La Delizia: My Story (sort of)

Every year, around Christmas, I make panforte. In a bowl I stir together flour; cocoa powder; toasted almonds, walnuts, and macadamias; nutmeg; cinnamon; ginger; chilli powder; and pepper. Then in one pan I melt chocolate, whilst in another I make syrup from sugar and honey. When both pots begin to bubble, I scrape them into the bowl and then it’s a race against time to mix it all together before the liquids turn back into solids. As the biscuit cake bakes in the oven and the smell of spices and roasted nuts and chocolate fill the kitchen, I think of Nonna. Not my Nonna, but: Nonna.

Nonna was my next door neighbour’s Nonna when I was growing up. Nonna – perpetually aproned – spoke always in rapid Italian (no doubt hoping her grand-daughter would pick it up better than her mother had) and moved in a cloud of faint flour dust that rose and fell with every gesticulation of her hands.

She also made the most magnificent food you have ever tasted. Her second-eldest grandson would go on to open a trendy cafe in the inner-city in her honour. In all of his press releases he would tell the story of how his Nonna taught him to cook. Reading about his hard-earned success from the other side of the world, I couldn’t resist a smug smile and the whispered thought; ‘yeah, same though.’ (And by the way, my pastas are also the stuff of legend).

I have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is romanticised. She was not my family, and she was also not a regular character in my childhood – it was rare that I would be at my neighbour’s house playing when Nonna was over; generally that was reserved for family time. In my more self-critical moments, I am fearful that I have simply amalgamated her from a series of Italian women who began making an appearance in Australian popular culture in the early- to mid-90s: Josie’s Nonna in Looking for Alibrandi probably would have made a heavy-handed appearance in my source material. But, at the same time, I also have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is genuine.

Nonna may not have been a regular character in my up-bringing, but she was nevertheless an incredibly important one. That smug, self-satisfied grin on the other side of the world was based in a deeply-personal truth: Nonna taught me to cook.

I come from a long line of women who couldn’t make a decent dish to save their life (and talent, ingenuity, and sheer dumb luck has meant they’ve never really had to either). My Yiayia was never the cook of her household. That honour went to her husband who – born in KL when it was still a British colony – would spend hours of a Sunday slow-cooking curries and kneading rotis. When it became necessary for Yiayia to cook, such delights were immediately replaced with over-boiled carrots (a dish that will still set me gagging at its mere thought) and hammer-and-chisel-tough strips of meat. For my mother – who lived through both the throwing off of the shackles of ‘women’s work’ that was the 70s feminist revolution and, less productively, the era of the ‘microwave dinner party’ – cooking was a much-dreaded chore frequently accompanied by ominous crashes and severe language warnings.

But in Nonna’s kitchen the crafting of a meal became an art form in which the simplest and easiest to manage processes churned out at the other end some brand new delight. She showed us how to prepare the vegetables; slicing them to different thicknesses to show us how surface area impacts cooking time, taste, and texture. She taught us how to balance simplicity with subtlety; never over-doing the number of ingredients, but always adding something extra – spice or salt or crunch – that could not be immediately discerned from looking at the plate. She taught us how to plan our order of battle; how to make sure that everything – from stews to pasta to salad – would be ready at the same time. She taught us how to balance the delights of flavour with the importance of being full, and watching her and her family delight in the eating of the food they had all prepared together, I realised that there is no ‘bad’ food.

Nonna taught me to cook, because she taught me to eat.

It wasn’t clear-sailing, and it still took me a long time to be confident in my cooking instincts; to not see food as a chore; and to realise that panforte is not ‘junk’ food: that it is love and family and sharing coated in honey and chocolate and nuts.

And so this year – as every other year – I will go to the spice shop around the corner and find the freshest ingredients I can. And then I will mix and melt and re-make them into my favourite Italian Christmas food. And then, once the cake has cooled and its exterior hardened, I will take a knife and run it through its middle. Then I will cut it in half again. And then I will find the middle points between those two cuts and I will slice two more times until I have my 8 slices of panforte. And then I will wrap them in cloth and ribbon and love, and I will distribute them to my friends and family. And together we will eat and live in joy.

“Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth”

It’s surprisingly rare to find a place that ignites all of your senses, and always a wonderful surprise when you unknowingly stumble into one. With its magnificent street art, bustling labyrinthine streets, orange sun bouncing off the sapphire waves and burning the skin, and life-changinglyndelicious food, Sicily is one of those.

