Saturday, 4 August 2012

White Gold

Are you feeling depressed? A little under the weather? Do you think you are having a bad day as you sip your caffe latte, short black or expresso? If so, you have it far too good! Turn your attention to the rarely told story of the one million white slaves captured by Barbary pirates 300 years ago and sold in the slave markets of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli and count your blessings.

White Gold by Giles Milton recounts the story of the "white infidels" who were snatched - uncontested - from their beds, off fishing trawlers and merchant ships from 1625 until 1816.  Many were never to be seen again. All were at the mercy of their Muslim captors - and in most cases there was no mercy.

For over a hundred years, under the orders of the fanatical and dangerous ruler of Morocco, Sultan Moulay Ismail, pirates plundered the coastal towns of England, Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and as far away as Scandinavia and North America. Inhumane slave pens held men, women and children who were forced in to hard labour, the harem and harsh servitude. Many converted to Islam on pain of death, thereby suffering circumcision, and forfeited all rights to return to their homelands.

Although the dust jacket gushes about swashbuckling action (fight for survival), colourful villain ( a demonic despot), exciting (frightening) this enjoyable (horrifying) story is a snapshot in time of the dark side of man's inhumanity to man.

Giles Milton has sourced archives, libraries, historical records, unpublished memoirs and personal letters to retell this graphic story. Notably through the eyes of eleven year old Thomas Pellow from Cornwall who survived 23 years of slavery and escaped back to his homeland when he was 33. He was one of the rare escapees who managed to survive due to his stubborn and wary nature and his strong constitution. Thomas witnessed such terrible brutality that one wonders what his "rehabilitation" was like once he had escaped his captors. Did he nurse his wrath, stare out to sea remembering those he'd left behind or did he simply offer up thanks that he was finally safe and free?

From 1625-1817 vicious pirates roamed the seas kidnapping, plundering and murdering at will. For 100 years those in authority - the navy, monarchy, wealthy merchants, papacy and parliament - were so impotent that all they could do was "condemn" them, send the occasional ambassador to Morocco and pay the Sultan ransom and gifts to save a few (all men). How is it that one evil man can set the pace for so many?

Giles tells us that it was not until 100 years after the capture of Thomas Pellow, that a descendant of his, Sir Edward Pellew, Lord Exmouth, Vice Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet, commanded a vast squadron that rained 50,000 cannonballs on Algiers in 24 hours and ended the overt white trade in perpetuity. His decisive actions also paralleled the calls by Wilberforce to abolish the equally brutal Black Slave Trade.

Today Morocco has another type of trade. The tourist trade. Tourist brochures paint a picture of a grand and imperial past. Visitors wave, smiling from battlements unaware that they were built by the blood of their forebears. They stare in awe at the magnificent scale of the Palace of Menke, yet many are oblivious to the hopelessness, suffering and cruelty of the blood spilled on this site. The stables alone held 20,000 horses and the harem - 2,000 concubines. An untold number of white slaves lay extinguished in the lime and mortar foundations over which they tread. Giles has traveled in the footsteps of these white slaves and says the great slave market at Sale, the Souk el Kabar, looks as it did 300 years ago.

The politics, the morals and the meaning of food is well represented in this novel.

It symbolized power and wealth:

"Everything in Moulay Ismail's palace was on a grand scale and food was no exception...a giant platter which held enough couscous to feed 900 was wheeled in to the palace courtyard." p125

It symbolized manipulation. The captives, who were half starved, were found to work harder and have a lower mortality rate when inebriated:

"In the captives' own country, they said, Christians were strengthened by drinking wine and brandy." p99

It was a tool of  treachery. Sultan Ahmed ed-Delebi undisputed Master of Morocco (after a bloody power play) suddenly dropped dead in 1729. It was rumoured to have been poisoned by the mother of Moulay Abdallah who was then appointed to the throne.

"His death was occasioned by drinking a small bowl of milk." p240

Food was one of the spoils of war and given as a gift to the Sultan:

"They seized scimitars, daggers, powder horns and gunsocks...honey and dates...and 200 black slaves." p43

Food depicted religious and cultural significance:

"Pellow added that pork and wine were 'two very presumptious breaches 
of their law at Meknes and would be punished by death '." p139

The lack of food was used as a punishment:

"Their diet was a 'littel course bread and water' - while their lodgings was a dungeon underground." p20

Food also provided comfort and sustenance:

"Pellow had never eaten couscous before and was surprised to find it quite delicious, soaked in butter and lightly perfumed with saffron and spices 'it was very good, grateful and nourishing'." p220

Giles, an historical novelist has accessed rare and historical records. The references at the back of the book are both extensive and appreciated, as this reader will never have the opportunity to glimpse the human heartache penned by so many doomed to their fate three centuries ago.



1 cup chicken stock
1 1/4 cups water
3 teaspoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon zest
300g couscous
Plain yogurt (optional)


Bring stock and water to the boil. 
Add lemon zest, cumin, salt to taste. 
Add couscous. Bring to boil. Turn off heat. 
Cover saucepan and let stand until moisture is absorbed. 
Garnish with mint and dollop of  Greek yogurt.


White Gold by Giles Milton ISBN978-0-340-79470-8  

Copyright All Rights Reserved Ann Etcell-Ly

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones is credited with being a "thick mix of the exotic, the romantic and the historical". This fictional story is set in twentieth century China. The country's teeming masses, scarred by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, are slowly healing and moving steadfastly towards an industrial future. Mones describes a "dark-headed tide" of Mongols, Muslims and Mandarins whose approach to life is one of harsh survival, lowered expectations and guarded secrecy - since in China, you never know who may be watching.

This makes me question why Mones has her principle character Alice, working as a shrewd and intelligent translator by day, yet allows her to openly invite negative comment when she acts like a "woman of convenience" at night in her lustful search for the true Chinese Man. Thankfully, Mones writes only a few scenes for us to get the idea of her character Alice's motivation and passion before turning our attention to the vast backdrop of China's geography and history.

The major part of the plot revolves around the true story of Frenchman - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - who was both a Jesuit priest and a scientist who is remembered for discovering the famous Peking Man in China in the 1920's. His publication The Phenomenon of Man and his writings of homo erectus challenged the Vatican's then theories of spirituality and evolution. Also mentioned is Pierre's life long companion and soul mate Lucile Swan. Lucile's artistic talents documented the find - which was opportune as the Peking Man was lost after the Japanese Invasion and never found. 

It is from this jumping off point that Mones' story takes shape.

American interpreter Alice Mannegan assists Adam Spencer, an American archeologist on his quest to follow newly revealed clues and recover the old bones. They are joined by two keen Chinese archeologists, Drs Lin and Kong. The antagonists in the story are the suspicious Chinese Government officials and the unpopular and feared People Liberation Army (PLA) - well known for its methods of surveillance, imprisonment and torture.

Nicole Mones has lived in China since 1977 and seems well qualified to make her observations about the Chinese character that expertly "bends like grass in the wind". This seems to be a purposeful and protective adaptation in a country that has born witness to tumultuous change likened to "shifting sands". This pliable Chinese personality is in direct contrast to the spontaneous and direct Americans and of course, causes some consternation on both sides.

Alice and Adam get to know each other over their first meal together. For Adam it his first cultural shock.

"His face fell upon the shocking yellow eggs, the soup and the slick green piles of pickled vegetables." p12

In China, food has unique cultural and social rituals and etiquette.

Therefore, the Chinese table is one of evaluation, where small talk allows the guest and host to assess one another prior to a business deal. This ritual judges the levels of polite behaviour, generosity and appropriate responseThe food presented to the guests is done by women who are judged on how well they manipulate the available resources. For the host, it symbolizes his wealth and or position over his guests and servants. 

"The Leader waited at the head of the banquet table. "Sit", the Leader barked. "Tea", he called.
Three garishly made up Mongol girls twirled platters above their heads. "To your visit", the Leader said, and raised a tiny cup." pp242-247

 The guests also have power. This lies in their knowledge of manners to convince the host of their request. Mostly by demonstrating their ability not to offend. In many cases it is to graciously submit to the tastes and will of the host. 

"The girls swept back in to the room...shredded lamb and chilli peppers, deep fried carp and creamy scrambled egg, high piles of eggplant and tomato stir fry." p247

Food is also important as an offering on the tiny altars of ancestral worship. 

It also defines cultural continuity. For instance, Alice takes Adam to a cake shop that has been in business since the late Ming dynasty:

"People here make moon cakes every year for the Moon Festival." p282

It is also about hospitality and welcome:

"It's no good man who accepts guests, especially those with some connection to the family, without proper welcome. He addresses two women ...and they returned with dried fruit, and small bright-coloured plastic liquor cups."  p319

Food also confers well wishes on its recipients.

"Dr Lin stood. 'Health, Long life' They all drained their cups." p246

It is also a great leveller and indicates comradeship. Dr Lin, who was making discreet inquiries about the whereabouts of his wife who was lost during the Cultural revolution enters a small village cafe, notes that the woman who is dining there is simple-minded, but makes contact with her through the act of eating.

"'Xifun', he told the man behind the counter as he sat at one of three tiny tables."

