Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Pantheon

Introduction
Rome is a city that should never be visited once. Eternal in the truest sense of the word, it's monuments, people and traditions span the ages and the city's influence, the globe. Rome's innumerable sites of unique cultural value and interest, means that to recommend one would be to exclude another. However there is one, which stands out above all the rest, one that uniquely encompasses all of Rome's glory and history and tradition, and that is the Pantheon.

Origins
It's very name is a myth which goes back two millenia. The historian Cassius Dio calls it pantheon, not because it was a temple to all the gods, but rather because it's dome embraces all the heavens. The inscription above the columns proclaims that Agrippa made this temple. But in reality what we see today is it's third incarnation, after it was burnt down twice before, there is much doubt as to how much it resembles Agrippa's original.

Presence
Reached by narrow alleys, surrounded by crowding townhouses and fronted by a smallish square, the pantheon doesn't really fit into a complete view. From street level, you only see the portico, it's dome barely visible. From a distance, it is only the dome that can be discerned. It looks at first unassuming, resembling a stack of upturned dinner plates. But take a second glance and, you realise that it does stand out. The dome's concentric circles sliding slowly into a shallow semi-sphere of grey concrete are something ancient, like nothing ever before, and nothing ever since. The same is the view from the street. The portico's columns defy erosion with their bluish tinge. The two massive arched niches on either side of the door defy the Holy Trinity, their absent statue-gods and other-worldly proportions define a time before Christianity.


The Pantheon
As Cassius Dio opines, it is the dome that makes the Pantheon. Once inside, you do not need to look twice to appreciate this. The Oculus is open to the heavens, and burns a whole in the darkness that surrounds it in a perfect, massive semi-circle. The ray of light that descends, creates a spotlit circle which moves with the day across the deep, rich marble. It is no wonder that the design of the dome is so advanced that this building still holds the record for the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Whether it be out of reverence for such beauty and engineering skills, or out of fear that too much modification would cause it all to collapse, the Church's mark on the pantheon is only decorative, with its altars, statues, and king's tombs. The Pantheon's scale and proportions are Roman, it's design Roman, the light and acoustics, Roman.

Final Thoughts
When you step into such a place, you are stepping into a building which is unlike anything else on earth. Everything about its design transcends time, and as a result its presence transcends space - with the way it fits so neatly yet indefinably into the modern and changing city. The Pantheon is the reason why Rome is a city that should never be visited once.

Friday, March 3, 2017

New Malden, K-town, London - Korean Food Galore!

Introduction
At careless glance, New Malden looks like a pleasant suburb on the South Western fringe of London. Red Brick turn-of-the 20th century flats and shops along the high street don't jar too incongruously with the one or two more modern blocks that have inevitably begun to pop up with London's relentless expansion. The station, which connects to Waterloo and Vauxhall in central London, confirms its Victorian origins. And if you exit the station onto the high street, you might overlook a snack-shop at the end of the tunnel. But if it's around lunch or dinner time and you're in need of nourishment, you might pause for a second and look at the food on offer. And New Malden's wonderful secret will be betrayed!
New Malden is also known as K-town, Koreatown and the People's Republic of New Malden. Its home to a population of around 10,000 ethnic Koreans, numerous Korean restaurants, shops and beauty salons, and it's here that you should come for the best Korean food in the UK.

Which Restaurant?
The station is located at the beginning of the High Street heading South and Coombe Road heading North. There are Korean restaurants in both directions and on both sides of the road. To the lover of Korean cuisine this may seem like paradise, but there are only so many meals you can eat in a day, and your wallet only contains so much money, so choosing a place to eat is tough.
Going by price could help you decide, as the same dish seems to have a different price in different restaurants. However don't expect to pay Korean prices, and even by English standards eating out in New Malden is not very cheap. I thought I would be able to make my decision about where to eat based on the number of Korean customers, but most of the restaurants were completely full of Koreans - a good sign of quality but it didn't make my decision any easier. In the end I chose Hamgipak (함지박) as it was the most Korean-looking restaurant I've ever seen outside Korea.

Hamgipak
Hamgipak is located on the High street, on the right hand side coming from the train station. Eating here was like travelling to Korea. Just like in Korea, if you order a main dish you get free side dishes called banchan(반찬). These were kimchi, bean-sprouts and a dish that seemed like a very reasonable anglicisation of muchorim(무조림) made with potato instead of mu(무)aka mooli or daikon. I made sure to verify with the restaurant lady that the Kimchi was homemade (it's just not the same out of a packet) and answering in the affirmative she offered to sell me some to take away!
The dish that came that the banchan came with, was Dolsot Bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥). Served in a searing stone bowl for £8, it's a rice dish mixed with chilli sauce, kimchi and fried egg. Despite it being slightly less spicy than I expected, it was nonetheless almost identical to the Korean version.
I looked on the drinks menu, and unable to find soju(소주), I chose Oksusu cha(옥수수차), maize tea for £2. Halfway through my meal a group of Korean men came in, Korean style, and almost immediately they had the characteristic soju shot glasses brought out and seconds later a bottle of Korea's favourite booze was produced. Clearly an off-the-menu item, you can still get it for £10.


