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Shanghai Street Food #25 Fried Clover Pancakes: Nuòmǐ Căo Tóu 糯米草头

It’s pretty much been a back-to-back street food extravaganza here. In fact, did I cook anything over Chinese New Year? Perhaps not, but if I had actually done some cooking the recollection might have been knocked out of me by daily bouts of early morning firecrackers. Like this morning’s, literally, literally outside my door.

I can only say thanks to my kind neighbours, and go back to bed safe in the knowledge that they have inadvertently shown the Money God the door to my house and frightened all the bad spirits away. So thanks, really.

I definitely ate more than my fair share of street food over the Spring Festival break, both here in Shanghai and in Nanjing. And a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of showing hardcore street foodie Frank Kassell around Shanghai for a day of full-on street food consumption starting with deep-fried bread sticks (you tiao) and ending with Shanghai style fried rice via xiaolongbao and crispy scallion pancakes (cong you bing).

Frank is writing a street food guide to China, and while he’s on the road researching you can check out his progress at A Field Guide to Chinese Street Food.

But on to the actual street food, which I know is what you’re all here for. These crispy herbed fried cakes (nuòmǐ căo tóu  糯米草头) are a specialty of Nanxiang, home of xiaolongbao, but I’m including them here because Nanxiang is now a suburb of Shanghai (although in the olden days before elevated highways were invented it was a town in its own right).

Nuomi cao tou are made with glutinous rice flour (糯米) and very finely chopped cooked green vegetable (草头), flattened into small rounds and shallow-fried on a griddle until browned and crisp. They are justifiably famous in Nanxiang because they taste wonderful – crisp and salty on the outside, gooey and soft in the centre with a strong herb taste. And only 2 yuan (30 cents) each!

I’m a little stuck on what to call these in English, but after consulting dozens of websites and two reliable Shanghai foodie friends, I have settled on ‘fried clover pancakes’ because cao tou (literally grass head) is, according to them and google, actually a type of clover. Any further assistance from Chinese readers out there would be greatly appreciated.

The nuomi cao tou sellers cluster around the old street in Nanxiang, on both sides of a lovely canal, and also sell fried pumpkin patties and stinky tofu. After my last experience with stinky tofu I’m continuing to avoid it on the grounds that it might nauseate me. But the canal is lovely, with an old stone bridge and white-washed houses, and it’s only a hop, skip and jump from downtown Shanghai.
The Shanghai Street Food Series

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

Seven Must-Dos at Nanjing’s Lantern Fair

If you’re looking for buzz, excitement and a festival atmosphere, come to Nanjing! For the last few days I’ve been having a ball at the famed Nanjing Lantern Fair, where it seems everyone is celebrating Spring Festival (the first fifteen days of the Chinese New Year) in noisy and colourful style. 

We ended up in Nanjing largely by default, perhaps because it was the only destination we could get tickets to without sleeping overnight at Shanghai Railway Station. Please don’t feel unloved, Nanjing, because we had a great time! Spring Festival is the worst possible time to go anywhere in China you can’t get to by bicycle, with tickets at an absolute premium as everyone travels home to be with their families. 

At Spring Festival time Shanghai can feel a little like a ghost town – there’s a mass exodus of at least a third of its population, and everything is closed. Although the quietness makes for a nice change, it’s not how people imagine Chinese New Year to be – loud, exciting and buzzing with people. Nanjing, on the other hand, has atmosphere to spare with the Nanjing Lantern Fair bringing people from all over to the streets around the Confucius Temple. Here are seven reasons to get yourself there before the Lantern Fair ends on February 6.
1. See Some Lanterns
Nanjing’s Lantern Fair is a riot of colour and craziness, with all kinds of things you could never imagine fashioned into a lanterns. Cheerful bees. Drumming dragons. Giant candlesticks. It’s all here, and runs every night until the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year, February 6, the day also known as the official Lantern Festival. 

You can find the action in and around the Confucius Temple area, along with a worrying number of fire trucks and firefighters in bright orange jumpsuits, pump packs strapped to their backs and surrounded by extinguishers. I guess ‘be prepared’ is a good motto when you’re surrounded by thousands of metres of temporary wiring.

For a really great view, take one of the pleasure boats from the dock opposite the temple and cruise the canals decked with amazing lantern arches.

