Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

Follow by Email

Monday, 16 December 2013

Great Riding: Alps to Ocean

I suspect New Zealand is the only country in the world to respond to the global financial meltdown by building a cycleway from one end of the country to the other.   

$50 million of Government funding kicked off the design and construction of Nga Haerenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail and the Department of Conservation and local Councils, among other groups, also contribute.  Four years on, the project is far from complete  - nothing is never as easy in execution as it is in conception - however in 2010 there were only two multi-day trails available: there are now 23 "Great Rides". 

Last week our group of friends cycled part of the longest, and what must be one of the most spectacular trails - the Alps to Ocean.  Starting in the Southern Alps at New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, the 310 km trail descends 540 metres down hydro lakes, canals and river valleys out to the Pacific Ocean.  

There are eight distinct sections to the ride, with distances ranging between between 19 and 53 kilometres.  Our plan, developed by our well organised leader,  is two days riding four sections rather than the recommended 4-6 days to do the whole thing - unfortunately the chosen sections have some of the hardest bits, especially for those of us who use our bikes for casual recreational use rather than Tour de France training. 

Normal people would probably cycle each of these sections in one day each, but as it happens our organiser is Lance Armstrong's sister (although her performance enhancer of choice tends more towards the Chardonnay).  

Day one starts well enough.  We drive to Twizel, a quiet hydro town with no discerning features other than its location in stunning scenery.  At cycle support HQ we exchange our cars for bikes and venture forth.  

The hunter-gatherer leads off confidently. "Do you know where you're going?" we shout. "Yes" comes the reply, so like stray ducklings we follow.  When he stops at a nearby service garage I realise he is visiting a mate, and the rest of us cycle on.  I have a growing sense of unease as to our direction. We stop. We check the directions. We are heading the wrong way. The h-g catches up in time for me to berate him.  His defence? He said he knew where he was going but didn't say it was where we wanted to go.  When I divorce him I shall use this as an example of irreconcilable differences. 

It is a beautiful day for cycling - calm and clear -  and the trip along the canal is an easy ride.  We cross the weir at the head of Lake Ohau and then follow a meandering compressed gravel cycle/walk way that skirts the edge of the lake.  The views are of expansive skies, a flat lake unruffled by wind, and flowering rock roses.  We disturb a small flock of sheep and follow them for a short distance as they trot madly in front of us.  Bucolic bliss.

Lake Ohau
That is until we come off the bike path and meet the next section of road taking us to Lake Ohau Lodge, our accommodation for the next three nights. It's the longest  ten kilometres of my life as a head wind has whipped up out of nowhere.  Eventually we attain the Lodge where our fearless companions (who have driven) have set up a wonderful picnic.  We fall on the food as hungry wolves and force down a glass of wine or two, just as a reviver you understand.  

But wait! cries Lance's sister, there's more!  More food? No, another 40 kilometres.  However I have read the trail guide  " ....the track narrows and it's a steady climb to the high point on the trail, 900m above sea level [10.8 km]. Please allow plenty of time for this section, and take frequent breaks if you are feeling tired. It is advised to bring some high energy food, as you may require a boost". 

Seriously, does that sound like fun?  Nothing will incent me to get back on the bike; most of us opt for a hot shower and a lie down.  Lance's sister, her husband the truffle hunter and the determined GP are the only three to set off, possibly never to be seen again.

Many, many hours later a txt arrives along the lines of -  Did it. Buggered. On the bus. Need a drink.  The cycle transport company delivers our triumphant trio and we raise our glasses in awe.  More of our party arrive that night so on day two  a larger group of cyclists take transport to Omarama to begin the 68 km ride for the day.  Half start from there (yesterday's end point) and some of us elect to start a bit further down the road.  Actually it's at the top of the saddle so we start with a long, luscious down hill section.

It's not all beer and skittles though. As we leave Otematata and head up to Lake Benmore hydro dam, the trail description rings in our ears "It’s a steep road up to the dam, so you may need to walk the last 800 metres".  Yes of course we bloody do!!  Well, all except one of us.

Who says power stations are ugly?
Mercifully the road down the other side of Lake Aviemore, across another dam and along another couple of hydro lakes through the Waitaki Valley to Kurow, is only slightly undulating and ever so slightly downhill.  All of these lakes, rivers and towns are parts of the history of hydroelectric power generation in New Zealand and terribly fascinating of you are that way inclined. .   

