Thursday, August 31, 2006

Leftovers, anyone?

Since the beginning of this week, things have started going south...not only do I spend almost twelve hours a day in shut eye mode, the otherwise sociable hours of dinner is shipwreck time, it is precisely when I feel my most queasy.

Due to this inconvenience at meal time, I try to eat a healthy breakfast of cereals, flaxseeds, black sesames and unsweetened yoghurt. Lunch used to be a bowl of soup or a quick pasta, but it has since become the main meal of the day. For example, yesterday, we had chicken cooked in my mother's fool-proof Tung Bo sauce and sautéed broccoli with garlic and ginger to go with steamed rice.

The concept of plain steamed rice, actually cooked in a rice-cooker, took Guillermo some time to get used to. He, like so many non-Chinese all over the world who have been brought up to think "chop suey" and "special fried rice" were decent Chinese food, was puzzled that my family and Chinese friends frown on ordering fried rice to go with main dishes at restaurants.

The only times Chinese order fried rice at a restaurant, usually cooked with chicken or prawns to increase the worthiness of this essentially peasant dish in a commercial setting, is to wrap a dim sum lunch or at the end of a banquet when rice and noodles are served. We wouldn't dream of serving it up to our guests at home either. Fried rice is considered a "leftover" dish, only to be shared among family members.

The rice used for this dish has got to be cooked rice which has dried up a little, preferably overnight; hence, most people use steamed rice left over from their previous meal. The day after we have had a proper Chinese meal accompanied by steamed rice, at home, Guillermo and I have fried rice for lunch. I often stir fry ours with an egg, slivers of chicken and Chinese chives.

Chinese chives and eggs can be used together to make "egg triangles", dainty omelettes shaped in their namesake. Our god-send of a masseuse, Diana, is coming to check on me today, bringing with her organic eggs straight from a farm. She promised that the yolks are like the "i rossi" (the reds) of Italian eggs. I am looking forward to making omelettes, Chinese steamed egg custard with ginger juice and various other dishes which would showcase the wholesome goodness of these eggs.

Speaking of fresh organic eggs, we have discovered a pigeon's egg in a flower box on one of our French balconies. I had meant to clear the dried up lavender and plant some spring flowers there, but with this discovery, I have to postpone my plan until the egg is hatched. When I pointed the egg to Guillermo, he excitedly asked me if we could eat it! I almost screamed in horror, it is incredulous..."Darling, you're more Chinese than any of us!"

My mother's Tung Bo sauce is normally used for braising pork belly, the famous Jiangsu dish of Tung Bo Meat. Since the sauce is saved for repeat cooking, I use it for chicken pieces sometimes.

My mother's Tung Bo sauce:
1 cup Shaoxing wine
2 cups Chinese black vinegar
3 cups unrefined sugar
4 cups dark soy
5 cups water

Tung Bo Meat:
2kg slab of pork belly

Seal the pork belly on a hot pan. This prevents the meat from shrinking upon prolong cooking.

Put all the ingredients for the sauce in a deep pot. Bring it to boil and then lower the piece of meat in the sauce. When the sauce is back to boiling point, turn down the heat. Let the meat braise until a knife goes through like stabbing into butter.
Serve with steamed green vegetables and plain rice.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

La Familia

My Italian friends had often commented on the affinità (affinity) between their culture and that of the Orient. Maybe for this reason, I had found acclimatisation in Italy simply intuitive. Since my husband's family is of European decent and bears an Italian cognome (last name) I had expected adaptation to the ways of La Familia to be easy. I was completely off the mark!

When we first arrived in BA, Guillermo's parents used to ring us more than a few times a day. If their son didn't pick up his cell phone, mine would ring almost immediately. I didn't think much of it since I thought it was because they were helping us in our search for an apartment.

Once we moved into our home, the apartment we are now living in, I was a little surprised that the calls kept coming in the same frequency. In addition, the three abuelos decided to join the party as they could then call a fixed line. We became captives in our home office.

We try hard to keep office hours although we don't have to step outside to go to work. However, this seems to be a concept only Guillermo and I understand within the family. Calls with "Querido/a, como están?" (Love, how are you two?), depending on which one of us pick up the phone, had to be fielded between business calls all day long.

I don't know, maybe it is common to take lengthy private calls during work hours in this country. I, who wasn't trained to have this sort of work ethics, just find it annoying because it is distracting and unprofessional. Of course, we didn't have the heart to tell the abuelos to cease up on the calls. However, after our bust-up with the parents, they have probably heard through the grapevine to now ration their calls to one every couple of days.

The calls from all fronts have eased to a level which Guillermo and I feel comfortable. We decided that we can't concern ourselves with whether this satisfies the family's need to be on the pulse with all the happenings in our lives. While we are very aware that we are the "odd" couple among the siblings, and I am especially strange among the daughters-in-law since I am not dependent on any of them, we simply don't care anymore.

The wives of Guillermo's brothers are from other provinces so my parents-in-law have conveniently stepped in as surrogate parents for these grown women who didn't leave home until they got married. Who could blame them for expecting the same with me? Sometimes, I almost feel sorry for them that this last daughter-in-law is a worldly, independent woman and a frequent user of Skype!

Another reason for my rebelliousness against this suffocating embrace is their self-centred mentality. The in-laws and abuelas (abuelo is a true gentleman with much empathy for me) often talk about their "suffering" daughter/ granddaughter, a grown woman over thirty years of age with her own family of two kids and husband. She and the boys have followed the husband to Mexico for a 12-month secondment. Poor her, she has to endure a well-subsidised expat life style in a Spanish speaking country! Believe it or not, tears are shed for her "hardship", no kidding.

My mother-in-law and the abuelas used to whinge to me shamelessly until my husband pointed out that I moved halfway across the world and have had to learn a new language for no great love of this chaotic country but their querido son/ grandson. Upon that, all we usually got back were blank faces. I dealt with blank faces fine, it was only when they had the gall to argue that it was "different" for them and their beloved that I had the look of thunder. Thank god the whinging has finally stopped because their querida mamamone (the Italian slang mamamone f/m is usually reserved for those mummy's boys but in this case a girl) is back for good very soon.

We've also realised that we would have to shut up about our future plans should they ever involve leaving this country. Upon hearing her querido grandson has started his Mandarin course, abuelita (paternal grandmother in our case) grasped in horror "You are going to China!" A tear was probably standing ready. No, we are not going to China! Aaarrrhhh!!!

In a family where the members feel distinctly uncomfortable or visibly upset whenever Guillermo and I talk, just casually, about plans to speak to our kids in English at home, there really is no room for anything other than the Argentine culture and language. And I, clearly just chopped liver, who, in their "unbiased" opinion, is so lucky to be living in the most beautiful country ever existed on earth, learning such an easy language; really, how dare I complain! Amen.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ready for Inspection

Guillermo and I have decided to obtain a valuation on our apartment in order to have some idea on the current residential properties market.

It is interesting how I immediately reverted to form: I de-cluttered, de-personalised, tidied up the place to the point of ironing our bed sheets. I also noted that we should fix the slight peeling of paint on the ceiling over our bathtub. In short, I was thinking of turning our apartment into a show home for potential buyers. I blame myself for watching too many episodes of The Block or House Doctor.

While Guillermo understands this is pretty standard in London or Sydney, he also tells me, as the son of seasoned real estate agent parents, that people here are generally not as exigent. When I recall our own apartment hunting experience, I have to agree with him. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink were very common; in one of the apartments we visited, a yet to be flushed toilet which had the seat up, was exposing no small amount of grossness.

Those were all sizeable apartments in decent areas such as the greener parts of Belgrano and Palermo, so logically Guillermo feels the way we keep our home normally is already good enough for any buyer. On the other hand, I believe in out-performing the norm especially when it doesn't require much effort.

We decided to contact 2-3 agents; a well-known agent within the foreigners' market, another respected one for the quality of their portfolio and maybe one more with a number of branches across the city.

This morning, an agent from our second choice came to view the apartment. Their office on Las Heras, Recoleta, looks swish by Buenos Aires' standard so we were expecting their service to match their image. The agent was presentable; Guillermo greeted her down stairs and I welcomed her in our entrance hall. However, she didn't introduce herself when I shook her hands. Neither Guillermo nor I received her business card or any brochure of the firm.

Anyway, we walked her through all the rooms and explained what we have improved on. I even offered her a photocopy of the floor plan with measurements. She looked around, made notes; there was no discussion of the average price per square metre in the area, recent sales in the area, nothing. Then she left. The only encouragements we received from her were that the building was impressive and our apartment beautiful.

I, on the other hand, was not impressed; Guillermo was amused by how poor the service was. Since he offers a rather popular course on marketing and negotiation skills, specifically for real estate agents, he was glad to have picked up useful teaching materials from this experience. Maybe the agents in this city save their professionalism exclusively for the buyers; we are certainly hoping, for the buyers' sake, that is the case.

