Scarder, Pauline, and me

Mr. Scarder
Scarder is our butcher in Bartica. We came upon him one day, cleaning and cutting up cow’s heads. they’re used in a dish called “souse”. No part of an animal is wasted here…like many non-Western cultures, every bit can be bought, cooked, and eaten. It’s practical, and it would never occur to people here to cover it up, or pretend that what they’re eating is anything but a dead cow.

Miss Pauline
Also paid a visit to my favorite roti and curry shop…Miss Pauline not only agreed to a photo, but asked for one taken with me, so Kris took this shot.
Me and Pauline, Queen of Curry
Before this photo, I had not looked in a mirror for 7 weeks…we don’t have a mirror on the boat, and I was gauging how I looked by other people’s reactions to me…from the cheeky rastafarians amorous proposals, to the way old ladies or small children smiled at me…

I was shocked by the amount of grey at the temples! On the bright side, I have lost more weight, I am down to 74 kgs. now, from 94 kgs. three years ago. Those too-tight dresses I bought a year ago are now a “relaxed fit”. Yay!

rainy day painting

cerveja Bohemia
The rainy season started a few days ago…and on Sunday the trains don’t run, either (boo!) I stayed home, on the gloomy shadowy boat, shut in to keep the rain out, making postcards out of cereal boxes and sketching a bottle of my favorite local beer.
March 8 rainy day
Also a salgadinho…a fancy name for any savoury snack. This one was sort of like a sausage roll, but made with better pastry. A dollar for three, but they were small.

food porn : : Couleur Café by Carte Noire

An audio-visual orgasm for foodies. My favorite is ROSE (pink), where Choux à la crème or profiteroles are filled with coffee cream, slathered in pink rose icing and sprinkled with sugar crystals.

If not Now, Zen when?

If not Now, Zen when?

The sun is setting on the last day of my weekend (I work three days a week, take four days off…Lucky me? Darlink, luck has nothing to do with it!) and it was a great four days of painting, doodling. meditating, listening to music and audio books, and just sitting around enjoying the sun-drenched weather. Most of the little canvases in the photograph are in early stages; I only tiled them because they look nice together. they may look completley different when they’re done.

I’m so grateful for this lazy, creative break…and find that I am also looking forward to going in to work, tomorrow, because everything has its beautiful moments and reasons for being, and I am eager…almost hungry, now, for the outside world and its energies and people.

For three days I’ve seen and spoken only to my two favorite cats…snapped together here, in an unguarded moment (because neither Dude nor Kris like having their pictures taken, and make it a point to face away from me or scowl when I am holding a camera; but I was quick this morning…Kris is even sort-of-smiling, which is very rare, in a photo)

unguarded moment

I’m off now, to enjoy the last of the light…parathas on the menu for dinner, using the freshly-harvested turmeric that’s been growing on the back of the boat for over a year. The deep yellow-orange color is unreal, and the flavor is milder than powdered turmeric. I am looking forward to what I imagine will be pale gold discs of hot parathas with yoghurt and mint chutney tonight!

Hope the rest of your week is wonderful. See you in a few days…
fresh turmeric

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973)

Last night’s party aboard Sonofagun was quite a happening.

Everyone we invited turned up. The sight of 19 people (and one friendly rottweiler) jamming, laughing and chattering together on the back deck of the boat—as well as the flotilla of a dozen dinghies hitched to the back platform, and a full-sized sailboat, Outsider, rafted up alongside so that people could cross from one boat to the other—was pretty damn impressive. It was impossible not to feel the love from all these friends who made the effort to leave the land and join us on the water.

The menu was a success…Christophe declared the coq au vin “perfect” and “nearly as good as my mother’s” (*fistpump* Yes!), while the dips (the bagna cauda and borani esfanaaj, particularly) were pronounced “addictive” by several friends, who hovered around that end of the table nearly the entire night. A  fondue of dark chocolate (served with strawberries, macadamias, and some ill-chosen marshmallows that nobody touched) and cups of strong coffee at the end rounded the dinner off with a sharp little perk-me-up that after-dinner joints and more booze worked into rowdy revelry, before leading everyone back to the ciabattas, olives, cheeses, nuts and dips…to quell those notorious munchies.

The last of the crowd went home by two a.m., though a couple of friends went to sleep on Outsider, just next to us, while Tobias the rottweiler and three other friends unrolled their swags and slept on deck.

