On Shanghai’s bird & insect market & the plight of China’s animals

On Shanghai’s bird & insect market & the plight of China’s animals

Please note: This post is not at all in keeping with the usual tone of this blog. It contains upsetting images and information which, although not new to anyone, is a blow to the gut every time you hear it again. Click on the “more” button at your own discretion and please note that some of the links provided contain disturbing graphics. Read the rest of this entry

Potato Caesar Coleslaw Salad

Potato Caesar Coleslaw Salad

It’s not easy trying to cook like home in China. Things we take for granted every day can suddenly only be sourced through an internet search and a three hour long quest into the city. Lettuce is no exception. Don’t get me wrong, we can get lettuce in Qinpu. The varieties available are: Lettuce. That’s it. Chinese lettuce (yes, that’s really a thing). Salads get boring. They all look the same. They all taste the same. But what we can get is a wide variety of other leafy Chinese vegetables which we have started using raw as a lettuce substitute to curb the boredom. Hangzhou bok choi is one such vegetable. It is similar in texture and flavour to a Savoy cabbage, but has the added bonus of providing a fresh crunch to salads, thanks to its large midrib. So what do you make when you essentially have a cabbage, a few potatoes and a teeny tiny fridge (really, you should see it, shove a 5L water bottle in there and you’re pretty much at capacity) that needs a small half jar of mayo cleared out on a first in first out basis? Well, naturally, you make a Potato Caesar Coleslaw salad, of course.

This is a salad with an identity crisis. Like that country gal who runs away from home and moves to the big city to become an actress, only to pack it all in and go back to harvest the apple trees with pappa, it wants to be a fancy Caesar salad, but knows it is ultimately a good ‘ol potato salad at heart. You can substitute the bok choi for white cabbage, or pretty much any raw, leafy veg.

Hangzhou bok choi caesar potato salad

Serves: 4 Read the rest of this entry

Following the madding crowd

Following the madding crowd

Bush Man and I spent the weekend in Shanghai. (Yes, we’re technically in Shanghai, but it’s so far from the center that we can actually say we’re going to the city. The way farm folk do.). It was taxing to say the least. But it was my own fault. I somehow got the insane idea that a trip to the bird and insect market would be a great idea. It wasn’t. There weren’t just birds and insects. There were kittens sleeping in their dirty litter trays and puppies that looked like they have never known happiness. Do you know how sad you have to be to be a PUPPY and look like you’ve never known happiness? Truth be told, even the grasshoppers managed to look sad in their little woven baskets. It was heartbreaking. We got there when most people had already packed up, so I should probably go back and get the story out, but I’m not sure I have the constitution or the emotional stability to handle that. Added to that was the usual dodging of feces and globs of spit. Don’t ever, under any circumstances, wear a dress to the city that touches the ground. That hem has seen things. Horrible, horrible things. Things that cannot be unseen.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot that I love about this city. The sights, most of the smells, some of the people. But every now and then I need to just lock myself in my hotel room for a day or two and pretend like I’m not here. And then I get bored. Today was one of those days. So in an attempt to amuse myself, I created a Facebook page for this blog. Just like everyone else. You can follow it here.

Now here’s photo of a sad kitten on a rubbish heap. When I do Monday blue I do it right!

Maybe he's one of the lucky ones?

Maybe he’s one of the lucky ones?

Spicy prawn & coconut cream soup

Spicy prawn & coconut cream soup

There has been no time for cooking these last two months. Dinner has consisted mostly of Grand Chicken Ranch burgers from McDonald’s (the three lettuce leaves, slice of tomato and single onion ring constituting my 5-a-day as far as I am concerned) or toast. So it’s been rather nice to have someone to cook for and have a bit of time to get into the kitchen again. Even if that kitchen is a desk and toaster oven in a tiny Chinese hotel room, and finding ingredients for a specific recipe could mean a three hour round trip to the Avo Lady. If you’re in Shanghai, you can find lemon grass here (and only here, as far as I have been able to tell).

This is one of my all-time favourite recipes. The extremely obliging people at  Woodall Country House & Spa in the Sundays River Valley were kind enough to pass the recipe along after my book club spent a pampered weekend there a few years ago, reading nothing but wine labels and enjoying their exceptional cuisine and warm hospitality. It is dead easy and very, very good. The butternut blends to a velvety, smooth soup without the need for straining and the Thai flavours turn what would ordinarily be standard weekday fare into something a little special.

