Sunday, November 18, 2007

Eating History at Mother Lake, China

A culture dominated by women! No marriage! Sex as pleasure! Fresh food in abundance!
The Mosuo people can be found on the shores of Mother Lake (Lugu Hu), at the foot of Mother Mountain, on the border of China's Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces. Their story is told best by Yang Erche Namu in her memoir Leaving Mother Lake (2003). Now Namu has opened a guest house on a peninsula overlooking this remote and beautiful lake. Here the intrepid tourist can experience the lake and enjoy a taste of Mosuo culture with Namu's extended family.

We arrived at Mother Lake after a stunning 10 hour scenic bus trip from Lijiang along the Yangtse River through 5 mountain ranges. On arriving at the guest house, we were served hot butter tea (salty and tasty) and sulima wine (like a rich sherry) by Namu's cousin and then taken to a nearby restaurant owned by her brother and his family. Here we selected fresh fish and vegetables in the open kitchen for our dinner served in a large wooden room decorated with a Tibetan shrine and posters of Namu. The food was very fresh but not particularly spicy or exciting.

The next day, after a breakfast of Mosuo pancakes (a kind of leek flatbread) we were taken by pig trough boat to Bird Island for a picnic. The women rowed and the men cooked. The main course, a live chicken, travelled with us in the small boat. While we explored the island, the chicken was boiled with potatoes and vegetables. Again, the food was very fresh and nourishing but a little bland. However, it went very nicely with beer chilled in the pristine lake.

That afternoon we were invited to tea with Namu's mother who still presides over the family compound in a small village on the Sichuan side of the lake. We were served butter tea, sulima wine, and fresh crispy cakes in a tiny room with an open fire, a poster of Mao, and 3 or 4 Mosuo hams hanging from the ceiling. This room is exactly as described in Leaving Mother Lake.

Fortunately our fellow guests were fluently bi-lingual and could translate Namu's mother's conversation about her famous daughter and the old ways. When our Chinese friend asked if they still followed the old customs and spoke the ancient language, she answered in Mandarin "You are many and we are few". Her daughters have moved to the city but her sons have stayed behind. She proudly showed us her goat and a new room she has built for her youngest son and his family. Offering us more food for the journey back, she did a little dance step and wished us well.

After visiting the wetlands at the end of the lake and the sacred cave in the heart of the mountain (now reached by chairlift), we finished our day with hotpot back at the family restaurant surrounded by mounds of food and many children.

The Mosuo people in their remote land are a colourful reminder of a unique culture which has been almost lost to the world. Because of Namu and a small band of cultural anthropologists, we can live a little of that fascinating history.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bagels for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner in Montreal, Canada

What is a bagel? Well, it's essentially a bread roll with a hole in it. However, it's the texture that makes it distinct. The outside is usually brown and slightly crispy. Once you bite inside, it's usually dense, chewy and doughy.

These bready bites come in a variety of flavours and are o
ften topped with seeds baked onto the outer crust. Legend has it that the bagel originated in Vienna, Austria. The story goes that in 1683 a (probably) Jewish baker wanted to thank the king of Poland for protecting his countrymen from Turkish invaders and celebrate victory in the Battle of Vienna. In order to do this he made a special bread roll in the shape of a riding stirrup, known as a 'Steigbügel' in German. However, another theory is that the bagel originated in Krakow, Poland sometime earlier. There are historical references to women being given 'beygls' as a gift during childbirth. Bagels are still used by mothers as teething rings today.

The bagels popularity in Eastern Europe spread and eventually these bread rolls made their way to Russia where they were sold on strings and viewed as a symbol of good luck.

At the turn of the 20th century, Eastern European immigrants began pouring into North America and with them brought their recipes for bagels. Many settled in Canada and in 1919 Isabel Shlafman opened the first bagel bakery in Montreal in a lane just of the street which was at that time known as 'The Main'. Today this street is Saint-Lawrence Boulevard.

The bagels were rolled by hand and baked in a wood-fired oven, as they still are today in the bakery's present location on Fairmount Street which lent the bakery its name. The Original Fairmount Bakery officially opened for business in this spot in 1949 in what was a converted cottage housing the family above the shop. The family still runs the business today.

