Visiting Sydney with a Small Boy – it's all happening at Taronga Zoo

I love the way little people define their world. It reminds me of how we used to say our night prayers when we were small, listing off like a mantra all those we loved. I was listening to Dermot tonight as he chatted away happily to himself in a sing-song voice in the next room, reciting “MaMa, DaDa, Claire, Mikey, NaiNai, YeYe, NaiNai… and then, after a pause,  huati (slide), che (car), huo che (train), haishui (the sea), before repeating the list of names again and eventually drifting off to sleep, content in the boundaries of his little life.
He had an exciting day today – a trip to the beautiful Taronga Zoo in Sydney which involved a bus ride to Circular Quay, a ferry across Sydney harbour, a cable car to the zoo’s main entrance and, later, a train ride across town to dinner in The Chef’s Gallery, a Chinese restaurant near Darling Harbour. But that wasn’t enough to wear him out before bedtime so we had to end the day as he had begun it with his other NaiNai, with a visit to the local playground up the road here in Randwick before returning home with a dirty face, a cheeky grin and a few more bruises from slides and football.
Sydney is a wonderful city for children and as I gaze at my daughter Claire’s growing belly I envy that new life inside her and the childhood Claire and Mike can hope to provide for him or her in this beautiful, child-friendly place.
Over the two weeks we have been here, I’ve watched Dermot change from being a shy little boy, used to spending most of his time in a 21st floor Beijing apartment, to one who can’t wait to get out the door each morning and on to the next adventure. I’ve watched him begin to connect with other children, making eyes at the pretty six year old girl in the playground this evening until she eventually joined him on the see-saw and trying to get involved in an impromptu game of football.
We’ve fed ducks in Centennial Park, paddled at Clovelly Beach, had a Christmas morning picnic at Bronte Beach, visited the Sydney Aquarium, attended barbecues in Claire and Mike’s friends’ back gardens and walked the windswept promenade at Bondi, and all that apart from five days down the New South Wales Coast at Culburra Beach.

Some unlikely looking Santas on Christmas Day at Bronte Beach
Some unlikely looking Santas on Christmas Day at Bronte

And unlikely looking Supermen with their YeYes too
And an unlikely looking Superman with his YeYe!

Getting around Sydney with young children is relatively easy – the buses, ferries, trains and even the Taronga Zoo sky-train are designed to be accessible and locals will go out of their way to make sure that space is made available for a child in a buggy.
Spotted in the window of a Sydney Bus
Spotted in the window of a Sydney Bus

Children lead an outdoor life here, well protected from the sun with high factor suncreams and body suits or snuggled in children’s tents on the beach for their afternoon naps. Running buggies are a common sight and birthday parties start as early as 10 am in the cool shade of Centennial Parklands.
Feeding the Ducks in Centennial Park
Feeding the Ducks in Centennial Park

Many restaurants are geared up for toddlers with high chairs and kids menus. The Chef’s Gallery provided Dermot with his own bowl, Chinese spoon and mug today, complete with illustrations of a monkey. The major attractions are expensive but you can get better value at Sydney Aquarium by buying tickets on line in advance and the best value way to get to Taronga Zoo is to buy an all-inclusive ferry, sky-train and zoo entrance ticket at Wharf 2 on Circular Quay. In general children under four are free and of course the beaches and parks are free for all to use and equipped with dedicated spots to set up your barbie for breakfast or lunch.
If I was to do just one thing with children here it would be bring them to Taronga Zoo. It has to be one of the most beautifully laid out zoos in the world with stunning views over Sydney Harbour. As you rise above it in the Sky Train to the entrance at the very top you get a bird’s eye view of the elephant enclosures and the big cats. The tall giraffes have the best views of all looking out onto Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Happy Giraffes
Happy Giraffes

The Australian walkabout takes you past kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and many other native species I had never heard of although Claire has encountered some of them in the wild. In keeping with the ethos of the zoo, the kangaroos and wallabies aren’t even fenced in, it’s just the daily visitors that have to stick to the paths. It’s obvious that the guides and keepers love their jobs and the animals in their charge. The gorillas are disdainful, the meerkats cute, the platypus delightful and the Tasmanian Devils not as angry looking as I expected. There is a great programme of talks and close-up encounters too. Needless to say Dermot was as excited by the che – the sky cars passing overhead – as he was by any of the animals.
A cable car with a view of Sydney Harbour
“Wow YeYe!”

