Category Archives: Food sociology

Thoughts while washing dishes (or why I cook)

There is a certain quiet in the kitchen when everyone has eaten and left.

Sleep starts to tease your eyelids as your hands work methodically to soap and rinse the sprawl of pots, plates, utensils … getting slower as you start yearning for bed, then quicker as you look at the time and remember that your alarm clock will ring in 6 hours.

It is work, you work harder than you have all day at your day job. You hop off the train, kiss your husband, run to the store, come home, march into the kitchen, don an apron, get moving. When guests expecting dinner are due in 45 minutes, there is no pointless dawdling or twiddling of thumbs, no pointless scrolling, no staring at the clock willing 5pm to come sooner. It’s work shift #2 after a full shift #1, but it’s rewarding work – chopping, measuring, sniffing, stirring … eating … talking … checking that guests’ glasses are full and bellies filling. You whip cream and make tea. You co-host. You listen, talk, laugh, catch up. And then, just as quickly as it began, it’s over. They go home. Time to wash up and then to go to bed.

But THIS moment, washing dishes, marvelling at how cooking smells and laughter give way to crumbs on the table and oil splashes on the stovetop. THIS silence is golden. You understand that time is your own to do what you want with it. You understand why people are the most important thing in the world. You understand that all the work that goes into cooking and feeding makes sense and is worthwhile, even though food takes effort to cook and less effort to eat and once done it is a cycle to be repeated in the days to come.

Finally – when people have left and the plates are clean again, you can feel the difference it has made. You have given, but received so much more in return. You are satisfied with food and the fullness that comes from eating together with others. And you are filled with gratitude.

That’s why I do it. To feel good, to have fun – but equally, to enjoy the satisfaction of working hard with my hands and feeling rested, well and grateful.


Hemingway’s words on oysters

As I ate the oysters, with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
~ Hemingway, as quoted in “French Women For All Seasons” by Mireille Guiliano

These are busy days, days in which minutes melt into a digital soup of Microsoft Outlook dings and social media distractions – days in which it becomes hard to recall what day it is, what happened five minutes ago, what’s happening tonight, what groceries need buying, what clothes need washing, what things need doing. And all of a sudden it is always night again, driving through roads teeming with road works and drivers with interesting behaviour, sinking gratefully into a chair at home and journaling in between dreams and real life.

At times all that is needed to bring it all into focus again, is a few good words on the magic of soul food and living; to – yes – eat, and be happy, and make plans!


Scattered Saturday thoughts

I am moved by the way history is folded right into the present, where it can remind people of who they are, where they come from, and how they were shaped.
~ Ann Kidd Taylor, Traveling with Pomegranates

If there is one thing I both like and dislike about New Zealand, it’s the way I feel removed from history, culture and something else I can’t quite describe. Of course NZ has its own story, its own “Kiwiana” things and attitude, and so many little things that are strongly unique to it… but it misses a certain gravity, collective history and force of character that is present in other countries. When I walk around here, I am seldom reminded of anything but the “here and now”. And after almost nine years of living here, I think I can say that many people I know live very much for the here and now.

Which, of course, has its merits.

Why live in the past, or focus too much on the unpredictable future when both are out of sight, out of mind? People here know how to appreciate a sunny day, and to put their feet up and rest on the beach; they sure know their coffee (or maybe I should say Wellington people do ;-)); when there’s a problem they fix it themselves. They go on OEs. They are adventurous. NZ is home to some of the best people ever and the kind of strangers who you meet and instantly want to be friends with. Also, it is crazy how people here are so trusting, I have met strangers who have trusted me with their homes, cars, babies and contact details not long after we meet. For all these and more, I well and truly love NZ.

So I hesitate to write the next bit, lest I sound rude or offensive. I honestly don’t intend it as a criticism or complaint – it is just what it is.