The bakery is open 24 hours and seven days a week. There are often queues out the door as customers line up to purchase the fresh bagels in flavours as diverse as sun-dried tomato and chocolate chip. Also on sale is a selection of accompaniments such as smoked salmon, tzaziki and cream cheese. Bagelicious!

Address: 74 Fairmount Street West, Montreal, Canada

Tel: (514) 272-0667

Ducking & Diving at The Drake, Toronto, Canada

The Drake Hotel is one of Toronto's hippest hotels. Located on the fashionable Queen Street West strip, the Drake epitomizes the gentrification of this bohemian gallery district which now attracts downtown business folk as much as it does the creative types.

A one-time dosshouse, this 19th century building was originally known as Small's Hotel. It opened in 1890 in order to service the Canadian Pacific Railway that linked Downtown Toronto with the city's lakeside beaches to the west.

In 1949, a gentleman called Michael Lundy bought the place. He added the grand lobby staircase as well as a lounge and restaurant to the hotel, which he renamed The Drake.

The hotel fell into disrepair over the years as it experienced life as a punk bar and rave venue before finally being resurrected by Jeff Stober in the early 21st century.

Perfect for hanging out with Toronto’s trendy set, the hotel’s Sky Yard Bar and Underground music venue are where the weekend action is. The decor now combines high-end design with relics of the hotel's past.

The 19 upstairs guestrooms are all individually kitted out with vintage furniture, reveal-all bathrooms and hi-tech gadgets. For the amorous, an erotic room-service menu with a whole different set of gadget to play with is on offer. If you are more in the mood for snuggling down together with a good book, a recommended read and knitted dolls are provided in each room. After a long lie-in, there’s a street-side café where you can enjoy a leisurely brunch.

Address: 1150 Queen Street West, Toronto, Canada

Tel: 416-531-5042

Double room: $152-289 (+ tax)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Something Fishy Going On at Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, Japan

If there’s on place to see over 400 different types of fish and seafood other than in the world’s oceans, it is at the Tsukiji fish market (築地市場, Tsukiji shijō), part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market which also handles meat, vegetables and flowers. One of three fish markets in Tokyo trading over 700, 000 metric tonnes of seafood equivalent to 6 billion US dollars in value, Tsukiji is not only the largest fish market in Tokyo serving its 20 million plus residents but also in the world.

Tsukiji handles about 2000 metric tonnes of seafood a day, employs around 60,000 workers and deals with everything from seaweed to some of the world’s most expensive caviar. It’s probably most famous for its tuna, some of which weigh in at a whopping 300kg.

The current market was built in 1935, after the Great Kanto Earthquake, and now attracts an average of 52,000 visitors per day. Its roots, however, stem from the 16th century when the first Tokugawa shogun and builder of Edo, now Tokyo, Tokugawa Ieyasu invited fishermen from Tsukudajima in Osaka to provide seafood for Edo castle. Fish not purchased by the castle was sold near the Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo. Merchants at this riverside fish market or ‘Uogashi’ were licensed by the Shogunate and soon became wealthy as population growth lead to demand increases and distribution networks became established. Trade was at that time based on negotiation between buyers and sellers.

In 1918, the so-called ‘Rice Riots’ took place across Japan in protest against food shortages and the trading practices of wholesalers. As a result, a Central Wholesale Market Law operating the markets through an auction system was established in 1923. In the same year the Great Kanto earthquake occurred and many of the private markets in Tokyo were destroyed. It was decided to construct central wholesale markets. Nihonbashi fish market was relocated to the Tsukiji district (near Tsukiji Shijou Station on the Oedo subway line and the Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya subway line) and began operating once construction of the new market was completed in 1935.

The market consists of inner and outer market areas. The inner market area, or ‘jonai shijo’ is the licensed wholesale market and where the auctions, most of the fish processing and wholesale dealer transactions occur. The outer market area, or ‘jogai shijo’ contains a mixture of wholesale and retail shops selling restaurant supplies, fishmonger tools and supplies (knives, wellington boots etc), groceries, seafood products and restaurants. The wholesale fruit and vegetable market is in this section.

Tsukiji market is open daily from about 3:00am apart from Sundays and public holidays but probably best to check if you're planning an early morning visit.

