Mar 212018

Today is World Puppetry Day. The idea came from the puppet theater artist Javad Zolfaghari from Iran. In 2000 at the XVIII Congress of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, (UNIMA) in Magdeburg, he put up the proposal for discussion. Two years later, at a meeting of the International Council of UNIMA in June 2002 in Atlanta, the date of the celebration was fixed. The first celebration was in 2003. The original focus for the day was marionette puppets, but it can easily be expanded to include the whole cascade of possibilities. These are a few that I have encountered and enjoyed.

A hand puppet (or glove puppet) is a puppet controlled by one hand, which occupies the interior of the puppet. The Punch and Judy puppets are familiar examples of hand puppets, and I have enjoyed them over the years. In fact a good friend of mine operated a Punch and Judy show as a sideline, and Tony Hancock’s Punch and Judy Man is stellar film concerning English class values. As a boy, I have to say that Harry Corbett and Sooty won out for me, though. I even had my own Sooty puppet. Akin to the hand puppet is the sock puppet, a particularly simple type of hand puppet made from a sock. One of the best-known practitioners was Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop. Not my thing – sorry, Shari.

Marionettes, or “string puppets,” are suspended and controlled by a number of strings, plus sometimes a central rod attached to a control bar held from above by the puppeteer. The control bar can be either horizontal or vertical. Basic strings for operation are usually attached to the head, back, hands (to control the arms) and just above the knee (to control the legs). This form of puppetry is complex and sophisticated to operate, requiring greater manipulative control than a finger, glove or rod puppet.

A shadow puppet is a cut-out figure held between a source of light and a translucent screen. Shadow puppets can form solid silhouettes or be decorated with various amounts of cut-out details. Color can be introduced into the cut-out shapes to provide a different dimension and different effects can be achieved by moving the puppet (or light source) out of focus. Javanese shadow puppets known as Wayang Kulit are what I know best. Shadow puppetry in Asia may have originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), but it became widespread, especially in SE Asia.

The Ventriloquist’s Dummy is a puppet although they are called dummies because they do not speak on their own. I have loved these acts since childhood, and never tire of them.

Múa rối nước is a Vietnamese water puppet form, originally used in flooded rice paddies. Múa rối nước literally means “puppets that dance on water.” The tradition supposedly dates back to the 10th century. The puppets are built out of wood and the shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers to control them. The appearance is of the puppets moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this puppet form.

The water also provides the setting for traditional stories depicting day-to-day village life. Water puppets bring wry humor to scenes of farming, fishing, festival events such as buffalo fights, and children’s games of marbles and coin-toss. Fishing turns into a game of wits between the fisherman and his prey, with the fisherman getting the short end (often capturing his surprised neighbor by mistake). Besides village life, scenes include legends and national history. Lion dogs romp like puppies while dragons exhale smoke and shoot sprays of water at the audience. Performances of up to 18 short scenes are usually introduced by a pig-tailed bumpkin known as Teu, and accompanied by a small traditional orchestra.

There are many more types of puppets, of course, and you probably have your own favorites. I was thinking of cooking lamb chops as the recipe of the day, but I expect Shari Lewis fans would not be amused. Instead, here is the Swedish chef from the Muppets making popcorn.

Oct 022017

Today is Batik Day (Hari Batik Nasional) in Indonesia, a holiday for celebrating batik — the traditional cloth of Indonesia. It is celebrated on this date to mark the anniversary of when UNESCO recognized batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2009. The Indonesian government strongly encourages Indonesian people (especially government officials, employees of state-owned enterprises, and students) to wear batik on the day. There is also a custom of Batik Friday (similar to Casual Friday) in many businesses and offices.

The word “batik” is Javanese in origin. It may either come from the Javanese word amba (‘to write’) and titik (‘dot’), or may derive from a hypothetical Proto-Austronesian root *beCík (‘to tattoo’). The word is first recorded in English in the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1880, in which it is spelled battik. It is attested in the Indonesian Archipelago during the Dutch colonial period in various forms: mbatek, mbatik, batek, and batik.

