Memoirs of Russia

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Would you like a menu with that?

With the World Cup starting in three days (thanks to work I’ve been counting down for a year) I thought it highly apt to dig back into my Russia files. I’ve raved about the Georgian food in Russia and a brilliant cooking class in Moscow, but what else did I take away from visiting the world’s largest (and often most provocative) country? Well mainly food of course…

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A snapshot of Russian history told through vodka.

Vodka
And vodka obviously. Vodka is drunk like water in Russia. So it’s no surprise when you learn that the name stems from the Russian word for water, ‘voda’. It’s everywhere, and I was warned not to buy the dodgy cheap stuff, i.e. 1/2 litre for anything less than 200 Rubles (or about AUD$4.50!). That stuff can actually kill you. The ‘good stuff’ is still a quarter of the price you pay in Australia so what the Russians regard as expensive was still a bargain for me.

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And even more vodka…

Naturally I had to check out the Vodka Museum which was a shrine to the stuff and told of its history and the role it has played in society and history. Take the tour and you get a complimentary shot of vodka (for research purposes only of course).

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Choose your poison and your fridge.

And it wasn’t uncommon to find a vodka fridge next to a soft drink fridge. Even the Russians need to stay hydrated.

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Picking pickles leaves me pickled pink

Pickles
I do love myself a pickle. I took great joy in fishing out pickles from salty brine while in Estonia and was happy to see a similar attitude to pickles in Russia, i.e. bring them out for every meal and feel free to snack on them in between. The pickles always hit the right balance of tartness and sweetness with me, and I even enjoyed the rogue dill fronds that would inevitable be wrapped around each one.

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My favourite cranky Russian stall holder and her pickles.

There were entire pickle counters at the food markets where I managed to extract a couple of samples from a perpetually cross looking matron. Then of course there were plenty of tubs filled with homemade pickles lining the streets in smaller towns. I loved how it was entirely acceptable to buy a couple of pickles and eat them as you went about your day. Read More

17 reasons why I am just like Nigella

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Nigella in conversation with Maeve O’Meara at the Opera House

Exactly two years ago I fangirled shamelessly through this post on why I love my foodie hero, Nigella.

Nigella was back in town recently which means I am back in adoration mode. But this time our likenesses really struck me. Time and time again during her two talks (naturally I went to both), I found myself thinking, she’s just like me. Or rather I’m just like her. So here are the 17 reasons why, direct from Nigella herself.

“It’s a long time not to eat. Missing a meal would make me panic.” 

This was Nigella’s response to the question ‘Have you tried the 5:2 diet?” and I completely agree with her. I am flummoxed at how people survive for a day on a boiled egg and cup of black coffee and could never, would never do it.

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A section of my bulging bookcase of cookbooks

“People would faint at disapproval if they knew how many cookery books I owned.”

I would love to know what number that is. For me it’s 113 and steadily rising. And yes a good chunk of those are Nigella’s books.

“Food shopping is very pleasurable.”

I LOVE food shopping and can spend hours in a supermarket, especially if it’s an international supermarket. Granted I am not shopping for a family of six however the size of my trolley often suggests I am. I remember how much I loved the Thursday night shop with mum when I was little and I take great pleasure in examining produce and products, comparing value and picking up random new finds to have some fun.

I love salt.”

I love it so much I often commit the culinary sin of salting my food before tasting it. I hope dearly that I’m never put on a low sodium diet, it would be the end of me.

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Me eating spanakopita at around 18 months. The only thing that’s really changed is my taste in socks.

Food memories conjure up feelings of safety, the smells take you back and give comfort.”

My earliest memories all involve food. Hell, ALL my memories involve food. And nothing gives me greater comfort than my yiayia’s cooking, or the smell of a barbeque. ”Food says a lot about identity… we develop bonds through food’ Nigella noted to sociologist Hugh Mackay. One meal with a Greek family is all that’s required to prove this point.

“How do people live without leftovers?”

I live for leftovers. I cook for the aforementioned imaginary family of six and then portion out leftovers for lunch and future dinners. There’s nothing better than arriving home late and tired knowing there is a home cooked meal waiting to be reheated.

the fidgety foodie-17 reasons why i am like nigella

“Over half the recipes in this (new) book are vegetarian.”

Nigella noted that despite embracing every food type voraciously, she subconsciously leans towards vegetarian food much of the time and I am quite similar. I love meat but I rarely buy it, for a mix of health, environmental and fiscal reasons. I tend to save juicy steak and pork ribs for restaurant dining and dig into vegetables, seafood, pulses and whole grains at home. Which interestingly enough is a standard Mediterranean diet – perhaps I am more like my Greek islander ancestors than I realise. Read More

What’s inside a foodie’s pantry – part 2

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My pantry stripped bare

A year or two ago I was mulling over what write about (in this very blog) and did what I always do when I am stalling… opened my pantry.