Trucks arrive during the night to unload all the fish which has been transported from the various oceans of the world to Tokyo by ship or plane and after the the unloading, pre-auction inspections take place. Around 5:00am the auctions commence. Officially, tourists are not allowed into the inspection areas and auctions themselves although there are a few viewing spots and the remainder of the market is still accessible. Apparently, it is sometimes possible to get into these areas discreetly and as long as you are respectful and do not touch the fish, a blind eye is usually turned.

The auctions tend to end around 7:00am at which point the fish is then moved to stalls by cart and taken to stalls operated by middlemen or loaded onto trucks for transportation to other destinations. If you linger by the middlemen's stalls, you can witness the stallholders preparing the fish for sale. Watching them cut the larger fish, such as tuna and swordfish is fascinating, and butchery becomes an art form. Something akin to samurai fishmongery.

It is suggested that you take a tour of the market but you can wander around by yourself but bear in mind that some areas might be off-limits.

The Tsukiji Market has 3 entrances: the main entrance, the Kaiko-bashi entrance and the Kachidoki-bashi entrance.

Kachidoki-bashi is a large drawbridge on Harumi Street. At the entrance gate, you will see a small office occupied by Tokyo Government guards. You can ask for a booklet and map here which introduces the market in Japanese and English.

Once you’ve finished viewing the many different types of fish and all the market life, you can wander over to one of the several restaurants located in Building 6 of the outer market, join the long queues and sample some of the freshest sushi in Japan. Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司) and Sushidai (寿司大) are two of the most popular restaurants. They open around 5:00am and close around midday as the market activity dies down and cleaning begins.

One final piece of advice is to take extreme care as you walk around the market area as it is a very busy working market, with slippery floors, knives and fish hooks all around. You will see lots of motorized carts whizzing around all over the place at speed - they are just trying to get on with business. Be careful, especially if you have children with you.

Official website:

Tsukiji Wholsale Market

Location map

Market Tours:

Tsukiji Tour


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Be Part of the Movie Set in Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo is one city that can often make you feel as if you are walking on a movie-set. You might imagine the director about to shout ‘cut’ at which point the extras who surround you, many of whom are dressed in bizarre outfits, will all scuttle away and the amazing set around you will be dismantled. It is, however, real and perhaps it is its ‘other-worldliness’ that has lead to it inspiring movies such as Blade Runner and being the location for Sofia Coppola’s more recent Oscar-winner Lost in Translation. One other recent blockbuster also took influences from the city, and more specifically, the Gonpachi restaurant on the edge of the Roppongi hills at Nishi-Azabu. That film was Kill Bill: Vol. 1 whose acclaimed director, Quentin Tarantino, apparently used the restaurant interior as a basis for the ‘House of Blue Leaves’ in his film where ‘The Bride’ (Uma Thurman), decked in a yellow motorcycle jumpsuit, ‘kicks arse’ in one of hell of a martial arts fight scene.

Although not actually filmed in Japan, the set was apparently constructed on a soundstage in Beijing, it is rumoured that Tarantino took inspiration for the scenes from the restaurant and held a wrap party there. More recently, the former Japanese premier, Junichiro Koizumi, entertained George W. Bush in this rather rustic-looking izakaya (Japanese bar or restaurant). It’s certainly atmospheric and retains a down-to-earth feel with diners welcomed vociferously by all the staff on arrival. You can sit at tables on the balcony level or around the central kitchen area where delicious yakitori (barbecue grilled skewers of meat or vegetables) are prepared. The Eringi mushrooms, Kuroge beef and bacon wrapped tomatoes were all cooked to perfection. Soba (buckwheat flour) noodles are another house speciality and suggested as a filler after you have sampled the various tapas-style offerings. The place gets busy so either get there around 6pm or book ahead.

You might not see Uma whooping it up in the flesh with Quentin but you can certainly recall images of her flying through the air and dispatching members of the underworld as you enjoy the food and atmosphere of the place without a yellow jumpsuit in sight!



1-13-11 Nishi-Azabu


Tokyo 106-0031


Tel: 03-5771-0180

Opening hours: 5pm – 2am

Credit cards accepted

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Gastro Revolution in Havana, Cuba

Cuba is perhaps best known for its socialism, salsa, rum, vintage cars and cigars rather than its gastronomy but amid the decaying colonial buildings and pot-holed streets of a city which until recently appears to have been stuck in a 1950s timewarp, there can now be found a few hidden gems.

