2013年4月15日 星期一

Last Post

I'll be discontinuing this blog because as of late July, my life circumstances will be changing indelibly and greatly -- so if I may abuse those two adverbs, I'll probably lose the time and energy to muse about coffee.
Instead, I'll try to keep up my writing and sharing through a new blog "Radish in a Spaceship: Adventures in the Professorial Life and Parenting," (also on Blogger) touching upon issues which are salient in my everyday world (to be).  I hope that coffee may come up every now and then in that blog -- because I'll either be trying to stay awake or to get some relief from quotidian anxieties.
Thanks for reading "Coffee and Culture."

2012年10月14日 星期日

Observer-Non Participant

I have written in the past about taking a break from coffee for certain reasons, and as of late, I have learned that I should really do so, and perhaps for a long time if not indefinitely.
People are generally conscious of the less-than-salubrious effects of alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances.  Many a coffee lover has joked about being entirely and devotedly dependent on the beverage.  Scientific studies come out every now and then about how coffee will increase one's chances of developing X disease or in the worst case scenario, shorten one's expected lifespan considerably.
Quite sadly, even though I cannot even call myself a true coffee fiend who consumes cups and cups a day (at my worst, about five, at my best, about one), maintaining normal health has become dependent on me not drinking coffee.  In fact, my whole caffeine intake has to be reduced to modest levels, with each bit of caffeine (including those hidden in foods and beverages) counting towards a stringent quota.
Therefore, as I was forced to cut coffee cold turkey due to recent hospitalization and medical treatment, I have started to ponder how I can appreciate coffee without drinking it.  Certainly losing the tool of taste will impact my perceptions of coffee and coffee culture severely, but I hope that I can still derive some enjoyment from my as-yet favorite beverage.
Perhaps I can re-channel my energy into making good coffee for others, even though I won't be able to taste-test it...

2012年9月20日 星期四

Coffee and Religion

I won't get into the details behind why I have this attitude, but to sum up a whole ball of contradictory emotions into one statement: I feel ambivalent about religion. I believe that spirituality is essential to the human experience.  I believe that there is some supernatural beings (or probably multiple ones) that we can refer to as "God."  I realize that our universe is not the only one and that the six days of creation described in the Bible represent the long (understatement) process of evolution that our globe went through (talk about growing pains!).  In all, I remain cautious and skeptical about the costs and benefits of religion, even though I belong to one of the largest religious institutions in the world.

Being of the "live and let live" and "learn about every religion because each reveals some part of Faith" school, I try not to let religion play a significant role in my public life.  I do not talk about religious practice as a social topic (academic discussions are fine) if I can help it.  I would certainly not try to convert anyone to my religion, and if anyone asked about it, I would share what I personally believe but never call it the utmost truth. You can consider these proclivities as stemming from fears about imposing my intellectual will on others (I do that enough professionally), becoming blind and closed-minded due to religious fervor, and allowing religion rather than reason to dictate *all* of my beliefs and actions.

But lo and behold, religion found me in the form of a serendipitous decision to visit the "Bonfire Cafe" in Causeway Bay. No, the storefront does not display large black, yellow, and orange flames. Rather, the shop's color scheme is mostly pastel green, yellow, and white. It's not a place that shows off the tough, daring nature of coffee, like a place I will write about another time. The atmosphere is like that of a hospital canteen (cafeteria), except less sterile and more cheerful.

I ordered a Costa Rican coffee, French pressed, and sat down with a glass of water to start. I only wanted to kill some time before a neighboring store opened, so I concentrated on doing some reading while waiting for the coffee. When it arrived, I noticed that the sugar and warm milk were placed neatly by the side of the cup. I passed on the sugar, but I tried some of the warm milk in the coffee after the first few sips and everything, temperature and taste, were in sync.

It was only as I was leaving the cafe that I realized the Catholic mission of the establishment. If I were a "good" Catholic, I would think that God led me there, but given that I'm of the "Catholicism is one of many manifestations of spirituality" kind (not the Vatican's favorite, I imagine), I figured that He just wanted me to have a delicious cup of coffee and that fate determined the rest... 

