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In the Kettle

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Cross-posted from my LJ.

Parliament Square, 9th December 2010.

Big Ben in the Evening Sun

We are surrounded.

Just half an hour ago the sun was setting behind Big Ben, coating it with gold. A Japanese tourist stopped to take a photograph of my banner. Back then—after the initial push into Parliament Square—the atmosphere had been relaxed, people smiling in the winter sunshine. When the police took off their fluorescent jackets and raised their shields I’d drifted around the crowd, keeping to the fringes but not yet alarmed.

Now the cops stand shoulder to shoulder across Parliament Street, where not so long ago people had been walking up-and-down freely. They are clad in black, their helmets glinting in the evening light. The crowds have thinned and I wonder if the Japanese tourist is still among them, caught up—bewildered—along with the other sight-seers who at first couldn’t believe their luck.

The stench of solvent creeps up my nostrils as I lean against the sandstone, scribbling into my notebook. Some guys are spraying graffiti onto the walls.

I take out my phone and try to call John. At first the call fails to connect and then all I can hear is sirens.

Someone walks past with a banner that reads ‘This Is Not A Good Sign’.


I don’t get any information from the officers. It is clear that they’re letting nobody out. Bizarrely, the entrance to Westminster Station is in front of the line. I walk down the stairs and come to a set of shutters. Of course the station is closed, as are the streets above, the traffic lights changing eerily from red to green to amber.

“Don’t you think it is against the law not to provide toilets if there is a public gathering?”

The woman who says this is petite and dressed in a flimsy cardigan and thin overcoat. She looks annoyed. If we’re lucky it will be against the law to let people freeze to death or to crack open their skulls with batons, but I think we are on our own now.
[read on]

An Evening at the Keelung

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

One of my basic regrets is not keeping a journal during our trip to Taiwan at the turn of the millennium. It was my lost journey, ‘riding the dragon’s tail’ as a young soldier put it when we shared a smoke at the back of a train.

I was culture-shocked and goggle-eyed throughout as I soaked in hot springs at the bottom of a marble gorge, had tea with Buddhist nuns who submerged themselves fully clothed (even their feet were wrapped), danced underneath a pagoda with a boy who’d given me a ride but wouldn’t let go until we had done that, hitched lifts on the backs of over-balanced scooters without meaning to and then hung on for dear life as we narrowly evaded jagging rocks in roughly-hewn tunnels, chewed betelnut only to find that the Oolong tea I sampled in Alishan got me higher, looked up 60m tall trees before lunching on lotus root soup in a plum grove, felt the Earth move eight storeys up and again on the way to the night market in Tainan, closed my eyes as six lanes of scooters faced me cycling down a major road when the traffic lights turn green to signal the start of the Kaohsiung rush-hour Grand Prix…

…and sampled the food. Oh yes, the food.

We (John was visiting the university while I did all that) took part in not one, but two banquets. The elaborate menus promised a series of delights in twelve dishes or more (some of those dishes were sets), all in Chinese. The choicest seafood, the richest stews. Items that I’m sure our friends had mis-translated (beef tendon?). And yes, I admit it, sharkfin soup and birdsnest soup for Christmas. The latter is nothing to write home about, but the former… Not worth the overfishing of sharks to be sure. Or sea cucumbers for that matter.

But Chinese, all in Chinese. I cannot recall, cannot translate, and stupid me took no notes. The flavours and textures seemed forever lost; occasionally reflected in Mandarin and Cantonese menus, the ones that are never translated into English. Strictly under-the-counter eating, and never quite the same.

Until I walked past a place on Lisle Street that calls itself Keelung (Seafood Market) Taiwanese Restaurant and images of night markets and temple yard eateries came to mind. Sizzling oyster omelets. Scorching stinky tofu, cooked Szechuan style with the heat mercifully blasting away the smell (John liked it). Goosenecks on sticks. Cheap but tasty bowls of rice and mince. A woman wrapped up in a warm coat serving us shaved ice which we’d mistaken for something warm (relying on pure pattern recognition here). Maxi-sized steamers stacked up in leaning towers. Trays of glistening seafood arranged in grids, some of it still alive. More seafood swimming, crawling or gliding in rows upon rows of orange plastic crates, and which I never got to sample as it’s famously pricy.

