bak zang season

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It’s been on the to-do list for years, but this year was the year – our year for bak zang. You see, it’s a lot of work making bak zang and the devil, as usual, is in the detail. Prepping the leaves, marinating the pork, soaking the mushrooms and so on, is done before even the first dumpling is wrapped, so I can see why the tradition only happens once in a while. (Well, for us anyway. For a well behaved Chinese family it’s annually. For us it’s every 5 years or so.) Also, the dumplings are meant to be eaten on during the northern summer solstice, so once that’s gone, there’s not much point to making them.

I have to admit, I was a little (okay, a lot) inspired by the TV show Poh & Co and the episode where she makes dumplings with her family. The show is pretty accurate – the first few dumplings are incredibly frustrating! Think expletives, rice everywhere and unravelling dumplings. But after the initial learning curve it becomes quite zen. Folding, stuffing, wrapping and tying – again and again.

We made about 80 dumplings stuffed with fatty pork, dried shrimp, shitake mushrooms, mung beans, dried then soaked chestnuts and salted egg yolks, which were pretty much, willy-nilly stuffed into the leaves with lightly stir fried rice. Then it’s boiled for two hours. By the way, this is the easy/lazier version. The real deal is to make a hollow in the rice, then put the ingredients in a particular order into each dumpling, so it actually does look stuffed. (This is the not-so-easy-version i.e. sadistic.)

Because everything is an estimate, it becomes a guessing game to ration everything evenly. (“Hey! Don’t put SO MUCH shrimp in! I don’t want to RUN OUT!” Then, like 15 minutes later: “HEY! Are you putting SHRIMP IN?! How come there’s so much LEFTOVER?!!” And so on.) Let’s say the last couple of dumplings are always interesting.

 

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(A really big thank you to Mum for making the bak zang! Let’s do it again next year!)

 

 
 

takaka and nelson

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Three hours return. That’s how long we drove to catch salmon. But in New Zealand the destination is really just an excuse because the journey there is always downright spectacular. We left Mapua and climbed (in the car, no actual physical exertion here) Takaka Hill, zigzagging past sheer drops and forests and hill top paddocks. It’s a freaky dangerous drive but the views! As we gained altitude, orchards were stretching out to Ruby Bay and Rabbit Island and as we descended, Golden Bay and the endless green of Takaka were saying hello.

Anatoki Salmon is sandwiched between the paddocks, hills and a pristine river. With our supplied rods and ‘murder weapon’ spike (all the better to kill the fish with), we set down on a shady spot spying the large school of salmon lazily wading by. With crickets chirping, the wind rushing through the trees and a lake teeming with fish, well you’d think catching fish at a fish farm would be easy. It’s actually not – you have to work for it (unless you’re really lucky – we saw a guy catch one on his first cast!). After two hours of reeling in a lure (the fish definitely knew better), we caught two one kilo specimens – lunch time was on! Especially for the farm’s dog, who incidentally loves hot smoked salmon. (Who could resist that face?!)

There’s a New York Times article about thin places “…where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.” Pupu Springs (or Te Waikoropup? Springs), is definitely something special – a thin place, if you will. The board walk curves through rainforest, passing dark, rushing tributaries and, suddenly, the spring appears. Nothing prepares for this pool of clear water. Beneath the surface, sways a meadow of red, yellow and turquoise lushness, the underwater image warping in the tide of the spring. The water ripples from the sheer pressure of the spring escaping out of the earth. It’s pristine and ethereal and photo’s don’t do it justice.

 

Pine Hill Lodge | 112 Pine Hill Road, Ruby Bay, Mapua
A bed that looks out onto the vineyards and breakfast brought to the room!? (Jeanette and Paul’s pancakes are heavenly.) The bed and breakfast is literally in the middle of vineyards and has two views of the ocean. It’s private, modern and has a hot tub! Book it. Book it now.

Anatoki Salmon | 230 McCallum Rd, Takaka
Free use of fishing gear and plenty of salmon to have a stab at (yes you have to kill the fish yourself). The catch is paid for by the kilo and hot smoked (or cut for sashimi) on the spot. The hot smoke method is delicious – choose from 20 different flavours.

Hopgood’s | 284 Trafalgar St, Nelson
At the base of the Nelson cathedral stairs, Hopgood’s is deceptively busy, even on weeknights. Generous portions of French inspired food in a warm, jovial atmosphere. Call ahead to book.

Te Waikoropup? Springs | SH60, 6km west of Takaka township
A taonga (treasure) and w?hi tapu,Te Waikoropup? Springs is a sacred and spiritual treasure with some of the optically clearest water in the world. The circuit path takes approximately 30 minutes to complete.

Takaka Hill Lookouts | SH60
There are three notable lookouts on the hill, though the road affords amazing views too. On the Motueka side is Hawke’s lookout, which is about 10 minutes walk from SH60 and looks over Tasman Bay. The second is just outside the Ngarua Caves entry – the views is over karst rocks and towards the western part of the bay. The last, Harwood’s Lookout is perched right over the Takaka valley’s patchwork of paddocks and Kahurangi National Park.

