Sunday, May 21, 2017

OMAN: THE FOOD

It’s finally starting to feel like May. The weather is warming up. The city is turning black and white for the upcoming Indy 500 race. I’m looking forward to a three-day Memorial Day weekend next week (my kids get a four-day weekend!). There’s only a few weeks left of the school year (I know, some kids are lucky enough to already be out). I’m doing well at my job this month. So, things are kind of looking up right now. And you know the best way to celebrate that: Omani food.

It was good when it was first made, but as it sat, its flavor changed a little.

I started today’s cooking adventure with some Maldouf, or Date Chapati. Chapati is a type of bread that comes from Southeast Asia but this one has a distinctive Omani take on it. First I had to get my dates ready. I bought pitted dried dates and placed 12 chopped dates (about ½ c or so) in a small bowl and covered it with boiling water, letting it soak until they were soft (I let it sit for about an hour). Then I took my pestle and mashed them before putting the mashed dates and water into my blender. Once I pureed it, I set this aside for later. Now came time for actually making the bread. I mixed together 2 ¼ c of all-purpose flour and 1 tsp salt. Then I stirred in an egg and ¼ c of ghee and mixed it all together until it was kind of crumbly. I slowly poured in my date puree into the dough mixture (it should yield about 2/3 c), stirring and kneading until it started to become smoother and more elastic. Once I got the dough to look like it should, I divided it into 12 small sections. I kneaded each section again and rolled them into small balls, covering them with a towel and letting them rest for another hour. On my floured pastry mat, I rolled out each ball and brushed the surface with ghee. I folded the bottom and top edges to make a straight edge, making it into a rectangle before folding it again to make more of a square. Then I rolled it out again and brushed it with ghee again. When I did all 12 balls, I fried it in a skillet, ghee side down until it was browned. I brushed more ghee on top before flipping it. It should start to puff up a little, but mine didn’t puff up that much. However, I was surprised that I couldn’t really taste the date flavor at all. If anything, it made it just a bit sweet. Coupled with the ghee, I quite liked these. 

No complaints from anyone here.
For the main dish today, I made Chicken Kabouli (Muscat Style). I used chicken drumsticks (at the request of my son who was shopping with me – whatever it takes for him to eat it). I put my chicken in water and brought it to a boil. Then I added in a few small cinnamon sticks, a few whole cardamom pods, whole cloves, some black pepper, ground coriander, ground cumin, and a chicken stock cube. I turned down my heat and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. Then I removed the chicken and set it off to the side. I drained off some of the stock and saved it. In a smaller pot, I put 3 c of the stock back into the pot along with 1 ½ c of rice and let it cook for about 10 minutes. Then I took it off the heat and set it off to the side. Back in my large pot, I melted some ghee and sautéed my chickpeas and raisins for a couple of minutes before removing them. At this time, I added my chicken back into the large pot along with the boiled rice and the chickpeas/raisin mixture, and then sprinkling saffron that has been soaking in rosewater (I cut my rosewater with water 1:4 because I think rosewater smells like perfume and is overly strong to me). I poured in a little more of the broth (along with some more cumin and black pepper) and let it cook for another 20-25 minutes until the rice is cooked through and the chicken has heated up again. I thought this was really good. The chicken practically fell off the bone. I think I would’ve preferred to make this with thighs instead of drumsticks. But at least the kids ate it. I was actually worried that the sweet spices were going to be overpowering, but surprisingly it wasn’t.

Custardy. Almondy. I'm happy with it.
It’s been a while since I’ve made a dessert or a drink. So today, I’m doing both. For the dessert, I made Omani Pudding. I combined a can of sweetened condensed milk, 7 eggs, a cup of milk, 2 tsps of vanilla powder (I bought a powdered vanilla dip mix), a stick of butter chopped into smaller pieces, and some lemon zest. After mixing this until it was consistent, I stirred this over low heat until it started to thicken. I took a half cup of slivered almonds, ground them, and added them to the pot to thicken it. I removed them from the heat and poured it into a glass bowl, letting it cool a bit before placing it in the refrigerator to cool completely. I couldn’t find pistachios where I was shopping, so I left it out for this. I did garnish this some sliced almonds. I actually had my heat up too high and ended up cooking the eggs a bit. And the ground almonds made it a little rougher than what I was expecting. But it was rather tasty. A little goes a long way, though.

If this was easier to make, I'd make this every day.
For my drink, I served Spiced Omani Milk Tea. Over a medium-high heat, I toasted some cardamom pods, whole cloves, and cinnamon stick for about a minute. Then I added in my thinly sliced piece of ginger and 2 ½ c of water, bringing it to a boil. Once it came to a boil, I immediately turned my heat down until it began to simmer, stirring in a ½ c of sweetened condensed milk and adding in my 3 tea bags. I used English breakfast black tea. After I let this simmer for about a minute with the tea bags, I removed the pot from the heat and stirred in the ground cardamom and let it steep for a few minutes. I poured this through some cheesecloth to catch all of the solids. This, my friends, was so delicious that I wish I had made more. I loved everything about this. And it was a hit with everyone. Clearly the winner of the day.

