Category Archives: Food

Japan: Culture Through Cooking

I love to eat and I’m an engineer. What better way to learn about a culture than to flame broil some tofu? This hands-on cooking course was perfect. Small groups, instruction in perfect English by locals and all about local food. Below we prepare a miso sauce firm tofu skewers. We learned the local uses of white versus red miso (white is for special occasions!)



And we also made Japanese spring chicken stew that is not so common in North America.


And lastly, interesting combinations of local crunchy cucumbers and the ever present dried fish!

DSC02783 cropped

Our hosts were lovely – see more at Cooking Sun and/or book at GoVoyagin!

There’s more to Hawaii than the beach

There’s chocolate too!!!  Yup, Hawaii has a working chocolate farm  It’s a small farm but gives tours and grows specific species of chocolate…heck, do you really need extra reasons to visit a chocolate farm???

They process pretty much everything by hand on the farm and the first thing you see is the chocolate – excuse me! the COCOA beans on drying racks in the Hawaiian sun

The smell in the air was pure chocolate

The smell in the air was pure chocolate

They look artistic from a different angle:

Beneath the drying rack

Beneath the drying rack


But we soon leave these behind to look at the actual trees growing row on row. The ground is littered with fallen leaves on purpose. They are dry and crackle when you walk on them and deep. It gives me pause to think what they might be covering up, but the whole place is quite dry and not hiding any nasty surprises like mud or mice.

The Cocoa tree grove with leaves carpetting the ground

The Cocoa tree grove with leaves carpetting the ground


If you’ve never seen cocoa pods on the tree before, they look like something out of an alien movie. The farm grows a couple kinds of cocoa and the colour and striations on the pods can differ. The cocoa flower is amazingly small. There was only one left on the tree.

These were piled in a wheelbarrow waiting to be processed

These were piled in a wheelbarrow waiting to be processed

I had to look hard to find it and then it was really hard to photograph at an awkward angle on a slippery floor

I had to look hard to find it and then it was really hard to photograph at an awkward angle on a slippery floor

Cocoa pods

The tour explains how it goes from these pods to cleaning to drying to a finished product. When the pods were cut open, we can see the seeds which are coated in a milky substance (also sweet) and attached to a fiber (also sweet) which some visitors found irresistable.

Fresh cocoa seeds and visitors

Fresh cocoa seeds and visitors


And the final product








Chinese New Year re-visited for meat eaters

Meat is a big thing in my family. Not only is food a central focal point for social gathering and bonding (how can you get into disagreements when your mouth is full?), there has to be meat – lots and lots of protein. In fact, in the current generation and the previous and the one before that, there is only two vegetarians and one is for religious reasons and the other medical.

So, due to various reasons, we ended up having a second family Chinese New Year dinner (see post of first one here). I only took photos of two dishes because then the food was served and eating was priority. One dish is very traditional – roast pork. I don’t mean traditional in the mystic more years than anyone can count Chinese tradition – I mean traditional in that anytime the family gets together to eat Chinese, someone has brought the roast pork. And we never cook this one ourselves (we have pig like qualities when it comes to quantity of food, but we don’t have the equipment or room to cook one; not to mention the last time I cooked crackling, the thing almost broke my teeth).

Roast Pork

The best part about roast pork is the crackling. It’s like a potato chip with the fatty goodness of a big roast. yum!

We (meaning my uncle who is a chef supreme in my family) did cook the chicken and mushroom dish. These mushrooms we call “doung-go” (that’s as close as I can get to the phonetics) – they are the dried shitake mushrooms (and just think how confusing that was for me growing up). The mushrooms and chicken are cooked separately:

Chicken CookingThese are dried shitake mushrooms that have been soaked overnight and then cooked down in water and seasoning (oyster sauce, soy sauce and hoisin)

Both are seasoned with similar ingrediants: dark soy, hoisin, oyster and soy paste and after both are cooked, they are combined for a delicious dish, proving that fairly ordinary looking components combine so their sum is greater than their parts!

Chicken and Dungoo

Happy Chinese New Year 2013!

Some of my best friends are snakes……and I mean that in the best of ways! My Aunt is a vegetarian so when I was invited for Chinese New Year dinner, I knew what I was in for – good thing I love her cooking.  I do apologize that I can’t tell you everything here, but I’ll do my best.

My first introduction to my Aunt’s vegetarian cooking was her sweet and sour dish. It’s made with all the usual ingredients substituting the breaded “surprise” pork bits with dried tofu (I know it as “fu-juk”). As my cousin says, a lot of people prefer this version once they taste it.