Dr Lin ate in solidarity with the woman, to blend in, avoid surveillance and ask questions in a non threatening way.

"Rice gruel, [also known as congee], the simplest of Chinese comfort foods."p151

Each of the four characters, have different reasons to find the lost bones of the Peking Man. Alice is attracted to Dr Lin and a liaison ensues but is not resolved, Adam Spencer hopes to re-ignite a stalled career, Dr Lin travels widely to locate the fate of his lost wife and Dr Kong is excited about documenting China's prolific and as yet, untapped fossil mysteries.
The fictitious ending of Lost in Translation has Alice and Adam tracing the final resting place of The Peking Man back to an apothecary shop where Chinese men have traditionally paid high prices for herbs and potions that promise potency.
"Let's just say Peking Man has been - re-absorbed in to the population." Alice said. p366

(rice porridge)

This recipe was taught to me by my mother-in-law, the late Anna Hsuin who was born in Shanghai and immigrated to Sydney in the 1970's. She taught me that Northern China is the wheat belt, 
known for its noodles and steamed buns. The harsh, cold winters demand the pickling of vegetables in a tasty array of spice and fermentation. While Southern China is the rice bowl and known worldwide for its Cantonese style food. Congee, also known as porridge or gruel is one of my favourite recipes. It is eaten for breakfast, or as a light snack or late supper, in its many variations, throughout the Asian countries.

2 cups long grain rice
9 cups water
(I used home-made chicken stock
for a richer flavour)
A large knob of ginger sliced
(remove once rice is cooked)
Salt to taste


 Bring to boil, then simmer for 1-2 hours
or until rice is soft and creamy,
but not dry. More like a wet risotto.

Assorted pickles bought from a Chinese grocery shop.
I have chosen my favourites. 
Fermented bean curd, pickled cucumbers and spicy 
preserved radish with chilli.
Shredded chicken or firm fish pieces.

Dipping Sauce

If pickles are not to your taste you may like to mix equal 
amounts of chopped garlic and ginger, together with a 
sliced chilli (optional), half a cup of finely chopped 
shallots. Cover with light soya sauce and a dash of 
sesame oil. Add several teaspoons to the porridge. Enjoy!

Note the knob of sliced ginger in the rice porridge. Remove before serving.

©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved
Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones 1998 ISBN 0-385-31944-4 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Nathaniel's Nutmeg

Nathaniel's Nutmeg - How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History - by Giles Milton - will also change the way you view spices for the rest of your life! 

The book, published in 1999, is a condensed history lesson on the successes and failures, the hardship and the degradation suffered by humanity throughout the 300 years of the Spice Trade. 

The ideas that motivated it, the rise of colonialism and the embryonic emergence of modern world powers is well documented by Giles who scoured hand written journals, diaries and letters; five thousand pages of Jacobean script and Dutch Chronicles; English translations of maritime records held in libraries and the archives of The East India Company and the Colonial State Papers. The truths and treachery from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century are vividly re-visited.

The author singles out valorous 26-year-old Englishman, Nathaniel Courthope, captain of the Swan, who under the banner of King James 1 undertook an expedition to Indonesia in 1616. Nathaniel's stand on the island of Run (600 miles off the coast of Australia), Giles claims, changed the course of history. 

I am not so sure of this, as there were many names lost in the race for gain and glory. The roll call is a who's who of early navigators and explorers from many countries, all competing against one another against a backdrop of colonialism and warfare.

Monarchs and popes, merchants and landowners, wealthy traders and poor sailors; men and boys, the fit and the weak, the good and the bad, the cruel and humane sailed to plunder - some to trade in peace with the countries on the newly discovered routes of the spiceries.

The Quest:

To stake a claim on the island of Run where the rare plant mystica fragrans grew in abundance. The fruit of this tree was famed for its medicinal properties, pomanders were thought to protect against the plague and was sort more than gold. The spice? The humble nutmeg.

In the fifteenth century the spice trade was monopolized by the Venetians who traded from Constantinople. But the English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese were racing against each other to cut out the middleman, find the source and control the flow at whatever the cost. And the cost was high. 

One out of every three men who sailed, perished - lost at sea, piracy, scurvy, dysentery, typhoid, the "bloody flux"; wild storms, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, shipwreck; cannibalism, torture and corporal punishment. Giles describes keel hauling, decapitation and hanging - to name a few. 

While the Portuguese wisely sought their fortunes in other places like Malacca (Malaysia) and the Spanish, the Philipines. The Dutch and English continued to fight it out in two bloody wars and the shocking Massacre of Aniboyna in 1623.

By the eighteenth century, the tide turns, in a most unexpected way.