Overall Hamgipak was truly an excellent restaurant in all senses of the word, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to discover Korean food, or who like me wanted a bit of a reminisce without disappointment and maximum enjoyment. However there are plenty of other restaurants in New Malden that I'm sure meet these standards, and look forward to trying another soon!

Other things to do
There are other authentic Korean things to do besides eating. In Asian circles Korea is famed for it's make-up and beauty industry and you can get all this kind of treatment here at the numerous hairdressers/beauty salons along the High Street. I also found a karaoke bar which emanated a mysterious hint of sordidity that only a Noraebang(노래방) can exude.
The weekend I was there I happened to stumble across a Steampunk market in the Christchurch on Coombe Road. On the surface New Malden is a standard suburban town, but beneath its Englishness is a diverse and sometimes quirky reality that makes it more than worth visiting on a rainy day.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Chinese Food: Tomato and Egg Soup (柿子鸡蛋汤)

Introduction
There was a run-down restaurant near my flat in China. I only used to go there because it was so close. It was always full of workers, mainly men and all of them over 40. The menu was uninspiring, the cleanliness standards were worrying, and the staff uninteresting. But it was cheap, extremely cheap. And the cheapest thing on the menu was their tomato soup, 3.5元 for a bowl. Add some rice, and you have the most inexpensive meal in town!
柿子鸡蛋汤(shizi-jidan-tang) or Tomato and Egg Soup is a brilliant food for anyone on a time and money budget.

Ingredients

  • 2-3 fresh tomatoes
  • 750ml Chicken stock OR Water + Chicken stock cubes/powder (found at any Chinese supermarket, CHEAP)
  • 1-2 spring onions
  • 1-2 eggs
  • Soy sauce

Method
This makes enough for at least two people. Chop the tomatoes into smallish pieces(it doesn't need to be beautiful or scientific, see picture). Break the egg(s) into a bowl and mix the yolk and white. NOT VIGOROUSLY. Slice the spring onions (see picture). Bring the stock/water+chicken powder to the boil and then throw in the tomato pieces. Let them boil for minimum 10 minutes to soften and dissolve the tomato pieces. There should still be chunks floating around. After 10 mins or so, pour the eggs in and stir a few times with a chopstick. Put the sliced spring onion in and add some soy sauce to flavour, mix and then cover for 1-2 minutes. DONE.

Conclusion
This soup is full of nutrition, insanely filling and just about as cheap as you can get. It looks great and if you want to impress someone, just add some chopped coriander before you eat and serve it in a glass bowl for maximum effect!

Friday, February 3, 2017

Food: Stuffed Cabbage leaves: vegetarian and meat

Introduction
Stuffed cabbage leaves are a dish that my Grandmother has made for a long time. She learned it after the war, from a lady of Russian extraction in London. As far as I know it's a recipe popular in Poland, other parts of Eastern Europe and Turkey. There are countless ways to make them, fold them, and cook them, but two things remain constant across the recipes and countries: Cabbage for the outside and rice for the inside.
There are three parts to the recipe, and should be made in this order.The Sauce, The Stuffing and finally The Cabbage. You have to Stuff them and then its time for Cooking!

Ingredients
1 cabbage, 2+ tomatoes, 1 and a half onions, 1 carrot, 1/2 courgette, 2-3 cloves of garlic, 1 stick celery, butter, salt & pepper, stock or bouillon, a bay leaf, beef mince OR 150g cheddar & an egg + optional herbs to taste.

The Sauce
Put this on before you start. Its basically a tomato flavoured broth, that should have had some cooking time before it all goes in the oven. The tomatoes add a slight acidity which complements the fattiness of the meat/cheese and softens the flavour of the cabbage. The point of the sauce is to bring the flavour out of the stuffed cabbage leaves while it contemporaneously cooks them. If its a bit insipid add more vegetables to it or add other herbs like oregano and thyme.

  • half an onion, sliced into thin half crescents.
  • 2+ tomatoes, diced (You can use canned tomatoes instead but make sure to cut them up small so the sauces isn't too lumpy).
  • a lump of butter
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic sliced longitudinally
  • half a medium courgette, sliced, and then the slices halved(this is to make the sauce have more flavour, you can use other vegetables like half a pepper too/instead)
  • half a stick of celery(again to flavour the sauce)
  • 500ml chicken stock OR you can use bouillon with 500ml (you can use only water, but I would definitely not omit any of the vegetables above) .
  • A bay leaf
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
Put the butter in a saucepan, when it starts to melt add the onion and brown them. Then add the garlic and courgette, let it fry with the onion for a minute or two, add the pepper, then add the tomato, stirring. Make sure its not too hot as you cook the tomato so it doesn't burn. You want the tomato to break down and dissolve, so put the lid on, and let the sauce cook. Leave it for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once there's a nice thick tomatoey sauce, pour in the stock, and add the bayleaf and celery. Let it simmer while you're preparing the other ingredients.