However, by this stage our interest centres on a wine tasting that has been arranged for us. After a reviving cup of coffee we adjourn to the  'Vintner's Drop' - a Waitaki Valley regional wine tasting room in the Old Post Office in Kurow.  The Waitaki Valley is one of New Zealand's newer and lesser known wine areas, but should become world famous for its stunning Rieslings and Pinot Noir.  We do not stint on either tasting or buying. 

Out trusty cycle touring company transports us back to Lake Ohau Lodge for another convivial dinner, a considerable amount of wine and the sleep of the innocent.  

A weekend of great company, good food and wine and a "little bit" of exercise in the most outstanding scenery. Is this what heaven is made of?

miles of lupins bloom along the roadside in the Mackenzie Country

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dateline Sydney: Tall ships and warships

29 September: 6.45 am - Is it really daylight saving today? 
Turn on the radio to check the time and hear a news item - the Sydney Tall Ship Festival is being held in partnership with the Royal Australian Navy International Fleet Review, which will commemorate the first sailing of the Australian Navy into Sydney 100 years ago.  

Sixteen tall ships and forty visiting warships will join the Australian Navy "to participate in this historic event".  Wow.  I like sailors as much as the next girl and this really sounds like a spectacular sight.  And historic.  And it starts in four days.  And Prince Harry will be there. 

And yes - it is daylight saving
War ships and tall ships

29 September: 7:30 am - Check out flights to Sydney and lastminute.com for hotels. Book same.  Spend a ridiculous amount of time reading restaurant reviews.

2 October 6.40 am  - Fly out and greet Sydney in all its stunning glory - perfect weather. Although we've been to Sydney before we decide to take a tour.  An enterprising young couple started I'm Free Tours in 1999 to share their Sydney with others. No charge but they ask you to tip at the end of the tour.  I've done a bunch of walking tours around the world and this would have to be one of the best.  Three hours and it covers the bits you generally walk right past without knowing their significance or point of history/interest.  Justine is lively, funny and wry.  I hope others tip her as much as we do, if not more.  Highly recommended even if you've been to Sydney many times before. 

Billy Kwong - photo from website
2 October 6.00pm - or 9.00pm in our New Zealand time daylight saving bodies.  Dinner at food goddess Kylie Kwong's restaurant Billy Kwong.  (Food blog to follow)

3 October 11.00am - We vacate our spot on the grass, just along from the Opera House, to huddle under a tree with people smarter than us who brought coats and umbrellas.  So much for my vision of 16 proud ships gliding up the glistening harbour, sails full and billowing set against the blue sky.  Instead they arrive in dribs and drabs, few with sails up let alone billowing and we dodge the showers and find shelter in a pub that serves what is immediately my new favourite drink: Espresso Martinis!  60mls espresso, 30 ml vodka, 30 ml tequila. 

3 October 6.00pm - Cocktails on the 47th floor of the Australia Square building, which is round. And the bar revolves.  Paradoxically while watching the sun go down I drink a Breakfast Martini (my next new favourite drink).  Bombay Sapphire gin, Cointreau, lemon juice and a touch of kumquat marmalade.  Not sure of the quantities, but I plan to experiment with my home made lime marmalade, the kumquat being a tad sweet for my palate but delicious all the same. 

3 October 7.00pm - Meet friends at the new 'go to' restaurant Mr Wong , an impressively large restaurant found down a dark alley. 
Soren Larsen

4 October 12 noon  - Board the Soren Larsen, for our pre-booked lunch time cruise to watch some of the international fleet arrive.  Spend a lazy and wonderful three hours 'at sea' in the harbour, limited sails aloft, checking out the various Navy vessels arriving or at anchor, and drinking too much ordinary bubbly. 

5 October 10.00am 
A beautiful day after the rain.  We make our way with hundreds of thousands (literally) of others down to the harbour to find a spot to watch the point of the exercise, the International Fleet Review; the Governor General and Prince Harry park up aboard a vessel in the middle of the harbour and all the Navy vessels cruise by, along with formation fly pasts by naval and military aircraft.  

Impressive, but I hope there's no invasion anywhere else in Australia - the whole Defence Force seems to be here. 

