Friday, 9 February 2018

Australia - Winter 2017

Smashed Avos and Beetroot
Friday, 22nd December

Having been here for little under a week I have already come to the realisation that anything can be made Australian by adding a couple of slices of betroot and slapping on some smashed avocado.  Sorry, not avocado... it's "avo"!  Which must not be confused with "arvo" which means afternoon... I've eaten more avocado in the last 5 days than I have my entire life!

A Christmas down under was only made possible by brilliant friends with brilliant families that invited us over to their home towns for 3 weeks of glorious sunshine, spectacular coffee and great food.  We touched down in Perth on Sunday and was welcomed by the wettest, coldest summer day Perth has witnessed for a long time.  Great...  After a quick freshen up and chin wag with our awesome new family for Christmas we all went out for brunch at a busy North Beach Deli.  Australia may not have delivered on the glorious sunshine but the coffee and food were certainly on point! Obviously my first meal in Oz had to be smashed avo - a beautifully fresh plate of warm rustic toast, chunky smushed avocado, spinach, feta and topped with an oozing poached egg... and a side order of bacon.  Look how beautiful it is - this needs to be the National Dish!!  This was my thought until we were taken to Little Creatures Brewery in the evening for some more Australian affair where we consumed numerous beers and enjoyed dishes like roast lamb pizza and Kangaroo skewers.  Kangaroo! Now that should be National Dish! Kangaroo meat is very inoffensive tasting; lean and a little gamy it is like a healthy beef steak.

Hilary's Boat Harbour - Weather is improving...
Over the next few days we pretty much saw out the storm.  It was actually quite nice as it forced us to properly sit down and relax after a long term. We got to wake up late, watch a few movies and generally feel Christmassy without the guilt of having to make the most of our time here.  Did a bit of Christmas shopping; ate smashed avo about 9 more times; visited a few local sites and attempted to swim at City Beach but got a little punched in the face by waves.  I did get to eat a delicious Australian burger at Grill'd though.  It's like a regular burger but with... can you guess?!  Yes  a slather of smashed avo and a fat slice of beetroot! Our Christmas family invited us for a classic Aussie Webber BBQ and we all just had a nice chilled few days.

Over the space of 3 days in Perth, like true Brits, we went from being miserable in the cold to complaining about being to hot.  We hired a car and drove 3 hours south to Dunsborough where we had a few nights in an AirBnB in Cape Villas booked in.  It was this road trip where I got to eat the first of Australias National Dishes - the mighty Meat Pie!  Since then I have had 5 pies... Most places sell lots of different types but seriously go for the bog standard cheapest one - the one simply called "Meat Pie".  If Thai Green curry went well in a pie then Thailand would have put it in a pie! I tried some of the others and they are tasty but nothing beat the simplicity of perfectly cooked beef and gravy.  A filling with the right amount of ooze for a hand held pie!  Successfully squirt some ketchup on top (Ketchup sachets here are dangerous...) and you have a snack that beats any sandwich.  This is why I have eaten 5 and will be sure to eat 5 more by the end of this trip.  A grab and go National Dish!

Dunsborough really is a perfect location to stay.  It is home to the most beautiful beach I think I have ever been to.  I have seen a lot of beaches and this is currently, without a doubt, my favourite.  Meelup Beach has the clearest, most aqua blue water ever!  We all took a deep breath on first glance of the beach front as we entered the car park and couldn't wait to jump out of the car and into the cool, crystal clear water.  From Meelup Beach we drove to a nearby winery called Wise for a small drink followed by another drink at Eagle Bay Brewing Co just across the road.  Both had incredible views and we saw our first kangaroo (that wasn't on a skewer... or lying on the side of the road) whilst sipping on delicious crisp cold beers.  Can a day really be this perfect!? Sods law says no and something has to balance it out.  First failure of the evening was buying a load of juicy steaks, fresh fish and butcher sausages for an amazing Webber BBQ back at the AirBnB without checking the gas tank... Second failure was driving to watch the sunset on a beach where the sun doesn't set... but we did see dolphins so not a total fail!  And who cares, fried steak still tastes good and the next day had a full day winery tour booked in!

