Monday, 21 September 2020

Travels via food (5): sourdough challah

This week’s travels via food brings me not to a specific place, but to different places within my memory.


Challah at my farewell party, 2019

The story of challah started in 2001 when I started medical school. I became friends with a Taiwanese girl who lived in the Shalom residential college at the University of New South Wales. In that carefree whimsical way of youth, we would spend long evenings and weekends hanging out talking about nothing in particular. This is when I first got to know this Jewish braided bread, served at the college dinners on Fridays. She would often take a little extra so I could taste this rich sweet treat too.

There’s a long gap in this story until I became a sourdough baker in 2017. My sourdough starter Barney was born in my kitchen, gathered from the local yeast in the air of Rapid Creek. Lots of people have askd me how Barney was born, but the honest truth is – he was born out of loneliness. I was living alone in a new city, I had no friends, I was struggling in a long distance relationship and I lacked the emotional energy to break out of my unhappiness. I needed a complicated hobby that required a lot of attention and could take up my weekends. Nothing better than sourdough baking could fit this description!

Watching dough grow brought me small glimmers of hope, and dealing with the dense unrisen bricks afforded understanding of life's imperfections. Sometimes the bread would spread out like a lax pancake on the counter, running over its edges before I could scoop it into any sort of baking vessels. At these times I would cry, a little for the bread and mostly for myself, my tears racing the dough as it flowed onto the floor. But even at their very worst, my loaves filled my kitchen with delicious smells and then still made fine bread crumbs. It may sound extreme, but learning to make sourdough helped me to climb out of the deep dark hole I was in. I got better at understanding the rhythms of sourdough, and I slowly found myself again. Once I emerged into the world, blinking in the blinding light of freedom, I found that bread helped me connect with others. Barney has been a constant presence in my life ever since.


At the end of 2018 I visited Toronto again for the first time since I left. I purportedly went to a medical conference, but spent more time with my friends than at the conference. I had brought a tiny bit of Barney with me to Toronto and together with Emily we made a new starter at her house, which she christened Barmily. Barmily has since died, but since she had given some of it to another friend she was able to resurrect the original Barmily. I showed her the steps to making a normal loaf and she took to it like a duck to water.

One night we were discussing what things I really wanted to bake, kind of like the baking bucket list. Suddenly I thought of the eggy challahs of Shalom college. Why not make a challah? I thought. Everything is possible.

 

We didn’t really understand the needs of challah then, but it still turned out better than we expected. It was so long by the time we finished braiding that we had to curve the ends in just to make it fit onto the baking tray.

Last year I visited Toronto again and by then Emily had perfected her challah approach, quite incredibly by eye without any sort of measurement. She also had a genius idea to add an extra yolk to the dough (makes it slightly yellower) and use the white for the wash.


Here is a challah that we made for her admin assistant Maria, a kind Italian woman. She and her husband lived in the outer suburbs of Toronto in a modest house full of memories and knickknacks. She has “her doctors” over for an annual feast in the winter and I was lucky enough to attend one of these in 2017 when I lived there. It was a super traditional dinner – we would start with a selection of antipasti, fresh bread, then soup, pasta, meat course, dessert and of course coffee. We went over again in 2019 and she put on a similar feast just for us – our Italian mamma and pappa in Toronto!


Last week was Rosh Hashanah. In a strange year where life seems to have turned upside down, I decided to try my hand at making a vegan challah for my friend B to take to her family gathering. She is not able to have the "normal" challah with eggs and honey, so it was nice to make a vegan version for her. I started out researching online recipes, but in the end I was distracted after work and "winged it".



Vegan Sourdough Challah

120g Sourdough starter, at peak activity

120g Aquafaba (from 1 can of chickpeas)

80g Soy milk or water, plus some extra

100g Sugar (can be less, but I used extra for RH)

600g Plain flour

5g salt



Mix the sourdough starter, aquafaba and soy milk until well incorporated

Add the sugar and whisk to combine

Add the flour and salt, bring together to form a dough ball

Add some more water one tbsp at a time if the dough looks too dry

Rest for 30min then turn out onto a bench to knead

Kneading notes:

Approximately 10-15min of kneading is required, I did this in 3 bursts

It helps to rest the dough for ~10min between each kneading burst

This step is very important for gluten development, as this gives the final challah the characteristic soft texture.