Overall, this was a good meal.
If there is one thing that I hate, it’s wasting food. Perhaps it stems from the times when money was hard to come by. I actually panic a little when I’ve burnt some food or dropped it. While making the chicken kabouli, I dumped part of the cooked rice on the floor as I was trying to pour it into the pot. Good thing it was the last thing I was making because I spent the rest of the time stepping on pieces of rice that I thought I had swept up. By the way, cooked rice doesn’t sweep all that well. In fact, it feels pretty gross when you find a missed one with your bare foot. So, I had to make a little bit more rice in order to finish the dish. I’m just glad that I still had rice and broth left. And I was grateful that I did. One thing people don’t realize about living on an extreme budget is that when you have so little food and so little money, you can’t afford to mess up a recipe. You can’t afford a do-over.

Up next: Pakistan

OMAN: MUSIC AND DANCE

Traditionally, music from Oman borrowed traditions from many of its broader neighbors, including Egypt, Tanzania, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Portugal. Omani sailors would pick up various musical traditions and bring it back to Oman where it would mix with their own local traditions. 

 
Typically traditional music would center around life changes, like marriage, birth, death, and even circumcision (I bet those are really weird songs). Much of their music is steeped in the musical traditions of the broader scope of Arabic music, which are built on tetrachords. Unlike Western music, Arabic music also includes different intervals like three-quarter tones (an interval between a half step and a whole step). I was reading up on quarter tones, and even though I was a music major, I still find the notation for quarter tones strange (it’s either a backwards flat sign or half of a sharp sign cut vertically). 


Omani music typically uses many of the same instruments found in the Arabic music of other countries along with Western instruments as well. Some instruments that can be found are the manjur, a type of instrument that is looks like an apron of sorts and worn around the waist, decorated with cut-up goat hooves. As the performer shakes their hips, it rattles. It’s typically used in the zar dance (a dance to get rid of demons) and the fann at-Tambura (a dance for healing). A tambura is a bowl lyre, or type of long-necked lute. To accompany many of these performances, the mirwas drum is used. The mirwas drum is a type of small double-headed drum.


Along with the dances mentioned above, the liwa dance and its music stems from East African traditions. It has its ties with Zanzibar and other places along the Swahili Coast. Basically, several males will form a circle with one member in the circle playing some kind of reed instrument. The people who form the circle will dance and clap along. The singing that’s done is also sung in Swahili. (Makes sense.) 


Salim Rashid Suri is one of the distinguished oud players and singers who combines sawt musical traditions from the northern regions of the Persian Gulf with other musical traditions of the Indian Ocean. He calls it Sawt al-Khaleej, or Voice of the Gulf. He was known as the Singing Sailor, but his family wasn’t happy about him wanting to sing. His brother even threatened to shoot him if he didn’t stop. (I’ve done that but for different reasons.) But it was good that he persisted regardless, even though he had jobs and a family to take care of. 


I ran across a band that goes by the name T-band. They’re apparently a pretty good cover band from Muscat who won the Battle of the Bands in Oman a year or so back. They’ve got some talent, but I think the next step for them is to develop their own writing and their own sound. 


There are a few underground metal bands that are moderately known. A couple of these bands are Belos and Arabia. (Belos now performs in the UK.) I’ve listened to a few songs by Belos, and they fall into that category of metal music that uses more string music into it. They do incorporate some of the death screaming, but otherwise, it’s not bad. I actually kind of like it. This is about the extent of what I could find. There aren’t many musicians or bands that popped up in a basic search.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

OMAN: ART AND LITERATURE

Early rock art shows women, men, children, and animals in their daily life. The early settlers to these areas also brought with them an array of other domestic arts, such as jewelry making, weaving, beadwork, and other textiles. There were other types of arts like woodcarving, leather work, metal work, and pottery that were utilized to create tools, utensils, and other items used in the home.



Architecture plays an important part of Omani culture, and many of the influences stem from their historical interactions with other cultures (especially the ones they overtook). By far, Arab and Islamic architecture dominates in Oman. Some of the common features you’ll see are thick walls, few windows, round towers, the use of vaulted arches, carved wooden ceilings, and highly decorated doors and doorways. Many homes and public areas make use of mosaic tiles as decoration and use geometric patterns. In many homes, they often put windows high up and shape them so that it funnels the wind to naturally cool the home. Some homes even built their house around a well, so that the well is now on the inside (you probably find that far more in the rural areas rather than in the cities). 

Royal Opera House, Muscat
Oman has many museums dedicated to its history and cultural arts, many of which are located in Muscat. The Royal Opera House is an architectural feat of beauty and a famous stop for tourists and locals alike. An old French consulate has now been remodeled into a museum and garden. The National Museum is one of the more important collections of the history and culture of Oman. There’s even a museum of frankincense – yes the same from the story where one of the Wise Men brought frankincense as a gift for Baby Jesus. The frankincense tree grows natively in Oman along with myrrh. Both trees produce a resin that is tapped and used as an incense and perfume.

Frankincense tree
The earliest examples of literature from Oman date back to the 9th century. Most of the manuscripts we have today center around subjects such as religion, culture, and history. Geneologies were also fairly common during the time between the 11th and 19th centuries. Poetry has also been a style utilized from the early periods and is still popular today. 