For three hundred years, possession meant ownership. Fortresses were built and flags hoisted, only to be destroyed by cannonball by an opposing force and a new flag hoisted. The Dutch even cut down all the trees at one stage and denuded the island so that it was rendered useless to British traders. Because of Nathaniel's refusal to give up ownership of Run "for God and Country" this allowed the English to contest the island long after his death at the hand of the Dutch in 1620.

The Dutch were infamous for their tenacity and brutality to gain control.

Against the natives,
 "...burning and torturing its inhabitants." p308
the English,
"...150 Englishmen had been murdered over two decades and 800 sold in to slavery." p348
and their own - drunken free settlers who caused trouble,
"2 burned alive, 1 broken at the wheel, 9 hanged, 9 decapitated, 3 garrotted, 1 "aquabushed". (blown to pieces by a musket) p358
The role of food (spice) in "Nathaniel's Nutmeg" shows that the economies of all the countries involved were driven by the promise of enormous wealth, monopoly of control and distribution, medicinal reasons, scientific quest, and mass production.

In Chaucer's day, spices were a rare luxury (a treat for those who could afford it), by Shakespearean times they were common place. In a "Winter's Tale" he writes:
"I must have saffron to colour my warden pies (pears), mace (the outer shell of the nutmeg), dates, nutmeg and ginger - 4 pounds of prunes and as many raisins o' the sun." p20
Spices were not only in demand as a medicine, but also a food preservative. It's new role in the food chain was one of control over disease and control over food preparation, storage and flavouring.

Giles describes how doctors prescribed nutmeg for plague, cloves for earache, pepper for colds and cardamom and cinnamon for flatulence. While women (in the traditional role of food preparation and supply), used nutmeg and aniseed to preserve meat, flavour wine (mulled) and cumin was added to pastry and fennel to their sauces.

By 1656, the Dutch proved themselves an unstoppable opponent and independent merchants were unable to, or loathe to bankroll further expeditions. The East India Company was close to bankruptcy. The shipyards were sold and warehouses - which once held millions of pounds in weight of nutmegs and spice - were emptied. Staff was laid off. The Island of Run was to be sold. It's value? That of a small ship. Had Nathaniel's death been in vain?

At the last chime, Oliver Cromwell and the Council of State re-invented the company as a corporation with a new charter and new direction. The tide had turned. 

In 1810, a small band of Englishmen under Captain Cole and a veil of secrecy, landed on Run and secured the battlements of the Dutch. Caught by surprise and without a shot fired, the Dutch capitulated. 

By 1817 the English also vacated the island - but not without uprooting thousands of seedlings and tonnes of soil which they transplanted in to Ceylon, India and Singapore. Global food production had begun.

Thanks to Nathaniel's sacrifice history had indeed changed direction. Enter the Golden Age of British India and the discovery of New York!

The author describes the Run of today as a quiet backwater. Its few inhabitants, unaware of its violent past "continue to dig up coins and musket shells". Giles warns the reader that the island has no direct transport links and the sea crossing can be dangerous. 

Giles noted that while there has been some effort put in to preserving some of its historical battlements,  all that really roams on this tiny island, 2km long and 1 km wide, are ghosts of the past. 

 Abandoned Portuguese battlements in Malacca 
off the coast of Malaysia.

Here I am off the coast of Malaysia, 
discovering the frontiers of Portuguese Malacca 
and the ghosts of the past.1978.

Nutmeg is a versatile spice that has found its way in to sweet and savoury recipes the world over. This cake recipe, posted by Jayne04 on the website All Recipes is a good example.

 Nutmeg Feather Cake

1/4 cup soft butter 
1/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar 

1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
3 eggs lightly beaten
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg
1/3 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk


Cream the sugar, butter and shortening.
Combine the remaining ingredients. Add the creamed mixture 
to the batter. Bale 175 degrees for 40 minutes until 
lightly golden and a skewer comes out clean.  
This is a tall cake so use a deep cake tin 
greased and lined. 

Basic Frosting

1/2 cup butter
80 ounces of cream cheese
2 cups of icing sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoons of sour cream 
(optional but great for tang)


Cream all ingredients together and spread over the cake 
once it has cooled. If you are using two cake tins, 
use the frosting as a filling to sandwich them together. 
This frosting is so versatile you can add 
shredded coconut for texture, or orange zest 
for tang or decorate with toasted pecans.

©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved
 Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton 1999 ISBN 0 340 69676 1

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Handful of Honey

Choosing a suitable book for a novel/food blog has its challenges. After browsing 
bookshelves and online I have refined my search by using one of three criteria. 
A book has promise if it has a food word in the title, a cover page that depicts food, 
fruit, a culinary scene or activity, or if it is about an exotic location.

