Seducing the Soup

ottoman-cuisineTurkey, like the Philippines, is located at a geographical and cultural crossroads between east and west, right on the cusp of Europe and Asia. Turkish cuisine is a synthesis of centuries of cultural and culinary fusion: a patchwork of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences that have created a mouth-watering menu. While spending a couple of weeks eating our way through Istanbul, I thought it might be fun to learn how to make some of the dishes in which we were so enthusiastically indulging.

Eveline Zoutendijk opened Istanbul’s first Turkish cooking school in 2002. Cooking is her passion and it is her pleasure to introduce travelers to the tastes and textures of Turkish cuisine. Fow a while, Eveline told me, she held the only casual cooking class in Istanbul, but gradually the idea spread, and now a quick trip to Google will turn up any number of alternative classes across the city.

Tucked away down a cobbled street behind the Blue Mosque,  Cooking Alaturka consists of a dining room and a small but efficient kitchen. The restaurant is bright, colourful and cosy, with a maximum of eleven tables for guests.  Last week,  the kitchen contained seven excited students quite comfortably: our family of four; an American lady travelling solo from Africa, and a couple of young men from Taipei.  Head chef, Feyzi, assisted Eveline in teaching the class, his brand of 200 (2)cheeky humour the perfect counterbalance for Eveline’s attention to detail and firm control of the the kitchen. We washed our hands, wrapped ourselves in aprons, and set to work to create a four course dinner, orchestrated by Eveline and Feyzi, and featuring many local, seasonal ingredients.

Our first task was to prepare the eggplants for the main dish, Karniyarik or ‘stuffed belly eggplant’. These were neither the long, pencil thin eggplants we know in the Philippines, not the fat-bellied Buddha-shaped Aussie ones, but an in-between size, glossy and gently curvaceous. We were shown how to trim the stalk and peel three strips of purple skin from the vegetable before basting them in oil and tucking them into the oven for 30-40 minutes.

Then we limbered up to chop and slice enormous volumes of onion and peppers, runner beans, tomatoes and garlic. We all had a go at wielding the two-handed curved kitchen knife – a ridiculously large mezzaluna – perfect for chopping up your worst enemy or mountain of onions a la Julia Childs. Later we would also use it to annihilate the herbs.

Once we had all our ingredients prepared, we began to assemble the dishes. First, Yayla corbasi, a ‘meadow soup’ favoured by the goatherds and shepherds when they head up to higher summer pastures with their flocks like Heidi and her grandfather. Eveline described ‘layers of flavour’ as we combined yoghurt and egg yolks with cumin and flour in a bowl. A freshly made lamb stock simmered on the stove, to which we added rice – al dente – ‘for texture’ and dried mint and chilli flakes for flavour. The liaison of dairy and flour was then blended slowly into the stock, the yoghurt providing a smooth finish, tangy and refreshing. Feyzi gave me the task of stirring the soup, curling the spoon slowly smoothly, seductively, through the liquid to prevent the rice sticking to the bottom.

193Imam bayildi is a traditional Ottoman dish of stuffed eggplant. The name means “the priest fainted” based on the tale of a newly married Turkish religious leader, whose wife’s cooking caused him to swoon with pleasure. It is a variation of another popular Ottoman dish, Karnıyarık, which is eggplant stuffed to the gunnels with a mix of tomatoes and onions, minced beef and lamb. Rich and filling, it is a favoured winter comfort food. And, like adobo, every Turkish mother makes the best karniyarik.

To accompany the eggplant was a cracked wheat or bulgur pilaf. Bulgur is a native staple in Anatolia, the larger, eastern part of Turkey, once known as Asia Minor. Bulgur or burghul wheat is far more traditional and tastier than the imported rice of modern times, with a nutty flavour, popular in kisir (a Turkish version of tabouleh) and pilaf. Mixed with the last of the onions, peppers and tomato paste, the result is a traditional Turkish pilaf. Interesting as it was to taste, we found it rather a heavy accompaniment to an already hearty main course. An unadorned green salad, we felt, would have better balanced the red-blooded flavours of the karniyarik.

Kabak mueveri is a popular Turkish mezze, but as Eveline handed out the job of grating a pile of zucchini (courgette), I saw, from the corner of my eye, our sons’ lips start to curl. Zucchini, the boys think, is great to grow in the veggie patch, but  not wildly popular on our dinner table, even when heavily disguised in a vegetable pasta sauce. I groaned inwardly.

Creating these small, bite-sized fritters involved a tutorial on the correct way to grate a courgette, before we mixed  in a local feta style cheese (beyaz peynir), eggs, flour, herbs and chilli. The mixture was then fried into patties in a heavy frying pan. The results were simply delicious and much to my joy, I may be able to reintroduce those infamous courgettes to our dinner table, albeit in a slightly different format. Eveline served it with a modest garlic yoghurt dip. Personally, I would probably embellish this with cucumber, dill and a splash of lemon juice to create a slightly more sophisticated tzatziki – but then I wanted to adorn every dish I tasted in Turkey with tzatziki, as it is definitely one of my favourites.

So, we had soup, an appetizer, and a main course ready to go. Dessert anyone?

The dessert Eveline had chosen was great fun to make: dried figs stuffed with walnuts and cooked in a light sugar 187syrup, or incir tathsi. (Turkish can be hard enough to pronounce sober, imagine saying that after a bottle of wine!) Dried fruits and nuts are traditionally served at Turkish festivals and celebrations, and are now exported around the world.

Turkey has a reputation for terribly sweet and syrupy snacks, such as baklava. I was pleasantly surprised to find the local version of these popular pastries not nearly as sickly as their Filipino or Australian counterparts. Likewise, I expected these amuses bouches of fruit and nut to be too saccharine for my taste, and yet it was not so. The sugar syrup was neatly tempered with lemon juice, lemon zest and cloves, the scent of which hung enticingly in the air. (Eveline’s notes suggested that the sweetness can be further subdued with the tannic addition of bay leaves or Turkish tea.) We all got childishly giggly as we attempted to stuff the walnut halves carefully through the small slits we had made in the bellies of the figs, desperate not to tear a broad gash through which the nuts could fall out. We then had to close the wound and gently massage the fig into the shape of a small spinning top.

