Category Archives: P

A special evening at Ang Bahay

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
~ Charles Dickens

Sometimes, life throws you a bouquet with flowers you fancy (my ideal one would have tiger lilies, chocolate mint and maybe a leprechaun or two thrown in for good measure). I am talking about days on which life tickles and delights – you know the ones. They don’t need to contain one million dollars or a rugged Prince Charming arriving on a motorbike (though I suppose they would be nice…). They could happen in good company; at the beach; at the duck pond – when the beauty of life rises to meet your face – and you find your heart and feet dancing.

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The last 10 days have contained a few of these moments for me – a crucial ‘aha’ moment in my work; swimming at Eastbourne; watching a ladybug glide slowly by; having my friend Jane visit. So many things. Hellos and goodbyes. New friends. Last but not least, a spectacular surprise – dinner with the gracious Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand, Her Excellency Virginia Benavidez.

Yes!

Through serendipity, friendship, a big dollop of warm Filipino hospitality and more, Her Excellency hosted a dinner in honour of Jane at Ang Bahay, the Ambassador’s residence. And I got to be Jane’s guest.

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Recently, Jane visited the Philippines and was clearly enthralled by the experience – I could feel her passion radiating through the phone as we spoke. It awakened good memories – mainly of a visit to Manila when I was a little girl, where I found myself chin and elbow-deep in mango heaven… and of the Filipino friends and domestic helpers I have met, almost all of whom are always, in my mind, laughing, boisterous, joyous, gentle as they speak with their beautiful Spanish-tinted accents.

Just the other day, I met one of Jane’s friends, a glorious Filipina lady, who had me beaming within seconds of meeting her. I begin to understand Jane’s heart for the Philippines and its people.

So… when the invitation to Ang Bahay arrived in our email inboxes, we were thrilled! Of course!

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Opening your door to someone is something special; sharing stories and food with someone, even more so. Her Excellency did these and more. I thought to myself, here is a lady in a significant position with a sea of facts and faces to remember – and here she is, humble, graceful and approachable. She included all of us in her informal address and in conversation. No one looked ill at ease – we dived into conversation. Never mind that I have little connection to the Philippines or that I only know about five words in Tagalog – we laughed, chatted, joked… and I forgot myself in the course of the evening, mainly in exchanging stories with the people seated at my end of the table. No attention to napkin placement / polite regal laughing needed (though, umm, I tried to behave ;-)).

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I could try to explain what made it all wonderful – getting to dine at the Ambassador’s beautiful residence, the amazing food, the smiling people… but all that doesn’t really say it. Pretty surroundings, novelty and friendliness are great, of course. I noted, with pleasure, the table setting, tall vases, art on the walls, menus printed on handmade paper cards supporting Samaritana, and (real) fruit candle holders! I enjoyed our meal immensely – everything from soup with a perfect puff pastry crown to an impressive ice dome with fresh fruit tucked into it, which kept cool the entire time. I soaked in the whole experience, marvelling at the fact that I was at the Ambassador’s place.

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But all that doesn’t encompass what made it possible to be fully present and at ease in a new and novel situation. Soaking in something that is at once complex and terribly simple: genuine hospitality. Hospitality that is generous, other-focused, radiant and passionate – hospitality from a host that brings out her best for her guests – hospitality that is glorious, yet humble and welcoming, with no airs and pretension. Hospitality that makes me fall in love again with the world, and its diversity, and the beauty of culture and humanity. Hospitality that seems to touch me not as a gesture, but as an embrace.

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It all sounds terribly cheesy, doesn’t it. But, well, that is the way it was. To Her Excellency, Jane and the other guests: thank you.

Masaganang bagong taon sa lahat!

P.S. Just in case you are interested, the menu was as follows (ah, I’m getting hungry all over again, typing this!):

Mushroom soup with puff pastry
Alfa salad with fruit
Strawberry sorbet
Fish and vegetables in teriyaki sauce
Chicken royale
Braised pork hocks
Fresh fruits in dome
Turon with chocolate dip
Wine
Date tea

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A morning like every morning

Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.
~ Walt Whitman

Last night, I watched a spectacular sunset – one which said clearly, “Stop. Pay attention to me.”

That reminded me to be present in each moment… to know that the Good Life is not the Perfect Someday, or the Hive of Meaningless Activity. It is right here, right now. Walking on wet grass, releasing the scent of rain with each step. Feeling the wind graze every inch of my skin. Drinking in the glow of the setting sun. Gazing at the mist. Pausing on purpose. Dreaming, yes, but not losing sight of the waking moments or the really important things. Being thankful.

