Cheesy pork chops au gratin with creamy asparagus

Cheesy pork chops au gratin with creamy asparagus

And now, regular broadcasting will continue. And just to prove that I am not completely blinded by my animal love, and that I do understand the need for a balanced, humane and sustainable way of feeding this planet’s exploding population: A post on pork chops.

The adage that you should not judge a book by its cover is, in my humble opinion, completely inapplicable when it comes to food. Yes, I might quietly deduct a point from a restaurant’s score when they feel the need to advertise their food by using photos on their menu (thanks for ruining picture menu’s for me Gordon Ramsay – they’re the only way I know what I’m eating in China and now your Kitchen Nightmares rants have left me reeling as I wrestle with the restaurant photo-menu paradox: I should not be eating in a restaurant that puts photos of their food on their menu, but the only restaurant I can eat in without inadvertently ordering turtle soup with a soupçon of sea slug is a restaurant that puts photos of their food on their menu), but I will also seldom be persuaded to cook something unless it is accompanied by a photo to sell it to me. But I am going to ask you not to judge this dish by its cover. While it might look ugly to the point of being off putting, it is really, really good. In fact, Bush Man declared it the best thing he’s eaten in China – and we’ve been to Mr.& Mrs. Bund. And while it’s not exactly fine dining, and I suspect he was just trying to get into my pants, it does make for an exceptionally good and laughably easy family dinner.

If you found this post searching for “cooking with Chinese vegetables” then you probably think that asparagus is a shameful cop out. But I have included this recipe under that section, because not only is asparagus cheap and plentiful here, but they are really delicious. Tender and sweet with loads of asparagus flavour (as opposed to, you know, leek flavour, or Fresca maybe.) And in the supermarket they are as eye catching as hair vegetable or balsam pear, because they are freakishly long here, so you don’t feel like snapping off the tough end and tossing it away is such a waste. The secret to this dish is to use the best quality pork and asparagus you can find, because the flavour comes solely from these two ingredients.

Cheesy pork chops au gratin with creamy asparagus

Cheesy pork chops au gratin with creamy asparagus

Serves 4


Recipe type: Main


  • 4 large pork chops – rinds removed and reserved
  • a bunch of fresh, green asparagus, cleaned, chopped into 1 inch pieces and tough bits discarded
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 10ml flour
  • 125ml cream
  • 200ml grated white cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese (optional)
  • seasoning


  1. Season the chops and grill in the oven till just done. Use the smallest dish you can that will hold the chops and the asparagus sauce.
  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and saute the asparagus for two or three minutes until tender.
  3. Add the flour to the asparagus and stir to combine with butter. Cook for a further minute.
  4. Add the cream to the asparagus and stir until you have a smooth sauce.
  5. Pour any pan juices that might have collected from the chops into the sauce and stir.
  6. Pour the sauce over the chops, top with the cheese and grill until golden and bubbly.
  7. Season the pork rind and place under a hot grill till it goes crackly. Serve with the chops. Good with mash or hot chips!

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.

Caged kitten

I mentioned a few days ago that we went to the bird and insect market in Shanghai last weekend, but only caught the end of it. Yesterday, after a lovely morning strolling through the Former French Concession area I took a deep breath and went back, hoping we had somehow caught it on a bad day. We hadn’t. I am shocked that so many travellers have described the market as “an interesting place to take photos” on the net. It is not interesting. It is horrifying and a heartbreaking confirmation of humanity’s misguided and self imposed superiority over those creatures we believe are there purely to serve us.

Crickets in jars at the bird and instect market in Shanghai

It is probably an indication of how acceptable the vendors think it is to keep animals in these conditions that they all smiled when I took photos (all but one guy who had what I’m sure were probably threatened – if not endangered – turtles, endlessly swimming to nowhere in little tubs behind a glass door, and with whom I then had a heated monologue about what he was trying to hide, to which he just nodded his head and smiled).

While there is the odd stall holder that provides large cages and adequate food and water, most of the birds and animals are kept in tiny, overcrowded cages. More than half of the kittens had rheumy and infected eyes and there are sometimes so many shoved into a cage that they have to lie on top of each other. There was a cage with rabbits in that was crammed so full that I cannot believe the ones at the bottom could survive the day in there.

