Tag Archives: travel

Back to the sunny island

One must maintain a little bittle of summer, even in the middle of winter.
~ Henry David Thoreau

Life has been pretty busy lately and I’ve scarcely been in the kitchen. Whenever I have, I have either been relying heavily on the oven (looks a sight, but this roast beef was quite delicious, if I do say so myself)…

… or whipping up quick things like this poached salmon omelette and these mushrooms with cream and truffle oil (it took less than half an hour in all to prep and cook for us three). Mopped up the mushroom juices with crusty sourdough… mmm.

And now it is nearly 1.00am and I am in a singlet and shorts, relishing summer and marvelling at the way a plane ride transports you across time and distance to a totally different world in mere hours. How good pilots and planes are! Yes, here I am in Singapore again, low on sleep but not too low mood-wise. For dinner tonight I met Brandon, friend-of-a-friend passing through Singapore, and we feasted on thosai, prata, chicken biryani, peppered chicken (all for SGD$12.50) and ice-cold beer somewhere in Little India, Singapore. We walked down several alleys and streets before we settled on an eating place, so I am afraid I have no idea where exactly this was.

And this is all I’ll write for now, my laptop is gasping through the last bars of its battery life and I’m too lazy to unearth the plug from the depths of my suitcase. Good night (or morning!)

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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.

What to do in Beijing

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.
~ Bill Bryson

I left Beijing late on Monday night, sad to leave Jane and happy to be heading towards a city with cleaner air. Grateful for the marvellous trip – Beijing is really home to many wonders besides the Great Wall!

There is so much to write about – wandering down curious mazes of narrow streets/hutongs. Bus adventures involving rapid-fire Mandarin and being forced to elbow people to stay alive (the buses there, they do strange things to humans). The spitting (which I now understand, because I was tempted to cough up and dispose of the balls of dust which kept taking up residence in my throat). The beautiful, soft foliage. The ‘exercise machines’ on streets for public use – hilarious, and rather cool! The marvellous mangoes. The way the city looks tranquil and mysterious in the evening. The thoughts I thought in the public toilets, which I shall spare you from. The curious ways of guan xi.

And thoughts on travel! – how wonderful, worthwhile, informative and exhausting it is… and how much it makes me appreciate my life (both the big and little things that make it awesome). How much I love, too, the moments of mini coincidences, kindness from strangers, inspiration and total shock. :-)

My favourite method of getting around Beijing was, without doubt, via tin can car! It’s like a loud mini motorised carriage or a Chinese version of the tuk tuk… way too cute! I wish we could’ve travelled everywhere in them, but for the following reasons: distance (the drivers mostly do short rides), variety and cost, we also travelled via taxi, subway and on foot. If you can cycle, Beijing’s pretty bicycle-friendly too.

We attended a dim sum cooking class at The Hutong Kitchen, at Beixinqiao (map here). With the Little Gold Book, we got a two-for-one deal. :-)

Our instructor showed us how to make nuo mi ji (steamed parcels of chicken/glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves), shao mai and xia jiao (shrimp dumplings) (all pictured below).

It was certainly a class designed for foreigners and dim sum beginners (and the dim sum was not quite identical to what is served in most restaurants), and I doubt I’d reproduce any of these in my own kitchen (too cumbersome!) – but I gleaned valuable cooking tips and enjoyed it very much.

Right after the cooking class, we adjourned to Sanyuanli Market (Shunyuan Jie, opposite Jingkelong Supermarket, west of Sanyuan Dongqiao, Chaoyang District). A long corridor with stalls selling just about everything you need to cook anything at all. I’d say it caters well for both locals and foreigners. Good cuts of meat, wide selection of seafood and fresh herbs/vegetables – and all sorts of dried/packet goods too! All at good prices.

See, we had two excellent meals made from products purchased at Sanyuanli Market (Jane cooked! Yum!) – baked salmon, and lamb and prune tagine.

Jane also took me to Niu Jie (Ox Street), the Muslim quarters in Beijing. I loved this area! And not just because the Niujie Mosque (Niu Jie 88, Beijing, China) so beautifully incorporates both Chinese and Islamic culture and elements…

Niu Jie is also home to an amazing array of food like yang rou chuan’r (lamb kebabs), various types of cakes and nian gao and other snacks… (we bought a few green bean snacks before we lunched at a place with delicious Xinjiang cuisine).

