Kopi Luwak

When we were in Indonesia in December-January, we got to try Luwak coffee, or Kopi Luwak/civet coffee, twice, once in Jakarta and once in Bali. The concept seemed a bit strange around what is reputed to be the most expensive coffee in the world. The concept behind it is that many years ago, Indonesians noticed that a native cat called the Luwak (or civet in English) loved eating coffee berries, but would not be able to fully digest it. As a result, they pooped the berries out whole, but in that process, the coffee berries were fermented going through their digestive track. Always the resourceful ones, the Indonesians took the berries, disinfected and treated them, and attempted to make coffee out of them. Lo and behold, the coffee ended up being smoother, more robust, and fruitier as a result of going through the civet’s digestive track. They found a new industry: Luwak coffee!

While the coffee was quite good, it wasn’t good enough for us to want to buy it (and pay the very high price for it), so we ended up not buying any of the beans to take home. This week, I finished editing a YouTube video showcasing my first experience drinking this prized coffee. “CAT POOP COFFEE,” we called it.

Out of curiosity, after I posted the video, I did a quick Google search on civet coffee and was a bit appalled at what I found. Many articles have been written about how civet coffee/Kopi Luwak is basically like olive oil, in that over 90 percent of the “Kopi Luwak” on the market is actually fake; no cats pooped these coffee berries out. And what is arguably worse, the civets that actually do eat these coffee berries are oftentimes mistreated and force fed coffee berries, similar to what is debated to be done with ducks in order to make fois gras. So the warning of the articles was all the same: when going to Indonesia, stay away from Kopi Luwak.

Maybe I should have researched that more deeply prior to going. But hey, live and learn, right?

The thing about issues like this is that in countries like the U.S., meat eaters get all crazy about eating animals they deem cute and cuddly, like rabbits or whatever arbitrary animal they refuse to eat, but they don’t think about the entire meat processing industry and how poorly animals are treated, given very little space, no room to exercise and live natural lives, forced to eat food that is not normal, and then killed after just a few weeks of life. I’ve seen photos and read quite a bit about how terrible the meat industry is here in the U.S. Do I still eat meat? Yeah. But I don’t turn a blind eye to the practices and pretend that these animals are given glorious short lives whereas animals like civet cats or ducks making fois gras are tortured. It’s all really the same thing. You can take it for what it is and eat what you want, or just remove meat completely from your diet.

A little part of me does try to be a better consumer, though. I try to buy meat, dairy, and eggs that are organic, as I’ve read that it’s more likely these animals will be fed and treated better, not to mention given space to move around outside. It’s hard, though, living in this country where the “laws” are so loosely interpreted, and food companies can just choose bullshit labels like “free range” when they don’t actually mean anything in the real world. The USDA’s definition of “free range,” for example, is that birds must have “outdoor access” or “access to the outdoors.” Well, that doesn’t mean much at all because that could easily mean that the animal have fresh air coming out of a “pop hole,” with zero full body access to the outdoors and no real space requirement. That is like if I said, as a human, “I have access to the outdoors” when what that really meant is that I had to stay in a dark, windowless room all day and all night, but I had a 6-by-6-inch square that was carved into the room to allow me THAT MUCH light and air from the outside. Pretty “free-range,” huh?

Stopping to look up at the stars

This is the third year I’ve come with my current company to the Silverado Resort in Napa for our annual go-to-market kickoff. Each year, it’s been a lot of socializing, learning, overstimulation, and I’ve left drained and exhausted. I can’t remember once when I actually was on my own and did much thinking or meditation on anything. You’d think that if I were in such a peaceful and beautiful place that I would have made time for myself, but year after year, I’ve forgotten.

This year, I have a comfortable one-bedroom suite that is about a ten-minute walk to the mansion and ballroom area where all the events happen. While walking back from a team dinner and some socializing at the bar, I stopped to look up at the night sky and realized that the moon was extremely brilliant and clear, plus the entire sky was like a huge canopy of twinkling white lights. It was a clear night, and all the stars were vivid, bright, and extremely visible. I could even see Orion’s Belt clearly — I do not know constellations at all, but this is the only one I know (it’s pretty simple to keep track of since it’s just three perfectly aligned stars).

It’s crazy to think how sucked into our day to days we get that we rarely stop to look up at the stars. In New York, we aren’t this privileged to have an unpolluted night sky; being able to see a single star is virtually impossible there. But in Napa and even San Francisco, the stars are so clear and vivid unless it’s a cloudy night. I was probably looking up for only about five minutes, but it felt really good nonetheless to finally take this view in and really appreciate it for the first time in these trips.

