Ten days in Japan: high speed, comfortable pace

 

View of the peak of Mt Fuji as our flight approached Tokyo. The Japanese passengers were very excited!

This is the first in a series of nine posts about our travels between June 2017 and February 2019. In total, we went on seven trips and spent significant time on the ground in thirteen countries across four continents and five islands.

When, where and how

Maggie and I spent 10 days in Japan in December 2017, including Christmas Day, but we retreated to the peace and quiet of our home in Melbourne just before the beginning of Hatsumode, the colourful-but-crowded Japanese period of en masse visits to Shinto shrines.

This was our first visit to Japan. We chose this time of the year for several reasons: we get a kick out of spending Christmas in other countries; major sites are not overcrowded; and early winter is not overly harsh in the south of Japan. In fact it was dry most of the time, we only used an umbrella once, briefly, and I needed to wear thermal undergarments on just two mornings.

Instead of booking a complete tour, our travel agent helped us to put together a diverse itinerary of free time, specific short tours and rail transfers between cities. Our ten nights were spent in hotel accommodation in Tokyo, the lakeside town of Hakone, the old imperial capital Kyoto and Osaka.

We flew to and from Japan via Singapore, partly because there were no direct flights available from Osaka to Melbourne. In hindsight, it would have been smarter to book direct flights between Melbourne and Tokyo and use a bullet train to get to Tokyo airport from Osaka, a journey of little more than three hours!

As you would expect, we moved from city to city by bullet train, having obtained a Japan Rail Pass before we left Australia. We also used local train services in both Tokyo and Osaka. We cannot overstate how impressed we were with our train travel experiences.

Faster than Superman!

Sights and experiences

Tsukiji (Tokyo) fish market tour & sushi class (morning)
Our guide led us on a very interesting exploration of the streets of seafood stalls in the outer market. The sushi class was excellent and the instructor, 30 years a sushi chef, was a charming and effective teacher. At home, we have continued to apply what we learnt.

With our sushi master

Tokyo highlights tour
This full-day tour with the Sunrise Tours company was varied and mostly interesting and our tour guide was very good. It began with the lookout on top of the famous Tokyo Tower and ended at the beautiful Sensoji temple and neighbouring pagoda at the top of the popular Nakamise Shopping Street. As you would expect, it also included a traditional tea ceremony, which wasn’t quite our cup of matcha, although the surrounding Japanese garden setting was quite attractive. Overall, a long day but a very satisfactory introduction to Tokyo, both old and modern.

     

     

Mt Fuji tour
Much to our surprise and disappointment, this turned out to be the weak leg of our itinerary. The ‘5th station’ on Mt Fuji, the highest point for coach tours, was well short of the standard you would find in other countries for such an iconic landmark, in terms of interpretation items, viewing spots, signage and convenient access to light snacks etc. And our view of the snow-capped summit was facing directly into the morning sun. (Our photo flatters the view!)

Then we had another long drive to catch a boat for the short trip on Lake Ashi to the base of the Komagatake ‘ropeway’, or cable car as we would call it. This piece of infrastructure looked like a relic from the second World War but it worked safely enough and the views of Mt Fuji and the lake were very impressive.

      

Hakone
The town of Hakone is at the southern end of Lake Ashi and is a popular summer-time destination for Tokyo residents. It was an attractive and restful place to spend a day and two nights, including a good variety of dining options and quality souvenirs.

Kyoto & Nara day-tour
This was one of the best tours we have ever experienced (except for the hilariously bland buffet lunch we were offered during the break between the two halves of the tour). The itinerary was packed with world-class sites, our guide was close to perfect and it all went like clockwork. Not to be missed (except the lunch)!

Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan from the late 8th century until 1869 and contains several outstanding buildings from those times. Today, the city’s historical virtues are protected by restrictions on the height and colours of new buildings, helping to make it one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited.

To begin, we visited Ryōan-ji temple, home to the world’s most famous dry landscape Zen garden, as well as a lovely pond and surrounding garden.

