To a crackerjack 2015!

Our view of the Opera House at midnight

Our view of the Opera House at midnight

Happy New Year from Sydney! I hope you’ve had a great start to 2015. This was our first Christmas and New Year (or “festive season” as the locals call it) in Sydney and we’ve had a fantastic time.

We decided to embrace the hot weather and spent Christmas Day on the beach this year. We even spent a good chunk of New Year’s Day drinking and hanging out by Bondi. How ‘Strayan is that? My family’s been in town these last few weeks and we’ve had a ton of fun (re)discovering Sydney and spending some quality time together.

I was very impressed with all the Santa hats in 30C weather

This year, instead of drawing up a list of resolutions that I’ll likely never revisit, I decided to pick one word to capture my focus for 2015. I figured a single word would be easy to remember and easy for me to come back to. So, for 2015, my word is “strength”.

My focus is on having the strength to make tough choices, to push myself out of my comfort zone, to be disciplined about pursuing the things I care about and saying no to the things (and people) that detract. I’m also resolving to keep my existing strengths in mind and to draw upon them, hone them and appreciate them. Lastly, I’m committing to staying on my trajectory of getting fitter and healthier and stronger every day. I’ll be pushing myself harder, cooking (even) more and hopefully logging a few personal bests (and firsts) along the way. To 2015… to strength!

Product of the Month: Vinomofo

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When we first moved to Australia, we were shocked by the prices. Coming from NYC, where you can pay $3,000 / month for a shoebox studio, you’d think that moving elsewhere would be like getting a big bonus every year. Not true.  Sydney has a reputation for its prices: skyhigh rents, inflated public transport, exhorbitant food and drink and even a bleed-me-dry coffee culture. The silver lining is that most of the time you do get what you pay for. Sydney’s real estate market offers beautiful, spacious and varied options. The city itself is clean, green and naturally stunning and many neighbourhoods have their own park(s) or, better still, beaches. The fresh produce is phenomenal, the bar for basic food and drink is extremely high and the coffee is famously delicious. In fact, there are even a few things that are cheaper in Sydney.

australia-dollars

I digress from my complaint: one thing that you pay way more for in Australia is alcohol. A six pack of beer will cost $15-$20 in Australia, vs. $10 in the US. An average bottle of wine will set you back $20. When I saw Yellowtail, the face of mass-produced Australian critter wine selling for $12.99 at my local bottle-o (vs. a paltry $6.99 in the US!), I knew the Aussie rip-off was real. Australians, of course, love their alcohol so it’s fascinating that beer, wine and spirits are taxed so heavily, representing as they do, the “sin goods”.

Australia's Hunter Valley in the spring.

Australia’s Hunter Valley in the spring.

What’s more ironic is that Australia is one of the world’s biggest wine producers, ranking 6th after France, Italy, Spain, the US and Argentina.  From South Australia’s Barossa, Coonawarra and Mclaren Vale to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley and Mudgee and finally to Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Western Australia’s Margaret River — Australia has some of world’s most revered wine regions and Australians have the wine smarts (palettes?) to boot.  So what about these prices?

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 10.57.09 pmMy favourite product this month is Vinomofo: an Melbourne-based startup that lets you indulge your wine obsession without breaking the bank. Vinomofo assembles epic deals on award-winning wines, sells them online with a generous serving of quirk, and ships them directly to your doorstep. Each wine carried by Vinomofo is approved by their rigorous tasting panel and the company claims that less than 2% of wines submitted to them are acccepted.  Not happy with what you got? You have 365 days to return it — “the ‘fo” will even pick up it up and cover the cost of return shipping. No annoying emails, no subscription needed, nothing but sweet, delicious wine.

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Everything on Vinomofo is sold by the case; you can choose from a mixed case or go with a single label.  You can also choose from an array of “black market” deals — all you’ll know is the grape, the region and the rating out of 100 (if worth revealing). You might get a witty blurb on why that particular case is awesome and, if it’s a mixed case, you might get a few tasting notes on each of the wines. I bought a black market mixed case recently and have been bowled over by the quality, I’m yet to find a bottle I don’t love and the whole thing cost me no more than $120. You heard me, that’s $10 per bottle.

