Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Unique Journeys: Thailand

Being in the travel industry and talking travel all day gives me some unique insights. I am constantly surrounded by the latest travel trends, get first hand feedback from hundreds of travellers every year and am bombarded with industry reps touting their travel products and don’t forget the familiarisation and personal travel I undertake every year. 

All too often I see people fall into the trap of taking uninspired holidays. In this Series “Unique Journeys” I am focusing on bringing you unique experiences worldwide. One of a kind getaways and fascinating experiences to get you seeing travel from a new perspective. 

The experiences and properties you will see recommended here are not sponsored they are brought to you from my many years experience as a travel consultant.

For my first Unique Journey we are heading to Thailand. The reason I chose this as my first destination is that it is extremely popular with the Australian market and with good reason. The people are so friendly, it is exotic and exciting and the food is out of this world. It is also a very diverse country with large bustling cities, remote wilderness and stunning tropical beaches.

The issue I have is that very few Australian's make it past Phuket. Whilst Phuket is abound with fantastic value resorts, fun day trips like elephant trekking and rafting and it has all the amenities like shopping, restaurants and bars there is so much more to Thailand you just need to not be sucked in by the stay pay resort discount deals.

For a real experience, one that will stay with you for a lifetime, head North to the more remote regions around Chang Rai. Right up the very top of Thailand almost on the Thai/Laos border you will find Lanjia Lodge.



View from Lanjia Lodge, just stunning. Photo courtesy of Asian Oasis

 Lanjia Lodge is a unique experience not only due to it's stunning surroundings in the mountains but the fact that it is run by the local Hmong and Lahu villages providing employment and opportunities in the region. The local hilltribes service all of your needs and activities during your stay and some of the revenue go directly to local community projects so you are giving back at the same time as having a holiday.

Like so many of these unique experiences the pictures say it all. You aren't staying in five star luxury and that is what makes this so fantastic, You aren't being sheltered from the local life and people you are experiencing it at a grassroots level. Can you imagine waking up to those views over the Mekong Valley. Lush green foliage all around you, fog settled in the valley and the Mekong River at your feet. Village life happens all around you and traditional local meals are made for you by the villagers themselves.


Dining balcony at Lanjia Lodge. Photo courtesy of Asian Oasis
It's Thailand at it's core and whilst tourism will have had a small affect on this place it hasn't stomped all over it like in the beach resorts down south where your Holiday Inn's butt up against sad, degrading animal zoo's and touts chase you down the beach till you buy that $2 Rolex watch.

You can fully immerse yourself here with educational activities like Batik, Hiking, Local farm visits, tree planting, bird watching, walks around the local villages. This is what tourism should be.


Nearby Village in Laos Photo courtesy of Asian Oasis who can get you here in a Mekong River Cruise

Based on the glowing Trip Advisor reviews Lanjia Lodge receives most travellers main regret is they did not stay for long enough. Don't make that same mistake. Stay at least three nights if you really want to disconnect from it all, which is easy to do with no cell phone reception and no TV.

You can see more about the lodge, make bookings and view extended trips in the area at Asian Oasis, a great company specialising in incredible experiences not to be missed in Asia.


Photo courtesy of Asian Oasis

Photo courtesy of Asian Oasis

Village in nearby Laos Photo courtesy of Asian Oasis

Of course you won't have travelled all the way to Thailand to only stay at Lanjia. Spend some time soaking up the atmosphere in Chang Rai (around 2 hours drive from the Lodge). Chang Rai is less touristy than many of Thailands other destinations for travellers and a great place to explore the local hill tribes, go on treks and cycle. 

If you so wish you can have that five star experience here at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort or if you want a great value experience check out Laluna Hotel and Resort.

Internal flights around Thailand are quite cheap and in many cases can be included as a part of your international airfares making them even better value. So you can certainly combine any location in Thailand with Chang Rai and Lanjia Lodge. If you head south there are an almost endless number of islands to take a beach break at. They vary greatly in their offerings and range from tourist Mecca's like Phuket and Koh Samui to secluded bays such as Yao Noi and Koh Kradan. Do some research first to see what will suit your needs.


Originally posted on Tuesday, 30 September 2014 by

Monday, 29 September 2014

DIY Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls

After reading a recommendation from Legal Nomads, Jodi Ettenberg who is a total Foodie and lives much of the year in Vietnam I purchased the latest Vietnamese cookbook on the market Real Vietnamese Cooking, Homestyle Recipes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. It is quite different to my Luke Nguyen cookbook and I enjoy both greatly. This book is written from the perspective of expats living in Vietnam unlike Luke's book who despite being Australian has Vietnamese heritage. Both books take you on a journey through Vietnam but look at it from different angles.

On a recent trip to Costco I ended up with two tasty looking whole Snapper and was stumped on what to do with them. I wanted something different, I was tired of just cooking them whole with herbs and spices.

I turned to my new cookbook for inspiration and found a great recipe that deep-fried the snapper whole which I had never done before and then laid out a selection of ingredients a bit like when you do Tacos so you can make your own rice paper rolls at the dinner table. Ingenious. This particular recipe also used a number of ingredients I had never tried before like Star Fruit and Green Banana which was exciting. I really wasn't sure how fruit would go with fish but of course it was a marriage made in heaven, those Vietnamese know their flavours, simple, fresh and delicious.

DIY Feast


So these Rice Paper Rolls had:


Whole Snapper deep fried till golden and crispy
Star Fruit cut into long thin slices
Green Banana cut into long wedges
Pineapple cut into long wedges
Coriander Leaves
Dill
Vermicelli Noodles
Crushed unsalted peanuts
Bean Sprouts (not in recipe I added cause I love their crunch)

This was paired with a dipping sauce made with Lime, Rice Vinegar, Garlic, Chilli, Fish Sauce and Sugar.

You will need a bowl of water on the table and some tea towels as guests need to soak their own rice paper, dry off and lay out ready to load up with ingredients and  fold their own rolls.




