Burying our best with and for God

I’ve never been a regular blogger but this past year it was particularly hard to publish any thoughts not only because of having a second child, but mainly because there was a sudden “death” in the family.

It happened about two weeks before I gave birth to E, after a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas with the whole family. Then right before the New Year, our world turned upside down.

Even now, over a year later, we still mourn and grieve. Family celebrations haven’t been the same since and in our happiest moments a quiet, heavy sadness remains.

This week was a particularly hard week to ignore that deep sense of loss.

And this morning, I was so broken that I had to recall the words of this song to keep myself going.

I lift my eyes up to the mountains

Where does my help come from

My help comes from you

Maker of heaven, Creator of the earth

 

Oh how I need you Lord

You are my only hope

You are my only prayer

So I will wait for you

To come and rescue me

Come and give me life

I lift my eyes up to the mountains where does my help come from

(Based on Psalm 121)

As I hum this song to myself in a low, halting quiver, a thought came to me.

So this is the heart of God! Although it’s only partial, I finally have a glimpse into the agony God must have “felt” on Good Friday – in burying Jesus Christ.

As Christians we like to stress the positive – we lavishly celebrate Easter Sunday, toasting the resurrection of Christ, but how many of us take the time to dwell on the pain and suffering of Good Friday? And by “dwell” I mean really wallow in it?

And even when we do, we still sometimes miss the point. When God asks us to die to ourselves, we often focus on giving to Him our brokenness. After being convicted of our vast sins we gratefully put all of our failures on the alter – to be covered in Christ’s salvation and to have our transgressions cleaned.

But that’s just the first, initial death. He asks us to die to ourselves constantly.

And God is not simply asking us to place our worst before Him. He is asking us to hand over our best self – our highest aspirations and achievements. Our biggest hopes and dreams and not just the ones that are already broken.

On that Good Friday, our God buried His Beloved Christ, at the height of His greatest hour. Just as the world was beginning to experience His awesome power, God allowed Christ to be nailed to the cross and die for us, with the full knowledge that we will repeatedly betray that sacrifice.

I realized today that that’s the crux of my suffering – I want to hang on to my deepest desires and memories when God is offering me a complete overhaul.

On this (and each) Good Friday, He is asking me, “My child, are you willing to give up your best of everything? Are you willing to bury your most cherished relationships, talents, achievements, hopes and dreams?”

Because that’s what “dying to self” means – not withholding anything from the complete renewal (think “replacement”) and transformation of me, especially the “best” parts of me. When God asks me to confess my sins and give up my worst self, I am glad to obey because who wouldn’t want a better life? But when He asks for my best, to be replaced by His best – I am reluctant because deep down, I like my life the way it is. But tonight I hear Him say, “Jenny, hand it over to me. ALL of it, even the things you don’t want to have replaced.”

To be honest, this is a sobering realization.

But our God understands the pain it involves; He has already experienced this kind of loss Himself. On Good Friday He buried the best part of Himself. For you and for me.

The good news is that on resurrection Sunday, Christ DOES overcome and a brand new me WILL emerge from death with Him. Not only that, this is not a process that I am to go through only once a year on Easter weekend, it needs to be an ongoing sacrifice.

So tonight, on Good Friday, I will draft a list of my most cherished everything. I will reflect on this list and pray to hand them over to God. He has asked for all of me – which includes not only the worst but more importantly, the best parts of me and my future as well. And going forth, I need to do this daily until dying to myself simply becomes a natural state of being.

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Thank you Lord for answering my call for help today. Please accept this reflection and dedication as my act of worship tonight. In Jesus’ redeeming name I pray.

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A trip down Happy Memory Lane – Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago) at night

Like I said in some of the other posts, so far, 2010 has been an emotionally and spiritually challenging year.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to start a series of posts about happy memories from the past. I’m hoping that remembering fond happenings will help uplift my spirit and remind me to focus on creating happy memories in the present…

Since we’re visiting the Oakland Zoo tomorrow afternoon [before the sun sets, because the animals needs their rest!] for their annual Members’ Night, I’m going to start with my happy memory about visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2005.