So this morning I met Herman for breakfast and there it was again – something which said, “Stop. Pay attention. Take a photo if you like…” Of what? The bright sun, the table askew, the berries stacked in his glass and the avocado spread on my toast. Or, in the case of the photo below, the End of Breakfast and the Start of Mid-morning Tuesday…

Conversation. Friendship. My work schedule for the day. The buzz of business people walking past clutching meeting agendas and other such things. Morning.

The mornings like every other morning – those are the gems.

Moustache

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
~ Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

What do you remember of your childhood?

I recall abstract details… my first hula hoop; the pain of piping hot cheese toast scorching the roof of my mouth; the excitement of hiding backstage waiting for the curtain to go up. If I concentrate with my eyes shut, I can just about remember what it was like to be 6, 7, 9, 12…

These days, I find myself learning how to be a child all over again.

In recent years, life has (necessarily) involved plenty of ‘growing up’ (whatever that really means!) – a big shift from School to a world that is largely about Money Job Romance House Marriage Kids Plans Politics Catastrophes Choices Vacations Service ItDoesn’tEnd Etc Etc.

It’s exciting and necessary.

But in many ways, it’s really not everything.

All work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy; it kills him.

Perhaps the more ‘growing up’ we do, the more we need to remember what it is like to be small, to wonder, to love without complications. To enjoy whizzing down a slide without thinking about how to announce your slide ride on Facebook. To be able to tell someone “I don’t want to play with you today” or “let’s be friends!” – just like that. To eat when hungry without worrying about getting fat.

Perhaps we could place equal importance on Big Decisions and Small Things.

Perhaps we could, every so often, leave our suits and aprons at home in favour of donning milk moustaches and eating delicious cookies.

This is Deanna, whiz and powerhouse behind Moustache. I had already heard many good things about Moustache through media and friends – this morning, I got a chance to experience the goodness in person. Yay! As I tucked into a glorious cinnamon cookie and cold fresh milk, I enjoyed getting to know the face and story behind this Cookie Wonderland.

Like so many good things, Moustache is built on passion, genius, the pursuit of excellence and a lot of hard work. I admired the staff’s friendly and calm countenances and the yummy cookies more and more as I learned the realities of building this dream and running this business.

What you see now, a concept that seems simple enough (milk, cookies, the child in all of us and a glimpse of Deanna’s childhood) – is the result of months of brainstorming and resourceful thinking done in pockets of available time. Strings of early mornings and late nights. Careful budgeting. Setbacks and victories.

Blood, sweat, tears and laughs.

Every cookie is baked fresh, on site, with good ingredients like cage-free eggs and generous bites of Whittaker’s chocolate. On that note, I discovered why the peanut butter cookies Kath and I bought yesterday at 4pm were positively glowing with everything melting in just the right places… the cookies tasted like they had just emerged from the oven because, in fact, they had. The Moustache team sends fresh trays of cookie dough into the oven every half an hour to ensure customers get a constant supply of fresh cookies!

Things I love about Moustache: the way it is so bright and user-friendly – walk in and your eyes and nose automatically know what to do. Its warmth and fragrance. The option of buying gift boxes along with your cookies. The menu. The smiling staff. And, of course, the cookies – preferably enjoyed warm with cold fresh milk.

Pop in on weekdays for morning coffee or an afternoon pick-me-up, Saturdays for a treat, or before a show at The Civic (conveniently located a stone’s throw away).

If you miss your childhood, Moustache is an excellent place for reminiscence – if you never had a childhood, make up for it here.

Thank you, Deanna, for a lovely morning!

Moustache – 12 Wellesley Street West, Auckland

Lamb and coffee

I’ve got nothing to do today but smile.
~ Simon and Garfunkel

Glory of the humble steak.

For all its fuss-free ease (under eight minutes from pan to plate), it is one of my favourite experiences. Whisking clean laundry away into the bedroom (to avoid catching smells). Watching tiny showers of oil blitz with the sound of microscopic rockets onto the surface of the gas stove. Feeling fresh Wellington wind whip against my cheek as I stand at the hot stove with the kitchen window wide open. Seeing the meat lose its healthy blush and take on a golden, plate-ready glow. Slicing it, noting its soft seared / brown / pink layers… and just a trickle of juice flowing on to the plate.

