tofu laap (or laab, larb, larp, etc.)

Twice a year a group of government officials from Southeast Asia come to Wellington to study English for about 3 months with an NZAID/VUW scholarship.  I have gotten involved in the programme as a “conversation buddy” to several students.  I really enjoy meeting all the students, but of course, I have a special place in my heart for the ones from Laos!

The programme administrator normally organises about 4 or 5 different functions during each study term for the students and their conversation buddies.  This includes 2 potluck dinners.  The most recent potluck I attended I brought a large container of tofu laap and sticky rice.  They were both gone within minutes. The Lao people were amazed and surprised that I had made the laap.  Several of them said to me “You made this?!  I thought it was a Lao person!”.

Most of the Lao people had never had tofu laap before.  Usually laap is made with pork, chicken, or fish.  Sometimes it’s made with raw water buffalo meat.  However, some restaurants in Vientiane, mostly catering to tourists, do have tofu laap on their menus.   So, that is where my inspiration for this dish came.

You need:

  • 2 blocks of firm tofu
  • 4 tbs of oil
  • 2 tbs of fish sauce
  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro/coriander
  • 2 cups fresh mint leaves
  • 1 stalk of lemongrass, minced
  • 3 cms of ginger, grated
  • 1 fresh Thai chili, minced
  • 1 tbs sticky rice powder
  • the juice of 1 lemon

Cut up your tofu into very small cubes, about 1 or 2 cms in length.  Heat your 4 tbs of oil and then gently fry the tofu.  You want to cook it only lightly.  Then, set it aside to cool.

Coarsely chop up your herbs, and mix them together with your fish sauce, lemon juice, chili, sticky rice powder, and ginger.  Add the tofu and toss gently.  Taste it and adjust the seasonings, adding more lemon juice,or fish sauce if needed. Serve right away or the herbs will start to wilt.

This dish is excellent with sticky rice, and should be served at room temperature.

you can take the girl outta Chicago…

but you can’t take the Chicago out of the girl?

The other day somebody asked me what I planned to do when I finished school, if I intended to “go home”.  I said “I don’t even know where home is anymore!”.  After thinking about it I realized that I have spent less than 2 years in the USA in the last 10 years, and that was not 2 consecutive years.  It was 12 months here, 8 months there, a summer and a few weeks squeezed in from time to time.  While I did live in and around Chicago for the first 2/3rds of my life, the most recent 3rd has been spent in a number of different cities and countries.  The longer I spend away the more distant it seems, but the grid-like streets of Chicago are still carved into my memory…and maybe always will be?

I have been watching this cheesy TV police drama called “The Chicago Code” lately, which is nearly driving me mad with homesickness.  In nearly every street scene a CTA train or bus goes by.  A lot of scenes take place inside the Skylark… my former Pilsen hangout.  They have lunch at Manny’s deli, eat hot dogs at Maxwell Street, drink Old Style.  It’s almost torture to watch.  I hate Wellington!  I want to move back to Chicago!

Actually, Wellington is not that bad.  On Monday Ticker and I went for a walk up to the Mt. Vic lookout.

Wellington: has cool rope swing

As I have mentioned previously, there are lots of green spaces and wild places minutes walking from downtown.  I like that.  But whenever I ask some one from somewhere else if they like Wellington, inevitably the answer is “It’s ok…”.  Then, I ask them if they intend to stay when they are finished studying, and again, inevitability I hear “No.”.  This is especially true when I get together with other Americans.  I once spent an entire afternoon listening to a bunch of people ranting about Wellington and describing how much they want to leave.  I will not deny joining in from time to time (especially to criticize the public transit and cost of living in New Zealand), but I don’t really hate it here.  It’s just probably my least favorite place I have ever lived.  I’m sure there are way worse places to live… like Dubai from what I hear!

However, I try to be an optimist and make the best of any situation.  Even so, I can’t help but feel homesick from time to time.  I think that’s normal.  I also lived in Chicago from the age of 18 to 23, so, part of what I’m feeling is of course, nostalgia for my lost youth.  Unfortunately, nothing I can do will ever bring that back.  But, maybe someday, I’ll be able to move back to that glorious city by the lake.

But I did take this cool picture of a flock of little yellow-winged birds in flight.