Rabbits stuffed into cages
Many of the animals at the bird and insect market in Shanghai showed signs of illness.
Many of the animals at the bird and insect market in Shanghai showed signs of illness.

Birds are kept in tiny, filthy cages and many of them are missing tail feathers. Almost all the birds I saw – hundreds of them – were hyperventilating due to stress. One parrot was so stressed that he had plucked out virtually every feather on his body. Another sparrow was not caged, but was tied to a perch from which he frantically kept trying to fly away as the passersby frightened him. There were hundreds of larks, thrushes, mynahs and other wild birds. It is worth noting that it is estimated that one of these tamed birds is equivalent to ten deaths among wild birds.

Song birds in small and filthy cages. Can you say bird flu?
Song birds in small and filthy cages. Can you say bird flu?

Grasshoppers and crickets are kept in tiny jars, often without food and water and many were dead. The crickets are kept both for their stridulation and for cricket fights, and while owners expend huge amounts of time and money on getting the best singers and fighters, vendors are less concerned about the condition these insects are kept in. 

Crickets, bunnies, chicks, squirrels and budgies for sale on a sidewalk in Shanghai.

Like everywhere on the street, turtles are kept in small bowls of water, and in my travels I have found more than a few that have flipped upside down, and then drowned because they couldn’t get back up.

Between the bars
A bird tied to a perch at the bird and insect market in Shanghai

Live crickets and grasshoppers in boxes.
Live crickets and grasshoppers in boxes.

I know that there are worse cruelties being inflicted on animals not only in China, but in the rest of the world too, but what disturbed me the most is that this was not a dog and cat meat market where the slaughtering practices are hidden from the general public or a bear bile farm in the middle of nowhere. This is a pet market on a busy street in the biggest city in China. A cosmopolis where China’s increasingly affluent, growing, pet-loving middle class can purchase dog food and aquarium plants and cat baskets and generally SEE what is going on there. And yet, despite the growing number of pet owners in China who clearly love animals and who one would think must be outraged at what is happening in these pet markets, the animals are still kept in appalling conditions. And it’s not just here. It is in your face on the sidewalks of Shanghai every day. Turtles, bullfrogs, ducks, quails, pigeons and chickens are shoved into nylon bags and left on the sidewalks in the sun without food or water all day. The lucky ones are sold and hopefully killed quickly, but more often than not they lie like that for hours before being shoved into a plastic bag (some, after having a leg cleaved off so they’ll sit still while being weighed) to be taken home. Now I love my pork chop as much as the next guy, but there is a way of treating animals – whether they have been bred as companions or for human consumption – in a way that does not only take cognisance of our impact on the environment, but that is humane and ensures that these animals are taken care of responsibly.

A woman sells turtles out of nylon mesh bags on Xizang Lu, Shanghai.
A woman sells turtles out of nylon mesh bags on Xizang Lu, Shanghai.

Dog eating festivals have caused worldwide outrage in recent years, highlighting the plight of these animals and leading to the cancellation (but not ban) of some festivals. But many Asians have claimed that we should not enforce our Western ideas of what is acceptable to eat on them and I cannot disagree. If intelligence was a factor in determining what we are prepared to eat, we would no longer touch bacon. I am not saying that the Chinese or Koreans or Vietnamese or whoever else chooses to do so should not be allowed to eat dog meat. Just because a cow has never wagged its tail when I walked by or looked for affection from me doesn’t mean I can condone the eating of one, but not the other. But companion animals are bred to depend on human care and form bonds with their human owners, and the dogs at these festivals are reportedly often stolen and arrive in the trucks with their collars still on. We have bred these animals to be our companions, to protect our homes, to play with our children, so to then turn around and eat the very animals we have demanded (and received) undeserved loyalty from for twenty thousand years seems like the worst betrayal. And even where they have been bred purely for meat, as they reportedly do (although some claim stray dogs of all breeds are mostly eaten) with the Nureongi in Korea, the consumption of dog meat should be done in a humane way both in the treatment of the animals while they are being raised and the manner in which they are slaughtered. The dogs arriving to be eaten at these festivals are crammed into tiny cages without food and water, and sometimes travel in these conditions for days. It is reported that dogs are purposely slaughtered in front of other dogs to increase their fear and stress level, as this is supposed to enhance the flavour and increase the adrenaline in their meat, which according to Chinese folklore, boosts virility. Dogs are also hung upside down, beaten and then left to hang and bleed out slowly or cooked alive for the same purpose.

