Friday, 15 March 2019

The Travellers Guide To Chiang Mai, Thailand



I stood in the marketplace, on all sides I was surrounded by chaos. Charcoal burners smoked and sizzled, the contents of their grills producing aromas of lemongrass and ginger. A tubby Thai lady on a tiny plastic stool scooped ladles of soup dotted with bobbing buoys of congealed blood into bowls for sweaty men on similarly tiny stools.

Flower garlands overflowed tabletops, waiting to be repurposed as an offering for the gods. Chains of balled and fermented pork hung on rails all in a line. Tourists and locals alike squeezed through the narrow walkways between vendors who ply their wares night after night for generation after generation in the same location.




I was in Wororot market, the hub in Chiang Mai where during the day locals wander the indoor markets for their everyday purchases, everything from clothes and shoes to fruit and veg and at night the streets around the main market building serve as a place for locals and tourists to eat dinner and socialise.

As a tourist, Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north is an incredible amalgamation of Thai culture,  temples, night markets, food, animal encounters, bars, Tuk Tuk adventures and anything else the heart of an intrepid traveller desires.

When travelling to Thailand most Australians head to the beaches, the trail to Phuket and Koh Samui is well worn, but standing in that marketplace surrounded by scenes you can only truly understand by being there I was in love. Chiang Mai had me at ‘hello’ or I should probably say ‘Sawadee Ka’ as they do in Thailand.

GETTING THERE




From Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a short one-hour flight north, or if you are feeling adventurous you can catch the overnight train in a first or second class sleeper. Both options are relatively cheap so it will just depend on your time frame and inclinations.

Once there the airport is less than two kilometres from the Old Town and a very efficient ticket system will get you a clean and modern taxi for less than $5. If you arrive at night you will be mesmerised by the twinkling lights and Thai lanterns dotted through the trees and at hotel entrances. It is a magical way to see a destination for the first time.

STAY

You have a number of location options when heading to Chiang Mai.

There are many boutique and larger resorts dotted around the outskirts of the city, and whilst they afford space and view over rice paddy fields you will need to take transport every time you want to explore the city.

Then you have the digital nomad/expat hub of Nimmanhaemin Road where you might want to rent an AirBNB for a longer stay.

As a short term tourist, my personal preference is the Old Town. Located within the old city walls you have one square mile of hotels, restaurants, markets and temples, temples, temples. It is very walkable but you also have tuk tuks and the local transport Songthaews trawling for customers and you can get all over the old town and beyond for a few dollars.



Accommodation in Chiang Mai ranges from really cheap. A few dollars a night will get you a room in a locally owned guest house like Beez Guesthouse where on any given night you might be able to sit with the owners and the colourful long term guests for a Chang beer and watch the world pass by.

In the mid-range price bracket, I recommend the De Lanna Hotel.  Around $100 a night will get you a comfortable room but for a small upgrade to a deluxe room, you could be located around the pool area with a view into the lantern filled garden lined with Koi Ponds at each door.

The Old Town has heavy development restrictions which means your big brand name hotels like Anantara, Le Meridien and Shangri-la are all located outside the old town walls.

EAT

The simple answer to this is—everywhere. It is hard to get a bad meal in Chiang Mai. Try a little of everything at a wide range of places.

You can eat on the street from single person carts (and if you do be sure to try the roti which you can get stuffed with both sweet and savoury fillings), in the markets, in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and in larger establishments such as hotels. Don’t be worried about cleanliness.

Some of these places look a little shabby compared to what Australians are used to but we experienced widespread good hygiene practices and no tummy issues whatsoever. The locals are all quite educated on food for tourists and even in the night markets you will see food laid out on ice and freshly cooked in front of you, and drinks are served with pre-packed ice, not tap water.



In terms of food you, of course, need to try the Thai classics like pad thai, red and green curry, larb and all the amazing holy basil stir-fries, but you must hunt down the northern delicacies. There are two types of northern sausage: one is stuffed full of spices and curry pastes and very rich and meaty; the other is fermented pork, which may sound confronting but has a tart flavour that can be moreish.

Another must is the crispy pork belly. The northern Thais love their pork. You will come across slabs of crispy pork belly hanging in windows and on street stalls and each will have their own version. I personally love Pad Kra Pao Moo Krob which is crispy stir-fried pork belly with holy basil.



 A great way to try a wide range of foods is to head out on a food tour. I would highly recommend the Chiang Mai Night Food Tour By Local Truck. A local guide will whizz you around the city in a local red truck called a Songthaew stopping off for their favourite eats and drinks. You get history and stories and all from the perspective of a local.

PLAY

We stayed for a week and were never short of something new and fun to do. In terms of markets, Wororot—which I describe above—is a must and is a much more local experience than many of the others. It is worth a visit during the day and at night for the food streets.

You will find a lot more local dishes here as there are more locals eating here. I recommend the soups—soup is ingrained in the Thai culture and the variety and flavour is nothing like what you can find in Australia.



The Night Bazaar is a more touristy option but a lot of fun and well worth setting aside a whole evening for—it starts at 6 pm and goes till 10:30 pm.

The Night Bazaar sets up every night on the outskirts of the old town walls and incorporates a maze of streets, laneways and arcades that run in all directions. The shopping is good but the range of food stalls is excellent. Moving through the streets you can grab a plate, grab a beer and watch some live music and once you have done that once you can move along and do it again and again.



The best known night market is the Sunday Walking street which pops up every Sunday night and runs end to end through the middle of the old town. Get there early—around 5 pm—not all the stalls are open yet but you can grab a selection of quick eats and some souvenirs without battling through the insane crowds.

Once the tourists descend this market is shuffle room only which makes eating and shopping a little tricky. Be sure to take the detours set up along the way—many of the temples set up their own markets within the temple grounds which allows you to explore the temples themselves which are open to visitors at night.

The temples take on a whole new atmosphere at night, their golden stupas lit against the dark skies are incredible.



Chiang Mai is known for its animal experiences, elephants being the big drawcard. The elephant sanctuaries have jumped on the no riding bandwagon in recent years and have cleaned up their practices to make these an ethical animal experience. There are dozens of these sanctuaries dotted around Chiang Mai and plenty of reviews and guides on the internet to lead you to the most ethical practices. I would steer clear of some of the other animal experiences but common sense will guide you here.