   

Next, we visited the site of the Golden Pavillion, a breathtakingly beautiful structure and one of 17 World Heritage listed sites in Kyoto. The original building was destroyed in 1950, when it was set ablaze by a suicidal novice priest. It was rebuilt in 1955. We also marvelled at the meticulous work done to maintain the quality of the site’s gardens and pathways.

  

The last Koyoto site we visited was the grounds of the old Imperial Palace, an area covering more than 70 hectares in the centre of Kyoto. It was a place of contrasts, with vast imperial buildings and classic, finely-detailed gardens and water features.

     

In the afternoon, we were taken to Nara, which had been the Japanese capital in the 8th century. First, we were guided through Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden structure and home to the Great Buddha, a bronze statue 15 metres high. As with most other sites we visited, there was no over-crowding, which made our guide very happy!

   

The other highlight of the afternoon was a visit to Kasuga Tahisha shrine, set in verdant woodlands and famous for the vast number of stone lanterns which line the pathways leading to the shrine. We had limited access to the main shrine, as preparations were underway for the imminent Hatsumode festivities.

 

Miyajima & Hiroshima tour
Our enjoyment of this tour suffered a little by comparison with our experiences in Kyoto and Nara on the previous day. This was especially the case with the famously photogenic shrine on Miyajima Island, which our guide struggled to bring to life; it didn’t help that our tour group was large and it was a windy day. However, we still enjoyed ourselves, had the island’s signature dish for lunch – okonomiyi – and bought some souvenirs before returning to the mainland to visit the atomic bomb sites and memorials. This was a very worthwhile experience, providing us with a brief but thorough coverage of the bombing event, its consequences, its ongoing significance and the various memorials.

  

Giant sushi rice paddle on display on Miyajima. We decided a regular-sized one would work better in our kitchen!

Iconic dome in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

 

One of the many murals in the memorial park made up of thousands of small paper cranes. The commitment to peace and forgiveness was inspiring.

Hiroshima street lighting to mark Christmas, celebrated by Japanese people as one of the world’s great festivals!

Osaka tour
The final pre-booked item on our itinerary was a half-day tour in Osaka, concluding with lunch at a kushikatsu restaurant.  This tour was excellent, beginning with an extended visit to the impressive Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine. It is one of Japan’s oldest shrines and attracts vast numbers of Japanese visitors during Hatsumode. We then moved by tramcar and subway to Shinsekai, one of Osaka’s bustling food precincts. After a short tour, we sat down to our kushikatsu lunch, one of the many Japanese cuisines we tasted for the first time during our journey.

After the tour, we followed our guide’s instructions to make our way to the famous Dotonbori food precinct. What a place! We didn’t eat there but it was still worth a look, with plenty of culinary eye-candy, technology, colour and a happy throng of people. Don’t the Japanese do queuing well?!

        

  

   

     

Food and beverages

During our ten days in Japan we ate a wide variety of Japanese food, much of it coming as our first experience of the particular cuisine.  We wouldn’t go looking for some of those food styles again but we still enjoyed the experience. We only had one bad result. On our first night in Tokyo, we were very tired by the time we reached our hotel and, unusually for us, we hadn’t done any dining-venue research on the net before leaving Australia. We ended up paying an excessive amount for a feed of unexciting teppanyaki in a restaurant attached to the hotel. A costly lesson learned.

We soon discovered that there were two sure-fire ways to find dining venues: upper floors in multi-storey shopping malls; and along streets and arcades close to or within train stations. The latter should not come as a surprise: 48 of the world’s 50 busiest stations are in Japan; and Japanese office workers are more likely to dine on their way home from work than their counterparts in other countries.

We also wised up to the fact that Japanese beer is a good match for Japanese food and, unlike when at home, we only drank wine before or after meals.

At out hotel in Hakone, we struck gold in the form of a head chef who had trained in France, then worked in Vienna before coming back to Japan. We hadn’t planned on going French for two nights but we were more than happy to do so!

In Kyoto, we found the delightfully quaint Cafe Nakayama, which served a fine cup of tea, filtered coffee and various snacks. We had three light meals there!