Wellington wildlife

Brazen Life-ist

I have had more free time on my hands than usual lately, and for some strange reason I have been spending a considerable amount of time reading Penelope Trunk’s blog.

Penelope Trunk has written a book called “Brazen Careerist” and her blog is a mixture of intimate personal stories (many of a sexual nature) and career advice.  I read it with a combination of horror and fascination; like watching a car accident.  Some of what she writes about is useful, like “How to do a phone interview“.  Other blog entries are just annoying, like why you should get married and have kids before thinking about a career, and yet others are just her shamelessly exploiting her personal life.  

What really has interested me about this lady is her ideas about careers and education.  She goes into quite a bit of detail about what a waste of time and money a post-graduate education is.  This may be because she started a Master’s degree and wrote half a thesis but never actually finished or got the degree.  So, perhaps she is just venting her anger at failing in academic pursuits, or maybe regretting having given up so close to finishing.  I probably would feel the same way.  However, I think most of what she writes comes from what I can only interpret as being a very materialistic perspective.

Her most salient argument against pursing a university degree beyond a BA or BSc is that it’s not worth the expense.  She argues that Masters degrees don’t guarantee you a higher income, and she actually says that PhD’s are a pyramid scheme.  Her reasoning behind this is that something like 8 in 9 individuals with PhD’s don’t end up in tenure track positions.  I’m not arguing with the validity of these statistics.  I think most people are always aware of these statistics when entering a PhD programme.  if not, you find out pretty quickly after starting (4 months in for me).  If you are obsessed with money and buying things, you will probably share her perspective.

However, not everybody gets advanced degrees simply because they want to make more money.  In fact, I would argue that amongst all of my colleagues, that is not the reasoning behind one single choice to start a PhD programme.  While “I didn’t know what else to do with my life” or “I didn’t have a job” are probably not better reasons, at least we are not getting into the game thinking spending 3 years (or more) writing a thesis is the ticket to big bucks.  In fact, most of us are aware of the fact we could certainly be making more money doing something else, and in addition, many of my colleagues have left very high paying, even prestigious positions (such as with Iran’s state controlled oil company) to pursue a doctorate.

It’s not easy do a PhD.  It’s a fucking huge amount of work and one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted to do.   I think most of my colleagues would agree with me.  In fact, just the other day one of my fellow PhD students said that he used to be a professional chef, and left it to do a Masters degree, and now a PhD degree, and “the PhD is the most challenging thing” he had done in his life.   In order to attempt something so immense and challenging, you better be doing it for the right reasons.  Not because you want to be wealthy.  You never will be.  You might get famous, like Dr. Timothy Leary, or be admired, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, but you won’t get rich! Not that I intend to get famous or be particularly admired.  I just enjoy doing research, and want to do something meaningful with my life.   My career plan has been modeled on Lloyd Dobler:

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.

So, essentially, I don’t want to be a brazen careerist.  I don’t want to spend 50 hours a week working and then another 10 networking with a bunch of materialistic “businessmen” so that stuff can be bought and sold and processed.  Why would anybody?  What’s the point of being a brazen careerist?  So you have no time to enjoy spending with your family or contributing to your community?  I don’t agree with the self-centered money-worshiping ideology that goes along with the 21st century mainstream’s idea of “success”.  There are much more important things in life.   Also I don’t really know what a “start-up” is or what they do.

I was particularly reminded of this today, as I was filling out the NZ Post’s “Household survey”.  Questions 5 asked “How many motor vehicles do you have in your household?”, which was then followed by about 7 questions regarding the kinds and sizes of cars you owned.   The questions about cars, and many others, did not pertain to me.  I can only imagine when they go to do the data analysis how my responses will seem like some kind of statical anomaly, so far off the charts SPSS will start flashing a “CANNOT COMPUTE” error message.

However, I do appreciate what Penelope Trunk has to say about how talking about things like date rape, antenatal depression, and miscarriage empower women as it gives us “ways to talk about issues that were hidden when we did not have the language to express them”.  I agree with her one that one.  Which is why I don’t feel ashamed blogging about being diagnosed with HPV, even though I have just discovered that, when I submit abstracts for conferences, the conference organisers Google me and of course, come across this blog.  According to the American Social Health Association more than 75% of women will contract HPV in their life, and my doctor told me that even nuns who have never been sexually active have been diagnosed with HPV.  So, I salute Penelope Trunk for talking about women’s health issues in a frank, unapologetic manner.  Neglecting to do so only makes it harder for women to be taken seriously.

shotgun weddings a thing of the past?

