Part One: Japan in Pictures

I’ve always loved Japan. I used to dream of it after watching too much anime and borrowing my dad’s novels by James Clavell. I would read Gai-jin and Tai-Pan and watch endless episodes of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, which in retrospect didn’t help my naive impressions of Japan. I was transported by historical, fictional and cartoon versions of  the country. In my head it was a world of meditation gardens, of white herons and of geishas in many-coloured kimonos.

231026_634676868042_2899311_nEmpty Sake Barrels on Miyajima Island

All the different forms of ‘my Japan’ distorted and intertwined themselves into a seething mass of rights and ritual, tea ceremonies and Yakuza; of hari-kari, seppuku, samurai, ninjas and honour and heritage; of maple trees, unagi, bamboo,  antiquities and ancient history.

250135_634569822562_2888633_nMaple trees in Kyoto

This bewitching country has always been top of my travel wishlist, wedged improbably and inelegantly between Vanuatu and Ushuaia, and, in 2011, I managed to make it there, at the tail end of a long trip with The Boy.

It was everything I had expected, if possible more and, I suppose, in measures it was less. It was shockingly expensive – we struggled to eat reasonably and to pay for the metro tickets after the soft introduction of bargain basement Thailand and Vietnam. It was staggeringly beautiful – the floating torii gate that appeared to me like a living doorway between the earth and heaven in Miyajima will stay burnt into my mind’s eye forever.

246669_634676304172_4420378_nThe Torii at Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima – Heaven’s Gate

Never have I felt more Godzilla-like as I wandered around Shinjuku and was surrounded by pocket-sized, lilly-white lovelies in Oscar-worthy make-up, pristine silk blouses and kitten heels. The business men in their sharply tailored suits and hair so stiff it looked like lego glanced at my dusty boots with politely-concealed distaste as my feet, feeling ashamed of their shabby appearance, tried to hide behind my travel-stained backpack.

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Japan was, to be truthful, also in turns a very strange place. Men would read explicit hentai – cartoon porn – on the metro on their daily commute and there were new breeds of bizarre hotel like the Cuddle Café, where patrons would pay by the hour to sleep and be hugged by a stranger.  I wrote a little about the oddities of Japan in a previous post about mental bentos, but, despite the intermittent other-worldliness of Japan, it’s a place I still yearn to return to, if only for the incredible food.

231173_634568949312_7925756_nTempura prawns and green peppers with miso soup, Nara

Last night Jun Tananka, a chef of Japanese heritage, transported me straight back to my 2011 trip with his plates of miso salmon, umami lamb and tempura shitake mushrooms. As I scoffed these delights I reminisced about the similar morsels that I had once eaten at the pop up sushi stands that stood alongside Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo like rows of painted beach huts.

There will be more on that tomorrow, as I try to put Jun Tanaka’s flavours into words, but for now here’s a collection of my Japan in pictures, from down town Tokyo and the deer-filled park in Nara to Osaka’s bright lights, Hiroshima’s prayer cranes, Kyoto’s temples and the bamboo forests of Arashiyama.

225236_634677162452_8005649_nTuna heads in the fish market. My foot is there as a reference to show their terrifying size!

227957_634455516632_671407_nGrannies on the Metro, Tokyo

227216_634456050562_4502138_nThe Glico Man in Dotonbori, Osaka

229061_634568709792_4109798_nSchool children admiring the view in Nara Park

248999_634675371042_7803631_nPaper prayer cranes in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, each crane has a special significance, which you can read more about here.

225525_634676204372_4079479_nThe torii, Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima. Once, not so very long ago, women weren’t allowed on this island and old folk would be shipped off it to die to keep this shrine island pure from death and contamination.

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227403_634573320552_1905114_nThe bamboo forests of Arashiyama

225828_634569253702_466575_nTemple gardens of tranquillity, Kyoto

225836_634573205782_8025778_nKinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple, Kyoto. The top floors of the temple are coated in gold leaf. It was reportedly the home of retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and made a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after he died in 1408.

