24 July 2010

Peter's Great Negro

Lately,  I've been into Russian literature, mainly poetry.  I now finally appreciate just how profound of an impact Pushkin had on modern Russian literature. Just as interesting is his background as the great grandson of "Peter's Great Negro", Abram Gannibal.

Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an Ethiopian (now Eritrean) was brought to Russia in 1704 as a gift for Peter the Great, by the Russian ambassador, on orders from Pyotr Tolstoy, the great-grandfather of Leo Tolstoy. 

One of many children kidnapped from aristocratic families, Gannibal was held captive in Constantinople until his relocation to Russia at the age of 8.  One year later in 1705, he was christened in St. Paraskeva Church with Peter I as his godfather.

Gannibal went on to become a major-general, military engineer, governor of Reval and untitled lord of the Russian Empire. His memory lives through his descendants among them the father of modern Russian literature Alexander Pushkin.

18 May 2010

The Art of Bribing- Million Dollar Cigarettes

I was reading and article in the China Daily about an anti-smoking campaign aimed at stopping the ritual of giving cigarettes as gifts.  But I think it failed to mention an off-shoot of this ritual that has caused many to gravitate towards it instead of away.
"We want to remind people not to choose cigarettes as gifts, because smoking can cause diseases and health hazards," she said.
"But using a carton of cigarettes as a gift is a customary Chinese way of improving relations," Wu Yiqun, director of the Beijing-based nonprofit group Research Center for Health Development.
"Cigarettes are the medium for person-to-person exchanges, providing a faster, more convenient communication tool," Wu said.
More than 10 percent of the respondents in a recent survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the cigarettes they smoke were gifts to them.
Those polled also said that the pricier the cigarettes they received, the more important they felt.
Shrewd tobacco producers in the country have also developed 90 kinds of high-end cigarettes in the past two decades to meet the need, Wu said.
The most expensive cigarettes sell at 2,300 yuan ($356) a carton, while many others among the 90 kinds are between 1,000 yuan and 1,500 yuan. Prices of expensive cigarettes are between 45 to 120 times that of low-end cigarettes, with the cheapest type selling for only 18 yuan a carton, she said.
Chinese tobacco producers also control their output to make the cigarettes more "high-end", Wu said."
There are 2000- 4000 tobacco shops in a one square mile area in Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou providing providing over 400 non-counterfeit local brands.

But, some of those stores provide an "added value" service.  That value is based on supplying certain cigarettes  solely intended for gift giving. They are well known enough that when received the recipient knows that they are not meant to be smoked. Bribes-in-a-Box.
So no one's heath in harmed, just their wallets inflated.

The basic process is this: The packs or cartons prices range from $500-$100,000 and up.  The gift giver buys a carton for say $20,000. The recipient thanks him/her kindly then returns that carton to the store where it were purchased. The store refunds the money...minus a 10-20% transferring fee.  From the cartons I've seen, they are color coded indicating price and have a logo showing info about the vendor.  To make it easier some shops work as a franchise or western union of sorts. Rather efficient, I think. 

But this practice has flourished over the past decade. Those unable to buy the cartons are buying the next best thing... high priced smoke-able cancer sticks. 
To break this habit, the "big players" need change their choice of gift. Until then, the low-middle class business community willing be smoking more than ever.

13 May 2010

Clues on the Bottle: The Importer

03 May 2010

Wine Vacuum Stoppers of Old

Vacu Vin has made a killing selling wine vacuum stoppers. 
They worked beautifully and lasted a long time. 

But I think the company realized that they worked too well and didn't wear out quickly enough to be REALLY profitable.  So, a new and improved version was released a few years ago.

Modifications were made "to improve quality".  This version has two parts; a stopper and an O-ring.  The plastic ring was added to provide a better seal (or so they claim). Also, the vent system was redesigned to increase the quantity of air that could be removed from a bottle.

After having used both models. I do not agree.  The seal, on the new model, becomes weak b/c of the O-ring warping after frequent use and/or machine washing.  The only good thing about these stoppers is well.....NOTHING.

01 May 2010

Human Cattle

Stephen Hawking’s recent statements in his new series “Into the Universe” on the Discovery Channel have stirred up quite a few news stories in the past week. In fact, I will be appearing on Larry King Live tonight (4/30) at 9 p.m. EST to speak about these statements.

In the series, Hawking says: “If intelligent alien life forms do exist out in the vastness of space, they might not be the friendly cosmic neighbors the people of Earth are looking for. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach. If so, it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for material to build more spaceships so they could move on. Who knows what the limits would be?” Hawking adds: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships…having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” In closing, he says that all of our efforts to search and contact aliens could ultimately end in our own destruction."

