Thursday, July 31, 2008

Journey to the top of the world

Okay, technically speaking Norway's Trolltunga isn't the top of the world, but you'd probably feel like it were as you sat on the rock formation jutting out over the stunningly beautiful lake valley there, as Benjamin Meyer chronicles in his blog [click for the amazing pics].



For the amazing full-sized picture, click on the clipped version above.


—Mellow Monk


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China's changing neighborhoods (slideshow)

Preparations for the upcoming Olympics didn't launch the transformation of Beijing's traditional neighborhoods — it started long before — but they are definitely accelerating those changes.


An excellent film depicting these changes in China is "The Shower," about a family-run bathhouse trying to stay afloat (pun intended) in an old neighborhood as the juggernaut of modernization comes rolling unstoppably into town. Highly recommended. Joe Bob — I mean, Mellow Monk — says check it out!


[Okay, how many of you got that "Joe Bob" reference?]



"Sure, it blocks the sun, but the Sunday buffet there isn't bad."


—Mellow Monk


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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Alright, which one of you wise guys put the eel in my drink?

In Japan broiled eel is considered a "summer stamina" food — something that gives you energy in the oppressive heat but without weighing you down.


So, for those folks unable to stop by their local unagi-ya, a beverage company created the next best thing: broiled eel-flavored soda, named "Eel Rising" (Unagi Nobori).


Even the name suggests power and energy. Don't you feel invigorated already?



This could be one of those times that you actually hope it's artificially flavored.


—Mellow Monk


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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

10 things you don't have to worry about

We human beings tend to worry too much. That's just the way we are.


So it's nice to know that there are at least 10 things you don't have to worry about harming you or the planet. For instance:

3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.


4. Carcinogenic cellphones. Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery — it’s more complicated.


Trust me, this illustration will make a lot more sense after you read the article.


—Mellow Monk


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The Bellybutton Festival

Situated at Japan's geographic center, the city of Shibukawa is known as "Japan's bellybutton."


So naturally, every year the town holds a Bellybutton Festival (Heso Matsuri).



"Dad, you promised you wouldn't embarrass me today."


—Mellow Monk


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Monday, July 28, 2008

The fat-building double whammy of your sweetened green tea drink

The sugar/carbohydrate fructose is widely used in mass-market sweet snacks and beverages (such as sweetened green tea) because of its low price.


A study done at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and published in the Journal of Nutrition shows that fructose-laden foods are more likely to increase your body fat than other types of sugars for two reasons:

The carbohydrates came into the body as sugars, the liver took the molecules apart like tinker toys, and put them back together to build fats. All this happened within four hours after the fructose drink. As a result, when the next meal was eaten, the lunch fat was more likely to be stored than burned.

In other words, not only does the liver turn fructose into fat more easily, but once that molecular process is set up, any fat you consume after that is more likely to be stored as body fat than burned for energy.


So this is yet another reason to avoid those sweetened green tea drinks. Of course, even unsweetened bottled tea (if you can find it) isn't that great, either.


And if you ever wondered why high-calorie, bad-for-you snacks are, paradoxically, cheaper than wholesome foods, it's because junk food is produced making liberal use of fructose and other super-cheap sugars and fats:

Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat[.]


Dr. Elizabeth Parks, who headed the UT Southwestern study on how fructose increases body fat.


—Mellow Monk


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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Relax to a beachside video

If you need to de-stress from a hectic weekend, or if you need to prepare to face a rough Monday, why not kick back and relax to this soothing video of scenes from a beach.


And if the world interrupts while you're relaxing, tell them that they'll have to get by without you for a few minutes.




—Mellow Monk


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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Water-boiling goes high-tech

Speaking of boiling water, researchers in New York have developed a high-tech coating that could produce kettles and pots that would boil water super-fast and ultra-efficiently:

A new study from researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute shows that by adding an invisible layer of the nanomaterials to the bottom of a metal vessel, an order of magnitude increase in efficiency is achieved in bringing water to boil. This increase in efficiency could have a big impact on cooling computer chips, improving heat transfer systems, and reducing costs for industrial boiling applications.




"Air trapped in the forest of nanorods helps to dramatically boost the creation of bubbles and the efficiency of boiling ...."


—Mellow Monk


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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Japanese town that wastes not ... at all

The small Japanese town of Kamikatsu has become what could be the world's first zero-waste town. Naturally, this involves a lot of effort on everyone's part:

There are no waste collections from households at all. People have to take full responsibility for everything they throw away. Kitchen waste has to be composted. Non-food waste is processed either in local shops which accept goods for recycling or in Kamikatsu's Zero Waste Centre. There, people have to sort their unwanted items into 34 different boxes for recycling.

