Sep 102015


Today is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) and works in association with World Suicide Prevention Week and World Suicide Prevention Month. WSPD has a number of goals, prime of which is to raise awareness along with removing the stigma of talking about suicide. Suicide is not a simple issue; it does not have simple causes, and, therefore, does not have simple solutions. I am neither a clinician nor an expert, but I have been touched by suicide directly and indirectly – everyone has. Although it has been over a year, many, many people are still saddened by Robin Williams’ suicide and seek answers. Off the top of my head I can list dozens of suicides, and I am sure you can too.


The harder issue to deal with is what to do about it. To address this you have to try to understand the causes of suicide, which is far from easy because there are so many. Depression tops the list, and, there too, there are no easy explanations. Depression comes in many forms; sometimes it is situational, sometimes it is clinical. The most important thing to know is that depression is not simply sadness or unhappiness, and cannot be cured simply by cheering the depressed person up. To those who have not experienced depression it can seem unfathomable. You often hear people say things like, “why did he kill himself, he had so much to live for?” This shows a clear lack of understanding of suicide and depression. Being in the public eye as a sports figure, musician, comedian, or actor may look good to others – a reason to live – but it may be a form of self medication that ultimately fails for one reason or another.


Let me be clear, depression is not the only cause of suicide by any means, even though it is a big one. People can be driven to suicide for any number of reasons – bullying, chronic pain, seemingly impossible life circumstances, crushing debt, you name it.

This site – – is an excellent resource. S.A.V.E stands for Suicide Awareness Voices for Education.

Here, for example, is a sample from their page on Common Misconceptions:

“People who talk about suicide won’t really do it.”

Not True. Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. Do not ignore suicide threats. Statements like “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” “I can’t see any way out,” — no matter how casually or jokingly said, may indicate serious suicidal feelings.

“Anyone who tries to kill him/herself must be crazy.”

Not True. Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They may be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing. Extreme distress and emotional pain are always signs of mental illness but are not signs of psychosis.

“If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop him/her.”

Not True. Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, and most waiver until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to end their pain. Most suicidal people do not want to die; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.

“People who commit suicide are people who were unwilling to seek help.”

Not True. Studies of adult suicide victims have shown that more then half had sought medical help within six months before their deaths and a majority had seen a medical professional within 1 month of their death.

“Talking about suicide may give someone the idea.”

Not True. You don’t give a suicidal person ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true — bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.


I am not going to give a lot of advice because all circumstances are different, thus, help comes in many different forms. The only advice I think that is useful is to educate yourself. Don’t think that you can puzzle it out by yourself. You need help and guidance from others. Plenty of people, both professional and non-professional, have experience that they are more than willing to share. Seek them out.

Just as there is no general “recipe” for helping people who are suicidal there is no food recipe that fills the bill. However, depressed and suicidal people do need our comfort in one form or another. So I thought it might be helpful to talk about comfort food. I ask a “question of the day” at the beginning of every class so that everyone speaks and is comfortable speaking, and everyone feels included. One question I ask a lot is “what is your favorite comfort food?” Mac and cheese is a biggie in the U.S., as is chocolate. Some comfort foods are quirky, some remind people of childhood, it doesn’t matter. For me it is nice that people have ways of comforting themselves when need be. I used to be a big fan of Asian soup noodles – didn’t really matter what kind of soup or noodles. That was in the days when I lived elsewhere. Now that I live in China I’m rather sated on noodles, so now various kinds of dumplings in broth, preferably spicy, have taken over.


May 182015


Today is the birthday (1048) of Omar Khayyám; born Ghiyāth ad-Dīn Abu’l-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī (Persian: ‏غیاثالدینابوالفتحعمرابراهیمخیامنیشابورﻯ‎, ), Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet. He also wrote treatises on mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, and Islamic theology. He was born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran also known as Persia, and at a young age he moved to Samarkand and obtained his education there. Afterwards he moved to Bukhara and became established as one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period. He is the author of one of the most important treatises on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle. He also made major contributions to calendar reform which were more accurate than the Gregorian reform made centuries later. His significance as a philosopher and teacher, and his few extant philosophical works, have not received the same attention as his scientific and poetic writings. Al-Zamakhshari referred to him as “the philosopher of the world”. He taught the philosophy of Avicenna for decades in Nishapur.

Outside Iran and Persian-speaking countries, Khayyám has had an impact on literature and societies through the translation of his works and popularization by other scholars. The greatest such impact was in English-speaking countries; the English scholar Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) was the first non-Persian to study him. The most influential of all was Edward FitzGerald (1809–83),[6] who made Khayyám the most famous poet of the East in the West through his celebrated translation and adaptations of Khayyám’s rather small number of quatrains (Persian: رباعیات‎ rubāʿiyāt) in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

He spent part of his childhood in the town of Balkh (in present-day northern Afghanistan), studying under the well-known scholar Sheikh Muhammad Mansuri. He later studied under Imam Mowaffaq Nishapuri, who was considered one of the greatest teachers of the Khorasan region. Throughout his life, Omar Khayyám was tireless in his efforts; by day he would teach algebra and geometry, in the evening he would attend the Seljuq court as an adviser of Malik-Shah I, and at night he would study astronomy and complete important aspects of the Jalali calendar.

