Month: October 2013

Splendid San Francisco

San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in America. It is not only home to many globally famous landmarks and sights but it is also famous for its tolerance, culture, cuisine and nightlife. It’s a perfect city, really. Read on to learn more about its life and sights. San Francisco’s world famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge, has become one of the symbols of America. Rightfully so. It is not only one of the most beautiful bridges in the world, but it is a manifestation of American history in the 20th Century, too. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the famous New Deal provided funds for large-scale construction projects all over the country.  This included funding for the Golden Gate Bridge. At that time, the West underwent an enormous development and urbanization, keeping many employed in construction and projects like the Golden Gate Bridge came into existence.

Papaya Park | Papaya Park
Additionally, the Golden Gate Bridge was a major architectural and engineering achievement at the time of its conception and execution. At the time, it was the longest suspension bridge that had ever been built and it remained such up until 1964. The American Society of Civil Engineers declared the bridge as one of the Wonders of the Modern World. The design of the Bridge includes Art Deco elements (i.e. the tower decorations, lights, railings and walkways). Its color is also special. It is painted with a special orange color called International Orange, which became a signature feature of the bridge. The Bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County on the San Francisco Peninsula. I recommend driving to the Vista Point, at the first exit at the Marin County side, as the view over the bridge, the skyline of the city and Alcatraz is magnificent. If it is not too windy, it is a good idea to walk over the bridge, too. After having seen the magnificent views over San Francisco, I would recommend spending a few days in the city, exploring it on foot. It has an exceptionally pleasant architecture. It is worth wandering across its pleasant streets and alleys. However, be prepared to some uphill treks, as the city is really steep. Nevertheless, its hilly location gives the city a unique character. I would recommend visiting Union Square, the main square of the city. It is quite commercial, with high-end shops around the square. Nonetheless, it is a good starting point to set off on your sightseeing tour. As a plus, you may spot your first cable car, a famous feature of San Francisco, at Union Square. Cable cars have run since the 19th Century and still use their traditional bells to make themselves heard from several blocks away. You may even take a ride on one of the three routes that are operational at the present time.

Papaya Park | Papaya Park
It is a good idea to explore China Town, as it is the oldest Chinese area in North America and the largest Chinese quarter outside Asia. This exciting area is centered around Clay Street, reflecting a fantastic fusion of East and West. The architecture mirrors this fusion well, in my view. The European style buildings in the area intermingle with Chinese-style gates, pagoda-style decorative architectural elements and facades. Street signs are also bilingual. If you like Chinese cuisine, it may be a good idea to try one of the restaurants and eateries in this lovely area. Alternatively, it is a good idea to sample some sushi in Japantown, slightly further afield. Visiting Coit Tower is an essential part of your trip to San Francisco. You need to prepare for some climbing, as it is located at the top of Telegraph Hill. It is another landmark with a history and some great views over the city. The Coit Tower, aka Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, was built from the funds left for the beautification of the city by Lillie Hitchcock Coit after her death. The tower was designed in an Art Deco style and was built in concrete. Some claim that the tower was intentionally designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, due to the late Ms Coit’s connection to the city’s volunteer fire brigade. However, this is a highly disputed claim. Nonetheless, it is a known fact that Ms Coit had been committed to chasing fires since her teenage years. When she was 15, she witnessed a volunteer fire brigade in action on Telegraph Hill. She then threw her textbooks on the ground and jumped into action to help, calling residents and bystanders to help move the engine up the hill. She was then named the mascot of the brigade and became a regular helper to firefighters. She even received a title of “honorary firefighter”.