All that here for the picking?

Well, not quite. Which is just as well.

I thought the portions would be small. Just a mouthful. This is London, and the place even calls itself a tapas restaurant on its website (though not on its business card). Surely I could go with two starters (dumplings for sharing), a fish dish and steamed vegetables flavoured with a bit of ‘grounded pork’, like I remember from Taiwan where most vegetable dishes are mixed with bits of meat. I’d still have plenty of room to sample what the others order.

“No rice?” The waitress asked. “you should order some rice.”

They wouldn’t serve us a big bowl of plain rice for sharing, so I added pork belly steamed rice to the list.

The others were more restrained, except perhaps for John who went for a ground(ed) pork rice bowl he had so enjoyed around that backstreet temple in Kaoshiung when the food stalls opened in the evening, Szechuan-style gray clams since we wanted to sample a bit of seafood and pig kidney in sesame oil and rice wine. The others had only two dishes each.

So how come the table was so packed that the food had to be served in stages?

Here’s what we ate:

There’s not much Dim sum in my life, so I couldn’t resist the Keelung Siu Loung Bao special, wheat-wrapped dumplings that burst in the mouth with meaty goodness, complemented by A’s order of delicate rice-pastry with chicken and mixed vegetables with crunchy peanut. They arrived with a soy and rice vinegar dip flavoured with ginger matchsticks that took me right back.
Keelung Siu Loung Bao
(My way has always been to dip the things in the sauce and cram them into my mouth, but later reading revealed that the stock-filled xiao long bao are best not tackled that way. Lift them onto the soup spoon and devour them piecemeal, catching the liquid on the spoon.)

I had high hopes for the ground(ed) pork which I remember with a touch of chili oil smokiness and earthy spices, mixed sparingly in with the rice. Here it was more of a brown-grey sludge, flecked with gristle and too much liver. If the liver had been more restrained, it might still have passed.
Tainan Ground(ed) Pork Rice Bowl
A nice note for the steamed choi-sum was the banana leaf lining the basket, which made a subtle, but noticeable, difference.
Steamed Choi-sum With Ground Pork
The choi-sum (also featured as ‘Chinese broccoli’) was delicious and more successful when served in its own right: stir-fried with plenty of garlic. A thick, green, juicy vegetable—if a bit fibrous—and a necessary counterpart to all the rich food.
Chinese Broccoli

My own ‘rice’ was not—as I expected—steamed rice with a bit of pork belly stirred through, but rather a meal in its own right with a mound of rice and pork belly by the side. This would have made me a happy lunchtime diner. The pork belly was the absolute winner; it dissolved on the tongue. I never had better, although it needed some chilli oil.
Pork Belly Steamed Rice

Another surprise were the Szechuan style grey clams garnished with handfuls of dried chillies, Straits-style. Delicious but so searing hot that I could only try a single one. From what my hardened mates said about the spices, these were spot-on.
Gray Clams (Szechuan Style)

The pig kidney looked at first sight like intestines, which I will have to order next time as there wasn’t any room left. Scored strips of kidney in a delicious broth which, alas, didn’t taste either of sesame oil or rice wine. But then the wine used in Taiwanese cooking is more delicate. I kept sipping the stock as we worked our way through dish after dish. It acted like a digestive: chicken soup for the belly.
Pig Kidney in Sesame Oil & Rice Wine

The deep-fried pork chops took me straight back to the campus of Sun Yat-Sen University. This was in definite need of chilli oil.
Deep Fried Pork Chops

With that (and the pork belly), we entered banquetting territory. I first had beef tendon in one of Kaohsiung’s foremost hotels. And it is good, if it is soft. Not all these pieces were. The sauce was so sweet that the dish was almost candied.
Beef Tendon

There are tastes which you can recognise, if not describe. Mixed in with the Duck with Chinese Angelica and Herbal Rice Noodle Soup were things that looked like chopped prunes and tasted as if they had been fermented and then smoked for a long time over pinewood. Great stuff.
Duck with Chinese Angelica Herbal Rice Noodle Soup

No birthday is complete without a good-luck-dish and during banquets, the fish head is pointed at the honoured guest. Since I was the only one to have fish, I figured that I might as well make it a head of salmon.

