Category Archives: Food

Vegan tempeh and bean chili 

I rarely ever get sick – and when I do I am often in denial, trying to work through it and continue with work, training and other activities. It always seems as if I get sick during my busiest times as well – in December 2015 I got sick right before my birthday and around the time of a planned training run up Mt Climbie (not one for the faint hearted). Last week, I got sick during a very stressful and busy time at work, working to a court deadline to file evidence for a case. It was also the week I had planned to ‘get back into it’ – I had a training schedule sorted out, and was FINALLY going to get back into Monday night intervals and run group.

That didn’t quite go to plan. Instead I woke up with a terrible cough, a sore throat and a fuzzy brain. I went to work but by 4pm I knew that running was going to be one of the worst ideas ever. So I finished at 5, headed home and felt sorry for myself. I also spent that last hour at work day dreaming about what comforting meal I would cook for dinner, to work magic on my immune system and make everything better. I settled on chili – in NZ it is ‘chili con carne’, though mine is a vegetarian version so without the ‘carne’.


Growing up, chili was one of my favorite meals. Mom would make a huge amount of it at the start of the week, we would have it as is, on white rice or on a baked potato (just like at Wendy’s!). I have never been able to do it the same – not only because of the lack of ground beef, but I just never get the flavors the same. Part of that is probably due to my lack of patience – mom would let hers simmer for over an hour – I struggle to let it simmer for 20 minutes! But honestly that wait is worth it, giving the flavors time to truly develop and also giving it time so that the broth can thicken.

As a vegetarian, bean chili can be a bit boring – so I like to make it a bit more exciting and add a different texture by adding tempeh. Tempeh is an awesome source of protein, used mainly in Asian cuisines and stir fries (being of Indonesian origin), but I love using it as a mince substitute. There is only one brand in NZ – Tonzu – a local organic non-GMO company. Tempeh is fermented and less processed than tofu, and also packs much more fiber than tofu. It has a chewy texture that I love, and marinated in BBQ sauce then put on the grill it is much more of a crowd pleaser than tofu. But I’m getting side tracked…back to dinner.


Because I wasn’t well, left work at 5 and got home at about 5:10 (thanks to recently moving back to the city and living very close to work!) I managed to get onto dinner early enough that I had time for the chili to simmer for a full hour! And it was worth it – it ended up being less soupy and more suited for serving on rice, which was fine as we had cooked rice in any event.  But if you want it to remain soupy I would recommend adding some more water or stock to allow it to simmer without losing all the moisture.  I would generally use black beans in my chili, but we didn’t have any so used kidney beans instead. I love spice so often add more cumin than other people to their dishes and I also would add more chili to it than normal – but my other half can’t handle as much chili as me so I added Tabasco to my meal after we had plated up.  Again, adjust to your own preferences.  I love the flavor that liquid smoke adds to the chili, particularly as it is a vegan version that needs some extra oomph.  In NZ, you can buy it from most organic stores, or online.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 package of Tonzu tempeh (1 package = 250g/8 oz, so 125g/4 oz), finely chopped or crumbled (*see note below on crumbling/chopping)
  • 1 red onion, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced (we like our garlic!)
  • 1/2 bell pepper, finely diced
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp chilli powder (I add more personally)
  • 3 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 can kidney or black beans (400g/15 oz)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1/2 bell pepper, finely diced
  • 2 Tbsp chilli powder (I add more personally)
  • 3 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp liquid smoke (to taste)
  • Handful of fresh cilantro/coriander – chopped
  • Rice or baked potato to serve, if want

Preparation:
In a large pot, cook the onion and garlic cloves over medium high heat until starting to brown (about 5 minutes).  Add the tempeh and continue to cook until the tempeh is also browned (another 10 to 15).  Lower the temperature to medium, add the spices, the bell pepper and the carrot and stir a bit more so that it becomes fragrant.  Add the beans, tomatoes and vegetable stock.  If you want it to be quite liquidy at the end, add more stock or water so you have about 1 1/2-2 inches of liquid on top.


Bring to a boil and then simmer partially covered for 30 minutes.  Add the liquid smoke, taste it and add more salt and pepper or any other spices necessary.  Partially cover and simmer for another 30 minutes.


