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Sweet Almond Jelly

What’s the loveliest thing to eat when it’s hot, steamy and humid outside? Summer is having a final gasp here, even though at times I think I can smell the first breaths of autumn on the early evening breeze.
When the weather’s close and humid like this I love to eat jelly, soft, slippery, cold and sweet. This recipe for Chinese almond jelly, flavoured with sweetened condensed milk, has a fresh and delicate flavour and takes all of five minutes to make. It calls for agar-agar, which you can find easily in Chinese food stores, and almond powder – more difficult to track down but almond essence can be substituted instead.  Once cold cut the jelly into little diamonds, pour over some coconut milk and eat it with fresh fruit and a dainty spoon. 
Sweet Almond Jelly  
Serves 6-8
Ingredients
  • 5g agar-agar strands
  • 500ml water
  • 100g white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon almond powder (substitute 1 tsp almond essence)
  • 4 desertspoons condensed milk
  • sliced fresh fruit and coconut milk to serve

Method
  • heat water and add agar-agar strands, stir until dissolved
  • Add sugar, stir until dissolved
  • Add almond powder and condensed milk, stir to combine
  • Pour into a flat baking tray and refrigerate until firm
  • Slice diagonally into small diamond shapes and gently spoon out into a bowl
  • Serve with coconut cream or water and sliced fruit

Devastation – Brisbane Floods

I know today I promised to write about Shanghai, but I’ve come back to Shanghai to find that my hometown of Brisbane, in Australia, is experiencing its worst ever natural disaster – a severe flood of enormous magnitude. Experts are saying the damage done is four times greater than that wreaked by hurricane Katrina in the USA. Australia, despite its beauty, is a harsh country, and in addition to recent severe droughts, Brisbane has been flooded badly twice before – the river that lies at the city’s heart overflowed its banks in 1893 and again in 1974. I was five years old then, and all I remember of it is the endless, endless rain, but my parents memories and warnings of that time have punctuated my life ever since.
 ‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to live there, it went under in ’74’ were the often repeated words from my mother whenever I looked at a house to rent, or later to buy. As a result, my house sits on a hill, far from the river’s side where I would love to live. Today, as the river reached its flooding peak, I’m extremely grateful for her advice.  
For the last month, it has done little else in Brisbane but rain. Tropical downpours are common enough in the summer months of December, January and February, but this rain was more relentless and persistent until gradually the ground all over Queensland became completely saturated, and all the dams filled to overflowing. The thin blue river, winding through every part of the city, has become a bloated fast-flowing brown torrent. Large parts of the state of Queensland, of which Brisbane is the capital, have been under flood in the last two weeks, with an area involved larger than France and Germany combined. Now that massive body of water has moved, and in combination with fresh heavy rain new areas have flooded, some devastatingly so. The little town of Grantham, not far from Brisbane, was literally swept away when an inland tidal wave of water, a flash flood, picked up houses and cars and washed them downstream. Fifteen people are dead and another sixty are still missing, in a flood area that now surpasses that of Texas and California combined. The scope of the devastation is terrifying, and the rebuilding and clean-up will take months, if not years.
House and car in Grantham, washed away.
At a time like this it’s terrible to be away from home, and to know that your friends are going through such a frightening event. I wish I was there to lend a hand, lend a bed, lend a shoulder. You are all constantly in my thoughts, and I wish for all of you to be safe.

These are my local shops back home, normally about 1.5km from the river.
Photos from the Brisbane Times
Information available at The Courier Mail, where donations to the Queensland Flood Appeal can also be given.

Leaving Scotland

Today I leave Scotland behind, with its snow, and head back to Shanghai, in fact by the time you read this I’ll already be there.  Scotland is truly magnificent, with its wild countryside, clean waters and pure air, and the country has become acutely aware of just how valuable and precious their local food culture is, with so many more restaurants and shops stocking locally sourced produce than the last time I visited. My imaginary food suitcase would be full of Scottish salmon, smoked mackerel, Orkney cheeses, oatcakes, rich Scottish cream, a MacSween’s haggis, Edinburgh tablet (a type of fudge) and litres of pure, fresh water straight from Highland springs. (Actually, don’t tell Chinese customs but my suitcase contans almost all these things, except for the cream and the mackerel.) 
Edinburgh in winter is in full gothic splendor, with the dark stone spire of the Scot monument rising up in front of the ancient castle, perched above the town on a craggy outcrop at the top of the Royal Mile with its cobbled streets and narrow closes. The short winter days, with their lovely soft light, begin well into the day, and by mid-afternoon the twilight has already begun, with soft pink shadows stretching over the snow.  I’ll leave you with some photographs, and see you back in the East tomorrow.