 "A Handful Of Honey"

My choice this week met the above checklist. "A Handful of Honey", set in the palm groves of Morocco and Algiers, is Annie Hawes fourth novel. It shone like a prism of light on the dark, mysterious and treacherous continent of Morocco and proved to be a wonderful read.

But, before I go on, first ask yourself, what does a handful of honey mean to you? Is it a sweet luxury that cannot be held and will trickle through your fingers, regardless of how long you try to hold it? Can it be compared to the sands of time and the winds of change? Do you savour it to the last drop or does your liking for honey encourage you to keep a beehive - even if you get stung along the way? You will need to read the entire book - or cheat - and read the last few pages to see what Annie and you, yourself decide.

There are tourists who travel to exotic locations, stay in expensive hotels, close their eyes, lay back and get pampered. Then there are travelers who emerse themselves in adventure and local culture, and with eyes wide open, take the time to reflect on what they hear and see. Annie is such a traveler, and her story about her trek through Morocco and Algiers stunned me with the lyrical description of the these countries; their brutal past, shaky present and unknown future overlaid on a vast canvas of geographical, historical, political, religious, cultural, social and global influences.

What you read will either be your truth or your contention - depending on what you know and believe. You will be shown the beauty and the contradiction that is Islam, understand why it is so and learn lots of trivia along the way. I even went so far as to Google Annie's places of interest, to check facts and put things in to context for myself. It is not a breezy read.

The story starts in Portugal,when Annie, as a wayward English teenager, finds herself in a Portuguese gaol. Eventually she is freed and deported. Her minders escort her to the train station in Madrid, destined for Calais in France and then on to England. Penniless and with no family support, she is befriended by a group of young Muslim males traveling to Europe for work. This is her first contact with the generosity of strangers from North Africa who share their blankets, food and dreams with her. They part with the promise of her meeting up with them in their hometown of Timimoun, an ancient oasis on the fringe of the Sahara desert and the crossroads of trade in Morocco.

Fast forward 20 years, Annie is now in her late thirties and is living in a farmhouse, set in the Ligurnian hills of Italy, when two of her male friends - Gerard and Guy - have a midlife crisis and invite her to go with them on their travels.

What follows is a story of biblical proportions. A history lesson on Spanish and French colonialism, the fragmentation of a crumbling Moroccan empire, internal dissatisfaction with external power and control with the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism to offset it; the harsh yet beautiful environment, traditional methods versus modernization. The Three Peoples of the Book (Bible), Muslims,Jews and Christians (who once lived in harmony) are compared and contrasted as she experiences the Islamic lifestyle and the Sunni's Five Pillars of Wisdom.

"We thank him for his generosity, sharing his food with us. But you should always be generous with others, he says, and God will be generous with you." p176

Annie has the ability to ZOOM OUT and describe great sweeps of history and the glorious tales of ancient cities, the social
harmony of its past due to the co-dependents of its Arabs, Berbers, Haratines, Tamazites, Christians, Jews and black Africans. She describes the camel trains, caravans and nomadic trade routes, danger and the magic of djinns. Then she quickly ZOOMS IN to conversations with Holy Men, fellow travelers, bathing in an hamman (turkish bath), her friends donning a jellaba and she a burkha - and thinking thinking thinking all the time - about social etiquette and the Good Will to want to do the right thing in a country so very different from her own.

"The couscous granules trickle warm between my fingers, the sauce dribbles luxuriously up my wrist. A thousand miles from my last cutlery-free experience in every sense." p100

And of course, she gets it wrong at times but survives what could be terrible consequences. All the while she is describing the haunting call to prayer by the muezzins, the immams who are keepers of the moral code, and the marabouts which are reminders of Holy Men and their good deeds.

Dry desserts, leafy terraces, palm groves and wadis; shifting sand dunes, scorpions under rocks, orange groves and orchards; lowing cattle, sheep and goats, spitting camels and overloaded donkeys; the sharp knives of butchers; mosques, bath houses (hammans), medinas (market places) and the ingenuity for survival all jostle for the reader's attention.

And then there is the food...

Offered to her in honest generosity, and as religious expression in accordance with the teachings of the Koran.  Food plays a central role in fasting and penance (Ramadan) and celebration (Eid al-Fatr).

Women, the world over, are in charge of food as it gives our gender a role and a place within the home.

Throughout Morocco and Algiers, behind closed doors, mud bricks and tent flaps, a female's food preparation supports Islamic ideology
- moral values, wisdom, purity - and by default aids in their subjugation - ritual, repetition and attention to others.