The goal is to have a soft elastic dough with no lumps or stickiness – persevere and you will be rewarded!

Spray with oil and cover with cling wrap, rest till doubled in volume, approx 4-6hrs depending on room temperature

Tip the dough onto a well floured surface and separate into 4 parts, shape into balls and rest for 10min (makes it easier to roll) 

If you wish to have plain challah, then roll the balls out into long logs ~40cm

If you wish to stuff the challah with raisins, roll the ball out into a flat rectangle, scatter with raisins and then roll up into the log form. If the dough shrinks, just roll it out again to the desired length

 

Plait into the round shape (I watched this Youtube video)


Preheat the oven to 200degrees.

Rest the dough until slightly puffed, approx 1hr (unfortunately I had to go to work for a while and the dough became over-proofed. If it rises too much it will turn into a big blob!)

Brush the dough with an “vegan eggwash” of soy milk and maple syrup, making sure to get inside the crevices

Scatter with poppy and/or sesame seeds. Bake at 200 deg for 30min till golden brown


Here is a crumb shot, soft and fluffy!


I dedicate this post to Barney, my sourdough starter. May we have many more special baking projects together!

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Travels via food (4): Bagan via Shan Tofu

There are only a handful of countries that I have travelled to more than once, and Myanmar is one of them. I'm not exactly sure what drew me to Myanmar in the first place, possibly because military rule made it less popular than the other South East Asian countries. I first tried to go there in 2008, but was not allowed to cross the China-Myanmar land border as a foreigner. Then in 2014, I decided to go there the day after taking my final ICU exams - I figured whether I passed or failed it would be a good way to end that horrible time. Luckily I passed!

A week before I was due to leave, my friend Grace decided to join me on this trip. We first met working in a small rural hospital together in 2010. We love each other because we are both a bit alternative, and we both love food. She's always carrying around coloured pencils or sewing up something. I'm always working on the next food project...

We spent 10 days in Myanmar, following the "Golden Triangle" from Yangon to Mandalay to Bagan to Inle. Before we went to Myanmar, we had little idea of what we were going to do. Grace had picked up a bunch of school supplies (writing materials, exercise books etc) for an acquaintance who was working in orphanages in Myanmar. This acquaintance picked us up from the airport and gave us a dog-eared copy of the Lonely Planet Myanmar, which we read on our way to the train station to play our favourite game of "Where does the next train go?" 

We spent a few days in Mandalay and then headed to Bagan. This is the star tourist attraction of Myanmar as it has the reputation of being the "wild Angkor Wat". The real Angkor Wat in Cambodia has been well and truly overrun by tourists, but Bagan in 2014 was still pretty low key. Most tourists came in package tours and stayed in one of a handful of fancy hotels. In the old part of town, there were a few guesthouses catering to budget travellers like us. Old Bagan was a sleepy place with a few restaurants and tea houses - we even witnessed the opening of the very first ATM in Old Bagan while we were there, the glass booth tied up in a huge bow and the locals crowding around to see the ribbon cutting ceremony.   

There was only one small problem. Old Bagan was a good 6km from the temples, and we had no idea how to get there. The temperature was well over 30 and the sun was brutal, so walking seemed less than desirable. Most people got around on bicycles, but I don't know how to ride a bike. We didn't want to hire a tuk tuk to follow us around all day because we wanted flexibility. 

We pondered this problem till we saw some other backpackers zipping around on "E-bikes", a kind of cross between a bicycle and a scooter. There was even a tiny little rack at the back for your groceries, so surely I could sit on there right? 

We went to the E-bike rental shop and explained our situation. The man looked puzzled as most people preferred to rent individual bikes. He looked us both up and down a few times and decided the only way it would work is if I, as the larger person, rode the E-bike with Grace on the back. We explained again with mime that it would have to be the other way around, and the man shook his head, thinking it would be impossible for her small frame to balance with a load in the back.