Arriving at the zoo by ferry is an added bonus. I am constantly smitten by the sheer, exhilarating beauty of Sydney Harbour and I can think of no nicer daily commute.
Happy days on Sydney Harbour
Happy days on Sydney Harbour

"Hi NaiNai!"
“Hi NaiNai!”

For an authentic taste of China in Sydney, I can also strongly recommend The Chef’s Gallery – we visited the one near Sydney’s Chinatown but there are several branches around the city. The Three Cup Chicken, Sichuan Green Beans and Red Braised Pork Belly were among the best we’ve tasted. The noodle master swinging his rope of noodles in the open kitchen made MaMa feel right at home.
Shane and Shan’s time here is drawing to a close and they return to the icy Beijing winter in a few days before relocating to Ireland at the end of the month. We will miss them until we meet again. They will be sad to leave Sydney and us too no doubt and MaMa will miss them and Dermot very much when they leave Beijing. As for Dermot, who knows what goes on in that little head of his as he processes all the change and new experiences. I just hope some subliminal memory of his time here in Sydney will stay with him for life.
"Do More of What Makes You Happy!"
Claire and Mike’s fridge door – “Do More of What Makes You Happy!”


Sydney Restaurants Roundup

I don’t often write restaurant reviews. I’m happier writing about cooking and how the experience of food helps maintain the connection with my family scattered across three continents. But I’m writing this post on an Air China flight back to Beijing after a memorable week in which Claire and Mike pulled out the stops to create a unique taste of Sydney which would give us some sense of the range of cuisine this fantastic city has to offer and how it has been influenced by Asian and European immigrants over the years.

Writing about food is also a distraction from the inevitable sense of loss that comes with rising into the skies above Sydney and leaving behind our warm, bubbly daughter once again, content in the knowledge that she is happy in her world and has a lifestyle with Mike we could all envy but missing her, missing her, missing her.

Over the past week we have eaten in 6 very different restaurants in and around Sydney as well as having some lovely meals at home with Claire and Mike and drinking many excellent cups of coffee in the cafes of Clovelly and Bronte. The Aussies do coffee well. Making a great cup of coffee at home has plenty to do with buying excellent beans, but after that, it’s crucial to consider how you store them, that’s why coffee canister amazon can definitely extend your coffee’s shelf life and keep all of those delicate flavors and aromas ripe and fresh for another week. We shopped for groceries in the food markets at Westfield in Bondi Junction and the Asian supermarkets in Blacktown. We attended a Cookery Class at Sydney Fish Market and we got to the Taste of Sydney festival in Centennial Park. We had Asian, Italian and Modern Australian cuisine, some of it with distinct French influences.

We only scratched the surface of the food culture of the city but at least we tasted enough to appreciate the rich diversity of food styles and the quality of the fresh ingredients – seafood in varieties unfamiliar to us in the Northern Hemisphere, herbs and vegetables grown easily in this sub-tropical climate and oozing freshness, including the tallest lemon grass, coriander and spring onions I have ever encountered and lamb, beef and other meats rich in texture and flavour such as wagyu beef that pops up frequently on menus.

A word of caution – eating out in Sydney is expensive, eye-wateringly expensive – a combination of the strength of the Australian dollar, inflation which has continued while Ireland and Europe has wallowed in recession and the excellent value now on offer in Irish restaurants, meant that we noted a dramatic increase in prices for our euro compared to previous visits. Even coffees and brunches in neighbourhood cafes are now pricey.  If you can get over the idea of wine at $15 a glass, starters upwards of $15 and mains well into the $30 and $40 range, you can eat very well in Sydney and in our case it helped that Claire and Mike had a spare room for us to stay in this time so high accommodation costs were not an issue.

Here’s a whistle stop tour of where we got to:

Universal Restaurant

Republic 2 Courtyard , Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, NSW 2010, Ph: +612 9331 0709

“Food is our common ground – a universal experience” – James Beard – thus begins the menu at Universal.

I had wanted to visit Christine Manfield’s restaurant since Claire sent me her cookbook Fire – a World of Flavour for Christmas. This is a woman who understands how to play with spices and seasonings to create unique combinations and tastes. Once Christine announced that she was hanging up her chefs apron and closing Universal at the end of this coming April to concentrate on writing, travelling and the occasional pop up restaurant, it quickly became booked out and Claire did well to get us in for an early bird sitting on the evening we arrived jet-lagged from Beijing.