Incidentally, Kamikatsu is officially one of Japan's most beautiful villages [in Japanese only, but click on the thumbnails to see wonderful slide shows of Kamikatsu].






Scenes from (officially) beautiful Kamikatsu.


—Mellow Monk


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Thursday, July 24, 2008

The aquatic—and controversial—photos of Asako Narahashi

The photos of Asako Narahashi are controversial, but not in a don't-show-the-kids kind of way.


Instead, the controversy is: Are her photos enthralling and original, or just gimmicky?


What do you think?



"Are these the marine observations of an aquatic creature or the final sights of a drowning man?"


—Mellow Monk


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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fugu, a fishy Japanese cuisine to die for (literally)

Food critic Adam Platt describes firsthand what it's like to eat "the world's most dangerous meal":

The tingling feeling in the back of my throat is now reaching defcon 2 levels. It feels less phantom with every bite. Was this, at long last, my restaurant critic’s Armageddon, my last meal on earth?

To find out Adam's fate, read the whole story.



Uh, guys, is that how you're supposed to serve fugu?





—Mellow Monk


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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Climb Mt. Fuji four times in 24 hours? Are these guys serious? Yes, they are

To raise money for deserving Japanese and U.S. charities, three American climbers will attempt to scale Mt. Fuji 4 times in one 24-hour period.


It's not as crazy as you'd think — last year, two of the climbers scaled Mt. Fuji 3 times in one day, also to raise money for charity.



A picture from their 2007 climb.


—Mellow Monk


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Can you open a beer bottle with a ... helicopter?

A Japanese TV show showcases a talent that very few humans possess — the ability to open a beer bottle with a helicopter.





—Mellow Monk


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Monday, July 21, 2008

Green tea is on "Brain Food" menu

Some foods are so beneficial to your brain that they're almost like pharmaceuticals. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids are one category of such foods. Foods rich in antioxidants — especially polyphenols — are another:

One group [of antioxidants] that has been evaluated, the polyphenols, has been shown in rodents to reduce oxidative damage and to boost the ability to learn and retain memories. In particular, these chemicals affect changes in response to different types of stimulation in the hippocampus (a part of the brain that is crucial to the formation of long-term memories, and which is the region most affected by Alzheimer’s disease).

And guess which green beverage is rich in polyphenols? That's right — green tea.



She's improving her mind in two ways: reading and drinking green tea.



Green tea appears prominently under "Beverages".


—Mellow Monk


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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Honeybees in Japan defend seabirds from crafty crows

Japan's crows are tough — too tough for flocks of terns who spend the summer near Narita Airport after migrating from the southern hemisphere.


One day, a local birder who had watched helplessly each year as the crows picked off tern eggs and hatchlings had an epiphany: Honeybees instinctively attack anything dark-colored that comes near their hive, so why not use that instinct to repel the crows from the terns' nests?



Hang in there, Mr. Tern. The honeybees are coming!


—Mellow Monk


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Friday, July 18, 2008

Meditate by medijating

I don't know how to describe Larry Carlson's Medijate. It's strange, slightly creepy, but somehow entrancing and ultimately relaxing ... if you give it time.


Once you open up the Medijate screen, try clicking on some of the options on the bottom, such as "Seeds" or "Aloha".



Here's what the "Sign" screen of "Medijate" looks like. This screen capture doesn't do it justice, however. You have to see the moving graphics and hear the music to get the full effect.


—Mellow Monk


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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Floor-by-floor demolition and the 400-MPH hand dryer

First, check out this time-lapse video of Kajima Construction demolishing an office building floor by floor from the bottom up, instead of imploding it with explosives, which I suspect is simply not feasible in the ├╝ber-tight confines of the typical Japanese city.





Read more about the technique here.


Next, after hearing rumors about the air-powered hand dryer that actually works, I finally got to try out Dyson's 400-mile-per-hour Airblade when I was at the airport the other day, and I was indeed impressed. It actually dried my hands thoroughly in only a few seconds. No more exiting the restroom while wiping your hands on your pant legs!



Mr. Dyson, I finally forgive you for that noisy, overpriced vacuum cleaner that you sold to my wife.


—Mellow Monk


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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The mellow way to cool boiled water to the perfect temperature for green tea

In Chapter 2 of "Stringing Tea," I describe how a film crew I was working with had to redo a shot of tea being brewed after the tea came out too dark. In our haste, we had just-boiled water poured directly onto the tea leaves. The tea grower who was doing the actual pouring wanted to cool the water first, but we were in a hurry. And besides, we weren't actually going to drink the tea — just film it being brewed.