Four cities in six days – the university student-saturated Catania (which also doubles as the aptly named cat capital); the wealthy boutique-lined Taormina; the sun-drenched coastal Syracuse; and, the Island’s energetic and crowded capital Palermo. Despite being clustered into a relatively small island, the cities of Sicily retain distinct characters. Indeed, the only thing that links them seems to be their people’s genuine love for and pride in their food.

Sicily is known for its food, so I was expecting tasty. I wasn’t expecting to leave questioning everything I ever thought I knew about food, taste, and cooking. The standard was set on the second night with a three-course meal at a local trattoria single-handedly run by a woman who makes her pasta from scratch, hand-sources all local ingredients, and can cook them to perfection. As an aside, I’m pretty sure she also makes her own limoncello.

At a Syracusan market a few days later, a man with a sandwich stall took great delight in allowing us to sample each of his 10+ cheeses as he made what was, quite honestly, the most magnificent sandwich of my life. Fresh crusty bread, olive pate, cheese, olives, cheese, chilli flakes, a smoked cheese, oh and some more cheese. The market itself was a cornucopia of giant fruit and vegetables and the wafting scent of Mediterranean and North African herbs and spices.

But it wasn’t all stuffing and gorging. There was also drinking to be done. Spritzers, dry white wine, and grappa drunk in some of the cosiest wine bars I’ve ever been in. NB Sicilian standard pours are very generous which lends itself to long slow evenings feasting and snacking, but can also flow to your head pretty quick if you’re not used to it.

Sicilian cities are also host to some of the most amazing ancient archeological and heritage sites. My personal favourites were a Teatro in Catania and a cliff-top castle in Syracuse.

But the thing I found most fascinating about Sicily was how seemingly similar it was to the Australian Italian community. In the mass wave of post-WWII immigration to Australia from Italy, many of the emigrants came from the south and specifically Sicily. And they brought their food and culture with them – two things which have adapted well to the Australian climate. Arancini balls, pepper and aubergine-based antipasto, and even pasta sauces found in Australia and Sicily but not elsewhere in Italy made for a very curious fish-out-of-water familiarity.

And on that note – photos!

“A good appetite needs no sauce” (Polish Proverb)

Late last year, a friend checked-in on Facebook to Melbourne airport announcing their impending flight to central Europe. After getting in touch to ask if a visit to London where we were was on their itinerary (it wasn’t: they didn’t know we were there as they thought we had been in Ballarat for the past 6 months – long story), J and I decided that a weekend jaunt to meet in the middle in Prague wasn’t a half-bad idea.

We’d both been to Prague before, but the city still manages to charm. This particular trip was in winter, and there were mulled-wine sellers on most corners, Christmas markets galore, and street festivals and live music performances to top it all off. And the chilly weather provided a wonderful justification to indulge in copious amounts of Pilsner Urquell, fried and fermented cheese, pickles, peppers, and of course poppyseed cake.

We didn’t just spend our time in bars and pubs (just most of our time), also taking walks through many of Prague’s beautiful parks. But, it being only a two-night stopover visit, the eating and drinking and socialising did consume much of the weekend.

Whilst our friend headed back to the Antipodes, we went on to Krakow – a city I had not been to before, but which was absolutely amazing. The central old city – bubbling with tourists, central square-facing bars and restaurants, and enclosed by beautiful medieval façades – was an absolute delight, and I spent much time strolling up and down its numerous thoroughfares and laneways, people-watching and window-shopping.

As the sun disappeared and twilight set-in, we took a stroll up to Krakow Castle which sits atop the hill that overlooks the city. The view of the city was amazing, and we also got to walk through the open part of the grounds of the castle before they closed the gates – an activity I can thoroughly recommend as you get to see the best bits of the site (the view and the buildings) without having to pay the entry fee.

As darkness descended and more and more people came out to play (Krakow is a city that likes to party), we returned to ground level and went in search of a bar. J had heard of a vodka bar just outside the central area, and we shared a 6-glass sampler whilst crammed into a loft-style attic packed with tables of other welcomingly boisterous drinkers. The vodkas were flavoured: earl grey; cherry; apple; and numerous types of berries. And we rounded the whole thing off with a deliciously bitter pickle.

