Friday, 24 June 2011

Charity Avoidance Tactics

Whether I'm listening to something on my mp3 player or just thinking my mind-thoughts, sometimes I find it good to stretch my legs along Princes Street, the main high street in Edinburgh. Sometimes I'm able to resolve some problems with my story ideas as I go, the meagre exercise no doubt sending much-needed blood to the brain of my otherwise poorly-circulated mortal shell. I like to be able to just lose myself in my ponderings and not have to think about anything else, but more often than not, that's impossible.

The reason? Charity workers.

Whenever I see one of those red or green waterproof jackets I panic despite myself, and all other thought is abandoned as I consider how best to avoid engaging with them.

Now, I'm not a completely uncharitable person. I've been known to make the odd donation to places in the past. Right now I don't have a regular income so I can't commit to paying a monthly direct debit like these guys inevitably want you to. But that's not the only reason I don't like these guys. They're always chirpy to the point of obnoxiousness, and they're always English.

Not that I have the problem with people from England. Some of my best friends are from Merrye Olde Englande. But these street folks are always posh hipster nobs. And they don't do it out of the kindness of their hearts. A lot of them are probably students at Edinburgh Uni and they're all paid by the charities to collect sponsorships. If you give them an inch of your time, they'll take a mile, along with your credit card details, or failing that guilt trip you into oblivion. But how to deal with this urban menace?

Let me show you.
So here I am just walking along the street, minding my own business when I espy a charity worker up ahead. What do I do?
1. The road-cross fake-out
As I see that the charity worker has caught me in its sniper-like sights, I make a beeline for the kerb and make out as if I mean to cross, and that I have no idea that the charity worker has seen me. Or is even there. Or that charity even exists as a concept. Then when the gull turns its waterproof back, I slip past unnoticed.

2. The shop-dive
 This one is simple enough. I dive into a nearby shop until the threat has passed. It's a little less silly than option 1. but carries a downside. If the nearest shop is Anne Summers, ain't no way I'm rushing in there.

3. The human shield
By far the best tactic. I follow closely behind other pedestrians, putting them between myself and the dreaded charity worker. The latter takes the bait, and I pass on unassailed. If the streets are quite bare up ahead when I notice a charity worker, I might tarry a while until suitable human shields come along.

Try them out!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

My Anpan Masterplan

I've spoken before about missing aspects of my life in Japan. I can't remember why, but a month or so ago I suddenly got a craving for anpan. Anpan (from 'an' - bean jam, and 'pan' - bread) is a favourite snack of Japanese children. They're basically a slightly sweetened bread with red bean (azuki) paste inside. I first became aware of them through hearing about a popular cartoon for younger children called Anpanman, which stars a group of superhero characters made of bread. Anpanman's head is an anpan, and when he is injured, Uncle Jam the baker makes him a new head. It's the kind of subtly creepy cutesiness that pervades most Japanese entertainment.

One of my fellow JETs introduced me to real anpan for the first time in my second year, while we wear working on our annual musical. I never expected to like them - the thought of jam made from beans put me off - but I quickly developed a taste for the things and for the rest of my time in Japan my apartment was rarely without anpan. I used to get these small 'usukawa' (thin-skinned) ones, which had only a teeny layer of bread around a great wad of anko (red bean paste).

Anyway, when I got the craving, it occurred to me that I might be able to make them myself, assuming I could get the ingredients. I looked up Chinese supermarkets online and found one not too far from where I usually go to write in the city centre. It was quite a small place, with a tiny old Chinese lady behind the counter, and I felt a little on-edge while I stared at the beans and tried to work out if they were the kind I wanted. They were red, sure, but smaller than ones I'd seen in Japan. But since there was nothing else, I figured 'What the hey' and went for them.