After the tea came out too dark to film, the grower explained that it was because the water had been too hot.


(In other words, what we thought would be a time-saving shortcut — not cooling the water first — ended up costing us time. There's a valuable life lesson in there somewhere.)


But water that's too hot doesn't just ruin the color of tea: By essentially cooking the tea leaves, overheated water also spoils the tea's flavor and aroma.


The ideal water temperature range for brewing green tea is between 70 and 80 degrees Celsius, or 158 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Different teas do better with different temperatures, but if you're new to green tea, a good starting point would be roughly 75 degrees Celsius (167 degrees Fahrenheit).


Since water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), just-boiled water is way too hot for green tea. It has to be cooled a bit first (hence the Britishism "Walk the kettle to the pot," meaning "Wait a bit before pouring boiled water into the teapot.")


But there's no need to break out a thermometer and a stopwatch when boiling water for tea. Instead, I've found that if you pour just-boiled water — from an electric kettle, say — into a Japanese-style yuzamashi (see the pictures below), then wait a couple of minutes, it will be well within the ideal temperature range.



A typical yuzamashi. The wide mouth provides a large surface area, for rapid cooling of boiled water.


Note that I intentionally used the vague phrase "a couple of minutes." This doesn't mean "precisely 2 minutes"; it means "a couple of minutes" — in other words, what you intuitively judge to be a couple of minutes, which I have found to be about as long as I can keep something in mind while doing something else. Any longer than this, and I forget the water altogether and it gets too cold.


This is yet another example, Grasshopper, of how brewing tea is an art, not a science.


Another cooling option is walking the kettle to the pot, but the problem with this is that it takes a lot longer than a couple of minutes for water to cool in the kettle in which it was boiled. It's not the waiting that's a problem, it's the forgetting.


Instead of a Japanese-style yuzamashi (which literally means "water-cooler"), you can also pour boiled water into another teapot (other than the one in which you've put your tea leaves) or something else that's easy to pour from. Avoid using an empty mug, because I've found that it's almost impossible to pour from a cup or mug without spilling.


If you've discovered Mellow Monk Green Tea, you're already three-quarters of the way to The Perfect Cup of Tea. But to make it the rest of the way requires good water at the right temperature.


But the good news is that with a little practice, you'll get there quickly. Brewing green tea is, as I've said, an art, not a science. And it's definitely not rocket science.



A yuzamashi in action. Never pour just-boiled water directly onto green tea leaves!


—Mellow Monk


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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How our bodies age (and how to prevent it)

In graphical format, how the body ages:

Aging is the natural wear and tear of the body's component parts. It's inevitable, and endlessly intriguing. While many age-related changes cannot be prevented, a lifestyle that includes exercise and a well-balanced diet will slow or minimize many problems related to aging.

Read about green tea and aging here.



Click on the image to see the huge full-sized version.


—Mellow Monk


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Monday, July 14, 2008

Frugal date ideas

Just because money's tight doesn't mean you have to sit around watching the tea brew. Take a look at the items on this list of 30 frugal date ideas. For instance:

4. Art gallery openings. You don’t have to absolutely love art to have a great date at one of these events. They offer free wine, snacks and a place for conversation. Who needs more than that?


20. Test drive cars together. Gone are the days when it was inexpensive to just go for long drives together. Cars can still be romantic, though, and it’s a lot of fun to go test drive luxury vehicles that you’re not really going to buy.




—Mellow Monk


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Living in a garbage truck

Outside it may look like a garbage truck, but on the inside it's one tricked-out ride.



If you woke up inside this, you'd never think that on the outside it looked like this.


—Mellow Monk


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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Relaxing on a beach at sunrise (video)

Here's a nice, mellow video to relax to—five minutes of sunrise on a beach in Tasmania. So brew yourself up a nice cup of green tea, sit back, relax, and prepare to be transported to the shores of Tasmania [click for the larger version].





—Mellow Monk


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Saturday, July 12, 2008

How green tea helps the heart

Yet another reason to "go green":

A new study shows that [green tea], which is more popular in Eastern cultures, can protect heart arteries by keeping them flexible and relaxed, and therefore better able to withstand the ups and downs of constant changes in blood pressure.


"Would you like some tea?"


—Mellow Monk


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Friday, July 11, 2008

My $5 strainer works just as well as the $17 one

I've recommended various kinds of strainers and filters as an easy way to brew loose-leaf green tea, especially when brewing tea for one.