Manuscript of the Quran from Oman

Most Omani authors write in Arabic. Literature in Oman is somewhat hard to really come by translated into English. And from what I’ve gathered, there really aren’t too many brave souls in Oman who jump into writing. For one, writing is hard. (Oh, do I know this!) But that’s not really the reason. One of the main problems is that there is such a high censorship on anything that’s written, it makes it hard for writers to write freely. They can’t question anything regarding the government or draw attention to the state of being censored. I’ve read several articles about authors and bloggers who have been questioned and detained just for questioning the government and writing about their history in any light they deem unflattering. 


That being said, there are a couple authors worth mentioning. One of the more well-known authors is Abdulaziz Al Farsi, whose novel Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs: An Omani Novel is available through Amazon (and in English!). Another successful author is Jokha Mohammed Al-Harthi. He was the recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2011. Today, there are also many writers and journalists who write for various newspapers, magazines, and literary journals/magazines.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, May 15, 2017

OMAN: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


When I was a kid, I pronounced this country as “Oh, man!” I also used to get Muscat and Muskrat mixed up (I’m not sure why; they are vastly different.) However, in real life, Oman planted its stakes at a very strategic location in the Middle East and has taken full advantage of that location for many centuries. Once quite a powerful empire, its leader now tries as best as he can to maintain control, even if it goes too far. 

 
Where exactly the name Oman comes from is kind of up in the air. Historical linguists have argued various possible etymologies. Some believe it may have stemmed from either Greek or Roman references to the country (Pliny the Elder referred to the ancient city of Sohar/Suhar as Omana), but others believe it may have been named after other important people or even places in Yemen where some of the original settlers hailed from. It’s hard to say. Pick your favorite story, I guess. 


Oman is located on southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. It shares borders with Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Oman also has several enclaves and exclaves that border with the UAE. Its southern coast touches the Arabian Sea, across from India and Pakistan while the northeastern side (and its capital Muscat) borders the Gulf of Oman. The exclave of Musandam Governorate juts out into the Strait of Hormuz, which is at the tip of the Persian Gulf. At that point, it’s really not that far from Iran. Overall, Oman is hot and dry. There are areas in the mountainous regions of the south where it has more of a tropical climate, though. 

Sultan Qaboos bin Said
The earliest peoples were African Nubians. The oldest settlement we know of is Dereaze, which is located in the city of Ibri. Starting during the 6th century, this area was ruled by various Persian dynasties. As the Portuguese were traveling around Africa and India, they stopped in Oman during the early 1500s. However, Ottoman Turks captured the city of Muscat and fought back the Portuguese for it. The Imam of Oman, Saif bin Sultan, started pushing to expand their holdings along the Swahili Coast of Africa (along the central part of its eastern coast: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique). The Omanis also pushed the Portuguese out of many of these areas, including Zanzibar (current-day Tanzania), which was an important piece of property and served as Oman’s capital for a brief time. After several instances of battles and divisions, the country was finally divided between in the interior (called Oman) and the coastal area (named after the capital, Muscat). The British stepped in and helped draft the Treaty of Seeb, which declared that the sultan recognized the interior region’s autonomy, and the external affairs of Oman would be handled by the Sultan of Muscat. Oman gained its independence in 1744 and has been ruled by the Al-Said family since. (This makes it the oldest independent state in the Arab World.) When Sultan Said bin Taimur took over during the mid-1950s, Oman became more of an isolated and feudal country, and disagreements between him and the Imam over oil caused a feud that led to military action. After a coup, Taimur was disposed and Qaboos bin Said al Said became the Sultan. He started out with the goal of modernization across all fronts and was a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He even extended voting right and other rights to women. However, it wasn’t enough to combat some of his extreme decrees, such as the censorship of the press, criticism of the government, among other violations of human rights. 

Muscat, Oman
Muscat is the largest city in Oman and serves as its capital. The city is located along the northeastern coast. It’s long had the distinction of being an important trade port and at different points in time was ruled by Persians, Portuguese, and the Ottomans. When the current sultan took over in 1970, the city saw a rapid increase in its infrastructure, which led to an increase in economic development. With a city population of about 630,000, there are many things to see like museums, mosques, and markets and malls.


Overall, Oman has a pretty diversified economy. Petroleum and oil remain to be high on Oman’s economic drivers, but tourism is also pretty high up there as well and is growing. Their economy also depends on industry and agriculture (a lot of dates and fish!). They do have a free-trade agreement with the US (and probably other countries), and that helps to build up foreign economic ties. Oman also receives many foreign workers from Asia (especially India) and various places in Africa. They don’t make as much money as native Omanis, but it’s definitely more than what they’d make back home. 

Muhammad Al Ameen Mosque
By far, Islam is the largest religion in Oman with nearly 85% of the people practicing some form or another. In Oman, the largest denomination is Ibadhi, followed by Sunni and Shia. There are also significantly smaller groups of Christians and Hindus with a few other religions represented in the mix. 


