Monday, November 16, 2015

Dearest Readers...

At least, those of you kind enough to still be reading this blog.

I wanted to let you know where I've been these last months.

I've been writing a book. 
Remember way back when I drove around China for half a year? In a camper van?

That was 2012.

“You should write a book about it,” said my writer friend Rebecca at the time. A book sounded like something I might be able to do, after blogging for three years. "Yeah," I told her. "Maybe I will."

Following that conversation the first thing I did was to google How many words in a novel? Because that's precisely how much I knew about writing a book.

The answer? Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Hah! I thought. That's only about 80 (longish) blog posts! I could do that.

Rebecca introduced me to her author husband’s agent, based in Sydney. I remember our first conversation, four weeks after the end of our epic road trip, and just days after leaving Shanghai to return to Australia. My thoughts about writing a book at that moment were chaotic, to say the least, as were my thoughts about everything at the time - leaving China, moving house, going back to work as an ER doctor, getting both children settled in Australian schools, living in my home town again.

The agent listened patiently on the other end of the phone while I rambled with ideas about photography books, travel books, and books about China's ethnic minorities and regional foods. I had no clear single idea of the book I wanted to write, only a burning desire to get it all down on paper and get it published. As all beginning writers do.

“It might be too recent in your mind,” he said, tactfully. “After all, you've just completed the journey. Give it a month or two. The story will emerge.”

I told him I didn’t need to wait a month or two. I planned to begin right away and would send him my first draft in six months. After all, I'd already written 48 blog posts during the trip. That only left about 30,000 words and a spot of editing, right?

On the first day I sat at my desk and looked over those 48 blog posts. Problematically, many were lists of foods I'd eaten in different provinces, which, although interesting to me, weren't really a story. Only 30 were actually usable, leaving me with a yawning 50,000-word deficit. This seemed suddenly overwhelming, so I stopped work and decided that was enough for Day One.

On Day Two, I realised I really, really needed to sort out the washing, a task I only ever approached as a form of procrastination.
So obviously I'm not the only person with washing procrastination.

Over the next three months I did a lot of washing. It turns out that writing elegant and coherent 5,000-word chapters is quite tricky, way more tricky than I anticipated. I slowly filled in the 50,000-word gap in my story with transcribed diary entries, notes, random conversations, and any memory I could dredge up. Some days I wrote 3,000 words, only to delete 2,950 of them the following morning, some days I wrote fifty words, all of them rubbish, then went to the movies.

On most days, the work felt excruciating. When someone reminded me of Oscar Wilde's quote about writing, I felt a pang of recognition, without the satisfaction of writing anything remotely Wilde-worthy.

“I spent all morning putting in a comma. And all afternoon taking it out.”

That's how it felt to me. Like very hard work. 

But after a year and a half, I had close to 75,000 words in a long-winded and very unwieldy document that was still eight chapters short of being finished. It was immense in its clumsiness. 'The Uncharted Kingdom' was a non-fiction novel about our journey around China in which I had included everything: every trivial thing, every boring thing. It changed tense every few paragraphs, which made it jarring to read. It was, I realized with a sinking feeling, dreadful.

Every so often I sent revisions to my agent. Or outlines for new chapters, or re-revisions of revisions I had already sent. When I look back on those emails now I cringe but remain impressed by his patience and strength-of-will. I am even more impressed that he took me on, based on the idea of the book alone.

And I kept writing, every day, even if only for a quarter of an hour. I started a year-long course on writing non-fiction and another on editing through the Queensland Writer's Centre, one of Australia's best supports for emerging writers. I joined an immensely supportive writing group.

As a way of terrorising myself into finishing the first draft, I submitted my best fifty pages to the Hachette Manuscript Development competition. If you were lucky enough to be selected you had just 72 hours to hand in the full manuscript.

When they called to offer me one of ten places out of three hundred entries around Australia, I wept over the phone. Then didn't sleep for the next 72 hours and sent off 108,000 words by the deadline. Yeah, it was a little long.

The Hachette Manuscript Development Programme was life-changing. Four days of intense professional development meeting editors, publishers, agents, booksellers and established authors. I had a one-on-one meeting with Hachette's chief publisher, where she told me my manuscript had a lot of promise, and asked me to redraft and resubmit. I was over the moon. And I forged wonderful friendships with nine other writers who, like me, were finding their feet.

