f0879e852_z.jpg (in https://farm6.staticflickr.com)
Lemongrass plant: http://www.herbalteasonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Lemongrass-Plant.jpg (in http://www.herbalteasonline.com/lemongrass-tea.php)
Tajine: http://blog.zingarate.com/wanderlustt/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/tajine.png (in http://acquisto.acquea.com/s/tajine)
South Indian curry: http://www.chillimix.com/images/stories/easygallery/resized/0/1212337046_meen%20khatta.jpg (in http://www.chillimix.com/indian-recipe/fish-and-sea-food/meen-khatta.html)
English lady drinking tea in India: http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2015/04/07/vv1190_custom-2fb3f28e67d8197b7555bed3a80833675d5ff748-s900-c85.jpg (in http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire)
English lady serving West Indians tea: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/3228476-21st-september-1944-west-indian-ats-volunteers-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=v9WwiBskt0bjdeMIS%2fO97bO7qBvmTdPLrPrzxlLhIMyq9QGXYV1QZzXet54z3qgP (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/west-indian-ats-volunteers-being-served-tea-at-the-colonial-news-photo/3228476)
Ramses I burning incense: http://cache1.asset-cache.net/gc/112187026-egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=bGR6JCu8pZbf%2b2sqs4ajC3pr1O6j4GFGzEmSgJKUFx%2fwR1Oa4nADTEaQuSTwZMs0 (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/illustration/egyptian-antiquities-pharaoh-ramesses-i-burning-incense-stock-graphic/112187026)
Lemongrass oil: http://38.media.tumblr.com/c2faea8d8070dc30761b84931745bdbe/tumblr_inline_nifdirPvOm1snpbkm.jpg (in http://blog.massagetablesnow.com/page/3)
Egyptian ladies using cosmetics: http://www.notorious-mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ladies.jpg (in http://www.notorious-mag.com/2015/08/05/beauty-tips-ancient-egypt/)
Egyptian ship: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/98952627-mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-of-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=0njLr93epyP%2fp14uTH5hjWyeKg7%2bNmMNGiew1vRXySmP3uh4n3I9GzP5Xf2kYAzW (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/mural-painting-depicting-scene-of-carriage-high-res-stock-photography/98952627)
Lemongrass with mosquito: http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/98a5997abe901c1f53505e529852c4d7.jpg (in http://www.jewanda-magazine.com/2015/08/lifestyle-10-moyens-naturels-pour-eloigner-les-moustiques/)

INDONESIA – THE LANGUAGE

Beijing, 26 February 2014

As we drove and walked around during our week in central Java, my wife and I couldn’t help noticing the many loanwords from European languages (presumably mostly Dutch, with more modern loanwords coming from English) liberally sprinkled among the Indonesian words on signs and billboards. I cite a few here: klinik (clinic, or maybe hospital), notaris (lawyer), parkir (parking), bisinis (business),  apotek (drug store, pharmacy, chemist)

apotek

asesori (accessories – seen in a shoe shop, for a shelf devoted to shoe polish and the like), oli (oil), bensin (gasoline), gratis (free), buka (book), and – what has to be my favourite – elpiji (LPG)

elpiji

Indonesians certainly don’t seem to have a problem with borrowing words from a different language when they need them to describe things or ideas.  A little research showed me that each wave of foreigners who have passed through the region for trade or conquest – or both – has dropped words into the language.

Here are a couple of examples from Portuguese, who formed the wave immediately before the Dutch: gereja (church – from the portuguese igreja)

gereja

and sepatu (shoes – from sapato). I can understand Indonesians borrowing the Portuguese word for “church” since they had none before the Portuguese arrived, but I’m surprised they borrowed the word for shoes. Did they not wear shoes before the Portuguese appeared over the horizon? Perhaps not, the climate certainly doesn’t require them.

Before the Portuguese came the Arabs. For a country which is 87% Muslim, I suppose it’s not surprising that a number of the Arab loanwords have to do with religion, for instance jumat (Friday – from al-jumʿa)

jumat

or kitab (book, primarily religious book – from kitāb), but there is also salam (from the universal Arabic greeting, salām).