On the whole, a party to be remembered…especially as I didn’t take any photographs! Flash bulbs and long exposures on a moving boat would only have produced blurry, dark, grainy and greyish photos of the evening, anyway, and captured none of the energy, the conversation, the merriment, the aromas of simmering wine or liquified chocolate and coffee that hung in the chilly air. Such moments blossom in a rapid geometry of sensations, emotions and ideas…and because I wanted to really be a part of that dynamic Now, as it was unfolding, I didn’t even think of getting my camera out, let alone entertain any concerns for finding a good angle or getting the lighting and exposure right. I’m trying not to let anything stand between myself and the Present; I want to be more than just a spectator of my life.

My only photograph of the day was taken in the morning, laved in refined sunlight, music flooding the boat, during the peaceful and relaxed enjoyment of my third cup of coffee, in-between having made the borani esfanaaj (heavenly) and getting ready to start the mashed potatoes (for which recipe I succumbed to food hubris and complicated processes by using Julia Child’s version, purée de pommes de terre à l’ail. It was sinfully buttery, fluffy, and infused with a gentle, creamy garlic flavour. Taking my hubris a notch higher, I would suggest improving this recipe, next time, by using oven-roasted garlic flowers…instead of boiling the garlic cloves in water. Presumptuous beyond belief.)

Recipes I used are here, for the bagna cauda (I added paper-thin slices of shallots to this) and borani esfanaaj.

Dude’s very happy that the big black dog is gone, and he is once again king of Sonofagun.

For the coq au vin, instead of using the pressure cooked recipe, I ended up slotting use of the pressure cooker into the full-on, multiple-process recipe from Julia Child’s first volume of French cooking. *sigh* I know I said I wanted it to be quick and easy, but in my heart I knew that the flavor of the sauce would suffer, and you can’t sacrifice flavour for the sake of convenience! May as well grab a bucket of fried chicken, in that case, no? So, really, Christophe’s cocotte-papin or autocuisier only saved me 15-20 minutes of cooking time whilst I was tenderising the chicken. Everything else happened in Julia-time…sort of like the culinary version of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement: the dish took 5½ hours to prepare, from start to finish, not counting the time spent washing the various pots and skillets, along the way, but counting the final heating of the dish before serving.

Defrost in translation…

sunday's sketches
I was on deck with my sketchbook, supposedly drawing ideas for a group exhibit that I’ll be joining in September (but really I was distractedly doodling, as usual, and had made a few attempts to draw Kris, who was sitting on the other end of the deck) when sailor, friend, and all-around lovely French guy Christophe dropped in on the (reasonably) good ship Sonofagun this morning to lend me his 6 liter pressure cooker as well as a small recipe book that used to belong to his mother.

All of this came about because I told him, over some vodka at the Dinah Beach Yacht Pub, that I didn’t know what to make for Kris’ birthday dinner that would be easy for me to prepare on our very low-tech boat, yet still a respectable dish, and in quantities that would feed 15-20 adults, without shackling me to the kitchen stove all night.

He suggested I make coq au vin (rooster with wine) in a pressure cooker, and I thought Hmm, that’s really not a bad idea…throw everything into the autocuiseur, walk away and, an hour later, come back to reveal tender chicken pieces in a rich sauce of cognac and red wine.

Add to this dish some mashed potato and a hearty pumpkin or a lentil and garlic soup (don’t forget, it’s winter in Oz, and even tropical Darwin gets chilly when the sun goes down…especially on the open deck of a boat in the harbour!), preceded by little bowls of homemade hommus, bagna cauda, this award-winning recipe for borani esfanaaj (“yoghurt and spinach dip in the Persian manner”), vegetable crudites, a couple of decent cheeses, some salami and smoked salmon, and loads of fresh, crusty Turkish bread and baguettes…

I gazed into the middle distance and my eyes took on a faraway, concentrated look as the entire evening’s menu sort of just wrote itself, in my head, while I methodically imagined every taste and texture to see what a meal like that would be like. I even sipped an after-dinner glass of frosty eggnog for a moment, before discarding the imaginary drink and replacing it with a mug of hot homemade mocha chocolate, instead. I gave a contented sigh and beamed at him. Christophe probably thought to himself “Ah, she only drink two shots of this vodka, but already she is drunk!”

I have only ever made coq au vin using an old Cordon Bleu cookbook…if my memory serves me, it involved several cast iron pans, many hours of stirring and thickening, as well as handfuls of perfectly good carrots that you simmered for ages until very soft…only to squeeze them for their juices and throw away the rest. Also, there was blood, and a Dutch oven involved.

It hadn’t been an easy dish to cook in my mother’s modern, gadget-packed kitchen—and it left a small trail of dirty cookware—so there’s no way I would manage it on a solar powered boat with a single-burner camping stove and a Coleman cooler for refrigeration, but Christophe’s recipe looked promisingly short, so maybe it would be simple, too?