No one denies these are not good qualities. The bad part is the lack of choice.

Women's role in food preparation is mirrored in all major religions, nationalities and cultures. However, for those of you who wish to actively reject the role of cooking as women's work, remember you are also discarding the nurturing, kitchen camaraderie, the manipulation of, and power over a resource, creativity, imagination, economy, memory, tradition and skill that goes in to the culinary art.

"Now I follow up with several tasty chickpea and onion Aunt Rashida...washing it all down with swigs of Hussain's mother's cold sweet lemon-mint tea...Dessert next: a pile of crunchy doughnuts filled with dates and covered in sesame seeds...made by cousin Aisha". pp16-21

As a European woman traveling with two males, neither of them her husband or keeper, Annie is challenged by Islamic social etiquette and the boundaries of acceptable and appropriate behaviour expected of a woman.

Annie becomes an "honorary man" in strict Muslim households, which essentially puts her in no-man's land. She finds herself at a disadvantage in male company and is rejected by females of the household. However, in female households where men are absent due to work, or in households of different tribes no such restrictions exist.

Annie's "binoculars" light up her subjects. Like a prism, she sees rainbows of humanity that refract and polarize around one another; around the consequences of post-colonialism (that both undermined and exploited Morocco's resources); and in the rise of Islamic Fundamentalists and their demands to restore traditions of power control that have been lost.

This corrective attempt, to turn back time, has its opponents from within. Not only from women but also from the various tribes who no longer suffer serfdom at the hands of tribal elders. Particularly when poor young men, who work overseas, sample democracy and capitalism and return with their savings to buy their own resources. All of which upset the traditional order destined by birth right, race and controlled by brutish tribal elders each with their own vested interests.

Interestingly, the burkha - seen as a symbol of male tutelage against womanhood by the West - is seen by the woman who wear them as their first steps to freedom. If they wear the burkha they can be out and about without a male chaperone. Their fathers allow them to study overseas as long as they promise to remain covered. Ironically, by taking this choice away from these women, one wonders if the West will ultimately restricts their access to the wider world? Ironically, Annie found that donning the burkha at points throughout her travels, protected her from the harshness of the climate and gave her welcomed anonymity within a culture where the weaknesses of the men could cost you your life.

As the story starts in Portugal, I begin with Portuguese Custard Tarts, followed by a Moroccan Lamb Stew. The ingredients and 
amounts do not have to be exact. Remember, the women who have made 
these dishes over the centuries have judge by hand and eye, the amounts they need to cook, on rudimentary wood ovens and camp fires.

Portuguese Custard tarts

 Ingredients for rough puff pastry. Makes 12.

 2 cups of plain flour with approximately 
3/4 cup of water to make a dough.
20gms softened lard or shortening
20gms softened butter 

Roll the dough out to a rough rectangle measuring 30cm x 24cm. Spread the dough, using your fingers, with 20gms of softened lard
or shortening and roll up in to a log. Roll the dough out again to the same size and spread it with 20gms of softened butter. Roll the silky dough in to a log. Divide the log in to 12 pieces to fit 1/3 cup capacity muffin pan. Refrigerate while you make the custard.

Ingredients for custard

1 cup of caster sugar  
1/4 cup of water 
 2 cups of warm milk
1 Tablespoon custard powder
2 Tablespoons of cornflour
1 teaspoon of vanilla 
4 egg yolks


Dissolve water and sugar in a saucepan. Turn off the heat. Add cornflour and custard powder to the warm milk and mix well. Add to the sugar water. Add 4 lightly beaten egg yolks to the milk sugar mix. Turn on the heat and stir constantly until bubbling and thickened.remove from the heat and spoon in to the tarts. Bake 220 degrees for 30 minutes. The pastry should be lightly browned and crispy and the custard slightly browned on top. Enjoy.

Moroccan Lamb and Chickpea Stew 
with couscous. Serves 6

750gm of diced lamb
1 red onion diced
3 ripe tomatoes (or large can)
1 cup each of chopped parsley and coriander
14 dates
1 teaspoon (or to taste) of ground cumin
1 cup pine nuts
1 can of chickpeas
2 cups of couscous
1 Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 lemon
1 cup of Greek yogurt


Fry the diced lamb in a little olive oil and set aside.
Fry diced onion and cumin in the same pan. Add the tomatoes, chickpeas, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, dates and lamb. Simmer
for until all ingredients are soft and fragrant. Add some stock
or water to the pan as it should not be allowed to become dry.

Prepare couscous per the instructions on the packet. 
I added extra butter and cumin for extra flavour. 
Ladle the stew over the couscous, decorate with herbs 
and serve with a large bowl of Greek yogurt. 
A squeeze of lemon heightens the flavours. 
If you want a vegetarian dish leave out the meat.