After the workshop I revised and redrafted, cutting 10,000 words and completing the second draft early this year. This draft was less ugly, but still needed subtlety, and character development, and better pacing. Each draft felt like climbing a densely forested mountain, scrambling through the undergrowth step by step. It was only once I reached the top that I could clearly see the gently curving path I should have taken.

Draft Three, the trying-to-make-it-beautiful draft, took another six months. I rearranged my work life, working two intense weeks of back-to-back shifts at the hospital, then spending two weeks writing.

'The Uncharted Kingdom' was now the story of a journey around China in a camper van, but also a story of journeying through the uncharted kingdoms within ourselves, where we secretly chase dreams and search for meaning and insight in our lives. That sounds heavy, but there were lots of funny parts too. Like the time we unknowingly camped next to a dynamite depot, cooking outside with a open flame because it was a balmy night, and were rescued by four of the most stressed-looking men I've ever met.

And after writing every single day for so long, a strange thing happened. I stopped worrying about getting published, and instead became obsessed with writing the best story I was capable of. Not the best travel narrative of all time, just the best I could tell, at that moment in time. 

Three months ago today I sent the manuscript of 'The Uncharted Kingdom' off to Hachette, for acceptance or rejection. As I sit here waiting for news, I try to remember what I learnt from the editors and publishers I met: book publishing is a business, with risks and returns. A rejection is not personal, but may just mean that a book about China from an unknown author might be a stretch. Profits are not certain. It may be better suited to another publisher. 

Writing is now part of the fabric of my life. Regardless of what transpires with my book, writing has became a reward in itself. Although I've been blogging less I've been writing much, much more. Recently I was accepted into the Masters programme in creative writing at my local university, and this work will become the backbone of my next book, a book about food and travel, and the way those can connect us.

So dearest readers, thanks for sticking with me. Wish me luck as I embark on the journey of my second book. It begins in China, but travels out beyond those borders to parts of the world I never dreamed I would visit. And there's plenty of food in it too.

Will you come along with me?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Shanghai's Best-Kept Culinary Secrets: The Glutton Guide Shanghai

There's a woman I've long admired in Shanghai - she speaks fluent Chinese and is a street food obsessive who knows all the best snacks and where to find them. Like me, she genuinely loves China - particularly its edible, delicious side. 

Meet Jamie Barys, who, along with friend and business partner Kyle Long established Untour Shanghai, a hugely popular off-beat tour company. Their tours remain the best way to get to know Shanghai's street foods, even for locals. "We wanted to show off the city’s best street food and hole-in-the-wall dumpling and noodle shops to visitors and expats who didn’t have the language skills or local food knowledge to find it themselves," says Jamie. "So we started offering culinary tours of the breakfast stalls, night markets and everything in between."

Fellow students at Peking University in 2005, Jamie and Kyle discovered a common interest in everything food-related, and cemented their friendship exploring Shanghai's restaurants. In Jamie's words, "Three years and about thirty thousand xiaolongbao later, we launched UnTour Shanghai."

Now Jamie and Kyle have together written the definitive guide to eating in Shanghai, the Glutton Guide Shanghai. It's the book I wish I'd had when I first moved to Shanghai, and it's the book I want now. Jamie saw a demand for comprehensive, up-to-date, reliable information for locals and travellers. "When we travel, we plan our days entirely around where we’re going to eat. Lately, whenever we planned a trip, we found doing the research to create an excellent food-based itinerary was increasingly challenging. Between out-of-date guidebooks and the overwhelming amount of crowdsourced online resources, there were too many conflicting reports on where to eat, what to order and how much to pay, not to mention travel stories by out of town writers listing the same old recycled content." 

This is not your standard city guide. It's a digital guide to the food culture of Shanghai, with finds only a local would know about. 

There are sections on street foods, food markets, cooking classes, Shanghai cuisine, regional Chinese cuisines, and the best in Western food and desserts. It's brilliantly done. There's even a suggestion to read certain food blogs before you start (why thank you guys....).

The Glutton Guide is full of gems that might take years to find on your own. Amongst those gems, I asked Jamie which one she and Kyle considered the diamond, the best hidden culinary secret within the pages of the Glutton Guide?