2. Try Your Luck on the Money Tree
Well, actually this tree standing outside the entrance of the Confucius Temple is correctly called the ‘Tree of Health and Wellbeing’, but we all know that what everyone wants more than anything else is to be wealthy. Why else are the leaves painted gold? 
The aim of the game is to stand underneath the tree and throw a red-ribboned ‘wish’ up into its gilded leaves so that it sticks there. Ribbons can be purchased nearby (everyone knows you have to spend money to make money, right?)

3. Buy a Battery-Operated Musical Dragon
Or a dragon balloon, or a dragon lantern. But you gotta have a dragon to carry around through the crowds in this, the Year of the Dragon, and the larger and more unwieldy it is the better. These fellas play a cheerfully unrecognizable tinny tune and light up fiercely when you flick the switch, and they last about as long as a toy from inside a cereal packet, but hey, would it be a carnival novelty if the novelty didn’t wear off? Or wear out? Or give you a small electric shock?

4. Eat Something Sweet’n’Sticky on a Stick
Bing Tang Hu Lu 冰糖葫芦, these irresistable shiny red treats, are Chinese toffee apples made with red hawthorns covered in a crisp layer of red toffee. The hawthorns, or haws (山楂 shānzhā)  look like apples, but taste quite sour and are a perfect match for the crispy toffee which shatters into sticky shards when you bite into it. You’ll probably still be picking pieces off your coat the following day but these are seriously good. Plus, they have small seeds you can spit on the pavement and feel really authentically Chinese as you do so.

Or have some regular old cotton candy (miánhuā táng, known to me as fairy floss) or an amazingingly intricate toffee version of your Chinese zodiac animal made on the spot by a toffee artist.
5. Visit the Confucius Temple

If you’re looking for a  a quiet and spiritual experience away from the press of the crowds, don’t go into the Confucius Temple grounds during Lantern Fair because it’s a riotous continuation of what’s happening outside with the additional attraction of puppet shows, musical performances, and a whole lot more lanterns depicting famous scholars and pals of Confucius.
6. Buy Yourself a Lantern
The Lantern Fair is where all of Nanjing’s lantern makers show off their wares, and from 10 yuan you can have your own handmade lotus, rabbit or dragon lantern in every possible colour. I’ve still got the ones I bought two years ago. Put a tealight inside for night-time use.

7. Make a Balloon Seller’s Day

It’s compulsory to purchase a balloon at the Lantern Fair, judging by the sheer number and variety of novelty balloon items for sale. So make a balloon seller’s day and buy a whole flotilla of them – there aren’t many opportunities in the year for balloon sellers to make a lot of money, and the Lantern Fair is the pinnacle of their balloon-selling bell curve .
Balloon bunch of grapes? Balloon backpack? Balloon Sponge Bob? Go on, you know you want one, and if it hadn’t been for a bright blue Angry Birds balloon I might still be searching for my two children in the crowd.

Nanjing Lantern Fair
Every day and night until February 6 (incl)
Confucius Temple Area
G trains run every hour from Shanghai Railway Station, 90 minutes. 
220 yuan adults, 110 yuan children.

Shanghai Tang Cafe: Refined Dim Sum

Would it come as a delightful surprise that Shanghai Tang, the Chinese luxury brand founded in Hong Kong, have a cafe in Shanghai where every weekend, you can eat a deliciously sophisticated all-you-can-eat dim sum brunch for less than twenty dollars a head? Shanghai Tang Cafe is sleek and gorgeous, with an interior like a black enamel jewel box and tables set with plates and glassware from Shanghai Tang’s own vibrant homewares range, but expensive it isn’t. Shanghai is full of great food secrets once you know where to find them. 
Walk past the giant pink rabbits flanking the door (replaced yesterday, I am told, with pink dragons), take your place at a lacquered table by the window, and your waiter will bring you a dim sum menu. Sorry, menu? Philistine that I am, and accustomed to years of cheap and cheerful Cantonese style yum cha in Australia, the concept of ordering dim sum from a menu comes as something of a culture shock. 
Used to feasting with the eyes as the trolleys trundle past, I realised I might need some help with Shanghai Tang Cafe’s choice of no less than thirty-six different dim sum dishes. Our waiter helped us decide on a substantial number of them to share between four, adding a level of complexity and balance to the meal I wouldn’t have managed by kidnapping whatever looks the most appealing from a trolley. 