A cooking class is another must do, and whilst you will find quite a few within the Old Town it is a great opportunity to get out into the countryside to not only cook but see the local ingredients being grown on family-run farms. I recommend Grandma’s Home Cooking School.



A very professional set up, they collect you at your hotel in the morning, take you out of town to a market to see the produce and then onto the farm which is a stunning property that they have converted to have open-air pavilions for cooking in.

You then get to select your dishes to cook from a menu and as a group you are stepped through how to cook your own dishes and then enjoy lunch together. Skillwise it would suit most home cooks but it isn’t a masterclass in Thai cuisine.


AFFORDABILITY

Chiang Mai is incredibly affordable—not only to get to but once you are there as well. On the ground a tuk tuk will cost you $2-$5 depending on how far you need to go, a meal at a local venue can be as cheap as $2 (you can, of course, pay a lot more as well if you end up at a hotel restaurant or one of the riverfront places) and a long neck local beer will cost you around $5.

A good4-star hotel is $80-$100 a night, the temples are almost all free as is the market experiences if you don’t shop and a full days cooking class is around $50 including the transport to the countryside and back.

It is also easily combinable with a stay in Bangkok as you will need to pass through here to get to Chiang Mai and Bangkok is a wild city you must see once in your lifetime.

This article was written by Tenele Conway and first published on Her Canberra.

Originally posted on Friday, 15 March 2019 by

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Fight or Flight, A Travel Story.



There are defining moments in everyone's lives. Sadly you won't remember most of them. Your first steps are confined to the memories of your parents, excited by watching their baby morph into a toddler and terrified at the prospect of their once immobile child being able to move around at free will. Your first day at school, possibly memories or possibly recollections pieced together from photographs of the event. I myself do remember the clown themed briefcase I merrily carried out into the world that day. Your first kiss, okay you should remember this one but if you are anything like me it is lost in the haze of the excess of alcohol consumed on the night and the unrelenting effects of time.

I do however have one very clear memory of one very defining moment, so clear it's as if the adrenaline that pumped through my veins that day dug a deep scar to remind me in the future what terror really is. It is the moment I knew for sure, if it came down to it, if my life was really in danger, where instinct would take me. It's the phenomenon known as fight or flight and I know without a doubt that my instinctive reaction is flight.

There is of course a story that goes with this, there is always a story. Mine, for the last fifteen years has been an amusing anecdote to tell at the pub. I was never in danger but turns out you have no control over what flashes through your mind in the moments where your brain perceives a serious threat to your life and in turn I discovered you have no control over what actions your physical form will take in said situation.

Let's go back there. It was a very recently post 9/11 world. Those first few years after the towers came down and the US closed their airspace, grounding every aircraft from passenger carrying airliners to crop dusters, were tense to say the least. Terrorism was of course not a new concept but this event certainly set a new benchmark and we can safely say the world was a changed place. At the time this story takes place I was 21, on my first overseas trip without the safety net of family or even friends and had just crossed the English Channel accompanied by fifty new acquaintances, I was on the obligatory Contiki tour, 11 countries in 21 days, first stop Paris.

I had already settled into my clique, a social circle sitting well outside of the cool crowd where I was comfortable not having to impress my peers and could just be myself. Even at a young age I was confident in my place in the world having progressed through high school with a group of friends a little left of centre and proud of it. Fun was always the order of the day taking priority over goals such as the perfect hair and makeup.

Paris, as you would expect for a first timer, was magnificent. Having viewed the city from the Eiffel Tower in the dusky light of a spring evening it had done what Paris does, charm. Over the years working as a travel agent people have spouted a lot of shit about Paris to me...the people are rude, the streets smell like dog poop, the people are rude. And on a bad day, in the wrong light there is an iota of truth to it but if you aren't charmed by the meeting of art, architecture and one of the greatest cuisines in the world you should question if you are possibly dead inside.

So back to the story, we had one day in Paris. That is what the Contiki tour schedule allowed, one day. We completed the sprint through the Louvre to photograph the Mona Lisa, the only piece of art worthy of a 21 year olds attention, we took a snap of the Arch De Triumph (no time to scale it) and we glimpsed the Seine from the Pont Alexandre III, my 3/4 khaki cargo pants and practical sandals not quite worthy of it's gilded fames and posed nymphs.

One more stop to make, the flying buttresses and rose windows of the Notre Dame. As an atheist it astounds me as to the quantity of cathedrals I have visited but if anyone can afford tourism-worthy architecture with all the trimmings it's the tax exempt Catholic church. But first there was a physical need to take care of, a bathroom stop. Bathrooms in Europe are hard to find and never free, it's like the penance you have to pay as a noisy, street clogging tourist. At the Notre Dame the bathrooms reside out in the courtyard in front of the church, down a staircase and into a cavernous room built well underground where no natural light can creep in. As we descended the stairs there was a large group of school children queued up waiting their turn. Frustrated, we lined up knowing there was little choice, it was pee here or forever hold your peace.

The children were doing what children do. Little boys darted from the urinals to the girls cubicles in hopes of catching one with their skirts up. They slid under the turnstiles to get away without paying the fee and the squeals echoed off the cavern walls creating a cacophony of noise that was beginning to agitate the heavy-breasted black ladies who were trying to keep order. We neared the front of the queue, only a few stray children in front and a few more forming behind us when the lights went out. In an instant the room was as dark as your deepest nightmare, children howled and before I had time to react there was the loud whining of what could only be described as a world war two air raid siren. It was the type of noise that elicits an immediate response. It isn't one many people will have heard in real life, only in movies. It's an unmistakable warning that attack is imminent, that bombs are going to fall and destruction is on it's way.

