Friday, June 29, 2007

Meat pies & the Opera House

Philadelphia has cheese steaks. New York has soft pretzels and pizza-by-the-slice. Chicago has hot dogs. New Orleans has po-boys (and Dino's pizza, but only for the truly initiated). New Haven (our fair city) has hamburgers at Louis Lunch. London has curry. Dublin has fish-n-chips. Oxford has those sketchy kebab vans. Cairo has kushari. Bangkok has satay. And who can count how many shwarma and falafel stands we've seen in the past several months?

In Sydney, there are meat pies. We've only been in the Gateway to Australia for twenty-four hours and already our modest perambulations have revealed numerous pie stands, where hungry Sydneysiders can stop for a quick bite after a couple of pints. The most famous one on the continent, Harry's Cafe de Wheels, dates from 1945. We sampled the house specialty known as the Tiger, a "floater" or stack of beef pie, mash, mushy peas and gravy, all meant to be gulped down while admiring the view at the end of the Wharf Woolloomooloo. The floater is probably not going to take the world of haute cuisine by storm any time soon, but Laura would like to state for the record that she thinks mushy peas are an underappreciated menu item.

With our appetites sated, we rounded the Domain towards Farm Cove, for our first encounter with the trademark scene of the hemisphere. The Sydney Opera House has just been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status and is looking even shinier and grander than usual. (Incidentally, the Opera House - billing itself as "the Wonder Down Under" - is also vying for nomination to the list of the new seven wonders of the world, as are some other sites we've visited this year, including the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids at Giza, and Petra. Get your votes in now!)

We hereby pledge that we will not, in the coming days, fill this humble space with picture after picture of Sydney Harbour, but man, it's a beautiful city.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Flat III

We're subletting a one-bedroom flat in the Potts Point area of Sydney for the next couple of weeks. It's fine, complete with a small kitchen for deep-frying wallabies or whatever, but the beauty part is the view to Elizabeth Bay:

G'day mate!

Well, our readers will no doubt be relieved to hear that we are alive and well (if exhausted)and in Sydney, Australia, after a five day camping expedition in Far North Queensland and a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Our itinerary for the past several weeks had the ultimate aim of getting us deep into the Outback in time for a three-day Aboriginal Dance and Cultural Festival this past weekend. After a seven-hour overnight flight from Singapore and a five-and-a-half-hour drive (in an enormous campervan on the wrong side of the road!) north along the rainforest-edged coastline, we made it to Laura (not the person, the town where the festival was held) just as the sun was setting.

Once we'd gotten our fill of didgeridoo playing (as you do) and reluctantly come to terms with the fact that there would be neither waltzing nor dancers named Matilda, we drove back down south to the Atherton Tablelands, for some more rainforest trekking Ozzie-style. We spotted a number of waterfalls, a couple of platypi and a truly impressive fig tree, but alas no roos (woe) and thankfully no crocs (yay).

Truth be told, this was no culinary adventure - witchetty grubs were not on offer and we subsisted mostly on sandwiches and canned soup - but in Yungaburra we did enjoy one elegant meal of redclaw yabbies (crayfish, for those from Up Over) and sweet potato gnocchi, roasted pumpkin and avocado salad, and local roast beef with watercress, all washed down with an excellent Tasmanian Pinot Noir. It was our first anniversary, after all. One thing we have learned: the Ozzies love coffee (there are several plantations in Northern Queensland). At the dance festival, you could get a cappuccino but not a hot shower. We're still learning how to order (there's a whole independent system - "flat white" means coffee with milk, "short black" means espresso, etc.), but in the meantime, we're sucking down lattes like they're going out of style. (Which, of course, they are. Trends are circular; they ebb and flow; nothing is permanent; the moment is fleeting; carpe diem and so on.)

Our last adventure in Queensland was a day of snorkeling on the Norman and Hastings reefs. The winds were high and the water choppy, but we squeezed into our wetsuits and dove into the Pacific with gusto, only to be greeted warmly by a whole host of new brightly colored friends. Our readers will understand why we did not take any pictures of the incredible iridescent coral or the many schools of brilliant fish teeming around it; everyone knows what happens when you take your camera snorkeling and we're no dummies.