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 17 Everything Goes Better With Snow

Is it childish to get ridiculously excited by snow? Coming from
the tropics means I never get to experience falling snow at home, and last winter’s snow in Shangai was a bit underwhelming at best – just a few scattered flakes here and there. But the night before last it really, really snowed. Well, at least for a snow novice like myself it seemed like it was really snowing, but all the hardened New England and Toronto expats just snorted and said ‘You call that snow?? Every year in (insert hometown) it gets 10 feet deep and you have to dig yourself out of the front door every morning.’ OK, I get it.  So yes, it wasn’t much snow, and it arrived late afternoon while I was stuck indoors having a haircut, and as desperately as I wanted to get out and take photos for you I would have looked ridiculous in a cape with clingfilm wrapped round my head. By the morning the snow was almost all gone. But for a short few hours, everything looked so beautiful….snow seems to improve the appearance of almost everything – fire hydrants, phone boxes, bicycles and street lights all look better with a layer of snow. There are, however, some things even snow can’t fix, like the demon car-driving santa and the strange pointy-eared snowman that appeared in my lane with a colander on its head….

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas Dec 13 Prepare for Hibernation

Could it have been any wetter today? Could the day have started any more miserably, darker or colder? Winter is surely on its way, although according to the government winter hasn’t even officially begun, and won’t begin until we have five days below 10 degrees. Shanghai, meantime, can’t decide what it’s doing – I mean, there’s blizzards and such in the UK, and parts of North America, but two days ago it was a kind of balmy 20 degrees, and I sat outside drinking coffee and admiring the falling leaves on Anfu Lu. Well, it couldn’t last, and today the first day of our cold snap arrived, with a steel-grey sky, ice-edged wind, cold, cold rain and more leaves falling than the street-sweepers could possibly keep up with. Winter is coming, sometime soon, and there are preparations going on everywhere for the cold times ahead.  Take this guy…he’s already into the turtlenecks and quilted winter street pyjamas. And there’s also….

….furry motorbike hand warmers are appearing back on handlebars…..

….and knitted bike seat-covers, good for keeping your rear warmed….
…despite supermarkets and such, lots of Shanghai locals like to preserve their own winter food stores – 
fish heads, chickens, bits of ham, sausages…..conveniently located right outside your window and next to the power lines…..

And everyone is taking advantage of the last bits of sun to air the winter bedding……
….or just sit outside and enjoy themselves. As soon as the sun comes back out, I’m joining him.

Sweet Osmanthus



Osmanthus – guì huā 桂花 . It should be called Sweet Blossom of Heaven or something like that, because the tiny gold flowers of the osmanthus tree have the most unforgetable scent, an impossible combination of apricots and roses. The flowering of the osmanthus always signals the start of autumn in Shanghai, although I missed the official autumn start while I was in Qian Dao Hu last week.  

In China, the Weather Bureau Guys in their climate controlled offices have the seasons all sorted out. For autumn to arrive, for example, they wait until the temperature has dropped to below 25 degrees for five days in a row, then they make the season ‘official’. In Qian Dao Hu, and Beijing, and Xinjiang, autumn will come at a completely different time according to their weather bureau guys. Don’t you love it? Season by committee. 

Anyway, back to the osmanthus. I have been stealing out under cover of darkness to pick branches of the golden yellow flowers for drying. So far undiscovered by the lane guard, I think. The flowers can be steeped in tea, or jelly, or my favourite – cream. They fill the house with their delicious scent, slowly fading as they dry. Whenever I smell osmanthus now it will take me back to early autumn days with just a touch of crisp coolness in the air. I’m not very poetic but here is a lovely 3 lines from Song Dynasty poet Liu Yong. 

Layers of lakes reflect the peaks and serene towers

Autumn fragrances linger with osmanthus flowers

Ten thousand li of blooming lotus

重湖疊清嘉      
有三秋桂子  
十裏荷花
Liu Yong 987-1053

Waiting for Typhoon Kompasu. Still.

It all started late last night with an excited and nervous phone call from my landlord. ‘Typhoon!’ he said, ‘Tonight!’. ‘Or tomorrow morning…’ he qualified. ‘Biiiiig rain. Big, big, big wind! Be careful about the water!’ he warned.


I don’t blame him for being a little gun shy – while I was home in Australia the house had a slight internal waterfall issue during a typical Shanghai afternoon deluge. Thanks to a pot plant I left covering the drain on the roof terrace. The water couldn’t go down the drain, and it had to go somewhere, so it came indoors, in a big rush, forcing the upstairs door open then running spectacularly down three flights of stairs to the office on the ground floor. It took three days for the wiring to dry out enough to stop short-circuiting every time a light was turned on. 

But a typhoon – exciting! We don’t have typhoons in Australia – well we do, but they’re called cyclones. And I’ve been near enough of those to know it’s not all beer and skittles when your tin roof is blowing off and cricket ball-sized hailstones are smashing the windows. But a part of me loves an impressive display of weather, especially if observed from inside a waterproof house. Bring it on, I thought. 

View from the typhoon bunker, 9am

So I waited. Overnight very little happened.A few spots of rain. No howling winds. No torrential downpours. I even brought all the outdoor chairs and smaller plants inside. At 7am, expecting a boiling, black sky I woke instead to blue sky and small fluffy white clouds. Then school called to say all schools in Shanghai were cancelled for today. Wow. They must know something I don’t. So I tracked Typhoon Kompaso on weather channels and web forums, stayed indoors and waited. And waited.