The restaurant is funky and fun, the staff are friendly and unfussy – our lovely waiter told us that for his next job he wants to work in a restaurant that has walls and a ceiling as this one opens onto an outdoor courtyard and, in occasional Sydney downpours, the waiters double as “mopper-uppers”.

There are no starters or main courses. Instead the menu takes the form of “tastes” – savoury, vegetarian and dessert – which you can combine to create your own mini tasting menu. Our waiter recommended that we have 3 savoury “tastes”, choosing from lighter and heavier options, and one dessert. Matching wines are also available for each dish as well as some wicked cocktails which can do serious damage to the final bill.

Universal Lamb Rump with Roasted Pumpkin

The food is intriguing and different, showing a variety of Asian and other world influences – Christine dislikes the label “fusion”. Perhaps it was jet-lag but some of the dishes worked better for me than others. Sichuan spiced duck with seared scallops, asparagus, lychee and smoked eggplant sambal was a well executed dish. Lamb rump with roasted pumpkin, spiced apple chutney, saffron rice, spiced chickpeas and smoked almonds chosen by Claire gave me a bout of food envy. On the other hand I found the roasted snapper, spanner crab, mint salsa and spiced coconut slightly overpowered by the coconut.

Rabbit pie with a difference at Universal

Christine’s signature dessert, “Gaytime goes nuts” is a tongue-in-cheek, deconstructed take on an Australian kids’ ice-cream. I’ve never had the original but I loved this version with its complex layers of honeycomb ice-cream, carmel parfait, chocolate crunch and salted hazelnut carmel.

Gaytime goes Nuts at Universal

Claire and Mike had met Christine at a class at Sydney Seafood School a few weeks earlier and so she came out to chat to us both before and after the service, a warm, engaging person who is not into celebrity or status but is passionate about her food and is very hands on in her kitchen.

She autographed copies of her most recent book for us – a Penguin Lantern Classic collection of her better known recipes – and I will have a copy as a prize on the blog when I get home. She also came back at the end of the night with a signed copy of the menu, a lovely souvenir of our first night in Sydney. Despite our early-bird booking we were allowed linger well into the evening. I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to dine at Universal before it closes and hope I encounter Christine in my travels again. Watch out for her. She has a habit of popping up in unexpected places.

Red Lantern on Crown 

545 Crown Street, Surry Hills NSW 2010Ph: +612 9698 4355

It was Kevin Hui of China Sichuan in Sandyford, Dublin who introduced me to the cookery books of Luc Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant to Australia. We went to the original Red Lantern on Crown and had the Delicious Dalat tasting menu with matching wines. This meal was definitely the food highlight of the week for me and if you are interested in Vietnamese cuisine I strongly recommend a visit if you ever get the chance. The meal is worthy of a separate post that follows.

Claire and Mike have eaten in the new Red Lantern on Riley and were equally impressed. Their review of it is here.

Spice Temple

10 Bligh St, Sydney NSW 2000, Ph: +61 2 8078 1888

A passing reference to writing a blog on Chinese food led me to this Neil Perry restaurant at Rockpool which was recommended by a colleague of Claire’s friend Leigh as a “must visit” for anyone serious about Chinese food. I was slightly dubious about a “Chinese” restaurant which was the brainchild of an Australian celebrity chef but it did not disappoint.

To start with it has the most interesting entrance to a restaurant that I’ve encountered in a long time – a door that looks like a constantly swirling curtain changing colours like a kaleidoscope. Steps lead you deep down into a basement restaurant where you lose all sense of time and a Friday lunchtime with lots of business diners could easily pass for a late weekend night. Read about Jimmy John Founder as well and know more regarding the successful sandwich joint. Tables are dark, lights are muted and the atmosphere is distinctly oriental with wonderful place settings of rice bowls and spoons in delicate colours and dark wooden chopsticks.

A doorway befitting a temple

What singles this restaurant out from other Chinese restaurants in Sydney is an emphasis on regions that are less well known outside China and very dear to me – Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, Xinjiang – with Guangxi and Jianxi thrown in for good measure. How could I resist.

On a short, lunch time visit we only had time to sample a few dishes but they were enough to convince me that this is exciting food with truly authentic flavours from those regions, presented in innovative ways.