Not for the faint-hearted, this dish needs greater skill than mine to tackle with chopsticks. I remember once taking home a fish head for dissection, but it fell apart before I could get a clear idea where everything fitted. Be assured that there are a lot of bones.
Salmon Head

Salmon is a fatty fish, but usually the fat is marbled through the flesh, giving it a silky texture. As with meat, it holds a lot of flavour. Just how much I found out when I prised the flakes of translucent fat from underneath the thick skin on the top of the salmon’s skull. This is one of the unique morsels which sets the head apart from the rest of the fish. It was melt-in-the-mouth delicate, but overwhelmingly fishy.

I fared better with the eye, which was like a burst of fine bullion, although I could have done without the rubber lens and crunchy keratin lining. Like most first-timers (I suspect), I bit on the eye and then swallowed it whole.

“You should have chewed,” John said.

At last I found a little gelatinous mass that might have been the brain. It was good; less in-your-face than the fat.
Salmon Eye & a Bit of Brain

The fish head will stay off the menu next time, but we’ll be back to sample more than the fraction of the dishes on offer, including some deserts. One thing is for sure: this kind of food is unique and different from standard Chinese cooking, even from the Mandarin and Cantonese under-the-counter menus (although each proper restaurant has its specials and its strengths).

Why is this so?

When the then government fled to Taiwan, they took the imperial treasures with them. Stashed deep underneath a mountain, a selection is displayed at the Imperial Palace Museum in an exhibition which rotates every three months. It takes twelve years to get through them all.

They also took the best chefs, preserving and refining traditions which have been lost on the mainland.

Square Festival, Borth

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

I would blog from the Square Festival in Borth, but it will take several hours to upload my photos and, well, I’d rather go to the Festival.

Xandros Linux on the EeePC sucks hard 🙁

Excuses to Travel: flu remedies

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Elderberries are good against the flu and colds. Recently, the centuries-old lore has been backed up by clinical studies of Sambucal, of which I now own two bottles. However, they didn’t come cheap at nearly ten quid each for what amounts to a 3-day-course.

Thankfully it would seem that the elderberries’ curative properties are at least partially preserved after heat treatment, and it is not necessary to concentrate them overmuch, so I am looking up recipes for wines and cordials to help us through the winter. But it will be many months before the berries are ripe for the picking.

Prompted by a (harmless but annoying) summer cold, I’m casting around for alternatives. According to Wikipedia they produce a type of brandy in Hungary (bodza pálinka) which is made with 50kg of elderberries per litre. The online price (£ 1.85/40ml) would reflect that. But I’m reasoning that the stuff’s cheaper in Budapest.

However, according to a Google image search, the spirit is clear. Part of the beneficial activity of elderberries is due to the pigments (anthocyanidins, comprising 0.2-1% of the berries and a whopping 0.5% in Sambucal). There are darker incarnations, which I suppose aren’t distilled from quite as much fruit (more like wines), and these may be just what I’m looking for. One more reason to conduct some field research 😉

I reckon there should be a EU-wide initiative looking into the benefits of elderberry drinks, which would boost the economies of several eastern/central European countries.

Writers’ Retreat

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Last week we were on a writers’ retreat in Assynt, deep in the Scottish highlands, and —true to form—I didn’t get anything much written, nor blogged.

