Enter for a chance to win a $25 gift certificate to Zazzle

January 27, 2010

Here’s an easy way to sample what Zazzle has to offer…

Visit this blog created by another Zazzler. Enter your name and email address for a chance to win a $25 gift certificate to any Zazzle store.

Zazzle has an enormous selection of artists; everything from scary cartoons to nature photography to fractal art. I love to browse other shops just to be inspired and amazed at the creativity out there.

If you win, you’ll get the chance to sample something yourself. So go submit your name!


Organic Lunch in Tokyo

December 5, 2009

On the way back home from Thailand, I opted to take a 12-hour layover in Tokyo and go into the city to walk around. I miss Japan just enough after having lived there sixteen years ago to want to visit every now and then, and I had some spare yen to spend.

I took a train on Japan’s precisely on-time and efficient railway system, transferring trains with ease, buying my tickets at windows or asking for help when necessary. It’s immensely easier to travel when you know enough of the language to help you get around and ask basic questions.

One thing I have discovered from traveling is that all foreign languages are stored in the same folder in my brain. When I travel somewhere, and I try to use the language to communicate, I sometimes spew out words and realize it’s the right word, wrong language. Dangit!

And it’s horribly difficult for me to switch back and forth if I haven’t used one of them in a while. I kept almost saying “thank you” in Thai instead of Japanese, because although I can use either one with ease, I had been using Thai for the past two weeks and was used to saying it.

(The fact that the flight attendants on all three of my flights back home seemed to be a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai-speaking women only confused my tired brain even further. Half the time I couldn’t tell what language they were making the announcements in, so I just gave up trying to understand them and hoped they weren’t saying we needed to brace for a crash landing.

They weren’t…and I’m home.)

Where was I?

Oh yah, getting around Tokyo asking for directions.

Except that I couldn’t remember if migi and hidarimeant “left” and “right” or “right” and “left.”

This led to a pissed-off security guard at Meiji Jingu Shrine Park, when I asked for directions to the nearest train station and he told me to go hidari, and I swore I had just gone that way, but there was no train station there. Turns out I had left and right mixed up, because I was listening to them in the train but looking backwards…are you confused yet? So was I…!

Back to food…

I had decided to go to the Omote Sandoarea of Tokyo, not because it is noted for fashion and style (which I care absolutely nothing about), but because it is supposedly rich in vegan eating places.

However, despite having several names, addresses, and asking many, many Japanese people, including clerks at the Body Shop and some aromatherapy shop–likely places, no?–nobody could point me toward any vegetarian or vegan eating places, nor could I find any of them. Grr.

I finally found an organic cafe in the basement of Bulgari Department Store.

When in doubt, go to the basement of any department store you can find. The food shops are always down there. On a good day, you will stumble into an enormous grocery/deli/souvenier floor, where you can choose from groceries, already cooked foods ready to go, and packaged specialty items from the area, just perfect for fulfilling the obligatory Japanese custom of taking omiyage, souveniers, to all your co-workers, neighbors, and friends back home.

I wasn’t so lucky. But I did find Cinagro, Organic Kitchen and Market, that had a lunch special. I opted for the soup and salad bar set for 800 yen (about $9.00 U.S.–very cheap by Japan standards, pretty ridiculous, from ours.)

I chose Green Potage, which was a velvety deep green mix of green peas, broccoli, spinach, Welsh onion and milk.

Green Potage Soup


The flavors of the vegetables were the clear stars, which is nice, since in many dairy-based soups, the cream is relied on to impart flavor. In this case, the milk flavor was nearly nonexistent.

I filled up with the salad bar, which contained mesclun, tomatoes, marinated carrot salad, marinated dried tomato and cabbage salad, seaweed, blanched broccoli and green beans, a stew of deep-fried vegetables in soy sauce, and fried onions, walnuts, and toasted, slivered almonds as topping. Dressing choices were umeboshi (pickled plum), olive oil, or Japanese style (soy, ginger).

I swear there were salad greens under there! You can see the shaved gobo in the 7 o'clock position on the plate.


I enjoyed the braised root vegetables, which were thin shavings of gobo, burdock root. That’s the first time I had seen it prepared that way. Normally it is cut into matchstick-like pieces and cooked with chilies and soy in kimpira gobo, where the texture is almost like eating damp, chewy wood. I preferred this style, which was a much friendlier texture.

But because I wasn’t sure it was completely vegetarian, I only had a little. The main seasoning in a Japanese dish like this is always dashi, broth typically made from bonito fish flakes, and I’m allergic to seafood, so I wasn’t about to risk anaphylactic shock for a few slices of gobo,delicious though it may have been.

