Friday, August 18, 2017

How I found gratitude on my own

Looking through my old photos to find the herring I wrote about in my last post, brought a lot of memories to the surface. Every picture triggered a story I wanted to share with you. Remembering the fun times I had was enough, but sometimes these stories had a point to make too.

This simple photo of a coffee was one of these.

The morning after the first time I got high, I went to a cafe near Amsterdam Centraal. I had made the classic rookie mistake of taking too much at the start and ending up super stoned, but in my defence, I waited nearly 2 hrs after eating my space cake with zero effect. They recommend waiting 30 minutes, so you can't question my patience.

My high was as fun as I'd hoped it would be, at least what I remember of it, but I was alone, and I'll admit, felt a bit like a loser for it... Thankfully being stoned makes that easier to deal with.

The night before, wandering Haarlemmerstraat, trying to work up the nerve to go into a coffeeshop and buy a brownie, was the first time that I really felt like I was missing out on some unique experiences by travelling solo. Sure, I'd wanted company before then - by that time I'd been abroad a little over a month - and I missed the friends and family I'd left behind, but I really relished the challenge of backpacking alone too. No compromises, no quarrels, total freedom.

What also comes with that is no assistance or support. There's no one to brainstorm ideas of what to do next, or to sound off feelings about where you want to go and how. There's no corroboration or collaboration to validate that the choices made are the right ones. I find it so much easier to be calm when I'm with calm people, because I reflect their mood, and in turn they absorb my zen. Without that, I internalise, mull, and stew over the smallest details, which leads to anxiety and indecision. I can freeze on the spot in the middle of a crowded street, not sure whether to turn left or right, and terrified about the consequences of either, completely aware that the decision I have to make is not at all as apocalyptic as it feels.

When I'm by myself, there's no shared laughter when things get a bit ridiculous. And I realised, as I entered a dim smokey coffeeshop on my own and pointed at a herbal cupcake for one, that I really wanted a friend or two at that very moment, to giggle about how silly the whole situation was. (My journal later reads in shaky handwriting, "There are actual Jamaicans in here!")

Still, there's something to be said for letting the situation dictate the proceedings. Just as you cannot walk through an ocean, the environment does have a fair bit of control over the journey you take. When push comes to shove, you just have to work with what you've got. Go build a boat. Go enjoy the water and swim. What you shouldn't do is stand on the beach and get frustrated. There's no doubt some things are more fun to do with company, but if you simply don't have something you want, instead of moping about it, or willing it to appear by constantly wanting it more, it's far better (and in the long run, actually easier) to accept things for what they are, pick yourself up, and keep plodding on.

I have since surprised myself by learning that I can be extremely easygoing on the road. (I still make plans, and I'm slightly more neurotic about those plans when I'm by myself than when I'm with friends, but I also like to follow my nose and not have to consult anyone about making sudden detours.) I have also proven myself that I can make friends out of strangers - not just random people to share space with and help me disappear into crowds, but really good friends; souls who I probably wouldn't have met if I hadn't dared to venture outside without a social condom to protect me.

So that's the "never say no" and "live life to the max" and "go single girl solo travel power" part of this post. But I've kind of always been into that. What is it about getting away that has such a hold on me? And when am I going to get to the point of that coffee photo?

Mostly, I think what I always savour by travelling alone is the mental relief that physical distance and solitude gives me from the pressure of expectations I feel when I'm home. Doesn't really matter how much of that stress is real, imagined or projected, because I suffer it all in the same way. And until I learn to let go and find space from it internally and figuratively, finding literal space helps a great deal. I have a slight hang up about whether this is a cowardly form of escape... But deep down, I firmly and truly believe it is a healthy thing to do - to separate, detox from distractions and routines, refocus, and pay attention to the immediate surrounds and the present moment.

Going to that cafe the morning after the night before, took some time. I'm slow first thing, especially when I have to make choices and plans by myself. I was further hampered by what was either a pot hangover, extreme sleep deprivation, or both. But I finally made it out to that cafe, which I remember searching for specifically, for reasons I can't recall; perhaps good reviews on TripAdvisor. Cosmic irony stepped in to ensure that the cafe was severely understaffed, so on top of all of my own self-imposed delays, I waited a really long time for my coffee.

What struck me was that I really wasn't fussed by the wait. I empathised with the barista who apologised to me for the inconvenience while she rushed about like a headless chicken - I noticed this because normally I'd only be thinking about myself, and feeling critical and judgmental.

Not that morning. Instead I sat quietly at the scrubbed wooden table, my journal untouched, and stared mesmerised at the warm amber hue of the sunlight as it slanted across the tabletop, like transparent gold. It occurred to me how beautiful mid-morning sunshine is, and how I never noticed it before the way I seemed to be noticing it now.