One down, two to go; I am now even more interested to see if the self-proclaimed expert in the foreigners' market would be any better. Our friends had their house valued by this firm the other week; the valuation was so high that it shocked them into seeking a second opinion.

In their case, they were told of an average price per square metre for the area but no adjustments were made with consideration for the quality of the specifications or number of bedrooms, etc. In reality, a 1 bedroom house maybe more or less attractive than a 3 bedroom house of the same size and therefore, has a different price per square metre. Or, am I just being crazily logical?

I've very recently developed certain food aversions; I apologise that it has, unfortunately, extended to the point of not wanting to think about food so the recipe section will have to go on gardening leave until my recovery. Sorry folks.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Five Goats Drink Tea

Guillermo and I went to our first Yum Cha (飲茶, literally "drink tea" but actually a Chinese tapas meal) lunch in Buenos Aires with our friends Zoe and Mr.T on Sunday. The restaurant was one of only a couple, in this capital city, which had a Dim Sum menu at all. We were warned by Zoe ahead of time not to have much expectation, and certainly not to compare the dim sum (tapas) at Cinco Corderos* (Five Goats) to those served in London, Sydney or Hong Kong.

This restaurant on Las Heras, in Barrio Norte, doesn't take reservations on Sundays so we thought we would go a little early to get a table – now that turned out to be just too many previous Yum Cha experiences, in other countries, messing up our heads.

Yum Cha lunch, on weekends, is a ritual to many people in many countries. In Sydney, Chinese families and Anglo Saxons' alike crowd those spacious 1,000-2,000 seat restaurants from as early as late morning, often on a Sunday. By midday, the popular restaurants would have a queue and docket system going at the entrance; a waitress juggling a name list, a microphone and a walkie-talkie would be locating soon to be empty tables inside the restaurant for the hungry masses staring at her every move outside. Similar scenes are found, on Sundays and public holidays, in London, Melbourne, Vancouver, Toronto and New York. For the popular restaurants in Hong Kong, this is a daily occurrence.

So Guillermo and I turned up at the restaurant at 12:30p.m. It was dark inside and we could vaguely see someone mopping the floor despite the sign of opening hours clearly stated that they open at 12:00; we were told to wait outside of the restaurant. Soon Zoe and Mr.T rolled up; we stood outside for a little while, and then decided to take a walk around the block. We had a leisurely stroll, even stopped at some estate agency to check out their latest offerings displayed at the shop front.

At one o'clock, we finally got seated in the empty restaurant. Zoe and I studied the short dim sum menu and decided that they should bring all the savouries on offer. We had about 5 small dishes, then, the flow of food stopped. By this time, the restaurant had more clients; we observed that everyone had spring rolls to start and went on to stir fry of sorts. Zoe asked the owner of the joint if more dim sum were coming; she was told that those we had already had were the only available choices. Out of an already short list of 15 items, the restaurant actually only had 5 in stock.

Since all four of us had "waited" up an appetite, we ordered fried rice, fried noodles and a meat dish. So it turned out not to be much of a dim sum lunch afterall; Guillermo explained that most porteños wouldn't even know what dim sum was after a life time of eating what they thought was Chinese food.

The problem of dim sum, like authentic Chinese food, needs a sizeable and affluent clientele. Dim sum chefs are a special breed of professionals among the Chinese chefs; they usually demand a much higher salary for their craft. The fine art of dim sum, and I don't mean just rolling up a spring roll, is also a labour intensive and time consuming process. On the other hand, due to the nature of dim sum (literally "a little bit of heart"), each dish cannot be as expensive as a main course so a restaurant needs quantity in consumption as well as high turn over to make the operation economically feasible. It is not unusual for a restaurant to "turn the table" 3-4 times during lunchtime. When many of these restaurants are also cavernous in size, you can do the math on how many they feed in those few hours every weekend.

The most famous morsels, served in a bamboo dim sum basket, have got to be prawn dumplings. The best I have had are from Golden Century in Sydney, due to the superlative quality of seafood available there. I would substitute prawns with pork and chives if you are making them in Argentina - there is no point in wasting money on rubbery and tasteless shrimps being sold at lobster prices.

Dough for Prawn Dumplings or "Har Gau":
150g "Tang" flour (available at Asia Oriental, Mendoza 1677)
15g corn starch
½ tsp plain flour
¼ tsp salt
1½ fl.oz boiling water
1 tsp corn oil

Mix all dry ingredients together, add boiling water to form dough. Rest dough for a while, then knead until smooth. Gradually add oil to soften the dough. Rest before use.

Filling for Prawn Dumplings or "Har Gau":
100g raw prawn, roughly chopped
25g water chestnuts, finely chopped
drops of oil

Roll the dough to make round wrappers. Mix ingredients for the filling well and spoon into the wrapper. Close each wrapper with your fingers; make sure each wrapper close properly. Place the dumplings in a hot steamer for 10-15min.

* Cordero in Spanish means lamb. The reason for my translation to "goats" is that the two Chinese characters, the Chinese name of this Chinese restaurant, stand for Five Goats. Lamb is not a meat commonly found in China. With the exception of the north west (the mostly Muslim region of China) where goat meat is a staple, most other Chinese would only eat goat in autumn and winter in a stew for the meat's "yang" nourishing value which is of particular importance in the cooler seasons.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A City of Aging Barbies

I was reading the Sun-Herald of Sydney yesterday and the headline "Risky scalpel tours cut into taxpayers' pockets" caught my eye. The article was about Australians who suffer from botched cosmetic surgery overseas costing taxpayers thousands of dollars when they undergo remedial and reconstructive surgery in public hospitals back on their home turf.

Cosmetic holidays are vigorously advertised in women magazines promising cheap plastic surgeries in mostly Third World countries. The majority of victims of these botched jobs are girls in their early 20s wanting low-cost breast augmentation and liposuction and women over 35 wanting multiple surgeries. These ladies wanted to look good but could not afford the dollar price tags so they went further afield. The director of one cosmetic holiday agent, Gorgeous Getaways, confirmed that her clients were mostly mums and working-class people.

Chairman of NSW Health's surgical services taskforce, Dr Patrick Cregan, said people opting for cheap overseas surgery risk having unqualified surgeons and non-accredited facilities. Australian plastic surgeons are reporting dozens of cases of complications including infections, hair loss, "hideous" scarring, paralysis and failed implants from cut-price "scalpel tourism" packages overseas. These disfigured patients are then forced to rely on the Australian public health system, Medicare, for revision surgery.

A Sydney doctor said he treated one patient every six to eight weeks who had been abandoned by her overseas surgeon once complications arose. A Sydney grandmother had a tummy tuck in a clinic in Bangkok that became infected. She had had three operations, including a skin graft, in Sydney. This woman would require further procedures to remove the skin on her abdomen. "She is looking at major reconstructive surgery, and it will be in a public hospital. It is not easy to salvage these cases, [so] is it really fair for Australian taxpayers to foot the bill when something goes wrong overseas?" he questioned.

Reportedly, there has also been an increasing burden on embassy staff helping Australians suffering complications not only in Bangkok, but the Philippines, Indonesia, Argentina, Iran and Ukraine.

I would suggest to any potential cosmetic surgery patient coming to Argentina for their operation, first spend an afternoon people watching at the Recoleta establishment, La Biela. There, they are sure to be able observe a fair few post-op shockers; whether they then decide to go through with surgery in this country would depend as much on their sense of aesthetics as their appetite for risks.

An equally eye-opeing place to observe a typical Latin American boob job is the ladies' changing room of Megatlon, Las Cañitas. Women sporting "George Hamilton" tan and gravity defying breasts seem to love parading in that small area without a stitch more than their tiny G-string. They would probably feel insulted if the rest of the room don't look; actually, it is rather difficult to know where else to cast one's eyes to avoid such grotesque meddling with nature.

Speaking of freaks of nature, I came across these pictures posted by a fellow blogger living in Argentina and he is promising an in-depth report, soon, on porteñas' obsession with cosmetic surgery and anorexia nervosa.

No diet is going to give women bigger breasts but if it is liposuction one is after, why not try eating sensibly and exercise? Being healthy is the first step towards real beauty, all other ways aren't going to fool anyone for long.

My 1st meme: must have at least once FOOD

Anna of Morsels & Musings who cooks wonderful Spanish dishes in addition to other equally appetising "world food" has tagged me for a meme started by Melissa of Traveller's Lunchbox. The task is to list five things I've eaten before and would recommend others to try at least once before they die. I relish this opportunity since I have always been evangelical and keen to share good things in my life with others.

I am listing my five recommendations, not in any particular order, each of them has an equally fond place in my heart, er, I mean my stomach.