I wouldn’t know until I translated it from the French.

“Gild the cockerel pieces…halfway through the operation, add the onion roundels…. Add the cognac (the recipe gives you a choice of cognac or coffee grounds…can’t be right…) and quickly ignite. Cover with red wine…cut the sandy feet off the champignons and wash the latter…simmer for 30-40 minutes from the time the pressure cooker starts whispering, depending on the age of the cockerel (a fork will easily penetrate the thigh when it is the appropriate time)…”

It was pretty easy, after the literal translation, to go over the instructions with the logic of recipes in mind, and smooth it all out so it made sense…only that bit that my dictionary said meant “coffee grounds,” and a word that wasn’t in my dictionary: couenne, that I first mistook for cayenne pepper (but turned out to be pork rind, yuck, wouldn’t use it, anyway!)

There’s no point writing the recipe here until I’ve tried it myself. If everything goes well, I’ll be sure to let you know and share it! In the meantime, thought I’d share the doodle I made next to my rough translation of the recipe (which I wrote in my sketchbook, because it was the closest bit of blank paper)

coq au vin

Although a capon or chicken is usually used, the recipe was originally recommended as a way to tenderise tough old sinewy roosters, like this potty-mouthed old fella.

  • Potetto something (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!) ( A hilarious article about, among other things, how letting your pressure cooker get all scungy and disgusting can cause cancer… also, a recipe for “Potato something” about which the author writes: “Divine, heavenly, uplifting, subliminal, subtle are all words that I will NOT use to describe this dish. It was crap and I will never do it again.”
  • National coq au vin day (
  • Lock the Lid, Embrace the Green (

recipe: besan dhal paratha

Have I mentioned that I adore Indian food, over and above any other?

Racially, I may be the rebellious heir to Philippine cooking, and an indifferent heir to the cooking of the American midwest…I may be a trepid émigré to the heavy meat-and-dairy foods of Australia, an enthusiastic admirer of Thai, Vietnamese, and Malay street foods, and a happy participant in Mexican and Italian dishes…

But the Indian kitchen is my spiritual home (even though I am not in the least bit Indian) and Indian cooking is my soul food. I love everything—everything!—that issues from the kitchens of this 5,000-year-old cuisine…from Kashmir in the North to Tamil Nadu in the South, and all the marvelous flavours and textures in-between.

I’ve tried to teach myself to cook some of my favorite things, over the years, though I must confess that the subtleties of flavour and some of the traditional ingredients of the cuisine are lost on an outsider like me. But then I am not cooking to please an Indian husband (who would, no doubt, compare my skills to those of his mother), Indian mother or Indian mother-in-law, thank goodness! Kris doesn’t mind Indian food, but his favorite is Thai, and so, really, I cook for myself. I cook for myself because I delight in all aspects of Indian cooking, from shopping for the spices to the time and labour intensive processes of kneading doughs, grinding spices, grating and milking coconuts, sieving, churning, stirring bubbling chutneys for hours on end…as much as in the finished food.

That said, I don’t dare claim any of my own recipes as authentically Indian or correct!
I improvise a lot. I experiment. I substitute things to bring the Glycemic Index of a recipe down. I probably create a lot of unholy marriages between ingredients that Ayurvedic practitioners would shudder to read of. But the stuff I make is yummy (well, I think so, anyway), it brings me joy to make it and eat it, and—almost too good to be true—most of them have the Low GI rating that, so far, has kept my blood sugar within ‘normal person’ levels for two years straight.

I’ve been making plain roti (a.k.a. chapatti) for a long, long time, but only very recently learned to make Parathas (also parantha or parauntha) from my lovely new co-worker Sabi. She and her family are Sikhs from Punjab, and are strictly vegetarian. There were no pictures of the day I visited Sabi at her home…I didn’t want to freak my new friend out by pulling a camera out and styling the food. She’s a very shy and simple woman, a devoted wife and mother, has been just a few years in Australia.

Parathas are a fabulous, flaky Indian flatbread cooked on a hot griddle. The flakiness is caused by trapping oil and/or oily pastes between layers of dough (so parathas are slightly less healthy than plain roti or chapattis, which are pretty much flour, dough, water, and a scant tablespoon of oil) but they are so delicious that they are worth the extra oil content! I use canola oil, for what it’s worth.