What I feel is the “here and now-ness” here also involves a certain ignorance; something that says “I don’t care where you come from, or where you’re going”. Something that doesn’t appreciate the heightened pleasure of a perfect moment after a century of storms. Something that doesn’t really grasp hard work, patience, or the wonder of a dream fulfilled. Something that is resistant to other people’s traditions and culture. Something that doesn’t fully appreciate the vastness and stories of the “beyond NZ” world… despite Auckland being one place where I’ve met people from a huge number of different countries and backgrounds. (Seriously… I have observed many people getting impatient with foreign accents, who confuse China with Korea, and think everyone in India eats butter chicken).

Why have I been thinking about all of this? I guess it’s because I’ve met people from very interesting places in the last fortnight… including Montenegro, London, Columbia and Italy and as you can guess I have had a ball with them talking about all sorts! It’s funny, these days I feel like I have morphed into one of those “citizen of the world” sort of people (yes, I hate that phrase too, but truly I feel like I find a bit of myself in people from everywhere…)

On that worldly/exploratory note. Last night, I started reading “Traveling with Pomegranates” by Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. A beautiful book which has evoked an avalanche of thoughts and memories… this morning I awoke thinking about the day I visited La Sagrada Familia last year. A beautiful place which features prominently in travel books/websites, but no book could have prepared me for the immense joy and light that flooded my being when I walked in. I remember it because of what had happened just earlier that morning, when I broke down and cried in a sandwich shop… much to the bewilderment of the poor staff there. Anyway! It’s too long a story to go into now.

Life is beautiful. Today is a marvellous day. I am going to go and see Kath now. Ciao!

P.S. Pictured: breakfast today! Warehou roe with Grandma’s shrimp and chilli paste atop potato sourdough from the market. A strange combination but one which was, for some reason, strangely delicious.

On Julie, Julia and Hunger

Life itself is the proper binge.
~ Julia Child

Tonight, I watched “Julie and Julia” for the second time. I can still feel a laugh simmering in my belly, and my face is still wet with tears.

I feel like I have finally enjoyed their stories on an empty stomach.

You see, in my two previous encounters with “Julie and Julia”, I was distracted. The exact dates on which I chanced upon Julie Powell’s book “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” (some time before the movie was released) and on which I attended a late night screening of “Julie and Julia” at a cinema in Singapore are lost amongst the loose leaves of my memory now, but I have not forgotten the state I was in when this story made its way to me. Both times, my heart was a dark shade of grey. Both times, “Julie and Julia” was a nice meal, but it was like trying to eat at a loved one’s funeral – I couldn’t really dig in.

This time though, the film shone/showered on my crimson heart, and I loved every ray/drop of it.

By the way, did you know that “Julie and Julia” (the book) is also one of the things that inspired the birth of this blog (well, that and a night of insomnia)? And while I have no Paul Child or saintly Eric now, I had – and have – a wonderful troop of family and friends who help keep it going.

Happy I am.

And while I’m on the subject of happiness, I’m happy to be on holiday leave, too. You get more time to think and make breakfast and go for long sea-smelling walks when you’re on holiday.

One of the holiday thoughts that surfaced in my mind the other day while at the beach was this: that to be hungry… really hungry… can be a marvellous thing.

In suffering hunger, senses are sharp, everything is real. Alive. To sounds, smells, sights, tastes. Facial expressions. Thoughts. Feelings. These are some of the things that I like about hunger in food, and in life – that keenness, clarity and drive to go after something that will fill and satisfy. The spontaneity to try something new. The vulnerability. The awareness that we need other people. The desperation. The jolting reminder that “I am a human being”.

That day, I found myself hungry in a curious way. Hungry enough to defer eating because no food immediately appealed, I found myself wanting to wait till I knew exactly what I wanted to eat (thus I ate breakfast at 12, no lunch, and dinner past 8pm). I found myself thinking new things about hunger and the function of eating. I was hungry for the smell of the sea, hungry for a sunset, hungry to dream. And I was content to be hungry, and gleeful when I finally ate and felt like I was really eating… satisfying the essence of my hunger, rather than eating just ‘cos it was time to eat (or time to blog). ;-)

I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but I think my thoughts have been coming together slowly… the truth is: I’ve gotten used to the feeling of fullness, of reaching out regularly to grab a cookie even when I’m not hungry (a phenomenon frequently observed in the lives of people with desk jobs), of eating more than my body requires at birthdays/other occasions, of eating when bored or moping, of eating when I’m not hungry just so I can experience a food more fully (and write about it). And when I’m not eating, I’m nibbling on food-related prose/events/stuff the way a kid feasts on candy – very greedily.