 

 
 

the northeast of south island

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Jet lagged from the red eye, we sped up the coast to Kaikoura. The drive started off bucolic enough – sheep, rolling fields, more sheep. But then came the seaside and with it mist that slowly seeped into our jackets, socks and scarves. Rain in New Zealand is not a bad thing. It shrouds the mountains and the cliffs and everything just looks so raw and wild. The road was worthy of a Bond movie car chase, as we zoomed through dynamite-carved tunnels and corners. Not far from Nin’s Bin (shut – again, no lobster us boo), we stopped at the newly signed Ohau Falls and ducked into the rainforest. The scene at the end of the (drippy) walk is magical. A waterfall rushes from the steep mountainside and in its pool, wild seal pups play with untamed innocence. They’re so tiny and vulnerable, yet curious. Occasionally, one would flipper their way out of the pool to have a better look at us humans.

North bound, the scenery changes to golden vineyards that roll to the horizon. We’re in wine country – Marlborough. We eat the best pies at the Burleigh (they are seriously good pies – go early for the pork belly!), then fall dead into our bed at the Walnut Block.

If we were sleepy before, dinner’s blast of Brazilian hospitality wakes us right up. Half pub, half restaurant, inside a Tudor style building on Blenheim’s motel strip is Gramado’s. It’s an unexpected blend of Brazilian and Kiwi food. Clam chowder, salt and pepper squid and ghost chilli (!) spiked pork belly are eaten to the background noise of the regular bar crowd. The locals loved speculating on both the weather and the rugby, challenging the TV screen with passion. Being islanders, Kiwis are really weather observant – ask anyone and they’ll know which front/wind is coming in. It’s uncanny.

Somehow online, I’d stumbled upon a story of a 12th generation Champenois making Champagne style sparkling in Marlborough. Initially I was a bit sceptical, surely it was all marketing. But no, it’s not. The first sip of the Le Brun’s family No. 1 cuvee was a revelation (as clichéd as that sounds). Not acidic nor overly sweet, yet creamy, the No.1 sparkling is extraordinary. If you find any bottles, buy up (and keep it a secret).

After a simple lunch of tarakihi at Rockferry Wines, we headed north again. Relatively untouched, Queen Charlotte Sound’s lace of bays, arms and coves are home to few people. Residents of the sound live a life devoid of roads, civilisation and running water – but what a life it is. The mail boat run, which we board at Picton, is a constant lifeline to the waterway. Delivering mail and groceries (and dog treats for the pooches!) plus trampers to lodges, the mailboat zips around the sound all afternoon. With only the Interislander crossing between Picton and Wellington (you can almost spot Wellington from Ship Cove) and perhaps the odd water taxi, there is little other traffic. It is something akin to retirement paradise.

 

Ohau Stream Walk | 27km north of Kaikoura on SH1
After Ohau Point, look out for the Ohau Falls signage and car park. Seal pups are usually there during autumn and winter.

The Burleigh | 72 New Renwick Road, Blenheim, Marlborough
Fabulous pies that are full of steak (or pork belly but you have to get in early for those). Followed by an L&P and unpasteurised French brie. Just take my money. Take it all.

Walnut Block Cottages | 43 Blicks Lane, Blenheim, Marlborough
Secluded, private cottages looking onto a vineyard – so romantic. There’s also cable TV (yay) with a pantry of breakfast goods to boot.

Gramado’s | 74 Main Street, Blenheim, Marlborough
Brazilian hospitality, steak and craft beer – Gramado’s does it all and well. Look out for the feijoada and Wakanui steak but keep an eye on the specials board.

No. 1 Family Estate | Rapaura Road, Blenheim, Marlborough
Ever wondered what a Champagne family in Marlborough would produce? The result: sparkling that tastes so very French and perhaps, even better. If you love sparkling: run, don’t walk.

Rock Ferry Wines | 80 Hammerichs Road, Blenheim, Marlborough
Great spot for wine tasting and if the weather’s up to it, lunch by the vines. Terribly friendly service doling out plates of mostly organic and squeaky fresh local produce.

Beachcomber Fun Cruises Mailboat Cruise | London Quay, Picton
A half day cruise zipping around dropping off groceries and mail around the sound’s isolated residents. Seriously scenic with little jetty dogs (and a cat) coming out to say hi!

 

 
 

plum and oat muffins

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Another muffin recipe to hail the end of another stone fruit season. I really like autumn (it means my birthday is coming up) but it also means winter is arriving which means certain things. The kettle being brought out of hibernation, living in knits and of course, the inevitable end of summer’s spectacular bounty.

Out go the grapes, tomatoes (sob) and stone fruit. Grab the swan song of plums while you can – we get so many stunning varieties in Perth – from bright red, to purple and green, they are in my opinion, become even more spectacular when baked. I like the blood ones. The scarlet hue becomes more intense, more fleshy when cooked. With heat the fruit transforms into jewels of apple, rhubarb and fairy floss and the harsh tartness is more sweet than sour. Perfect for a muffin.