In the 1950s, American movie stars and gangsters ruled the roost in this vibrant Caribbean city by gambling and partying until the place rocked. And rocked it was when Castro and his revolutionaries swept to power. A population exodus, the US blockade and an era of isolation followed in which socialist friends supported the remaining population of this small island state and its charismatic leader in their stance against the might of Uncle Sam and his cronies.

Times change and the latter half of the 1990s saw Cuba follow its socialist pals by somewhat reluctantly embracing a more 'commercial' form of socialism. Tourism. Poor infrastructure, tight government control and restricted imports, however, mean that the industry has not been able to flourish in quite the same way as its Caribbean neighbours. In terms of servicing the tourists most hotels and restaurants are state controlled. Restaurants often have limited menus due to food rationing and although cheap are not usually able to stretch much beyond providing the average customer with something to line their stomach. Indeed, there is a Cuban joke about the standard of the cuisine, "The three great gains of the revolution - health, education and culture - have been at the expense of breakfast, lunch and dinner."

The government eventually decided that private individuals should be given the chance to profit from the growing tourist market and so introduced 'paladares'. Apparently named after a restaurant in Brazilian soap opera these small restaurants are able to offer home-cooked food despite being evermore tightly controlled and subject to a wealth of regulations. These regulations include a limit of the number of diners, theoretically a maximum of twelve, and rules that employees must be family members and that seafood or beef cannot be served. Free enterprise has not completely arrived. However, the paladares existence means that tourists can sample something other than the staple tourist fare of comida criolla (chicken, pork rice and beans), moros y cristianos (beans and rice) or peso pizza. Paladar prices are still out of reach for most Cubans so don't expect to be dining with the locals.

Paladares vary in standards but one that has attracted some notoriety both for its clientele and cuisine is La Guarida ('the hideaway or den'). Hard to find in a residential area of Vedado, only the bouncers on the door would suggest anything special lies behind the crumbling walls of this former palace, now an apartment building.

Washing hangs from clotheslines, a dusty old car is parked in the former entrance hall and as you climb the winding marble staircase that once exhibited more grandeur than it does today you might even see a gaggle of children playing baseball in the former ballroom, at one time more used to dancing than batting. Eventually you reach the third floor and through a wooden door you feel as if you have entered a brave new world. La Guarida is in reality an apartment like many of the others on the corridor but its mustard yellow walls, cluttered Cuban kitsch decoration and photographs of famous American visitors coupled with the flavoursome aromas emanating from the tiny kitchen sandwiched between the dining rooms make it feel atmospheric and as if you are somehow subverting the Cuban socialist ideal.

Indeed, La Guarida does have what some may consider to be a 'subversive' past. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's controversial and Oscar-nominated Cuban film 'Fresa y Chocolate' (Strawberries and Chocolate) was shot here during the early 1990s, considered to be a black period for Cuba when the fall of the Soviet Union lead to an economic crisis as Cuba lost a key financial backer. The title of the film refers to ice cream flavours - the colour of strawbery ice cream, pink, is a metaphor for homosexuality and creativity, the brown of the chocolate symbolises the daily slog of state-controlled life. Tasting his ice cream, one of the film's main protagonists remarks that it, "is the only good thing left in this country. Soon they'll export it, and for us ... water and sugar." Today, film-makers and film stars visit the former film set. Uma Thurman, Benicio del Toro, Jack Nicholson, Pedro Almodovar and Steven Spielberg have all eaten here.

The food is considered to be nuevo Latin cuisine combining local ingredients in a fusion of Cuban and European styles. Whilst it may not rival that served in restaurants across the water it does attempt to move away from the more staple Cuban dishes and add a creative twist in terms of combining meat and fish dishes with more exotic flavours, for example, tuna in a coconut sauce. The bar is fully stocked but, be warned, don't ask for a Bacardi rum, the Bacardi family are not flavour of the month in Cuba. Havana Club is a better option. Things have moved on from Cuba's dark days when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians left and the period when 'Fresa y Chocolate' was set. Now there is a lot more than ice cream on the menu, although you can have your own taste of strawberry and chocolate ice cream, and Cuba can begin to think about exporting its positive gastronomic reputation rather than simply water and sugar.

Meal for 2 including drinks: approx $40
Reservations recommended.

La Guarida
Concordia No.418 /Gervasio y Escobar.
Centro Habana.
Tel: (537) 863-7351, 866-9047

Spanish website: