Category Archives: Eat

Mapshalia: Megrelian cuisine with a smile

Mapshalia: Megrelian cuisine with a smile

Mapshalia is as unassuming as they come. The entrance – a small doorway down a few steps – is marked simply in Georgian, the throng of locals dragging on their cigarettes outside (smoking indoors is now illegal in Georgia) the only give away that there’s something worth seeing inside. The atmosphere is exceedingly casual. You’ll be as comfortable here as you’d feel showing up at a family braai in slops and a faded “I’m drunk and you’re still ugly” t-shirt. The small dining hall, covered in Soviet era plaster scenes, would be stiflingly hot in summer, but thankfully there are tiny, private cubicles hidden behind swing doors with windows set in at road level that are much cooler. And when I say tiny, I mean TINY. Like don’t bring your big boned Aunt Hilda here for lunch tiny. Small benches, only 20cm wide and not much higher, are crammed right up against the walls, leaving just enough space for the low table on which they will pile on your Megrelian feast, starting with chunks of gloriously chewy bread and a spicy, gazpacho like soup in which to dunk it. If Georgian cuisine was a Magic Mike film, Megrelian would be Joe Manganiello – much heavier on the hotness, so make sure you have a bottle of local Tbilisi beer or cream lemonade to swig before you tuck in.

Mapshalia: Megrelian cuisine with a smile

Our English menus were brought to us by a very friendly waitress, which set the homely tone for the whole meal. You only have to travel in Tbilisi for a short while to realise how friendliness in wait staff is not a given. In fact, it’s the exception to the rule. The staff at Mapshalia were all delightfully welcoming. The menu is small with the most glaring omission being khachapuri, the Megrelian version of which does not only get cheese stuffed between the layers of bread, but also has a liberal dose of sulguni slathered on top. But seeing as you’re in Georgia, and as such probably have khachapuri oozing out your pores as you climb the hills around Tbilisi by now, you can do without the carbs for one meal.

Mapshalia

The stand out dish on the menu is what some say is the best elarji in Tbilisi – cornmeal cooked with sulguni cheese till it forms an oozy, stringy, glorious gloop. It is richer than Warren Buffet could ever hope to be, so the simple meats on offer make for  the perfect pairing. The roast pork was a little on the tough side (like most of the roast meat style that is popular in the region), but was very tasty and the chicken livers were crispily fried on the outside, just the way I like them when they are done this simply with a bit of onion. The spinach pkhali (vegetable and walnut pâté) was flecked with chilli flakes and the portion was enormous, so save some of the aforementioned bread to use as a transportation device for when it arrives. We did not have the kharcho (beef soup with rice) or the kupati sausage, both of which other travellers have highly recommended when visiting Mapshalia. The kupati was not on the menu, and as I have subsequently learnt that it’s basically intestine stuffed with  pig lung, liver, spleen  and spices, I’m sorry I didn’t get to try it before I knew what it was, because now I can never unknow those facts…

Mapshalia is a place where you can get raucous with your family while you do supra the Georgian way, or grab a quick bite to eat before you make your way further down Davit Aghmashenebeli Ave. The prices are ludicrously cheap. Our entire meal, drinks included, came to just 20GEL ($US8). A service charge is not automatically added, but you’d really want to tip the wonderful staff in this tiny establishment.The restaurant is located under the once grand Apollo Theatre and apparently used to serve as a ticketing office. On the verge of being condemned, the theatre has now been restored to within an inch of its life, some say for the worse. So be sure to check it out when you leave and ask yourself “What would the Property Brothers say?”.

Address: 137 Davit Aghmashenebeli Avenue, Tbilisi, G

La Rosa Blu Café

La Rosa Blu Café
La Rosa Blu Cafe

Okay, so a month or two tops turned out to be more like four. And a bit. I’m not sure where the time went, but it probably has something to do with falling into the money sucking, soul destroying, bottomless pit that is owning a restaurant. Especially in this town. I believe we have discussed this before? What were we thinking, trying to run a restaurant in a town where “value for money” is getting two eggs with your breakfast instead of one? Even if it means eating that breakfast at the corner garage. Owning a restaurant is like buying a room filled with everyone’s mothers-in-law, and your only job is to make sure that each and every one of them is happy. And they all like different things. Ridiculous, impossible to get right every time things, and one might even utter the words “Your pizza bases are too thin and crispy!”. HOW is that even possible? Is thin and crispy even a problem in a pizza? Do I need to change our bases? I don’t know! It is completely and utterly exhausting. And terrifying. And I am not currently loving it, but I’m hoping to get there eventually. Apparently I was meant to do this. You could’ve fooled me. I feel like I am one crisis away from a complete and utter breakdown. Every day.

The other problem with owning a restaurant is that it changes how you partake in the culinary delights your town has to offer. Visiting any restaurant within a 30km-potential-competition radius is no longer a relaxed evening out. It is a field trip. A learning experience. A reconnaissance, as it were. Sure, there are still intimate conversations as you lean over the table, wine glass in hand and whisper into your husband’s ear, but the conversation is now less about what you’re going to do to each other later and more along the lines of “Our X is much better than their Y”. Or “I wish we had thought of that first!”. Must get over this as eating out in a lovely establishment is my single, greatest pleasure in life.