In Osaka, we discovered the Daimaru store in the Osaka station complex and took full advantage, stocking up on sushi-related tools and crockery and patronising the store’s floor of better restaurants for one lunch and two dinners. One of the latter included a burger that was ethereally light and flavoursome. We wish we knew how they did it!

Here are some examples, including the ubiquitous sushi train.

 

 

Great hamburger! Note the cardboard collar to protect wait-staff and customers from the sizzle-flak.

 

Final thoughts

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Japan and would rate it around 9 out of 10, with only a couple of flat spots.

We found Japanese people to be incredibly courteous and helpful; city streets and buildings are tidy and clean; and they use technology extensively and effectively to make things happen.

The places where we stayed and the sites we visited or viewed, encompassed an attractive mix of Japan’s rich cultural heritage, beautiful scenery, colourful urban spaces and much of its varied cuisine.

We were also very impressed with the aptly named Sunrise Tours, the local company (in the land of the rising sun) which operated most of the organised tours we did. There was always clear information, flawless logistics, good coaches, excellent drivers and, with one exception, very good guides.

I will finish with a favourite memory, from our wonderful bullet-train experiences. As we sped across the countryside, a steward would enter our carriage and bow. Then he or she would walk through the carriage, checking that everyone was comfortable and then, before exiting through the far doorway, turn and bow to us again. Ah, the simple delights of international travel!

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

 

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Travel post backlog

Other than a couple of fleeting references to a recent resort-based holiday in Vietnam, I haven’t written any posts about travel since May 2017. So, my Sheriff’s-posse-sized band of regular readers could be forgiven for assuming that Maggie and I have spent most of the last two years close to home in Melbourne.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

It’s just that, we have been travelling so often and, when at home, I have been so consumed by the responsibilities of being the sole trustee for the estates of my late father and brother, that I have lacked both the time and the inclination to produce anything worthy of your interest.

However, inspired by our week in Vietnam and, beginning with the softer option of sharing some food stories, I have returned to a blogger’s happy place, ready to work my way through a backlog of travel experiences.

Here is a brief overview of our itinerary for the period from June 2017 to February 2019.

A tour of Vancouver Island and the Canadian Rockies

In June 2017, we travelled by coach, ferry, plane and train on a tour from Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, through the Rocky Mountains and ending at the city of Vancouver. Here are two examples of the spectacular scenery to which we were treated.

Spirit Island at Lake Maligne

View of Lake Louise from our hotel room


A fog-free week in San Francisco

From Vancouver, we flew to San Francisco and based ourselves in an Airbnb-listed apartment handy to Fishermen’s Wharf. The fog rolled away soon after we arrived and we never saw it again! It was July 2017, 50 years on from the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’.

A sunny view of the Golden Gate Bridge

‘Summer of Love’ 50th anniversary exhibition


Japan highlights at a relaxed pace and high speed

Later in the year, we spent our third Christmas overseas, this time in Japan. The weather was cool but mainly dry, popular sites were uncrowded and the Japanese rail system a wonderful experience in its own right.

We returned home with a diverse collection of fond memories of Japan and its people.

Mount Fuji, best viewed from a distance

One of the many works in Hiroshima made from paper doves, all in the name of peace


Tasmanian wild and beautiful places

Tasmania, Australia’s island state, is justly renowned for its abundance of accessible natural wilderness but Maggie had never experienced any of it. We remedied that on a self-drive tour in March 2018, including the first anniversary of the death of my father, who was a passionate Tasmanian.

View of Cradle Mountain across Dove Lake

Within a rare example of temperate rainforest, Franklin River valley


Eight dry days in the Scottish highlands

Our next journey took us half a world away from the highlands of Tasmania to spend eight days driving around the famed highlands of Scotland. Australian friends had warned us to have our umbrellas handy at all times but we had only a few hours of ‘Scotch mist’. And half of that added to the bleak atmosphere of the Glencoe area, site of an infamous massacre, as we drove through.

‘Harry was here.’ A famous example of 19th century Scottish engineering excellence

Pipe band assemble at Stirling Castle to mark the Queen’s official birthday

A few wee drams of whisky being distilled


A Scandinavian cruise

From Scotland, we flew to Bergen, the second largest city of Norway. Our short stay included a visit to the home where Edvard Grieg lived for most of his adult life. Then we boarded the Viking Sun for a cruise along the Norwegian coast, finishing in Copenhagen. I can’t wait to tell you more about our wonderful cruise experience!