Afterwards I was tempted to try something from a crepe sidewalk booth, which had an extensive display of options. Crepes were partially rolled, so they were V-shaped, and filled with everything from blueberries and cream cheese to chocolate, and everything in between.

I decided I didn’t need what was probably hydrogenated fats, not to mention all the saturated fat and sugar it contained. Instead, I hopped into a mini-mart and picked up a few Meiji Black dark chocolate bars, and one green tea chocolate bar for a friend to try.

I’m not a green tea fan, although I will likely try a bite before giving her the rest; it’s hard for me to pass up a new, unusual flavor combination.

Besides, how will I ever know I don’t like something if I’m unwilling to even try it? Just because I don’t like green tea doesn’t mean I won’t like chocolate and green tea, right?

Isn’t everything better with chocolate?


Sweet Thai Snacks

December 4, 2009

Despite my uncomfortable and worrisome, bubbling and unstable abdomen, I decided to brave the trip to Warorot Market, an enormous warren of shops.

Typical of markets throughout Asia, this one filled the three or four stories of the concrete building, plus all the space in the side streets adjacent to it.

At home, we go to a supermarket to find everything we need in one place. We go to a department store to find all manner of items under one roof.

In Asia, the exact opposite is true. When you want shoes, why not have all thirty shoe stores side by side, back to back, so you can comparison shop and get the best bargains?

Why go to three different groceries to get those fresh greens, when you could walk down one aisle and peruse the produce from fifty vendors in a matter of minutes?

The sheer number of vendors can become overwhelming, and not being able to read things, coupled with unfamiliar sights and bizarre smells, was almost unbearable. I passed several booths with animal parts hanging for sale to eat, and the smell of death and fermented fish sauce just about made me puke right there.

I knew what I wanted to get, so I tried to find it as quickly as possible. I bought some dried strawberries, which I use in my Christmas variation of Trail Mix Clusters (find the recipe here,) and spiced cashews. Cashew nuts are fried with oil, chilies, sugar, salt, garlic and kaffir lime leaves.

I bought the peanut version of this addictive snack when I was here four years ago but couldn’t find it this time. Perhaps too many people are allergic to peanuts these days? I got two bags, so I can try to recreate the flavors at home.

The other thing I wanted to try was a sampling of the intriguing sweet snacks. Asian sweets tend to be served not as dessert, but as snacks between meals, and often include ingredients we don’t use in Western desserts, such as taro, corn, and beans.

I stood for several minutes just staring at the spread at the most popular shop in the market. (Oddly, I only saw one shop of this type…why not one dozen?!)

A dizzying display of dental decay-inducing delights.


Eventually I snapped some photos and picked out one each of a half dozen or so snacks. The woman got disgusted with me when she asked me to choose between pumpkin or sweet bean cupcake-looking thingies.

I shrugged and shook my head, because making decisions can be difficult for me on a good day (I’m a Libra, okay?), and I was already out of sorts, with the scary, unstable stomach thing going on. I really did not have a preference for either one, nor did I have the presence of mind to try to say as much in Thai (not that I know how), so I just stood there, feeling like an idiot, yet not willing to make a choice.

She said, “Choose one!” and scooped up a bean cake and threw it in a bag for me.

I took a tuk-tuk (motorcyle in front, spacious covered wide seat in back) back to my guesthouse and cooled off for a bit before heading to visit my massage therapist friends.

The tuk tuk ride home


Here is what I got:

Thai sweet snacks

The round sweet bean cupcake was okay, nothing I’d necessarily long to try again.

The custard rectangle (Mao Geng Hai) tasted like ordinary custard, not something I like.

The green sticky rice cake was yummy, flavored with coconut milk. It was called Khao Niaow Ghao.

The green round balls with coconut, Ha Tom Kiaow, I did not like at all. They were obviously flavored with pandanus leaf, a palm-like leaf used to impart a nutty aroma to desserts and rice dishes throughout much of Asia. The taste and smell reminded me of steaming ti leaves to make lei in Hawaii, not something I want to be eating.

The brown and clear, multi-layered rectangle that smelled like coffee (Woon Cafe) tasted slightly sweet, slightly salty, like a coffee gelatin.

The reddish-brown rectangle Peua Gwan is similar to Hawaiian kulolo, a chewy, sticky cake made from taro and coconut milk. But this one had a more refined consistency, as though it had been made from mashed and strained taro, rather than the more chunky texture of the dessert back home. It was a little like bubble gum when you first start to chew it, after you get the stiffness out, but before it becomes rubbery: soft and a little chewy.

The whole bag of snacks cost me 80 baht (about $2.40 U.S.).

My massage friends didn’t want any sweets and warned me that eating so much would make me sick to my stomach (although that was already the case, so it was kind of a useless warning.)

