Sri Lanka Day 2

We packed a lot into half a day in Colombo yesterday and took a car in the afternoon to Kandy. It’s only 140km but the drive took more than three and half hours. The idea was that we spend the night in Kandy and head out this morning for a four day trek through the Knuckles Mountain Range (more on that later).  Five highlights and observations:

Religion: Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country with over 70% of its population identifying as Buddhist. Hinduism and Islam are close, representing 13% and 10% of the population respectively, and Christians make up the remaining 7%. Buddhism plays a big role in the country’s culture and its importance is visible everywhere – from art to architecture.  We made a trip to the big Buddha temple in Colombo and later visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy and both are spectacular. Still, it was beautiful to see that smaller Buddhist temples are often flanked by a Hindu temple on one side and a mosque on the other. It really feels like Sri Lanka is very tolerant and accepting of all faiths.

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Food: Sri Lankan food is simply glorious and it shocks me that it’s still relatively unknown in the Western World. Rice features heavily, as do spices and coconut, but it’s all a little unique and clever. One of my favourites is the “hopper”. Made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk, hoppers look like small bowls or baskets that you can fill with sambol, eggs, curry – whatever you fancy really. There are also “string hoppers” which look a little like spaghetti, fashioned into round placemats. Simply divine!

 

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Hoppers, string hoppers, dosa and more for breakfast

Seafood is big in Colombo and “kottu”,  a street food comprising chopped up roti, vegetables and often chicken in a kind of stir fry, is a mainstay. I hear kottu is fast popping up on menus in Toronto and New York.

Tropical Fruit: Sri Lanka also does an amazing job with fruit and you’ll see ramshackle stalls selling fresh finds pretty much everywhere you go. Aside from papaya, king coconut and bananas, there’s guava, sour sop, custard apple, wood apple, pineapple, watermelon and star fruit. One of the more interesting things I found was jackfruit and breadfruit. I’ve seen jackfruit in India and never been a fan, but breadfruit – never heard of it! It turns out to be popular as a curry and could pass for potatoes.

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King Coconuts everywhere

Rain: It rains a LOT in the hill country. Not just in terms of frequency (often all day) but in sheer volume. This is not the lame duck rain of the British Isles, it’s the roof battering, window smattering kind of relentless rain that will rouse you from a good night’s sleep. It also means there’s a lot of mist and fog. I’m not complaining because I like rain (but OK maybe I am a bit).

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Ivory: There’s an awful lot of ivory in Sri Lanka. Massive tusks adorn Buddhist temples and flank the entrance to every shrine. Ivory sculptures and figurines litter holy places. I’m sure (I hope) much of this pre-dates the ban on ivory but it’s still disturbing to see something so obviously cruel being celebrated so widely. We talked to one of the guides about this and he said the government has recently cracked down as part of an agreement with SAARC and that there are plans to burn crates of ivory recently confiscated from poachers.

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Sri Lanka Day 1

Hello almost 2016! It’s been a while since I attempted to capture an adventure. We’ve had some amazing weekend getaways in Australia this year but truth be told, this is the first time I’ve left the country for fun since August. 

In any case, we’re spending the next week in Sri Lanka, eating tropical fruit from roadside stalls, trekking through hills and rainforest and soaking up the sun, sand and sea on the coast of Galle. 

We landed in Colombo late last night and already I love it. I have a pesky habit of comparing every developing country to India and, with Sri Lanka being its neighbour and all, this time is no different. Here’s what I noticed on Day 1: 

1. The Roads: Urban Sri Lankan roads are a dream compared to India — wide, clean, well paved and fast. If you’ve spent any time in Mumbai or Delhi, I know you’ll appreciate this as much as I. There’s no gridlock, no incessant horn blowing, no potholes masquerading as speed bumps and you’re not competing for lane space with Sudha, the cow. We saw most of Colombo on foot or by tuk tuk today and it was smooth sailing.

2. King Coconuts: The first time I saw these I was utterly confused. They’re a golden yellow just like a papaya but they’re up in palm trees and look stout and roundish, rather than oval and elongated. Turns out they’re a species of coconut native to Sri Lanka that beat the pants off the regular old green coconut when it comes to coconut water. In fact, they’re harvested solely for their water, and produce no meat. King Coconut water is packed with electrolytes, vitamins and minerals and features prominently in Sri Lankan Ayurvedic remedies. You can buy a fresh King Coconut at just about every roadside shack and have the top cut off and a straw stuck in. The trees themselves are everywhere — there’s literally a King Coconut tree every 15 metres on the drive from Colombo to Kandy. Coming soon to a [fancy grocery chain] near you. 

