Sunday 30 December 2012

Wide Angle: vol. 4

Pin It It's been a busy couple of weeks (okay, more like months) since I've been able to post regularly, some of it interesting, some of it not so much (grading essays is so much more time consuming than grading math tests).  To give you an idea of what's been happening on a more behind-the-scenes level, I present to you another installment of Wide Angle, a casual look at my day-to-day ... captured on my iphone.

I have a lot of stories and posts in the works to catch up on from the last couple of months, and even more beyond that based on the next couple months (we're in the midst of our big travel time over here). I'm going to try and keep it in sequence and ignore that it's actually Christmas and New Years holiday, and show you some photos as far back as Hallowe'en. Just roll with it. And so, in light of the fact that it is the holiday and I'm sitting in a hotel room in Hanoi, I'm going to move right on the photos now.

1. Ask and I will deliver - this is what the Ikea sign looks like in China.
2. I can't resist the colours on these shoes! I smile everytime I look down.
3 & 4. Hallowe'en - 1 dress, 2 ways. #3 is my representation of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and #4 is Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame. The kids in the elementary half of the school still call Ms. Frizzle more often than not. I'm totally okay that association.
5 & 6. My very frist trip to Hong Kong involved leaving the boys at home and heading over for a day of shopping and seeing. These two are taken on the way to (#5) and at (#6) Stanley / Stanley Market. A pituresque portion of Hong Kong that feels very un-Hong Kong.  The best part is grabbing a drink or some eats along the water, and the shopping ain't bad either! Note: it's market style, occasional haggling accepted, so places have clearly fixed prices. Generally if it's marked it's fixed, if it's not, it's not!
7 & 8. I had the opportunity to go to a conference in Beijing, which was my first (and so far, only) time there.  It was a brisk in and out trip, but I did manage to make it to the old market (#7) where I indulged in some snacks of the creepy crawly variety (#8). More specifically I sampled the scorpion (after some serious pep talk from some complete strangers), and I have to say that it was actually quite good, crunchy with a nice smoky BBQ flavour. In fact, I ate two.

And there you have it, a small glimpse into what's been happening in my day to day recently. It's been a pleasure communicating with you more regularily after such a long break - fingers crossed it continues!

Until next time!

Saturday 22 December 2012

Chocolate Peanut Butter "Pie"

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Ever wonder what happens when you move to China, don’t speak the language, and then contract a wicked virus like pneumonia? Yeah, neither did I. 

But I can now tell you, because it happened to Other Half, and it wasn’t fun. At all. What started as an innocent cough, quickly escalated into some wild inflammation in the lungs, which led to weeks of exhaustion, a lot of missed classes and too many trips to a Chinese hospital to receive antibiotics via IV twice daily. Slowly, slowly he’s coming around to the healthy side of life, but with a too heavy work load, an environment that’s more polluted than the body is used to, it hasn’t been easy. What a trooper, he deserves a cake, no? Well lucky for him, not only did he pull through like a champ, he also had a birthday, which means double reason for cake! Yay!

Traditionally when it’s Other Half’s Birthday I would bake him up something gooey and sweet that involved chocolate and peanut butter.  Without access to a proper oven, it was time to get creative.  I still managed to pull off the gooey, the sweet, the peanut butter, and the chocolate with just a little ingenuity and some vague memories of no bake classics. After all, a Birthday isn’t a Birthday without some cake!

Cake is perhaps a bit of an overstatement here, it was really more of a… pie? Ish? It had two layers, that I know for sure, but neither of them were traditional cake, or pie.  Working with what I had on hand and access to (which we know isn’t much) I sort of dreamed up this concoction and hoped for the best.

To start we have a layer of pseudo no-bake chocolate oatmeal cookie, and then we add a layer of whipped peanut butter creaminess. Combined it made a decadent, and rather delicious (if I do say so myself) Birthday treat.