2012年9月9日 星期日

Stumping for Stumptown

As an academic, summer is the only time when I can justify thinking about work for less than 40 hours a week.  It's also a wonderful season of business and personal travel, brainstorming of new projects, and with strategic planning, opportunities to explore aspects of life that are utterly self-gratifying.  Therefore, the whole slew of posts to follow in the next few weeks describe episodes in the Scholar's Summer from May to August.  

A constant in my life that I have yet to forget or refute is that I left my hometown, Portland, Oregon, to seek exposure to more culturally diverse environments. Many native Oregonians and one-time visitors to the Beaver State tell me that "everything is so hip" now -- a state of being that evolved after I started my life away from home 17 years ago. Every time I return to visit my parents, I feel like my sense of distance from the city, even the archetypical sleepy suburb where I was literally born and raised, is increasing. I even caught myself stuttering multiple times when trying to order food and purchase things -- despite having spoken English for all but two years of my life, I was not quite sure how to phrase expressions according to the latest colloquial linguistic trends in Portland.

But all snobbery aside, I am glad that Portland's cultural renaissance, or in my dim view, positive move towards cultural heterogeneity, has received much recognition and therefore further momentum to continue.  Non-chain establishments, environmentally sound practices are commonplace and beneficial for social well-being.

Thanks to an old friend (we met sometime in elementary school -- so wonderfully long ago, the exact circumstances are ancient history), I visited Stumptown Coffee in downtown Portland.  I am not sure why Portland is called Stumptown (go ahead and Google it, all I know is that when the Trailblazers were having great seasons, there were many interesting songs about "Stumptown") but I was very happy to see that the cafe was full but not overflowing with people.  A loft on the ground, seating seems to be deliberately sparse.  One can choose a small table, comfortably accommodating two people, or a stool at the bar.

I do not want this blog to become a tasting site, since I am neither a coffee professional nor a person who believes that my taste buds are much more sophisticated than other people's.  Yet I will throw in comments about good coffee, not because I receive compensation, not because I'm trying to endorse certain coffee beans/establishments and to criticize others.  I agree with my Wiser Half's assessment about tea, namely that a good tea is one that tastes good to the person drinking it.  Same with coffee...but at Stumptown, besides being initially impressed by the wide open space of Stumptown Coffee, then frustrated when it seemed that I could not secure a table to accommodate self, friend, and Wiser Half, and finally relieved when we could all sit down together, I was happy to have a cup of Ethiopian coffee that is just as distinctive, fair-minded, and multifaceted as my hometown is working hard to be -- Nano Challa.


2012年6月18日 星期一

Seeds of Hope

Life is surprising...

Taken by Madame N, 17 June 2012

I am notoriously biased about comparing Taipei and Hong Kong's coffee scenes, to the advantage of the former and therefore the detriment of the latter. Taipei deserves all the praise I heap upon it (more evidence of favoritism) but yesterday, I discovered that perhaps I should dig deeper to appreciate the less obvious but nevertheless existent gems of Hong Kong.

I was literally walking down the street (Third Street in Sheung Wan/Sai Ying Pun) when I happened to turn my head left (not unusual, since I am left-handed). I saw a small alley and the sign in the photo above. I must give due credit to the unknown gentleman who was carrying two box lunches in that direction, as well as some tofu in a bag. I felt unnaturally brave and followed him down the alley (not a deep dark one but just a friendly, open cul-de-sac, actually).

At first, I thought the place might be closed since it was Sunday. If it was a typical lunch place catering to professionals, it might be, but it turned out to be a tiny but bustling vegetarian establishment. The top of two floors has one long table, and the ground floor only has four tables for two persons each. Several pairs of customers came in and waited patiently. A good sign.

I was fortunate to come in on time to sit at the table closest to the door and overlooking a small patio with spaces for six other diners. I ordered the restaurant's signature dal, a digestion booster smoothie, and a coffee. I didn't expect much from the coffee, being the third item to be served in the sequence and because good cuisine and good coffee are not always paired together, far from it. 

The one word to describe the coffee brewing method of this restaurant is sincerity. The coffee arrived at my table not only piping hot but poured so rapidly that I could practically see black foam at the top. The frothy robustness of the coffee carried through to the flavor, which was so strong that I had to drink the cup quickly.  I also felt the pressure, not from the servers but just innately, to leave as soon as possible to give my place to another set of eager diners. For HKD 28 and feeling completely rushed, I enjoyed the coffee very much.