Wax resist dyeing of fabric is an ancient art form. It existed in Egypt in the 4th century BCE, where it was used to wrap mummies; linen was soaked in wax, and scratched using a stylus. In Asia, the technique was practiced in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and in India and Japan during the Nara Period (645-794 CE). In Africa it was originally practiced by the Yoruba in Nigeria, and Soninke and Wolof in Senegal. These African versions, however, use cassava starch or rice paste, or mud as a resist instead of beeswax.

The art of batik is most highly developed on the island of Java. In Java, all the materials for the process are readily available — cotton, beeswax, and plants from which different vegetable dyes are made. Javanese batik predates written records. Some have argued that it was introduced from India or Sri Lanka while others believe it is a native tradition. There is no telling at this point. Resist dyeing methods have been independently invented several times and have also diffused. G. P. Rouffaer reports that the gringsing pattern was already known by the 12th century in Kediri, East Java. He concluded that this delicate pattern could be created only by using the canting, an etching tool that holds a small reservoir of hot wax, and proposed that the canting was invented in Java around that time.

The carving details of clothes worn by East Javanese Prajnaparamita statues from around the 13th century show intricate floral patterns within rounded margins, similar to today’s traditional Javanese jlamprang or ceplok batik motif. The motif is thought to represent the lotus, a sacred flower in Hindu-Buddhist beliefs and must have been drawn using a canting.

In Europe, the technique was described for the first time in the History of Java, published in London in 1817 by Stamford Raffles, who had been a British governor for Bengkulu in Sumatra. In 1873 the Dutch merchant Van Rijckevorsel gave the pieces he collected during a trip to Indonesia to the ethnographic museum in Rotterdam. Today the Tropenmuseum houses the biggest collection of Indonesian batik in the Netherlands. The Dutch and Chinese colonists were active in developing batik, particularly coastal batik, in the late colonial era. They introduced new patterns as well as the use of the cap (copper block stamps) to mass-produce batiks.


To make batik, first a cloth is washed, soaked and beaten with a large mallet. Patterns are drawn with pencil and later redrawn using hot wax, usually made from a mixture of paraffin or beeswax, sometimes mixed with plant resins, which functions as a dye-resist. The wax can be applied with a variety of tools, but a canting (pronounced /tʃantiŋ/, sometimes spelled with old Dutch orthography tjanting) is the most common. A canting is made from a small copper reservoir with a spout on a wooden handle. The reservoir holds the resist which flows through the spout, creating dots and lines as it moves. For larger patterns, a stiff brush may be used. Alternatively, a copper block stamp called a cap (pronounced /tʃap/; old spelling tjap) is used to cover large areas more efficiently.

After the cloth is dry, the resist is removed by boiling or scraping the cloth. The areas treated with resist keep their original color; when the resist is removed the contrast between the dyed and undyed areas forms the pattern. This process is repeated as many times as the number of colors desired.

The most traditional type of batik, called batik tulis (written batik), is drawn using only the canting. The cloth needs to be drawn on both sides, and dipped in a dye bath three to four times. The whole process may take up to a year; it yields considerably finer patterns than stamped batik.

Many Indonesian batik patterns are symbolic. Infants are carried in batik slings decorated with symbols designed to bring the child luck, and certain batik designs are reserved for brides and bridegrooms, as well as their families. Some designs are reserved for royalties, and even banned to be worn by commoners. Consequently, a person’s rank could be determined by the pattern of the batik he or she wore.

Batik garments play a central role in certain Javanese rituals, such as the ceremonial casting of royal batik into a volcano. In the Javanese naloni mitoni ceremony, the mother-to-be is wrapped in seven layers of batik, wishing her good things. Batik is also prominent in the tedak siten ceremony when a child touches the earth for the first time.

The popularity of batik in Indonesia has varied. Historically, it was essential for ceremonial costumes and it was worn as part of a kebaya dress, commonly worn every day. Batik fell into disfavor in the early 20th century under pressures of acculturation but has since made a strong comeback, with Batik Day and Batik Friday adding to the popularity. A small gallery of designs:

My favorite Javanese dish by a country mile is soto ayam, a spicy chicken soup with noodles and various toppings. But I’ve already given my personal recipe here  Not to worry. Javanese cuisine is flooded with great recipes which are as regionally diverse as batik. Gudeg, jackfruit stew, is equally traditional. You have to use fresh, unripe jackfruit. Canned or ripe won’t cut it.  The boiled eggs are optional but when I make gudeg I hard boil them first, then crack the shells into crazy patterns, without breaking them, before adding them.  That way the food colors in the liquid penetrate the egg shells so that when they are opened the eggs have a sort of batik look to them. This version of gudeg is from Yogyakarta. A Javanese claypot is traditional for this dish, but any soup pot will do.