Each fig was then placed carefully into a large, shallow pan of syrup, stems up, to spin gently like Whirling Dervishes around the pan. A couple of gentle flips and they were ready to be served, topped with grated coconut and ground pistachios. It was a fitting finale to a wonderful meal, although I would love to have tried the kaymak, or heavy Turkish cream that Eveline mentioned in the recipe.

034Our meal was accompanied by some interesting local wines, and finished off with a lesson on how to make Turkish coffee, which apparently, like those Whirling Dervishes, has been labelled an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turkey by UNESCO. The result was milder than Italian espresso, but also quite gritty, and was served with a small cube of Turkish Delight, to which I am now totally addicted. Nothing like the rose-flavoured, chocolate coated Fry’s Turkish Delight of our childhood, these Ottoman morsels of Bergamot jelly and nuts, dusted with icing sugar can be found in the Spice Market in endless variety. We were, finally, replete, and with all our newfound wisdom and a list of recipes, we wandered home.

* With thanks to Cooking Ataturka website for the picture of an Ottoman kitchen, and to my One & Only for managing to chop and take photograph at the same time!

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There is Hell Waiting Here*

The sandstone Sphynx bares its chest like a beacon above Anzac Cove.
Bleak, grey, weeping seas, diluted with the blood of thousands,
Johnnies and Mehmets both.
No beaches worth their salt, nowhere to land,
the King’s young allies culled by well-placed snipers,
like gulls cherry-picking chips.
Boats adrift on a current too strong to fight,
as the crouching boy-soldiers they carry towards certain death.
A battlefield spread thick with blood and bodies,
now a manicured lawn where daffodils, not poppies,
mark starkly simple graves on this remote Turkish shoreline.
Blood-red, high-rise seating clambers recklessly up the dunes
to honour the centenary of an ill-fated landing,
an ill-fated war-within-a-war.
A statue of a Turkish soldier in boots with turned-up toes
carries another gently in his arms:
a young digger, wounded, bleeding, delivered from no-man’s land
by a compassionate enemy wielding a white handkerchief.
A memorial, a pine tree, a speech, a soldier who ‘probably lies here’.
Sons, husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, boys,
spend two hundred and forty days in hell-on-earth.
Victims, all, of a war of young men, a war of old men.
Sacrifices on the altar of nationalism and greed.
A Turkish officer bestows tender words of comfort
on grieving mothers weeping on a distant shore.
Remember, remember with rosemary and wreaths and heart-felt prayers:
Lord give peace to the world. Don’t waste our men again…
Yet we will all come to rest in the bosom of Mother Earth in the end.

*the title is a quote from C.A. McAnulty, an Australian soldier killed at Lone Pine, above ANZAC Cove, August 1915, the poem is mine.

 

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The Whirling Dervishes

dervish.3A different city. A different dance. Not London but Istanbul. Not Sadler’s Wells but the Galata Mevlevihanesi. Not a ballet, but a timeless, hypnotic ritual dance created by Persian poet, prophet, philosopher and mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi.

The Mevlevi Order was founded in his name in the thirteenth century, and became a well-established Sufi Order during the Ottoman Empire. It followed Rumi’s radical teachings that dance and chanting could induce a trance-like state and bring the dancers closer to God and perfection. This dance, the Sema, symbolizes the cyclical journey to spiritual maturity and perfection through love.

In April 1841 a young Hans Christian Anderson visited Istanbul and described the whirling dervishes performance in almost exactly the same way that it might be described today, almost two hundred years later. Nothing appears to have changed. So faithful is this performance to the tradition of centuries that it was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.

The Galata Mevlevihanesi lurks at the lower end of the pedestrian mall Istiklal Caddesi, en route to the Galata Tower in Taksim. Once it would have boasted spectacular views of Istanbul in every direction, now it is hemmed in by tourist shops and cafes, embassies, hotels and tram lines. The museum is open daily, except on Mondays, but the Dervishes perform only on Sunday evenings.

We have stood in the queue for half an hour, clutching the tickets we bought mid-afternoon, waiting for the signal to enter the hall. Luckily it is a cool, dry day. Finally we are moving, and we duck through the front gate, down a narrow alley past the 19th century Halet Efendi Mausoleum and into a wide, paved courtyard. To the left is a Dervish cemetery, with tall, narrow gravestones, some topped with dervish cone hats or turbans, most decorated with Arabic script. To the right there are several layers of terraces, patios and pocket-handkerchief sized lawns: a secret garden hidden behind the busy pedestrian thoroughfare, quiet and peaceful, mostly inhabited by fat cats.

The Dervish Lodge was originally built in the 15th century. It has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries dervish hall
thanks to fire, earthquake and old age. It was re-opened as a museum in 1975. From the outside, the Lodge is an unprepossessing white, wooden building, three or four storeys high, but once inside, we are surprised to find an octagonal shaped dance floor, the Semahane encircled by casual seating at ground level and overlooked by a screened mezzanine floor. We sit down facing the front doors, almost barreled over by a herd of camera-clutching tourists determined to claim the front row. As they pose noisily for “selfies” we admire the hall.  The walls and high ceiling of the hall are decorated in trompe d’oeil and the pillars are painted to look like marble. (Upstairs, in the museum, we later discover a display describing how this marbling effect is achieved.}

Gradually, the musicians gather above us, on a balcony overlooking the hall like a mediaeval minstrel’s gallery. They are wearing the traditional white dervish robes and the conical hats, shaped like large thimbles or spools of cotton, and they clutch an array of instruments, including the ney (flute) and the kudum (drum), the halile (cymbal) and the rebap ( tiny fiddle), none of which I have heard till now.

The ceremony begins with solo chanting from the gallery, reminiscent of the intoning of Christian psalms, with that same hypnotic droning and dipping, unexpectedly punctuated with ear-catching glottal stops. Our pamphlet says this is a eulogy to the Prophet, who represents love. The second part consists of a steady drum beat, with the rattling sound of a snare. This is followed by an improvisation on the ‘ney’ or Turkish flute that represents the breath of God.

Then the dancers, or dervishes, plod solemnly and silently into the hall in single file, each dressed in a tall, conical, camel-coloured hat and wrapped in a large black cloak, arms crossed over their chests as if in strait jackets. Slowly, ceremoniously, each dervish bows respectfully to the senior dervish or sheikh, then to each other, circling the room to kneel in a row at one side of the hall, on sheep’s wool rugs, bowing their heads so their hats tip the floor. Then they slowly, silently remove their capes. Beneath the cape is a short, white jacket and a wide, white skirt tied with a thick black sash.

Whirling dervishesAt last the whirling begins. To whirl is defined as turning in rapid circles. Remember that dizzy twirling as a youngster, pirouetting furiously, as fast as you could, until you collapsed on the grass in a heap, your head, eyes and stomach spinning sickeningly, gleefully? Not so this controlled, stately rotation. As the dervishes take to the floor, solemnly, almost pompously, each dervish bows to the sheikh and then to each other. Gradually they move out into the middle of the floor, one at a time, and begin to orbit gently around the central figure, the sheikh, who is purportedly the channel to divine grace.  It is a steady, sedate revolution on the left foot, all heads tipped to the left, arms raised to the sky, eyes closed. And so they turn, turn, turn, repetitive, unfaltering, each remaining fixed on his own spot, “their skirts [standing] in the air like a funnel around them” (Hans Andersen), not hectically like spinning tops but steadily pivoting, like cogs in a rhythmic machine. As the dervishes twirl and bow, I have memories of Fantasia’s dancing mushrooms. My eyes droop, my head nods, as the dancers seek to achieve a meditative and spiritual state. When they stop, there is no swaying or tipping over. Everyone is steady as a rock. Except me, who jerks awake, alerted by the sudden silence. They peel off the floor, bowing again in orderly fashion, to don their cloaks and assume their positions at the side of the hall.

The last part of the ceremony is a reading from the Qur’an. Then the sheikh leads the dancers from the hall, each bowing to the audience as they leave.

The performance, once a private religious rite, has become a public tourist attraction since the new Turkish Republicdervish.2 dissolved this Muslim sect in 1925, and is allowed to continue as such. Reading reviews later that day, it is amusing to note that I was not the only one to anticipate a more frenetic display of local folk dancing. Many, who had obviously not done their homework, were both scathing and bored. Although it was not what I expected, I was nonetheless fascinated by the discipline, the skill and the profound symbolism of the ritual. In fact I was so riveted as to be almost oblivious to the superfluity of keen photographers in the audience. But I will happily echo one reviewer, who advises spectators to “abandon your camera and open your senses,” in order to concentrate properly on this int
riguing ceremony. It may not be everyone’s method of achieving God’s grace, but it obviously works for these disciplined, devoted Turkish gentlemen.

*With thanks to Google Images for the photos and sketches.

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Recapturing the Ballet

downloadBallet classes began when I was seven years old. I loved them.  The teacher placed me in the back row where my lack of co-ordination and heaviness of foot wouldn’t distract the star pupils at the front. I was completely unaware of the slur on my talent. As far as I was concerned I was destined to be Pavlova, Markova and Margot Fonteyn rolled into one. In my imagination, I was poised, graceful, lissome and supple. In reality, I wasn’t. Eventually the penny dropped, but in the meantime I was oblivious of my own lack of prowess or mother’s muffled giggles from the parental perch in the back corner.

Occasionally, when I watch a truly glorious ballet, I am still that seven year old on the brink of stardom.

Last night I went to Sadler’s Wells to see the Northern Ballet dance The Great Gatsby. It was sublime. And I, of course, sat in my mythical bubble feeling every bit as ethereal, elegant and diaphanous as those light-as-a-feather, lithe and fragile ballerinas with their pointed toes, pirouettes and effortless arabesques.

If you have ever read the book or seen the movie (with either Robert Redford or Leonardo), you should see the ballet. Choreographer David Nixon captures the mood of the Roaring 20s perfectly: the post-war frivolity, self-indulgence and glamour of the Lost Generation, and that entrancing, seductive, unrealistic American dream of insatiable wealth and success. And of course he also manages to capture, quite brilliantly, the essence of the novel: Gatby’s obsession, not for wealth, but for Daisy Buchanan; of an elusive dream of love and happiness; of the soul-destroying reality of a harsh world. It seems the perfect tale to weave into dance, and the only wonder is that it hasn’t been done before.

The score was written specially for this production by composer and jazz pianist Sir Richard Rodney Bennett CBE.Gatsby.3 Completed just before his death in 2012, it follows the story line with effortless style and exciting flashes of jazz, excellently performed by the Northern Ballet Sinfonia.

Jerome Kaplan’s sets are simple but effective, inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper – perhaps with particular reference to the artist’s ‘window’ sketches and carefully calculated compositions – to create an ephemeral world of lust and fantasy, and enhance the deep sense of human isolation.  (Although some rather unfortunate door banging was an unnecessary teaspoon of mundanity to undermine the fairy floss.)

Nixon and his team haves created a gem of a ballet. The Great Gatsby is a complex tale of convoluted relationships, but Nixon unravels the knots so the audience can follow the plot with relative ease. The dancers portray their characters through dance with more three-dimensionality than the actors ever managed, and the costumes, apparently inspired by Chanel, help to depict the loose, liberal, flighty era of the 1920s.

All this, and Sadler’s Wells too!

I read and adored Noel Streatfield’s “Ballet Shoes” as a child, and more pertinently, the Sadler’s Wells series by Lorna Hill. I have long been devoted to the legend of Sadler’s Wells without ever having been there, so this was a much anticipated first, and I was bouncing with excitement, like a five year old at a birthday party.

Gatsby.2Sadler’s Wells is named for both its creator, Richard Sadler, who opened a music house on the Clerkenwell site in 1683, and for the medicinal springs discovered on the site. The current theatre is the sixth on the site since 1683 and is renowned as one of the world’s leading dance venues.

The first performances of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, with its all-male cast of swans – remember Billy Elliott? – took place here in November 1995. Three years later, the latest reincarnation of Sadler’s Wells was opened, reputedly bigger and better than all its predecessors.