If I were to make this again I would adjust a few amounts of certain things here and there (which is how I’m presenting the recipe below – adjustments made) as I found the bottom chocolate layer a bit too wet, and the top layer could have used a more traditional icing sugar (didn’t have).  

At the very least, China is forcing some creativity out of me, and if the results are like this, then I'm not complaining!

Chocolate Peanut Butter "Pie"
all measurements are approximate as this was a very little-bit-of-this-little-bit-of-that recipe!

For the base:
1 1/2 cups of oats
1/4 cup of whipping cream
1/2 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup of sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup butter

For the topping:
1 cup smooth peanut butter
 1/2 cup of whipping cream
1/3 cup icing sugar

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat melt the butter and add in cream, sugar and vanilla
  2. Stir in cocoa powder, when combined, mix in oats and cook for a couple minutes until softened
  3. Pour mixture into a greased pie plate - spread evenly and place in refrigerator while preparing the topping
  4. In a medium bowl, using either a stand mixer or hand mixer, whip the cream and icing sugar until you have a light whipped cream texture (will take a few minutes)
  5. Fold in the peanut butter to the whipped cream mixture until fully combined
  6. Spread evenly over the base layer and refrigerate until both layers have set (about 1 hour)
  7. Enjoy!

Tuesday 18 December 2012

When life blocks you from the internet... make salad.

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Oooooh boy! It’s been awhile… Sometimes I forget that we’re living in China.  When daily life gets overwhelmingly busy and I don’t have much time to do anything other than work and prepare for work the next day, it’s like I could be living anywhere in the world. Then I’ll try and do something totally normal like use Google, write on my blog, and stalk my friends on Facebook, and I’m blocked from all of it. All. Of. It.  And I’m frustrated back into reality.  I’m having a blast here in China, but there are many things that show themselves as the reality of life here and I have to remember that sometimes ignorance is bliss.  We’re slowly getting the use of certain tools back that allow us to work around the firewalls here on the mainland, and so hopefully I’ll be able to get into a routine again. Hopefully. (note: I’m not always blocked from using Google, but for reference it is blocked about 85% of the time). 

But I'm back now, temporarily at least, and I have lots of lit bits and pieces to share with you! I'll hopefully be able to continue with some semi-regular posting and life sharing, hooray! Let's have a celebratory salad... yes, salad. A nice, fresh, simple salad. Ah bliss.

While one reality is living behind a virtual iron curtain, another reality of living here is the fact that people don’t seem to cook food without an inch of oil in the bottom of the pan.  It’s not greasy, it’s oily. For the first time, I understand the difference, and so do my innards.  It’s time for salad.  I’ve craved salad before, but never like I do here.  Fresh foods are often considered quite sketchy, organic foods (if you can find them) are generally about as organic as that Channell bag is Chanel and if you even go near an article written about the farming and inspection practices in the newspaper you’ll want to eat nothing but imported soda crackers for the rest of your life.  Needless to say, fulfilling the salad craving isn’t always easy. Slowly, with time we’ve learned where to shop, what to trust, and what to turn a blind eye too. 

And so it is that this salad, while simple, was borne from weeks of planning and searching for various ingredients.  Never has so much pre-work gone into a couscous salad. I’m certain of it.  Happily, this turned out to be exactly what I needed.  It was fresh, it was crisp, it was refreshing.  My body rejoiced after this one.

There is nothing earth shatteringly new about this recipe.  In fact it’s a very simple couscous salad that uses minimal ingredients and requires only a few steps easy steps, but the result is a highly flavourful, healthy salad.  Oily innards beware!

Mediterranean Couscous Salad 

Approximately 1 – 1.5 cups cooked couscous
200g feta cheese, cubed
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
½ of a small cucumber, diced
1 can French Lentils, drained and rinsed
1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
salt to taste

1.     Combine the couscous, feta, tomatoes, cucumber and lentils in a medium bowl
2.     Add the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Combine thoroughly
3.     Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving to allow flavours to meld

Saturday 3 November 2012

Epic Internet Fail

Pin It Hey y'all! Just over here in Hong Kong for the day and thought I'd drop a quick note to let you know that we're having HUGE Internet problems over on the mainland. All access to VPNs have been down for about a week and a half with no clear end in sight. What does that mean? No blogging, no Facebook, no most things. I'm trying in furious vain everyday to get connected so I can update, but alas no luck yet.