229136_634570012182_5810063_nCycling around Sannenzaka’s wooden houses and temples along one of the oldest streets in Kyoto.

I know I’m not alone in my love and fascination for Japan. In fact, Frankie, a wonderful writer and blogger I met last year while dog mushing (which you can read all about here), also  dreams of visiting as you can read in her 2014 travel wish list. I would love to hear from people who have been to Japan and what their favourite places or experiences were.

Fingers crossed, there will, hopefully, be more to come on the food and the fish market in Part Two: Jun Tanaka’s Japanese Feast. 

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Punch Drunk Love Potions at Bam-Bou

“Let’s talk about love” were Susie Johns’- mystic Tarot card reader extraordinaire – first words to me as she leant across the bar, fixing me with her bright stare as shadows from the nearby candles flickered across her face. Have there ever been more terrifying words uttered?

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Fair was foul and foul was fair as I hurried through the rain and climbed the flights of dark wood stairs to The Red Bar at Bam-Bou in Fitzrovia for a night of love potions, magic and mystical intrigue.

The setting was apt: a cherry-red room the colour and richness of a geisha’s lipstick, decked in mahogany, dark leather stools and flickering candle-light. The bar manager Ladislav Piljar had brewed up a list of cocktails targeting the love-lorn and love struck of London.

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My first drink, a blood-coloured lovers’ liquor was a heady mix of Passoã, Aperol and citrusy Mandarine Napoléon that sent my head into a spiral. By the second, an alcoholic punch to the stomach of Illy coffee, Kirsch Eau De Vie and Cherry Heering, I was feeling the glow of something…albeit potentially more of booze than love.

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I approached Susie with hesitation. Paradoxically I’m rather cynical about mysticism, crystals and Tarot cards, despite fervently believing in fate, in true love and in karma. Yet curiosity will always win out and as Susie pinned me in place with her penetrating stare and softly talked me though my cards I found myself foolishly nodding along, shivers running down my neck when she mentioned something utterly personal or painfully truthful.

What did my cards say? Now that would be telling. Bam-Bou is fetauring their brand of Love Potions in both their restaurant and Red Bar throughout February and Susie will be on hand for one-on-one readings on Tuesday the 4, 11 and 18, which will include a 15-minute reading and cocktail for £25 per person.

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The Love Potions on offer are all priced at £7:

photo 1 (1)♥ Ever After Elixir – a magical mixture devised to lure proposals out of the most hardened altar dodgers (Bacardi Superior, Crème de Cacao Blanc, Velvet Falernum)

♥ Cupid’s Kiss – turn any frog into a prince (Tapatio Blanco, Kummel, Crème de Menthe)

♥ Lovers’ liquor – all roads lead to seduction “pur et dur” (Passoã, Aperol, Mandarine Napoléon)

♥ Rocket Fuel – for those who have lost the lust (Illy coffee, Kirsch Eau De Vie, Cherry Heering)

For more info and booking, head to www.bam-bou.co.uk

Malta: The Island of Plenty

I was rummaging through my cupboards today, hunting for olive oil, when I knocked over a thick, glass bottle full of lurid pink liquid that fell with a dull thud onto the tip of my big toe. After I stopped swearing and looked at the offending bottle I realised that it was Bajtra, a souvenir from a recent trip to Malta and the taste of that floral, bewitchingly sweet liqueur flooded back from my memory.

photo (1)The Grand Harbour

I’ll always have a bit of a soft spot for Malta. It was one of the first places I went on holiday with just my mother, leaving my brother, father and friends at home. She whisked me away after my first year of college to this tiny, faintly exotic-sounding island in the middle of a July heatwave and our week was spent wilting under the fierce, lemon light of a Mediterranean sun, gaping at the capital city Valletta with its battlements, cobbled streets and palatial mansions and taking beaten up local buses to tiny villages selling lace, glass and amber. I remember the gleam of the silver suits of armour in the Grandmaster’s Palace; I remember the Liberace lavishness of the inside of St John’s Co-Cathedral; I remember leaving a carefully folded paper wish at Mary’s statue in the old church on neighbouring Gozo island and I remember the impossible blue of the water surrounding the craggy coastline, but, I remember very little about the food.