I love when a recipe gives you inspiration for the future. The basic concept could become a great week night staple dinner just like Taco's are in our house and they are so healthy. You could put anything you like in there. They would be so yum with prawns, mint and shredded carrot or what about marinated chicken with Vietnamese mint and cabbage. The possibilities are endless and the best part is that apart from chopping up the ingredients your dinner guests get to do the hard work disguised as fun.

For the full recipe buy the book: Real Vietnamese Cooking by Tracey Lister and Andreas Pohl


Originally posted on Monday, 29 September 2014 by

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Spiced Pulled Beef

Pulled beef is not only mouth-watering delicious it is a fantastic base for any Mexican dish. Once you have made up a batch of this you can create Taco's, Burrito's, Nacho's and all manner of wonderful Mexican dishes. This recipe is more in the vain of Tex- Mex cooking rather than being a traditional Mexican dish. If you want to try cooking some traditional Mexican food I would recommend trying out the books and TV series by Rick Bayless. Rick's life mission has been to travel Mexico learning about traditional ingredients and techniques and presents them in easy to follow formats. I recommend Authentic Mexican and Fiesta at Ricks. If you want more Tex Mex cuisine you should get your hands on Tex Mex from Scratch by Jonas Cramby.

America's proximity and Mexican population make the purchasing of Mexican ingredients very easy. We are not so lucky here is Australia. Whilst the Mexican craze has caught on it just isn't popular enough to make specialist chilli's and other Mexican ingredients an easy find. We order ours online at Fireworks Foods who sell Australia's largest range of Mexican foods.

Pulled beef tacos with homemade corn tortillas

Ingredients

1 kg yearling beef
2 tbs coriander seeds
3 tbs cumin seeds
2 tbs brown sugar
4 cloves of garlic
2 tbs smoky paprika
3 dried chipotles roughly chopped
2 dried ancho chilli's roughly chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tbs mustard
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 cups beef stock
2 tbs tomato paste
4 small pickling onions
1 tsp oregano
2 bay leaves

Method

Dry toast cumin and coriander seeds till fragrant. Grind till fine in a large mortar and pestle. Add chopped chipotle and ancho chilli's, paprika, peppercorns and garlic and continue to pound till a rough paste is formed.

Heat pressure cooker to saute mode or use a fry pan to heat 2 tbs of vegetable oil. Generously salt all sides of the beef and briefly brown beef on all sides till sealed.

Remove beef from pan or pressure cooker and allow to cool till you can hold it with your hands.

Rub paste into the surface of the beef till you have the whole surface coated.

Put beef into pressure cooker and add stock, vinegar, tomato paste, oregano, bay leaves and whole onions. Ensure liquids are poured down beside the beef so you don't wash off all of the rub.

Cook in pressure cooker till meat falls apart when pulled apart with forks (approx 60 minutes). If you don't have a pressure cooker you could do this in a heavy based pan or casserole dish in a moderate oven, it will take 4-5 hours.

Once tender remove meat from liquid and set meat aside.

Add mustard to the liquid, put pressure cooker back on saute mode or if you are using a pan or casserole dish put it back on a medium heat/flame. Boil liquid till it has reduced by half.

Whilst this is reducing take the meat and shred it by pulling it with two forks in opposite directions. Lay shredded meat out in a shallow dish.

Once the liquid has reduced pour it over the top of the meat so it is evenly coated.

Here you have your Spiced Pulled Beef and you can serve it many ways as suggested above. I like to make small tacos from soft corn tortillas in the traditional Mexican style. Making your own tortillas makes a huge difference and they are very easy to make. If you purchase a bag of yellow or white corn masa mix you can follow the instructions outlined on the bag. Once you have made your own tortillas you won't go back to store bought.

With your small corn tortillas you can lay out an array of fresh salads and salsa for people to make their own tacos. I like to have:

Corn kernels
Diced tomatoes with chopped coriander and red onion seasoned with salt
Fresh lime wedges to squeeze juice over the top
Sour cream
Chipotle sauce made with Chipotles in Adobe (bought in a tin) blended with greek yoghurt, lime juice and salt
Black beans

With the same ingredients and some large store bought or homemade tortilla wraps you can make an awesome burrito, even better with some white or Mexican rice added to the mix and some lettuce for that crunch.

With your left over tortillas chop them into little triangles, toast them in the oven with a little Cajun spices sprinkled on them and va voom you have the making of nachos. It is like the meal that keeps on giving.


Originally posted on Sunday, 28 September 2014 by

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Living the High Life in Ubud

I have never had any deep seated desire to live the life of the rich and famous. All the money seems like a great idea on the surface but the trappings are like a minefield, take Lindsay Lohan, what she hasn't spent of designer shoes and attire for the inane and vapid she has spent snorting up her nose. Now I shouldn't just pick on Lindsay...I wouldn't want to be Tom Cruise either let’s be honest. Deep down whilst gorging themselves on luxury escapes to Cabo, high end fashion, mega yachts in Cannes and a plethora of drugs of every imagining I think they wish they were just normal people with a quiet house in the country with not a single soul interested in chasing them to the ends of the earth for a photo. Don't they?

I know, I know you don’t believe me, who wouldn't want to be rich at least, if not famous. Okay yes money would make life easier but where is the challenge in that? A spiritual guru might tell you that you are only as rich as the life you lead or the friends you have or some bullshit like that but when given the chance to lead the life of the wealthy for just one week I snapped it up, no hesitation.

Now I know Bali is better known for it’s bogan Aussie antics than it is for a high end luxury holidays but there are little gems hidden away in the verdant mountains on the island of Bali that would excite and satisfy even the most discerning of travellers. The destination is Ubud, a once sleepy artist's community set up in the lush green hills of Bali around two hours from the dirty tourist beaches and hedonistic nightclubs of Kuta. Ubud recently hit fame with the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love and now hosts thousands of lost women every year in the throes of mid-life crisis searching for a meaningful life and of course yoga. I didn’t go in search of meaning or yoga. I went on a family reunion of sorts and what better place to do it than in the lap of luxury?