This can cook for as long or short as you’d like. The longer it cooks, the more the flavors absorb, so add more cumin & chili powder to taste. Once done, add cilantro as garnish and serve! We had it with short grain brown rice, topped with cilantro – nice and simple. You can also top it with cheese, sour cream and chives and also on a baked potato.


Note: For the tempeh, I like to chop it finely rather than crumb it, because the NZ tempeh we get doesn’t crumb very nicely. I will slice it into smaller strips then chop into pieces about the size of an eraser at the end of a pencil. You don’t want them too small, but also not too big. See below!

Also – feel free to mix in different beans, add more tempeh, more beans, different veges (corn is a good addition to chili).  This made 3 to 4 servings for us – so if you are feeding more, definitely up the ingredients!

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Miso Sweet Potato, Broccoli and Black Bean Bowl

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2016 was to cook a new recipe from a cook book every week.  I own so many cook books with beautiful recipes, yet I generally cook the same thing each week, or use the Internet as a source of new recipes.  I purchased the Deliciously Ella cookbook in January 2016, which is absolutely gorgeous and full of beautiful and wholesome vegetarian recipes.  However, I knew I had to be disciplined with myself in order to ensure I actually used it and sourced recipes from it.  Hence the resolution.

My resolution started off well – Rob and I cooked a recipe a week, from the Deliciously Ella book, and then we allowed ourselves to introduce Angela Liddon’s ‘Oh She Glows’ recipe book and the Revive Cafe cookbooks (my Mom purchased me their 2nd and 4th cookbooks…they have so many beautiful yet simple vegetarian recipes I have never tried!).  I often struggle to follow recipes – I use them as a base but amend them based on my tastes and what I think will make the recipe better – but I was stringent and followed the recipe line by line, only adding things at the very very end if we thought necessary.  We made some amazing dishes, but soon enough work and life took over, meaning that we forgot about our resolution and went back to our old ways.

However, we were invited to a pot luck dinner last week, and I knew this was a wonderful opportunity to cook directly from a recipe again.  After much umming and ahhing, knowing I was cooking for my gym friends, so people who look after their health and care about eating well, including another vegetarian and two people on a paleo diet, I decided on a miso sweet potato and broccoli recipe from Smitten Kitchen.  It sounded perfect for a pot luck – easy to transport and put together when I arrived, easy to heat up if necessary, and quick and easy to do the night before after a 13 hour day in the office.  It was also vegan (well my adapted version is) and I enjoy showing off how delicious vegan food can be. I also personally love sweet potato (in New Zealand, they call it orange kumara) and believe it is a wonderful natural source of carbohydrates.  It is also a warm, wholesome and comforting vegetable.  The smell of sweet potato takes me back to Christmas and Thanksgiving, when I make a tasty but naughty sweet potato casserole, topped with marshmallows, pecans and brown sugar, roasted until crunchy. YUM.  However, I didn’t think that was quite appropriate for this pot luck, and it was also the wrong time of year.  So this sweet potato and broccoli bowl had high standards to live up to – I was expecting big things.

And wow it blew me away.  I altered the recipe slightly by doubling the amount of garlic in the sauce, by using agave instead of honey (to make it vegan), and by adding some water to thin it out a bit (given I was making a very large amount and wanted to ensure everyone got enough miso dressing!).  While the recipe calls for using a blender, I actually put all the ingredients in a bowl and used a fork to mix it – it took a few minutes but it mixed together nicely – no need for a blender at all!!  I also added some organic black beans to add protein, and I did a mixture of brown and black forbidden rice.  I also accidentally forgot about the rice, leaving it to cook about 10 or so minutes longer than it should have (I grew up with a rice cooker, so cooking rice on a stove is still slightly novel for me – and I forget the fact that once the water is all absorbed, you actually need to turn it off – first world problems!).  LUCKILY it didn’t burn, or set alight.  The overcooking of the rice meant that it was slightly dried out and crispy, adding a beautiful texture and contrast to the sweet potato and broccoli.  I couldn’t have planned it any better!

Like Smitten Kitchen says, there is no reason you couldn’t use other vegetables, though I love the mixture of the sweet potato and the broccoli.  It would be nice with some thinly chopped and grilled aubergine/eggplant.  And I would love to try it with some quinoa in the future for a different texture, and some additional protein.  The miso dressing though is delightful, and could easily be used for an Asian themed salad or noodles.  No doubt I will be making it again and posting future recipes with a very similar miso dressing to it.