"We’ve written about a lot of the hole-in-the-walls (like A Da’s scallion pancake) over the years because they are the best bites in the city. But I think Zhu Que Men is the most underrated restaurant of the city’s noodle scene. The owner has opened three locations around the city, and ships in different artisanal vinegars from his hometown to use in his dishes. If that doesn’t make your mouth water, the mother stock for the pork in Zhu Que Men’s roujiamo contains 40 secret ingredients and was started over 20 years ago." I had never even heard of it. But if Jamie says it's good, I'm going.

And if she had to leave Shanghai tomorrow? What would her last supper be? "Take me to Wei Xiang Zhai for sesame-peanut noodles (麻酱面). With a side of jianbing (煎饼) please!" says Jamie. 

I'm slightly devastated to hear her say this. In my first year in Shanghai I lived around the corner from Wei Xiang Zhai, just near Fuxing Park. I was desperate to try their noodles, but our housekeeper, Xiao Xu, cleaned our house in the mornings then manned the till at Wei Xiang Zhai every lunchtime. I was too embarrassed to walk in and show how bad my Chinese was in front of people she knew. Eventually, we moved away and she stopped working for us. Seven years later, she still works at Wei Xiang Zhai, and I still haven't been.  

"We want to encourage visitors and expats to eat like locals and support these small businesses," says Jamie. "We wanted each and every listing to be a restaurant that a tourist would remember when they went home (and still talk about when they thought about their trip). For expats who live here, we wanted it to be a resource full of places they would return to again and again, and use to show off their local knowledge to other visitors and friends. Our goal has always been to make sure that every bite of our guests’ trip is memorable."

Couldn't agree more. You can find the Glutton Guide Shanghai here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Shanghai Street Food #38 Modern 1906 Icecream: Madieer Bingqilin 马迭尔冰淇淋

The season of Lesser Heat is about to enter the Season of Great Heat. The Plum Rains of June have offered no relief, even though they seem to have arrived twice this year and stayed twice as long. You sweat. You simmer. You would give anything to cool yourself with something soothing.

Make your way to Nanjing Dong Lu. Follow the tourists in matching t-shirts halfway to the Bund. Stop, on the corner of Jiangxi Zhong Lu.

Sitting inside Shooting Star Day & Night Foods(xīnghuǒ rìyè shípǐn 星火日夜食品) is a little store whose specialty is milk ice cream. It was established back in 1906 in Ha'erbin, of all places and has one of the most intriguing histories of any of Shanghai's street foods.

Ha'erbin, in Heilongjiang Province, was once home to a large population of Russian Jews who left the city with a profound cultural and architectural legacy. Joseph Kaspe, a Russian jeweller with French citizenship, built the Hotel Moderne on Ha'erbin's main street. It became the largest and most luxurious hotel in the city with its grand ballroom, cinema, dining rooms and suites.

As a sideline, Kaspe had a bakery café on the ground floor selling bread and milk ices. 

Kaspe's fortunes rose and fell, emblematic of the upheavals of Ha'erbin in the last century. The city fell to the Japanese in 1931 and was overrun with White Russians escaping the Bolshevik Revolution, among them were many anti-semitic crime lords. In 1933, in what became known as the 'Kaspe affair', Kaspe's son was kidnapped and ransomed by Russian fascists. Simon Kaspe was a talented pianist who had trained at the Paris Conservatory and was visiting his parents in Ha'erbin when he was kidnapped.

Urged by the French consul not to pay the $100,000 ransom, Joseph Kaspe received his son's severed earlobe after a month but was again urged not to pay. Simon Kaspe was starved and tortured over three long months before eventually being murdered by his captors. His father never recovered, and left for Paris where he died just a few years later.

Kaspe's kidnapping and murder had a profound effect on Ha'erbin's Russian community. Seventy per cent fled the city soon after and the city was never the same again.

And the Hotel Moderne? Under the Japanese it retained its original name. From 1946, under the communists, it became the Harbin Hotel, then the Harbin City Revolutionary Committee Second Guesthouse, then the Anti-Revisionist Hotel. In 1993, history turned full circle and it once again became the Modern Hotel, known in Chinese as madie'er bingguan 马迭尔宾馆. The building still stands today on Zhongyang Dajie.

It's hard to imagine a simple milk icecream so intrinsically tied to the history of one of China's great cities. But there you have it - street food, if you delve deeply enough, always has a great story behind it.

Modern (madie'er) ice creams can now be found in large Chinese cities, sold exactly the same way as they were from the ground floor of the Modern in the early 1900s. Stacked in a box, simple and unadorned.