Yesterday’s dinner: lamb steak, seared with ground chilli and a flick of oregano – and a fresh cup of black coffee on the side. I don’t want to say it was “magnificent”, since that seems too grand a word to bestow on a rapid dinner that took less than 20 minutes to prepare and eat… but to be honest, that is the word that flashed through my mind as I ate ;-)

And that is all I wanted to write about today. Good morning!

One fine croissant, and other stories

Do you know on this one block you can buy croissants in five different places? There’s one store called Bonjour Croissant. It makes me want to go to Paris and open up a store called Hello Toast.
~ Fran Lebowitz, journalist

So many things affect our experience of food. Who cooks. Who serves. Where we eat it, and with whom. How we eat it. Our mood and hunger levels at the time of our meal. What we eat. How it’s cooked (or not cooked).

Eating is seldom straightforward – even though, on the surface, it is a direct attempt to satisfy hunger. Every eating experience is a delicate dance between tens and possibly hundreds of hidden questions, thoughts, factors and functions all going on at the same time.

Good food, though, is a lot simpler to define: good food nourishes us. On many levels, or all at the same time if you’re exceptionally lucky. I’ll leave “good eating” for another post, shall I, so this doesn’t become a book stuffed into a blog post?

The topic of “good food” has been on my mind a lot this year, mostly in between dreams, plane rides and everything else. Travelling definitely makes me think about good food a lot. From the time you get on the plane, depending on the airline you’re with – you could be very thankful or very revolted looking at that box of stuff that’s meant to tide you over till you land! And, once at your destination, depending on a range of things like budget, availability, who you’re with and whether you’re the kind to dine in style or in hiding when alone – there’s a whole range of possibilities for meals that are different from and better than (you hope) the options at home. If you have dietary needs, then that adds a layer of stuff to consider and all your options under further examination, too.

I flew to sunny Nelson this last weekend – just a bumpy 30-minute plane ride away from Wellington. My belly was surprisingly unresponsive; I subsisted on three meals over two days despite my best attempts to make myself hungry. (Admittedly, one of the meals was had at none other than Burger King since there was nothing else close by and open, and my mind was too engrossed in work to travel much further in search of food).

But something unexpected did happen to me belly-and-food-brain-wise in Nelson; I was surprised by a croissant.

I had just returned to Nelson city from the airport on Saturday afternoon, slightly miffed that flights to Wellington had been disrupted and I was ‘trapped’ for an additional day in Nelson with a lack of clean clothes. This was probably the only moment in Nelson where I was suddenly attacked by hunger pangs… so I googled a place I had walked past the day before to check their opening hours and find their address, and promptly headed to The Swedish Bakery & Cafe – about half an hour before they closed.

As luck would have it, the only likely lunch options left were whole loaves of bread, or a solo croissant sitting in the cabinet. I wasn’t really in the mood for pastry, though this one was very pretty with its brie and chutney stuffing. And alas, this didn’t look nearly capable of killing off Hungry Monster, which was by now causing my belly some distress. Still, the lady there was so nice that before I thought about what I was saying, I bought it and hurried back to the place I was staying at (after casting a longing look at the pretty items on their shelves which I had to leave there since I had no space in my carry-on to bring anything home).

I warmed it slightly in the microwave, took out a pen to keep working and popped a corner of the warm, oozing croissant into my mouth. I thought I’d do the whole eat-and-work thing which I profess to hate but do anyway so as not to disrupt the crucial flow.

Well, I had to hit pause on work because this croissant was too good to be true.

Perhaps I was just overly hungry and everyone knows that food tastes better when you’re hungry… but I’m pretty sure this is one of the yummiest bakery items I’ve eaten in New Zealand. And NZ has a lot of very talented bakers around. But it’s hard to get everything perfect – a croissant, for instance, can be just a little too flaky (so everything falls on you or on the plate); or too soft (meh); or too full of stuffing (so everything falls on you or on the plate); or too salty; or too floury… or something. Not that I can be bothered being so fussy ;-) …… and this croissant was PERFECT. Flaky, without raining flakes on me. Soft, without being limp. Melting cheese. Perfect chutney. Fresh, savoury, flavourful. Yummy! I really enjoyed it. It killed off Hungry Monster, too.