An entree of Hot and numbing dry Wagyu beef delivered a genuine Sichuan punch and the wonderful texture of the beef had me longing to get hold of the recipe to attempt to recreate it. Stir fried cumin lamb with steamed bread pockets evoked the flavours of Xinjiang and Jiangxi and I made a mental note to ask MaMa for a recipe for these buns.

Stir fried cumin lamb with bread pockets

The highlight was Three shot chicken – a Hunan style dish slow-cooked in a clay pot and finished off by our waitress over a gas burner by dousing it in Tsingtao beer, home made chilli-oil and soy sauce and sizzling it for a few minutes. This recipe had me lusting after clay pots and gas burners and trying to understand what subtle spicing had produced such a delicate combination of fiery heat and flavour.

Spice Temple Three Shot Chicken

We had  sides of steamed rice and a simple vegetable dish of baby peas stir fried with soy beans, mustard greens and twice cooked pork belly.

Our lovely waitress was passionate and proud about the food at the restaurant which is always a good sign. This is a place I will want to return to for a longer meal. Neil Perry’s Balance & Harmony is now on my Amazon wish list.

A Tavola

348 Victoria St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Ph: +61 2 9331 7871

One evening we went with Claire and Mike to a play in a wonderful, intimate little theatre in Darlinghurst called The Griffin. Afterwards they took us for supper to A Tavola a buzzing neighbourhood Italian which is a favourite with locals.

Here Chef owner Eugenio Maiale turns out simple and authentic Italian food with excellent home made pasta. We didn’t take photos that evening but we had a number of the “consiglii”, daily specials – Paparadelle con Ragu di Manzo and Mezzelune – half-moon shaped ravioli filled with fish, washed down with some good local red wine.

This lovely, relaxed spot has a cheerful and airy atmosphere and food that would not seem out of place in the heart of Tuscany, a great place to eat in Darlinghurst.

Cottage Point Inn

2  Anderson Pl, Cottage Point NSW 2084, Ph: +61 2 9456 1011

The view from Cottage Point

Our meal here formed part of our Sydney Seaplanes tour of Sydney and its environs which I blogged last week but it is accessible by road and ferry if you are exploring the national park on the Hawkesbury river north of Sydney’s Northern beaches. It serves excellent local cuisine with mediterranean and asian influences in a gorgeous setting. you can read about our meal here.

Cottage Point Beef Tartare


Lyne Park, Rose Bay, Sydney, Ph: +61 2 9371 0555

We finished our week of culinary adventures with a long, lingering lunch at Catalina on Rose Bay overlooking a corner of Sydney Harbour and watching the seaplanes come and go.

This classy place is a long-time Sydney favourite – there has been a restaurant here since it was a terminal for flying boats – and has become Claire and Mike’s spot for special occasions such as their Christmas lunch with friends. This is Sydney food served at its freshest with the light from the bay glinting off the sparkling white table cloths and silver cultery.

Head chef Mark Axisa trained here and has been at the helm for many years. Mediterranean influences and touches of classic french cuisine are evident in a menu which features lots of delicious seafood dishes but also some excellent meat dishes. Provenance is clearly stated. Master Sushi Chef Yoshi Fuchigami produces Sushi and Sashimi for a few days each weekend and, judging by Claire’s excellent sashimi, he is on to a winner.

Catalina Sashimi

After a bellini as an aperitif, I had freshly shucked Sydney Rock Oysters  Tempura with seaweed and sesame salad and ponzu to start. My main course of Cone Bay saltwater barramundi with spanner crab parcel, sage and eschalot cream was a superbly executed dish.

Barramundi at Catalina

Starters of pork belly and mains of pan fried snapper fillet with potato and garlic mash and lemon caper butter were also given the seal of approval. But it was Claire’s turn to suffer food envy as her pan fried john dory with tarragon aioli and crushed kipfler potatoes, roast truss tomatoes and asparagus didn’t taste as exciting as it sounded.

Pork Belly starter at Catalina

With a side order of chips and plenty of Western Australian riesling, this was a delicious lunch and we weren’t rushed through our three hour sitting despite the fact that there was going to be a wedding party in the restaurant at 5 pm. We spotted a strawberry soufflé  which wasn’t on the menu being carried past us to another table and our kind waitress made our day by rustling up a few for us to finish off the meal.

Surprise strawberry soufflé at Catalina

Catalina’s was a great way to round off our too-short visit to Australia.