Omar Khayyám’s years in Isfahan were very productive ones, but after the death of the Seljuq Sultan Malik-Shah I (presumably by the Assassins sect), the Sultan’s widow turned against him as an adviser, and as a result, he soon set out on his Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. He was then allowed to work as a court astrologer, and was permitted to return to Nishapur, where he was renowned for his works, and continued to teach mathematics, astronomy and even medicine.


I’ll spare you a long rambling discourse on the importance of his mathematical work and simply say that he was centuries ahead of the West which owed him a great debt when his works were finally discovered and translated. I get a little tired of reminding Westerners what a great debt in general the West owes the Medieval Islamic world, not just in preserving the great works of the classical Greek world (including Euclid, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle – which Westerners undervalued and generally lost), but in moving their ideas forward. From idiotic Western history textbooks you might, if you are lucky, get a nod to the great Islamic writers of the age, but otherwise you get the impression that the West moved forward all on its own. Particularly in the modern political climate people like Khayyám deserve a great deal more respect. I take it as a personal mission here to right this wrong. See, for example:

Let me simply say that it took the West 600 years to catch up with Khayyám in the fields of geometry and algebra, and even then many of their “advances” were eventually proven wrong !!


The Jalali calendar was introduced by Omar Khayyám alongside other mathematicians and astronomers in Nishapur. Today it is one of the oldest calendars in the world as well as the most accurate solar calendar still in use. Since the calendar uses astronomical calculation for determining the vernal equinox, it has no intrinsic error, but this makes it an observation based calendar.

The Jalali calendar remained in use across Greater Iran from the 11th to the 20th centuries. It is the basis of the Iranian calendar, which is followed today in Iran and Afghanistan. While the Jalali calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian, it is based on actual solar transit, similar to Hindu calendars, and requires an ephemeris (table) for calculating dates. The lengths of the months can vary between 29 and 31 days depending on the moment when the sun crosses into a new zodiacal area (an attribute common to most Hindu calendars). This means that seasonal errors are lower than in the Gregorian calendar.

Omar Khayyám was a notable poet during the reign of the Seljuk ruler Malik-Shah I. Scholars believe he wrote about a thousand four-line verses (quatrains) or rubaiyat, many now lost. He was introduced to the English-speaking world through the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which are poetic, rather than literal, translations by Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883). Other English translations of parts of the rubáiyát  exist, but FitzGerald’s are the most well known. Ironically, FitzGerald’s translations reintroduced Khayyám to Iranians who had long ignored.


Here’s a small sample – well known in English:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

 Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

 Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

 A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,

Beside me singing in the Wilderness,

 And oh, Wilderness is Paradise enow.


And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,

 Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,

Lift not thy hands to It for help—for It

 Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.


I sent my Soul through the Invisible,

 Some letter of that After-life to spell:

And by and by my Soul return’d to me,

 And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

Modern scholars are generally dissatisfied with Fitzgerald’s translation, believing it to be more Western than Eastern, not truly reflecting Khayyám’s philosophy. But if it gets you started, I’m happy. However, it’s a good plan to seek out more literal translations with commentary.

Anything approximating a usable recipe from Khayyám’s era does not exist. Even recipes from as late as the 16th century need heavy interpretation. So instead here is a recipe for Ash Reshteh a modern bean and noodle soup that has its roots in medieval Persia – and, yes, Persia had noodles centuries before Marco Polo supposedly brought them back from China. I’m using a video because, as ever, I am pressed for time.


Oct 012014


Given that I am now living in China for a while (Kunming, Yunnan Province), studying Mandarin Chinese, this is the perfect day for a new post. I won’t be able to keep it up, but my faithful readers deserve something fresh. However, you can also go back to last year’s post as well and read about World Vegetarian Day. You guessed it; we will have a vegetarian Chinese dish today.

The National Day of the People’s Republic of China is celebrated every year on October 1. It is a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC was founded on October 1, 1949 with a ceremony at Tiananmen Square. The Central People’s Government passed the Resolution on the National Day of the People’s Republic of China on December 2, 1949 and declared that October 1 is the National Day.


The National Day marks the start of one of the two Golden Weeks in the PRC. A Golden Week is a period of 3 days of paid leave for workers and the surrounding weekends are re-arranged so that workers in Chinese companies always have seven continuous days of holiday. These national holidays were first started by the government for the PRC’s National Day in 1999 and are primarily intended to help expand the domestic tourism market and improve the national standard of living, as well as allowing people to make long-distance family visits. The Golden Weeks are consequently periods of greatly heightened travel activity.  I’m very excited to be in the middle of it and especially look forward to the fireworks.

