Tag Archives: travelling

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

A Vietnamese dinner, and associated memories

Men and women who know themselves are no longer fools; they stand on the threshold of the door of wisdom.
~ Havelock Ellis

I’ve met people from many different countries, and it still surprises me every time I encounter an avid traveller who has been to everywhere BUT the places closest to where they are from. Kiwis who have been to the UK and back several times, but never visited Australia (or Invercargill, while I’m at it). Germans who have backpacked everywhere and never set foot in Berlin. French people who haven’t explored Spain or London (since, they declare, France already has the best of everything…).

I could go on… if not for the stark realisation that I too am quite unfamiliar with Southeast (and the rest of) Asia. I’d rather attempt to make linzertorte than shock anyone with my (“what is that?”) stir fry or noodle soup. Every time I go back to Singapore for a visit now, at least one person will ask me if I am a tourist (apparently I also have a “foreign face”, whatever that means, and a warped accent). If I try to speak Cantonese in Hong Kong, I already know that whoever I am speaking to will quickly reply “where are you from?” before quoting me tourist prices.

That said, I wouldn’t trade my heritage and upbringing for anything. Southeast Asia is pretty special.

A few years ago, my parents took me to Hanoi, Vietnam – a generous graduation gift. I still remember feeling more culture shock there than I have in places further afield from home.

For one, I experienced, for the first time in years, a strong desire to clutch my mother’s hand as we crossed the roads. Road-crossing there is for the sure-footed, bold people who better believe in life after death. You have to step out and keep walking, eyes shut or otherwise, while all the cars toot helpfully as they circle around you. You can’t stop, and you can’t run – you have to walk at a measured pace so the cars and motorbikes can work to it. I can’t even remember if there were working traffic lights there – it seemed that everything was communicated via tooting and body language and some other language of organised chaos I had not yet learned.

Hanoi was gorgeous, though. It’s one of the few places that, if you look carefully, will clearly show you how little you need in terms of material goods to be happy. Sure, money helps a lot – and I am not glossing over the fact that I did walk past overcrowded houses where my heart ached for the people who had to live in them. I did have moments where I hated poverty, hated the fact that even as I gave one child some money and a smile – that even if I spent a year doing that to every child I saw, there’d still be many others who were hungry and had to live in overcrowded houses.

But. I remember seeing a grandma, a kid and a dad perched on a motorbike, laughing into the wind. I remember a lady who served me a steaming bowl of pho grinning like it had been her lifelong dream to serve noodles. I remember how fantastically wealthy I felt as my eyes took in the untouched beauty of Ha Long Bay. I remember that earthy Vietnamese coffee, mellow and gently sweetened with condensed milk. I remember the creative talent that flowed in so many nooks and crannies everywhere we went – silk, shoes, tapestry. I remember tasting amazing fruit and having to lick my sticky juice-splashed fingers. I remember a lot of smiling faces. I remember wondering if I’d be smiling if I lived in some of those houses that we saw.

It was great to remember all of that as Tracey, J and I dined at Vietnam Gourmet Restaurant last night. The interior is simple rather than lavish, and most people appeared to be having steamboat (looked good). There were families and groups of friends… and when our food arrived, I understood why there were so many people there. Portions were so generous, and the food was fresh and beautifully prepared. The staff were friendly. I loved the Vietnamese mint and elements in my dish, and thought about all the things I love about good Vietnamese food as I ate: uncomplicated, fresh, lightly sweet and sour, and real.

Tracey and J also loved their food, and had enough leftovers to take home for lunch today too. We paid less than $60 altogether for: lemongrass chicken and rice; spring rolls; fried noodles with combination meat; a jackfruit shake (I was pretty excited to see this on the menu – I have not seen jackfruit in NZ and love it); a glass of coffee; and my chef’s vermicelli (which, as you can see in the picture below, packs a punch). Money gladly spent.

Pictures in this post (with the exception of the Chef’s Vermicelli above) are pictures I took on my trip to Hanoi a few years ago.

Vietnam Gourmet Restaurant – 38 East Tamaki Road, Papatoetoe, Auckland – Phone: 09 278 7286

Bom dia!

This post comes to you from Lisboa (Lisbon) in Portugal. With limited internet access and no chance to upload photos, I have now written so many blog posts in my head and don’t know where to begin! Also, I’m typing on the blasted itouch thing again (free wi-fi today). I’m such a fan of real computers.