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3. Wood Apple juice: If you haven’t heard of or tried a wood apple, you’re not alone. This is a small round fruit native to the Indian subcontinent, and better known under the local name “bael” (pronounced “bale” like a hay bale). While it’s smooth and un-intimidating on the outside, it’s quite alien looking on the inside and yields a sweet and sour flavour probably best described as an acquired taste. I’ve never been much of a fan but the juice itself is intriguing. Extremely popular in Sri Lanka and parts of South India, Wood Apple juice is packed with anti-oxidants. Its anti microbial and anti inflammatory properties give it a cooling effect on the body and make it a potent digestif. Super fruit of 2016?
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4. Lush: I’ve been to plenty of tropical countries but when it comes to green vegetation, I think Sri Lanka’s probably hard to beat. Driving through the southern highlands, there are palm trees, banana trees, mango trees and much more as far as the eye can see. The grass is truly green and the hills are wooly with shrubs. Just 5-10 degrees north of the equator, Sri Lanka’s temperatures changes little throughout the year and it gets plenty of rainfall, which no doubt contributes to the gorgeous, verdant landscape.
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5. Population: Colombo looks the way I’d imagine Delhi or Bombay to look 25 years ago, or probably the way they did look 25 years ago. It’s clean, civilised, safe and there’s little poverty to be seen. There are plenty of women out and about and even the roadside shacks look clean and germ free. That’s not to say it’s sparsely populated — quite the contrary. Home to 20 million people, Sri Lanka is like taking all the people in Australia and squeezing them into Tasmania.

Tuscany Day 3: Mist, Medieval Towns and Gelato Dondoli

It’s our second morning (third day) in Tuscany and I popped out of bed at 6am, hoping to catch another spectacular sunrise. Instead, I woke up to this.

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Tuscan mist. Wispy, eerie, magical. It blankets the hills and casts an other worldly air over the valley. Like the rows of perfectly coiffed Cypress trees, this is another of those iconic Tuscan scenes. Photographers travel far and wide to capture Tuscan mist so I was more than happy to wander the hotel grounds for a good hour soaking it in and watching it move and shift. I’m now very grateful for the relentless downpour that started at 4pm yesterday. If rain means mist, bring it on!

Here’s the rest of my top 5:

1. Medieval Towns: One of my favourite things about Tuscany so far, is exploring its picture-postcard hilltop towns. Almost all are surrounded by high stone walls and most boast gorgeous views of the rolling Tuscan hills, olive groves and geometric vineyards. Walking around their tiny, cobblestone streets and higgledy piggledy houses, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been transported back in time. We visited Casole d’Elsa, Volterra and San Gimignano today. The former is small and sleepy with some picturesque views while the latter two turned out to be popular spots on the tourist trail and were bustling with activity.

2. Il Colombaio: We had lunch today at Il Colombaio, just outside the town walls of Casole d’Elsa. Don’t be fooled by the random location and the nondescript exterior – the food is excellent (and they have a Michelin star to prove it).  Tuscan cuisine is renowned throughout Italy and the region is blessed with plentiful fish and seafood as well as lamb, game and even wild boar. If you’re looking for a modern twist on the classics, definitely check out Il Colombaio.

3. The Roman Theatre at Volterra: A number of people had recommended visiting Volterra but we arrived to find hordes of people milling outside the city walls. Inside, it was so crowded, it was hard to move. As it turned out, Volterra was hosting a renaissance fair and families had travelled from all over Italy to attend. Luckily, the area also boasts an impressive Roman Theatre just outside the town walls, so we contented ourselves with exploring that instead.

4. Panforte and Aperol Spritz: If I could go back and visit only one town in Tuscany, it would probably be San Gimignano. It’s popular and busy, but for good reason. We stopped at a tiny hole-in-the wall to sample some panforte and ended up sitting outside for a good hour, sipping Aperol Spritz and watching the crowds go by. Despite, the region’s wine fame, the Spritz may be Tuscany’s signature drink. On any given afternoon, you’ll see at least a few of these bright orange glasses on every table. It’s the perfect refresher for the dry summer heat.

5. Gelateria Dondoli: My final favourite for the day is a gelato shop, which also happens to be in San Gimignano. Sergio Dondoli has been running the place forever and has won the ice cream world championships twice (yes, there’s a world championship for ice cream). I’m usually not a huge ice cream fan, but when in Italy…well, actually it came down to the fact that Dondoli is kind of a big deal. The lines outside his shop were insane and he was coming out and personally chatting to every person waiting. When we told him we were from Sydney, his reaction was epic. Of course he’s been there! He’s consulted for Messina, no less… but that’s not his favourite gelato place 😉 Picking the flavour was the hardest part and in the end we went for coconut, lime and his signature watermelon and fig. Delicious!

Very Strawberry Pie

Strawberry Pie

Baking is one of those things I love to do but don’t have nearly enough occasion to do so. Naturally then, I jumped on our July 4th BBQ as an excuse to bake some pies, more specifically strawberry pies.

I’m not much of a dessert person but I’m a sucker for fruit. It’s definitely the one food group I couldn’t live without. And when it comes to fruit, strawberries are up there in my top 5. There’s always a punnet of strawberries in my fridge.

This pie is super simple and quick to make. And in the scheme of pies, it’s relatively healthy.

Here’s what you’ll need (one pie serves 8)

Crust

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 125gms unsalted butter
  • 5 tblsp ice water
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Filling

  • 2 cups quartered strawberries
  • 2 cups whole strawberries to decorate
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3 tblsp arrowroot (or other thickener such as cornstarch)

Method

1. Make the dough per my all butter pie crust. Once ready, flatten into a disc, wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Roll out the chilled dough and place carefully in a 9″ pie dish. You can scallop the edges using your fingers or a fork. Blind bake the shell with pie weights or pennies at 200 C for approx 20 minutes.

2. Toss the quartered strawberries in a saucepan with the sugar and heat on low. Meanwhile, whisk the arrowroot in the water until dissolved. Add to the saucepan and cook on low heat until it reaches a thick, jammy consistency. I like to use arrowroot rather than cornstarch because it gives a gorgeous shiny sheen to fruit fillings as well as a jelly-like consistency.

3. Finally, pour the jammy filling into your baked pie shell and decorate with halved or whole strawberries. Leave to cool and then move to the fridge so it can fully set. Serve with a scoop of vanilla icecream.

Enjoy!

72 Hours in London

I’ve recently come back from 8 days in Europe, for what will likely be one of my last work-sponsored trips for a while. The company I work at organises events in 10 cities each Spring and, this year I pulled the lucky (or short, depending on how you feel about long haul flights in economy) straw of covering London and Oslo. So off I went.

Flying in to London is always emotional for me. Whether it’s touching down on British tarmac or queuing for the Heathrow Express, there comes a point in my journey when I invariably find myself overwhelmed with feelings more weighty than nostalgia. We moved away from England when I was 12 years old; I moved away a second time when I was 24. Yet after all these years, an increasingly American accent and an address in Sydney, it’s still the UK that feels like “home”.

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Pulling in to Paddington Station

I’ve gone back to London almost every year for the past five years, almost always for work or in transit to some place more exciting. Two of my best friends still live there and I’m never wanting for people to catch up with or things to do. Each time I go back though, I realise how little I really know of London. It’s one of those cities that’s both vast and deep. It has the historical monuments, the architectural marvels, the sprawling parks, the perfectly manicured gardens, the museums, the galleries, the restaurants, the shops, the people…you could spend a decade in this city and not scratch the surface. I’m not sure I could say that about any other place.

Sister Cities?

I suppose though, in some ways, London is a bit like Tokyo: it’s a city straddling the old and the new. It’s trying its best to meet the modern-day demands of a booming urban population against the backdrop (and with the infrastructure) of a practically ancient city. Hey, Tokyo is arguably winning this race, but that’s a debate for another day.

Also like Tokyo, London is a walking city. Sure, there’s the tube, but you have to walk to it and in it and out of it. The whole thing can take a while. Unlike New York and Sydney (two other cities that tend to get slapped with the “walking city” moniker), London doesn’t offer many alternatives. Cabs are painfully expensive (although that’s changing with Uber and Hailo) and car owners are kept at bay with congestion charges and non-existent parking. Like many European cities, it’s easy to rack up 10,000 steps in London, and its residents are happy to embrace all the walking and bake it into their travel time. I’m always reminded of my European friends’ penchant for walking when a casual stroll turns into a 2 hour jaunt across the city. Not something you’d do in the US.

A new favourite

On this trip, I stayed in two neighbourhoods I’d previously spent little time in: Belsize Park and Waterloo. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the former. Belsize Park is a gem of an area in North West London, conveniently sandwiched by Hampstead Village in the North and elegant Primrose Hill in the South.
Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning

Wandering into the Heath on a weekday morning

I was staying with a friend who’s recently moved to Belsize and, walking around, it felt like I’d been transported to a picture postcard. Beautiful stucco-fronted Victorian buildings sit along leafy streets; flower stalls and butchers add a charming old-timey feel, and boutique shops and artisanal cafés bring the whole thing to life. One of my favourite things about Belsize Park was the utter lack of tourists. It’s hard to get away from the crowds in London without feeling like, well you’ve left all the good stuff behind too, but Belsize Park does a stellar job of juggling both. It’s lively and vibrant, yet it retains that cute, village feel.

The other thing I loved about the area was the Heath. I went for an early jog and was consumed by the stunning views of London in the hazy morning light. My (iPhone) camera died, of course, so I later went back for a stroll and some less romantic pics.

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Hampstead Heath at midday

I was also impressed by the food on offer. Tuesday night, my friend Neha and I walked over to Hampstead for dinner at Jin Kichi. This tiny, unimposing Japanese izakaya serves up some of the tastiest yakitori and sashimi I’ve ever had. We sat at the bar of course, enabling us to take in all the action and soak in the sights and smells that make the meal so much more of a sensory experience. One bite of the asparagus yakitori and I felt I’d been transported back to Japan! Jin Kichi is a cozy, intimate spot so if you do plan to visit, make sure to book ahead. Its Yelp, TripAdvisor and UrbanSpoon ratings can’t hurt its popularity either.

Jin Kichi on Urbanspoon

London and New York

London has always been an international city. Mobs of tourists, hordes of European students, wealthy expats, hopeful immigrants, migrant workers — take your pick, the city has them all. Step out into its busy streets and odds are you’ll hear more than two languages and encounter at least three accents before you reach the tube. What always amazes me, however, is how all of London’s international residents manage to retain their identities while living in what was once the quintessential British city.

Mid-afternoon in Hyde Park

Mid-afternoon stroll in Hyde Park

Move to New York and you’ll become a New Yorker (and in turn, an American). Before long, you’ll be walking faster, planning Super Bowl parties, running after cabs in heels, and contemplating your Halloween outfit months in advance. You’ll “do brunch” and you’ll probably celebrate Thanksgiving (you’ll also have to break it to at least one American that Thanksgiving isn’t a universal thing) and you may well end up leaving your adopted country surprisingly infrequently.

Live in London, on the other hand, and you could be exactly who you were when you arrived. You could live in the French neighbourhood, hang out with only French people and visit your French family on a monthly basis. I once had a Moroccan colleague who, after five years in London, had never heard of Guy Fawkes. When I asked why he thought fireworks went up every November 5th, he remarked that it was “some British thing”. To lean on a cliché, if New York is the melting pot, London is the tossed salad — a giant bowl of ingredients, mixed but distinct.

Highs and Lows

London’s diverse population makes for uniquely interesting conversations. Nowhere else in the world have I sat at a dinner table and debated Greece’s economy with a Greek, learned about the Bosnian war from a Sarajevan and planned a Croatian holiday with input from a Dubrovnik native. If your preference is to talk European politics and history, rather than real estate and hot restaurants, this may well be your city.

London also wins when it comes to location. The fact that you can jet off to a different European city every weekend isn’t news. It’s been more than 10 years since RyanAir and EasyJet transformed the European travel market with their cheap, no frills services, but the trend is going strong. Wine in Bordeaux, chocolate in Bruges, skiing in Geneva… there’s culture, history, architecture, literature, natural beauty, food and it’s all just a short hop away.

The downside (and there always is one), is that living in London means you have to contend with the constant crowds, the heaving tube, the mediocre food (sorry, the bar is still low) and, of course, the exorbitant prices. (I’m not going to pick on the weather because I grew up on, and secretly adore, grey skies.) London has always been an expensive city but over the past decade or so, unbridled demand from overseas investors has driven the property market through the roof and sadly pushed locals farther afield. To make it worse, London salaries, for the most part, haven’t kept pace with the increased cost of living, making it harder to enjoy all of the perks and quirks that the city puts on offer.

One of the best things about London is its permanence; come what may, this bastion of culture and history and tradition will stand strong: steadfast, unyielding, unchanged. At times though, it feels like this is the exact thing holding it back. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.