Saturday, March 29, 2014

Chocolate review: Ghirardelli Intense Dark Sea Salt Soiree

We never fail to go to the Ghirardelli shop every time we are in San Francisco, CA. Ghirardelli chocolate is not readily available in most supermarkets in the Philippines even in Metro Manila so we buy enough to get us by a few months. That usually includes a pasalubong to family and friends who also loved their chocolates.

Dark chocolate with sea salt and roasted almonds is one of our favorites. There's something about the salty taste of sea salt that's perfect with chocolate. We also discovered that this went very well with wine, especially the dessert variety.

 A friend gave us a pack of Ghirardelli dark chocolate with sea salt
This treat had roasted almonds that provided the crunch to the chocolate
The information on the packaging didn't say much about the cocoa content but it was marketed as intense dark so it should be at least at 50% cocoa. The bitterness was definitely tempered by the sea salt.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Academic calendar shift at UP

Today is an historic day for the University of the Philippines as the last constituent university that has not elected to a shift in the start of the academic year from June to August has finally decided for the shift. UP Diliman was the last among the constituent universities that include UP Los Banos, UP Manila, UP Visayas, UP Mindanao, UP Baguio and UP Open University to decide on this matter. Earlier, in December 2013, Diliman's University Council voted against the shift in a meeting where many had already left due allegedly to the very lengthy discussions that I'm sure were not without the typical theatrics and vigorous arguments from those who seem to enjoy these kinds of discussions. They did, however, decide to have the matter studied and for members of the council to be better informed about the matter. 

And so a forum was held last February and a referendum followed it after a decision by the UP Diliman Executive Council to have the referendum for University Council members and a survey for non-members (instructors). That referendum's outcomes showed that most were for a shift in the calendar, whether in 2014 or in 2015. Most of those who were for the shift wanted this to be implemented this coming academic year, which was supposed to start in June.

Of the 456 recorded in attendance for when the votes were finally cast, 284 voted for shifting the academic calendar for a start in August 2014. 164 voted against while 8 abstained. There were actually two motions on the floor this morning. The approval of the first one reaffirmed the powers of the University Council regarding matters of academic concern and treated the referendum as an opinion poll with the results inputs for the decision-making of the council. The second motion was regarding the shift itself and several arguments for and against were allowed so that there could be a fair discussion of the pros and cons of the shift. I believe the new Chancellor of UP Diliman did a great job presiding over the meeting and was able to "manage" the discussions so that most people remained until the end of meeting to cast his/her vote on the matter. 

And so the university should now move on and prepare for the next school year. No one said it will be easy and in fact, there is sure to be an adjustment period for many. Nevertheless, we should now work towards making this shift as smooth as possible.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On trees and new routines

We have a full grown mango tree on the lot of our new home in Antipolo. It is an old tree, and from the looks of it when we first saw the lot in late 2012, it had experienced a lot with evidence of some branches lost, likely due to inclement weather than other causes. We first thought about cutting the tree but decided to integrate it in the design of our home. That was the right thing to do and there was enough space to work with so we had the architect design our home with this tree and a younger but already tall narra tree at one corner of our land. However, the smaller and apparently younger trees in the area had to go as they were in the middle of the lot. One large ipil-ipil tree could not be saved as it was right smack in the middle of the lot.

The old mango tree in front of our home
Hantik - large ants inhabiting our tree
The only hitch about the mango tree was that it shed its leaves and fruits at certain times of the year. This meant a lot of sweeping and sometime dodging (falling fruits and branches).

After pouring a bottle of water that we got as a souvenir from the spring at Dauis Church in Bohol, it seems the tree has been invigorated. We look at it and it is suddenly alive, resuscitated perhaps by the water, or more likely the lives it now shares a home with. Our dogs Troy and Barbi like going around the tree and do their thing near it where we have collected many of the fallen leaves to fertilize the soil. They also like the tree as it provides us with a cooler environment. Soon, we will have more plants in the area, and we plan to have herbs as well as small fruit trees like calamansi and sili that we can use for cooking or perhaps fresh juice during the summer months.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mobile obento

While walking around near our hotel, I noticed that there were quite a few mobile obento stands in our area. These are not just your typical informal stands that come out during lunch time and are apparently tolerated (i.e., they serve a demand for meals and do not impose themselves upon people). These are mobile kitchens on small vans that have been customized for this purpose. I took a couple of photos of one van near the Kamiyacho Station of the Hibiya Line and another near the JR Meguro Station. 