After some charades and exchanges in broken English, the man reluctantly agreed to loan the bike to us on one condition - that we ride up and down the street, turn around and show him that we can at least do it safely. 

No problem! We cheered. 

Hopping on wasn't too bad. I sat on the uncomfortable rack, designed to hold no more than a head of celery, waving cheerfully at the man. Grace hopped on the front and we almost toppled over immediately. Righting ourselves as the man grimaced, we gently took off from the bike shop. We were on a tiny dusty road with hardly anyone around, so how hard could it be? 

It was a rather strange feeling as we gently started to accelerate. There was a tiny slant to the left, which seemed to exaggerate rapidly as we went forward. Seemingly in slow motion, we started to topple. The ground looked strangely close. First I heard the almighty noise, then I felt myself scraping on the ground. When I looked up, the bike had fallen into the ditch and Grace was a few metres away from me in a cloud of dust. The man from the shop came running up to us, shouting in Burmese. We had gone a comically short distance of perhaps 50m from the shop! 

Striking that option off the list, we decided to walk. I am pretty sure we got heatstroke that day, as the heat and humidity were bordering on unbearable. 

We saw some pretty cool temples though. Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Bagan during the 9th to 13th centuries, and over 3000 temples are left scattered across the region. Most of the temples are in the wild, hidden in the jungle and not maintained. These temples here were right in the middle of a vegetable field!

There has been a lot of criticism about the way the temples in Bagan have been restored. The region has been continuously inhabited since the demise of the Bagan kingdom but frequent earthquakes had caused a lot of damage to the temples. The military government tried to hastily restore Bagan to make it a tourist attraction, but little attention was paid to architectural styles and types of materials. Here is an example of crudely patched brick over delicate old sculptural details. 

Nevertheless, I felt an extreme attraction to these "wild" temples, which seemed very much undiscovered. Everywhere we turned, there were overgrown temples that locals still worshipped at. 

On that day we decided to walk around Bagan, we were utterly exhausted by the end of the day. We still faced the long 6km walk back along the busy main road. We were feeling miserable as there was no footpath and E-bikes zoomed past us constantly. Halfway back, a couple stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. It was incredibly generous of them to pick us up! They were from Vietnam and referred to each other as "brother" and "sister", which was a little odd. We went to a fancy restaurant for dinner and when we paid the bill, they insisted on treating us to dessert. The night got even stranger as we walked around Old Bagan looking for a place to have dessert. Finally we found a garish ice cream parlour, where the ice cream was like frozen lumps of ice. The kindness of strangers that you meet on the road really is one of the best things about travel.

Now onto the food. 

My history of adoration for Burmese food goes back to a small Burmese restaurant (incidentally called Bagan) in Strathfield I discovered when I was at university. I think I must have tried every salad there, and I thought it was a great cuisine for vegetarians. The real Myanmar isn't so great for vegetarians as pretty much everything was cooked with a little bit of meat or fish. 

Shan tofu was one of the staples that we ate while we were in Myanmar. Shan is a region in Myanmar, but this dish is eaten all over the country. It has nothing to do with the Chinese tofu which is made from soy beans - instead Shan tofu is made from chickpea flour. It has a firm texture like polenta which has been set. We saw giant slabs of Shan tofu in the markets, where vendors would shave some off on request for a salad. They were also deep fried and served as snacks. 

 Here it is for breakfast, deep fried sticks served with a simple soup.

 Here on the right is Shan tofu, mixed with a peanut sauce in the style of a salad. 


Shan Tofu.... Newcastle style

(Based on this online recipe)

1 cup organic chickpea flour 

3 cups water 

Pinch of salt, cumin and turmeric 

Heat 2 cups of water on the stove in a saucepan till at a boil  

Mix 1 cup of the water with the chickpea flour and spices until the mixture is smooth

Pour the chickpea mixture into the water in the saucepan in several lots, stirring constantly as it comes together 

Turn the heat to low and cook for ~ 5 minutes till silky smooth and coming away from the sides of the pot 

Place in greased baking dish and cool for a few minutes, smoothing the surface

Rest in fridge for at least 1hr to set 

Remove from dish and slice as desired 

I served mine with cucumber and red capsicum, topped with a simple peanut sauce (peanut butter, honey, soy sauce and apple cider vinegar heated on stove till thick and luscious), coriander and fried shallots.

This post is dedicated to Grace - let's hope we can travel together again soon! Nothing like getting stuck at the Taunggyi balloon festival in the middle of the night, that is another story

 










Tuesday, 8 September 2020

In my kitchen: September 2020

Instead of going to Paris to play music, I had a staycation for two weeks. It was a wonderfully lazy stretch of time filled with writing, violin, baking and gardening... I started a writing project where I revisit a travel memory by making a dish from the region - so far I've done El Salvador, Mexico & Wuhan

In my garden...

 


Shiso is sprouting, auto-regenerating from the year before. How interesting that it was a purple shiso plant, but the new leaves are green. 


This winter I've really enjoyed so much lettuce from my own garden, and picking my own snow peas for salad. 








My dad grew these loquats. There was a loquat tree in our old family home in Shanghai, and eating these takes me straight back to my childhood.






 

On the baking front... I had plenty of time to bake whimsical things! 

Baguettes are my latest obsession...













Getting a crisp outer and a soft interior with an open crumb is quite tricky - shaping baguettes is heaps of fun!

I had some pumpkin leftover so pureed it and put it into a spelt loaf in the shape of a pumpkin. It's easy enough to shape with kitchen string, and the bread rose well around the string forming the pumpkin shape!

I've never been much into baking sweets (I'm really a bread baker at heart), but making these eclairs were really fun. The choux pastry was much easier than I expected, and I had a lot of fun filling them and dipping them in chocolate. Of course the best part was eating them as I went along... 

This was a birthday "cake" that I made for my friend's daughter's 10th birthday, using a cinnamon scroll dough layered with apple. I made this once in May and this time it was much easier to assemble.

Onto Food and Music...  


I made this matcha scroll for my friend who I play piano duets with. It's a Hokkaido milk bread dough, which I divided in half and kneaded half with matcha powder till it turned green. Once proofed, I rolled the two doughs out to rectangles, layered them together and rolled it up to a loaf. This worked really well with a beautiful soft crumb thanks to the tangzhong technique! We ate this with a dose of the Beethoven Op 59 No. 1 String quartet impromptu arranged for 4 hands, and later listened to the Beethoven Op 131 String quartet on an original LP...   


Strawberries have been great this month and I took the chance to make this strawberry tart for my other piano duet friend's birthday. We ate this with the cheery Beethoven Violin sonata no. 8.

Finally I'll finish with one of the many best things I ate this month. Miso eggplant really is so easy to make and delicious. I microwave my eggplant for 5 minutes, then drizzle with olive oil and roast for 10 minutes. Meanwhile I mix up a sauce of white miso, mirin, rice vinegar and sugar, whisking till smooth. I paint the whole lot on and grill for 10 minutes. It is so delicious I could eat this every week!  


I'm sending this to Sherry who hosts the In My Kitchen series. Thanks Sherry for the opportunity to review all the food highlights of the month!

Friday, 4 September 2020

Travels via food (3): Wuhan via hot dry noodles and doupi

This week's Travel Via Food project takes us to Wuhan. 

Wuhan is a medium sized city in the industrial heart of China. Though it is prominent within China, it was pretty much unheard of outside China until the Covid-19 outbreak, and now it is famous for the wrong reasons! 

My connection with Wuhan is pretty serendipitous. In 2005, I travelled to Tibet for my medical school elective placement. At a random dinner, I sat next to a girl from Wuhan. She had just moved to Lhasa from Beijing and was working as an English - Chinese interpreter for an Ausaid project. As was the case with many foreign projects, both English - Chinese and Chinese - Tibetan interpreters were required as official interactions were in Chinese, but locals were not proficient in Chinese.  

Shabai and I became instant friends and spent a few weeks hanging out together in Lhasa. We explored the markets and spent hours lapping up the sunshine in teahouses. We stayed in touch through all the years, later travelling to Nepal together in 2008. 

In 2013, I went to Wuhan to visit Shabai and her family. She had worked in Lhasa for a few years, then moved back to Beijing. The pace of big cities in China is pretty overwhelming though, and she decided eventually to move back to Wuhan where life was slower and she could be closer to family. 

Wuhan is actually three cities close together (Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang), cobbled together to be known as Wuhan. It was May, unseasonably warm and humid for that time of the year. 

The air pollution had to be seen to be believed. The city was coated under a thick coat of dark grey smog, and visibility was extremely poor. We went to the famous bridge across the Yangtze River, and could barely see out the windows as we climbed up to the bridge level. 

Beautiful art deco windows on the ascent 


The Yangtze River

All right, one can see that the industrial cities of China are not super picturesque with their tourist attractions. I have some more photos of the grey, but evidently that was not why I visited Wuhan! Instead, we went to check out the street food scene.


Wuhan style Siu Mai - silky wonton wrappers stuffed with glutinuous rice and fatty pork



The infamous Doupi 豆皮, also known as the Three Delicacy Doupi 

Doupi is actually the Chinese name for beancurd-skin, a type of dried tofu typically pressed into sheets and rehydrated for soups. This doupi has nothing to do with tofu, but was named after the traditional method of grinding mung bean in the batter. According to locals, this time consuming method is no longer used, modern cooks now favouring plain flour and corn flour for the batter. The "three delicacies" in the doupi refers to pork, shiitake mushrooms and tofu. There are also three layers to the dish - a crepe like surface, sticky rice layer and a savoury filling. The whole lot is fried as one flat cake on both sides then served in squares. 



Here you can see the man in an action shot with a giant doupi, ready to be flipped over!



This is perhaps the most famous street snack food in Wuhan - Re Gan Mian 热干面 or Hot Dry noodles. Locals take pride in this dish, as it is the noodle "face of Wuhan" in China. Legend says that a noodle stall had some leftover noodles, which the cook tossed in sesame oil and put aside. When he reheated it the next day and added some condiments (shallots, pickles and chilli), Re Gan Mian was born. Wikipedia says there is even a novel dedicated to Re Gan Mian! As a little piece of modern day history, Shabai's family were in strict lockdown during the first wave of Covid for over 2 months. On the day that the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan, her father went to his favourite Re Gan Mian stall and bought it for the whole family! 



I loved how we could have a soy milk or a coke in these retro glass bottles with our noodles! 


Shabai played the violin as a child, and her father plays the Erhu, a traditional Chinese instrument with two strings, played vertically with a bow between the strings. It was pretty tricky to get a good sound out of it, here he is giving me some pointers! 


Wuhan street food... in Newcastle
(all recipes from Shabai's mum and modified to local conditions)

Re Gan Mian  热干面


Cook noodles in boiling water until 80% done. 
Drain well and toss with sesame oil. 
While the noodles are cooking, place 1 tbsp of sesame paste per person into a bowl
Add a splash of warm water and mix vigorously with chopsticks. Add some more and mix until the paste has loosened and has a runny consistency 
Mix the noodles in the sesame paste till well coated 
Top with finely chopped spring onions, pickles, chilli, a splash of light soy and rice wine vinegar if you like it
Slurp the whole bowl up!
PS. I will definitely try this again with more traditional alkaline thin noodles (like Japanese ramen noodles) 


Three - delicacy Doupi 三鲜豆皮


Incidentally this became vegan since my vegan friend dropped by as I was about to start cooking!  The three components are:

1. Sticky rice
Soak 1 cup of sticky rice for at least 2 hours, then drain
Steam for 30min until cooked and fragrant, spray the tops with water if too hard (Shabai's mum said I may need to do this, but I did not) 

2. Filling 
Finely dice spring onion, shiitake mushrooms, tofu and red capsicum
Fry the spring onions in some oil along with ginger (fresh or paste) 
Add mushrooms and tofu, a splash of light soy and some pepper 
Top up with shiitake broth or veg stock until almost submerged and cook until a reduced sauce forms, approx 10 min
Add red capsicum and cook for one more min, then set aside to cool 

3. Crepe 
2 tbsp maize flour + 2 tbsp plain flour 
Add enough water to form a runny pancake batter consistency, must pour easily

Final assembly: 
Cook crepe batter in a non stick pan till set and easily sliding around 
(Traditionally a beaten egg is also spread over the crepe as it cooks) 
Turn off the heat to avoid burning your fingers
Spread sticky rice over the surface of the crepe 
Spread filling on top of the sticky rice 
Turn the heat back on and cook for ~2 min till warmed through 
Flip the whole thing over to brown the other side if you dare (it may disintegrate)... we just took it out of the pan and ate it! You can tuck the edges of the pancake in to look neat. 


I dedicate this post to Shabai - one day when Covid is finished, I want to go back to Wuhan to eat all these delicacies again! 

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Travels via food (2): Mexico via tortillas

This week’s episode continues to pay homage to masa harina, the ubiquitous white maize flour in Central America. I was shocked to find PAN brand Masa harina at my local independent supermarket, in a small city 2hrs outside Sydney. Always expect the unexpected..

In 2016, I took a break from "normal life". I had finished my specialty training in 2015 and was at a loose end. Somehow, I received an opportune email advertising the critical care fellowship at the University of Toronto. To this day, I have no idea what drew me to this, but inside me a strong voice told me to apply for it. The upside of the job was that I would have several months to go travelling before it started. I decided on Central America because it seemed obscure and a good budget place to pass a few months.

I got a cheap flight to LA and a cheap one way flight to Cancun. I had no particular plans for when I arrived in Cancun. Little did I know, my trip had started along with thousands of spring break students from the US. By the time I landed in Cancun, I knew I had to run away from the throngs of excited 20-somethings wanting to get drunk. 

I have a little game for times like this, called "where does the next bus/train go?" Incidentally the first bus out of Cancun went to Playa del Carmen, a party town that I hadn't even heard of. Arriving there a short time later, I was overwhelmed by the number of tourists and touts. So I used the same "where does the next bus go?" strategy, and the next bus brought me to Tulum.

Tulum is also super touristy, but the bus station was far away enough from town that I could not tell this at first sight. I wandered around aimlessly till I found a hostel, and collapsed into bed from heat and exhaustion. When I woke up, I was hungry and excited about the prospect of my first meal in Mexico. I asked the old lady at the tiny grocery store where to lunch, mimicking with my hands. I have no idea if I actually went to the place she intended, but I found a roadside shack with a few worn tables and brightly coloured plastic stools.

Soy vegetariana was the first phrase to come back to me from the Spanish I learned from a previous trip. Soon after, they brought me the first of countless tortillas I would eat over 3 months. 


I always thought Mexican food was like what the West associates with it - corn chips, spicy mince, heaps of stringy cheese, bland tomato salsa.

Tacos in Mexico are a different thing altogether. Made from finely ground corn flour, they are usually served fresh and still warm from the griddle. I ate plenty of rubbery or hard tortillas too, but the best ones were soft and pliable with the right amount of chew. The topping was lined up along the middle of the tortilla, so that it was easy to pick it up by the edges and hold it in the hand. Usual adornments were a simple wedge of lime to squeeze over, and a variety of hot sauces.

They sure love their hot sauce in Mexico!

After a few days in Tulum, I was sick of the noisy parties and drunk American college students stumbling around. I asked my friend whose brother travelled in Mexico extensively for a recommendation. He sent me an email saying

"Here is a list of places I enjoyed:

1. Bacalar lagoon"

A few days later he sent an email apologising for not finishing the list, but by then I had already decided to head there.

The bus took me to the outskirts of Bacalar, and it was a long 20 minute walk in the heat to the lagoon. The first glimpse of the lagoon was breath taking - an impossible shade of blue glimmering under the sun. 


I stayed at a hostel right in front of the lagoon, the setting was beautiful but the hostel was awful. The bed was unbelievably dirty and uncomfortable, and I had to sleep in my sleeping bag liner. I shared a room with two German girls, who woke up screaming in the night because one of them was allegedly bitten by a rat. I say allegedly because we couldn't find the rat even with all our torches at 2am. I don't know where they went in the end but I stayed alone then in the smelly room, fitfully tossing in bed. In the morning, the toilets became blocked in the only bathroom and the stench was overwhelming. I was exhausted from the light rat-fearful sleep I had, and melancholic being a long way from home.

I resolved to move. The day before I had seen a nicer guesthouse nearby, with flowering trees in the huge yard and a full lagoon frontage. When I showed up to enquire about a room, the German owner said they were completely full. Maybe because I felt tired then, I must have looked super forlorn when he told me this. He offered me the little caravan, which was parked in the yard. I had to use the bathroom in the main house, but I loved being away from everyone and close to the water - it was just perfect for me!


The German owner, who had two lovely German shepherds (mother & son), had moved to Bacalar some years before when he met a local woman. They set up the guesthouse there and retired to the slow life.


"You are Australian!" He exclaimed when I presented him with my passport for registration. "It's so rare for us to have two Australian guests at the same time!"

After my walk around town that day, the guesthouse owner he waved me over and excitedly introduced me to a girl who was sitting quietly with a book. His vigorous introduction was somewhat awkward, as if two random Australians out of 25 million, meeting in a tiny town in Mexico was a celebratory event.

Meeting people on the road is such a whimsical thing. Sometimes you share just a few lines of conversation, sometimes you end up travelling together for a few days or even weeks. Everyone has a "social needs" quota, much like hunger or thirst. I learned through many years of solo travel to take it as it comes – sometimes there would be long periods of solitude, other times one would meet people very easily.

It’s strange now to think back to that time in 2016, when Sam and I first met in the Bacalar guesthouse. Her name was saved as "Sam Bacalar" in my phone for ages. It seems so obscure that any two people in the universe could meet, and we are all somehow connected by invisible strands. We have stayed in close touch ever since then – meeting up in Guatemala, Melbourne and Sydney. 


Bacalar is a small sleepy town of 11,000 people. There’s no real “tourist attraction” other than the pretty lagoon. The crystal clear water had an unusual stripe of turquoise in the distance, signifying the shallow part where you can stand up (if you swim out that far!) It was a wonderful place to relax for a few days. 

 

We wandered the few streets and bought fruit (somehow, a very important activity). Another day, we went for a kayak in the lagoon while her then partner took a swim across the lagoon to a small island.

We found a hipster cafe, because hipster cafes are now everywhere even in rural Mexico. We went there a few times, hanging out in the cool courtyard.


We ate this delicious chocolate mole, which consisted of 22 ingredients! 

It’s hard to remember exactly how those days in Bacalar passed. When one leaves home, it's like going to another planet. I didn't care for the noisy parties of Tulum, but I loved the tranquility and easy languor of Bacalar. After a few days there, I felt the rhythm of travel returning to my bones...

 

 

Tortillas… in Newcastle

1 cup masa harina

1 cup water

Pinch of salt

Knead together to a rough dough, rest for 10 minutes then knead till smooth

Divide dough into small golf-ball sized balls

Place one ball inside a zip lock bag and squash with something hard and flat

(Note, if you squash it with a Jamie Oliver frying pan, the tortillas will be branded Jamie Oliver)

Serve with toppings of choice and a squeeze of lemon… here a simple stir fry of zucchini and red beans with garlic and green chilli; also roast parsnip, and a simple salad of lettuce, snow pea, radish and cherry tomatoes from my own garden. What a feast!

I dedicate this post to my wonderful friend Sam, because (A) we both love eating and (B) the world operates in strange ways to bring us together!