I don't really remember much of the following day.  I counted past 30 different wines before I lost count but recall favourites being Credaro Family Wines and Cape Naturalist Vineyard.  A full day of truly stunning vineyard views, pretending to know more about wine than I actually do and agreeing to tasting flavours that I can't actually taste.  Has anyone actually ever eaten pencil shavings?! The first question I was asked was "Do you prefer a round wine or a crisp wine?" and it didn't feel like "both" would have been an acceptable answer.  I said round knowing absolutely nothing to what that meant.  I did; however, taste a lot of wines that I really liked and some that I didn't like as much.  That is about as far as my ability to distinguish between wines go.  As my favourite lady in Cape Naturaliste said, "The best wine in the world is the one that you like to drink".  I couldn't agree more.  I like the red one. 

It felt sad to leave Dunsborough, it was like a holiday within a holiday and it was all over so quickly! We did a lot in the few days and we spent our last day visiting Sugar Loaf Rock and Bunker Bay.  Any beach, for the rest of my life, is probably going to get the response "...well it's no Meelup..." and I am just going to have to live with that.  We had two very important last stops before heading back to Perth - a couple of hours paddling at Meelup beach followed by a couple of ketchup topped meat pies from Dunsbourough bakery.  After 3 hours on the road we arrived at City Beach in Perth, the same beach where I got beaten up by the sea just 4 days ago, to eat fish and chips whilst watching the sunset.  Lets never leave Australia.

Chrissy in Straya
Tuesday, 26th December

What kind of sadistic place offers you the most amazing beach and then puts ferocious sharks in the water and venomous snakes on the sand!?One thing Australia is certainly well known for is its wildlife... wildlife that can kill you.  Whether it is a poisonous Red b
Back Spider that gets tangled in your hair whilst you sleep; a croc that grabs you whilst you play golf; a shark that mistakes your surfboard for a seal; or a cuddly koala that gives you chlamydia, you really do have to watch yourself!  My spider photos were just taken in our friends garden!  Scary animals aside we did; however, thoroughly enjoy our morning at Caversham Wildlife Park and getting up close and personal with all sorts of Australian fauna.  You get to actually play with kangaroos and stroke a koala.  You read a lot about these kinds of places where they drug the animals so tourists can stroke them but this is not that kind of place - that's just how koalas look!  If you were only awake for two hours a day you would look like that too.  Definitely a to do if you find yourself in Perth.

We conducted our own mini walking tour of perth town centre starting with lunch on the Elisabeth Quays.  Feeling like needing a little break from avocado I ordered the most incredible crab linguine dish that can only ever be made in a place where crabs are fresh out of the water.  It was truly divine! Seriously sweet crab meat in a zingy, light fennel and tomato sauce.  Certainly in the running for dish of the trip.  After a bit of shopping we had a lovely stroll through King's Park before getting back to our AirBnB.  Our AirBnB is situated right next to the park and so in the evening I decided to walk back and experience their open air cinema.  I've never been to an outdoor cinema! On a warm night under the stars I watched "The man who invented Christmas" whilst sat on my Tesalate beach towel (- LOVE it!).  With popcorn and beer in hand it was here where I first started to feel a little bit Christmassy.  Santa in red board shorts and holding a surf board kind of Christmassy but Christmassy none the less!

