Sunday, 22 September 2019

Cooking Indonesian With Eleanor Ford

I have spent a number of weeks now cooking from Fire Islands, Recipes from Indonesia by Eleanor Ford and I have taken away so much more than just a full belly and a happy, well fed husband. The book really got me thinking.

It is all too easy these days to get swept up in the idea of "authenticity", that something is less than if not authentic. Today's internet connected world is quick to slam something that isn't exactly how they know of it, not how it is done in their household or their town or by their grandma.

This mentality has seen so many cookbook authors provide what is essentially a disclaimer. Something to put forth to stop the onslaught of hate, to say that whilst this may not be how you know it, it is my version. 

I once saw an epic internet tear down of a Jamie Oliver Paella as it wasn't true to Valencian Paella. Big call in a world filled with hundreds if not thousands of versions of Paella, many good and quite a few tastier than the snail filled Valencian version.

It's a sad day when we can't appreciate someone else's perspective on something, that anything different is cultural appropriation or disrespectful or just plain wrong.

Eleanor's cookbook is a well rounded homage to Indonesian food. She has clearly done the leg work spending many years living and eating in the island archipelago. She covers all the bases from fast street food to the wonderful slow cooked meat braises. Indonesian dishes with various cultural heritages such as Chinese and Dutch.  Food from the Royal Court as well as the Warung (an small family run Indonesian restaurant or cafe) and desserts, glorious fruity, sticky, sweet as can be desserts. 

And yet despite all of this, all the ground work , all the research, all the hours upon hours of cooking and eating with locals she provides a disclaimer. That these recipes may not be truly authentic. That adjustments have been made for availability of ingredients in the western world, that this may not be exactly what you will find in an Indonesian home or Warung and all in order to stop what has become a modern day past time, backlash.

Yet for me as a home cook this is the hallmark of a great cookbook. I own cookbooks that are entirely authentic to the experience within a country and guess can't cook from them. You can't go to the supermarket or even a specialty grocer and grab some long pepper or salam leaves. Omissions and substitutions must be made if the book is to be usable for its intended audience...home cooks in the west. It is a tricky balancing act for cookbook authors and Eleanor has found that balance.

So that is a big tick from me. The recipes here are true to the spirit of Indonesian cuisine yet cookable at home (provided you do have access to an Asian grocery). There isn't anything in this book that I either could not find or Eleanor had not offered a substitute or option for omission.

Eleanor also suggests the use of food processors as well as mortar and pestles in a well balanced combination. To be truly authentic yes you should grind all your bumbu (spice pastes) by hand and whilst I own a volcanic rock mortar and pestle from Bali there are times I do not want to hand grind a whole spice paste by hand and I think suggesting people must always do so becomes a little fanatical, yes I am looking at you David Thompson.

I must also give a shout out to the graphic design on this book, from the cover to the back page this book is abound with rich colours, patterns and deep earthy photography and apologies, my own photography of these dishes as cooked in my home definitely do not live up to those from the book...another reason to buy the book!

The sheer cook-ability, variety of dishes and eat-ability of these recipes kept me coming back to try more. In a long Bungendore winter the wonderful aromats of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, ginger, and garlic with the sweetness of palm sugar and the often tart presence of tamarind was an escape to somewhere far more tropical than my frost covered little town in rural Australia.

I have included here some piccys so you can see some the dishes I cooked as well as some notes on the dish in each caption. I did not find a bad egg among the bunch so if you are going to delve into this cookbook do so with gusto. Cook with love, cook with joy and eat like it's your last meal.

If you would like to read about my own journey in Bali, Indonesia which includes a hair raising bike ride down a volcano you can read that here. Or my suggestions on how to find Balinese food in Bali (you would think that would be easier than it is but the mega-tourism industry in this area tends to cater more for western food options) you can read about that here

Laksa. Page 127. This Indonesian version if Laksa is quite different to a Malaysian Laksa, Much more about the aromats and less about the deep fishy funk of a Malaysian Laksa.

Lamb Shank Red Curry. Page 71. Best curry I have made in quite a while. The lamb cooked on the bone is incredibly tender and I really enjoyed what the evaporated milk brought to the table, not an ingredient I have used in a curry before.

Betawai Spiced Beef. Page 125. Rich and complex and really set off by the tartness of the Chilli-Fried Potato Crunch found on page 183.