Thinking back on it now it felt like not a single thought went through my head, my reaction was entirely instinctual like a lion taking down a gazelle on the African Savannah. This was survival. I grabbed the arm of the girl with me (glad to see I thought of someone other than myself) and in the pitch dark I ran towards what I thought was the direction of the entrance. Invisible children tangled under foot, I tripped over something hollow, a metal construction that bounced aside as a ran, possibly a garbage bin. As I saw the light coming down the stairwell vivid flashes of what I might find at ground level started to enter my mind. I imagined carnage, blood, chaos, all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack. People have since pointed out to me if there really was a terrorist attack I would have been better off underground than running into the melee but instinct doesn't work like that. I needed to be out of the darkness, away from that wailing siren making the blood course hard through my veins with fear and adrenaline.

Dragging my companion roughly behind me we emerged into the sunshine like divers pursued by a hungry shark breaching the ocean's surface. My mind took a moment to assess what was happening around me. Tourists lazed in the spring sunshine, kicking their shoes off to enjoy patches of grass, children ate ice cream without a care in the world, there was nothing to indicate the underground horror we had just escaped.

I looked from my shaking hands to my new travelling companion. I couldn't form the words to express my confusion and fear. She looked mildly rattled but was able to let out a giggle, an emotional state I was far from. We walked away from the stairwell, my brain ticking over as to the possible scenarios as to what had happened when my companion informed me that I had missed the key action that explained the situation. One of the women running the facility had become so infuriated by the misbehaving children that she threw a switch behind the desk which plunged the room into darkness and set off the siren. The explanation circled in my head but wouldn't soak in. My heightened state wouldn't allow me to fully process the how and why of it. Over the course of the last fifteen years I have concluded that we were in an old air raid bunker turned bathroom and for some unknown reason the siren had never been disabled. I have also never been able to understand why I was the only one in that bunker that day who reacted in such a way. Everyone else stood in place and rode it out. Maybe others saw the switch being flicked or maybe I have a greater sense of self preservation.

It also came to remind me of the stories told post 9/11. Those in the upper floors of the second tower were told to stay put after the first plane hit and the tower next door was engulfed in flames. A small minority of people chose to ignore the instruction, sensing mortal danger they let instinct override direction from authority and made their way down the fire escape only to find everyone else on their floor died when the second plane hit their tower. I like to think this is the instinct that resides in me.

For years I have retold that story, starting with our fellow Contiki travellers, then to my parents, standing in the lobby of the Moulin Rouge that night telling them how I thought I was going to die that day and on and on to friends and colleagues usually over a few drinks, it always elicits a good laugh and I tell it with dramatic effect and much hand motion, embellishing a little here and there. After each retelling the story loses something, there is no way to convey fear on that level, it has become much more humorous than it started out, as do many of the best travel stories. Those times we are most uncomfortable, when you think things are at their worst, if you happen to survive... and generally most do, what a tale you have to tell.


Originally posted on Sunday, 7 October 2018 by

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Pho Real



I love the idea of never eating the same dish twice. It was an idea that came from New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser and sometime ago I wrote a blog post on. The idea fascinates me on the level that there are so many food experiences out there you could actually do that and from the level that life is fuelled by new experiences.

But I have found out whilst I am always pushing the boundaries there are just some flavour combinations that dig deep under your skin and refuse to be silent.

Until re-reading that original article just now I had completely forgotten that I mentioned Pho as a dish that I keep coming back to. Pho is well known across the world now, but the first time I tried it at Pho 2000 in Saigon at the same table as Bill and Chelsea Clinton (not with them but there is a photo of them eating at that table under the glass) I had never heard of it. It was love at first taste of course. That unctuous meaty broth offset by the bright herbs and the zing of lime and chilli, the slurping of the rice noodles and the cold crunch of the bean sprouts it's the type of meal that you could never tire of.

The popularity of the dish has spawned a million bad reproductions. I quite often order Pho if it is on the menu and it ranges from a sad, watery soup with tired herbs and no pizzaz to decent bowls where an attempt has been made to actually cook it from bones. Probably the best version I have had in Australia is at Saigon Sally in Melbourne.

In saying that nothing has compared to the real thing, a part of that is the fact you can never replicate the first time you consume a dish in its home country. There is magical quality about the smells and sounds and the excitement that comes with travel. But then I started making Pho myself and it all changed. My homemade Pho from scratch is done the traditional way with kilos of bones and marrow all cooked down for many hours until you have a broth that is thick with gelatin and when cold, sets into a jelly. I think that is the true test of a good Pho and I would say 90% of those I have had in restaurants would still be the same watery mess after a night in the fridge.

I have made Saigon style Pho maybe 4-5 times. It is what I am familiar with from travelling, a sweet broth with a wide range of dressings and finishings. I decided it was time to branch out and make the northern Vietnamese version, a Hanoi style Pho.

If you have ever read my blog you will know that I always turn to an expert when I first get started with a recipe and my favourite recipe for the Saigon style Pho is by Andrea Nguyen from her cookbook The Pho Cookbook.

The method for the Hanoi version is the same, it isn't a totally different dish, it is just the flavour profiles that differ. The Hanoi version has more spices, this recipes uses star anise, fennel, black cardamom and cinnamon. There is also dried shrimp or scallops in this recipe which boosts the umami of the dish. The final dressings are also more paired back. The final Hanoi dish is seasoned with fish sauce which is a must and topped with mint, coriander, shallots (scallions), chilli and finished with garlic vinegar. The Saigon has rock sugar in the broth which makes it sweet and is finished with bean sprouts, coriander, basil, onion, lime and a range of sauces like hoisin and chilli sauce.

The garlic vinegar intrigued me. This wasn't something I has seen before and I love tart tastes. It is very simple to make, it is just rice vinegar with some thai chillis and garlic soaked in it. I tried the soup before adding it and it was so good I was hesitant but Andrea had explained it is something that the northerners grow up with so I had to try it and wow, it really lifts the dish. It does for it what the lime does for the Saigon version, adding a brightness to something that is very deep and rich.

You can also differ what you have in the soup. The Saigon version I have a preference for beef balls and Andrea provides a great recipe for these and the Hanoi version I went with the cooked brisket which is done in the broth and taken out half way through the cooking process, cooled and thinly sliced. In both versions I also go with the rare beef and I use eye fillet which is a little extravagant but it is just so tender when lightly cooked by the broth.

If time permits I also add extra water at the beginning and cook for longer. At the point I want it to stop reducing I add the lid and let it simmer away, slowly enhancing and enriching the flavours. Andrea recommend 3 hours but I will do for 6-8 hours. The more I can extract from those bones the tastier the broth is. I have done one overnight before but I think at 8 hours you are close to peak awesomeness but it can't hurt if you have the time.

From the two styles I don't think I could pick a favourite. As long as you have chosen a good recipe for each then you will have a meal that will melt your brain. I do love the additional layers of spices in the Hanoi version but on the other hand a sweet broth with those springy beef balls has it's place too.

I can't encourage you enough to try making Pho at home. Unless you live in Vietnam you will struggle to get the type of quality you can make yourself.

It's also a great dish to go have a chat to your local butcher about. There is nothing better than to have a butcher rummage around out the back and find you marrow bones, oxtail and pigs trotters. They can cut it all to size for you for your stock pot and can tailor your cuts of meat and bones to your preference. Andrea has a great section in the book all about sourcing and selecting the right bones. It does make a difference as you do want marrow and collagen to thicken the soup and create that jelly effect. It's what really sets apart a good Pho and one made from a powdered packet mix which really should be outlawed.

Serve the soup with the accompaniments on the side so eaters can tailor the flavours to their preference.



Originally posted on Sunday, 19 August 2018 by

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Cooking Korean Like A Boss



It has been too long since I have dedicated a whole week to cooking one cuisine so I set my mind to the task and I scanned my cookbooks, so much choice, so many good books, so many exciting cuisines and then my eye settled on my Korean cookbook collection. Three books in total wholly dedicated to one cuisine and I hadn't made a single thing from any of them. What a crime.

There was a reason I hadn't actually cooked from any of them and it was total intimidation. We had eaten at Korean restaurants but stuck to the tamer side of the menu, Korean Fried Chicken mainly! But the Korean penchant for fermentation and the long lists of hard to find ingredients had kept me away from cooking it myself.

Facing your fears is a good philosophy to have so with that in mind I sat down with my Korean cookbook collection to peruse the options.



The tamest of the beasts was Little Korea by Billy Law. Working from books written for an Australian audience always simplifies things. The ingredients are based around those available here (be it in regular supermarkets or Asian groceries). Chillis for example, in an American cookbooks they are often based around the readily available Mexican varieties whereas Australian books focus on the south east asian chillis available in a regular supermarket. It also turned out to be one of those books where I was more excited than intimidated by many of the recipes, they are presented in a straightforward fashion all achievable by the home cook.

I knew I had to select some banchan as they seem to be the cornerstone of Korean cooking and if you have ever been to a Korean restaurant are the strange little dishes placed on the table before the meal, essentially tiny side dishes. We had these with beef bulgogi (from Maangchi's book, see below) and grilled pork belly which we cooked on the grill on a burner at the table. I just love cooking your own food at the table. The bulgogi was served with lettuce leaves to wrap it in and a spicy dipping sauce called ssamjang and the pork was accompanied by a salt and pepper dipping sauce called Gireumjang which primarily consisted of sesame oil (like much Korean cooking I was to find out).


We also cooked Billy's Korean fried chicken with sweet and spicy sauce (Yangnyeam in Korean) and really you can't go wrong with deep fried chicken, equal parts sweet and spicy it was succulent and delicious. We served this with a very odd ingredient that I have never heard of before, pan fried spicy rice cakes. They were a little tricky to find but so glad we hunted them down. Their chewy texture works great with the spicy char this recipe calls for when cooking.

One of my favourite recipes from Billy's book was the stir-fried spicy pork, a pretty tame place to start for a novice to Korean food and very easy to whip up for a weeknight dinner. I was surprised to see pork shoulder recommend as the cut of meat, I have never used pork shoulder in any other form other than slow cooking and thinly sliced as called for in this recipe and stir fried it was so good. A little more chew than say tenderloin but with more flavour which stood up well against the main seasoning, gochujang which is a chilli paste you will come to know well if cooking Korean food.

I also ended up making Spicy Garlic Fried Chicken (Kkanpunggi). It wasn't in the original plan but when I was done with all the recipes I had planned out I had enough left over ingredients to make this Korean spin on Kung Pao Chicken which is one of my all time favourite Chinese dishes. This was another absolute cracker of a dish. Easy weeknight cooking that packed a real bang of flavour.

The next go to book was Korean Food Made Simple by Judy Joo and whilst I liked the look of a lot of the recipes here there wasn't quite as many that really excited me. I decided to go for a stew as I had been wanting to try a Korean stew at a restaurant but had not yet had the chance. Turns out the pork and kimchi stew was the highlight of the week. I was expecting something with much more fermented funk due to the kimchi but it turned out so sweet with the perfect level of spice. I rarely eat tofu and it's silky texture was perfect with the chewy pork belly and crunchy cabbage.I think I actually preferred the tofu to the pork. It was lucky I did enjoy it, much like the stir fried pork, there was so much in the way of leftovers I ended up eating it for lunch for days.


If you are looking for a real reference book to get you started cooking Korean then Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking covers lots more than just recipes. As a well known writer of a Korean cooking blog and Korean native Maangchi really knows her stuff. You will find a large reference section on Korean ingredients and where to find them which I referred to quite a bit when planning my menu and you will also find the largest selection of recipes of the three books, including some on the more intimidating side. I chose to cook the Bulgogi to go with the Korean BBQ I mentioned above. I have had a lot of experience with Bulgogi of the Costco variety. I love to keep it in my freezer as a go to on nights I want something quick. I knew deep down this is low quality Bulgogi. It is light on in seasoning and the meat is poor quality. This seemed like the perfect chance to try the real thing.  With a nice hunk of high end sirloin I marinated overnight to impart deep flavour I was thrilled with the result. A good cut of meat makes all the difference and this was so tender and with the mix of pear, soy, garlic, sesame, honey, pepper and scallions it packed a lot more flavour than the ready made variety. Cooked fresh at the table, wrapped up in the cos lettuce and smeared with the spicy dipping sauce it was a fantastic meal.