Food fascinates me. Probably always will.

But I begin to see that too often, I miss one real and obvious aspect of food/eating – hunger. Perhaps knowing hunger is crucial to knowing food. And perhaps… loving hunger (within reason) is crucial to truly loving food.

I don’t really know hunger well at all, and while I know I’m so fortunate to even be able to say that, I think that I want to fall deeper in love with food by coming to love hunger too.

Now, before you start worrying about me developing anorexia, it’s not gonna happen. The way I plan to go about this whole “knowing hunger” thing is simple. No diets. No starvation.

Just a few simple mental guidelines addressed to myself – 1. Eat when truly hungry. 2. Pay attention to food. 3. Be not afraid of hunger. 4. Laugh and love and cook like Julia Child. 5. Fall deeper in love with life, God and people.

And that, you may be relieved to read, concludes my Sunday ramble. :-) Thanks for listening (in particular – a huge thank you to you darling readers including Celi, Greg and Kristy for always making me smile with your comments)! Adiós for now!

Cooking for one (spirals with fennel and anchovies)

Right food, right place, right time. It is my belief… that this is the best recipe of all.
~ Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries

Recently, Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini wrote about cooking for one. Her post, and a serendipitous accident that happened in my skillet, prompted me to write this post.

Clotilde identifies a few ways that one might approach a Solo Meal Night, which I think of as:

    1. the “Cool, I get a night off – I’m just going to eat toast, or anything that requires minimal or no cooking/washing up” approach
    2. the “Ah! I finally get to cook what I want now that my husband/wife is AWAY! I’m going to have truffles, lobster, and all the great things he/she hates but I love” approach
    3. the “I’m going to have exactly what I feel like, and it’ll be delicious” approach

It’s interesting, isn’t it? This thing of eating alone? People seem divided about it. This activity doesn’t seem to be widely advocated. I mean, there are lovely books like Judith Jones’s “The Pleasures of Cooking for One” and Suzanne Pirret’s “The pleasure is all mine – selfish food for modern life” which remind you that there are people in the world who do cook and eat alone, and do it well and with enjoyment… but most of the time, the reality is closer to what Suzanne says:

“The images in most cookbooks and cooking shows nowadays help perpetuate the feeling that eating alone – especially eating well alone – is not really an option. The requisite denouement for almost all cooking shows includes a fantastically happy group of friends and family, heads thrown back in laughter with the mandatory Mmmmmms, Oohs, and Ahhhhhs, as they feast on the perfect spread – all in blissful, panoramic Technicolor. Your only hope is to be a part of that life one day… But until then, it’s anti-depressants and beans on toast for your sorry ass.”

Okay, I think her line on anti-depressants and beans on toast is a little extreme – but I’m not shaking my head at what she wrote either. It’s true, cooking for one isn’t often glamourised.

On some level, I think that’s a good thing.

I mean, I love and need time alone, but I do believe that even the most introverted introverts weren’t made to hide in a cave and eat by themselves for ever. Love and connection and cooking/eating together are to souls and minds what sunlight and water are to plants.

On the other hand though, you glean other treasures from cooking/eating alone too.

This year is the first year in a few years that I remember cooking and eating on my own so much, despite eating out a fair bit and cooking with others occasionally too. It’s been tough at times, therapeutic at others. Now that it’s no longer as unsettling for me, I notice different things more – my thoughts; the gradual darkening of the sky outside the window; the taste of food; selfishness; generosity; the mind-clearing powers of a clean kitchen.