Possibly a more informed audience would be more critical, but this amateur ballet lover was riveted to the stage from beginning to end. The electric adaptation of this iconic talehas me quite overcome, and overly effusive with adjectives. I just wish there had been some way of boxing it and taking it home to love forever, but it, too, is ephemeral, insubstantial, and impossible to possess. Sadly.

*With thanks to my dear friend Julia for such a very special treat, and to Google Images for access to the pictures.

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An Aubergine Anniversary

Aubergine (30)Aubergine is French for eggplant. The word aubergine comes from the Catalan albergínia, and the Arabic al-bādhinjān. An aubergine is a vegetable, that firm, smooth, shiny, pendular vegetable that soaks up olive oil like a sponge or grills into a smushy, smoky babaganoush. Aubergine is also a colour: a deep purply-black that occurs rarely in nature, a princely, rich and luxurious colour that I first saw in a tulip bed in Holland Park.

Princely, rich and luxurious indeed was our anniversary dinner at the fine dining French restaurant ‘Aubergine’ in Bonifacio Global City on Friday night. It was a long-postponed gift from a special friend, and I was really looking forward to it. Happily, I was able to book on line, which was much in its favour, and saved me all the hassle of having to repeatedly and ineffectually spell our name over the phone.

Reviews on ‘Aubergine’ are generally mixed. The unjustifiable prices and the inconsistency of quality and service are its loudest criticisms, while others rave about the attention to detail and outstanding food. I had been once before for lunch, and remember thinking it was “awesome”, but let’s face it, was far too occupied catching up with an old friend to notice our meal in any great detail. The One & Only was quietly concerned that this “awesome” restaurant sat above McDonalds on 32nd Avenue, which certainly didn’t sound like the most salubrious of locations.

Aubergine (9)Nor had the evening got off to a flying start. We were running late and I was just a wee bit stressed. Eventually, unable to find a taxi on a typically frantic Friday night in Manila, we unwillingly braved the madcap traffic on EDSA. Luckily, despite our misgivings, we arrived only 10 minutes late and even fluked a car park only metres from the front door. As we entered, we were instantly met with warm smiles and ushered into a cozy, comfy booth that was blissfully, discretely private from the other diners. Leaning back into the deep banquettes, we felt the stress drift away, and suddenly all boded well for the romantic evening we had been anticipating.

The first page of the wine list was labelled Private Selection, and looked dauntingly pricy. However, relaxed and happy, we took our time, and pottered lazily through the pages, meandering across the wine regions of Europe and South America, South Africa and New Zealand, before settling on a reasonably priced Australian wine: a full-bodied, fruity Woodstock Shiraz from McLaren Vale. Commenting on the classy wine glasses, we sipped slowly and decadently before reaching for the menu.

Here, we found that many dishes offered three ‘tastings’ like a mini degustation menu, such as a selection of upmarket ‘surf and turf’ – that traditional Australian pub offering of generous red meat and fish combos –  an appetizer with three styles of tuna, and a main course medley of seafood. Duck also played a significant role with an emphasis on foie gras, which was bound to keep me sated with joy.

I was initially wary of the fact that all the meat had been imported from the faraway fields and forests, streams and seas of the US, Australia and Scandinavia, and therefore had presumably arrived in frozen form in the kitchen. I need Aubergine (16)not have worried. Everything we ate was enough to stop the clocks while we focused on the flavours and textures waxing lyrical on our tongues.

My “French duck foie gras and duck breast delight” consisted of a lightly pan seared, melt-in-the-mouth slice of duck foie gras on a nest of apple-celeriac puree, a smoked duck breast accessorized with mango lightly marinated in Port, and salad greens in a raspberry dressing. The piece de resistance was indubitably the duck fois gras terrine – a thick creamy almost-dessert draped in a sash of calvados jelly.

The One & Only chose a beautifully presented trio of Yellow fin tuna: mouth-watering tuna tartar; a wee Rubix cube of tuna encrusted in thickly ground black pepper and lightly seared, and a slice of raw tuna marinated in soy and honey. These were accompanied by an amazing assortment: a zesty mango and papaya relish, avocado, marinatedAubergine (18) shiitake mushrooms and salad greens in a sesame and ginger dressing.

I then paused for breath while the One and Only enjoyed a surprisingly light and moreish cream of pumpkin soup, texturted with bacon flakes and roasted walnuts.

I had read a few reviews commenting on the arrogant service at Aubergine, but I found our servers very sweet and attentive. My only complaint was that they hovered a little too closely. After the third waiter in as many minutes leant in to pour more wine into glasses already half filled, I had to move the bottle out of their reach and ask them politely to drop in less frequently, as we were trying to enjoy a romantic anniversary dinner. After that, they politely kept their distance, except when needed – and we were delighted when one had the forethought to ask if we would like a fifteen minute break before they brought our main courses.

So we gratefully did not rush on to the main courses, but with true elegance, sat back and mused over a scoop of banana sorbet to cleanse the palate.  I will say, however, that while it was overflowing with fresh banana flavour, it was a little heavy for a true palate cleanser.

After a lengthy discussion earlier in the evening, we had ordered beef and lamb respectively, although both choices were far more sophisticated and creative than the average meat and three veg.

Aubergine (27)My 3-way Australian lamb was  beautifully presented, and came in many parts. The first was a sous-vide lamb shoulder confit. I am ashamed to admit I had no idea what that meant. Later I discovered – thanks to an article entitled “what the hell is confit?” – that confit is, in short, slow cooked, tenderized meat (often poultry) cooked and stored in a preserving liquid, usually fat, invented in South Western France. The word confit (pronounced “kon-fee”) comes from the French confire, which simply means to preserve. The preserving liquid had created a thin layer of fat over the meat, and to be honest, tasted like nothing more than a heavy, rather tough German sausage, with about as much flavour.  A roast lamb loin passed muster, however, as the meat fell apart beneath my fork like osso bucco. This was followed by a perfectly grilled lamb chop, of which  I could cheerfully have eaten a whole dish. There was also a wide variety of side dishes. These included an artichoke cous cous dressed up like a large California roll and a grilled polenta that I, surprisingly, loved, never having found polenta very inspiring. There was also a spoonful of dense, rich ratatouille and a flightier papaya salsa. That French women don’t get fat must be a modern myth. On a diet like this I would be the shape of a giant California roll in the blink of an eye.