I briefly wondered if I was still high, because I was really transfixed by that sight. Then I realised it didn't matter. I felt really happy. I'd had an amazing night, one of those first-in-a-lifetime type of experiences. I hadn't waited for anyone to give me permission to do it, or to babysit me through it. It was a night I would always remember - me, the straight laced, straight A's, rule follower, spacing out in the lobby of a Dutch youth hostel. Then, because of how light and liberated and joyous I felt, I would always remember that following morning too.

I almost couldn't believe it. Look at where I was! I was in the Netherlands! A whole world away from home where I'd been sheltered for 20 years. All the doomsday warnings I've been given about being a female backpacking around Europe alone were proven to be wrong, because I was totally, utterly, blissfully okay. I had coffee (eventually), sunshine, and myself. And it hit me - that's all I needed. Suddenly the many years of exams and grades and good behaviour I'd spent so much time and energy stressing about seemed not only pointless and petty, but stupid and wasteful. Where had I been all this time? Had I even been living all these years?

My time was running out in Amsterdam, and this was the point when I usually began to make lists of things to see and do, and weigh up the things I could tick off against the things I would miss, followed by estimations of how great my traveller's remorse might be. Exhausting, right? That's just how my brain operates. But instead of running through all the sights and activities offered by that great city in my mind, my thoughts wandered back home, to Sydney and university and jobs and family and so on, and what I would do with myself when my holiday was over. The thought of it made me feel queasy, and distracted. Suddenly, I really couldn't be arsed worrying. It wasn't relevant to what I was doing right then and there. I deserved my break. I would worry about my career in the all-too-near future. The present moment had no room for worry. Neither my family nor my college education had a place in that cafe with me. To continue the metaphor: I was not going to force myself to walk through the ocean to reach an impossible horizon. I wanted no boat. I wanted to swim in the water and feel the waves against my skin and soak my hair and laugh, just floating and bobbing about, and enjoying the sea.

It occurred to me that this was gratitude. I was, for the first time ever, 100% genuinely grateful: for all I had, for all I was, for all I'd done, for all I'd been given and was a part of. I was grateful for the waitress for running around to give me coffee. I was grateful for the sun for shining when it could have rained. I was grateful for my holiday for giving me time to linger over that morning. I was grateful for the edibles I'd had the night before which brought me to a state of heavenly relaxation. I was grateful for myself for being there, and having this beautiful moment all to myself. I didn't know gratitude was something you could discover, but there I was, discovering it - and according to recent blogs and articles espousing the latest mental health crazes, gratitude is "so in" right now. However I was a few years ahead of the fad, and I'm proud of it.

Gratitude is no joke, people. It is the real deal and if you discover it, I hope you experience the same joy and cathartic calm I did. If you haven't yet, be patient and it will come. For me, all it took was a cup of coffee, and a bit of sunshine.

Have a great weekend everyone. I'm thinking of you and wishing you peace. Love Bernie x

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travel by food

The popularity of food-related travel media - and vice versa, travel-related food media - is huge. I feel like it's really boomed in recent decades, far beyond the traditional settings of the home and the restaurant where food was once singularly based.

And how could it not? Food is so deeply and intricately tied into our culture, our history, and our identities. Once you start looking into different cuisines, you cannot avoid the influence of place and time and people. You know that old saying, you can escape on a great adventure with a good book? I would say the same with food.

Food celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Rick Stein, and Luke Nguyen (I think he's slightly less renowned on the global scales but still very famous and one of my personal favourites), have made it trendy and edgy by travelling to exotic places and eating local fare on the streets side-by-side with the people that cooked it. Nowadays you can visit entire museums or join city tours that have only food as its main feature. But at its core, I feel that food at its most authentic and revealing when it is humble and homey.

To reference yet another favourite food celebrity of mine, Nigella Lawson, through food you can travel without ever leaving your doorstep. Even in your own kitchen you can evoke flavours and aromas that are interwoven with strong memories and even stronger emotions. To drop another quote, this time from the beautiful film, The 100 Foot Journey, "Food is memories".

I have definitely had many of these evocative moments - when the smell of something delicious bubbling away in a pot makes my head dance with images from my childhood; or the sight of a familiar packet label in an international deli makes my heart leap with a long forgotten but suddenly recalled holiday experience.

These moments have always struck me as really profound, but also really joyful. I think this is common. However I suspect it is especially acute in people like me who are super greedy hedonistic obsessed foodies (a majority of my friends may raise their hands now!)

I'd like to share more of these moments, starting with one I had recently.