Over stimulation

It’s the first of five days of being in San Francisco and Napa for work: two days of our team offsite, plus three days of go-to-market kickoff for the new fiscal year. Although it’s fun to meet new colleagues and catch up with colleagues I’ve known for a while since I don’t normally see them, after the first day has ended today, I am already ready to crawl into bed and sit in silence. I feel like I’ve been overloaded with information, over-stimulated, and that my introvert self is ready to go into hiding. Most of my colleagues consider me an extrovert, someone who keeps the stories and jokes going, is loud and laughs a lot, and is part of what gives the room energy when I am there. But once I leave that room, I am definitely done and not coming back — no FOMO (fear of missing out), no feeling of being the “party pooper” who left, and definitely not able to be peer-pressured to stay, ever. I might have felt that way in my early 20s, but now in my mid-30s, that is definitely over and done with. It’s like my Insights scale and evaluation (like Myers-Briggs, but to me, more understandable): I project an extroverted “yellow”, but in my truly natural state, I’m an introverted “green.”

Flying back to reality

When people talk about severe jet lag, as I’ve learned over time flying in premium as well as economy cabins, the jet lag is always the worst when you are flying in coach. When you can sleep flat when you’d like, move around, stretch, and have endless drinks, chocolates, snacks, and meals whenever you want them, time not only passes by quicker, but your body also more quickly adapts to the different time zones. It’s kind of a sad reality to admit when I have the privilege of flying business or first class, and not everyone does, but it’s really the truth. I’ve always had the hardest time flying back from Asia or Australia when I flew in economy seats. It’s just nowhere as easy to sleep comfortably and when you want in an upright cramped seat (the recliner in economy should NOT even be called a real recliner!), and this is coming from someone who is quite petite.

When we got back, we did what we usually do, which is unpack everything, put as much as we can away, and try to reorganize things in the apartment to get our lives in order for reality again. And by the time “bedtime” rolls around at around 10:30-11, I already feel like it’s time to sleep, even though we’d previously been in the air, in a timeless and dateness zone, for about 20 hours.

It’s always hard to adjust being back, not because of jet lag, but because of the boring realities of the day-to-day. Going to work, which is pretty predictable; the mundane and un-thought-provoking conversations heard from other colleagues; the usual rat race as it always is. Sometimes, I come back and tell my colleagues I’ve missed them… okay, to be fair, maybe once. Most of the time, I never miss them because I always know that in the zone of whatever I am doing when I am away, it’s always better than what I was doing at work.

Rich food overload

While traveling through Indonesia has been a true learning experience both in culture and food, I would be lying if I said that the food was light. The food is heavily seasoned with endless varieties of herbs and spices, lots of coconut and regular milk, and no shortage of meats, rices, and breads. Towards the end, I could feel my stomach bulging a bit and a an increased desire to eat more fruit and vegetables, though I was already eating a good amount of fruit because of all the amazing fresh produce we can get here easily that we cannot get easily or as fresh in New York. But, I did feel as though this indulgence period needed to come to an end.

While back in Melbourne for a day, I got to eat much lighter and did no food filming of myself, so that made me feel a bit more restful. It’s funny how others go on vacation to relax, but I rarely feel “relaxed” while on vacation because we’re always on the go. And now with YmF, there’s always going to be “work” on trips! A fan who started following me after meeting me in Jakarta said he felt bad “for disturbing me while I was working” during filming. Well, I wish this was real “paid” work now!

Fresh durian twice in Bali!

There are the guides you hire to accomplish A, B, and C, and they do that for you. Then, there are the guides who engage with you, listen to conversations you are having, hear what you love, and enhance your travel experience even further. These guys truly go above and beyond. Edy was that person for us. He was our 1.5-day driver/guide in Bali, and he certainly did not disappoint. Hearing that we wanted to try as much local food as possible, he not only took me to the babi guling spot I wanted to try in Ubud, but he attempted to take us to a chicken spot he loved serving the local loved ayam betutu (Balinese style grilled chicken). While they were already closed, as they are only open for lunch and it was past 6pm at the time he drove us, it was the effort that counted.

And when he heard that I loved durian and jackfruit, he searched far and wide on the roads to see if any roadside vendors were selling it. In the light rain, it was challenging, as many roadside fruit vendors stop selling during rain and do not want to get wet, but he persevered and found us a vendor that sold BOTH fruits, and both were superbly fresh, delicious, and reasonably priced! The durian he got us was likely one of the sweetest, creamiest durians I’d ever eaten. It was a pain to find a place to eat it (and film eating it) once back in Kuta, but we made it work by finding an empty bench in front of a closed tattoo shop.