David Paul Ohmer, Pinterest
The Coit Tower provides an excellent view over San Francisco Bay, including toward the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, as well as the city’s skyline. The tower’s interior is home to several murals. The murals were prepared by artists and students of the California School of Fine Arts in the 1930s, as part of a New Deal federal employment program for artists. The murals reflect Marxist and leftist political ideas, which is a really interesting feature. Fisherman’s Wharf is another area of interest in San Francisco. It is quite touristy, so it is worth visiting it early, before the crowds turn up. Fisherman’s Wharf provides a vantage point toward Angel Island, Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge. Pier 39 is a favored place of sea lions, where they like to hang around, basking in the sun. If you like cute creatures, that’s a place for you. You can also visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park nearby. Here, you can go on board Eureka, a steamboat built in 1890, which was originally used as a ferry between San Francisco and Tiburon. Later, it was used during the world wars to carry ammunition and troops, and then again as passenger ferry. It was retired in 1941 and later underwent a major refurbishment. Now, it is glowing in its original glory, and it is an awesome example of American shipbuilding, the only remaining ferry with a wooden hull. Don’t miss Eureka, as it is a real experience to board this ship. From Fisherman’s Wharf, you can visit to the famous prison, Alcatraz. The prison, aka ‘The Rock’ used to be operational as a military prison in the 1800s and became a high security federal prison from 1933 to 1963. It was one of the most secure prisons in America. Several inmates tried to escape, but no one succeeded. Day and evening tours are available, so if you are interested in the prison and the circumstances under which inmates were kept here, go and see it yourself. Just don’t forget to book your trip well in advance.

Alсatraz island in San Francisco bay, California
Andriy Kravchenko, Pinterest
Lombard Street is a rather famous wiggly street. It has the reputation of being the crookedest street in the world. Whether it is true or not, it is rather bendy. Its famous one-way section is located on Russian Hill, between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets. Here, the street has eight sharp turns. It wasn’t built due to sheer eccentricity, but due to the fact that the hill was too steep for common vehicles. Thus, the eight turns were planned to decrease the hill’s 27% grade and to make it safer for pedestrians to walk downhill.  Be prepared though that the street is rather touristy. To me, it seemed that every visitor to San Francisco must take a photo at the top of the street, with the bends in background. If you visit all the above-mentioned sights on foot, you will have plenty of chance to admire the Victorian and Edwardian architecture of the city. Approximately 48 thousand buildings were constructed between 1849 and 1915 in these architectural styles. Sadly, the earthquake visited upon San Francisco in 1906 destroyed many of them. Also, some of them were demolished or redesigned, losing their original facades. However, from the 1960s onwards, their preservation and decoration in cheerful, bright colors began. By the 1970s the coloring of the houses became a movement, which endures up to the present day. The beautifully painted houses shown in the picture below are a good example of the style.  They are referred to as “Painted Ladies”.  Fortunately, they are preserved in a good condition and look better than they used to. These most photographed of San Francisco abodes can be found at 710-720 Steiner Street. So if you like architecture do go and take a few snaps of these charming buildings. 

original_Painted Ladies-San Francisco-jondoeforty1
San Francisco is famous for its lively cultural scene, too. It is home to various museums and it’s famous for its opera, symphonic orchestra, ballet and dance companies, too. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Asian Art Museum, the de Young Museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Exploratorium and many other thematic museums and galleries await the culture-hungry visitor. You might have heard that San Francisco is (one of) the gay capital(s) of the world. Accordingly, the city is famous for its tolerance of gay/lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The biggest event of the city is connected to this community, the SF Pride. It is a huge celebration! Just book early if you want to participate in this event, as it is the busiest tourist period each summer. The city is famous for its restaurants, too. Here, you can taste any cuisine you fancy. While the city cherishes all the cuisines of the world, it has a strong culture of using fresh and locally grown ingredients. Prepare your palate, ready yourself for some fantastic culinary experiences here and then dive into the famous nightlife of the city. If you are in San Francisco, spend a few more days in the area exploring the San Francisco Bay and a bit beyond, where you can visit a number of lovely wineries and the famous university town, Berkeley, too.

Sinister Synthetics in Your Beauty Products

A surprising number of skincare products are loaded with chemicals. Manufacturers use them for various reasons. Some of them are very cheap, which helps profitability. Others are used to extend shelf life and make the product “attractive” in terms of color and scent. Low price, durability, pleasant look and feel are attractive qualities. However, the ingredients creating these qualities can actually be harmful and damaging to your health.