I found a recipe for anko and last night I finally got round to making it. I decided it would be best to make the anko in advance since it was quite a time-consuming affair. It was maybe a little foolish to continue with the recipe without being sure I even had the right kind of beans, but I didn't think I would be able to find azuki beans anywhere else (I have since found out my mother has bought them in the past, so it's highly likely I could have bought them from a regular supermarket). The process involves a lot of boiling, simmering, draining and repeating. The only part of the recipe I had trouble with was pushing foil down onto the beans as they boiled, since it threatened to burn my fingers. I used a smaller pot lid that fit inside the pot instead. I was really doubtful that I was going to end up with the right thing - the consistency seemed odd as several stages, but at the very end everything came together, quite literally. This was the result:
It may not look like much, but the taste and consistency were there. Part one of the masterplan was a success.

Today was a different challenge. I realised the recipe I had intended to follow called for a breadmaker. Cheating, if you ask me. We don't have a breadmaker. Every other anpan recipe I found online also wanted a breadmaker. After looking over different recipes for a while, I decided to amalgamate the breadmaker one with another one for a milk loaf and basically make my own instructions. For the interested:

Bread flour - 450g (this is an estimate - I started with 380g as per the recipe but my dough was very sticky)
Salt - 1tsp
Sugar - 3tbsp
Dried yeast - 1 1/2tsp
Fat/butter - 3tbsp
2 medium eggs
Warm milk - 200ml

1. Mix the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a bowl.
2. Add the fat/butter and rub it through with your hands until there are no lumps left.
3. Make a well in the centre of the bowl, add 1 egg, then lightly beat the second egg and add half (save the rest).
4. Pour in the warm milk a little at a time, mixing as you do with a knife until it comes together as a dough. If the dough is too sticky, use extra flour.

5. Knead the dough for 10 minutes, then split into 14-18 balls.
6. Cover the balls with a damp towel so they don't dry out and leave them to expand a little for 15 minutes.
7. Flatten each ball out, then spoon in your anko paste. The amount is up to you, but you can afford to be liberal. A heaped tablespoon's worth is about right.
8. Close the dough up over the paste and pinch it shut. Place the pinched side down on a greased baking tray, then depress the centre a little to stop an air pocket from forming between the bread and the anko.
9. Leave the buns to rise for 50 minutes in a warm place. Preheat the oven to Gas 4/350°F/180°C).
10. Brush the surface of each bun lightly with the remaining egg and bake for 15 minutes.

I'm really happy with how they turned out. Even though I bought the wrong kind of flour. It was supposed to be white, but I bought a kind that was brown and full of seeds. I sifted out the seeds but wasn't sure if the recipe would still work. As it turns out, the savouriness of the bread works well to offset the sweetness of the anko. Result!:

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


From my seat at my bedroom window, I see a lot of creatures. Wildlife seems to be fighting back against the destroyers of its environment and coming into our gardens. See how YOU like it, wildlife says.

Last night, I saw a bird of prey sitting on the wall. My camera's not good enough to get a nice close-up shot, but I did take a picture. I'm not sure what it was, but it may have been a sparrow hawk.

In Japan, there was a breed of kite that was really common on the coast, but seeing birds of prey in the wild here is still pretty cool.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Every journey begins...

...with a first step. And every great novel begins with a first chapter. I wanted to be able to write this post months ago. I wanted to say I had finally made a first chapter to the novel I've been trying to start that I was happy with.

I still can't.

However, I do have a beginning of sorts. I wrote a prologue kind of thing. It has a form. It's not without it's problems, but it's there. It exists as a thing in the real world, not just in my head. It's a start.

So I've decided, a journey need not begin with a first step. It can begin with a second step. Then when I know where I'm going, I can work out the best way to start off. Because so far, the beginning has been dragging me down and holding me back. No more, I say!

I don't know if what I've written will come to be a part of the story I'm working on. But it's there, it's written down, it's on paper. It's a material thing. It's a reference point I can look back on to remind myself of things.

But I'm moving on, I hope to better things. Better writing, certainly.
The only question is, am I capable?