If I racked my brains I could just recall the thick-skinned, greenish oranges they served at the hotel breakfast and the bowls of fat, oil-coated olives that, at that time, neither I nor my mother much cared for. So when I was invited on a gastronomic trip to Malta in November to write a destination guide to Valletta, I was intrigued. What had this little island, marooned near the foodie juggernaut of Sicily but with a surface area only as big as the Isle of Wight got to offer?

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I think it was during the second course of the first night’s meal that I realised that this wasn’t the Malta I remembered from 13 years ago. Our rowdy rabble of writers and PRs were squeezed around a wooden table in the dimly-lit Tarragon, a pretty little restaurant with panoramic views of the sea and a menu to die for. I felt like Belle in Beauty and the Beast as, course by course, one by one, dishes appeared on the table. Tiny, spherified olives; plates of tender, rabbit in a creamy, sweet Madeira sauce; garlicky piles of salty, fried whitebait; hand smoked ruby salmon, just this side of cooked; shots of spicy carrot soup and, the main event, a platter of pernod, salt crusted fish that they set alight at the table.

2013-11-19 20.33.11Salt-baked fish at Tarragon

The evening ended with iced glassed of Bajtra, the local spirit made with the prickly pears that grow in abundance all over the island. The feasting continued the next day with an 11am visit to one of the vineyards that cover the sun-baked, fertile landscape. Meridiana wine estate produces a portfolio of zesty whites and heady reds named after gods and goddesses that will, mostly, only ever be drunk on the island.

Our guide told me that most of what they produce is swallowed by domestic demand and only a tiny portion makes it overseas, and most of that is on special order. It seemed astonishing to me that this reasonably priced and frankly delicious wine was so hard to get hold of outside of Malta. Apparently there’s one notable London hotel that stocks one white and one red, with a 500% mark up in price.

La MeridianaBarrels at Meridiana Wine Estate

After trying and falling in love with Meridiana’s buttery Isis Chardonnay, which was poured alongside plates of peppered local goats cheese and Maltese water crackers, we were whisked away again to lunch at Gululu, a restaurant on the water’s edge in Spinola Bay where the menu presented some…unusual choices.

photoSuffocated chicken anyone?

Maltese-MezzeStarters at Gululu

This was a Malta full of seasonal, local produce, full of sun-wrinkled, oily tomatoes, fat figs and juicy peaches, sharp capers, seafood fresh from the water and locally sourced, locally made booze by the barrel-full. The gastronomic showing off continued back at the Phoenecia Hotel where the head chef of their onsite restaurant, Pegasus, Saul Halevi walked us around the sprawling kitchen gardens. He would disappear behind the foliage, reappearing a few moments later clutching handfuls of ripe tomatoes, courgettes or rocket, stopping to present trays of aubergines stuffed with ricotta and vegetable tartlets. Later he cooked us pearl barley risotto, marinated prawns and octopus before I staggered, too full to think to the hotel bar to sink into one of their deep leather chairs and deliberate, cogitate and digest all that I had tasted, sampled and gorged.

Saul-in-the-Kitchen-GardenSaul Halevi in the Kitchen Gardens at Phoenicia Hotel

Pegasus PrawnsPrawns at The Pegasus

photo 2But even there, the Maltese spirit followed me as the bar man presented me with one last flavour of Malta: A cocktail made from Maltese grapes, Gozo honey, sparkling wine and, of course, Bajtra. At the time I think that cocktail sent me over the precipice of full to bursting. It was my ‘wafer thin,’ Mr Creosote moment that made it into my previous blog about lessons learned from 2013. While it may have been an ill-advised digestif at the time, the taste of that curiously fruity, rose scented alcohol has lingered and when the bottle fell unceremoniously on my foot this morning it prompted me to do something with it.