This isn’t ours, but I wish it were!
La Rosa Blu Cafe

Back when we still had a life, we had a lovely, leisurely lunch at La Rosa Blu Café on one of those winter afternoons that makes the rest of the world hate us (it’s okay world, we also have Zuma, mozzies and a pummeled currency so it all evens out). Situated on the Rosenhof rose farm in Waboomskraal near George, this vintage café is the perfect place for a first date. There are so many conversation pieces around you that you will never be stuck for something to say! We didn’t even realise that the fridge standing open next to us, spilling its linen contents all over the place, was actually supposed to be closed and wasn’t a part of the display. The gently worn entropy felt perfectly in keeping with the rest of the decor. A stack of well thumbed books is a table center piece. Old records are table mats. The couches on the patio are worn and threadbare, and you probably wouldn’t look at them twice if you saw them at your local charity shop, but here they invite you to sit down, relax, and take in the view. If couches had eyes, these would have bedroom ones. La Rosa Blu feels as inviting as your grandma’s home. If your grandma was a quirky, funky old lady who liked to collect pretty things and was a kick ass chef. Much of the decor is for sale, so you could take that Frida Kahlo print or odd tea cup home with you if it has grabbed your fancy.

La Rosa Blu Cafe

The food is nothing fussy – breakfasts, pastas, sarmies and burgers. But one look at the menu and you know this isn’t your average plate of pasta or sandwiched bread. Vegetarian pasta options include The Capering Cow (rocket, basil pesto and capers) and The Happy Sheep (cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and olives), but – not too concerned with the happiness of my food – I opted for The Taxi Driver, that came with chicken, crispy bacon, red onions, cherry tomatoes, basil pesto and  my Achilles heel, truffle oil. I don’t know why it’s called The Taxi Driver, but it was delicious! Burgers are equally creative, and I’m sure there are few men who would pass up the opportunity to try The Italian Stallion, topped with bacon, feta, mozzarella and salami. Breakfasts range from R36 to R65 and pastas and burgers from R60 to R85. There weren’t flatbreads when we were there, but I am told by a very reliable foodie friend that he has had them and they are phenomenal.

La Rosa Blu Cafe
La Rosa Blu Cafe

When you’ve had your fill (don’t miss out on the gourmet milkshakes), take your Karoo cocktail outside and sip on this white port and tonic concoction while you drink in the views from the patio. Yeah, I’m jealous.

Is it ethical to review a restaurant when you own one? Or is that only okay when you’re Gordon Ramsay?

La Rosa Blu Café

Rosenhof Estate,  N9, Waboomskraal, George, South Africa

Open Wednesday to Sunday from 9 to 5

Tel:

www.larosablu.co.za

+27 44 886 0042

Transkaroo

Transkaroo
Transkaroo "wine list"

In a beautiful old railway station, beside a quiet lagoon in the tranquil town of Great Brak River, Transkaroo dishes up plates full of passionately created South African cuisine. The vaulted wooden ceilings, delicate ostrich egg chandeliers, and rustic wooden benches that are perfect for al fresco dining on a warm evening or sunny afternoon, all serve to create a warm, relaxing atmosphere that feels a little more special than the norm when you enter. Just like the song* says, Transkaroo brings you home. If home is where mom spent hours cooking lamb neck till you could eat it with a spoon, skilpadjies were made from scratch and served with onion marmalade and pies didn’t come from the 24 hour garage shop. Chef Stefan Jamneck is serious about making everything from scratch (bar, by his own admission, “the ice cream in the Dom Pedro’s”) and his kitchen uses the freshest, local, seasonal ingredients to influence the dynamic menu. But it’s not only the menu that changes regularly to keep up with what’s good right now. The wine list comprises a trip to the wine racks in a corner of the restaurant, where the selection on offer changes as new favourites are showcased.

Curried fish cakes
20130806-P1250718

Dishes are unpretentious, but exceptional. As the menu changes so often, it’s difficult to recommend a dish. But no matter what you choose, you can be sure that it will be rich, packed with in-your-face flavours, and not found in any diet recipe books. It’s best not to set your heart on a firm favourite, but should you come across them, to start, the snails vol au vents (okay, I realise that sounds totally pretentious, but if escargots vol au vents could be unpretentious, this would be them) blanketed in the silkiest, creamiest blue cheese sauce to ever enrobe a molusc is an absolute must. We also had the curried coconut fish cakes which packed a real Cape Malay flavour punch and the balsamic onion marmalade and Camembert tart (the marmalade on the latter, while beautifully sweet and gorgeously jammy, overpowered the delicate Camembert to my taste though). As a main, the lamb neck – Transkaroo’s signature dish – is highly recommended. The lamb is cooked for 4 hours and would fall off the bone if you shook your plate too vigorously! For dessert, try the chocolate orange fondant. (What a ridiculous sentence. Like anyone has to tell you try a chocolate orange fondant.) That is, of course, if you can look past the lavender crème brûlée or pecan pie with homemade coffee ice cream. Starters range from R30 to R50 and mains from R85 to R190.

