Monday, 9 December 2013

It’s All About the Food - Xmas Food

Well we know Xmas is about two things, presents and food.  I like my Christmases white – which is why I try and have them overseas and that fact that the cold allows for great yummy food.  I love the snow, the smells of spice in the air and the winter clothes that cover the body. 

USA   first, many American families have a Xmas Eve celebration.  In my hubby’s family it’s Chinese food – and if you think that’s not so strange, they’re from the Deep South and Chinese food isn’t great there.  (I think Australia has some of the best Chinese food I’ve had – so colour me biased).  So they cook their own version of Chinese and eat it at his sister’s place – its spring rolls (egg rolls in their parlance), stir fry.  So why do so many people have Xmas Eve because often the family Xmas food isn’t that great (according to the many online discussion groups I visited) – forget the Norman Rockwell Xmas. 

Sweet Potato
US Xmas is a replay of Thanksgiving – turkey, drippings (the juice in the pan), gravy.  mashed potato, sweet potato (I particularly like the marshmallow added), dressing (stuffing but made on the stove top), green bean salad (here’s the classic recipe), and jello salad (made with jelly and a can of cocktail fruit).  Finally there’s a cool whip salad – which is made with fake cream, jelly and whatever is on hand, usually some kind of tinned fruit, marshmallows and for some reason cottage cheese—its an ungodly looking mess and sweet as.  There are hundreds of variation here. 

Jello "Salad"
Utah is the centre of the “Jello Belt”, and has the highest consumption per capita of any state; you aren’t Mormon if you don’t have a green (green is a flavour not a colour note) jello salad at your table. Mormons are much more inventive with their salads and include carrot, raisins, potato chips, or cornflakes.  Notice the words salad?  It makes them sound healthy – they’re NOT. 

Cool Whip Salad
Desert is pumpkin pie – in all my years in the USA all the ones I’ve had have been shop-bought.  Mainly people are so busy it’s easier – I made my own cos silly me, I thought that was tradition and my Xmas family were awed and I was seriously worried.  What had I been eating all these years?  Of course mine wasn’t as good because it wasn’t uniform and tasted “funny” – obviously not enough sugar.  Pie is topped with Cool Whip. Cool Whip is a fake cream doesn’t have a diary item in it and probably is made from a byproduct of the petroleum industry.  See this experiment

Turducken - is another of those crazy US things -- not for the vegetarian or the feint hearted.  The turducken is a turkey stuffed with a duck and a chicken.  The latter two are deboned.    Phew I wondered who thought up that combination -- I mean seriously what made someone thing of shoving these three birds inside each other?  It must be incredibly rich and not really to my taste but it is called the "ultimate" Xmas food.  It takes hours to prepare though google and you'll see some Aussie butchers have done the hard work;  then of course there is the hours it must take to cook all the way through.  Apparently the recipe originated in Louisiana - nuff said. 

Xmas Cake
Japan – The big food items in Japan are KFC and Xmas Cake. KFC is so popular it is ordered months in advance and people queue for it.  The Xmas Cake (KURISUMASU KEEKI) is much more to my taste, it’s a shortcake (sponge) topped with cream and strawberries.  In the past, cakes that weren’t sold by Xmas Day were considered past their prime and unmarried Japanese women over the age of 25 (!) became known as Christmas Cakes.  Obviously this has changed.

American Fruit Cake
Speaking of Xmas Cakes, the American Fruit Cake is chockablock full of dried fruit, candied peel and nuts and I mean chockablock – there is very little cake. I made one once and my mother loved it.  It is not a traditional Xmas cake however.  At the other end of the spectrum is the parsimonious Dundee cake – which has few fruits (currants, raisins, sultanas and cherries) but lashings of whisky – not Scottish much.   Stollen German fruit cakes and Panettone Italian cakes are two European Xmas versions. The French King Cake has a charming tradition –  it used to have a broad bean in it and the person who finds it is then King/Queen for the day—today it has porcelain or plastic figurines instead. (It’s an old tradition and Samuel Pepys recorded eating the cake).  Variations of the King Cake are seen in Spain and Latin America celebrating Epiphany; in America it is most likely to be associated with Mardi Gras.

Of course we all know the tradition of adding threepences and sixpences to the British Xmas pudding.  Because of their high silver content, the only danger is to dentistry.  But definitely don’t do this with contemporary coins!

Glogg the way I remember it
Scandinavia – forget the Xmas food- it’s all about the drink, Glögg.  This we had in abundance in Denmark, Sweden and some other countries, hic.  It is a high octane mulled wine served hot made with a potpourri of spices and red wine, port, and brandy.  And often had a lone peanut in the bottom.  I don’t know why the peanut and hubby and I still ponder this. We had loads of indepth discussions about this in the course of our research.  It certainly kept us warm as we toddled back to the hotel. 

