“Travel at Home” by hearing old favourites in new languages.
“Travel at Home” by hearing old favourites in new languages.
Happy Purim to you! The sun has gone down and the festival can officially begin, but actually we have spent the afternoon frolicking in a celebration that my husband has declared is a Renegade Purim.
We held a “Purim Picnic Party” in a local park and took a huge basket of costumes, a suitcase full of instruments and rattles, and invited a bunch of kids to come and dress up and make noise with us. There are very few photos of the fun we had because we were having too much fun.
I gather that this is a key purpose of the festival: making merry and having a great time. The other key purpose seems to be making and eating Hamantaschen, which are fruit-filled biscuits shaped to look like the ears of the villain of the Purim story.
And just as I went a bit left-of-centre with the mode of celebration, I also struggled to stick with the traditional recipes that were given to me for the biscuits. I ended up making two batches and started them off the same way; by using equal parts room-temperature butter and cream cheese, to create a lovely texture for the biscuit base.
To one bowl I added plain flour and to the other I added dessicated coconut and LSA mix (which is made from Linseed, Soy and Almond meal). I combined them both well until I had a firm dough, which I put into the fridge for half an hour.
While the dough became stiff, I combined dates, sultanas, prunes and dried apricots with hot water on the stovetop until it was syrupy. This became the filling for my first batch of biscuits.
I decided to fill my gluten-free batch with the sticky jam that I made a few months ago with the elderberries from the tree in our backyard. I hadn’t strained the berries so it wasn’t suitable for cordial and it didn’t seem quite right for spreading on toast (it was a very simple recipe with just the berries, sugar and lemon, a bit like this).
It turns out that it takes practice to take the step from elegant pastry rounds to excellent Hamantaschen triangles. I never really mastered it and then I ran out of time to get to our picnic. My attempts at gluten-free biscuits looked like puddles when I pulled them out of the oven, so I abandoned them on the stove stop and rushed out the door.
How incredible and wonderful, then, that two other attendees had gone to the trouble to make and bring their own, including another gluten-free version (seen at left in the picture below; the recipe sounds a bit like this one from Friendly Little Kitchen).
Mine are the ones at bottom right that are not triangles at all.
We told noisy stories, held a noisy parade and played noisy games. Then nobody wanted to come home.
When I finally arrived back in the kitchen, I looked again at those gluten-free puddles and they had come good upon cooling. They were a little bit rustic, perhaps, but recognisable triangles (see the photo at the very top of this post).
And to be fair, all my Hamantaschen — of whatever shape — were actually really delicious.
So I think we were happy to be renegades with our celebration of Purim. Our festivities were a bit “unorthodox” to say the least, and our biscuits were non-traditional.
But this was a fantastic opportunity to connect with other families in our area, in a really fun way that held meaning for us.
This summer, we embarked on as many adventures as time and energy would allow. We have attended festivals, viewed parades and danced to live music. We’ve absorbed culture, experienced diversity and had a blast!
It’s only now, as the weather seems to be cooling (I think?) and we are settling into our new kindergarten routines, that we are slowing down a bit. So I thought I would do a bit of a photographic round-up of some “travel at home” adventures from our past few months.
In January the “So Frenchy So Chic” festival entered my radar and I didn’t think too much of it until the day of the event, when I woke up with the burning need to attend. It was a risky proposition (and pricey, let’s be honest), because Husband was working and I wasn’t sure if the kids would have the patience or stamina for a full day of Francophilia.
I needn’t have worried. Who could possibly resist the allure of lawn crocquet, gigantic bubbles, delicious delicacies and chic company, all to the live soundtrack of the best that French music has to offer (pictured above on stage is Lou Doillon, who was great; insert pun about rocking cool jeans and genes). I was very grateful that the stage was audible (and just visible) from the face-painting queue, because that is where we spent a great deal of our time!
During February, Multicultural Arts Victoria held a series of concerts in the Fairfield Amphitheatre and we got along to a couple of them. They were a wonderful chance to spend time with friends and inspiring for the kids, who played instruments with one of the bands and danced to music from a variety of cultures.
We celebrated Lunar New Year in a number of ways. Chinatown in Melbourne thronged with people, lions and dragons, and the local Chinese community offered numerous activities for children.
And Melbourne Zoo took the opportunity to highlight its monkeys and decorate enclosures with bright red lanterns for the Year of the Monkey.
Melbourne’s Moomba Festival has fallen in and out of favour over the years, but since I grew up with it I have a soft spot for the parade. Luckily, it was just our kind of thing; filled with fantastic music and dancing by local communities representing the world. My kids loved it.
Finally, last weekend we drove in the opposite direction, to Bendigo, to experience its Festival of Cultures.
We watched Karen people from Burma weaving cloth on simple looms, ate a fantastic lunch (including masala chips, YUM) from the Dhaba Truck, and enjoyed the live-mixing and layered vocals of Geoffrey Williams (pictured below).
This festival seemed to suffer from a slight lack of participation, which I’m sure is partly because there was another arts event on nearby and the huge annual Easter Festival planned for next weekend.
But it was a reminder: if we expect to have access to brilliant cultural events, live music, international artists and fun family festivals, then we need to get up and GO.
It’s a very welcome side-effect of writing this blog that my friends and family often suggest activities with an international flavour and on occasion proffer gifts that might inject some culture into our lives.
I was particularly delighted by this choice of birthday present from my very close friend, Karma: a book called “Mamushka; Recipes from Ukraine and Beyond” by Olia Hercules. Apart from what I might have gleaned from reading the amusing novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, I didn’t know much about Ukraine at all. Plus, Mamushka is full of fascinating recipes and ingredients that look delicious and unfamiliar (in an enticing way).
One ingredient that I am familiar with, and which I chose to use as my first attempt at some Ukrainian cuisine, is beetroot. We have grown it in the past –the beauties in the pictures are some we grew in Tasmania– but I bought some plump beets from our local farmers market for my foray into the former Soviet Union.
It turns out that beetroot is a particularly nutritious vegetable, which I’m thrilled to learn because it is a very popular one in our household. I grew up on tinned stuff, which is fine but basically tastes of vinegar. Now we like it fresh, and roasted until it caramelises. We eat so much that we laugh about our pink wee. (Don’t forget I have four-year-old boys…).
I didn’t start with Cold Beetroot Soup, although I gather it is a classic of the region. Instead I went with a very simple salad that combined intriguing flavours with the beets; balsamic and sour cream dressing with walnuts, prunes and a scattering of coriander.
I served the salad with quinoa and it was dinner– very delicious and I found it really satisfying. Next time I would reduce the amount of balsamic and add more prunes because they were unexpectedly wonderful in this mix!
I have since done a little research into the culture of Ukraine (this blog gives some excellent insights) and I look forward to trying more recipes from this lovely book. Now, just to decide what clever “beet” pun to use for the title of this post…
Happy Lunar New Year and 恭禧發財 to you! What a fantastic excuse to “travel at home” and enjoy some cultural treats from China, no matter where in the world you are located.
Of course the Lunar New Year celebrations are shared by many cultures (for example, the fellas in my family recently participated in a Vietnamese Tet Celebration— I am training them well!). But I adore China and I have brilliant memories of travelling there a few years ago. So here are my suggestions (quite non-traditional!) for how to imagine you’re in China and perhaps learn a bit about its incredible culture, heritage, history and impact.
1. Drink Tea. Chinese tea, of course– this blog is named after it! There are many resources online to help you choose a variety. Mine is Iron Goddess tea; astringent and cooling (I’ve written about it before here).
2. Read about tea (and opium, and how it links to tea). The history of the relationship between “The East” and “The West” is caught up in tea and opium. The story is horrific and much more fascinating than any fiction; I think it’s important to have context to so much of our current world situation. To read about the world’s first– and probably worst– multinational company, see this article in the Guardian about the East India Company, whose story also reaches across to the beginnings of the American Revolution.
3. Eat Chinese Food. That’s easily done, thanks very much, yum! I’m teaching my two how to use chopsticks with their fab toucan contraptions (it’s a game to them) and I will be attempting some proper Lunar New Year recipes from a fantastic family blog I’ve found called The Woks of Life. I’m also keen to make Tomato Egg Drop Soup which was my favourite when I was in China.
4. Read more books about China, its traditions, its more recent history (especially if you plan to travel there). The story of the Cultural Revolution is heartbreaking and the consequences can still be felt in China now. The influence of Chairman Mao and Communism is still evident, despite relaxed attitudes (and no, I don’t think Mao is ever appropriate as decor or fashion, I’m quite astounded at this retailer).
Memoirs are an invaluable way to understand the people of China; the incredible story of Wild Swans and Mao’s Last Dancer are well-known examples, or try Red Scarf Girl for a Cultural Revolution setting. If you are more interested in China as a world power, try these suggestions from Fortune of books to help explain its modern nuances.
5. Watch Chinese movies or movies set in China. There are plenty of Communist propaganda films to help you toe the party line (here’s a famous one called Lei Feng), but I recommend every film by Zhang Yimou, or Kung Fu Hustle with the English overdub for belly laughs.
6. Light some sparklers (the only “fireworks” we are allowed here), consider that gunpowder was invented in China and that gunpowder changed the world. Actually there’s a great film about a firecracker factory, called Red Firecracker Green Firecracker, that I could add to the list above.
7. Go to a parade and observe fireworks at your local Chinatown if you have one; we’ll be doing that this coming weekend. It seems as though Lunar New Year has finally become mainstream: there are markets and events happening in the city all this week to mark the occasion.
8. If there is no Chinatown near you, create your own parade! We live in a small town and luckily we are known for marching around in costume, so nobody blinked an eye when we took our vintage lion head out walking to scare away last year’s bad luck.
9. Enjoy some Monkey Magic! Every year is year of the monkey with my two boys but I think it’s finally time I read the classic work, Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en on which so many fantastic Monkey adaptations are based. I would give anything to see this “opera” version by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz, even the promo video is exciting.
10. Remember Tibet.
I receive daily requests for new costumes* and due to the volume of ideas and the high turnover of identities that my kids want to inhabit, I regularly suggest we make masks. I knew that The Carnevale, which is currently taking place in Venice, Italy, would spark their imaginations.
(As a sad sort of aside: we were very struck by the death of David Bowie a fortnight ago, and while we played his music loudly and watched Labyrinth many times in the days following, it is his influence as a theatrical, costumed, fluid character that has the most impact in our house. This article about the history of masks in Venice talks about the freedom from social restrictions that they provided to Venetians and obviously Bowie also well understood this power of a “mask”. The ability to change your appearance at will is very appealing to my four-year-olds, perhaps as part of forming their own identities, and so for a day or two after Bowie died they became Ziggy Stardust).
When it comes to the masquerade in Venice, the children were familiar with this poem that I learned at school and can recite very quickly like a tongue-twister for laughs. We recalled the fact that Venice has water instead of roads, which is fascinating, of course, and difficult to get your head around when you first learn of it!
We looked at many photographs of traditional masks and characters from Commedia Del’Arte and naturally the creepiest ones were the favourites. We created Brighella the villain in dastardly yellow (his ugly wrinkles have been painted over but nevermind).
The other mask has a beak-like nose that resembles the costumes of the “Medico Della Peste” or Plague Doctors that filled their pointy masks wish sweet-smelling herbs to avoid breathing in the deadly vapours of their patients. I spent much of the afternoon pretending to be afraid and shocked when the pointy nose of this mask revealed itself around corners before its cackling owner.
(A basic template for how to make this mask, which was so satisfying to make and wear, can be seen below. We make most of our masks from cereal or muesli bar boxes).
Whether the children are taking on new identities for a masquerade on the other side of the world or emulating a beloved pop hero, the lesson is clear: be whoever you want to be.
*”Mum, can you make me a costume? I wanna be Puss in Boots. No, no, no, The Hulk. Or Iron Man. Actually, an ogre… make it Shrek. Or how about a baddy from Star Wars! Yeah, yeah, a Storm Trooper. Definitely a dragon. A Leopard or a pelican or a meerkat. A Gorilla! I love gorillas! A knight. For sure this time. Yes, I wanna be a knight. Why are you taking so long to make my costume, mum?”
“Travel at Home” by celebrating Christmas again in the New Year.
Christmas in Australia is a Travel at Home experience, because almost all of the traditions surrounding the holiday have been transplanted from elsewhere. Roast dinners, images of snow-men and reindeer, songs about a “White Christmas” — all of these are incongruous to our experience of a sweltering, summertime, Christmas Down Under.
So it was in this spirit of doing something outside our normal reality that we decided to visit a Christmas Tree Farm in the lead-up to December 25.
The plantation was located on a bush road about 20 minutes from us, and it was immediately clear that the field of young pine trees did not match the towering, grey gums surrounding it.
We observed our surroundings and these differences together and set off to choose a tree under the scorching sun.
The farmer let the kids climb onto his ride-on mower and even hold the chain-saw. They watched, fixated, as he cut down our chosen tree.
It wasn’t especially big and we were relieved to discover that it fit into the back of the car. The tree immediately infused the vehicle with its fresh fragrance, and in the heat we knew it was imperative to get it into water before it “got dead” as the children so eloquently stated.
While driving home I admitted that I didn’t really know why people brought trees into their houses at Christmas time. Some research later revealed that the tradition has many different roots (so to speak!) and that many of them have nothing to do with Christmas.
Our outing was a fun diversion which got the kids thinking about cultural traditions, particularly since we undertook this activity the day after Chanukkah ended.
It was also a great chance to discuss similarities and differences, and be reminded about what plants need.
(The kids also took the opportunity to kick up a dust storm, and they drenched themselves while attempting to water the tree; full disclosure).
Our efforts to erect and decorate a traditional Christmas Tree were not immediately successful.
But as a way to engage curious kids in the world around them, it was a super undertaking.
It is cherry season and we are swamped with little, red flavour-bombs. Nobody here is complaining, although I do have to regularly check the carpet for spit out pips.
First, we discovered that one of the lovely blossom-trees that we can see from our sitting room window was bursting with cherries. It was the birds that alerted us, because the branches are a bit too high for easy picking.
Over a few days, we observed blackbirds and then rosellas having feathery feasts, and realised that if we waited another minute we would miss out, so we devised a system to gather some for ourselves.
I climbed a ladder and bent a branch down to the children below, who happily grasped the tart fruit and collected them in a basket. There was no danger of the birds missing out; we simply couldn’t reach many.
Our cherries were not quite ripe and very sour so I bought a huge punnet from the green-grocer because we wanted to munch on the sweet stuff.
A few days later, family visiting from interstate chose to go cherry-picking as a day out together. This was a full-blown operation, involving buckets and scales. We laughed about how we would pay for the cherries; at first my little guys assumed the orchard-owners would count the cherries to determine the price.
So now my kitchen is overflowing with these juicy treasures! I left the ones from our garden out to ripen for a few days and investigated some recipe ideas. Cherries feature in the traditional cuisine of many cultures, notably in Central and Eastern Europe, and there are lovely recipes online including some for the Romanian Cherry Brandy called Vişinată or a similar Russian version called Vishnnyovka. There are also great blog posts showing how to make Polish Cherry Cake or the famous German Black Forest Cake.
Many of the recipes have ties to the holidays that happen at this time of year, even though our seasons do not coincide: that’s because often they require the addition of cherries that have been allowed to ferment or “pickle” in brandy or vodka for about six months before being used in Christmas or Chanukah recipes.
Most of our cherries are disappearing as snacks but in addition to the sour home-grown ones that I am trying to ferment in a jar of sugar, I attempted my own version of a tart with a nutty-crumble topping. I happened to have walnuts in the shell from the farmers market, so I roughly ground those and added some for texture. I relied mostly on the cherries themselves for sweetness. Serve it with cream or maybe some quark, this tart is yummy and satisfying.
Here is what I did:
500g cherries (about 2.5 cups), measured and then pitted
1 or 2 sheets of short crust pastry from the freezer
1/2 cup freshly crushed walnuts
3/4 cup of almond and quinoa meal
1 cup of wholemeal flour
1/2 cup of brown sugar
150g butter, room temperature
1TB Golden syup or honey
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Stir the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the butter and honey, then combine until you have a crumbly mixture (I used my hands). Grease a tart pan and line it with the pastry. I needed the second sheet of pastry because one was not big enough. Spread the pitted cherries around the bottom of the pastry, then press the nutty crumble mixture in around and over the cherries, leaving some peeking through to look delicious. We used the rest of the second sheet of pastry to cut some heart decorations for the top of the tart. Bake for about 40 minutes. Serve with something creamy.
Both of my young fellows are back-seat drivers and recently I had an idea to make them their own steering wheels, both for safety reasons and for fun.
Since they upgraded to their “bigger kid” car seats I have had to regularly tell them to sit back, because they enjoy gripping the back of the seats in front of them as they pretend to control the vehicle. I hear the kids chattering away behind me about how they are participating in a race, rushing in an emergency vehicle or leaning to take a turn on a motorbike. Rather than continuously reprimanding my children for not sitting properly, I decided to encourage the imaginative play by making it possible for them to “drive” while safely strapped in.
This was the thriftiest possible project. I found the wooden plates for twenty cents each at the local second-hand shop and I simply used a large nail to hammer a hole through the centre.
Once the holes were done, I set about painting some “steering wheels” based on pictures I found on the internet. It took me quite a while to complete them, from start to finish, because I simply added a layer of paint and detail whenever I had a chance and hid them away to dry; I wanted the finished products to be a surprise for the kids.
When I was happy with my final paint work, I strung the wheels to the back of the car seats using elastic.
I made large knots on the front and then pulled the ends through the hole to the back. Couldn’t be simpler.
The kids are utterly rapt with their new steering wheels. Funnily enough, there is now very little chatter from the back seat when we drive, and when I glance at them in the rear-view mirror I see very serious faces. They concentrate! They really drive along with me, turning their wheels at corners and watching for obstacles on the straight stretches.
It took me some time and effort to make these steering wheels, but these simple home-made playthings really fit into the category of cheap thrills.