But I explained I only wanted to try them, so I cut a sliver off the end of each one to taste. I only liked the green sticky rice, which was too sweet to have more than one bite, and the taro cake. I set aside one bite-sized piece of that one to have after dinner.

My friends were much more pleased by my gift of a bag of large Fuyu persimmons, which are just coming into season. They ranged in price from 35 to 60 baht for a one-kilo bag (approximately four hefty persimmons.) Guess which ones I bought? Yup…35 baht. Actually, 36, since she didn’t have correct change. (About $1.05 U.S.) It pays to shop around, even when you are spoiled for choice.


Cafe Pandau, Organic Dishes

December 2, 2009

I went to lunch with the wife of a friend, to celebrate the 26th-year anniversary of my becoming a vegetarian.

Thanksgiving Day, 2003 was the last time I ate meat. I had my last fix of turkey and went, well, cold turkey after that, and have never looked back.

I did at one point try a bite of chicken (I think it was chicken katsu, a Japanese breaded cutlet, which is served with a spicy ketchup-like sauce.) I expected the taste would leave me nostalgic and wanting to return to my carnivorous ways.

Instead, the flesh was rubbery and tough, and it tasted disgusting. I chewed a few times and spit it out.

Twenty six years is a long time to not eat meat, and I think one reason people think they could never make the switch to a plant-based diet is because their idea of what vegetarians eat consists of a lot of salad, tofu, beans, and bland, tasteless food.

I vow that the complete opposite is true. The food I love to eat is sometimes complex in flavor, with unusual combinations of ingredients.

Other times, I opt for basic, simple preparations that allow the flavors of the food to shine. A favorite meal is rice, raw tofu with shoyu (soy sauce), and homemade kimchi (Korean pickled vegetables.) One of my favorite (and my dog’s, too) vegetable preparations is sauteed cabbage with a touch of garlic.

I love introducing non-vegetarians to my food, because it challenges their perceptions of what vegetarian and vegan diets are like.

So to have lunch with a friend, an omnivore, who had decided on this day, to try to have a vegetarian meal, was meaningful.

Unfortunately, the food left a lot to be desired.

We went to Cafe Pandau, off Thapae Road, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, because it was near her working place, on a peaceful side street, and the owner was a friend of her boss. The interior was brightly lit, and I was happy to see brochures, artwork, and products for sale that celebrated organic foods. The furniture was solid wood, and there were beautiful woven palm mats on the tables as placemats.

I decided on the Pumpkin Croquettes With Plum Sauce, which I think cost 180 baht (about $5.80 U.S.).

Pumpkin Croquettes with Plum Sauce


I was hoping the plum sauce would be an interesting combination showcasing umeboshi plums, since there was a jar of umeboshi on the table next to me, and the owner is Japanese.

Unfortunately, it had no flavor and was just a congealed, semi-transparent, tepid sauce with flecks of reddish pink in it.

The flavor of the croquettes was good, like kabocha pumpkin, rich and sweet, but the texture was firm mush. There was no crusty exterior or anything in the rest of the dish to contrast with the soft texture.

It was served with whole grain, reddish-brown rice (my guess is red cargo rice) and sauteed greens, whose flavor and texture, with some slime to them, reminded me very much of Japanese warabi, sauteed fern shoots. I finally was able to recognize them as Malabar spinach, Basella malabar, a vining, hot-weather spinach substitute, by the little white dot-like branch tips. (Not sure what the botanical term for that part of the plant is…perhaps one of my nerdy, botanical-genius friends will let me know…)

My friend tried the homemade tofu steak (also 180 baht):

Homemade Tofu Cutlet topped with shredded vegetables and a peanut sauce

It was topped with vegetables, such as carrots, shredded zucchini, and thinly sliced okra–more slime, which didn’t bother me or my friend, but which can be a turn-off to some people.

The sauce on top was rather strange and tasted like peanuts, chilies, and something rather unpleasant, that I couldn’t figure out, which gave it an almost rotten flavor. Miso, perhaps?

The tofu cutlet itself was extremely firm and completely lacking the somewhat metallic and borderline sour flavor that a lot of tofu has, since it tends to sit around at the store for a couple of days before it gets purchased and consumed here.

In Thailand, tofu is sold fresh, floating in coolers with water, unrefrigerated. Most people make a daily foray to the neighborhood market to buy their produce and proteins the same day they cook it, a throwback to the days before refrigeration. It makes for healthier food, since less of the nutrients are lost by long transport and sitting in warehouses and in stores, like much of the food does in our country.

At any rate, I could see why the tofu was one of the best-selling items on the menu. I wish it had been served with a more flattering complement of sauce and vegetables, however, something possibly more inspired…or more simple, to allow the tofu to take center stage.