One place I’d definitely visit often if I lived in Beijing is Ri Tan Gong Yuan (Temple of the sun)… so calming!

After a leisurely walk and cup of coffee/tea in Ri Tan Gong Yuan on Sunday afternoon, we were well ready for dinner! We walked for 20 minutes to get to Na Jia Xiao Guan (south of the LG Twin Towers, west of 119 Middle School in Chaoyang District) – a fantastic place both in terms of food and ambience.

We queued for nearly half an hour to get in, and were served red date tea whilst we waited – dinner was totally worth the wait. The place was buzzing with positive energy and happy diners. The menu – featuring mostly Manchu cuisine – was colourful and exciting. And the food, including a plate of most perfect crispy goose, was so delicious!

I ate my first donkey burger on Monday. Surprised by how good it tasted! Tender and flavourful… so good, especially with the addition of chopped chives! It tasted nothing like chicken, for the record… :-)

Also ate my first jian bing on Monday – again, loved it. Imagine a warm, savoury cross between an omelette and crepe with sweet crunchy lettuce in the middle…

Lastly. Jingshan Park – it was so foggy when we visited, but the view from the top was still spectacular… I can just imagine how stunning it’d be on a clear day!

(While it is very unfortunate that Emperor Chongzhen hung himself, I think it even more unfortunate that they chose to bear such text on a sign in the park – right at the top, no less!…)

Thanks Beijing (and Jane!) for having me! (And thanks Jane for taking the better photos that feature in this post).

S.T.A.Y. on a Michelin star

But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine.
~ Thomas Jefferson

Hello from Beijing! I’m here visiting my friend Jane – and we have been functioning on an average of three hours’ sleep a night, but we’re pretty happy.

Initial impressions of this city: DUSTY! BUSY! Dust descends daily on me like an army of microscopic aliens – and people are gruff, cab drivers especially so (though I guess I wouldn’t like to be spending my days driving random people around in Beijing traffic either). Personal space doesn’t appear to exist as a concept here.

Yet, for all its smog and busy-ness, Beijing possesses a tangible charm amid all the chaos – I feel safe on her streets and pleasure fills my pockets as I gaze at street stalls boasting luscious fruit and street food like jian bing; people playing chess under bridges; the beauty of faces on the subway, on bikes, at the market…

It’s been wonderful exploring Beijing via subway, ‘tin can cars’ and taxis with Jane as my personal unpaid tour guide ;-) I’ve loved everything from hearing Mandarin all around me, fumbling with my own questionable command of Mandarin, to meeting the people who make up Jane’s China world…

One highlight was going to S.T.A.Y. last night, a restaurant championed by Michelin-award-winning chef Yannick Alléno.

Does one need a good reason for a special dinner? Yes and no – the simple joy of a great friendship is reason enough for me… but on this occasion we also had Jane’s birthday to celebrate (she terms it as “the 26th anniversary of her expulsion from her mother’s womb”). We spent a few hours on Google trying to decide where to go, and when at last Jane rang them to make a booking our eyes held a matching gleam. :-D

And so it is that we spent an hour travelling via tin can car (see first picture), taxi and subway to get to S.T.A.Y. where we very happily stayed for three hours! We had an outstanding waiter and sommelier who made us feel at once like old friends and like royalty – and who arranged for us to have champagne on the house (for Jane’s birthday)!

We began our evening with a generous selection of amuse-bouches including: cherry-coloured radishes brushed with butter; cubed tomato with parmigiano (these held their shape on the plate but collapsed immediately upon meeting our tongues); fish fingers served with a paprika dip; a bread basket with butter checkered with creamy ham.

We opted for the four-course meal (with two options per course, RMB528 per person).

Course 1: both of us had spanner crab cakes rolled in sesame seeds, served alongside fresh broad beans and greens with a beautiful shallot/ginger/garlic sauce. This was a light course, and I enjoyed the way the individual sweet strands of crab meat mingled with the fragrance of the sesame seeds and the savoury sauce… mmm.