The official language of Oman is Arabic, although Baluchi is also spoken many areas of the country. However, there are several indigenous languages that are endangered now. As far as second languages and foreign languages go, most street signs in Oman are written in both English and Arabic, and they were the first country in the Persian Gulf countries to offer German as a foreign language. Because of the number of foreign workers from India, there are a variety of Indian languages spoken in Oman as well. Swahili is often still used because of Oman’s historical ties with the language.


There are many peculiar things about Oman that I’ve read about. Oman is also famous for breeding Arab horses (probably like what was used in the movie Hidalgo?). Because their holy day is Friday, their weekend is Thursday and Friday. (That might be changing to Friday-Saturday to reflect more of a global business schedule.) They apparently don’t have Coke products for some reason (or they’re really hard to find). However, you can find Pepsi products easily. One thing they do have instead are really great coffee shops. They serve coffee in small cups (kind of like a cafezinho in Brazil) along with eating dried dates with it. I already know I’m using dates in one of my recipes. Even with some of its issues, I’m sure there are more quirky things here.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, May 7, 2017

NORTH KOREA: THE FOOD

After what seems like a week of rain with a few periods where we weren’t getting soaked, the sun finally returned yesterday. But it’s May now. And that means one thing in Indianapolis: the Indy 500. It’s checkered flags everywhere here. I’m just waiting for it to get warmer! But at least I was out on the search for ingredients in the sunshine. 

You can't go wrong with brown sugar and cinnamon.

So that finally brings us to my menu today: North Korean food. To be honest, I think most people imagine North Korean food to consist mainly of fried dog meat (or cats) and gruel. But I found out it’s far more than that. Perhaps not a culinary hotspot, but I did manage to find a few palatable recipes. The first thing I made was called Ho Dduk. In a bowl, I mixed together 2 Tbsp sugar, a packet of yeast, and 1 ½ c of warm water, and I set it off to the side. In a different bowl, I mixed together a cup of cold water and ½ c of potato flakes (I used instant mashed potatoes). I mixed it slowly until it actually became mashed potatoes. Then in a larger bowl, I stirred together 4 c of all-purpose flour, 2 tsp salt, ¼ c sugar, and ¼ c powdered milk before adding in 10 Tbsp of softened butter (it’s almost Paula Dean approved!), 2 beaten eggs, the potato mixture, and the yeast mixture until it all came together. Once I got everything to start looking like a dough, I dumped it out on my floured pastry mat and kneaded it, adding in another 1 ¼ c of flour. Greasing a bowl, I placed my dough back in and covered with a cheesecloth for 45 minutes. After this time, I kneaded it just a little bit more before I divided it into 36 balls. Taking each ball, I made a thumbprint in the middle and filled it with brown sugar and cinnamon. Then I folded the ball back up together and re-rolled it, flattening it with my palm. I took each flattened “ball” and placed it in a skillet with heated oil, flattening it again with a skillet. It didn’t take very long to brown each side. I had some leftover brown sugar/cinnamon, so I sprinkled some on top of each one when it was finished. I thought these were really good. The potato (I think) made it kind of squishy on the inside, but the flavor was good. I wished that I had put more cinnamon and sugar on the inside of them. Otherwise, it was good. I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten way too many.

Some aren't a fan, but I enjoy cold noodles.
The second dish I made was Mul-naengmyeon, a cold noodle soup. I started with the broth. Now, the noodles came with its own broth base, but I took them out and saved them for later. I made my own broth by mixing 8 c of water, a few anchovies rolled with capers, 2 pieces of nori (seaweed), and a handful of mixed mushrooms (shiitakes, oysters, and cremini). I let it boil for about 10-15 minutes, strained it, and put it in the freezer. I took it out when it had cooled off and added in some pear juice from a can of pears and put it back in the freezer (the pear juice from a can was way easier than grating a pear and straining it for the juice). I actually did find naengmyeon noodles—they’re super long! I was going to substitute Japanese soba noodles (which are slightly thicker), but these were right next to it. I boiled the noodles then rinsed them in cold water. I served the cold noodles in the cold broth, topped with pickled cucumbers (I sliced them and added sugar, salt, and apple cider vinegar and let them sit for about an hour) and sliced pears (that I let sit in sugar water). I also added in a half of a hard boiled egg. I was missing the mustard oil because I didn’t realize I ran out of dry mustard. I also didn’t toast and grind any sesame seeds to top it with, so I just sprinkled some black sesame seeds on top. It was actually pretty good. Perhaps a little on the bland side, if anything. I was a little leery about the pear, but eating it together with the cucumber really was pretty good. Who knew?