I just read this article on the NZ newspaper website and thought it was pretty interesting:

Number of weddings falls to all-time low

Marriage rates have fallen so far in the past 40 years that what was once an institution is now largely a symbolic gesture.

A record low 20,900 marriages took place last year, less than one-third of the number in 1971 and one half of the 1987 rate, figures from Statistics NZ reveal.


So, only 40,000 people in new Zealand got married last year… out of 4 million population, that’s pretty low odds!  I guess the institution of marriage has become outdated.  Which is why it’s so surprising how obsessed with getting married some women are.

Admittedly, I would like to get married one day.  I think probably every girl who grew up in North American in the 80’s does.  I don’t know why this isn’t so strongly true in New Zealand. If I did get married, I hope I could do it in a ceremony like this!!!! :

At one point I had convinced myself I didn’t ever want to get married.  That I would find a baby daddy, have a kid, and remain single, doing it all on my own as my own mother did with me (And I turned out pretty good, right?).  I agree that the institution of marriage is a patriarchal remnant of oppressive religious organizations and practices meant to keep women subdued and in the home.  However, as Dervin says, society is “energized” by individuals, so if people didn’t agree with marriage, why do so many societies expect it of people?  I guess the answer is that secretly deep down inside the institution of marriage is still part of our core value system (As identified by Cutler 2001, p. 75).

Also, I think our society still looks at single women (and probably men, to a lesser degree), and thinks “What is wrong with them?”.  It’s hard to believe some one would choose to remain single.  I realise that the above article doesn’t examine our society’s perception of “spinsters”, and in fact people are still forming partnerships to the same degree as in olden tymes, they just aren’t sanctifying it with a marriage certificate quite so much anymore.

However, this raises several questions about tradition and what I would perhaps even call a paradigm shift that is happening today.  I think it’s really quite remarkable that being an unwed mother no longer carries a social stigma.  And, personally, I think that is a step in the right direction, towards equality and independence that all women should be permitted to decide what happens with their bodies.  So, I applaud New Zealand, and all it’s unmarried mums!  I think the US and Canada are following the lead to some degree, but at the same time, clinging to this idealised version of marriage.. when how many of them end in divorce? 50%?

Which brings me to another point… Monogamy.  Were humans meant to be monogamous?  Does it work?  That is something I will have to explore at another time, I’m going out for dim sum shortly!



Guilty pleasures

In response to Heidi’s comment.. YES!  I love Game of Thrones.  And True Blood too.  HBO shows are my guilty pleasure!  Though, Game of Thrones is a lot less trashy than True Blood.  In fact, I have George R R Martin’s first novel on reserve at the library (last I checked I was #18 in line…).

My interest was piqued by the following New Yorker article:

And subsequent podcast:

Audio: Laura Miller on the epic fantasy author George R. R. Martin and his fans.

I recommend both of these resources for anyone who has enjoyed the Game of Thrones TV show.  Basically, this media whetted my appetite and since then I have download the new Game of Thrones episode every Monday afternoon just as soon as it has aired in North America.

I actually decided to book my tickets to Laos for AFTER the series had ended… so I wouldn’t have to try and download it while I was over there, or wait 3 months to see the season finale.

In fact, I should probably cancel my library hold, and just go buy the book, as it will probably become available right after I leave, and then the WPL will charge me for not picking it up!

the half-shave

This afternoon I went to a certificate ceremony for my Lao friends studying here in Wellington, and while they were all taking pictures of each other, I was chatting with a young lady who is studying Law here at Vic.  She stood out among the most Southeast Asian faces because of her height, and her hairstyle: the half-shave.

This photo above is of some model who is apparently famous for this hair style.  And, seeing it up close and personal I was actually reminded of my pal Corina who had a better a-symmetrical haircut like 5 years ago.

However, I thought the half-shave suited the Law student quite well and made for a pretty cute, hipster hairstyle with a hint of provocativeness.  Basically, it’s like the mullet for the 21st century- business on one side, party on the other.  And, probably similarly to the mullet, the have-shave will one day be regarded as a tragic regrettable fashion trend.

