May 31, 2013 Leave a comment
Still miss you Dad xx
(Mostly Culinary) Ramblings of a Brummie
May 24, 2013 1 Comment
In my attempt to keep posting a bit more about Birmingham, I thought I would start a new category: Local Gems. These will be places which may not exactly set the culinary world on fire, but are local places where solid, tasty food is served. The first local gem I want to write about is Bedders in Small Heath, Birmingham.
Bedders for me, embodies everything I want to write about local gems – Most people in East Birmingham and Solihull know of Bedders but not so much outside of these geographic areas although they very much should. Fish and Chips is one of this nation’s beloved dishes – Who doesn’t like Fish and Chips? – and Bedder’s has been at the same location selling the same dishes today as they did over 50 years ago when they first opened (with a few additions to reflect the change in times). You don’t need me to tell you that any business which has survived for so long is obviously doing something right but here they are, still serving Fish and Chips as they probably did all those years ago when they first opened. What’s more astonishing is the fact that Bedders only opens Monday – Saturday for lunch and the only time they open in the evening is on Friday evenings 4:30pm – 7pm.
The menu is delightfully simple; Fish is a choice of cod, haddock or plaice (the latter 2 costing a bit more), they have pies and you can request tinned roe when you get there, although there are times they have fresh roe available too. No Southern Fried Chicken, no battered mushrooms or onion rings, definitely no kebabs here. If you order fish and chips, you can have it either as a single (piece of) fish and chips, or even a double (piece of) fish and chips. What’s more, in a really nostalgic twist, this is one of the few places I know of that offer you crispy bits of batter too (think some people know them as scraps?)
The fish is incredibly fresh at Bedders, too. Urban legend has it that fishermen call Bedders first to offer their wares before going to the Wholesale Market, but what I do know is that the fish is prepared fresh every day and the beauty of Bedders being so busy constantly is that all the fish is so freshly cooked that it’s rarely out of the fryer longer than 10 minutes before sold (and the fired fish has to be stacked sideways to allow more room once out of the fryer). It’s no small feat for somewhere in landlocked Birmingham to have been able to consistently get such fresh fish every day for as long as they have at Bedders. In my case, I always get my fish freshly fried as the plaice and haddock are cooked to order.
However, it’s not just the high quality fresh fish which should have you going to Bedders; You should be going for their superlative mushy peas and pickled onions. I admit, I never really liked mushy peas until I went to Bedders. I mean, why would you eat anything bright green that didn’t have a whole lot of flavour and subsequently needed a load of white pepper and malt vinegar to make them vaguely palatable? Much less did I see how/why they were considered to be a good accompaniment to fish and chips.. Admittedly, having to clean out a mushy peas machine when I used to work in a kitchen never helped my cause but then I tried the mushy peas at Bedders and it all became clear; Here at Bedders, the peas were freshly boiled down with ham hocks so that you got the ham flavour infused into the peas so it had a load of flavour – It didn’t need any extra white pepper or to be drowned in malt vinegar. I finally saw how they were a savoury accompaniment to fish and chips and could even enhance the fish and chips. Seriously, I’m a bit of a mushy peas snob now and even in more upmarket places that offer mushy peas with mint don’t have the same deliciousness as the mushy peas at Bedders. As for their pickled onions, rather than offer the jarred variety of whole button onions which have been in a jar for godknows how long, Bedders offer you freshly chopped onions steeped in a bowl of pickling vinegar (AKA proper pickled onions). Again, these are made fresh every day and you may not think they look particularly strong (in a pickled sense), trust me, you will be scooping as many onions as possible onto your food.
I used to only do a takeaway from Bedders with the fish and chips still wrapped in newspaper but if you want the full Bedders experience, then you need to eat in. It’s only then can you really soak in the nostalgia not only with the Formica and various newspaper clippings framed on the wall along with photos of stars whom have eaten there (My personal favourite is of David Suchet). Even the crockery is pure 60s and 70s with their glass plates and tea served in glass teacups and saucers. Order a fish dinner to eat in and you get your fish and chips (with or without peas), a glass of tea or coffee along with some bread (white, smeared all over with margarine, not butter). I absolutely love eating in at Bedders when I get a chance – I love seeing whole families enjoying themselves, sitting alongside an elderly couple enjoying their fish dinners just as they did 30 years ago.
I can’t believe I never thought of this before, but YKL created what can only be described as the Ultimate Fish Dinner Butty when she gets a fish dinner there; She gets a half-slice of bread, puts a bit of fish on half the side of the bread half slice, adds a couple of chips and some onions, then dollops a generous helping of mushy peas before folding over the bread. I’d never thought of doing that but it is every bit as good as it sounds and looks.
