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Fun with Research

While outlining my fantasy trilogy, I've been reading every historical novel in an East Asian setting that I can get my hands on. After I finish each one, I take notes on the Dos and Dont's I've learned from the reading experience. Some books teach me a lot of Dos, like the Moribito series, which was tragically dropped by Scholastic after the translation of book two (there are twelve in Japanese, but I can't read Japanese).

  • Do give rich, realistic detail about the experience of high-action events.
  • Do provide an interesting mythology and national history for the fictional world.
  • Do make sympathetic enemies who aren't necessarily evil, just short-sighted or wrapped up in their own affairs.

Other novels teach me a lot of Don'ts, like a certain title that shall not be named.

  • Don't give every single city and building "the stench of human waste." Switch up the descriptive language, or better yet, create distinctive settings in the first place.
  • Don't give a hero cool magical abilities if he's not going to use them. Super-powered ninjas are not awesome if they spend all their time mooning over pale-faced damsels and sighing over the inevitability of death. They need to do super-powered ninja things.
  • Don't place your big romantic love scene a few feet away from a freshly murdered corpse, with the star-crossed couple soaked in blood.

It's mystifying that anyone would consider that last bullet point a good idea, but somehow at least one author, literary agent, editor, and publishing house did.

For the fight scenes, I've also been watching fantasy/action movies like Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame and Woochi. Now Netflix thinks I'm a kung fu enthusiast and keeps showing me suggestions with "Shaolin" in the title.

Then there's my historical and cultural research, which consists of reading translated versions of very old books (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and watching documentaries like The Search for General Tso.

I also spend about an hour each day learning basic Mandarin. This hour mainly consists of shouting at my computer, "These flowers are small!" and, "This man is not a doctor!"

In addition to teaching me such useful phrases, the language program has shown me some interesting tidbits about Chinese culture.

1. Chinese librarians love to hold up books and announce what color they are.

People with colored books

2. Chinese doctors wear lab coats and stethoscopes everywhere they go.

Doctor in park

3. People in China buy a lot of hats and frequently ask their neighbors how many plates they have.

People buying hats
Number of plates

But the most fun is the food.

Every week I go to Uwajimaya, a popular Asian grocery chain in Washington and Oregon. They have a business to run, so they tend to cater to Americans who think Pocky is exotic cuisine, but they also carry imported Chinese, Japanese, and Korean foods for reasonable prices. Each trip I buy one thing I've never eaten before. Two weeks ago I tried some lychees, which look like spiky red kumquats and taste like cantaloupe-flavored grapes. Last week I purchased some frozen buns filled with taro paste, which tastes like sweet potatoes mashed with peanut butter.

And on Saturday I played with this, my new silicone mooncake mold.

Mooncake Mold

Originally I was going to buy this other mold, which is popular with soapmakers.

Anne Princess Mooncake Mold

But there was a slight problem with this well in the bottom right.

Anne Princess Mooncake Mold Close Up

I've flipped the image so you can see what it would say on the finished cake: 安妮公主. The characters on the right, 安 and 妮, are read "an" and "ni", Annie or Anne, and the characters on the left, 公主 mean "princess." Together, "Anne Princess."

Now when the Amazon seller claimed the characters meant Princess Anne, Sweetie and I didn't believe them. We thought maybe they just stuck the characters into Google Translate and copy/pasted whatever nonsense popped out, because why on earth would you want Princess Anne stamped on a mooncake? You'd put something like "good fortune" or "longevity," not "Anne Princess"...

...unless you're the Anne Princess Ice Cream company, of course!

Anne Princess Ice Cream Company Banner

Anne Princess Ice Cream Mooncakes

Don't those delectable treats look familiar? Thanks to the miracle of the Information Age, Sweetie and I figured out that these are the molds Anne Princess restaurants use to make ice cream mooncakes. They also sell some scrumptious-looking steaks and pizzas.

And if you're in a whimsical mood, you can chow down on one of your favorite celebrities, like Osama Bin Laden, Bruce Lee, President Obama, or Muammar Gaddafi.

Anne Princess Celebrity Ice Creams

Unfortunately, the Saddam Hussein ice cream wasn't pictured on the website. We were very disappointed.

Anyway, I don't know if someone's selling surplus restaurant supplies, or if they sell these molds in Chinese stores the way we sell Hostess Twinkie makers at Fred Meyer. Either way, those soapmakers are essentially selling organic rose-scented lotion bars with a Dairy Queen logo on top.

So I went with this mold from the same seller, which has only patterns, not words. I used it for the first time Saturday afternoon to make 綠豆糕, mung bean cakes.

Mung bean cakes
Mung bean cakes with bite

The flavor of the mung bean cakes was surprising. They're earthy and very rich, almost buttery. But like red bean paste and kimchi, the taste grew on me after the initial shock.

Sweetie, however, is not a fan. For him I used the mold to make some comfortably American cheesecakes in fun colors.

Mooncake cheesecakes

Mooncake cheesecakes 2

Bubbles were a problem for the wells with intricate patterns. If I make them again, I'll have to find a no-bake recipe.


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