Course 2: Jane had the chicken consommé, a clear, refined soup with mushrooms and carrot – and garnished with toasted crostini spread with foie gras and chicken liver pâte. My cream of cauliflower arrived as a bed of crispy croutons, delicate seaweed strands and cauliflower to which the waiter added a warm, delicious cream…

Hmm… you’ll have to trust me on this, but it really looked much better in real life than it does here:

Course 3: The black pepper Angus beef fillet with cafe de paris and gratin dauphinois floored her… she was speechless for some time and I wondered if her face could split from smiling. When I took a bite of her meal, though, I understood :-) And I was well pleased with my red snapper with clams – the dish was awash with the sweetness of clam juice – and the zucchini, tomato marmalade and basil leaves added texture and flavour that was really complementary to the fish and clams.

Course 4: And finally, dessert – a stroll through Pastry Library wonderland! Here we were treated to a visual feast of treats in glass cabinets and left to select our sweet of choice. Jane opted for a vanilla tart, which arrived at our table topped with gold-dusted caramelised pistachio nuts – and I had a passionfruit cream-filled biscuit cigar reminiscent of a brandy snap, topped with a passionfruit/chocolate mousse and almonds. Of course, we were also given an additional complimentary platter of other sweets (including meringue cigars, mini pistachio balls, etc)… ah lovely staff.

As I ate, I thought “everything stands out but nothing sticks out”… it was a moving portrait of harmonious perfection, flawless yet welcoming. I loved the way food and joy met on every dish and meandered through our bodies and minds as we ate.

Something else I found remarkable – that they served such food and waited on us with such style as if it were everyday fare – as if this was the only way to eat. Special turned Ordinary… amazing :-) 2am now and I want to continue waxing lyrical about S.T.A.Y. but frankly, my mind is turning to custard with lack of sleep so I’m going to sign off for now!

I look forward to many more privileged years of being your friend, Janey! (And thanks for coming up with the somewhat clever title of this blog post).

S.T.A.Y. – 29 Zizhuyuan Road, Beijing, 100089, China – Phone: +86 10 6841 2211

Hot food in hot places

All journeys have secret destinations of which the travel[l]er is unaware.
~ Martin Buber

Sweat in Singapore feels like a second skin, and powerful air conditioners are put to work in most buildings and vehicles to provide welcome relief to drenched humans.

There is something to be said for eating hot food in hot conditions, though – it’s magic. Somehow everything is tastier and more fragrant, and the experience of eating (spicy foods in particular) is heightened as you feel your clothes sticking to your back, sweat hugging your neck and embracing your legs… there’s something true to life about that, you know? It makes me fall in love with the function of eating and with the absolute miracle of being able to taste, smell, hear, touch and see. I enjoy eating ice cream in winter for similar reasons – it makes me feel awake and alive. You may be raising your eyebrows at your screen as you read this, but seriously, try it if you haven’t!

One experience I really love in Singapore is the hawker centre/kopi tiam* (coffee shop – “kopi” meaning coffee and “tiam” meaning shop, in a Chinese dialect) experience. The hawker centre/kopi tiam is no place to wear suits or heels or translucent tops (lest excessive sweat get in the way of keeping yourself modest and your expensive clothes clean) – but it’s a brilliant place to tease your senses and eat delicious food for not very much $$ at all. A meal will likely cost less than SGD$10 in most hawker centres/kopi tiams.

Here is a breakfast tradition that’s been revived in recent years – kaya toast and a cup of hot kopi. Kaya is the jam of my childhood – a sweet concoction infused with the wonderful flavours of pandan and coconut… and I could do a whole post about various ways of having your kopi – the unwritten kopi tiam coffee menu is way more extensive than Starbucks’s! My aunt and I enjoyed this breakfast the other day at a kopi tiam in East Coast:

Though Singapore be a tiny place, there remain many areas which I have never explored – Geylang being one of them! So Paul took me for a lovely bak kut teh lunch at Leong Kee (Klang) Bak Kut Teh near Lorong 11 in Geylang. Bak kut teh is this heady, aromatic soup infused with the flavours of pork, garlic and peppercorn… for me, it spells warmth and comfort. Peppery soup, pork with dark soya sauce, rice… mmmm! This version came with sheets of dried beancurd skin.