Transkaroo

The service doesn’t feel like service. It feels more like a friend offering you another plate of food while you’re visiting them. The minute you walk in the door, everyone makes you feel like they’ve been waiting specially for you to arrive. That said, they won’t hover unnecessarily around you like your nosy Aunt Ida, but will keep your glass topped up so discreetly that you won’t be able to keep track of whether you’re over the limit yet. For a taste of the best traditional dishes South Africa has to offer, with a touch of something a little more special, Transkaroo is a great choice! And if you’re lucky, a train will roll past to add to the charm.

20130806-Transkaroo
Great Brak River

Website: transkaroo.wordpress.com (I think these guys are too busy making food to worry about an online presence!)

Address: 1 Morrison Road, Great Brak River, South Africa.

Telephone: +27 44 620 4163
Email: transkaroorestaurant(at)gmail.com

Lunch: 12:00 – 14:30, Tuesday – Sunday
Dinner: 18:00 – 20:30, Monday – Saturday

*If you’re South African, I bet you’re still singing “Laat jou yster wiele rol“, huh? You’re welcome!

Chinese snacking: A hazardous exercise.

Chinese snacking: A hazardous exercise.

In a supermarket where hermetically sealed packets of jellyfish can be found on the shelf, nestled between Plain Salted Lays and seaweed flavoured Tuc’s, finding a snack that is to your taste might be a challenge.

You might reach for a tube of chips, and land up with a bag of dried fish snacks (you’d be an idiot though, and a smelly one at that).

dried fish snack
Avoid these as a pre-dinner snack on a first date.

Or you might innocently peruse the shelves for a dried fruit snack, and come across spicy duck tongues.

Spicy duck tongues. Spotted mere inches from a few plain dates.
Spicy duck tongues. Spotted mere inches from a few plain dates.

Or fancy tucking into some sweet, corn flavoured bologny? No refrigeration required – these babies will last on the shelf forever.

Just want you want in a meat snack. The ability to last, unrefrigerated for ages. Oh, and sugar and corn bits.
The only thing in this picture that makes sense is the suggestion to run.

 Or maybe some nice spicy bean curd string.

tofu snack
Don’t believe that lip licking liar!

And my personal favourite; those baby-hand-resembling nibbles that everyone in China loves – chicken feet. Vacuum packed, off the shelf, chicken feet. Something us westerners apparently just “don’t get” (like China has the market on chicken feet cornered).

Chicken feet and corn bologny. Everything you need for a balanced meal.
Chicken feet and corn bologny. No wonder they’d rather eat dog.

Unsweetened popcorn? Forget it. Some good ol’ cheesy nachos? No chance. But it’s just as well we’re all different, isn’t it? If Chinese people didn’t gag at the thought of cheese (rotten milk, if you ask them, and a little rich if you ask me, seeing as they have that whole stinky tofu thing going on), jellyfish would be taking over our oceans as we fight each other over the last piece of Gorgonzola. So viva le difference!

You’re still going to need a snack though. And if there is one Chinese snack that I absolutely love, it is crunchy broad beans. Also known as horse beans in China, these little beauties are deep fried and then flavoured with various spices – Chinese 5 spice and beef being the most popular. When fried, the beans become a deliciously strange combination of crispy and creamy. You could probably pop the whole thing in your mouth, but I prefer to shell off the tougher outer layer. That way I get to play with my food.

Broad bean snck
See what I have to endure to find the best product for you? A small sampling of deep fried broad bean snacks. The friendly packet on the left is the best choice if you ask me.

But don’t try these. Floury and flavourless. Unless cardboard is a flavour.

Taste just like you would think horse beans would taste like.
Taste just like you would think horse beans would taste like.

I have tried to make a low fat version of this snack myself. Here is what doesn’t work:

* Boiling the beans till soft and then roasting them.

* Allowing the beans to sprout and then roasting them (this worked well with mung beans though).

* Roasting them.

Do you see the trend here? Roasting doesn’t work. Basically, unless they are dumped into a big vat of artery clogging fat, they are going to be teeth chippingly inedible. But I shall keep trying, so watch this space!

Anna’s Kitchen

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.

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 on the menu include Cape Malay Style Lamb Curry, Roast Beef Biltong Salad and the Pancetta & Chorizo Pasta. The last I can actually vouch for, as it formed part of my pasta trio and was delicious nestled between the seafood on the right and the chicken and sundried tomato on the left – the perfect solution for when there are too many things on the menu for you to choose just one without risking order envy. I tend to judge the quality of an establishment’s food on their cream based sauces. The closer it is to something that resembles real cream, packed with flavour, and the further it is from the Béchamel based sauces my grade 9 Home Ec teacher tried to pass off as a cream sauce, the happier I am. I was very happy at Anna’s Kitchen.

Anna's bread plate

We were told by others to expect slow service, but our waiter was pretty efficient. The food didn’t exactly get there in record time, which suited us, but would probably be a bit annoying if we lunched like normal people instead of turning it into a 4 hour marathon. There is a large deck outside under the trees and ample green lawn in a secured area where the kids can play, so it’s family friendly, or get a sitter and go for a quiet dinner and a slightly more sophisticated menu. The wine list is small and somewhat pricey. You can buy freshly baked foccacia, ciabatta and other goodies on the premises which – if the bread plate served with sundried tomato pesto was anything to go by – is highly recommended.

Phone: +27 16 423 5831
www.annaskitchen.co.za

info(at)annaskitchen.co.za

Address: 52 Golf Road, Three Rivers, Vereeniging

Cuisine: Contemporary with a South African twist and Italian touches.

Breakfast: 6.30am-11am, Monday to Sunday
Lunch: 11am-4pm, Monday to Sunday
Dinner: 6.30pm-close, Wednesday and Saturday

The Common Room

The Common Room
The Common Room tapas

If food is your thing and you don’t normally spend months on end looking for it under a rock, then you probably know who Margot Janse is. This multi award winning gourmet has been named Chef of the Year in the Eat Out DSTV Food Network Restaurant Awards for the second time and – as executive chef at Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek – she has led the The Tasting Room to the number two spot on the list of top restaurants in South Africa – the 11th time that this epicurean institution has ranked among the top 10 under her guidance. One day when I’m all grown up, have put the kids through college and have the kind of settled lifestyle where I can plan my eating experiences months in advance, I too will make it to The Tasting Room. But until then, it’s good to know that we can sample a small part of this phenomenal woman’s genius at The Common Room, Le Quartier Français’s slightly more accessible, but no less remarkable eatery. Don’t let the name fool you – The Common Room is far from plebeian. The decor is lush and rich in plums and reds with quirky chandeliers lighting the vibrant interior. For those who love to people watch there is cafè style seating on Huguenot Street’s ample sidewalk and the back of the restaurant opens up to cool gardens and mountain vistas with comfy couches and a fireplace for the chillier days.

Common Room Camembert

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Common Room offers a menu brimming with extraordinarily original small plates designed to be enjoyed as a snack with a glass of bubbly or wine or to accompany one of their witty cocktails (try the passion fruit based Bow Chicka Wow Wow), or to feature as part of a motley cast of plates that make up the perfect ensemble meal. The menu reflects Margot’s ability to zhush up the most humble of South African flavours with humour, imagination and a touch of the exotic. You won’t find a meatball here – instead tuck into succulent lamb frikadelletjies served with flatkoek and raïta. Battered fish takes the form of pops with chakalaka ketchup and the bitterballen (a nod to Margot’s Dutch heritage and one of my favourite things on the planet ever) is made with wildebeest and served with apple mustard. And who can resist something as simple as French toast when it is paired with Spanish cured ham, preserved lime and a summer tomato party? The chicken & duck liver parfait with salted pear simply melts in your mouth and is the closest thing you’ll get to foie gras without the ethical dilemma you normally face picturing all those fluffy, overfed geese. The quail rillettes with mebos chutney is served in a happy little jar and bursts with flavours of the Cape. (I feel like I’m rambling here, but let me continue!). Organic lamb tongue is given the bacon crumble treatment and will warm your heart on the dreariest of days and the wood baked Dalewood camembert (although not exactly original) is simply perfect in its oozy, creamy, rich simplicity. The only dish I didn’t enjoy was the satay spiced squid, but that’s only because it was meltingly tender and as a middle class South African I’m used to the cheap and chewy variety of calamari we have to settle for while the rest of the world munches on our good stuff. Lastly, hand cut chips are served playfully in paper cones and, amongst other sides, you can also tuck into wood roasted sweetcorn with smoked butter or tempura fine beans with a soya dip.

Peanut parfait

When you’re ready for something sweet, try a jar of brownies or the dainty pear & almond tartlet with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel (it’ll make you forget your manners and you’ll be licking the plate before you’re done). My absolute favourite dish of the day though was the peanut butter parfait with gooseberry gel. The cold, creamy moreish ice cream is paired perfectly with a crunchy, salty, peanut crumb that hits every spot a dessert should and some you didn’t even know it could. THIS is what Sally ate all those years ago. The wine list is small, featuring only Moreson wines, but when you can have Miss Molly Bubbly by the bottles full you probably won’t care! Dishes range from R25.00 to R50.00 per plate, and for those who need a man sized bowl of food before they consider it a meal, there is whole roasted chicken, pasture fed beef sirloin or wood roasted fresh water crayfish for between R150.00 and R190.00. Service is fast, knowledgeable and unobtrusive – everything you’d expect from such a well respected Franschhoek institution.

Le Quartier Francais

The Common Room is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon or evening sharing food with friends. Bookings are strongly recommended.

The Common Room

Corner Berg & Wilhelmina Streets, Franschhoek

Open 7 days a week from 07h30 till late.

Phone: +27 21 876 8442

email: [email protected]

Shanghai’s Friday Muslim Market

Shanghai’s Friday Muslim Market

My husband plays this little game every now and then. I’m not sure whether it’s his way of preparing for the worst thing imaginable to him. His Armageddon. His Apocalypse. His Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Out of the blue he will ask me: “If you had to give up all but one meat, which one would you keep?”. To me, this question was always a bit of a conundrum. Lamb seemed the obvious choice. Ribs, roasted till the fatty bits are all crispy. Shanks, slow cooked in Port till the meat melts off the bone. Chops, cooked on an open fire, surrounded by friends. Leg, done till slightly pink and served with lakes of rich gravy. But then what about bacon? I mean, pork would lose if not for bacon, but bacon complicates matters greatly. A pickle. But like anything, I needed to lose both to realise what mattered most to me. We technically can’t get bacon in Qingpu. Or at least, we can get something that says bacon on the packet. And “Elaborate Bacon” at that. But it’s some sort of processed, smoked meat chopped into bits and reassembled into a shape vaguely resembling that most essential BLT ingredient. And after our favourite teppanyaki restaurant closed its doors overnight despite being an apparent roaring success, we could no longer get mutton or lamb in any shape or form either. So, in those desperate days where I could not tuck into either a lamb chop or a perfectly crisp slice of streaky bacon, lamb is what I would’ve run to if you’d put it opposite bacon and had them both call me at the same time.

I am therefore slightly embarrassed that it took me four months to discover the wonder that is Shanghai’s Friday  morning Muslim market. Here, on North Changde Lu in the Jing’an District, you can get lamb in every conceivable style – fresh, cooked, minced, spiced, baked in dough, steamed in dumplings, skewered onto kebabs. And oh. My. Word. As a half blood Afrikaner meisie it pains me to say that the lamb I have eaten in China is better than any Karoo lamb I’ve had back home. Granted, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. As lamb goes, it’s fairly lean (if you don’t have the tail bit) and it has that really strong animal flavour you only ever get when you know someone who knows someone who can get his hands on one of those sheep who was actually destined to provide only wool, but then met an untimely end in a sausage machine.

But wait! Before we get to the market, a little detour is essential. To get to the market, you absolutely have to take the (less than) scenic route via Yanping Road. What you are looking for is Wuyuan bĭngjiā (or W.Y. Fanriy Cake – fancy cake? fairy cake? I don’t know, but look out for the orange sign). Here you will find xie ke huang – tiny, crispy, golden sweet or savoury crab shell pies. The pies don’t necessarily contain crab (although our interpreter did tell us that the ones we had here were crab roe, which I’m a bit dubious about given the pale colour). Rather, they are so called because the finished product resembles golden crab shells. The savoury fillings can contain fresh meat or crab meal, shrimps, spring onion and lard and the sweet ones are filled with sugar, rose water and bean or date paste – the sweet filling when warm has the consistency of thick syrup. The pastry is made from oiled, fermented flour and is wrapped around the filling, rolled in sesame seeds and then baked on the walls of a clay oven. It it hard to say what it is that makes me yearn for these little pies, even now. But there is just something about the crispy, flaky pastry giving way to the warm, soft, delicately flavoured center that is addictively moreish. We hadn’t made it halfway up the block before we’d polished off the lot and had to go back for more. Would I lie to you? It’s worth getting off a stop early for them. 蟹壳黄 – just find these characters on the menu and point – there is no English here. Pay inside and either eat in or collect your pies from the window outside. The queue moves very quickly. The pies are around RMB1 each.

Anyway, back to the Muslim Market. The red awninged carts and stalls of the market line both sides of Changde Lu on the sidewalks outside the Huxi Mosque. Most of the vendors are Uyghurs from Xinjiang province. This is the region that makes the sheeping world go round – the lamb here is the fat bottomed (or fat tailed to be precise) breed of sheep that gives the dishes you’ll find here that hearty, flavoursome edge. You can stock up on incense, carpets, jewellery, ornate daggers (can’t have too many of those), nuts, dates, fruit, a mind-boggling selection of raisins and sultanas, naan, and, most importantly lamb. Lots and lots of lamb!

Our first stop was at the steamed dumpling stall. They’re made just like every other jiaozi in Shanghai, but instead of pork they are filled with minced lamb and onions. There are virtually no other spices added – it’s just unadulterated lamby yumminess! The paper thin dough is folded around the lamb mixture, deftly pinched along the edges to seal in the meat and juices and the dumplings are then steamed in massive bamboo steamers.

One of the most popular dishes at the market is pulao (or polos) – mutton pilaf. To make this Uyghur dish, great, big chunks of mutton are boiled with rice, carrots, onions, garlic and sultanas. But while this was one of the main dishes I came for, it didn’t really appeal to me once I saw the pans full of rice. I think I was expecting a little more oomphf. Maybe some spices or something. Anyway, we skipped the pilaf and moved on to the langman – a cold noodle dish served with chilli flakes and sliced vegetable. We moved along – cold noodles are probably great for balancing the richness of the lamb dishes, but we were not outlambed just yet.

We crossed the road and headed for a stand selling samsa – baked Uyghur pies made with minced lamb, onions and spices, the Turkic Central Asian version of the better known samoosa. At the first such stall we came across (where they also sold their own version of apo zong) the samsa was fried, rather than baked. The vendor was incredibly friendly, standing with a toothless grin from ear to ear. But I’m sorry friendly mister vendor man, I really didn’t like the pies. They were rather oily (a bit like a bad South African vetkoek shell) and the meat was overpoweringly flavoured with cardamom instead of subtle cumin.

Disappointment was soon followed by elation though, as we came to a vendor selling roast lamb shoulder and ribs. The lamb is marinated in yogurt flavoured with just a hint of spices and a generous lashing of turmeric that turns it a gloriously golden hue. It is then slow roasted to fall-off-the-bone perfection. I have thought of this lamb at least once a week since we had it. Truth be told, I get a little melancholic every, single time. Just point at the bits you want and the vendor will cleave it all up into bite sized pieces for you.

Next up was an altogether better samsa stall. Here the pies are baked on the sides of a tandoor oven in the traditional manner. A bit like a hot pocket, the pies are encased in a bread shell – similar to a thin, crispy, smokey pizza crust – and the meat is very subtly spiced so that none of the beautiful flavour of the lamb is overpowered. The little parcels are slapped against the walls of the oven and poked around for a bit until they’re cooked.

I’ve only highlighted a few of the delicacies to be had here, but it was impossible to try everything. It was one of those days I wished I were a cow with a few extra stomachs (okay, I wish that most days). In between there were also various stalls selling kebabs assembled in every possible meaty permutation and slow roasted over coal fires. We didn’t even get to these, but if they’re anything like some of the other mutton kebabs I’ve had on the street, they’d be beautifully tender and perfect sprinkled with a bit of cumin and paprika and a dash of chilli. There are stalls selling homemade, filled pastas, fried and syrup soaked pastries, baklava and other sweets and bowls full of dogh – chipped ice covered in yoghurt and drizzled with honey. There is also fresh lamb for sale – from whole carcasses to stripped down spines and fat encased kidneys and all the bits in between. If a fly on your food puts you off then… well then how do you eat in China? The Friday Muslim Market was a truly memorable culinary experience and is well worth a visit. I suggest you buy at least two of everything because you’ll be sorry by Saturday if you don’t!

Getting there:

Take line 7 on the MTR. If you’re going to stop off for some crab shell pies first, then get off at Changping Road. Head west on Changping Lu until you hit Yanping Lu. Turn left. The bakery is about 300m down the road on your right. From here, head back to Changde Lu and just follow it north until your nose finds the market. If you’re allergic to shellfish (the only conceivable reason why you’d miss out on the crab shell pies), get off at Changshou Road and head north from there.

Wuyuan Bakery, 255 Yanping Lu, +86 21 6256 5556, 6 a.m.-11 p.m.

Friday Shanghai Muslim Market, Changde Lu between Aomen Lu and Yichang Lu, every Friday from 11am onwards.

Mezepoli

Mezepoli

It turns out that blogging is not like riding a bike. Rather, it is like a gym routine – once you’ve missed a few days, even sorting your sock draw somehow seems to take priority over getting the next post out. And so it is that more than a month has passed since I got back to South Africa and I’ve hardly written a thing. To be fair, I have not touched ground till now. We moved house, saw friends and family and tried to pack in as much of the SA sunshine as we could before hubby headed back to Shanghai without me. But the dust has settled a bit, my sock draw is sorted and there are no more excuses.

Where is the first place you go to eat when you’ve spent a few months away from home and are craving all things South African? Well, apparently my family thinks it’s to a Greek joint. So Mezepoli is where I found myself a few weeks ago the day after I landed back home. I was not expecting to say anything about it here and didn’t even take my camera. The plan was just to catch up with my family. But oh. My. Word. One bite of their decadently thick and creamy tzatziki and I knew I had to spread the word! So I grabbed my phone camera (hence the quality) and started taking notes before the Rosé could go to my head.

Mezepoli is like that guy at school who everyone wants to be like even though he’s only ever in faded jeans and old t-shirts – it is just effortlessly cool. The waitrons are knowledgeable, efficient and attentive without bothering you with too many “Are you okay?”‘s, the decor is simple and fresh and menus are printed onto paper that doubles as your table cloth. This is not the place for a quiet, romantic meal (unless it’s a first date and you’re worried about awkward silences, because there will be none here). Mezepoli is vibey and energetic and brilliant for a big group of friends. All those vague acquaintances you accepted on Facebook? This is why you put up with them! Get together as many people as you can so you can order and taste a bit of everything! Virtually the entire menu consists of meze. Various olives, cheeses and dips and vegetarian, seafood and meat meze can be mixed and matched as you like. You could get stuck here for an entire afternoon working your way through plate after plate. They describe their own dishes as being simple and paired down with unmasked, pure flavours so that matching dishes together is easy. There is even a food pairing suggestion if you just want to have drinks and one plate. Ha! Like you’ll manage to stop after one plate. I am no Mediterranean food expert, but I have never had meze like this! Start at the very beginning and order a bit from each section. Don’t skip the dips just because they might seem pedestrian compared to the rest of the menu. The tzatziki will have your uvula throwing little ceramic plates down and shouting “Opa!”. But if you think that that is expecting a bit much from a bit of yogurt and garlic, then try the melitzanosalata (roasted aubergine blended with garlic) and tirosalata (feta blended with peppers and chili). You’ll be praying for a successful solution to the Greek crisis so your supply never gets cut off. Be sure to mop it all up with lots of their fantastic pitas! Mezepoli is not the place to come if you’re worried about food miles as many of the yummy ingredients on the menu are imported. But I say rather plant a few extra trees and tuck in to the Spanish Jamon Serano ham or Italian prosciutto. And even if you’re lactose intolerant, practice your “it wasn’t me” face, put up with the bloat and have a few of the feta and gruyère cheese croquettes. The calamari grilled with onion and garlic and chicken wings done in delicate peri-peri are two other not-to-be-missed dishes, both bearing testament to the fact that simple, uncluttered flavours are sometimes the best way to go. The bekri meze (beef fillet with peppers and white wine) wasn’t to my taste, but then peppers can be a hit or miss for me at times. I still had two helpings though! Just to make sure. But there is so much more to choose from. I will definitely go back to try the htipiti (feta grilled with tomato, pepper and chilli), baby octopus and fava (split pea and cherry tomato dip). And it goes without saying that you should save a spot for that quintessential Greek dessert – baklava.

