Beetroots in Ukrainian

Ukrainian Beetroot Mamushka Olia Hercules Recipes Book

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.

Ukrainian Beetroot Beet Mamushka Olia Hercules Recipes

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…).

Ukraine Beetroot Mamushka Olia Hercules Recipe Book

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.

Ukrainian Beetroot Walnut Mamushka Olia Hercules Recipe

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!

Ukrainian Beetroot Mamushka Olia Hercules Recipe Prunes

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…

Ukrainian Beetroot Mamushka Olia Hercules Recipe Beet


Travel on the Page: “La Vie Est Belle” by Henrietta Heald

La Vie Est Belle Henrietta Heald Travel at Home

Books have the magical power to transport us almost anywhere and while it goes without saying that words are vehicles for the imagination, beautiful photographs can give our hearts a lift too. In particular, I adore cook books written about regional cuisines because they often contain more than just pictures of food on a plate.

Certainly, I should be learning a few culinary skills from these books, but I am most often guilty of just browsing and dreaming of eating in faraway places. A book that doesn’t focus entirely on the food, but explores various ways of experiencing another culture — including its cuisine — seems like a fantastic idea to me.

A lovely book by Henrietta Heald, La Vie Est Belle, does just that. Filled with photographs of light-washed farms, Parisian pied-à-terres, and country “brocante” stalls, the book reinforces a Francophile’s dreams while providing recipes, stories and travel tips. With information about traditions and insights into French culture and habits, La Vie Est Belle is a travel-at-home experience to keep on your bookshelf.

The mouth-watering photograps of ‘tarte tatin’ in the pages inspired me to make a cheat’s version of this classic French dessert. (By the way, did you know that you can still stay or eat at the Hotel Tatin where the famous upside-down cake was accidentally created in the 1880s by the Tatin sisters?)

Tarte Tatin Apple Easy Cheats La Vie Est Belle Travel

I simply peeled and sliced some apples, then cooked them in a shallow pan with butter and brown sugar until the whole lot caramelised in the most delectable and fragrant way. I spooned this mixture into some pre-prepared (read: shop-bought) pastry that I had placed into small metal baking dishes then baked the tarts for about 20 minutes. Note: if you try this you should definitely learn from my mistake and line the dishes with baking paper; the whole thing becomes very sticky.

So easy and utterly delicious. Probably scandalous.

Tarte Tatin Apple Easy Recipe Many Cha Cha Travel at Home

The Best Mulled Wine in the World

Mulled Wine Winter Christmas Drink Spiced Simmer Warmer

In the “spirit” of investigative journalism I took it upon myself as a duty, during these recent cold nights we’ve been having, to learn about mulled wines around the world. The internet has been helpful, of course, but there’s nothing quite like experience, is there?

There are some very informative blog posts on the topic, such as this one sharing a family recipe for glühwein (Glow Wine! I love that) at “Dreaming of Winter” and this beautifully illustrated description of the Scandinavian version, Glögg (I also love that), which I haven’t tried but sounds altogether fruiter, spicier and more alcoholic. Yum.

In other places on the web, newspaper articles describe variants of mulled (heated) wine from around the world, while many cultures feature creative ways to heat and spice one’s alcohol, according to wikipedia. Some additions to the warm beverage that pique my professional interest include honey or maple syrup, amaretto or rum. As a journalist, I think it’s essential that I pursue these lines of enquiry quite seriously and I will.

Mulled Wine Gluhwein Ingredients Recipe Best Glogg Drink Winter

For now I would like to report upon two variations that I have put to the test in the last week. Firstly, a pre-prepared powder which I purchased from Guwurzhaus, one of my favourite sources of “travel at home” inspiration (it’s a sort of emporium of foody concoctions from everywhere; brilliant on the nose). Secondly, a thrown-in-the-pot collection of spices and things I had around the house: this amounted to sugar, black peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves and the rinds of orange, lemon and a Tahitian lime. Yes, I really had a Tahitian lime lying around: it’s the smaller and rounder of the two yellow fruit above (I’ll buy an ugly fruit if you give it an exotic name).