Relaxed end of lunch service at 4 pm at Catalina

We had a few other food-related experiences in our week in Sydney which are worth mentioning.

Sydney Seafood School

Claire and Mike discovered how good this cookery school is when they attended a masterclass with Christine Manfield a few weeks ago. We got the benefit of what they learned when they served us a delicious seafood meal at home during the week based on Christine’s recipes.

The school is attached to the Sydney Fish Market which is the hub of the seafood industry in NSW and a visitor attraction in its own right.

They brought us along to a Friday night class which, rather randomly, was on Mexican Seafood Cookery. The set up is very slick and polished – a theatre style demo area with 3 large overhead screens and each seat equipped with a side table for taking notes on your recipes for the evening, a large “hands-on” kitchen where stainless steel work stations for groups of 4 to 6 people are lavishly kitted out with everything you could possibly need for your preparations (I found myself smiling at the memory of the much less sophisticated but equally enjoyable experience of learning to cook in Chun Yi and Chao’s kitchen in Hutong Cuisine).

On the night in question we learned to make  Tacos de Camarones with various salsas and Ceviche. These were not complicated dishes but they were fun to prepare and eat and the four of us had a work station to ourselves. After you have cooked and cleaned up, you take your finished dish into the separate dining room, grabbing a bottle of wine on the way and eating at your leisure at bench tables under a gorgeous mural of Sydney bridge.

Our kingfish ceviche at Sydney Seafood School

I was struck by the number of tourists taking part. What a clever idea of the fish market to use the school to showcase their produce and encourage visitors to visit and learn. It is also a good value way of having a pleasant meal out, cooked by yourself for around $80 per person. I could happily wander the world attending cookery courses in different cuisines as a way of getting under the skin of the local food scene.

And our hosts for the evening (week) were Claire & Mike, what a team!

Taste of Sydney

We also got to the Taste of Sydney Festival in Centennial Park the day after we arrived. This follows the same model as Taste of Dublin and is a fun way of getting a feel for the food scene in the city as it showcases restaurants, chefs and food producers with demonstrations and tasting plates  It helped that we  attended on a glorious Sunday afternoon and we were glad of the shade of the Pimms tent by the end of the evening.

While there, we got to sample bites from a few of the restaurants we were not going to have time to visit including:

Roast Murray Valley Pork Salad from Longrain:

Roast pork salad at Longrain, Taste of Sydney

BBQ Prawn skewers from Peter Kuruvita:

Peter Kuruvita’s staff making us feel at home on St. Patrick’s Day

Duck with snow pea sprouts, green mango and chilli jam from Three Blue Ducks in Bronte:

Three Blue Ducks

We couldnt get near Popolo because the queues were out the door for this popular Sydney italian. We had a nice chilled afternoon in the sunshine and a great cure for jet lag.

Spot the granny hiding behind the gorgeous girls 🙂

And finally, no trip to Sydney would be complete without at least one weekend brunch near the sea. We finished off our lovely week with Sunday morning scrambled eggs in various guises and mugs of skinny flat white coffee at Claire and Mike’s local Green Mango cafe before having a final swim in Clovelly Bay. Ah yes, there are harder ways to live a life… what’s not to like? Distance…

Green Mango, Clovelly

Thank you Claire and Mike for a lovely and very special week. We miss you guys xxx

The patient art of Chinese cooking – Shananigans Chez Bloor

When we were in Beijing last week we attended two stir-fry/ wok classes at Hutong Cuisine, apart from the noodle and dumpling classes I wrote about recently. While the format of these standard morning classes is broadly similar, the content varies daily. You learn 3 to 4 dishes, in each session – say 3 Canton and 1 Sichuan or 3 Sichuan and 1 Canton. We were really lucky and had the classes to ourselves on both occasions because other groups had booked in for separate private sessions which is also an option.
You start by prepping all the ingredients while Chun Yi or Chao explain the dishes and ingredients and teach you knife skills. After a few classes, I could feel myself getting more proficient and comfortable with the cleaver and marveling at its precision. Once all the preparation is out of the way, your chef demonstrates, cooking each dish in turn, and you follow by cooking it yourself under his or her watchful eye. And then you get to eat the results for lunch.  In the process you learn about balancing dishes in a Chinese meal and practical ways of preparing and serving several dishes at one meal – hot and cold, slower and faster cooked.
When your chef lines up the results, you quickly discover what a difference the heat of your wok, the fineness of your cutting or the pounding of your chilli paste can make to the finished result.
For the Sichuan class we learned from Chao:

