Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tower of Cosmic Reflections

On another day that I spent on my own exploring Portland I hit up the Lan Su Chinese Garden and the Tower of Cosmic Reflections in Chinatown. That's right--a teahouse called the Tower of Cosmic Reflections. How could I resist a place like that?

The garden was beautiful. It was exquisitely authentic and evoked the same feelings of the Chinese gardens I visited in Beijing and Sichuan province when I lived in China for a summer. There were beautiful walkways, bridges, pavilions, and lovely landscaping. A tranquil pond offered a reflection of the impressive yet welcoming architecture, and soft green plants made me forget that I was surrounded by an urban environment. The only difference from China? There were way more white people and barely any Chinese people. So it goes...

The tea house was located right in the garden. I ordered an old growth tea called Banzhang Zhuan Cha, which was served in a ceremonial style.

In addition to the tea I ordered some baozi (steamed buns). I used to grab baozi for breakfast on my way to class at the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu. They are typically a thick steamed bun filled with a meat or vegetable stuffing. I usually opt for the pork filling, but the Tower of Cosmic Reflections only served baozi stuffed with a vegetable and mushroom filling. They also cost about ten times as much as the baozi in China, but that can be expected. They were still very tasty.

The baozi were on the lighter side as far as baozi go, which is what I prefer. Sometimes the bun is so thick that it weighs heavy and makes it so there's not much room for the filling. These ones were more thin and came with a little oil and sesame seeds. The filling was made of shredded and cooked green vegetables with small pieces of mushrooms. The dipping sauce seemed to be composed of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and black and white sesame seeds.

A light cucumber salad in rice wine vinegar accompanied the steamed buns and was topped with more sesame seeds. The salad was also topped with little red goji berries. They offered a nice sweetness against the vinegary sauce.

Because the tea was served in a ceremonial style, there was a very specific process that needed to be followed. It began with the server giving a description of the tea. She held it out for me to view and to smell the earthy pieces of brick tea. I could smell the forest, the dirt, the past.

Next the clay pot was filled with hot water and also had water poured over it to purify the vessel and warm it up. Then the water was emptied from the clay pot and the tea was placed inside. Hot water was poured into the pot and the tea was left alone to infuse.

After a few minutes the tea was poured from the pot into another vessel. From that vessel, a small amount of the tea was poured into a tall smelling cup.

The drinking cup was then placed on top of the smelling cup.

Next the drinking and smelling cups were turned upside down (this step was a bit precarious!).

The smelling cup was lifted out of the drinking cup. With every new pour I breathed in the subtle earthy scents that wafted out of the smelling cup.

Now the tea was ready for drinking. It was sipped in small doses out of the delicate drinking cup, each taste a new and refreshing experience.

The various infusions of the tea were rather light in color--a honey brown in the pot and almost golden green in the little drinking cup. The tea was foresty and earthy. It tasted like it was solidly rooted in the earth and yet exhibited the freedom of the sky.

I spent about two hours in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections, sipping my tea and appropriately reflecting on cosmic matters. What brought me to this very moment in time? How did universal occurrences align to bring me right here, right now? It was truly a matter of intuition that brought me to Portland. It started with a dream, turned to a two-second text message--reaching out to see if my communication would be answered. And it was. Then a simple invitation. A flash of realization that, yes, I needed to be there. But even though cosmically the opportunity arose I still needed to take action. Curiosity led to searches for flights, a look at finances, and a desire to fulfill my passion for pursuing new adventures.

And isn't that what it's about? Not just paying attention to signs but then acting on them? I could have let the notion go--float away as a possibility. But instead I turned that possibility into my reality, and the universe was pleased.

I've been filled recently with a sense of calm excitation, an eagerness to pursue various aspects of life but without the sense of rushing. It's like I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing at every moment. The flavors of the tea and the whole ceremonial process of preparing and drinking the tea reminded me of that sense of rightness that has recently permeated my life. The tea was light--it was not looking to overpower and yet it still had a nice intensity. It spoke clearly without shouting.

I stopped to appreciate the scent of each cup before I took the first sip. I allowed the flavors to waft over me, awakening the senses as the traditional tea with deep roots in the past of an ancient country so far away infused my being with its delicateness.

Like many traditional practices, this style of drinking tea promotes mindfulness. Each step in the process was permeated with purpose and simplicity. The action of each step could be pared down to just one verb…


Similar to meditation there was an aspect to focus on at all times. Rather than focusing on breathing or on a mantra as with meditation, here the focus shifted and yet helped the mind to remain present throughout the whole ceremonial process. Each sip woke up the mind again, reminding me to stay present as it interacted with the body, creating sensations through taste and tea and water.

