Monday, February 29, 2016

Davis Shawarma

Looking for unique restaurants with refreshing concepts in Davis is like shopping for fresh produce at a 99-cent store. The selection is limited, and high expectations should be left behind. What brought us to Winds of Change House in Downtown Davis was their distinctive title, shawarma-ridden menu and a 4.5-star Yelp rating. And once again, it's been proven that titles can be misleading; great ideas may not be well executed; and Yelp reviewers, despite their zest to be honest and helpful, are never to be trusted.

"It's not exactly like the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Turkish shawarma. We call it the Davis shawarma," one of the waiters depicted their rotisserie meat. Excited by the idea of this culinary spin-off, we ordered three dishes, all of which showcased the touted Davis shawarma. The shawarma nachos was the first to arrive. Shoestring fries took the place of tortilla chips. A generous amount of beef shawarma commingled with clumps of rich Gorgonzola. Everything seemed delicious on that rectangular plate. Yet, it failed to deliver the satisfaction it promised. Because the fries were soggy, the dish lacked the fun amalgamation of textures a regular nachos would have. The beef tasted like the traditional shawarma's mousy cousin, decent but rather boring. You could throw Gorgonzola on it the way one might try to dress Plain Jane up in a gold sequin dress, but neither it nor she would ever really shine.

The Melty-Warma--a greasy-looking sandwich with the same timidly-seasoned beef shawarma and a side of fries--was a repeated story. Again, the fries were soggy. Again, the remoulade sauce and melted sharp cheddar couldn't rescue Plain Jane from mediocrity. The saving grace of this meal came in the form of a six-inch-high hamburger, monikered the Towered-Up. A burger and chicken shawarma might sound like an odd pair, but the two did sing a harmonious duet. The chicken shawarma, on its own, was just about as lackluster as the shawarma on the other plates. Luckily, though, it wasn't the lead singer in this duet; the juicy burger patty was. And with the accompaniment of some lovely pickles and crisp garlic slaw, the Towered-Up turned out to be a success. So yes, they did something right! The overall meal wasn't a flat-out failure. But would we want to play this hit-or-miss game again? Maybe not. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Using the Non-Dominant Hand

Why would anyone want to use their "other" hand when their dominant hand isn't occupied or broken? Isn't life hard enough the way it is? As odd and unnecessary as it sounds, there might be some merit in doing so.

The other day, at work, I was consumed by the darkest, deadliest boredom ever to plague mankind. My job at the standardized testing company involves reading essay after essay, bubbling in score after score, and witnessing the abuse of the English language over and over and over and over. Not sure why I felt more tortured than usual that day, but instead of begrudgingly enduring those few final hours, I decided to throw in a little challenge. I started to bubble in the scores with my non-dominant hand and impersonate a lefty! Why? Wouldn't that cause even more frustration?  Now thinking back on it.....yes, logically, it does sound like an added complication rather than a relief. But at the time, I saw it as a good distraction, something that wouldn't disrupt my work but could make the mundane reality in front of me seem less so.

I held the pencil awkwardly but firmly, the same way I did in kindergarten learning how to write. I kept it in my hand the whole time even while I was just reading. Soon enough, I got eased into the feeling of having something in my left hand, but the challenge of trying to pencil inside the bubbles persisted the entire afternoon. Yes, it slightly slowed down my work process. But no, it didn't make me more frustrated with my job. Using my non-dominant hand, in fact, had a strange calming effect. Instead of rushing through the essays and trying to finish my work day early, I was forced to decelerate both physically and mentally. As a result, I became more focused, more composed, and surprisingly, somewhat more optimistic. This is not to say it turned my humdrum task into a riveting festivity. All it did was render me more impervious to soul-sucking tedium.

After that day, I've done some research on the benefits of using the non-dominant hand. I didn't find a lot of credible websites that discuss it in detail. But among the ones that do, there are two major benefits they all mention and praise. First, it heightens our creativity. According to Jill Bolte Taylor, a well-known neuroanatomist, when a right-handed person utilizes their left hand, it can help them access and stimulate the right hemisphere, the brain area in charge of creativity, spontaneity and intuition. Although I cannot personally attest to this claim since I wasn't doing a creative project during my left-hand experiment, there are many scientists and artists who agree with Dr. Taylor. In fact, a group of comic artists was so inspired by the idea they created a site called "Left-Handed Toons by Right-Handed People."

And second, by using our non-dominant hand, we create a dialogue between the left and right brain hemispheres, which leads to better cognitive performance, a.k.a. the ability to learn and process information. Did I feel more relaxed while grading with my left hand because my cognitive ability was improved, and therefore the run-on sentences and chaotically structured paragraphs in those essays didn't confuse me as much? Hmm.....maybe.