Now you can have mango, or coffee, or green tea flavour. I say go with the original. Creamy and not too sweet, think, as you eat, of the last 110 years of fortune and misfortune tied to this ice cream.

Modern 1906 Ice creams
Madieer Bingqilin 马迭尔冰淇淋
Shanghai Huangpu District
Nanjing Dong Lu near Jiangxi Zhong Lu

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Shanghai Supper Club

Take twenty or so random strangers, one mystery location, and a chef with the freedom to cook outside of their regular kitchen, and hey presto - Shanghai Supper Club. Conceived by Shanghai local Camden Hauge, the Shanghai Supper Club has been a resounding success since the minute it opened back in 2013.

Camden observed Shanghai's obsession with food first hand and knew it was ripe for a supper club concept. There was a rapidly evolving food scene with new chefs arriving from all over the world, and a food-loving population hungry for novel experiences. 

With a menu and venue that changes every month, the real success of her venture has been in bringing together Shanghai's food-lovers in one place, a situation ripe for new collaborations and exciting ideas.

I was lucky enough to have a seat at a Supper Club event last weekend, ending a week of near perfect weather - warm days edging into summer with cool nights. 

We met on the terrace of an old Shanghai house off Ferguson Lane, now belonging to Pudao Wines. The terrace was set with bouquets of English roses and strung with fairy lights.
Chef for the night was James Stockdale of The British Kitchen. James is a baker of renown, supplying delicious cakes, tarts, pastries and slices to some of Shanghai's best cafes, whilst also working as an architect. He cooked us an inspiring British menu, starting with his take on the Ulster fry - vodka -infused vine tomatoes, mushrooms and eggs, and beans on toast. 

Also on hand was Manuel from Summergate Wines who mixed tea-inspired cocktails to begin and end the evening.

James surprised us all on the night by announcing he had resigned from his job as an architect to work on The British Kitchen full-time. If dinner was any indication he should enjoy great success. James' take on British 'Boiled Ham' was a delicate ham terrine with piccalilli (English style Indian pickles) and preserved apple; and 'Pies and Spuds' turned out to be homemade British spring lamb, pea and mint pies served with charred potato salad and slow-braised celery.

Between courses we topped up our wines from the highly space-age enomatic wine dispensing machine downstairs, meaning you could try a glass or a taste of any of sixteen premium wines. Brilliant!

Great food and wine is always a catalyst for making new friends, all of whom were passionate about food. So inspiring to be in such wonderful company. But the best was yet to come - James had baked up a desert storm with a selection of traditional handmade British deserts, all with James' signature twist - lemon and ginger curd tarts with passionfruit; salted dark belgian chocolate caramels; peanut brownies with Sichuan pepper; and a spiced pepper plum crumble tart.

Supper Club is like a dinner party with old friends you just haven't seen in a long time, where your only job is to relax and enjoy the feast!

Shanghai Supper Club
Held monthly. When the next Supper Club is announced, register and wait to hear if you've nabbed a seat - if so you can bring along one guest.

June's Supper Club has just been announced and promises to be insanely good - Spanish chef Willy of El Willy fame is cooking at the Zotter Chocolate Theatre, a Wonka-esque shrine to the art of Austrian chocolate. Get yourself a seat!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How to Get Into China Without a Visa: The 72 Hour Visa-Free Transit and 24 Hour Airport Transit

Getting a visa to visit China is nothing short of a monumental pain in the bureaucracy. Many friends and readers have asked me if there is a way around it, so I investigated further. Believe it or not, there are perfectly legal ways to get into China without a visa.

1. Visa-Free Airport Transit 

A foreign citizen who is transiting through China by air is exempted from a visa if he/she stays only inside the airport (without entering border control) for no more than 24 hours, and has a valid connecting ticket with confirmed seating on an international flight. 
Source: Chinese Embassy

2. 72-Hour Visa-Free Transit
This fairly new visa arrangement allows foreign citizens of 51 allowed countries to spend 72 hours in one of thirteen cities in China, without a visa. 

Countries Allowed: 
Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Macedonia,  Mexico,  Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar,  Republic of Korea, Romania, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia,  Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States.

