Saturday, 25 May 2013

Nutella Stuffed Chocolate Cookies

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As our first school year in China is quickly coming to a close, it's time to announce ... we've signed on for a second year! To be real, it's a bittersweet moment for me. I think I've been fairly honest, if not somewhat limited in the details of my thoughts on life here so far, but I think it's time I broke it down for you. Let's make a list!

Things I love:
  1. It's a completely different culture from any I've known before and it forces me to rethink my own biases every single day.
  2. I get to travel to really amazing places, a lot.
  3. I get to work with really amazing students. These dudes and dudettes are some of the brightest people I've ever met, it's almost scary.  They are going to take over the world one day and they'll probably rock it.
  4. It's warm 10 months of the year. The other 2 months it's about 15 degrees Celsius - it makes it hard to complain about the cold days when talking to family and friends back home who are sitting under feet of snow.
  5. These cookies. 

Things I don't love:
  1. The food. I'm in love with food in general, but in China access to safely fresh food is a very, very big issue. I haven't eaten an apple in 10 months and I stopped eating meat not long after arriving. Local cuisine is far too greasy for my tastes (and tummy), and I just want to be able to make a leafy salad, but can't. Also, I don't want to travel 20 minutes by bus in order to buy cheese. I just don't.
  2. Public habits. Loud "hoarking" in the streets is a sound I will never get used to. I will also not get used to, or be okay with, your child defecating in the streets - the public health issues alone are never ending. In general people speak too loudly and stand too close. I sound like an old man, I know, but I find it unnerving. (disclaimer: some of this is cultural, I'm not meaning to offend, I just don't love it and that's okay too)
  3. It rains. A lot. It causes flooding in the streets and all of the above mentioned public habits are now in movement.
  4. The atmosphere is damp. The environment is tropical. I get that, I just don't love it. It means I can't have bangs and my big hair get's bigger. 
  5.  My kitchen for making these cookies. The oven is shared, there are always strangers asking for samples and I don't know how to say "no sorry, these are for a friend who's birthday in Hong Kong just got cancelled".

Next year we will be moving and I'll have my very own (mini, counter-top) oven, it's the most exciting part.  It will mean more cookies and maybe even some muffins - it's the little things. 

Little things like Nutella Stuffed Chocolate Cookies. Chocolate wrapped in chocolate. Crispy outside, soft and chewy inside with a melty core of Nutella. Rich and slightly intense these would be perfect paired with a big glass of fresh milk, or even with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. 

Click through for the recipe!

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Getting lost in time: Vientiane, Laos

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Another long over due travel post here! Over the Chinese New Year holiday (mid-february) we had two glorious weeks of vacation in which we met up with my parents and toured around the charming country of Laos. Our first of three stops was the capital city of Laos.

Marked with a long history of foreign control (the country was ruled, at various times, by the Khmer, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, and most recently and notably French), the capital feels more like a large town than a major city centre.  Architecturally it includes a range of classic temples and pagodas next door to colonial style mansions. The hot dusty streets are lined with an equal number of traditional Laos cuisine and french cafes. The French influence is everywhere you look and it creates a charming old time-y feel that transports you to time of slow paces, long drinks and the slow twirl of a ceiling fan.

The tourist area of Vientiane is spread along and around Nam Phu, the Mekong riverside with a few main streets that are lined with hotels, restaurants, and shops.  Everything is within walking distance, though it is also common to rent a bicycle and go from site to site in that fashion. The terrain is relatively well paved and endlessly flat and as long as you time it correctly, you could see almost everything in a day.  

We spread our time over 2 full days and took the city at a leisurely pace, which seemed to fit our surroundings well. We followed a relatively popular walking/cycling route and managed to take in a a good amount of what the city has to offer the average tourist (read: Wats, museums, a lot of food).

Haw Pha Keao

Wood Carvings in the courtyard of Haw Pha Keao

We started at Haw Pha Keao, which was built by King Setthathirat as a royal temple to house the famed Emerald Buddha (which now rests in Thailand).  Today it holds a collection of religious (buddhist) art and sculpture and has one of the finest (if not small) grounds to stroll around.