Let’s see which chemicals often used in skincare products should be avoided. I’ve assembled a short list that contains the most troubling synthetics that should be avoided in your skincare purchases. Before you drop a personal care item into your shopping basket, take a closer look at the ingredient list of the product. If you see the following ingredients, don’t bother buying the product, however lovely it looks and smells.

skincare shopping


Parabens. The paraben group contains various types, the mostly widely used ones of which are Methylparabens, Propylparabens, Ilsoparabens, Ethylparabens and Butylparabens. (Fortunately you only need to read this article, not read it out to someone!) They are widely used as preservatives in personal care products. Some scientific studies have found that parabens may be carcinogenic and may be linked to breast cancer. Although the matter has been recommended for further, large-scale scientific research before parabens are classified as toxic, in my opinion, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid them. Unfortunately, parabens are found in many commercial products including shampoos, shower gels, cleansers, moisturizers, shaving gels, lubricants, tanning products, make-up and toothpaste, amongst others. Check what you buy and go for paraben-free products just to be on the safe side.

Phthalates. Phthalates are toxic substances that may damage the liver, lungs, kidneys and the reproductive system. They can be found in a wide range of products commonly used in every household. They are used in various personal care products too, including deodorants, perfume, aftershave, shampoos, hair products and lotions. Phthalates support the products’ absorption into the skin, help lubrication and serve as viscosity control and gelling agents, amongst others. If you see phthalates on the label of a personal care product, give serious consideration to not buy it. You may see the terms Diethyl Phthalate or DEP, Dibutyl Phthalate or DBP and Benzylbutyl Phthalate or BzBP on cosmetics, too.

Sodium Lauryl and Laureth Sulfate. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are cleansing and foaming agents found in shampoos, body wash products and soaps, as well as general household detergents. They may cause skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, inflammation, rashes and hair loss. Sometimes companies try to disguise their presence in their “natural” products with terms such “coconut oil” or “palm oil” or similar, due to the fact that SLS is derived from these oils. Still, they are known irritants and may be carcinogenic. SLS is known to be mutagen, which means that it may change DNA. It is thought to be particularly harmful for babies and infants as it may damage the development of their eyes and immune systems.

Diayolidinyl Urea and Imidayolidinyl Urea. These chemicals are widely used preservatives and are known to cause allergies and skin irritations. If you see either the above names or the commercial name “Germal” of this substance and its variations on a label of any skincare product, you should consider not buy it. You may find them in many personal care products including shampoos, bubble baths, hair conditioners, detergents and even in baby wipes.

Synthetic fragrances and artificial colors. Synthetic fragrances are petrochemicals that mimic natural aroma. Such fragrances tend to be stronger than what can be achieved when using only natural ingredients in a product. These are included in personal care products to stimulate the consumer’s senses and to have a psychological effect. The scent that make you think of a product as fresh and natural may be coming from a very unnatural source. The same is true to artificial colors. They are synthetic and their aim is to make a product attractive and visually appealing to the customer. They may however be carcinogenic. Fragrances may be created with many ingredients, which remain unlisted on skincare labels. If you see “fragrance” on a skincare label, it may mean basically anything. Synthetic colors may be labeled as FD&C or D&C, plus a number. Be cautious of both artificial fragrances and colors and go for fragrance and coloring-free natural alternatives. They may be white and scentless, but they will be good for you.

In addition, synthetics like Petrolatum in lip balms, Propylene Glycol in liquid foundations, sprays, mists and deodorants, lotions, shampoos, conditioners and lipsticks, PVP/VA Copolymer in hairsprays, Stearalkonium Chloride in creams and hair conditioners and Triethanolamine (TEA) in creams, ointments, hair products and shampoos should particularly be avoid. They are known irritants, allergens and may also be toxic.

