Saturday, March 17, 2012

Woo-Woo Weekend, Part Deux

My friend Nathalie is a woman of many talents. She's a great cook, a patient teacher of the French language to hopelessly slow students (named, coincidentally, Aurelia d.), and a wonderful single mother to a well-mannered teenage son. She's also a kick-ass tarot card reader and budding astrologer who likes to throw parties and practice her burgeoning talents on her guests.

Dessert: plastic tubs of delectable Vietnamese Che, made with grains and coconut milk

In early February, she hosted a vegan "Soiree Magique" dinner party and I was lucky enough to be invited. It was pot luck; I brought homemade sushi (shiitake, yam, and avocado), Annick brought a tasty Vietnamese salad, Beatrice brought several varieties of che (otherwise known as my favorite sweet-salty Vietnamese dessert), and Sophia brought the water. Yohann, the sole man on the invite list, brought his girlfriend Helene and his tarot cards, and others brought "magical" talents to share: Reiki, Feng Shui, and astrology.

Nathalie explains it all

After sharing our delicious, cobbled-together, Asian-inspired meal, we each drifted toward the "magician" offering the sort of magic we preferred. I'd heard a lot about Reiki and its healing powers over the years, so I gravitated toward Annick. The process involved me lying on a bed on my back, while Annick used her hands to either hover over my head, shoulders, legs and feet, or to gently touch them. An interesting fusion of Indian, Japanese, and Chinese meditation-style music played on the stereo, and each time a bell chime would pipe out of the speakers, her hands--which felt warm and comforting--changed position.

Cats are a required component of any "soiree magique"

The session took about 45 minutes--about 30 minutes longer than I was expecting. When she was finished, Annick asked, "How do you feel? What was your experience?" The truth was, I only felt relaxed and sleepy; not bad, but not miraculous, as far as I could tell. I hoped my revelation didn't hurt Annick's feelings. Maybe I just need to give it another try.

Tonight, Nathalie is hosting another "soiree magique," and featured on the magical menu are not just reiki, astrology, and tarot, but I Ching and bilan energy work. What do I look forward to the most?


Why yes, that is a dream catcher you see there, ready to, er, catch some dreams

Sophia's astrological chart likely reads "another successful year, career-wise"

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Old (Veg)News = Good News

The call came from out of the blue. Joe, my former boss at VegNews magazine, asked if I'd like to join him and his VegNews co-publisher, Colleen, as the third host on a VegNews Vacations tour to one of my favorite places on the planet: India.

"Think about it and get back to me," Joe said.

"I don't need to think about it. The answer is YES!"

We met in Delhi the second week of February, setting off with 24 strangers on an adventure that took us to one or two predicable places--does anyone visit India and not see the Taj Mahal?--then zipped around less-crowded Rajasthan, staying in centuries-old royal dwellings tucked into rocky hillsides, visiting different animal sanctuaries, participating in cricket matches and games of Sitoliya with local youth, and eating way too much Indian food.

Saying our farewells back in the capital two weeks later, I felt like I'd formed some wonderful new connections and experienced India in a way I hadn't ever before. It was an educational experience; I learned more about bovines than I had on all my previous trips combined. For example, all those cows wandering about on Indian highways, country roads, and city sidewalks? Those are the abandoned ones, turned out to fend for themselves after they've stopped producing milk. I also learned that there's a tradition of giving the first chapati of the day to the local cow (the second goes to the neighborhood dog, and the third goes to the man of the house). This new information was fascinating, and the trip fulfilling and memorable, but it was still work.

To decompress, I decided to stay on for another week and mosey down to a familiar haunt:
Pushkar. I've loved this little Rajasthani village since I first visited in the mid-'90s. For starters, it's an all-vegetarian town--a Hindu pilgrimage site built around a sacred lake hemmed with temples--and it's a car-free zone. No honking horns, CO2 fumes, or near-misses with four-wheelers for five days? Nirvana!

Settling into my guest house across from Pushkar lake, I quickly found myself right at home--a comforting feeling, since I often half-joke that this is where I'll be spending my "retirement." My 600 rupee-a-night room ($12) was spacious, the bathroom had hot water and two resident geckos (but no towel; my stripey nightshirt turned out to be surprisingly towel-like in its absorbency), there were loads of blankets on the bed for warmth on those cold desert nights, and out the front door (there was a back door, too), I had a nice little porch where I could sit on sunny afternoons and read my book.

In the past, I'd done business in Pushkar; to pay for my college education, I'd come here to buy textiles--dresses, scarves, jackets, blouses--and sell them at flea markets around San Francisco. I did pretty well for a few years, as my lack of student debt can attest. But now, I had the town and my time to myself. I planned to do some hiking, maybe get a massage, and work on reclaiming my title of Champion Slacker of the Universe.

I awoke early the second morning with the idea of heading out for a spot of fresh air. My goal was to make the heart-strengthening climb up to Savitri temple, which sits high on a hill to the west of Pushkar and offers great views over the valley. It's a peaceful spot, and the journey is part wildlife safari, with scampering langur monkeys on the ground, noisy green parrots above, plus goats and cows all around to keep it interesting.

The little lump on the top of that diamond-shaped peak is Savitri temple

A view from the top, looking down toward Pushkar

Before I even left my lakeside abode, I was waylaid by a most unexpected sight: A gleaming glass case stocked with vegan pastries. At my guest house! Taking in this hallucinatory vision was definitely a "WTF?" moment. Vegan croissants, cinnamon buns, and German chocolate cake, for, like, 75 cents, right here, two steps from my room? What the hell kind of good karma was that? Krishna, Pushkar's "only vegan baker" and the mastermind behind these lovely treats, had just arrived by bike to make his morning delivery.

Krishna refuels the bakery case at the Pushkar Inn to the delight of vegans and omnivores alike

Poor Krishna soon found himself in a firing line of questions:

"Are you vegan?!"
"How long have you been baking vegan treats?!"
"Are people buying your stuff?"
"What do the locals think?"
"Has anyone done a story on you before?"
"Why vegan?"
"Do you do gluten-free?!"

He had no idea what "gluten-free" meant, but responded cheerfully to every last "what?" and "why?" Then it was his turn to ask the questions.

"Why don't you come to my house for tea, so we can talk more?"

I didn't say no, even though the morning was heating up, meaning my hike up the hill would likely be carried out beneath blistering sunshine, if I got around to it at all.

"OK: Let's go!"

We walked together across the little footbridge to the south of Pushkar Lake, through a series of lakeside temples, past the sacred Peepal tree decorated in colorful ribbons, and over to the Bread of Life, Pushkar's only 100-percent vegan bakery. Here, Sangeeta, the mother of Krishna's two children and his longtime domestic partner, greeted us with her warm smile and offered us cups of their sweet "special blend" tea. (Krishna and Sangeeta never married because Krishna doesn't believe in religious dogma or outdated ideas like marriage--one of many reasons he's a bit of a renegade outsider in his community.)

Krishna's domestic partner of 15 years,
gets up at 2 am every day to join in the bread- and pastry-baking effort

Krishna also gives a great Ayurvedic massage

Golden loaves of whole-meal bread baking in the outdoor oven

More goodies for sale at the little shop outside Sangeeta and Krishna's home/massage studio/commercial kitchen

For the next hour, Krishna shared an inspirational tale about a precocious 11-year-old boy from Nepal who moved to Germany, alone, to participate in a government-sponsored skills-training program, and learned to bake like a pro. Twenty years later, the young boy applied those skills to a commercial enterprise, and just four years ago, he turned that operation vegan after adjusting his own diet and seeing the benefits of living and eating dairy-free.

As we sat and chatted in the early-morning sun, I noticed that we had a visitor; across the courtyard to my right, at the Bread of Life's doorway, stood a cow. I looked at her, and she at me, but she wasn't really looking at me. She was waiting for Sangeeta.

Intuitively, Sangeeta popped her head out of her living room doorway and looked across the courtyard toward the cow standing outside, looking in. A look of acknowledgement passed across Sangeeta's face, and she spoke a few words in Hindi I couldn't understand before popping back inside. A moment later, she appeared again, a warm chapati in her hand. I watched her make her way to the cow, and without fanfare or fuss, participate in a centuries-old ritual that binds humans and animals together. With breakfast out of the way, the cow carried on, Sangeeta carried on, and I, too, carried on, climbing to the temple at the top of the hill beneath a marvelous, sweltering sun.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Culinary Confessions

I have a sad little confession to make. I miss San Francisco.

I don't miss the ubiquitous stark-raving lunatics, the beyond-scary bad drivers, or the hideously overpriced glasses of Bordeaux. And I certainly never, never pine for the fog-infused gales that somehow qualify as "summer breezes" in my old hometown. But when I crave comfort in an edible form, I miss San Francisco for the one thing it has over Paris: Mexican food.

A few years ago, there were only a couple of Mexican food places in Paris. Today there are a lot more. But are they any good? Not really. They're either too expensive, not veg-friendly enough, or so trendy that you have to wait an hour to share a cramped table with noisy American tourists. (Ugh!) And don't get me started on the Tex-Mex thing; whoever coined that culinary combination deserves a swift kick in the pantalones.

A few weeks ago I had some time to kill between rendezvous, and decided to stop for lunch at the original
Tien Hiang, over in my old neighborhood in the 11e. When I got there, I received two shocks. First was the sign on the door announcing their imminent closure (at the end of March 2012). The second was the minimum amount you have to spend to charge a meal to your carte bleue. Since I was short on cash, I set off in search of a distributeur. What I found instead was La Taqueria.

The place is cozy--just a handful of tables, and decorated in a sort-of Mexican-ish way (there's a masked wrestler thing going on, design-wise)--with a distinct French vibe (chalk-board menu, extensive wine list). Besides the fact that it serves Mexican food, another thing that sets La Taqueria apart from other Paris eateries is its New World wine list. There are no French or European wines on the menu, but I discovered all kinds of Australian, American, and yes, even Mexican wines I never knew existed.

The nice young fellow who took my order was a little confused by my vegan-oriented questions ("Well, we can make you a fish taco ... Oh, you don't eat fish? How about a quesadilla?"), but after a gentle tutorial, we reached a mutual understanding. I'd start with a nopales tostada and a glass of white wine from Baja, Mexico. Both were scrumptious, though the nopales were slippery and difficult to navigate from my fork into my mouth. And they were tangy. By the time I finished with my entree, I felt I'd definitely consumed my lifetime share of pickled cactus. The massive chunk of aguacate sitting atop the pile of cool veggies helped temper the tang.

The main course was to be the ultimate comfort food: tacos. These were mixed-vegetable numbers, made with soft corn tortillas. Mushroom, potato, and bell peppers presided over the melange, and a modest garnish of tomatoes and cilantro completed the taco triptych. The first bite was tasty, and the second one was, too, but by the third taco, I was getting bored with the mushroom-potato-pepper story. I was grateful for the two small bowls of salsa--both spicy, but not too--that helped reanimate the flavor. Also making an appearance on the plate was a non-vegan creamy sauce that I didn't try, and which the server apologized for as he delivered the dish.
That dollop of guacamole should have been about 10 times bigger

When I asked if the tortillas were house-made, the server made a confession of his own: they were shipped in from Mexico.

"If you're interested in ordering some, we can arrange that," he said. Never have I been so excited about a mass-produced product shipped in from overseas.

For dessert? Well, there was no dessert, but that was OK. Getting to eat warm corn tortillas--and not the bland, white, preservative-filled kind you find at Carrefour--and spicy salsa without having to venture back to the New World was sweet enough for me.