And while it contained neither meat nor veg it really nourished me – sustaining me through an inspirational afternoon at the The World of WearableArt and Classic Cars Museum. :-)

P.S. Not too difficult to see why Lonely Planet put in a good word for them, too!

The Swedish Bakery & Cafe – 54 Bridge Street, Nelson – Phone: 03 546 8685

A chicken deboned

Learning is not a spectator sport.
~ Chickering and Gamson

Tonight, Gudrun taught me how to debone a chicken*.

Blood**, bones and vegetarian thoughts aside, there were moments during which I thought: how wonderful it is to be a woman, to cook from scratch, to laugh and be horrified while learning something new. All feelings I’ve experienced several times before, and never tire of experiencing…

Thoughts on the chicken front: I never understood why people bothered deboning ducks and chickens, but when it emerged from the oven and slicing was so slick and easy – I know I will do it again. Also, I need more practice.

And yes, we had a very fun evening indeed (thank you, Craig and Gudrun)! Dinner was: leek and spinach with mustard and cream, pillow-like mashed potatoes and baked-then-grilled chicken with lemon and garlic. Mmmmm, I wish I could feed you some through your screen now!

Have a beautiful Sunday :-)

* There are useful videos like this which can serve as a guide, but I’d say go with your instincts – feel your way around and aim to get the bones out while trying to keep the chicken in one piece. Also, I found using a small sharp knife easier (but figure out what works best for you).

** I suspect the chicken was more bloody than it should have been because we had to defrost it.

P.S. Don’t forget…

Home

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.
~ Maya Angelou

I’m home. Or am I?

I’ve experienced the feeling of being ‘at home’ in a few places over the last month, far from my bed, bathroom, kitchen, etc… and now that I am back in my flat, I feel like a stranger. Like I’m in someone else’s home, living someone else’s life.

Know what I mean? It is great, but painful, to be home. Where everything is ‘different different but same’ (a slight twist on this).

This trip is one of the craziest and best trips I’ve ever gone on, and not just because my sweet friend Steven convinced me that it was a good idea to go with him to Universal Studios in Singapore and go on ALL the roller coasters (save the Cylon because I refuse to be flipped upside down five times in rapid succession), or because I got to spend a few days and share a donkey burger and other wonderful fare with Jane in Beijing. Enjoying perfect summery weather the whole time.

I also got to experience family on a whole new level. My aunt managed to locate Granddad’s relatives and ancestral home in a province in China last year and my uncles, aunts and grandparents arranged to visit them this year. I joined the party at the last minute, and am I glad I got the opportunity to go along! I knew it would be a special trip for Granddad since he hadn’t been back in about 80 years – and it was, but I was surprised to be so personally affected by it too.

We arrived at the airport in Jieyang to a welcome party worthy of celebrities. An entourage of people holding a giant red banner surged towards us, simultaneously talking excitedly to my granddad who was caught by surprise and slightly teary (I just gaped stupidly – it’s all I could do). His tears then began to cause my own eyes to glisten… anyway, thus began six days of getting acquainted with family I had never known about…

There were many moments when I looked around me, at all these good-looking faces I was seeing for the first time in my life, speaking a dialect I term as my third language, in a place I had never thought I would visit… feeling strangely comfortable. Thinking, “wow. This is what family is.” Everyone together, no one texting/surfing the internet/glued to some technological device… just being human, laughing, talking, sharing, being. Distinct personalities emerged, my newfound distant cousins and I found ourselves doing an informal language exchange and being silly at a window-shattering karaoke session, and I was overwhelmed (there is no other word) by it all. We drank a lot of tea (they make fabulous tea of different varieties – I got quite addicted to it); ate too much; went sightseeing; practised speaking dialect and mandarin (I’m still trying to get back into this speaking English thing). In between, I got to catch up with my uncles and aunts, and listen to Granddad tell me stories of his youth which he had never told before.

There were so many conversations, unfamiliar sights, cultural differences, etc to take in that each night I fell into bed full of wonder and unprocessed thoughts…

And now, here I am. Wondering how life will ever be the same again… and yet thoroughly thankful that life is not dull, that life continues to teach and surprise, and show me love and grace.

P.S. On the note of home… banana cake is a good remedy for homesickness. Something to do with the smell, I think. I used this recipe as a base, substituting sour cream with yoghurt, cake flour with normal, and omitting the chocolate ganache to suit what I had on hand. Oh, and I threw in a handful of chocolate buttons into the mix and baked the cake in a bundt pan, just ‘cos.