Recital room at the home of Edvard Grieg, Bergen

Stunning 9th century Viking long ship on display in Oslo


A comprehensive tour of the highlights of China

In September, we packed our suitcases again to fly to Beijing to join a two-week tour of the highlights of China, including a four-night Yangtze river cruise and three internal flights. We knew that we would be amazed by the various historic, cultural and natural sites but we were a little surprised to find modern China as agreeable as we did.

Chilled-out panda at Chongqing Zoo

Not a souvenir shop in sight! All by myself on the Great Wall

The Terracotta Warriors have to be seen to be believed!


Singapore, for a third time

We just couldn’t help ourselves when a great Singapore package deal reached our Inbox! We love Singapore and we are also very fond of seven of its residents, known collectively as ‘The Singapore Gals … and a Gentleman’, a friendship which began during a tour of France in 2009. It is a safe bet that we will return to Singapore at least one more time.

The marvellous Gardens by the Bay as seen from one of the Singapore Flyer’s 28 capsules

Up close with orchids inside Gardens by the Bay


A holiday in Vietnam

Which brings me to our most recent travel experience – six nights at the Grand Sheraton Resort Da Nang. We were prepared to discover that resort life is just a bit too quiet and sedentary for us but, thanks to its 210 metre long pool and to the abundance of friendly service we that was lavished us, we found it quite bearable, thank you! A tour of old Hoi An in the quiet of the morning was a bonus.

‘Infinity and beyond!’ Grand Sheraton Resort Da Nang

Silk lanterns colour the old streets of Hoi An

Well, that was the easy part. Now I have to revisit the myriad memories and photos from each of these journeys and do my best to fashion them into stories which, if my mojo is working, will be both interesting and useful.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Feisty dish on fish diet wish list

If Maggie and I were told that the only animal meat we could eat for the rest of our lives was fish, our reactions would differ wildly.

I would be happy enough, as I like a wide variety of both fish species and ways of cooking fish. Maggie, on the other hand, is a bit choosy on both counts. So, she would bid a very teary farewell to red meat, compounded by the realisation that “fish” means fish. No molluscs, no crustaceans, no cephalopods.

However, her mood would quickly brighten if I promised her that every second fish meal would be the curry that I added to our repertoire in 2015. Here is a generous serving of it, accompanied by some leftover wilted spinach. The regular extras are some grilled pieces of naan bread and a raita of yoghurt, cucumber and fresh mint.

And here is the recipe.

Ingredients

Spice mix
2 tbsp ground cumin seeds
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp Madras curry powder
2 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp garam masala
1½ tbsp sea salt flakes
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Two tablespoons of the finished spice mix in a saucer


Curry
250g firm fish fillets suitable for poaching
20ml vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
3-4 cm ginger, grated
25-30ml spice mix
1 cup chicken stock
100ml chopped tomatoes
¼-½ tsp chilli flakes
80-100ml coconut milk
3 tsp chopped parsley (optional)

Method

  1. Mix spices thoroughly in a bowl.
  2. Cut fish fillets into 2-3cm chunks
  3. Heat oil in pan, add onion and garlic and sauté for 10-15 minutes. Add ginger and sauté for a further 4 minutes or until onion is just beginning to colour.
  4. Add spice mix and cook for one minute.
  5. Add stock and tomatoes, bring to boil and simmer gently for at least 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Add chilli flakes and simmer for a further 5 minutes
  7. Add coconut milk and stir to combine
  8. Add pieces of fish and cook for 5 minutes.
  9. Adjust seasoning, remove from heat, sprinkle with parsley and serve

Steps 4 and 5:

   

The sauce becomes richer, followed by step 7

  

Step 8: fish pieces added, cooked and ready to serve

 

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Norwegian fish soup, with a Danish twist

In mid-June 2018, Maggie and I flew into Bergen, Norway, after spending eight delightful days in the Scottish highlands. We had booked two nights’ accommodation in the old centre of Bergen, ahead of a cruise that would take us along the southern coast of Norway before disembarking in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

When we arrived at our hotel, it was the middle of the day, too early to check in, so we adjourned to a cafe located a few doors along the street. The menu was short – in keeping with the size of the kitchen – and I soon settled on the fish soup. (Eating plenty of fish was one of my priorities for our fortnight in Scandinavia.)