Over the next hour the dishes appeared at a leisurely eating pace, meandering from simple Shanghai staples like scallion oil noodles(cōng yóu bàn miàn 葱油拌面)and the famous xiăo lóng bāo (小笼包)to traditional favourites like old-fashioned Shanghai smoked fish (lăo Shànghăi xūn yú 老上海熏鱼)I love this smoked fish – pieces of smoked river fish crisply fried then smothered in a thick, sweet dark soy syrup. Superb with the tangy vinegared cucumber pieces served alongside.

The menu has been designed by chef Jereme Leung, and it shows in the presentation of dishes like these spectacular chryanthemum spring rolls (jú huā zhá chūn juăn 菊花炸春卷), with dozens of fragile crisp petals radiating out from a traditional spring roll filling in the flower’s stem. Just brilliant.

We continued with ridiculously delicious crispy garlic shrimp, siu mai dumplings topped with Yunnan ham, steamed pork ribs with a delicate clear plum sauce,  savoury crispy fried long beans, and braised duck breast. They even served my own favourite guilty pleasure – home-style fried radish cake with a salty chili sauce(fēng wèi luóbo gāo 风味萝卜糕)here served in small cubes with gently stir-fried leeks and beansprouts. Classy street food.

Although by now we were all fit to burst, I had saved a tiny, tiny corner for a desert that caught my eye on the menu. Black sesame dumplings in ginger soup (jiāng chá hēi zhī tāngyuán 姜茶黑芝汤圆)tasted as perfect as they looked – sweet soft sticky rice dumplings filled with smooth nutty black sesame paste and served in a hot ginger broth. Even if you manage to eat your way through every dim sum dish on the menu, make sure to save room for this perfect last dish. 
Shanghai Tang Cafe

Levels 2 and 3, 333 Huangpi Nan Lu
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner
Ph +86  21 6377 3333
Dim Sum Brunch every Saturday and Sunday from 11am 
118 yuan ($20) per person, all you can eat.

The Year of the Dragon. In Red.

Best wishes for health and prosperity for everyone in the Year of the Dragon! As I walked through Yu Gardens this week watching the frenzied preparations to hang thousands of lanterns for the coming Lunar New Year tomorrow night, everywhere I looked was the same strong, vibrant Chinese red. 
Red symbolizes happiness in Chinese culture and is always the colour of joy and celebrations. It inspired me to find all my favourite red images from the last year, from all corners of China (I really covered some ground!) and put them together for you. Enjoy!
L: washing seats, Shanghai stadium
R: Drum Tower, Xi’an
Sliding sled seats sit on a frozen lake, Beijing
L: A small boy sits outside his mother’s hairdressing shop, Miao village
R: Lucky red underwear for New Year, Tongli
Cheap wigs, Qibao

L: Opera singer, Tongli
R: Night chicken feet and giblet vendor, Qian Dao Hu
Toffee strawberries, hawthorns and other fruits for sale, Nanjing
L: Peek into a Chinese home, Tongli
R: lanterns for sale at Shanghai’s Commodities Market

Bicycles, Shanghai. ‘Standard Integration, Transparent Operation’
L: Elderly worshipper, Longhua Temple Shanghai
R: Elderly early adopter with mobile phone and mountain bike, Beijing

L: Travelling home for Chinese New Year, Shanghai Railway Station
R: Transport for a family of four Kyrgyz, Lake Karakul
Dancing Miao women, Langde
L: Temple deity, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan
R: Young Kyrgyz girl near Tashkurgan

Hundreds of single votives hung together to create the character shou 寿 ‘long life’, Tongli temple
L: Scented handmade decorations for Dragon Boat Festival, Shanghai
R: Sweet peanut cake, Xian
Temple, Nanjing
L: Carefully painted fire hydrant, Shanghai
R: Gate to the old city, Lijiang

Pair of ancestor paintings, Tongli

L: Tiny carved wooden deity, Qibao
R: meat for sale at the wet market, Shanghai

Firecracker Seller, Nanchang Lu, Shanghai
L: A tour group of workers from a costume factory in Northern China dress up in cabaret costumes whilst visiting a small Miao ethnic village. No, I have no idea why.
R: Prayers at the Confucius Temple, Shanghai

Unbridled joy on a battery-operated wheelie horse, main square, Kaili
Gong Xi Fa Cai!


Happy New Year! Congratulations, and be prosperous!

Charcuterie Ducks, Eels, and Kidneys: Chinese New Year is Coming!