5 October  2.00pm - The forecourt of the Sydney Opera House has reached capacity crowds already. The light-show and fireworks don't start for another five and a half hours. Queue for ages to get a ferry across to Balmain.  Friend of a friend lives down by the water and it will be a lot less crowded we hope. 
5 October 7.30pm - Half an hour of fairly spectacular fireworks set off from several barges and some of the fleet ships stretching for a couple of kms along the Harbour.  While we enjoy the  display, we are in no position to see the light-show playing out on the Opera House exterior and on the south side of the Bridge pylons.  We watch it on TV later, and are pleased we didn't join the crush downtown.

Apparently the clocks go forward tonight. Wait a minute, didn't we do that last weekend? Yes, Australia put their clocks forward a weeks after us. 

6 October 9.30 am - Fly out.  Is it really daylight saving again? 

Friday, 27 September 2013

On safari! Samburu National Park.

I sandwiched my trip to Kenya between the airport burning down (that actually happened within a couple of days of my arrival) and the terrorist attack on the mall this week. 

The six hour drive north from the hellhole that is Nairobi to Samburu National Park passes quickly: a 7.00am start means the notorious traffic isn't too bad leaving town, but we pity those travelling in.  Three lanes of nose to tail for several kilometres.   Nairobi sprawls, so it takes a while to get through the outskirts and we drive past some extremely ramshackle areas - alright, slums.  Incidentally, those three lanes in each direction were paid for by the Chinese.

Grevys zebra  photo: Brigid Forrest  
Over the next few hours the landscape changes several times: well tended small holdings, coffee plantations, and a large pineapple plantation.  As we climb around the outer foothills of Mount Kenya, extensive greenhouses support export crops of roses, carnations and vegetables. Wheat fields stretch across the plains and then, without fanfare, we cross the Equator.

The road is sealed the whole way and in good condition.  It seems the last section as we reach Samburu is relatively new..... since the discovery of oil in the desert further north.  We are now about halfway to Ethiopia, and Somalia lies that and a bit more to the east – at the time we don’t think that’s remarkable, but events this week tell a different story.

A 24km dirt road takes us to the park gates, where Henry and Richard our two drivers complete the paperwork and get us in. 
Gerry, the reticulated giraffe
Naively, I decide to list all the animals and birds I see on the Kenyan trip. As with many of my resolutions, this lasts less than half an hour. By then we have spotted vulturine guinea fowl, ground squirrel, Oryx antelope, red billed hornbills, white backed vultures, dik dik - which might just be the cutest wee antelope ever - reticulated giraffe (as opposed to two other kinds we'll see further south) baboon, ostrich, and zebra.  If I keep writing them down I won't have time to look at them, so I abandon the effort.

When we go out for our evening game drive - there are two each day, one at dawn and one late in the afternoon - we are treated to the spectacle of a herd of elephant, 15 or 16 including babies, coming down to the river for a drink and a bit of a wash.  It is amazing how comfortable they are passing close to the vans, but they are used to them.  This has a downside or course as poaching is still a huge problem.  Remember the highway? Since Chinese construction started in Kenya,  it is estimated 150 elephants have disappeared.  Call me cynical, but this can't be a coincidence.

Out on a drive you never know what you will see.  As word of a cheetah or leopard sighting is conveyed to our guide over the CB radio, a red mist descends and he transforms from mild mannered driver to rally champion.

Our adrenaline surges and we laugh maniacally as we careen down rough roads to get to the spot.  The suspension on our pop top van must be amazing, and I silently thank the blogger who recommended a tight fitting sports bra.
This cheetah comes so close I could touch him - I don't.
Of course we are not the only ones in the park.  At one point when we arrive at where a cheetah has been seen,  I count 22 vehicles, all waiting for the cheetah to show itself. I wonder if the cheetah thinks he is supposed to be the hunter not the hunted.  When he emerges from the bushes and wanders past us, he's so close to my window I have to restrain myself from reaching out to stroke him. 

Gerenuk almost walk upright

We all marvel at the unusual athleticism of the gerenuk antelope as it stands on its hind legs to graze on leaves.  

It doesn't lean against the tree but stands erect and even uses its front legs to pull down higher branches. Not surprisingly, it is also know as the giraffe antelope.

By the time we depart Samburu we see  what seems like hundreds of animals and birds, and can tick off the five species that are only found in East Africa, generally around the Equator: 

  • Somalian Ostrich (yes, really), 
  • Grevys Zebra (the stripes are closer together than other zebra), 
  • Reticulated Giraffe(different marking), 
  • Gerenuk , and 
  • Beisa Oryx. 

