15 September 2012

Book review: Andrew Zimmern visits Taiwan (2009) by Andrew Zimmern, *

making dim sum in a Taipei restaurant


One chapter of a book about the author traveling around the world to try different foods. This chapter is about Taiwan, or so I thought when I bought it. In reality only half of it is about Taiwan and then only about dim sum.


Disappointing. I bought it to learn about food in Taiwan, and all you get is one restaurant in Taipei he visited. One that is in all the guidebooks and that just about any foreign tourist will probably end up trying. I did too. It was very good, but did not need this audio-book. Anyway, the first half of the piece is about the author's food experiences trying Chinese food in New York!

Look elsewhere if you are interested in finding out more about Taiwanese food. Which, by the way, is absolutely excellent, possibly the best Chinese food in the world. Perhaps because in mainland China the rich traditions of Chinese food were repressed for decades during Maoism, though they are obviously nurtured again to their full, amazing variety.

You can buy this chapter about Taiwan as an audio-book or the whole book by clicking below.

making dim sum in a Taipei restaurant

09 September 2012

Book review: The Dark Tourist (2010), by Dom Joly, ***

Sinister looking WW I artillery on Monte Grappa

'Dark tourism is the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme'

Ever since he can remember, Dom Joly has been fascinated by travel to odd places. In part this stems from a childhood spent in war-torn Lebanon, where instead of swapping marbles in the schoolyard, he had a shrapnel collection -- the schoolboy currency of Beirut. Dom's upbringing was interspersed with terrifying days and nights spent hunkered in the family basement under Syrian rocket attack or coming across a pile of severed heads from a sectarian execution in the pine forests near his home.

These early experiences left Dom with a profound loathing for the sanitized experiences of the modern day travel industry and a taste for the darkest of places. The more insalubrious the place, the more interesting is the journey and so we follow Dom as he skis in Iran on segregated slopes, picnics in the Syrian Desert with a trigger-happy government minder and fires rocket propelled grenades at live cows in Cambodia (he missed on purpose, he just couldn't do it).

08 September 2012

Book review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance (1974), by Robert Pirsig *****

She does not look zen (Sorong, Indonesia)

A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live. The narrator's relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism. Resonant with the confusions of existence, this classic is a touching and transcendent book of life.

You can find a lot about the author here.


This book tells the story of a few people riding their bikes across the West of the United States, but it is not really a book about travel. But then again it is. Travel toward the center of our own self. It is a complex book. To be read in sequence with Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.The main point of the book is that happiness (or "quality") can be achieved by focussing on and finding beauty in whatever one is doing at any one moment while keeping a cool head on the way forward. Even listening to the unusual noise of a defective motorbike and looking for a fix can yield unexpected satisfaction. At the same time, fixing the broken bike requires scientific, rational knowledge, thinking.

The challenge is to focus on the moment (zen) through a sort of meditative practice of detachment and at the same time never lose sight of where one is going, with (rational) planning for the future.

"Quality" and "truth" were the same thing for the ancient Greeks, and perhaps they should be for us too. Here East Zen meets Western rationalism, the two are complementary. A great read, but a difficult one and I admit I was only able to understand more of it by reading secondary literature about this book.

02 September 2012

Singapore: Gardens by the Bay and Japanese food

Started off after breakfast from my hotel and decided to visit the new Gardens by the Bay. Like almost everything in Singapore, it is an artificial wonder.

Entirely built over reclaimed land, it is a technological wonder, allowing Singaporeans to walk into controlled climate greenhouses to see the flora of other latitudes.

Highly educational. Mostly families today, it's a Sunday. I can't help but feel a bit out of place as a single man in my early fifties, but I enjoy it all nonetheless.

Fish and special raw beef
Early evening dinner in an unpretentious but excellent Japanese restaurant in the Orchard Road MRT station. Very informal but not at all inexpensive! After waiting in line for some ten minutes (this place is popular even though I can't find it on Tripadvisor!) I am greeted as per Japanese tradition with いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase) which just means welcome.

I always sit down at the sushi bar and enjoy looking at the chefs preparing the orders which are handed down to them by a team of ladies constantly scudding around with their notepad. I sip some Japanese beer while my food is readied and then handed down directly to me over the counter.