Being the travel agent in the family I may have had a hand in steering the group towards the luxury end of the market but with my access to agent rates the numbers spoke for themselves. For no more than the cost to house all 12 family members in individual rooms in a  budget hotel we were able to kick back at our own private villa that no word of a lie was heaven.

Heaven was called the Villa Pantulan, a five bedroom fully private pavilion style compound. Nestled in a little village away from the bustle of all those lost ladies, broken sidewalks, tattoo parlours and rabid monkeys in Ubud proper. It is a haven for those wanting a luxury getaway with an extremely reasonable price tag. The villa itself is tucked away privately behind high walls on the road side of the compound and open to the lush rice paddies at the back. Once inside the walls it is a private oasis. In typical Balinese style the living areas are all open air soaking up the warm breezes and stunning views. From the open air living area you are surrounded by marble walkways leading off to the various pavilions housing the bedrooms. Filling the spaces between are reflection pools and manicured tropical gardens. Between the living spaces and the rice paddies is your own private swimming pool, deck chairs, masseuse villa and day beds.

Private Oasis at Villa Pantulan

Villa Pantulan, outdoor living

Luxury doesn't stop there, you wouldn't be kickin’ it Kim Kardashian style without your own entourage. The villa comes complete with a staff of twelve. You have a manager who is there all day and into the night to arrange day trips, meals and service your every need. You have security staff, chefs, gardeners, cleaners, a driver, a barman, you name it you have it. The kitchen can prepare your meals day and night and specialise in traditional Balinese cuisine as well as tourist favourites, the bar is continually stocked and all extras are charged at the end of the stay. A twelve seater dining table takes centre stage for dinners and parties.

The sleeping pavilions feature outdoor bathrooms with the showers snuggled away in gardens amongst the towering palm trees open to the air yet still very private. The bedrooms have walls that fully retract to allow to breeze through and make you feel as if you are outside when in fact you are inside. At night the staff close the pavilions and draw the canopies around the beds creating an atmosphere of the private luxury one would expect in an exotic paradise.
Outdoor Bathrooms
No request was too much trouble for the staff. They arranged babysitting for the kids, day trips to surrounding areas and the pièce de résistance of the whole trip was the event they arranged for my mother in law's birthday. In secret, away from the prying eyes of birthday girl the family paid the villa manager to arrange a party and the staff went to great lengths to make it spectacular.

The day of the party the family arranged for the villa to be empty so it could be prepared for the big surprise, I was suffering Bali belly so I got to stay behind and see the preparations unfold. Large amounts of tropical flowers were bought in to adorn the table, a happy birthday sign was made from flower petals at the entrance to the villa and the reflection pools were filled with floating candles. It was magnificent and to top it off they took us down to a house at the end of the street to see the whole suckling pig being roasted on a spit over a fire. The locals hand cranked the spit all day, hand cranked! Seeing this pig being roasted in the dusty yard amongst chickens and puppies might have put some people off eating it but that golden, crisp, dripping pork crackling and juicy tender meat was enough to make you drool and what was not devoured by us was divided up amongst the local families in the village.

Villa staff preparing for the party




The floating candles were stunning once the sun went down

The party was a spectacular feast featuring predominantly local cuisine, it was fascinating to eat. We had blood sausages which were rich and gamey, rice dishes filled with strong local flavours, strange salads that you knew were authentic as it did not cater to the western palate at all and a real adventure to eat. I wish I had taken note or spoken with the chef on the dishes we had, but who know I would be writing a food and travel blog a few years down the track, not me.

Whole suckling pig roasted locally, absolutely mouth watering


The family
Paradise
Where the villa itself did not miss a beat, the town of Ubud may not be to everyone’s taste. Personally I loved it and I think most people would. It is typically Asian with it’s streets in dis-repair, broken sidewalks with steep plunges into the below sewer system and chaotic traffic. On the other hand it is also typically Asian in a good way. A huge range of food from local to international cuisines all served in stunning outdoor and pavilion settings amongst gardens and fountains and all at very cheap prices. Friendly locals always with a smile. Exciting day trips taking in volcanoes, river rafting, bird watching, caves, elephants, monkeys (I advise to steer clear of the monkeys they are crazy) as well as your usual lazing by the pool and massages. There is something to cater for all age ranges and interests. The local markets are extensive and were adorned with wonders like handmade kites of all colours, batik sarongs and hand-crafted jewellery. It was surprising to find such quality goods outside of the range of the usual tourist garbage and it highlights that at it's heart this is an artist community.

After the family had departed we stayed on in another villa closer to town. The Ubud Village was quite different in style to Pantulan. Set out more in a traditional resort style but instead of hotel rooms there were individual villas with private pools and day beds all contained in walled courtyards. Whilst it did not feature the attention to detail and immaculate presentation of Pantulan, for $250 a night it was great value for a couples retreat.  We were concerned on arrival firstly by the earthquake which was a hair raising event and secondly by the fact that the extra money we paid for a view over the rice paddies meant we were actually looking over an un-planted muddy swamp that smelled of sewerage. Luckily the field was planted by hand within a day by the locals and we got to see how the local rice production took place first hand. The two large Balinese day beds overlooking the rice paddies by the private pool were extremely hard to leave and with room service being set up poolside for a private meal for two I will admit we did not get a lot of sightseeing done in those last few days. Whilst not offering ultra luxury and I don't think a Hollywood starlet would be at home here, overall the experience was of a high standard and I would go back. Again it comes down to where else in the world would $250 a night by you a whole villa with private pool, outdoor bathrooms and a taste of luxury.