Anyway! Since my last post, I’ve also visited Casablanca and Tanger in Morocco and Sevilla (Seville) in Spain. Casablanca and Tanger left much to be desired… it was a real relief to arrive back on Spanish soil and tuck into some tender venison stew and artichoke with jamon for lunch… Sevilla also wrapped its sweet orangey arms around my heart and continues to sing to me from afar.

But more about all of that later. I am in Portugal. Lisboa is beautiful. I am in love with the graffiti art, romantic monuments, swirly pavements, dreamy skies. Fantastic. We also had some very tasty seafood for dinner last night… crabs, prawns, clams, fish galore! It amused me greatly that we were offered beer at the door before we could even sit down too. Everyone was also watching soccer on the gigantic screen while peeling prawns and licking crab juices off their fingers.

Of course we ate more seafood today. Grilled fish, sardines, octopus rice, squid. Ohhh so good. It’s so fresh and they are cooked and dressed well and simply so the flavours just burst through like rays of sunshine topped with tiny sprays of ocean saltiness. And the cheese here is something different too. It looks like a pudding and goes so nicely on top of toasted bread with a quick shake of salt and pepper.

There is simply too much to write about in one go. I’m also looking forward to sharing some pictures soon…

Meanwhile, the tour is coming to an end and sad as it is I shall be celebrating one important thing: NO MORE mass emptying of bladders with everyone from our tour group. It’s torturous dehydrating oneself to avoid using the tour bus loo and running out with everyone to pee every time the tour guide lets us out of the bus. I’m pretty sure that is very unhealthy.

Marrakech is bathed in terracotta magic

Quick note from Marrakech. It is hard to describe what it felt like entering this city – it is definitely VERY touristy, no doubt about that – but it retains an elegant charm of its own that seeps through the land the way honey spreads through good crumpets. Palm trees, brick red buildings – all smiling and welcoming – I do not think anyone can pass through here and be unhappy or worried. It is simply not possible.

Yes, hygiene is a concern and I am staying away from tap water and salads – but beyond that… I cannot begin to describe how something from this region of the world is penetrating my soul.

As we wandered through the Medina in Fes the other day dodging donkeys, donkey poo and flies, I was absolutely enraptured. Yes, lots of chaos and curious smells, but combined with the busy tannery, intricate mosaic walls, women’s gentle faces and narrow streets with little doors… it was magic. And yes, the people were very good looking and when a man asked first if I wanted a leather jacket then if I wanted a Moroccan husband it took me a while to collect myself and answer appropriately ;-)

I am dying to write more but I really have to explore this city more so… bye! Bonne journee :-)

PS. Food at present: loving the perfect pastries, fluffy cous cous, eggplants, sweet lamb tagine, menthe sans sucre, light crusted pizza. And of course… sweet green wedges of melon continue to stay close to my lips!

Charmed my socks off again

Sometimes it does us a power of good to remind ourselves that we live on two volcanic rocks where two tectonic plates meet, in a somewhat lonely stretch of windswept ocean just above the Roaring Forties. If you want drama – you’ve come to the right place.
~ Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Oh Napier, you charming, strong place.

This is a city rebuilt (you can read about the 1931 earthquake here) – when I eventually read about the quake on my second short trip there last year, I began to understand what I loved so much about this city when I first met it, even without knowing its people, streets or history.

After I read the story, walked more around the city and gazed at its buildings – it all made sense and the beauty of the place became more pronounced. I am attracted to things/stories, I find, of redemption and ‘building back better’ (like I am often attracted to people with a rough background and have made a decision to conquer it). There’s something inspiring about this, something beautiful about scars, determination and courage. Napier oozed strength and community in a way I had sensed even before knowing its history…

I have lovely memories of Art Deco Festival last year too, where we ate Rush Munro’s ice cream, danced barefoot to live jazz, marvelled at everyone’s costumes, took in the sight of the majestic art deco buildings and cars…

I flew there again yesterday morning – by myself this time, for the weekend. This time, there were no crowds, no car parade, no live jazz – of course, Art Deco doesn’t take place year round.

This time, I listened to the waves at Marine Parade, gazed at fantails, checked out the museum, and walked around without a map (I did meet up today with a super couple I met last year, aunt and uncle to my friend Jono, and we went on nature walks). I also bought a bottle of Hawke’s Bay syrah which shall make an appearance at an appropriate event sometime…

I ate pears and the best yoghurt I’ve ever eaten in my life to date for dinner last night, and went to bed at 6pm.

First day at my new job tomorrow… wish me luck!

And to you, have a wonderful Monday.

PS. I don’t want to put other cities down, but Wellington really has the best cafes in New Zealand. For the coffee alone, I am SO delighted to be back!