Being fragrant, pink, floral and sweet, it makes an ideal substitute for rose water in sweets like marshmallow and macaroons. Here’s an easy, gelatin-free version of Turkish delight, flavoured with Bajtra, that makes a perfect, gift-sized portion…if you manage not to scoff the lot yourself.

Maltese-Flavoured Turkish Delight

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Turkish delight uses very few ingredients, just a lot of sugar. It’s usually coloured using a couple of drops of red food dye but I found that the Bajtra gave it a lovely, natural peachy tint.

Ingredients

400g white caster sugar

1/2 tsp cream of tartar

60g cornflour

1/2 tbsp lemon juice

1-2 tbsp Bajtra

Icing sugar and more cornflour to dust.

Method

  • Put the caster sugar with 190 ml of water and the lemon juice in a heavy-based saucepan and bring to the boil, stirring continuously. You need to get the sugar syrup to a ‘soft ball’ stage – when you can form the syrup into a soft ball in a glass of cold water – this is easiest with a sugar thermometer. It should be at soft ball stage when the temperature gets to 115 degrees C.
  • Take the syrup off the heat and drop the cornflour and cream of tartar into another pan with 250 ml of water, whisking to make sure there are no lumps. Bring this to the boil until it turns into a sort of pasty glue substance before adding the sugar syrup, a little at a time until it’s all mixed together.
  • Boil this on a gently simmer for about an hour, until the gloopy liquid has turned a soft gold colour.
  • Stir through the Bajtra and pour into a greased, lined tray and cover to set. It will take a good few hours to reach the best texture and is best left overnight.
  • When the Turkish delight has set, tip the block onto a board covered in icing sugar and cut into squares. Coat the squares in a mixture of icing sugar and cornflour so they won’t stick and store in Tupperware in the cupboard – these little floral bites are perfect for a sugar fix or with a cup of strong, black coffee!

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Rooms at Phoenicia Hotel start from just £55 per person per night, based on two sharing on a room only basis, for advance purchase online bookings with minimum three-night stay. To book visit www.phoeniciamalta.com or call 0800 862 0025.

For more information on holidays in Malta see the Malta Tourism Authority’s website www.visitmalta.com

Luoyang, Henan, China

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We seemed to be the only westerners in Luoyang when we visited. It was the middle of a bitter, Chinese winter and the further north we travelled the deeper the ice-laden wind cut.
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When we arrived at our hostel we realised it was a flat shared with the owner and his son in the centre of residential Luoyang. We found that we could only communicate through Google Translate, and, after a few false attempts he managed to tell us we should do three things here: eat steamed dumplings, see the Longmen Grottoes and take the local bus to the Luoyang Musuem – a mausoleum of Chinese antiquities and treasures.
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After two hours staring at jade, ivory and precious statues behind glass, we wandered back into the pale sunlight and straight into this gentleman. He sits, with his barrel of hot, roasted sweet potatoes, by the museum gates everyday, through summer and winter.

The smell of singed potato skin enticed us closer and, when he flashed us that smile we were powerless to resist. We left with handfuls of hot potato, warming our hands though our gloves for the bus home.
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If anyone is heading to Luoyang I would love to know if he is still there…

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Flower Girls by Elżbieta Wodala

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Duszek / Brownie – fragment 1c39b0612bc6e90c1ecef45d6604984a,8,19,0

Duszek / Brownie

Occasionally, when sifting through twitter updates, you’ll stumble across a gem – something so beautiful and magical it grabs your attention utterly and completely.

When I was very little I firmly believed that fairies lived in flowers. I would crouch, perfectly still in my parent’s garden in Hampshire, nose-to-nose with tulips, rosebuds and fuchsia bells, smelling the sun-warmed dirt and summer air heavy with honeysuckle and sweet peas. I was convinced that if I waited long enough and quietly enough, a fairy would push open one of the closely-tucked petals and emerge. But I would always grow impatient and peel open a tulip bud or pop a fuchsia open too soon, only to blame myself for finding them empty.

This is the work of Polish artist Elżbieta Wodala who, on her website, invites you in to her world of ‘uniquely serene art,’ through the looking glass and into a place of ‘Florotypia’ where she re imagines and recreates portraits, landscapes and balletic figures from dead flowers, leaves, petals, seeds and twigs into paintings of her own imagination.

a15499e3639749ccbaf2fe848143d2e9,8,19,0Gabi

cd0b2b0f959472c2380595d275d4be9b,8,19,0Josephine

According to her website, “Elzbieta Wodała, who lives in Wrocław, has been creating above 250 artistic compositions by gluing dried parts of different kinds of plants on a white background, since 2004. She has joined to unique leaf art called “Liściaki”  which was invented by Czesław Rodziewicz – Wrocław artist and poet, progressively achieving her own, full of womanly delicacy, recognizable style now.”

“Original works are then used as the unique matrices which are processed by the Author in artistic digital graphics, called FLOROTYPES.”

“Her compositions has been so far presented for 36 individual exhibitions and 2 collectively and on a number of meetings with audience. Were also shown at the University of Nature in Wroclaw.”

“In 2010 she won the first place in the art competition “Annex Artistic Creativity” in Namysłów in the category of art crafts.”

Her website is packed with the dreamlike painting and collages, but here’s a selection of my favourites from her admirable collection and the perfect song to listen to as you watch them, Delibes’ Flower Duet from Lakmé.

All images and artwork from Elżbieta Wodala’s website.

Extreme Japan: Mental Bento

I was trawling down my Facebook feed yesterday when a post from Tokyo Otaku Mode popped up. I always view their posts with a degree of trepidation – will it be an inappropriately dressed lolita gazing at the camera in an alarming cosplay get up, or will it be a sneak peak at covert Jap-anime culture, a window into geek’s district Akihabara or some intricately-crafted coffee art?

I was in luck, instead of a doe-eyed teenager with impossible breasts staring wistfully in a tutu and a blue wig, I found a round up of the cutest and most creative ‘charaben’ – a more creative form of character bento that would put most people’s packed lunch attempts over here to shame.

These lunch boxes are works of art, with faces and cartoon characters painstakingly recreated using seaweed, coloured rice, wafer-thin omelettes, carved hot dogs and sculpted radishes.

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All images from Tokyo Otaku Mode’s Pinterest.

Back in 2011, the BBC ran an insider report on Japan’s impressive lunch boxes, which you can still watch online here, but lunches seem to have gone beyond industrious mothers preparing them at home to big business, and there’s no way all of these are made ‘just for the kids.’

In fact there are even websites, like justbento.com, that are dedicated to teaching visitors how to make these elaborate bentos, from beginner’s rice balls to expert character masterpieces.

This dedication, control, extreme level of creativity and sheer, wonderful madness typifies Japan to me, or at least the Japan that I experienced when I visited in 2011.

227093_634454977712_2600907_nFor me, Japan was my rabbit hole and I fell helplessly down it. I travelled all over Tokyo, losing Street Fighter battles in the smoke-filled arcades with Japanese teenagers and wandering around the vast, multi-story manga complexes ogling figurines, comics and costumes before leaving for Osaka, the neon-wonderland, the heart-wrenching concrete jungle of Hiroshima and beyond, to Nara and Kyoto.

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The following is an extract from an article I wrote expressing my bafflement and enchantment with Japan, the confusion I felt for its paradoxical mixture of rigid structure and customs and recesses of deviancy and its blurred social margins. The original piece can be found here.

227024_634454453762_4983178_n“Travelling around Japan I was in turn amused and shocked by the strangeness on show in every day life, from the sexuality to the food and even the conduct of its people.

I was bowed to by airport staff who nearly scraped their foreheads on the ground in deference, then forcibly rammed onto a train by a ‘pusher’ – a white-gloved gentleman who has the dubious job of ramming as many people as possible onto rush hour trains. I saw a woman harshly reprimand her five-year-old for staring at me on a bus, then was subsequently hunted down by hundreds of Lilliputian school children in pikachu hats toting surveys in Nara Park while their teacher pointed me out, saying something along the lines of: “Quick, get the foreigner!”

You’re greeted by a deafening chorus of: “Youkoso, ohayouuuu gozaimasuuuu” when you enter any shop, a cry that follows you around as every different employee – who genuinely seems in love with their job – walks within a metre of you (and just you wait for the complicated thank you and goodbye song and dance if you buy anything). Then there are the times where human contact is severed completely, like the restaurants where you order your food from a vending machine, which spits out a ticket for you to hand to the chef, cutting out the middle man entirely.

Japan in Five Oddities

1. The Ghibli Museum
227515_634455636392_7618330_nPart exhibition house, part shrine to the legendary animator, artist and director Hayao Miyazaki, who co-founded and created Studio Ghibli and all the wonder it produced from My Neighbor Totoro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to the blockbuster hit Spirited Away.

This crazy museum feels like stepping through the looking glass. There are magical mobiles and murals, tiny doors, strange passages, floor to ceiling sketches and a life-size version of the cat bus from Totoro, complete with dust bunnies (although, as I discovered, you can only go in it if you’re a child).

2. Maid Cafes

Image: kalleboo

6624442057_d51e83f8fc_bThese are scattered throughout Japan but mostly found in concentration around the geeky Akihabara district in Tokyo. In these cafés, waitresses dressed in cosplay maid costumes act as servants and treat customers as masters (and mistresses) in a private home. A young lady dressed as a cartoon character simpering, serving tea and calling you master? Sound weird? That’s because it is.

3. Manga Kissa

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Can’t afford the sky high accommodation costs at the local hostel? Why not spend the night at a Manga Kissa instead. These glorified libraries come with booths separated by curtains and sometimes walls. You pay by the hour or overnight, get a comfy chair, a computer and unlimited access to the library of comics, films and books to while the night away. Drinks and showers are usually included as well. I tried it and after the sixth neon fizzy drink and hours spent watching poor quality versions of Black Swan and Star Trek I left dazed, confused and quivering from a sugar high at the first light of dawn.

4. The Penis Festival
Every April the festival of Kanamara Matsuri, or ‘The Steel Phallus,’ gets under way in Kawasaki. The object of celebration is recreated in sweet form, in carved vegetables, decorations and a parade.

The Kanamara Matsuri apparently came from local legend surrounding a penis-venerating shrine that was once popular among prostitutes praying for protection from sexually transmitted diseases. There’s also the slightly more disturbing legend of a sharp-toothed demon that hid inside a young woman’s vagina and castrated two men on their wedding nights. The young woman sought help from a blacksmith who made her an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, leading to the enshrinement of the item. What? Exactly.

231129_634455017632_7663044_n5. Japan is Weird.com

For more examples of the truly, inexplicably bizarre you should have a look at this website: japanisweird.com, which features – you have been warned – among other things: a japanese KFC Colonel, an intimate relations practice room for teenagers and more adult-sized costumes clearly intended for children than you can shake a Pocky biscuit stick at.”

Travel Diary: Indian Trains and Restaurant Menus

estación de Nueva DelhiImage: 2ose

Illegible scribblings, doodles and snatches from the dirty, scuffed travel diary I kept while travelling around South East Asia in 2008.

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On Ordering from the Menu in India

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“A menu is essentially useless here. They will either not have or not have the inclination to cook half the dishes from it. Ordering merely one local dish will be met with suspicion and ignored and instead you’ll be brought two of everything.

Your choice of plain fizzy water will be considered insultingly plain and will obligingly be pepped up with spices, sugar and copious amounts of salt.

Food orders will be repeated, tirelessly for around ten minutes until both diner and waiter are beyond a level of confusion to the extent that the appearance of food – not what you ordered but presented with such a flourish you don’t care – is a miracle in itself.”