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Sweet potato, broccoli and black bean bowl warm salad with miso dressing

Serves 4 to 6 (4 for a main meal, 6 as a side)

For the bowl
1 cup dried rice or another cooking grain of your choice (I used a mix of brown and black)
1 to 2 large sweet potatoes, or 4 to 5 small to medium ones (about 700 grams/1.5 pounds)
1 large broccoli (about 3 cups once chopped into florets)
1 tin of black beans (I used a 400g tin of Ceres Organic black beans)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon white sesame seeds
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds

For the miso-sesame dressing
1 tablespoon finely chopped/minced fresh ginger
3 small garlic cloves, finely chopped/minced
2 tablespoons white miso (the mildest kind)
2 tablespoons tahini (add one tablespoon and then see how it tastes)
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon water

Method: Vegetables and rice

Heat oven to 200 degrees Celcius (400 Fahrenheit). Cook the rice according to package directions – I use a ratio of 2 to 1 cups for brown/black rice – and I cooked it approximately 10 minutes longer than it should have been, to get it nice and crunchy.

Cut the sweet potato into 2cm (3/4-inch) cubes (the original recipe says to peel them too, but I like sweet potato with the skins on – just make sure you wash them and cut out any spots or bad looking bits). Cut the tops off the broccoli and separate into bite-sized florets (I found that I liked the florets bigger, to add a difference in size when compared to the sweet potato). I often like to use the stems and the bottom of the broccoli as well – peeled and cut into segments about 1 inch long.

Coat one large or two smaller trays with a thin slick of olive oil. Layer sweet potatoes on tray(s) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes, until browning underneath. Flip and toss chunks around, then add broccoli to the tray(s), season again with salt and pepper, and roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, until broccoli is lightly charred at edges and sweet potato is fully bronzed and tender. Toss chunks around one more time if it looks like they’re cooking unevenly.

In a small skillet, toast black and white sesame seeds until fragrant. (You can do this in the oven if using an oven-proof skillet.) Let cool.

While vegetables roast, prepare sesame-miso dressing:

Add the dressing ingredients to a bowl (alternatively, combine everything in a blender and run until smooth, scraping down sides once).  If making it in a bowl, use a whisk or a fork and mix it until it all blended and smooth. Taste and adjust ingredients if needed, but try to resist adding more honey or agave if it tastes salty, as that extra pop of saltiness is exactly what sweet potato needs.

Prepare the black beans:

Drain the black beans and rinse them under the water.  If you are serving the bowl warm, heat the black beans up on the stove or in the microwave.

Assemble bowls:

As I was making one large dish for everyone to share, I put each ingredient on as layers, similar to making a lasagne – rice sprinkled on the bottom, topped with the vegetables and then black beans, and again another layer of each.  I then topped it with the sesame-miso dressing and finished with sesame seeds.

If you are doing individual bowls, you want to scoop some rice/grains into each, then pile on the roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli and the black beans. Coat lightly with sesame-miso dressing and finish with toasted sesame seed duo. Serve with extra dressing on the side.

Verdict?

It was an absolute hit at the potluck.  Meat eaters and vegetarians alike, even those sneaky paleos who don’t eat legumes, were taking part.  The plate was clean by the end, and I was lucky to get a photo before everyone dived in! It is on the top of my list for future dinners, and because I was in a rush making it, I didn’t take too many photos of the process – next time I definitely will. 10 out of 10!

The week of 73 kilometers

My training has stepped up a lot in the last few weeks, with me at the exact half way point between the marathon and when I made the decision to run it. And with that comes the need for better nutrition and looking after myself. This new mentality is especially fitting given my past history with injuries and my competitive nature – I often push myself past my boundaries and find it hard to recognize when I need to stop. However, I have been doing a lot of reading lately and among other things I have discovered that nutrition is so key to recovery and prevention of injuries.

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Not only do you need to give your body the fuel it needs right before and right after you exercise – be that running, weightlifting or any kind of intense sport or activity – you need to focus on nutrition with everything you eat and drink.  By consuming the right balance of nutrients at all times, you can minimize the amount of muscle degradation and optimize your body’s rate of recovery and muscle rebuild.