Besan & Dhal Roti

Atta (dough)

  • 2 cups of atta flour
  • 1/2 cup of besan
  • 1/4 cup of rolled oats, only because I was experimenting the day I took the pictures…better just leave them out!
  • 1 tsp each of coriander seeds, nigella seeds, coarse-ground chilli powder. I also threw in Maldives fish sambol (because I am addicted to the stuff), and chaat masala (ditto)
  • 1/2 inch piece of ginger (not pictured) finely grated
  • a handful of chopped coriander leaves (not pictured)
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • about 1 cup of warm water
  • extra atta flour for rolling
  • extra canola oil for cooking

Besan & Dhal Roti

In a mixing bowl, combine the flours and all the spices, herbs, seasonings in the picture above. Don’t forget the ginger and coriander, which I forgot to include in the photograph. Add warm water, a little at a time, and when the mix starts to look like a bowl of broken-up cauliflower lumps, drop the spatula and use your hands to knead the lumps together. Just because the mix looks dry doesn’t mean it is…kneading by hand will tell you, by feel, when the dough is of the right consistency (soft, but not sticky) Never dump all the water in at one time…I find that I never use up all of the water, and still my doughs so far have been too sticky to knead and roll with ease. So this tip comes from my experience of not following this tip!

Once everything has come together, take the dough out of its bowl and knead by hand for a few minutes. Form into a ball, cover, and let rest for “at least 10 minutes”, as the various recipes say, though I find that leaving the dough for an hour, or even overnight in the fridge, makes it more elastic and less sticky.

While the dough is resting, make the besan and dhal paste.

Besan & Dhal Roti

Besan and dhal paste

  • 1 cup of cooked dhal…I used chana dhal, washed and soaked for a few hours in water, then boiled—with salt, a teaspoon of turmeric, and a piece of cinnamon bark—until cooked but not mushy). Drain well and let cool.
  • 1/3 cup of besan
  • 1 tsp ajwain or carom seeds
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup canola oil

Note: To make a very simple paratha, use just canola oil instead of the besan-and-dhal paste to create the layers. The process remains the same.

Into a food processor or blender throw together the cooked dhal, besan, spices, and salt. Pulse to a mush, adding oil until the paste is smooth and, theoretically, spreadable…though I keep mine fairly stiff, and it doesn’t spread easily at all. The the good thing about this is that I can use more of the paste than just a thin smear (I love dhal!) but I get less pasty mess running out of my bread when I roll it out. Whatever suits you, I say.

Set a heavy-bottomed non-stick frying pan, or a griddle, or a thawa, onto low-medium heat.

Besan & Dhal Roti
Divide the dough into 6 or 8 balls. On an atta-dusted surface, roll out one ball of dough into a four-inch circle.
Besan & Dhal Roti
Smear or spread (in my case this involves some softly delivered expletives and the messy use of my fingers…the spoon in the picture is for show, just so you know) the paste over the circle.
Besan & Dhal Roti
Fold one third of the circle over…
Besan & Dhal Roti
and fold the remaining third up over the first.
Besan & Dhal Roti
Then fold the long rectangle up by thirds again,
Besan & Dhal Roti
to make a fat little square
Besan & Dhal Roti
Dust the bundle, and then gently pat the square down a little with your hand to make it easier to roll. With a VERY LIGHT TOUCH, start rolling the square out into a flat bread. If you make small rolling movements from the center outwards, rotating the bread with each roll, you can get a circle. I usually don’t bother…I just make 90 degree turns and try to get a 7 or 8-inch square.
Besan & Dhal Roti
More stretching can be done by picking the bread up and flipping it from one palm to the other…this actually does less damage than rolling. Flip the flat bread onto the hot, DRY griddle.

On the griddle, let one side cook only slightly, about 30 or 40 seconds. Holding the griddle by its handle, slide a corner of the bread to the edge, where you can quickly pick the bread up and flip it over onto the other side.

Quickly spread a teaspoon of canola oil over the cooked surface of the bread, letting the other side cook for about 30 seconds.

Note: To cut down on oil and make this step even quicker, I use canola oil in a spray can and spray the surface of the bread. Nice and light!

Flip the bread over again, and oil this surface, as well. Cook for 30 seconds…the surface of the bread should start undulating and moving as hot steam trapped between the dough layers pushes them apart and cooks them from the inside. AWESOME!

Repeat the flipping action until both sides get spots of golden brown on them. Flip onto a plate and serve hot, with a dipping bowl of yoghurt dusted with chaat masala, and maybe some chutney or lemon pickle.

Besan & Dhal Roti
I can’t believe my luck! Easy and cheap to make, flaky yet moist, spicy, stuffed with dhal or anything else I care to use, earthy and satisfying, plus 100% approved of by my doctor!
I just died and went to heaven.

What makes this flatbread such a wonderful option for healthy eating?

