Category Archives: Food sociology

If you can talk, you can sing…

If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance.
~ Zimbabwean expression, as quoted by Stan Davis and David McIntosh, The Art of Business

What a treat. Last night, Gudrun and I trailed up to the confusing campus that makes up Auckland University and located, with some trouble, Maidment Theatre. It was well worth it. We stepped gratefully into the warmth (the weather was quite reminiscent of Wellington!)… and into another world.

It wasn’t quite what I expected, admittedly. I guessed that “The Guru of Chai” would be colourful, and fun, and inspirational. And it was. But I didn’t expect it to begin with a philosophical address, and end with a surprising twist. I didn’t expect to witness two men wax magic, conjuring up many characters, many voices, many emotions and a sense of wonder without much help. I didn’t expect a marriage between minimal costumes/props and endless imagination, openness and courage. A dance of talent and practice.

It was so wonderful to bathe in the poignant air of mirth, pathos, thought, and humanity. Watching this, I was at once fully engaged and elsewhere… it made me think of the million ways in which we are different, and the other million things that connect us as people in the world. It reminded me of the hot, bustling parts of Southeast Asia that I grew up in, and the few wayang shows I watched as a child, and coffee from the local coffee shops where we’d sit and sweat in the sheer humidity. It brought to mind Grandma’s shrimp chilli paste – best described as “pungent” within the limitations of English; but stunning applied to bread, or meat. Addictive, even. A blend of simple ingredients that Grandma pounded tirelessly with her mortar & pestle, turning it into a complex paste with an unforgettable flavour… one which I could never (and still can’t) tell where sweet meets hot meets bitter meets… whatever. I can’t describe it…

So… “The Guru of Chai”. If you are in Auckland, you have four days left to catch them before they fly to the good US of A! Go and watch it.

While we’re being arty-farty on this food blog (I figure theatre and music count as food – for the soul)… just last week, I also went to watch a high school orchestra/choir performance, fantastic to watch young talent performing. It was a night which led me down hallways of old dreams, up silent thoughts of what could be – and which cracked open my Russian doll selves and allowed me to be 6, 8, 20, all over again and all at once. I thought about that drama teacher I had in primary school, who was one of the people who taught me the power of Imagination. Do you love music? I hope you tap into its magic…

In other (food-related) news, I finally got to try Oh Calcutta! – I went there this evening with Gill. We shared a bowl of basmati rice and GIGANTIC naan (looked like two full moons tucked into a basket) – and she had lentils, and I the lamb rogan josh (I thought it was quite fitting that we got to eat good food and share good heart and life stories!). Really attentive service and delicious food at this restaurant… Dhanyavād, Meena Anand and team!

It’s only words

I really mind if people muck about with food… illiterately.
~ A. A. Gill

Will you read my blog even without pictures? Yes? Yes? Oh, come on! I’ll try to make it pretty even without the glossy images… time has been speeding by and I have hardly stopped to breathe, let alone take pictures – but I do so miss my camera – and I will try to take a few pictures to accompany my next post.

Meanwhile… well, where to start? So much to be happy about. Last Wednesday, I went for dinner with my dear friend Jian – to exuberant Gina’s – and Jian approached the menu in a way my friends seldom do. Actually, I don’t think anyone I know has ever done it this way. He asked me to pick what I’d usually not order. I was reluctant, but only for about five seconds – between us, we ordered the gnocchi quattro formaggi (gnocchi with four cheeses – gorgonzola, parmigiano, mozzarella and cream) and pizza agnello (with lamb, garlic potatoes and freshly roasted sage) to share. Hearty food and lots of great conversation – I like!

Actually, I think browsing the menu and then picking the thing you first twitched an eyebrow at feels so adventurous and is a great experience to open oneself to. It makes you think about your food and preferences more; it makes you willing to take risks in other areas the next day…

…But I am getting ahead of myself. The gnocchi was rich – oh so rich, like the robe of a King – creamy and cheesy, a warm garment on the tongue. It was tasty, but I cannot deny that I was VERY glad that we were sharing the pizza and pasta, as this would have been too much for just me! The pizza was nicely flavoured, though I had to squint to catch a glimpse of any lamb at all? This was my second visit to Gina’s and I would probably go again – probably on a rainy and windy evening when all I want is somewhere to thaw my frozen body and cold mind – Gina’s is warm in every way.

