Saturday, June 21, 2008

¡Viva México!

Hello blog-world, it's been a while. I apologize for my prolonged absence, it's been somewhat of a hectic year so far... but I'm ready now, I think, after having somewhat settled myself. BUT I have so much to tell you all.

First up, Mexico. In early March, a few friends of mine were heading off to Mexico for a conference and had decided to take the opportunity to travel around the country beforehand for three weeks. I was understandably jealous.. so to send them off before they went, we went to
Taco Bill the night before they flew out for dinner. Now, I realize that of all the Mexican/Latin American restaurants we could have chosen in Melbourne, anything, ANYTHING at all would have been more authentic than Taco Bill. Think Los Amates, Mi Corazon, whatever. But we love(d) how tacky it is, and we just wanted a big ass margarita and some nachos, so Taco Bill it was. It was, of course, your typical pseudo-Mexican affair - nachos with salsa, melted cheese and sour cream; burritos, tacos and quesadillas wrapped with chicken or beef, lettuce, cheese and tomato on rice and beans. Being no food snobs, we loved it, and loved also the huge huge margaritas they serve. Made us all very happy, I should say, though I'm not sure if the staff really felt the same about us.

However, Taco Bill is not the end of my Mexico story. Because by 2am the following morning, I had hopped online, found a space on the same flight as my friends and was packing frantically so I could fly out with them in 10 hours time. The adrenaline was pumping and I was too busy packing and making sure I had everything sorted before we got on the plane, but once I was served my complimentary drink 20 minutes after takeoff, I started to freak out majorly. C did a wonderful job of calming me down though and got my adrenaline pumping again when we got to LAX.. and after that, I was just ecstatic, it was the most spontaneous thing I've ever done and probably the best thing I've ever done as well.
In my 10 days there, we spent a few days in Mexico City, then down to Acapulco, then Huatulco before I boarded a bus to head back to Mexico City to the airport and the girls went onwards. We saw amazing sights, was completely immersed in the whole culture, tried every food we possibly could, saw as much as we possibly could. And good lord, we ate. Things are ridiculously cheap, to the stage where if we paid more than 50 pesos for a meal (around $5), it was expensive. The food is good, the tequila amazing and the beaches almost as beautiful as back home.

So, the food... Mexico City saw us eating at roadside taco stands where I'd love to tell you what was in them, but unfortunately I don't speak or read spanish, so ordering mostly consisted of pointing and thus I don't actually know what I ate. Only that it was good. One of our group was a bit worried about food contamination, but pffth I'm asian, I'll eat most things roadside or not, and frankly, in my opinion, what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger. Other memorable meals included eating at cantinas, which, according to Wiki, traditionally refers to a kind of bar normally frequented only by males for the purpose of imbibing alcohol and partaking of appetizers (bontanas). Apparently, according to Lonely Planet, they often traditionally had signs that expressly prohibited entry to women and children and although some of these restrictions are beginning to fade, it is still viewed as.. not inappropriate, but more, unusual, for ladies to be seen visiting a cantina. However, as I previously mentioned.... no hablo espanol. So in we went, and for 25 pesos ($2.5), the price you pay for a Corona, we got a fish stew, deep-fried whole fish, bread rolls, stewed pork and some rice. Plus a picture with mariachi's. Awesome. If you ever get the chance, take advantage of the tourist thing and do it, it's the real authentic experience and you'll be glad you did it.

Other meals included the more typically known enchiladas and quesadillas (maize tortillas wrapped around chicken, beef or pork, with cheese sometimes, covered with salsas and moles, or sauces); the best tortilla soup i've ever eaten; lots of rice; even more mole and beans. By the end of the trip, I was quite sick of the maize tortillas, but it's true what they say, nothing beats authentic food. No more Taco Bill for me anymore.
Another amazing find was our introduction to cajeta, a sweet caramel made from goats milk, giving it a rich flavour. Traditionally, it's eaten as a spread or filling, but is also wonderful on its own. We were given a little dish of this candy heated up so it was gooey and delicious, and a few spoonfuls each was more than enough to satisfy our sweet teeth.

If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: go to Mexico. Delicious and wonderful things, people and weather await you. Despite what some may say about safety and pollution and otherwise... personally, I don't think these things should stop anyone from exploring the world. The world will be what it is and if you don't take chances, you're not going to live life as fully as you can. So be spontaneous, live and eat. Even if the stuff you eat does come from the side of the road.