Doing things slightly backwards, we next found ourselves in a wine bar where, feeling holiday decadent, we each indulged in a glass of sparkling. By this stage, our heads were feeling rather light and our tummies rather empty, so we headed out in search of food: pierogi to be exact. Polish dumplings filled with mushroom and cabbage, or potato and cottage cheese, or spinach and cottage cheese, or any other vegetable-based deliciousness. This is one of my favourite dishes, and we spent much time wandering up and down the main pierogi-restaurant street deciding which place to sample first, then ended up enjoying ourselves so much we ate everything we wanted and were too full to go anywhere else.

The next morning we indulged in a pierogi & bakery breakfast – a plate of pierogi, a cup of borscht, and a cherry tart bought from the bakery and hole-in-the-wall pierogi bar not 500m from our AirBnB room – before heading south to Kazimierz for coffee. Our plan was to head to the gallery and the holocaust museum, but we had slept too late and so only got to the latter before the complex closed for the day (it closes early one day a week).

The museum – a very interactive exhibit where you walk through numerous spaces – comprised an almost overwhelming wealth of information that ran the gamut from oral histories, journals and letters, to official and government documents, photographs, and material culture. Very well curated, the act of walking through the museum provided a framing narrative that made the information easier to understand and locate historically and geographically. Knowing quite a bit about the history of the holocaust, and having read the canon (as it were) of fiction and non-fiction holocaust literature, I didn’t ‘learn’ too much from the museum per se (though I was shocked anew at the sophistication of magazine printing by in-mates in the camps), but it’s always interesting to see new documents presented in a different way.

We spent much of the rest of that day in the south, which has seen an influx in recent years of a Jewish population returning to Europe from Israel. It’s also one of the best areas for food, coffee, and cake – which is basically what we did for the rest of the day. That night, we also spent a good few hours in a video game bar playing guitar hero and I am now convinced that a bar is not complete without at least three consoles.

Krakow is a fun city and it feels very young and energetic. The people are friendly, the food is great, and it’s just a wonderful place to visit. Basically, it’s everything I thought it would be and more.

The next morning – our last for the trip – we got up early and hired a car to visit the spectre of Krakow: Auschwitz. This was not a happy day, and is probably best left for another post. Suffice to say here that I would recommend a visit to the museum if for no other reason than to be awed and moved by the physicality of it. Much like how walking through the museum aided comprehension of the documents on display, visiting the physical sites of the atrocities of WWII does enable some sort of grasp on the overwhelming magnitude of death that was carried out and condoned across the continent.

And, on that note, photos:

“Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs”

Last June, I was in Sydney for the Biennale. The 2016 theme was ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ The title is a quote from celebrated science fiction writer William Gibson (he of Neuromancer fame), and – as is perhaps self-explanatory – acts as a thematic lynch-pin for art which challenges dominant social, political, and economic ideologies and which shifts focus away from centres of power and privilege.

Under this banner stood the Biennale’s seven ‘Embassies’: Embassy of the Real (at Cockatoo Island); Embassy of Spirits (at the Art Gallery of New South Wales); Embassy of Disappearance (at Carriageworks); Embassy of Non-Participation (at Artspace); Embassy of Translation (at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia); Embassy of Transition (at Mortuary Station), and; Embassy of Stanislaw Lem (the Biennale bookshop). Between each of these major exhibition sites, one could also keep an eye out for the ‘In-Between Spaces’; interstitial pieces by exhibited artists which lay hidden amidst the streets of Sydney – a magical treasure hunt through the city.

Scattered across the town, the Biennale makes for a great excuse to see almost all that Sydney has to offer on foot. Walking from Embassy to Embassy, searching through streets and up hidden staircases for the In-Between Spaces, catching the ferry out to Cockatoo Island – it was a brilliantly exhausting weekend.

For me, the smallest Embassy was also the most exciting: the Embassy of Transition at the abandoned Mortuary Station. Though, to be completely honest, I think my excitement had more to do with the venue than the exhibition itself. An abandoned train station through which funereal trains used to pass on their way to the Rookwood necropolis is just my kind of place. You can walk up and down the platform, admire the rusted tracks, and hang out in the still furnished waiting rooms. It’s a pretty special place.