Well, if there are rows of flayed ducks lining the streets, then it must be Chinese New Year. The whole city has been transformed into an enormous outdoor charcuterie – every footpath is lined with makeshift wooden frames covered with the oddly attractive looking bodies of drying ducks, head and feet intact, tiny ribcages on display. The ducks are tagged around the neck or one webbed foot with the name of the purchaser so that when they’re ready (five or six days, in cold dry weather) they can be collected.

Look up as you walk and instead of ducks you’ll see doorstop-sized hunks of pork, soaked in brine and drying in the cold winter air, pierced with bent wire coathangers and hung alongside the week’s washing.

There is a terrific do-it-yourself aspect to all of this – just the same way my mother still makes her own Christmas puddings every year, many families in Shanghai follow in an age-old tradition and make their own dried goods for Chinese New Year.

Back in Shanghai watching the Chinese New Year preparations hot up, I can tell you there is a world of dried meat involved. I’ve been trawling the internet for hours trying to get to the bottom of the whole dried fish, dried duck, dried pork, dried sausage and dried chicken thing, but needless to say there will be thousands of years of tradition and a deep degree of symbolism behind it, much more than I could ever understand. I guess it tastes pretty good too.

The fish I can understand, because the word for fish (鱼 yú) sounds just the same as the word for prosperity or surplus (余 yú). So you should eat some fish, not all of it mind, and you’ll be sure to have a surplus of wealth in the new year. The favoured fish around town is an alarming looking giant eel, split neatly down the middle, flattened like a skateboard and strung up on a clothes rail in the street to dry, like an enormous sharply toothed silver sail.

My neighbours, previouly unknown to me as charcuterie experts, have been drying ham and stuffing their own strings of Chinese sausage for weeks now, draped over their balcony rails or hung neatly under their air-conditioning unit for protection. I’m unsure what kind of protection the exhaust vent from an airconditioner box offers, exactly, but it is a neat place to hang stuff. 

The sausage is pleasingly attractive, all knobbly with hunks of meat and large pieces of fat. The butcher shops have taken to hanging theirs in festive red and white garlands strung between telephone poles or conveniently placed trees outside their shops, where the passing traffic can see their wares and the sausage can catch a few fumes for extra flavour.

What I really love though, are the ducks. The first time you walk outdoors and see the weirdly flattened shovel shape of a drying duck it is rather confronting to those of us accustomed to having our smallgoods prepared out of sight and away from inclement weather. 

Why outdoors? Well, I suppose it’s partly a question of space, and finding somehwere with good airflow – the charcuterie experts among you will know about that. If there was plenty of space to be had in a city of twenty million people, why would you decide to hang your ducks under a high-voltage transformer to dry, for instance? One short-circuit and…..boom! Charcoal.

Next to the ducks hang funny little strings of baubles, but on closer inspection they turn out to be drying hearts, kidneys and livers, out of reach of the neighbourhood cats. Not a thing is wasted, everything can be rendered tasty.

My Chinese friends tell me that seeing ducks and eels out to dry is the seasonal equivalent, for them, of seeing Christmas trees appear in the shops for us. It means a time of delicious food and togetherness is coming and you can feel the goodwill and excitement building out on the streets. In less than a week, families will come together, cook wonderful meals and share the news of the last year with each other. And some dried eel.

What’s The Most Exciting Meal You’ve Eaten in the Last Year?

For me, it has to be this one, from extraordinary wine bar and restaurant Garagistes in Hobart. I’ve eaten hundreds of lip-smacking meals this past year, but this one was by far the most exciting. Why? Well, for a start, other than the egg yolk (duck, free-range) how many of the other ingredients on the plate do you even recognize?  There were grilled spring onions topped with shaved kohlrabi ribbons, nettle sauce, lovage and toasted quinoa. A sensation of tastes and textures.
Chef Luke Burgess (ex Tetsuya’s, Sydney and Noma, Copenhagen) and partners Katrina Birchmeier and Kirk Richardson ‘celebrate produce sourced from many local growers, fishermen and farmers’, including wild and native Australian ingredients sourced very locally and cooked in combinations of flavour and texture that will have you applauding their harmony. 
I read about Garagistes some months ago and mentally filed it away for future reference, not thinking for a second I would get there from Shanghai. Then a Christmas invitation to Bruny Island turned up and a flight scheduling glitch just before New Year meant we had a whole free evening to ourselves in Hobart – clearly, it was a meal that was meant to be!
Arriving at the airy converted garage space, we took the last seats at one of four long communal heavy wooden tables and waited to see what had been prepared for the night – the menu varies according to what’s good, local, fresh and tasty. 
The meal began with an exquisite flower-scattered potato crostini with braised onion, smoked potato mousse, and herbs and flowers – shiso leaves, and a tiny spray of fennel leaves. The aniseed flavour of the fennel with the smoky potato, combined with the fragile crunch of the crisp potato crostini was a delightful start to the meal.