2012年6月15日 星期五

Here and There

All three photos taken by MadameN, 2012
Last week, I was in Taiwan, which I have praised before as a veritable coffee Mecca. I only spent four days there, with the principal mission of attending and presenting at a conference, so my time for gadding about coffee shops was limited. I did try to make lemonade out of lemons by writing up my final presentation notes in one particular establishment, the Ici Cafe (the Chinese name being the translation of the official one, therefore "Here").

I normally don't take photographs of places I visit, but armed with a smartphone (long story, but basically free for being a "loyal customer" so why not?), I captured my delight by snapping the three pictures posted above, before entering the cafe.

Ici has two levels. I did not try peeking into the first floor but rather marched straight up to the second one, determined to find a seat on a Saturday afternoon. My gamble paid off, and I earned the place right next to the coffee bar, discreetly disguised door to the bathroom, and cashier counter. Perfect.

I ordered a "tea set" consisting of a siphon-brewed Mandheling and a banana-chocolate waffle. I do not like to eat sweet foods in substantial amounts so I stared wide-eyed at the ensemble that I received: a Belgian waffle cut into quadrants, arranged in domino-style next to a small dish of chocolate ice cream AND a mini-pitcher of thick chocolate syrup PLUS a footed dish of freshly whipped cream. Oh heavens.

The Mandheling, brewed before my eyes by a calm expert (so critical when one considers how orders were flying violently in during this prime time), was smooth, slightly sweet, and consistent from first to last sip. I did not adulterate it with anything and was surprised how well the porcelain cup maintained the temperature for nearly one full hour. I wish I had the siphon on my table too, but with the waffle dish, my notes, and my cup, I could not be so greedy.

I'll deviate from course and exclaim that the waffle, each greedy bite, was delicious. I tried all sorts of flavor combinations (ice cream plus syrup on waffle, whipped cream only, etc.) to overcome my initial concern that I would be wasting food. My only regret is the Mandheling became a sideshow, subject to periodic sips in order to clear away all the floury goodness.

The atmosphere was typically "posh, highly populated." My neighbors were bizarre -- as much as I disapproved of their conversation, I will not dishonor them by describing it here. The bathroom was much appreciated, being so conveniently located and pristine. Children under 12 are not allowed on the second floor of the cafe, presumably to avoid any lawsuits related to them falling up or down the stairs, but otherwise, cheers to being Here!

2012年5月6日 星期日

Back to Black (2?)

I may have already used this Amy Winehouse reference -- I cannot remember at the moment, but I just wanted to write a quick post about having my first Caffe Americano today after several months.  I thought I would be on hiatus for several months, perhaps even a year, but things don't always work out as planned, and now I find myself medically able to drink coffee again.  The key term is medically, because I learned today that coffee consumption is a habit, not just an addiction, but a practice that one must keep up in order to savor the flavor and to get through a whole cup (previously, not a problem).

MarshalN and I went to have some sushi, a feeble attempt to raise our spirits, and as we were wending through Langham Place Mall, we discovered a new business called "100 Bites," an upscale cafe run by Honeymoon Dessert, a popular chain for Chinese-style sweet soups or literally "sweet water" (Mandarin: tang shui) and lots of things with mangoes and/or sticky rice.  The business was obviously new.  Only three other couples were present, and the team of ten staff members were still learning how to coordinate their service routine.  I would say that going back after another month or two would be more sensible -- MarshalN had to wait for 15 minutes to see his mini apple crumble with ice cream -- bizarre because the showcase next to the cashier had at least eight of those desserts ready to go.

He kindly ordered me a coffee -- Caffe Americano -- which came out in a medium-sized white mug, brewed dark and rich.  I had a few sips, absorbed the caffeine buzz, but then gave up.  I think the staff will assume that I did not enjoy the coffee, which is not true, but my body was simply not in the mood.

I don't know if I'll go back to coffee as I did before, which would be a pity, losing both a favorite beverage and a hobby, but I'll see how things go...