Holiday Foodsteps: Rome, the Second Time Around

We stepped off the train at the St. Peter's Square Station, drowsy, bleary eyed, in need of a pick-me-up and with an embarrasing lack of enthusiasm for the very last stop of the holiday, Rome. We wandered through the Vatican City trying to drink in the sights but mostly looking out for a coffee stop.

It's funny how the best way to enjoy something that looks too pretty to eat is to get downright messy.

There's something about the aroma of Italian coffee that says "Good morning!". A cup of strong, deliciously flavourful coffee each and a delightful cream-filled pastry to share left us feeling brand new and ready to take on Rome.

When you have less than a day to explore one of the most historical cities in the world, you know that a good strategy is in order. We targeted the most iconic of spots - and yes, that included Gelataria Giolitti.


Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40

00186 Rome, Italy
066 991243
Underground: Spagna
Open Daily 7am-2am

You know it's a good holiday when you're standing out in the sunshine, sunglasses perched atop your head, digging into a cup of gelato from a gelateria that has seen the likes of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. All that, and the fact that it's the middle of winter.

Tough choices await at Giolitti, with numerous flavours to pick from. As always, I like to leave these decisions to the people who know best, the friendly people behind the counter and I must say, it's a strategy that has never let me down - the recommended marrons glac├ęs (glazed chestnuts) was divine, even if our limited Italian meant that we couldn't quite identify what flavour it was then. I would also recommend the dark chocolate, bittersweet and a good foil to the other sweeter flavours. The quaint interior of the gelateria is a throwback to days gone by and so is the rather strange payment system of pre-purchasing an empty cup (or cone) at the cashier before heading to the ice cream display counter. Still, the best way to enjoy some good gelato is in the sun, surrounded by the all gorgeous architecture that Rome has to offer.

Rome, twice in a year - I'm a lucky, lucky girl.

Holiday Foodsteps: Funchal

This is what happens when you book a holiday during the exam season - chances are (well, for us, anyway), you wouldn't have had time to put in the approriate amount of research into the places you would be visitng. We knew close to nothing about Funchal except that it was named after fennel and that fish and bananas, no matter how unconventional it sounded at that point, was a popular local dish.

The weather wasn't promising upon arrival - slightly overcast and significantly gloomier than any of the other ports that we docked at throughout the cruise. What it lacked weather-wise, however, was more than made up for by the food and the people. A quick chat about food with our friendly cab-driver-tourguide confirmed what we had read about fish and bananas so we knew what we would be on the hunt for come lunchtime.

Espada and bananas - essentially battered black scabbard, a fish that (after some post-holiday googling) is definitive of Madeira cooking, with fried bananas. The dish is simple, relying very much on the freshness of the ingredients. Fresh fish and sweet, deliciously ripe bananas, I'm really not sure how we've only been introduced to this pairing now.

Also ordered upon recommendation by the cab-driver-tourguide, espetada - grilled skewered salted beef cubes. Yes, we did notice that the two dishes had incredibly similar names. Served with a healthy portion of fresh salad, the beef-enthusiasts at the table gave the dish a thumbs up.

After discovering that Funchal was a wine-producing region and being shown the wineries, our pick of wine for the meal seemed very appropriate - a lovely complement to the food.

No amount of research can beat actually being there in person and I have come away knowing not just about the incredible volume of banana crops that Funchal has, or that it is home to Cristiano Ronaldo or that it has the second highest cliff in the world - I have come away having seen the lush greenery that is Funchal as well as met the people who can put a smile on your face despite the pouring rain.

Holiday Foodsteps: Casablanca

I have been away at sea, being absolutely spoilt for 12 days, living as if it was summer and leaving the real world behind for a little while. New landscapes, new faces and of course lots and lots of food.

"I'd imagine it to be colourful, and to smell like spices cooking"
"Definitely colourful, and drapey"

En route to Casablanca, we wondered aloud what it would be like. Most travel sites talk endlessly about the romance that is Casablanca, perhaps more because of the movie than anything else. What we knew for sure, however, was that we simply could not leave without sitting down to a tagine meal.

We were drawn to them very early in the day, as we bargain-hunted our way through the Old Medina Bazaar - rows of clay pots on hot stoves that look as if they were wearing party hats. Despite the language barrier, we very quickly got our point across: We wanted tagine, every sort that they had.

A generous serving of bread, crusty but soft, and four portions of lentils quickly made their way to our paper-lined table. Little complements to what was to come.