... but more pictures of our exciting adventures Down Under (so far) are available here:
... and, as promised, more pictures of our exciting adventure in Singapore are available here:

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Singapore fling

We arrived in Singapore by train from Kuala Lumpur, dropped our bags at our hotel and split for the Raffles Hotel for a couple Singapore Slings. The official recipe for the famous drink, first created here by a Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon circa 1913:

30ml Gin
15 ml Cherry Brandy
120 ml Pineapple Juice
15 ml Lime Juice
7.5 ml Cointreau
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
10 ml Grenadine
A Dash of Angostura Bitters
Garnish with a slice of Pineapple and Cherry

More pictures of our exciting (sometimes sober) adventure in Singapore coming soon! In the meantime, some pictures of Kuala Lumpur - where the Malaysian flag was first raised in Merdeka Square fifty years ago this August; and where Laura saw monkeys in the (relative) wild for the first time (they hang out in the trees and are fed by passing motorists in the Lake Gardens) - are available here:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

In the jungle, the mighty jungle

While in the Cameron Highlands, in addition to touring the tea plantation, we threw ourselves into some intrepid jungle trekking.

More photographic evidence of our astonishing display of fortitude in the wild is available here (on our way out we also visited a honeybee farm):

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tea for two

This morning, we took a tour of the BOH tea company’s Sungai Palas Estate. We gawked at the breathtaking sight of tightly pruned tea trees clinging to the steep hills and paid careful attention on our tour of the factory. Here’s what we learned:

Like wine, a tea’s character is greatly influenced by the environment in which it is grown. A tea garden’s particular climate, soil, altitude and amount of rainfall create subtle differences in the tea’s flavor and aroma. Cloned plants are selected based on yield, resistance to disease and number of plucking points, nurtured in shaded nurseries, and transplanted to the fields after one year. In about two years, the tea bushes are ready for plucking. Many of the tea trees on the plantation are over eighty years old and the plants can live to be over 120.

Workers pluck the tea bushes about every three weeks when new shoots grow or “flush.” Machines, winches and vehicles are used where the land is flatter and more accessible, while on the steepest slopes, individual workers (here, mostly from India and Nepal) use shears to pluck the plants by hand.

After plucking, the leaves are withered to reduce moisture. The plantation uses either troughs with perforated beds through which warm air is blown or bins in which the ambient air is blown through the leaf. The withering process takes 12 – 20 hours and is usually done overnight.

Next, the leaves fed into rolling machines that twist and break the withered leaf, distorting and rupturing its internal cells and liberating and exposing its juices for fermentation. Again, the factory employs a variety of methods, including its original rolling tables that date from 1935 and newer Cut-Tear-Curl machines with interlocking rollers and rotovanes, which are basically huge corkscrews that squeeze and grind the leaf.

Fermentation, or more precisely, oxidation, is a natural chemical process in which enzymes in the leaf are exposed to oxygen. It is at this stage that the leaf develops the right flavor, aroma and color. The leaf enters the fermentation process still green; at the end, it has turned coppery in color. The leaf is either spread on trays to ferment or fed through a series of rotary blades.

During the drying process, the fermented leaf is fed into machines through which hot air is passed. This halts the fermentation action, reduces the moisture content and crystallizes the juices, thus converting the leaf into its familiar crisp, black form. The factory’s furnace is fueled by rubber wood.

After drying, the made tea is graded according to particle size by passing it through a series of vibrating sieves. Each grade of tea has its own density and flavor characteristics. There are four main grades: “leaf” indicates made tea whose whole leaf is intact; “broken” indicates made tea whose leaf is broken; “fannings” are small broken grades; and “dust,” the smallest and lowest-quality grade, is most often used in tea bags because it steeps more quickly.

Tea tasting is an important part of the process, too. The tea taster checks the flavor, aroma and stringency, swilling the tea around the palate to judge its thickness or body. We sampled the plantation’s Palas Supreme tea, which is hand-picked and –processed, so none of the above applied. It was excellent.

Oh, and LOTS more pictures of our exciting adventure in Southeast Asia (so far) are available here:
... and here:
... and here:
Happy Father's Day, P!