Friday, I discovered that even half a glass of champagne renders me useless for anything related to work. Unfortunate. What I did wake up for though, was that session with Al Brown and A. A. Gill… both people I was glad to discover.

My thoughts:
I was tickled by the fact that they went fishing – not the fishing bit, but that it involved Al Brown, who wrote “Go Fish” and A. A. with the surname of “Gill”. :-) As far as it went, I loved the dynamics between them on stage, and what struck me was Al’s generosity, courage and humility, and Adrian’s candid way with words, fast-working mind, and the way he seemed to grasp life firmly, as if life were the bulls of a horn… and needless to say – I couldn’t stop smiling at the way every remark that escaped their lips about food couldn’t help but betray their love for it (just the way it should be!) I plan to delve into their work soon.

Other notable quotes from A. A. Gill:
“You have to decide who you want to be when you are sober”; “the place makes the people”. The place making the people is an interesting thought – but I thought afterwards, how true – or, at least, the interpretation of a place makes a person. It’s probably not something unique to me, feeling colourful and flirtatious in Spain, materialistic and busy in Singapore, friendly and inquiring and eager to hang out in markets in Morocco… a post for another time.

Other A. A. Gill-related commentary here and here.

Le Weekend saw the arrival of my friend Ian, curly fries, cocktails, a potluck lunch, Kath’s rice salad, new faces, too much coffee, a dinner at Hulu Cat (composed of popcorn chicken, dumplings, bubble tea), and just… lots and lots of food and conversations. I also went to see “Peace Please” at the Writers’ Festival… thoughts on that one still in the pipeline.

Yesterday, I went to the library after work and spent an hour trying to forget my stomach’s existence as I flipped through a cookbook on Moroccan cuisine (keftas, tagines, cake with orange flower water and all – mmm!) and Tessa Kiros’s “Twelve”… and then dinner saw the bubbly Francine and I curling elegant pasta around our forks at Portofino… I love the fact that the pasta stayed smooth and constant and unclumpy throughout the entire course of our dinner. I can only aspire to do that in my own homemade renditions of pasta!

And much as I want to continue this post, I suspect that if I do go on, it won’t just be my eyes which are closing… so… good night!

PS. Oooh… and before I forget, I’ve been having the best things to take for lunch this week: celery sticks with Istanbul dip from a stall at La Cigale and… Kath’s rice salad! I’ll see if she will let me post her recipe for it here. :-)

World.

Oh world, what is going on with you?

That to save our fish, waters and ourselves, there are plans for fishermen to not just be catchers of fish, but of trash too; and while no one really minds what you eat for breakfast at home, surely it is kind of sad that TV One should have featured a bun-less burger scoffing on Breakfast?

In brighter news, World Fair Trade Day is tomorrow… and Tadesse Meskela from “Black Gold” is gracing Auckland and Wellington with his presence soon. Support! :-)

Lantern Festival

The words of truth are always paradoxical.
~ Lao Tzu

Chinese New Year came and went like a quiet tiptoe for me this year; no ceremony, no celebrations. No extended family with me, I suppose, and I was caught up with the elements of change as well. My parents seemed to forgo all traditions entirely too, which was a little strange, but I did not protest. I feel like with each passing year, tradition slips away from me anyway and I learn to really celebrate life often for its simple things – good food, spectacular sunsets, lessons learned, bad things overcome and all; and less in calendar occasions or obligatory events.

It was quite nice to go to the Lantern Festival stalls at Albert Park tonight though with Mandy, Paul, Ben, Sam, and immerse myself in things I haven’t seen/heard for a while – dragon dances, crazy Chinese opera and all of that. Wow, is all I can say! It was strange, and fun, and lovely, and funny. An odd description, I know, but this is really how it was.