As for the Chinese, who arrived a little before the Arabs, they have mostly left loanwords which are about very Chinese things, like noodles. Interestingly, rather than from Mandarin, many of the loanwords came from Hokkien, a dialect from southern Fujian, which reflects the Fujianese’s enterprising spirit. Many of the Chinese found throughout South-East Asia originally came from Fujian. So we have mie (noodles – from ), lunpia (spring roll – from lūn-piá)

lunpia

teko (teapot – from teh-ko). But we also have, surprisingly, the widely used slang terms gua and lu (I/ me and you – from goa and lu/li). I say surprisingly because normally these are words which come from the mother language and are not borrowed.

And finally in the distant past, there were intense relations with India, with the main royal families being either Hindu or Buddhist. This brought many Sanskrit words into Indonesian: raja (king), pura (city/temple/place), mantra (words/ poet/spiritual prayers), but also kaca (glass, mirror), istri (wife/woman) and bahasa (language), as in Bahasa Indonesian.

bahasa

(if I understood the article accompanying this photo correctly, these students are demonstrating against the fact that some classes at their University are not in Bahasa Indonesian; intolerance of the foreign or genuine problem?)

I suppose this seemingly painless adoption of words from other languages has to do with the fact that Indonesian, whose roots are a variant of Malay from Sumatra or Malacca, originally developed as a lingua franca spoken by the traders who roved throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The need for a lingua franca becomes obvious when you think that the archipelago was a thick tapestry of languages. As it is,  some 700 languages are spoken today in the archipelago; probably more were spoken in the past when communities were more isolated. All of the peoples whose languages loaned words to Indonesian originally arrived in the archipelago for trade, so they were communicating with Indonesians who were already open to the idea of using foreign words – as long as it made trade easier, why not?

Java Map

Personally, I’m very sympathetic to the idea of a language being open to any word that comes along and is useful in helping communication, and I cheer the Indonesian on in their liberal word borrowing (we’ll skip over the fact that many of the words entered in periods of colonialism from the colonialists’ language – was their language also “colonized”?). My paternal language, English, is currently busily lending all sorts of words to every other language in the world, but originally it was the other way around. The English were quite happy to borrow foreign words – often mangling them in the process, but that’s OK. Why, English even borrowed from Indonesian/Malay. I list here the ones where I went “really? from Indonesian? how about that!”: cockatoo (from kakatua), gecko (actually from the Javanese tokek), orangutan (this one I knew), bamboo (from bambu), paddy (from padi), rattan (from rotan), sago (from sagu), sarong (from sarung), gong (from gong), junk (from jong), Mata Hari (from matahari = sun), amok, as in “running amok”, from amuk, and finally, last but definitely not least, ketchup (from kecap, which is actually a soy sauce, not a tomato sauce; somewhere along the line tomato must have been added to, and eventually substituted for, the soy).

On the other hand, I am quite irritated by the French, holders of my maternal language, and their silly desire to stop the language being contaminated by foreign words. These old fogies, members of the prestigious (or elitist?) Académie Française (and among whom I recognize an ex-French President whose electoral defenestration I was proud to be present at)

Academie-francaise

sit in this rather nice palace on the banks of the River Seine in Paris

Academie_Francaise-building

and pronounce linguistic fatwa (an Arabic word which I rather like to use) against English (and presumably other foreign) words which have crept into the French language.  If they feel it necessary, they will coin a new French word as a substitute. Thus, they came up with “courriel” to replace “email”. Ridiculous! Let the people decide the words they want to use! Chuck the old fogies into the Seine! (the origin, by the way, of the word fogy is unknown; its first known use is in 1780 … just thought my readers might want to know).