And if that were not enough, on our way back from lunch today, we passed yet another durian vendor who sold us a durian 10,000 IDR cheaper than the one yesterday, and it was also super sweet and creamy with a similar amount of fruit. I was sitting on the side of a road, swatting away flies and getting bitten by mosquitoes on my arms and legs, yet I was happily eating my durian. I felt quite at bliss at the moment even though I was hot, sticky, and itchy from the bug bites.

These are the things I love about travel – eating delicious, local foods in their local environments the way the locals would eat it. As we sat and ate on the road side, other locals joined us to buy their durians, have them cut open, and sat right by us. We exchanged smiles, and it was simply understood: what unites us is our humanity and our desire for tasty and delicious food. We are joined in that.

The glory of rice terraces and babi guling in Ubud

Ubud, Bali, is historically known as a spiritual, cultural, and arts center of Bali, filled with endless temples, different types of straw and wood crafts, paintings, vegan and vegetarian Balinese restaurants, and places to do real yoga (yeah, not just the trendy stuff where everyone stands around wearing Lulu Lemon pants). It is also surrounded by lush tropical forests, endless wildly growing fruit trees, and quaint rice paddies. In the past, it has been an important source of the island for medicinal herbs and plants, as its name actually comes from the Balinese word for medicine, “ubad.”

While other westerners have visited Ubud for decades before, from my perspective, the rise in interest in Ubud and Bali overall really came after Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love came out, and then its subsequent movie of the same name starring Julia Roberts. In her journey that she shares, Gilbert travels to three countries that all happen to start with the letter “I” (supposedly a coincidence to truly find herself, thus the focus on “I” – Italy, India, and Indonesia). Much of her time noted in the book as well as shot in the movie is in Ubud. Since then, it’s become a bit of a cliche for me to hear yet another American couple go on their honeymoon to Bali. It starkly contrasts with the Aussie reputation of being the place where frat parties rein over all.

But after a day trip to Ubud, I felt like it was a totally different world than that of Kuta. It had fewer people, more walking space, more lush green area. Even the places deemed touristy like the Tegalalong Rice Terraces were quiet, scenic, and peaceful. We went in the morning, so the rice terraces had far fewer people than I’d originally anticipated, and it made for a lot of good, quiet time to shoot some videos and also just enjoy the scenery and the sounds. This is the most scenic and well manicured rice paddy I’ve ever visited, as most of the ones you pass in Asia are all flat. The series of rice paddies use the subak, which is a traditional Balinese cooperative irrigation system, which is thought to have come about in the 8th century. This is what creates the “terraced” look of the rice paddies here that differentiate their look. I loved the experience we had at Bali Pulina, where we got to have a personal tour of the agro-touristic plantation, where they grow everything from durian and cacao to coffee and even cinnamon. The whole area the plantation was on was like being in the center of a tropical jungle full of rich, delicious natural ingredients. We had a complimentary coffee and tea tasting to sample all the different varieties and really loved the overall experience of sitting outdoors and enjoying these delicious treats in the middle of nature. Even when the rain came, we were shielded and could still enjoy the sounds under cover.

One of the other big highlights for us was trying a very famous babi guling (Balinese roasted suckling pig) dish at the most respected restaurant for it in Ubud; all this restaurant makes is babi guling, so it has to be good, otherwise it would have died a long time ago. What was most notable about this pig, other than the earth shattering and crisp, thick pork skin, was all the other accompaniments you eat this with, ranging from the spiced chopped long beans with what tasted and appeared to be freshly grated coconut, fluffy, airy rice, fried pieces of pork, and tender meat from different parts of the pig. It was all served on a banana leaf atop a straw tray. This was likely the tastiest dish we’d had of the entire trip, and if not this entire trip, than in Bali, hands down. To be honest, this may have been the best suckling pig I’d ever eaten in my entire life; nothing else had skin this crispy and fatty that just shattered in my mouth or melted in my mouth, or a spice mixture this complex, spicy, and memorable.

The spice mix that the vegetables are seasoned with is called basa gede, literally meaning “big spice mix,” which seems fitting for the name. Some of the many elements of this complex and addictive spice mix include shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, kencur (another type of galangal), turmeric, candle nut, bird’s eye chillies, coriander, black peppercorn, salam leaves (Indonesian bay leaf) and salt, plus a shrimp paste mixed in. That spice mix needs to be packed up and sent back to my apartment in New York, ASAP.

Ubud – you were so tasty and beautiful. I need to come back to you in the future.