I admit, I’m fully biased about Bedders because they’re local to me and I’ve been going so long now that upon walking in, the manager asks me how much plaice he needs to cook – No hello or anything, just “How many today?”. But as I mentioned earlier, Bedders must be doing something right given they’ve lasted so long and essentially only trade during lunchtimes. I mean, they’re constantly busy and whenever I go past, there’s always a queue going out the door. Whenever I have visitors from abroad, I like taking them to Bedders because they offer fish and chips like we used to get when we were younger – Not like chippys these days which are more a kebab-house rather than a chippy. It’s not just for nostalgic reasons that I love Bedders, it’s because they serve Fish and Chips very well and I only hope that they can go on for at least another 50 years. So if you ever nearby and Bedders are open, you absolutely should go.
April 25, 2013 Leave a comment
For my Birthday, I obviously wanted to go somewhere pretty special to eat and with that came all sorts of questions – Do I stay in Birmingham or should I venture out further afield, possibly abroad? Do I try somewhere new or do I return to somewhere I’ve previously loved? I did initially think of staying in Birmingham but decided against it because well, I live here so can go to the good restaurants whenever I want (or at least it would be much easier for me to do so). I can’t really afford to go anywhere abroad so it was a matter of where else in the Country I wanted to go to. For a moment, I considered le Champignon Sauvage; the first 2* place I’d ever eaten and somewhere I went to in the beginning of my foray into finer dining establishments so I have a bit of a soft spot for them out of pure nostalgia. However, the cooking there is very robust and in them early days whilst my palette was still developing, was at times a bit *too* rich for me, but I reckon I could cope with it now. But was it enough for my Birthday meal? Not quite was that answer.. Besides, I want to go back to LCS with specific people to make it special again and by the time we thought about it, couldn’t get a table. I really needed somewhere I could get to easily by train for a day trip so that ruled out L’Enclume and other places up North so I looked at the train router and thought about the Hand and Flowers; I’ve been meaning to go there for a while with a friend but when I called them, they didn’t have any tables free for then next 6 months(!!). So there was only 1 place left – Londinium.
I go to Londiunium quite a bit really – Partly to visit friends and I used to go for work, but mainly because there are a lot of places I want to try in London. That said, there hasn’t really been anywhere new that has opened up in the past 18 months or so which has got me really excited and thinking that I *must* rush there (Well, apart from Sushi Tetsu last year). I mean, I remember being desperate to get a table at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Pollen Street Social pretty much as soon as they opened, but I’ve not had that feeling about a lot of places which have opened in London for a while now. That’s not really a bad thing though, as it means that whilst everyone is rushing around trying to get a table at the latest establishment opening its doors for the first time, I’m finding it easier to get a reservation at somewhere which has had the time to iron out the kinks associated with new openings and have found their groove (so to speak). However, there has only been 1 new restaurant opening in the past couple of years where I actively seek to go back to time and time again – Hedone.
There’s no secret that I absolutely love Hedone given how completely blown away I was from the very first meal I ate there (and subsequently wrote about here) and am subsequently absolutely itching to go back as soon as possible pretty much all the time. Since that first visit, I’ve been back a few times and I’ll be honest, there has been an occasion when I’ve felt slightly underwhelmed and thought that Mikael showed off his mortal side. Whilst chatting to Mikael on a visit last Summer, he told us that he was (finally) a lot happier with how the kitchen was operating and subsequently much happier with the dishes being served – And you could tell that from subsequent visits; The near culinary god-like status was reinstated and every dish coming from the kitchen was absolutely stellar. Subsequently, there’s been no looking back; Hedone has been awarded its first Michelin star – Just over 12 months after first opening and as Mikael himself documented in his Gastroville blog, getting the Michelin star was a source of great pride to him and he finally a lot happier with the way the kitchen and restaurant is being run. From that slight dip where all the dishes were probably 7 or 8′s out of 10, every single dish that was being served now was worthy of at least a 9 out of 10 and that old familiar feeling of wanting to go back as soon as possible returned. And well, that turned out to be my Birthday;
The 4 of us arrived absolutely famished because as we deliberately ate a light breakfast given we knew that there were going to be a lot of courses eaten but I don’t think we were prepared for just how hungry we all were by the time we got there. Jokingly, we thought of asking them to have bread waiting for us on the table for our arrival, so when we all sat down eventually (after I had a bit of a brain meltdown in being asked to make a decision when hungry as to whether to sit at one of the new tables or the banquette) and ordered aperitifs, our server was about to serve us bread and butter before remembering that we had ordered aperitifs and quickly retracted from serving us bread – So close! The pêche royale was so delicious and strong, it went straight to my head and I soon forgot about being famished.
Actually, I really need to dedicate some words to the bread here; I mean, I’ve been making a lot of sourdough bread myself (thanks to a starter from Loaf) and yunno, I don’t think it’s too bad. The luxury of being able to have sourdough toast – Which could well be one of the greatest breakfast items ever – every morning is a real treat. The bread at Hedone has always been pretty good but I remember Mikael saying (again) how he’s much happier with the bread now and it’s almost at a point where he’s willing to bake it for other restaurants. All I can say is that if Mikael thinks that the bread could be better, it will be classified as borderline illegal from being so good. I mean, the bread as it is now at Hedone is stunning: The crust is a thing of beauty and the bread itself, whilst resisting the urge to talk about crumb structure, is almost sweet and malty – with the signature sour tang. Seriously, I used to think I made good sourdough and sorry guys, the sourdough from Loaf is delicious – But the bread at Hedone is leagues above. What’s more, they keep offering you some until you decline (after which, they quickly clear away your side slate/rock thingy) and whilst I’ve always liked the bread at Hedone, I can see why Mikael is much happier with this recipe and as we (half) joked, our mission to get Mikael to offer us a loaf of their sourdough to take home..