  • How to make home-made chilli oil –  la jiao – I will be making a batch of this as soon as I get home and never again will I be using shop-bought stuff;
  • Sichuan spicy chicken salad – la wei ji si – reminiscent of bang bang chicken, a cold dish, perfect to accompany other hot dishes, drizzled with the chilli oil;
  • Braised tofu with broadbean chilli paste – jia chang doufu – a simpler, home-style version of the more famous mapo doufu. I’ve become a big fan of tofu on this trip and now I also know how to tell when it’s fresh;
  • Steamed prawn with minced garlic – suan rhong zheng xia – a Cantonese dish this and one of Chao’s favourites, delicious to look at and eat;
  • Stir-fried seasonal vegetables, made with spinach in our case, so simple Chao refused to write down the recipe, forcing us to learn to cook with our instincts and eyes.

Serving our own lunch at Hutong Cuisine

In the Cantonese lesson we learned:

  • Braised pork rib with soy sauce and sugar – hong shao rou– simple to make and as delicious as more complex twice-cooked pork dishes;
  • Black pepper beef – hei jiao niu liu – less spicy than my Sichuan and Hunan versions;
  • Stir fried lettuce with garlic and soy sauce – suan rong sheng cai – we used a type of iceberg lettuce for this and also made a version with oyster sauce; I preferred the garlic version;
  • And finally for the day my old favourite, fish-fragrant aubergine – yu xiang qie zi – made with a paste of pickled chillies that gives the dish a gorgeous red coloured oil if you get it right.

Chef’s had the best colour

I learned so much about Chinese cooking in just 5 days and the biggest lesson was about the importance of patience and gentleness in the approach – take your time with your dough, wait that little bit extra for it to rise, be precise in cutting your ingredients, don’t fling your ingredients into or around your wok (or, er up the wall of the kitchen), observe, take note, use all your senses to judge when the oil is hot enough, the paste smooth enough, the underside of the tofu cooked, go lightly when adding seasonings, taste and adjust.
Oh and never waste – food is precious and every ingredients and left-over scrap has its use. Treat food with respect.
For 270 rmb (or about €33) these morning classes are fantastic value and a great introduction to Chinese cooking whether you are a novice or a wannabe expert. It’s also a wonderful way to spend a chilly spring morning absorbed in the atmosphere of a hutong in Beijing.

Here in Sydney this week, it was time to attempt to put what I had learnt into practice. Claire and Mike and their friends have been teasing me about my new found blogger and Chinese food “expert” status so they put it up to me to cook up a Chinese feast in their new home in Clovelly. Tongue firmly in cheek, I put together the menu below.
I set to work, shopping for Chinese ingredients and utensils in the well-stocked Asian market near where Claire works in Blacktown and availed of the fabulous fish, meat and vegetables easily found in this semi-tropical climate. I’ve never seen longer spring onions in my life!
A long evening of dicing, slicing and cooking followed and, over the course of many hours, seven hungry and adventurous diners became increasingly less hungry until they were almost groaning at the sight of another dish.
This was my first time to attempt to produce a Chinese meal on this scale and as a result I can add to the list of lessons I’ve learned (the hard way):
Rule 1: Don’t over-cater – limit the total number of dishes and the portion size. A dish for each diner, plus one is sufficient and each portion size should be roughly one decent sized single serving – I fell into the trap of preparing each dish as if it was to serve four or five people – much too much food.

Spicy chicken salad with a drizzle of homemade chilli oil

Rule 2: Pay attention to the order in which you serve dishes. I made the very obvious mistake of cooking in the order that was convenient for me, the chef, rather than what made sense for the diners. So I served the gorgeous, expensive fish dish last when my diners were too stuffed to fully appreciate it. The order in the menu above is how I should have sequenced the dishes but I could have omitted the tofu and “earth three fresh” dishes and substituted, at most, a simple stir-fried vegetable.
Nick and Mike look dubious about the fish!