Bottarga Sardegna di Muggine – Sardinian dry mullet roe. It is a golden coloured slab, rich in texture and scent. You shave from the slab like you would with cheese, on top of a simple plate of spaghetti, then drizzle some olive oil. You are immediately transported to an Esmeralda (emerald) heaven of sea and sun. These gold bars are easier to get hold of these days thanks to air-freight and globalisation; pop into a good Italian deli and ask, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Tartufo Bianco d'Alba – White truffle from Alba, Piedmont, Italy. More delicate than black truffle, packed with scents of the mythical Piedmontese forest and the fifth sense of unami. It is served raw; best shaved over a plate of buttered pasta, or even better, a plate of creamy risotto. This is the ultimate comfort food; one bite, you will be speechless.

Roast Goose & Char Siu at Yung Kee, Hong Kong - This restaurant on the fringe of the financial district, the pulsating heart of Hong Kong, is a famed institution worldwide for its roast geese. The molasses lacquered skin is crispy and melting at the same time. The Char Siu, barbebued pork loin, is equally good, just the right balance of lean meat and fat. If you do get there, don't forget to savour the "thousand year-old egg" (preserved duck egg) with sweet ginger. This pair is made for each other and you will not find any egg elsewhere so skilfully preserved that there is a spot of gooeyness left in the centre of the yolk.

Tuna skirt steak at the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo - Most food tourists who visit the Tsukiji would feast on, undoubtedly the freshest, sushi and sashimi. However, these delectable morsels are not necessarily what the people who work in the business at the world's largest fish market choose to have. Once, I was fortunate enough to be eating at one particular restaurant in the market, a well kept secret within the inner circle of Tsukiji foodies and the seasoned fishmongers. After plates of sushi and sashimi, we were offered hot dishes (the second and final phrase of the meal). I had in front of me a bowl of beef and rice, or so I thought. I took a bite and thought it was the most tender and flavourful beef I had ever tasted. It turned out to be sautéed skirt steak of tuna. It is the typical breakfast of the fishmongers: a big bowl of tuna and rice, washed down with sake or Asahi. Rustic and hearty, opposite of the delicate silvers of fish hankered by the rest of the world, but every bit as good if not better.

For the last, but not least, I tossed between the alluring bubbles of a Krug rosé champagne, the distinctively feminine scent of a 1st growth from Margaux and a sensory feast at Tetuya Wakuda's Sydney restaurant. Since the first two are not strictly food although I wouldn't mind making a liquid meal out of them, I will go with one of the most revered and likeable maestro in the ultra-competitive culinary landscape of Australia.

Degustation at Tetsuya's, Sydney - No foam, no sifon, no liquid nitrogen; just great food cooked by an artist who combines French techniques with Japanese principles. The confit of Tasmanian trout is Tet's signature dish but the rest of the meal is no less impressive. Each course is flawlessly paired with a wine which compliments his creation. His establishment is certainly a foodie's Zen heaven.

So there, 5 foodie experiences before you go to that other place. Bon Appétit!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Moo, then Snooze

Sleepiness and flu-like symptoms are keeping me away from spending much time in front of the computer. Sadly, I have also stayed away from the kitchen; beside two meals a day I hardly have the energy to open the fridge, let alone doing my routine baking for Guillermo's merienda (snack).

With this lack of energy to cook and a sudden craving for meat and grease, we have been dining on steaks frequently of late. Argentine beef is the surest bet as far as finding organic meat in this country is concerned. The cows are 100% grass-fed and the government has banned the use of hormones.

I have also just realised steak is the ultimate fast food! Since we like our meat jugoso (juicy), it takes 5 mintues on one side, then 2 on the other and we have an organic meal in front of us.

Argentines tend to have their steak without condiments but a shower of salt. In our culturally confused household, we do things a little differently. Tonight, I made a confit of onion using balsamic vinegar and a pinch of brown sugar. The combination of meat juices and the rounded sweetness of the aged vinegar just hit the right spot, not only in me but Guillermo too.
With my craving fulfilled, I am off to bed now...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sugar & Spice

The humble sugar has gone through a vigorous image re-engineering in recent years. When I started baking, aged 7 or so, there were only caster sugar, granulated sugar, icing sugar, and then light brown, dark brown and Demerara. These days, we are told by Delia, Nigella or Jamie that muscovado sugar is superior in taste, and golden icing sugar gives a toffee-ish taste which the plain white lacks. Suddenly, we need re-education on the pantry staple.

I am often asked by friends, new to baking, not only about the difference between caster sugar and granulated sugar but meaning of terms used by American food writers. In my baking course, I actually spend a good 15 minutes showing the various kinds of sugar and their particular functions to the novices.

The most common type of sugar used in cooking and baking is caster sugar (American: castor sugar). It has a fine texture which creams easily with butter and dissolve quickly into mixtures. It is also light enough to be whipped with egg whites, hence used in meringues.
Traditionally caster sugar comes in white but that is NOT the natural colour of sugar. Organic caster sugar is now available; the Argentine brand Chango provides an accessible organic choice at around 2 pesos per kg so there really is no justifiable reason to pick up that "Extra White" (more like extra bleached) bag of sugar made by the other Argentine brand, Ledesma.

Caster sugar is often confused with granulated sugar since both are commonly available at supermarkets. Granulated sugar has a coarser texture and is not suitable for baking as it doesn't dissolve easily. It is, however, sometimes used in cake decorating.

Icing sugar or confectioner's sugar (American) is called azúcar impalpable in Argentina. It is mainly used for cake decorating. Store it in a dry place and always sift before use as it tends to form lumps in storage. There are also coloured versions available at the supermarkets here; should you be inclined to eat something coloured like pastel bathroom tiles, you can.

Demerara sugar is the closest to azúcar rubia sin refinado here. It is coarser than caster or granulated sugar. It is often used in recipes where the sugar is dissolved over heat, the melting method. It adds moisture to the texture of cakes and puddings. Since the American "coffee sugar" is not always available outside of the U.S. one can substitute with Demerara sugar.

Soft brown sugars, light and dark, cream well and are often used in fruit cake recipes where rich flavour and colour are needed. Muscovado sugars are the best soft brown sugars as they are naturally unrefined and have excellent rich flavours and glorious colours. I have found soft light (actually dark blonde) brown sugar or azúcar rubia at Casa China in Barrio Chino, Belgrano.

At the same shop, they sell an organic dark brown sugar (like a dark muscovado which is chocolate in colour); it is called azúcar integral organica. Of course, this shop is also a treasure trove of spices such as whole cinnamon quills, Garam Masala, juniper berries, cardamom pods, cumin, turmeric...In addition, there is a good dried fruits and nuts section; you can boost your intake of the anti-aging selenium by stocking up on whole brazil nuts there.

Speaking of dark brown sugar, I have to make a serious cautionary note here: please do not be fooled by the Argentine azcúcar negra. It is widely available in supermarkets and liberally sprinkled on top of the local "black buns", sold in pretty much every panadería in this city. It is a dyed sugar; just plain sugar with colouring agent added. It gives no real flavour but chemicals; it is not the same as dark brown sugar, so please don't touch it if you can help it.

Diana, our mighty masseuse who treats her clients based on a combination of ancient Chinese therapeutic massage and herbal therapies, has been preaching to us, her growing number of disciples, benefits of various types of sugar.

She claims refined sugar has cooling properties (yin) so it is best used, with discretion, to balance coffee which is extremely heat inducing (yang). Unrefined sugar, on the other hand, gives the opposite benefits. "Red" sugar to us Chinese, or unrefined sugar, is best for nourishing the yin. It also aids digestion.

Guillermo, like most Argentines, has a sweet tooth. It is hard to escape that fate when many local doctors and nutritionists, not to mention parents and relatives, encourage sugar consumption from infancy. He was excited for a brief moment when Diana told us the benefits of sugar. However, she then specifically pointed out to him that he is already completely "destroyed" by over consumption throughout his life that these benefits don't apply in his case and he should cut down on all forms of sugar as much as possible.

I suppose the importance and benefits of moderation and delayed gratification have shown themselves to be relevant, even in the case of food. We are, more than ever, adamant that our children in future, would not be made innocent victims of the indulgent bis-abuelos (great-grandparents) and abeulos (grandparents).

I first came across this Northern-thai style pumpkin pudding at the Regent Hotel in Chiang Mai. It is a pumpkin pie, Oriental style. Don't worry about not finding the coconut sugar, just use light brown sugar instead. Pandang leaves is the Asian vanilla, if you can't find them, use a few drops of natural vanilla extract.

This is a simple and relatively healthy pudding, capturing the essence of the Asian attitude towards sweets.

900g baby Japanese pumpkin
5 eggs
80g coconut sugar
2 pandang leaves
1/2 cup coconut milk

Clean pumpkin. Cut the top off and scoop out the seeds.