Pork Braised in Kecap Manis. Page 61. Sweet, rich ,moist. So many way to describe this tasty dish that really hit the spot.

Roasted Coconut Chicken. Page 57. Indonesian Flavours meets the classic Sunday roast. Genius.
There is a surprising lack of Indonesian cookbooks in the market. Here is my collection if you are interested in learning more on the topic. Sri Owen is a classic voice on the topic whereas Eleanor Ford offers a more contemporary voice to Indonesian cooking. If you want the ultimate experience head to Anika Cooking Class in Bali. The experience could not be faulted and we came away with a number of books of recipes from the two days we spent there.

Originally posted on Sunday, 22 September 2019 by

Friday, 6 September 2019

Melbourne...It's All About The Burbs

I had a recent epiphany whilst buried shoulder-deep amongst imported antique French wall sconces and hundreds of hanging chandeliers. As good a place as any to have a light bulb moment (dad joke alert!).
What do French sconces and chandeliers have to do with anything? Well, these particular lighting wonders, many pre-Edison with their gas fittings still intact, were hidden behind an unassuming corner door on an unassuming street in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy North.
What dawned on me as I fawned over this shockingly affordable and masterly curated collection was that Melbourne is the coolest place on earth.Overstatement? I think not. I have put in a lot of legwork around the world and Melbourne still delights me every time.
If you’re inclined to hit the Melbourne CBD you will have a fine time but you are going to miss what makes Melbourne one of the coolest cities on the planet. While the city centre does have some unexpected twists–European laneways, hidden bars and lots of graffiti–for me, Melbourne is all about the burbs.
Here are four you might not have considered.


Now I am under no illusion that everyone is in the market for antique lighting and it’s accoutrements, if you are head to Gregory's. But that is just the tip of the iceberg here.
Firstly, let’s talk about soup. I love that soup is a thing in Melbourne. You could put it down to the climate but Canberra is cold too and we certainly don’t have a soup culture. 

Do you know anywhere else in Australia where a vegetarian Moroccan style eatery serving soup would have survived since 1998? That’s exactly what the Moroccan Soup Bar in Fitzroy North has done. Not only has it survived–it’s become a Melbourne institution and even has a popular cookbook.
Making your way further along grungy St George’s Road in Fitzroy North you’ll come to Obelix and Co. Black and gold lettering on the window will tell you this is a delicatessen, charcuterie and larder, but the description belies that this place is from the pages of Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France.
The glass cabinet is abundant with meats cured in the French tradition, rillettes, pates, handmade sausages and other delectable delights.
The basket of crunchy baguettes on the counter scream picnic even if the Melbourne weather doesn’t and the shelved glass jars hold back homemade pickles and relishes.
If you’re just visiting and can’t stock up, be sure to grab some toasties for the road. Gooey Raclette on potatoes in toasted sandwich form is life-affirming.


Moving away from Fitzroy North, a day spent walking Chapel Street is a must-do. For the full experience, start on the South Yarra end where you’ll find women in ballet flats trying on chic fashion. From there, make your way through the suburbs of Prahran and Windsor. It’s all one road but the vibe, architecture and people change the further along you get.
The sheer quantity of incredible food along this street will boggle your mind. Many restaurants here don’t take bookings leaving you free to pop in and take your chances at getting a table.
That being said, you may want to call ahead to South Yarra’s tiny Italian trattoria Cucinetta. Its incredible Cacio E Pepe with truffle keeps the 15 or so seats here pretty full.
In the Prahran section of Chapel Street, you’ll find a quirky mix of small boutiques, artists galleries, unusual florists and some of the best eating in Melbourne.
Save at least an hour to wander The Chapel Street Baazar. Here dozens of separately run stalls come together seamlessly to form one store in living homage to the saying that one mans trash is another man’s treasure.


Further down Chapel Street, things start getting a little wild as Prahran morphs into Windsor, however, the suburb’s dodgy reputation is not long for this world as gentrification takes hold.
The opening of Shane Delia’s high-end restaurant Maha East may be the death knell for the once rough and tough neighbourhood.