On to Charmain Solomans book The Complete Asian Cookbook. You might find a copy of this lurking around your mothers house, it's a classic and in it's day quite the work of art I would imagine. The Korean section is brief and a tad confusing. The recipes are very brief and lacking in the hallmarks of Korean cooking such as Kimchi. I always wonder with older books, if the disconnect is due to the fact the author had never been to the country or because they have adjusted the recipes to suit the availability of the ingredients at that point in time in the country the book was written for. I made the Beef Stew (Yukkae Jang Kuk) which involved slow cooking some beef and then stirring through a huge quantity of spring onions and some rice vermicilli. The end result was edible but the flavour combinations and the texture of the shredded beef and the rice vermicilli was a little strange. I haven't spotted anything like it in my modern Korean cookbooks and online the dish exists but not in the form presented in Charmain's book. So that one will forever remain a mystery to me but the whole purpose of cooking one cuisine for a week is to experience a range of perspectives on the food of a nation and Charmains perspective from a book written in 1976 is still relevant and worth exploring even if it is just a contrast to what is now available 42 years later and how much the world has opened up.



Things that surprised me from cooking Korean food:


How good it was. I ended up cooking Korean food for two weeks, not one week like originally planned and I ate leftovers every day and thoroughly enjoyed all of it.

The usage of sesame oil. Almost every dish we made was seasoned with sesame oil and the banchan were nearly swimming in it. I started to love sesame oil after visiting China where it is the primary ingredient in a dipping sauce widely served with hot pot. Unfortunately my husband finds it over- powering and slightly offensive but he made it through the two weeks despite it's ample usage.

Once I got going it was not that intimidating. I took a few short cuts like purchasing Kimchi from a Korean grocer and not making my own. I also picked up bellflower root that was already marinated and a ready to serve as a banchan. This was primarily due to the fact that I could not find bellflower root in any other form but it was delicious and saved me making another banchan when I was already committed to a number of others.

I am a big rice eater and I normally stick to Jasmine rice with the occasional venture to Basmati for Indian cooking. The Koreans eat a short grained rice which I really enjoyed for a change. It is denser with a chewier texture and a little sticky. It pairs well with the robust flavours of Korean cooking.

Finding new asian grocery stores in Canberra including a huge one specialising in imported Korean ingredients. We had quite the adventure here and tried some horrendously expensive imported Korean alcoholic beverages as well as some chips that tasted like McDonalds apple pies. You know you are onto a good thing when you are the only white people in a supermarket, especially in Canberra.

Overall it was a very worthwhile two weeks. I have found dishes I would come back to again and again such as the pork and kimchi stew and the stir fried pork and I have stepped outside my comfort zone to find out that it's not really that scary on the other side.




Originally posted on Sunday, 22 July 2018 by

Sunday, 4 February 2018

It All Started With Sour Cream

If you read my blog you will know that I love to pick a cuisine a immerse myself in cooking the flavours of that one country for a whole week. Without the structure of cooking to a theme I find myself flitting between a new set of flavours every day of the week and never getting to know much of any of them. In itself that isn't a bad thing. New experiences fuel the mind and keep your taste buds guessing but from time to time I like to hunker down a cook a range of different styles of dishes all from one nation to get a wider scope of the food of that particular country.

Recently I was browsing the cookbooks looking for a new theme and my husband decided he would like to pick the theme. Okay, why not I thought, I could try something new. I waited eagerly for the theme, what would it be Peru, Sweden maybe West Africa? "Sour Cream" he said. I looked at him blankly, that was not a cuisine. "Sour Cream" he insisted and I shut him down, you can't cook with sour cream for a whole week, it's barely an ingredient, more of a side sauce. "Sour Cream", he seemed pretty certain of this so we started to look into what recipes from what nations we could cook that incorporated or featured sour cream as an ingredient.

This is one of my favourite parts of the process, We log into our cookbook indexing system, Eat Your Books (if you have a large cookbook collection I can't recommend this highly enough) and we enter the ingredient sour cream from my indexed books I have 263 recipes that contain sour cream to choose from.

Seemed like we had to set some criteria here. We decided that the recipes all had to come from different countries. They also had to contain considerable amounts of sour cream, not just a teaspoon or a tablespoon and as usual they had to be recipes new to us, nothing we had cooked before and all from different cookbooks to gain the widest spread of experiences.



The first recipe selection was Schnitzel of Pork from "The Art of Living According to Joe Beef". If you have ever seen Frederic Morin and David McMillan on Anthony Bourdain's no reservations you will know these guys like to live life large, hence the title of the book. I loved the idea of this recipe as it goes to show, done the right way Schnitzel doesn't have to be confined to the realms of dodgy pub food. If the restaurant Joe Beef can serve schnitzel twice a year alongside ingredients such as morels and chanterelles then there must be a way to elevate this dish from pub grub to restaurant fare. You might be wondering where the sour cream is.  Surprisingly this recipe has a whole cup of sour cream. It is mixed with eggs and nutmeg to form the wet base that the panko crumb adheres to. It is certainly a subtle addition to the flavour but under that super crunchy friend panko crumb the sour cream is there adding a little funk and a little moist texture. We paired the schnitzel with another Joe Beef recipe, Baked Mushrooms where you roast mushrooms in a mixture of butter, thyme and smoky paprika (the good Spanish stuff works best) and we also added some roasted dutch carrots and whoa this meal was rockin. The schnitzel was so good a sauce would have ruined it so we ate it with a sprinkle of lemon juice and it is all it needed.



The next recipe selection pretty much changed my life, meatballs can have that effect. The recipe, Arline Ryan's Swedish Meatballs with Sour Cream from the cookbook Heirloom Cooking with the Brass Sisters by Marilyn and Sheila Brass. This book is an exploration of a century of North American cooking traditions by researching vintage recipes found in handwritten cookbooks and recipe boxes. What a great concept for a cookbook, so many recipes are lost to time, this way they can be immortalised and if the image of these two little ladies on the cover doesn't melt your heart you are made of stone my friend. According to the sisters this recipe came from a handwritten index card found in Indiana and is an heirloom. We can only guess that it has Swedish heritage. Veal and pork mince are processed with onion, cream, crackers, nutmeg and salt and pepper and formed into little balls and then cooked in a sauce of their own cooking juices, wine, chicken stock and my hero ingredient sour cream. Paired with a wide pasta to soak up all that lucious sauce this dish will make you lament your next serve of Ikea Swedish meatballs, they are that good. The sour cream gives the sauce a creamy tang and with the white wine which adds a zing it is so moreish.