The soup was delicious, so much so that I had a second helping the following day! I also made a mental note to try my hand at making something similar in our home kitchen back in Melbourne. A search of the internet didn’t turn up much that inspired me but I did find a recipe which gave me a sound starting point, from which I could make my way towards something I would enjoy.

(It didn’t help that I hadn’t taken a photo of what I was served in Bergen, or that my palate memories were subsequently overwhelmed by the endless variety of delicious seafood dishes available on our Viking cruise ship. Certainly, I had no memory of there being tomato in my bowl, although this ingredient appears in many recipes.)

We already have a creamy mussel dish in our repertoire and scallops are a luxury worthy of a higher calling, so my first homemade pot of fish soup contained some pieces of prawn (shrimp) and some 2cm cubes of a firm white-fleshed fish. The texture of the cooked prawn flesh didn’t work well with the other, softer elements of the finished soup, so I replaced it with some Atlantic salmon. The only “optional” ingredient I used was potato and I added some soup-friendly celery.

I have now made fish soup four times and settled on my recipe. Since my forced conversion to a low-carb routine, I use less potato than specified below. And I would be happy to consider adding some tomato next time, probably in the form of Maggie’s cooked tomato reduction or some slow-baked tomatoes.


Ingredients

20g butter
1-2 leeks, trimmed, halved lengthways and finely sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
3 tsp plain flour
4 cups fish stock
1/2 stick celery, halved lengthways and sliced semi-finely
1-2 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
1 medium carrot, peeled and finely sliced into wafers
salt and pepper
200-250g firm, white fish cut into 2cm cubes
100-120g Atlantic salmon, cut into 2cm pieces
100-150ml cream

Method

  1. Melt butter in a heavy-based saucepan over gentle heat, add leek and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes.
  2. Add flour, cook for one minute then gradually add stock, stirring constantly.
  3. When liquid is simmering, add celery and potato, bring back to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add carrot wafers and simmer for 4 minutes
  5. Add seasoning, allowing for saltiness of fish
  6. Add fish, return to simmer and cook for 3 minutes
  7. Add cream to taste and simmer for 2 minutes
  8. Adjust seasoning and serve

And where is the “Danish twist” you might wonder? Well, we bought the ‘pencil sharpener’, which produces perfect vegetable wafers, in Copenhagen, a few hours after disembarking from our cruise ship.

  

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Giving a fig about halloumi? Who me? And you too?

In a recent post, I mentioned a recipe which had introduced us to a “new genre of summer dining pleasures”. Now I will tell you what I meant by that and explain how we prepared the salad and applied its logic to other ingredients.

It is common enough for a salad to include salad leaves and a protein. Think of the classic  Caesar salad and its many variations. I have been making that style of salad for at least 25 years.

And it is not unusual for a salad to consist of a mixture of vegetables and fruit. Think orange and fennel, or, with some nuts, the classic Waldorf.

Then there are the many different salads built on a foundation of rice, lentils, pasta etc, some of which include vegetables, fruit and protein.

What is less common is to find a salad which comprises just leaves, protein and fruit, ie with no other vegetables, no carbohydrates, no seeds and no nuts. (But please tell me if I am simply revealing the limitations of my knowledge of the world’s cuisines.)

Until this summer just gone, the only dish in our repertoire which approximated this formula was a semi-warm salad of leaves, fig, spiced duck breast and walnuts. In fact, for several years, this was our go-to dish on Valentine’s Day, accompanied by a glass or two of pinot noir. (Alas, its place in our culinary pantheon has been taken by our version of duck larb, inspired by a meal we enjoyed in Vietnam on 14 February this year!)

But I digress!

