21 March 2008

The Chinatown Women And Their Jive-Ass Shoes

Fun and harmless generalization-- SF Chinatown dwellers have their own unique style. It is consistent and unself-conscious.

A short summary:

Shoes. Approximately 70% of the women wear black leather shoes in a particular shape, 10% wear other-colored leather shoes. The remainder goes with white rubber shoes. Perhaps 50% of men wear the same, the remainder sporting function-over-style models of rubber shoes like New Balance.

Pants. Most women don loose polyfabric trousers that never graze the floor (some are inches above the shoes, exposing white socks). The older men do so as well, but below-forties wear jeans.

Tops. Nondescript and likewise loose (and slightly balloony) jackets and windbreakers are worn over nondescript shirts.

Accessories. Almost all (especially women) carry plastic bags with vegetables or freshly cooked viands and dim sum. It must rule being from the homes they are always shuffling off to!

20 March 2008

Buchi, My Old Friend

I grew up a fan of buchi. Before knowing what cholesterol was, I was forever stuffing my face with these deep-fried, sesame-covered globs of sticky balls. There was something irresistible about the popping little seeds, the crispy exterior of the glutinous rice wall (and its equally chewy interior), and the soft, sweet bean filling. However...

When I was a wee lass of eight, I tagged along with an uncle to the divey Chinese joint Mr. Ho Tsin Ho Noodle House in Manila. It was around midnight, a very scandalous hour for a little girl to be awake, but the motivation was that he would treat me to anything I wanted, in any quantity I pleased.

Not being a fan of other Chinese food in general, and exhibiting early signs of the satiate-yourself-sick behavior I still occasionally manifest, I ordered a disgusting amount of buchi platters. After consuming them all, my young palate came to know the horrible sensation of extreme nausea due to excessive unctuousness. I abandoned buchi for more than a decade.

Only recently have I been brave enough to try them again, emboldened by my streak of oily street food adventures in India. Even so, I make sure I dab the whole ball in tissue, and have hot water or tea around to counter the bad vibes and regret.

However, I have found one buchi that is surprisingly light, and beats all the greasy SF Chinatown contenders. Asian Pearl in Millbrae makes them well, with only around US$ 5 for 6 pieces-- still more expensive than the US$ 1.40-for-3 Chinatown deals, but way more edible. In fact, I had three of them without gagging. They are just the right sweetness and delicious!

If you're coming from SF, you have to ride a BART down to Millbrae and take a SamTrans bus or walk down El Camino. The restaurant is super-popular among the Chinese set, and get packed during weekends. We've never bothered to have a sit-down dinner, but we get the buchi to go.

Asian Pearl Peninsula Chinese Restaurant
1671 El Camino Real
Millbrae, CA
(+1650) 616 8288
BART Station: Millbrae

18 March 2008

The Land of Milk

If there's one thing I figured out from my first days in India, it was this: I was not going to be vegan in this country.

Dairy is a way of life here. There are even stores that look like the water refilling stations back home, instead they sell milk, and an endless array of milk products (yogurt, ice cream, etc.). People of all gender, age, persuasion just come up in their motorbikes and hang out drinking plain or flavored packets of milk. Unbelievable.

And the more conscientious ones save the packets for recycling.

17 March 2008


The nimbu-mirchi is as ubiquitous in India as the hanging Christian stampita or scapular is back home. You may debate me on this, but they serve the same purpose: to ward off the "evil eye".

It consists of one nimbu or lemon, and seven mirchi or chilis. The latter count for seven days in the week. After one week, you must replace it, to keep your protection going.

Apparently some people forget to.

Take a look at this freaky nimbu with some voodoo-doll like thing. I was imagining that the owner was wishing someone to be crushed by a large citrus boulder.

Peanut Balls And The Kindness of Strangers

The beautiful lady living next door to my friend one day caught me climbing up the apartment stairs. "Come here!", she commanded. And so I did. She was clutching a steel jar full of homemade sweet peanut balls, one of which she shoved onto my hand. It was objectively delicious, and doubly so because of the random kindness.

16 March 2008


I don't get along well with flowery foodthings in general (jasmine tea, I'm looking at you), so I never got into paan.

There are small stalls and stores all over India that have leaves painted on the outside. These places are surrounded by moustached men at the most ungodly hours of the night. Overcome by curiosity during another motorcycle ride around Pune, I asked my friend what they were. I was guessing this was a place to get an alcoholic beverage, some kind of Maharashtra moonshine, under the guise of consuming healthful and herby things.

