Guangzhou Circle: Modern Chinese Architecture

China, why is your architecture as addicting as your food…is there an MSG in the concrete or something?  Yes, that’s sarcasm, but I really do wax nostalgic for taking long walks around Chinese cities, appreciating their overzealous approach towards geodesic domes, bumper car  facilities, and some of the most bizarre ideas ever constructed.

Today’s specimen: the 138-meter (just under 453 feet) Guangzhou Circle (广州园大厦), located in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.  Completed in December 2013 by Milan, Italy-based architect Joseph di Pasquale, the Guangzhou Circle pays homage to Chinese history both in design and in its main occupants.

As is common with major projects in Chinese cities, the Guangzhou Circle is near nothing.  An expectation is that businesses will follow, partially to bandwagon off of the cachet of a new landmark– it’s commonly done with building a high-speed railway station, and then a new neighborhood around it, but this structure doesn’t even have a metro station nearby…yet.  Yes, it overlooks the Pearl River (more on this later), and is quite close to the Dongsha Bridge, but to get there by public transit involved a not-so frequent bus.  In any event, I dig it.

But, what was it modeled after?

Was its inspiration this delicious, gluten-filled sesame-pocked nang, brought to us by Uyghur chefs?

Nice try.

In fact, it was the ancient bi – 璧 – or disc that lent its look.  Though their origins are something of a mystery, thousands of years ago bi were discovered buried with people of presumably higher social status.  One theory suggests that the bi represented the sky, and accompanied these people in their afterlife; another conjectured that bi were talismans to ward off evil spirits.

Then there’s that ever-present number eight.  What, you say?  It looks like a zero to me.  Haha…this is where feng shui comes into the mix.  When the Guangzhou Circle is reflected on the Pearl River, the pair “forms” the number eight, or double bi.  The number eight is China’s lucky number; try buying a license plate or phone number with mostly 8s, and you will be in shock.

When I first lived in Shenzhen, China, I noticed three awfully tacky golden skyscrapers along Shennan Boulevard, the city’s main east-west drag.  How ugly they are…but it’s simple.  Gold in your facade means I’m here to make money!  As such, with Guangzhou Circle’s two main tenants being Hongda Xingye, a giant international chemical company, and the Guangdong Plastics Exchange, perhaps the newest phone camera filter will be “Tackify Your Home.”


Have you been to Guangzhou?  Any desire to see the Guangzhou Circle?

Breaking the Fast with Kolak (Indonesia)

For me, there’s no shortage of delectable desserts in Indonesia.  They might include local fruit such as the starfruit, papaya, and the “snake fruit” salak, a combo dinner-dessert- for example, peanut sauce (bumbu kacang) for sate, or traditional sweets like cucur (pronounced “chu-churr”) and bika ambon.

Today’s topic, kolak, might be my favorite Indonesian dessert yet:

It is one of many dishes most popular during the month of Ramadan.  Consequently, it’s considered a tajil, or a snack consumed at iftar, which is the point at which one breaks the fast.

Though I tried the above version in Bandung, there are various types of kolak through Indonesia.  For the base, you’ll need coconut milk.  Knowing that, each time I eat kolak I’ll have to find a belt with an extra notch in it.  Palm sugar or coconut sugar, and if available, a sweet-smelling but uniquely pleasant pandanus leaf are also typical ingredients.  The pandanus leaf, also known as screw pine, lends its flavor to numerous Southeast Asian desserts.

From here on, I’m pretty sure kolak is a dumping ground for all sorts of fruits.  The one that I tried had sweet potatoes, bananas, and cassava with palm sugar, as well as a mystery item, which I believe is called kolang-kaling, or sugar palm fruit.  In all, kolak has great texture, a sneaky way to get vitamins (which might make it kid-friendly), and can be served either hot or cold…except that if you choose the latter, and your only option is street food, you might want to harvest your own ice.


Have you ever tried kolak?  Think it should come to a street vendor near you?

Best Street Food Nominees: Seafood Vadai in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Clearly, I haven’t thought this through.

What do I mean?…”The winner of best street food.”  Yikes, that’s never going to happen.  There are myriad candidates for this category, and that’s a good thing.

But if I had to choose a nominee right now it would be one that comes to us all the way from Staten Island Colombo, Sri Lanka.  I think highly of the presence of pumpkin and beets in contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine, and have equally fond memories of strolling along Galle Face Green, a downtown Colombo park right in front of the historic Galle Face Hotel.  Though the park’s other selling points include a boardwalk along the Indian Ocean, as well as pick-up cricket matches, the highlight for me was the vadai:

Vadai come in many forms, but these particular snacks are flattened fried lentil flour patties.  Some enterprising character decided that these weren’t filling enough, so, in a master stroke, decided to top some with fresh crab and prawns.  Slather on lime juice, chili sauce, and mix with chopped onions for an even greater meal.