Hunger overtook at midday and, throwing caution aside, we all cycled down to our local Wagas for a coffee and a bowl of pasta. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The weather of course, chose that very moment to unravel. Lightning, thunder, then that typical tropical downpour. You first feel a single drop on your forehead, then the very next moment you’re drenched. It’s not called qīngpén dàyǔ (tip dish big rain) for nothing. Someone up there just up-ended the washing up water.

So now it’s 5pm, and still nothing worse than some very wet rain, and a puddle under my chair at Wagas. 


Sweltering

Every culture copes differently with extremes of climate, and the Shanghainese are no different. They have developed some ingenious new ways to beat the heat when they’re out and about, and they still use all the old methods that work.
Umbrellas have replaced hats for the most part – Shanghai women are very conscious of their hairstyles and hate what a hat does to your hair on a sweaty day. The unexpected thunderstorms that seem to drop out of the sky from nowhere are another good reason to carry an umbrella, although it will be precious little protection from the horizontal downpour that follows.
Fans are very popular amongst the elderly, but young people think they’re not sartorially cool. Instead, they wave those ridiculous battery-operated rotary fans in front of their faces, or worse, wear a visor with one attached to the brim.
This method is for men only. When the temperature rises, roll up your shirt to just below your nipples and walk around with your belly on full display. The bigger your belly, the better. For some reason this is totally acceptable, even in restaurants and museums, or while riding a bike.
Women tend not to do the shirt rolling thing, it’s just not appropriate or modest, and instead they concentrate on tan prevention, because you don’t want to look like you work in the fields when you really have a counter job at Zara. You have to protect your lily-white skin by whatever means necessary. The most popular is a combination of a visor (minimal hair damage), a pair of white cotton gloves and a long-sleeved white cape. The capes usually have frilled or scalloped edges with small flowers embroidered around the front, and look like they were cut straight out of a tablecloth. Big sunglasses compulsory.
This week, with san fu at its peak, all bets are off and nearly everyone, men and women, have begun to travel with a wet towel on their heads. Hairstyles be damned.

San Fu

I’m a week into san fu – the hottest 40 days of the year, and it’s killing me. Shanghai is baking under an enormous outdoor oven that hits me like a physical force every time I walk outside. Today, typical of san fu weather, the top temperature was 38 degrees (that would be 100.4 F), with a sweaty minimum of 30 degrees. I think the humidity is close to 98%, and I practically got heatstroke from cycling to Taikang Lu for a coffee. I had to sit in the air-conditioning for twenty minutes before I felt well enough to drink it.

Either way the days are stinking hot and the nights offer little relief, and are full of mosquitoes. Everyone has an air of quiet exhaustion. The only sign of increased energy is in the thousands of cicadas, who have started up a deafening drum that builds to a noisy crescendo every ten minutes during daylight hours. After dark, the crickets take over.

I see that the ice lady has made her seasonal return to the wet market – in winter Shanghai’s natural refrigeration means she is not busy, and she finds other ways to make money. Now that san fu is here she carts enormous blocks of ice on the back of her utility bicycle early in the day for the fish sellers to use to keep their goods cooled. She heaves one off the tray-back with a heavy iron hook, then drags it to the stall where it is kept in one piece. In summer, you want to buy your meat and fish before 10am, when the ice is well melted and the chance of food poisoning goes up.

Tomorrow will be the same, and the day after that. Thirty-three days to go.

5 Reasons it is Now Spring


How strange to live somewhere where the passing of the seasons is not measured by a fixed date. In Australia,spring comes every year on September 1st, whether it’s a hellish 40 degrees or a freezing 4 degrees. In America (sensible, those Americans) it begins with the Spring Equinox. 

In China though, Spring is defined by the weather nerds at the Shanghai Bureau of Meteorology, who compile lists of average temperatures in hundreds of cities then decide, based on an arbitrary average temperature, for 5 days in a row, that spring has arrived. 
This seems needlessly complicated, and anyway, this year I hear that they cheated – they designated Spring Had Arrived on the 24th of March, even though the average temperature was 0.3 degrees shy of the 10 degrees average required. 

So what was that all about? I suspect that after the longest winter in 15 years they were worried that Shanghai Expo would start and it would still be (officially) winter, so perhaps they were getting a lot of Party pressure to announce spring’s arrival. Really, if you can construct a fully-fledged city in 24 hours, you can muck around with something like the seasons. 

So, in the face of all that pressure, what did they do? They just fudged things. A little bit. I mean, it’s only the SEASONS for pete’s sake. Weather nerds, it’s just Not Very Scientific, is it. Really guys, all you had to do was look outside and use your common sense. To help you out I have compiled my own list of Shanghai Spring Indicators:

1. There are spring bamboo shoots in the wet market.
2. Furry hand-warmers have been removed from scooters and motorbikes.
3. The dogs are no longer wearing shoes, and have ditched their fleece winter coats for lightweight spring coats.
4. Coffee stays hot for more than 1.4 minutes.
5. The magnolias are blooming. Everywhere.

Note to Weather Nerds, I will send you my Summer Indicators when I’ve figured out what they are.