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Back then we were living in Champaign-Urbana Illinois where C was doing his graduate study. We had moved out there a week after getting married and even though we were able to spend winter breaks back in sunny [but also cold] CA, we couldn’t make the long trip back to the West Coast during the shorter Thanksgiving breaks. So the first winter, we spent Thanksgiving on the East Coast visiting family and friends [another happy memory] but the second year, we were too tired and busy to go far [C had school projects and I was working] and opted for a long-weekend trip up to Chicago instead.

I don’t remember why we decided to include visiting the Zoo on our list of itinerary and unfortunately, since this was several years ago (and before having kids) so my recollection of the night is spotty [which makes for a terrible blog post, I know] but it was a nighttime event [Zoo Lights?] at the Zoo where they had special activities for the holidays.

Lincoln Park Zoo was normally free and surprisingly that night it was free as well. Coming from an area where not much was free (and the local government always broke), we marveled at Chicago’s many free resources/public services; I guess it’s like how someone  might feel (coming from Asia or the East Coast) driving on West Coast “freeways” for the first time. Anyway, we didn’t expect much because it was free but it turned out to be a far better experience than we could have ever imagined.

I don’t know if all cold climate zoos have these features but every animal house had in-door facilities for viewing the animals. Since the houses weren’t big this meant that you can walk right up to the window/cage to see the live animals. So imagine strolling through the halls of the Natural History wing in the old Academy of Sciences (before the renovation – we haven’t been to the updated one) or exhibit halls like the ones in the movie “Night at the Museum,” except that instead of stuffed animals these were real, live ones. Not only that, we were able to buy and drink hot chocolate inside the buildings. Needles to say, to this day, that remains my FAVORITE way to visit the Zoo.

*See how close I was to the “exhibit”?

As if just seeing the animals weren’t enough there were also holiday decorative lights all around the park and in some cases festive music that went along with the light “shows.”

And in another corner of the Zoo there was a special demonstration of live ice sculpturing. I’d upload the videos of the artist ice craving but you really have to see it in person to enjoy the full effect. Again, very impressive.

But what made the night truly unforgettable for us was the sudden snow that fell while we were touring the animal houses. When we stepped outside at the end of the night, large fluffy snow flakes were falling rapidly and quietly. In no time, the ground was covered with a light film of fresh powder. Having grown up in CA, snow was unusual for us [especially since neither one of us ski] so imagine our delight to see the grounds blanketed in such pure white beauty. There was a quiet and peaceful mood to the whole park and the surrounding neighborhood that night, which helped to make our first Thanksgiving together [alone] even more memorable.

*I didn’t Photoshop this picture – that really was the color of the sky that night.

I haven’t followed up with Zoo and its activities since our visit but someday I hope that we will be able to take our boys there.  Thanks for the happy memory, Lincoln Park Zoo. I look forward to making another one again soon.

Our second bundle of JOY!

Oops…I was so focused on being discouraged earlier that I didn’t realize that I hadn’t announced the arrival of our newest rug rat…

So here he is, Enoch Y. Yang, our precious new baby son!

Happy 5 months BABY, thanks for being mommy’s sunshine on cloudy dark days!

Waiting for a good year…

Our second son, E was born in January of this year so obviously there are some very good reasons to like this year but to be honest, C and I can’t wait until 2010 is over.

We started the year with some devastating news about the failing marriage of one of our dearest couple friends. After 10+ years of marriage, they’ve decided to split. We don’t know if (but lately the question seems to be “when”) they will formalize the separation or actually get back together. Sometimes there seems hope for reconciliation and other times, it feels like watching a beautiful home crumble into a rock pile.  It’s hard not knowing what will happen to our friends and sometimes I wish I could fast forward the time to 1 – 2 years from now. Our friends have been together far longer than many others I know. Their love and marriage was what made me want to be part of a couplehood. Back when I was single and C wasn’t anywhere in sight, I spent a lot of my weekends at their home, crashing their “date nights.” I was there when 2 of their kids were born and my friend was my biggest help during the first two years of motherhood. So watching this separation is like watching a loved one fight a losing battle with cancer.