This was unbelievably good. I could do this again.
I had some doubts as to whether I was actually picking recipes that were more authentic to North Korea vs. South Korea, but sometimes I just had to take a chance. And just because it sounded good, I picked Korean Barbecue Beef. I used stew beef, even though the recipe called for rib eye. I trimmed off any fat that was on there, and I sliced it as thin as I could. I sprinkled some sugar on top of it and let it sit for a few minutes. In a small bowl, I mixed the marinade: soy sauce, minced garlic, sesame oil, sugar, black pepper, and some chardonnay (in lieu of sake—it was all I had on hand, and Indiana thinks you’ll go to hell if you purchase alcohol on Sunday). I put my beef in a bowl and squeezed the juice of one kiwi on it. Kiwi apparently is used as a tenderizer. Then I poured on my marinade, stirred, and let sit for about 10 minutes or so. Because it was easier, I browned the meat with the marinade in a skillet. While it was cooking, I made the dipping sauce: minced garlic, vegetable oil, water, sriracha, soy sauce (it called for soybean paste, and I bought miso instead; however, it had MSG in it, so I couldn’t use it). I put this on the stove and brought it to a boil. I let it boil for about a minute before taking it off. I thought this was probably the best part of the meal. The meat was tender, and the flavor was absolutely wonderful, especially with the dipping sauce. The sriracha was just enough for flavor but there was very little heat.

Overall, I was fairly impressed with these recipes.
For a country that I had some preconceived notions about, and certainly seemed backwards from a Western point of view, I did learn some new things about this country. I still cannot get around how much the government controls every aspect of people’s lives and how the people have been brainwashed into the idea of juche and singing praises to the leaders. They try to portray the country as some kind of wonderful place, but it all seems so fabricated. As I watched documentaries on this country, I start to see parallels in some of the things that are happening in this country. If this über-conservatism isn’t checked, we’ll end up like North Korea. I do worry about their stability, and I wonder if that’ll ever change during my lifetime.

Up next: Oman

NORTH KOREA: MUSIC AND DANCE


Many of the musical traditions in North Korea today has stemmed from its own folk traditions but has changed drastically since the two Koreas split apart in 1945. For the most part, the types of music heard after Kim Il-sung took over in 1948 were highly restricted. Most of the genres allowed had to follow the strict guidelines of supporting the regime and upholding the idea of juche. A type of patriotic song called taejung kayo emerged in the 1980s. Basically it combined traditional Korean folk tunes with Western classical styles. Marches, Western instruments, and choirs were heard as well. Genres like jazz and rock were strictly not allowed. Movie music was quite popular, though. One of the leading film score composers was Isang Yun, who was born in South Korea but ironically lived most of his life in Germany. 


Many of the folk instruments have been adapted and tuned in order to perform alongside Western instruments; many modern ensembles do this. They also have instruments that remain in folk tuning in order to perform with traditional ensembles. One instrument that has been modernized is a type of zither called an ongnyugeum. A four-stringed fiddle called a sohaegeum is another. Other instruments heard in traditional music include the gayageum (a 12- to 21-stringed zither), the ajaeng (a type of zither played with a bow), and the janggu (a type of double-head hourglass-shaped drum).


North Korea is famous for what they refer to as its “mass games” called Arirang Festival. If you watched one of the videos I posted a few days ago like you should have (Inside North Korea Part 3, I believe), it shows part of the mass choreographic display of Arirang. Think of it like a cross between an Olympic opening ceremony, a dance recital, and a gymnastics competition. Thousands of performers fill a stadium on the floor and in the stands and do amazing feats of coordination. It’s quite something to see, even though they are chanting their praises to Kim Il-sung, the government, and the ideology of juche. (That’s great and all, but can they do the wave?)

If you look closely, those are people holding up colored cards to make the picture.
When Kim Jong-il came to power, he lightened up on the musical restrictions of his father and predecessor. He actually encouraged jazz music and other genres that previously were shunned, and even allowed Korean pop music and girl bands. However, the songs still had to pass the juche test. Film music remains popular to this day. 


There’s not a lot to write about when it comes to modern popular music. In recent years, there have been some pop music come onto the scene, inspired in part by the more dominant South Korean pop music scene. Several years ago, Kim Jong-un himself handpicked 16 women to form North Korea’s first girl band called Moranbong Band. Many of the members perform in some kind of military uniform while the singers appear in sleek dresses. Because of North Korea’s extremely high level of music education, all of the women here play their own instruments. The music is mostly in a pop/dance style with overtones of 80s music.


I haven’t come across any rock or any other styles so much, and it’s not surprising that I haven’t. I think it’s baby steps for them right now. There are a number of orchestras, choirs, and bands like the Wangjaesan Light Music Band. That’s about as good as we’re gonna get on this.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

NORTH KOREA: ART AND LITERATURE


While early art mainly consisted of stone carvings and rock drawings, the Goryeo Dynasty saw quite the change in Korean art. There were many advancements during this time (918–1382) in not only the quality but in the expanse of the types of arts. 

 
Pottery was an especially important art. The earliest forms of pottery were flat-bottomed pots, and the style changed many times over the centuries and depending on the purpose of the pot. Some forms were elaborately decorated while others remained plain. They were mostly famous for their use of celadon pottery. Celadon is a type of blue-green glazing technique that originated in China but developed by the Koreans. (There’s actually a trucking company based here in Indianapolis called Celadon Trucking that’s named after this type of pottery. I see their trucks all the time. Now I know what celadon means.) 



Other types of art that are common from this early period are painting and calligraphy. Many times in tandem, calligraphy is steeped in Confucian traditions. They also have a variety of fabric arts (like embroidery and creating costumes and screens) along with paper art. My sister learned paper art when she was in Japan.  