Also, there's another study, conducted by Dr. Thomas Denson of the University of New South Wales, that states the utilization of our non-dominant hand can improve self-control and curb aggression. Well, I wouldn't describe my emotion that day as "aggressive." I wasn't on the verge of throwing my shoe at my supervisor or burning the whole building down. No one was about to get hurt or killed because of my wrath. But yes, during those hours of my lefty impersonation, I was more emotionally composed. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

War On Bat Wings - Part I

The other day, my Inner Wisdom and my Vain Ego had a casual conversation in front of a mirror, and it went like this.

Vain Ego: You know my BMI is 22, right? Not underweight. Not overweight. Isn't that nice? I attend Pilates classes 4 - 5 times a week and take long walks on weekends. I count calories...well, on most days. I wear size 2 - 4. Some people might even consider me skinny. But what are these? Why are they here?
Inner Wisdom: Oh, those are your bat wings, my dear.
Vain Ego: Hmm...
Inner Wisdom: Also known as tricep flab or arm jiggle.
Vain Ego: Yeah, yeah, I got it. But why?
Inner Wisdom: Well, it's usually caused by one of these factors or possibly several of them combined. Genetics. Not enough arm workout. High-fat diet. Hormonal imbalance. Oh, and aging.
Vain Ego: Shut up! I'm only 35.
Inner Wisdom: Wait...aren't you turning 36 soon? But anyway, seriously, your arms look fine. Just some mini bat wings you have there. Why worry? Shouldn't you be focusing your mental energy on your unfinished short-story collection instead?
Vain Ego: Do I have to choose one or the other? Why can't I be an accomplished writer with lean sculpted arms?
Inner Wisdom: Of course, you could. But you know, perfection is overrated. You already look good the way you are. Little bat wings aren't that big of a deal.
Vain Ego: I'm not aiming for perfection. I've made peace with my thunder thighs and no longer think twice to put on short shorts. But there's something I find so off-putting about these jiggly triceps.
Inner Wisdom: Off-putting? Not at all. Believe me they're very normal. Your morning breath, on the other hand, is kind of off-putting.
Vain Ego: *sigh* Thanks for your honesty, dear friend.
Inner Wisdom: So would you promise me to stop fretting over this non issue?
Vain Ego: No.

Needless to say, Inner Wisdom's advice was disregarded, and Vain Ego went on to declare war on bat wings. It is going to be a long battle. Ms. Ego, despite her vanity, isn't an impatient fool. She knows those "Lose Your Arm Flab in 3 Weeks" articles, published in many issues of Cosmopolitan, are based on a globally known strategy called wishful thinking. Tricep jiggle is hellishly stubborn. It would likely take months, not weeks, to shrink those bat wings.

My Game Plan

Stick to Pilates - Pilates is a great strength training exercise. In some classes, however, there's also cardio in the mix, thanks to the awesome apparatus called the jump board. Tricep workouts on the reformer--such as pulling straps, rowing, and breaststrokes--are usually incorporated in all classes. As an avid Pilates practitioner, I think I've been on the right track.

Up the ante a little - I've been doing Pilates for almost a year and have developed pretty nice biceps, but sadly, my practice has had no noticeable effect on the bat wings. (Yes, it is possible to have firm biceps and saggy triceps at the same time. My bipolar arms are very real!) A daily addition of 20 tricep pushups and 20 tricep dips at home, I hope, will help me win this jiggly battle a bit faster.

Zinc and vitamin D supplements - According to Daily Mail, UK, low testosterone is one of the major culprits for arm flab. Taking zinc and vitamin D supplements is one way to naturally boost testosterone levels. Yes, I am aware that too much testosterone could be just as detrimental to the body as inadequate testosterone, but as an estrogen-dominant woman, I don't think low doses of zinc and vitamin D could possibly cause my testosterone levels to skyrocket. They are regular dietary supplements, not testosterone pills for bodybuilders. I won't be growing a mustache or engaging in bar fights anytime soon.

Meditate and sleep - Stress and inadequate sleep can wreak havoc with hormone production. And since hormonal imbalance tend to cause extra fat deposits in the arms and legs among women, I'm going to meditate my way into deep, deep, deep relaxation every day, which will likely also result in longer and more restful sleep at night.

Diet adjustment - My regular diet, although not stellar, is already pretty healthy. I eat fish and chicken more often than red meat. I cook with canola oil, not butter. There's always vegetables on my plate. I don't drink soda. And alcohol is just my occasional luxury. What I'll try to cut down, though, is the goodies I love to get from Starbucks. Goodbye, Matcha latte. Farewell, hot chocolate. Sayonara, lemon cake. I don't buy these every single day but perhaps more often than I should. The thing is I'm not the only one who loves this stuff; the flab in my arms also feeds off it. Starch and sugar are what helps stubborn fat thrive.