Simmer coconut milk with coconut sugar and pandang leaves until the sugar is completely dissolved. Discard the leaves.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs. Stir in coconut milk. Skim off froth. Pour the mixture into the pumpkin.

Steam over high heat for 1 hr until the custard is set. Cool for 5 min. and then cut into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Different Light

After over a year in this city, for a brief moment this morning, I felt I was turning into a permanently stressed out porteña with nervios (nerves).

I had been gathering all the necessary legal papers and supporting documents for the renewal of my passport. The matter was made complicated since I lost my second photo ID, my New South Wales driver's licence, on one of the numerous trips to the Immigration department and DNI office proving what should have been my simple claim to residency and DNI ownership. Furthermore, I am adopting my married name in this new passport.

Taking up one's married name is a common practise in Australia. Most women use their married name after marriage and the name change procedure is straight-forward and quick. Guillermo and I had our doubts about doing so here in Argentina where my DNI, if I ever get it, would be in the name of my birth certificate which is completely useless in my case. We initially thought, why make life even more difficult by introducing yet another name to the equation?

We debated the pros and cons; as we don't even know if I would get a DNI and if it would be a meaningful document, I finally made the executive decision that I am not going to change my life to suit the bureaucracy here. I have had enough of all the ineptitude around me; I'm just going to do what I would do if I were living in a normal country where authorities are capable of thinking.

This morning, however, I began panicking like a porteña facing her tramites (paperwork). Instead of my lost driver's licence, I had the option to provide a foreign ID card as my second photo ID. Since I don't have a DNI, I brought along my residency paper which has my photo. Although, I reasoned with myself that it is an adequate proof of identity, I was still seized by a mild nervousness. What if they are really strict about it having to be an ID card? How am I going to prove my identity if they reject this residency paper? The nightmares my friends went through with the Argentine authorities were sudden being played out, scene by scene, in my head.

So it was with much trepidation, I went to the Australian Embassy this morning. I went through the security doors and handed over my passport for inspection. The guard actually looked me in the eye and greeted me with "hello" and a big warm smile. I was then let through to the garden and walked up to the Embassy. I was greeted by a clerical person at the door, again very warmly. I told her the purpose of my visit and she checked completeness of my documents. I was told to wait in the lounge area where I had plenty of reading materials to keep me entertained.

Within 15 minutes, she came back to tell me that there was only one more document I needed to bring: the Libretto, my red hardcover Marriage Book. I was looking for a marriage "certificate" to bring with me so I had mistakenly took the certified copy of the master marriage ledger in the Registro Civil instead.

I suppose I had got used to anticipating silly requests from the Argentine authorities so I couldn't quite believe they just accepted my residency paper in lieu of an identity card. I asked this lady specifically if all the other papers were in order and it didn't matter that I had no DNI to show her. She smiled understandingly and patted me on my arm; she told me they understood and everything else was ok.

I came out of the Embassy, in the warmth of the sun, restored. That brief interaction filled me with hope and happiness; I feel relaxed and assured that there are still people and places that make sense.

Bill Granger's cooking shows on Travel & Living is certainly one of the most popular culinary exports from Australia. His sunny smile and friendliness relax his audience and the show is greatly enhanced by the background shots of his beachside home and the fantastic sunlight. I watch his shows and long for that different light.

This is one of his creations; a simple recipe, perfect for a casual dinner party or a mid-week treat for the family.

Steamed Banana & Honey Pudding:

100g butter
100g caster sugar
200g bananas, roughly mashed
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg or to taste
2 large eggs, beaten
160g self-raising flour, sifted
4 tbsp honey
2 tbsp walnuts, roughly chopped
Foil and string
Extra honey and walnuts

Beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and smooth, about 5 minutes. Beat in the bananas, vanilla and nutmeg, then slowly add the eggs, beating well (it doesn't matter if mixture curdles). Fold in flour until you have a thick batter.

Lightly butter four small ovenproof ramekins or 150ml dariole moulds and spoon a tablespoon of honey into the base of each. Add batter until moulds are three-quarters full.

Cover each mould with buttered foil and tie with string. If using the bain-marie method, cover bath with buttered foil.

Steam for 30 minutes or until springy on top. Turn out onto four warmed serving plates, drizzle with a little extra honey and scatter with walnuts.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

What's in Your Pantry?

Today's post is going to be brief as I have to get ready soon for our celebration, not only our paper anniversary but the joys we are anticipating in the coming years.

I have received a number of emails from readers of this blog in which they asked me where they could track down peanut butter, unsweetened yoghurt, golden syrup etc. in Buenos Aires.

First of all, peanut butter...there are two brands which are manufactured in Argentina. They are sold in some dieteticas (health food shops) and Barrio Chino (China Town) in Belgrano. The texture is very runny due to a high proportion of hydrogenated vegetable oil. In short, you would be spreading no small amount of scary trans-fat on your toast. I wouldn't even want to imagine the scenario of you spooning this kind of peanut butter directly into you mouth.

You may find American style peanut butter at Jumbo in Palermo. Stock goes fast; there must be quite a few expats craving a taste of home in this town. If you get beaten to the gondola (an aisle at the supermarket) by your fellow Americans, don't despair. I had previously named a natural Nutella recipe; and making peanut butter at home is just as easy.

All you need is a cheapo processor, not a blender though. I just use my trusted Braun multi-stick. Process the shelled peanuts on high and watch the natural nut oil come out and form a thick spread. If it is too thick, you can add some sunflower or canola oil to thin it out a little. Some may even like to add a pinch of salt to the nut butter to bring out its flavour; it is all up to individual taste. Now, you can rest, knowing you have a jar of peanut butter far superior in quality than any commercially made ones.

Since Parmalat closed down, it had been difficult to get unsweetened yoghurt. I have been making my own using a tub of Activia natural yoghurt to 450ml full fat milk. It is a simple process: just boil the milk and let it simmer for 2 minutes. Let the boiled milk cool to blood heat, then strain the skin and solids with a sieve or a tea strainer. Now whisk the yoghurt, in a bowl, until smooth. Add a few spoonful of milk and whisk to combine. Then gradually add the remaining milk, keep whisking until well combined. Pour the mixture into a thermo flask. Let the flask sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours (the longer it is left out, the more sour the taste), you then have a pot of natural yoghurt. Store the flask in the fridge thereafter.

However, there is a much easier way thanks to Barbara of Barrio Norte. Plain, unsweetened yoghurt can be found at a panadería called Damasco, on Scalabrini Ortiz 1283. Telephone is 4773-2146. You have to specify that you want the liquid yogurt; otherwise they might sell you the labneh. Labneh is Middle Eastern yoghurt, very thick in texture, commonly used in cooking.

English golden syrup, on the other hand, is even more elusive than American style peanut butter. I have only seen it once at Jumbo. I must admit, I generally try to avoid recipes with golden syrup or black treacle because I cannot find those signature Lyle's tins here. I have found that Argentine molasses, sold in some dieteticas, can be used in place of treacle. If it is the lighter golden syrup you are after, the closest substitute is the Chinese molasses, sold in plastic tubs at Asia Oriental, Mendoza 1677. It is dark blonde in colour, made from wheat. I have found that the texture is only slightly thicker than normal golden syrup so I don't need to adjust my recipes.

That's all for today folks! Have a good day shopping!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Our Paper Anniversary

Every couple marrying in Argentina has to have a civil wedding at the Registro Civil (Civil Registry). This procedure is just a 15-minute affair. Most couples then have a church ceremony on the same day, usually in the evening. Since our civil wedding and our ceremony were on different days of the same week, we have decided to celebrate the latter, so our first wedding anniversary will be tomorrow, August 20.

When we were deciding our wedding arrangements, Guillermo was adamant that we didn't get married by the Catholic Church. Growing up as a devout catholic in this country, he saw too much hypocrisy of the people and the Church; so he decided, since his early twenties, that he no longer has any business with either.

I was also brought up as a catholic; I attended convent schools since kindergarten. I would say I am, spiritually, still a believer of God but wish absolutely nothing to do with the Catholic Church, especially after visiting the Vatican. I often liken Catholicism and the Church as a fantastic set of corporate philosophy being badly interpreted and executed by the management.

Since we didn't have a church wedding, our registry wedding turned into a bigger affair than otherwise. Many of the family's acquaintances turned up; you know the type...we had never met them before and we would never meet them again.

Apparently, the local custom is to invite the attendees to gather for a toast, in some cafe close by, after the registration. If you know the Registro Civil in Tribunales, Downtown, you would know it is a Rationalist building which resembles some monstrosity in the USSR and the cafes in that area are full of men in suits smoking while taking their coffee break.

Both Guillermo and I were reluctant to commit to this arrangement favoured by his parents. The last thing I wanted on my wedding day was toasting perfect strangers in a foreign language in a coffee shop. The added cringe factor, for me, was most of them would have been drinking coca-cola the whole time. Que feo!!(literally "how ugly" but in this context, how terrible!!)