 

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~*~

 

Plum and Oat Muffins

The savoury kibble-like texture of oats goes nicely with the soft pieces of cooked plum. Otherwise substitute with the same amount of flour.

Makes 6 jumbo/Texas sized muffins or 8 regular muffins

5 medium plums
260g all purpose flour
50g rolled oats
150g caster sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
pinch of salt
200ml milk (soured with a little lemon juice or vinegar)
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
100g butter, melted
1 tbsp raw sugar, for topping (optional)
1 tbsp oats, for topping (optional)

 

Preheat oven to 180°C. Line the muffin tin with cases.

Peel each plum – I use a potato peeler and don’t worry about any bits of skin left on. Cut the stones out and cut the flesh into rough chunks, saving some for topping the muffins.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, rolled oats, caster sugar, baking powder, bicarb of soda and salt. Add the plum pieces and toss to coat in the flour mixture. In a jug, beat together the milk, vanilla essence, eggs and butter. Add to the flour mixture.

Gently fold from the bottom of the bowl over the top, until streaks of flour are barely visible.

Immediately scoop into the muffin cases and top with saved plum slices. Sprinkle over the raw sugar and oats and pop into the oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or when a skewer comes out clean.

~*~

 

 
 

nara & uji

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Nara is definitely worth visiting as a daytrip out of Kyoto. It’s a sentiment that both locals and tourists share, judging by the huge mass of people descending the stairs to catch the train to Nara. The rickety train pulls in, we hop on and promptly pull out snack looted from the combini. The train journeys are half the fun in Japan. Nara’s an hour from Kyoto and on the way the landscape graduates from neat suburbia to bamboo forests leaning out, stretching to the sky.

Nara Park is vast and freely roamed by deer that are thought to be messengers of Shinto gods. The deer are super cute (kawaiii!) and crazy for the deer friendly senbei crackers that can be bought throughout the park. They nudge, stare and even nibble at you to get at the crackers. 

Todaiji’s Daibutsuden hall is enormous – actually enormous is an understatement – it’s the largest wooden building in the world. (Fun fact: the current hall is two thirds the size of the original…) Like ants we are pulled to it by a touristy magnetic force. Within the hushed, incense filled haze, amulet stalls glow around the Great Buddha. Behind, locals are hilariously trying to squeeze themselves through a (very!) small hole in a pillar that’s said to be the size of the Buddha’s nostril. Apparently if you fit through, you earn a place in heaven (well there goes my chance).

With lunchtime beckoning, we board a train to Uji – a town I’ve been curious about since figuring out the ‘Uji’ on my favourite tea is actually a place! The first glimpse of Uji’s omotesando main street really took hold of me – a 100 metre lane of old tea traders, emblem flags flapping in the wind and green tea wafting from stone grinders making quick work of steamed leaves into matcha. Beyond, hills roll away in shimmering shades of green and gold.

Tea in Uji goes back nine centuries, so the shop in the photo above, at 180 years old, is a relative newcomer. Inside, patina stained, aged boxes full of tea leaves were being emptied, hand packed into smaller bags for sale. The smell of so much tea is incredible – the freshness from last years harvest, and warm, antique earthiness from the tea dust that’s settled everywhere from years gone by. Even though they couldn’t speak a word of English the owners were overwhelmingly hospitable. After a tasting I couldn’t refuse, I left with bags of paper wrapped (everything is gift wrapped in Japan!) gyokuro and genmaicha (green tea with roasted rice), which I’m still drinking today.

We packed in with the locals at Nakamura Tokichi for lunch. First up, toothy green tea soba in a simple broth of dashi served with two pieces of amazing aburaage. Oily and impervious to the soup, every bite was intensely sweet with soy, sugar and fat – a satisfying contrast to the watery soup. Next up was warabi mochi: soft jellies of bracken starch coated in bright green matcha. Drizzled with brown sugar syrup the jellies were wet yet tongue drying. The second dessert, the matcha jelly, is ordered by absolutely everyone and every table (when in Rome…). Bitter matcha ice cream, sweet red bean paste and chewy sugary rice balls, plus melt in the mouth matcha jelly, it was bittersweet yet heavenly. Akin to crack for green tea addicts.

Talking about addiction I just had to have one more fix. We found it at a small shop close to the 10 yen coin famous Byodo-in temple. Green tea soft serve dusted with – yes you guess it – matcha!

 

Nara Park
One hour from Kyoto by either JR or Kintetsu train. The Kintetsu station is closer to the park. However to see the whole park of museums, temples and shrines bring walking shoes or catch the loop shuttle bus.

Nakamura Tokichi
There are two branches – the riverside and the original (honten). Both are store/cafes but the honten is much closer to the JR station – handy for a quick shopping and/or eating stop. Buy the matcha – it’s amazingly high quality.

Mitsuboshi-en
150 year old tea trader on Byodo-in Omotesando. Free tea tastings and really friendly service in an old fashioned shop.

Kanbayashi Shunsho
A more touristy but modern tea shop with beautifully wrapped teas – perfect for gifting.

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