As with so much in Portland, I felt at home in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections. It was easy and comfortable, and all was right with in the world and the universe...

Tower of Cosmic Reflections Teahouse on Urbanspoon

SomTum Gai Yang

After spending a lovely day at the Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park, Portland, Oregon, I hit up my first food cart in the downtown area. Portland loves its food carts. These carts are not random hot-dog stands--they are serious!

I wandered around, scoping them all out before deciding on SomTum Gai Yang on SW 10th and Alder. It was a Thai spot, and I was instinctively drawn to it. The pictures of the food on the menu looked amazing, and I knew I was in the mood for Asian cuisine. Jackpot.

I decided on the SomTum Gai Yang combo, which was described as being "highly recommended." I could see why. It was green papaya salad with lime juice served with sticky rice and Thai barbecued chicken.

The green papaya salad had some carrots, tomatoes, and green beans mixed into it. The salad was served chilled, and it was doused in a spicy lime juice. When Jenny, the proprietor, asked me what spice level I wanted I just told her to go hot. And it definitely was! The spiciness of the lime juice was juxtaposed nicely with the coolness of the salad, and a little bit of sticky rice cleaned my palate for the next bite, making me hungry for more delicious barbecue chicken.

I simply love this style of chicken. There was lots of skin and fat and the chicken was on the bone. Some people are turned off by that almost primitive quality of just gnawing away at a hunk of meat on the bone, but I love it. The flavors of the chicken were very nice--light and not overpowering while still being pleasantly seasoned. A little dish of dipping sauce offered a sweet and slightly spicy accompaniment to the more savory and salty chicken. It was a splendid meal.

It seems you can't go wrong with a food cart in Portland, but if you get the chance I highly recommend grabbing a quick and delicious meal at SomTum Gai Yang.

SomTum Gai Yang (Food Cart) on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Quote of the Week: Eat It

"If you're gonna hit it, you gotta eat it."

--Unknown (overheard in Mt. Tabor Park, Portland, Oregon)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Portland Farmers Market

One day I ventured out into downtown Portland on my own and stumbled upon the Portland Farmers Market at the Pioneer Courthouse Square. The produce was fresh, beautiful, and colorful. I couldn't help but take pictures of everything. Enjoy!

Dance, Magic, Dance...

Three words: Labyrinth. Beer. Theater.

I knew I was in love with Portland when I walked into the Bagdad Theater on Saturday night, showed my id, paid three bucks, ordered a beer, and sprawled out on a couch to watch one of my favorite childhood movies,

First of all, there needs to be more beer theaters in the world. They are, quite simply, amazing. I used to sneak beers into the movie theater when I went to school at New Paltz, but this took things to a whole new level. In more recent years I made the switch to drinking wine more often than beer, but Portland definitely rekindled my passion for tasty microbrews, especially when consumed while watching

My relationship with
Labyrinth spans back to second grade. My parents had a rule that we could only watch an hour of television each week, but somehow I managed to subvert that rule when I got a copy of Labyrinth on VHS. Everyday…over and over again. It was just me, David Bowie, and a bunch of wacky creatures. I never noticed how prominently David Bowie displayed his balls when I was kid, but yeah, they are definitely a major feature of the film. I recently put on the song “Magic Dance” while hanging out with my friend Leah and asked her if she knew the film.

“Is that the film with that weird musician in it?” she asked.

“David Bowie? Yeah, he’s in it.”

“Dude, that movie freaked me out when I was a kid,” she said.

“Really? I loved it,” I responded, “I watched it everyday for months.”

“Of course you did, Maya, of course you did.”

So maybe my love for
Labyrinth as a kid explains some of my weirdness, but anyways, back to Portland. We managed to find some comfy couches on the balcony, so I laid out on mine just like I was in my living room. Since it was an old movie and everyone in the theater knew it there was lots of shouting, laughing, and singing along. Of course, everyone applauded when David Bowie appeared. I’m happy to say that I contributed to the good times as I did little dances while sitting on my couch, sang nearly every word to “Magic Dance,” and made ridiculous comments throughout the film.

I even timed things right to get a beer without missing too much of the movie. I knew that right after “Chilly Down” (aka “Getting Down with the Fry Guys”) nothing too crazy happened in the film so I dashed down to the bar to grab a pint of porter. Delicious.

I probably could have spent every night of my trip to Portland just drinking beers, going to see
Labyrinth, and making fun of David Bowie’s balls, but there were many more adventures to be had…

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sundae Girl

Sunday Girl or Sundae Girl? Cold as ice-cream but still as sweet...

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fried Brains

Melissa: My brain is so fried right now.

Maya: Mmmm, fried brains...