With much diplomacy and negotiation, we got our way in the end. We booked out the front part of a charming restaurant in San Telmo for lunch with our parents, my relatives from overseas and our witnesses. The room was decadently decorated with red walls and chandeliers which looked grand with the stark contrast of white linen. We had a three course meal with champagne to start and finish. Both white and red wines, chosen to compliment the chef's artistic creations, were flowing during the meal. It was an intimate yet extravagant affair befitting the occasion.

That same evening, my father hosted a dinner party at a French restaurant for Guillermo's family of twenty, plus all our guests from overseas. If we didn't have what is deemed to be the proper ceremony in a church, we certainly made it up in number of occasions.

On the Saturday of the same week, we hosted our wedding party in an elegant and historic mansion on Quintana, Recoleta. We asked the judge at the registry to come for a re-enactment before the lunch party. I wore a simple ivory gown made of thick silk charmeuse by Marianna Hardwick of Melbourne and carried a delicate branch of phalaenopsis. Accompanied by my father, I came through a heavy set of mahogany doors into the grand ballroon full of our loved ones. Instead of the much used Wedding March, Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba was playing in the background. The judge, our witnesses and Guillermo each made a speech which moved many of the guests to tears.

The caterer, Dos Escudos did a wonderful job with the decadent cocktail buffet followed by a three course lunch. They also provided our wedding cake and a scrumptious dessert buffet later that afternoon. Our wedding cake turned out well, after we specified no little people were to perch on top or any fake flowers made from pastillage were to be part of the decorations. In the end, our two-tierd white cake was elegantly decorated with a simple lace piping all round and a couple of fresh white lillies.
White lilies and roses were used throughtout the venue; the mahogany staircase, the ballroom, and the panelled dining room flanked by french balconies along one wall were all awashed with white and the scent of lilies and roses. The table arrangements were white roses presented in Ikebana style (Japanese flower arrangement) which emphases natural elements. These flowers set among bamboo and raffia became welcomed souvenirs for our guests.
All in all, our wedding wasn't exactly Argentine in style but we all enjoyed it very much. Our guests were all impressed by its simplicity and elegance. Above all, I think they were thankful that they didn't have to go home at 4:00a.m feeling completely trashed.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Turn Back! Bureaucrats At Work!

Guillermo is taking almost the whole Friday off to deal with tramites (paperwork). He needs to change his domicilio (residential address) at our local Centro de Gestion y Participation* (similar to a municipality office) on Junin; try to renew his passport in Microcentro (Downtown); then pay and obtain an endorsement from the College of Public Translators for the legal translation of our marriage certificate for my Australian passport renewal. For anyone who has dealt with Argentine bureaucracy in person, this plan is ambitious; if he comes home with two out of the three done, he is very lucky.

I had previously reported on the ridiculous going-on between the Immigration Department and the DNI Office in the case of a friend's DNI application (Pay Peanuts Get Monkeys). This DNI saga of Zoe, my friend from Hong Kong, has come to a grinding halt. She has given up on her application; she has legal residency but no identity card.

After two years of shuttling between different departments, enduring all those low-level bureaucrats' irrelevant questions and probing while watching them shuffle papers, she has finally had enough of this farce of a government.

The only reason for getting the DNI for her is to enrol in an MBA course here at residents' rate. She plans to take her residency papers to the enrolment office and hopefully the registration officer at the university would be more capable of lateral thinking than the government clerks.

I wish Zoe all the best in this process, especially after all her frustrations but I am sceptical whether the university is going to be any different...

Another friend of mine, who has a master degree in social works from the UK, was enquiring about a nursing course offered by the UBA. The administration officer asked her to show a high school certificate. In Scotland, where this friend is originally from, no high school certificate was issued in her days. She had her set of final exam results which enabled her to complete her matriculation years and then on to university.

The administration officer could not understand that systemic differences between countries are, indeed, possible and refused to recognise her post-graduate qualifications. As far as this officer is concerned, my friend did not finish high school. It looks like she is going to give up the idea of further education in this country.

When I listen to experiences such as these, I feel almost paralysed with sadness. How could a country function at this level? What kind of future would it enjoy if there is no evidence of lateral thinking even in the most basic issues?

These are just a few aspects of the country and the culture that tourists and those career expats would probably never hear of, let alone experience. To them, the quality of life is great and the people laid back – "so unlike back home..." These folks probably are reluctant to recognise that they are enjoying all the advantages of relativity in social and economic developments between their country and this spectacular failure. Further, it may not occur to them the casual "siempre mañana" (always tomorrow) attitude maybe a sign of resignation in the people. When a crisis, in one form or another, rolls around every decade or so, relaxation is probably the only way of self-preservation.

I think I am beginning to adopt the same shrug of the shoulders and the "siempre mañana" survival techniques. There isn't much point in dwelling on the problems because they are not going away, no, not anywhere anytime soon. I might as well just focus on how to boost my iron intake in the next few months.

Guinness is full of vitamins and minerals, especially iron and the Bs. Once it has been baked, the alcohol cooks off so this aromatic cake provides the perfect excuse of having a treat. The cake is extremely moist with a rich and intense flavour, excellent for this cold and damp winter weather.

Guinness stout ginger cake:

1 cup Guinness stout
1 cup molasses
1/2 tbsp baking soda
3 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cups plain flour
2 tbsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp grated, peeled fresh gingerroot
Pre heat the oven to 180C. Butter a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan, line the bottom and sides with parchment, and grease the parchment.

In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the stout and molasses and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and add the baking soda. Allow to sit until the foam dissipates.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk together the eggs and both sugars. Whisk in the oil.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.

Combine the stout mixture with the egg mixture, then whisk this liquid into the flour mixture, half at a time. Add the fresh ginger and stir to combine.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for 1 hour, or until the top springs back when gently pressed. Do not open the oven until the gingerbread is almost done or the center may fall slightly. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
* Guillermo was redirected by the clerk at Centro de Gestion y Participation to the Registro Civil (Civil Registry) in the end, adding another couple of hours to the whole process.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

East meets West

Another rendezvous at Chez Pauline with my resourceful friend Zoe has led me to the Instituto Universitario de Linguas Modernas (IULM) in Barrio Norte.

I had always had private one-on-one lessons with a Spanish teacher. It was great in the beginning because my progress depended entirely on how hard I worked and how fast I absorbed new information. With my basic Italian, I grasped the grammar quickly but had my own set of frustrations when I confused the two languages. At the time, the arrangement suited my needs perfectly. However, lessons became boring quickly because the conversations always revolved around my life. I had become familiar with a set of vocabulary relevant to my life and interests but felt I regressed whenever confronted with situations new or unusual.

This concern had prompted me to seek out group classes. Most of my friends go to the Laboratorio de Idiomas in the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras on Avenida 25 de Mayo, downtown. It has a great reputation and the materials are structured, plus it is not far from our apartment. However, at the back of my mind, I had always felt the place is too well known among tourist and short term expats; I had wanted something a little less advertised, maybe a bit more local.

Zoe and I read the information leaflet together and decided IULM is the right place at the right price. Three hours a day in the afternoons, Monday to Thursday, is a structure which suits my life at this particular moment. Had I come across this course even a few months ago, I would have declined due to the intensity but our plans for the future are changing rapidly so I have a sudden incentive to polish my Spanish as much as I could while I have a bit of free time.

Guillermo was excited when I told him this piece of news. He never pushes me to better my Spanish; the most he ever says is that I have a great capacity for languages and it would be a waste not to perfect this new one while we are living here.
I even showed Guillermo the leaflet since I told him the IULM is also part of Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) so the course materials and the quality of teaching should be comparable to that offered by the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras. To my surprise, he didn't just give it a glance over but read the information with much interest. He found under "otros idiomas", chino.
There are three levels for Chinese; the classes are also three hours each, twice a week for sixteen weeks. He decided that he would enroll with me; so while I attend classes in Spanish, he would be trying to roll out words in Mandarin. Upon further reading, he also found out that he is entitled to an alumni discount from UBA; it sounds like a great start for him already.

Maybe we should start eating more Chinese food at home to help Guillermo understand the culture, in preparation for his upcoming course.
This is a vegetarian dish but it is different from most vegetarian dishes which are either too bland, too salty, or too cheesy. This one has fire and a real kick to it thanks to the chilli and Sichuan pepper.

Spicy Eggplants:
¼ cup fermented dried black beans, rinsed
¼ cup light soy sauce
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 fresh long red chilli, finely chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
½ teaspoon Sichuan pepper, dry-roasted and crushed
8 small Japanese eggplant (about 500g), halved lengthways and flesh scored in a crisscross pattern
Chopped spring onions
Chopped coriander
Roasted sesame seeds and sesame oil, to serve

Place black beans, soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, chilli, sugar, ginger and Sichuan pepper in a bowl, add eggplant, mix to combine well, then stand for 15 minutes. Transfer eggplant to an oven tray and cook under a hot grill, basting frequently with marinade and turning halfway during cooking, for 5 minutes or until tender and brown.