Caged puppy

The Chinese government has the monumental task of ensuring economic growth and the supply of food to its over 1.3 billion inhabitants, so ethics, morality, social responsibility, environmental impact, labour rights and animal welfare are often ignored. Chinese authorities are understandably not motivated to tackle the problem of animal cruelty as this could lead to a downturn in economic growth and threaten the livelihood of a large portion of the population.

Caged birds

China is the world’s biggest animal farming nation and farmers are adopting Western farming practices such as gestation crates, battery cages, ear-clipping, beak-trimming, early weaning for calves, castration, tail-docking for pigs, and the force feeding of ducks and geese for weight gains and foie-gras production faster than European Union and other Western nations are phasing out such practices. Humane slaughter is still a largely new concept and is yet to become a requirement of slaughterhouses in the country. Production intensification and the sheer number of animals needed to feed a country that is considering phasing out their one-child policy means that the world’s greatest number of farm animals are raised in welfare compromised conditions. Even 10 000 of China’s state-protected species (yes, you read that right) –  the Asiatic Black Bear – are still kept for life in cages too small for the bears to even turn around in, in order to extract bile from their gallbladders through an open wound cut in their stomachs.

Quails, chickens, ducks and pigeons are often squashed into nylon mesh bags and left in the sun without food and water.
Quails, chickens, ducks and pigeons are often squashed into nylon mesh bags and left in the sun without food and water.

It is said that more than three quarters of the Chinese population have indicated a desire for improved animal welfare protection and an end to the dog meat industry. So why are animals still being treated like this? Because Mainland China’s animal welfare laws are virtually non-existent. Animal abuse is not a punishable offense. Authorities prefer to create a production environment that is obstacle free – read, free of all those pesky animal rights requirements that could slow down the process. Therefore neither authorities or the average animal lover on the street has any way of taking appropriate legal action or making a stink about the inhumane practices they see around them. According to Peter Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and China Policy Specialist of Humane Society International, China is at the bottom, if not the very bottom of the global report card in terms of its animal welfare track record. And while many Chinese, especially the older generation who grew up under Mao (it is estimated that up to 60 million people starved during the Great Famine, when I’m sure you didn’t care how what you’re eating lived or died as long as you survived) are indifferent and insensitive to animal suffering, there are many young Chinese people today who are active in the fight against animal cruelty and have stopped seal product imports from Canada, rodeo shows and dog slaughters and protested against the live boiling of cats , not without opposition from less progressive locals. While the overall political environment is against activism for animal protection, there is a perceptible shift among those that did not grow up under Mao Zhedong – driven by rising incomes, urbanization and increased pet ownership – to regard and respect animals as feeling, sentient beings.

And while I realise that this little pet market is a drop in the ocean, we cannot just throw our hands in the air and shout “But what about force fed ducks? Or the gorillas?? Or starving kids in Ethiopia???” and then go and sulk in a corner while we fail to do anything at all. In 2011, a 600 year old dog eating festival in Qianxi, China, which commemorates a battle fought in the town after an invading army killed all the dogs to prevent being exposed by barking (like then eating 15 000 of them every year makes sense!) was stopped by the Chinese government for the first time in its history because of pressure from netizens after information about the festival went viral. Sadly, the Yulin dog eating festival in the Guanxi province is gearing up again for this year’s festival, where dogs are often skinned and cooked alive, and at the time of this post, the Chinese government was not interested in stopping it. 

Just so much garbage.
Just so much garbage.

So if the Chinese government won’t listen to their own people, maybe the rest of the world should start making their voices heard. Before the Beijing Olympics, the government made restaurants in the city remove dog meat from their menus so as not to offend Western sensibilities. The Chinese government wants to present themselves as a progressive society. It matters to their economic growth. It’s not true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Bad publicity is bad publicity.

So what can you do to help?

1). Sign online petitions. Add your voice by virtually only lifting a few fingers. These are just a few current petitions (not all China related). If they have expired, simply search for the latest ones. NB!! The Yulin festival in Guangxi province is set for mid June! Please act now!

Stop the Guangxi province dog eating festival

Stop animal abuse in China

Stop animal abuse at Wenling Zoo

Stop shark finning

Stop puppy mills

Boycott China  

 2) Support organizations, such as One Voice, Animals Asia, Chinese Animal Protection Network, and the Humane Society International, which all work to end the animal cruelty and abuse in China and around the world.

3). Support local animal shelters and local animal welfare laws and initiatives.

4). Become an informed individual and stand-up for animal welfare and for your beliefs.

5) Put pressure on your own government to pressure the Chinese government to introduce animal welfare laws. In 2012, the USA alone imported $425,643,000,000.00 in goods from China according to the United States Census Bureau

6) Put pressure on local companies to pressure the Chinese government to introduce animal welfare laws. Walmart alone is responsible for 15% of the total amount of goods imported to the USA from China.

7) Spread the word. Share the information you have read here today so that others can take action. Get your community involved not only in animal welfare in China, but in your own community. The East is (sadly) constantly looking at emulating the West. What will they see when they look at us? Collective outrage can help bring change.

8) Boycott China and those companies that sell their goods. This one will be tricky. Have you ever considered how many Chinese products you use on a daily basis and what your life would be like without them? This one would require extreme dedication and a thorough knowledge of the origins of your consumables.

9) A great little tip from The Petition Site:Compile receipts from Non-Chinese items purchased instead and send them to your country’s Chinese Ambassador with a “Revenue Lost” boycott letter.

10) Don’t buy faux fur items unless you are completely sure that the product really is fake.

And most importantly, be kind. “For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” – Milan Kundera

 *If you want to go over to the Bird & Insect Market in Shanghai and make a massive fuss, without actually being understood or just to give a bit of love to the animals there (it will break your heart, because despite their condition, a few of them still respond to human affection), take Line 10 to Laoximen station and exit through exit 1. The market is a 5 minute walk to the north.

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


1 head of Hangzhou bok choi, finely sliced (equivalent to a 300g pillow pack of lettuce)

4 large potatoes, boiled, peeled and cubed

250g bacon, cooked and chopped

4 to 6 eggs, hard boiled, peeled and sliced in half

3 spring onions, finely sliced

Caesar dressing to taste

Mayo to taste


1) Combine equal quantities of dressing and mayo (as much as you prefer on a salad), season and set aside.

2) Toss the potatoes and bok choi together, pour over the dressing and give a light stir.

3) Pile the potatoes on a plate and top with the eggs, bacon & spring onions.

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?

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


15ml oil

1 onion

2 cloves garlic

3 small chillies (or to taste), chopped

20ml lemon grass, minced

2 chicken stock cubes (or tubs, or sachets, depending on your budget) dissolved in 750ml water

500g butternut (or pumpkin), diced

400ml coconut cream

250g cooked prawns (I like to grill whole prawns and then deglaze the oven dish with the water I need to use for the stock. I also prefer whole prawns in the soup, even if it’s a bit messy.)

1) Heat oil in a pan. Add the garlic, onions, chillies & lemon grass. Cook until the onions are soft.

2) Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the butternut and simmer for ten minutes until soft.

3) Blend. (With a blender, if “blend” isn’t clear enough.)

4) Stir in the coconut cream and heat through.

5) Add the prawns and serve. Alternatively pour the soup into bowls and top with the prawns.

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.

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 that way inclined. I grab a set of earphones (the packaging ensures me they’ll “make exquisite sound for excellent life”) and head for the counter. Now at this point, as the shopkeeper rings up my purchase and everyone knows what is expected of them, I should just look at the amount indicated on the till, pay and leave. But no. I open my purse, tilt my head to indicate I am in questioning mode while holding it open, and say  “Duōshǎo qián?”. He freezes, looking at me like I’m speaking Greek. I’m not, am I? I’m pretty sure this is Mandarin. My phone told me so. I can’t have gotten it that wrong surely? And to help him put my question into some context and better understand what I’m trying to ask, there are visual clues. I’m in a shop. I have handed over an item I wish to purchase. I am holding open my purse, nodding to the yuan lying in there and deploying the international hand signal for money by rubbing my thumb and fingers together. If I were playing a game of charades, even a dim witted Labrador with bad vision would get “Lady asking for price” by now. He has not. He shouts for his mom in the back and she joins him. A short conversation and some nervous glances between them follows and they turn back to me, staring at my purse like a paper snake will pop out of it at any second. Determined not to give up until I either get it right, or someone puts two and two together and helps me with the correct pronunciation, I repeat “Duōshǎo qián?”. The mother throws her hands up and walks to the back of the shop shouting “Ting bu dong” as she goes. I have lost count of the amount of shopkeepers who have just shouted “I don’t understand!” at me and walked away, leaving me alone with their tills and wares, presumably so I can help myself to some sort of Laowain protection money, with the promise of not coming back till next month. They don’t try to help, they don’t try to understand and they are not interested in my amateur mime attempts. They just forgo the sale and leave. “Duōshǎo qiánDuōshǎo qián?” I try one last time, aware now that if I was drawn as an anime character, I’d be the chick with the crazy eyes and frothy mouth who sprays spittle everywhere when she talks. As a last, desperate attempt to get the mad lady out of his shop, the man slowly picks up a beaded Hello Kitty purse from the shelf behind him and drops it in front of me, snatching his hand away quickly. Apparently what he has gleaned from my communication efforts is that my red leather Busby purse isn’t blingy enough around these parts and could he possibly be so kind as to suggest an upgrade? I stare at the shopkeeper for a few more seconds, slump my shoulders, hand over what I assume is a sufficient amount, wait for my change and walk out of the shop feeling defeated.

And that is why I am giving up on Mandarin. No man is an island until he tries to learn Chinese in China.

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


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

Cooking with kids: Ye ol’ standby muffins

Cooking with kids: Ye ol’ standby muffins

A guest post by Miss Rachel Carlin

Kiddie muffins

My mom always told me that there are two things every girl should have: a 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.


  • 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:


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.


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 gate affords a 180 degree panoramic view of the entire reserve, all the way to Moz. Guests may drive through large parts of the reserve on their own. Roads are all gravel, but passable by normal car.

Ezulweni hide on Nyamithi pan.

Ndumo is not fancy. There are no restaurants with buffet breakfasts, flood-lit lookouts or cocktail bars with blue drinks. It is a place for old school nature lovers that don’t mind sharing the bathroom with a moth the size of their hand. The camp is small, with only 7 chalets. Each chalet has a kitchenette, aircon and a lovely, big wooden deck for sipping G&T’s on. Ablutions are communal and, although old, are very clean. There is a sparkling pool with loungers to while away the hot afternoons. The camp sites are shaded by large trees. A communal kitchen with everything you need is available for campers. Each camp site is equipped with a power point and a braai with a grid.

The camp site.
The chalets.

What To Bring

Guests need to supply their own food and beverages. There is a small shop selling drinks and snacks, but no other food. NB! The tap water at Ndumo is not suitable for drinking. Ensure you take your own supply of drinking water and ice trays to make your own ice, because it’s a bit of a hit and a miss whether the reserve has in stock. There is a Spar located 2km from the reserve in the town where you can get petrol, cash and groceries. Stock up on wood while you’re at it, as the only wood available is at the gate and in short supply. Ndumo is in a malaria area, so take precautions.

Shokwe pan walk under the sycamore figs. Broadbills be here.
Golden orb web spider

Ndumo Game Reserve

[email protected] / +27 33 845 1000

Open Summer (October to March) from 05:00 – 19:00 and Winter (April to September) from 06:00 – 18:00.

Getting there: From the north or south, follow the N2 and turn off at Jozini. Go through the town, across the dam wall and follow the road until you see the Ndumo sign posts. The last 12 or so kilometers is dirt road. It’s a little like cars on ice after rain, but otherwise passable with a normal vehicle. When we were there it looked like they were in the process of tarring the road, but it’s anyone’s guess when this will be completed.

GPS co-ordinates: 32d18’48.85″E 26d54’32.48″S

* Apologies for the poor quality photos. Suggestions on improving my landscaping shots are welcomed!*