The food took a very long time to get to us. We were on her lunch break from work, and it took more than an hour to get it and eat it, which was puzzling to me, since all of it was at room temperature. Nothing was hot–the cutlet, the sauces, the croquettes–, and the lettuce leaf and carrot garnishes were not cold, so it’s not like someone was busy cooking it all in the kitchen out of sight.

Also, they weren’t busy. There were two other people at another table, and they weren’t even eating anything…from the sound of things, it was the owner and someone else, who were discussing and looking at embroidery, weaving, and textiles from examples the owner had and that were hung up on the walls.

I convinced my friend to try rooibos tea (55 baht, about $1.75) from South Africa, something I drink all the time at home. She seemed to enjoy its different, aromatic flavor, which is difficult to describe. I told her I usually drink it with mint, ginger, and lemongrass.

I absolutely had to try the organic chocolate (about 80 baht, iced, $2.40), the first and only chocolate I had had the entire two-week trip! Chocoholic that I am, I am a bit of a snob when it comes to chocolate and didn’t bother–although it was mighty tempting–to eat the M and M’s or Milky Way bars for sale in all the mini mart-type shops that I saw. I wanted good quality, dark chocolate, or nothing at all, and I never found any.

(HEY, maybe that’s why I kept getting an upset stomach on this trip…perhaps there is something in chocolate that keeps the digestive system working properly? I normally have some chocolate, about one ounce, every day, and I had none this time, save for this one glass.)

The chocolate was hard, in little crumbly bits, once I got to the bottom of my glass, but otherwise, I loved it, fake whipped-cream-topping stuff on top and all!

Overall, I was glad to be eating organic food, but I was disappointed with the meal and would not recommend the place for flavor or excitement, at least, not judging from what we ate.

If you want organic food that’s not Thai-style, in a quiet, clean environment, you might like it. This is not a vegetarian restaurant. There were meat items on the menu, such as Pork Meatballs in Tomato Sauce, plus other vegetarian items, such as Spaghetti With Zucchini and Mushrooms and several different omelettes. (Beware the swarms of mosquitoes in one of the bathrooms, though!!!)

It’s too bad, because this ironically, probably reinforced my friend’s idea of vegetarian food being bland and boring. I promised her that when she comes to Hawaii in the near future, I will have her, her husband, and a few choice friends over for a dinner party, and I will cook for her and show her how delicious vegetarian food can be.

I better go practice making that Pad Thai!


Gingerbread With Attitude Shirt

December 2, 2009

This time of year reminds me of fall foods, including pumpkins, apples and gingerbread. That was the inspiration for “Gingerbread With Attitude.”

Gingerbread With Attitude Shirt shirt
Gingerbread With Attitude Shirt by alinaspencil

The shirt has been featured on The Funniest T-shirts on the Net!

As always, you can put the design on other styles and colors of shirts by selecting what you want, and the size, in the Zazzle window to the right of the product when you view it.

Contact me if you need help doing so:
4alina@hawaii.rr.com


Kale is My Friend Kale Lovers Shirt

November 29, 2009

You may be familiar with the nutritional value of kale greens. They are a very good source of Vitamins A, B6, C and K, as well as minerals calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. Also included are other B vitamins, iron, and fiber.

You might just love it for its robust flavor.

Whether you use kale leaves in stir fries, kale lentil soup, or kale chips, you can express your love for this versatile, healthy vegetable with this kale-loving shirt.

Kale is My Friend Shirt shirt
Kale is My Friend Shirt by alinaspencil

Vegetarians and vegans are very familiar with kale and use it in many vegetarian and vegan kale recipes. This kale design is green text says, “Kale is my friend.”

Makes a great gift for a vegetarian or vegan, organic farmer or produce lover.

Remember, you can put this design on any size or style of shirt, including tank tops, hooded sweatshirts, or kids shirts. The Zazzle design tool gives you hundreds of options to choose from.

If you need help doing so, please email me:
4alina@alinaspencil.com


Gingerbread Couple Photo Card Templates for the Holidays

November 27, 2009

If you are thinking of sending customized photo cards this year for the holidays, I have several designs to choose from.

This one was inspired by some friends of mine, The Bakers:

Gingerbread Photo Card Template (couple) photocard
Gingerbread Photo Card Template (couple) by alinaspencil

This photo card template is green with a gingerbread man and gingerbread woman. Add your own photo and name to the greeting to personalize it.

I’ve set it up so you just type your name in the field provided, and it will replace “The Bakers” with whatever you type.

Click “change” under the image, and you can upload a photo from your computer to replace the sample already there.

Don’t like the color? I have cards in blue, and I will continue to add more colors and designs, so check back later, or drop me an email to request something in particular:
4alina@alinaspencil.com

Find other customizable photo cards at my Zazzle store.