Mobile kitchen serving curry dishes near the Hibiya Line Kamiyacho Station
Mobile kitchen serving a variety of dishes including yakisoba, udon and curry near the JR Meguro Station
There are similar mobile kitchens in other cities like those in the US (I've seen these in San Francisco and LA) and in Bangkok. However, it is probably the first time I saw these in Tokyo. Of course, it's been a long time since I had been in Japan quite regularly so perhaps this is not really a new thing. In Metro Manila, there are similar set-ups in Makati though the kitchens are on trailers rather than mobile by themselves. The mobile vans I know are those deployed by restaurant chains for events like school fairs and the smaller enterprises that participate in weekend outdoor bazars. Then there are the more informal but hugely popular carts offering very cheap meals that can be seen in many office and school districts that people often refer to as "Aristocart," a play on the name of an established restaurant chain in Manila.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tonkatsu Wako

When in Japan it seems inevitable that we would be eating katsu at some point during our stay. There are many restaurants serving good katsu in Tokyo and you don't really have to hunt the well-known restaurants. All you have to do is walk around, maybe to the nearest string or cluster of restaurants and cafes in your area. There you will find many restaurants to choose from including those serving ramen, udon, sushi, curry, etc. or if you would rather not eat Japanese food, Chinese food and Italian food. There are many Starbucks and fast food like McDonalds but there are also the smaller, neighborhood coffee shops offering light fare for those not interested in a heavy meal. Of course, there are also convenience stores like Family Mart, Mini Stop, 7-11, and Lawson where you can grab a quick meal or snack. These usually have microwave meals that you can have heated at the store and maybe take to you hotel room or office. There are also neighborhood or mobile obento (lunch box) stores that you'll find in areas where there are many offices or schools.

We found a couple of branches of Tonkatsu Wako near our hotel and didn't think twice about eating here. In the first place, we found many people eating there so it looked like a popular place and the prices of meals during lunch time were usually lower due to their lunch sets. I recall I paid 900 JPY for their lunch set of rosu katsu with unlimited rice, cabbage and miso soup. The tea was on the house and you can ask for a glass of water if you're not into tea. Of course, you can also order cola or juice if you prefer and they also have many other items on their menu including non-pork katsu.

Tonkatsu lunch set with unlimited refills for rice, miso shiru and cabbage
Succulent tonkatsu
Tonkatsu Wako provides good meals to those who are tentative about going into just any Japanese restaurant to eat. It offers familiar items that some people might refer to as comfort food in a sense. And the prices are just right for those who might be on a budget.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Obento - lunchbox

I always look forward to lunch whenever I am in Japan not because I get hungry quickly but mainly because there is this feeling of expectation or anticipation. This feeling is for not knowing where lunch will be. Would it be at the shokudo (canteen)? At a small neighborhood restaurant? A food court? Or perhaps there will be obento or lunchbox so we could eat together on what we term as a working lunch? In our last steering committee meeting, our hosts ordered special obento for us and you have to admire the fact that with the way the lunch box is presented you would already expect a good meal.

Our bento box comes wrapped in special paper
It includes chopsticks, toothpick and a disposable wet towel
Inside is a lunch treat that I only experience whenever I am in Japan
Needless to say but we all had a great lunch with some variations to other bento as our hosts had to make sure there were food that can be regarded as halal by some of our colleagues.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chocolate review: Valrhona Les Grands Crus Guanaja

We have always reserved our Valrhona's for special occasions and at times, I think we try to invent special occasions for us to have an excuse to share a bar. The last 2 weeks have been very special to us as we finally moved to our new home. So on our first weekend, we decided to open a bar of a variant that we haven't tasted before. This was one from the lot I bought at the airport the time I traveled to Bangkok last November 2013.

Valrhona Guanaja is billed as bittersweet and elegant. It is a dark chocolate with 70% cacao.
As usual, more information at the back of the package.
Valrhona has never failed to satisfy our taste buds and this was is another winner. The chocolate is very smooth and you will not notice the bitterness despite its being at 70%. It definitely deserves the tag elegant.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sushi at Asakusa

We just had internet connection at our new home and I thought one of the best ways to celebrate the new service is to write a short piece about dining at our favorite sushi restaurant in Japan. The wife and I were in Tokyo recently and made sure we visited Asakusa to eat at the sushi restaurant at one of the shopping streets near the temple. It was already 6 years since our last trip to Tokyo together and most of our trips from then were mostly stopovers between the US and the Philippines (Tokyo and Nagoya being hubs of Delta Airlines). In my recent trips to Tokyo, I decided to spend more time in Yokohama and Kamakura, the former was where I lived when I was a student and the latter a favorite haunt of mine during the weekends.