Below are pictures comparing a SwissGold inside-the-cup permanent tea filter with a chakoshi (tea strainer) that I bought for $5 at an Asian market. The chakoshi is actually made to go inside a teapot, but this particular size happened to perfectly fit my trusty mug.


The SwissGold filter seems more ruggedly built and will probably better withstand cleaning or being knocked against a hard surface to dislodge sticky wet tea leaves.


On the other hand, the teapot strainer is wider and allows the leaves to swirl around in the hot water more freely, for better steeping.


As with everything else in life, Grasshopper, there are trade-offs.



Before brewing ...



... and during brewing.


—Mellow Monk


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Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Stringing Tea": Chapter 2: King Kong Island

[This is part of a series of postings about my recent tea-buying expedition in Japan. Click here to see the other installments.]


Yakushima — a World Heritage site — is a small, beautiful island located about 4 hours by ferry from Kagoshima City.


Actually, it's only 2 hours by high-speed boat if you don't need to take a car, but with our mountain of filming, lighting, and recording equipment, leaving the van behind was not an option.


In the world of Japanese green tea, Yakushima, with its semi-tropical climate, is famous as the source of the nation's earliest shincha, or new spring harvest. We were heading there to film my meeting with a grower about whom I had heard wonderful things. He specializes in 100 percent organically grown green tea.


Before I saw the inside of the ferry that would take us to Yakushima, I wasn't exactly excited about the prospects of the 4-hour ride, and my already gloomy spirits were further dampened (literally) by the heavy rain that morning. We drove the van into the ship's dark, cavernous hold, then walked up the narrow metal stairway to the passenger deck.


Our compartment turned out to be wonderful. Instead of seats, it consisted of a slightly raised, carpeted "sleeping platform" (somewhat like this one) roughly 20 feet by 20 feet, with blankets and pillows neatly placed all around. The room was brightly and naturally lit by large windows looking out onto the ocean.


We removed our shoes and stepped up. Three of us sat on the carpet, leaning against the cool steel bulkhead with our legs comfortably extended, while Manuel, the sound engineer, grabbed a blanket and pillow and went directly to a horizontal position. Ilka, the director, was reading a book, Chris, the cameraman, was listening to his iPod, and I was munching on a sandwich I had brought with me.


We were all in heaven — especially compared to the dark, cramped flights we had endured on our way to Japan. I had spent 11 hours elbow-battling my neighbor over our common armrest, eating crummy food, and watching bad movies on a tiny screen embedded into the back of the seat in front of me — whose occupant had, naturally, reclined the seat right into my knees as soon as the plane went wheels-up.


But those horrors were a distant memory as I lay stretched comfortably out in the ferry compartment, letting the low, powerful hum of the engines lull me into a doze.


Why can't the airlines be like this? Imagine how comfortable and relaxing a long flight would be if you could lay down and snooze, read, or watch a movie in a 180-degree flat position. The airlines should just remove all the seats from their planes. It's not as if being strapped into a seat has ever saved anyone's life in a fiery midair collision.


As I pondered these thoughts, the ship's PA system crackled to life and the captain announced we were only 30 minutes from our destination.


Chris removed his earbuds. "Time to get some shots of you as we approach the island," he said. Heading to the wind-blown bow of the ferry, we were greeted by an island shrouded in mist, with impossibly steep mountain peaks.


"It looks like King Kong island," I quipped. But my comment was met with silence. Either the others were entranced by the island's beauty ... or they didn't get the joke.


Once ashore we headed straight to the organic tea fields. Chris was positively thrilled when he saw none of the frost-preventing fans that had spoiled many an otherwise perfect shot elsewhere on our journey. The grower we met explained that the island's near-tropical climate was free of frost, hence the absence of the fans.


While talking with the grower inside his funky wooden tea shop, our conversation was interrupted by a loud, startling metallic crash. Rushing outside, we saw that a member of the crew — who shall remain nameless — wanting to move the van out of a shot, had backed right into the only other vehicle in the expansive parking lot. Luckily, the other vehicle was a thick-framed truck. Close inspection didn't even reveal the slightest of scratches — in contrast to the deep dent in the rear hatchback door of our van. Oh well. Another unexpected expense. That's filmmaking.


Once I had seen all I had come to see on the island — and tried the grower's amazing tea and bought a couple of samples to take back to the States — I caught the last ferry out. I spent three nights with friends and family in Kagoshima and Aso while the crew enjoyed the sights of Yakushima — waterfalls, wild monkeys, and egg-laying sea turtles, just to name a few.