If you could only choose one “best street food,” which would it be?

Japanese Desserts: The College Potato (大学芋)

Around autumn-time in Japan is when the yaki imo (焼き芋), or roasted (sweet) potato, trucks start to ply the residential areas, as the drivers playing an eerie recording trying to either tempt or frighten human hunger pangs.  Sure, you’ve got the beautiful fall foliage, chestnut acolytes and a gradual decrease in purgatorial temperatures, but none of those things reminds me more that I’m in Tokyo than those mystifying lorries, err trucks.

Except that, I haven’t always had the great luck in finding them.  While living in Tokyo many years ago, my interminable walks normally took me through the commercial and/or high-rise districts, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, and Shimbashi (for some reason; well they did have cheap eats), but I have an inkling that heading towards Nezu/Asakusa/Yanaka/even Akasaka would’ve been better ideas to pinpoint the truck’s location.

Then again, as much as I love sweet potatoes, they’re quite easy to find around the world.  Not quite as common?  Daigaku imo (大学芋), the college potato.

Daigaku imo became an instant staple food for me while studying in Tokyo, and their super sweet nature has stayed with me ever since.  In essence, they are fried sweet potatoes, coated with black sesame seeds and sugar syrup.

According to the Research Institute of Japanese Potatoes – really – the college potato most likely came about at the beginning of the Showa era (1926 – 1989), when Japan had been going through a difficult economic period.  This was made worse by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which almost completely flattened Tokyo.  In order for college students to pay their dues, many started to sell what we now know as the daigaku imo.

The sweet – on – sweet daigaku imo reminds me of a couple of northern Chinese desserts;  one is diced sweet potatoes fried in caramel that you’d dip in water to cool off, and the other is bingtanghulu, or sugar-coated fruit skewers.   Has anyone found college potato outside of Japan?  I haven’t yet, but there is a small consolation that deserves mention–

Although it says satsuma imo (さつまいも) yam flavor, the description mentions that it has a hint of black sesame as well, not to mention, look at the photo!  They were quite alright, and much more lenient on the incisors, but the last time I saw them was in 2006…perhaps you, the reader, knows where to get them.


I’d like to try daigaku imo in cheesecake form…how about you?

Singapore’s Kaya Toast

Many fellow travelers have played up Singapore’s role as an eating paradise.  That said, my first time there, in August 2004, I didn’t have much choice in what – or where – I ate.  That said, I was instantly fond of two foods in the Lion City.  The first, fried mantou (steamed buns), chili crab and its delicious sauce at the East Coast dining promenade.  The second?  Kaya jam and toast.

Kaya jam counts as its main ingredients coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan,  a tropical leaf with a uniquely sweet flavor that has also been used to enhance the taste of ice cream, as well as on its own in cakes.  The color of kaya can be more green (as in the jar above) or more brown, depending on how much pandan is used.  I think the stuff is great, but undoubtedly sweet; after a pandan binge in Kuala Lumpur, I was incapacitated for a few minutes.  It’s common in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and I’ve found it in the states as well, in a few different Chinatowns.

Usually, it’s spread on grilled toast.  With butter.

What’s that…coconut and butter?  Well, just take a look:

The layer of butter is almost thicker than a slice of bread

Singapore makes it easy for you.  There’s no need to spare a moment to search the city-state for this artery-clogging delight.  As soon as you arrive at Changi Airport, make a beeline for a food court, where the fun awaits.  You say there are long queues at immigration, and you don’t have any Singapore dollars?  No worries, use your excess euros, drams, people’s money, or punts and make sure to get a “sandwich” for passport control too, it beats the unusually-flavored hard candies that they offer when you are allowed in.

Oh, and in case you think the kaya toast counters might dash your dreams and run out of butter:

Seems (US) state fair-worthy


If you have tried kaya jam before, how have you enjoyed it?  Virtual high-fives to all of those folks who eat it right out of the jar.

Manado’s Tinutuan (Indonesian Food)

Working in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, had been an incredible eye-opener to the (understatement of the year) diverse world of Indonesian food.  Specifically, I’m referring to makanan Manado, or food from the mostly Catholic city of Manado on the island of Sulawesi.

My office at the time was a three-minute walk to a Manadonese eatery, which first introduced me to the fiery, no holds-barred cuisine.  It is best known for its smoked cakalang, or skipjack tuna, spicy sambal, or chili pastes, and for cooking basically anything.

After a visit to what is likely one of the world’s more colorful wet markets in Tomohon, Indonesia, I was inconveniently feeling peckish.  I say that because, I went to the market specifically on an empty stomach, but left with an even emptier one.  None of the wet market stalls had anything ready-to-eat, so it was up to visiting neighboring street vendors for a bite.

After a few days of chowing down on a veritable Noah’s Ark, it was time for something…tame.  Enter, tinutuan/bubur Manado, or Manadonese porridge:

OK, so the word tame was used above in somewhat jocular manner.  You see, although tinutuan is a hot watery local rice porridge made with pumpkin, corn, water spinach, and other ingredients less likely to harry PETA worshipers, it is still typically served with a piquant sambal.  Tinutuan, like bubur in other parts of the country, is much more common as a breakfast dish; it’s fast, ingredients are cheap and plentiful, and no street vendor ever has to worry about washing dishes for the next customer.  Whoops, the cat’s out of the bag.

By the way, the Indonesian version of “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” is nasi sudah menjadi bubur.  Which is to say, “the rice has already become porridge.”

A Brief Tour of Some of My Favorite Tokyo Buildings

Of the many cities that I’ve visited around the world, Tokyo is easily my favorite.  I like how you can seamlessly bike all over the place, even if you can’t park your bike anywhere.  I like how address number 1 could be next to number 550 which can be next to number 78.  And, among many other reasons, I like the truly bizarre things that pop up from foundations – you know, buildings – and the things that stick out from buildings.  Funny though, before the 2, 080 feet-tall Tokyo Skytree was finished on February 29, 2012, I never thought of the city as a place with a prominent or skyline that could be recognized by a mere silhouette.  Of course, this is partially as a consequence of existing in an area prone to earthquakes.

Tokyo Skytree…Not a Favorite

Now, for the elephant in the room.  Since Tokyo was almost entirely destroyed twice – first, by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and then by US air raids during World War II – very few historic structures were left standing.  However, with the US helping to get Japan back on track right after the end of that war, new ideas, businesses and population booms flourished.

Thus, with leisure travel to the Japanese curtailed for nearly everyone currently outside of Japan, let’s take a brief (Part 1) tour of the city…

Huh, that’s not a building.  You’re right…but I am including this roller coaster – known as the Thunder Dolphin – as a result of its nuance.  Located next to the Tokyo Dome stadium – home of the Tokyo Giants baseball team – in Tokyo Dome City, the Thunder Dolphin is a steel coaster that has top speeds of around 78 miles per hour (~130 kph).  What I think is cool about it is that it not only passes through a sliver of a neighboring shopping complex (you can see it in the above photo, on the left), but it also goes through the center of the Big O Ferris Wheel!

The Thunder Dolphin was probably the most enjoyable roller coaster I’ve taken until now, but I really must check out Falcon’s Flight next.

When I first walked past the Shinanomachi Rengakan (信濃町煉瓦館 rengakan = “brick building”), I thought it was a government building, for instance a mint, or something else having to do with finance…or doubled as a  movie villain’s not-so-secret lair.

Nope.

The Shinanomachi Rengakan, a stone’s throw from the Shinanomachi metro station, forms the southeastern corner of the Shinjuku (district) branch of Keio University.  The curious structure was finished in 1995 (in Japanese), and today primarily houses offices of medical and media companies.

For Tokyo architecture buffs, Nakagin Capsule Tower needs no introduction.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, which can be found close to the upscale Ginza and Shiodome neighborhoods, is one of the most iconic buildings in Tokyo.  Built in 1972 by architect Kurokawa Kishou (黒川 紀章), Nakagin Capsule Tower is the clearest realization of Kurokawa’s Metabolist architectural movement.  Metabolism stresses flexibility, convenience, and the concept that cities should be able to adapt to future changes; for each of the two towers, individual prefabricated “capsules” replete with a small bathroom, desk, and radio (in other words, everything the burgeoning salaryman class of the 1960s would need) were fed into a single column.

Maybe you can even check out the Nakagin Capsule Tower once international travel resumes.

Not far from the the Nakagin Capsule Tower, we have another shining the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center (静岡新聞静岡放送ビル).  It was completed in 1967 by Japanese starchitect Kenzo Tange (丹下 健三), who also designed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – Tokyo’s current City Hall, Hiroshima Peace Park, the Fuji TV Building, and, stadiums for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, among many other edifices.

The Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center has one tower into which thirteen individual office modules are “plugged-in.”  At the time, space was left in between groups of 2-3 modules so that others could be connected to the central tower, though this growth never materialized.  Given how densely packed cities have become, might we see a Metabolist renaissance somewhere in the world?

Menacing, no?

This otherworldly edifice is called the Reiyuukai Shakaden (霊友会釈迦殿), or the Spiritual Friendship Association Hall of the Buddha Shakyamuni.  Easy peasy.  

The Reiyuukai sect of Buddhism was established some time in the early 1920s, and formally recognized by the Japanese government in 1930.  Although the Reiyuukai Shakaden was built in 1975, since its religious origins stem from the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it stores hundreds of tons of water, in the event of another disaster.  Furthermore, it houses a concert hall, and additionally (at least, prior to COVID-19) offers free Japanese language and calligraphy classes.