Sweet and sour

Another of my Aunt’s staple dishes is this eggplant stir fry. She uses the Chinese, narrow eggplant which is a lot firmer than the big ones we usually see in the supermarkets. And it’s nice and spicy so that even if you don’t like eggplant, you’ll love the gravy!


If you’ve ever been to a vegetarian Chinese restaurant or a Hollywood special effects shop, you’ll know the wonders they can do to make one thing look like something totally different. Hence the “salmon” with white sauce, the BBQ “pork” complete with the vivid-not-to-be-seen-in-nature red colouring and “squid” with snow peas stir fry.  I would love to know how they get the translucent nature of the squid though.

"Salmon" "Cha Sow" (BBQ Pork)"Squid" Dish

The dish below is your typical tofu stir fry using the “hard” tofu. Paired with the subtle taste of the winter melon and greens, all the flavours meld together very nicely.

Tofu and Winter Melon

I could not tell you everything in this dish. Even after my Aunt explains it to me every year, I still can’t tell you. I know there are gingko fruit (the yellow things) and mushrooms (the dark black things), tofu of course (the big things in the foreground) and I think there were potatoes or some other root vegetable and quite possible some more mushrooms (the stringy things there might be enoki mushrooms). In any case, it is a traditional new year’s dish!

Traditional Chinese New Year Dish

And of course, no Chinese meal would be complete without the sweet mandarins!!!


What says “Jamaica” to me?

My Jamaica is not just the beach. When I speak with fellow Jamaicans or when I am back in the homeland, the one thing that screams “I’m back ayard!!” more than the patties or oxtail or ackee is what we Jamaicans do to names. People’s names, street names, town names….anything is fair game.

When I was growing up far from the island, I always associated food with my culture. It was so different than the Canadian food – full of peppa (HOT peppers) and spicees and rich sauces and flava (flavour)!! Not to mention the exotic ingredients – cassava, oxtail (yes, real tail from real ox, not like the British toad in the hole which doesn’t involve any real toads), okra and plantain (the sweet fruit, not that leafy green medicinal plant).

The next stage was when I met my cousins and aunts and uncles who all still held onto their Jamaican accent. I still remember with some trepidation one of the first dinner parties where I could not understand a word Uncle T said. I had to find my mom and ask her if he was speaking a different language. Oh, how I wanted (still want) to speak like them! It was musical, intriguing and it was “home”.

But I realize now that more than the rum that leaks from our very pores (comes from having it poured on us every time it rains), it is the use of language that ties us together. This is what allows us to recognize each other as soon as someone walks through the door and you hear “Awhahappen?” But you know the soul of a Jamaican by how they use the language. We don’t bat an eye at names like Pretty (uncle) or nicknames like Plumby (uncle – spelling approximate as I’ve never actually seen it written – real name Ronald), Cutie (aunt), Evadne, etc.

We also use it to be a colourful descriptor. So while you can certainly find a “Main Street” (actually Avenue) in Kingston, Jamaica, you are just as likely to run across “Half Way Tree Road” or “Birdsucker Lane” or “Constant Spring road” or even “Red Hills Road”.  Each name conjuring up a visual or indicating that there must be a story behind the name. The most innocuous name I saw on my last visit was “Orange Grove” and even that makes you think of bright orange fruit with a leafy green backdrop!

However, it’s not all fun and interesting names. I was in my early 20s before I realized that one very ordinary and plain word was being used to indicate the staple of boiled yams and bananas in our diet. This, they call “food”.

Review: Bamboo restaurant (Hawaii)

Hawaiian cuisine – I had no expectations in this area as I was headed to the beach!!!!  Plus I had heard that the luaus were very expensive and a lot of them were very touristy. We had just been on a day trip when we ended up in Hawi close to dinner time. My Aunt and Uncle always wanted to try this place so we decided to stay until service started (about 30 min) and made reservations.

Bamboo is a restaurant, store and art gallery all rolled into one. And it’s in a little town of Hawi, which was actually one of the bigger settlements in the North part of the Big Island. But the restaurant is well known and it was a “destination” – it must have been because by the time we came back for our reservation at 6pm, two tables were already seated before us and by the time we got the menu, the front room was full. On a Wednesday night. Before 6:30.

Travel tip #76: Restaurants crowded with LOCALS are always good bets. If they are crowded with TOURISTS….well, at least the drinks are fresh for sure.

Between the 4 of us at the table, two had the fish of the day (mahi mahi) done two different ways; one had the luau port and I had the Vietnamese salad. Both of the fish dishes were good (and one person didn’t even like fish usually!). The coconut  crusted, pan fired fish looked delicious and the Hawaiian baked was done as ordered (well, well, well done) and my Uncle cleaned his plate. My Aunt kept raving about the pork and cabbage saying it tasted like it really did come from a genuine luau. My Vietnamese salad was just what I wanted. Light, crunchy with a nice flavour. The veggie spring rolls that came with it were flavourful and the soba noodles held onto the sweet chili sauce in just the right amount. The grilled chicken (also came in veggie and tofu variety) was also done nicely and the lettuce and other crunchy veggies set it all off well.

If you are in the area, I would definitely recommend Bamboo!


Review: The Hawaiian Vanilla Company

mmmm, Vanilla! An unexpected treat was finding a vanilla farm on the Big Island. This company is the only vanilla farm in the US. Their story is interesting and their products are top quality, but what we really loved was the lunch! We signed up for the lunch and farm tour not really knowing what to expect, but it sounding like something different to do. The lunch was actually a guided tasting, demonstration and information session all rolled into one. First, we chose between vanilla iced tea or vanilla lemonade or a mixture called the Arnold Palmer. Now, you don’t expect much from a drink with vanilla (remember that you don’t actually taste vanilla), but this was yummy!  As we learnt, vanilla acts to meld and combine flavours so it lessons the tartness of the lemons and mellows the astringency of the tea.

Then, the chef demonstrated the appetizer. I may not get the whole thing right, but it was a vanilla curry shrimp on a toast point with pineapple vanilla chutney. As I was allergic to shellfish, I had it with brie instead of shrimp. Again, the sweetness of the chutney was just right – not too sugary. Now, at this point, what was supposed to have been just lunch and a tour was rapidly becoming a shopping trip since they carried most of these products in the store. But my Aunt and I thought we would still be able to get out of there with under $100 worth of goods.

The main was a chicken sandwich and salad – with vanilla of course! The salad dressing was vanilla-raspberry vinaigrette and it wasn’t like any vinaigrette I’d ever tasted. The sharp acidic notes were all rounded out and complemented the feta and pecans beautifully. The sandwich, which already had a marinade of citrus-bourbon (vanilla) on the chicken and onions also came with 2 sauces: mango aioli and barbeque (with vanilla). But the bread itself incorporated the vanilla.

Now, at this point, you may be thinking enough with the vanilla! But it really added to the flavours that were already there. Not overwhelming at all.

With the 2 sauces (3 eating possibilities if you blend them) and the actual sandwich, we decided on a empirical eating experience, cutting the sandwich in quarters so we could have all 4 tastings. Personally, I preferred the vanilla barbeque sauce by itself, but it was all yummy. At this point, my aunt and I decided we’d probably be going over $100 walking out of the store.

(oh, did I forget to mention the oven-roasted taters?)

Lastly, dessert. Finally! THIS is what vanilla was made for – the sweet stuff! Dessert was vanilla (duh!) ice cream with a lilikoi (passionfruit) curd. (Note the empty glasses in the background). One of the best desserts I’ve had in a long, long, long time. The curd was neither sickeningly sweet as some can be nor terribly tart as commercial lemon ones can be – just right.

Ian (the oldest son) was the one who gave us the farm tour as well as hosted the lunch and is a wealth of information (how can you really argue with anyone who’s been growing vanilla since he was 6 years old? – although I still say he should have sang for us the way we saw on the video). The tour is interesting for anyone who has never seen a real vanilla plant or who is interested in orchids!

In short, I’d highly recommend this as one of your stops on the Big Island!  (oh, and if you were keeping track, I did make it out of the store with less than $200 worth of products!)

On the Wonderful-ness of little white boxes and ribbons

I don’t do elaborate and fancy dinners or parties for my birthday anymore for a lot of different reasons. Just a few presents from close family and a nice family dinner. But I have a friend who always remembers and brings me a box of gorgeous mini-cupcakes from Life is Sweet. The sight of the white bakery box wrapped in red checkered ribbon always makes my eyes light up and puts a little spring in my step.

You see, the family dinner and birthday cards rolling in from extended family and friends around the world are slow pleasures. They draw out my birthday and make it seem like a month long celebration. And the “happy birthday”s on facebook are little happy blips in that, letting me know that my FB friends liked me enough to take a minute and wish me happy birthday when FB reminded them.

But that little white box is different! Just a glimpse of the box when my friend gets out of the car means my heart lifts because someone remembered me and went out of her way to get me something. And makes me grin because if you can’t smile at cupcakes, then you need therapy, and it’s cupcakes not a knick-knack or something I may or may not want/have a place for/know how to use or have to dust. And the simplicity is lovely – clean lines, crisp bow. Because it gives me choice among the dozen flavours where whatever I chose is the right choice. And because they are pretty cupcakes, but not too pretty to eat (whatever that is).