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Apotek: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/43053404.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/43053404%5D
Elpiji: http://images.solopos.com/2013/05/elpiji-Ika-Yuniati.jpg [in http://www.solopos.com/2013/05/16/elpiji-3-kg-langka-kelangkaan-diduga-akibat-pengguna-tabung-12-kg-pindah-ke-3-kg-406756%5D
Gereja: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/9b/35/96/black-portuguese-church.jpg [in http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294229-d379308-Reviews-Black_Portuguese_Church_Gereja_Sion-Jakarta_Java.html%5D
Jumat: http://31.media.tumblr.com/0def87ff6cecf5bdaba08df01555f5d1/tumblr_mwnijh0zzn1qb44klo1_500.jpg [in http://wawicaksono.tumblr.com/%5D
Lumpia: http://id.openrice.com/UserPhoto/photo/0/A2/001ZMRD204116C98F1ABB7l.jpg [in http://id.openrice.com/other/restaurant/lumpia-panas-semarang/104261/%5D
Bahasa: http://www.seasite.niu.edu/indonesian/bahasa_indonesia1.jpg [in http://www.seasite.niu.edu/indonesian/new_page_5.htm%5D
Java map: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Java-Map.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demak_Sultanate%5D
Académie Française members: http://cdn-lejdd.ladmedia.fr/var/lejdd/storage/images/media/images/culture/academie-francaise/5255893-1-fre-FR/Academie-francaise_pics_809.jpg [in http://www.lejdd.fr/Societe/Images/portfolio/A-suivre-cette-semaine3/Jeudi%5D
Académie Française building: http://i.images.cdn.fotopedia.com/flickr-870543298-image/Paris_and_Vicinity/The_City_of_Paris/6th/Institut_de_France/Academie_Francaise.jpg [in http://www.fotopedia.com/wiki/6th_arrondissement_of_Paris#!/items/flickr-870543298%5D

INDONESIA – THE TEMPLES: SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR

Beijing, 26 February 2014

A major reason why we came to this part of Indonesia was to visit Borobudur, Prambanan, and other smaller Buddhist and Hindu temples scattered around the Kedu plain, north of Yogyakarta. Well, Mt. Kelud’s eruption put paid to that plan! With equal indifference the volcano covered all temples, Buddhist and Hindu alike, with a layer of ash. Result: all the sites were closed to visitors while clean-up crews moved in to wash off the ash.

What to do, what to do? Well, hope springs eternal, as they say. We kept telling each other that surely they would reopen the temples quickly, within a few days, maximum! I mean, all those disappointed tourists milling around! All their money not being spent on entry tickets and ancillaries! So on the first day, we walked down to Borobudur to check out the situation. Not brilliant.  It would be a long time before the temple itself would be reopened, we were informed, although the grounds might be re-opened in a few days. The locals helpfully guided us to a spot on a side road from which one could see the temple quite well. They were right, with the foreground of tender green rice shoots being particularly appealing.
Borobodur across rice paddies 002
We then decided to go to a hotel abutting the temple grounds to have a late lunch, and discovered to our astonishment an excellent view of the temple from the back of the hotel.
Borobodur from Manohara 002
So, sitting on some steps I read out to my wife a description of all the things we were missing: the 2,760 bas-reliefs, “exquisite, considered to be the most elegant and graceful in the ancient Buddhist world”, as well as the 461 Buddha statues circling the middle and upper levels of the temple. Rather masochistic reading, I grant you, but I wasn’t having me carry that heavy guidebook all the way to Indonesia for nothing. And anyway, we kept telling each other, we might get closer still when they opened the park later in the week.

The next day, a local guide took us up to Dieng Plateau, which was a very pleasant drive up to 2,100m. After visiting a smoking solfatara (the plateau is an ancient volcanic caldera complex) and a volcanic lake, we visited a series of small Hindu temples, “the oldest known standing stone structures in Java”, so the guidebook informed us. Here, Mt. Kelud’s ash had not reached, so we could visit them no problem.