Ever wanted to have your very own Polyvinyl Chloride (err, PVC) model of jambalaya, a squid shooting its ink towards a plate of pasta, or fugu?  Then, you just have to find the “Niimi Chef,” perched above the Niimi kitchenware world building, finished in 1961.  To the right of this 7-story structure (that is, if you are looking directly at the chef), you will find the Kappabashi shopping street, known for stores selling cups, bowls, shop signs, chopsticks, fake food models, and many other items commonly found in a (Japanese) kitchen.  In that sense, the Niimi Chef building is a landmark for me, a reminder that at last, I’m back in my favorite city.

ADDRESSES


Have you/would you want to visit Tokyo?  Which buildings would you include among your favorites?

Bingtanghulu (冰糖葫芦), A Supersweet Chinese Treat

Bingtanghulu at Wangfujing Night Market, Beijing, China

China’s 冰糖葫芦 bīng​táng​hú​lu are what you offer to someone who has grown tired of having teeth.  I suppose you could say it’s China’s version of Coca-Cola.  Basically, a skewer of bingtanghulu is a blanket of sugar around pieces of fruit.

This street food is more popular in northern China in the winter months, though I have spotted it at touristy markets during the summer, too.  Since bingtanghulu is a snack in the mainland, pretty much any fruit (botanically or not) is at risk of becoming impaled on the bamboo stick.  Thus, cherry tomatoes, plums, melon, kumquat, bananas, strawberries, haw, smoked duck necks – most of those, anyhow – will do.  Here are an English recipe and a Chinese recipe for your indulgent pleasures.

Have you tried bingtanghulu?  Would you compare it to coating baklava with a layer of spun sugar?


Chinese Lesson
冰 bīng “ice”
糖 táng “sugar”
葫芦 húlu “calabash/bottle gourd”

Waiter, There’s Salt Outside Your Restaurant (Japan)

Years ago, before I went to teach English in Shenzhen, China, I happened upon a satirical video about the traditions of eating in a Japanese restaurant. What can one do, besides wax famished about those daily searches for good eats?

More importantly, what does Shenzhen have to do with this?…

Once settled in there, in order to spice up my daily Chinese meals, I went looking for Japanese food.  After stumbling upon a vertical “Japantown” in Luo Hu, the old commercial center of Shenzhen, I started to explore different floors of the building.  Seedy stuff – with discounts for Japanese businessmen – was located on the top floors, whereas just below those were restaurants.

Hungry, I alighted to find something that had been making me chuckle since watching the sushi video above:

Just what am I pointing to?

Salt.  Right outside of a Japanese restaurant.

The mound of salt is known in Japanese as 盛塩 (morishio).  Why was it there?  I asked the manager, and she didn’t know.  Though, one theory says that it was placed out front by the door sill in the event that your meal wasn’t salty enough.  Other possibilities include a nobleman being present in the restaurant, or that when you pass through the door you’ll be purified.  Another two mention that salt is placed there for good luck for the owner, or to keep evil spirits away from one’s abode (in Japanese).

Imagine at your own discretion, but please, the next time you reach for a bit of salt, think of your kidneys.

Morishio, “lucky salt,” outside of a Fukuoka Sushi Restaurant


Have you noticed this when you’ve gone out for Japanese food?  Have you taken advantage?

Sapporo, Japan’s Miso Ramen (味噌ラーメン)

Considering that today is thus far 2021’s coldest in New York, I feel like there’s no better time than now to talk about the hearty miso ramen.

In addition to Japan’s most well-known home-grown soup, miso soup, there have historically been othershoutou, with pumpkin, mushrooms, and meat, and miso nikomi made in a clay pot – that employ both noodles and miso, or fermented soybeans. Miso is beneficial for immune and digestive support, and has a fair amount of protein, given that it is made of soybeans…there are even different flavors and colors of miso.

However, contemporary miso ramen hails from Sapporo, Hokkaido, having only been created in 1954/5 by Mr. Morito Omori at his Aji no Sanpei restaurant. Two versions of the story exist; one entails Mr. Omori noticing in a Reader’s Digest about how foreigners liked miso, another simpler one recounts a customer asking him to add noodles and vegetables to miso soup.

Either way, Sapporo miso ramen is my favorite bowl of ramen.

I used to think that the broth solely consisted of miso, but in fact it is red miso added to a standard chicken, pork or other type of broth first. Throw in the usual menma (bamboo slices), green onion, and springy noodles, then top it with two Hokkaido specialties, butter and sweet corn. 旨ぇぇぇ! (So tasty!)

What am I still doing writing about it, when I should be making it? This always happens.

Stay warm, folks!

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