168926_594343122192_1338368_n“Do you have coke?”

“……Coke?”

“Coca Cola? Or Pepsi?”

“Ah yes, Pepsi. I know Pepsi. Yes we have Pepsi.”

Two minutes later he returns with a can of Coke. “Pepsi sir, very good sir.”

On the Train from Goa to The Pink City, Jaipur

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“It’s just gone seven and I am uncomfortably awake. The Nun sits in profile to the window below me, her figure is half-lit by pale, lemon sunshine. She looks as though she should belong in some ancient triptych, a stained-glass window or carved of blonde and chestnut wood.”

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“She looks martyred, blessed by divine illumination, quiet, infinitely composed. She is ‘Nun’ personified. A girl sits opposite. All I can see are her feet. The edge of a sari so red it burns in the half light. She has dancer’s feet: high arched and oddly supple. She stretches them, languidly. Everything seems beautifully serene at this moment. India is a bubble dream contained at this point.”

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Song for the day: Happy

The weather might be getting biblical outside my London window but I’m feeling uncharacteristically, almost moronically happy, and this song encapsulates that addictive feeling. I defy you to listen to this and not start jigging about like a dad at a wedding…or this:

 

Five Reasons To Be Happy This Weekend

  • It’s Burn’s Night tonight. A legitimate excuse to swill whiskey, cut food with swords and slur along a toast to your dinner in your best (always terrible) Scottish accent:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

  • It’s Australia Day tomorrow. If you’ve recovered enough from Burn’s night grab your closest Australian – there’s bound to be one near you – and celebrate this antipodean juggernaut. Failing that, put on some fancy dress and go on a pub crawl. Ripper.
  • For more sunshine in your life, take a look at Vincent Van Gough’s iconic Sunflowers painting, which is on show at the National Gallery in Trafalgar until 27 April. To brighten your day even more, entry is completely free.
  • Fun and laughter are practically guaranteed at the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival. It’s the final day on Sunday 26 January and they’re serving up a selection of short, silent, satirical comedy and sketch comedy with films and shows around London. Check the website for details.
  • If you don’t fancy leaving the house, campy superhero Sci-Fi Flash Gordon is on Film 4 RIGHT NOW. Who doesn’t want to see a creative use of Lycra and a baddie called Ming the Merciless? Go go go.

On the Nature of Incessant Business

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!

Henry David Thoreau ‘Life Without Principle’

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Thoreau asks us to ‘consider the way in which we spend our lives’, and goes on to describe our world as ‘a place of business’ – meaning a place of work, bustle, enterprise and industry… He does not suggest that there is anything inherently ‘bad’ about industriousness, but depicts its relentlessness as an unhealthy obsession.

Thoreau postulates that ‘that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business’. He argues that we should place less importance on work and realise the value of leisure, of ‘idleness’. We should evaluate why we work, what we work for, and solve our unhappiness by establishing a healthy balance between work and leisure.

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Naturally, this is easier said than done. Bertrand Russell also explores this line of thinking in his essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’. He argues that ‘there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached’.

Russell identifies the desire for efficiency as a destructive attribute: ‘There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake’. His ideal scenario is that we should work astutely for four hours of each day. This amount of work ought to be sufficient to support our lives monetarily, and allow for ‘idle’ time in which to pursue creative impulses and to socialise. If we could attain this ideal we would achieve ‘happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia’.

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The concept of idleness as a positive attribute rather than an undesirable, or even evil, one, continues to be explored and discussed by writers and thinkers today. One such writer is Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and author of ‘How to Be Idle’, in which he concludes that ‘The art of living is the art of bringing dreams and reality together’.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Bertrand Russell, and invitation to comment and discuss below…

Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever. Bertrand Russell, ‘In Praise of Idleness’

Originally written for and published on Earth Books.net and can be found here.

The Rum Kitchen, Carnaby

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I’ve always been a bit afraid of Caribbean food. Saying that, my experience has been limited to some ill-judged, late night jerk chicken that was coated in so much scotch bonnet chilli sauce it took the skin off the roof of my mouth and some questionable rice and peas. To be honest, Reggae Reggae sauce is about as island spice as I get nowadays, but when the invite came to try the achingly cool new Rum Kitchen in Kingly Court, Carnaby Street, I couldn’t resist the lure of the exotic unknown.

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The Carnaby venue is the spawn of The Rum Kitchen’s buzzing Notting Hill branch and the décor follows the same funky vibe: multi-coloured lights, ‘one love’ slogans and a rhythmic soundtrack of reggae and calypso beats thrumming off the oil drum ceiling. Even the charismatic maître d’ was dancing as she weaved through the crowds of after-work twenty-somethings and showed me and J to our table.

At the back of the restaurant it was dimly lit and, shall we say, snug. The tables were so tight that the waitress had to pull them out to let us to shuffle in and when it filled up we felt as though we had practically joined in with the surrounding diner’s conversations. I got up to use the bathroom once and practically sat in someone else’s dinner as I apologetically sidled out. I’m exaggerating, but it’s an intimate squeeze if you’re on the back row of tables, diners sitting in the snazzy window seats get a superior view, although, arguably, not as much of the party atmosphere.

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We soon came to understand why the napkins were actually chef’s tea towels. The Rum Kitchen is far too laid back to worry about finger bowls so by the end of the first course of ever-so-slightly chewy but finger-lickingly sticky BBQ ribs and roti and chokra – wee pots of smoked aubergine and spiky burnt garlic and tomato dip – they made us look like we’d been working in an abattoir.

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Then came a portion of the world’s juiciest chicken thighs marinated and deep fried in a Jerk seasoning that actually tasted of individual spices instead of thwacking you round the face with just heat. The chilli flavour came later as an after burn from the rich, rum BBQ jerk ketchup and side sauces of smoky rum jerky, hot swamp sauce and scotch bonnet mayo.

J didn’t say a word as she powered her way through her soft shell crab burger with spicy tamarind sauce, ginger aioli and guava-lime relish, only pausing for a glug of rum sour and to sigh contentedly.

There isn’t too much refinement in the food here, the ginger aioli was only vaguely gingery and the side order of plantain came soggy instead of puffed and crisp, but the not so brilliant was tempered by the excellent like the punchy, tar-esque chilli jam that came with the plantain and the exceptionally good pineapple slaw that arrived in a fruity, dribbling mound alongside my blackened jerk thighs.

The desert menu was sparse, with only ice cream, tropical-flavoured sorbets made outside of house and two types of cake on offer – banana and chocolate with the ubiquitous lashings of rum sauce as well as a healthy selection of digestifs.

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To be honest, after a particularly good lemon sherbet cocktail, a tall, frosty Caribbean take on a gin sling and a cola tonic  – a limey, rummy, herby drink that will forever now make real coca cola taste disappointingly of sweeteners and battery acid – I wasn’t overly interested in pudding. There is life beyond the cocktail menu with a decent wine list featuring some suitable strong-armed numbers like a zesty Chablis to stand up to the food that’s laced with rum, lime and chilli, but The Rum Kitchen doesn’t feel like the right place swig a glass of sauvignon.

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After extraditing ourselves carefully from our table and fighting the urge to dance our way out to a backing track of Damien Marley, walking out into the upmarket surrounds of Kingly Court came as a bit of a shock to the post-rum system.  It was akin to the sensation you get when leaving a club: everything is unnaturally quiet and your ears are ringing. Except, instead of feeling a bit queasy, after a visit to The Rum Kitchen you’ll leave with a full stomach and the taste of the Caribbean lingering on your tongue, even if you’ll be vaguely wondering if the table next door heard your conversation about that embarrassing doctor’s appointment.

The Rum Kitchen, 1st Floor, Kingly Court, Soho, W1B 5PW therumkitchen.com

Original article written and published for Foodepedia.co.uk and can be read here.