In a similar vein, Carriageworks is a phenomenal exhibition space. Also related to trains (it used to be where they were built) the sheer size and the low lighting of the space makes for an incredibly eerie atmosphere that lends itself well to much contemporary art, especially video pieces and anything that requires audience participation. It feels like you’re really stepping into another world, and makes for a wonderfully different feeling from the usual white cube gallery space. It’s open for exhibitions year around, and I would definitely recommend a visit.

And then there’s Cockatoo Island (which I’m pretty sure is where Cleverman was filmed). An old industrial site turned tourist attraction, it is an overwhelming site in terms of both space and material. My words cannot do it justice. I recommend spending a whole day there if you ever get the chance. But take a packed lunch – the food vans are ludicrously expensive. And this in a town known for its pricey food!

One of my favourite places to go to eat in Sydney is a bustling Izakaya in one of the shopping centres. It has everything you can imagine and, the last time I was there, I gorged on natto sushi, wakame salad, noodles, inari, nasu dengaku, mushroom skewers, and agedashi tofu (for the record, I did share). And to wash it all down, there was white wine, beer, and warm sake – and yes I had them all at the same time as is traditional (I just sipped them all very slowly).

And then there’s brunch. Ah Sydney – you do get brunch. Seriously, have brunch in Sydney. It genuinely is a breakfast/lunch replacement (and this coming from someone who can eat so much at a breakfast buffet that even the staff will ask if I’m sure I want another helping). My recommendation: Israeli brunch. Falafel, hummus, sabzi, shakshuka – what more could you want?!

This post is fast turning into a food tour (which is kind of not what this blog is meant to be about, and yet it keeps happening…) So I might just leave it there for today. Pics (mainly of food) below!

An Eye For An Eye – My Uncle’s Story

Across my uncle’s three-decade career as an academic, he has supervised many a graduate student. Some of these students he has kept in touch with after they have graduated and gone on to do other things. Sometimes these students are international students, and when he finds himself in their home city for work, he will look them up.

And so it was that my uncle, whilst on a work trip to Singapore, found himself invited to a formal dinner with an ex-student and his family. Dinner was a banquet – an endless succession of intricate delicacies and local favourites. Then, as the meal reached its climax, the main event was brought to the table – a whole fish.

In Singaporean culture, it is apparently tradition to show respect to the guest of honour by allowing them to eat the juiciest, most delicious, most delicate part of the fish: its eyes. (Perhaps it’s also just a fun way to mess with friends who are new to the city.)

POP! went the eyes as they were scooped out of their sockets and placed on my uncle’s plate.

And so my uncle – who will devour cow tongue with a relish bordering on grotesque and yet who is surprisingly squeamish about other body parts – found himself staring at his plate whilst the rest of the table sat smiling encouragingly at him.

I think he might have just swallowed them whole.

“What hath night to do with sleep?”

For a long time, I’ve wanted to go to Singapore but each time I planned a trip something would come up just before I booked flights and make it impossible for me to go. This has happened four times, but fifth time’s the charm and a few months ago I managed to sneak in a two-night trip.

I’ve known a lot of people who have moved from Singapore to Australia, so my expectations of the city were largely based on what they as (sometimes disgruntled) expats told me of their hometown. I was expecting a city of concrete and towers, of conformity and order, and of amazing food. The food certainly did not disappoint, but the city surprised me in many other ways.

Although concrete and towers are certainly pervasive, I was shocked at how beautifully green the island city was. Although it was incredibly humid whilst we were there, the innumerable parks which join each neighbourhood made the 6-hour+ walking days incredibly pleasant. And each neighbourhood certainly had its own charm.

A bit like Kuala Lumpur, the diversity of Singapore makes for a hodge-podge of a city, and the compilation of all the different neighbourhoods makes it feel like multiple cities in one. On the second day, we took a walk through the heritage-listed streets of the old town where multiple stalls and tiny shop fronts sold everything from touristic knick knacks to bags and clothing to incredibly beautiful antique furniture. From there we headed to little India where we stumbled upon an insipid-looking but incredibly popular eatery where – encouraged by the large local crowd and the obvious enjoyment of the diners – we ordered a dosa masala (freshly made) and sour lassi. Words can’t even begin to describe how amazing that meal was, so I’m not going to even attempt it.