In Melbourne, black figs begin to appear on our greengrocer’s shelves around mid-December, which is when we found a Neil Perry recipe for a warm salad featuring leaves, fig, prosciutto and grilled halloumi.

We pared the recipe back by doing without the pine nuts and the sumac. And we dressed the salad by tossing the rocket and mint leaves with some mild olive oil and lemon juice before assembling the salad, as shown in the first photo.


Here are the other raw ingredients:


Here are the pieces of halloumi in our grill pan, almost ready to serve. (This cheese can be grilled without fear because it has a high melting point.)


The salad is assembled by placing a mound of the dressed leaves in a wide-based bowl, followed by pieces of torn prosciutto, narrow wedges of ripe fig and then the halloumi.

Delighted by the satisfaction of preparing and eating this salad, we went on to apply its logic to other combinations of ingredients to go with various types of salad leaves. These included: prawn, avocado and tomato; ditto with caramelised mango replacing the tomato; poached chicken breast, fig, avocado and prosciutto; and ditto with fig being replaced by the mango.

Fig season is drawing to a close now but, thanks to Neil Perry, we have many happy palate memories that will sustain us until next December.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Not so crusty that we won’t learn to singe a new tuna

How do I explain why Maggie and I have reached the age of 65 without ever cooking sesame-crusted tuna? Ignorance? Carelessness? Bloody-minded commitment to European culinary conditions? All three of those reasons and probably more besides.

Anyway, I am consoled by the fact that we regularly introduce ourselves to new home-cooked dishes of food, at an average rate of about one per week; and that we are willing to order unfamiliar dishes when we travel overseas.

Which is how we came to eat some sesame-crusted tuna when we stayed at the Sheraton Grand Resort south of Da Nang. This is how it looked on the plate:

The tuna was served with a refreshing side-salad and a line of wasabi ‘sand’.

By the time we had left Da Nang for home, we had begun to bookmark recipes for the tuna, with a view to preparing it in our kitchen, sooner rather than later. Numerous online recipes are available, generally following the same method for the tuna component. This is what we did.

For starters, it is critical that the tuna is very fresh, ie sashimi quality. Secondly, we suggest that you take the piece(s) out of your fridge about 20 minutes before you cook them, so it is not unpleasantly cold in the middle when you serve it.

Then you should season it with some salt and pepper, to your own taste, before you use a wide-based bowl to coat it generously with raw sesame seeds. We just used white seeds, ie the ones that have had their black hull removed.

Don’t worry if there are gaps between the seeds, revealing the pink flesh. They will aid the cooking process and, speaking from experience, will also come in handy if you forget to season the fish first.

Now you are ready to heat some lightly-flavoured oil with a high burning point in a flat-based pan. We used plain vegetable oil; canola would be a fine alternative. Once the oil is quite hot – I’m not brave enough to wait until it is smoking – you should gently place the tuna in the pan, cook it for no more than one minute (60 seconds) before turning it. The tuna must come out after one more minute, to be briefly drained on paper towel before being sliced in pieces up to 1cm thick. (A sharp, serrated knife will help you to produce slices of even thickness.)

But before you cook the tuna, you need to organise the rest of your plate.

You’ll need a dipping sauce. The easiest option is a mixture of wasabi paste and soy sauce, preferably the soy sauce designed for having with sushi. Or you could kill some time by making something more elaborate, such as the wasabi-ponzu sauce you’ll find here. Given our liking for fiddly recipes, it is a safe bet that Maggie and I will head down that track quite soon.

And you need a salad. We chose to attempt a facsimile of the salad we were served in Vietnam. Our chosen ingredients were peeled daikon, peeled carrot, cucumber, mint leaves, chilli and the sweet & sour dressing that Adam Liaw had introduced to us.

The first three of those ingredients were prepared using our spiraliser, a utensil that was invented to separate backyard zucchini growers from their spare change. As each strand emerged from the spiraliser, Maggie just tore them randomly and put them in a bowl. Then she added the other ingredients, taking care with our homegrown hot chilli, tossed the salad by hand and put it on the plates ready for the tuna to be cooked and served.

