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)