It still holds onto some of its murkiness though and people watching can be a good pastime…even if it is just to watch Melbournians eating ice cream in the driving rain at midnight.
For me, fusion Asian food is at it’s best in Windsor.
Yes, fusion has been a dirty word when talking about food since it’s abuse in the ’90s, but there is no denying that Melbourne does incredible fusion Asian food.
Mr Miyagi’s is as much fuelled by its incredible food as it’s amusing slogans.
Here you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their technique of transforming nori, traditionally used on sushi rolls, into the crunchiest of taco shells, and the pumpkin toast, although far removed from Japanese food, is one of the best things you will put in your mouth…ever.

Actually, I take that back. Maybe the best thing you will ever put on your mouth is just over the road at Hawker Hall where dipping flaky, buttery roti canai into curry is second only to doing so in Malaysia.
Or maybe it’s the Salmon Tartare at the nearby Tokyo Tina or the Pho at Hanoi Hannah…all incredible food experiences and all in Windsor.
Although food is a big drawcard for the Prahran/Windsor area, you’ll also find some of the weirdest (in the best way) homewares.
One glance into home decor supplier Fenton and Fenton will confirm that you are not in Kansas anymore.
Loud artworks line the walls, monkeys in the form of lighting swing on ropes from the ceiling, ceramic heads form vases holding an abundance of flowers and retro cane drink trolleys lurk amongst cacti, palm fronds and concrete swans.
Eccentric doesn’t cover it. It’s insane, yet it works, it’s inspiring and it reminds you that your home should reflect your personality, not become some beige monument to “resale value”.

This article was originally published on Her Canberra.

Originally posted on Friday, 6 September 2019 by

Monday, 29 July 2019

Is Athens Your Next European Holiday?


It’s easy to go into a trip with expectations. On one hand, if those expectations are met you are satisfied. On the other, if your expectations are higher than the experience, you can come away disappointed. But sometimes, just sometimes you come away inspired and delighted by expectations that were exceeded.

I first experienced this a number of years ago on a trip to the US. I was so excited to be heading to New York for the first time that I hadn’t put any thought into what I would expect in my other destination, Chicago and whilst New York was as vibrant and diverse as I thought it would be I was so impressed by Chicago, a stunning city built on the banks of the vast expanses of Lake Michigan with a more relaxed vibe than New York and everything a traveller could wish for.

Well, I have recently had a similar experience. I was headed to Athens for a conference and being a work trip, I hadn’t put too much thought into the destination or what to expect. I went in cold and I came away a little hot under the collar, wishing my time there could have been longer.

Athens as a stand-alone destination isn’t on Australian travellers’ radars. We tend to head to Paris or Rome for an iconic city stay, but I can tell you that I enjoyed Athens more than either of those great cities.

So why did I love it so much? It was a combination of all the things that make a city a pleasure to experience. Warm and welcoming people, great food, easy to use transport, cheap costs of living, history so real you can touch it, great food…hang on did I say that already?

If you have a trip to Europe planned, consider putting Athens on your itinerary.


A successful stay in Athens is all about location. Whilst there are a number of spots that you will find to be central, my preference is around the Syntagma Square area. Why there over the more touristy Plaka area, you may ask? Well for exactly that reason. The major roads heading out from Syntagma Square, such as Ermou Street, are bustling day and night with both locals and tourists. The locals go about their everyday lives and you can feel the vibes of daily life in the city – not the sanitised tourist version. There is also a major metro station there, so you can access all parts of the city and you’re around a 15-minute walk from the main entrance to the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora and less than 10 minutes walk to Plaka. It is all very accessible.

For a mid-range hotel that has one of the best locations in Athens I highly recommend the Electra Hotel. It’s located right on the main shopping street of Ermou and has a rooftop bar overlooking the Acropolis which, when lit up at night, is one of the most stunning locations you will ever likely have a drink.

If you want to splash out then just around the corner you’ll find the Electra Metropolis. Housed in the former Ministry of Education and only recently rebuilt into a 5-star hotel, it cannot be beaten for chic styling and modern amenities. Again, the rooftop pool, bar and restaurant looks out across the Acropolis but there’s also a serious highlight on the ground floor too. Ancient city walls were excavated during the construction of the hotel and have been built into the ground floor with glass viewing panels, so you can glimpse the glory of Ancient Greece.


It’s hard to get a bad meal in Greece (although perhaps as a vegan as you may struggle with the meat dominated food culture).

For a fun outdoor dining experience head down to Apostolou Pavlou Street. It is aimed at tourists but it will give you some great people watching and some good Greek food. Order a platter so you can try out a wide range of flavours as they come with a little of everything, olives, feta, grilled chicken, kebab, dolmades, pita, tzatziki, cheesy croquettes and lots of other little treats. It is perfect for sharing in the sunshine with a cold beer or a warm coffee.

Fitting with the current rage of street food there are vendors located all over the streets of Athens. You can have a walking feast taking in food such as freshly grilled corn on the cob, incredible fresh homemade donuts (find the old chap midway down Ermou Street, unbelievable donuts) chestnuts roasted right in front of you, incredible local pastries and Souvlaki from hole in the wall shops, some of which have been there for more than a hundred years. There really are endless options.

For a high-end dining experience, spend an evening at Cookoovaya. The seasonal menu delivers all the flavours you’d expect in a city with such a food-centric culture but in the form of high-end dining. Make sure you have their version of Bougasta, a layered pastry and custard dish. I won’t spoil it but there is a surprise.


Athens is a walking city. Despite the fact that the all-white cityscape sprawls from the mountains to the ocean, the city centre feels very compact. It is also very easy to orientate yourself as the towering Acropolis topped by the Parthenon is always a central reference point so you can see where you are and where you are going.

A great loop for your first day is to head down Ermou Street until you hit Monastiraki where you can wander the cobbled lanes lined with shops selling everything from souvenirs to high-quality leather handbags and purses.

Then make your way down Apostolou Pavlou Street until you come to the gates of the Ancient Agora where four Euros in winter or eight Euros in summer will give you access to the marketplace of classical Athens as well as the Temple of Hephaestus which is the best preserved Greek temple from the classical era.

If you head out the other entrance, on the opposite side to which you entered, you can then head to the gates of the Acropolis. The walk up the slopes to the top isn’t as difficult as it looks and there are plenty of vistas to stop and take a selfie with along the way.

You can then head into the Plaka area, stop for a beer at a taverna and then head back to your base for a swim in your rooftop pool.

For a more comprehensive tour in which you can immerse yourself in the history, you must contact Andrew at Athens Off The Beaten Track. There is nothing about this city he doesn’t know and he will take you to some secret locations, such as the best spot to watch the changing of the guards where you can leave the tourists behind.

Make sure you leave time for things like the Athens Archaeological Museum as well as the various museums attached to the sites like the Acropolis Museum. They will help tie together the long history of this amazing city.


I’m a big proponent of avoiding Europe in peak season. The European summer (July and August) is hectic and cities on the Mediterranean are hot hot hot. It doesn’t make for happy exploring.

Shoulder season, spring and autumn are always good options but with more people travelling than ever, even the shoulder seasons can be busy. With the climate in Athens mild in winter, November to February is a viable option. You may need some layers as the temps can range from cool to mild to quite comfortably warm if the sun is shining.

Another bonus is that the attractions halve their entrance fees in the offseason and your airline tickets will be as cheap as they get.

If you’re heading over from May to October then you’re also in the perfect base to explore the Greek Islands. 45 minutes from the city centre and accessible by public transport or taxi is the port of Piraeus. From here you have daily ferries (weather dependent) heading out all across the Greek islands and you can explore less touristy spots like Ios and Paros or go all out in the party island of Mykonos.


I have done a bit of Greek cooking in the past. My colleagues in Greece were surprised to know I had made dishes such as Galaktoboureko from scratch which by the way is an incredible dish...even if you can't pronounce it.

There will certainly be more Greek cooking in my home in the future. My primary reference point right now for Greek food is Greece The Cookbook by Vefa Alexiadou. In true Phaidon style it's hard to imagine a more comprehensive cookbook on a country. They really do produce cookbooks that get to the heart of a subject.

I also have Lyndey and Blairs Taste of Greece which is a nice take on Greece, a very personal journey which also has an accompanying TV show.

And lastly I have Food from many Greek Kitchens by Tessa Kiros and Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti. Tessa writes gorgeous cookbooks, From Provence to Pondicherry is one of my all time favourite cookbooks and the latter book on Ancient Greece I am yet to delve into yet but looks like a fascinating take on an ancient society.

This article was first published on Her Canberra, this version has been altered to include the information on cookbooks and some personal photos.

Originally posted on Monday, 29 July 2019 by

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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