And therein lay the answer!

I’d been looking for a snack but I realised that the obscure edible delights from around the world that make up the contents of this foodie’s pantry could be a story in themselves.

And as it happens it’s become one of the most popular stories on my blog so clearly I’m not the only culinary voyeur out there.

Last time my pantry held such treasures as Greek mahlepi, pumpkin seed oil and raw liquorice powder.

Fast forward to now and trips to Sweden, Russia, LA, France, Argentina and Brazil have influenced the current selection of pantry items. So let’s take another look inside and see what we can find.

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Ambrosia, roesti, chimichurri, cloudberry jam, gold salt

Ambrosia is a Brazilian dessert I discovered in Iguazu Falls this year which I couldn’t get enough of. It’s essentially milk cooked with brown cane sugar and cinnamon sticks so akin to a sweet textured custard. I’ve been eating it from the jar with a spoon and it’s so rich I am forced to stop after a few mouthfuls.

I really love roesti (who doesn’t love fried potatoes?) and it’s always been significant to me as it’s one of the first things I cooked from mum’s cookbooks when I was a little girl. The packaged version is not as good as freshly made but I always buy loads when I’m in Switzerland because I feel it’s more authentic. Although the joke’s on me because looking closely at the packet I see this ‘Swiss Potato Roesti’ was made in Lichtenstein – false advertising!

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Chimichurri in action at a parilla in Buenos Aires

I bought the chimichurri in Buenos Aires in April, specifically on this Parrilla food tour. Chimichurri is an icon of Argentina and no Sunday asado is complete without this delicious mix of herbs, peppers and garlic. This particular version was made by the guide’s abuela Caty and according to the label is ‘the best in the country’. No family bias there I’m sure.

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Cloudberry jam or hjortron-sylt

Cloudberries. Again! After devoting not one but two posts to this insanely amazing berry I’ll keep this brief. This particular cloudberry jam was from a street market in Skelleftea, up in Swedish Lapland, the same place I devoured fried camembert with cloudberry jam. Which means I had better buy me some camembert, stat.

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Gold salt and pepper to add bling to any meal

Gold salt. Now this is a bit ridiculous and I bought it purely for ostentation. What better to finish off a dish than gold Himalayan salt? I came across this and its cousins – silver pepper, rose gold salt – in St Jean de Luz earlier this year. I was so blinded by the bling I almost walked away with one of each but then talked myself out of it as it would have added a few kilos to my luggage at the starting point of my trip. I can’t wait to add a touch of gold rush to every plate. Read More

Mole, mole, mole

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Mole concentrate from Chiles Secos in LA

The iconic Mexican sauce not the facial adornment of course.

Growing up, mole was the sauce with chocolate (yes, chocolate!!!) that I tried at a few suburban Mexican restaurants and never understood. Was it a dessert or a savoury dish I wondered?? I envisaged a chef breaking up pieces of Cadbury Dairy Milk and adding them to a pot and the whole idea sounded bizarre (although delicious – what dish isn’t improved with chocolate?).

It took a little more culinary maturity before I understood that dark chocolate, with minimal milk solids and fats, was the key ingredient that added a richness and depth to the sauce.

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Mexican mole at Mi Lupita in Mexico City

Mole of course means ‘sauce’, so guacamole for instance, literally means avocado sauce. Mole poblano from Puebla is the most famous of all the moles and arguably Mexico’s national dish. Dark chocolate, multiple chili peppers and up to 20 different spices make up this iconic dish. It takes time for the flavours to develop and layer up so it’s usually reserved for special occasions.

Sauce in most cuisines is the accompaniment, playing second fiddle to a piece of meat or other hero ingredient. But not mole. Mole IS the dish. It’s the star of any plate and the chicken or other protein served alongside is merely there to accompany the sauce to the mouth. A plate of sauce with a little pile of chicken on the side is not an uncommon sight.

My obsession with mole really began when I went to Mexico. My (only) preparation for a week in Mexico City was a thorough analysis of the best places to find mole, specifically mole poblano.

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The best mole in Mexico City is to be found at Mi Lupita

That’s how I came across Mi Lupita, a little ‘fonda’ or casual restaurant in Centro Histórico that’s been making mole since 1957. It was tiny, with barely six tables and no one that remotely resembled a tourist. Perfect. There I had one of the most memorable dishes of my life: a plate of the house special of mole poblano with chicken on enchiladas.

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Mole poblano with chicken on enchiladas at Mi Lupita

Even though I hadn’t tasted every mole in Mexico City, I was sure that this was indeed the best. What could taste better than this? The mole was rich, intense, spicy, smoky, chocolaty. The chicken was lean and the whole dish was topped with onion and grated queso fresco. Further proof shortly arrived at the table next to me. A local food guide was there with four travellers, explaining why Mi Lupita’s mole was the best in the world and I nodded on in agreement.