Of course, there’s no time machine for going forward or backward in time so we can’t do anything but wait, which is probably the hardest thing to do in a painful situation.

Tonight I bottled a second batch of umeshu, plum wine. This is a popular DIY project in Japan every spring when green plums appear on trees. The ingredients are simple – just 3 things – fruit, rock sugar, and alcohol. Separately the 3 ingredients aren’t very good. The fruits are hard and sour, the sugar is too sweet, and the alcohol…well, let’s just say, it puts hair on your chest.

But you mix everything together, leave it in an undisturbed corner, and in about a year’s time, the mixture will turn into this fragrant, nectar-like wine. If you can wait a few more years, the result will be even better.

The first time I had some homemade umeshu was back during when I was studying in Japan. Before the end of my program, one of the Japanese teachers invited us to her home and she served us a batch she made herself. I can’t remember how old that batch was but I’m guessing at least 2 – 3 years. So when she made it, she probably didn’t know who she would eventually share the wine with…

I’m not sure what is going to happen to our friends but I’m praying hard.  I am hoping that a good year will come eventually. And when it does, I’ve got a nice bottle of homemade umeshu to toast with.

男前豆腐 Otokomae Tofu – something you should all try at least once!

So, it’s not secret that I’m a lazy blogger but another reason why I don’t update very often is because I don’t have enough time to do the research and write posts that do any of the topics/subjects justice. And for places/things that I like and want to talk about, it’s hard not to write a lot especially when so much of the information available about these subjects are only in Japanese or Chinese and not easily accessible to English reading visitors.

But obviously I’m not the first person to discover or even talk about everything ^_^ so today, I’ll just share some comments and provide links where you can get additional info.

Okay, enough with the (yet another) long introduction.
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Otokomae Tofu

Several months ago (summer?) Charlie and I were at one of Mitsuwa’s (San Jose branch) food fairs when we saw a newly set up corner near their existing tofu section featuring products by 男前豆腐. Even though we haven’t heard of the brand before, we decided to buy a few to try.

Now some people might consider paying $3 – 4 for a block of tofu to be unreasonable but I know that even in Japan, high quality tofu can be quite pricey so paying <$5 for a pack of something that has been air shipped seems like a good value to me.

Anyway, so we went home with 2 packages that night before knowing anything about the brand or the products figuring that at worst, it will taste similar to the ones (from Kyoto) that they already carry, which we already liked.

I was happily surprised, however, after doing some research, to find that 男前豆腐 is something that is gaining popularity even in Japan and in the US, was only previously available in certain areas (like NYC) – now, why do they get everything Japanese first?)

Now, before I tell you what I think of 男前豆腐 I’ll just say that I’m not a tofu specialist. I never thought much of them until I moved to Japan and learned that there are entire restaurants devoted to tofu and tofu cuisine. These days I enjoy them a lot more but mainly, I just divide them into 2 categories – LIKE (will spend $$ and make effort to buy) or DON’T LIKE (won’t go out of my way to get any).

Prior to 男前豆腐 I’ve tried Hodo Soy, which sells at the Ferry Building’s Farmer’s Market…but for some reason, the taste was forgettable (too “American?” I’m not sure how to explain this) so I never bothered to buy their stuff again. I’ve also tried San Jose Tofu, which I remember liking better than Hodo Soy but again, not enough to drive 25 or 30 min to purchase.

But 男前豆腐 now, this is the kind of stuff that I’d buy…no, serve to family and friends so that they can taste how delicious tofu can be…

So how does it taste? Okay, first of all, we’ve only tried their tofu straight – not cooked or with anything else other than some dashi soy sauce or ponzu – so I’m not sure how this tofu will compare with others for dishes like soup or stir fry. But if you do try 男前豆腐, I’d recommend eating it directly first because that’s probably how you can best taste everything.

To be honest, the first time I tried it, I was actually a little disappointed after the first bite because I was expecting to be “wowed” but it didn’t blow my mind. Yet, after finishing our meal, I wouldn’t stop thinking about how tasty it was and how I would be interested in trying more of their products.