At Garagistes they do all their own curing and smoking, like the slivers of eel in this dish of quivering quail eggs, onion fondue, crispbread and potato, with oxalis leaves. I had no idea the oxalis leaves, something growing in every Australian backyard, had the most intense lemon flavour, a great contrast to the rich smoky oiliness of the eel. 
All the dishes are designed to be part of a shared meal, communal style, so you can choose five or six dishes (or seven or eight!) and enjoy a taste, a glass, a carafe or bottle of wine from the exhaustive list of natural and organic wines from Tasmania and beyond. Not a wine drinker? There’s a whole lot of interesting sake to choose from. The only small disappointment of the night was the lack of non-alcoholic drinks for the non-drinkers and younger diners. 
The next dish, a salad of raw bonito, salted courgettes, sea urchin and pinenut emulsion with plump sweet currants, had a deep briney flavour lent by the sea-urchin emulsion.
And this plate. It fills me with vegetable delight! A forest of baby heirloom carrots with fresh young almonds, wild olives, saffron, and caramelised yoghurt. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful? The caramelised yoghurt was sensational, rich and creamy, with a slick of olive oil and the soft crunch of the sweet white almonds.  

At the recommendation of our waiter we also tried the daily special, a dish of the most spankingly fresh grilled flathead tails served simply with pesto. Salty, sweet, with crunchy grilled skin, it was so fresh it must have presented itself straight from the ocean to the door of Garagiste’s kitchen. There’s no photograph because the fish was already gone before the plate hit the table.

Desert can sometimes be a disappointment when the menu runs to only two choices, but at Garagistes we had already had so much spectacular food we trusted the deserts would be equally good. We ordered both. The first to arrive was a melange of kunzea (an Australian native plant) ice cream, strawberries, raspberries, pepper meringue, and lemon basil cream. It sounds like a mash-up but there was a beatiful symphony between the lemon basil ice-cream and the slight peppery, minty flavour of the kunzea.
The last dish to arrive was the absolute standout of the night. Burnt cream, buttery shortcake, citrus meringue, rhubarb granita and gooseberry jelly with tiny leaves and flowers. The sharp shards of the rhubarb granita melted instantly in the mouth with a burst of rhubarb acidity, along with the soft, sweet and sour gooseberry jelly. It was wonderful. I have an intense taste memory of this dish and I hope to get the chance to eat it again someday. To me, it tasted of Tasmania’s summer.
In short, Garagistes was everything an exciting meal should be. The service, relaxed and attentive, meant all your senses could focus on the food, with its sublime combinations, innovative wild ingredients and contrasting textures. It’s worth a trip to Tasmania to eat there. 

Where did you eat your most exciting meal of the last year? Details!

103 Murray Street
Phone +61 3 6231 0558

Beachcombing, Rockhopping, Freewheeling

Sea urchins are an amazing piece of natural architecture, arent they? These beautiful photos were taken while beach-combing on Bruny Island, jumping from rock to rock and discovering tiny hidden worlds within a single rock pool. I’d planned a lovely post to go with them about going slow and taking time to get lost in the small, beautiful things in life…..but instead I’m cramming like crazy for my last Chinese exam tomorrow morning. I’ll let you know how I go. In the meanwhile, the sentiment is here in pictures……