As all good couples celebrating over two decades of marriage, ordering separate dishes only meant more to share. Aubergine (23)And of course I am writing the review, so it is part of the job to try everything. (Although I promise I didn’t get greedy, it was only a taste.) Served in a sumptuous Port wine jus, the slow cooked veal cheeks almost dissolved on the tongue they were so tender. The braised and barbecued (or barbecued and braised) Angas beef short rib was also deeply flavourful and delicious. The oxtail ravioli, on the other hand, was surprisingly light on flavour, but a good balance for the rest. With sides of potato mousseline (French for creamed spuds), grilled Portobello mushrooms and glazed carrots, no one would be leaving the table in search of a top up!

Sadly, that excluded dessert as well, but it didn’t stop me gloating over the dessert menu, and I am definitely going back for a serve of soufflé scented with Grand Marnier, not to mention the other half dozen items on the menu that I had to vote out in the first round. And I can only hope that the second performance will be as good as the first.

All in all, with a few very minor discrepancies, we had a lovely evening, and I was very impressed when the staff followed up with an email to thank us for choosing Aubergine. Most satisfactory and encouraging. Keep up the good work, Aubergine.

*With thanks to my One & Only for all the wonderful years of sharing food – and photos! 

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“Such stuff as dreams are made on…”

Harmony-Beach-picture-720x290

Twenty five feet from the sea squats a small, thatched hut with a veranda from which we step straight onto the sand. A traveller’s dream destination, fittingly labelled ‘Play House,’ we happily make a temporary home in this cosy little Wendy-house beside the ocean. Further up the beach, the sea-bound cottages perch precariously over the reef on stilts, like leggy flamingos. On the no-so-distant horizon, the cruise ships pass, brightly lit: fat, luxurious barges of self-indulgence, top-heavy on the water, like pelicans. Here all is perfectly simple. A large piece of driftwood is a bench beneath a tree weighed down with large glossy leaves. A banca lurches drunkenly to one side on the sandbank. We can hear the sound of waves lazily lapping, melodic, hypnotic as we drift off to sleep. Last night they were almost washing the doorstep, competing boisterously with the persistent swish of the fan above our heads. But as the sun rises sedately, they have retreated shyly to the edge of the reef to be near her glowing warmth, and sound far off and muted.

For the past hour, even in the pre-dawn darkness, a young man has been house-keeping: raking the sand; tidying it of stray leaves that have fallen during the night; wiping out the erratic paths of nocturnal sea creatures to create a uniformity that is kempt and cared for in the bright sunlight. As the sky lightens under a blanket of grey cloud, more men appear on the beach in green t-shirts, wielding a battalion of rakes, until a sudden burst of heavy rain sends them scuttling for cover. As the rain recedes, the men and their rakes promptly reappear. They beam cheery ‘good mornings,’ sweet and deferential, as they potter on with their work, but I smother the urge to send them away, to obliterate the scratch and swish of their rakes, to enjoy the peaceful absence of human noise a little longer, wanting only the persistent, distant crow of a rooster heralding in the day with his trumpeting reveille, and the light patter of rain on thatch.

The reef stretches, patchy and puddled, exposed by a fickle tide, along the length of the beach. The scratching continues like fingers on a blackboard. Ceaseless, but beginning to blend into the background as the beach-keepers move further off.

The sky is gloomy, blotting out the deep blue skies of yesterday, blotting out the lumpen islands on the horizon, unwelcoming and drear, yet adding a damp freshness to the air, a world washed clean of pollution and humidity. Each time I look up, the world is a little brighter, the sky an expanding palette of blues and greys. Now the electric lights have been extinguished. The sea lies lusterless, flecked by a light breeze, like Selangor pewter. Tiny birds duck and dance across my line of vision, as I peer beneath the thatched eyebrows of our cottage. Geckoes cluck under the eaves and there is an eager chirruping, and a warbling response from a small chorus of song birds hidden in the undergrowth. Cookie-mix mounds of leaves dot the sand. A light breeze flutters across the veranda. My tea gets cold.

Hannah's 21st (3)Shall I rise and explore the reef? Introduce myself to the nematodes and starfish huddling in their suddenly reduced
world? Or sit here with my cooling tea and enjoy the panorama? I am in no hurry to emerge into daylight. I love this half-way world, this time for reflection and no expectations. Later I will consult my pile of books, my emails, my breakfast menu. Now I am happy to contemplate creation till, in the light of day, “all which it inherit, shall dissolve,” and I will tap at the keys of my imagination, as the swallows swoop and dive in staccato, playing an early morning game of kiss-chase, while I sit alone on the beach like Shirley Valentine…

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Exploring Corregidor

corrigedor.2Corregidor Island is one of those Must-Do trips on the tourist trail around Manila. But it requires a ridiculously early start, at which I have baulked for years. Recently, however, I jumped at the opportunity to join a small group of friends and brave the waves across Manila Bay to see what all the fuss was about.

Corregidor is the largest of five tiny islands clustered around the mouth of Manila Bay,  a mile off the southern end of the Bata’an Peninsula. Measuring 900 hectares, its distinctive shape is often described as a tadpole, but twist it around and it looks like a crab’s claw snapping at invaders. However you see it, Corregidor has played a significant role in Filipino history, particularly during World War II.

Once upon a time, Corregidor was home to a small Filipino fishing village. Later, under Spanish rule, it became a fortress, a jail, and a customs post. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, the Americans arrived. Realizing the strategic significance of the Philippines, the United States government made a huge military commitment to the region. This included the fortification of Corregidor Island and the training of a large Philippine Army. Together with El Fraile island (Fort Drum), Caballo Island (Fort Hughes) and Carabao Island (Fort Frank), these islands became deadly weapons with which to defend Manila.

As we headed out to sea on a Sun Cruises catamaran packed with sight-seers, we were shown an introductory film about the island, largely focusing on World War II footage. Bombs exploded and aircraft dived into the sea accompanied by a nauseating B-grade commentary reeking of wartime propaganda, but it filled in the time.