So how do I fuel my body and make sure I get the right nutrients? I don’t follow a conventional diet by any means, I am a 90% vegan.  I say 90% because in New Zealand, it is just far too difficult to eat out as a vegan.  It is difficult enough to eat out as a vegetarian, let alone cutting out eggs, dairy and cheese.  I turned vegan as a bit of an experiment and a challenge as a New Year resolution.  My plan was to be vegan for one week a month.  I found it hard at first, getting used to soy milk and almond milk, to give up yoghurt (I used to LOVE yoghurt and muesli for breakfast), feta and butter. But after my first two vegan weeks, I stopped reverting back to non-vegan foods during my weeks off.  I stopped buying cheese, I learned to bake with egg substitutes, I began to find the taste of normal cows milk offputting and I avoided milk chocolate.  And I sustained the vegan week for approximately 6 months, then decided to stop being so stringent with one week, and instead focus on it holistically.  Maintain veganism on a day to day basis, with exceptions – special occasions and celebrations, travel, work functions and other times where it is impossible to be vegan.

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And I feel stronger, fitter and healthier than ever before.  Sure, some of that is to do with my personal training, focusing on my goals and running half marathons, but I believe that my diet has had a lot to do with it. 
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And now with 35 days to go….the pressure is on. I have totally radicalized my diet even more than it was before, introducing a smoothie each day as a way to get lots of nutrients, and cutting out processed carbs. No pasta, rice, noodles, bread, I only have bagels on the weekend before my long Sunday run. Salads for lunch, lots of protein and lots of extra good fats in my diet – avocados, nuts, coconut oil. And lots of food. Lots of it. My trainer has told me to eat, just eat. Healthy food of course, but lots of it. It has been hard getting used to, the idea of making myself eat, when I’ve always been conscious of what I eat to watch my weight, as girls do!
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But on a long Sunday run like today, I burn around 2000 calories. That is a lot of energy to replenish in order for my body and my muscles to recover! I have to eat immediately after, and make sure I continue eating throughout the day. Otherwise my body hurts, it hurts the next day, and for 12-24 hours my brain stops working. I can’t make decisions, so I quite often plan my Sunday and Monday meals in advance, otherwise I just don’t know what to eat, and I get really emotional. It’s interesting the effect of that much exercise on the body, so that’s why I’m focusing on my diet so much to make sure I can maintain somewhat sane during the next 5 weeks!
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So, talking about my training – Today I hit a great milestone in my training. I ran 27km and felt like I could continue going forever. I only stopped because I had to get ready for my choir concert. And I did the 27km in 2 hours 28, averaging around 5:30 per km (compared to 6 min per km on my last long run). And what’s more, I hit my peak in terms of kms for the week.

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Looking ahead, this coming week is going to be the most intense yet, and then it’s time to taper. Which is exciting but will be hard. I’m still loving running, I haven’t burnt out, but it will be hard not running as much and forcing myself to rest. Till then, I have another 70 odd km to do this week, and am experimenting with more recipes, including chia seed coconut water gels (for energy on long runs) and a delicious almond, goji berry and chia seed protein bar….yum!

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Morning Buns at Tartine, San Francisco

This post marks the new direction that my blog may take. I am no longer backpacking through Asia, and am instead exploring San Diego, SoCal (Southern California) and America in general. And I find the thing I am most interested in taking photos of is food.

Tartine Bakery San Francisco

Lets face it, my world mostly revolves around food. I visit a new city, and even if I don’t plan ahead what sights we will see or what tours we will take, I know where to get a good coffee and where to go for an amazing meal. And this weekend was no exception. Mom and I visited San Francisco. Thanks to the Labor Day holiday, and the prior plans of my Friday class’ lecturer, I had 4 days off school. And when we decided on going to San Francisco for the long weekend, I just knew I had to hunt down one place in particular. And that place is a bakery, cutely named Tartine, down in the Mission.

Locals will all know of this bakery, their infamous morning buns, and the long line that forms outside even before they open their doors. I only knew about it through a fellow blogger, Natasha, who has a fabulous baking blog. I am so lucky I found her blog because not only do I identify with her love of baked goods and baking, but the first blog post I looked at post-Asia was her post on Brown Butter Lemon Bars. I LOVE lemon flavored anything, and so I was immediately sold. I then read on, and learned about Tartine and their amazing lemon bars.