95% of Christmas is food and family.  The family team work in preparing Christmas dinner; the family decorated Christmas tree; the family banter around the Christmas dinner table - all of these things are essential for a brilliant Christmas.  What I have learnt this Christmas is... it doesn't have to be my family!!  Any family as awesome as mine will do!  The remaining 5% is a log fire and snow which we will just have to do without this year.  We made our own Christmas breakfast of avo, salmon and eggs washed down with Mimosas before heading over to our Christmas family's house. We were so very lucky to get to spend Christmas day with the Lees family and even more lucky that it was a family that share a similar outlook on the importance of a well prepared Christmas dinner.  Potatoes roasted on the BBQ was novel and the turkey was succulent.  A beautifully glazed Christmas ham was a brilliant addition that sadly never makes it on to the D'Souza family Christmas dinner table.  A post turkey "try not to sink to the bottom of the family pool challenge" was also novel.  The "try not to throw up in the pool challenge" less so.  Thank you to the Lees family!  Time to fly to Sydney.

Long Macchiato topped up
Saturday, 6 January

To say that Australians are big on their coffee would be a massive understatement.  You will struggle to find a Starbucks or similar big chain coffee company as the quality preferred here is too difficult to mass produce.  Instead you will find beautiful independent coffee shops with endearing super coffee nerds behind the counter taking their sweet time over each and every cup.  I have found my perfect coffee here in a Long Macchiato topped up with milk.  It's the perfect strength and always perfectly made.

We were lucky enough to stay with friends in Sydney and have a touch of local knowledge.  Having bought an Opal card to get around we took a ferry over to Manly where the journey was more important than the destination.  From the ferry you can get your classic shot of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.  We decided not to swim at Manly with a "Shark sited today enter at your own risk" sign put us off somewhat.  Though it didn't deter the many Manly surfers already out there.  Part of me wondered whether they were swimming whilst the sign was put up and so had no idea!

After Perth, Sydney has a much more "lived in" rustic feel to it.  You will meet a few more homeless people or the odd day time drinker arguing with their hand.  We did the Coogee to Bondi coastal walk which was stunning and definitely worth doing.  It took close to 3 hours but that included lots of photo stops and just standing taking in the views.  Bondi beach was busy and well... it was no Meelup! What Bondi does have though is an awesome saltwater swimming pool known as the Bondi Icebergs which we spent 7 dollars to swim a few lengths in the chilly Olympic sized pool.  This place is famous for its winter swim team and in the height of summer it was already pretty damn cold.  After a long, hot coastal walk it was absolutely lush to jump in.  A climb up the Sydney Harbor Bridge tower was 180 dollars cheaper than a climb up the actual bridge and we were allowed to take our camera up this tower so it felt like a no-brainer.  Opera House - tick. Coastal walk - tick. Sydney Harbor Bridge - tick. Sydney - big fat tick!

So what is Australia's other National Dish? I have done the Meat Pie and ready for the potentially more famous National Dish that is pretty difficult to find in a restaurant.  This is the true delicacy of Australia and goes by the name of Vegemite.  The only way to tick this one off is buying your own jar and loaf of bread from a Coles and making it yourself.  It's a lot like Marmite but not quite as strong which means that you can slather more of it on your toast.  Breakfast of kings.  We had some delicious food in Sydney; everyday I tell myself that I am done with eating avocado and pretty much everyday I find myself ordering another plate of smashed avo.  Everywhere has there own take on it and I can't help myself but want to try all variations.  A scallop infused Bloody Mary served with actually grilled scallops was a revelation and reminiscent to my Summer of Caesers in Canada.  We were told that Sydney was for food and Melbourne was for Coffee and so upwards and onward to the final leg of our trip.

Leaving Sydney marked the start of the road trip section of our holiday with the aim to drive to Melbourne over 3 days.  The first day we pretty much drove most of the day to arrive in Merimbula - a strange old school kind of holiday resort.  We ate at a really bad "Thai" place that served no Thai food but fried stuff in different luminescent sweet and sour sauces and decided that Merimbula was not for us.  From here we drove along the "Oyster Coast" through Eden and onward to "Lakes Entrance".  We stopped in Eden and bought a dozen fresh out of the sea oysters that we devoured in minutes.  Australian oysters are small but they pack a ton of flavour in comparison to your regular oyster.  With a firm, meaty texture these could convert any oyster haters out there; they were delicious and I ended up eating 6 more from the supermarket.  Even the petrol station here sold oysters!  On a detour to find petrol we came across a stunning lagoon on an almost deserted beach which made for a nice break off the road.  Lakes Entrance was a quiet town serving as a nice stop off but nothing more.