Landing on the island after a comfortable hour and a half at sea, we were greeted by a large bronze statue of the 800px-Douglas_MacArthur_lands_Leyte1notorious General MacArthur, who sat out the war in Melbourne after being driven out of Manila by the Japanese in 1941, and fleeing to Australia in February 1942, after holing up on Corregidor for ten weeks. In true Hollywood style he announced to the press in that well-known speech: from South Australia ‘I came through and I shall return.’ Apparently, Washington asked MacArthur to amend this to ‘We shall return,’ which he ignored. Despite his somewhat ignominious retreat, MacArthur became the symbol of the Allied forces resisting the Japanese, and would receive many  accolades ‘to offset any propaganda by the enemy directed at his leaving his command’ Today his image stands proudly at the dock,  hailing the Philippines, as on the day he kept his word and came back to rout the Japanese, wading through the see at Leyte three times to create that iconic photograph captioned ‘I have returned.’

On the dock, we clambered onto a small, open-air bus-in-tram’s-clothing, and drove up from the quay to Topside. Like a steak, the island is imaginatively zoned Topside, Middleside, Bottomside and Tailside. With great excitement, we glimpsed a small macaque squatting under the trees, watching us cautiously. Apparently there are plenty of these tiny monkeys living on the island, but they kept a low profile and this was the only one we saw all day. The deer and monitor lizards stayed in the shadows too. However, there were geckoes in abundance, including a giant pair breeding amongst the ruins.

corrigedor.4Our guide had a passion for the facts and figures of World War II and a plethora of puns and quips to keep the commentary light and breezy. He also had a private supply of memorabilia garnered from the forest floor, and he delighted in taking us off the beaten track. I must admit, my memory for such detail is a little hazy, but I enjoyed the irony behind the origin of Fort Mills: built with reinforced concrete straight from Japan, and apparently strong enough to withstand hurricanes, it was not, however, strong enough to withstand Japanese bombs. Twenty thee gun batteries were installed on the island, the 14 ton guns made in Pennsylvania’s heart-of-steel at Bethlehem, and many of them were blown literally sky high when the Japanese bombers flew in, direct from their rendez-vous with Pearl Harbour on December 7 1941.

Their plan was to neutralize America’s role in the war, and they were initially so successful that MacArthur was forced to evacuate Manila less than three weeks later, removing Army headquarters and the Filipino government to Corregidor and withdrawing the troops to Bataan. By 31st December, MacArthur had gone to ground on Corregidor with 8,000 soldiers and hospital staff holed up beneath 300 feet of the solid rock. Hospital staff, realizing that the hospital would be a prime target despite the Red Cross on its roof, had managed to gather up all their patients in the hours before the Japanese arrived from Pearl Harbor, and carried them into the tunnels where they survived as best they could in the dank and claustrophobic atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the huge guns installed on the island were being used to defend the island, but as it turned out, they provided little protection against the heavy shelling of  the Japanese artillery.  One direct hit on May 2 detonated the magazines of Battery Geary, causing an explosion that blew one fifty ton mortar barrel through three feet of reinforcedcorrigedor.3 concrete wall into the adjoining powder magazine of Battery Crockett. Large chunks of steel flew from another, killing 27 of the battery crew instantly. Today, one remaining mortar still holds a live round in its breech, and many tourists peer into the dark mouth with a shiver.

Today, Corregidor is like a scene from Indiana Jones, the ruins draped in jungle and tethered by Strangler Fig. Bullet holes riddle heavy metal doors while bomb craters have become a feature of the landscape. War souvenirs still continue to emerge like buried treasure from the jungle, thanks to the persistent searches of war buffs: buttons and medals, dog tags and coins are on public display at the museum, while guides are always delighted to show off their own private collections.

On the highest point of Topside is the Pacific War Memorial to honour the Filipino and American soldiers who fought in World War II. Beyond the memorial stands the Eternal Flame of Freedom, a 40 foot weathered steel structure designed by American sculptor, Aristides Demetrios.

We climbed to the top of the lighthouse on Topside for amazing views across the island and out to sea. A lighthouse has stood on this spot since 1853, but the original lighthouse was irreparably damaged during the Siege of Corrigedor in 1941-2 and needed to be totally reconstructed in the 1950s.

corrigedor.1As we roamed over the island, I sat on the bus and tried to imagine life here before the war. Clambering through the ruins of the vast hospital, or driving past the Mile Long Barracks, it quickly became clear that a posting to Corregidor in the early twentieth century would have been a cushy little number. Who would argue with an army posting to a tropical island that was decked out like a beach resort, with free trams, a golf course, a high school and Olympic Pool, duty free and cheap-as-chips staff? Four thousand American soldiers could live like kings on this five star island, accompanied by 4,000 Filipino soldiers and a large local support staff.

A far cry from the stultifying existence in the Malinta Tunnels during the 1940s, where no natural light could find an entry, and only a handful of air vents could bring fresh air into the airless tunnels. Wounded soldiers lining the tunnel walls, limited latrines, and the ever-present cigarette smoke thickened what air there was. Empty, the tunnels are quite broad and high, but crammed with hospital beds and thousands of soldiers and hospital staff trapped like rabbits and listening helplessly to the heavy bombardment above their heads, knowing they were running out of food  and ammunition, it must have felt both suffocating and petrifying.

Our final stop was the controversial Japanese Garden of Peace, built as a memorial to the Japanese soldiers who fought and died on the island during WWII, completing the circle of Corregidor as a memorial to war: to the death and destruction and its effects on both sides, and the ongoing hope that such horrific scenes will never be repeated.

*With thanks to June Vann for her fabulous photos, and to Google Images for “I have returned,” and adapted from an article first published for ADBSA Newsflash, March 2015.

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The Flying Fish Café

IMG_0462 (2)The Flying Fish Café at Port Elliot on the south eastern lip of the Fleurieu Peninsula. A 42 degree day in February. A jetty. Scalding sand. Basking children. A lapis lazuli sky reflected in a glittering sea. Norfolk pines march in single file along the shoreline. Swimmers shriek with glee as they get tossed about by an obstreperous surf. Heat haze off a carpark crammed with perspiring station wagons. Small kids dashing bare foot across the melting tarmac desperate to reach the grass. Picnics on the lawn by the playground. Huge tubs of sunscreen lying on toasting towels. Naked toddlers basted in sand, like schnitzels.