Serve warm or at room temperature, scattered with green onions, coriander and sesame seeds, and drizzled with sesame oil and any remaining marinade.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

La Dolce Vita

Good friends of ours, a lovely half English half Italian girl and her Argentine partner, Madeline and Julio, have just come back from a relaxing trip to northern Italy visiting her grandparents.

I was really pleased to hear that Julio had a wonderful time on his first trip to the country. He had heard both his girlfriend and myself raving endlessly about the quality of ingredients; the gelato, the coffee, the pasta and the pizza but was not convinced. I suppose no description of the ocean is going to prepare someone fully for their first encounter; in Julio's case it was authentic Italian cuisine. Reportedly, he is now a convert and a changed man.

I do miss a good coffee; not only ones made with quality beans but by a skilled barista. I have yet to find a caffè or espresso with a layer of smooth, golden crema sitting on top. The proportion of foam and fluffed milk in the top layer of a proper cappuccino is another test of a good barista which no one behind any coffee machine in this city has passed yet.

Gelati; lampone, nocciola, pistachio are just a few of the flavours I dream of...Ice creams made with loads of fresh fruits or nuts, and most importantly, less sugar and no colouring. When Guillermo first tasted a real gelato, he didn't like it very much because it was not as sweet or gunky as Argentine helados. However, after a couple of years of retraining his taste buds, he appreciates the subtle flavours, delicate textures and quality ingredients now.

Since caffè normale and ice creams cannot be packed in a suitcase, I am most excited with my new possession – 500g of pine nuts (pinoli in Italian, piñones in Spanish). I have been thinking about what to do with them; pesto with fresh basilico is a given, may be a torta della Nonna (Grandmother's pie; a pine nut tart), and if I could find peppery wild rocket and an aged aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar) I would make a simple pasta dish, Claudia, my friend in Molazzana, used to make for us.

Molazzana is a little village at the foot of the Apuan Alps in La Garfagnana region of Toscana. The closest town is the ancient walled township of Lucca. There is also a Slow Food Chapter in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana close by.

During winter, Claudia and I used to drive to Castelnuovo to visit the wine bar owned by Andrea (Andrew), Director of this local Chapter. The little corner shop was ancient and walls were lined with bottles up to the top, 5 metres high. There was a big communal table in the middle where customers were served Chianti, Barolo, Barbaresco, etc. by the glass, sommelier glass I might add.

Since Italian wines are made to be enjoyed with food, we usually ordered a platter of prosciutto, cotto (cooked) and crudo (cured), mixed with Tuscan lardo (cured lard) and some freshly baked sourdough bread - the pure and simple tastes of a rustic heaven.

The region is famous for chestnuts and the ancient grain of the Legions, farro (spelt). Chestnuts are heavily featured in autumn and winter dishes. Flour is ground from the nuts and used to make fresh pasta. The most memorable pasta dish I have ever had was a simple chestnut tagliatelle with wild boar ragú; it was autumnal Tuscany on a plate.

Spelt has become a fashionable grain in London and Sydney in recent years. It is preferred over wheat due to its lower gluten content, therefore more digestible. Whole spelt are used in soups and stews while the flour is used in bread making. Spelt flour is also commonly used to make pasta in La Garfagnana. The pasta takes on a nutty flavour and texture, similar to wholemeal pasta but much lighter on one's digestive system.

Claudia's pasta di farro was a simple dish taught to her by the family's Sardinian house keeper when she was a little girl. Agro-dolce (sweet and sour) is the signature flavour of the emerald island.
She sautéed a handful of pine nuts in a pan with a slug of good olive oil, then added some raisins and balsamic vinegar. When the raisins had puffed up and regained their original form, cooked spelt pasta was folded into the thin sauce, followed by wild rocket leaves. The residual heat of the pasta wilted the spiky leaves just enough. The dish was served at the table with just a scant sprinkling of grano pandano or parmigiano reggiano. Viva Italia!

Monday, August 14, 2006


Last Friday, Guillermo and I went to visit our friends who have just had their first child. This calm and healthy baby girl is as beautiful as her names, Lily Elspeth. Her parents looked relaxed and happy and the grandparents who flew a huge distance from Melbourne to be here were justifiably proud. The atmosphere in that young family of three was festive; a celebration not only of a beautiful new life being born into this world but certainly of the radiant new mother braving through the 40 weeks with flying colours.

I have been reading up on pregnancy lately. It is common knowledge that morning sickness is part of life for most pregnant ladies in their first trimester and, in some cases, beyond. Women are told by a whole host of websites and books on the subject that it is the body's reaction to a sudden surge of hormones. However, an article in the Guardian (UK) last month helped to shed new light on the matter. Researchers at the University of Liverpool, put together 56 studies from 21 countries that looked at the prevalence of sickness in pregnant women. They linked these figures to the typical diet in each country.

They found that countries with a high intake of sugars, sweeteners, stimulants such as caffeine, vegetables, meats, milk and eggs had more sick pregnant women and those with high intake of cereals and pulses had lower levels. They concluded that nausea and sickness during pregnancy are the body's way of protecting mother and baby against poisons and bugs in food.

English based information advises women to avoid raw fish, raw eggs, raw meat, charcuterie items, soft cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, alcohol, caffeine and smoking for obvious reasons. The Baby Center website of the U.S. recommends pregnant women who are lactose intolerant to take calcium tablets; but it warns of side-effects such as constipation. There was no mention at all that sesame is a much more potent source of calcium as well as other dark leaf vegetables. I have also read on another U.S. website which tells pregnant women to reduce intake of food rich in vitamin A because prenatal vitamins should already provide enough. I think it was upon reading the last two pieces of advice when I started to think about how different cultures approach pregnancy.

North America has a more established culture in taking supplements which extends to pregnancy. The Anglo-Saxon attitude towards alcohol is also significantly different from those of the Latin and Asian cultures. In many parts of Europe and Asia, drinking is an activity that goes only with food and celebration, generally conducted with moderation, especially in women. Hence, mothers-to-be are guided to reduce their intake of alcohol during pregnancy because heavy warnings are probably not as crucial to raise their awareness.

In addition to all these, the Chinese advises against eating too much shellfish; food that is too "heat-generating" or "cooling"; or anything that is ice cold in temperature which means ice creams, and cold frizzy drinks are out. Instead, women at this stage in their life should eat more walnuts, fish, fruits and vegetables with "neutral" properties. Most importantly, lots of nourishing soups to prepare the mothers for breast feeding. Interestingly, papayas are known in the Chinese culture to help boost milk production and fermented black beans give the opposite effect.

I am sure I will find out even more when I venture beyond books and websites to talk to experienced mothers. This is a new area of food and diet which I am excited to learn more in the coming months.

Chickpea is a great source of protein and vitamins. It is a food highly recommended for pregnant women who should have small nutritious meals. The spiciness in this hummus inspired spread may have the added bonus of satisfying cravings for stronger flavour food in some women.
Not Quite Hummus:
175g chickpeas, soaked in 570ml cold water overnight
1 tbsp of flavourless oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 spring onions, chopped
1 fresh chilli, chopped
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 large tomato, skinned and chopped
1/2 tsp Tabasco sauce
1 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
2 level tbsp natural yoghurt salt & pepper, to taste
To garnish:
black olivesparsley, chopped

Begin by draining the soaked chickpeas and place them in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Bring them up to simmering point, put a lid on and simmer gently for about 45 minutes or until the chickpeas are tender when tested with a skewer.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small frying pan and gently sauté the onion for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another 5 minutes. The spring onions should now be trimmed and chopped small and the chilli should be split, de-seeded under a cold running tap and also chopped small. Don't forget to wash your hands straight away!

When the chickpeas are ready, drain them in a sieve set over a bowl, then transfer them to a food processor along with some salt, the sautéed onion and garlic and any oil left in the pan.

Now add the lime juice and blend until you have a smoothish purée – if it's too stiff add a couple of tablespoons of the cooking liquid from the chickpeas. What you need is a soft purée, like hummus in texture.

Now empty the contents of the processor into a bowl and add the tomato, chilli, spring onions, Tabasco, coriander and 2 tablespoons of soured cream or fromage frais. Taste to check the seasoning and add a few more drops of Tabasco if it needs a little more kick. Cover the bowl and chill till needed. Serve garnished with black olives and some flat-leaf parsley.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Spare them a thought

Guillermo and I were watching late night news last week and we heard the outcome of an appeal case from a few months back...

A young woman with the psychological age of ten was raped and she consequently fell pregnant by the rapist. Abortion is illegal in this catholic country with very few and specific exceptions spelt out in the legislation. Pregnancy resulting from rape in women with mental problems falls into this narrow category. (Note: pregnancy resulted from rape alone is not enough ground for abortion in Argentina)
Despite the circumstances, the catholic judge ruled this girl's case not to be an exception and therefore, the rights to a legal abortion performed in a hospital eluded her. Since this was a high profile case with much media attention, she and her family had no back-street doctor to turn to.

To my surprise, there wasn't as much empathy as one would expect for this young woman who was not only the victim of a heinous crime but is being constantly reminded of her ordeal through suffering her on-going pregnancy. Many porteños phoned into radio programmes supporting the court decision, the young woman's family appealed. They were reassured by the hospital, at the time, that if the court decision is overturned in an appeal, they would carry out the abortion, even at five months.

So we heard that night, the young woman, supported by her family had indeed won the controversial appeal. It was ruled that abortion in her case should have been legal. However, at five months, the hospital now claims that she is not in any condition to go through with the abortion*, her life would be endangered. The reality has remained the same for her; the appeal she won has meant little if not actually an addition of insult to injury by the Argentine justice system.

One can be Pro-life, Pro-choice or neutral; I am neutral, leaning towards Pro-choice if only because I don't agree with giving life and then abandoning it...

While abuela was recovering from her stroke, we ran into a fellow visitor by her bed. This lady visitor was probably in her late fifties; soon after she settled in her chair, she wasted no time in starting a monologue about her two brilliant boys. This proud mother told us her eldest was in New York, attending an MBA programme with the prestigious Colombia and working for a bulge-bracket US investment bank. Her younger was no less amazing; he was doing so well in a scholarship programme in Atlanta, U.S. that he was beating all the yanks in grades, etc.

Towards the end of her visit, this gregarious porteña let slip that she had three sons. However, no further information on her third boy was volunteered. On our way back home, I asked Guillermo who coached her sons in chess when they were younger, what did the third son do? Guillermo said softly and with sadness that the third son had Down's syndrome so he was sent to an institution as soon as he was born.

I felt sick when I heard it; my head was spinning, especially with the image of her overt motherly pride still fresh in my mind. I don't judge people who decide they couldn't cope with having a child with Down's syndrome; it is hard and it is going to be hard for the rest of their lives as parents. If they decide they are too weak to face that scenario, get their tests done and make decisions accordingly, at least they are being honest with themselves.

However, I object to the hypocrisy of giving birth to a life then deem it too shameful or simply not good enough to bring home or bring out to friends and family. Surely Pro-life should not only mean protecting a life up to the point when it comes into the world? Who is going to nurture and love, indeed "protect" would be most appropriate here, these children in an institution?

Sunday is Dia del Niño (Child's Day) in this country. This is the day when children are even more spoiled than usual by their parents and relatives. My warm thoughts are going to go out to the young woman who has motherhood forced upon her and all those children out there who are abandoned for no valid reason other than they are not perfect enough for their parents.
*Just as many had suspected, "health reasons" was an excuse of the public hospital which didn't want to face condemnation from the pro-life public. The girl has since aborted in a private clinic. Thank God.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Other Guide

I have been asked to contemplate being the country editor for Argentina by an international travel publication. I hesitated in the beginning because, understandably, much of the information would relate to the Capital, Buenos Aires.

I am reluctant to participate in peddling the myth that Buenos Aires is the Paris of the South or the latest gastronomic epicentre for gourmet travellers since neither of these wild claims is true. After spending a day in Palermo Viejo this week where streets are now lined with boutiques vying for tourist dollars, I am not even sure if it could be accurately described as having a bohemian vibe anymore.

Buenos Aires is still captivating, especially if one is not living here earning pesos or counting on an Argentine state pension. For travellers expecting the whole South American experience, the city's European heritage lacquered with a veneer of sophistication in certain barrios (districts) is undoubtedly a pleasant surprise.

It is supposedly one of the most educated cities in Latin America; however, working from a low common denominator within the continent plus a visible polarisation of wealth among its citizens, the claim is no more than a misleading stereotype. Further, civility which is assumed to come hand in hand with education elsewhere is shockingly lacking among the educated in this city.

In many respects this is a city where her habitants have little sense of their rights and obligations in society. Rights are easily traded for a small bribe and obligations are painlessly dodged because of the bureaucratic and ineffectual government. Often, there is no moral judgement and little penalty for the offenders so it is lamentably, a downward spiral without a landing pad.

In spite of the dilapidated state in many parts, compounded by air pollution from motor vehicles long passed their retirement and waste pollution by the habitants who litter without any hint of guilt, the porteños are proud of their city of Good Airs and their country.

As a matter of fact, I am still hoping for clues to understand the disconnection between this pride and the negligence porteños show towards the place they so dearly love. It seems proclaiming one's love and actually loving and caring for it have no correlation in their minds.

So this publication is an interesting proposition if only because it is not a traditional travel guide. The concept of this guide could be compared to a traveller's First Aid kit. What if one loses one's passport? What if one had just been robbed? What if one gets into legal trouble? It is an informational standby for the diligently prepared travellers and a factual saviour with directions and answers for the unfortunate few.

In a city where even my porteño friends paused to consider if calling the police to stop noise pollution from inconsiderate neighbours in the wee hours would involve a fee; where a tearful expat lady, waiting at her Consulate's for assistance, told of being threatened and lied to by the Blues; and where I have personally witnessed uniformed men coming into a quiet bakery cafe in my neighbourhood to ask for bags of free goods, I think the uninitiated definitely need to be warned. It may not happen; but anyone already in a distressed enough situation to call the police should be fully prepared to avoid nasty surprises and further upsets.

Buenos Aires is a city and Argentina a country with so much potential and opportunities but no considered execution plan to realise them to their fullest. Debates between politicians who are more preoccupied in serving their own agendas are never on long term plans and policies but similar to fishwives having a verbal catfight.
Indeed, parallels can be drawn between the country run by these politicians and the Argentine kids, even from middle to high income families, suffering poor nutrition in the hands of their loving, yet uninformed parents (see earlier post, Garbage In Garbage Out).

I am still on a warpath to get my Argentine relatives to eat more nutritional food, so I going to share this recipe with you: zucchini is a very easy vegetable to like, especially when sautéed with onion and pancetta. Of course, if you can manage to sneak in more vegetables such as grated carrots, sliced capsicum or leek, go for it! It is also a great addition to any kid's lunchbox.

Zucchini slice:

375g grated Zucchini
1 onion, finely chopped
75g pancetta, chopped
1 cup self raising flour
1 cup grated cheese
5 beaten eggs
1/4 cup oilpepper and salt
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Place in shallow greased baking dish and spread mix evenly. Bake at 200C for 30 to 40 mins or until browned.
If desired, parmesan cheese can be sprinkled on top before baking. Serve with salad if no one protests; he, he ;-)