Our favourite stop on the road trip was Raymond Island where Koalas can be seen in the "wild".  I say "wild" because it is a rather small island and they were put on the island with no feasible means of getting off so really they are just in a great big invisible cage.  It was a lot of fun roaming around trying to spot them though!  Until we noticed that the mosquitoes on the island were relentless and none of us had brought bug spray; if it wasn't for them we would have stayed to find the albino kangaroo and maybe even an Echidna or two.  Definitely worth a trip because even the birds are incredible.  I swear all the birds that we keep as pets at home are the everyday common birds you see on the street in Australia.  The Australian equivalent to the London Trafalgar Square Pigeon (yes the species...) is the beautiful red chested Galah.  In among the bright green King-Parrot and the Daz white Cockatoo they really did leave us Brits with the dregs of the bird community.

A lot of people questioned why we would leave Sydney just two days before New Years.  The New Year Fireworks on Sydney Harbor are famous representing one of the first countries to welcome in the new year.  But just like Christmas is about family, New Years is all about friends! And we were invited to have New Years with different Australian friends from work at their house in Melbourne.  Christmas with a proper family and New Years with proper friends - how lucky are we!  We arrived in Melbourne and headed straight to Coles to by the essentials for a New Years BBQ.  This meant going to a separate, creatively named, Bottle Shop.  Original unique names and Australia do not mix.  They go for a more  "Just name it as your see it" kind of approach.  The Red Back Spider being a good example; or the black snake with a red belly which is called a Red Belly Black snake; or that great road running along the ocean; or that barrier reef which is pretty impressive.  New Years was awesome with great food on the Webber and a Lamington the size of my face.  The Lamington, though not a National Dish, is the second to last item (the last being a witchetty grub which I don't think I will ever find unless I go foraging!) ticked off my list.  It's a light sponge cake, smothered in chocolate sauce and dipped in desiccated coconut.  It won't blow your mind but it does nicely fill a perfectly cubed size hole.  

We are staying in an AirBnB on the quieter end of the buzzing Chapel Street which was perfect. We would walk 5 minutes down the street and be surrounded by quaint little coffee shops and hip cafes.  Of course I had to try the Melbourne take on smashed avos.  I mentioned earlier that Perth felt brand new whilst Sydney felt lived in... Melbourne takes the term "lived in" to the next level.  The number of homeless and day time drinkers trebled and riding the tram in particular areas was a little uncomfortable.  St Kilda's beach was pumping music that made me realise that I was getting old.  The sandy beach was missing the backdrop of endless blue sky and crystal waters that we had grown use to in Australia.  It was no... Skegness.  Whether it was the crazy many shouting to himself, the beach music blasting in your ear or the Luna Park entrance screaming in your face it was safe to say that we were not massive fans of St Kilda's.  The sad truth is most likely that St Kilda's is a cool, hipster area and I am just not cool or hipster enough!  We did enjoy the penguins returning home from their day out on St Kildas pier though.  There is something quite relatable to notion of coming home to the same spot every evening after a long days work.  I am not sure how the penguins feel about finding 100+ humans waiting for their arrival though.  I probably wouldn't be best pleased.  They happily played along and smiled for our photos.