Our villa at the Ubud Village, amazing value at $250 per night

Room service set up pool side within our villa

Ubud is quite an east meets west holiday. Bali itself is full of culture and heritage and the resorts reflect the style of Bali but they do offer a western standard of service and the best thing is that they offer this with an Eastern price tag. The villas are unlike anything I have seen offered anywhere else around the world for the price they are charging and if you have a large family or group of friends who want to be Beyonce and Jay Z for a week you can’t go past Villa Pantulan.





Originally posted on Saturday, 27 September 2014 by

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Best and Worst of China

Despite my equal love of food and travel my fondest food memories are unfortunately intermingled with my worst travel memories. In my early twenties I went on a trip to China. It was an exciting small group grassroots adventure with Geckos Adventures travelling from Hong Kong to Beijing on an inland route using all local transport. It had all the makings of a trip of a lifetime. Nights spent eating pot noodles on overnight trains clacking through the countryside at impossibly slow speeds, cruising down the Yangtze River making friends with the local children along the way, hiking the heights of the Great Wall of China, wandering the cobbled streets of Yangshuo, what more could you ask for it is adventure at it’s best.

Well it would have been anyway if I had of been more selective on my choice of travel partner or gone on my own. I had already recognised I was in a crappy relationship, we had nothing in common, he had mental health issues, played terrible mind games and had been borderline violent but somehow in my early 20’s wisdom I clung onto this relationship for nearly a year, that was until we went to China.

When I look back on this trip I can’t work out how marred my experience of China was by the situation I found myself in. There were some highlights for sure, holding a young Panda at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Centre, Playing Mahjong with the local ladies on our river cruise boat who took no mercy on our novice skills, sailing through the limestone karsts on the Li River watching local fishermen and their captive cormorants, it truly was a unique experience. But there will be things about China I will never forget for all the wrong reasons, the pollution is confounding, the poverty confronting and the hygiene practices have scarred me forever, it took me at least a week after returning to eliminate the smell of urine from my nasal cavity. In reflection I do have to ask myself would these things have bothered me so much if I wasn't having a mini personal crisis at the same time? Does being told to F#$@ off by your “partner” in every city in China possibly change your opinion of that place, most likely.

Despite all of this there is one thing I know for sure about China, the food is friggin amazing. It rocked my world and regardless of all the things I didn't like about China I would go back just to eat. Prior to this the only Chinese food I knew was from the many Chinese restaurants in our country town serving various standards of  Westernised “Chinese” Food, you know the ones "The Lotus", "The Camelia" every country Australian town has them. Not exactly authentic and in some cases downright terrible.

I knew we were in for a treat from the first stop after departing our ferry in Guangzhou. To be honest I don’t even know exactly where we were. Somewhere on the road from Guangzhou to Guilin I am guessing. Our fabulous tour guide Chen led us through the streets stopping traffic to let us “sandwich” people cross the road. The locals affectionately know the backpackers by this term not due to our Western habit of eating sandwiches but because we tend to wear a backpack on the back & a smaller one on the front essentially making a tourist sandwich. Anyway back to the food. So we were led by Chen to a small restaurant where the menus had pictures but no english which is a lot more than we came to expect on the rest of our trip. So we selected our food items by pointing at the pictures, some of us went for stranger looking items feeling adventurous on our first stop. The food that turned up certainly wasn't a highlight of the trip but being our first introduction to real Chinese food it left an impression on me. The chicken dish left me with the strongest impression for two reasons, the sheer quantity of whole red chillies in this dish which outnumbered the pieces of chicken and the very rustic nature of the chicken which was not nicely trimmed and cleaned like we would expect at home. Followed up by sticky gooey candied chunks of potato it was an eye opener.

It was only a hint of what was to come. We spent most of the trip eating in small local establishments as the prices were astounding. I steered clear of options like snake, rat, cat, guinea pig etc. etc and opted for what I like to convince myself were western staples like beef and pork. One morning we gorged ourselves on juicy, delicious freshly steamed dumplings of all variety and when the bill came it cost us the equivalent of $2 each. We would have banquet style feasts on overflowing lazy susans' for $5 a head and you can be sure we always doubled the quantity of food recommended by Chen who didn't seem to fully grasp the Western appetite.

 The Szechuan Province of course changed my life. This region of China is renowned for it’s bold, pungent and spicy cuisine. At this point in my life I was not a foodie by any stretch of the imagination. My restaurant experiences were what you would expect of living in regional Australia. This was the first time in my life I had been introduced to such flavours and it blew my mind.

In Chongqing we were taken out to a hot pot restaurant. I had no idea what hot pot was and when we first entered the restaurant I was intimidated. Tables full of Chinese families reaching into steaming cauldrons of bubbling broth and celebrating in a raucous fashion. Chen led us through the maze by ordering the dozens of items that were presented to our table. Knowing the Western palate he steered clear of the local delicacies like tripe and ears and chose a mind boggling array consisting of prawns, squid, thinly sliced frozen lamb, beef, pork, wedges of potato, enoki mushrooms, noodles and the list goes on. We had two broths in our divided cauldron. The outer ring had a mild broth with fish carcasses floating around. The inner hot pot ring is where I found my Nirvana. A fiery red broth with a sheen of chilli oil floating menacingly on the surface and Szechuan peppercorns bobbing unassumingly awaiting for an inexperienced tourist to taste their numbing qualities. I ate till I could eat no more, dipping my individual ingredients into the broth to cook and then back via a bowl of sauce and into my mouth. It was thrilling. It was unlike anything I had done or eaten in my sheltered existence in regional Australia. The night ended with our little group of backpackers sheltering from a wild food fight that had broken out amongst the locals. It seemed to be all in good humor and the staff did not seem to be overly concerned by the terrific mess being made.

I learnt another lesson in China, besides not to travel with an a'hole and that was that Chilli Oil is not processed well by the human body and comes out as hot as it went it, the price was worth it though.

The latter half of my trip consisted of my searching out more hot pot. I couldn't get enough. The further north went went though the less awesome the hot pot was. No one does it like they do in the Szechuan province.