The Stuffing
The basic principle of the stuffing is the same, rice + diced veggies + extra flavours. The vegetarian version is absolutely delicious and I would say better than the meat version in flavour. But if you want an *exceptional* meat version you can use half-cooked rice - this absorbs the flavour of the meat much better.
Once all the ingredients are sliced and diced, put them in a bowl and stir them together, the consistency should be sticky to the point of clumpiness, if its not, add more egg or meat.

  • one small-medium onion, diced
  • one large carrot, diced
  • half a stick of celery, diced
  • a handfull of fresh parsley, chopped fine
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 500g cooked rice (brown rice is good, as is long grain)
  • EITHER 300g beef mince (150g pork mince+150g beef mince also tasty) OR 1 large egg and 150g+ grated Cheddar

The Cabbage
Depending on your country, season and shopping options, there is a large variety of cabbages to choose from. What you want is one that has strong, big leaves that are easy to bend. From the supermarkets, the best one I found was called "sweetheart cabbage". The usual "white cabbage"'s leaves are very tightly wrapped and often tear when you try to remove them. However the best cabbage for making this dish is Turkish Cabbage. It looks like a squashed normal cabbage with wide, thick leaves that are the easiest to remove. Go to a Turkish shop to find one!

Preparing for stuffing
Remove the biggest leaves from the cabbage, and leave the smaller ones for later. Before you fold the leaves, you need to blanch them to make them softer and more maleable. In a large pot, bring some water to the boil and put in the individual cabbage leaves for about 2-5 minutes or until they start going bright green. Then put them immediately in cold water, this will preserve the colour. Sometimes the stem is very thick and this makes them hard to fold, you can slice a part of it off to make it easier to bend.

Stuffing the Cabbage
Place a big spoonfull of the stuffing on to the leaf and fold over the sides and then roll it from the back to the front to make a delicious cabbage parcel.(Grandmother optional)

Cooking it all
Get a large pot or casserole dish which can go in an oven. Put the oven on at 180°C. Put half of the left-over small cabbage leaves at the bottom of the pot, then pack the stuffed cabbage leaves in. The tighter the better. You can do two or more layers. Pour the sauce over the cabbage so it covers them to at least 3/4 height. If it doesn't add water or more stock. Then, cover it all with the remaining small cabbage leaves. Then put the lid on the pot and put it into the oven for 45 mins-1 hour. While its cooking, check it once or twice for liquid and add if it seems dry.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Food: Ravioli experience

Background
Ravioli are a classic Italian dish from the Regio Emilia region of Northern Italy. They are traditionally made with egg pasta and a meat or vegetable and cheese filling, cut into squares. Since most varieties of Ravioli already contain meat and a lot of flavour, they don't require complex sauces. Simple tomato sauce or butter, sage and parmesan suffice to dress these treats.
On the 26th of December a special kind of ravioli is eaten "Ravioli di Brasato". The filling is made with the leftover braised beef from Christmas day mixed with egg and a few other ingredients. There are plenty of recipes online for how to make this but the hardest part is actually putting it altogether, the pasta making being much harder than it looks.

Materials

  • Egg Pasta dough (400g finest flour & 4 eggs, pinch of salt, drop of olive oil)
  • Cellophane
  • Pasta Machine
  • Ravioli Mold
  • Small Rolling Pin
  • Cup of water
  • Cooking brush(optional)

The Pasta
Putting the dough together is simple: you need 400g of finest white flour (tipo '0' in Italian), mixed with 4 eggs a dash of oil and salt. Knead the dough until its well mixed, wrap in cellophane and put it in the fridge for an hour. Again, detailed recipes can be found online.

The filling
Ravioli are a popular post Christmas dish in Northern regions and this is because an absolutely delicious filling is made with Christmas meat leftovers. "Brasato" or braised beef in English is the Christmas day meal and since quantities are always vast, there's always a decent bit left over. This is chopped up, has egg and cheese added and makes a hearty meaty filling for the pasta. Look up online for detailed recipes.

Cooking the ravioli
This is pretty straightforward: You put them in a big pot with boiling water - the only difference with normal pasta is that they cook quicker so people use a ladle with holes to fish them out, instead of pouring it all into a colander (this also stops them from getting broken)

What follows are some observations I've made from making ravioli, specifically the pasta. Hopefully it will have some usefil tips/advice for your own endeavours!

Making strips of pasta
After an hour its time to start the production line. Roll the dough into a thick "snake" and cut off a finger-length piece. Flatten it out into a pancake shape with your hands and then put it through the machine. I put it through 4 different thicknesses, going from 1, 2, 5 and 6 (the thinnest). Once its the desired thickness make sure its wide enough and long enough to fit over the ravioli mold. If its too short, you need more dough, work out how much you need for the right amount so next time you don't do this again! If its too narrow, fold it in half and run it through the machine again at the desired thickness, this will fatten and flatten!

Dryness
One problem of running the dough through the machine is dryness. The more you flatten it, the drier it gets. Try to get the strips through as quickly as possible. This also goes for the dough. In a warm room, the dough starts drying out making it hard to flatten and control. Keep it in cellophane and put it in the fridge while you're not using it. If the dough does start to dry out, your only solution is to add tiny amounts of water while kneading it again. A lot more effort and time wasted. So don't let it dry!

Creating the Ravioli
The next issue was the filling. Since you're using a mold, too little means empty space that can fill with water from the cooking. Gross. Too much means they'll break. Ruined. You need to be consistent with the quantities so use a spoon to measure. Push the filling gently down into the mold, deep enough so it doesn't spill over and out of the hole. If it does, it means that the ravioli might not seal properly and fill with water. Gross and ruined.
Once the first layer of pasta has the ravioli filling on/in it. Wet around the edges of each ravioli with fingers or a brush and a tiny splash of water to moisten the dough. Put the second layer over the top, pushing it gently so it sticks onto the under-layer. Using a small rolling pin (probably provided with the mold)seal the ravioli together with powerful, controlled short thrusts pushing downwards so the ravioli are cut at the seams and sealed around the edges. Hopefully the ravioli will seal and can be peeled out of the mold.

Storing
Obviously you're not going to make enough ravioli in one go, so you need to put the finished one somewhere. Be very generous with flour here. Put a lot of flour on the surface where you will put them. Put them on the floured surface trying not to have them touch. If you are putting them on top of each other, I don't recommend it, but space is always an issue, so if you put them on top of each other, cover the first layer of ravioli in as much flour as possible. If you don't use enough flour, the ravioli will fuse together or stick to what you're keeping them in. When you peel them off or apart they will break.

Conclusion
Ravioli are very satisfying to make and can be a really filling and delicious meal. If you are careful they are not so hard to do, but give yourself lots of time and the most important things to avoid are dryness and them sticking together when you store them! Oh yes, and any left over pasta? Turn it into Linguine!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Love of Food: Recipes, Cooking and Reviews

Introduction
'The love of food is the truest love', so read some graffiti on the walls of Bergamo. The cynic will interpret this phrase to mean "the love of eating trumps romantic love", but its true meaning is only to be understood by the romantic. You need love like you need food, they both make you live, they make you alive.
Food and travel are inseparable. Many have journeyed across the world in search of the sweetest fruit or to discover the rarest spice. Many more have rejoiced at the table of home like never before, rediscovering long-forgotten flavours. Some enjoy the challenge of eating the exotic and unknown, while others love to lose themselves in the myriad tastes and colours of the produce of foreign climates. And few would disagree that the simplest meal, after a long day of adventuring, is the best meal in the world.
For that reason and the fact that I make a lot of food, forgot that I've made it and then don't know what to make next time I have those ingredients, I have decided to add some food entries to this blog. Enjoy!

Catalogue of food entries

Monday, December 19, 2016

Coastal North East China: Jinzhou, Huludao, Beidaihe and Qinhuangdao (锦州,葫芦岛,秦皇岛, 北戴河)

Introduction
Hugged on the East by the jutting arm of the Liaodong Peninsula, the cities of Jinzhou, Huludao and Qinhuangdao are found on the Western shore of the Liaodong bay in North East China(东北). These cities historically formed the borderlands with the barbarous Manchurians further North and East. Laolongtou(Qinhuangdao, Shanhaiguan) is where the Great Wall of China meets the sea.

Places to visit and things to do

Getting around
Getting around is very easy as all of these cities are on the main trainline between Harbin and Beijing, meaning that from major population centres, they're only a few hours.
When asking for directions or looking things up, it can be a little confusing as the terms "Jinzhou", "Huludao" and "Qinhuangdao" denote both a city and a geographical area! The tourist sights of "Xingcheng Gucheng", "Shanhaiguan Gucheng", "Laolongtou" and "Bijiashan" are not in any of these cities, are in their own cities, and are perhaps a 45 minute busride away. Often Chinese people will say "Huludao" when they mean "Xingcheng Gucheng", even though "Xingcheng Gucheng" is in Xingcheng!
Anyway, its always cheaper to stay in the city 45 minutes away, and away from the tourists, the food's always better too.