©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved
 A Handful of Honey by Annie Hawes 2008. ISBN 978-0-330-45722-4

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Last Chinese Chef

The Last Chinese Chef is Nicole Mones third novel. It is a fictional story yet it reads with the same integrity as the fictional novel and modern classic about Japanese society The Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. What sets these two authors apart from the rest is their in depth research and attention to detail. They blend the new with the old, the modern with the ancient, fact with fiction to showcase a complex story within the romance and sentimentality of a passing era.

"Food was always surrounded by coded behaviours 
that themselves carried great meaning." p17

The Last Chinese Chef is about food. From cover to cover. It romantices the symbolism, preparation, skill and the respect for flavour, texture, quality and presentation expected of a gourmand of Chinese cuisine.

 "Food should be more than food; it should 
tease and provoke the mind." p36

Having said that, as I read the novel, it was always in the back of my mind the reality, that China is a nation of people who must be fed, whatever the cost and historically they will eat anything that has a pulse. This is not isolated to China.

Across the globe we hunt, catch and slaughter without a second thought. However, China, is well known for its specialities which I feel only add to the pain, suffering and extinction of many species. Of note, was the recipe about "drunken shrimp" which are eaten alive after they have been marinated in alcohol, or the praise by the fictional chef in the novel for the creamy texture of shark's fin soup.

Nicole tells a story of a fast moving society that once rested on a culture so vast, it was spread across many dynasties, until it was interrupted by Communism, the Cultural Revolution, incursion from the West and now industrialization and globalization. Nicole taps in to the recent past of Imperialism and Communism and weaves it into China's modern history.

"Great food needed more than great chefs; 
it needed gourmet diners ...but the Communists 
had made it illegal to appreciate fine food, 
or even remember that it once existed" p39

Amid the feasting is the story is about a grieving widow - Maggie Elroy - an American food writer who travels to China to come to terms with a paternity claim against her late husband and to cover a magazine assignment of a cooking competition in China.

She meets chef Sam Liang - an American of Chinese and Jewish descent who has returned to China to re-discover his ancestry and follow his passion for cooking. He is taught by his "uncles" who are not related to him by blood but by connections to family members over the generations.

Sam enters a national cooking competition and much of the food choices he discusses with Maggie are for her magazine article and what will constitute a suitable winning menu. There is mention of crispy fried duck, carp in lamb's broth, dipped snails and fried sparrow. There is tofu with the sauce of thirty crabs! stuffed pork, silver fungus, braised soya beans, steamed pork ribs in lotus leaves and all sorts of herbs and spices, marinades and additives such as soya sauce, sesame oil, chinese wine, ginger, shallots, bean paste and vinegar.

Each chapter begins with an inspirational quote from a fictional food bible called The Last Chinese Chef  by Liang Wei. Nicole did a remarkable job composing this tome that reads like an ancient text. The excepts from this book do not exist but it is shaped around the skeleton of classical sources by Chinese scholars who wrote on the subject of Chinese cuisine and its imperial roots.

By the end of the novel both Sam and Maggie find they are well matched, like the flavours in a great meal and Maggie's love affair with Sam, China and its food begins.

"The right food can ease the mind and the hearts." p36

There are recipes at the end of the novel and more on offer at Duck is mentioned so many times throughhout this novel that I have included a family favourite.

My Easy Duck Soup


1/2  duck chopped
1 bunch any green chinese vegetable of your choosing. 
I used bak choy this time.
2 litres of water seasoned to taste.


Place duck pieces in water and bring to the boil to release the flavours. 
Turn down to a simmer and season with salt and pepper. 
Add greens close to serving time so that they are 
wilted but not overcooked. 

This is essentially a clear soup but 
you can add noodles if you want a heartier meal. 


©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach - is not the romanticized comedy depicted by the movie of the same name. The novel is far more confronting. In fact, it is a rant from beginning to end on ageism, racism, patriotism, chauvinism and sexism.

Moggach, who has written 15 novels, said she wrote the book to depict the plight of the elderly in western communities - but I think it is much more than that! You will be tested, so be warned!

The author puts ideas and words in to the mouths of her characters with such force, that it is both amusing and shocking. Her characters "opinions" could easily be deemed politically incorrect, but somehow she manages to get away with it. Or does she? That is up to you.

For instance, Moggach uses her characters on both sides of the continent (Britain and India) to express outspoken and confronting criticisms of one another and their respective value systems without excuse or apology.