But why haven't they visited or conquered us? No one knows, Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics, CUNY gives some pausible reasons:
  • There are plenty of uninhabited planets with valuable resources to exploit, so they will likely leave us alone.
  • They might be benevolent since they have had thousands to millions of years to work off their aggressive tendencies.
  • Most likely, we are not on their radar screen. We may be too insignificant for them to make formal contact.
I agree that we may be insignificant for now. But the day may come when "they" finally answer our calls for attention and how would we be viewed? Most likely, as a large coral of simple walking proteins.

19 April 2010

Protocolo: Favorite Everyday Wine

Protocolo is a traditional old fashioned Spanish red table wine made from 100% Tempranillo. It goes with anything. Even Bacalhau.


 I found it in San Antonio last November when searching for a basic wine to mull. Glad I tried it before adding spices!

No Sodas at the HK Spectacular in Nov!

As Primeurs Week in Bordeaux has shown, all futures prices hinge on the Chinese and the upcoming Shanghai Expo in May and HK spectacular in Nov.  The Chinese are the big hitters now.  Buying in primeurs in bulk and vineyards to boot.  They may soon lose the reputation of wine with sprite/coke drinkers.  (Yes, I did see people doing that).  But foreign wines sold in China are fakes and some not made from any type of grape juice, so the habit of spiking a glass of wine with coke or sprite to make it taste better....may not change too quickly. 

Here info on what happened at Primeurs Week 2010:

Chinese wine buyers arrived in record numbers during the professional tasting for the 2009 harvest in Bordeaux and Chinese investors are also increasingly interested in buying the vineyards.
The rising demand of the Chinese will further fuel the price speculation that has already priced many top Bordeaux wines beyond the reach of the average wine lover.
Last year, China became the biggest export market outside the European Union for Bordeaux wines in volume, ahead of the United States. There are several vineyards in China, some created with help from French specialists, but the well-to-do Chinese wine lover prefers the real thing from France.
During the 'primeurs' week in Bordeaux, Chinese buyers were out in record numbers to taste the vintages and place orders for wines that will be delivered in a year.
"The new element this year is that we see the Chinese, who have become important actors for the Bordeaux wine sector, buying primeurs for the first time," said Francois Leveque, chairman of the regional wine and spirits brokers body.
Philippe Genevey, manager of Chateau La Marzelle, a classified Saint-Emilion wine, sees the Chinese market and the rising middle classes there as a potential gold rush.
"I had a group (of Chinese visitors) who said they could buy up to one million euros in primeurs," he said.
And it does not stop there.
"It is not well-known yet but they come with the idea of building something beyond the primeurs. One group talked about 20,000 cases of older millesimes, mixes of top wines, great wines and more modest wines", Genevey added.
At Chateau Haut-Brion, director Jean-Philippe Delmas also received many Chinese buyers.
"This morning, there were 30. They were interested because they bought some cases in 2008 during the (Beijing) Olympic Games and now their consultants push them to buy the 2009 harvest, which is a year of mythical proportions, to sell in two years' time on a Chinese market which is already promising," he said.
Philibert Perrin, whose family has owned Chateau Carbonnieux in Pessac-Leognan since 1956, draws a parallel with the 1970s when Japanese buyers arrived in droves and with the arrival of Korean and Taiwanese buyers in the 1980s.
"They have a taste for classic wines and Red Bordeaux fits their preferences. It's interesting for us," he said.
Chinese buyers have also started buying some properties.
In 2008 a Chinese buyer purchased Chateau Latour-Laguens in Saint-Martin-du-Puy, some 50 km (31.07 miles) southeast of Bordeaux and in June 2009 Hong Kong A&A International obtained a majority stake in Chateau Richelieu, at Fronsac.
Big Chinese demand may also mean bigger prices.
"It is too early to draw conclusions but there is a risk of price speculation in the big brands," said Francois Leveque.
Asian buying is already boosting the prices of top wines.
The Liv-eX fine wine index hit an all-time high in March, beating its June 2008 record.
The exchange said demand for top Bordeaux wines, particularly from Hong Kong and China, has caused prices to soar in the last twelve months.
"Various vintages of Lafite Rothschild, a "First Growth" red wine from Bordeaux, have more than doubled over this period due to sustained demand from Asian collectors," it said. Reuters

01 April 2010

Bring out your Francs, Markkas, Pesetas and Liras.