Anyway, so back to the taste. Like one of the Taiwanese bloggers said, it’s almost like 豆花 (the soy custard dessert they serve at dim sum) – full of soymilk flavor. At the same time, the texture is somewhat like panna cotta, creamy and dense. I can see why some people decide to eat it like a dessert by adding honey or maple syrup as toppings.

So if you like tofu definitely give 男前豆腐 a try (just keep in mind the silky texture I just described so you’re not taken by surprise because it’s very different from the other kinds of tofu that you’ll usually find in the US). Even if you don’t like tofu, I’d say give it a try anyway. Who knows, you might find that you actually like tofu.

Oh, though it’s not obvious from my photo but apparently the design of their packaging and in fact, their whole marketing is something of a pop culture phenomenon. So definitely visit the company’s website to see what is so hip about 男前豆腐 besides the taste. [By the way, the first time you visit, keep the “sound on” but make sure you’re some place where you won’t disturb anyone because the music is funky and can be loud. Also, most of the website seems to be in Japanese but if you click “Skip (sound on) you can visit the “story” tab where there is English text.]

http://www.otokomae.jp/index.html

Lastly, here are some links to more information about 男前豆腐 and what others think about them (as ranked by google’s search engine). I’m listing only 4 here but you can easily find many others.

http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2009/06/otokomae-tofu-japanese-nyc-manhattan-sunrise-mart-soho-east-village.html

http://blog.q-taro.com/food/otokomae-tofu/

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20070520a5.html

http://www.kenleewrites.com/2009/02/my-favorite-tofu-otokomae.html

And once you’ve tried 男前豆腐 you can become their fan on Facebook ^_^

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Otokomae-Tofu-Inc/117962837552?v=info

I’m not sure how sales are going for 男前豆腐 but please, if you like them, do buy their products often so they will continue to be available in the Bay Area. Thanks!

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Update: uploaded a photo of the 男前豆腐 corner at the San Jose Mitsuwa…

男前豆腐 display case at Mitsuwa (San Jose)

Update 2 (May 24, 2010): After phasing out at Mitsuwa months ago Otokomae Tofu just posted via FB that their products will now be available at Marukai Supermarket in Cupertino. Yay!

Crown & Crumpet (Ghirardelli Square, SF)

Okay, so I haven’t finished writing the previous post but I wanted to start this one so I don’t forget to write about it.

Last weekend, a group of us from the same small group gathered in SF for a bridal tea for our dear friend D who is getting married in a few weeks.

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Update – it’s been a very BUSY few weeks as we hosted 2 groups of out of town guests. This past Saturday we took one group to the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building so hopefully I’ll get a chance to post about it.

But before that, I need to finish this one so I don’t forget everything!

Crown & Crumpet

A table of goodies that serve as a partition at the entrance.
A table of goodies that serve as a partition at the entrance (the man in the photo is the husband/owner of the salon)

In any case, so as I was saying, a group of us gathered on beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon (I love Indian summers in the Bay Area!) at Crown & Crumpet for our friend D’s bridal tea. I had heard of the tea salon before but found it hard to make it all the way up to city for a visit, especially since it’s located in a popular tourist area.

As it turns out, Ghirardelli Square is pretty accessible by both public transit and car. From BART, you can take a muni bus or street car that drops you off w/in a block or two of the salon. By car, you can get parking validation for nearby garages (for up to 1.5 hrs) for dining at many of the restaurants in the Square so definitely consider Crown & Crumpet if you’re looking for a place to have a special occasion celebration!

The other side of the tea room
The other side of the tea room
Individual place setting (favor extra)
Individual place setting (favor extra)
$5 tea favor for special occassions
$5 tea favor for special occasions

As soon as we were seated, the hostess handed out our shower favors which contained cute little tea related items (i.e. sugar packs called “Sugar Daddy”). I haven’t tried everything yet but I liked the Oolong tea biscuit that was included in the pack, which was by a famous Taiwanese cooking maker called “Isabel.” Besides shower favors, Crown & Crumpt can also provide other types of favors and parting gifts at additional cost (and costs vary).