Across the street from Haw Pha Keao is Wat Si Saket.  Wat Si Saket, with it's relaxing atmosphere, tall trees and welcoming benches, is most notable for it's courtyard that is lined with hundreds, if not thousands of buddha images ranging in material from bronze and silver to wood and stone.  This was truly a site to behold, and  was topped off with an impressive sim, with as many as five roof tiers, and keeping yet more buddha images. A must see.

Next it is up the (quite long) street to Vientiane's very own Arc de Triomphe. Known as the Patuxai the 4-gated monument is impressive from afar, but notably lack lustre up close. Built slightly higher than the Parisian original, and made with US donated cement (originally meant for a new airport, the Patuxai is worth a visit in order to climb to the top. The view of the city is vast, the climb is not horrendously difficult (approximately 7 stories), and the ice-cream at the end is the perfect cold treat.

A View of Patuxai


The remainder of our time was spent in various cafes (enjoying far too much iced coffee and pastries), wandering the waterfront, exploring various shops, and eating in many excellent restaurants. 

My favourite part of the city was the food (of course), and I just loved the mix of french and traditional Lao. A buttery croissant by day and spicy Jaew Mak Khua (eggplant dip) by night is just fine by me!

Places of note:
Hotel: Hotel Khamvongsa - very pleasant, excellent location (close but quiet), clean, traditional furnishing, delicious breakfast

Cafe: Le Banneton - Please don't leave the city until you been here. Great coffee and amazing salads and pastries.  I wouldn't bother with the other food because after having one of their salads you won't want to eat anything else ever again. Seriously. Go there. 

Restaurant: Makphet - related to the Friends restaurant that I mentioned in this post, Makphet is also a charitable restaurant that works to train former street youth in the hospitality industry. Food seemed to be reliably good, and had a good hit of spice.

Shop: T'Shop Lai Gallery - part gallery part shop this store was opened by Les Artisans Lao, a group of local Lao Artists who specialize in the use of renewable materials to make handicrafts, art, and personal care products.  I can't get enough of their extra virgin coconut oil, and their natural insect repellent.  They offer a good variety of lotions and potions and it's impossible to walk out empty handed. Their facebook page offers more information

Please note: these businesses are not sponsoring this post.  Any recommendations made here are based solely on my experience while visiting.  I try to make a note of mentioning establishments that are authentic, have excellent service, and where possible are connected to some greater good. 

Friday, 3 May 2013

Local Exploration: OCT Loft, Shenzhen

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Have you ever thought something about a place or activity, and been sure you were right, before you even went there? For example I knew Vancouver was going to be a beautiful city that I could easily live in before I even stepped foot on the plane. I knew this years before I had visited for the first time.  There’s something about the west coast (of Canada and America) that I am just so drawn to. The vibe? The pace? The scenery? A little bit of all of it I think. And while I’ve never been to the west coast of the United States, I already know I’m going to love them. It's just a fact.

Anyway, this post is not about the west coast of Canada or America. It's about China.  And it's about how I thought I knew something about my life in China before I ever got on the plane. Ever had a time like that? We all have at some point, I’m sure. But have you ever been wrong?  I may have been right about my thoughts on Vancouver, but my pre-China thought and my reality are quite different.  

Let me explain... before moving abroad I had the naive thought that I would be exploring a different part of the city almost every weekend. I was wrong. So very, very wrong.  The truth is, there’s just been so much work to do, or to get caught up on that I have done almost no exploring of the city we live in.

Given that it’s now MAY (holy smokes, where does the time go?), it’s about time I got out there and explored again. So this past Labour Day (which they celebrate May 1), I headed out of doors with a friend to explore the OCT Loft area of Shenzhen.

I had been to this area once before for a jazz festival way back in October and had been immediately taken with the ambiance of the place.  It felt like no other place in China I had been, and it still feels that way.  OCT Loft is an open warehouse/art gallery/boutique shops space that reminds me just enough of home to help curb the home sickness that inevitably creeps up every now and again. But also feels different enough that I'm eager to explore each building and turn in depth.

The afternoon was spent meandering around old buildings, sipping tea and eating cake at outdoor cafes, and oohing and ahhing at all the little bits and bobs we pretended we needed in our lives, but ultimately leaving empty handed because we were able to remind ourselves we didn’t actually need them … for now!

It was such a relaxing and peaceful afternoon that we’ve promised ourselves we’ll attempt at least one return trip before the school year is up. And I’ve promised myself time for a little more exploring!


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