All in a Day's Work

In the past few weeks, I have received emails and Skype calls from friends all over the world and yesterday, even my husband asked me, between bites of Kari Ayam (Malaysian Curry Chicken), the same question: "Did you read Clarín (a major Argentine newspaper) on Monday? A Chinese woman in Hong Kong paid US$18 million to her Italian dance teacher for one year's dance lessons?" Evidently, this piece of local news on the tiny island of Hong Kong has gone global.
No, it is not a typo; 18 millions in greenback which works out to almost US$50,000 per day! The dance teacher received half of this contractual amount, US$9 million, and promptly bought himself a top of the range Ferrari.
Then one day, while the teacher and pupil were dancing at some upscale dinner dance parlour frequented by other equally rich ballroom dancing aficionados, he dared to call this svelte and youthful looking lady a "fat cow". Hell has no fury for a woman scorned, especially one disgraced in front of her competitive friends! They parted ways as teacher and pupil, law suit and counter law suit thus followed. The latest is the Italian dance teacher suing for a breach of contract and payment of the remaining US$9 million. The wealthy pupil is claiming assault, etc.
The lady at the epicentre of this infamous scandal is the head of private banking at HSBC in Asia. The business of a private banker is to look after investments and other financial interests of their high net worth clients for a fee. Often, these private bankers are independently wealthy with their own family fortunes. Trust me; it is not that easy to cultivate the highest level of confidence and patronage from the mega-rich if one is just Joe Average. Monica, this lady, is no exception. She was born into an extremely wealthy Chinese family in Hong Kong; educated in an elitist private school and later an Ivy League university in the U.S. This not unattractive lady was widowed very young by her equally wealthy French husband so she devoted her life to building an illustrious career in finance.
Most people are outraged by the sum involved in her pursuit of what is commonly seen as a hobby, and a frivolous one at that. However, how is this lady different from the multi-millionaires who indulge in big boy toys like yachts, private jets; or those who prefer to collect castles all over Europe?
Grotesque amounts of disposable cash being lavished by individuals on themselves just show how unbalanced our society has become.
Some of the wealthy have "created" wealth; they have capitalised on an original idea, executed it well and amassed a fortune. In the process of doing so, they have created employments and at times, they have even generated wealth and advancement for society. Hats off to these entrepreneurs; they deserve their harvest from seeds they have sown. Ironically, many of these exceptional individuals choose to spend they money on philanthropic pursuits.
What is objectionable though, are those individuals who benefit disproportionately just by being at the right spot in the wealth creation chain such as brokers, bankers and lawyers. A fund raising exercise in the capital markets usually yield up to 2.5% of the transaction amount in fees. So if someone is trying to raise US$200 million in, say the stock market, fees to the bankers alone could be a cool US$5 million. In a vibrant market, there might be a number of deals rolling for these bankers at the same time. And the toughest part of the job is fighting off competitions to these easy millions.
If we turn to look at how much our society reward teachers and scientists who are employed to safeguard, nurture and advance the future of mankind, do we not catch a glimpse of what is going wrong in our world? No wonder very few gifted young people would now devote their talents to the pursuit of knowledge for its sake. In this current get rich quick culture, would we ever have another Einstein?
In a society where we can buy almost anything with money, we can forget the simple pleasures, like fresh bread coming out of the oven...
Herbed Focaccia:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for baking sheet
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
2 teaspoons coarse salt rough sea salt, for sprinkling
Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet; set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine 6 tablespoons warm water, the sugar, and yeast. Stir to dissolve. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add oil, 1 cup warm water, thyme, and 2 teaspoons rosemary; stir to combine. Add flour and salt, and mix on low speed until all the flour is incorporated into dough, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium and continue mixing until a very sticky dough forms, cleaning the dough hook 2 or 3 times, (it will not completely come up from the bottom of the bowl), about 3 minutes.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead dough with lightly floured hands until smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes. Place dough on prepared baking sheet, turning to coat with oil. Cover lightly with plastic wrap; transfer to a warm place, and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.
Preheat oven to 220°C with rack in the center of the oven. When dough has doubled in size, press out to fill pan. Let dough rest, covered with plastic wrap, for 10 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with remaining 2 teaspoons chopped rosemary and sea salt. Bake until top is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped, about 20 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

sshh! piano, piano...

When I first met Guillermo's family a year ago at Sunday afternoon tea, I was not only intrigued by the more than plentiful food at that hour of the day but everyone's appetite, just a few hours after lunch.

The abuelos, all in their mid eighties, were tucking in piece after piece of headache-inducingly sweet cakes topped with even sweeter icing and salty jamon crudo sandwiched between brown bread which gets its colour not from whole grains but molasses.

My in-laws and our tio with their ample apple shaped figures were not to be out done by the abuelos. To top it off, all that afternoon fare was accompanied by half a dozen litres of "fat" coke, not diet. No one showed much interest in tea or coffee at teatime.

One Sunday, I watched with horror when my father-in-law lovingly put a glass of coke to the lips of our niece who was yet to turn one. She had no idea what was the dark liquid, but that ignorance didn't take long to correct. Her grandfather looked at her with indulgence, then, slowly fed her the content of the glass while exaggerating his vowels "CO-CA, CO-CA". The wild-eyed baby made an attempt to imitate the words after gulping down the exotic bounty offered by her favourite abuelo.

I came home that evening, still reeling from the earlier horror, to talk to Guillermo. I was extremely naïve about the Argentine character in those early days; I pleaded with him to persuade his grandparents and parents not to consume so much sugar and salt given their body shapes were already tell-tale signs of what nasties could be waiting for them in the wings. Guillermo shared my concerns but he also knew better to promise anything could be done.

On a separate occasion, my mother-in-law was offering Guillermo and me coke which we turned down in favour of water. I was totally flabbergasted when my guileless husband picked that precise moment to tell his parents my disapproval of gaseosas (frizzy drinks), especially when fed to young children.

My father-in-law zealously defended coke like a coca-cola PR agent. His conclusion, like so many other Argentines', was "kids won't die from drinking it." Indeed, how can one respond to that? I'm sure if kids were allowed to take puffs on cigarettes they wouldn't die of lung cancer on the spot either, but where does that kind of logic lead us?

After many futile attempts by Guillermo to alert his family about the health hazards they were letting themselves and the children into, we changed tact. We simply kept our mouths shut on the subject but took more initiatives in hosting lunches and afternoon teas for the whole family.

For lunch, we offer home cooked food, not delivery from the local empanadas joint; and to drink, we offer wines, mineral water and freshly squeezed orange juice without added sugar.

Afternoon teas are simple; I usually make a cake and some walnut brownies using good chocolate and little sugar, they are rich and gooey rather than the cakey slabs made with cocoa powder, common in this town. On the savoury front, I make a couple of vegetable quiches. We offer them freshly brewed tea and coffee made with grinded beans in a proper coffee maker. Of course, the kids have all natural orange juice.

They ate and thank us for our offerings but carried on ordering deep-fried empanadas and drinking coke when gatherings were hosted on their turf.

Then, a few months ago, our abuela had a stroke which nearly took her life. Since her spell in the hospital, she has been ordered not to eat salt or salty food. She has also become a lot more conscious about sugar and fats. So we are gradually seeing subtle changes at the Sunday teas. We can now find a bottle of mineral water among the gallons of coke, some diet; and the shop bought cakes have largely disappeared.

I now offer to bring something every time we go; I tortured myself last week over whether I should make a flourless orange cake to take to our Saturday buffet dinner. The cake is purely ground almonds, confit of whole organic oranges, eggs and a small amount of organic sugar.

Guillermo loves the moistness and natural sweetness from the almonds and oranges; also the fragrance is incredible. My doubts, however, were based on previous experience with the family over my carrot cake which was deemed a salad. Since that episode, I had only made gooey and sweet banana breads and all sorts of chocolate cakes. I console myself that banana is a fruit and at least I use quality dark chocolate and not the brown dust they called cocoa powder.

Guillermo told me they probably wouldn't like the cake but I should go ahead and make whatever pleased me. With much hesitation, I took a gamble. When the cake was presented after dinner, I was a little nervous. Both Guillermo and I explained tirelessly what went into the cake. Abuelita (endearing term for "grandmother", in this case, Guillermo's paternal grandmother) took the plunge first, followed by abuela and abuelo.

The elders all proclaimed it was muy humeda (very moist) and delicada (refined). The rest of the family started cutting pieces from the round; abuela who had stayed off cakes since her operation, even went for a second helping. In no time, the cake was all gone. I teased Guillermo that he had little confidence in me to which his reply was he had little confidence in his family. He admitted that he was utterly surprised by them.

We doubt the family will ever change their habits and still nothing is being done to guide the kids in forming healthy eating pattern but slowly they are seeing alternatives to dulce de leche and coca-cola. They are also increasingly willing to try them; so who knows, maybe one day they might just surprise both Guillermo and me!

This wholemeal onion tart is one of my offerings at teatime. The secret of this tart, with its wholewheat cheese pastry, is to cook the onions until they are caramelised so they form a sweet layer over the base.

For the pastry:
50g self-raising flour
50g wholemeal flour
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp Coleman's mustard powder
50g butter
40g grated parmigiano

For the filling:
700g onion, sliced finely
50g butter
2 large eggs, beaten
110ml natural yoghurt or full fat milk
1 tbsp of parmigiano
salt and pepper, to taste

Pre-heat the oven, and a baking sheet, to 180°C. Grease an 8 inch (20 cm) fluted tart tin.

First make the pastry by sifting the flours, salt and mustard powder into a mixing bowl, then rubbing in the fat until the mixture becomes crumbly. Then stir in the grated cheese and add enough cold water to make a dough that leaves the bowl clean. Wrap the dough in a polythene bag and leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.

Meanwhile, you can be preparing the filling. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, then add the chopped onions, stir to get them well coated in the butter, and cook them (uncovered) over a medium heat for about half an hour until they have reduced and turned a deep brown. Give them a stir from time to time to prevent them catching on the bottom of the pan and, if at the end of the time they haven't turned almost mahogany brown, turn the heat up and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Then roll out the pastry to line the tart tin, prick the base with a fork, place it on the pre-heated baking sheet, and bake in the centre of the oven for 15 minutes. After that remove from the oven and brush the inside of the pastry case with a little beaten egg (from the filling), and return to the oven for another 5 minutes.

Then spread the onions all over the base of the tart, whisk the beaten eggs together with the cream and some seasoning, and pour as much of this mixture over the onions as possible (depending on how much the onions have reduced, there may be a tiny spot left over). Finally sprinkle the cheese over the top, return the tart to the oven and bake for 30 minutes till the filling is puffy and golden brown.