Chinese Destinations Allowed:
Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen, Harbin and Hangzhou

Upcoming cities include Urumqi in Xinjiang, and hopefully Guiyang in Guizhou Province (see 72 Hour Guizhou Selfie below for a giggle)

Rules around the Visa-Free Transit:
Travellers must be from one of the 51 permitted countries
Travellers must arrive by air into one of the 14 permitted Chinese cities
Travellers must have an onward international ticket to a third destination with a departure date and time within 72 hours of arrival. Taiwan and Hong Kong are permitted as eligible destination countries. For example, London-Shanghai-Hong Kong is permitted. London-Shanghai-London is not permitted.

How is the 72 Hours Calculated?
72 hours is calculated in most airports from 00:01hrs on the day after arrival. In others, however, 72 hours is calculated from the minute of arrival.

Where Can You Go?
Travel is restricted to the city or region in which you applied for the Visa-Free Transit. In Guangzhou, you are permitted to travel anywhere in Guangdong Province, but in other cities your travel is restricted to the city itself. 
You must fly out of the same airport that you entered, with the exception of Shanghai (in Shanghai both Hongqiao and Pudong airports are approved and you can fly out of either).

How to Apply for Visa-Free Transit:
Inform your airline when checking in
Fill out an Arrivals Card on the flight
Submit the completed Arrivals Card to border control authorities at the airport, along with the following documents:

• Valid passport
• Onward dated ticket with confirmed seat for another country or region
• Visa for third country or region (if needed for that destination)
Source: China National Tourism Organisation

FAQs answered here at the Ministry of Public Security
Additional useful info here at Travel China Guide

3. Hong Kong, Macau and Hainan Island Visa-Free Entry
 Hong Kong has maintained the liberal visa-free access originally instituted by the British Government. Travellers from over 160 countries can gain visa-free entry for up to 180 days.In addition, travellers visiting the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong may have up to 15 days of visa-free entry approved if travel with a registered travel company.
Source: Immigration Department, Hong Kong

Macau is similar but with a smaller range of eligible countries.

Hainan Island has special policies for 15 day visa-free entry for travellers from 26 countries including the US, as long as they travel with a registered tourist agency. 
Source: Chinese Embassy

72 Hour Selfie in Guizhou Province

When I was last in Guizhou I filmed a '72 Hour Selfie' with True North Productions for the China Icons video channelIt was loads of fun, and as you can see, 72 hours in Guizhou includes drinking lots and lots of rice wine, and sleeping in cars. Guiyang's approval as a Visa-Free Transit city is still pending, but clearly not because of a lack of rice-wine-drinking effort on my part.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Green Tea

Picking Dragon Well tea, Hangzhou 
Qingming Festival, on April 5 this year, is a day when families pay respects to their ancestors by tending their graves. It's also an important date on the annual calendar of Chinese teas because it marks the harvest of the first flush of early spring tea leaves. I've been lucky enough to catch two Qingming harvests of Dragon Well tea in Hangzhou, while there was still a winter chill in the early morning air followed by the growing warmth of the spring sunshine. 

After picking was over for the day I sat and sipped tea in the cool air of the tea terraces There really is nothing quite like the chestnut aroma and clean grassy taste of freshly-roasted green tea - it makes all the worries of the world fall away.

Green teas are a perfect introduction to the family of Chinese teas because they are more lightly flavoured and easy to prepare, with a taste everyone enjoys. Here's an easy guide for learning more about Chinese green teas.

Dragon Well tea leaves. The picker's fingers are stained with tea oils.

Chinese Tea: The Basics
It helps to consider Chinese teas in three main groups based on the degree of oxidation (the effect of air on the enzymes and chemicals within the tea leaf):

1. Unoxidized: green tea, white tea

2. Partially oxidized: oolong tea, yellow tea

3. Fully oxidized: pu'er tea, black tea

Just like the influence of terroir on wines, the altitude at which tea is grown, the age of the bushes, the mineralization of the soil, the water supply, the hours of sunlight, the rate of oxidation once picked and the skill of the tea artisans controlling the oxidation process all add to the unique flavour profile of different teas.


An Introduction to Green Tea Types
There are dozens of green tea types, some well-known, some produced and drunk entirely in the homes of the farmers who grow it. Try a few for yourself to see which you like best, and be sure to enjoy the experience of different local green teas when you travel in China. Here are some of the most well-known for starters.

1. Dragon Well Tea - longjing cha 龙井茶
China's most famous green tea grows on the tea terraces south of Hangzhou's West Lake, in Zhejiang Province. Longjing tea is considered the pinnacle of China Famous Teas, and some would consider it the best green tea in the world.

The name, longjing 龙井 or Dragon Well, is thought to have come from the heavy water of an old well. When rain fell, the lighter rainwater would swirl like a dragon's tail as it joined the more dense well water. 

Longjing tea is harvested twice a year, in spring and again in autumn, although the spring harvest is the most important. Harvest begins about ten days before Qingming Festival, and continues for around six weeks. 

Just after picking the leaves are gently wilted, then wok-roasted by hand. The roasting halts any oxidation and flattens the leaves into their typical grass blade shape.

Longjing tea comes in various grades according to the location of the tea terraces, and the time of picking. Pre-Qingming tea, known as mingqian cha, is thought to be the most refined in taste and fetches the highest price, sometimes in excess of $1000/kg. 2015 Mingqian is just starting to appear in shops now.

Longjing tea has a light, pure colour and a pleasant chestnut/grass aroma with floral notes. The taste is complex - savoury, nutty, grassy without any bitterness, with a lingering slightly sweet aftertaste.

2. Blue Conch Spring Tea - biluochun 碧螺春
Biluochun tea
Grown on the shores of Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province, biluochun 碧螺春 is a green tea with a very delicate appearance and taste.
The leaves are silvery green, and after spring harvest they are dried in a hot wok using a different hand motion to longjing tea. The leaves are lightly twisted to impart the shape of a spiral shell, hence the name. 
Biluochun is very light, with a pale colour and light floral aroma. The tea terraces are found amongst persimmon, peach and apricot orchards and when these trees come into blossom they are thought to impart some of their floral sweetness to the tea bushes. 

3. Gunpowder Green Tea ping shui zhu cha 平水珠茶
Gunpowder green tea, or pearl tea
The British thought these tightly-rolled balls of green tea looked like gunpowder pellets, hence the name, but the Chinese prefer to think of them as pearls. The tea is named for the town of Ping Shui in Zhejiang Province.
Gunpowder green tea has a robust flavour and a deeper colour than other green teas due to the release of tea oils from the leaves during the tight rolling process.

4. Yellow Mountain Fur Peak Tea - huangshan maofeng 黄山毛峰
Coming from the slopes of Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui Province, the high altitude means this green tea has small white hairs (mao毛) on its leaves, and the dried leaves have an appearance similar to Huangshan's pointed peaks, hence its name. The tea has a sweet, mellow taste. 

5. Jasmine Tea - molihua cha 茉莉花茶
Technically not a pure green tea, jasmine tea is nonetheless a beautiful partly-green tea. I have included it here because it is usually made with a base of green tea leaves, and also because it is one of the most widely known and popular teas outside China, making it easily accessible for new green tea drinkers.
The best jasmine teas come from warm Fujian Province, where summer jasmine blossoms are mixed with dried spring green tea leaves and left to infuse their scent for several hours. Jasmine 'pearls' slowly unfurl in hot water, releasing both the jasmine blossoms and their beautiful scent.

Brewing the Perfect Cup of Green Tea
Cup, glass or pot?
Green tea actually doesn't require any fancy tea equipment. It can be brewed in a cup, a glass, a traditional gaiwan (above), or even a teapot. 
Many Chinese tea drinkers prefer a clear drinking glass so they can see the beauty of the unfurling leaves. Others prefer a gaiwan 盖碗 (a lidded cup) particularly for longjing tea, so the leaves can be brushed gently away from the surface of the water when drinking.
Tradition dictates that each person has their own glass or cup, so they can control the steeping time to taste and also so that the tea leaves can be regularly refreshed with hot water. For these reasons a pot is less preferable because the leaves can become over-steeped and bitter.

Brewing Green Tea
For all green teas a water temperature of 80C (180F) is preferred because green tea leaves are delicate, and boiling water will destroy many of the subtle aromatics. Use a temperature controlled kettle, or boil the water and then leave it for five minutes to cool a little.

Place a pinch of leaves in your glass or cup, and add water. 

(If the leaves are a little dusty, you can rinse them first by pouring water on the leaves and draining it off after four or five seconds. This won't affect the taste.)

Wait until the leaves unfurl and fall to the bottom of the glass. Steeping times vary with each tea and each tea-drinker's taste, usually 3-5 minutes.

Add more hot water as needed - most green teas can be steeped four or five times, with subtle flavour differences between each steeping.