The wine list is small, but excellent and has some of everyone’s favourites – Zandvliet Shiraz, Haute Cabriere Chardonnay Pinot Noir and Pierre Jourdan Brut MCC to name a few. Best of all is that you can have any wine on the list by the glass, so you can pair wines to the different dishes. Try the L’Avenir Rosé – like a toffee apple for grownups without all the sweetness, it is happiness in a bottle. There are also all the old standby cocktails to choose from and, of course, ouzo for those who want to go completely native.

There are restaurants in Melrose Arch and Camps Bay. I will try the Camps Bay branch as soon as possible. In the interest of thorough investigative eating of course.

Mezepoli Meze and Wine Bar

Address: Shop SL26 The Piazza, Melrose Arch, Whiteley Road, Melrose, Johannesburg.

Phone: +27 11 684 1162

OR

The Promenade, Victoria Road, Camps Bay, Cape Town.

Phone: +27 21 438 1915

Price: R24.00 to R55.00 per meze plate.

www.mezepoli.co.za

Mooncakes

Mooncakes
Mooncakes with multiple layers
Thousand layer mooncakes.

I have been so busy shoveling mooncake into my face, trying to determine which ones are tastiest (in the name of investigative eating of course) that I forgot to write about them before they started disappearing again! Blame the brain slump after the sugar rush. Mooncakes (yuè bĭng) are sweet or savoury cakes eaten all year round, but especially during the Mid-Autumn Festival when the selection on offer balloons from a few choices in the corner of the bakery to what seems like hundreds of sizes, shapes, colours and flavours. During the festival (also known as the Moon Festival or Chinese Lantern Festival) which celebrates the end of the fall harvest, mooncakes are offered between friends, business associates and family. They are packaged in anything from single cakes in simple cellophane wrappers, to a selection of cakes wrapped in delicate tissue paper and nestled in beautifully decorated, elaborate boxes. (You know how you are always thinking it’ll be there tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow? Well, that’s what happened with all the beautiful displays of packaged mooncakes I kept swearing I’d photograph the next day. It never happened. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.)

Bread mooncake

Typical mooncakes are round or rectangular thin pastries with a rich, sweet, dense filling. Traditional mooncakes are made from red bean or lotus seed paste around a salted duck egg yolk that symbolises the full moon. (Salted duck egg in a sweet pie is a lot tastier than it sounds.) The cakes are embossed with various drawings and characters that might say the name of the bakery, the type of filling or the Chinese characters for  “longevity” or “harmony”. Other imprints might depict flowers, leaves, vines or one of the various legends surrounding mooncakes:

– Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon – who landed up living there due to an unfortunate string of events involving ten suns in the form of three legged birds living in a mulberry tree, a kick-ass archer and half a coughed up pill  – is often depicted. And you thought Scientology was weird.

– Rabbits are another popular choice, with some cakes even baked in the shape of a rabbit. In Chinese mythology, the Jade Rabbit lives on the moon where he pounds away at herbs trying to make another pill for Chang’e so she can get back to earth. I believe this. I’ve seen him. Although to me it looks like he’s lying in a bed with a patchwork quilt, which fits better with the other legend claiming that three fairy sages transformed themselves into pitiful old men and begged for something to eat from a fox, a monkey and a rabbit. The fox and the monkey both had food to give to the old men, but the rabbit, empty-handed, jumped into a fire to cook himself so that they could eat his flesh. Touched by his sacrifice, the sages let him live in the Moon Palace.

– A popular legend claims that moon cakes were instrumental in the overthrow of the Mongol dynasty that ruled China from 1271–1368. As group gatherings were banned, it was impossible to make plans for a  rebellion and so the Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang had to devise a sneaky plan. Noting that the Mongols didn’t eat mooncakes, he timed the uprising to coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival. He sought permission to distribute thousands of moon cakes to the Chinese residents in the city to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake, they inserted a message on a piece of paper that read: “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month”. On the night of the Moon Festival, the rebels attacked and overthrew the government and the Ming Dynasty was established. Altogether more my kind of coordinated attack than waiting it out in a smelly wooden horse with thousands of other stinky, farting soldiers. A nice little story (unless you’re Mongolian), but as the Ming troops entered the Mongol capital 7days before the festival, it is probably just that – a story. Also, if mooncakes are eaten to commemorate this legend, then how did they use mooncakes to create the legend? A predestination paradox if you ask me.

Image courtesy The Shanghaiist.

But back to the cakes. Bakeries, restaurants, pastry chefs and even ice cream makers have started creating ever more elaborate and interesting mooncakes. If you can stick it in a cake, someone somewhere has made it into a mooncake. Besides the traditional fillings of bean and lotus seed paste, you can also get cakes with jujube (date) and other fruit fillings (MU.Bread’s mango is my absolute favourite!), various chopped nuts and seeds, jams, cheesecake, custard, yams, chocolate and coffee and also savoury fillings like minced pork. (I joined a random food queue in Nanjing East last week on the assumption that if people are queuing for it it must be good and when I got to the counter it was pork mooncakes that had everyone in a frenzy.) And like with all things, you get what you pay for. So you can buy the Twinkie version of a mooncake for a yuan or two at your local supermarket (just with bean paste instead of cream), or splurge on brandied cherry truffle or single malt whisky truffle fillings. Other lavish ingredients include ganache, salted caramel, black truffle, caviar, foie gras and gold leaf to decorate the cakes. And if you’re watching your weight, there are also yoghurt, jelly and fat free ice cream versions. Depending on the region or producer, the crusts can be chewy, crumbly or flaky but will usually contain lard. The mooncakes are cut into little wedges and enjoyed with tea.

You can find mooncakes in just about every bakery, supermarket and corner store in China year round, but the real festival cakes appear in August and for most of September. Outside China you can get them at Asian food shops beginning around mid-August.

Of jellyfish, old eggs and other things to eat.

Of jellyfish, old eggs and other things to eat.
Century eggs with soy sauce

As I mentioned in my previous post, this weekend I finally got around to trying century eggs, chicken feet and jellyfish. I have had a punnet of preserved duck eggs sitting in the fridge for weeks now and just haven’t had any ideas on what to do with it. The only recipe suggestion I could find was century eggs with silky tofu. Ew. But when it was served to me on a plate on Saturday night I had no more excuses. Ditto with the chicken feet and jelly fish. Chicken feet are ubiquitous around here. They are available on the street as a deep fried, boiled or battered snack and they are plentiful at the supermarket, both fresh and frozen in open cases at the butchery as well as vacuum packed in the snack aisle. Jellyfish too are available at the fish counter and vacuum packed as a snack. But unlike those sneaky chocolate bars that slip into your trolley as you pass through the snack aisle, chicken feet and jellyfish don’t exactly jump off the shelf at you now, do they? As I pointed out to my husband the other night when a tiny, disorientated beetle took a nose dive into a boiling pot of pasta I had on the stove, our perception of what is acceptable to eat is almost entirely a state of mind. I have no problem wolfing down a platter of prawns, legs and all, but I would spend ten minutes trying to fish the now partially disintegrated beetle out of the pasta. By the time I got it out I actually needed the crunch it would’ve provided as by then the pasta was overcooked and nothing was “too the tooth”. It was just the idea of eating this beetle. Big, fat, bug-eyed cockroaches of the sea? No problem. Flying insectile sources of protein? Hell no!

I think these might be off, but how would you even know??

Which brings me to the century egg. To be honest, if you had blindfolded and fed it to me (blindfolded me, not the egg) and told me it was a hard boiled egg with a bit of cream and beautifully ripe Camembert inserted into the centre for a creamier yolk with a delicate ammonia flavour I would’ve loved it and declared you a Heston Blumenthal-esque genius. Because that is exactly what it tasted like. Just a little more sulfurous. But it isn’t a hard boiled egg with a creamy center now, is it? It’s a raw egg, immersed in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime and rice hulls for anything from a few weeks to several months. This turns the egg white into a firm, translucent, dark brown jelly and the yolk a grey-green, creamy consistency with a slight sulfur and ammonia taste. I tried the egg white first and it didn’t taste like much – pretty much like a very firm, boiled egg white. Then I tried the yolk on it’s own and I really struggled to keep it down. I don’t know why! The flavour was creamy and delicate and everything but my eyes told me it was something I should love! But as I took the second bite, getting a bit of everything in, some of the green yolk sort of glooped off the chopstick on to my plate and I was done. I really am rather disappointed with myself on this one I have to tell you. Century eggs (quail, chicken and duck eggs) are available everywhere and can be bought singly as a vacuum packed snack, by weight or prepacked in punnets. They are also labelled as preserved eggs.

Preserved quail eggs at a market.

The chicken feet were a bigger success. I’ve suspected all along that I’d actually like them as one of my many secret shames is that that little gristly bit on the end of a drumstick is my favourite part of the chicken. But when it comes to animal bits, what puts me off is the package deal. Chicken feet on their own are fine. Chicken feet still attached to the chicken, not so much. So when you’re standing in the butcher, contemplating the chicken feet right next to other chicken feet still part of a whole chicken, you have one of those “Usual suspect” moments. You look at the feet, you look at the chicken, you look at the feet… Wait… The feet… are part of the chicken! I need to get over this. After all, as a South African the concept of “walkie-talkies” (chicken feet and heads) is not foreign to me, even though it is not a staple of the average white South African. Personally, I think this should change because, as I suspected, I liked the chicken feet. Not so much how they were served on Saturday night (boiled and then served cold with chillies and vinegar), but nibbling those little gristly bits off was really good, and I can quite imagine myself working my way through a big pile of roasted chicken feet washed down with an ice cold beer.

Looks good right? I’d klap that with a beer!

As for the jellyfish, you might as well find the dullest person around and ask if you can nibble his ear a bit. Tasteless with a sort of squeaky crunch. A bit like trying to chew that rubber skeleton toy we all had when we were kids, just with some sesame oil and a bit of soy. I am dumbfounded as to why anyone would eat this. I will try it again though, just to be sure. And as with all things, you shouldn’t take my word for it either. Who knows? Century eggs and jellyfish could just be your dream meal!