I had an IKEA day with my sister and brother-in-law last weekend. It was more of a research & recon trip, so we made very few actual purchases, but walked out with plenty of snacks from the shop.

I was excited enough already with my 500g bag of Daim toffee chocolates. It was without fail my favourite candy while I was in Europe, and always very strongly reminiscent of my Belgian friends because they were the ones who introduced me to it in my first week there. I spent a lot of time lounging on their couch helping myself to handfuls of Daim's off their coffee table! Once I started I couldn't stop. They are addictive!

We also got a couple of jars of marinated herring from the IKEA shop. My brother-in-law laughed because he would never be caught dead eating something like herring, and he thought I was a real weirdo! As an adventurous eater, fish is hardly the oddest thing I've ever tasted. My sister chose it specifically to remind me of my time in Amsterdam, which I thought was a really sweet gesture.

But I had no idea just how much I would enjoy the experience of eating herring again, with herbs and seasonings so redolent of a faraway place where I haven't stepped foot in years. I was bouncing on my tip-toes as I speedily prepared myself a plate with the herring centre stage.

In the crisp of winter my family tends to crave hot noodle soups and chunky stews. This is so not the kind of meal we're used to eating for dinner... toasted rye bread slathered with salted butter, generous portions of the herring, and a few raw and cold pickled sides and sauces.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure I nearly had an orgasm sliding those soft tender slippery herring fillets out of the jar.
It took me right back to Amsterdam, standing by the canals, spearing those small pale morsels one by one and letting them melt in my mouth; enjoying their subtle aftertaste briefly, before spiking it with a crunchy sharp sour onion or pickle.

I believe the mark of a truly enveloping dining experience is when you don't feel the need to do something else distracting while you're eating: talk to someone, watch tv, read a book, enjoy the view. Don't get me wrong, these are all fun things I love to do while eating, and sometimes they are exactly what makes it divine, like when I'm absorbed in great conversation with friends around the dinner table, or admiring a gorgeous sunset with wine or hot chocolate. What I'm talking about is those moments when I have lost sense of everything but the food right in front of me, and the taste and texture of every single bite - that's when I'm really connected with it in a way that is more than merely a meal. I'm not being hippie or new age at all; you know, we've all had those moments where could do nothing more but close our eyes, sigh, and chew - because it was that good.

And this herring was so good. It wasn't as melt-in-the-mouth as the raw herring I had in Amsterdam, because it was marinated and therefore would have cured and cooked to a firmer bite over time. Still, I couldn't help but go straight to my computer afterwards to search for the photos I took 4 years ago, to help me relive the food, and the happiness it brought.

It took me all night to find this snapshot but it was so worth it, for the feeling of instant travel it gave me. It's like culinary apparition!

A much younger me, and totally shameless tourist, so keen for that herring I asked the stall holder to take my picture with it!
Food is easily my favourite topic ever, and I would love to hear all your fond travel-related food stories and memories! Please comment below 😊 Happy eating!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Don't wait

I think often about how this blog never turned into what I hoped it would be... i.e. an evocative, photo-laden, detailed, running chronicle of my travels in real-time as I backpacked solo across two continents.

But that doesn't mean I still can't share some stories from my travels. Yes, it all happened a long time ago, but I honestly think about travelling every day I'm home, so it is as fresh and precious to me now as it was then. For some reason, I keep these thoughts to myself, as if it isn't relevant to my life now. Totally wrong of course! Let me explain.

I follow a group on facebook called Girls Love Travel. The title of the group is pretty self-explanatory. Some of the posts and comments are really insightful, and even enlightening. The community perks me up when I'm feeling low - and I feel low often, what with my bleak 9-5 working routine of going to and from the office in the chilly winter darkness.

One GLT-er (as we call ourselves) recently shared a story about her father who is quite ill, and asked the group for advice on how she can take him on one final trip overseas to fulfill a long-term dream, while still being mindful of his health. Her love, thoughtfulness, generosity and compassion for her dad, who was an avid traveller in his younger days, and now as an older man is basically confined to a motorised chair, really touched me. While many people would host a lavish dinner or buy a fancy gift to show affection, she chooses to give him a memorable experience, perhaps one that will end up being his final hurrah in a lifetime of memorable experiences.

It was inspiring in a way, but mostly just jerked me back into perspective, and was very validating. Why? Because while I long to travel every day, I also doubt myself every day. I constantly wonder if it would have been better for my future if I didn't spend most of 2014 & 2015 overseas, but instead spent it sitting at a desk chair as I do now, making $$$ and padding out my CV.

Nevertheless, I do not regret it. Not one bit. And stories like that GLT girl's story really give me confidence that I made the best choice for myself at the time, and that I have to trust that the results of it will carry through forever. Because some day I may not be able to do it again - and if I had waited, I may not have ever been able to do it at all!