Beisa Oryx  photo: Brigid Forrest
Samburu Lodge overlooks a river which runs from Mt Kenya into the desert north of here, culminating in a sandy swamp.  Vervet monkeys are everywhere and you need to be careful to close everything up or they'll move into your room and set up house.  They are very cute, but as I did not get a rabies vaccination I am keeping my distance. 

In the evening, the staff throw lumps of meat to the crocodiles that live in the river - not joking.  It is a testament to Pavlov's theory that at 7.00 pm every night the crocs haul themselves out of the river to the dusty bank a few meters away from where we are having our gin and tonics.  It makes walking back to your room quite an adventure when you've seen a massive, and I mean massive beast chowing down.  There's another great Kenyan disaster news item: croc consumes tourist.

Watch out for crocodiles

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

A Week in Jordan: Part 2 - natural attractions

Well I've been through the desert on a camel with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain - apologies to America (the band, not the nation).  Actually, I passed on the camel ride as it is on my list of things not necessary to do twice.  

Thursday, 12 September 2013

How to have a hangi in the Jordanian desert

As a New Zealander I am familiar with the notion of cooking food in an earth oven known as a hangi: this is a traditional Maori way of cooking, however not one undertaken on a daily basis these days.  It is usually reserved for special events - so special I can't remember the last time I had one.

The short version of a very long process is: dig a pit, light a fire in the bottom of the pit, pile rocks on the fire, when the fire burns down and the rocks are hot splash in a bit of water, put in baskets of the food to be cooked, more water to create steam, cover with cloths/sacks then mound up the soil.  and wait 3-4 hours.

In other areas of the Pacific there are similar methods of cooking, but I am rather surprised to find myself in the desert of the Middle East watching a Bedouin tribesman lay down what is essentially a hangi.  In sand.

The difference is it is set in a metal container, kind of like a big, deep Dutch Oven,  which speeds up the cooking time considerably. 

Oh, and it tastes waaaaayyyyy better!  Sensational in fact: the chicken is tender and juicy, the lamb falls off the bone. There is none of the damp earth/sack taste you sometimes get in a hangi, as both the sealed container and the sand (as opposed to earth) prevent that.

The accompaniments include all the usual suspects that comprise a delicious mezze. 

the final reveal - photo Trevor Jones
Mezze is a selection of small dishes served either before or with a meal, and served at any meal including breakfast.  There are variations across the Middle East, Greece and Turkey but throughout Jordan we consistently find hummus; eggplant in a dip (babaghanoush) or as a salad; tabbouleh; labne - strained thick yoghurt; a hot pepper dip or relish; olives; Arabic salad - cucumber, tomato, onion, mint, lemon and olive oil; and of course flat breads such as pita or markook.

the mezze platter, our first night's dinner,  this was followed by a meat course

The flat breads are always freshly baked and delicious.  In the desert a Bedouin woman who could be 16 or 60 - even her eyes are barely visible - makes us glorious markook.  
making markook
This is a very large, very thin bread baked on a convex metal plate called a saj, something like an upturned wok.  I have no idea how she gets it so thin simply by hand stretching.  if it were me it would be uneven and full of holes - a character bread!  I won't even try this at home - though I'm sure the hunter gatherer would be keen to cut a 44 gallon drum in half and build a fire!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A Week in Jordan: Part One - ancient cities

Many of you thought I was a little bit crazy going to Jordan right now.  Particularly as it borders Syria - and is on the flight path for scud missiles heading there from US bases in the Mediterranean.  I must admit I was starting to get a wee bit nervous myself in the last couple of days of my trip - but only when I looked at news sites on my iPad.  Otherwise it would be hard to notice anything amiss in Jordan unless you are close to the Syrian border, where refugees continue to amass.

As it is, I have an excellent trip in a fascinating country and learn more about Christian history in a day than in five years at Catholic high school - but then, I am actually listening this time.

While the capital city Amman boasts being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it has little else to recommend it:  yes, there's an impressive Roman amphitheatre - seen one seen them all - and Greek and Roman ruins on top the high point of Citadel hill, but that's it.  The most interesting thing about Amman is it used to be known as Philadelphia.

 leading from the oval forum - lined by 500 columns
It is one of the other cities of the Decapolis (ten cities on the eastern front of the Roman Empire) that is truly remarkable: Jerash.  