Time for a Tiger

So, we began our whistle-stop tour of Southeast Asia in Bangkok with modest ambitions: to catch a few glimpses of the major highlights on the well-worn tourist trail, including the royal temple of Wat Phra Kaeo and the adjoining Grand Palace, the enormous reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, and most importantly, to dig into some serious, genuine Thai cuisine. In the end, none of this would prove too difficult; our hotel was on the main tourist strip, the Thanon Khao San, just steps away from our intended sightseeing destinations, and lined with food carts, restaurants and bars. Plus, Khao San boasts plenty of interesting sights of its own: mini-dress-clad bar touts, wandering souvenir saleswomen, aging hippies who moved there in the sixties and never left, and backpackers from around the world dressed to kill in the tropical heat.

It’s not difficult to get excited about food in Bangkok. Every few steps, we passed another hawker stall or pushcart vendor serving a new, enticing, and often (to us) completely unfamiliar snack. We quickly learned that street food is where it’s at in Thailand and we sampled every variety we passed, including meat-on-a-stick of every ilk (namely, chicken, pork, liver and oysters), served in little plastic bags full of chili sauce (Tam’s favorite); pancakes made from unorthodox ingredients, like a particularly delicious deep-fried pancake of little whole shrimps (complete with head, shell and whiskers) and kaffir lime leaves; tiny dumplings made of creamed shellfish and rice gluten; glistening unidentified fruits of dramatic appearance (later determined to be jackfruit, dragonfruit and margotene); and, of course, noodle dishes in all their infinite variety and complexity. Laura was an especial fan of the pickled peppers that come in miniscule plastic dishes to accompany any type of noodle soup, most often – in our experience – swimming with cinnamon-laced sliced pork, bitter boiled bok choy, and dumplings (oh, the dumplings!). The tremendous variety of intestines and animal extremities on sale raw, baked or deep-fried was astonishing; the buckets of chicken feet were the least of it. Our single regret was that the pushcart of fried insects passed us at too swift a pace. Really, next time…

On the third day, we rose again from our beds in time to catch a tuk-tuk (a sort of brightly colored rickshacum motorcycle) to Chinatown for a quick stroll through the markets, then on to the train station for a 24-hour journey south to Malaysia. We arrived on the island of Penang to find that our culinary choices had broadened to incorporate Chinese and Indian influences. In the former colonial capital, Georgetown, we spent our day hopping from temple to clan house to mosque and exchanging friendly greetings with the Tamils, Thais, Chinese, Indians and Malays that populate the diverse and highly integrated city. In between, we sampled more noodle soups (less spicy and meatier than the Bangkok variety) and more meat-on-a-stick (bought from a hawker who proudly boasted of being a third-generation satay “specialist,” and demonstrated his special fanning technique for Laura – quick wrist flicks seem to do it). Our new friend pointed us to Little India, where we sampled chappatis, samosas and chicken curry, then wandered back for the local specialty laksa (a strong fish stew with noodles, enlivened by huge quantities of chopped lotus flower, bok choy and shrimp paste), and had tiny banana- and coconut-stuffed pancakes served on a banana leaf for dessert.

The next morning, we made a breakfast of a brilliantly colored Chinese dessert called ice kacang, featuring sweetened red beans over crushed ice. It attracted us with its supernaturally bright colors and the large crowd of enthusiastic consumers who encouraged us to sample it and helped us to order, but we were quite unable to discern most of its ingredients and sadly cannot help to identify those clear, bean-shaped gelatinous balls. Its taste is likewise quite indescribable.

Yesterday, we took at bus to the Cameron Highlands, a hilltop station founded by the British in the 1920s as a retreat from the heat of the lowlands and now a popular vacation destination renowned for its jungle treks and tea plantations. As soon as we dumped our luggage, we set out to sample the local delicacy known as a “steamboat,” a kind of Asian fondue. Seated at an unusually large table for two, we were presented with platefuls of raw shark, jellyfish, cuttlefish, beef, squid and shrimp, along with noodles, whole eggs, tofu and vegetables, all of which we cooked ourselves in a huge, bubbling double-cauldron of spicy broths. Laura made a huge mess at her place setting and we had to slink out of the restaurant in disgrace. It was tasty, but Tam thinks that a dinner out shouldn't be quite so much work.

Of course, no honest culinary account of a trip to Bangkok or Georgetown would be complete without fessing up to a little bellying up to the bar. In Bangkok, we drank local Singha lager at a super-trendy bar called “The Station” located under the canopy of a disused gas station, with chic young tipplers sipping fruity drinks at candle-lit tables scattered among the pumps. In Penang, we spent our first night draining bottles of Tiger lager at the Hong Kong Bar, a one-room establishment with a linoleum floor and mismatched plastic furniture which – we were informed by an enthusiastic young cadet – has been the watering hole of the various Australian fleets stationed in Malaysia for more than fifty years. The crowd of Ozzies certainly looked right at home, and cheered and whistled when the owner, a tiny, middle-aged Chinese woman with heavily accented English, pumped her beer in the air while offering a loud and enthusiastic rendition of the Queen classic “We Are the Champions.” Around the corner, a transplanted English pub known as the Soho Free House was by far the most happening scene in Penang, jammed with swanky young businessmen ordering whole bottles of Johnny Walker Black and heaping plates of fish and chips while watching interviews with David Beckham on TV. Rule Britannia, we guess.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Balls to Walls

One peculiar aspect of being a visitor in Israel (and there are many) is that you have a freedom to move around in a way that Israeli citizens really don't. Israelis, unless they are settlers, are not allowed to visit the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (There is considerable debate in the Israeli press about the logic of spending huge amounts of money, manpower and resources trying to hang on to territory most of the citizenry can never enter; and plenty of Israelis are coming down against it, far more than you would guess from reading the papers in the US.) So, in our last few days as wide-eyed observers in the Holy Land, we took advantage of our foreign passports and relative mobility to cross over to the West Bank: in this case, to the formerly popular tourist destination and famed little town of song, Bethlehem.

Israel is a tremendously fractured society with deep and hostile divisions, not only between Jews and Arabs, but between religious and secular Jews, the right and the left, immigrants and non-immigrants. These enshrined social, religious and political divisions often lend Jerusalem an atmosphere of barely controlled hostility. Neighborhoods in the Holy City tend to be homogenous, self-contained enclaves of different religious and ethnic groups, and separate public transportation systems serve Arab and Jewish areas. The state-owned Egged system runs to Jewish neighborhoods, most cities in Israel, and the settlements in the territories; less plush Arab buses serve East Jerusalem and other Arab parts of the city and will take you to the main centers in the West Bank. There is almost no mixing, even when Arab and Jewish neighborhoods are right next to each other. So to go to Bethlehem, we caught a bus from East Jerusalem to the military checkpoint a short distance outside our destination.

The checkpoint is in the infamous new "security barrier" that divides Israel proper from the territories acquired in the 1967 war, a victory whose 40th anniversary this week has aroused so much discussion around the world. As American tourists, we passed right through with unopened passports; a few Palestinians (with rare permission to pass through to Jerusalem) were subjected to a high-tech fingerprinting scheme and careful inspection. On the other side, the Palestinians of Bethlehem have constructed an elaborate graffiti protest against the wall, their segregation and their loss of civil, political and human rights under the Israeli occupation. It's a sophisticated political statement, with large comic portraits of Palestinians alternating with protest slogans, mainly in English. (The title of this post is a quote from one of the less serious contributions.) It's clearly designed to be viewed by the international community that used to visit Bethlehem with some frequency; passersby and taxi drivers, obviously proud of the portraits, stopped to chat and encourage our interest.

Bethlehem itself is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It was once almost entirely Christian, but the Christian population has dwindled significantly due to major emigration since 1948, and Bethlehem now has a Muslim majority. Nevertheless, it's still an important pilgrimage site for Christians around the world, and used to be a major tourist attraction. In 2002, an Israel Defense Forces raid on the city led to a five-week standoff between the IDF and a group of Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity (below; it's one of the oldest churches in the world, built originally by Constantine's mom Helena over the supposed birthplace of Jesus). This incident, combined with increasingly draconian travel restrictions, has led to a significant dropoff in tourism, and the building of the wall has contributed further to severe economic difficulties in the city. The streets of Bethlehem were almost empty, with lots of shops offering Christian souvenirs but no tourists to buy them. One desperate store owner asked us to broadcast the news of our safe return from the West Bank to other potential visitors. If Mary and Joseph came to town today, they'd have no trouble finding a room.

This trip concentrated a lot of the impressions we've gotten in our two months here. Israel, and especially Jerusalem, is an astoundingly militarized place. For us, it's still shocking to see thousands of uniformed teenagers toting machine guns; everyone in Israel except for Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews has to serve in the army. (Women serve for two years, and men serve for at least three and are considered reservists until they reach forty-five.) The resources devoted to the military are stupefying. So much energy, time, money and effort is focused on the military efforts and the maintenance of all sorts of social, political and economic divisions that there's little left over for the sorts of projects that make a place livable: the arts, a vibrant public sphere, universities and intellectual life, public cultural events. Instead, the worst aspects of American cultural influence are clear; strip malls, fast food and stalls selling vulgar T-shirts infest the city. The Christian sites have been largely taken away from the Christian Arab community which has run them for centuries and been turned into what one American Episcopalian priest we met called a "Holy Places Disneyland."

Many Israelis themselves see Jerusalem as an unappealing place; in a recent poll, 78% of Israelis said they would not be willing to live there, calling it impoverished, backward, intolerant and unattractively sectarian. Other cities in Israel have a very different feel - Tel Aviv has a much less militarized appearance and boasts a vibrant civic culture, and Haifa is much less segregated and is a friendly and welcoming place. But it has been depressing and discouraging to witness these levels of hostility, segregation and disregard for the rights of other in what is often called one of the most sacred cities in the world. We hope that the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the occupation will provoke international thoughtfulness about ways to change the situation.

In the meantime, we're off to Bangkok!

More pictures of our adventure in Israel (including shots of a certain pair of scantily clad bloggers floating in the Dead Sea) are available here:

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Au bon pain perdue

When Tam's mom first moved to Arizona, her apartment was just a few blocks from a Krispy Kreme donut shop. When Tam's brother Charley, whom you may remember from our last breakfast post, came to visit, he would stop on the way to pick up the schedule of when the freshly baked donuts would be ready. As soon as the next glazed batch hit the shelves, Charley bring home a dozen, still warm, dip them in a freshly beaten egg and make French toast with them. He confided his secret: a whole stick of butter.

In Jerusalem, we've been enjoying a (slightly healthier) version of French toast, in which the donuts are replaced with challah bread. Challah is a staple of traditional Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish cuisine; it's a sweetened, egg-rich, braided bread, eaten especially on the Shabbat. It's sprinkled with either poppy or sesame seeds, which represent the manna given to the Jews by God during their wanderings in the desert after the Exodus. Unlike most other European sweetened breads, it does not contain dairy, because it usually accompanies meat-based Shabbat meals. Originally, challah referred to a small portion of dough separated out from the main piece and given to the Jewish priesthood; now, according to strict interpretations, there are no ritually pure priests (since the destruction of the Temple), so the challah portion of ritual bread is usually burned. But challah is still an extremely prominent part of the Shabbat meals, and people buy giant piles of loaves in the Mahaneh Yehuda market every Friday in preparation.

It also makes for excellent French toast, due to its slight sweetness, its absorptive qualities, its fluffy interior and crunchy crust, and the nutty savoriness of the seeds. We make challah French toast with a simple egg dip, and top it with lemony strawberries and honey-sweetened yogurt for a delicious Shabbat breakfast.

Challah French Toast with Strawberries and Honeyed Yogurt

3 eggs
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter (or more, you know...)
6 thick slices challah bread (best if slightly stale)

1 quart fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste; depends on how sweet your strawberries are)
juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 1/2 tablespoons honey

Mix strawberries with sugar and lemon juice in large bowl and toss to combine. Allow to sit for about 20 minutes.

Mix honey and yogurt in small bowl.

Mix egg, milk, sugar and salt in a large bowl and add slices of bread. Let soak for a few minutes. Melt butter in skillet over medium heat and add bread. Cook until golden brown on both sides.
Serve immediately, topped with strawberries and yogurt mixture.

Serves 2.