BBC News - Eurosceptic French town rejects euro:
"French town rejects euro"

I ran across this BBC article on the French Franc still being used in the town of Le Blanc.  It seems not everyone feels that the euro is a magic chariot that sprinkles economic prosperity on all who adopt it. But it got me thinking about the EU currency.

Economics aside, I am not a fan of what the euro represents. It promotes the stripping of identities. To me, a bank note is a visual representation of a country. It contains so much information regarding its people, culture, ideals and aspirations. It's really quite amazing. Is there another widely exchanged mass commodity which provides more education on a daily basis? From Egypt’s display of ancient pharaohs to Kazakhstan’s exotic electric-blue design each note tells a unique story.

Here are some of the most beautiful bank notes and their stories

Swiss Franc

In 1995, the current and eighth series of Swiss banknote designs were slowly released into circulation. Each denomination features a portrait of a famous Swiss artist atop a bold color scheme—further demonstrating Switzerland’s ever-chic artistic reputation and forward-thinking ways. The front of this bill features composer Arthur Honegger, while the back depicts elements (including a locomotive wheel and a piano keyboard) that evoke his famous composition “Pacific 231.” Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S.dollar = 1.08492 Swiss francs

Egyptian Pound
Above is one of seven denominations of Egyptian banknotes that were introduced into circulation by the Central Bank of Egypt in 1961. The side written in Arabic has a picture of the Sultan Qayetbay mosque and the side written in English displays a carving from one of the temples at Abu Simbel, which features four identical statues of Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled Egypt for 67 years. Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S. dollar = 5.55575 Egyptian pounds

Hong Kong Dollar

In July 2007, Hong Kong became the 25th country to gradually introduce a $10 polymer banknote—both more durable and secure than the standard paper banknote. Both $10 bill version are considered legal tender and bear the same design—the beautiful abstract arrangement of geometric shapes in shades of mauve, purple, blue and yellow shown above. The design makes impressionistic references to modern architecture as well as to festive and cultural activities in Hong Kong. Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S. dollar = 7.74997 Hong Kong dollars

Aruban Florin
In 1986, Aruba’s new governing power created a unique currency called the florin to replace the Antilles guilder. Starting in 1990, the bills were redesigned by Evelino Fingal, Aruban graphic artist and director of the Archaeological Museum, who found his inspiration for the eccentric designs in Native American tribal paintings, archeological pottery shards and native wildlife. On each denomination, the images are layered to create a modernistic collage of cool geometric shapes. Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S. dollar = 1.77000 Aruban florins

Antarctican “Dollar”

This is collector’s item is nonlegal tender. Created by the Antarctica Overseas Exchange Office, the bill designs are based on regional geography and wildlife. The one displayed above features Peterman Island on the front and the picturesque image of penguins jumping into the nearly freezing waters off the Ross Ice Shelf on the reverse.

Dutch Guilder

This former currency of The Netherlands was replaced by the euro on January 1, 2002. Among the bills, whose loss the Dutch surely mourned, was this bright yellow sunflower-clad 50-guilder banknote, which was designed by Jaap Drupsteen in the 1990s. The series, which portrayed an intricate pattern of geometric designs, including radio schema and resistors, boasted a colorful array of sunflowers, lighthouses and birds were said to encapsulate classic Dutch artistry.

Australian Dollar

Introduced in 1966 to replace the pound when Australia adopted decimal-based currency, the Australian dollar bears a portrait of two prominent Australian figures on each side and reflects the artistic and cultural values of the era in which they lived. In the 1980s, polymer notes were introduced into circulation—boasting security updates which included a transparent window with an optically variable image of British explorer, navigator and cartographer Captain James Cook. Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S. dollar = 1.25521 Australian dollars

CFP Franc

The currency of French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Wallis and Futuna is the CFP Franc, which was introduced in 1945. Typically, one side of the banknote shows landscapes or historical figures of New Caledonia, while the other side features those of French Polynesia. The front of the bill pictured above depicts a coastal landscape of Huahiné and a French Polynesian Tahitian woman; the back shows coral and fish of New Caledonia, and a New Caledonian Melanesian woman wearing hibiscus flowers. Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S. dollar = 84.42800 CFP francs

Cook Islands Dollar

Cook Islands, the 15 small islands that make up the self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand has a currency that is slowly falling out of favor (though still remains legal tender). Introduced in 1987 (and revamped in 1992) the banknotes depict various aspects of South Pacific life and have an exchange rate similar to the New Zealand dollar. The 1987 currency note above shows a nude Ina (a Polynesian mythological figure) riding a shark on one side and a traditional canoe alongside the god Te-Rongo on the other. Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S. dollar = 1.57208 New Zealand dollars