Jerash out-Romes Rome.  In 749 AD a massive earthquake wrecked large parts of the ancient city.  That, the odd war, further shakes and time buried the city beneath layers of soil and sand, and it wasn't until 1805 that it was rediscovered.  

There is a hippodrome, but no chariot races the day we were there, a huge oval forum, amphitheatre, temples, houses, shops.  Excavation has been more or less ongoing since the 1920s but vast areas remain covered.  What is fantastic about the site is the huge area it covers, and that so much of the original construction is present.  

An added bonus is the complete lack of tourists! As you can see from the photos, there is virtually no-one there.  If you have ever fought your way through the crowds in Rome, you know how amazing this is.

The oval forum at Jerash - note lack of crowds - photo Trevor Jones

The main reason for wanting to go to Jordan  for me anyway, is Petra, also known as the Rose City, after the colour of the stone from which it is carved.  

A sneak peek as you approach the end of the Siq
The Treasury is the first building you see as you emerge from the 1.2 kilometre walk down the narrow canyon known as the Siq.  Some of you may recognise it from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, however I assure you it has a much more illustrious history.
Al Khazneh - The Treasury at Petra

The building was constructed as a mausoleum and crypt in the 1st Century AD, and is carved out of the sandstone rock, as are all of the buildings (crypts) in Petra.  There are no introduced materials - everything is carved from the soft, beautifully coloured walls of the canyon.

Sandstone detail - photo Sam Matthews

Petra was built by the Nabateans who showed an advanced engineering skill by creating a series of dams, conduits and cisterns to ensure a water supply. Thought to date from 312BC, the modern world only learned of Petra's existence in 1812 when a Swiss explorer stumbled upon it. 

As you walk along from the treasury there are many tombs hewn into the rock walls - it must be said there are no longer any bodies or bones in these tombs. the valley opens out and you find an amphitheatre (of course you do!)  cut into the hillside. 

tombs cut into the hill -photo Sam Matthews
There are magnificent views to be had from the top of the canyon and two escalators transport you to their heights. As if!! 

One of the things I like about Petra is the lack of "development".  The steps and climb are what they are: there are tricky spots and some big drop-offs, but there are no guard rails, no signs warning you how 'dangerous' it is - common sense and personal responsibility rule.  What a refreshing change.

by the time I reach the High Place of Sacrifice
I feel I am the sacrifice

It is all hard slog and sweat (unless you pay for a donkey ride - which looks more likely to end in physical harm than the incipient heart attack brought on by over exertion in the heat): 900 steps up to the Monastery - 40 degree heat and basic lack of will mean I eschew this one.  

Next day I valiantly take the 600 steps to the (aptly named) High Place of Sacrifice - don't ask. If you'd been force marched up here you'd be grateful to lie down on the altar!  Actually, no one knows exactly what it was used for.

Highly recommend Petra, but go at a cooler time - August is just too hot.

So that's ancient sites - next Jordan installment is about more natural attractions: Dead Sea, the desert, and the Red Sea.  And one more on food.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Zanzibar: not what you think

Zanzibar: the very name conjures romantic notions of kings, sultans, princesses, exotic spices and dusky slaves.  However our first impressions are of poverty, a hand-to-mouth existence and general squalor.  The 45 minute drive from the airport to our beach side accommodation takes us through the dusty and very dilapidated outskirts of Stonetown - the main town - through crumbling, countryside villages, and past rickety roadside stalls lightly topped with a few tomatoes or other fruit.  The overall impression is more Honiara than Honolulu.  I remember one of NZ's provincial towns had a caption 'better than you think' - a damning phrase if ever there was one. Zanzibar's could be 'not what you think'. That's the problem with romantic notions and high expectations – they’re rarely met.

swaying palms and swimming pools at Uroa resort
Gradually, though, the charms of the place and people draw us in. Our first few days are at Uroa Beach Resort on the east coast, open to the Indian Ocean.  This turns out to be a lucky choice as there are only 2 other resorts further down the beach, as opposed to the north coast which is cluttered with large hotels full of Italian tour groups: there are about a dozen direct flights from Milan to Zanzibar every week.