I guess I am what you could call a third culture kid… and each time I go to something like this, I feel at once a warm sense of affirmation and a huge sense of displacement.

I feel like I’m at a place I once knew a long time ago, a place I was familiar with and still dearly love – but a place I can no longer occupy/own and never will again. It’s like each time I come to this place now, it has changed and I have changed, and we remain on cordial but distant terms.

I’m a visitor at most places really, seldom fully at home. I don’t know what it’s like to want to hang my pictures up on the walls, leave my dirty socks on the floor and grow my own vegetables – what I do know is how to travel light, learn fast, speak with gestures if I need to and have fun on my own. Paradoxically, because I have no ‘main’ home – I have the capacity to make a place my ‘home’ for however long I am there. I learn the unspoken rules of the place, the language of its skies and people; I come to walk at the pace of everyone else, know the streets, recognise its landmarks, and add it to my internal map of my ‘homes’…

Each time I am at something like the Lantern Festival stalls, it’s like a part of me is awakened and attaches itself seamlessly to everyone and everything around me, while another part of me feels like running away to a distant island, because I feel different, or like an impostor.

Yes, it’s a little crazy.

Anyway! We navigated through mad crowds tonight, wandered beneath the faint beams of Chinese lanterns and ate Taiwanese sausages, satay, buns and other things like that. It was festive and relaxed, a great way to conclude the weekend!

And – oh yes, before I forget – tea eggs! Tea eggs, or cha ye dan as I call them [pictured above] – are eggs cooked in tea leaves, herbs and spices. Heady, spiced and flavourful – one of my favourite flavours in the world. Tea eggs always remind me of one of the most influential teachers in my life, a sweet lady named Mrs Lee from Taiwan. She had long curly hair, bright eyes and skirts which billowed around her ankles as she strode along the corridors… if anything, she was one of the first humans to inspire a love for language in me, to trust me with responsibility, to encourage me in all the things I enjoyed, amongst many other things… and, each year she made tea eggs for my class.

Tea eggs are a rare treat for me now; I cannot remember the last time I ate one. Each time I eat a tea egg now though, I think of Mrs Lee and I think about my childhood and primary school friends, and it’s funny (and totally cheesy), but I feel inspired and happy and a shadow of sunlight seems to dart quickly beneath my feet.

I had one tonight. All these good memories spun merrily between my toes as I bit into it…

It’s pasta weather

Life is a combination of magic and pasta.
~ Fellini


Image from here

I didn’t plan for this, but I am having a Week of Pasta. Lots and lots of pasta. Yes, even for breakfast. Penne, fusilli, spaghetti… don’t you love the fact that pasta comes in all shapes and sizes? I sure do. This is also one reason I sometimes think pasta is more fun than rice.

The other night, 8 us partook of pizza, wine and pasta at Cosa Nostra. Some of us were meeting for the first time (brought together by G coming to visit and hosting this dinner) – but we duly introduced ourselves and had a jolly time. It was too good to sprinkle dainty shreds of parmesan on my plate, twirl spaghetti alla puttanesca around my fork, taste the salty anchovies and olives in a sweet tomato base… it was a huge plate of spaghetti and I was regretfully unable to finish it.

Since then, though, I haven’t wanted to stop cooking pasta. Pasta has been present on my stove, in my bowl; clinging loosely to my fork, beckoning always from the cupboard. It’s odd and great at once. I’ve been dressing my pasta with a variety of concoctions involving garlic (of course), lanky asparagus, roughly chopped vine-ripened tomatoes, bright shiny capsicum, neutral zucchini, sweet baby peas, mellow red wine, parmesan flakes and basil.

I make no fancy restaurant pasta, but I enjoy it. I walk in to the kitchen, pour the pasta into a saucepan of salted boiling water, chop the vegetables and make some form of pasta dressing in the time the pasta takes to cook – et voilà, 12 minutes later, the dish is done. And it is wonderful.