The Aussie domination of Bali

We lucked out with traffic in Jakarta. Given that we arrived at the end of December before the new year, most of the city dwellers had departed for new year’s holidays, and so we experienced none of the gridlock that so oftentimes characterizes the city. Instead, we experienced horrific traffic in Jogja, and last night when arriving in Denpasar, Bali, as the last leg of our Indonesia trip, what could arguably be the worst traffic of this entire trip. The distance between the Denpasar airport and Kuta, where we are staying, really isn’t that far, but somehow, it took ages and ages for us to get anywhere. In many cases, we were on two lane roads where cars just did not move. Constant traffic lights were hit. And all I wanted to do was eat dinner and crawl into bed. It was so miserable. It may have been faster to drag our luggage by foot to the hotel at the rate we were going.

Bali is notorious for awful traffic, not necessarily because it is that heavily populated, but rather that the infrastructure there just cannot handle the number of cars and people that want to go through it. And as we walked around the Kuta area, I realized exactly how Australian dominated the island was, or at least, this section: all I could hear were Australian accents, and all I could see were American and Australian brands and restaurants advertising “Aussie steaks” or “Aussie burgers” (whatever either of those two terms even mean). No one wanted to greet us or even say “thank you” to us in Bahasa or Balinese; it was all English. This just did not feel right.

The only place I want to go where I immediately know I will hear Aussie accents is Australia or a family gathering of Chris’s. Anything else is not going to make me happy.

Jackfruit, savory and sweet

In a day and age when climate change is top of mind for most rational people, and in a day and age when many times because of that, people are more conscious about consuming less meat and animal products to help with climate change, jackfruit has become a hot item for vegans as a meat substitute, usually in tacos and as a replacement for “pulled pork” texture items because of its naturally substantial, meaty texture. In addition, and as a bit of a kicker for me because I did not know this, jackfruit has a curiously high natural amount of protein in it, making it almost a model meat substitute as a fruit.

For me, as someone who has always loved and consumed jackfruit as a sweet fruit, this was a bit mind boggling for a couple reasons: 1) jackfruit is already a very expensive, exotic fruit to grow. If it now becomes even more popular because of hipsters, then the price will skyrocket even more, making it even less accessible for all of us. 2) If vegans and those choosing to actively eat less meat use jackfruit as a meat substitute and thus in savory applications, will they also be able to recognize and embrace jackfruit as, well, an actual fruit that is supposed to be… SWEET?

This is why jackfruit can be used as both sweet and savory: as papaya salad in Thailand and Vietnam is made with unripened papaya that is not sweet, so can young, unripened jackfruit be used in savory stews, as taco fillings, etc. Plus, when young, the texture is retained just the same. And today, during our self-guided food tour of Jogja, we enjoyed gudeg, a local morning stew that is wildly popular in Yogyakarta, eaten with a boiled seasoned egg, rice, and all wrapped up in a fragrant banana leaf. The first time we had gudeg was from a random street stall our first night after learning that people pretty much never have it for dinner; we weren’t that thrilled with that first taste. But with this one, it was likely what the glory of gudeg is supposed to be: tender, meaty without meat, and a bit sweet and savory at the same time. Plus, we had hoards and hoards of locals lining up and eating on plastic stools around us to verify this. In this jackfruit stew, the jackfruit shines with its firm, meaty texture, but it’s actually also sweetened with palm sugar. It was definitely a major highlight of our Jogja eating fun.

Buddhist and Hindu temples in Yogyakarta

Borobudor Temple, which we visited today, is a set of Buddhist temples just outside of Jogja that were built in the (approximately) 8th to 9th century. We arrived at Borobodur Temple at around 4:45 with our cameras, tripod, and flashlights to capture and see the very first sunrise of 2020. It was quite cloudy, so while we did not have the epic colors of the best sunrises possible, it was really beautiful to see the haze surrounding the temple and the nearby mountains, as well as to see a quick clear view of the Merapi volcano nearby from the top of the temple. It was also good to be there before the real crowds of the late morning and afternoon descended upon us. It’s the general rule to follow when visiting a very touristy site: try to go as early as possible to get fewer people, smaller crowds, and more time to really soak up and enjoy your time in the place. A lot of these sites, including the Prambanan Hindu temple, were uncovered by accident while people were digging up volcanic ash and happened upon these ruins. It is mind boggling to think that a civilization of people spent so much time, energy, and money building these temples that were then abandoned, buried by natural disasters, and then uncovered like new by later generations and people seeking to preserve the past for future generations of people to enjoy.