He explained that it was a digestive you eat after a large meal, but plenty men tend to abuse it and have it more than they should. He ran in to buy me one for Rs5. So out he comes with the most syrupy and flowery thing ever.

It consisted of dried fruit with rose flavor and sugar, wrapped in a betel leaf and sprinkled with grated coconut. The first bite was actually alright, but it was a weird sensation, eating through the tangy leaf into a sticky incense ball of tough fruit, and pushing the coconut bits around in my mouth. I thought, how is it possible that people abuse something this cloying?

Well, maybe the answer is that betel leaves are also used to make (presumably non-sweet) paan with tobacco or other natural stimulants. It would be much easier for me to fathom them being habit-forming in those incarnations.

15 March 2008

Eating Pune

In addition to what I've already discussed, these are some other things I ate in Pune:

Vegetarian burger at "Burger King". I use quotation marks because the small eatery is not connected to the fast food behemoth. It feels like the little joints around the UP campus, and is likewise filled with students cutting class and eating cheap and tasty food. There are both vegetarian and non-vegetarian selections, none of which exceeds Rs50, if I remember correctly. It is not fake meat, but rather, something really made of vegetables, and lentils perhaps. The bread is slightly crusty and has good texture. I mean, screw large corporations, right? Steal their names and do it better.

Pune'd Version of Idli. Before I tasted what real Southern Indian idli (steamed rice flour cake) was like, my friends gave me some of this for breakfast. It was good in its own right. The sauce was not sour like a sambar, but was rather orange and sweetish. There were all these crushed snacky sev (dried noodle thingies) sprinkled on top. Very interesting.

Pooha. I don't mind having this for breakfast every day of my life. Apparently, pooha or poha is "beaten rice". To further explain: the freshly harvested rice is poached and pounded into a thin version for snacks (like our pinipig, I suppose), or into a thicker one, to make more substantial dishes. The thick pooha is cooked with mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander, and a bunch of other things. Sometimes it comes with sev and fresh cheese on top. Savory and satisfying.

Vegetarian Thali. A thali, I have come to realize, is best defined as "an assortment of pretty good things served on a steel platter". That's about as specific as I can get. This particular one had chapati, rice, spinach, dhal, sweet mango paste (ten stars!!!), and assorted Indian sweets. Best eaten on the the floor.

Masala Papad. This thing is genius. It's easy to make, and is a good light midnight snack. A papadum (Indian crispy wafer made with lentil flour) is topped with something salsa-tasting (raw onions, tomatoes, and cilantro), and masala (spice powder blend). This version has sev on top, and fresh cheese. Here is how to make it. When my friend ordered it, I actually thought he said "masala popcorn" and thought it was a good idea. But of course, this is way better. I don't remember where we ordered this, as I was quite sleepy.

Yesterday's News

Eating snacks out of newspapers is common in Pune. During my first time, I was fortunate that the contents were good enough to distract me from the questions that plague the foreign mind: Are they using vegetable-based ink? Am I eating off the front page of the issue that was touching the street when piled the papers up? Was someone reading this when he was on the toilet? Am I eating off bad news or good news? Was my puffed rice in someone's picture's nose? All these worries were eased out by the simple goodness of the bhel puri.

Bhel puri is a common snack in Maharashtra. Puffed rice, fried lentils, sev or crispy noodles, potatoes, and other supporting actors are served with spice powder, cilantro, and raw onions. And chili! Slices of green chili that only the brave don't toss out.

How does one eat these tasty bits off a daily? I was given a scooper that was cut out of a magazine cover. It was not easy to use, but stopped me from pouring the stuff into my mouth and getting indigestion. The serving must have been as large as a small cat, but I managed to get it all in, and even be a bit covetous of my friend's.

14 March 2008

Neera, or Palm Juice

I asked my friend what all those painted stalls around the city were selling (possibly psychiatric advice?). From the colorful illustrations, one would guess it was the juice of the superstar coconut tree. It turns out, though, that they peddled neera, which in Pune is a sweet juice from the shindi or date palm. In other places, they harvest the juice from other palms, such as sago, palmyra, and even, yes, coconut.

For Rs5 (around Php 5 or US$ 0.12), you get a glass of the delicious thirst quencher. It tastes like coconut juice, but without the astringency. Some sources say that neera ferments so easily that it can only be sold near the place it is harvested. Keeping it cold helps to preserve it, otherwise it will shortly become palm wine, much like our fermented tuba from back home.

They say you should drink the stuff during early morning for guaranteed freshness, but we had it late afternoon. I've read about some vendors adding preservatives, who knows?