Despite its deliciousness, we found ourselves unable to finish our dosa. Actually, we struggled to finish most of our meals in Singapore. The wide variety of the food, its continual availability and surprisingly low cost meant we spent most of our time eating. It’s entirely possible that I consumed my body weight in dumplings, and that was before we even got around to trying all the dishes Singapore is known for. All the different types of noodle dishes, daikon cake, murtabak – it was all good. Despite our incredibly short visit, I also really got into ordering coffee like a local (kopi-O-peng kosong!) which meant very high caffeine levels and so made getting the most out of our 40-hour trip a breeze.

Which was a good thing, because Singapore really comes alive after dark. It’s a city of roof-top bars and trendy nightclubs where young professionals in designer clothes sit in booths sipping top-shelf vodka or champagne. Or so I’ve been told by those same expats. With a historically conservative culture around drinking, alcohol in Singapore is expensive and the dress-standard entrance to clubs and some bars is prohibitively high. So we didn’t really ‘go out’ while we were there. We just wandered the streets hour after hour soaking up the atmosphere. Content to be anonymous revellers tripping the light fantastic down brightly lit boulevards where billboard advertisements move and beckon, inviting you into the eternally-open shopping centres.

 

 

 

An Australian Diner in Paris

The title of, and setting for this blog post may seem odd given last week’s post was on San Sebastián. Since last week’s post was inspired by preparations for my own birthday, this week’s was inspired by another’s. Enjoy!

***

While my mother’s approach to travel was an open-ended one-way trip to London, my uncle’s was to remain based in Perth – where he was gainfully employed as an academic – and take short trips to new destinations each year. Being the 1970s, their primary means of communication was letter writing.

One day, after she had been away from home for a number of years, my mother received a letter from my uncle informing her that he was planning a trip to Europe and – since she had been absent for a number of consecutive birthdays and Christmases, and since he had unfortunately missed a few travel opportunities – he would be using his bourgeoning savings to treat her to a rather extravagant gift: a culinary tour of three of the finest Michelin-star restaurants Paris had to offer. Although it’s entirely likely that my uncle’s altruism was in fact motivated by a desire to not dine alone, my mother – who had hitherto flitted between jobs as a bar tender, cleaner, and shop assistant, and who often found herself pinching pennies to pay for coffee – found it within her to magnanimously accept the gift on the generous face-value terms in which it was offered.

My mother, along with some of her friends, organised a trip to Paris that coincided with the dates my uncle had given her. They travelled in the (still-trusty) combi-van and spent their nights in campsites and youth hostels, running to the ablutions block with their bathroom bags at first light to avoid the morning crush. They spent their days wandering the city, sharing small morsels of flakey pastry between the group. My uncle stayed in guesthouses and spent his days riding the metro between all the amazing sites that Paris has to offer.

At dinner time, my mother’s friends would drop her at the restaurant specified, making sure to park the combi van around the corner so that her exit was not noticed by the other diners. My mother had dressed in the best clothes she possessed – not an easy task for a professional traveller. It being a rather cold autumn, she was also forced to don her much-used, second-hand-when-she-bought-it, generally-left-at-the-bottom-of-the bag coat which had seen the worst of European winter. Bought for durability and comfort rather than style, it definitely drew attention.

At the first restaurant, my mother and uncle caught a glimpse of what was to follow at the next two. Whilst my uncle – in shirt, paints, and casual jacket (most likely his every-day work outfit) – had been greeted warmly, upon my mother’s entrance the Maître d’ gave a start:

“Are you lost, Madame?”

My mother explained she had a booking and gave the name. It wasn’t until my uncle – catching sight of her across the restaurant – gave a wave of recognition that they relented.

“Shall I take your…” he paused and my mother tried not to laugh, “…coat, Madame?”

He used a serviette.

Whilst my mother enjoyed the finest cuisine the city had to offer, her friends remained around the corner, huddled in the van with their simple cheese and baguette dinners, sharing jokes and carafe wine.

My mother would always try to sneak something of the meal back for them. At one restaurant the cheque was brought out with a bowl filled to the brim with house-made chocolates. One could, naturally, take as many as one wished, but given the surroundings and the considerable meal which had preceded them, it was understood that ‘as many as one wished’ would not be all that many.