In the last few years, I mostly cooked for flatmates, friends, boyfriends (they cooked for me too). I can’t really remember, off-hand, many solo cooking and eating nights. I DO remember the shopping lists. Meal planning. Bulk shopping. Catering to others’ tastes. The desire to make something delicious to feed the people I loved. Generous servings. The need for meat to be present when boys were eating at my table.

I think the cooking shows and books featuring eight beaming people around a food-laden table used to make more sense to me. I scarcely worried about food rotting in the fridge/pantry. I was fortunate to be able to go grocery shopping with a car most of the time.

So, when I moved to Auckland earlier this year, there were times when just the thought of going to the supermarket would evoke tears. I missed certain people. I missed the person I was when those people were with me. I got stressed about having to make time to walk there and back. I sighed about not knowing what the heck to make. I thought about recipes but let the thoughts go immediately because I didn’t want to eat the same thing every day for two weeks.

Yet, at other times, I was pretty happy about the situation I found myself in. I relished the thought that I could eat just veges if I wished, or poached eggs on toast every day for a week. I could spend four hours cooking, or order a pizza, and no one would mind. I could make a pavlova castle for dinner. The possibilities were endless.

As it is, I didn’t (and still don’t) follow a pattern. Mostly, I seem to keep a supply of eggs, garlic, herbs and spices, baking ingredients, dried pasta and parmesan cheese at home, and buy vegetables/meat/fresh produce every 2-3 days. I don’t really like frozen-anything as a rule, unless it’s dessert or soup for emergencies.

Sometimes I catch up with friends at cafes/restaurants/bars. Sometimes I cook two servings of a dish, and bring half of it to work the next day for lunch. Sometimes I eat instant noodles (yes, horrendous. I do it). Sometimes I eat more than I need to, like when I’m cold or sad or both. Sometimes I walk to the market on impulse just to get something fresh, then walk home and spend hours fussing over something elaborate. Sometimes I cook with the same ingredient for a week because I need to use it up. There are no rules.

On the accident I mentioned early in this post. The other evening, I was too tired/lazy to go to the supermarket, so I actually planned to just skip dinner and go to bed. But THEN I opened the fridge and spied the fennel I had bought over the weekend and forgotten about! And it was still green! Being tired, I just chopped and tossed mindlessly, not expecting much… so you can imagine I was pretty delighted when it turned out to be a pretty darn good toss-up!

I’m still very happy about it.

This is the approximate recipe:

    Heat some water in a saucepan. When it comes to a rolling boil, throw in some salt and pasta (I used large spirals) and cook according to packet instructions.
    While the water boils/pasta cooks, smash and chop 1-2 cloves of garlic, chop up 3 sundried tomatoes and dice 1/2 a fennel bulb. Zest half a lemon. Take out 5 anchovies (I used these).
    Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a pan. Add in the garlic and fennel and sauté for five minutes, then add in a heaped tablespoon of butter, the lemon zest, sundried tomatoes and anchovies. Shake in some dried basil (rub it between your fingers as you go; if using fresh basil, tear with your fingers and add in right at the end) and some chilli flakes. Continue to sauté.
    Rescue and plate the pasta (stir in a drizzle of olive oil if your pasta is sticking together). Pour the fennel and anchovy sauce over it, then add black pepper and parmesan to taste. Eat immediately.
    Yields one serving.

All the people

Yet in that moment each in his mind’s eye had an image of the other’s life – the lives streaming out like two rivers across the broad sweep of the land. Rivers divided. But running through the same terrain.
~ Nigel Cox, Waiting for Einstein

Most people don’t believe me when I say I am an introvert, but it’s true… there’s still a part of me that shies away, prefers a hidden spot to the stage. Or, when I DO get on stage, I love it – but only if I don’t have to talk or interact directly with the audience. I get tired at parties with too many people. I ran away from Fanzone on the launch day of Rugby World Cup at 6pm. I hate small talk. People interest me greatly, but truth be told, I prefer getting close and personal with characters in a book rather than in real life (unless I really like you, in which case I will make a point to see you in person/call/email etc more than once. Real life friends reading this – cue to go *aww* here…)