Thai butternut soup

Serves 4 Read the rest of this entry

On Mandarin.

On Mandarin.

Duōshǎo qián?” I say with a raised voice, stabbing a finger at my open purse, not quite believing that this is actually happening again. I am back in Shanghai and totally incapable of being understood when I try even the most simple of phrases in Mandarin. How am I failing so dismally at this? Ten years after living there I can still order 500 grams of pork sausage or two first class train tickets to Warsaw in Polish, but I cannot remember how to ask for something in Mandarin for longer than it takes me to switch off the AC and find my room key on my way out to test the new phrase.

Mandarin is notoriously tricky to learn. Besides the obvious difficulty of having to deal with hanzi characters instead of the Latin alphabet – rendering the use of a well thumbed dictionary effectively useless – Mandarin has four tones, creating a mine field of possible mispronunciations and embarrassing situations. It also has a large number of homophones. The sound “shì”, for example, is associated with over thirty distinct morphemes. I have also discovered that learning a language completely on your own, without a bilingual person to help you out, makes things considerably harder. No matter how wrong you’re getting it, the electronic voice on your learning program of choice will assure you that you’re doing a stellar job even if you’re mangling the language. But even so. You’d think I could get the basics right, right? At least to enable me to do some simple shopping, right? Wrong.

But it makes a handy coaster.

But it makes a handy coaster.

Once I realised that I would not be fluent in Mandarin in the three months I’d set as my goal, I decided to focus on a phrase a day. Bite sized chunks that I could perfect before moving on to the next thing. Today’s phrase was to be “How much is it?”. A second attempt at a simple sentence which – in a country where just about every price is open to negotiation – I would be sure to need at some point during the day, and therefore a good choice if I wanted to practice it a bit in a real life situation. I listen to the phrase on Jibbigo, try to visualise the pinyin characters and repeat it over and over again like a slow Chinese Rain Man with a speech impediment. I check myself by testing it on my translator and it ensures me that I am, indeed, saying “How much is it?” in Mandarin that is at least passable enough for my iPhone to understand. I leave the room, walk to the elevator, stop and turn back. I let myself back into the room, check the phrase book again just to be sure and repeat it three more times. Having satisfied the linguistic obsessive compulsive in me, I make my way down to the establishment on the corner. One of those Chinese shops (although here it’s just a shop) where you can buy everything from a packet of crayons to a yellow g-string with a chicken beak attached to the front where your willy goes, should you be Read the rest of this entry

Anna’s Kitchen

Anna’s Kitchen

I stopped trying to update my About page some time ago. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m about really. I’d just about made peace with the fact that I’d be living out of a suitcase and getting by in a kitchen with one coffee mug, no cream and these ridiculous, tiny little floral things the Chinese call plates for the next few years, and a year later I found myself back in my home town, running a driving range (Matt Damon bought a zoo, we bought a driving range) and trying to Skype my husband in China with a connection that keeps freezing the video at the most inopportune times. I think he’s forgotten what I look like without one eye half closed and my mouth pulled like I’m trying to imitate Sly Stallone after a particularly hard hit from that Russian dude. So if you’re confused, know that I’m confused too. Anna's Kitchen

So anyway, I might not know where I am or where I’m going most of the time, but where I’ve been is a little easier to pin down. Vereeniging, Gauteng. A nice place to come from and the location of a lovely little eatery called Anna’s Kitchen. Now I’m not going to lie to you – I went here with my brother and dad, and in an attempt to solve the Middle Eastern crisis, end World Hunger and come to grips with the best way to treat a Dollar Spot outbreak on your greens (I have been taken into the fold) we were on our fourth bottle of wine two hours in and hadn’t really thought about food, so I can’t tell you too much about it with any real authority. And my camera battery died, so I can’t really show you either. Frankly, If I were a journalist, I’d be miming on the street to supplement my income. But what I can tell you is that sitting under the Stinkwood (no actual stink involved) at Villa Anna Sophia on a warm Autumn day will make you feel like you are a thousand miles away from any sort of industrial town – somewhere a vast number of people who live in Vereeniging would often like to be. With the soft trickling of water from the fountains and the stone urns scattered amongst lavender and white roses in the garden, you could be sitting at a chateau in the French countryside or a villa in Italy. (I haven’t actually been to either, but I’ve watched long, drawn out movies of divorced women trying to find themselves in those kinds of places.). Oh and of course, there are Hadedas there to remind you that you’re still in South Africa, just in case the Bobotie and boerewors on the menu didn’t tip you off.

Anna pasta

So on to what little I can say of the food. Firstly, it was beautifully presented. We oohed and aahed over every plate that came past before forgetting again to order. Expect to find a little more than the usual fare. I’ll be going back for the crispy potato and haloumi breakfast, and the fresh fig and goats cheese pizza and – brace yourself – the Lindt chocolate orange milkshake. And the Turkish Delight milkshake. And the fig and port milkshake. Other notables Read the rest of this entry

Cooking with kids: Ye ol’ standby muffins

Cooking with kids: Ye ol’ standby muffins

A guest post by Miss Rachel Carlin

My mom always told me that there are two things every girl should have: aKiddie muffins qualification and a driver’s license. I have increased the list to include a dress that makes you feel like a diva, a string of pearls and a flattering bathing suit. I would like to add a sub clause to this. Anybody who spends a significant time with children, be it as babysitter, parent, grandparent or teacher should have at least one book they know off by heart that they can “read” to the child whilst fantasising about an ice cold glass of bubbly to be had once the child is in bed; a simple craft activity using an old loo roll; and a basic muffin recipe.

As that great purple dinosaur keeps telling us, sharing is caring, so here is my basic muffin recipe. Think of it as the maxi dress of baked goods: pretty good for most occasions and one size fits all. I halve the amounts (well, not the egg) and make mini muffins. I add sprinkles to the batter and make rainbow muffins.  I mash up bananas and add cinnamon for – and here is the kicker – banana and cinnamon muffins. I have even added grated apple, blue cheese and walnuts and served them to adults. If I add anything obviously savoury, I omit the sugar and vanilla essence.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup regular flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/8 C butter, softened
  • ½ C sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 t Vanilla essence

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C
  2. Line a 12 muffin pan with muffin casings.
  3. Sift the flour with the baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
  4. Cream butter with the sugar until light and fluffy in a large mixing bowl. Obviously the softer the butter, the easier this is.
  5. Add egg to sugar and butter mixture and beat well.
  6. Add flour mixture to wet mixture and mix until smooth.
  7. Pour into the muffin casings and bake for approximately 20 minutes.
  8. Turn out and cool.

If you are that way inclined, you could ice the little darlings. And also the muffins.

Banger & bacon breakfast scones

Banger & bacon breakfast scones

How do I love thee bacon? Let me count the ways. Last weekend I loved it chopped up and turned into breakfast burgers. A great TV meal for when no one can tear themselves away from the Super Rugby for long enough to locate the knife and fork lying in front of them. I wanted to serve these banger and bacon patties on scones so as to be more breakfast-like, until I remembered I can’t actually make scones. While they taste good, they look a little like doughy, cellulite prone pucks, and could probably be used successfully in a short ice hockey warm up match. The problem, I suspect, is that the scone dough should be just, just mixed and then left alone, whereas I like to prod and knead and poke and generally overwork the whole thing when I should actually just have walked away. Just ask any ex-boyfriend of mine. Then I remembered how Americans serve their scones (or biscuits) drenched in gravy, and my problem was solved! I made scones using a recipe from that old standby of South African housewives everywhere – Kook en Geniet – adding a packet of brown onion soup powder to the dry ingredients to get the onion flavour I was looking for without having to do any actual work. I then drenched the whole lot in mushroom sauce to hide how ugly my baking had turned out. Hollandaise would work well too. Top with a poached or fried egg and breakfast is sorted!

Banger and bacon burger

Serves 6:

Ingredients

12 pork banger sausages, filling removed from the casings

250g streaky bacon, finely chopped. (Place the bacon in the freezer for half an hour before cutting to make it easier to slice.)

1) In a mixing bowl, add the bacon to the sausage filling and combine well. Shape into burger patties, about 10mm thick. If you want a thicker patty, fry the bacon, allow to cool and then add it to the sausage filling. If the mixture is too sticky to work with, lightly flour your hands and the working surface to make it easier.

2) Heat a very small amount of oil in a pan and fry the patties, turning once, until brown on both sides.

 

 

 

 

Ndumo – A small reserve with a big heart

Ndumo – A small reserve with a big heart

Ndumo from the lookout tower.

In the far north of Natal, right on the Mozambican border and miles away from, well, anything really, lies one of Africa’s oldest parks. Spanning just a little over 10 000ha, this tiny reserve boasts the highest number of bird species in all of South Africa – a staggering 430+ species and counting. Not only does Ndumo encompass the confluence of the Usutu and Pongola rivers with it’s floodplains and reed beds, but broadleaved and acacia woodland, swamp forest, fig forest, grasslands, riverines, pans and sand forest and thickets all contribute to a highly diverse range of habitats, most of which are accessible to visitors in some form or another.

The walk to the second bird hide at Nyamithi pan.

The walk to the second bird hide at Nyamithi pan.

Both black- and white rhino, buffalo, giraffe, crocodile, hippo, nyala, zebra, wildebeest, leopard, hyena (only realised this when we came across their spoor on the last day, thank goodness, or I would’ve been lying in my tent holding in a pee every night) and other antelope species including red duiker and suni occur in the reserve. But the reason people flock (ho ho ho!) to Ndumo is for the avifauna. Many tropical East African bird species are found here at the Southern limit of their range. There are few places where you can chalk up Pink-throated Twinspot and Palmnut Vultures within half an hour of arriving and without even leaving the comfort of your car. Specials abound. African  Broadbill, Pel’s FIshing Owl, Neergaard’s Sunbird, African Pygmy Goose, Southern Banded Snake Eagle and Rudd’s Apalis can all be found if you time your visit right.

Sunset at Ndumo.Sunset over Nyamithi.

The Pongola flood plain walk.

Activities:

Guests can go on guided walks with extraordinarily knowledgeable rangers who will identify the plainest LBJ at a glance or mimic the call of just about any bird. Of the four full time rangers at Ndumo, two have been there for over twenty years and the third for over thirty! Gold watches all around I say! Morning and evening game drives are also available and are highly recommended. The sunset over Nyamithi pan with the Fever Trees bathed in rosy fire and the Fish Eagles calling was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Two bird hides situated on opposite sides of the Nyamithi pan provide a bird’s eye view (I’m just churning them out here!) of the cornucopia of waterfowl to be found in and around the water. Storks, pelicans, herons, duck, geese, warblers, swallows, jacana and more can be seen whilst you sip a cuppa, finish off last night’s cold braai broodtjies and just sit, look and listen. The first hide is a 450m walk through the bush and leads to a breathtaking view of the pan, the stork and pelican colony on the opposite side and the towering yellow Fever Trees lining the water. The second is an easy, but hair raising (if you’re a wuss) 650m walk through the reed beds to the other side of the pan. (You will cross hippo spoor here, but don’t panic. Unless you are the slowest person in the group. But seriously, be aware of what’s going on around you and never, ever, ever get between a hippo and its water). This hide is situated above a reed bed with water lilies floating about, so it’s a good spot for crakes and the smaller, reed dwelling herons. The lookout tower near the main Read the rest of this entry

Cong you bing revisited

Cong you bing revisited

I have not been sleeping well at all. My bed has once again become that magical place where I suddenly remember everything I was supposed to do that day, but didn’t. And I know that once I crawl out from beneath that white duvet I will once again, in a foggy haze of procrastination, forget everything that I vowed to do in the wee hours of the morning. So I have taken to sleeping with a pen and notepad next to my bed so that I can jot down things in the dark as I remember them and clear them from my mind. This hasn’t worked as well as you would think. Upon waking this morning I found a message to myself reminding me to “Char doc squikle skorf”. While I don’t think this was intended to be an inspired grill idea, it did remind me that I still need to post my cong you bing recipe. I have adapted the recipe from one found at Traditional Chinese Recipes to more closely resemble the thin and crispy pancakes that our local vendor made. It is essential that you make the dough two days before you intend to use it to allow the gluten to bind. This is a great recipe to use when doing a Mongolian grill and everyone can get their hands dirty cooking their own (in which case most of the pancakes will, in all likelihood,  be wonky, a little burnt and the object of much ridicule).

Cong you bing

Ingredients Read the rest of this entry