So the next time you want to send someone a complicated, complex, profound message – do it with cupcakes.

Yes! It’s a little white bakery box with a bow! Only good things can be inside!

Couldn’t get the bow undone, used scissors! Is that assorted I see?!

Sooo pretty, and yummy…..Started with the mmhn mint chocolate chip, but mmnnh the caramel looks mmsh good too

Ackee means love

It was a common joke to say that I treat my Dad’s house like my grocery store – specifically the Chinese and Jamaican goods that my Uncle always stocks. (And the day I learn to tell one preserved mustard green in a vacuum pack from another, I will stop this practice.) So, the other night, when it was late and the family were chatting away and the subject of how Dad cooked Jamaica’s (unofficial) national dish came up, I got the inevitable teasing that I wanted to know if that was breakfast and if it was worthwhile my staying over for the night. I maintain that it was NOT a self-serving question, but a genuine exchange of information that is a cornerstone of our national and familial culture.

Food is always a good topic to discuss for Chinese and Jamaicans and if you put the two together (Chinese Jamaican or Jamaican Chinese), you double the subject matter available to you! In fact, I guarantee that if you mention this blog to a Chinese or Jamaican, you have enough conversation to last minimum 45 minutes and if you are in the person’s home, you will be offered at least a package or something to look at if not to taste.

We had just gotten a bit of breadfruit (don’t use the wiki site to look this up – go to this one) and the natural thing to go with this is ackee and saltfish.  My Dad said he would cook that. Now, I can’t recall my Dad ever cooking ackee (the “and saltfish” part is understood – leave it off to sound more native). EVER. He usually cooks North American foods – BBQ, ribs, lasagna, etc. My mom always did the Chinese cooking and my uncle did the Jamaican cooking. So, naturally, I had to ask if he knew HOW to cook ackee. With two of my uncles sitting right there, this led to a discussion of everything from which brand to buy (at $10 a tin, you have to make sure you get the right one), to how to rinse the ackee to how to marry the ackee with the saltfish. There was also a revelation and instruction to Uncle L that no, not everyone mashes up their ackee so it really does matter what brand you buy, thank you very much!

I certainly learnt a lot in the conversation not the least of which was that the men in the family did most of the cooking and were quite serious about it. They weren’t really talking about recipes; they were saying to me “here’s our culture. This is what we know and who we are. Don’t forget. And p.s., we’re family” – no hugging required.
And for those who are detailed oriented:

Brands of ackee – usually we bought Grace’s because their ackee held together well, but now they white label their products, so the firmness is pretty much the same as the others, except my uncles don’t buy Mr. Goudas for some reason and butter ackee can get mixed in with others so be prepared for it to fall apart

How to rinse – range of techniques; if you boil your saltfish instead of just soaking, you can use the same water after taking the saltfish out – either keep it boiling and blanch the ackee, turn off the stove and just drop the ackee in the hot water or pour the hot water over the ackee

How to combine – after sauteeing the saltfish with onion (all agree), tomatoe (disagreement there) and/or bacon (options available here for availability and vegetarianism) in a little or a lot of oil, you can add the ackee and turn off the stove and mix; pour saltfish mixture over ackee in dish and mix; add ackee and saute further; add ackee, turn down heat, cover and let simmer

So, you see why it was even later when the conversation finished and I had to stay over (I tend to crash my car when I’m tired) and have breadfruit and ackee and saltfish the next morning?

May cause serious drooling

WARNING!!! May cause serious drooling! If you can gain weight by visual aids, stop reading now. WARNING!!!

It’s the Jamaican part of me that screams for full fat cream and whole milk rather than sweet. Hence my favourite desserts from my last trip to Europe all involve cream of some sort. The first, on one of our first nights in Florence was the Tiramisu at a highly rated restaurant (Al Tramvai). It’s a pretty standard Italian dessert so it was a good gauge of the restaurant. I nearly licked the plate clean. It had just the right balance of cream to chocolate to whatever they soaked the lady fingers in…


My friend had the Panna Cotta. I’ve never successfully made this dessert, but just reading the recipe makes my mouth water. This one lived up to it’s name. It shone in its simplicity. Please excuse the slight blurriness of the photo – I had just taken a bit of my tiramisu.


However, the surprise was the gelato in Munich. Below was my “light” choice of a crepe with amaretto biscuits, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. The crepe was warm, the ice cream cold, the biscuits just slightly warm and soft enough to not crunch. Oh and whipping (chantilly) cream


And to show what I meant by “light” dessert – see what everyone else had!


Parting thought from Florence – with window displays like these – why wouldn’t you go??


Speical thanks to mango.shenanigans for reminding of the pleasures of food photography!