I think my new found love of really spicy food emboldened me. I came home from that trip a single girl and spent the next few weeks in my parents kitchen creating my own hot pots with a little fondue set I was once given as a gift and had never used.

I like to think about that trip as an awakening in so many ways. I saw how so much of the world live and eat so differently to what I am use to, I found a passion for world food and I learnt to not stand for being treated like crap by a man. The vision of hindsight has allowed me to see it overall as quite a successful venture even if there were some moments I wanted to get out of there.

In the clouds at the Giant Buddha in Hong Kong. This place has been totally tourist-ified since my first trip but still worth a visit

Yangshuo in Southern China, my favourite spot in all of China

Yangshuo again

Hotpot!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OMG is this girl just too cute, the Panda not me oh why did I not wear makeup on this trip?

So many stairs at the great wall!

Originally posted on Tuesday, 23 September 2014 by

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Texas BBQ with Jonas Cramby

The warm weather has done something to me. After months hidden away under blankies on the lounge in a state of semi- hibernation I want to get outside in the fresh air...and grill some shit on the BBQ! Yes I want to marinate meat, slow cook and smoke it on charcoals till it forms a chewy bark and I want to eat it!!!!

Never one to let a bandwagon roll on by without jumin' aboard I am not letting that Texas BBQ bandwagon roll on through town without getting my BBQ on and smokin' me some meat.

My mentor for this exploration of meat will be Jonas Cramby. I will admit there is something wrong about taking Texas BBQ lessons from a Swede but this dude knows his shit, Swede or not. The book starts with the basics, the header "What is BBQ" indicates this book is for the beginner which is what I am.  There is also a well needed explanation of what to smoke your meat in, something I had been quite confused about in the past. I was glad to see the good ol' kettle BBQ on the list. Even if it was listed as the crappiest option for smoking and slow cooking meat it was what I had access to so a good place to start.

Get in my belly!

Our Texas BBQ adventure was to start with a rack of ribs and a spare 6 hours...as this is how long it takes to cook a good rack of ribs whoa! Jonas is a subscriber to the dry rub method of BBQ which was fine by me as past experience with a dry rub on pulled pork created one of my all time fav dishes. I was surprised that the traditional Texas dry rub had so few ingredients, all it took was some paprika, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper.

Once the meat was marinated with the secret herbs and spices (or not so secret as I listed them above) and the kettle was at a steady 115 Degrees Celsius (and let's just pretend we mastered that steady temperature) the meat went on the grill for 3 hours, flipping once. We then nestled the ribs in foil and gave it a bath of beer, vinegar and garlic Yum! and back on the grill for another hour.

Once we fought of the neighbourhood dog who had sniffed out our BBQ and was poised to snatch our meat we took the meat from the foil and gave it another 30 minutes.

I don't need to describe what happened next cause we ate the shit out of those ribs and it was messy. We made Jonas and America so proud that I can still hear the Star Spangled Banner playing in my head.

If you want to march to the beat of a Texan drum you too should get Texas BBQ with Jonas Cramby, clear a day from your schedule, crack a beer and man the cooker. With enough practice you might even become a Pitmaster in the true Texan style.

Where to get it: Texas BBQ, Meat, Smoke & Love by Jonas Cramby


Originally posted on Sunday, 21 September 2014 by

Friday, 19 September 2014

A Very Foodie Birthday

This week I sailed into my 32nd year of life. After 30 years of life it seems the years and the birthdays become a little superfluous, no longer trying to hold onto the youth of my twenties but appreciating I ain’t that old yet.

Superfluous as they may be a birthday none the less is a great excuse to do totally as you please for one day of your life and as a Foodie that means to eat, drink and be merry.

With my birthday falling on a Monday this year, truly the crappiest day of the week especially coupled with a full work day followed by an entire evening creating a wedding cake for a client, I decided to officially move my birthday to the prior Saturday (being my birthday I totally have the power to move it to whenever I please).

The lure of marinated mushrooms and poached eggs at the local Bungendore institution, The Woodworks Cafe, was strong so we began our day there amongst the touristy hoards who come from Canberra to brunch. A cafe that sells $50 000 hand crafted dining tables in it's gallery somehow seems normal once you have spent a few years living here but I am pretty sure it is quite unique. We then spent the morning shopping in our little village buying gifts for myself and my niece who’s first birthday was to follow mine in 5 days. Living in a small country town has surprisingly grown on me, especially in light of my teenage years spent battling my parents on our semi-rural lifestyle just on the outskirts of Goulburn.

Lunch was taken at the Grandma’s Little Bakery with my parents, a cafe name so un-befitting to the stunning hillside location amongst Olive Groves in a modern glass walled building serving traditional home-style Italian food. The view outstripped the food and the stunning Spring day set it all off.

From the olive grove we headed to the Fyshwick Markets in search of fancy pants cheese and goodies to gorge on over the course of the evening. We did take a little detour on the way where I purchased seven, yes I said seven cookbooks all for the low price of $60. What a deal!

The many Deli’s at the markets sell a dizzying array of imported cheeses and meats and kindly allow you to taste test to help narrow down your choices. We settled on a selection of cheeses that when combined had a stench powerful enough to make you wonder if your feet were rotting and a price tag to make you wonder if you had just been robbed.

Birthday Foodie Feast

Here is the over indulgent cheese and meats selection we sampled, the stinkiest cheese of all was $99 per kilo, it seems pungent comes with a price tag:

Tarago River Shadows of Blue

A mild and sweet blue cheese from the Gippsland region of Australia, highly enjoyed this cheese not as sharp as many blues just nice and creamy.

Epoisse Perrirre

A washed rind cheese from the Burgundy region of France. This cheese almost had a liquid consistently, extremely pungent and quite a strong almost alcoholic taste. I enjoyed this in small quantities but probably not for the cheese novice.