So, this brings us to Sunday morning, 7:30am, waking up so that Mom and I can go stand in line at a bakery, 20 minutes before they open. In most people’s minds this is insane. Standing in line for a bakery!? Before they open? But in San Francisco, it is all about the lines. If it has a line, you want to go there. You should be there, in line. If it doesn’t have a line, don’t waste your time. Bakeries have lines, restaurants have lines, and clubs have lines. Even the shops have longer lines than they do anywhere else. I waited behind 12 people today in Forever 21 just to try on clothes. But that is besides the point. We arrived at 8:40, 20 minutes before they opened, and were number 8 and 9 in the line. 5 minutes later, 10 more people joined the line. By the time they opened, there were over 30 people in line. But even my Mom, who said she would never stand in line like that just for food, enjoyed it. You meet nice people, make conversation, and learn new things. And when the doors open, you smell the coffee and the bread baked fresh that morning, and rush in trying to peer over people’s shoulders in order to see what is on offer. It is just so exciting.

Tartine Bakery, San Francisco

I had read about (and been told by Natasha) that I just had to try their morning buns. And a woman in front of me in line told me the same thing. And because I love lemon, I wanted their lemon bar too. Lucky for me, they had one lone lemon bar sitting in the counter, just waiting for me. They also had the most amazing looking tarts, cakes and breads. Far too much choice. When it was finally my turn to order, I looked in the counter and all the morning buns were gone!!!

No morning buns...at Tartine, San Franciso

Not to fear though, they brought over a new tray right away, and I got to choose the one I wanted.

Tartine, San Francisco

I then went a bit overboard, and we ended up with two morning buns, one almond croissant, one lemon bar, one banana cream pie and one walnut brownie. Of course we only ate one morning bun and one almond croissant there with our coffees, with the idea to save the others to eat over the next few days, but we have already devoured the banana cream pie and I am currently eating the lemon bar. The guy behind the counter was so friendly and helpful, and the barista at the coffee bar even knew what a flat white was!! And did it just right! So I was very happy this morning, with my perfectly done flat white and my soft morning bun.

Tartine Bakery, San FranciscoTartine Bakery, San Francisco

There doesn’t appear to be any official recipe available for the morning buns, but according to this site it is a cross between a cinnamon bun and a croissant. And I would have to agree. The outer part of it is crunchy and flaky, but then once you get through that outer layer you have soft fluffy dough swirled around like a cinnamon roll. It is orange in flavor with sugar sprinkled on top. In a nutshell, it has this combination of orange zest with sugary cinnamon sweet stickiness, partly crunchy and flaky but also soft and fluffy. It is just everything you want in a baked good, rolled into one. And I was very glad I got more than one, so I can savor the flavor again tomorrow morning.

And oh my gosh the lemon square is just mindblowingly delicious. I initially thought it was too sour and lemony, and was a bit meh. But I have already eaten half of it and keep wanting to eat more. It is very ‘moreish’. It has a top layer of thick and sticky sour lemon, with a base of shortbread crust. It had icing sugar sprinkled on top, though by the time I took a picture it had been in the car for a few hours and so the icing sugar melted into the lemon. Still tastes amazing though. And something that I will definitely make back in San Diego. Can’t say it will be good for my waistline, especially without flatmates to share it with, but I am going to be craving that lemon bar.

Tartine, San Francisco

San Diego one week down.

One week ago, I flew into LAX, was welcomed ‘home’ by immigration (and asked whether “people over there [aka Asia] were nice” to me) and greeted by my Mom, who had flown over to help me settle into my new surroundings. It has been three years since I was last in the States, and despite having traveled extensively in Asia, I haven’t traveled as extensively in the USA. For example, although I was born in LA, I have never been to San Diego (a mere 2 hours drive away), the city I plan to spend the next five months.

And now, 10 days after I arrived, I feel like I have a good feel for San Diego. I was so surprised by how close the ocean is to downtown. Driving down from LA we passed multiple beaches with people out enjoying the warm weather. I had a tour of my new university, have seen many apartments, condos and rooms, and actually signed a lease for a one bedroom apartment! So although it has been stressful, waking up each morning checking Craigslist, real estate websites and driving around trying to find available housing, I have seen lots of different styles of living in different parts of town. And I have met lots of people along the way. Even though it didn’t work out with many of them, everyone has been incredibly friendly and very interested in the fact I am studying here on exchange. No one I have met so far has been to New Zealand, but they all want to visit. And many people from law school have offered to introduce me to people, give me the “inside scoop” or meet up for a coffee.