We seemed to be on a European bender here so we thought, why not one more to round it out to a trio and who does sour cream more justice than the Eastern Europeans. We went with that old nugget, Hungarian Goulash. It's not a sexy dish, most Eastern European tradition cooking has that down home comfort vibe that is totally my thing. According to Eat Your Books I had eight Goulash recipes to choose from and we went with Bruce Aidells version in his complete book of pork. Bruce is a man of my heart, in his introduction we says he is a restless cook and an adventurous eater, always exploring new culinary horizons and talk about cooking to a theme, a whole book about pork! The pairing of the bacon and pork butt with the onions, sauerkraut and all that paprika just wouldn't be complete without large lashings of sour cream to temper the richness of all those strong flavours. The sour cream is a mighty thing here, is carries all those flavours and well as adding that subtle fermented funk of its own.


Moving a little further south we headed to Jerusalem with Yotam Ottolenghi. There is no excuse needed to cook a Yotam dish, they are always culinary perfection and this one was no different. This time we chose a dish where the sour cream is an accompaniment, appearing here as a soured cream with sumac sauce alongside turkey and courgette burgers. This was not a cop out though, it is an example of the fact that some dishes would be incomplete without the perfect sauce and in this case it is absolutely true. Whilst the burgers themselves were delicious with flavours of mint, coriander and cumin it really needed the moistness of the sour cream sauce which is used as a vessel to carry the tartness of the sumac which adds a much needed kick to the dish. We paired the burgers with Yotam's Basmati & wild rice with chickpeas, currants and herbs which I must say is my absolute favourite rice dish ever and I an a rice addict.


To round out the week we thought it best to head away from the continent and over to the US to shake things up with Buffalo chicken wings from The American Cookbook. Again this is a side dish of sour cream made into a blue cheese dressing and maybe it was a cop out to go for a second dish where the sour cream is a part of the accompaniment and not the main but after you have tried this dipping sauce paired with the crispy, spicy and sweet chicken wings you won't care. It will rock your world as it did mine. The deep weirdness of blue cheese and the fermented dairy flavours of sour cream together, it is a resounding YES from me!

It was a week of discovery, it was a week of fermented flavours and a week of excess kilos. Only question left is...what theme will be next?


Originally posted on Sunday, 4 February 2018 by

Friday, 29 December 2017

My Paris Market Cookbook: A Cookbook Review

"Markets bring us together. They introduce us to the people who grow our food, the people who feed us. They are a source of new ideas, inspiration and recipes. They are the way we participate in the most basic and fundamental ritual shared by all humans- shopping for the ingredients that we will take home, make into a meal, and share with the people we love."
Emily Dilling.
My Paris Market Cookbook.

It's no secret that the French can be intimidating. Their disdain for the English rubs off onto those with a similar accent and a lack of French language skills is barely tolerated. At times I have found this has left me struggling to find a connection with a culture I want to know better. I have found this disconnect more apparent in Paris than rural France and although I have been to Paris twice and have admired the architecture and galleries I have never been able to immerse myself in the culture. I am in large part to blame for this, my trips to Paris have been so brief that there was barely time to wave to the Mona Lisa let alone learn anything beyond "parlez-vous Anglais?".

This lack of connection with Paris is one of the reasons I enjoyed Emily Dillings book "My Paris Market Cookbook" so much. Emily, as an expat who has had time to crack the tough cookie that is Paris takes us behind the scenes. It's like having a personal tour guide who speaks the language and understands the customs. It's like an unveiling of sorts or possibly even a disrobing, the intimate nature in which Emily understands the city will leave you with a new appreciation for the aspects of Paris that are more elusive to the day tripper.

The book is laid out in seasons, starting in Autumn and ending in Summer, which is perfect for seasonal nature of market shopping and cooking. Emily explains that the recipes are intentionally simple, designed to be cooked with ingredients solely found at local markets. You could use this book a number of ways. If heading to Paris this book could be used as a guide to the markets themselves, when they are on and where. I only wish I had a trip planned so I could hunt down these markets myself and make the recipes with the local produce to experience the real "terroir" France provides these dishes. In lieu of that I used the book as an inspiration to cook some French cuisine using food from my own local markets.

Sitting down and choosing which recipes to cook I realised in order to do the book justice I needed to stick with Emily's philosophy of local, high quality, seasonal produce. Being late Spring/ Early Summer at the time in Australia I made a selection of recipes from these two sections of the book, grabbed my hessian shopping bag and headed to the local markets. I actually live in a semi-rural location where a farmers market came to be a few years ago and I have to admit, I rarely attend. This book gave me the perfect excuse to see what the local producers were doing and try some of the produce on offer.

Being a small town the markets in turn are quite small. Just a handful of local producers selling a small variety of produce but I was able to pick up everything I needed. I had intentionally chosen recipes with ingredients I was pretty certain I would be able to pick up.



You can see my market haul pictured here. I particularly fell in love with the beautiful purple flowers on the chives, you would never see that in the supermarket. The bunch of leeks that looked like swollen scallions was a great find and added a wonderful subtle oniony flavour to dishes. Once used I kept the stems in the freezer to use in a future stock. The local garlic was quite different to the two varieties you get in the supermarket, it was more subtle that the Australian purple variety sold in the supermarket that I often find too pungent and overpowering and a more gentle flavour than the imported Chinese variety. The store holder indicated that this subtlety is a feature of late spring garlic.