When the waiter returned for my uncle to sign, he found the bowl bare save for the two empty chocolate wrappers from the pieces my mother and uncle had tasted. They had been divine. The rest were in my mother’s handbag. The waiter – though naturally, respectably, silent – was clearly not impressed. My mother’s friends – squealing with delight upon her triumphant return to the van – clearly were.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”

I’m planning my birthday dinner at the moment, and I’ve gone with the best the Spanish-speaking world has to offer to vegetarians. Cue pintxos, tapas, home-made corn tortillas, and a Mexican chilli chocolate cake to die for. To top it all off, I have invested in copious amounts of cava, tempranillo, sangria, and – perhaps surprisingly – apple cider.  Ella Baila Sola is playing from the stereo and there’s also a misguided-purchase of a piñata sitting in the corner cause I didn’t really think through where I could tie it up…

Spanish food is fun. It’s theatrical, it’s delicious, and the invariably small serving sizes mean you get to try a little of everything and make catering a dinner party an absolute breeze. Of course, the only problem with my selection of theme for my birthday is that it’s making me feel incredibly nostalgic for Spain. I’ve blogged previously on Barcelona so today I thought I would go with San Sebastián.

I love San Sebastián. People say it’s too touristy, but what they don’t mention is that the vast majority of tourists (in the non-British season) are themselves Spanish – up from the surrounding areas for a weekend of good times. As a city of tiny alleyways, San Sebastián makes even the smallest crowd feel substantial, and we were there during a festival weekend. There were activities and performances every day, and one afternoon there was a parade in which giant wooden and paper dolls on stilts traversed the city to gather and dance in the square just next to our hostel.

San Sebastián is a loud city. Unbelievably loud. It is a city whose energy is infectious – even after a sleepless night at a Romanian airport and a very early morning flight we were ready to stay up till dawn.

And oh my god the food. The pintxos are a thing of beauty; an ocean of tiny toothpicks pressing magnificent combinations of cheese, peppers, and seafood onto crusty baguette. A well-stocked pintxo bar resembles a poorly built picket fence.

There are two types of pintxo bar. The first is staffed by middle-aged men in long-sleeve white shirts and black waistcoats. Either too bright or too dark, they are populated by a subdued crowd politely sipping table wine and nibbling simple pintxos made according to traditional recipes. The bread is topped with only one or two ingredients – always fresh – and the meal is rounded out with a serving of patatas bravas and pimientos de padrón.

The second is staffed by young bearded men working alongside women sporting bright red hair. The lighting – always just the right side of dark – obscures how many people the tiny venue contains, but the rabble of voices – and the quickly disappearing pintxos – hint at the multitude. The pintxos themselves are always works of art – beautifully executed pieces one feels almost guilty to consume – and are new twists on old favourites (brie with pomegranate, shitake mushroom skewers and the like). The drinks list is invariably simple but performance-based. At one place the cava barrel stood above the waiter’s head and streamed out in an arc. He had to hold the glass at just the right distance and angle to catch the liquid, which had formed a parabola above his head.

Two types of pintxo bar, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which is my favourite.

(I have very few photos of San Sebastián – I was having too much fun to remember to take any.)

Walking the Great Wall: My Uncle’s Story

Until now the family stories I have shared have been set in the same cities I have posted about. Today I wanted to do something slightly different, and offer a story echo based on region. Apart from myself, no one in my family has traveled extensively in Asia, meaning that I have no family tales to share about Taiwan. My uncle has, however, been to China – a country I have yet to visit.

*

When China opened its borders to the west in the early 1980s, my uncle packed his bags and headed over. Now a somewhat older and more experienced traveler, he delighted in the oddity he presented to the locals as a foreigner. The locals pointed, some took photos, some attempted to talk to him, some were obviously shy and gave him a wide berth and sideways glance.

His delight with China once again expressed itself in his relationship to local food practices. His interest in the tastes of the cuisine and the magnificently grand cooking techniques led to an examination question he posed to his engineering students in Perth the following year:

How would one could remove the entire skeleton from a dead duck, leaving both the carcass and the skeleton still in tact? 

An ancient technique, the record of the procedure can only be found in one English translation of an obscure medieval Chinese cookery pamphlet. His students called the question unfair. My uncle argued that research was an important skill for an engineer.

My uncle always looks happy when he speaks of his time in China and even potentially unpleasant experiences are told with a smile and a laugh.