They had a wonderful time. Which was good, because they would need those positive memories to get them through some grueling shoots when we met again in Kagoshima.



Thar she blows — King Kong Island, otherwise known as Yakushima.


—Mellow Monk


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Translucent creatures

National Geographic has a great slideshow of translucent sea creatures.



A comb jellyfish in the dark depths off Antarctica.


—Mellow Monk


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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Japan's World Heritage sites

The English-language edition of the Mainichi Daily News has a long, colorful slideshow of Japan's UNESCO World Heritage sites.



Tame deer wander through Nara Park, one of Japan's World Heritage sites.


—Mellow Monk


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Monday, July 07, 2008

Act confident, feel confident. The secret? Your own body language

A former FBI agent gives a fascinating overview of how to read body language. It's interesting how unconscious physical behavior can reveal our innermost feelings. But this doesn't just mean that you can decode a person's feelings by studying his or her body language. I believe it also means that you can change your own state of mind by changing your physical behavior — use the body language of a confident person, and you will actually feel more confident. Act confident and you'll feel confident. —Mellow Monk Go to the Mellow Monk tea page Subscribe to the blog feed (RSS)

Blast negativity—in a mellow way, of course

At DivineCaroline, Alexandra Levit writes about how to be more satisfied with yourself and your life:

I’ve asked some people for advice on how to become more satisfied, and here are some of the gems I’ve heard and tried myself:

* Don’t always “one-up”: It’s annoying when an acquaintance does it to you in a bar, so don’t do it to yourself. When you meet a goal you worked hard for, take a moment to celebrate the achievement instead of immediately focusing on what you can, or should do next.




"This wireless Internet connection is slow ... but I'm going to satisfied that at least I got it to work in the first place."


—Mellow Monk


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From Hawaii to Japan, without a sail or a motor

Kenichi Horie first achieved fame in Japan by becoming the first Japanese to cross the Pacific alone.


Now he's become the first ever to cross the Pacific in a wave-powered boat. (There's some technical detail here.)


He set sail from Hawaii on May 17 and completed the 4,000-mile voyage to Japan's Kii Peninsula in 110 days.


Here's a video released when he first left Hawaii:





—Mellow Monk


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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Sushi art

It's sushi, and you can eat it, but it's also art. Edible art.



It may be art, but that doesn't mean you can hang it on your wall.


—Mellow Monk


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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Green tea protects against heart disease: study

Just a few cups of green tea a day can prevent heart disease, according to a study published in the European Journal of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation.



This looks like a second steeping — see how the leaves in the teapot have opened up?


—Mellow Monk


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Resistance stretching, a swimmer's secret weapon

Get ready for the next fitness craze — resistance stretching, which 41-year-old record-breaking swimmer Dana Torres calls her secret weapon.


By essentially pitting muscle against muscle, resistance stretching could be seen as a variation of Charles Atlas's dynamic tension, although the emphasis is on improving not just strength but flexibility as well, and without bulking up.


In other words, the goal is to become what Ox would call a "lean, mean fighting machine."



She's 41 and mother of a 2-year-old daughter.


—Mellow Monk


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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Iced green tea with pomegranate juice

A healthy and thirst-quenching drink perfect for a hot summer's day: iced green tea with pomegranate juice.


...but ignore the part about using tea bags, however. Instead, brew your loose-leaf green tea the way you normally would, pour it into a mug or cup filled with ice, leaving a little room in the cup for the pomegranate juice. Then, once the tea has chilled (it only takes a minute or so), add in about half an inch of pomegranate juice.


You can also chill your brewed tea before pouring it over ice — you get less melting and therefore less dilution of the tea. If you're going to be using hot tea, you can brew your tea on the strong side to allow for dilution by the melting ice.


More tips and recipes for iced green tea are available here.





—Mellow Monk


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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

New jugs (for milk and iced tea) and a new source of filtered water (for home, office, and the Earth)

Change is sometimes inevitable and inescapable, so the only thing to do about the new eco-friendly milk jugs is to embrace them enthusiastically. The secret to pouring without spilling is to tilt it downward without lifting it up off the table, as shown in the picture below.


And don't forget to save a couple of those jugs to make Mizudashi Iced Green Tea.


Speaking of water, this article about sea water desalination has an illustrated, easy-to-understand explanation of how reverse osmosis filtration works. The same technology that's being considered as a solution to global shortages of drinking water is already popular as an on-site water-filtration alternative to trucking and lugging around those huge bottles of water for home and office water-coolers.



Resting the edge on the table as you pour is the secret to preventing spilling.


—Mellow Monk


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