If you see the above-mentioned synthetic ingredients or anything that is not listed here but looks and sounds like a chemical substance on the label of any personal care product, I would recommend that you consider not buying it. There are safer, natural and organic alternatives on the market. They may be pricier, do not smell like a meadow and do not have a vibrant color. However, they will be gentle on your skin and won’t allow toxins into your body.

Keep Yourself Balanced With BodyBalance

BodyBalance is an exercise regime of Les Mills, the global fitness company from New Zealand. It is a unique exercise concept, influenced by yoga, tai chi and Pilates. The aim of the approach is to build core strength, enhance flexibility, improve balance and contribute to mental and spiritual wellbeing. It is a truly holistic workout, which is attentive to physical strength and spiritual renewal, supporting a balanced life philosophy. As such, it is in perfect alignment with the outlook on life that Papaya Park is here to promote. Let’s take a closer look at BodyBalance.

BodyBalanceLes Mills

BodyBalance is a 55-minute workout (consisting of 45 minutes of exercise and 10 minutes of relaxation), which begins with a gentle Tai Chi routine to warm up the body via long, flowing moves. This is followed by a series of yoga poses, called Sun Salutations, which include 12 poses designed to develop core strength and to stretch muscles and spine. Sun Salutations also tone abdominals and contribute to the warm-up of the body. This is followed by standing yoga postures, including warrior and triangle poses, to strengthen and tone the body.

The next phase of the routine focuses on balance. It requires concentration to achieve balance in certain challenging poses. Nonetheless, it is fun and it improves stability, which is neglected within most of the modern exercise routines. The balance phase is followed by hip openers for supple hips. These yoga poses also help circulation in legs, help back pain and promote better posture. The next phase of the routine focuses on the core of the body, using Pilates exercises to strengthen abs and back. Thereafter, focus is given to twists and forward bends, which aid flexibility of the hamstring muscles and improve suppleness of the back.

The routine ends with 10-minutes of relaxation and meditation. This last part of the program is designed to enhance the impact of the routine and establish mental and spiritual balance in the body.

The various phases of the routine are accompanied by different music, reflecting the pace and style of the given element. The music tends to be very well chosen.

BodyBalance is updated every quarter. The choreography is modified and the music changes, so it ensuring that it never gets boring.

BodyBalance is not complicated but it is challenging and the moves are harmonic and beautiful. They leave you feeling relaxed and revived. At the end of the class your mental and physical balance feels restored.

As BodyBalance is an integrated and holistic routine, it has a number of benefits, it is worth giving it a go.

Benefits include the following:

  1. Improved flexibility of joints and muscles
  2. Supple spine and improved posture
  3. Enhanced core strength
  4. Better cardiovascular health
  5. Restored symmetry of the body and better stability
  6. Reduced stress levels, improved alertness, calmness and well-being

If you wish to take a brief look at the workout, watch the Les Mills video below.

I encountered BodyBalance earlier this year and right after the first class I felt that it was a perfect choice for me. Ever since I have been a fan and I go this class several times a week. I would encourage you to find your nearest Les Mills licensed gym, give it a go end enjoy the benefits!

Penne alla Norma from Sicily

Penne alla Norma is one of my favorite Italian dishes. I encountered it at our favourite Italian restaurants in Abu Dhabi, where the chef is from Italy. I ordered it multiple times and eventually decided to make it myself. After a bit of research I found the recipe I liked most on Martha Stewart’s website. I adjusted it slightly to come as close as possible to the one I fell in love with.

Penne alla Norma has its own history. It is a Sicilian dish, which originates in Catania. It received its name from the famous opera La Norma, composed by the Catanian composer, Vincenzo Bellini, in 1831.

I have heard two urban legends about Penne alla Norma. One of them suggests that the dish was named by Nino Martoglio, a Catanian playwright. When he tasted the pasta, he associated it with the opera La Norma. He then exclaimed the phrase: “This is a Norma!”. The other legend around the dish suggests that Bellini routinely ordered this pasta in an Italian tavern. In tribute to the composer, the owner named the dish after his masterpiece, La Norma.