Bruny Legends

I may be back in Shanghai but I haven’t quite finished with Tasmania yet – I have a couple more fantastic posts to bring to you from this gorgeous place in Australia bursting with good food! Today, let me introduce Bruny Island’s most interesting couple, John and Penny Smith.
Sometimes life throws you an amazing coincidence and you just need to make of it what you will. A few weeks back I received an email from a reader, Penny, who had recently travelled through China and asked if she could use some photographs from my Xian Street Food posts for her own blog, BrunyFirePower. That’s a coincidence, I thought, we’re off to Bruny in a few weeks – I wonder whether her website has anything to do with Australia’s Bruny Island? 
A few clicks later and it became clear this was one and the same Bruny Island. A few emails later and it emerged there were only three degrees of separation between us, with many friends and colleagues in common in the world of public art my husband inhabits. I don’t inhabit that world, being rather poorly equipped on the art side of things, but it transpired Penny was also a passionate foodie(of course!) and environmentalist.
Being the lovely person she is, Penny invited us to visit her Bruny Island home when we were there last week for a cup of tea and some fruit mince pies. Yes please! 
Blogging, as fellow bloggers will know, can be quite a solitary process, and it’s always exciting to meet someone in person you have connected with through your blog. I know all my readers are hugely interesting people (you are!) with a deep passion for food and wide-ranging interests in the world at large, and it’s great to meet someone who embodies all of that. Penny is an incredibly talented ceramic artist, with works in major galleries and private collections around Australia, and was previously head of the Ceramics Studio and the Ceramic Research Unit at the University of Tasmania, but she also has fosters a passion for clay cooking techniques and cooking vessels from around the world. 
She and her husband John live in an idyllic corner of Bruny Island, right on the water and surrounded by towering gumtrees. Their incredible dome house, designed and built entirely themselves, resembles a lunar module resting gently on the earth, but in fact this dome dwelling is in perfect tune with its surroundings. Fully ‘off-grid’, it has solar power, rainwater tanks to supply their own needs and extra for fighting bushfires, and has a completely self-contained waste system. 

The inside of the house is as compact as a ship with every single feature beautifully designed and handcrafted, from the clever roll-away ladder to the loft, to the compact upstairs kitchen under the dome. Shelves are laden with clay cooking vessels from all over the world – Thaoland, South America, China and beyond.
John, a talented craftsman and accomplished furniture designer (he was previously Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for Furniture Design at the University of Tasmania), has shown his skill in every clever detail.  Outside is a deck with an amazing view over the bay, and a garden dotted with artworks like the View Finder, above, created for Sculpture by the Sea
The thing I’m most jealous of though, is the outdoor kitchen, where roasts, wood-fired pizzas and more come out of the oven, and the nearby fire pit where Penny indulges her passion for cooking with clay. Penny explains that she has always been besotted with clay and with cooking.
“Cooking with clay came together gradually.  Cooking food and cooking clay are both magical processes, whereby the alchemical changes that occur in both, render, in the case of food – the often poisonous to the palatable and in the case of clay from the porous to the permanent. “

On her recent travels through China Penny found “several regions….that have very distinctive clay pot making and cooking traditions that reflect the region through its pots and its food.  One of these days, I intend to return and visit them…..” 
In the meantime, Penny recently tackled Hangzhou’ famous but difficult Beggar’s Chicken, a whole chicken stuffed with herbs and ham, wrapped in a lotus leaf then in a layer of clay and slow-cooked in its hardening clay ‘pot’ until it falls apart, all the delicious juices remaining trapped inside. When you read Penny’s Bruny version of making this dish, you begin to realize the depth of her interest in cooking with clay. For starters, she digs the clay herself from the ground and tends the fire for hours until the chicken is cooked just so!

I found over the course of a long sunny afternoon, tea and fruit mince pies followed by local Tasmanian beer and cheese from the Bruny Island Cheese Company, that Penny and I share many of the same views about the joys of regional and seasonal food. 
She says “what is really inspirational is that cooking with clay and cooking food both reflect the seasons – making pots (particularly in the traditional vlllages that still make clay pots to cook in on an open fire) require the right weather conditions and the foods that are cooked in them reflect what is available at the time.” It’s what we’re all thinking – food is always best when it’s in season, and cooked close to the source.
Catch Penny’s further adventures in cooking with fire and clay at BrunyFirePower

See John Smith’s exquisite furniture at

And to my Penny and all my other readers – I look forward to sharing tea and dumplings with you anytime you’re passing through Shanghai!