Kazakhstan Tenge

The Kazakhstan tenge, was introduced in 1993—replacing the Soviet ruble as the national currency. The most current design of the banknote features a geographical outline of the country on one side and overlapping national treasures on the other, which include the Astana-Baiterek Monument, the Kazakhstan flag, the signature of President Nazarbayev and lyrics from the Kazakh national anthem. Estimated Exchange Rate: 1 U.S. dollar = 148.330 Kazakhstan tenge

As for the Euro
The currency of the Eurozone has been in circulation since 2002. The European Central Bank designs and issues all currency and follows strict design specs/elements. The end result:
"was for all the structures represented on the banknotes to be entirely fictional syntheses of the relevant architectural styles, merely designed to evoke the landmarks within the EU"- wiki  

For more banknotes, here is great website which has pictures of all the paper currencies of the world (in french)

29 March 2010


A friend on Chowhound asked for a Lao khao soi recipe.  A pork and fermented bean paste sauce served over khao/kao soi.  l learned it, a couple of years ago, from the owner of a wonderful khao soi shop in L. Namtha.  Her place is just off the main drag (near the ATM)  behind the shake shop!

General Info: Kao Soi is a the local breakfast specialty of Luang Namtha. "Kao" means rice and "Soi" means to cut as with scissors. A large round noodle crepe is made with rice flour and then rolled up and cut using scissors.  Another distinguishing feature of Kao Soi is the sauce spooned on the top is made with fermented soy beans (like miso or shoyu), chili and pork.
Declaration: I am not a recipe writer. This breakfast recipe was created for a friend. If your are "purist" or need lots of exact details then this recipe will not interest you.  I cook it like a pasta sauce and  never use exact measurements. I learned to cook it over a fire so I give no temperature setting for stoves. But one can easily figure out the right heat level.

Final Note: I deliberately wrote it using general food item words. Example: red chilies means "whatever red chilies one can find where ever they live". I added pictures to serve as a visual guide.

1.8kg (4lb)pork steak ground
450g (1lb)pork fat ground
10 peeled shallots and chopped
2 heads of peeled garlic
1 Tbsp oil
200g (8oz)  fermented red soybean paste (red color)
20-25 red chilies 
Last but not least a dash of MSG
(if allergic; leave it out)

The owner
and her son

Puree chilies in a blender with some water

 Use mortar and pestle the garlic and shallots
(the mush in the bowl is it)

 Fry the pork fat garlic and shallot mixture stir 5-10 min
After 5 minutes; fat firms up before it starting to melt

The pork fat after cooking 10 min 

Fermented bean paste and the chili puree added 
3 mins later (picture).
Ground pork meat is added 15 min later. 
Then water is added as the sauce thickens. Roughly 3 cups.

Simmer until done
30-45 min after meat was put in.
It can be served as a soup or pasta dish:  For pasta, pour 1/2 cup of sauce over cooked rice noodles, as seen in the picture. For the soup, put noodles and 1/2 cup of sauce in a bowl and top with 1-2 cups of hot water.  Serve with a side of fresh herbs, green onions, green beans, Lao fish sauce, pork paste and dry crushed chilies. You can use any rice noodles but the fresher the better.  

Otherwise you can try to make your own. The ingredients for namtha rice noodles are basically two types rice flour and water.  I could not find anyone willing to teach me how to make it. I was told that getting the correct ratio of reg-to-sticky flour is the most difficult part. Those who have perfected it, guard their recipes. I can't blame them.
So, I am learning by "feeling" my way through (heavy trial & error). I'm almost out of the experimental stage; just fine tuning the mixture and testing different fine mesh materials.
I know I could just go out and buy some fresh-made noodles, but where is the fun in that?

For those who are interested, the process is roughly as follows (in challenged english):

Cover one side of a metal cylinder with a fine mesh (like making a drum out of a tall sided spring-form pan collar). Place mesh-top drum  in a large pot with filled with a few cm of boiling water. The mesh must "float" itself well above the water line and also just below the top rim. It makes removing the rice crepes a lot easier.  Prepare the mixture. Use a ladle to scoop of 50g/ 2oz  mixture on to the mesh (like you would tomato sauce on pizza dough). Cover pot for 1-2 mins. Then use a moistened wooden roller to help the crepe release itself without sticking to the roller. Last step is to roll up the crepe and cut into strips.