Here’s how it turned out. Not bad looking for a first attempt! And it was quite delicious.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Adam Liaw’s cooking: always up to par

As is the case for many other countries, cooking competitions are produced for television in Australia. Some are for amateur cooks, in teams or as individuals; others provide opportunities for professional chefs to test themselves against their colleagues.

For the last decade or so, two shows for amateur wannabe-cooks on competing Australian TV networks have proven to be especially popular: My kitchen rules, for teams of two; and Masterchef, for individuals.

The latter has one notable point of difference, compared not only to its competitor but also to the vast majority of such shows across the globe. On Masterchef, the contestants, numbering 24 at the beginning of each season, are NICE to each other. They encourage and support other members of the group, swap cooking tips, share ingredients in emergencies and form friendships which endure long after each year’s winner has been crowned.

Such is the level of bonhomie, on and off the set, that ‘celebrity’ cooks and chefs from Australia and overseas queue up to make guest appearances. So, the contestants and we viewers get to enjoy a ‘Heston Blumenthal Week’ or a ‘Nigella Lawson Week’, to drop a couple of English names.

Unsurprisingly, most would-be contestants go to great lengths to make themselves competition-ready by the time auditions are held around Australia.

And, for the lucky 24 who earn their Masterchef apron, the combination of ‘happy family’ – the contestants all live in the one house – and the high-level of expert input generates a standard of cooking and on-camera personality that enables many of them to forge careers as multi-media cooks. Think: cook books, guest appearances at events, regular news media columns, and television spots or even whole series. Former contestants are actually referred to as Masterchef alumni, if you don’t mind!

Which brings me to the subject of this post: Adam Liaw, who won the second season of Masterchef. If you are interested, you can find out more about Adam and his impressive career here. For now, I want to introduce you to a couple of his recipes, which we took from one of his regular Sunday contributions to our preferred metropolitan newspaper.

Adam’s recipes are diverse, consistently appealing, use ingredients which are widely available close to home, are easy follow and, most importantly, they work!

The first recipe was for a dish going by the name of ‘kuku paka’. Adam wrote that it is of east African origin and that ‘kuku’ is the Swahili word for chicken, while ‘paka’ is the Bengali word for delicious. And the dish is spicy, as in the curry genre. Spicy, delicious and chicken: what’s not to like?

We followed the recipe fairly closely, noting that it is very important to cook the onions until they are quite soft, as there isn’t enough cooking time afterwards to finish the job for you. We varied the spice mix a little, substituting some Madras-style curry powder to provide as much turmeric as we will tolerate and then reducing the amount of chilli powder a little.

Also, we added about one cup of peeled, diced sweet potato, for both variety and the hint of sweetness. With acidity from the tomatoes, we don’t think the dish needs the lemon juice and, unlike most of you, we just don’t like fresh coriander.

You might find you need to add a little more salt and a pinch or two of sugar; and the volume of coconut milk will vary according to your own taste. But the dish was delicious and will be a regular item on our cold-weather menu for the rest of this year, at least.

Here is our version of ‘kuku paka’, in the pot and on the plate. We accompanied it with a raita of yoghurt, fresh mint and cucumber.

Adam’s second recipe on that Sunday also featured chilli, this time in fresh form.

Having recently returned from Vietnam, where sweet & sour salads are commonplace, we jumped at the opportunity to make this dish. All the more so, because we had hot, cayenne chillies growing in our garden.

Again, the recipe worked well but we did make some minor changes, beginning with 25% of the solid ingredients to make just enough for the two of us. However, we made 50% of the pickling liquid and found that it was sufficient for making the 25% version of salad on three separate occasions. (I hope you can follow the maths!)

Also, once we had sliced our eschallot finely, we put it in a dish and poured over the pickling liquid, allowing it to soften and macerate while we prepared the other ingredients.

We also suggest that you try to pick up a chilli that has plenty of heat but also fruitiness, something we could ensure by picking a very ripe chilli from our bush.

This salad is quite tasty on its own but it is an excellent side dish with grilled pork ribs which have been marinated with south-east Asian flavours. You can find an example here.

 

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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