JonStewartMindblown

My introduction to Vinomofo came from a colleague and fellow wine-lover. Four or five of us have succumbed to ordering a case every so often and splitting the spoils. We’ve poo-poohed the wines on offer at company happy hour and have resorted to bringing our own mofo’s to Friday drinks (BYOM trend? You heard it here first). Needless to say, I have a lot of wine on my desk and even more piling up at home.

Doesn't hold a candle to the 'fo

Doesn’t hold a candle to the ‘fo

Of course, after discovering Vinomofo, I tried to think of the US equivalent and had a hard time. The best I could come up with was Lot18, a New York based company with a hard to pronounce name (“lotta tea”?) and, what looks like more of a traditional ecommerce, “always on” sales model. Aside from the dryness of the website (no pun intended), the thing that’s really offputting about Lot18 is the prices: pretty much every wine featured on the landing page was priced at over $60. If I wanted to pay that much, I wouldn’t order it online. I wouldn’t pay their $12.99 for shipping with no returns (forget about a 365 day guarantee!). And I wouldn’t buy just two bottles.

I’ve been spoiled. For good. And it’s great.

Best things about Sydney: festival fever

A few months ago I started the first in a series of posts about Sydney, specifically my five favourite things about the city.  Well it’s time to tell you about another one of the city’s highlights — the festivals.

Sydney is a city of festivals.  There’s always something on and there’s always something around the corner.  We’ve kept our ears to the ground and our eyes peeled but really you have to be living under a rock to not take notice. So what counts a festival, anyway? If the word conjures up images of hotdogs, icecream cones and stripy tents, you’re close but probably thinking of a kiddy carnival.  A festival, or at least a Sydney one, usually involves trendy food being eaten, fancy drinks being quaffed and general fun being had by all. Pretty terrible, eh?

Food and wine tents at the annual Pyrmont Festival
Food and wine tents at the Pyrmont Festival in Pirrama Park, Apr ’14
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Summer sounds in the Domain during Sydney Festival, Jan ’14
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Lanterns at the night noodle markets, Oct ’13
Lines for the ramen burger were looong
Long lines for the ramen burger

The most recent festival to take the city by storm is Vivid. Spread over two and a half weeks in May and June, the spectacular lightshow has achieved international acclaim, not in small part due to its status as an instagrammer’s paradise. Vivid attracted over 500,000 visitors this year alone, injecting new life into the Sydney winter.

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vivid-sydney-20141

The festival is best known for large scale projections of colourful designs onto historic buildings like the customs house, the museum of contemporary art and of course the iconic Opera House. This year, there were a number of interactive light and sound installations and a series of forums for exchanging creative ideas.

The MLC dome during Vivid

The urban tree project

Bit.fall, an amazing water exhibit we saw earlier this year at Tasmania’s MONA was installed right outside my office in Martin Place while the MLC building was transformed into a 3D tree house, complete with a forest canopy, tropical weather and an appropriate number of bugs.  Vivid is a family affair, attracting hordes of both young and old and swarming the CBD. If you missed it this time around, fret not, for the next festival — Sydney’s film festival — has already begun.

Five Things I Love About Sydney: #1

My Bondi Backyard

My Bondi Backyard

We’ve been in Sydney 9 months now.  Nine.Whole.Months.  Holy smokes, where did the time go?

As we approach our 1 year anniversary in this wonderful, crazy town, I thought it appropriate to reflect on some of the Australian things I’d now be hard pressed to live without.  Stay tuned for a series of blog posts with my top 5.  Here’s the first.

No Dramas

Australians have a remarkable tendency to downplay everything. This comes, no doubt, from their British roots. When they say they’re a bit sniffly, they have the flu; when they’re peckish, chances are they havent eaten in 24 hours and if you hear an Aussie say they’re in need of a lie down, it’s probably because they’ve pulled an all nighter at work, gotten caught in a rip while ocean swimming, torn their ACL, narrowly escaped the jaws of a shark or all of the above.

Y U SO COOL

I think this is partly an Australian aversion to complaining (and attention-seeking) and partly that Australians are just plain tougher than most people.  Sydneysiders will traipse through their winters in shorts and a T shirt.  Now, granted it’s doesn’t get as cold as Boston down here, but with these poorly insulated houses it can get pretty darn brisk in that 5-15C band. They’ll also jump off cliffs, brush off stings from blueys (as long as it’s not a box jellyfish), start running ultra marathons when they’re 45 and wake up at 6am on a Saturday so that they can get in a soft sand run or a bike ride before an 830 brekky.

Work Hard, Play Hard

Work Hard, Play Hard: Kiteboarding in Melbourne

While it’s fairly standard in New York to answer the “how’s work?” question with an honest assessment (aka whine) about your hours and stress levels, you’ll be hard pressed in Australia to hear anyone say they worked on the weekend (even if they did). Working on the weekend is an admission of failure in Australia.  It means you failed to finish your work during the week and you suck at time management or simply that you’re so dull that you couldn’t come up with anything else to occupy yourself (or to talk about) on what should have been a two day holiday.

Let’s translate these real quotes:

1. When asked what he thought of the movie:

Aussie: “Yeah, I didn’t mind it”

Translation: “I thought it was pretty good”

2. When asked if there are crocodiles in the water:

Aussie: “Nah, might see a few freshies though

Translation: “You won’t see a saltwater croc but there are heaps of freshwater crocs.  They’ll only attack if you swim directly over one or disturb it.  The chances of that happening are medium to high, but I’m going to go in anyway. ”

3. When asked how the morning was:

Aussie: “Yeah good. Am wide awake after bootcamp.

Translation: “I woke up at 530am and drove to the beach to spend an hour throwing sandbags, squatting with impossible weights and soft sand running with 25 other people before heading home in time to make breakfast for my partner and three children and getting ready for a 45min commute to work.”

Uge

Bondi bootcamp 6.40am

The “no dramas” attitude is one of my favourite things about Aussie culture because it’s a constant reminder that a) life in a developed country really isn’t that hard, and b) the world does not, in fact, revolve around you.  Your woes are but a tiny drop in the vast ocean of humanity and conversations shouldn’t be about getting attention anyway: so brush it off, suck it up and move on to the next adventure.

Unfortunately, this aspect of Australianism rarely makes it across the Pacific intact.  Like a game of telephone, by the time the message reaches the States, the understatedness has usually been reframed as “Australians are laid back”, “they go to work in flip flops” or the all-time favourite “they’re just plain lazy”.

I’ll admit, we’d heard our fair share of Aussie stereotypes when we left New York but it took less than a week in Sydney to have them blown away.  Truth be told, Sydneysiders are hardcore. They’re hard core about getting things done, about dressing up, about drinking, about getting up early and staying out late and, above all, they’re hardcore about the outdoors.

Because there isn’t much of a face time culture in Sydney offices and because there’s so little talking about work outside of work, it isn’t much of a leap for an American to conclude that his Australian cousin is a lazy nine-to-fiver just waiting to pull his next sickie and skive off at the beach.

How Americans imagine Australians to dress

One of my favourite quotes from a colleague in New York: “Well at least you’ll get to kick back.  An Aussie girl’s idea of dressing up is throwing on a pair of Uggs”.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.  Sydney is one of THE most dressed up cities I’ve been in.  Any and every excuse to dress up is seized by the horns, whether work, travel or the Australian favourite: a day at the races.

Melbourne cup

How Australians really dress

Sydneysiders are working harder than ever (and relying on some deliciously healthy food) to stay fit, healthy and beautiful. A short stroll through the CBD, Bondi, Surry Hills or really any central Sydney neighbourhood is all the motivation you’ll need to get back on that treadmill (or soft sand).  Need some inspiration from afar? Check out Uge’s gallery at www.aquabumps.com.  Either way, no dramas bro.

Six foods that are all the rage in Sydney

1. Halloumi. 

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Picture from foodytwoshoes.com

This salty, springy cheese hails from Cyprus and has been popular in the area encompassing Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan since the Byzantine era.  Wikipedia notes “Halloumi has recently become very popular in the United Kingdom.” Yup, an article in the BBC this past September attempts to address how halloumi took over the UK, elevating itself from a niche grocery store product to a staple at summer BBQs.

Add Sydney to the list.  Wherever you go, you’ll delight at spotting this salty, squeaky cheese on Sydney menus — whether in place of meat in burgers and sandwiches, as an ingredient in fresh salads (especially with watermelon) or on its own, as a side, grilled and dripping with flavour. My favourite halloumi in the city is in the form of Bondi Massive’s delectable pesto and halloumi sammy.

