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Solo in Sydney* or: Getting My Groove Back

17 Dec

candle-lit mantlepiece with shiny silver backdrop.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a pulse will not be in want of attention in a cocktail bar. I have no idea how I’d forgotten this. But I had…

Over the course of a “career” not so much chequered as positively gingham, but dominated by language and creative stuff, one of few constants has been writing about bars, cocktails, bartenders and combinations thereof.

So as the witching hour when economics moves me from travelling mama to digital nomad mama approaches (accelerated by the prices in Oz), I’ve dipped a tentative toe back into the world of paid writing.

More specifically, an old, old friend and quondam employer who has asked me to identify, write up and take the odd shot of the top bars in Sydney and Melbourne. Z? He’s frolicking in saltwater pools outside Cairns with his dad.

So here I am, in Sydney. Solo. Bouncing around cocktail bars and landmarks with a notebook and a camera as I did rather a lot from age 24 until Z arrived on the scene two years later.

And how does it feel? Continue reading

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Harvest Time in the Spice Islands

22 Sep Sun-drying cloves on blue tarpaulin by the roadside. Pulau Ternate, Maluku, Indonesia.

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Ever wondered where cloves come from?

Well. They come from many places now. But in the beginning, they came only from the Moluccas, the mysterious Spice Islands, a spattering of tiny volcanic islets which spawned unimaginable riches for their rulers and sparked the European powers’ race to the East.

It’s harvest time on Pulau Ternate, once the heart of an empire that stretched as far as Papua, Sulawesi and Mindanao in the Philippines, now just one more tiny volcanic peak breaking out of the Maluku Sea. So we jumped a bike up the slopes of the Gamalama volcano at the core of the island to see the cloves being harvested near the village of Air Tege Tege. Continue reading

So Long and Thanks to (All) the Fish

5 Aug Z in orange lifejacket in longboat en route to Mulu National Park with his grandparents.

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]Yesterday was a rite of passage for the nine year old. And one that I can, with hand on heart, say that I am glad to have missed.

He caught… Drum roll… His first fish!

And who was there to share the precious moment? The triumph of the successful bite? The joy as the catch is, finally, reeled in? The squirm-inducing process of torture by which one rips the hook from the soft palate of a living, suffocating, flopping creature, exterminates the last vestiges of consciousness and transfers it to a receptacle to await its ultimate fate?

Granny and Grandpa! Continue reading

In Which the Family Dines in Considerable Style

19 Jul

view of revolving restaurant atop the bayview hotel, georgetown, penang[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]It was my Dad who said it first. “That singer,” he whispered, over the sound of a particularly special Malaysian band. “Is she actually a man?”

He is, I realise, very possibly still scarred from my parents’ last trip out to join us on our travels. That was the Philippines. A nation where he couldn’t walk more than thirty yards down the street without some chancer endeavouring to sell him Viagra.

I think his personal record (best? worst?) was six pushers over two hundred yards in Manila.

Perhaps the nine year old was dawdling at the time. But it wasn’t good for the ego of a man who, although a grandfather, only just passed sixty.

Anyway. My dad has a point. Were we in Thailand, or, for that matter, the Philippines, at least one of the chicks would have been born with a dick, and most likely still retain at least an attenuated version of the original. Continue reading

Smells Like Drains, Tastes Like Syllabub

15 Jul

Sign with crossed picture of durian fruit and text No Durians Allowed, Penang, Malaysia[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]Ahhh… The sweet scent of durian. Known across South-East Asia as “the king of fruits”. Celebrated at festivals across Malaysia and Indonesia. Freighted cross-continents by fans of the delicacy.

Yet routinely barred from public places, as this sign at a Penang hotel shows.

There are reasons, of course, for this lethal weapon’s unpopularity. It’s not just the aesthetics. Savagely spiked, with a cannonball heft, the durian won’t be winning any beauty contests any time soon.

It is, to be honest, the smell. Continue reading

Vertigo, Bangkok

8 Jul
Bangkok night sky illuminated by skyscrapers, seen from top of Vertigo, Bangkok.

Bangkok by night. From Vertigo.

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This is the view from Vertigo, the aptly named, open-air bar which sits on the sixtieth floor above the Banyan Tree hotel, Bangkok.

And I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend our last evening in one of Asia’s most dynamic cities than this.

The neon-blue night ahead of us, expressways surging into the distance, pyramids of skyscrapers far below, and the winding Chao Phraya river forming a patch of slinky darkness amid the buzz and hubbub of the city. Continue reading

Cornucopia (Dinner Friday)

5 Jun

View into fruit store in alleyway, Hanoi, with bananas, eggs, litchis in foreground.

The fruit stall on our alleyway, in Hanoi, Vietnam

This is the fruit stall in the alleyway next to our guesthouse, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Friday evening. It’s just an ordinary store. Nothing fancy. No posher than the laundry, the menders, the barbers, the old lady who wheels her cart of lurid plastic sandals here every morning and home every night, or the five separate cottage industries selling street-fried spring rolls side by side in the cross-alley.

Yet these ladies don’t just sell the obvious — melons, watermelons, bananas, apples, oranges, limes, fresh mango, eggs. They’ve got rambutans, litchis so fresh they still have their leaves on, passion fruit the size of your fist (one dollar a kilo), those succulent sour plums you dip in salt and chilli, custard apples, great cannonballs of pomelos, bigger than a man’s head.

Oh, and mangosteens. The succulent, tough-shelled, very perishable fruit known as the Queen of Fruit. In the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria offered a reward to anyone who could manage to bring her a ripe mangosteen to try. Continue reading

Calamansi Butter

22 Apr

Cut and uncut calamansi fruit on chopping board

Good things come in small packages

So these little fellas are calamansi, Filipino style, tiny, spherical citrus fruit which experts believe originated as a cross between a mandarin and a lime. They are, along with ube (purple yam), probably one of the defining flavours of the Philippines.

What makes the Filipino calamansi (or kalamansi) so fantastic is the absence of bitterness. They have a tang even more sour than a lime, but without the bitterness, so the hit is like essence of citrus. You can mix them with soy and chilli for a dipping sauce, or sprinkle them on just about anything to cut sweetness, salt or fat.

But today, after a trip to the market in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, we ripped off a recipe from Theo at the Tabon Village Resort down south, and used them for the ultimate “lemon”-butter sauce.

I went a little stir-crazy at the market, in fact. Continue reading

Eating the Philippines

17 Apr

Dish of kilawin na lato -- Filipino ceviche-style tuna with sea grapes

Kilawin na lato: ceviche-style tuna with sea-grapes

Much to both of our surprise, Z and I last night enjoyed a healthy Filipino meal. And discovered the most amazing seaweed: lato.

A type of Caulerpa which sprouts succulent, grapey, bubbles in long tendrils like fresh green peppercorns, lato has all the translucent gorgeousness of fresh salmon roe. And it’s probably the closest a vegetarian will ever get to caviar. Even better than the Mekong riverweed, served nori-style, that we ate in Luang Prabang.

Even before you get onto the fast food trail, so many iconic Filipino dishes are just plain wrong. Take halo halo. This is a “fruit” salad, made with chunks of jelly and tapioca pearls, mixed with shaved ice, ice-cream, puffed rice, soy beans and oodles of condensed milk.

Or knockout knuckle (pata), Pampanga style. An entire pig’s leg, slow-cooked until the crackling is crispy and the meat below is succulent, fatty, deep red and falling off the bone, topped with crispy, deep-fried garlic. We ate this — along with soft-shell crabs tempura style — at Bistro Remedios in Manila, and my arteries are hardening just thinking about it. Continue reading

Mega-Malls

15 Apr

Yesterday we said goodbye to Granny and Grandpa, who are off to Hong Kong for a week of sybaritic luxury with an old friend, then back to sunny England.

To ease the parting, Z and I made like Manileños. That is, we spent the day at the mall, shopping, scoffing junk food and abusing the free aircon.

Though I guess if I were really going native, I’d have stocked up on diet potions — enriched with L-Carnitine to help burn fat! — too. Or perhaps a diet coffee to accompany my chocolate brownie? That is, a calorie-burning coffee. Not a coffee with low-fat milk.

The Philippines is a nation where Kraft Cheez Whiz can feature on the health pages of a major newspaper –- as a recommendation.

And where Kraft’s chief nutritionist for Asia can tell a hack, presumably with a straight face, that said product, though packed with calcium and undoubtedly beneficial, does not quite contain every single ingredient required for a healthy diet. Continue reading