The National Day is celebrated throughout mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau with a variety of government-organized festivities, including fireworks and concerts. Public places, such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, are decorated in a festive theme. Portraits of revered leaders, such as Mao Zedong, are publicly displayed.

Naturally, food plays a big part in the festivities. Until the late 1970’s Chinese food was largely unknown to Westerners except for a few Cantonese dishes that were pallid versions of the originals – and still very common in Chinese restaurants in the West. But, magically, a few regional cuisines, such as Szechuan, began showing up, so that people outside of China could get a glimpse of the immense variety there was to be had. A number of different styles contribute to Chinese cuisine but perhaps the best known and most influential are Cantonese, Shandong, Jiangsu (specifically Huaiyang cuisine) and Szechuan. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as availability of ingredients, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques, and lifestyle. However, it is also important to realize that just as there are French restaurants in Germany, you will find Szechuan restaurants in Beijing. All provinces feature the dishes of the others, but local styles predominate. Given that I am now living in Yunnan, it seems right to focus on that province, especially because the cuisine is little known outside of China.

Yunnan is in the extreme southwest of China and borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. As such it is ethnically diverse, and this fact is reflected in cooking styles. Yunnan cuisine is vastly varied, and it is difficult to make generalizations. Many Yunnan dishes are quite spicy, and mushrooms are featured prominently. Flowers, ferns, algae and insects may also be eaten. Here’s a little gallery from a recent trip to the local food market in Kunming showing some of the diversity of products, including live bee larvae.

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Two of the province’s most famous products are the renowned pu-erh tea which was traditionally grown in Ning’er; as well as Xuanwei ham, which is often used to flavor stewed and braised foods in Chinese cuisine and for making the stocks and broths of many Chinese soups. The most famous dish is Guo Qiao Mi Xian or Crossing the Bridge Noodles. (You can find the legend of the origin of the dish and a recipe here: )The dish is served with a large bowl of boiling hot broth and the soup ingredients separate. The soup ingredients are served on a cutting board or plate and include raw vegetables and lightly cooked meats. Common ingredients include thin slices of ham, chunks of chicken, chicken skin, strips of bean curd sheets, chives, sprouts and rice noodles. Once added into the broth, it cooks quickly with a layer of chicken fat and oil glistening on top. The soup takes a few minutes to cook, and it is then spooned out into small bowls.


The noodle used in this and other soups is mi xian. The processing of mi xian in Yunnan is unique, involving a fermentation process. It is made from non-glutinous rice and is typically sold fresh rather than dried. At some street stalls in Kunming you can watch noodle makers at work as I did just yesterday.


Fresh mi xian smells fragrant, different from other kinds of rice noodle in China and Asia. Mi xian is served in various ways, typically either in broth or stir-fried. When mi xian is served in broth in Yunnan restaurants, it is common for a range of individual condiments to be presented for the customer to add to their bowl themselves. Condiments typically include chile pepper (diced fresh chlle plus at least one or two prepared chile pastes, often mixed with oil), diced fresh chile, cilantro, garlic, pepper (both regular pepper and powdered or whole Szechuan pepper), salt, spring onion, soy sauce, tomato, vinegar and zhe’ergen (a spicy root common to southwestern China). At noodle stands in markets, customers are given bowls and can pick the ingredients they want from a huge array of meats and vegetables. These are then added to boiling broth with noodles. Without doubt, soup noodles in general are my favorite food and Yunnan style is hard to beat. I am really in my element here.

Adzuki beans, known locally as hong dou, have been used in Yunnan cooking for millennia. Here is a modified Yunnan recipe for stir fried adzuki beans and mushrooms. Obviously you cannot get Yunnan mushrooms (he said with a touch of glee) but do the best that you can. I’ve found that quite often I could get a variety of Chinese mushrooms in barrio chino in Buenos Aires, so I am sure you can find something appropriate if you hunt around Asian markets.

Stir Fried Adzuki Beans and Mushrooms


1 cup dried azuki beans, soaked in water overnight and drained
4 tbps oil
4 green onions (both white and green parts) sliced into two centimeter pieces
1 red or green bell pepper, diced into two centimeter chunks
2 fresh red or green chiles, seeded and diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
15 assorted mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps sesame oil
½ tsp Szechuan pepper (or to taste)
2 tbps sugar


Place the pre-soaked beans in a saucepan and cover with several inches of fresh water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes or until the beans are tender and their skins start to separate. My usual test is to pick out a spoonful of beans and blow on them. If the skins split, they are ready. Drain the water off, and then crush some of the beans lightly with the back of a wooden spoon. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large wok over a medium high flame. Add the green onions, chiles, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and peppers, and stir-fry for two more minutes until the mushrooms and peppers begin to soften.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the beans. Stir in the soy sauce, sesame oil, Szechuan pepper, and sugar. Simmer until the liquid has reduced enough to make the mixture fairly dry. Transfer to a serving dish.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

Serves 4