The weather is very warm, but not uncomfortably so, and the coastal breeze is a pleasant accompaniment to afternoon cocktails. I am delighted when the barman produces a Margarita worthy of the hunter-gatherer's hand.

seaweed farming - who would've thought?

In the mornings we walk the beach, fend off the few hawkers, and watch women farming seaweed.  The sticks poking out of water at low tide are pegs to which the women string lines tied with small pieces of seaweed. They harvest after three weeks, dry the seaweed and then use it in food or other products.

 Back in Stonetown, a two hour walking tour with a nice young man called Dowji takes us through a maze of streets and alleyways and introduces us to the history of Stonetown.  FYI the name comes from the widespread use of coral stone for the buildings.  We would be lost on our own, and this is sometimes the case over the next few days.  However, turn enough corners and eventually you recognise something.  
Indian style carved wooden doors

Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, 80% of the beautiful old buildings are in need of maintenance and repair.  This is especially apparent on the waterfront where the major historical buildings line the harbour. It is tragic to see places such as the 1883 built House of Wonders - so known as it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and the first working lift in East Africa! - crumbling away. 

As the foremost centre for slave trading in East Africa through the 1800s, the site of the slave auctions is particularly chilling.  Especially so when we go down into one of the cellar like rooms where slaves were kept for days on end, waiting for auction.  There is no way to stand upright, and dozens were packed into very small spaces.  Needless to say, no running water, no facilities at all - just concrete benches.

The second day in town is the last day of Ramadan, so after 30 days of fasting between sun up and sundown the locals are ready to party – in a non alcoholic Muslim kind of way. The difference in mood and activity from one day to the next as Ramadan ends is very marked. The celebration, Eid, is a bit like Christmas coming straight after Lent.  Everyone has new clothes, gives gifts and large family gatherings and feasts take place. 

One evening we find a really good rooftop restaurant at Emerson Spice Hotel. We start with cocktails (at about $6US they're too much of a bargain) and then enjoy a five course degustation dinner.  The courses are very small and have two or three different tastes in each, for example the pictured Prawns with Papaya Salad, Garlic Bamia (okra) and Braised Leek.

We just about have major heart attacks half way through drinks as a really loud alarm sounds across the city -  a tsunami warning? air raid?  But after the calls to prayer flow we reason it is marking sunset.

One day we once again take our lives in our hands by way of yet another clapped out minibus, and travel up to a spice plantation. Ahh, we think, this is more like the Zanzibar we expect.  
However it is not part of a great spice industry, it is a 'show farm' as plantations no longer exist and the only spice grown for export is cloves.  All the same it is interesting to see cinnamon, clove, vanilla, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, coffee, cocoa, along with fruits such as rambutan, durian and star fruit growing, though not all are in season - thank God in the case of durian. You'll know what I mean if you've ever smelled it.

Zanzibar is so poor it's hard to understand why agriculture doesn't take off - everything grows. The answer appears to lie in corruption; the rich don't pay tax and the tax that's collected goes into officials' pockets, not roads or schools or healthcare.  There's no encouragement, either financial or educational, to develop land and farm it, other than for the few vegetables some grow for themselves or for a small market.  Our young guide Dowji is so disillusioned he says he's never voting again, as politicians promises are all lies.  Welcome to our world Dowji!

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Changing Chinese cuisine

You are in Hong Kong. Why wouldn't you eat Chinese food? Because so many new and interesting international cuisine styles are taking over the food scene (for example the Spanish wave of tapas bars).  
However the Chinese food I did eat is a world away from what I ate living in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. And that food, in turn, was very different from what passed (and I'd have to say still passes) for Chinese food in this country. There are as many styles of Chinese food as there are provinces in China; but as a broad rule, Chinese food in New Zealand tends to a westernised version of Cantonese - something considered more appealing to Western palates.  The evidence lies in bland dishes such as the ubiquitous Chinese and Cashews. 

In reality, Chinese food is much more adventurous.  There is a saying that the Cantonese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except an aeroplane  and I pretty much found that to be true.  My colleagues delighted in introducing me to new foods. Sample conversation in the lunchroom: 

Colleague: Try this. 
Me: What is it?
Colleague: Spinal cord of cow. 

How could I resist? Often it was all in the translation, and as long as I was willing to try almost anything, I would gain collegial approval as well as find a new taste sensation - maybe.

Thirty years later I love that it is still easy to get a bowl of noodles from a street stall. or pick up takeaway breakfast Dim Sum on the way to work, but it is the new wave of "fine" dining that is exciting.  

Loving spicy food, I hunt out a new Sichuan restaurant, Qi (pronounced Chi), which turns out to be situated in the same Wanchai street  as 22 Ships which I wrote about recently. 

 Qi is sleek and modern in both its physical layout and the dishes it serves.  The way the Chinese eat has always been communal - the original shared plates. The disadvantage of dining alone is it limits the range of dishes you can order - at least it does if you are exercising a modicum of restraint! 
Mala Chicken at Qi
The Mala Chicken is a knock-out.   The waiter tells me Mala is "spicy but not hot, it makes your mouth numb".   I wonder if this is a good thing.  

What he should say is it makes your mouth sing - cos it does. It is deliciously mouth tingling;  I later find out the two Chinese characters making up mala translate as "numbing" () and "spicy (hot)" ().  The numbing comes from Sichuan peppercorns that are one of the main ingredients in the spice mix, which also variously comprises chili, clove, garlic, star anise, cardamom,  fennel, ginger and cinnamon.

Black fungus in its raw state

A dish of Black Fungus, also more fetchingly known as Cloud Ear Fungus (which unfortunately sounds like an infection)  is a jelly like fungus that is found growing on trees.  This sounds disgusting, but served at Qi,  mala spiced and cooked so it has a firm bite, yet also a soft jelly-like texture (oxymoron?) it is a different and very tasty dish. 

While Sichuan food has always been zingy, in general I find the modern approach to Chinese fresher than it was: this sounds strange I know, given the freshness of the ingredients has always been excellent.  I think the difference lies in cleaner sauces that pack more flavour.  Now we just have to wait for this wave of cooking to make it to our shores. 

P.S. I'm off to Zanzibar, then on safari in Kenya and later travelling through Jordan for August, so stand by for more travel tales.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

What to eat in Hong Kong? Tapas

What is it with Spanish chefs?  There seem to be more - including several with Michelin stars -  in Hong Kong than in Spain.   Well that's probably not true, but there's enough to form an Asian Spanish Chefs' Association,  the purpose of which is to "disseminate Spanish culinary techniques on the Asian continent".  

Cuttlefish, chorizo and broad beans
On my recent foray into the rice bowl of Hong Kong, I spent some time exploring some of the new tapas restaurants infiltrating the city.  

At 22 Ships I get lucky and a seat at the horseshoe shaped bar.  Here I can not only watch the bar staff, but also see into the tiny kitchen, and - added bonus -  the chefs plate up on the benches in front of me. Bliss! 

I  want to eat EVERYTHING on the menu, but settle for a couple of seafood plates and one of the most excellent desserts.  
Tuna tataki with yuzu and apple mousse

The Executive Chef is Jason Atherton, a Michelin starred chef who used to work for the Gordon Ramsey group, opening maze restaurants in the UK, Prague, Durban, Qatar and Melbourne.  He is now his own man and runs a stable of restaurants across the UK and Asia.  So as you would expect, the food is rather good. 

Everything is beautifully plated (the photos on the 22 Ships website are much better than mine) and have fresh and sometimes surprising - in a good way - flavours.  For example, regular readers know my aversion to sweet and savoury, yet the apple and yuzu (an East Asian citrus, something like a sour mandarin) mousse with the tuna is delicious.  Besides, this is subtle flavour, not chunks of fruit sitting astride unsuspecting fish.

Texturas de chocolate - heaven on a plate
Now, art on a plate.  As I watch the apprentice chef plate dessert after dessert, I have time to examine the components of each and make an informed decision - as if any dessert related decision is informed by anything other than greed.  

It is the Texturas de Chocolate that proves irresistible. 

 I wish this picture did true justice to the artful design:  so much like a little mushroom on a pebbly path through a leafy forest floor (well, that's my description). The mushroom is a perfectly formed meringue balanced on a vertical quenelle of ice cream, with tiny volcanoes of piped mousse and crunchy little bombs of milk, white and dark chocolate.  I can not begin to describe how divine it is.  All in all, a fantastic evening's dining and entertainment.

At the other end of the scale there are some very ordinary tapas bars cashing in on the trend, and we don't need to discuss those here. 

Did I eat any Chinese food?  Yes, I did, and I'll tell you about it shortly.