The excursion to the markets was also a lesson in the fact that just because it is local doesn't guarantee quality. I hate to say it but the eggs were of very poor quality (not the ones pictured here), as I cracked them open the whites were as liquid as water and ran out all over the bench before I had time to get them over a bowl. They also tasted like nothing, even the yolks were watery tasting. This forced me into the supermarket, something I didn't want to do for fear of being caught by Emily walking through the artificially lit aisles when I should have been pursuing the trestle tables in the sun. I think even Emily could agree that quality eggs are a must for French cooking and shopping local cannot be a substitute for quality. Luck have it be I was able to source a different brand of local eggs in the supermarket, this brand much better in quality and although not purchased directly from the producer it was still nice to be supporting local business.

With family coming over I decided to whip out a number of the dishes for a French themed lunch. We had the baked eggs with French chives, steamed asparagus with home made hollandaise and cultured butter with wonderful crusty local woodfired bread. I had also grabbed a smoked trout which we served alongside Emily's dishes as well as some locally grown potatoes that I par-boiled and roasted in golden, crunchy gems.

It was all very civilised and my husbands 95 year old grandmother thought it a wonderful change from the nursing home food.




The next day I decided I wanted to see how good French toast could be using such quality ingredients and Emily's summertime recipe. I had grown up with the type of French toast that is very satisfactory to anyone under the age of 12. You know the kind with wonder white bread and margarine cooked up as a special treat on a Sunday morning and a welcome change from the usual Wheetbix. But now it was time for something next level and I can tell you it really was next level. I used the woodfired bread with it's chewy, smoky crust. Cultured butter, made in Australia in the French style, local full cream milk and a lovely fresh bag of cinnamon still containing it's full bouquet of flavours. It didn't compare to any French Toast I have had in the past, far beyond the Sunday morning treat this was decadence at it's finest.



After the weekend of exploring my local markets and cooking Emily's recipes I really felt a new connection with Paris. One that due to limitations of time and language I was unable to obtain myself whilst with Paris. That is the gift books can give us, they can take us away to places known and unknown and expand our views and experiences.

My copy was supplied by Skyhorse publishing and I highly recommend getting your own copy of My Paris Market Cookbook by Emily Dilling.


Originally posted on Friday, 29 December 2017 by

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Driving in Vanuatu

I find the decision to self drive whilst on holiday is dependent on many factors. Starting with your own confidence as a driver, which side of the road is being driven on, the standard of the roads, the adherence to road rules, the types of hire cars on offer, the reliability of the hire cars in the destination, navigation options, the list could go on an on.

When we were considering if we would drive in Vanuatu I wasn't able to access much of this information. There were only one or two websites that touched on it and it was difficult to make an informed decision. In the end we decided to give it a go and I was so glad we did.

Now that I have been there and done that I can write the definitive guide on the topic so you too can decide if it is right for you.

A word on the roads

The roads in Vanuatu are in variable condition depending on where you are driving. In Port Vila, the main town centre on Efate they are tarmac and very pot-holed from overuse and lack of repair work. As we were there just after the rainy season sections of the roads were flooded from recent rain which meant there were diversions in place and on many occasions you had to drive through the flood waters (nothing too deep or dangerous).

On the more used sections on the outskirts of Port Vila the roads were even more deteriorated, some sections were washed away completely by flooding and the pot holes were so numerous that you generally ended up in another pot hole trying to avoid the pot holes.

Off the main road there are smaller dirt roads leading out to areas, such as the jetty to go to Hideaway, that are just a series of very large pot holes, often water filled so you could not see the depth. It was a little like riding the Indian Jones ride at Disneyland with the car being thrown up and down and side to side. Quite fun as long as you had an appropriate vehicle.

On the far side of the island to Port Vila there is an impressive road that was built by the US owned mining company that was based over there. This road gets little use, it is 135kms all the way around Efate and apart from round island tour mini vans few tourists seem to venture out this far and few locals own their own cars.

Overall it is a mixed bag of roads ranging from barely driveable to flooded to excellent roads with no cars on them.

So what does this all mean? Well despite the fact that many of the car hire companies rent out standard sedans to tourists I would not recommend getting anything other than a 4WD. It doesn't need to be big, we got a Suzuki Jimny and it was perfect. You just want that extra ground clearance over a sedan to keep you out of trouble of the really rough sections.

We did get a flat within the first few days, there was a screw in the tyre and the tyre iron didn't fit the wheel nuts but Europcar were there within 15 minutes to change the tyre for us and the repair cost on the original tyre was $8.

These pictures are the worst of the roads we encountered. They are close to town where they get the most use.


On the flip side Vanuatu also had roads like this, long , straight, in very good condition and no cars for kilometers on end. This is on the less frequented side of the island.


Road rules and local interpretations of them

Adherence to road rules was minimal. Locals indicate with their arms out the window instead of with their indicators, sometimes pull out without warning and they rarely give way at intersections. We found there was a need to be proactive at times in pushing into intersections and roundabouts as the locals would rarely give way to let you in. That mixed with people walking on the roads and working in close proximity to the road meant you did have to be quite alert at all times. We never felt unsafe you just had to be aware that anyone at anytime could do something unpredictable.

They do also drive on the right-hand side of the road (the other side of the road to us here in Australia) but it didn't take too much getting use to. We only found ourselves on the wrong side once or twice when there were no other cars on the road. For most of the world's drivers this is the correct side of the road so most people won't have an issue with it.


Car hire options and prices

There are quite a few car hire companies to choose from. Our first choice World Car Rentals was sold out of the Jimny we were after so we ended up with Europcar . The availability of 4WD's was limited and we booked very late. It is worth noting that the car hire across the board with all companies was not cheap. We ended up paying around $80 per day for the Jimny (that type of thing in the Cook Islands will set you back only $40-$50 a day). The larger 4WD's which were more readily available were between $100-$120 a day.

Something else that was common practice with the car hire companies that I have not come across elsewhere is that they take a hefty bond against the vehicle that was charged to your credit card and only refunded once the car was returned. This was around $1400. It wasn't an issue as I always travel with a credit card with a decent limit for emergencies but I am sure it would catch a lot of people by surprise who may not have the spare funds available.

Always ensure you have travel insurance to cover the excesses and if you do not be sure to reduce the excesses with the car hire company. This is the sort of place you could easily damage a car and you do not want to be lumped with a few thousand dollars excess.