It may not have been the right decision for everyone, but it was the right decision for me. And the benefits are subtle, which is why I question my actions all the time, but they are there nonetheless, and I will learn to see the value of it as I grow. Like I did when I read that one simple warm heartfelt facebook story.

So while this blog is never going to detail my travels back then as they happened, I can still recount, retell, and relive, with the added serenity of retrospect. And I think it will serve as a reminder, not only to myself, but to all of you, that what you get in a day's travel, you keep for a lifetime - and beyond! When we tell our stories to our friends and our kids and our grandkids, we inspire them to be curious and exploratory and adventurous and proactive, which is a great gift.

Seriousness aside: I will also admit that I am a terrible perfectionist. When I was on the road, I never made the time to throw out a word or two, slap on a pic or few. That's ok, I was busy living!

Now I am back, I still feel like I need so much time to sort through old journal entries and photos and blah blah, and then plan and design each post. And it does. But if I just tone down the inner critic, it really doesn't take long to click "Publish". Honestly every time I flick back through my old pictures, I get such a rush of memory and emotion and sensation, that I think this is a really rewarding, satisfying process I've been denying myself for too long out of laziness.

So don't wait. Don't wait to travel if you want to and you have the means to right now. Don't wait to do anything, actually, if you want to and you can. Even if that's just sharing some lovely stories on the internet.

Here's my photo of the mesmerising ocean of temples in Bagan, Myanmar. I wanted to stand here forever, just gazing peacefully and in wonder at that vast expanse of green, sprinkled with dabs of ancient brick-hued history.

I was in Myanmar for a month over July-August 2015, exactly 2 years ago now. It has been the most challenging and also one of the most intimate experiences of my travels abroad so far. My confidence behind the camera skyrocketed in this mystic country and it helped me dig a bit deeper into every encounter I had. You can see some of it on my instagram.

Not only that, I made wonderful connections, and even collected a motley crew of adopted international "family" members that I journeyed with for a few weeks. Now that we are worlds apart again, I should probably let them know that I still think about them, and how much they mean to me, and how much our travels together changed me.

What would you do right now if you decided not to wait for it? Would love to get your comments below!

Have a great night folks!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Loaded congee comfort

Just a short random post from me today. Today is my birthday - and I've been off work sick with a cold! Congested runny nose, mild fever, sore throat, occasional cough and dizziness. Not too bad all things considered. Hoping to nurse it before it really gets worse.

How better to nurse it than with delicious comfort food?! And my ultimate comfort food for when I'm unwell is congee, or rice porridge/rice soup. You can find versions of it all over Asia. When I was suffering from travellers' belly in Thailand (the worst thing for a foodie!), all I could eat was congee from a street stand not far from Khao San Road, served with your choice of protein, but in my case, with just a sprinkling of spring onion, a tablespoon of fish sauce, and some ginger. I was really lucky to find it, especially in such a popular crowded location, because it's considered very humble domestic fare and most tourist eateries will focus on more exciting dishes.

In Vietnam it's called cháo. It can be made with anything really - softly poached chicken is popular. My mum likes to make it with minced pork and finely diced vegetables. I prefer it plain, cooked with a bit of white onion, then topped with any condiment and addition I'm in the mood for, but almost always mixed with at least some soy sauce, pepper, and a few drops of sesame oil.

I went all out with my toppings this morning, and ended up with a super tasty luxe porridge - some tender salty and peppery beef mince to offset the bland rice soup, crispy fried shallots and garlic chips, slices of crunchy chinese fried breadsticks or doughnuts (called dầu cháo quẩy in Vietnamese), and a swirl of sriracha chili sauce. Hiding in the centre of my bowl was a soft-cooked egg, waiting patiently for me to dig my way to it.

It really is just the perfect food for when you're under the weather! It requires minimal chewing, it's hearty, it's easy on the stomach, it's filling, it's hot, it's soft, it's wholesome, it's very simple to cook, and quick to eat.

You can make it as thick or thin as you like, but there's plenty of water in it to hydrate a sick person, and it's so versatile you can make it as savoury or as neutral-flavoured as you need.

I just love cháo! It has saved me on so many occasions. It's a meal that always reminds me of my childhood; of days of being fussed over by my mum when I was too ill to go to school, and given a bowl of this delicious comfort food before being sent to bed for a nap.

What food do you like to eat when you are sick? Would love to get your comments in the box below. 😃 😊

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Butcher? Baker? Nope - candle maker!

I should be into more arts and crafts since I'm such a homebody. Truth is, most hobbies I pick up never take off. Lack of discipline. But who cares, the short time that I do spend on them gives me happiness and that's what matters.

So with that said, I can now expose myself to lots of teasing and laughter because I actually made candles.

My beginner's basic candle-making kit. Most of the items I already had!

Not to make candles. It happened because I was trying to reduce waste, which is why I'll share this with the Australian War on Waste facebook group and hopefully get some cool feedback!

Basically, I light a lot of tealight candles. A lot. Sometimes as many as 10 a day, scattered throughout the house in carefully and strategically selected corners. I'm often stressed, and the ambience of the warm softly flickering light is very soothing. Nothing more cosy and comforting than winding down after sunset, surrounded by a gentle amber glow. Search hygge and you'll see what I mean. The fragrance is also very nice to get rid of lingering cooking smells after dinner.

It does tend to make the house look a bit like a cathedral, but it works! I think it's mostly the ritual that does the de-stressing. I had a friend over recently, and while I was busy in the kitchen, I asked him to find all the candles around the house and light them. He set off on his very slow treasure hunt with a stove lighter brandished like a magic wand. When he came back and we finally switched off most of the electric lights, he had a big smile on his face and looked so relaxed. Win!

When a candle burns down to its base, almost always there is wax left behind in the bottom of the jar or container. Not a big deal most of the time, but when you light as many as I do, it adds up to a lot of wax. I started to feel guilty about throwing it away into the rubbish bin. What could I do instead?

So I thought it would be pretty simple to collect the wax, melt it down, and pour it back into the container. And what do you know, it is!

I made these 5 candles by collecting, melting and repouring the residual wax from lots of little tealight candles.

It took me, hm, say a couple of months?, to collect enough wax to make the five candles in the photo above. Not bad! Imagine if all that wax went into the trash?! (I had already started lighting the first candle by the time I took this photo which is why it's so low.)

Besides not wasting wax, I also didn't want to waste the glass jars some candles come in. After researching reuse options, I didn't feel comfortable repurposing them to hold food. Nor do I have much of a need for multiple 100-200ml sized jars around the house (even though they would be great for organising small items like stationery or craft materials or toiletries). So by remelting and pouring the old wax, I feel good about not constantly buying and disposing of perfectly serviceable glass jars! They can also be used even more simply as tealight holders!

I bought these candles from a shop and wanted to make use of the glass jars afterwards instead of throwing them away. I've repurposed one glass jar as a brand new candle (wick still untrimmed). The second one is a handy tealight candle holder!

I won't explain how to make candles because there are a lot of videos and how-to's online that will teach you far better than I can. I had a pretty good idea already of what the basic process would be. Then I watched This Video and it told me everything I needed to know for the kind of candle I wanted to make. Like most things, once you start researching, you can tunnel deep down into a giant mountain of detail about all the various factors that can change the end result - but really, candle making is easy. You just need the right materials.

Wick tabs and a wick coil I purchased online.

I bought wicks and wick tabs online from All Australian Candle Making. Didn't know what I was buying and there were a lot of measurements and specifications that meant nothing to me, so I just guesstimated.

If I can eventually come up with a way to make these things myself, I will not need to buy them in future. For now, it's easiest just to source these supplies directly.

Can't tell you how excited I was to give this candle pouring bizzo a try! That's fine, laugh it up, I'm not embarrassed (not much). I'm pretty happy with the result if I do say so myself!

Couple of things to note:

1. The larger the wick, the larger the flame.

Makes logical sense, right? The wicks I bought are 39 ply (total gibberish, who knows what language that is? I just followed the guide on the online store). Because they burn bigger and more steadily, I find my handmade candles burn not only all the way to the edges, but they also burn right down to the base with almost zero wax leftover.

I was stunned at how big and high that flame burned! Notice all the wax has melted to the edges of the jar, meaning none is wasted, and the candle burns evenly.

2. The larger the wick and the flame, the more soot that is produced.

You know those really big beautiful scented candles you can buy from home design shops and department stores? In the past I thought it was harmless to light them while sleeping because they burn so much more slowly than the small candles. But I would always wake up with soot in my nostrils and my throat, and probably in my lungs too. It's even worse when you burn candles with wood wicks - they make a beautiful campfire sputtering spitting sound, but so much soot! My handmade candles give me the same soot problem even though they're small. It must be the wick size. So please ventilate! Health and safety first.

Big candle v small candle? Similar large wick size = similar sootiness.

3. Remelted wax is impure.

This is because the wax picks up soot and charcoal from the flame while it's lit, and also dust from the air when it's still liquid and cooling down. Once it's resolidified, the colour and translucency has probably changed too. So has the texture. If you're like me, and you don't plan anything but simply mix all the residual wax from several different tealight candles of different scents and brands, guaranteed you'll end up with a weird hybrid secondary wax of uncertain hue and fragrance. I don't care about that, but you might.