I could give a course-by-course detail, but I would run out of superlatives; Every single dish that came out to us (and we deliberately asked not to be told what we were getting to keep the element of surprise with Carte Blanche) was stunning and became a new favourite – until the next dish came out. Even now, the four of us struggle to decide upon the top 3 dishes of the day – From the Broken duck’s egg, green asparagus, green peas, fresh morels, red bell pepper where, as P commented, even the peas were delicious to the sublime Langoustine tail and claw, lobster bouillon and roe with a langoustine tail so thick, it looked almost like a really thick centipede, but was cooked to perfection and the bouillon so packed full of flavour. And that liquid parmesan ravioli – None of us had any idea how they made the liquid parmesan, but it was utterly delicious and I’m glad that the chefs at Hedone do know how to make liquid parmesan and cook it for us (grateful) paying guests.
But that’s not to say that every dish as a whole was a complete success; Whilst I loved the liquid parmesan and the mild horseradish foam it was served with, I found the ravioli pasta *just* a smidgen too thick – And we are talking millimetres here. Perhaps it needed to be to contain the liquid parmesan – And I must also stress that I was the only person in our party who thought that the pasta was too thick, but personally speaking, I would have given the dish a 10 out of 10 had the pasta been a teeny bit thinner, rather than the 9 out of 10. Yes, I am being that particular! For the suckling pork dish we were offered, the suckling pig itself was sheer perfection with crispy skin and the meat so tender and moist underneath. It immediately made me think of Chinese New Year (which is no bad thing) and I almost yearned for some jellyfish or some hoisin sauce. However, the endive and aubergine with miso and walnut served with it made it less of a successful dish as a whole; the aubergine wasn’t quite cooked enough and the glaze on both the aubergine and endive was incredibly salty – overpoweringly so and they didn’t really enhance the pork in any way. But you could overlook such misgivings purely because that piggy was so damned tasty..
However, these are genuinely minor gripes and in no way affected all of us having a brilliant time – Any kind of lunch that lasts 4 hours where each dish is at least 9 out of 10 is pretty damn good in anyone’s book, I’d say. Hell, I’m even eulogising about the bread served in this place!. I know that I’ve been a big fan of Hedone since the very beginning, but I can honestly say that Hedone now is not only very different to when they first opened, but they’re an awful lot better now. It’s very clichéd, but in a society where we are in danger of forgetting how things should taste (remember P commenting on how even the peas were good?), what Hedone does is remind it’s diners just how good ingredients treated simply can be. I mean, what can be more simple than getting asparagus that (quelle horreur) actually tastes of asparagus and not some of the bland, tasteless crap you can get from Supermarkets these days?. They don’t make a big song and dance about it (that’s left to bloggers such as myself and reviewers), but I do think that Hedone is genuinely one of the most exciting restaurants in London, possibly the whole Country. It certainly is brilliant value (especially for lunch) where you can go 2 course set lunch for £28.50, 3 courses for £35.00, but why would you when you can get have a 7 course tasting menu for £55.00? Sure, Hedone may not be a very fashionable restaurant nor may it be trendy enough to be a place to be seen. But Hedone is absolutely a place to eat (strange that, for a restaurant eh?) and I was already plotting when I can return to Hedone before we finished our meal. I am seriously excited to find out what culinary tricks Mikael and his brigade will do to fantastically great ingredients every time I visit – which is why I maintain that Hedone is one of the most exciting new restaurants to open up in the last few years and also why I keep going back. It is also why you should eat there, too.
You can view the full set of photos from my visit on my Flickr page
April 15, 2013 1 Comment
Easter is always a bit lost on me. The only think I recognised about Easter was that it was an easy way to earn extra money if you worked not one, but TWO bank holidays offered and that most shops were closed on Easter Sunday. Yes, I know there is the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus for Easter in the same way there is the Nativity for Christmas, but let’s face it; Thanks to commercialisation, Easter these days is about chocolate eggs just like Christmas is about what pressies to buy people. In my youth, we never really had egg hunts. (Actually, the only egg hunt I went on was ruined by some local kids who helped themselves to the eggs so there wasn’t really anything left but cracked shells and empty foil wrappers by the time we got there). Whilst still unemployed and well, being diabetic, I didn’t really want to buy chocolate eggs for my family so with the extra free time, I decided to make Scotch Eggs for my family (and some friends) for Easter instead. I did buy some Scotch Eggs from The Handmade Scotch Eggs Company a few years back but yunno, they’re a bit expensive when you’re trying to survive on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Plus, I thought they would have more meaning if they were homemade by my very own hands and as it turned out, they were pretty easy to make.
Scotch eggs went out of fashion for a long time, mainly because you could only get them from the supermarket where they had been refrigerated for so long that they were closer in texture to something made of rubber, rather than egg, sausage meat and breadcrumbs. However, Scotch Eggs are now undergoing something of a renaissance; partly because people started to get creative and add flavourings to them so you could get black pudding encasing the egg, or flavour the sausage meat with some chilli etc. But most of all, Scotch Eggs became gourmet when gastropubs started offering Scotch Eggs as bar snacks – complete with runny egg yolks to send foodies off into a bit of a frenzy once they cut the Scotch Eggs open. Now, I like the idea of a runny yolk, but I’ll be honest; I wasn’t too convinced that I would be able to safely serve a Scotch Egg with a runny egg yolk more than 24hrs after deep frying them. More to the point, I have fat fingers and clumsy hands which ruled out any lightness of touch required to peel a soft boiled egg. If I had thought it through a bit more, I could have done some more research into methods of safely peeling a soft boiled egg but I didn’t. So hard boiled eggs it would have to be.
As for what meat to coat the eggs with, I made a decision that I would get some of the best ingredients I could afford – Which meant a trip to Rossiters, the first organic butchers in Birmingham. A quick phonecall to them a couple of days beforehand meant I could order some sausage meat in especially to be delivered with their standard sausage delivery from Lashford’s. I opted to get some Cumberland sausage meat because it was slightly coarser but couldn’t resist getting some extra bits when I was there (including their own sausage meat mixed with chorizo and a really fantastic organic pork pie which genuinely was one of the best pork pies I’ve eaten in recent years – including any award-winning ones). Ingredients all bought, time to head home and make the Scotch Eggs.
Making Scotch Eggs are very simple: You boil and peel the eggs, cover the eggs with sausage meat, coat in breadcrumbs and deep fry. I am more than sure you are all very capable of boiling eggs and you certainly don’t need to be told how to do so by the likes of me, so I’m going to move onto the next stage: Coating the egg with sausage meat.
Initially, I went old school and just got a ball of sausage meat (mixed with black pudding) of a size barely bigger than the egg then pressed into the meatball to make a dimple in which you placed the egg (which was lightly dipped in flour to help the sausage meat stick to the egg) and then carefully wrapped the meat around the egg until it was completely sealed. From there, I rolled the egg and sausage meat ball in some beaten egg and then into some panko breadcrumbs. All good right? Well yes, if you don’t mind the fact that you had a LOT more sausage meat to egg because you can’t actually get the sausage meat to a thin enough layer resulting in some rather large Scotch Eggs. Actually, the Scotch Eggs were so big that when I went to deep fry them, they weren’t completely submerged by all the oil and I didn’t think to turn them over soon enough so rather than creating a seal for the outer shell, a massive crack formed. Oh dear, these Scotch Eggs did not look very good aesthetically at least (I mean, they looked.. rustic until you cut them open and they had a bit of a comedy value to them because the meat and egg ratio was so wrong) and more than anything, they used up a lot more sausage meat than I planned, so I needed to think of a different way of coating the eggs.
It then came to me: why not press out the sausage meat between 2 layers of clingfilm and THEN coat the egg? At least then the thickness of the meat around the egg would be more consistent and only then, could I get the eggs moulded into more of a spherical shape (as compared to a fat gherkin). I tried it out and SUCCESS! Not only could I get the thickness of the sausage meat around the egg in a consistent layer which meant that these new Scotch Eggs are more the size you would expect (slightly bigger than a tennis ball), rather than the larger, oversized specimens I made the night before. But most of all, I managed to achieve that much-desired spherical shape. In short, these actually looked like proper Scotch Eggs. What’s more, rather than traditional breadcrumbs, I opted to use panko breadcrumbs because I think they give that bit more of a textural crunch compared to conventional breadcrumbs (plus I had a bag which needed using up). What’s more, I also opted to double-dip them during the pané process to help in the crunchy factor.
When it came to deep frying, the oil had to be had enough to obviously cook the meat, but also seal the outer layer of the Scotch Egg to help create a crust of breadcrumbs but also to seal the heat inside so that it cooks without absorbing too much grease – Which is also why the oil can’t be too hot otherwise it will burn the breadcrumbs and not cook the meat on the inside. If you use a deep fat fryer then it should be around 170C but since I don’t have a deep fat fryer, I poured oil into the deepest saucepan I own to about a third full. To check that the oil was the right temperature, I dropped in a breadcrumb – If it bubbled immediately and burned, then the oil was too hot. If it didn’t bubble at all and sank to the bottom of the pan, the oil wasn’t hot enough. What I was looking for was for the breadcrumb to bubble when dropped into the oil but then took a bit of time to turn golden. Once the eggs are dropped into the oil, if the oil doesn’t cover the top of the egg like some of mines, turn the egg over after no more than 10 seconds so that the exposed part of the egg is now submerged in the oil so that the whole egg has been deep fried. You can either then keep basting the exposed part of the egg, or just keep rotating the egg in the oil so that the cooking is distributed evenly around the egg. I can’t stress enough how important it is that you fill the pan no more than a third full because once you drop the eggs in, the oil will bubble up and rise in the pan so if the pan is too full, the oil will overflow with the potential for all sorts of accidents. So please, take extra care when deep frying at home.
The later batch of Scotch Eggs where the sausage meat was pressed between 2 pieces of clingfilm were much better – spherical in shape and the ration of sausage meat to egg was just right. Fried until golden brown, they certainly looked the business and I was very proud of them. Cut open, my only gripe was that you could tell the difference in eggs used (organic vs Free range) but that’s a pretty minor gripe, really.
You could see how my attempts to make them progressed as the days went past from being really rustic looking and oddly shaped, to the near-perfect spherical shape with good meat: egg ratio. I know, these eggs are deep fried so aren’t exactly the healthiest thing to eat out there. But they are ideal to offer as presents when it’s not Easter and (I think) a much better idea for an Easter gift rather than chocolate. Eaten whilst warm, Scotch Eggs are a thing of wonder and I think everyone was happy with their gifts. I’ll probably make them again next year for Easter now that I know how easy they are to make, there may be a chance that I’ll be making a few more of them before Easter next year..
April 8, 2013 1 Comment
I’ve been holding back on this post for a few months now; partly because it’s another really long post, partly because of everything that has happened over the past few months. But mainly, I’ve been holding back given the subject matter is so personal and wanted to make sure that I worded it correctly to convey my emotions not only at the time, but since then:
So the main reason we went back to HK was for one last thing we needed to do for The Mothership after her passing away at the beginning of the year. We Chinese are very spiritual people and I’ve always maintained that although I don’t practice any religion like Buddhism or Taoism, I do believe in spirits – Especially since my parents have passed away. To that end, there was one last ceremony which needed to guide The Mothership’s Spirit back to the Ancestral Family Home as has been done for all my relatives. Of course, this would mean going back to the Ancestral Family Home which for us, is Kut-O (Kat-O) in the New Territories. There would be no denying that it would be an emotional occasion for all of us, but perhaps it would help in our grieving process and offer those of us there for the ceremony a sense of closure.
The idea was that the night before, we (as in my extended family and I) would all meet up for an early dinner – Early because most of us had a stupidly early start the following morning to get to Kut-O and a gathering because it was my niece L’s Birthday. Unfortunately, it didn’t start so well as some members were late getting to the restaurant so despite planning to be done by about 8pm, we didn’t actually start ordering until about 7.30pm.. Still, it was a stellar meal complete with specialities like drunken squab (as compared to chicken), tea-smoked pigeon (which was amazingly good) and 2 types of Shanghai dumplings which were so good we asked for extra. A good time was had by all, especially the Birthday Girl who looked genuinely happy to receive the joke gift of a “Por Por (Grandma) Shirt” which was a very old-fashioned nylon shirt which you see all Chinese women all over the world aged 65+ wear. It seemed right that L should have got a Por Por Shirt, especially as we were going back for her Por Por.
I couldn’t really sleep, given the occasion, but also because we ended up going to bed much later than originally planned, though I still managed to get about 4 hours (which was OK since I discovered on this trip that I do NOT function well on 2 hours sleep!). It felt a bit odd to be showering whilst it was still dark outside and as we made our way to the bus to take us to the train station across the harbour, I couldn’t quite figure out if the shops we passed were clearing up for the night or setting up for the day. One thing is for sure though; nothing beats freshly baked goods wherever you are in the world – The fresh Chinese hot dog buns were just what we needed to eat at 5am!
It never ceases to amaze me how busy public transport is at 5am – It was standing room only on the bus to cross the harbour to Hung Hom, even on a Saturday so I dread to think what it’s like on a weekday. Once we crossed the harbour, it was onto Hung Hom train station where we got the train through Kowloon and into the New Territories to Sheung Shui. The train was busy, but we all managed to get a seat (though not seated together). I just put on my shades, slung back in my seat, put on some music and enjoyed the scenery as we travelled past. I’ve previously mentioned how the further North you go away from the modern metropolis that is HK Island, the landscape becomes more rural and sometimes I find it hard to believe that we’re still in Hong Kong. That said, you can’t stop the world modernising and even in little Sheung Shui, there is a modern shopping mall and (horror of horrors), a Burger King! Seriously, it wasn’t there 6 years ago and I liked the feeling that Sheung Shui and the New Territories are like a part of Hong Kong of yesteryear which modernisation hasn’t ruined yet. So to see a modern shopping mall similar to what you’d get in Kowloon or HK Island was a brutal reminder that you can’t stop progress and modernisation.
Once we got to Sheung Shui, we had to get a mini bus to Sha Tau Kok (STK) which is right on the border to China (and is also why you need a special permit to go there). There was a bit of tension about us all getting the mini bus as there was a large group of us (we met some cousins there, too) and we had to make sure we got to STK in time to catch the 08:30 ferry to Kut-O so when only half the group managed to get onto the first mini bus, there was a moment of tension when we didn’t know when the next mini bus would be. As it happens, it was right behind the first mini bus so crisis averted! The journey itself was quite something, even 6 years previously, there weren’t that many roads so it was a bit odd to see actual roads with the mini bus steaming along. The engines are modified so that their maximum speed is 80KPH (and the speed limit is 70KPH) but trust me, they push the engines all the way to top speed! Apart from that, the scenery was lovely as we hurtled towards STK.
Once we reached STK, Border Control are there to check our passes. I say Border Control, but it’s pretty much like a sheltered bus stop for the Border Control Police to take cover. Again, we had a momentary panic when my cousin struggled to find his permit but he found it eventually and we were all on our merry way again.
We got to Sha Tau Kok with plenty of time to spare before the first ferry, so we headed to the food court of the local market and ordered way too much food for a quick breakfast stop before making our way to the ferry. It wasn’t anything special, but it was sufficient enough to fuel us up knowing that we had a long day still.
It was on the walk to the pier that my emotions started stirring; The area across the border in mainland China was really developed now, but STK was even more of a ghost town then before. I can remember the first time I went back in the 1980s and the main street was still quite busy but when I was last there 6 years ago, most of the shops had closed and it wasn’t much better now. However, despite the mass development in China, there is still a peaceful tranquility in STK. Granted, there was a greater presence of the Border Police which wasn’t there 6 years ago, but at the end of the pier was the unmistakable sight of the local ferry ready to take us all to Kut O.
My shades were kept firmly on my face as I tried to cover up the fact that I was crying so much; I always knew it was going to be emotional going back for the first time without either parent but I did as I as instructed by my Cousin and spoke to the Mothership as if she were there with me to let her know what was happening (“We’re going to Singapore now” “We’ve arrived at Hong Kong now” “we’re setting off for Kut-O now”). Obviously there weren’t as many people on the island as there were last time I was there (which was part of a large festival which occurs every 10 years), but it was still something to see the ancestral family home – And opposite the Ancestral Family temple, which is a new building but housed all the names (and spirits) of my ancestors. For many of us, this was the first time we saw the building and of course, I burst into tears when I saw my Dad’s plaque, but conversely, I felt a strong sense of peace and calm knowing that I was standing in front of all my family and ancestors.
As everyone got set up ready for the ceremony, I made myself look busy so that it wasn’t immediately obvious to everyone else that I was crying. I wasn’t too sure exactly why I was crying, but thinking about it now, I think it was just the culmination of everything that had led to that day – And that realisation that this day (date) we had spent so long building up to was finally here, and we could finally bring the Mothership’s spirit home to be with my ancestors. There was another brief moment of even more tears when we presented a cousin of mine (whom had always been particularly good to the Mothership) with one of her bracelets to keep as a memento of her, but it wasn’t too long before all the family members were summoned to gather together because the ceremony was due to begin;
In front of the temple, we were all instructed to kneel whilst the spirit guide summoned the Mothership’s spirit to join us and then we all waited until her spirit was with us. One of my cousins was saying that she’s seen cases where it’s taken hours, sometimes days for the spirit to arrive – And the family have to remain knelt down at all times. However, the spirit guide looked up and immediately said: “She’s here” and whilst there was a part of me that was slightly freaked out by the fact that my Mother’s spirit was there with us all right at that moment, I strangely felt relief and calm at the same time. My cousin remarked that it was almost as if Mum’s spirit was waiting to be summoned, then told me I’d done a good job keeping her Spirit with me all the way from the family home in Birmingham. Well, you can imagine how I reacted to hearing that (yes, more tears).
Then came the second part of the ceremony where inside the Ancestral family temple, the Mothership’s spirit is invited to reside on a plaque, before it’s placed with the rest of my ancestors. Again, we the family had to kneel down throughout the ceremony; prayers were said, incense was burned and the Spirit guide stood at the very front conducting the whole ceremony whilst we all knelt behind him. I say we all, that is everyone except my eldest sister and myself because for whatever medical and physical reasons, we couldn’t actually kneel (or in my case I would seriously struggle to get back up afterwards). Bearing in mind that the spirit guide was at the very front and we all knelt behind him, he said the words to invite Mum’s spirit to take her place with the rest of my ancestors there, then he dropped what sounded like a bunch of keys or coins and from the way they dropped, he would be able to tell if Mum’s spirit had gone or not. However, this time he dropped the keys or whatever it was and IMMEDIATELY asked “Who’s isn’t kneeling” and turned around sharply. Well, my sister and I felt *really* shit then and it was explained why we weren’t kneeling and again, he invited Mum’s spirit to take her place with my ancestors and added that “2 of your daughters are unable to kneel, please don’t take offence at that” and dropped the keys/coins again. With a nod of approval, this time he said “She’s taken her place”. I’m not saying there was an immediate spontaneous outpouring of joy, but there was a sense of deeper calm and relief amongst us all that not only had everything in the ceremony gone through without (too much of) a hitch, but that finally, Mum was with the rest of our ancestors and though none of actually said it out loud, we knew that Mum was finally reunited with Dad.
There were a few hours to kill before lunch, so whilst the rest of my family literally went up the hill to the ancient family plot, I took the time to explore some parts of the island in its peaceful beauty; the last time I was there in 2006, the island was really busy and I never really got a chance to take a look around. There are only about 50 inhabitants left on the island so a lot of buildings have sadly fallen into a state of disrepair, but it also brought up some interesting architecture like how the trees roots have grown around some of the derelict buildings which almost make it seem like the trees are eating the building. However, the downtime also gave us all a chance to hang out with each other and catch up a bit.
As with every Chinese ceremony, there was a feast afterwards. This one took place in my late cousin’s restaurant on the island. I have very fond memories of this place because it’s pretty much the only restaurant on the whole island and my parents (Dad especially) were proud of my cousin and her family for doing so well. In recent years, as the island became a weekend tourist destination, the restaurant has been doing roaring trade with the tourists (expanding to several building spaces next door and opposite when they became available). In particular, the restaurant is the recipient of several accolades and recommendations for their steamed cuttlefish balls, so it was entirely appropriate that we should all convene there to eat;
I love going to this place because it’s a reminder of how places operate without a central gas supply or electricity. I headed through the main kitchen where one cousin was heating up the chicken, to the outside part at the back where my other cousin was busy chopping the suckling pig we had bought (treating the dogs which had gathered round to the trotters). Looking at the place, it would absolutely fail an environmental health inspection in this Country, but I loved seeing the old wood burning stoves with the giant steamers and various pots of delicious food served there, cooked just as they used to for decades – Certainly no molecular gastronomy here and they haven’t killed or poisoned anyone from their cooking yet!
The food we ate was fantastic – lots of fresh seafood, including the steamed cuttlefish balls which the restaurant is so famous for. That said, we weren’t really there for the food but the fact that we were all there together, enjoying a meal in celebration of The Mothership made it all worthwhile. We did have a bit of a giggle in that the pork and taro (kau yuk) which came out, whilst not bad in any way, wasn’t a patch on my sister M’s rendition which we enjoyed in Singapore the previous week.
I can’t quite describe fully the sense of relief and calm that’s been with me since that day; it’s like a great release, like a great weight has been lifted.. I guess that I never realised or acknowledged just how anxious or important it was for me to see Mum’s Spirit taking her rightful place by my ancestors but most of all, there has been an overwhelming sense of calm knowing that she’s with them now, watching over us. Although it was a very emotional day and ceremony for us all, I personally felt a great sense of calm and of feeling completely at peace once the ceremony was over. For the first time since she passed away, I can talk about her without bursting into tears and given how we all went back to get some sort of closure, I think we all got that. I know that The Mothership would have been thrilled at how many of us went back for her and even though some of my sisters couldn’t actually make it on the day with us back to Kut-O, I know that they were thinking of us all and if you will all indulge me, they were there in our hearts and in spirit – Which would have been enough for Mum. As we left on the last boat from the island back to STK, my brother, sisters and I all knew without saying that we felt the bond between us all to be stronger than ever and began to make plans to return in 2016 (for the big festival held every 10 years which I mentioned earlier). I’ve always maintained that my family are the most important people in my life and the whole trip has brought us all even closer together – Which I know would have thrilled The Mothership to bits.
April 2, 2013 Leave a comment
Despite this blog being called Brummie Tummy, I always feel as if I don’t mention Birmingham enough or at least share some of the great places we have in this city I call my hometown. Partly because I know I spend a lot of time in Londinium so naturally end up writing about a lot of London restaurants, but I often feel as if there are plenty of other blogs and websites promoting Birmingham out there (like smoke&umami or even Dine Birmingham). Plus, given I’m always behind in updating my blog posts, I feel as if people already know about whatever place I’m going to write about so there’s even less reason to write about it (before I get a grip of myself and realise that another blurb by myself isn’t really going to make that much of a difference). So I thought I would write about a couple of experiences I’d had at Loaf HQ; CANeat and Stirchley Brewhouse; I’ll be honest and admit that I’m fortunate enough to know the guys behind CANeat and am fully aware of what their levels of culinary expertise are, but I like to think that I won’t let anything like that influence what I write on here.
CANeat is a new (roughly) fortnightly popup, based at Loaf HQ offering “a regular, intimate dining experience with the menu published in advance” (on the CANeat website). And it certainly is intimate – The dining room at Loaf HQ barely held 13 diners and as a result, everyone could overhear conversations from the surrounding tables (although strangely we couldn’t really hear the music playing on the mac in the corner), but that wasn’t really a problem and it is a testament to the clientele and the conviviality of the night that everyone could join in all the conversations across the room. It may have been the first night of CANeat, but if that night was a measure of things to come in terms of atmosphere, then laid-back and all-round friendliness is what to expect.
Food-wise, it is very much the high quality I would expect from these guys; That is to say it’s exceedingly high and especially so when you consider that these guys all have (normal) day jobs and when you look on their website, they state: “CANeat is a group of food enthusiasts offering a different way to dine in Birmingham. CANeat believes in providing great food with provenance that is good value and welcoming. Food that is prepared with passion and dedication using time-honoured methods. We preserve, cure, smoke, brew, ferment and bake. CANeat will offer food without boundaries from across the world..” And when the first night’s menu came to a whopping £20 for snacks, 3-course meal, milk and cookies then tea/coffee with petit fours (or treats, as they call them on the menu), that’s bargainous in anyone’s book – Especially when you can pay in excess of (or get very little change from) £20 just for a main course in some other restaurants in the City. Highlights of the night for me included the nasi lemak – in particular the beef (well, ox cheek) rendang and the sambal tumis ikan bilis it was served with – Although it packed a bit too much of a punch for some diners!. I also liked how they deconstructed a Pineapple Upside Down Cake so that you got a wedge of salt baked pineapple, served with a smidge of cardamom (icing) sugar (which was jokingly suggested the diners were meant to snort) and a quenelle of buttermilk ice cream on top of what was meant to be the cake component, but was actually more of a crumble. I guess I should have expected something deconstructed given it was written on the menu as Pineappleupsidedowncake. Still, it was delicious and everyone cleared their plates. That’s not to say that *everything* was brilliant and en pointe; Whilst I applaud them for offering nasi lemak, which is still sadly hard to find in Birmingham restaurants and I loved the beef rendang and sambal tumis parts of the dish, unfortunately the actual nasi lemak part of the dish (the coconut rice) was the weakest component of the dish without the coconut flavour (or pandan leaf/lemongrass if they used it) coming through when you ate it, plus the rice was a bit claggy. That said, everyone still loved it and again, cleared their plates and whilst my only minor criticism could be construed as being hyper-critical, I’m pretty sure that the ever-perfectionist that is Lap would agree with me that the rice could have been better.
A couple of days later, I was back at Loaf HQ, this time for Stirchley Brewhouse which basically sees the cookery school at Loaf HQ once again, transformed into a café, but in this instance it’s a collaboration where they offer breakfast/brunch items and the hot beverages are offered by Pop Cult Coffee 8:30 – 11:30 on a Saturday morning. I missed the first one (which included a “mock muffin” which was essentially the mock of a breakfast muffin you can get from the Golden Arches, but made with locally sourced ingredients and fresh sourdough muffins made on the premises), but the 2nd one (which was held not too long after the success of the first Stirchley Brewhouse) had me sold at the words: “huevos rancheros” – I don’t think I actually paid attention to the rest of the menu once I saw that on it..
One thing I can say about anything from Loaf is that you can be assured that it’ll be pretty damn good and at worst, tasty. So whilst I rocked up bang on 11:30 (my friends got there at 11:15), they had pretty much sold out of everything – No huevos rancheros, no cowboy beans (chorizo and black beans).. I daresay they were a bit taken back by how popular it was and the only thing they could offer us was some scrambled egg on Stirchley Mighty White toast topped with a chilli and tomato sauce. OK, it wasn’t the kind of eggs I was hoping to eat, but like I said earlier, it’s not like I was going to get anything *bad* to eat when there. I also have it on good authority that the blueberry slices and banana loaf were very good too (judging on how it was pretty much inhaled by people).
You can keep up to date of the latest menu on the CANeat website, but it’s always worth checking the Loaf website as they will always have details for both CANeat and Stirchley Brewhouse whenever it runs. Plus, you can always follow both Loaf and CANeat on twitter if you really want to stay on top of any announcements (including news of any impromptu pop-ups like a kebab night they had recently), but prepare to be constantly drooling as there are often pictures posted of whatever delicious baked goods have just come out of the oven. In which case, you’ll just have to head over to Stirchley Stores and resist the temptation to buy everything. It really brightens up my heart to see Loaf doing so well – Not just in the bakery and cookery school, but also in helping to Brummies get a chance at something decent to eat, especially with the new additions of CANeat and Stirchley Brewhouse without having to break the bank or travel elsewhere. I guess all I need to say is Viva Stirchley!
March 18, 2013 Leave a comment
Yes, time for another public service announcement, this time to let people know of the (Lebara Mobile) Oriental Food Festival taking place in Birmingham’s very own Victoria Square this Friday 22nd and Saturday 23rd March (10:00 – 20:00). It’s been brought to us in conjunction with UK China Union who were mainly set up to help Chinese students far far away from The Motherland to be able to connect with other people in the local community through a common shared interest in food. So whilst we may not be their target demographic (well, I’m not an overseas Chinese student, anyway), who cares when it means that they can bring together such a great mix of different restaurants and caterers from across the UK for us to sample their wares? Pay no particular attention to the Oriental part of the food festival because it’s only Oriental in the loosest sense of the word – the stalls range from Indian to Philippine, from our great friends Min Min Noodle Bar (for Chinese and Vietnamese food) to some pretty good looking Malaysian. Entertainment-wise, I don’t think I can do justice to what awaits you but it really has to be seen to be believed (and that people actually like such things). So if you haven’t got anything better to do this Friday and Saturday, come along and try what hopefully will be some great food from restaurants and caterers around the region (and beyond).