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The mole spice mix selection at Mi Lupita

I overheard the guide mention mole spice mix could be bought to take away and I wanted in. I leant over to ask him how to request it and the first thing he wanted to know was how on earth I’d found this secret little place? It was almost as though I’d ruined his surprise. I may not be a local I told him, but I know how to use google to my advantage!

I left Mi Lupita with half a kilo of mole in a plastic bag with a knot at the top and somehow managed to get it back to Sydney (thankfully they weren’t filming Border Security that day). I had many a delicious meal from that mole base and wished many times I’d brought double, even triple, back home with me. Read More

5 mouth-watering reasons to visit Chile

One of the many ceviche dishes I enjoyed in Chile

When I told people I was carving out three days of my South American holiday to spend in Chile, specifically Santiago and Valparaiso, they were confused. Aussies need to pass through Santiago to fly home but no one actually steps out of the airport. One friend even coined Santiago as ‘an irrelevancy’.

Well that made me even more determined to go. After all it’s an entirely different country (from Brazil and Argentina where I’d previously been) which meant new ingredients, cooking styles and traditional dishes. There would have to be something new and delicious for me to eat I reasoned. Plus the country produces pisco and I live on pisco sours.

When I landed in Santiago after a few weeks in luminous Brazil, it was raining and cold. People were burrowed under coats, the sky was grim and the fierce rain forced me to take cabs when I otherwise would always walk. It wasn’t a great start. But once I bought a scarf and started to explore, I soon found my foodie groove.

I easily ate a week’s worth of food in three days and these were my highlights.

Another ceviche… this one from a tiny seafood joint in Valparaiso

Ceviche

If I had to live on one dish for the rest of my life, this would be it. I’ve always loved the zing and wholesomeness of a good ceviche, and appreciate how uncomplicated it is. As a country that’s all coastline, Chile excels in fresh and delicious seafood, including many species of fish you can’t get elsewhere.

I ate ceviche in a little seafood joint in Valparaiso, at a pokey little stall in the fish markets and in a seafood restaurant and every time it was on point. Never too fancy, never overloaded with ingredients, just fresh slivers of fish and maybe prawn, heavy with the weight of the citrus it had soaked up to ‘cook’ the fish, and peppered with chili, garlic, red pepper, red onion and a sprinkling of coriander. Sensational every time.

A classic pisco sour from Chpe Libre

Pisco sour

I have single handedly increased pisco distribution amongst Sydney bars. I’ve learnt that if you badger a bartender enough they will eventually start stocking your favourite spirit and making your favourite cocktail. Of course I didn’t have that problem in Chile as it’s the national tipple.

Christopher makes me (another) pisco sour

My favourite pisco bar was Chpe Libre (Chpe coming from a merging of ‘Chile’ and ‘Peru’) which called itself the Républica Independiente del Pisco, i.e. the imaginary diplomatic heart of the pisco regions of Chile and Peru. It therefore served pisco sours made from Chilean and Peruvian pisco, and while people make a fuss about the difference, I struggled to really identify specific flavours. Maybe because of the competing citrus, sugar and egg wash going on in the glass or maybe because I drank too many to really remember!

A classic pino empanada

Empanadas

After spending time in Argentina I thought I’d had my fill of empanadas but it turns out I have a second stomach for them. I also like the Chilean take on this ubiquitous South American hand held food. Their meat version, ‘pino’, isn’t just made with ground beef but is spiked with onions, raisins, black olives and a surprise (to me) of hard-boiled egg, which really elevated the flavour.

A mix of empanadas with fillings including beef and octopus

I also tried a version with octopus which I had my doubts about but was delicious. A former President of Chile once referred to creating ‘a revolution with the flavour of red wine and the scent of an empanada’, which sounds exactly like a movement I could get behind. Read More

6 crazy (but delicious) things to eat in Sweden

the fidgety foodie_6 crazy (but delicious) things to eat in Sweden

The table is set in a typical Northern Swedish household

Salmon. Check
Meatballs. Check
Cinammon buns. Check.

If you’ve come this far then you’ve certaintly sampled the obvious highlights of Swedish food.

But this cuisine gets so much better, and more creative, the more you delve.

On my last trip to Sweden I veered north and stumbled across some particularly unique delicacies which were most entertaining.

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Freshly opened surströmming – strategically opened outside on the grass.

Surströmming – fermented herring

My adopted Swedish mother Ing-mari made me feel like her third child the moment I stepped through her door and had a suite of Northern Swedish delicacies lined up for me to try, starting with the extremely polarising surströmming. Now some say this fermented Baltic Sea herring is the smelliest food in the world but I know that isn’t true because that honour goes to Icelandic fermented shark which I can guarantee you will have you retching from 50m away.