Sauna - Yep, going to a sauna once a week is part of my game plan.  Many spas claim that we can burn a substantial amount of fat in just one sauna session. Well, that sounds marvelous but I seriously doubt the legitimacy of such assertion. If it was that easy, there wouldn't be so many obese individuals roaming the U.S. right now. I do, however, believe in the detox power of sauna therapy. A toxin overload is one of the causes for hormonal imbalance. By ridding the body of metal toxins and xeno-estrogens through sweat, the balance of hormone levels can be restored. Plus, for me personally, there are not many other things in life more peace-inducing than sitting in a sauna.

That is all for now. I will share my progress (or maybe lack of progress) periodically. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Hawaiian Breakfast in Sacramento

Was Harry drunk when he came up with the breakfast menu? Quite possible. To describe Harry's Cafe in one sentence, I'd say it's a lovely hole-in-the-wall eatery, run by a family of competent cooks who spurn the notion that a restaurant should have a clear concept. While most of the lunch and dinner items distinctly reveal the family's Vietnamese roots, the breakfast menu is where their culinary versatility and quirks manifest themselves. The breakfast fried rice seems to be a popular dish alongside the chicken and waffle sandwich. Classic American items, such as pork chop and fried chicken with southern gravy, are served on top of steamed rice. Pork and bean chili as well as chicken fried steak are both subsumed under the menu category of "Asian Breakfast." And have I mentioned Portuguese sausage, spam and locomoco? I guess you could call this place "fusion," but "we serve whatever the heck we cook best" seems to be a more fitting depiction when it comes to their style. 

Now back to the Portuguese sausage, spam and locomoco. Since when do Vietnamese restaurants offer Hawaiian breakfast? Strange, but who cares? As long as it's delicious, we should devour it. We should thank them for their interestingly arbitrary menu. We should embrace this gastronomic confusion with an open mind. Among the Hawaiian breakfast dishes offered here, the locomoco is the one most worth trying, whether you're into Hawaiian food or not. It has a mountain of steamed rice as the base, a generous-size hamburger patty as the core, and two fried eggs as the crown. The most commendable part of it, though, is the thick brown gravy that drenches and unifies all of the three components. By the grace of this locomoco, I can almost, just almost, forgive them for putting cheesy bean chili on rice and calling it Asian. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Californian-Style Mussel Curry

The title "Hook and Ladder Manufacturing" might have got this Californian comfort-food restaurant mistaken for a fire engine factory. But once entered, it readily reveals itself as a casual-swanky place to chill, celebrate, get tipsy and be merrily gluttonous. To embrace and showcase Californian products is its mission. Both its kitchen and full bar are mainly supplied by local farms, ranches, wineries and breweries. Dining there, one cannot help but feel like a California loyalist.

The other night, I was quite ecstatic to spot the green-curry mussels on their happy hour menu. It stood as the lone Asian-inspired item among the vast sea of American and Italian dishes. Well, it turned out to be different from what I expected but not necessarily in a bad way. While the broth was too thin to be qualified as a curry, it did contain all the right spices. The lemongrass and kaffir took center stage in the flavor profile as they should. And the chef wasn't at all timid with the heat. The cauliflower worked amicably as an unassuming supporting cast. The croutons, however, were an oddly interesting addition. Yes, they added crunch. Yes, they added color contrast as well. And yet, their presence felt a bit incongruous, a bit intrusive, like a loud-mouthed American exchange student in a peaceful Asian home. Having said that, I did love the dish. I enjoyed it a lot despite the crouton invasion. And one more thing I must mention: the branded lemon rind in my Old-Fashioned was pretty rad. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Three Days of Silence and Self-Befriending

Photo by Dream Designs,
When we hear the word "adventure," most of us would think of something thrillingly unusual, some outdoor activity that requires a certain amount of tenacity, or a perilous act verging on being deadly. Well, my 3-day silent retreat didn't involve any bizarre ritual; it was conducted indoors from beginning to end; and no matter how ineptly I did it, death wasn't one of the probable results. But let me tell you this: I had a much harder time getting through it than the 100-day Pilates challenge I accomplished last year.

I did it at my own home, which was both good and bad. On one hand, I felt completely at ease in my familiar environment. On the flip side, I had to fight the incessant seduction of the internet and TV. There was no Zen monk to watch over me, no spiritual guru to keep me from dozing off. My two-bedroom apartment conveniently allowed the temporary segregation between me and my husband. The only contact we had was when he knocked on my bedroom door in the evening to signal that my dinner was right outside. When he was at work, I fended for myself. I tossed up some basic salad, boiled rice in ready-made broth, poured cereal and milk into a bowl, and also microwaved Safeway Select soup. Why didn't I cook something more complicated? Even mundane activities, such as cooking and cleaning, could be too distracting, someone who had undergone a silent retreat before advised me. So yes, I tried to stick to simple preparation when it came to food.

Here's what my 3-day silent retreat entailed.

-   I woke up at 6 am and went to bed at 9 pm.
-   No internet. No TV. Not even music. Well, actually, I did listen to some meditation music, but certainly not Lady Gaga or Black Eyed Peas.
-   No communication with another living soul. No writing. No pantomiming. No conversing with myself or an imaginary friend.
-   6 hours of Zen meditation a day--the one where you sit cross-legged on a cushion, in silence and with your eyes closed. It was by far the toughest part of my retreat even though I broke it into 3 sessions, 2 hours each.
-   2 hours of guided meditation a day. Compared to Zen meditation, this was child's play. I simply lied down on my bed with my headphone on, listening to a soothing voice guiding me through the process of mindfulness with a peaceful background music and the sound of ocean waves.
-   1 hour of gentle yoga a day--30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the evening. With all that cross-legged sitting, some good stretching was a necessity.
-   I spent the rest of each day reading Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind as well as keeping a diary of whatever thoughts that occurred during my meditation and throughout the day. And well, I also took a short blissful siesta.

But why?

Why did I do this? Couldn't I just de-stress by taking a long walk, getting a full-body massage, or shopping for shoes? What drove me to be non-communicative with the world for three whole days wasn't mainly stress but rather a lifelong bad habit I hoped to overcome. Not sure how or when it exactly began. But ever since I was a kid, I took daydreaming to a whole other level. I did it for hours on end, sometimes even almost the entire day. The stories I constructed in my head were extremely detailed, flew seamlessly from one to another, and felt even more real than reality, although I was fully aware that they were fantasies. Sometimes I paced back and forth while doing it. Sometimes I inadvertently smiled or laughed out loud because my imaginary friend must have said something funny. Then my grandma would notice it and ask, "What the heck are you doing?"

It wasn't something I could easily stop like closing a book or turning off a TV. This compulsive habit, I learned much later, is called maladaptive daydreaming, which has been linked to ADHD and OCD. Back then, though, I simply considered it my quirky trait. It didn't bother me much. Having self-esteem issues just like many other kids my age, escaping from reality made sense to me. It was my favorite pastime. Some of my teachers brought up my lack of attention in class to my mom a few times, but since my grades were always good, she just took it as me being flippant. I grew up in Thailand. Over there people don't take their children to see a psychiatrist unless they've done something alarmingly disturbing, such as stabbing their teacher, trying to kill themselves, or raping their neighbor's cat.

As an adult, however, I find my excessive daydreaming to be troublesome. I don't have self-esteem issues anymore; I no longer need daydreaming as my coping mechanism; I have so many creative projects I'd love to finish; I hate to daydream my life away. And yet, on an hourly basis, I have to fight my own brain, trying again and again to rein it back to reality and the task at hand. At the end of each day, I often feel shamefully unproductive.

Why don't I consult a shrink then? Well, if I do that, the options they offer me would likely be to undergo a series of pricey therapy sessions, or take some kind of psychiatric medication, or maybe both. While I'm not against these types of treatment, I know they're not for me. My disorder isn't something severe like bipolar or clinical depression. It might not even be a disorder at all but a deeply ingrained habit. A few years back, I conquered my anxiety and stage fright with hypnotherapy. I've witnessed first-hand how the mind can be trained to heal itself. So this three-day silent retreat is the beginning of my healing process or my "habit rehab." It surely isn't a quick fix, though.

Did it work?

Yes, yes, yes! But like I said, it's only the beginning, not a quick fix. During those 3 days of meditation, I did not once attain utter stillness. My mind was never empty for even a second. It went on doing its things. I tried to focus on my breathing and not to get frustrated when my mind wandered. I simply observed my meandering thoughts, without trying to control or eliminate them. It was tough, of course, not to mention the discomfort of cross-legged sitting. But that's exactly the point of this practice. To accept pain and difficulties as an inevitable part of life. To befriend myself. To not freak out when trouble arises. To not lose heart and chastise myself when my mind is disobedient. My brain used to be like raging white water; there were crashing waves, whirlpools and a waterfall on the horizon. After my meditation retreat, it has become more like a flowing river, still full of waves but overall much more serene. My retreat is over, but my meditation practice will continue indefinitely. At least 30 minutes a day but preferably longer. It's a necessity, not an option. In a few months or so, maybe I'll have another silent retreat. I may never develop a razor-sharp focus or completely rid myself of "mind weeds," but this calmness I've cultivated so far is quite satisfying.