Food is powerful, I think, in evoking moods and memories; in touching the layers of one’s soul. Sometimes, while chopping up tomatoes, I think about the way my Granddad taught me to eat fresh tomato wedges with sugar on top. When I add sweet basil on my finished pasta, I think about my failed attempts at growing fresh herbs (sigh!). As I twirl my spaghetti, I can’t help but feel a sense of joy because while I can only make vague attempts at cooking real Italian food, the essence of Italian food itself speaks to me of family, of tradition, of seasons, of a feeling of wealth, of laughter, of living. I enjoy it when I am happiest, and it is like a friend to me when I am not as happy.

Oh, the multi-layered, complex language of Food that transcends anything I could hope to describe in one blog post!

I hope you are having a beautiful weekend, wherever you are.

Spontaneous thoughts from reading Issue #31 of Dish Magazine

If we are prepared to kill an animal for the purposes of eating it, then we have an obligation to eat the whole thing – not just the tenderloin piece that doesn’t look much like part of an animal…

As much as I love meat, I need to know that the animals I have played a part in killing have had a nice life…

I will not cook animals that have had their diet manipulated so they taste different, or so that certain internal organs will swell to exploding…

I want the food I cook to taste of its place, I want it to taste of the land it roamed. I want terrior in my meat, not terror.”

~ Chef Jonny Schwass, Terrior, not terror, Dish Magazine Issue #31

Post-article-reading-(see above)-thoughts as follows:

I still remember that trip to a wet market in Hong Kong when I was around 7. The chicken stall was packed – with squawking chickens and squawking customers. It was a flurry of activity; colourful and pungent. We picked a chicken and the man chopped its head off… before it promptly leaped off, it seemed, and ran; headless, frantic, colliding with things and people in its blind confusion. I was shocked into silence; I don’t think I ate dinner that night.

As a child, though, I was used to seeing the whole bodies of animals we ate. None of it was hidden. We picked fish and carried it home while it jumped around in the plastic bag before being turned into lunch. I have eaten pigs’ blood, ducks’ tongues, frogs’ legs, fish cheeks, chicken wings, beef tripe, fish roe, kidneys and intestines. It sounds stark and cruel now, even to my own ears, to recite this list.

Yet, perhaps the way I eat meat now disturbs me more on some level than how I used to eat meat. In recent months, I’ve had moments where I’ve stood staring quizzically at the neat packages of chicken fillets and beef mince in supermarkets. Unable to identify what it was that glued my eyes to them, what it was that inspired a little discomfort in my mind.

Let me just say here that this is not a post about me turning vegetarian – oh, no! Oh, the sensation of eating a plump juicy roast chicken! – but I think the issue of meat needs some working through for me personally.

Lately, I’ve been thinking sporadic thoughts about meat – scrambled, jumbled, disconnected thoughts. That sometimes, meat seems to taste like “less than what it should be.” That I feel uncomfortable when I see people eat meat like they eat chips; thoughtlessly, excessively, without respect. That I detest mince – the smell, look, taste. There was an evening recently where I wondered if all the guilt of eating animals had finally penetrated my cold heart, if I had been committing a lifetime of sin eating meat.

Well, I’ve deduced tonight that it’s not the eating of meat that bugs me.

Perhaps it is our attitude to meat (no respect?), our disconnection from what it is (when’s the last time you saw the head of the fish you ate?), our wastage of food (just the tenderloins please, throw out the rest!) and the scary way we buy into marketing more than we realise (oh beautiful boxes, how I love you processed foods). Also, meat is just one example of a whole lot of other things we may not be realising…

It’s time to think: What are we eating? What are we buying (and thus perpetuating)? What are we dis-engaging ourselves from? How are we affecting our world with our choices? What is our attitude to life? What are we nourishing (or ruining) our bodies with? Who profits from our choices, and should they be the ones profiting? I remember one of the first few times I started thinking more about such things was upon reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan last year (good book).

Still alot to think about, perhaps at another time (not 1.13am as it is now).