Two such characters are the Indian doctor Ravi and his English wife Pauline who take a swipe at the changing face of  British health care:

" is immaterial what country you happen to be in, when your time all likelihood the last face you see on this earth, would be a black one." p71

The novel informs us that today's British elderly, due to their frailness and reduced resources, are feeling threatened or are indeed physically threatened by the changing society in which they live. Once again Pauline sympathetically informs the reader:

"Old people like the familiar. What's familiar about the world they live in now? Britain is a foreign country to most of them these days...And full of darkies." p20

These outspoken comments and confronting observations continue throughout the book, via conversations within the group of elderly misfits who travel to India to live in a "home".  Correction. They prefer "hotel".

All the aged are between 60 - 70 years and all have their own story to tell. The negative side of being elderly is blatantly exploited by the author as the mouthpiece to make her point, at the expense of all the good qualities that one who reaches wise, old age should possess.

The elderly residents are characterized in varying degrees of  inflexibility, ignorance, naivety,  perversion; they are insulting, overly conservative or suspicious of the world and each other. This allows the comments they make to be "acceptable" by the reader as this is true to character.

Having said that, is it age that makes us so? Or have they been like this their whole lives and age has simply weathered and  exposed their thin veneers?

From fiesty racist, Muriel (played by Maggie Smith) to self-effacing conservative (played by Judy Dench) all the characters have their own contributions to make to this messy world we live in.

A group of aged Brits, brought together by circumstance, find themselves as the new residents of a dubious business venture run by polite, charming yet manipulative, opportunistic Indians. The hotel is, unknown to them,  run by charlatans and imposters. The one thing they all share is their quest for survival.

Despite this shared quest, the death of Norman was caused by the spiteful revenge of the hotel's proprietor. It's frightening to think that his involvement will go unchallenged and unpunished from a lawful point of view. Morally however, should we be content that Norman caused his own downfall, the other hotel guests, eager to keep up appearances, unwittingly helped cover it up and that Sonny will redeem himself (according to Indian teachings) in the next life?

Sonny does try to make clumsy and dangerous amends with Norman's daughter, Pauline. When she returns home to England to scatter her father's ashes on his favourite walking trail, she opens the urn to find it full of cocaine.

While reading this book I, as the reader, sensed a disturbing disquiet that " retirement homes" (like everything else) may be outsourced in the future.

The proprietor Sonny congratulates the group with a speech;

"Our modest venture will be the start of a whole new export market - no longer cotton - but people. To which one guest asks, "What? by the kilo?" p229

Sonny continues with his speech, reminding the guests of India's reverence for the elderly. Another guest - Theresa (a reformed devotee of Indian spiritualism) does not mince words when she whispers under her breath:

"...yes, and you press baby girls faces in to sacks until they suffocate, burn brides for their dowries and force children in to labour." p259.

The jousting continues.

Even quiet, conservative Evelyn, when trying to explain what aging feels like, points to a group of Muslim women waiting to catch a bus. They are all enveloped from head to foot in burkhas.

"Being old is like wearing one of those." p269

A truce of sorts takes place when the book ends with the marriage of two elderly residents. It seems that everyone has adjusted to a shared co-existence. No doubt the barbs will continue since that is the human condition.

So too, is the shared need to belong and feel renewed.

"With their blushing cheeks and pink lips, the couple looked quite young again."

Many conversations take place around the dining table and since Chicken Biryani was a favourite of the guests I have chosen this dish as a symbol of communication, honest endeavour and civility. No recipes are included in the novel.

Chicken Biryani 

This is a Pakistan Indian dish. Chicken pieces are cooked in a spicy tomato and yogurt sauce, accompanied by spiced fried rice, crispy pan fried potatoes and raita (cucumber, mint, yogurt dip).


2 large onions (chopped)
2 cloves garlic crushed
3 teaspoons grated ginger
1/2 tspn chilli powder
1/2 tspn tumeric
1 tspn ground cummin
1 can crushed tomatoes (cheats way)
1/2 cup greek yogurt
2 tspn dried mint 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
2 chicken breasts diced


Fry onion garlic ginger until soft and fragrant in a little peanut oil or ghee. Add dry spices and stir
 in hot pan to release flavours. Add can of tomatoes and yogurt. Allow to simmer in to a sauce. Add chicken pieces and cook slowly at a simmer for about 40 minutes. The sauce will become reduced.


500gm precooked rice
 1 large onion diced
1/2 tspn tumeric
1/2 tspn cardomom
3 whole cloves
1/2 tspn ground ginger


Fry onions until golden
Add spices 
Add rice and stir through.

Fry diced potatoes in oil and make raita


Ingredients and method

Combine 1 large lebanese cucumber diced
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup finely chopped mint
pinch salt


©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved