“Travel at Home” by hearing old favourites in new languages.
“Travel at Home” by hearing old favourites in new languages.
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.
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.
“Travel at Home” by locating your chocolate on a map.
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?)
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.
My children are fascinated with the imagery of ancient Egypt, and one afternoon they asked if they could be Pharaohs. They seemed a bit surprised when I responded with a bright “yes!” and immediately set them to work making masks.
We started with an image search, an activity which has become a regular starting point when we have questions about the world. It was great to gain some shape and colour inspiration, but I didn’t see any need to provide complicated explanations about mummification or ancient history. Pharaohs are the “kings” of the pyramids in Egypt and that’s enough for three-year-olds, I think.
Our supplies for the project were: stiff white cardboard saved from a box (because I am that kind of hoarder), poster paint, gold glitter glue and some hat elastic. Each child had his own requirements for his mask: one wanted peep-eyes only and the other wanted his whole face to show. I drew and cut out the mask outlines, we mixed some appropriate colours and then the kids had free rein to design their mask however they liked.
This project provided an example of why it is best to let go of control. It would have been easy for me to try and dictate how a pharaoh should look, particularly when one of the boys basically painted his mask black. I was itching to tell him to do this and add that… but once the paint was dry and he added the gold glitter glue, his mask looked incredible and I was so glad I held my tongue. He was also pretty proud of it.
The other kid often spends more time mixing colours, for the fun of the experiment, than he does painting. In this case, he ended up with gorgeous turquoisey-teals that were entirely in keeping with the colours of a jewel-encrusted sarcophagus.
This was a quick and easy activity but it provided heaps of fuel for conversations, and the outcomes were clearly satisfying for the kids because they achieved something lovely on their own terms.