I’ve been pretty WOWED by people lately though. In real life. As mentioned in my last blog post, I had a super weekend in Wellington, notably with Arty Bees (on par with Unity Books and Kinokuniya in my books!), hangin’ with Haidee and Herman, talking books & language with Margaret, wandering around the markets in the rain, a trip to Cafe Polo in Miramar (finally!) (their # browns are to die for!), dinner with my sweet friend Sally at Le Canard (Sally runs marathons, is as practical as she is sympathetic, has a great sense of humour, speaks with that lovely British accent, and digs in heartily – I like her very much), a chat about everything with Brad (by the way, Brad is gifted with a voice and way with music which you should go and listen to here)… hmmm I am becoming aware that this sentence has too many commas, so I shall end this sentence here. Wellington was nice to me – it was even sunny for two days out of three!

Back to Auckland: yesterday, my colleague shared her lunch with me at work. Impromptu. I stopped by her desk to see if she wanted to go and get lunch (I was too lazy to make mine in the morning), to which she said “I have enough for us both. Do you want some?”. I know it’s a little silly, but I got rather sentimental about it… it was so sweet! She went to fetch salad leaves (from the Saturday market), beans, sardines, vinaigrette from the kitchen. Actually, she could have fed me bananas… it would still have tasted good (the salad was delicious, as a matter of fact). We ate and talked at her desk.

Food is at its best when it’s shared in friendship, when it’s fed to hungry stomachs, when it’s eaten over conversation, when it’s generously given?

Today, I went to get my coffee from my usual stop – and the coffee lady complimented me on my choice of outfit. Again, small gesture, but coming from this blunt, brisk, straightforward, busy lady, I receive her compliments humbly! She is always polite, but she’s not the sort to gush or say things that aren’t true. I like that about her. When she says something especially nice to you, it hardly ever comes out sounding like flowery praise, but you always go away happy because you know she means it. As she handed me my coffee and pecan/caramel brioche, I felt like we had just drawn just a tiny bit closer… you know? When you feel like you connect with another human, in MORE than a logical “I know what you just said, this is my automatic response” way? Like that.

I love how coffee and breakfast gave us an excuse (if we needed one) to start chatting…

And then after work today, I went to get a drink with my friend Tim at a sun-drenched table by the waterfront. Tim is one of my best friends in the whole universe, partly because he saved my life a few years ago. I’ve known him since 2007, and over the years I have become more and more proud to know him – his golden hair and little boy face still make me smile; his personal integrity, love for his friends and just that TIM-nature make me want to be a better human. I don’t know why he’s my friend, but I am sure glad he is. He recently got engaged to a very sweet lady, and I am very pleased for them both! Minutes felt like seconds as we talked…

I wonder how many soul conversations take place in bars and restaurants every day…

Lastly, dinner tonight at Nickies Thai Restaurant with Gail and Simon. With the Entertainment Book, we got a bottle of wine, a plate of spring rolls, three mains and three desserts for $38.10 each. Not a cheap dinner, but not a price I regret paying for what we got today. I noted with pleasure their friendly service – when Gail’s dessert came with a different ice cream flavour to what was agreed with the waiter, he apologised with a smile, whisked it away and returned shortly with a correct order and a beautiful attitude :-) The food was very nice – I had the drunken noodles with prawns, which arrived garnished with a beautiful carrot rose and dotted with juicy prawns, and tasted as nice as it looked.

Everything was to our satisfaction and we chatted till past 10pm about life and possibilities… I was inspired by the way Simon has gone after (and still does pursue) his dreams, the honesty in his eyes, his impossible-to-offend sense of humour and optimism and grace. And as always, I enjoyed Gail – she’s so funny, without knowing it; she’s smart, careful, relaxed and beautiful – sounds like a contradiction or something impossible to get in one person, but it’s true she is. I admire the fact that she works hard and goes after what she wants, and I’m pleased to see that she often does achieve her dreams – and she never fails to encourage!