Table centerpiece for special occasions (non-edible)
Table centerpiece for special occasions (non-edible)

Although the tea room is one large room and private parties are seated along with everyone else (except for the sofa area, which can be reserved for private parties) Crown & Crumpet also provides themed center pieces for the table which helps to set the mood for the celebration. This is a photo of the wedding cake centerpiece that was on our table.

Sugar bowl
Sugar bowl

In terms of the food, I found it to be pretty satisfactory but unfortunately still not comparable to what I’ve experienced in Paris or London.

For instance, rather than having special kinds of sugar (i.e. raw or even cubed sugar), what we got were regular white sugar placed in pretty jars with pretty floral candy pieces. I don’t normally put honey in my tea so I didn’t bother asking about honey but judging from the sugar selection, I’m guessing you’ll just get regular honey as well.

Tea sandwiches (for 3)
Tea sandwiches (for 3)

The tea sandwiches were tasty but I found execution to be somewhat “American,” – a bit too much filling for the amount of bread. Personally, I prefer a better balance between the two.

Scones and crumpets (center)
Scones and crumpets (center)

To my delight, however, the scones were light and flaky, and didn’t contain the heavy baking soda taste that are sometimes in American scones. The crumpets, however, were somewhat disappointing. My first/last taste of crumpets was at the Tea Palace in Notting Hill and they were like miniature English muffins that were perfect for soaking up honey. Crown & Crumpt’s version, on the other hand, were somewhat flat and not as porous (even though they looked that way). Maybe they were made in the morning dried out from being reheated? As many of the other girls had never tried crumpets before, I urged them to give it another chance (at another tea salon) before giving up on this delicious British treat!

Housemade sweets and treats
House made sweets and treats

Even though the sandwiches and scones were not big, by the time we finished them, most of us were too stuffed to tackle the sweets plate so we asked for take home containers and Crown & Crumpet was very nice to provide enough boxes and bags for all of us.

As for the tea, Crown & Crumpet carries their own private label teas and offers a large selection of both caffeinated and herbals types (they also provide children’s tea service) as well as some champagnes and alcoholic drinks. The only thing we didn’t find was coffee, which makes sense, I mean, why would you order coffee in a tea salon?

I’m not usually a big fan of infused fruit flavored teas so I opted to get a classic blend, Earl Grey, which I thought would also allow me to compare it to the Mariage Freres tea we drink at home. Sadly, Crown & Crumpet’s Earl Grey didn’t stand up to my gold standard but one of the girls’ Paris blend was pretty good (and reminded me of Mariage Freres’ Marco Polo) so I’d probably order that instead on my next visit.

Fresh fruit with jam, lemon curd, and clotted cream
Fresh fruit with jam, lemon curd, and clotted cream
Crumpet
Crumpet

I was so hopeful that this would be tasty…maybe next time it will be better?!

Sitting area
Sitting area

Overall, I would say that Crown & Crumpet is a great place to have afternoon tea. The decor is very Cath Kidston* and not at all lacey/doillie like some of the other tea places. It’s clear that the owners put a lot of love into the salon and all of their personal touches (displays, items for sale, etc.) will make each visit exciting.  For those who prefer to have tea in a more minimalist setting, Crown & Crumpet also offers outside patio seating with simple wood furniture. Charlie likes tea and tea service and this is one place that we can definitely enjoy together.

That afternoon, we didn’t spend too much time exploring the whole Ghirardelli Square but it seems that the recent renovation has really jazzed up the place. Unfortunately, with baby#2 coming in January, it will probably be a while before I get to enjoy a another leisurely afternoon but I’ll know where to go (and who to go with) when the opportunity comes!

For more information and photos, visit Crown & Crumpet’s website.

*In fact, all of the Crown & Crumpet waitresses wear Cath Kidston aprons. When I asked about it, they said that the store adjacent to the salon usually carries some but that day they were sold out of everything except some stationary >_<

P.s. I had previously read comments about how tacky it is for Crown & Crumpet to have glass table top covers. Actually, they don’t look offensive at all in person. In fact, I think it’s very smart of them to use these covers to protect the Cath Kidston table clothes!

Shanghai Tapas (Fremont)

[Update: the owner and chef for this restaurant have changed so their dishes no longer taste the same. Sadly, we don’t like how the flavors have changed (heavier taste) so we probably won’t be visiting as often now.]

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I read on someone’s blog that if you post photos first, then you will feel compelled to return (soon) to finish the post.

So I’m trying this out to see if I can pressure myself to post more often…

[Update: this part week turned out to be a really busy week as Noah started daycare (only 1 day a week) while I attended the first MOPS meeting of the year, not to mention relatives visiting from Taiwan. The week ended with us buying a new car (2010 Prius) late Sunday night…so it’s going to take a few days for everyone to recover but let me finish this week first as I don’t actually have that much to say.]

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What a difference a week makes for this restaurant! Two Fridays ago when we first ate at Shanghai Tapas and took these photos, very few people had known about the place. We got there around 6 PM and by the time we left around 8 PM, there were still only 2 – 3 other tables (the restaurant fits about 12).

But only a week later, on another Friday night, the place was already 1/2 filled by 6:30 PM and by 8 PM there were no open tables. I don’t know if it’s because of the Mid-Autumn (aka Moon Cake) Festival or because word is getting out (I think they ran an ad/story in the World Journal newspaper sometime this week) but they’re definitely getting enough business now to stay open!

When we first moved to Fremont 2 years ago, we were happy about how the city is full of reasonably priced ethnic foods. We knew that we’d have to drive a little further for good CA-French and more sophisticated options but we took comfort in the fact that Fremont is so culturally diverse. But unfortunately, what we discovered was that overall, people in the community seem to support mostly chain restaurants (the wait at BJ’s Brewery on a Thursday night at 6:30 PM was 2 hours long!) or “value” ethnic restaurants (i.e. 3 dishes for $16).  After a few disappointing outings, we ended up sticking to really simple foods when we go out, like pho, In & Out, or even takeout/bentos.

In any case, when Shanghai Tapas opened up near us, I convinced Charlie to give it a try because 1) the yelp reviews seemed okay 2) they offer Xiao Long Bao, which Charlie LOVES and 3) the menu seemed more diverse than the average Chinese restaurant.

Well, that decision turned out to be a good one. Shanghai Tapas isn’t on the same level as places like A&J in Cupertino but so far, the foods we’ve tried have been pretty decent (tasty, not oily or overly seasoned), the service attentive (not true at many popular Chinese eateries) and the facility clean (my mom said it used to be a fish store so I’m guessing that they had to put in all new fixtures).

Most importantly, we were happy to find that the Xiao Long Bao was pretty well-made – the skin-to-filling ratio was good, the steaming done right (no broken wrappers), and the ginger dipping sauce made conscientiously (the ginger was finely julianned, which isn’t true at many other places.) And at the price of $5.95 for 8, definitely a great value.

In fact, mot of the dishes we tried that first time were pretty cheap. The Hot & Soup which easily feeds 5 – 6 people (one bowl each) was only $5.95 as were the Shanghai Style Fried Noodles (the size of 1.5 – 2 normal dishes). The only thing that seemed a little overpriced but only because the other dishes were so cheap was the Red Bean Pan Cake which was a little over $5 and only served 2 – 3.

This second visit, the wait was much longer and it looks like the staff and kitchen will need some time to adjust to the volume of traffic but we’re glad that this means they’re likely to stay in business, especially since we live just 5-min down the street. Now if only they open early in the morning (like 9 AM) so we can go there for a Chinese style breakfast…

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Wow, this turned out to be a lengthy post. Bottom line, this restaurant is Charlie and Noah approved.

Hot & Sour Soup
Hot & Sour Soup
Shanghai style fried (thick) noodle
Shanghai style fried (thick) noodle
Green Onion Pancake
Green Onion Pancake
Father and Son waiting for the meal
Father and Son waiting for the meal

You can see where Noah gets his “good looks” from…