What caught me by surprise was how light everything was. I suppose somewhere at the back of my mind, I had imagined the little pots to contain thick lamb or chicken stew. Instead, what we got was meat, potatoes and a mix of vegetables cooked in a delightful broth-like gravy.

The crowd favourite - the fish tagine. Cooked a little differently from the lamb and chicken, this one reminded me of a Nyonya-style gulai tumis but with the zing coming from the more Mediterrenean influences of olives and tomatoes.

It would come as no surprise that we wanted more of the fish tagine. Sadly, they had run out of it but the kind, kind owner of the restaurant who probably thought we wanted more fish, regardless of how it was cooked, brought us a plate of fried fish. All shapes, all sizes and all textures, the fish was sweet and addictive the way only fresh fish can be. While not the fish tagine that we had hoped for, we still happily cleaned off the plate before ending the meal with a pot of mint tea.

We ventured out of Old Medina in search for the Moroccan almond pastries that we'd heard and read so much about, stopping at every shop that looked remotely like a bakery to try our luck. After a few failed attempts (in which a kind local thought we wanted coconut cookies and upon finding out that we wanted something involving nuts, took us to a shop selling nuts intead), we hit the jackpot.

With platters and platters of all sorts of almond pastries on display, we were spoilt for choice. We thought it would be best to leave the decision-making to the woman in charge of packing up the goodies with us only making sure she included the ones we thought called out to us. We left the patisserie with a whole box of pastries for the house and a little paper bag to tide us over. I would call them the Moroccan version of baklava - some a little more nutty than others, some crunchy, some soft, some with a syrup coating but all hinting of marzipan. My favourite was probably the almond briouat - almond paste wrapped in fillo pastry, fried and dipped in honey.

French influences are strong in Casablanca, from it's mix of languages to the croissants and mille-feuille slices that are on display in the patisseries.

So yes, Casablanca is romantic. Not in the conventional lets-fall-in-love manner but in that dusty, smoky, colourful, chaotic and slightly mysterious sort of way. We were all right with how we had each imagined it to be, even the drapey bit.

Bidding Casablanca goodbye at sunset.

From home, with love

"Is this your annual Chinese New Year package?"

The housemates filter into the room this morning to find me peering into a large box, bubble wrap, newspapers and brown paper strewn across the room. Yes, the annual Chinese New Year care package.

This is my version of Christmas morning - eagerly tearing into the package to see what my parents have decided to include in this year's installment. Oh, how I love a good surprise!

Cookies (if you could call them that) galore.

As always, the contents of the care package are somewhat random and I can almost imagine my family picking up little tidbits here and there to build the package. I suppose, in a way, most things are atypical - none of the usual packets of curry powder or quick sauces. Instead, one would find munchies that remind me of my childhood and of course, the little things that belong on the cookie table during Chinese New Year.

Sometimes I forget how well my family knows me.

Care packages - don't you just love them?

Here's to a nice, round year

Just before the Christmas-New Year week rolled around, we had another reason to celebrate - the Dongzhi or Winter Solstice Festival. As a kid, my favourite part of the festival was the making of the glutinous rice balls. Always done just before bedtime the night before, we would gather in the kitchen, large round stainless steel dishes laid out, and proceed to shape the balls out of different coloured rice flour.

"Make sure it's nice and round!"

I remember my mum telling us how the shape of the ball would signify the coming year, and how we would want the new year to have a good beginning and end, nice and complete, a beautiful full circle.

I always had plain, fillingless rice balls growing up and was only introduced to the filled ones a little later in life. The balls, nicely arranged on the stainless steel dishes, would be placed into the refrigerator until the next morning when I would wake up to the delicious aroma of ginger and pandan leaves simmering in the kitchen. Then, gathered in the kitchen once again, we'd dig into our bowls of delighfully soft and sweet rice balls, picking out the ones we think we made.

This year, in the midst of exam preperations and Moroccan visa issues, I decided that we absolutely couldn't do without those glutinous rice balls. We cheated a little by picking up frozen ones at the Oriental Supermarket but kept a little of home by cooking them in the sweet ginger-pandan syrup we all know and love.

"For good luck", I told my housemates, as I served up the rice balls to each one of them.

We had many, many servings of glutinous rice balls that day - peanut filled and black sesame filled. 2011 looks to be a big year - and I'm definitely hoping it would be a nice, round one.

Happy 2011!

2010 has been a year of adventure, of new discoveries and of life lessons. As we sat around the table last night, sharing a huge Lebanese meal, I couldn't think of a more appropriate way to give 2010 a good send-off - good food with the people who made my 2010.

Here's to an amazing 2011 - to more culinary adventures and many, many more stories to share.