I also noticed that after I poured the wax and watched it solidify, the surface of the candle was not flat but slightly sunken in the middle where it met the wick. Could be for a couple of reasons: perhaps the altered chemistry of the wax had changed its structure? Or perhaps I'm supposed to gently tap the candle as it cools so the wax settles? (The lady in the instructional video advised exactly the opposite, but I'm not using new soy wax like she does.)

This isn't a problem for me, because I'm not selling my candles so aesthetics is not an issue. However I do find they burn very fast. Is that because the original candle wax was designed to burn quickly as a tealight candle? Or does remelting wax always change its chemistry so that it evaporates faster? Or does it have nothing to do with the wax composition at all but the fact that I'm using larger wicks? I'm not sure.

Slight depression in the candle wax after repouring.

The biggest challenge for me so far is actually finding a good pouring jug for the liquid wax! I've been to 3 different charity shops and can't find any secondhand cookware! I'm using an old milk pot at the moment. Unfortunately it's as terrible for pouring wax as it was for pouring milk. Look at that pathetically shallow little spout. Look at it! Ugh. It always dribbles without fail. Lay down newspaper first before you pour!

I may end up buying a cheap barista's jug at Kmart. Thankfully since I'm only making one or two candles at a time, I don't need a high volume jug.

One thing I haven't solved yet is how to avoid throwing away the depleted wick tabs - I don't think I can prevent wasting those. I also considered reusing those tiny little aluminium containers from the tealight candles too, but eventually decided against it because it doesn't seem safe.

To be honest, I'm not even sure how many times I can safely reuse the glass jars! If you have an answer to this I'd love to hear it! In the meantime, I'll just have to be careful and watch that the glass does not crack over time with repeated heating.

I'm considering buying wax chips online and making candles from scratch. I do still love tealight candles, but I could at least reduce how many I purchase by making more of my own candles. The upside is that some of my own candles would be made with clean wax instead of secondary wax. This would allow me to handmake some candles as gifts! Pretty cool.

However, it's one thing to buy a couple of inexpensive craft accessories, but to actually buy wax? Is that taking the grandma geek chic just a step too far? I'll let you decide 😏

So there you have it, my first time making candles! What do you think? If you have any questions, feel free to ask!

As I get better at doing this incredibly nerdy thing, I'll post again with new tips and tricks I learn. If you want to give this a go yourself, I encourage you to try! But final safety note - boiling hot liquid wax is both messy and dangerous! So please be careful, and keep clear from kids!

Happy weekend!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Here's how I like to cook - and why you should cook this way too

Living alone has taught me how little one person needs to eat - not just to survive, but to be truly gustatorily happy. Even when I buy only one piece of each vegetable in a standard grocery shop, there's always soft wilted vegetables left in my fridge at the end of the week; once when I pre-cooked 3 simple meals on a Sunday, there was still heaps left over nearly two weeks later, which luckily were spared because I reserved some for the freezer.

The desire to save both money and food waste has really taught me how to use a combination of scraps, pantry staples, and the right mix of tasty condiments and spices to make the sparest of fresh produce last one or even two decent cook-ups. You don't need fancy ingredients to create a deliciously satisfying but simple meal.

Allow me to convince you!

My sister was about to leave on a one month holiday so I rescued a tub of ricotta from her. I love ricotta. I don't know if this is just weird or if it's actually normal somewhere in the world, but one thing I love to do is mix plain ricotta with a couple of teaspoons of hot chocolate powder (and if I have it, some grated or finely chopped dark chocolate.) It makes for a strangely indulgent dessert, because the ricotta is already rich and sweet. The cheese flavour isn't strong. It's like a textured form of mascarpone to me. It ends up tasting like a healthy chocolate mousse! And it takes maybe 2 seconds to put together, if that.

Something else I like to do is mix natural greek yoghurt (full fat, not light) with a bit of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, and - get this - turmeric powder. Trust me, it's nice! Put a dollop on a thick slice of your favourite toasted bread and it's an amazing breakfast. I don't eat many curries so I welcome any way I can sneak some turmeric into my diet, especially as a sweet treat.

Anyway, back on track.

So I let my eyes wander the inside of my fridge, with the tub of very promising and tempting ricotta in one hand for inspiration, and here's what I ended up pulling together.

Creamy capsicum and ricotta pasta

I put finely chopped garlic and thinly sliced white onion in a pan, with butter and a bit of olive oil and a fat pinch of salt. I didn't fry it, but let it melt and sweat slowly until it was soft and sweet.