However, to pull of such a hairstyle I think you need to be either in a profession where you get paid to look like a badass, or young enough to be able to get away with a “FTW” look (probably supported by your parents).
I have had all manner of crazy hairstyles in my day, and I’m happy to stick with the simple, au-natural thing I have had going on for a while now.  Even though technically, I am a student, and people wear jeans and sweatshirts around this place all the time, I want to be taken seriously by my colleagues.

Also, the annoying thing about wild hair is how long it takes to grow back to anything remotely suitable to professional situations.

However, the strongest deterrent for me is the kind of message about insecurity such a haircut sends.  Walking around with some kind of ultra trendy hipster haircut is like wearing a giant sign that says “I want you to think I’m cool”.  If you really know you’re cool, you don’t need to broadcast it on your head.  This is also the mentality that lies behind my dislike of band t-shirts (or novelty t-shirts in general).
Also, having long hair you can do some crazy shit like this:

Way cooler than a half-shave anyday!

So that is just my 2 cents on the matter.

i just felt my first earthquake

I was sitting in my office on the 5th floor of 23 Lambton Quay and I suddenly felt the building begin to sway… At first I thought it was me feeling faint or dizzy but then I realised the plants in the window sill were also swaying, and the bookshelves made a creaking noise.  Then, after about 5 seconds, it stopped, as if nothing had even happened.

I ran next door to ask my neighbour if she had felt it, or if I was hallucinating.  According to her, a native-Wellingtonian, it was “a very tiny earthquake”, nothing to worry about it.

However, it was definitely unsettling and my heart is still racing a bit.

d.i.y. deodorant

My armpits smell like sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

Since we all know by now that commercial antiperspirants and deodorants usually have parabens in them, which have been linked to breast cancer, and aluminum, which has been linked to Alzheimer (though investigation into these links are currently “inconclusive”), it’s better to either go au natural and stink up the joint, or use a natural deodorant product.

I recently ran out of the fancy, aluminum and parabens free deodorant I use from Earth 174° (which I love).  I cycle to my office every morning, and am usually running late, so by the time I arrive I have usually worked up a good sweat.  For this reason going deo-free is not something I would feel comfortable doing.  Though I’m not a particularly stinky sweater, I share my office with 2 other people and generally have to interact with high-ranking academics on a daily basis.  For this reason I don’t want to stink of BO, even though, I truly believe one’s natural aroma is nothing to be ashamed of.  And I highly prefer the odor of natural pits rather than some nasty artificial “Axe” or “Lynx” type body-spray.

Since I am on a limited budget this month (due to reasons I will explain later) I decided I would try my hand at making my own deodorant at home.  I scoured the internet and came across the following fantastic blog :  This lady shares recipes and tips for using food and other natural ingredients in homemade skincare and haircare products.  I especially liked her account of switching to home-made deodorant, and her simple recipe, which I happened to have all the required ingredients for on hand.

I looked at a few other posts, like “how to make your own deodorant” and decided to just improvise with what I had around the house and thought would work.

So, in a pot I melted about 1/4 cup of coconut oil.  The coconut oil I have is organic and deodorized because that was the cheapest one they had at Commonsense Organics when I bought it 8 months ago.  I can’t verify the truth of the following statement but the scientificky-sounding words are enough to convince me:

Coconut Oil also contains caprylic acid, capric acid, lauric acid & myristic acid which have natural antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties!”

Into that pot I threw a few sprigs of rosemary.  It also smells nice.  The internet tells me:

  • External use
    • Externally, rosemary helps to increase circulation and is very often used in hair care products and lotions as it stimulates the hair follicles to renewed activity and prevent premature baldness.
    • It has two important properties – it is an outstanding free radical scavenger and therefore has amazing antioxidant properties, and secondly has an remarkable stimulating effect on the skin.
    • Apart from this, it has good antiseptic properties and is traditionally used for hair and scalp stimulation, as well as anti-aging products.
    • It has rubefacient properties and therefore is most useful when an increase of blood flow is required or when below-par circulation needs to be rectified.
    • Rosemary is an effective treatment against scurf and dandruff.
    • It can also be used in mouth rinses and gargles; and is applied topically to stimulate circulation.
    • It has analgesic as well as antibacterial, antifungal and anti-parasitic properties.

I also added the zest of 1 lemon for lemony fresh smell and the acidic antibacterial effect I assume lemon zest would produce.

I added a few leaves of lemon verbena for their nice smell.

The internet tells me “Externally, the herb can be used to treat acne, boils and cysts.”  So, it’s good for your skin!

I added about 10 drops of tea tree oil.  The internet tells me

“It is an antiseptic herb with a clear clean smell and expectorant, antifungal, bactericidal and sudorific properties, which stimulates the immune system.”

I added about 5 drops of geranium oil.

“The therapeutic properties of geranium oil are astringent, haemostatic, cicatrisant, cytophylactic, diuretic, deodorant, haemostatic, styptic, tonic, vermifuge and vulnerary.”

I love the smell of early grey tea, so I added about 10 drops of bergamot oil.

“Certain components of the essential oil of Bergamot are anti biotic and disinfectant in nature. They inhibit growth of germs, virus and fungi.”

I put in about 5 drops of lavender oil for the smell, though as an added bonus, it’s good for your skin!

  • External use
    • “Used externally to treat most type of burns, including sunburn, rheumatism, muscular pains, neuralgia, cold sores, insect bites, head lice, halitosis, vaginal discharge and anal fissure.
    • It has an analgesic effect on the skin, which helps with pain relief, but it is the antiseptic and stimulant properties which make it very effective for use on wounds and burns.
    • It is mainly used for its antiseptic and anti-dandruff properties but also have antibacterial, spasmolytic (relieving spasms) and local pain killing actions.
    • It also contains ursolic acid, which is not only antibacterial, but also active against lipid oxidation and inhibits elastase – which results in tissue degeneration as well as inflammatory processes as well as tissue degradation such as psoriasis and eczemas.
    • The rosmarinic acid and polyphenolic derivatives have good antioxidant properties, which is helpful in countering aging.
    • On the skin, lavender oil tones and revitalizes it and it is useful for all types of skin problems, such as abscesses, acne, oily skin, boils, burns, sunburn, wounds, psoriasis, lice, insect bites, stings. It also acts as an insect repellent.”

Since my expensive deodorant lists “mineral salts” as one of its ingredients I threw in a tablespoon of the natural un-iodized rock salt we have in the kitchen.

I let this all melt on the stove for a few minutes.  Once it was liquidy I added some aloe vera pulp I had scraped out of some plants I found growing in Truby King park in January and then had left in the freezer since then.

“Aloe vera extracts have antibacterial and antifungal activities”

I also added 1 table spoon of baking soda… which then made it fizz like when you add vinegar to the baking soda in your 5-th grade volcano diorama.  I can’t seem to figure out why I would use baking soda other than it’s natural and used for cleaning…

I also added some corn starch which I assumed would help with dampness.  And then I added a little mineral water from a bottle of Waiwera water I was given at a function last week.  They claim to make “the best water in the world” or something.

So, after all that quit fizzing I poured it into my empty roll on container… but after an hour the mixture had cooled and was basically rock solid.  Since the deodorant could not be applied using the roll-on container, I had to re-heat the mixture in some hot water, after which I poured it into a little jar.  I use my fingers to apply the deodorant, which warms up and becomes liquidy as soon as it touches my skin… and it seriously works just as well as my expensive deodorant!

d.i.y. deo

Above is the finish product.  Not very pretty, but it smells fabulous, works fantastically, cost next to nothing, and doesn’t give me cancer!

And… why am I so broke this month?  Well, basically it’s the FBI’s fault.  I think I they deserve an entire separate post to highlight the incompetency and bureaucracy of the organisation, and unfortunately I don’t have time to do that right now.  But I shall fill you all in very shortly.

the ambiguous adventure

I recently renamed my blog from whatever it was before (Nicole’s adventures in wonderland and elsewhere?) to “l’aventure ambiguë” for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I gave my blog that subtitle long before the re-make of Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp made it popular all of a sudden.  And also “The ambiguous adventure” seemed like a more appropriate description of what is going on in my life these days.  Starting a PhD, moving to New Zealand, trying to have a grown-up relationship, all of these things have been somewhat bewildering and certainly ambiguous at times.

Also, L’Aventure Ambiguë is the name of a prize-winning novel by Cheikh Hamidou Kane I read many years ago.  If you read French I highly recommend it.