Though the origins of the dish are the stuff of urban myth, it is unclear who created it. Whoever came up with the dish, they made something incredible. Try it and impress your loved ones with this Italian delight of vegetarian cooking!


  • 1 pack of penne pasta, preferably whole wheat (you may use eggless brown rice penne or durum semolina)
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper according to taste
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
  • 1 large eggplant, cut into 2 cm chunks
  • 1 kilogram plum tomatoes, cored and cut into 4 cm chunks (you may use two cans of organic tomatoes, it will taste equally good)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • A handful of torn fresh basil, plus more for garnish (you may use a couple of tablespoons of dried basil, too, according to taste)
  • 200 gram of ricotta or fresh mozzarella cheese

Preparation method:

  • Cook pasta until al dente, according to packet instructions.
  • Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add onion, garlic (and the optional crushed red pepper). If you use crushed red pepper, coat the onion and garlic with the crushed red pepper. Cook and stir occasionally for 5 minutes.
  • Add eggplant to the saucepan and season with salt and pepper. Cover the saucepan and cook for a while until the eggplant browns slightly and starts to release its juices. Remove the lid of the pan and cook for a few more minutes. If it becomes sticky, add a little water to the pan. Don’t allow the contents stick to the pan as it will burn.
  • Add the tomato paste, the tomatoes and 200 ml water to cook the sauce further. Until all the ingredients are cooked through and soften. It may take 5 minutes.
  • Add basil to the sauce and then mix in the pasta. Cook the sauce and pasta for a little while to help the tastes mature.
  • Put some ricotta or mozzarella on top, garnish with basil and serve. Use some grated parmesan, according to taste, to add flavours to the dish.
  • If your local supermarket does not store crushed red pepper, you may make your own one. Use a blender to blend a whole red pepper.
  • I prefer mozzarella to ricotta and I always buy fresh mini mozzarellas for this dish. They mix well with the pasta.
  • You may make the dish vegan if you use eggless pasta (and omit the cheese). Preferably the pasta should be made of brown rice. Be careful when you cook it, as it may be prone to sticking together. Use vegan cheese substitute instead of ricotta or mozzarella and enjoy a vegan delight.
  • If you are bored of penne, you may use other types of noodle. Experiment and create your own Pasta alla Norma.

Let me know in the comments what you think of this dish.  If you have any great variations that you’d like to share, be sure to let everyone know below.

Buon appetito!

Understanding What’s In Your Food

We’ve probably all heard the old adage: “you are what you eat”. It is certainly true that our physical and mental state largely depend upon our diet.

Obesity, cancer, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, amongst others may develop due to bad dietary habits. These illnesses are responsible for an ever-increasing number of fatalities. It is therefore important to inform ourselves about the food what we put in our bodies.

When I started to cook, I thought I was already quite aware of healthy eating. I had to realize though that the fact that there’s more to understanding what it means to eat whole and healthy foods.

Ready-made food items tend to end-up in the shopping trolley of everyone, including health-conscious consumers.  Just think of pasta sauces, salsas, breads, spreads, oat cookies, cereals, canned vegetables, etc. Even if you cook items yourself and avoid processed, junk food, you will probably end up buying a fair amount of packaged food. It seems to be quite unavoidable but still, you can control what you put on the table if you shop and cook consciously.

How to handle this problem?

First of all, I would recommend trying to limit your consumption of packaged foods. If whole food (i.e. food that’s been processed as little as possible) is available instead of a bottled or canned one, then go for it. Make your own chutneys, sauces, juices and soups using fresh vegetables and fruits whenever possible. It may have a beneficial impact on your health and it will be fun to explore your culinary talents.

If you do buy packaged food items, don’t always go for brand names and attractive packaging. Instead of buying based on how the packaging looks or how familiar its name sounds (based on advertising), seek to understand what lies under the packaging. Take a closer look at what the product contains and read the label. The manufacturers are bound by law in many countries to display a wide range of dietary information on the product. This is a valuable tool that is available for us to make better and more informed buying decisions.