Mexico - I had this in Mexico.  Menudo is a traditional Mexican Christmas dish that had TRIPE (and I ate tripe) but it's disguised by hominy and spices. The tripe is cooked for hours and it is delicious -- spicy and warming (remember it's cold there).   Rumour is that it's good a cure for a hangover, but I can't vouch for that.  

UK - while the UK has turned it's poor reputation for food around - I cannot forgive a country that invented blood pudding, or fruit cake or mince pies  However the worst addition to the Xmas table has to be brussels sprouts - no matter how they are done -  what were they thinking? 

Some Other Traditional Feasts - Buffet Style - taken from this website

In Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (e.g., Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania), an elaborate and ritualised meal of twelve meatless dishes is served on the Eve of Christmas (24th December). This is because the pre-Christmas season is a time of fasting, which is broken on Christmas Day. As is typical of Slavic cultures, great pains are taken to honour the spirits of deceased relatives, including setting a place and dishing out food for them

Finland (Santa's Home) Joulupöytä (translated “Christmas table”) is the name of the traditional food board served at Christmas in Finland, similar to the Swedish smörgåsbord. It contains many different dishes, most of them typical for the season. The main dish is usually a large Christmas ham, which is eaten with mustard or bread along with the other dishes. Fish is also served (often lutefisk and gravlax), and with the ham there are also laatikot, casseroles with liver and raisins, as well as potatoes, rice, and carrots.

Italy - On Christmas Eve, Southern Italians celebrate with a dinner called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which features seven seafood dishes prepared every which way. There is no traditional menu, but there are some popular dishes, including pan-fried smelts, calamari, homemade linguine with clams, baked eel, and baccala, or salt cod. Why seven dishes? It's unclear, but most explanations point to how the number seven is referenced in the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church. Some families prepare more than seven seafood dishes, with the numbers having religious significance.

Apparently New Zealand has claimed the pavlova as their Xmas dish.  What?!

Finally, for those people who are on their own or are a bit strapped for Xmas dinner - it's Christmas Tinner.  Yep, Xmas dinner in a can -- according to the Huffington Post it has nine layers.  From breakfast to Christmas pudding.  It's probably a hoax but that hasn't stopped people from ordering it - it's sold out.

So I wonder what your Xmas fare looks like?  Have a happy day!


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Woke Up This Morning

Woke up this morning is an almost cliche way to start a blues song.  And that's exactly what we did when we were in Mobile, AL - we woke up this morning and decided to drive to the heart of Blues - Clarksdale MS.

We had heard a lot about Clarksdale - most particularly we know of the ShackUpInn - a very unusual place to stay and in the spirit of research for this show - we drove 7 hours to spend two days in the hard of the Mississippi Delta. 

Clarksdale is right at the top of Ms is a small town (pop about 20,000); it is the birthplace and world capital of the Blues and location of the famous Crossroads intersection of Highway 61 and 49.  Now if you don't know what this intersection is then you ain't got no soul--it's where Blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for musical talent. (Eric Clapton called Johnson the most important Blues singer who ever lived).   It is also the birthplace of John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner.  Bessie Smith died here after a road accident.  Most associated with the place is  Muddy Waters--who is rumoured to have been born in a shotgun shack on Stovall Road - there is a plaque commemorating this (an historical Mississippi Blues Trail marker).

In the Delta Blues Museum is a mock up of Muddy Waters' shack.  The Museum is small but well stocked and has plenty of videos and memorabilia for any Blues fan.  Speaking of blues - Delta Blues is one of the earliest forms of blues -- so named because its in the Mississippi Delta - famous for rich soil and dire poverty.  Scholars might argue about exactly what is Delta Blues but they agree it's about the bottleneck slide, rhythm and instrumentation -- and as a non-Blues expert that's all I'm preparaed to say.

We were delighted with our accommodation at the Shack Up Inn.  The Inn is a fascinating concept -- the owners have resurrected an old (Hopson) Plantation and turned the cotton gin it into rooms;  they have also purchased genuine share cropper (shotgun) shacks and decorated them authentically  A little too authentically for my taste and after two nights I was looking forward to 1500 count sheets :)  I've uploaded a video on YouTube - unfortunately the pictures are on my now missing Iphone.

Obviously there are plenty of Blues places to visit.  Red's is one of the most famous - here's a video of its history.  

Red's is a jook joint -- now jook joint has a long and rich cultural history.  I remember first reading about them in Zora Neale Hurston's "Characteristics of Negro Expression" -- here is a fuller explanation.  There's a Jook Joint Festival in Clarksdale every year.  There is nothing like a jook joint for getting into the Blues and for really experiencing the music and the culture.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

5 Things - Copper Canyon

FIVE things you didn’t know about Copper Canyon
It’s in Mexico - Chihuahua State.
It’s larger than the Grand Canyon
Access only by train
One of the world’s GREATEST train journeys
You can stay in a hotel ON  the actual canyon….! 

Five things you should know about the Train Journey  
Journey starts in Chihihuahua and ends up in Los Mochis – 16 hours roughly
ChePe is the name of the train – 90 years and 90 million dollars to complete
Mexican trains are FAIRLY cheap so go first class the restaurant car is great
It leaves VERY early in the morning…so you should arrive the night beforehand and stay in a hotel nearby AND ARRIVES AT 1AM – SO DOUBLE CHECK your hotel will have someone there to pick u up
Be patient … trains were often late

Five Travel Trips
Go in the winter – then you don’t have to fight the crowds and you get a seat on the right side
Don’t be afraid of eating the food at the stops – I did and didn’t get sick at all
Stay at the hotel on the canyon
Mexican buses are fabulous so don’t be afraid to catch them
Take the tours – don’t be a wimp like me 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Tokyo, Japan - My #1 City

 There is no doubt that Tokyo is filled with dazzling lights and fantastic food.  It is a crowded but surprisingly calm city.  Though it wasn't on my list of cities when a friend moved there in 2005, I went to visit her and immediately fell in love. It is ideal if you have children because there is so much for them to see - the Japanese do childlike (not childish) like no other nation on earth - and because it is so safe.  And even though I cannot speak or read a word of  Japanese, I never felt lost or intimidated.  I cannot get enough of Tokyo and Japan by default.  I try to visit every year -- in 2014 we are going to Sapporo Snow Festival.

Five Things I Love About Tokyo

1. Distance.  It is within a day's flight from Brisbane - so I can leave my house at 6am and be in Tokyo at 4pm.  For an Aussie traveller this is a dream come true ie no jet lag.

Robot Restaurant
2.  It is "different".  Everything Tokyo (Japan) does, it remains similar but develops that unique Japanese Robot Restaurant.  We loved visiting a darts bar where you can drink and smoke--but nope it's definitely not a pub.  Visit a games arcade.  We played the huge Taiko Drums and I fell in love with them.  This year I might bring a set home.  Great for pounding out that aggression and and it's musical (well not when I play, but you know what I mean). Visit Ghibli Museum - for manga/anime lovers and for the kids - but you must book ahead of time (we had to book in Australia - thank you JBT).  For manga lovers, I enjoy prowling around Shibuya's Mandarake shop -- it has cosplay, more manga than anyone could ever read, and plenty of manga merchandise (toys etc). Some of it might be X-rated so be aware when you take the kids.  Though they probably are too busy to notice. In 2014 I'll be trying a taiko drum workshop--in Asakusa.  So more on that later.

3.  The food.  I have never had a bad meal in Japan.  I think it is their philosophy - do things right; have pride in what you do.  Mind you, I love Japanese food and I love fresh food, and I love fish.  I love visiting little bars and trying what's on their menu--I've had deep fried corn (delicious) and all sorts of odd things.  One restaurant we visited had spaghetti with cooked lettuce and salad - surprisingly delicious and I felt quite virtuous and it had green in it :)  Try a fast food restaurant, yes a Maccas, and try one of their Japanese dishes. There is so much more to Japan though than sushi -- it has a range of Michelin Star restaurants that will really drain the pocket, but if you have a couple of hundred dollars and want to experience the best in food then visit one.  We visited Roppongi's L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon.   Read up on some food manga - my favourite series include Oshinbo, Addicted to Curry, Antique Bakery but here are some other great ones too.  And don't be afraid to step into an izakaya.  those hole in the wall bar/food places where you can sometimes eat and drink all you like for a set price (around AUD40 each) - for 90 minutes.  It is prbably going to me filled with smokers but somehow the smoke didn't bother me - do the Japanese have different kinds of cigarettes?

4.  Transport.  Japanese trains are the best I've ever travelled on.  They are fast, clean and always arrive on time.  Buy a Japan Rail Pass before you leave -- the trains are expensive in Japan -- no need to get first class but we always like to treat ourselves but economy is just as impressive.  If you go in the winter -- you get to see a snow dripped countryside and feel warm and cosy inside.  Airports are uber efficient.  It takes us about 1/2 hour from getting off the plane in Narita to sitting on a bus or a train into the city.  They open up Immigration lines to accommodate the incoming passengers as soon as they hit the immigration hall -- take note other countries.  The trip into the city takes about an hour but it's a fun trip -- splash out and buy something from the hostesses on the train -- even if it's just a beer.  The taxis -- well where else does a driver wear white gloves?

5. Shopping.  Now I hate shopping but when you're in a country that is sooo different, it is great fun.  I love cosmetics and a visit to a Japanese pharmacy is filled with wonder.  There is a great one in Shibuya opposite -- you'll know it because it's loud and right at a cross street at the 'top' of the town opposite Toku Dept store about 5 mins walk away from Shibuya station (same side) past 109.  It is about four floors and has food, alcohol, cosmetics and teeshirts.  I spend hours there.  So forget the toothbrush and toothpaste - buy some Japanese ones.  On your way stop at a fabric shop on the corner--cheap and wonderful patterns and cheaper than material in Australia and the new electronics stores for the latest gadgetry but be aware games won't play on Aussie Wii (I learned the hard way). Kimono - we have bought some spectacular wedding ones in Askusa for less than AUD200. 

Things You Might Not Like

  1. Crowds.  Yes Tokyo is crowded but I don't mind that at all.  It could bother some people.
  2. Food.  If you're not a sushi fan you might be disappointed.  But don't despair there are plenty of not-sushi places.
  3. Disneyland.  As Tokyo is a huge city, a visit to Disneyland might disappoint as the lines are long.  I don't particularly like Disneyland so I haven't bothered to go.
  4. Railway stations.  Yes Shinjuku has loads of exits and is confusing but I soon found my way around and being lost is part of the fun.  
  5. Ummm ... distances.  it is a big city so be prepared to take an hour to get to where you have to go.  Allow for this in your scheduling.


Manga-Kissa.  If it's a rainy day and  you just wanna kick back then visit a manga cafe.  There you can kick back and read manga (Japanese of course) drink all the soft drink you want, check your emails etc.  Most of them have wee booths and you can do what you like...hubby and I found them a welcome break from the madness above.  They charge by the hour so take an hour's break.
Rockers in Yoyogi

Parks.  On Sundays visit a park.  Yoyogi (my favourite) usually has Elvis/rockers dancing to loud music.  It's not as bad as it sounds.  Also at the top of Yoyogi is Harajuku where the goth, lolitas gather.  The park is wonderfully serene and has the Meiji Temple.  If you're jetlagged then get up early and walk around -- Japan has the neatest homeless in the world.

Kamakura.  A fascinating place that also holds Yabusame - the Japanese archers.  Definitely a must.  Check out the webpage and see if there's
one on while you're there.

Kabuki.  Japanese opera sounds like a drag - not at all.  The Kabuki Theatre in Ginza has been refurbished so I'm dying to see what it's like now.  Be sure to book ahead. 

Sports.  Sumo or Baseball  Now if Kabui sounds too much like culture then visit a Sumo match -- again, the tournaments are only held certain times so check ahead.  Why not try baseball?  The Japanese love it and are enthusiastic.  Really the place to go for atmosphere and team spirit.  And not a hooligan in sight.

Visit 100 Yen stores.  Buy all your souvenirs there ... I get heaps of lip gloss for my female friends -- they're small and great gifts.  I also bought a pile of face washers that I still use.

Izakaya -- a small bar that serves beer and food.  Order from the menu - and suck down some local beers.  There are tons of them around and don't be afraid to go in.  Try the ones around railway stations but be warned there could be smoking :) 

Jazz and Karaoke.  The Satin Doll is a lounge style place and we loved it.  Sip martinis, eat the small offerings (which are surprisingly filling) and kick back.  Karaoke is truly fun, don't be afraid.

Pachinko Parlours.  Yep, they are LOUD and noisy and bright.  Enough to give you a headache but this is the land of glitz and bright lights. Step inside, get a bucket of ball bearings and waste a few minutes.  I have NO idea how they work but it was another experience.

Odaiba.  An artificial island with loads to see: shopping, Fuji TV, AquaCity, Venus Fort (a recreated 18th century shopping mall with a fake dome that has the sky) the National Museum of Emerging Science and dozens of other places to explore.  It will take a whole day so if you have the time get there early.   Now I love a good museum, but generally the Japanese ones lack the verve of our Aussie ones--usually they are fairly dimly lit with glass domes and plenty of good stuff but a little boring especially in such a techno country, but the National Museum of Science was great.  But we lived Fuji TV more.  Go to the top floor for a great view.  And sometimes there are more Elvis/rockers in the forecourt.  

Before you leave your hotel, look at the place you want and get a screen capture on your phone so you know exactly where to go.  Don't be afraid to ask -- people are wonderful and love to try their English - compliment them on their English and you will have a friend for life.

Finally, this is just the surface -- you need years to explore Tokyo -- I loved it for its popular culture kitsch.  Don't be afraid to step into somewhere new -- it's an experience you will never regret.