Taleggio

An Italian washed rind cheese with a pungent smell but surprisingly milder flavour. Fruity overtones made this one a winner and paired well with quince paste.

Chevre D Argental

This mould ripened goats cheese was silky smooth and delicious and paired well with the quince

Sartori Pastoral

More a lover of soft cheeses I was surprised that this hard cheese was one of my favourites from our selection. A mix of cow's and goat's milk it had the consistency of a cross between parmesan and cheddar and had nutty, smoky overtones. Yum.

Truffle Salami

This salami was giving of a very strong truffle scent and was surprised it smelt far more like truffle than it tastes, delicious none the less.

Prosciutto San Daniele

Melt in your mouth tender prosciutto that was less salty and much more tasty than the supermarket variety of prosciutto. 

We followed up our cheese and movie night on Sunday with brunch with the in-laws at Poachers Pantry. Hidden in the countryside and specialising in smoked meats Poachers Pantry is a Canberra foodie’s paradise. The breakfast menu was extensive and I went for the Kedgeree made with smoked trout, Martin had the Huevos Rancheros with smoked lamb, topped with salsa and guacamole and the kids went for the DIY injectable doughnuts that came with a syringe filled with Dulce De Leche, genius. Spring totally outdid itself with the most stunning day which was such a delight after a long, cold winter.

Our afternoon was spent in the sunshine with more family trying to polish off the rest of our stinky cheese (which we didn’t succeed in) and getting some pork ribs on the kettle BBQ for some slow cooked Texas style Barbeque for dinner.

I will write a whole separate blog post about the Texas BBQ as the ribs were so scrumptious, you know you are onto a good thing when the neighbourhood dogs sniff out your cooking and sit by the BBQ looking at it longingly with big sad eyes.

Slow cooked wood smoked BBQ ribs

A birthday is always a good time to reflect, it is amazing where life can take you in a year. I have had three great adventures this past year. Getting married in the Cook Islands, a travel familiarisation to New York, Chicago and San Francisco as well as starting up this blog.

Writing, photographing and sharing through the blog is a wonderful creative outlet and I am enjoying it immensely and is a great opportunity for myself and my husband to work on something together, he is a talented cook, loves cookbooks and a fantastic photographer so this blog is a creative union. Being a new blog I have few readers as yet, but it will grow and I look forward to continuing its development over the course of the next year.

I have some ideas of more I would like to achieve over the next 12 months in regards to this blog, adventure travel and my general outlook on life which I need to put some more thought into, you only live once so let’s see if by my 33rd birthday I can really make the most of it cause in the end that’s what it’s all about. That ticking clock called time is always at your heels and I don’t want to let it catch me without knowing I have done the best with the time I was given.

Thanks to all who helped make my birthday so fantastic this year and every other year and an extra special thanks to my husband Martin who indulged my every whim over the course of the weekend.
Originally posted on Friday, 19 September 2014 by

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Grill the Foodie: Russia

Our regular series “Grill the Foodie” is all about getting inside a country’s food and eating experiences from the perspective of travellers as well as expats living abroad. Why travellers and not locals? Well sometimes locals don’t know what makes their country’s cuisine so unique and wonderful they may not have any other points of reference as their own food is all they have experienced. We will delve into what makes world cuisine great and why travellers love to eat so much. We want you to be inspired by what is happening around the world, how others enjoy their food and how food can unite cultures.

Originally from Sydney, Mike has lived in Hong Kong, Macau and Moscow before settling back in Hong Kong.

The move to Macau gave him a chance to explore Chinese, Portuguese and fusion dishes. His attempts to spice up Russian soup resulted in the Thai/Russian fusion dish ‘Tom Yum Borscht’. He now lives in Hong Kong where all cuisines, and fiery chillies are available, but he always finds space in his suitcase for new and exotic ingredients wherever he travels.

With Mike's love of food and experiences around the world I think we will have to re-visit for an interview on Asian food as well but here are his views from Russia.


Where is your home country?

Hong Kong SAR (China) is my home, though to avoid confusion I am originally from Australia.

How long did you live in Russia for and where in Russia were you located?

Two years. I lived in the Centre of Moscow.


What inspired you to move to Russia?

Another interesting work project (start-up airline).


Did you find yourself eating out or cooking at home whilst living in Russia?

 I prefer spicy Asian dishes, basically the antithesis of Russian food, so I imported ingredients and ate mostly home cooked food.


What are your favourite local dishes when eating out?

While most Russian food is rather bland, there are a couple of diamonds in the rough. A good Borscht (originally from Ukraine) can warm the soul during the long, cold Winter season. Caesar Salad anywhere in Moscow is surprisingly good (only lacking anchovies). Generally served at lunch time, various side salads such as Dressed Herring or Olivier Salad can add a little more interest to the main course. Pelmeni and Pierogi (dumplings stuffed with meat, mushrooms or potatoes), best served with sour cream, can be delicious. In the warmer months, summer soups based on Kvass (non-alcoholic beer) and yoghurt are delicious and refreshing. I realize that it is stretching the term "local" but there are many Georgian restaurants in Moscow, all of which have a repertoire which is generally more interesting than traditional Russian cuisine. I realize that it's a bit off topic, however I should mention that Russians enjoy flavored yoghurt and yoghurt drinks, all very good. Russian fruit juices are also first class, especially a blended cranberry juice called "mors".


What are your favourite local food haunts?

I found a great little bar and restaurant in the Ulitsa 1905 Goda district called Phoenicia, which serves many delicious dishes including the best Borscht in Russia (the Chef cleverly combines a little ox tongue into the soup and tops the whole affair with a fresh baked pie crust). Molly Gwynn's on Noviy Arbat does a great pork knuckle roast, which goes down great with the decent range of draft beers they serve. My favorite Georgian restaurants are Tiflis on Ostozhenka Street and Genatsvale which is nestled between Noviy Arbat and Stariy Arbat. Both restaurants have excellent food, good service and great atmosphere, with interiors laid out like a miniature Georgian village.