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Ing-mari shows me how it’s done

The Baltic herring used in surströmming is fermented for six months then stuffed in a tin to give the salty fish a sharp sour flavour. The smell is so pungent that there’s an unwritten law that a can must only be opened outdoors and far away from neighbours. When I arrived in Hemmanet outside of Sundsvall the said can was already ‘resting’ on the grass in preparation for our meal.

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The combination of flavours and textures on this rye bread make the surströmming sing!

Ing-Mari served the surströmming on crisp rye bread with butter, slices of boiled potatoes, sliced red onion, caviar and sour cream. I found it delicious! And not just because it caved under the weight of the accoutrements – I tried some solo and really relished the tangy taste washed down with aquavit.

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The curious creature that is the smörgåstårta

Smörgåstårta – sandwich cake

When I see something edible for the first time my eyes go wide, I get really excited and MUST TRY IT IMMEDIATELY. No one knows this better than my dear Swedish friend Joakim who has patiently indulged my foodie obsessions over many Swedish road trips.

It was on the latest that I spotted a strange construction in a supermarket. It was embellished like a cake but appeared to be made of savoury ingredients.

‘Oh yes’ said Joakim casually. ‘That’s a sandwich cake. They were very big in the 80s, my mum used to buy them’. Read More

How the Greeks influenced Aussie eating

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Me with my Papou Peter – I inherited both his love of food and his nose

I really wish I had known my grandfathers.

They both died when I was a toddler so all I have are some old 80s-style photos of them holding me proudly in their arms.

Despite not knowing them I am pretty sure my love of food stems from their influence: one was a seafood chef at The Royal Automobile Club, amongst other places, and the other ran a fresh fish shop in Sydney’s Wynyard Station which was the place to buy fish in the 60s. It’s now a McDonald’s.

These weren’t uncommon career paths for Greek immigrants, who came to Australia with nothing but the determination to succeed and a little ingenuity. Food was a way for new migrants to assimilate into the community and find jobs, even when they didn’t speak English. Many also came via America or had family in America where they’d picked up culinary ideas that were ripe for applying to the Aussie market.

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The fantastic book by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski

My ears pricked up when I heard about a new book by historian Leonard Janiszewski and photographer Effy Alexakis that delves into the impact that Greeks have had on the café culture in Australia. The book compiles the stories of many Greek families and looks at the development of eating culture through the lens of the Greek café and milk bar. The book proves that Greeks truly changed the face of public eating in Australia.

As part of History Week (can you tell I’m the daughter of a history teacher?) I went along to a book talk with my Aunty Kathy and was fascinated to learn more about other Greek families in hospitality and their impact on Aussie culture.

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Pitt St Sydney circa 1900 including iconic Comino’s Cosmopolitan Oyster Parlor – photo from Greek Cafés & Milk Bars of Australia

It’s hard to imagine how different things once were. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Australia mimicked the UK and social hierarchy was everything. The rich ate here and the poor ate there. But in Greece, people have always mixed and mingled and eating is about family, delicious food and a sense of community. When the Greeks came to Australia to find a better life, they eschewed the social stratification of the day and opened establishments for everyone.

First it was oyster saloons or oyster parlors (back when oysters were cheap), which they soon transformed with burgers and other foods they’d seen in America. Then they had the ingenious idea of taking soda fountains, traditionally used in apothecaries for helping bitter medicine go down, and making them customer-facing, adding syrups and flavours to create fun and social drinks.

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A classic Greek café menu inspired heavily by popular American dishes – photo from Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

From soda the Greeks turned to milkshakes. New technology in the 1930s and the introduction of the Hamilton Beach Milkshake Maker made frothed milk drinks the beverage of choice. If you happen to have one kicking around from those times they’re worth an absolute fortune now. According to Janiszewski, the Greeks were even responsible for bringing in espresso machines… but it was the Italians who popularised them.

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Martin Place’s Black & White 4d Milk Bar – photo from Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia

The Black & White 4d Milk Bar in Martin Place was Australia’s first milk bar. When it opened in 1934, 5,000 people lined up for a milkshake on the first day. My Papou Peter, pictured at the top of this story, actually ran the Black & White 4d Milk Bar at one stage. This was the start of a movement – by the end of the decade there were around 4,000 milk bars around Australia. McDonald’s would kill for that sort of market penetration these days.

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The Niagara Café in Gundagai – the gent in the middle is my Papou Con

One of the better known Greek cafés, which still survives today, is the Niagara Café in Gundagai. From 1919 to 1983 it was owned by the Castrission family and my grandfather, Con Castrission, worked there when he first came to Australia. That’s him in the white shirt in the above photo, looking out from the bar. I’d really like to visit Gundagai one day and experience the café that was so influential in my family. My Papou Con went on to run his own café, The Astoria, in Echuca, before coming to Sydney to run Wynyard Fish Supply.

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