Excellent sushi, great fat tuna "toro" to start with. Then also raw "Kobe beef". Not cheap but highly gratifying especially as you are eating this treat in a subway station, or right next to it anyway! I will leave a good portion of my food budget here in the course of this trip as well as other visits to Singapore.

01 September 2012

Film review: Mondovino (2004) by Jonathan Nossiter, **


Filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter, who loves wine, looks at the international wine business. He offers his personal view of how business concerns and the homogenisation of tastes around the world are changing the way wine is being made. 


The movie is good in that it points the finger to a phenomenon that is pervasive in the world of wine, as it is in every aspect of our life: globalization. The director's thesis, which he does not spell out but appears clearly, is that this is a bad thing. I, on the contrary, think it is a good development for wine, mainly because it allows for greater choice.

Far from homogenizing the taste of the world's wines, globalization is making any wine, in any style, available everywhere in the world, and this gives each of us a chance to choose what we like, how much we want to spend.

He implicitly accuses Robert Parker (whom he interviews) to be in cahoot with American business, while in fact parker has been very beneficial to French wines and Bordeaux in particular. He received countless awards from France, including from the president of the Republic.

Nossiter is tricky as he often hides his camera and films without the subject being aware. That is not correct in my view, even for a documentarist.

He is also political, but out of context. He underlines how a mayor of a French town who rejected American money to invest in the local vineyards was a communist (good) while Italian nobles who accept to work with the same Americans has grandparents who supported fascism (bad). I find some of these people who live in their past rather disagreeable, but that says nothing about their wines. How totally irrelevant.

Finally, he never misses a chance to film any dog that happens to be in front of his camera. For example when he interviews Parker he goes at great length to emphasize how his dogs fart a log, and that is really too much. 

Today, no matter what Nossiter says, we have more diversified and better quality wines around the world than ever before.

Here is another good review of this film I agree with by Decanter.

See my other reviews of film about wine here in this blog.


Party at Sentosa, Singapore

Today I am invited to join a party on one of the beaches of Sentosa, an island just off Singapore's south-western coast. Getting to the island is easy with S'pore famous MRT. Once there, I asked the info office how to reach the beach where my friends were waiting for me and was told there is Yellow bus: "go right, then into a cave, then two flights down, turn right. It's free. Get off at the second stop." The bus should take me to Tanjong Beach Club. All stops are indicated on a map, but no Tanjong Club. I ask the driver, he says get off at the third stop, not at the second stop. At the first stop I see almost everyone getting off and ask driver, is this the stop for Tanjong Club? Yes yes. OK, whatever.

At the entrance to the beach there is a long line to leave bags, they are not allowed to the beach area. People are swimming, which is to be expected at a beach party, but only in a small swimming pool. No one is swimming in the sea, because it's rather brownigs and uninviting but also because you can't reach the sea at all. Long blue net screens close off access to the water. some say bc ppl try to get into the party without paying the entry fee (which entry fee?? I will find out later) some say because during these parties people get drunk and drown.

I get to meet an interesting crowd: Singaporeans of course, but also lots of expats. A Philipino lady is here to study architecture. Two Turkish engineers work for ashipping company. An Italian architect in his late twenties is very happy: could not find a good job as an architect in Italy but here he got an exciting position and though he works really long hours he makes good money and his work is appreciated. Soon he will get a permament residence permit, which will allow him to switch jobs more easily and even stay on in Singapore indefinitely, even if he should be without a job for a time.

Most ladies wear stylish black dresses, others just a swim suit. We sit down with my friends and start gulping beer and sandwiches. After a while, two big security guards appear and start pacing up and down the length of the beach At about 11pm, after we've been at the party for almost 7 hours, the two guards come to our table and ask me and Peiwen for our bracelet. What bracelet? Well apparently there is a bracelet you get when you pay your entry fee to the beach. None of us was aware of this. I am actually ready to apologize and pay but my local friends are quite upset and start arguing with the guards until they give up! So we get our bracelets for free...

By 1:00am it's time for me to go even if the party is still in full swing. The organization of the party provides for valet drivers for car owners who drink: you can drive to the beach, drink you brains out and someone will drive you home in your own car! Smart.