 Are there any particular Russian dishes you like to cook yourself?

Pelmeni and Pierogi dumplings are easy to prepare at home, cooking time 3 to 5 minutes, so were always popular for a quick meal. My partner and I accidentally invented Tom Yum Borscht, obviously a fusion of Thai and Russian flavours, which is a little more tedious to prepare but sensational to eat!


What surprises you most about Russian food?

Not many surprises really, it generally is as bland and stodgy as you would expect!


As an expat are there any Russian foods that you have a total disconnect with e.g. don’t understand or outright hate?

Yes ... sometimes when sharing a drink with a large group of friends, dishes of sliced salami, cheese and dried fish will be served. While the salami and cheese are OK with a beer or vodka, the fish is horrible!


What is your favourite food memory or food story from your time in Russia?

When my partner (originally from Thailand) visited, she prepared a Thai feast for a group of friends and colleagues. Determined to give my friends and authentic experience, she gave absolutely no consideration for their sensitive little Russian palates while combining fresh chillies into the various dishes. They loved the food but it almost killed them! That was a fun night for people watching!


For tourists, what local foods would you say are must haves on their trip to Russia?

Sirok, a chocolate coated yoghurt and fruit snack, found in the refrigerated section in supermarkets. And tahun (nearest English spelling), a very refreshing green colored herb based soda drink, which is also available in some supermarkets (primarily in Georgian community areas).

Are there any Russian foods or experiences that make you feel close to home?

Not really, Russian food has as much in common with Asian food as does the relative weather.

Now that you have left Russia are there any foods or food experiences will you miss most?

I do miss the long Sunday lunches in Molly Gwynn's in winter time, enjoying a few beers with friends while watching the snow outside, then later walking home with the feeling that I am inside a postcard!
Originally posted on Tuesday, 16 September 2014 by

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Street Food Phenomenon

It seems everywhere you look at the moment people are talking about street food. What was once only the domain of foolhardy travellers happy to run the risk of certain gastroenteritis it has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight.

 Local events like the “Canberra Multicultural Festival”, which I must admit is my favourite event on the calendar, create a safe environment to explore the world of street food and brings it to the masses.
Canberra's yearly Multicultural Festival or as the locals call it "Meat on a Stick Festival"

Paella at the Canberra Multicultural Festival

The festival hosts booths and food from all over the world

But it doesn’t compare to the real thing. When I look back at all of my travels there is a longing to change the past. At the time I was not so much a foodie and I will admit I was completely afraid of street food. I can remember with a vividness fuelled by regret the dishes I passed up, steaming bowls of Pho in Vietnam, the vast array of meats on a stick in Bangkok, piping hot empanadas in central America it haunts me.

It took a wild haired Guatemalan tour guide for Intrepid Travel to finally break the fear that had a hold of me. It was a simple phrase that unlocked it for me “you are going to get sick anyway so just eat it” it was a light-bulb moment. It was true I had probably had stomach bugs in every third world country I had been in no matter where I ate. They were relatively short lived and I came out the other side just fine. So why avoid have life changing experiences in fear of a bout of diarrhoea, get over it.

This light bulb moment came at the perfect point in time. We were standing in the main plaza of the capital of Mexico’s Yucatan region, Merida, in the glow of the afternoon setting sun in the middle of a street festival. The Spanish band provided the beat to the dancing feet of the locals who danced with abandon on the streets and the grills were flaming cooking away the local delicacies I was finally ready to dive into.

Cautiously dipping in my toes, my husband and I started with dessert, I wasn’t quite ready for street meat just yet. We were attracted to the crepes filled with nutella and bananas, a strange combination that needed tasting. Not entirely convinced this was the height of street food we moved onto the Churros with their sugary dough-nuttyness (yes I just invented a word). Once that was devoured we were ready for the big leagues, Tacos! Wow were they good. We started with one serve of freshly made tortillas filled with juicy pork but as you may know tacos in this region of the world are on the small side and we went back for another plate of the juicy deliciousness.

The rest of our little group stood by with a mild look of horror, apparently they were not as emboldened by Juan’s words as we were but they were the ones missing out, it was a fantastic experience and we were not struck down with parasites.

The rest of our two week trip through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize involved eating in open air road-side eateries and little family run cafes. Ceviche, tacos, enchiladas, huevos rancheros, burritos, mole sauce all of the wonderful Central/ South American specialties were all dished up to us, the cuisine was surprisingly un-spicy, a feature that distinguishes the food in the Yucatan area of Mexico but dishes were often accompanied with a hot side sauce along the lines of pico de gallo.

There were some surprises too, strangely enough the best Pesto Pasta I have ever eaten was on the menu just outside of Tikal, Guatemala in a house/restaurant owned by a local man which had an amazing view over a beautiful little lake. I also had an epic Long Island Iced Tea large enough to swim in in Antigua, Guatemala.

It was a turning point in my psyche, whilst I can’t go back to all of the great countries where I missed out on the delights of street food,  I at least know that going forward fear won’t prevent me from missing out on the most cultural of food experiences one can have whilst travelling.

So in order to quell my terrible regrets on all the street fare I have missed out on in my past travels I will be in the kitchen making some street food delights. Check back soon for some great world street food adventures starting with...Argentinian Empanadas!!

The locals know how to party in Merida

Dancing in the Streets

Street Food, my new friend

Tacos, Tamales, Empanadas, Tortas all the favoutires

Roadside cafes are great to take a break in when you are travelling my road in Mexico

Originally posted on Wednesday, 10 September 2014 by

Monday, 8 September 2014

Stacked Cakes

You might be wondering who and what Stacked Cakes is. I have made mention of it a number of times on the blog possibly without proper explanation. Stacked cakes is my former cake business that I ran for around five years from my own home. I had a fantastic website that my web designer husband created for me that I have since closed down and in the name of posterity I am shuffling a lot of the pictures and information about the business over here.