At the end of his trek along a section of the Great Wall, my uncle spied a fruit stand. Being both hungry and thirsty he headed over. There were many fruits on offer, but my uncle’s eye was drawn to the big juicy oranges at the back of the stall. He had no Mandarin, the seller had no English, and so my uncle pointed at them and then held up his finger to indicate that he wanted only one. The seller seemed shocked and checked several times – by both holding up the orange and pointing at it – that this was the fruit my uncle wanted. My uncle, somewhat confused, nodded his head vigorously and assured the man that, yes, that was the fruit he would like. The seller nodded his understanding and then began to gift-wrap the orange in paper and sugar.

My uncle, now even more confused, figured that he was simply ignorant of local cultural practice and did not question the situation. The man handed over the orange and pointed to the note my uncle was to give him. My uncle handed it over with a smile, bowed his thank you and left. It was not until the next day when he converted the sum that he realised he had paid around $50 for the orange.

It had been incredibly juicy and delicious though.

“Hunger is good discipline”

Until recently I hadn’t seen much of Asia, but Taipei was always high on the list of places I wanted to visit. My Taiwanese friends’ accounts and their epic love of food had long led me to believe that Taipei was a food paradise where continuous snacking was not only not frowned upon, but actively encouraged. In this I was certainly not disappointed. I felt like Alice nibbling her way through Wonderland, taking a tour through China’s best culinary achievements organised by region.*

Buns of every flavour – egg custard, vermicelli noodles with vegetables, red bean paste, mushrooms and spinach, black sesame paste (the kind that oozes like warmed Nutella and is so rich it acts as a tongue depressor), vegetable stew – they were innumerable to count. And then there were the pancakes! Spring onion pancake (the yum cha classic), and my new favourite post-pint treat: egg roti pancake. I think there is a similar dish to this in Singapore. You take a really thin roti pancake cooked with spring onion and fry it just a little on one side, then you flip it, crack an egg onto it and fry it till it is crisp and golden and so delicious it almost induces instant diabetes (insta-betes, if you will), then you serve the crispy buttery yolky mess with Sriracha sauce. And then you fight over it because you only got one between two and neither of you wants to wait in line for another one. Not that that happened…

But the most exciting part about discovering Taipei food culture was the dessert. Taiwanese dessert is genuinely amazing. Served hot or cold, your typical bowl involves taro, kidney beans, and jelly served in a rich red bean soup (and, one can only assume, a mountain of invisible sugar). And to wash it all down, there’s that Taiwanese export gem: bubble tea.

You never run the risk of being hungry in Taipei.

Of course, it wasn’t only the food that made the trip. Like most large Asian cities, Taipei boasts labyrinthine markets, vibrant neon-lit public spaces, amazing and diverse neighbourhoods, and an exciting nightlife.

Actually, Taipei’s nightlife has quite an interesting dynamic. Taipei has one of the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in the world (a result, it would seem, of the dual influences of an at times conservative culture and the exorbitant price of alcohol at bars). What this means is that nightlife happens in and around food markets, rather than bars, nightclubs or similar. And so you have families, groups of teenagers, business people, and tourists, all genuinely playing in the same sandpit, which makes for a very interesting – and quite wonderful and friendly – dynamic. Combined with a crime rate to rival Tokyo’s (both so low kindergarteners ride public buses to school by themselves) it also makes for an incredibly relaxed atmosphere.

And then there were the amazing day trips – visiting pandas, exploring temples, walking through all the neighbourhoods, discovering Taipei coffee culture, the amazing afternoon spent down at the converted docks (it’s now an art space for outdoor sculptures and indoor exhibition galleries), our accidental degustation dinner (it was so cheap we just thought it was a tapas style thing!), the attempt to visit all of the night markets which was very quickly deserted when we realised the actual scale of that project… The list is actually endless.

Sadly, the gallery below doesn’t adequately capture this. Regular readers (if they exist) may well have noticed that this post features a lot more description – and a lot less photos – than usual. There’s a reason for that.

We flew from Taipei to Seoul, landing at around the time locals would have been eating dinner. Somewhere between the airport and our hostel our camera – and all the memories it held – went missing. It was a horrible realisation and a bitter start to our time in Seoul.

But at least I have a valid excuse to head back to Taipei soon!

*Taiwan’s incredibly varied food culture is informed by a difficult history – something which I don’t think the tenor or length of this blog has any right to attempt to venture into. There are a number of amazing online resources which do this topic justice.