I have also eaten a lot of good food. It is crazy how meals are so big in the States that you can go to a Mexican restaurant, order a $10 meal, get free chips and salsa (refillable too!), and have a meal so big that you take more than half of it home for lunch and dinner the next day. It is ridiculous how big things here are. In WalMart, they had a pop tart box the size of my head. Pickles and jalapenos come in jars larger than my head. And you can buy family bags of 18 frozen burritos, or other frozen goods in huge bulk. And things are so cheap!! A bottle of vodka is only $11 from the local drugstore. I bought a Nine West laptop bag for $30. And you can buy a 1.5 L bottle of wine for $5. America is such a different world. But it is exciting.

And today I moved into my apartment. Granted, furniture does not arrive until tomorrow, and I don’t have my Internet, phone or TV installed until Wednesday, but I have keys! I have cutlery, wine glasses, a duvet cover and a small amount of groceries. It is in a big apartment building, with a beautiful pool, an in-house gym, sports room and business center, and is located in Little Italy, a really cool hip suburb with cute cafes and of course lots of Italian restaurants. There is a market every Saturday morning, which starts only 1 block away. There is a great gourmet grocery store nearby, and a British pub around the corner. And I will soon be all moved in! I am so excited about the market, there are so many stalls selling organic locally grown fruit and vegetables, fresh bread, pastries and lemonades. It is going to be a fun neighborhood to live in. As close to Wellington as I am going to get.

And despite the stress of trying to find a place to live, Mom and I sure have eaten well. When I was tossing up between studying in Singapore or studying in San Diego, it was also a toss-up between the food: yum cha and BBQ pork buns, or Mexican. And Mexican won. Of course America has a lot of other foods to offer, such as a hot dog on a stick, covered in artificially flavored blueberry pancake, in the frozen section, or a waffle breakfast sandwich from Jack in the Box (consisting of a fried egg, American cheese, and a sausage patty nestled between two lightly sweetened maple waffles). But it does have great Mexican food, alongside other delicious things such as crab, pulled pork and tender BBQ ribs. We ate the latter at a bar where part of Top Gun was filmed. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, we were sitting right by the piano that features in the film (I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t tell you the details of it or know the importance of the piano). Based on all the delicious food available here, it is pretty lucky that my apartment building has a gym, because otherwise I might return to NZ twice the size as when I left! Although I doubt that will happen. Californians seem incredibly healthy and health-conscious. Whole Foods, this fantastic grocery store, has a huge variety of marinated tofu and tempe, and a beautiful salad bar. So I can live a very healthy and wholesome lifestyle here. But then again…pop tarts just taste so good.

Rubio’s Mexican – A sustainable Alaskan wild salmon taco with Mexican rice and black beans.

And of course, BBQ. Baby back ribs with homemade onion rings at Kansas City BBQ, which features in Top Gun.

Joe’s Crab Shack at Pacific Beach

Beautiful Barcelona

The last stop on my world trip pre-San Diego was Barcelona. I only had three nights there, so tried to pack in as much as humanly possible. A girl from Amsterdam in my hostel was so impressed with what I did in a day – it was apparently more than she had done in a week!! Barcelona in July is wonderful – it was hot and sunny every day, with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants, people enjoying ice creams and granitas by the harbor, and going to the beach. It was full of tourists – both Spanish and international – which meant that I met so many interesting people in my hostel, from the States, the UK, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. The interesting thing was that everyone I met was on a short vacation – ranging from a weekend to three weeks. However in Asia, everyone was traveling for at least 3 months if not longer, so everyone in Barcelona could not believe that I was ‘traveling’ for the rest of the year. I just loved walking around the city, exploring and soaking in the culture.

There was a fabulous market in the middle of the old city off La Rambla, full of fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and even candy by the pound. There was a tapas bar where customers stood by the bar, ate tapas and drank wine. You could buy fresh fruit juices for 2 euro or different mixes of fruit for 1-3 euros. It was all pretty fabulous.