2. Muesli

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Picture from thekitchn.com

I’ve written about muesli a couple of times but it bears noting as a staple in Sydney.  Whether you’re in line for your morning cuppa or you’re browsing your local supermarket, muesli jumps out at you from every corner.  As in England, muesli is the king of breakfast here, beating back the efforts of that sugary sweet poster child for American healthy eating, otherwise known as granola.  Just so we’re on the same page, here’s the difference:

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Picture from Livestrong.com

  • Muesli and granola were both developed in the late 1800s in different parts of the world.  Muesli was developed by Swiss-German physician and nutritionist Max Bircher-Benner as a natural, raw food to help his patients during convalescence.  Granola was developed by Dr. James Caleb Jackson at the Jackson Sanitarium in New York.
  • Muesli is unbaked and doesn’t contain sweetener or oil.  Granola on the other hand usually contains one or more of maple syrup, brown sugar or honey as well as vegetable oil or butter.
  • Granola is typically harder than muesli.  The sweeteners in granola cause the oats, seeds and other goodies to clump together and, harden into sugary clusters.  While this gives granola that satisfying crunch and pretty glaze, it also gives it that tendency to get stuck in our teeth.
  • In other words, compared cup for cup as an average of all brands, muesli has 289 calories whereas granola has a whopping 500+ calories. A few interesting reports from Livestrong and Shape.

If that isn’t enough reason to switch, check out this delicious bircher muesli recipe by My New Roots.

3. Chia Seeds

I first came across chia seeds a few blocks from my old New York apartment in the West Village.  There is a deliciously quaint store on Carmine Street called Victory Garden that specializes in locally sourced goats milk, mastic and chia seed products.  They’re better known for their goat’s milk soft serve ice cream (check out their foursquare photo feed) but Victory Garden makes a to-die-for chia seed parfait that I’ve indulged in after many a morning workout, despite lingering doubts about where it falls on the healthy breakfast vs. dessert pudding spectrum.  The parfait is made with cashew milk and sweetened with a hint of agave.

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Victory Garden’s delicious chia seed parfait.  Pic by seriouseats.com

Anyway, I was intrigued to learn that chia seeds have had quite the impact on the Sydney food scene, with a conspicuous presence in breakfast foods, desserts and the ubiquitous grocery aisle.  I’m still figuring out how to reconstruct that delicious parfait, but in the meantime, I’ve incorporated this uber super food into my weekend breakfast drinks.

4. Passionfruit

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Passiflora Edulis: the other worldly flower of the passionfruit

Sydney, or Australia really, has an abundance of passionfruit.  You can buy three fresh passionfruit for $2 at Harris Farms (Sydney’s answer to Whole Foods) and any crunchy grocery store will have its own version of homemade yoghurt with fresh passionfruit. You’ll also encounter passionfruit in Sydney desserts (especially pavlova) and cocktails.

Coming from the US, where passionfruit sits squarely in the exotic category alongside mangoes (also somewhat more common here) it’s been a real treat to indulge in them here.

5. Laksa

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Get the recipe at taste.com.au

The first time I had laksa in New York, I was at Double Crown, sampling, what can only be described with political incorrectness, as their colonial British menu. It was tangy, spicy, smooth and delicious.  I loved it.  Funny then how you can find laksa on every street corner in Sydney’s CBD.  It’s so mainstream that the popular Aussie salad bar chain “Sumo Salad” offers it on their health-conscious menu.  Laksa is popular in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and comes in a variety of preparations.  The kind I’ve sampled in Sydney is a rich coconut-based soup with thick noodles, prawns and a dollop of sambal.  It’s probably more popular with chicken.

While Laksa is an example of a popular Asian dish here in Sydney that isn’t (or doesn’t seem to have made it) big in the States, I could replace this point with an entire category of Asian food.  Central Sydney is an Asian food lover’s paradise with everything from fresh dumplings, “yum cha” (dim sum) and hand pulled noodles to elaborate duck and seafood preparations.  Thai, Malay, and Singaporean dishes, in particular, have more of a representation here than in New York.

6. Spices

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Dukkah-crusted salmon, recipe at taste.com.au

A bit broad and not technically “a food”, but I’m not sure how to put this other than to say Sydneysiders are the kings of spice.  Harissa, DukkahChermoula and Sambal are all fairly mainstream here and, again, feature prominently on both restaurant menus as well as in supermarket aisles.  Dukkah crusted salmon, in particular, is a popular dish that springs to mind.  I’m not complaining.  Although our small fridge coupled with my husband’s love for collecting condiments may soon lead to some challenges…