This mee rebus and char siew hor fun came from a hawker centre in Yew Tee – much as I detest food in plastic packaging for environmental and health reasons, seeing that familiar plastic-encased food bundle still causes a sense of nostalgia to ripple through me…

Tau sar pau (red bean paste buns) – still something lovely about biting into warm and fluffy pau dough and finding sweet red bean paste in the middle! It’s a sort of delicate, understated sweetness I miss when in New Zealand (where sweetness derived from the likes of fruit, cake and chocolate is more common).

Here (Rochor Original Beancurd – 2 Short Street, Singapore), Paul, Mich and I had bowls of impossibly silky and refreshing tau huay (otherwise known as dou hua, tau fu fa or tofu pudding – silky tofu served with a clear sweet syrup, though there are other variations available). A perfect light finish, especially after a rather heavy dinner! I really wouldn’t recommend the soy milk here, though…

And finally – this is a place with glorious mee pokJalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok (The Art of Mee Pok Pte Ltd) (308 Bedok Road, Bedok Shopping Centre). Mee pok is a tasty Singaporean staple composed of springy noodles, toppings like fish balls or minced pork and a flavoursome sauce with elements like chilli and vinegar. Not a dish you’d pick for high nutritional value, but one I always have at least once whenever I visit this part of the world!

Delicious Hakka yong tau foo (a medley of tofu, vegetables, etc) and greens with fried shallots from an adjacent stall were wonderful side dishes we enjoyed with the excellent mee pok :-)

The question I’ve most frequently had to answer on this trip is “what do you want to eat?” (yeah, such a hard life, huh?)… the question which has then prompted conversations and visits to places all around Singapore in search of the perfect [insert dish name here]. Ahh… I could get used to this holiday ;-)

And on that note, it amuses me that though many hawker centres and kopi tiams may sell similar fare, I have rarely encountered a Singaporean who does not hold strong opinions about which one sells the BEST [insert local dish here], or a Singaporean who will not endure torturous traffic jams/public transport at peak hours just to get to their favourite food places…

Such a culture of food worship!

Warming up

The great city is that which has the greatest man or woman: if it be a few ragged huts, it is still the greatest city in the whole world.
~ Walt Whitman

Have you ever had a travelling friend tell you about their trip and say “everything was so foreign”? I know I’ve said that about holidays I’ve gone on. Recently though, my friend S pointed out that really – it is the traveller who is the foreigner in a land of everything local. A good change of perspective for me!

Right now, I’m in bustling Asia. Singapore – sunny island of sparkling cars, fashionable folk, instant-everything and a unique old-style charm (though I feel this charm is gradually being eradicated now, with the fast pace at which this country is developing).

Even though I know that Singapore is one of the most rapidly-developing places in the world, I was still surprised to see the huge changes which have taken place since my last visit, e.g. Marina Bay Sands – shiny and sleek and big. Luxurious and top-end and arty.

So I know it may seem strange to say this. But even as I took in the awesome sight of these climbing buildings, polished floors, sparkling chandeliers and expensive shops, even as I fell in love with the world in all its building and creating glory – I had a sudden longing for wide open spaces and simplicity as I stood here, rolling my coins down this inverted dome (picture below). Know what I mean? Some people are true Big City Folk. I am not one of them. I love visiting big cities more than I love living in them.

And of course, one simply can’t talk about Singapore without simultaneously mentioning food. Food is Singapore’s heartbeat; beating hard and fuelling her people all night, all day. And though I rather detest this turn of phrase, the best way to describe what I see is: massive displays of food porn. Food here is bold, rampant and laid bare, designed to seduce and allure… I’m giving my eyes and stomach a much-needed rest today, following a few days of eating up (more posts to follow on those)!


Photo above © my friend John

But I will tell you a little about my first post-plane meal! Right after I arrived in Singapore on Saturday night, my beautiful friends drove us to Long Beach Seafood Restaurant where five of us devoured the following:

  • a 1.8kg chilli crab with man tou (golden, lightly-sweet buns) to mop up the flood of sauce (see above)- only one way to successfully eat crab: messily! With fingers!
  • tender chicken encased in a crisp shell and just enough lovely sweet and sour sauce, with a shower of quail eggs scattered on the side
  • sambal kang kong – one of my favourite ways to eat vegetables in Singapore. I’ve alarmed a Kiwi friend or two with the aroma of sambal/dried shrimps… but since these spices and smells were present in my childhood I like the pungent, fishy, spicy medley – unfortunately my words here don’t do the flavour justice
  • a claypot stew with tofu, fish, mushrooms and snow peas. Was nice to see more than one mushroom species used in this dish, and
  • post-dinner, we celebrated R’s birthday with an Awfully Chocolate cake (the name is as it was) after dinner, and I had some trouble wrenching my bottom from the chair afterwards… :-)