Delivery to your resort

A lovely feature of car hire in Vanuatu is that they will deliver the car right to your resort, fill in the paperwork with you in the lobby and at the end of your hire you can leave the keys with reception at your resort and the car hire company will collect it even after you have flown out. At no point were we trying to get public transport to and from the depot. Overall the service provided by Europcar was excellent. As mentioned above they even came to our resort for free to change the tyre when we realised the tyre iron we had did not fit the wheel nuts. Could not have asked for more.

Round island driving trips, what to see and do

The open road, that's what we all love about driving holidays and Vanuatu offers just that. Once you get away from Port Vila the roads improve and you are free to cruise around at your own leisure. Efate has built up quite a bit for the tourist and with the car you car easily access all of the major sights.

Although 135 kms around the island doesn't sound that far, on these types of roads it is a good half days journey. We had a week on Efate and organised our stay into visits to the major tourist spots as stand alone trips plus one full day round island journey stopping at any sights we wanted to see  again.

Take a look at the tourist map to get your bearings.

Mele Cascades

If the water is flowing the cascades will be the highlight of your trip. Head out of Port Vila (leaving plenty of time to get through town as the traffic can crawl through here). Heading in this direction at the time of year we were there there were a number of spots the roads were covered in water but if you take it slow there is no problems. You will drive through Mele Village, the locals here are more used to tourists but still always have a friendly smile and wave for you. On the far side of Mele village just before you head up a steep hillside you will see on your left the carpark for the cascades. You can park in here for free. Be sure to take your reef shoes, towels and swimmers and head to the entry booth. The entrance fee was around $25 Australian dollars per person in 2017 but I am sure that figure will change. Although it sounds a lot the access a natural site, something that in many countries would be free you do need to appreciate that many natural features in Vanuatu are on private, generational land and being a very poor country the locals need to make a dollar from the tourists to survive. The money is well worth it too.

The walk up to the top is a winding path that can be muddy and a little steep at times but not too strenuous if you take it slow. You are taken alongside the flow of the water with various cascades and swimming holes along the way.

At the top you find the main waterfall which comes over the top of a cliff and down over rocks that form a number of separate pools. There are ropes to hold on to to get to the higher pools and with the water flow as strong as it was when we were there it was needed (although the locals bounded up there as if it was nothing). The water was refreshing but not freezing and you could get right under over-hanging rocks and have the water rush over you.

On a practical note they have security positioned at the main swimming holes to watch your belongings as you swim, petty theft is always an issue in developing countries like this and it was nice to know your belongings were secure.

Security knocks off at 4pm and they open the facilities to the locals. We got to the top around 3:30. Had the place to ourselves for half and hour which was nice and the local children came up the hillside from 4. It was a good time to go as you could see the children enjoying the falls.


The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon swimming hole doesn't need too much explanation, it is a beautiful blue water swimming hole and it is reached if you head out of Port Vila the other direction to the Mele Cascades. It is worth doing on a separate day to the Cascades and with all main tourist sites on Efate it is worth finding out which days there are cruise ships in port and avoiding these places on those days. On ship days the Blue Lagoon is flooded with day trippers coming off the cruise ships and many might feel it ruins the experience. We found these sites quieter in the morning or late afternoon and if you have a car you have the freedom to pick and choose when you go and are not locked in to when the round island tours visit.


Port Havannah

As you drive around the island you will see a huge variation in swimming options. Some of the beaches are very rugged and would not be suited to many swimmers. You also have Erakor Lagoon which is very flat, inlet type waters and around near Havannah port you will find some great snorkeling spots if you go looking. These waters are protected by nearby islands and there are marine reserves with fantastic snorkeling. On a sunny day, sitting out here in a local beach shack after a big snorkel with a beer in hand is pure magic. I would also recommend stopping in at a resort called The Havannah for a meal. They have a gorgeous open air restaurant under a massive thatched roof, the food is good and the views and vibe are magnificent.


Eratap

I had a very specific journey in mind for day three of our Vanuatu Holiday. It was the Seafood Platter at a resort called "Eratap". This is a resort I have been sending travellers to for years and have only heard good things. Eratap is located down a rough road a little beyond the Blue Lagoon. It was around a 40 minute trip each way from our resort "Breakas". All up I would say with the drive and the lunch we were out for around 3 hours so a good part of the day. You can read about the platter here . Visiting other resorts and their restaurants was another big advantage of having the car. Most other people staying at Breakas felt limited to the hotel restaurant and the cafe at Nasama just down the road and whilst we tended to eat at these two places at night as the roads were difficult to navigate (with all the potholes) in the dark, during the day we ate all over the island. I would also recommend stopping in at the Holiday Inn for a meal, the lagoon views from the restaurant are wonderful and some of the locally owned Beach shacks like Gideon's Landing and Le Life Resort are a unique experience that will take you out of the "western resort" scene.


Village Life

Getting a taste for village life in Vanuatu is a must. You can pull up any of the villages that are dotted around the island and have a wander through. Remember though people live here so don't be intrusive and ask permission for photos. You can also head out on a walk with a local. Breakas where we were staying do a free weekly walking tour of the nearby village of Pango. They will tell you about their village hierarchy and their local chiefs and you will see their crops and animals. To get even more in depth we spent a day on an Urban Adventure harvesting food and cooking with a local family. You can read all about that here.


The Vanuatu smile and waive

You will hear people say that the local population, the Ni-Vanuatuans, are the friendliest people on the planet. I have been a lot of places and I must say this is true. As you drive around the island, roll down the windows, hang your arm out, prop it up in a permanent wave position because every local you will drive by (and it will be hundreds a day) will see you coming, have a big grin on their face and wave profusely. There is nothing fake or mocking about it, they are genuinely excited to see you. The further away from Port Vila we got the more enthusiastic the response was and in the furthest points they seemed genuinely surprised to see us.

Overall having the car basically meant freedom. Freedom to roam, see whatever we wanted to see in whatever time frame we wanted to see it. We could seek out tourist sites in quieter periods, escape the more commercial resorts and interact with the locals on a different level than if you are with a large group of tourists. I would highly recommend it to anyone.


Originally posted on Saturday, 16 December 2017 by