This painting on Kim Il-sung looks vaguely like the one of Jesus surrounded by children.
After North Korea separated, only paintings supporting the socialist/fascist regime were allowed. The majority of the paintings were in the form of propaganda posters and maybe some landscapes or animals. Kim Jong-il lightened up on some of these measures after he took over for Kim Il-sung. Other forms of painting were slowly introduced such as impressionism. However, the government is still pretty strict about the subject material of artists, and artists in general are often critiqued for any signs of dissent. Some artists, like the Fwhang sisters, were able to escape out of North Korea during the 1950s and continue their art. 


The vast majority of literature is written in Korean. Writers are highly lauded, even though today, no writer is published in North Korea unless they are part of the Writers’ Alliance. This is like a state-run/state-backed organization that vets their writers to make sure they’re in line with the government’s views on practically everything. Historically, writers have often been considered dangerous because of their pesky habit of going against the grain. But the government figured out that if you keep your friends close and your enemies closer, you can manage. Right?


One of their early influences came from Russian literature. While many people around the world were enamored with the stories of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky (my favorite!), or Anton Chekhov, North Koreans leaned toward the works of Maxim Gorky and other works centered around morality.
 
Han Sorya
As North Korea rebranded itself as an extension of the Marxist-Leninist form of Russian communism and took the necessary measures to take it a step further, a few notable writers emerged from the wings. The works of Cho Ki-chon is often referenced as the inspiration for the cult of personality that Kim Il-sung grasped onto and implemented. A cult of personality is when the people have such fervent feelings for their leader, and any disrespect is not tolerated and/or punished. It’s often shoved down people’s throats by means of mass media and other propaganda until the leader is seen as a demigod. Another writer who had quite a bit of influence in this was Han Sorya. His main push was a Korean ethnic nationalism. His famous novel, Jackels, stands out for its anti-Americanism. 


After Kim Jong-il took over during the mid-1990s, poetry began to be promoted over the novel. There were a few reasons for this, but one of them was more economical. During this time, there was also a food shortage going on along with the beginning of a shaky economy. Poetry took up less paper, especially short poetry. Longer, epic poems were only reserved for six lucky poets. There was an effort to translate a few pieces of current literature into English, and they were all stories that centered around a few themes: 1) Americans are horrible people and the cause for everything terrible in the world (I won’t dispute perhaps we’re the cause of some terrible things, just not all of it), 2) Bad things happen when you turn your back on the Korean way of life and its great and glorious leaders. They actually have some literary awards they present, too. And while things are crazy strict with bringing in literature into the country and taking out literature, one author who writes from North Korea and goes by the pseudonym Bandi managed to smuggle out a manuscript to South Korea. The book, called The Accusation, was just published in English just a couple months ago, and you can find it available on Amazon.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, April 30, 2017

NORTH KOREA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


The Hermit Kingdom. It’s a country that leaves many people wondering how exactly it came to be the way it is. For many people, it represents the stereotypical dictatorship. For others, it represents a perpetual problem and threat: a volcano due for its turn. North Korea has certainly made the news in the recent years and especially as of late. The stories I read about this country leave me bewildered (to say it mildly). It’s almost seemingly the opposite of Western civilization as we know it today. But what’s it really like? Few people have been allowed to venture there and have reported back on what it’s like in their everyday lives. 


The name Korea stems from the word Goryeo (also spelled as Koryo). When Persian merchants stopped by, they botched it and pronounced it as Korea. However, its current version wasn’t used until the 17th century when Hendrick Hamel of the Dutch East India Company wrote about it when they were shipwrecked in Korea. After the countries split, it was given the distinction of being North Korea vs. South Korea. North Korea became known as Chosun or Joseun, and in English, its full name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).


North Korea is located on the Korean Peninsula (no kidding?) in East Asia, and get this—it’s on the northern part of the peninsula. I’m totally not joking. Some places are a misnomer (I’m looking at you Iceland and Greenland), but North Korea is exactly where you think it is. It shares a border with South Korea to the south (surprise!) and China to the north and a very short border with Russia in the northeast corner. The Sea of Japan is to the east and the Yellow Sea (and Korea Bay) is to the west. Mountain ranges cross the country; the highest point, a volcanic mountain called Mt. Paektu, is over 9000 ft. There are coastal plains in the west, and nearly 70% of the country is covered in forest. Summers are hot and rainy while the winters are frigidly cold from the winds that blow in from Siberia.