Atta flour is made from durum wheat (Triticum durum), the same ‘hard’ wheat used in making pasta, which is another beloved staple of those watching their blood sugar and weight. (You cannot imagine my excitement when I learned that atta and durum are one and the same thing…I used to make my own lasagna and fettuccine noodles from scratch, but gave it up because of the soft wheat flours that were all I could find in the Philippines to use. Even in Australia, durum wheat doesn’t just sit around, available to the public, on supermarket shelves…but every Indian grocery sells atta in 15 kg. sacks! Woot!) Durum also goes by the name bread flour, and winter wheat. It is extremely high in protein, yet lower in gluten (that glutinous web that enables leavened breads to trap air and rise) than the flour made from other wheat varieties.

Besan, or chickpea flour, is also rated as having a low G.I., as are all other varieties of dhal—also known as pulses, lentils, peas or beans. Dhal (derives from the Sanskrit verb “to split”) is typically around 25% protein by weight, giving it a comparable protein content to meats. Dal is also high in Low Glycemic Index carbohydrates, whilst being virtually fat free. Dal is also rich in the B vitamins thiamine and folic acid as well as several minerals, notably iron and zinc.

It’s not over yet…

Kek Lok Si wooden fan

You didn’t really believe I was done writing about Malaysia, did you?

You did? What, and not even one long, raving, ecstatic post about all the fabulous Penang street food—the primary purpose of my visit—that I tried? Are you kidding?

I’ve only been so quiet about it because I’ve been sorting through my notes—doing  a bit of backstory research, tracking down the origins of some of the dishes, the recipes for others—but I am almost ready to publish a monster post or two about my gustatory pilgrimage to Pulau Pinang. In the meantime, these are a couple more postcards I stitched during the trip…

Kuala Lumpur

Teh Tarik

Now that I’m home again, my wild foodie excesses have been reined in; I am back on my Low GI diet of soaked rolled oats, cracked wheat, simple salads, and temperate-climate fruit (tropical fruits being rich in high GI sugars). Sigh. It’s better for me, and I have to confess that I’m glad I don’t live where the food is exciting…or I’d have a hard time keeping the diabetes that’s been programmed into my genes, away.

Darwin‘s everyday food scene is no temptation: the blandness, the priggishness, the uninspired phantom of WASP cooking still haunts its flavours and methods (around these parts, ‘deep-fried’ is a flavour, and covering things in breadcrumbs is a favorite method.) I wander around the malls, oppressed by slab-like, drowned things  called uninspired names like “Veggie Bake” or “Meat Pie”. Most ‘ethnic’ cuisines are represented, of course…more often than not, though, by Chinese cooks. And these places seem to have altered the flavours to suit the Aussie palate (i.e. no heat, no subtle perfumes of herbs or spices, lots of salt and LOTS of sugar.)

Don’t get me wrong, I like living here, and there’s much more to life than food. It just isn’t (nor will it ever be) a destination for food lovers. Because cuisine is such an important part of cultural identity, not having the one can easily make the place feel like it hasn’t got the other, either. Some days it can seem more tragic than on others. :)

Darwin’s a great place for crocodiles, for camping and wilderness adventures, for going pig hunting in a pickup truck, with a cooler full of beer, some ugly murderous dogs in the back, and some ugly murderous friend in the passenger’s seat. I met a Canadian who said she came to Darwin because she wanted to “visit the tropics, without having to visit the Third World.” Well, there you go, a catchy line for our tourism campaign, if we run out of crocs and want to attract the sort of people who travel around the world in search of the same things they left back home: friendly white faces, McDonald’s, and the English language.

Is it any wonder that I escape into my memories of Malaysian food, and threaten to write long, wistful posts about them? I miss Asia…the buzzing, swelling, engulfing, “if-you-are-here-then-you-are-part-of-it” liveliness of its streets. The urgency and passion with which people celebrate and pursue their cultural signposts. The way people are pushed up against one another, both physically and emotionally…brushing barriers aside, and thinning the psychological walls between individuals.

Surprisingly, it makes for higher public levels of courtesy, tolerance and equanimity than you’d find in the neat and less crowded streets of Darwin. Strangers don’t abuse each other over brief encroachments upon personal space, or snap at each other over small mistakes. An outburst of self-righteous rage or an adult tantrum in public is a rare sight, and the one who loses his cool loses his status in everyone’s eyes (even if he does get what he wants in the end.)

Being impassive and watchful is probably what earned Asians (the Chinese in particular) the label ‘inscrutable’. All it means is that they’ve managed to move past the emotional intelligence of five-year-olds, and they won’t waste time or demean themselves by slobbering insincere friendliness over a perfect stranger…which, until they get to know you, is what you are.