What to be Mindful of

Here are 10 things to be attentive to when buying food and reading the nutritional data on the label.

1)     Watch the serving sizes. Food manufacturers have a deceitful habit of disclosing nutrition facts based on serving size, not the actual size of the product. If the product contains more than one serving, all the amounts listed may need to be multiplied. Always check whether the nutrition values are per serving and if so, multiply the data with the number of servings the product contains to get the full picture.  Also, remember that the serving size may be different to what you normally consume as a single serving.

2)     Pay attention to calories and the recommended daily intake. Check the calorie content of packaged products. The recommended average daily calorie intakes are in a range of 1,800 to 2,000 for women and 2,200 to 2,500 for men. This will likely vary by individual, based on their physical activity and other factors. However, it is a good habit to keep recommended calorie intakes in mind and not to overeat, in order to avoid weight gain.

3)     Beware of bad fats. Saturated and trans fats are bad for you, so limit or, if possible, eliminate them from your diet. In particular, they occur in some animal products and appear in processed foods. The biggest concern is trans fats in processed food, which appear in products containing partially or fully hydrogenated oils. Trans fats tend to appear in snacks, fried and commercially baked goods, as a side effect of very high heat used during their manufacturing process. Always look at the label and if the product consists of trans fats, ditch it. The problem with trans fats is manifold: they raise LDL, the “bad cholesterol” (LDL) levels and lower “good cholesterol” (HDL) level in the body and slow metabolism.

4)     Lower your sodium (salt) intake. A high level of sodium intake can cause high blood pressure. It is not recommended to take more than 2,300 mg sodium per day, or 1,500 mg for people over 40. This is equivalent to a teaspoon or less.

5)     Avoid the hidden sugars. Lots of packaged foods contain added sugar. The food industry uses a wide range of sugars under different names including but not limited to: fructose, glucose, lactose, corn sugar, corn syrup, corn starch, barely malt, dextran, diatase, maltodextrin, mannitol, sucrose, sorbitol, maltitol. These are all sugars containing high calories and close to nothing in nutritional value. Keep their intake to a minimum, if possible.

6)     Choose complex carbs. Carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables are a much better source of energy than simple carbs found in refined sugar. Complex carbs tend to be rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals and they don’t raise the blood sugar level of the body as quickly as simple ones.

7)     Have a diet rich in fiber. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Consumption of fiber improves the digestive tract and maintains a healthy colon. Plus it contributes to the slow break down of the food in the body; therefore it helps to prevent sudden blood sugar spikes. Recommended intake of dietary fiber is 25 g for women and 38 g for men per day. Make sure you have enough of it.

8)     Have enough protein in your diet. Protein is very important as it serves as the fundamental element of the human body at the cellular level. Animal products are very good source of protein, albeit they raise other dietary and health concerns. Vegetarians may receive sufficient protein intake from pulses, whole grains, seaweed and nuts. Nonetheless, they should pay special attention to ensure that they consume enough protein, as protein deficiency can be highly problematic.

9)     Eat enough vitamins and minerals. The best source of vitamins and minerals like iron and calcium are fresh whole foods. If you buy packaged food, check out the vitamin and mineral content on the label and choose the ones that are high in vitamins and minerals.

10)   Buy whole grain breads. Don’t let the food industry deceive you with marketing claims around bakery products. Check the label and buy only whole grain (not simply whole-wheat) bread, rolls and wraps. “Made with whole grain” and similar phrases do not equal to whole grain and may have very little fiber content and health benefit.  Also, just because a bread is brown doesn’t mean it is healthy.

Reading the labels on packaged foods will help you create a balanced diet. If you create the habit of taking a look at labels before you buy a packaged food, you will be able to control your fat, sugar and cholesterol intake and you will recognize if your diet is not rich enough in fiber, vitamins and protein. This is hugely empowering and your new skill will make its impact on your overall health and wellbeing.