Gudeg Jogja


500 gm young jackfruit, cut into bite size pieces
6 bay leaves
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 inch galangal, bruised
2 lemongrass stalks, bruised and knotted
75 gm palm sugar
1 liter coconut milk
4 hard boiled eggs

Spice paste

50 gm shallots
4 cloves garlic
8 candlenuts (Indonesian: kemiri)
1 tsp coriander seeds (Indonesian: biji ketumbar)


Grind the ingredients for the spice paste into a smooth and well-mixed paste using a mortar and pestle (or food processor if you are lazy).

Place the bay leaves, lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass, salt to taste, palm sugar, and spice paste in the base of a soup pot. Add the jackfruit on top. Pour the coconut milk over the ingredients, making sure that everything is submerged.

Bring the pot to a boil, and add the hard boiled eggs. Turn the heat down to the lowest simmer and let the pot cook covered until all the liquid is fully absorbed by the jackfruit and eggs. Stir every 30 minutes or so. This process will take about 4 to 5 hours.

Turn off heat. Adjust seasoning as needed. Some Javanese like the dish rather sweet. Remove all the leaves. Transfer to a serving plate and serve warm or at room temperature.

Gudeg can be eaten by itself, but it is usually served with chicken and rice.

Aug 242017

Today was designated as International Strange Music day by contemporary US composer Patrick Grant whose works are a synthesis of classical, popular, and world musical styles that have been performed in concert halls, film, theater, dance, and visual media. He is known as a producer and co-producer of live musical events including a 2013 Guinness World Record-breaking performance of 175 electronic keyboards in NYC. The question for me comes down to: “What counts as ‘strange’ music?” The lead video here uses the theremin as the background music giving the suggestion that “strange” means eerie or spooky, but I think Grant meant something more like “unusual.” Here is the gist of the question: “Unusual (or strange) to whom?” Grant uses gamelan, microtones, synthesizers and so on to create layered soundscapes that some would consider strange, but gamelans are not strange to Balinese or Javanese people, and microtones are the norm in many world music styles. I think it comes down to taking the day to appreciate music that is strange or unusual to YOU. For me that’s a mighty tall order. I’ve spent my entire professional career traveling the world to listen to and record music from out-of-the-way places. I’ve yet to go to Tuva to hear throat singers, but it’s on the list – and I guess I would call it strange music:

I could embed a bunch of videos here for you to sample but I am mindful of disk space on my server so I’ll be a little frugal. Here’s some links instead.

This is Chinese brothers who make musical instruments out of fresh vegetables:

Here we have an extraordinary musical instrument that runs on thousands of ball bearings:

I’ve always found Baka women from Gbiné singing their traditional Yelli songs to be mesmeric, but you have to listen for a long time. They keep it up for hours.

Javanese gamelan has been a special love of mine for over 40 years:

I’ve always had a thing for the musical saw too:

Your turn. Post your favorites in the comments section.

I will give a musical recipe for homemade flavored Doritos in a second, but first one of my all-time favorites, the Taco Bell canon:

Now the Doritos:

Nov 162013


The International Day for Tolerance is an annual observance declared by UNESCO in 1995 to generate public awareness of the dangers of intolerance. It is observed on 16 November. Here are excerpts from UNESCO’s Declaration of Principles on Tolerance including the complete text of article 1.

Article 1 – The Meaning of Tolerance

1.1 Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.

1.2 Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States.

1.3 Tolerance is the responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism (including cultural pluralism), democracy and the rule of law. It involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism and affirms the standards set out in international human rights instruments.

1.4 Consistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of one’s convictions. It means that one is free to adhere to one’s own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behaviour and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others.

Article 5 – Commitment to action

We commit ourselves to promoting tolerance and non-violence through programmes and institutions in the fields of education, science, culture and communication.

Article 6 – International Day for Tolerance

In order to generate public awareness, emphasize the dangers of intolerance and react with renewed commitment and action in support of tolerance promotion and education. We solemnly proclaim 16 November the annual International Day for Tolerance.

As an anthropologist I have made a lifelong commitment to teaching and practicing the principles of tolerance.  Food is no exception.  My basic rule of thumb is that if someone else enjoys it, I have to try it once.  I have discovered so many wonderful foods that way. I raised my son the same way – cardinal rule: “You must try everything once. If you do not like it – fine. But you MUST try it.” As a result he’ll take grilled pig’s stomach over Burger King.  I will admit that I have one small limitation – many foods that are soft and slimy cause me problems.  Depends on taste though – I adore raw oysters.  I struggled with silky tofu as a youth, but conquered it in the end.  Sea cucumber (a.k.a. bêche-de-mer), a soft, slippery marine creature, still bothers me. I can manage a small portion heavily doused in a spicy sauce.

It surprises me how many people are intolerant of foods outside their comfort zone.  As I have mentioned several times in this blog, I am a tripe aficionado.  I’ve made a few converts – but not many.  No matter.  Chacun à son gout, de gustibus non est disputandum, etc.  But there are two key principles I evangelize:

  1. At least TRY something before you turn your nose up at it.
  2. Don’t judge people negatively because they like foods that you don’t.

The latter comes about because foods are often used in derisive comments about other cultures.  How many times have you heard jokes about cats and Chinese restaurants?  Foods so often symbolize prejudice and ethnocentrism.

To narrow things down I thought I would focus on foods that have technically rotted, but are, nonetheless delectable to some and not others.  All cultures eat some rotten foods.  On the great blog Chowhound I found this: “I remember being at a pot luck dinner, where one of the Chinese guests reacted violently to the macaroni and cheese. ‘Why would anyone want to ruin a good dish of noodles with salty, rotten milk?’ “And that was just regular old cheese – what about Stilton or Limburger?  Conversely, classic Asian fish sauces and fish pastes are rotted fish which some Westerners have a hard time with.  Icelanders wolf down kæstur hákarl, or rotten shark, and Norwegians love lutefisk, aged lye soaked fish which outsiders liken to a weapon of mass destruction.

For a recipe I am going to focus on SE Asian shrimp paste which goes by various names – belacan, geragau, rebon . . . I call it blachang which is Javanese, because I do a lot of Javanese recipes.  The “shrimp” are actually krill. They are steamed first and after that are mashed into a paste and stored for several months. The fermented shrimp are then prepared, fried and hard-pressed into cakes. Blachang has a very strong rotten fishy smell. You can find it in good Asian markets or online.  It is an essential ingredient in many dishes including my favorite soup, soto ayam.


Soto Ayam

Soto ayam just means “chicken soup.” It is found in various forms throughout SE Asia. In Java it has a chicken broth base flavored with turmeric, ginger, garlic, and blachang.  The blachang is critical.  Here’s the recipe from my head.

Place a whole chicken in a large soup pot with a diced onion. Cover with water and simmer for an hour or more, until the meat is falling from the bones.  Remove the chicken, let it cool a little, and strip the meat from the bones.

Heat some butter in a skillet and gently sauté 1 tablespoon of turmeric, 2 cloves of garlic finely diced, ½ tablespoon of finely diced fresh ginger, and a knob of blachang (about ½ tablespoon).  I don’t actually ever measure anything – these are approximations.  After about 10 minutes add a ladleful of stock and simmer so all the spices are dissolved.  Add this mixture to the chicken stock and simmer 20 minutes. Meanwhile cook a large packet of rice noodles, drain, and reserve. Return the chicken to the soup and let it heat through.

Serve each guest a deep bowl of soup with chicken and noodles in it about ½ full. Provide the following for them to add as they please:

Sliced boiled eggs

Crispy fried onions  (made by deep frying onion strips until dark and crisp)

Chopped green onions

Sambal oelek (fiery hot pepper and tomato paste)

I often made soto ayam as a party meal for a dozen or more.  Guests came to the kitchen, got their soup, and then selected additions from big bowls on the kitchen table, before going to the dining table to eat. It was a great way to bring people together. Perfect for International Day for Tolerance. Eating together  brings people together.