After coming back from Mexico, I was left with massive wanderlust without the ability to actually do anything about it. I had planned on heading to Europe with C (again) this July, but finances and other factors meant that I'm now in Hong Kong visiting family instead. Capitalizing on the Mexican thing, however, I really wanted to do something with Mexican food at some point. Today is J's birthday, so 2 weeks ago when we were all still back in Melbourne, I invited B & J and a few others around for a Mexican fiesta involving fun and food. We had 10 in total, and since J LOVES tacos (he is American), I decided to make tacos with a little bit more of an original twist. Dinner thus involved a menu of 40 burrito wraps, 20 taco shells, lots of lettuce, tomato and cheese, guacamole with extra avocado, chorizo con queso (chorizo and cheese), a simplified version of chicken mole and kangaroo fajitas. Lots of food, but delicious it was.

I took a look on the internet to see if I could get some easy versions of these recipes. The chorizo dish I got from here, and it turned out quite wonderfully despite me using just normal chilli flakes (albeit quite a lot of it), instead of the more authentic poblano chile. The kangaroo fajitas was basically just kangaroo steak sliced into strips, then sizzled with onions, garlic, capsicum and my own spice mix of cumin, coriander, chilli powder, chilli flakes and a bunch of other stuff I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure I just improvised and it turned out woderfully.

My favourite, however, was the chicken mole, which had a bit of an interesting twist to it. Mole, a Mexican sauce commonly used in many Mexican dishes was first developed in Puebla City in the 1680's, in a convent, no less. Since then, the neighbouring state of Oaxaca has become famous for a particular type of black mole which includes the special ingredients of special spices and chocolate. Mexican chocolate in itself is unique in that it contains large amounts of spices within them, namely cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. In searching for a simpler, but similarly unusual recipe, I found the following recipe. It is very very easy to make, and since it was a sauce, I sort of just went by a chuck-everything-in-in-rough-amounts kind of approach. It turned out beautifully, but I suspect this is a kind of recipe that is hard to mess up.

Easy Chicken Mole
2 tbsp olive oil
6-8 boneless chicken breasts (though I just bought chicken thighs and cut them up into smaller pieces)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
3 cups salsa (I used hot)
1 cup chicken broth
3 tbsp chilli powder
2 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tbsp peanut butter

1. Heat oil in a skillet. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and brown the pieces in the hot oil in a single layer until golden brown on both sides. Remove from pan and set aside.
2. Pour out all but one tablespoon of fat from the pan and add the onion. Cook until softened. Add garlic and continue cooking.
3. Add salsa, chicken broth, chilli powder, cocoa powder and peanut butter. Stir till blended.
3. Bring sauce to a boil, then return chicken pieces to the pan, covering them in the sauce. Lower heat and cook uncovered, basting the chicken pieces occasionally with the sauce until cooked through and the sauce has thickened.

N.B. The original recipe, found here, says to let the sauce thicken for 30-40 minutes, but I found a mere 20 minutes was quite good with the pan covered. But it was always going to taste good, really.

Yet more to come (really!) - Tjanabi, Sydney and Hong Kong.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Summer Lovin'

Since returning to Melbourne several weeks ago, I've been through a lot of ups, downs and downright scandalous things. In between, however, I've also played, ate, shopped and frolicked in the streets and gardens of Melbourne city. Though the weather itself has been slightly temperamental, the brilliant days of sunshine have definitely helped restore my spirits a bit. I've managed to pack my weeks with fun at home with the boys, late nights, dancing, bars, and of course, food.

Sister was recently in town for a few days between ending job A and starting job B. Whilst it was extremely nice to see her given our interactions with each other tend to amount to 3-4 times accumulatively per year, it did lead me to understand why sometimes I think it's better that Sister and I live in different cities (Sydney and, well, Melbourne of course). Nonetheless, I was very excited to have her here, and it also gave me the chance to do things I would never normally do on my own. Surprising, considering I do a LOT of things in Melbourne, both touristy and not.

Case in point: the last day she was in town, Sister and I woke up sore and achy from a night that started with "just one drink" and ended up 2am on Swanston Street considering whether or not to visit Hungry Jacks (we didn't, by the way. It was too.. just plain bad, even for me, and I am queen of eating everything, even bad food. I went home and had some homemade coconut bread instead. More on that later.). We dragged ourselves on the tram out to Chapel Street, I hidden behind dark glasses the entire way and she communicating only in groans for the entire tram ride. Brunch at a non-descript cafe involving wedges, pizza and black coffee definitely helped get our spirits up. By the end of the day, however, my shopaholic sister had gotten the best of me and I was reduced to my original state, dragging my feet as I walked. Finally, she suggested we see Prahran Market just to take a look. That definitely perked me up. I was entranced enough by the fresh pastas and cheeses offered by the delis, but I really got excited when I spotted Monsieur Truffle. I tried a bit of their kalamansi truffle as well as their original, and they are both absolutely out of this world. C once donated me a chilli truffle given to her by a lovely friend, S, and that one tiny truffle was enough to send me to chocolate heaven. This is what real chocolate should be. Eat your heart out, Cadbury. If that wasn't enough, imagine how I felt when I saw Crabapple Bakery sitting in a corner of the market. I think my actual reaction involved grabbing Sister's arm and spouting gibberish for about 10 seconds. One bite of Sister's musk flavoured cupcake was enough to send me to a further level of sugar heaven. I wasn't sure it was wise to continue with the eating, given we had reservations at Fifteen that evening. My point of this post? I love Prahran Market. But I'm sure all you Melbournites already knew about those wonders :)