We had a little self planned tour on our last full day in Melbourne using the trams to get around.  We hit most tourist spots but my favourite was easily the Royal Botanic Gardens which may just be the best garden on this blog.  Who would have thought plants and trees could be so fascinating!? You could very easily spend the entire day there trying to get through the plus 8000 different plant species they have.  It's set up is perfect and you can read all about everything they have... or skip all the signs and just awe at the prettiness.  The Eureka Tower was nothing to write home about.  We heard that Brunswick street was a place to go but again our lack of hipster-ness got in the way.  It felt like it was possibly dole collection day and the dole office was on Brunswick street... and a free "Bottle Shop".  We all agreed that Chapel street was the perfect balance for us.  Our final night in Melbourne was at the theater watching the incredibly funny, slightly inappropriate, Book of Mormons.  If this wasn't a food and travel blog I could happily write pages on how amazing this show is but I will limit it to simply insisting that you go and see it!

Out of all of my friends that have moved abroad, the majority have moved to Australia.  The pros of  pristine beaches, top quality food and wine, and gorgeously hot weather far out weigh the cons of being eaten by a shark or bitten by a killer spider.  A final family BBQ with our Christmas family back in Perth let us throw some Shrimp on the Barbie for a proper Aussie send off.  Without a doubt I will be back to do the North and hopefully in time to see the Great Barrier Reef before it disappears altogether.  Until next time, I may have a break from avocado...

Saturday, 7 October 2017

10 foods you must eat in Beijing that are not Duck or Dumplings

A countries food looks very different through a tourists eyes than through a residents eyes.  This is particularly true with Beijing.  As a tourist you tend to focus on the dishes you could quite easily get back in the western world - your roast duck and pancakes and your dumplings.  But what about everything else?  What do local people look forward to eating when friday evening arrives?  Now entering my fourth year living in Beijing here is my list of things to really eat here.

Number 10: You Po Mian(油泼面)- Hot Oil Ribbon Noodles

These were my favourite noodles in Beijing until I came across number 9!  Often just one extra long ribbon of noodle they are spicy with a slight numbing from the Sichuan peppers.  I good starting point for people not use to the Sichuan flavour.  Not too dissimilar to the more famous Biang Biang Mian (middle picture) but definitely tastier.  Biang Biang is only more popular because it has the most difficult Chinese character of all characters(right picture).  As far as spicy ribbon noodles go it is You Po Mian all the way!  You can find it here

Number 9: Chong Qing Xiao Mian (重庆小面) - Chong Qing Noodles

Slightly more soupy and maybe a little spicier than number 10 these noodles are the ultimate in flavour.  I do prefer a thinner noodle but the mixture of minced meat, beans and the rich spicy broth is delicious.  Hands down my favourite noodles in China.  The best bowl can currently be found above Lugas in Sanlitun.

Number 8: Huo Guo(火锅)- Hot Pot

Ma La Tang
Zhang Mama
Hot pot does come next on the list after Duck and Dumplings as things you will almost certainly eat as a tourist.  But it is the type of hotpot that distinguishes a tourist from a local.  HaiDiLao is the main DIY hotpot that both tourists and locals enjoy.  But there are a ton of places to eat hotpot and a ridiculous amounts of different types to choose from.  I have translated a picture I found online to help you understand the types.  The main feature is a shared boiling pot of broth (usually with a heck of a lot of numbing spice in it!) in which you order raw foods to bathe in it.  My favourite is having your own personal lava bowl at Zhang MaMa's where you dunk precooked items and eat it with as much rice you can possibly fit into your mouth to counter the heat.  The Ma La Tang (麻辣烫)option is an easy and healthy way to get a lot of veggies down you and popular among my vegan friends.  Delicious, though less healthy, when topped with the optional (compulsory!) sesame paste sauce. 

Number 7: Yu Xiang Rou Si (鱼香肉丝)- Fish Fragrant Shredded Pork

Don't be put of by the name.  It is fish fragrant which means that it just smells/tastes (in Chinese the word for smell and taste is the same!) like fish.  There is actually no fish in this dish and many would argue that it does not actually smell or taste of fish.  It is more of a hot, sweet and sour flavour with lots of veggies thrown in and of course a touch a sichuan pepper.  This dish can be found in most Chinese places and shouldn't set you back more than 20rmb.

Number 6: Gan Bian Si Ji Dou (干煸四季豆)- Sichuan style spicy green beans 

"Eat yours greens!" my mum always said.  She probably did not mean these.  Fried, salty, crispy and spicy you can try and convince yourself that these green beans are good for you.  To add to this a spoon of deep fried savoury minced pork is also in the mix.  Yum.  Like number 7 this is a Chinese staple and found in most places.

Number 5: Ma La Xiao Long Xia (麻辣小龙虾)- Spicy Crayfish
There is a whole street dedicated to this dish called Ghost Street (Gui jie - 鬼街)where 90% of the restaurants there serve spicy crayfish.  Be prepared to take a ticket and sit outside as they can get very busy,  but don't worry they will bring beer and free sunflower seeds to you whilst you wait.  I have waited over 2 hours before and even when we had finished eating, gone midnight, people were still queueing!  Once you are in you select the size of crayfish, how many you want and wait for them to bring out your crustacean tower on a tray.  Put on your absolutely useless plastic gloves and get stuck in!

Number 4: Eat some offal
Cow stomach number 2
Paddywack on the left, throat on the bottom.
I am not one to support stereotypes but world famously "The Chinese eat anything".  Now this of course is not true but they do enjoy a slightly more adventurous palette.  Whilst in Beijing I thoroughly recommend getting on board with this!  I have grown to love and understand that though flavour is important, It is texture that they adore here.    Sliced cow stomach dipped in sesame sauce is popular and prices range depending on which of the 4 cow stomachs you eat.  You can buy a bag a deep fried chicken knee caps and probably pay more than you would for a bag of deep fried chicken breast!  Knee caps!?  But the most bizarre for me has to be two separate parts of a cow that I never even considered eating.  The first one - sliced cow oesophagus; soft and spongy dipped in a spicy, vinegary sauce.  The second one - google translated to cow paddywack... What on earth is a paddywack I thought!  Further research told me that cows have an extra strong tendon, of which it's sole purpose is to hold their enormous head up.  It's most common use around the world, if used at all, is keeping your pet dog entertained for several hours as it tries to gnaw though it.  It was chewy beyond belief - like eating a hot water bottle.  I chewed for 5 minutes, took it out of my mouth and found it to be exactly the same as when it was served to me.

Number 3: Jian Bing (煎饼)- Pancake
Made to order pancakes with the egg fried onto the outside.  The inside is filled with lettuce, soybean paste, chili oil (optional), spring onion and some fried crispy thing.  After that you choose what extras you want to add from peanuts to sausages.  If it costs you more than 10rmb you have been totally ripped off.  Don't worry it happens to the best of us, especially on the great wall!

Number 2: Kao Leng Mian (烤冷面)- Roasted Cold Noodle (directly translated...)
Imagine a giant A4 piece of paper sized noodle fried so it is slightly crispy, slightly chewy.  Then fry an egg onto it, slice up some spicy chicken, sprinkle on sliced spring onions and coriander and smother it in soybean chili sauce.  This thing you are imagining probably looks nothing like a Kao Leng Mian; my description is awful so just go out and buy one and try it out for yourself.  Usually found from the same street vendors making Jian Bings.

Number 1: Kao Chuan (烤串儿)- Chinese Barbecue

There is no real order to my list of 10 apart from the number 1 slot.  This is my all time favourite thing to eat in Beijing and you can do nothing better on a warm summers evening.  Bottles of cold beer cost 4rmb and each skewer ranges between 2-5rmb depending on what it is.  Cumin lamb skewers are probably the most popular item to order but just point at the massive variety of things on sticks in the fridge.  Feel free to avoid the chicken heads and sheep testicles also popular at these places.  Pay a bit more and get a whole lamb shank grilled to perfection.

Eat all ten and feel like a proper "Beijing ren".  Though you would be excused to skip number 4.  How many have you eaten?  Have I missed anything?  If I have please do contact me, I'll just be out sipping on a cold YangJing and chowing down on some Chuan.  :o)