I just loved the historic buildings in Barcelona, they were so beautiful and so I took far too many photos of buildings and not nearly enough photos of people. On my first afternoon I did a free walking tour of the Old Town, where we saw the Placa Reial, Placa del Pi, the old Jewish quarter, government buildings, the Cathedral, the Roman City, Placa Sant Felip Neri (my favorite of the Placas, it was so hidden and secluded and quiet) and Santa Maria Del Mar. Our guide Katherine was very knowledgeable and I learnt so much about the city and saw so much that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I also attended two free concerts at the cathedral – both school groups, choral and orchestral, which were beautiful. Fantastic acoustics.

On my own, I explored Gaudi’s masterpieces, mainly the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. Park Guell was huge, and quite a trek. It was very busy, so much so that people who didn’t know each other were posing together with the mosaic lizard so they could have a photo with it. The view of Barcelona was very nice from up there, and after much waiting I finally managed to push through to the front and have another tourist take my photo.

The Sagrada Familia had a line that roped three-quarters of the way around the block, so I found a free wifi spot outside Starbucks and purchased tickets online, and only stood in a queue of five people! The church itself is still under construction, so there are cranes working and so the photos of the outside are slightly tainted with cranes towering over it. The design of the building is…interesting. People either find it beautiful or ugly. I was not taken by the design, especially of the exterior, but the interior was very impressive. It is spectacular, although it requires a lot of reading and analysis to understand the symbolism and design itself.

The thing I loved the most was the stained glass in the church. The organ pipes were directly in front of stained glass panels, and the light shone through the glass and formed a rainbow on the pipes.

I also discovered amazing food – the tapas were fantastic. Especially the style of tapas where you choose your own from a huge display of different plates, each individual tapa having a toothpick in it. As you eat, you put your toothpicks in a little bowl, and at the end you pay per toothpick! This style is known as ‘pintxos’, and I discovered a very busy and popular restaurant specializing in pintxos right by the Cathedral, called Bilbao Berria. There were over 50 plates, with such amazing range. Each toothpick was 1.65 euro, and a glass of red Spanish wine was only 2.50.

And now, having had three beautiful days in Barcelona, it is time for San Diego. I don’t know what to expect when I get there, but I am looking forward to it anyways. It is a bit scary, a new experience, living in a new city where I don’t know anyone, but I am sure I will love it nonetheless.

Cooking up a tropical storm in Hoi An

The trend of my blog thus far is to do a post per city. However I did a cooking class in Hoi An today and just had to share! There are so many cooking classes to choose from in Hoi An, with every restaurant and hotel seeming to offer one. However I decided to go with Van from Green Bamboo Cooking School, because she is highly rated on trip advisor and you cook in her own home with a small group (maximum 8 people). She has only been in business for about 1 1/2 years, but has had really positive reviews and because it is her business, she is very passionate about it. She also had a huge menu that you got to choose a dish from – which was great if there was one thing in particular you really wanted to learn to cook. I thought this was the most genuine of the classes and would be the most hands on. And boy it was.

We chose one dish each, I opted for fish in clay pot and el shrimp with lemon grass and chilli – both things we can make at home. However upon being picked up by the lovely Van, we were told that no one else was joining us – El and I were the only attendees. Private cooking class! And even better, we got to choose two more dishes. The final four ended up being:

  • Fish in clay pot (with garlic, chilli, ginger, tamarind and lemon grass);
  • Shrimps with chilli and lemon grass;
  • Cau lau, a Hoi An speciality, which involves noodles, herbs, bean sprouts, pork, fried noodle chips and an amazing marinade sauce that the pork is cooked in; and
  • A mixed salad of green mango, green papaya, banana blossom and lotus stem, with this beautiful yet simple dressing (lime, fish sauce, chili and garlic!)

Our day began with a trip to the central market, to buy all our ingredients. We wore the Vietnamese hats and followed Van as she navigated the small paths. We tasted all these fruits that we hadn’t tried, the most surprising was this fruit that looked like small potatoes but was actually really sweet inside. She showed us all the herbs and told us their names, and all the weird local fruits. We learnt about different types of chilli and garlic and bought fresh tamarind, which looks just like ginger!

Fresh vegetables for sale!

Women selling herbs at the market in Hoi An

We also tasted and bought banana blossom, one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. Before bananas grow, they cut down the big bunch (where the bananas would blossom), take out the leaves between the blossoms and then slice them super thin. For my salad, we also bought green mango and green papaya. Last foreign salad ingredient was lotus stem, which is a clear short stick, but if you look down the stem of it, it is hollowed out like a flower. Amazing. The market itself was so bustling, and everything was so fresh. The Vietnamese go shopping everyday for ingredients, and the meat is there only in the morning. Killed fresh that day. We bought all our meat there as well as our fruit and vegetables. Van knew where to go for the meat, and how to tell whether it was fresh or had been sitting there a while. She was really great, and answered all our questions. We even tried ‘che’, this sweet soup served on ice. The woman had about 6 different pots of different things, including sweet corn, lentils and beans, and poured a spoonful of each on ice. I was very skeptical, but it was actually delicious and I basically finished my glass!! Will be going back for some more tomorrow!

Banana blossom – for the green papaya salad

Lotus stem – for the green papaya salad

This is where we got our fish for the fish claypot

Duck eggs

A natural soap – you cook a handful in water, then drain it, and then have to wash your hair in the bucket of it, then wash it out – it takes a long time, but is a natural shampoo that many of the older generation in Vietnam still use

My first ‘che’ – a sweet mixed soup on ice, at the Central Market in Hoi An

After our market visit, we drove to Van’s house and got to work. The great thing about her class was that we actually did all the work – we prepared everything and cooked it all. Luckily, we didn’t have to clean up, but we did all the chopping and cutting, and I even cut all the fish out of the bones – got quite good at it by the end. Had nice little shaped pieces of fish, without any bones in it whatsoever!! We split the dishes so El and I had two each, and carried each out from beginning until end. She was there the whole time telling us what to do and helping us along the way. We got to cook with huge chopsticks, and I even got to use two pairs to toss the salad. One of my other favorite things was this little grater device, which you use to get the long thin strands of carrot, cucumber, papaya, mango, whatever! I always wondered how they got the strands like that, and now I know. And Van gave us one each to take home – brilliant!

Grated green mango and the magic grater!!

Hard at work in the kitchen of Green Bamboo Cooking School

Dipping sauce and salad dressing

Cooking my beautiful fish claypot

Sauteing the prawns in garlic, chilli and lemon grass

Soon it was all done, and we had four HUGE plates of food to share between the three of us. We really shouldn’t have eaten breakfast…

My beautiful creation

The mixed salad – green mango, green papaya, lotus stem, banana blossom, red cabbage, carrot, prawns, fried shallots, peanuts and the delicious spicy dressing

Prawns in chilli and lemon grass

Mmm fish claypot

Cau Lau

After all the amazing food, Van packed some up for us to take back to the hotel for dinner – although it is currently 7:45pm as I write this and I am still not hungry! It was a great meal, the food was absolutely sublime and full of fresh flavors. And I can’t believe we cooked it! I love to cook and I consider myself quite good, but this tasted and looked like restaurant quality. It made me want to stay in Vietnam even more, to never leave, and to just eat Vietnamese food every day. Van herself was wonderful company, and she had a beautiful home. It was a really special experience to cook in someone’s house and really get to know them, rather than simply learn to cook a few dishes in a sterile environment It really was such an amazing experience, and I am so glad I found her class online. We learnt so much, and even got a cookbook to take home so we can replicate some of the dishes. Some of them I won’t be able to make again – like the salad, due to lack of ingredients in New Zealand – but the pork in the cau lau, the prawns and the fish claypot I am sure I can make at home. Or at least try to – we can’t get fresh lemon grass in New Zealand, so lemon grass in a jar will have to do.

Passionfruit and a jelly made out of ginseng leaves – they are cooked and the water is drained, and when it cools it becomes gelatinous and is served with sugar on top!!

After eating we even found room for the jelly green thing – the ginseng leaf. It was very weird, but I decided it wasn’t too bad. It needed sugar though, and as I ate my way through it, I ran out of sugar. I was determined though to eat it all – so the last few bites were not overly enjoyable as the sugar had disappeared! It was just like jelly but oddly the taste made you want to chew it. It tasted just like tea – not green tea, not ginseng tea, just normal (Dilmah, in my case) tea. Just cold and in jelly form. I am glad I tried it, but I won’t be rushing out to eat it again!

Ready to eat!