In the mean time, know that we're alive, well, and exploring where and when we can!

Hope to write again soon!

Friday 19 October 2012

Bukit Kencur Trekking - North Sumatra, Indonesia

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It poured torrential sheets of rain the night before creating mudslides and an ever dampening environment, 10 minutes in I was soaked to the bone with sweat, and the leeches were so bad we had to douse our legs in tobacco water and tuck out pants into our socks and still we found them sucking our blood. Welcome to our Sumatran jungle trek.

That may not sound like a great way to describe such a great adventure, but let me be clear: despite all of that it was an experience like no other, and that’s a good thing!

Stuck between a choice to visit the jungle where the animals were semi-wild (due to the orangutan sanctuary and fairly consistent tourism), versus an area where they were wild, we chose the wild option with full knowledge that we wouldn’t see as much, but what we did see would be in its natural habitat. So while our Orangutan sightings were reserved for the sanctuary alone, we did manage to see the lushest jungle I have ever laid eyes, in real life and in my imagination along with a smattering of small wildlife, a 4-meter python and about 2 thousand+ bats. 

We started our day with a 30 minute motorcycle ride, and if I thought the narrow, cracked, and down-right torn up paths of Bukit Lawang were difficult to navigate on foot ... well I got a wake-up call when I perched on the back of a tiny Indonesian man's tiny Indonesian bicycle and every muscle in my body tensed as every 23 seconds I was sure I was going to go flying off the back of this thing while we maneuvered our way through the boulder like streets. Talk about adventure, and I hadn't even left the village yet.

Half an hour later I peeled myself off the back of Bike's bike (yes, the guides name was Bike, and his assistant guide/chef/jungle hacker was Chili), and my legs wobbled beneath me thanks to hanging on for dear, sweet life. Luckily we had a quick breather to pack some supplies before heading into the jungle, so by the time we actually set off I was raring to go.

To get to our "little" section of jungle that we would call home for the next 2 days, we were able to pass through a working rubber plantation and got to see the interesting (and painstakingly slow) method they use to harvest and collect natural rubber.  I didn't get a great photo but this wiki will at least give you some background, if you're interested. It was fascinating and humbling and a great lead in to our journey.

jungle fungus is cool

To get anywhere in the Sumatran jungle, you go up, or you go down, and if you want to cover any distance at all you do both, several times over.  And these are no gentle slopes either my friends - these are essentially walls made of earth and I still cannot decide if going up or down is better - one's harder, one's 1256 times scarier.  But it's always worth it. At the bottom you're often rewarded with a cool river to wash your grime smeared sweat face (trekking is sexy), and at the top you get a view, a rest, or both.

What a perfect place for lunch!

After a few good hours of trekking (and one exciting side excursion to track some white headed gibbons that the guides could hear in the area) we lunched at the waterfall of my dreams on beautifully greasy Nasi Goreng. That was one of the times where you literally have to take a moment to think about where you are, pinch yourself, convince yourself it's real and then giggle like a made thing because you're actaully having lunch in the depths of the jungle, in Sumatra, next to a waterfall and with all the pinching and convincing you still don't quite believe it. I repeated this process several time throughout the week. I'm lucky, I'm fortunate, I know it, I'm thankful for it.

After a supremely scenic lunch (oh who am I kidding, look at these photos, it was all scenic!) it was on to the campsite! I'm still amazed at how our guide managed to know his way through the trail-less jungle. Sometimes he would veer sharply off what appeared to be a slight trail into nothingness that he had to hack his way through with a straight blade he had slung around his hips - amazing. But low and behold, an hour later we were nestled in along the banks of a river that would be our resting place over night.

we stink.