Dieng plateau temples 000
Dieng plateau temples 002

This was the closest we ever got to bas-reliefs

Dieng plateau temples 006

Intriguing. Each temple was rather small, with very dark interiors. It wasn’t clear to us why anyone would expend all that effort and stone for such a small inner space. We had to be missing something, and the heavy guidebook did not enlighten us.

The next day, hope as I say springing eternal, we again walked down to Borobdur, to check if the park was open (yes) and if we could get any closer to the temple (no). Giving up on Borobudur, we went to visit Yogyakarta for the day (where we had the delicious fried chicken I have previously mentioned).

We now put our faith in our local guide, who said that he might, just might, get us into Prambanan. He also said we should have no problem visiting the smaller temples in the surroundings; the guards there were more relaxed. So, with hope springing etc., we set out the next day to visit Prambanan and a series of smaller temples. Alas, our guide was too optimistic. At Prambanan, we could go into the grounds but couldn’t get close at all to the main temples, so we decided to forget it. And as for the other temples, the universal answer was no, we couldn’t enter, the boss might come and it wasn’t worth their while risking it (after hearing this for the fourth time, we started asking ourselves who was this boss who seemed omni-present and ever so fierce?). We contented ourselves with looking at the temples from the fences, except in the case of Prambanan where we sneaked through an open unguarded gate around the back and were rewarded with a great view of the temple ensemble.

So here are the photos we took:

Mendut
Mendut temple 003
Plaosan
Plaosan temple 004
Sewuu
Sewuu temple 001
Prambanan
Prambanan temple 002
Ijo

Ijo temple 001

high, high, on a hill
Ijo temple-view of surroundings
Sari
Sari temple 001
being cleaned by crazy cleaners – no safety harness, no ropes, nothing!

Sari temple 005

Kalasan
Kalasan temple 001
being cleaned by even crazier cleaners

Kalasan temple 009

and finally Sambisari
Sambisari temple 002
an odd temple, this one, seemingly sunken 5m below ground level but actually completely buried long ago during a volcanic eruption. This must have been a Pompeii-like event.

Actually, you know, this wasn’t such a bad way of seeing the temples, just an overview as it were. The drives between the temple alone were worth it – it’s really a lovely part of the world. And seeing all these temples with no other tourists around was definitely a plus. My only regret was not being able to see the bas-reliefs from closer up. But I take the Buddhist precept to heart that desire is the ultimate source of all unhappiness, and I will not let myself desire to see the bas-reliefs. Anyway, I’m sure their pictures are all on the internet …

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All pictures ours, except:

Dieng plateau temples overview: http://allindonesiatravel.com/images/arjuna-temples-dieng-plateau-java-indonesia.jpg [in http://allindonesiatravel.com/dieng-plateau-central-java/%5D

INDONESIA – CHICKEN

Beijing, 25 February 2014

Within five minutes of moving into our hotel cabin, we had our first visitor: a chicken.
chicken becassine 003
Naively, I thought the chicken was a friendly thing and wanted company. I decided to call her Bécassine. For those readers who may not know her, Bécassine is the heroine of an old French comic strip. She is what Parisians of the early 1900s would have considered the typically foolish girl from the remote French provinces.
Becassine-2
The name fits my chicken well; it’s gross racial typing, of course, but I’ve always thought that chickens are rather foolish birds.

In any event, I was soon disabused of the comforting thought that Bécassine was searching out my company. The way she set her beady eye on anything I was putting in my mouth made me realize that she was just there for the food scraps. I suspect that previous guests staying at the cabin had spoiled Bécassine by feeding her yummy things like bread crumbs. She rushed at the mandarin pips I threw to her but spat them out immediately, fixing me reprovingly with that beady eye of hers.

Apart from these character issues, Bécassine was really a very handsome chicken. One thing I particularly admired about her were her long, graceful legs. Really quite model-like, I felt. And her plumage, though modest compared to some other chickens we saw in the surrounding villages:

kampong chicken 001

chickens on walk 003
(this one reminds me of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady)
audrey hepburn
her plumage, as I say, was sleek and smooth. A very far cry indeed from the battery chickens which we have been reduced to breeding in the richer countries
battery chicken
so that we can have dirt-cheap eggs and dirt-cheap chicken meat and eventually all look like this.
obese couple
In fact, Bécassine is a free-range chicken, what they call here a kampong, or village, chicken. And indeed every village we walked through had dozens of kampong chickens, many of the hens with a brood of chicks in tow, ranging through the village and into the fields beyond. With their long legs and rich plumage, they really were very handsome. I do believe that they are not very distant genetically from their wild progenitor, the Red Junglefowl, whose range extends from northern India through South-East Asia and into southern China.
red junglefowl-1
Indeed, the domestication of the chicken took place somewhere around here about 5,000 years ago.

Being free range, Bécassine will no doubt be very good to eat. We didn’t eat her, but in Yogyakarta we had lunch at a restaurant which served typical Indonesian food. One of these was Ayam Goreng Kremes, a fried kampong chicken with fried, flaked salam leaves.

ayam goreng kremes

Fingurr-lickin’ good, as the Colonel would say!

Sorry, Bécassine, it’s been good to know you, but you have to follow your destiny. Someone, some day, will have the great pleasure of eating you.

________________________

Becassine hen: our picture
Becassine: http://madameshackelford.wikispaces.com/file/view/blppxije.jpg/35302825/blppxije.jpg [in http://madameshackelford.wikispaces.com/Bécassine%5D
kampong chickens: our pictures
Audrey Hepburn: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/12/05/article-0-0F1123D000000578-117_634x792.jpg [in http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2070449/Marilyn-Monroe-Kate-Middleton-The-unforgettable-dresses-time.html%5D
Battery chicken: http://lifewiththeexbatts.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/audrey-1.jpg [in http://lifewiththeexbatts.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/hello-world/%5D
Obese people: http://www.themobilityresource.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/morbidly_obese_091026_main.jpg [in http://www.themobilityresource.com/disabesity-should-morbidly-obese-people-be-considered-disabled/%5D
Red junglefowl: http://www.discoverlife.org/IM/I_TS/0006/320/Gallus_gallus,_red_jungle_fowl,I_TS604.jpg [in http://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q?search=Gallus+gallus%5D
Ayam Goreng Kremes: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-76_gBdFsH_8/UCS8hAh77bI/AAAAAAAAAHA/eZYM1EQnGh0/s1600/resep-ayam-kremes.jpg [in http://foodiefod.blogspot.com/2012/08/tips-membuat-ayam-goreng-kremes.html%5D

INDONESIA – CALLS TO PRAYER

Beijing, 24 February 2014

I left us in the last post sitting on the hotel terrace sipping our welcoming drink. We were sitting there again as night drew in. And as night drew in, we began to hear a strange medley of sounds rising from the surrounding villages. It was the calls to evening prayer. The loudspeakers of every village mosque blared out the call – and there seemed to be a lot of mosques in the area …
local mosques 002

local mosques 001

I said it was a strange medley; actually, it was a disagreeable cacophony. Each muezzin started at a slightly different moment, and each chanted a different tune. The result grated on the ears. It was rather like the noise coming from an orchestra when the players are warming up and tuning their instruments before they start. A million miles from a magical moment which my wife and I once shared in Istanbul, in Sultan Ahmet square in front of the Blue Mosque. We were sitting down having a rest when the mosque’s muezzin suddenly started up. He chanted a line or two and paused. And behind us, faintly, we heard the muezzin of Süleymaniye Mosque respond with his couple of lines. To which the muezzin of the Blue Mosque in turn responded. And so they duetted back and forth for fully five minutes while we sat there holding our breath.

Back on the hotel terrace, my wife and I listened until the chanting died away, and then we turned in. After our adventures in getting here, we were glad to go to bed early. We slept like logs – until dawn, when we were awakened by the dawn call to prayer. As I have done so many times in darkened hotel rooms, from Morocco in the far west of the Muslim lands, to Java now in the far east, and at many points in between, I lay there letting the song flow over me:

God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
Prayer is better than sleep.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.

And as I always do before drifting back to sleep, I thought to myself what a pity it was that there is no God out there to receive their, or anyone else’s, prayers.

________________

Pics: mine

INDONESIA – VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS

Beijing, 23 February 2014

Our trip to Indonesia to celebrate my wife’s birthday started with a bang – literally. Two days before we were leaving, Mt. Kelud erupted

Mount Kelud eruption-1

Mount Kelud eruption-2

covering a good portion of Central Java with a fine layer of ash.

ash covering village

My wife and I were stunned. This was where we were meant to be going! Our plan was to visit the Buddhist temple Borobudur, a UNESCO World Heritage site
borobudur temple
and other old temples dotting the landscape north of Yogyakarta. From the moment we heard about the eruption to the minute our flight took off from Beijing for Jakarta, we anxiously scanned the net for the latest news. Our immediate concern was the onward flight to Yogyakarta. We read that the airport there, along with two other airports in the region, had been closed because of the ash-fall.
yogyakarta airport-1
But surely, we said to each other, the airport will be open by the time we arrive in Jakarta. Surely it will.

It was not. In fact, ground staff at Jakarta told us that it would be a couple of days before they could clear the ash enough for it to reopen. The only way to get to Yogyakarta was by rail (7 hours) or by road (15 hours). We were marooned …

Luckily, though, one of the ground staff mentioned that Semarang’s airport had been re-opened. It had also suffered from ash-fall, but they had managed to clean it up quite quickly. We had only the haziest notion of where Semarang was but if the ground staff thought it was a good alternative that was good enough for us. We got the ticket changed to a flight to Semarang which left very early the next morning. Since the thought of spending the night at Jakarta airport didn’t appeal, we also put ourselves down on the waiting list for a flight leaving that evening for Semarang. We were warned that there was very, very little chance, but in the end we got on the flight and there were still free seats behind us. The local guide who was meant to pick us up at Yogyakarta recommended a hotel in Semarang, and we agreed with him that he would come to get us there the next day.

So, by the afternoon, but 24 hours late, we were sitting on the terrace of our hotel, on chairs and at a table which had been vigorously scrubbed to get rid of the insidious volcanic ash, sipping a ginger-lemon grass welcoming drink, and looking over at Borobodur temple faintly picked out on the horizon, framed by trees whose leaves were all still thickly covered in ash.
Borobodur from hotel terrace-1
The hazards of travel … although this is the first time for us that a volcano has got in the way.

Surely Yogyakarta airport will be open again by the time we leave. Surely it will.

-oOo-

PS: It was. I am posting this from the comfort of my dining room table in Beijing, where we got in this morning.

___________________

Mount Kelud eruption-1: http://en.es-static.us/upl/2014/02/volcano-Kelud-Indonesia-2-13-2014-Asthadi-Setyawan-1.jpg [in http://earthsky.org/earth/kelud-volcano-in-indonesia-is-erupting-thousands-evacuating%5D
Mount Kelud eruption-2: http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/article9128319.ece/ALTERNATES/w620/MountKelud.jpg [in http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/mount-kelud-eruption-why-is-indonesia-the-hottest-spot-on-the-ring-of-fire-9128148.html%5D
Ash covering village: http://cdn.rt.com/files/news/22/6a/20/00/vulkano.si.jpg [in http://rt.com/news/kelud-volcano-erupts-indonesia-962/%5D
Yogyakarta airport: http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2014/02/14/20185022_h27297760-d0ed011f5a27f5721c964017a41959be91678c94-s6-c30.jpg [in http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/14/276836240/massive-volcanic-eruption-in-indonesia-blankets-region-in-ash%5D
Borobudur temple: http://townsofusa.com/travels/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/borobudur-0222.jpg [in http://townsofusa.com/travels/2013/07/borobudur-temple-in-indonesia/%5D
Borobudur temple from the hotel terrace: our picture