13 March 2008

To Pune, With A Homecoming Indian

The taxi moved at glacial speed through distended bowels of Mumbai, struggling to reach the freeway and burst forth into the city of Pune. Meanwhile, its passengers made friendly conversation.

I would only later realize what a coincidence it was, sharing a vehicle with an Indian who once lived in the Philippines. Exchange between ours and the spicy subcontinent is not so vigorous. Mohan's family still runs a general store in Bacolod. He has since, however, moved on to establish his very own general store in more developed Santiago, Chile.

(The initial fantasy/stereotype I carried was that Indians do a subtle and apparently benevolent kind of conquering, via their bhangra, marvelous curry and reasonably-priced, well-stocked general stores.)

“In Chile, it is not like this. There it is orderly. People have discipline. It is not dirty like this. People are not lazy,” he mused, obviously irritated and disappointed at the lack of change since his last visit home.

I looked at our driver to my right (!), who remained reaction-less. So, I said "mmm-hmmm" and continued bobbing my head to the filmi music playing on the radio. Oblivious to any annoyances, I was still google-eyed and infatuated with the banal sights that slowly brought flesh to the skeletal idea I had of India. Illustrated signs bore proclamations in the strange and curvy script, while trucks reminded all other vehicles to “Horn Please OK”. Women dressed more colorfully than an Eat Bulaga! dance number and had stuff on their heads, while men wore untucked and pressed collared shirts.

When we pulled out of the airport earlier, Mohan had immediately begun qualifying the mess that I was seeing. This was not really Mumbai, it was something a bit off the city center, Mumbai was really more beautiful, etc... These I already knew.

We have our own ill-designed airport (with its surrounding vehicular flow nightmare), a relic of past generations and a victim of unprojected variables. In fact, our first thirty minutes on the road could have easily passed for a ride through the streets of Metro Manila. I must admit that I am acquainted with the fear of visitors letting these tidbits mar their whole experience.

As we pulled off into the spacious inter-city tract, the number of cars tapered off and I thought of the multitudes of immigrants who mouth semi-contemptuous apologetics about their homelands. It is never difficult to find something to complain about-- and it always feels better to do so from a comfortable position. These people had always bothered me. Now, however, I wonder if they really mean it, or if they are only trying to make themselves feel alright about being away from home.

As Mohan spoke, more softly now, about the virtues of fresh Indian cooking and how his mom chose to move back from Chile, I imagined the hugs and dishes waiting for him in Pune.

11 March 2008

First Impressions

Aaahh, touch down.

The airplane doors open and you walk out of that tube, noting how the temperature differs, how comparatively un-modern the carpeting is, how the ground staff greets you in English that is informed by verbal habits of another mother tongue.

I had not stepped outside of the Mumbai Chatrapati Shivraji International Airport when I got my first taste of the cheerful persistence that many Indians possess.

The man manning a public phone asked me in a remarkably loud voice if I had chocolate. I was startled by the randomness of this and his apparent ESP, and answered yes.

"Give me!", he insisted, jolting my more modest Southeast Asian sensibilities.

I protested, explaining it was very much sealed in a box, and that my friend had specifically asked me to bring them. I wasn't lying. I had gone on a last-minute run at the store for the goodies before leaving San Francisco.

"No whole box! Give me! Only one! I eat!", he demanded, with a smile. He began making motions of eating with his right hand, fingers puckered up like a flower bud, clasping some fantasy choco-bonbon.

When I politely denied his request (using progressively simpler English), he merely asked again. This continued for some time. I began to feel guilty and was close to tearing open the box of truffles in my bag, when he beamed me a kind smile, tipped his head from side to side, and conceded.

"Acha acha. Thank you! Have nice stay! Okay, no problem!"

And he meant it too! I could tell.

And so I gleaned that in this land, people (often strangers) may make the most brash requests, but they do so with few expectations. The are simply exploring possibilities of making life more interesting. Fantastic.

And so I left the almost-empty airport, which was in a mess due to renovations. The familiar mugginess of the afternoon clung to my skin like a tropical Manila vapory balm. The growing sound of traffic and human chatter-- in Hindi!-- had my heart jumping. A denizen of the third world backpacking the third world.

In a place familiar and strange all at once, I set off. With little goals or expectations. Simply exploring the possibility of making life more interesting.

10 March 2008

Transcribing an Adventure

The next few days will see me getting my India musings off my journal, onto this blog. The Notebook is showing signs of rebellion, i.e., falling out of my bag, getting slathered with sticky mochi, the unexplainable bending about of its spiral-spine, the subsequent falling out of its pages.

I'm beginning to think it may not live to tell the tale of my journey.

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