Kim Il-sung
The oldest remnants of pottery in Korea dates back to around 8000BC. By the time we reached the Iron Age, the peninsula was controlled by three kingdoms and eventually united to form the Goryeo Dynasty. In the late 1300s, the Joseon Dynasty took over and implemented a number of reforms including the adaptation of the Hangul (Korean) alphabet. After a period of relative peace, the Korean peninsula began to be invaded, which led to its initial isolation. By the mid-1800s, European powers were making moves throughout Asia and the Pacific, and Korea was still unwilling to modernize itself. After several rebellions and some socio-political changes, they became known as the Korean Empire in 1897. Japan annexed Korea and occupied the country in 1910. They began fighting the Japanese with guerilla tactics, and one of the resistance leaders was Kim Il-sung. At the end of WWII in 1945, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel, with the northern part occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern part occupied by the United States. (Keep in mind—no one consulted the Koreans on this matter.) Kim Il-sung was recommended to become Chairman of what became North Korea. By 1949, most of the Soviets and Americans have bowed out, but there were rumors that the North was going to invade the South. Those rumors proved true in June 1950 as the Korean War took off. It’s often used as an example of a “proxy war”: a war where two powerful groups (Soviet Union and US) use other smaller groups (North and South Korea) to fight the war instead. It still remains divided by the DMZ (demilitarized zone). [Side note: I once briefly dated a guy from South Korea who had to patrol the DMZ when he was in the military. He once stepped on an old land mine and had to stand perfectly still for nearly 8 hours as he waiting for people to fetch the land mine expert and diffuse it. I have a hard enough time standing in line at the grocery store.] After the war, North Korea remained isolated and introduced the ideology of Juche to differentiate itself from other communist countries like China and the Soviet Union. Juche is like libertarianism on steroids. After Kim Jong-il took over in 1994, they got even more introverted and really fixated on the military. During this time, North Korea began to suffer from food and energy shortages. Today, Kim Jong-un is the one in charge and has apparently done all of these “miraculous” feats (like his father and grandfather), and he’s also really obsessed with nukes. 


Situated along the Taedong River, Pyongyang is North Korea’s capital city. With a population of between 2.5–3.2 million people, the city is actually well planned: most of the streets run either north-south or east-west. It’s not only the center of government, but it’s also the center for commerce, education, transportation, and industry. There are a few examples of modernity to its main attractions if you were to look at its cityscape, but it’s contrasted with run-down, drab buildings.


Because North Korea has adamantly insisted upon their closed-door economic policies and strived to be completely self-sufficient, their economy has suffered. Coupled with a series of unfortunate events (famine, lack of arable land, natural disasters, lack of skilled labor, low energy supplies, crumbling infrastructure, loss of trading partners), North Korea’s economy basically went into the toilet. There are electricity shortages. Everything is highly nationalized. Their healthcare and education are free, housing and food receive huge subsidies, and taxes were axed back in the 1970s. There are a few places where foreign companies can come in and work, especially in fields like technology and science. But overall, their economy is far behind that of its southern counterpart. However, I saw a headline today that their economy may be slightly improving.


Technically speaking, North Korea is an atheist state. But I think that it’s somewhat of a misnomer and not fair to everyday atheists who for the most part, don’t really care if someone follows a particular religion so long as it’s not forced on everyone. But even at that, there are a few religions found in North Korea: Korean shamanism, Chondoism (a Korean version of Confucianism), Buddhism, and Christianity. Technically, the constitution grants freedom of religion, but it’s also highly regulated and controlled by the government, and some religions are highly persecuted as well. North Korea has also implemented this idea of Songbun, a sort of loyalty ranking. It goes back two generations to determine how much you support your government. The three leaders (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un) are treated like royalty and gods even. This is why I falter at calling it an atheist state: because the government is their gods. They want the people to live in awe and fear of them, never to speak ill against them, and uphold the craziest accomplishments attributed to them (like Kim Jong-un being able to drive at age 3, or Kim Jong-il walking at age 3 weeks and talking at 8 weeks).


North Koreans also speak Korean, but there are a few dialectal differences between the Korean spoken in North and South Korea. The Korean used in South Korea incorporates many loan words from Chinese and English and also uses hanja (writing Korean words using Chinese characters). However, in North Korea, many of the loan words have been changed to purely Korean words, and they don’t use hanja; rather, they write Korean using choson’gul (the Korean alphabet, also called hangul in South Korea). 

Kim Jong-un with Dennis Rodman
Almost everyday, I get a news pop-up on my phone about some crazy thing concerning North Korea involving nuclear testing or something. Here’s your homework: I would also suggest watching VICE’s 2008 documentary called “Inside North Korea” and watch Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. But you should also check out the VICE episode from Season 1, Episode 10 called “The Hermit Kingdom: Basketball Diplomacy”(2014). It’ll give you an idea of what it’s really like over there. But in the meantime, we’re going to TRY to delve into its cultural arts in a desperate attempt to make sense of this country.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, April 23, 2017

NORWAY: THE FOOD


Well, Earth Day was yesterday, and I missed the March for Science. It was cold and blustery here in Indianapolis, and I subconsciously (or consciously?) turned my alarm off instead of hitting snooze and woke up after it started. Oh, well. I was there in spirit. But today is the day I get to make up for it: I’m making Norwegian food today.