I suppose now would be a good time to say HELLO again, is anyone still here? When I wrote my last post, I was ready to close the door on a few things in my life – and as I write this post now I am aware that I am not continuing this blog as it was. There will be changes – though I will leave you to interpret those :-) I have closed a few big doors and seen other doors open for me, I am thrilled to pick up my pen again and would love to have you journey on with me!

Touristy thoughts on Ponsonby Road

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
~ Marcus Aurelius

Do you like being on stage? I used to love the stage. Not for public speaking, mind you, but I can still remember how my heart leaped with fearful exhilaration whenever I got to go on stage at school. I FEARED it and I LOVED it. You could be just you on stage, or you could throw on a cloak, pointe shoes, a paper crown and be someone else – and if everyone joined in the fun, you could all go on marvellous adventures together without leaving the room. I can’t even remember what the physical stage looked like now, but I well remember the experience of being on it… pretty crazy how transforming a stage is, considering that physically it is just a simple elevated platform with curtains, lights and stuff like that.

Relating this to travel – jumping on a plane is kind of like jumping on a stage, isn’t it? You’re still you, and you’re still on planet earth – but at the same time, you’re… not you. And earth looks different.

So this evening I thought about travelling and all the things I love about it. The way I feel when I’m travelling. Experiencing different people, a different way of life, different everything. The way priorities seem to straighten themselves out. The way I expect surprises, and get plenty of surprises (some better than others, admittedly). The way you go so far to peer into a face completely different from yours and find, to your surprise, that they smile and cry just like you do; that deep inside humanity is common to everyone. Travelling is AMAZING.

However! While it is certainly fun to tour foreign countries, and I still mean to visit more places in my lifetime – I realise that it can be just as fun to “tour” your own resident city. ‘Cos let’s face it, money doesn’t grow on trees, NZ is pretty gorgeous and NZ is also pretty far away from everywhere else. Also, what’s the point of living in one place, pining for another and missing life altogether in the process?

So today, arriving 30 minutes early for dinner, I wandered down Ponsonby Road like a tourist. I took pictures. I smiled at strangers. I peeked into shop windows. I noticed different things. I asked questions when they popped into my head.

I relished the fact that I’m not ACTUALLY a real tourist, so when I chanced upon 129 Ponsonby Road, I popped in and bought a bag of spinach and ginger zest muesli (some things don’t change :-))

I walked past some pretty cool spots – Auckland is a big tank of mud with gold nuggets hidden inside. You have to trawl through hideous traffic and buildings but then every time you find a place like Milly’s, for instance, you strike gold.

Ponsonby Road has a few gold nuggets.

So, Auckland: I’ve given up trying to stop myself from thinking this is an ugly city. It is what it is. Ugly. But above that, it’s got spunk. It’ll rise to whatever challenge you care to offer it. Over the last 11 months, it’s wrestled bravely with my will to like it. It’s been a big ugly frog, daring me to kiss it so it can show me the prince he really is. It’s charmed me with the likes of stunning weather and occasional great coffee and pretty surrounding beaches and blooming roses and all the rest of it.

Aside from the wonderful people I’ve met here, I’m still not sure that I’ll be sad to leave (if and when that day should come), but until then… I’ll agree to give you a chance, Auckland.

P.S. On dinner: we went out to celebrate my parents’ recent wedding anniversary (what a reason to celebrate!). We all enjoyed our delicious meals and the kind waiters (grazie mille, Gusto Italiano!). The last picture above is a picture of my dinner tonight: oven roasted duck marinaded with herbs, served with red cabbage cooked with orange and sultana, chestnut and potato mash, and a drizzle of balsamic. And yes, it was as good as it sounds… though I can probably attribute it at least in part to the fact that I had to wait a while for my family to arrive (that’s lovely Auckland traffic for you) ;-)

Gusto Italiano – 263 Ponsonby Road, Auckland – Phone: 09 361 1556