Once we settled in we wasted no time in going for a swim and then hunting for the world's largest (and quite rare) flower, the Rafflesia - we found it, but sadly it hadn't yet bloomed.

our swimming hole

The evening passed pleasantly with a delicious meal, some chatter, a whole lot of jungle noise, and a bit of frog and nightlife hunting.  Attempting to sleep with the nightly noises of the jungle wasn't necessarily the most restful experience, but it certainly was a cool one (if you could get past the guide snoring like a transport truck).

pre-bloomed Rafflesia

Day 2 proved to hold the most exciting adventure of the journey yet ... the bat cave! This was a bit of a side journey that the guides had mentioned while walking the day before and we leapt at the chance, especially since it was only going to take use about 15 minutes off "trail". This little excursion was easily the most challenging part of the trek as it involved a very steep, very muddy decent, with very tired limbs.  We luckily managed to get away with just a few stumbles and were rewarded at the bottom with a cave entry that was about 1 metre tall and 1/2 a metre wide... which we crawled through for about 10 metres - it felt really real at this point.

Coming out the other side of the tunnel we stepped into a cavernous area that had a sliver of light coming from above, more than enough to see with for now, and luckily too, because as soon as the last person stepped out, the guide pointed to a spot about a foot above our heads on the wall where a python (estimated to be about 4 metres long) slithered past and into its home. Terrifying. Cool. Let's go deeper into the cave, shall we?

The next bit involved a lot of guano (read: bat poo) and jumping down into caves with eerily soft landings, but once we got passed that delightfulness, we were in the main entry of the bat cave system, and it was amazing! Well underground at this point we could just see the enormous space we were in, and several other "rooms" that led off it. Have you ever wondered what it sounds like when you wake up several thousand resting bats? Let me tell you ... crashing waves of thunder. It was astonishing, and more then a little startling, and as cool as it was, I was also very happy to be out again some 10 minutes later.  It was all visions of vampire bats making nests in my hair, and once those images flap through your brain there is just no going back.

hiked it!

The rest of the day passed much like the first, and by mid-afternoon with several ups, downs and another motorcycle ride under our belts we were happily showered and napped and ready for the next!

This trek was easily a highlight, and if you ever make it to the area I couldn't recommend it enough... I would happily return to do it all again without question. We benefited from having to very capable guides, one who used to be a former hunter (he once saw a Sumatran Tiger about 20 feet away from and peed himself - I don't blame him at all) and managed the entire trek barefoot - leeches and all. As I said at the beginning of the post, and is really the best way to describe this adventure ... this experience was like no other! Thank you Bukit Kencur.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Welcome to the Jungle: Hanging out in North Sumatra

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Did you think I had up and abandoned you? I hope not! It's been my goal since starting this little blog to post once a week, at minimum, and well it's obviously been a bit longer than that. Sorry. Sort of. You see I've been off in Indonesia for the last week and I didn't quite get a post up before leaving. Forgive me? What if you look into that sweet Orangutan face? I thought so... keep reading because there is more where that came from!

Welcome to the Jungle! It’s an oft-heard quip by locals who are wittily channeling their inner Guns and Roses fan boys and girls. But welcomed to the jungle we were! With a week off of work for the National Day holiday, Other Half and I flew off to Sumatra in Indonesia to see what we could see.  We started our journey in Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra and had planned on moving from there down to Berastagi to hike up a volcano. That didn’t quite come to pass however as we were quickly became charmed by the tiny village and the slow pace that we decided a few days of rest and relaxation among the sights and sounds of the jungle would do us just fine instead.

Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang is essentially a village that has prospered through tourism, with the main draw being the Gunung Leuser National Park Orangutan Sanctuary.  Coving approximately 950 thousand hectares, the National Park originally opened the Rehabilitation Centre in the early 1970’s to help orangutans that had been released from captivity, teaching them the necessary skills to survive in the wild along with protecting the orangutan population from hunting and deforestation.