Still to come: Fifteen review, my various attempts at a wonderful coconut bread recipe, Poor Man's Curry and mexican cooking classes at CERES.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


She didn't always like us.

I'm quite certain this was true. I've been told the story by my mother about how when my sister and I were just a 2 year old and her month-old baby sister, she would talk to us and play with us whilst my mother accidentally eavesdropped from the other room. Talking to us about how she was prepared not to like us, how she was actually disappointed when we were both born, because we were girls. She was brought up in an era that taught her girls were inferior -even herself- and that to be born a girl was the worst gift, and that the best thing you could do make up for your mistake was to bring a son into the world to continue the family name. So she didn't like us. But my mother also overheard her telling us that after all she'd prepared herself to not like us, after the intial disappointment, she also discovered how adorable she found us. How unexpectedly loving she found herself being towards us.

But no matter how she felt, her duty called and she was always there: after school to make our snacks, taking us to the park, buying us a treat of hot chips, looking for me when I got lost; being our chaperone, our keeper. Years of living together, a family of six, was both a blessing and curse. It could be the best times we've had together and hell at the same time. We would brawl as a family, all six of us yelling at each other until it was over. Then hours later, we would all be eating dinner together again. Sulking, but still together. Because that was what families did. They stuck together. And that she did. She kept us together.

Bitterness kept her caged for years. When her body began to be ravaged earlier this year, bitterness was what she clung onto. Why me? she would cry, even before when she was well. Why has my life been so unlucky? Why does everything happen to me? Why me? It was all she had, isolating her from the world, friends, her children, daughter-in-law, granddaughters. At some point, though, she began to let go. She began to see that when it came to the end, as it was increasingly becoming apparent, it no longer mattered that her husband had died after only 2 years of marriage, that she was left with a 1 year old and a 3 month old baby, no real money or job to speak of. She was talented, having been the first in her family - and a girl too! - to go to university. Not that a university degree in economics was any match for the still-sexist society of 1950's. Though she was poor, she had her dignity and pride. That, she kept throughout her life, even right till the end.

I was her companion. I gave her small mercies, unknowingly so important to her, like going to the markets, carrying her groceries, checking her bank accounts, just being there. And in return, she gave me her native tongues, several dialects of Chinese that benefit me to this day; my dry skin and allergies; my cheekbones; my temper; my mind; my penchant for mahjong; my love for Chinese food. She taught me the meaning of scrimping, how it was to live in harder times than we were fortunate enough to be born in. A pity I didn't also get her slim, strong, long legs, her endurance, her resolve, her wisdom. But she taught me how to be a family, how to be polite, how to have the proper manners. She showed me determination, wit, strength of will. She didn't always like me, nor I her, but no matter what, she always loved me. A grandmother's love for her granddaughter never wavers.

In the last months, her body grew weaker, but her spirit prevailed. Though it was inevitable, her departure still caught me unaware. Still does. Like she's just gone on holiday. I guess in a way, she has. Only this time, I have to go looking for her.

In memory of her, our family returned with her ashes to China. And we, of course, ate. Po Piah is a native Fujian delicacy. Aside from inheriting a rough knowledge of the Hokkien dialect, I also inherited a love for these freshly made spring rolls. They are eaten at family gatherings, where the ingredients are spread out on the table and everybody rolls their own in accordance with how they want it - spicier, moister, crunchier. The po piah "skin", or thin wheat flour pancake, is used to contain a delicious filling of cooked vegetables, thinly sliced beancurd, chopped chinese sausage, crumbled sweet peanut candy, shredded omelette, sprinklings of ho ti (a finely shredded version of seaweed with smatterings of sugar and salt), and finally, hoisin sauce to hold the pancake together. I've eaten many versions of this, where the ingredients and contents can vary from country to country. But to me, this will always be the most authentic way of eating it. One day, when it doesn't hurt so much, I will try and make my own in the best way I know how. And I know she will be proud of me for just trying.

Courtesy of here