The sushi restaurant is still there and business looked good as the place was full. We were welcomed by the sushi chef behind the counter and the staff serving customers with their side orders. Noting we were foreigners, the staff handed us a menu with photos of different types of sushi indicating their names in romaji as well as their prices. We ordered our usual maguro (tuna) and shake (salmon) sushis and then ordered scallop, yellowfin and others. To cap our dinner, we ordered toro and then otoro. It was the wife's first taste of otoro (we ordered toro before) so I ordered a couple more plates to let her discover (delightfully) the difference among the tuna meat. We were laughing a bit as we commented on how good the otoro was, and the chef remarked that most foreigners didn't try the more expensive plates so he was happy we could enjoy the sushi.

Our favorite sushi restaurant in Asakusa as photographed last February 2014
A plate of otoro - melt in your mouth tuna
Our photo taken in February 2008.

We will definitely be back, what with visiting Japan becoming easier with their relaxed policy for tourists and my getting a multiple entry visa. However, the next time might just be Kyoto and Nara via Osaka. We are already looking forward to that trip.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Chocolate review: Jcoco black fig pistachio in dark chocolate

We were at a huge mall near my in-laws' home last Sunday as we decided to have lunch out one Sunday. Walking to a store after lunch to check out some items, I decided to browse a chocolate stall to see if they have some interesting dark chocolates apart from the usual ones we could buy from the supermarket. I found a couple of bars that looked interesting based on both packaging and descriptions and decided to purchase the two. Here's the first one we sampled later at home.

Jcoco's black fig pistachio in dark chocolate in solid purple is definitely packaged to catch attention
Description of the product (what to expect?) and ingredients at the back of the pack.
A pleasant surprise to find the chocolate wrapped individually and with curious images for each. The inside of the package also provides a brief write-up on the advocacy of the manufacturer.
Each small bar also had information about the chocolate at the back.
The packaging of the small bars appear as if the chocolates came out of a fashion mag. The wife found these quite amusing.

The chocolate is described as having 44% cocoa. We think it was just right in terms of the flavor and was perfect with the other major ingredient, which was black fig pistachio. I haven't had black fig pistachio before so I really didn't know how it would taste but I think the mix went well enough. The price is also just right at about 100PhP for the 3 bars inside the package. It's a steal for those who want to enjoy good quality dark chocolate. It's available at the Cacao stalls at SM malls.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Old boys get-together

An old friend was in Manila the day before I traveled to Tokyo last February. He was in the Philippines to meet with co-researchers for a study on disaster mitigation and planning that's being led by his university in Japan. Ryo Matsumaru had been doing consulting work for most of his professional life so   his being with the academe now was still quite new to me. I mentioned to him that it was good that he was available to meet that day as I was flying to Tokyo the following day. Before parting, he asked me about my schedule in Japan and if it was okay to contact our other former laboratory-mates so we could have a get-together there. I thought it was a great idea considering I had minimal contact with our friends in the last decade. 

And so, on short notice, two of my former lab-mates at Yokohama National University met me at the hotel where I was staying We had a great time exchanging stories about life and perhaps the highlight was the recent experiences of Daisuke Sagawa in leading the clearing operations along a weather sensitive section of a major expressway in Japan. His dedication and hard work made it possible for the expressway to remain operational during the heavy snows in Japan last February. In fact, his attendance in our get-together meant he had to pay for the leave by working the following Sunday! This is a guy who works his ass off everyday but probably gets little credit for it and yet he remains dedicated, which is a most honorable thing anywhere and any way you see it.

Just like old times at the Transportation Engineering Laboratory of YNU
Sashimi just the way we liked it and with draft beer to wash it down

I thought that it was quite fitting for us to meet in Tokyo after so many years and that it was not by chance that I was staying at the Hotel Okura. I have not stayed there before but the Okura (including the kanji) happens to be the name of our sensei. Okura-sensei passed away about a decade ago but we all have fond memories of him who guided us when we were curious students in his laboratory. I think our toast that night wasn't only for among ourselves but also, and especially, to Prof. Izumi Okura.