We watch, relaxed and just a little smug, from our air conditioned eerie above the beach. A foodie friend has often raved about this little gem of a restaurant on the foreshore overlooking the glorious Horseshoe Bay. At the beach for fish and chips, it no longer comes in butchers paper with the ubiquitous chicken salt and brown vinegar, the chips IMG_0455 (2)already slightly soggy, the heavy batter flaking off as you wrap it in a strip of paper to protect your fingers, then douse it in mayonnaise. And there is no risk here of sand getting kicked over your chips.

The name Flying Fish has lead us to believe it was seafood restaurant, but the fish choices were surprisingly limited. Apparently it is more about showcasing South Australian produce, and having made our decisions, there were no complaints about the quality. (Although pricewise, $36 for fish and chips seems a little intense.)

Flying Fish is a small but sunny venue, with barely half a dozen tables and maybe thirty diners. The wooden floors make it seem like twice that many, to the detriment of the older members of our group – those over forty – who struggle to hear. Still, our waitresses are charming: warm, friendly and happy to oblige. Once everyone has gathered, I order a bottle of my favourite Rockford’s Alicante Bouchet rosé, and a couple of appetizers to share: a delicate, freshly made salmon dip bedecked in cucumber ribbons and triangles of crunchy lavosh and a salt and pepper squid with mango IMG_0457 (2)salad. We descend like a flock of seagulls.

For main course, Ben and I decide on King George Whiting from Streaky Bay, lightly dipped in a batter of Cooper’s Ale, crispy and moist, served with a small, fresh salad and a solid serve of reasonably crispy chips. With the Alicante, it is utter perfection. Having given up on chips and chocolate for Lent, my daughter chooses the Wakefield lamb (rare) served with roasted Mediterranean vegetables, a fetta and rocket pesto and quinoa (well, if it was cous cous, as the menu suggested, it has serious obesity issues). Mum and The Aunt both go for a smoked chicken salad with paw paw and toasted almonds, and conversation is negligible until their plates are scraped clean. Dad decides more calamari is called for, so as the salt and pepper squid puts in a second appearance, I surmise it is good.

Dessert anyone? Well, I absolutely have to taste the honey and lavender parfait, accessorized in honeycomb sprinkles and something delicately designed in chocolate that would be fitting on a Melbourne cup hat. The lavender flavour is impressive, the parfait luxuriously creamy. With help from my neighbours, it doesn’t last long enough to melt evenIMG_0464 slightly.

My daughter delights in the strawberry tart, and pronounces the quenelle of strawberry ice cream especially delicious. We help her out on the honeycomb sprinkles. The Aunt chooses a rather sophisticated affogato (espresso coffee poured over ice cream) laced with Cointreau and garnished with whole coffee beans. The teaspoons fly across the table like hummingbirds for quick, surreptitious dips.

We finish our late lunch with a quick dip in the sea to cool off before driving back to the city. The sea is tousled and nippy, but we are flushed and overheated, after prancing like Lipizzaner stallions across the molten tarmac and fiery sand, and find the cold water wonderfully refreshing. Only briefly, however –  we have no desire to melt messily like parfait in the sun or end up like pork scratchings on this sizzling summer afternoon.

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Undercooked

In the course of a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion for our parents Golden Wedding Anniversary, many well-known and oft-repeated tales,  some gospel, many apocryphal, came out of the closet for yet another airing. In light of the fact that many of those present at the celebrations have enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of the ‘Bride & Groom’ over the past fifty years, this seems the right time to air this particular tale – with apologies to my mother, and allowing for a good dose of poetic license…

garfield1 The first time I invited my One & Only home for Sunday lunch, my mother made lasagna. It was coated in all the right sense of occasion: a family gathering to welcome the latest addition; sharing, caring and hospitality, and a welcoming hand across the cultures. L’Italiano meets the Skippys.

Only, I guess Mum had never made lasagna before, not even a practice run. It was brought proudly out to the table in the garden, that large baking tray smelling quite wonderful. Our mouths moistened in anticipation. The cheese on top had melted perfectly and was just tinged a light golden brown from the grill. And there the fantasy ended.

In those halcyon days of grey bolognaise and over-cooked spaghetti, culinary expertise in foreign cuisine was rare in Anglo-Australian suburbia. Who knew that one was supposed to soaked the dried pasta sheets before laying them on top of the sauce? Not my mother, certainly. The serving spoon rose ceremoniously, and we all waited with baited breath, salivating… and watched it crack through the pasta like a rock through a glass window. We flinched. “Oops, a little dry round the edges,” Mum exclaimed cheerfully, wading bravely on. She lifted a large shard of pasta topped with cheese onto the nearest plate, exposing the sauce beneath. We all peered in, ever optimistic.

While none of us – except my One & Only – was familiar with how a lasagna should look, I think we all knew this garfield5wasn’t quite right. Beneath the crust lay a pond of pink juice. In the pond, whole plum tomatoes bobbed gently. It felt suddenly like Halloween. And among the bobbing ‘apples’, tiny kernels of yellow corn ducked and wove across the lake. “Corn?” asked some brave soul cautiously. “O I had half a tin left over in the back of the fridge,” our innovative mother explained brightly. “And the mince?” I hear you wondering. Yes, well. Grey and lumpy, it had sunk in complete ignominy to the bottom of the lake.

Yes, she had followed a recipe, but like too many cookbooks it hadn’t really explained the process clearly. So there was no advice to ‘smash, dice or puree the whole tomatoes,’ or ‘cook the sauce down for a couple of hours till it thickens;’ no useful tips for those of us who didn’t learn to cook by helping our grandmothers in the kitchen, or who grew up in the centuries before Nigella, Jamie and Julia Childs. Like Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers trying to make a birthday cake without magic, my darling mum took each step quite literally. The One & Only was sweet, polite, forgiving, her four children not so much, and Mum’s corn lasagna has gone into the annals of family history as one of her most outstanding efforts.