So which was superior, in my professional and scientific opinion? I really don’t know. They were both aromatic, warming and delightful.

Mulled Wine Red Gluhwein European Winter Warmer Drink Spice Recipe Best Glogg

As a result of my experiments, here are my tips to help you create The Best Mulled Wine in the World:

  • Choose a cheap wine that is not your favourite, but don’t stress about the varietal. I am very lucky to live in a wine-growing region and so I was able to source and experiment with a local Shiraz and a Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which were quite nice without the extra spice and really delicious with it.
  • Put a lid on your pot as you allow your chosen fruit and spice blends to infuse. This is a trap for newbies: I let a great deal of mine evaporate away before I realised!
  • Don’t take any notice of any recipe that suggests you boil the ingredients for an hour or two. Your wine simply needs to be warmed for a while to infuse the flavours. If you’d like to ensure the flavours are imparted let time, as much as heat, do the job and let it all sit overnight.
  • Be aware that alcohol is easily evaporated and if this is important to you, perhaps begin by infusing your fruits and spices into sugar and water and adding the bulk of the wine at the end, simply to warm it.
  • Experiment with different warm beverage flavours: I recently indulged in hot buttered rum and I once enjoyed some white wine heated with asian flavours. I would also love to try some beer and some non-alcoholic cider variations, all in the name of research of course.

Thus concludes my important cultural report about delicious winter beverages from around the world, and certainly I’ve taken one for the team in compiling it. But honestly, I think a topic such as this is too vital to conclude in haste. Further research is required and I’ll happily take on the task.

I’m also sure there are other researchers out there who have essential contributions to make to this field… Please do by commenting below (I’d love to hear about your best winter warmer drinks!)

Mulled Wine Gluhwein Glogg Red Winter Spiced

How to Reach North Africa via the Local Farmers Market

What do you get when you cross soggy socks with worn-out sneakers? Wet feet, of course, so be sure to wear your boots to the market in winter because it can get squelchy underfoot.

Pumpkin Soup North Africa Moroccan Preserved Lemons

Now that we live in a small country town, experiencing its rhythms and quirks, local farmers markets have taken on more significance. I am beginning to appreciate fresh food in new ways, and it may sound crazy but I particularly love choosing produce based on its natural beauty. As a result our fridge often bulges with pink carrots, purple chard and curly kale. Last week, I heaved home a huge, gnarly pumpkin without a thought for how I would prepare it.

Pumpkin Soup Recipe North African Tunisia Harissa Spicy Ingredients

Sadly, I discovered another answer to the question I posed above by simply roasting pieces of it in olive oil. (If you crossed soggy socks with worn-out sneakers, you’d get a fair approximation of the flavour of the pumpkin). I needed to come up with a new plan to turn this hefty vegetable into a flavoursome meal.

So I made a North African- inspired pumpkin soup that packs a spicy punch and really gave this coarse ol’ pumpkin a new lease of life. While it was simmering, I did some reading about harissa, the spicy condiment that really makes a difference to this recipe.

Pumpkin Soup Winter Morocco Tunisia North Africa Recipe

I have used harissa before, as a chilli hit with depth; most notably as a sort of marinade for roast potatoes, a bit like this recipe by The English Kitchen. I had thought it was from Morocco, but have just discovered that it is the preferred sauce of people all across North Africa. It actually originates in Tunisia, the coastal country that is still being rocked by recent tragic acts of violence against tourists.

Tunisia is a country with a rich history and much natural beauty. It features incredible Roman ruins at Dougga and a brilliant pop-culture attraction in the form of sets from the Star Wars films, which were abandoned when filming was completed. And that’s without mentioning the extraordinary beaches and beach weather which draws so many Europeans to Tunisian shores.

Unfortunately, the fear of future assaults means that Tunisia is quickly becoming out-of-bounds for visitors, which will deprive many local people of their incomes. This article in The Guardian, about how brave young Tunisian men faced down a deadly gunman to protect tourists, is heart-breaking.

I do hope peace can be achieved for the ordinary people of Tunisia soon.

What do you get when you cross a North African condiment with a tough pumpkin from the farmer’s market? A smooth, spicy soup that will warm you from the inside during a Southern Hemisphere winter.

Pumpkin Soup Recipe North African Tunisia Morocco Harissa Recipe Spices

Many Cha Cha’s North African Pumpkin Soup

Serves 2


3 cups pumpkin, peeled and diced

1 tomato, diced

1 Spanish onion, diced

1/4 cup red capsicum

1 cup chick peas (from a tin or soaked overnight)

2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped finely

1 thumb-sized knob of ginger, grated

1/4 preserved lemon rind, rinsed and chopped

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup fresh coriander, chopped

1 teaspoon harissa (or more, to taste)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

Fresh chilli, chopped (as a garnish, to taste)

Plain yoghurt, to serve

In a medium saucepan, sautee the onion, garlic, ginger, cumin and bay leaves in the olive oil. When the onion has softened, add the tomato, lemon, harissa and a tablespoon of coriander; continue to stir on a medium heat until the tomato has disintegrated and you are left with a sort of paste. Add the pumpkin and capsicum and stir to coat them both with the paste, continuing to stir for a few minutes. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Cover the vegetables with water and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the pumpkin is soft.

Remove bay leaves, add remaining coriander. Mash or puree the vegetables, then add chick peas and heat through. Check that your seasoning and spice suits you: add more harissa or salt if needed.

Serve with a dollop of yoghurt plus a garnish of chilli if you like it hot (it’s a mild-to-medium dish as is).

Bon appétit!

Pumpkin Soup North African Moroccan Recipe Spicy

To and Fro On Cinco De Mayo

Sometimes things are not what they appear, and traditions that may seem to have obvious origins may be deceptive. A closer look at the ostensibly Mexican festival of Cinco De Mayo provided me with a number of examples of traditions that have travelled.

My knowledge of Cinco De Mayo (Fifth of May) came from a Ween song that I enjoyed, back in the day. I figured it must be a Mexican holiday of some importance, given the “gravity” of the lyrics about murder and revenge (I think the delivery is less serious). The song popped into my head as the date approached and I wondered what the occasion was about, so I engaged the usual internet search machine.

Hang on a minute, Cinco De Mayo is barely a minor holiday in Mexico, and only in one area of the country. So what’s with all the drinking and street parties across America, Japan and increasingly, here in Australia?

It may have started as the patriotic response of expat Mexicans, who first celebrated the (unexpected) Mexican defeat of a French invasion that took place on May 5, the true origin of the celebratory date. It may have gained popularity because it took place at a convenient time of year for Mexican agriculture workers in the USA, who enjoyed the chance to partake of a fiesta but didn’t want to seem disloyal by partying too hard on Mexico’s official Independence Day, which is on September 16. And it seems to have spread because it seemed like another good opportunity to commercialise a holiday.

So Cinco De Mayo has become a sort of catch-all celebration of Mexican-ness. Which is what I thought I was doing (celebrating Mexico) when I made churros with chocolate-chilli sauce for a picnic in our yard.

But no, churros are Spanish, which I should have guessed. Possibly from a recipe brought back from China by the Portugese, just to complicate the story. They are named after an attractive and hardy variety of sheep — also from the Iberian Peninsula– because their curly, ridged forms are reminiscent of the rams’ horns. I was interested to discover that these sheep were imported to the Americas to feed and clothe the conquistadors and have been farmed there ever since.

So our colourful Mexican yo-yos shall provide our authentic link to Mexico, I thought, and we pulled them out for a play. They have “Mexico” stamped on them! But it seems that yo-yos have become a “traditional” toy only since the 1920s or so, partly because they are easily handmade. Yo-yos may have originated in ancient Greece or China, it’s not clear, but their popularity on the American continent can be attributed to the innovations of Filipino entrepreneur, Pedro Flores. He opened the first yo-yo factory in California in 1928 and the craze quickly spread south of the border.

Well. We added some craft to the mix for our celebration of Mexican culture, and I think we nailed it in the end (although the Internet offers few reliable sources of information in regards to “Eye of God” weavings so perhaps further research is required). Many of us have made paddle-pop-stick versions of these “Ojo De Dios” at kindergarten, without learning much about the customs behind them. Ojo De Dios weavings are apparently ancient, spiritual objects important to cultures indigenous to the Americas, including Mexico. They have various meanings and uses but I particularly love the idea of a father adding a new coloured band to the “eye” for each year of a child’s life, like the rings of a tree trunk.

We enjoyed a small Mexican picnic, and it was influenced by Spain, Portugal, perhaps China, Greece and the Phillipines. Our picnic marked an occasion that is barely a blip on Mexico’s radar but is huge in the USA and beyond.

Isn’t it incredible to discover, as you travel, how far cultures have travelled too.

Creating a “New Day”

Happy Persian New Year! Nowrooz (which goes by many other spellings) technically means “New Day” and is the time for spring cleaning and celebrations in the areas, most notably Iran, where people of Persian descent now reside.

It’s the opposite time of year here in the Southern Hemisphere, where nature is shutting down for winter, but I was intrigued to notice some similarities between Nowrooz and some of the other holidays with which I am more familiar.

A key component of the Nowrooz celebration is the setting of a table with numerous symbolic items to usher in a prosperous and joyous year. This table, the “Haft Sin” varies slightly from Albania to Uzbekistan, but usually contains seven items that start with the “s” sound in the Persian language. While this set-up reminded me of the Jewish Seder plate and its symbolic contents (used at Passsover, which takes places in a few weeks), Nowrooz may in fact have influenced the Purim holiday which takes place around the same time each year.

Plus, the essential items on the Nowrooz include a mirror, vinegar, garlic and… painted eggs! The egg as a symbol of new life and renewal predates Easter, of course, but I find it reassuring to find these similarities across cultures.


Some impressive examples of Haft Sin creations can be seen here and here. Just for a chance to travel at home, I attempted to create my own Nowrooz spread, or “sofreh.”

I was reminded of how challenging it must sometimes be for migrant groups to uphold their own traditions in new countries, because it’s not always easy to get hold of special cultural items when you’re on the wrong side of the world. It took some effort to gather the items required to set an approximation of a Haft Sin.

We visited some Middle Eastern food stores in search of ingredients and were very distracted by the date biscuits, herbal teas and attractive packaging. The children were especially keen on the dried fruit sold in bulk. We purchased numerous sweet treats that did not last long enough to be photographed.

Middle Eastern Grocery Store Shop Melbourne

I tried to grow some sprouts, to symbolise rebirth and growth on my table, but my seeds didn’t germinate in time so I displayed some sprouting mint instead. For the wheat germ pudding called samanu, which takes up to a week to prepare, I substituted a Persian rice pudding that I adapted from Louisa Shafia‘s lovely book: “the new Persian kitchen.” I used quinoa instead of amaranth and I ground cardamom pods in my coffee grinder, which smelt divine. I acquired some rare and incredible Persian Blue salt from the wonderful Gewurzhaus (which is full of travel-at-home culinary possibilities) to add regional authenticity to my recipe. The result was a seriously sweet and aromatic pudding.

Nowrooz sofreh haft sen

As for the live goldfish that is considered an essential component of the Haft Sen spread: it is now a somewhat controversial choice. Millions of fish are sold in Iran in the lead-up to this spring celebration, but the whereabouts of the goldfish after the Nowrooz holiday are not so certain. Many are released into local waterways or kept in backyard ponds, but most probably perish in their bowls. I chose to paint some fish onto some sheet music containing appropriate lyrics by the iconic Persian poet, Hafiz. (There’s a film called “The White Balloon” about a child’s search for the perfect Nowrooz goldfish that I would like to see to understand more about this tradition.)

Nowrooz haft sen goldfish persian new year

The days are getting shorter here in Australia and spring is a long way off, but I really enjoyed creating a small shrine to growth and rebirth, and learning more about the rich and ancient Persian culture. How interesting to see some familiar symbols, and be reminded that people across the world are keen to celebrate the changing of the seasons in similar ways.