But it was glorious, so here are a few photos:

View from Glencanisp Lodge

‘Mount Improbable’, as seen from Glencanisp lodge. It didn’t take long for the members of the writers’ group to come up with the name, but sadly it wasn’t me. I kept thinking ‘Zuckerhut’. Having another German there does it…


The Assynt Foundation is based in Lochinver, which looked unfeasibly idyllic during (one day!) of sunshine. Sadly I didn’t get a better shot because I was to lazy to walk up the pier. Then it started to rain…

forested island

A curious thing about the H ighlands are the miniature forests that grow on islands in the freshwater lochs. This is particularly striking in the Assynt area which has very little forest because the glaciers have scoured the mountain sides down to the bedrock (elsewhere in the highlands, deforestation is to blame). Again, I could have obtained a better shot. This was taken from the car window. (Well, it was half a mile to the lodge…)

Stoerhead, Assynt

Even in the middle of the tourist season, the Assynt coastal route is remote

Village Sheep

…not counting visitors, there are more sheep than people!

Weekend interlude

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Borth: incoming tide

We’re just back from a nice long weekend in Borth and I’ve had to catch up with some domestic stuff.

More about Japan tomorrow. Meanwhile check out DILO (Day in the Life of) Sept. 23rd on Flickr. My set is here.

There’s another thing I miss about London…

Monday, July 9th, 2007

…and that’s the big-ass melons you get ’round the ‘hoods in summertime:

Watermelons, Islington

Those things are enough for a big family, and if you really want to get the party going, they can be infused with vodka. Since these buggers come in at up to 20kg, that will be a hell of a party!

Fortunately, they’re sold in wedges of perfect, deep-red sweetness. I bought ¼, and it was enough for five people.

Melon Wedges

The end of an Institution

Sunday, July 1st, 2007


Back when I met my husband, I used to smoke a pipe.

It was a habit I started—hooked on the sweet scent of my then ex-boyfriend’s pipe tobacco—shortly before setting off to Africa, and it has stood me in good stead around many campfires and in many a cosy bar on cold winter evenings.

For our first date, my hubby-to-be took me on a Sunday outing with the Oxford University Motorcycle Club. I rode pillion on his Yamaha RS100 along winding lanes to a quaint old pub in the Cotswold village of Great Tew. The pub is called the Falkland Arms, not with reference to the then recent war, but because the Falklands were named after the local lord of the manor, who no doubt frequented it.

Falkland Arms, Great Tew

Following an honoured tradition, the pub serves real Ale and cider and a selection of local wines and mead (I remember sampling the birch wine—not bad). They also sold clay pipes and a selection of fruit tobaccos to be enjoyed by the open fire.

Alas, no more. Two weeks ago, we celebrated our wedding anniversary with our last ever pipe smoked on the premises, at least inside. (Well OK, on the premises, taking the British weather into account.) And yesterday, my husband, some mates and I puffed our last in our local around the corner.
[read on]


Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

Busy with other projects.

We spent a magical weekend in the countryside, but more of that later.

Lonesome Bench

Gung Hei Fat Choi!

Monday, February 19th, 2007

…as they made us all shout from the central stage during yesterday’s Chinese New Year festivities in Trafalgar Square. Hopefully, this will be a prosperous year indeed, as this is the golden year of the pig.

Chinese Dragon

London’s Trafalgar Square and Soho were inundated yesterday as the Chinese Association and Mayor Ken Livingstone laid on the biggest Chinese New Year celebration London has yet seen. Shaftesbury AvenueThe city was lavishly decorated with red lanterns and cultural performances on stage alternated with raucious lion-and dragon dancers parading through the streets. The crowds in Soho—normally quiet away from the tourist magnets around the square—were so dense that police had to be grafted in to keep people moving. I hope that more will return to sample Chinatown’s many delights in the future, but on this day, getting into a shop or restaurant, or even to the stalls lining the street, was near impossible.Golden Child

The weather put a bit of a dampener on the event: it was so dark that taking photos was near impossible, but at least we were spared a drenching. Still, I long to move away from dim Britain, and celebrating Chinese New Year brought back the travel bug. That evening, one of our mate’s colleagues regaled us with stories of 3 months spent backpacking through China. I can feel my feet beginning to itch, yet again.

But until that time, I’ll have to make do with occasional dinner at the Wong Kei.