Teach me to cook, teach me to eat, teach me to love.

Anyway, I am sure this post reads ALL over the place – but, well, I am just so happy with what I have right now; where I am right now; the people in my life right now; the dreams in my head right now… that I just had to tell someone at least a bit of it. It’s past midnight, so lucky you!

Goodnight, thanks for reading my rambles, happy weekend!

P.S. With no clear idea of what picture to accompany this post, I uploaded (above) a (not so brilliant) photo of last night’s (simple and pretty good) dinner – spinach + butter beans + garlic + eggs + parmesan.

P.P.S. Nigel Cox was a fantastic observer of life, of the unconscious and conscious motivations that move us, of relationships with others and with self – and expressed these brilliantly in prose… look forward to reading more of his writing (just finished “Waiting for Einstein”).

Art, Wynyard Quarter and Takapuna Beach Cafe

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
~ Thomas Merton

Saturday – amidst drizzle and umbrellas, the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki was opened with a speech by Len Brown, music by the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra and a warming kapa haka display… :-) Thereafter, the crowd whooshed through the doors (me included).

Read more here, here and here.

This is a quick snapshot of a few people tuning in to the ceremonial display – (I thought they were arranged rather artistically too).

Nice displays in every room, ranging from moving displays to crazy Picasso to majestic gold-framed portraits – enjoyed.

Loved this chandelier of flowers spilling from the ceiling! The promise of Spring.

The view from a window.

I couldn’t help but feel that this gallery was a little condensed, having visited various museums and galleries in Europe (some of those places could take months to explore in full) – however, I do recognise that much effort has been poured into this gallery, and they have made it a beautiful place which will inspire all who come through its doors. Great use of space too.

Art milk!

Here’re a few more photos from my second saunter down to Wynyard Quarter (there’re a few more photos in this recent post).

The weather was highly temperamental – churros weather one moment and swimsuit weather the next! My umbrella got heavily injured in the process too (rather extreme for Auckland, I thought).

Weather aside though, it was jolly fine wandering around – and we were far from lonely; so many people were out! The ladies were at the Fashion Week sale, I think – we opted for the benches, people watching, photo taking, sunbathing (whenever the sun actually came out, that is).

Adored this whimsical piano that was near to all the fancy new restaurants/bars – oh I was almost tempted to jump on and play! Too timid, in the end. I admire the courage of children :-)

And here are some oil tanks, looking very cute.

Later in the afternoon, Cam, Matt and I trooped down to Takapuna Beach Cafe for a late lunch.

I am sorry to report that the only thing I enjoyed about this place was the view (spectacular).

The food looked mighty fine (as you will note from the photos below) – but both the service and the taste of the food were highly unremarkable. The menu had looked wonderful, so I was really disappointed. My twice-baked souffle (last pic in this post) was not fun to eat, and the parmesan waaaay overpowered the leaves in the salad. An abundance of saltiness and regretting the bill at the end are my overall impressions of my meal now. Oh, and who can forget the facial expressions of the waiting staff? Bored and sulky? I can do without that on my Saturday afternoon, thank you very much.

I think that when food is cooked and served with love (this means that ingredients are sourced with care, food is cooked with skill, precision and spontaneity, dishes are plated and served by generous and genuine people), it makes a world of difference – that is when food goes from edible bits that slip down your throat and into your belly to something magical that nourishes your body, mind and soul.

Conversely, it doesn’t matter how good a dish looks on a plate if the foundation of good food/hospitality isn’t present – it will taste empty, and the diners will be left out in the cold at the end.

And when is that ever a good thing?

Luckily, there are places like Ima and Meredith’s which serve up the good oil in Auckland.

And that’s all from me tonight. I have a few videos and things I want to get through before I reunite with my pillow for the evening! Have a great Wednesday, all.

Takapuna Beach Cafe – 22 The Promenade, Takapuna, Auckland – Phone: 09 484 0002