Yet, while neither Food of the Gods, nor aphrodisiac, it perfectly illustrated the kindness and innate courtesy of both my mother and my future husband. So perhaps a culinary gem – of sorts!

*Adapted from an article written for Chop Soey, Januray 2015, and with thanks to Google Images for the perfect Garfield cartoons!

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“The Air is Full of Spices”

spices1Where would the world be without spice? That pinch of fairy dust that transforms the simplest dish into something other, heightening our senses with their exotic aromas, and adding a glorious depth of colour and flavour to our cooking. From seed and bark and bud and berry, spices are wisps of volatile oils that were once craved by kings, endowed with the glamour of opulence and blessed with the belief in their powers to ensure good health and enhance virility.

The history of exploration and colonization in the modern world is written in the kitchen spice rack: from black pepper, saffron and salt, to cinnamon, cloves and coriander. Traders and explorers were sent scuttling round the globe to claim not only these fragrant exotica but, on behalf of their rulers, the countries from whence they came. Rare and expensive, spices wove an alluring tale of privilege, power, romance and adventure, and often became a currency as precious as gold or silver. The Chinese even believed that cinnamon conferred immortality. With such a reputation, is it any wonder that the lust for spice became insatiable? Arabs, Romans, Vikings, Venetians, Turks, Spaniards, Dutch and English – every major civilization supported and spread its dominions through the Spice Trade, which drove the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Arabs, strategically placed beside the sea link between east and west, monopolized trading for centuries. The Romans, with a keen appetite for spices and other outlandish ingredients, briefly elbowed their way into the business and sailed down to Malabar, while the Silk Road gave them access to central Asia and China.  Aromatic herbs  such as coriander, cumin, laurel and lovage, rue, mint and mustard became the culinary flavours of the day while the Roman spice rack focussed on pepper, saffron, cardamom and ginger. After the collapse of Rome, international trade died down, only to be resurrected from the 11th century onward by the reopening of the Silk Road, returning Crusaders, and the writings of Italian merchant Marco Polo.

In the early fifteenth century European explorers Vasco de Gama and Columbus introduced the Europeans to India andcastlekitchenlg South America respectively, opening up maritime trade routes around the globe that would make hundreds of new flavours accessible to European kitchens.

Arabia and China, Malabar, Madagascar and Malaya, the names of their origins are as exotic, aromatic and mellifluous as the spices themselves, which appear to have been scattered round the globe like confetti by a thoughtful god with culinary aspirations. James Joyce once wrote, however, that God created food, but the Devil invented spices, which is a legitimate assumption when you consider how many wars have been waged on their account. Spices were both highly prized and highly priced, their sources often shrouded in mystery, as traders wove complex fantasies to confuse their competitors. It was a fierce and risky business, and bloodshed was often at the end of the treasure hunt.

As the Spice Trade burgeoned, mediaeval cuisine was soon characterized by a passion for spice, each region selecting its favourites.  Spices were still only available to the wealthy, however, as the peasantry could never have afforded the exorbitant prices. This was to change. With European expansion into Asia and South America, the modern era of food globalization had begun. With growing demand came cultivation, and eventually prices dropped until spices were no longer luxury items on a shopping list. By the twentieth century, modern transport and refrigeration had spread the net of globalization ever wider for new markets, new spices. One source of new spices, however, was almost overlooked.

Lemon_myrtleAustralian Aborigines used indigenous herbs and spices to flavour their food for thousands of years before British colonists arrived in the eighteenth century. The new settlers barely acknowledged the native flora and fauna, finding them strange and unfamiliar. They preferred to cultivate plants and animals they knew from home. Over the last thirty years, however, from Sydney to Outback Australia, new Australians have finally begun to recognize the potential of Australian native spices, thus adding another element to this fusion cuisine. Wattleseed and lilly pilly, lemon myrtle and mountain pepper are the trendy new tastes of modern Australian cuisine. As chefs experiment with an expanded spice rack, food writers experiment with the language of taste to describe them.

Spices have also played a part in the language of romantic poetry, their intoxicating aromas inspiring the imaginations and passions of the poets in much the same way their flavours had piqued the taste buds of aristocratic circles.

One spice, a little shy and unassuming, that has sat at the back of the spice rack for centuries, is allspice. Native to Jamaica and Central America, it was originally  – and unimaginatively – baptized pimento by sixteenth century Spanish explorers (a derivation of the Spanish word for pepper) because they decided that the dried berries looked like peppercorns. The British, equally unimaginative, christened it allspice, because they thought its aroma had tones of several other spices, namely cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg.

In fact, the modest allspice has a broad range of uses. The Mayans used it as an embalming agent in the first millennium AD. Believed to have medicinal qualities, it was a traditional remedy for indigestion and colds. While mediaeval logic may have been a bit skewed in regards to natural cures and tonics, modern scientific research has actually qualified some of their suppositions. Today scientists suggest allspice may also contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, sedative, antiseptic, antiviral and antifungal properties. A recent study also uncovered the fact thatallspice allspice contains a compound called ericifolin, which could help to fight prostate cancer.

In the kitchen, allspice has a wide variety of uses too, from flavouring chocolate, cakes and pies, to stews and sausages. Indians season their curries with it, Scandinavians use the berries in pickled herring and sauerkraut.  Allspice makes its way into pates and smoked meats. Common in Caribbean cuisine, it is essential for jerked meat, seasoning and pickling, moles and marinades.  It is also used to flavour liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.

For me, allspice is the heady fragrance of Christmases past, present and future.  Scooped up once a year from the depths of the spice cupboard, the little jar is dusted off and shaken up to help rejoice in the dusky richness of flaming Christmas puddings, to lift a thick and cloying pumpkin pie, to give a piquant hint of nostalgia to the mulled wine.   Allspice is a must for baking the gingerbread men to hang on the tree, and it is an essential oil that mingles decadently, sentimentally with bergamot oil to weave a spell of Christmas joy around your home. It is truly the taste and scent of Christmas.

First published in Chop Soy, Issue 1, January 2015, and with thanks to Google Images for the pictures.

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