What follows is the story of the business, the good times and the bad times I had churning out cakes of all shapes and forms.

Learning to cake decorate and becoming a cake decorator was been a roller coaster ride. I started around 6 years ago in 2008 when I signed up for some cake decorating courses at Planet Cake in Sydney. Being the overly enthusiastic person I tend to be I didn't test the waters I just jumped in and signed up for around $5000 worth of classes. I headed up to Sydney for a few blocks at a time, sometimes weekends and my longest stretch a two week block. I called it my cake holiday and it was fantastic. I rented an apartment in the city and channeling Carrie from Sex and the City I would catch a taxi each over to Balmain each day, no public transport for this princess. To tell you the truth I tried to catch a bus one day & they wouldn't let me on as I didn't have a pre-paid ticket, it was all too hard to I decided at $10 a pop a taxi would be easier and quicker.

Planet Cake ran a series of courses from cake basics to advanced and into novelty. The selection I undertook really gave me enough skills to go ahead and start up a cake business and for those skills I lacked... you know the old saying "fake it till you make it". Can't pipe? who cares that's what stencils are for. Can't make many sugar flowers? Whatever you can buy them in from suppliers ready made.

Tempering chocolate at Planet Cake

Chocolate cigar anyone?

My first cake completed

My first attempt at sugar flowers, all handmade by me

Heading home after two weeks of cake classes at Planet Cake

At the time I was working full time in a travel agency in Canberra and I decided I would get up a website and make the cakes in my spare time. It was a little insane coming home, cooking dinner and then making cakes in the evening. Not really something I would recommend doing if you want to keep your sanity but when you have a dream of starting up a business you do crazy things like that. Thanks to the website the orders came in no trouble, in one 6 month period I turned down 60 cake orders as I just didn't have the capacity to do them all. The demand really highlighted to me the "build it and they will come" scenario. To start out with the website didn't have that many cakes on it, that grew fast though as I filled those orders.

The hard work bought all sorts of opportunities my way. I made and delivered a cake to Parliament House for the opposition party (the now Prime Minister of Australia ate my cake which is cool even if I do have opposing political views), I had a cake published in Cosmo Bride Magazine, I filmed a segment for the kids TV show Prime Possum, I sat at the President of the United States dinner table at the US consulate to discuss a possible commission the recreate the consulate in cake (one order I was glad was not placed due to the enormity of the task) oh and he was not there at the time just the consulate staff . I also saw some of my best cakes go viral on the internet (it is such a novelty to see your face and cakes talked about in many languages around the world)  and last but not least I made hundreds of cakes celebrating people's best occasions in life weddings, birthdays, baby showers, hens night and with my novelty cake skills you name it I have made it in cake.

My Australian Flag cake for MP Wyatt Roy's 21st Birthday. Pictured with Julie Bishop, the minister for Foreign Affairs, Tony Abbot, Australian Prime Minister, Wyatt Roy MP and Philip Ruddock MP

My Butterfly Cake pictured in Cosmo Bride Magazine

Filming Prime Possum with Madeleine Collignon
My Dalek Cake that went viral on the internet

After doing the cakes part time for a number of years I decided to make it my full time profession and in what was a very scary manoeuvre quit my job in travel that I had held for nearly a decade. As the orders kept rolling in and the requests got more outlandish it did astound me the amount of money people would spend on cake. What astounded me more was the difficulty in making a living despite the high prices and huge quantity of cakes I was churning out. I didn't think it possible to earn less than what I did as a travel agent but becoming a cake decorator proved that theory wrong.

I was also working harder than I ever did as a travel agent, my joints and muscles paid the price and with all the kneading and heavy cake lifting I managed to irritate a disk in my lower back, an extremely painful thing to do that I do not recommend and I have recurring tendinitis and weak joints in my wrists and hands.

After close to a year of doing the cakes full time I went back to work as a travel agent and back to doing the cakes in the evenings which I did for another two years. I have fairly well exhausted the cakes, the pressure I have put on myself as to not disappoint paying customers wore me down. The final feeling of achievement when the cake is finished and delivered is amazing but the endless hours of labor along with full time work and a two hour daily commute is just too much. If I wanted to work that hard I would have kids!

Now that there is some space between myself and the cakes I look back at photos astounded that I ever created these works of art. My skills are diminishing overtime which is a shame but you can't force yourself to continue with something that you have lost interest in. It goes to show that passions change over time, people change, hobbies change, career goals change but I always have the wonderful memories of that one time I was a cake decorator.

Stargate Cake, my first major novelty cake order. I can thank all the amazing detail work to my husband Martin who hand piped all the details on the gate meticulously adhering to the details of the gate from the TV show

R2D2 Cake, again my secret weapon Martin worked out the structure and details of this cake

Cookies, never a sometimes food!

One of my favourite wedding cakes, it was the clients idea to mix the brooches and the sugar flowers and I love the result.

This cake was so much more impressive in real life, I panicked for weeks before making it and when the time came I hand carved that whole shape and all the 3D details no trouble at all. It was also like a meter tall you just can't tell from the photo.

My first prop cake so I could get some content on my website, all styrofoam on the inside and even though it is covered in real icing it disturbingly still looks exactly like it did five years ago. Hmmm.

A themed cake close to my heart

My own birthday cake that Cosmo Bride asked to use in their magazine, was stoked!

The largest wedding cake I have ever done. Had to be assembled on site and finished on a ladder. The lovely bride was so happy with it. A happy client makes for a happy cake decorator.

Handbags and shoes were a popular theme. the shoe is all sugar and the bag all cake mmm.

My first extensive use of moulds and my own design for sugar flowers using moulds as the flower centres.

A great partnership with cake decorator and florist can create a stunning cake.  I delivered the cake with a styrofoam spacer and the florist filled it with fresh roses. This bride is just gorgeous cutting her wedding cake.



Originally posted on Monday, 8 September 2014 by