Storing Green Tea
Green tea will keep well in a dark or opaque container with a tightly fitting lid, away from light, humidity and heat. A Chinese tea jar is perfect.

You might also enjoy: A Beginner's Guide to Pu'er Tea

Tea Footnote:
Qingming was a rewarding time for me because it marked the date of my very first, very tiny, publication about Chinese tea for Saveur, a food magazine I consider one of the world's best. It has been a long-held dream to write for them, however small! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

New York in Pictures: Where to Eat, What to Read, Where to Stay

Manhattan, as seen through the Brooklyn Bridge
I spent last week in New York, and as my friend Jules says, "Yeah, it sucks to be you." I know.

Yet travel has never been optional for me. I feel most alive when I'm on the move. If an opportunity arises (this time, a business trip taken by my husband Matt) I feel almost obliged to take advantage of it. My feet are permanently itchy, and as a result I'm pretty much permanently in debt.

But how wonderful is New York! It snowed heavily most of the week and so I waited until the sun came out to take most of my shots. Matt and I took a long rambling walk from midtown to downtown, across the Brooklyn Bridge, all over Brooklyn and Williamsburg, and finally back across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan. The day was sharp and clear and well below zero but what a stunning day!

North Manhattan skyline
Central Park after 8 inches of snow
Statue of Liberty and southern Manhattan
Midtown, from Central Park South
Brooklyn. Those brownstones!
Williamsburg Bridge and brave sub-zero jogger.

Earlier in the week, during the rainy/sleeting/snowing weather, I kept my heavy Nikon in the hotel and committed myself to exploring New York armed only with an iPhone. Forgive the grainy nature of some of the shots, but I have to say a phone takes a pretty good photo these days.

Tribeca. And the obligatory subway steam vent.
Snow, to sleet, and back to snow. 
I love the gilt mosaic tiles of these old subway place names. So beautiful.
And Grand Central Station. Having my Holden Caulfield moment. Sigh.
Then the snow began, in earnest.
I was forced to take refuge in the meat room at Gallaghers steakhouse. Those guys are serious about aged prime rib. 
And I may have needed coffee and pastries after. To ward off the chill.

New York was wondrous. I can't wait to go back again with my girls, because I know they would love it too.

If You Go:
Must Eat NYC - a great book recommended by Julie at Scrumptious Reads in Brisbane. Divided into areas, it comes with its own app so you don't need to lug the book around. I still lugged the book around. It's really beautifully photographed.

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks - Bonnie specialises in vintage and antique cookbooks, books about cooking and old recipes and ephemera. I spent several happy hours here and found a few treasures.

Catcher in the Rye - A New York classic. You have to read it. And if you've already read it, read it again. It will forever inform the way you see New York.

Places I ate at and enjoyed, in no particular order.

Little Park, 85 West Broadway Chef Andrew Carmellini is some kind of genius. Exquisite food, reasonable prices, and in a week where every meal was an opportunity to try something new, I went twice. Really good.

Prune, 54 East First St Gabrielle Hamilton's Lower East Side restaurant is a tiny crowded gem, where every single customer seems to be a regular. Gabrielle wrote Blood, Bones and Butter, the memoir of her life as a chef; and Prune the Cookbook has just become a NYT bestseller. Marvellous food, marvellous fun.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters Originally from Portland, Oregon, Stumptown coffee can be found in many of New York's best cafes. They have their own at 29th and Broadway. The coffee is excellent. The queue is long, but afterwards you can sit in the cosy lobby of the Ace Hotel (see below) to drink it.

Gallaghers Steakhouse 228 W 52nd Street Eat here if you're seeing a Broadway show. Dark wood panelling, waiters in white coats, very serious cocktails and even more serious steaks (did you see their meat locker, above?)

Buddakan I feel slightly reluctant to include this, simply on the basis that it was the scene for an episode of Sex and the City. I've never seen the episode. The dining room, however, is spectacular. And the food is well-executed, but you are definitely paying for the location. Dress up.

I don't have a long list for you here. We stayed here because a friend recommended it, and now I'm recommending it to you.
Ace Hotel, 29th and Broadway Very cool, much cooler than I am. But I like a hotel that has taxidermy and free wifi in the lobby so everyone in the (creative) neighbourhood spends their mornings, afternoons and evenings there drinking coffee. Industrial style, great location. Stumptown coffee downstairs.