Sumatra wasn’t originally on our (albeit rough and ever-changing) “to see” list when we arrived in China, but with a strong recommendation from a couple who went last year, and our original plans foiled by skyrocketed flight costs - it quickly leapt onto our radar and we found ourselves anticipating the trip more than either of us would have thought.

Bat Cave - Entrance and Interior

We spent the week exploring the jungle, visiting the rehabilitation centre, poking around bat caves (no Alfred’s or bat-mobiles in sight), and finding the lazier spots along the rushing Bohorok river to swim and lounge. We also happily indulged in fresh fruit juices and smoothies on a daily basis, ate enough Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice) to last us a life time and discovered that our guest house had the greatest banana pancake/crepe concoctions this side of the Seine. 

Our humble abode for the week

But of course, it wasn’t without its adventures here and there.  There was no hot water, which after a two day trek (more on that in another post) means no mercy for getting the stink off and with no running water to the toilets there was a rather awkward moment when we had to discover what to do with our, um, waste.  Other Half also managed to snap a picture of a cheeky little monkey darting into our room and snatching my new sarong (you know, instead of stopping the monkey for instance – in his favour, he did rescue it from the roof later when the monkey dropped it after realizing it wasn’t food).

Making his way in to steal our stuff!
Long tailed macaque and Thomas Leaf Money

All in all a great week and whether it was because it was never on my radar, or the exotic sights, sounds and names of things around me, there were many points throughout the past week where I had to pinch myself to remember that I really was hanging out in the Sumatran jungle.  

Did you know that this is how pineapples grow? I did not. This fascinates me.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Back in the habit: Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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oatmeal chocolate chip

Okay maybe not the habit, but dang it felt good to at least be back in a kitchen, even if it wasn't my own and I was using two toaster ovens as my ovens - it was still blissful.

I'd been itching to bake something ever since we landed in China, and for some reason oatmeal chocolate chip cookies were on my brain. Ingredients however are not the easiest to come across. Slowly over the last 4 or 5 weeks I've been collecting bits here and there. Unlike at home in Canada, I can't just hit my local grocer and expect to find staples/luxuries like white sugar, brown sugar, butter, flour and chocolate - you know, just about everything involved in cookie making. You want vanilla? You take a 20 minute bus ride to get it. Same goes for baking soda, and chocolate chips.... at least the oats were easy. They seem to be a common ingredient in Chinese breakfast so luckily I could find them everywhere.

While this was certainly a lesson in adaptation, as soon as I closed the door to the outside world, and sealed myself in the kitchen, I was hit with a wave of relaxed glee - it was my time and I was going to use it baking - awesome.

While cooking in such a pint-sized oven took some getting used to, luckily only one tray got singed, and the cookies themselves turned out to be a sweet and hearty treat.

Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside these skyrocketed past my expectations and became a fast favourite.  Rich in both flavour and texture they were a welcome change from the unusual, as proved by the record rate they disappeared!

While it's still in the 30's here in Shenzhen, it's full on autumn in Canada and what's better in autumn than some delicious, hearty cookies? Nothing, that's what. So if the temperature is dipping where you're from, or you just need a taste of home, I can't recommend these highly enough. Trust me, you won't be sorry.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
from Sweet Treats and More

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups quick-cooking oats - I used whatever I could find, I couldn't understand the package anyway!
1 cup semisweet or milk chocolate chips

  1. Preheat oven to 325 C or approx. 160 F
  2. In a large bowl, combine the butter, brown sugar, and white sugar until smooth.
  3. Mix in eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla.
  4. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt; stir into the creamed mixture until just blended.
  5. Mix in the oats, and chocolate chips.
  6. Drop by heaping spoonfuls onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
  7. Bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven.
  8. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely - and ward off hungry visitors who happen to smell delicious treats being cooked in a communal kitchen!
  9. Enjoy!


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