2012. My Year of Maximum China.

Firstly, a big smiling Happy New Year to every single one of you! My hope is that 2012 will bring all of us a year of good friends, good food, and a lot of laughter! 
2012 will likely be my last year in China, a situation I have very mixed feelings about – I miss home and family, I miss the breathable quality of overseas air, and the Australian wilderness, but I have an extraordinarily interesting and colourful life here in China that will be hard to let go. Not to mention the noodles
There’s no escaping it though – our older daughter begins high school in Australia at the start of 2013, and we promised we would return home before that date, although we never imagined we would be living in China right up until then!
As a way of fending off any imagined future regrets, I plan to pack as much of China – its food, its countryside, its people – into the coming twelve months as possible. The major manifestation of this plan is a crazy scheme that first gripped me some six months ago and I haven’t been able to shake it off since. You know it’s a good idea when it gives you a sick, terrifying feeling in the guts every time you think about it. 
So here it is. We will take a Chinese truck, or a minibus, or some kind of campervan-like vehicle, and transform it into a fully-equipped home on wheels, replete with sleeping, cooking and coffee-making facilities, then spend the last six months of 2012 roaming around the remoter backroads of China. What do you think? 
Personally, I think it’s a bloody crazy idea but you can’t deny it has enormous appeal. Even crazier, the rest of the family has come on board with it, after some initial misgivings about whether there would be Western-style breakfast cereal and the capability of recharging electronic devices on the road.
It will be a hugely HUGE undertaking, mostly because we are breaking relatively new ground – recreational vehicles don’t really exist in China, necessitating making a sort of custom-built home-made frankencampervan of our own, complete with comfortable bedding and privacy curtains. 
Camping of any kind is pretty much unheard of, and the last time I saw anyone in a tent in China, it had been erected by the staff of a three star hotel on the adjacent concrete basketball court, with use of hotel facilities included in the tent price. There are no camping grounds, no trailer parks, and no laybys with nearby toilet facilities. 
So I’m calling 2012 our year of Maximum China, a fully immersive experience of seeing and eating our way through as much of China as possible, with our own twist. As 2012 looms excitingly ahead, instead of looking back on the year in review as I’ve done before, I’m looking to the year ahead and what it might hold, both in the short term and the long term, in travel planning terms. 
Here’s what I predict for the coming year of Maximum China:
1.  I will pass my Chinese exams next week, motivated by the desire to avoid being the first student over forty to fail and the need to speak enough Chinese to cover vehicle breakdowns and other minor emergencies. Although I wish the teachers had given me a lot more warning about the 100 word written essay at the end of the Chinese test, because my essay will consist of twenty characters I can write from memory, and a lot of blank spaces. (But – I have a cunning plan to copy any vocabulary that might be useful from the rest of the exam paper and paste it into my essay, although this may not work out so well:
On my holidays, my family and I visited the…bank to make a credit card application. At the…bank…was a lot of…lovely scenery…and we…completed the application form…while…climbing a mountain.  That day the…weather report predicted rain…but we…waited for the application to be approved.  The End.)
2. The ratio of Chinese:Western meals my family is willing to eat will decrease from 1:3 to 1:10 by year’s end, decreasing exponentially with time spent on the road away from supermarkets full of Western food in Shanghai. I will be forced to resort to making them congee for breakfast when we run out of cereal. They will hate this.
3. I will pass my Chinese driver’s license test without having to bribe any officials, or have a Chinese stand-in named ‘Fay-ah-na’ sit the test on my behalf, for a pre-arranged fee.
4. We will finaly get to visit Tibet, provided there are no more monk self-immolations in 2012.
5. My iphone app, the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour for Crimson Bamboo, despite being extremely niche, will go totally viral on release causing the entire Chinese internet to collapse and making me an overnight app millionaire. (The first part of this prediction is entirely true – I’ve been working on this exciting project with Crimson Bamboo, authors of cool travel apps for history lovers, for the launch of a new range of travel apps for food lovers. It’s released in two weeks, and I’ll tell you more closer to the time. The latter part of the prediction? Well, dreaming’s OK, isn’t it?)
6. The hare-brained travelling campervan scheme will take more money, wits, patience and cunning than I currently possess, but because I’m not a quitter I will make everyone’s life hell as I try to source solar-powered portable water heating and a compostible travelling toilet in a country that hasn’t yet heard of camping.
7. Eighteen will be the number of times my husband will tell me we can just hire a car and sleep in hotels with actual beds instead of campervanning our way around the country.
8. Eighteen will be the number of times I reply something along the lines of ‘bugger off’ to his very sensible suggestion. Although sometimes I will really, really want to give in.
9. China will finally get high-speed internet just as I leave the country, and I’ll be really pissed off because I never got to experience the thrill of uploading a photo in under ten minutes.
10. After six months of travelling rough crammed into a home-made campervan my children will probably hate me, but when they’re forty-five they’ll tell their kids it was the best holiday they ever had. I hope. 
There you have it, my 2012 Maximum China predictions. Let’s see how many come true……..