I rolled my meatballs in this. I feel like a genius.
My bread for today is potato lefse. It most likely got its start from trying to figure out what to do with the leftover mashed potatoes. And I forgot until this morning at around 1am that I was supposed to make the mashed potatoes a day before and refrigerate it at least overnight. So… I woke up and made them this morning. Since I normally make my bread first, I put this off until last in order to let my potatoes sit as long as possible. To make the mashed potatoes, I boiled four potatoes until they were soft, then I drained it and cut in 4 Tbsp of butter until it melted, followed by a ½ tsp of salt and a ¼ c of heavy whipping cream. I mixed everything until it was completely smooth. When it was finished sitting in my fridge, I set up a space on my table with my pastry mat. I mixed my mashed potatoes with a cup of flour and kneaded to incorporate it all. I had my doubts since it was pretty crumbly at first. After I got it to somehow come together, I formed it into a log and cut it into 12 pieces, rolling each into a ball. I took one of these balls, rolled it in flour then flattened it out a little with my palm. Then I took my floured rolling pin and rolled it out as thin as I could without it breaking. Using a spatula, I carefully transferred it to my hot skillet. It really only needs 1-2 minutes on each side before I flipped it. There should be some brown speckles in it, and when it finally started looking like it was done, I took it off and moved it to a plate. This was the absolute best. I loved the flavor of this. It still definitely had a mashed potato flavor to it, but in convenient flatbread form. However, mine was very susceptible to falling apart. I’m definitely doing this again, though. 

My butter sauce congealed a little by the time I took this photo, but the whole thing was wonderful!
There are two main dishes today, all thanks to a super finicky son of mine. So, bring on the meat! The first one I made is Salmon with Lemon Butter Sauce. I bought four salmon fillets with the skin still on them. I rinsed the fillets in cold water and patted them dry with a paper towel. Then I seasoned them with some salt and pepper before placing them in my skillet with some olive oil. After about 4-5 minutes on one side, I flipped it to the other side. When it was done, I transferred it to a separate plate.  To make the sauce, I mixed together some minced garlic, a ¼ c of lemon juice, 1 tsp of salt, ½ tsp pepper in my blender and mixed until it’s smooth. Then I added in a stick of butter that I cut into smaller pieces and blended again. I poured this mixture into a saucepan and added in the capers, parsley, and lemon zest and heated this together. When it was time to serve it, I drizzled the sauce on top of the salmon. Of all the dishes I had my doubts about, it was this one, but it turned out to be fantastic! Even my son thought it was really good. (Haha, proved him wrong!) The sauce and the salmon just went together like a cats and boxes. I would definitely make this again. 

The perfect comfort food. I'll definitely be making this again.
The other main dish I made was Norwegian Meatballs. I was curious how this would be different from Swedish meatballs, but from what I’ve gathered, the Swedish counterpart has a few more ingredients involved. In one of my larger bowls, I mixed together some milk and some cornstarch. Then I added in my ground beef, onion, salt, pepper, egg, and nutmeg, and I mixed until everything was well blended. At this point, I covered it and put it in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes. Once it was chilled, I formed 1-inch balls and browned the meatballs in a skillet with hot oil. When each meatball was done, I removed them from the skillet and put them on a different plate and set it off to the side. I used some lean beef, so there wasn’t much drippings left, so I added in a little extra oil in the skillet. In a separate bowl, I mixed together the beef broth and some cornstarch until it was blended before pouring it into the skillet. I brought this to a boil and let it cook until it thickened (about 2-3 minutes maybe?), then I added my meatballs back into the sauce. I covered it and let it cook for about 5-8 minutes. Just before I removed it from the heat, I added in a little bit of sour cream to the mix and stirred so that it was all mixed well. This dish was wonderful–the perfect comfort food. We all agreed this would’ve been much better on some wide egg noodles.

Tasty for the entire year!
Finally, to go with all of this, I made Norwegian Christmas Cabbage. In the bottom of my pot, I laid a couple of slices of bacon. Then I layered it with some shredded cabbage (I bought a package of angel hair cole slaw mix, which is nothing but shredded cabbage). On top of the cabbage, I sprinkled a little bit of flour, some caraway seeds, salt, and pepper. I went on layering like this until I used up my bacon and cabbage, adding in enough water to almost reach the top of the cabbage-bacon level. Putting the pot over a medium heat, I let it cook for about 45 minutes before taking it off the heat. After letting it cool for a bit, I drained a lot of the water off of it and mixed in a little vinegar and sugar and stirred. This was actually pretty good, and I’m glad I opted for a bag of shredded cabbage instead of doing it myself. I thought it was good with the shredded cabbage as opposed to larger sections of the leaves. And it certainly saved time. The recipe suggested using white wine vinegar but I didn’t realize I was out so I opted to use apple cider vinegar instead. I think next time I’ll use the white wine vinegar like I was supposed to.

10/10 stars!! Clearly the winner for today!
It’s been a while since I’ve made a meal where every dish came out well. I’ve learned quite a bit since I started this about four years ago, but there are still things I mess up. And sometimes the recipes I choose aren’t the best written ones. (And sometimes it’s just that I don’t read the directions carefully.) But I have to say that when I’m tired, frustrated, and my feet hurt, my husband will come in and give his second opinion, and sometimes even do part of the work for me. And 99 times out of 100, he’ll get the dishes afterwards, even when I trash the kitchen. (Oh, he’ll chide me of course.) This would be way harder to do if it weren’t for him. And for that, here’s my thanks: I keep him well fed.

Next up: North Korea