I sliced red and yellow capsicums (aka paprikas/bell peppers), a bit thinner and longer than usual, so it almost mimicked the shape of the onion strands, and threw them into the pan. Popped on the lid and let them sweat slowly too while I got the pasta on - a mix of angel hair and spaghettini. (I'm not a purist about my pasta choices, I just go with whatever feels right.) Every now and then I shook the pan vigorously so the condensation on the inside of the lid re-hydrated the vegetables underneath, because I wanted them to tenderise before they scorched.

When the pasta was about halfway done, I threw in a - perhaps eclectic - flurry of spices and dried herbs to the pan: black pepper (lots, I love it), marjoram, oregano, thyme, and some all-spice. (If I'd had it, I probably would have added some lemon zest too.) Tossed it all up and the aroma was immediately madly delicious. I turned up the heat slightly so the capsicums started to get a yummy caramelised browned smokey taste, and the liquid in the pan began turning gooey and concentrated.

Into a separate bowl, I cracked an egg, spooned a large dollop (maybe two) of the ricotta, some grated parmesan, and another pinch of pepper. Whisked that up very well with a fork, and got it ready.

When the pasta was done, I turned off the heat under the pan of vegetables, and added the pasta to it. I never bother to drain my pasta in a colander. I just use tongs or the pasta ladle, whatever that hooky thing is called, and pick up the pasta and add it straight to the sauce. That usually saves me the trouble of adding the pasta water, because there's already enough still clinging to the pasta, plus it's faster and leaves me less to wash up later. But in this case, I wanted more body, so I poured a couple of extra sploshes of the starchy pasta water to the pan for lubrication and emulsification. Then I quickly stirred in the egg and ricotta mixture until everything was creamy and combined. At this point I began to bounce on my tiptoes in the middle of the kitchen because it smelled and looked so delicious and I couldn't wait to eat it.

In a bowl, in my mouth. It was good. If I do say so myself.

But my point is, the only things I really needed for this impromptu recipe was a capsicum and a couple of tablespoons of ricotta - everything else was a handful of standard items most people always have on hand, like dried pasta, eggs, alliums, cheese, butter, herbs and spices.

If you know what you like to eat and what flavours you enjoy, and you don't worry too much about the mechanics of how to put a basic dish together, you can easily cook a proper, homemade, fulfilling dinner for yourself without too much cost or shopping time.

Here's another quick example I'm pretty proud of. (Maybe I shouldn't be.)

Vamped-up crab and tuna pasta salad

My mum is an amazing cook, with the skills and experience to feed an entire family on a budget, and I love her meals to bits. She can blow anyone under the table with her Vietnamese dishes, no questions asked. But I'm sorry to say, she doesn't always get western food right. Usually I don't mind her adding a bit of soy sauce to her bolognaise or adding shrimp to her pork or oversteaming the broccoli. Her culinary habits arise from vast expertise in a cuisine where they not only make sense but are absolutely critical to the final result.

Tonight she made a very straightforward pasta salad. Penne, chopped up crab sticks, canned tuna, and some mayonnaise. It was fine. Perfect for a work lunch. But I wanted a bit more excitement from it, especially if it was going to be the one thing I had to look forward to in the middle of my work day!

I scrabbled together an armful of jars and items from the fridge, and briskly got to work with a chopping board, knife, and spoon.

So in a bowl: finely chopped spring onion, as much lemon juice as I could squeeze from a tired half-fruit I recovered that had been cryo-meditating for a few days, a teaspoon of dijon mustard, and half a teaspoon of salt (more than usual but you'll see why in a minute.)

I let the onion party with the acid for a bit to mellow out, while I finely chopped and added a few cornichons (mini-gherkins). I love the tang, so I dunno, maybe it was 4 or 5?

I stirred all that up really well, then added a couple of generous tablespoons of full fat natural greek yoghurt, some black pepper (love it!), and folded everything in until properly combined. I tasted it and added a tiny pinch more of salt, but you may choose not to. I just found that I needed more savouriness with how sweet and creamy the rich yoghurt is, and how sweet I knew the crab would be once added. I also especially needed the sourness for balance, but if you don't like tartness as much as I do, go easy on the lemon juice and pickles. You could use more mayonnaise like my mum did, but I really felt the yoghurt was the right choice for me.

I combined this enhanced yoghurt dressing with mum's base pasta mix, and when I was done, I found it pretty hard to hold back from eating it all straight away. The future of tomorrow's lunchtime happiness relies on tonight's restraint!

There you go. Another quick and easy meal that's both cheap and tasty. Almost everything was from the pantry!

So go my children! Go into the world! Try to make the most of what you already have before you look up elaborate recipes and spend ages in the supermarket piling up expensive ingredients in your shopping cart. It can be so much more liberating, creative, fun and rewarding to cook thrifty and clever.

And that's my random lesson for today. Happy cooking (eating)!

Friday, December 25, 2015

My first time travelling, but not the last

I've been travelling around Southeast Asia for 7 months. Really. 7 months!

I recently returned home to Australia and am now capable of fully admitting that I failed spectacularly in my goal to update this blog regularly while I was on the road. I am sorry. I have always been sorry about this. Usually my problem is I have too many things to say, and in my painful, circular attempts to gift you the blessing of conciseness and precision, I give up, red-faced and puffing, mashing my face into the keyboard, and ultimately not saying anything at all. But let's face it, I also made a commitment to choose life whenever it was a choice between living and writing about living. So in that, I won.

Still, I do want to share with you my thoughts, hopes and feelings. All of which have intensified in importance and meaning in my past 7 months away. So thank you for your patience as I try, yet again, to blog.

Reflecting on this past year, I have to say, I made it! Who knew I'd last this long? From May 17th to Dec 11th, I visited Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. It's a magnificent Google map waiting to happen.

Far from sating my travel urge (I am trying to avoid use of the word "wanderlust" here) by living out of a 60L pack for almost a year , I have merely whetted my appetite to see more places, meet more people, and taste more food. And while I still wonder about how and when my completed university degrees and a successful career will collide in a bankable fashion, I worry about it less than I did before I left Sydney with a ticket to Saigon in my hands. Because I can now, completely and wholeheartedly, own the truth that my true interest lies in travel, and that I'd like to make it priority for at least the next 5 years. If a career happens along the way, whoopee. But come on, choices, people! We can't have everything... although we try. So we have to think about what matters to us most, right now.

(More on this later.)

For now, after realising I have actually invested over 11 months out of the past 24 in travel, I think it a reasonable outcome that at some point, while adjusting to my return to a developed first-world country, drinking tea made from delicious diarrhea-free tap water, I thought back about the first time I truly "travelled" - because I consider myself a late bloomer to the jet-setting, backpacking life. The answer would seem obvious - it was recent, right?

In fact, the result was surprising.

My first travel experience

I remember the first time I travelled outside of my hometown alone, and I mean "travel" in a way that I'd consider more than simply going from A to B. It made an impression.

I was 19. I'd gotten a summer job with a minerals exploration company. I was very excited because I was one of the earliest in my university cohort to find industry-related work experience. Almost everyone else in the company was an experienced older Caucasian male geologist, with greying hair and thick Australian accents.

View from the train window.

Every weekend for 3 months I left the sleepy outer-city suburbs where I grew up, and took a 4 hour train journey to a place further away from the ocean than I'd ever been before. There I spent my days traipsing about the rugged Aussie countryside in steel-capped boots, digging around in soil and rocks, to the operatic tune of heavy machinery. It was a culture shock for me, and a great learning experience.

One morning when I woke up early (not by choice, come on, I was 19) and crawled out of my little metal donga to get ready for work, I went outside before I met my workmates and took a moment to take in the pre-dawn.

Our work camp, consisting of nothing more than a few "dongas" or mobile tin buildings.

The first light of dawn.

An outback sunrise.

This was a new site we were investigating just for a week, and it was my first true-blue taste of The Outback. We were 600 km inland. The ground was as red as rust. The horizon was a dead flat thin black line rising to ever lightening heights into a diluted navy sky still dotted with a few exhausted stars. It was as close to the desert as I've ever been; cold, quiet, and empty. I was totally alone. Yet I remember thinking to myself, "I don't feel lonely. I feel peaceful."

Later that day, the heavens opened up and flooded the dusty, parched earth with torrential rain that lasted barely an hour. It was beautiful. My workmates and I waited for the mud to drain away and took photos of a giant mushroom that exploded out of the ground.

I love a sunburnt country. My country.

Sudden shroom!

This experience was the first time I travelled. The disappointing thing is, I didn't realise it until now, simply because the way I got there was through work. I saw it as only work. Which means I lost years of appreciation for what I am capable of. It took me so long to understand that there are alternative ways to make my dreams happen.

Work. Study. Family. The ultimate triad of life priorities, and they are good ones indeed. But when you've got other interests like travel, and you're not told how you can combine them with the other things on your list, you can feel like you've spent forever waiting to pursue that dream.

All I can say is, don't wait. Find a way. It will be worth it. You will surprise yourself.

~ ~ ~

Hope you enjoyed my return post and my photos! I dug through 6 years of archives and countless feels to find them.

If you like what I write (and forgive me my lack of discipline) please share!

Perhaps you could even Vacuuming On Holiday

Finally, and most importantly, I hope you have all had a very MERRY CHRISTMAS!