Rule 3: Think carefully about the nature of the dishes you are serving – I made the error of having three that involved deep-frying in the wok and, in the case of “earth, three, fresh”, separately cooking potatoes, aubergines and bell peppers. That, coupled with large portion sizes which meant I had to do 2 separate batches of beef for instance, really slowed me down. And the braised tofu required an extra 10 minutes cooking time which I had forgotten about. There was far too much work involved and it eliminated any prospect of me sitting down with the rest of the guests. On the other hand the cold chicken dish, steamed prawns and braised pork (which required an hour and a half slow cooking) could be prepared well in advance and were really delicious. Those dishes, combined with a few simpler stir-fries would have given me a lot more time with our guests.
Steamed prawns looking good!

Rule 4: Remember all the other rules I learned in cookery classes in Beijing – patience, precision, careful preparation – when a recipe says “plunge the mushrooms into boiling water for 10 seconds”, it means that and not 60 seconds while you flaff around the kitchen looking for the strainer which you’ve put down… somewhere… that’s a recipe for soggy mushrooms 🙂
Rule 5: Get to know your cooker and wok so that you can control the heat accurately. This comes with practice and the cheap wok from the Asian supermarket conducts heat much better with Claire’s gas hob than the heavier one I’m used to using on an induction hob at home.
Rule 6: Remember cooking Chinese food should always be fun so keep your sense of humour and don’t lose your cool, even when you tip the contents of a wok over the kitchen floor mid-service… I didn’t (lose my cool that is…)
Sous chef to the rescue!

All that being said, our diners were gracious enough to say they enjoyed the meal but then they might just have been extra nice to someone who is now a dab hand with a cleaver! It was great fun, lots learnt and I will do an even better job for them the next time I’m in Sydney. And I will post the most successful of the recipes, including the fantastic home made chilli oil when I get back.
PS Nai Nai moment coming up…
I will find it very hard to leave Claire and Mike and Sydney and the glorious weather behind on Sunday but there is the small matter of getting back to this little man in Beijing…
“Wait…. I’ve got an idea…”


Sydney Seaplanes Lunch at Cottage Point Inn

There’s something very evocative about flying boats and sea planes. I have been fascinated by them since I visited the Flying Boat Museum in Foynes, Co. Limerick which recalls the nostalgic era from 1937 to 1945 where Foynes, on the Shannon estuary on the western coast of Ireland, briefly became the centre of the aviation world. That delightful museum is housed in the original terminal building of Foynes airport and features a full size replica of the B314 flying boat which transported the first adventurous transatlantic passengers. If you get a chance pay it a visit.
Rose Bay in Sydney Harbour was also pivotal in the aviation world in that era when a first class mail service was delivered to the “colonies” by flying boat. It still holds its airport licence and is now the home of Sydney Seaplanes.

How many miles from Rose Bay NSW?

As we have too little time for side-trips outside Sydney on this short visit to Australia, it was Claire who suggested we take a once-in-a lifetime trip  and fly to lunch at Cottage Point Inn on the Hawkesbury River in the heart of the National Park north of Sydney.
Our plane for the day was a “Cambria” VH-NOO DHC-2 Beaver named after a classic Empire Flying Boat. de Havilland in Canada started producing these single-engine monoplanes after World War II and their construction was placed in the top 10 most influential Canadian developments in history.
Boarding time

Our pilot Andy, who was born in Alaska and lived in Oregon most of his life, explained that the one we were travelling in was built in 1961 and has been used in the Bolivian airforce and as a crop-duster among other things before becoming part of the Sydney Seaplanes fleet. These hard-working planes go on and on and are completely manual in operation.
At 11.30 am six of us passengers set off with Andy, sweeping over the glorious beaches and pristine seas north of Sydney and in over the bush to land at Cottage Point Inn.
Northern beaches

Landing on the Hawkesbury River

Cottage Point Inn

There we had a relaxed lunch of delicious fresh food made with local ingredients. Subtle Asian influences were obvious in the menu which included Rangers Valley Beef Tartare with Quail Egg Yolk and Pan Seared Scallops with Fluid Almond Gel as starters and Steamed Barramundi Fillet and Tasmanian Atlantic Salmon as mains. Denmark Riesling from Western Australia was a good choice to accompany the meal – bone dry but with lots of floral notes – at least that’s how the owner described it. 🙂
Ranger Valley Beef Tartare

Pan Seared Scallops

A highlight of a meal of highlights was the plum soufflé served at the end of the long and leisurely meal.
Plum soufflé

The view from Cottage Point Inn

At 3 pm we left the peaceful river side and flew back to Rose Bay in a long sweeping arc over Sydney Harbour. This truly must be one of the most beautiful harbours in the world and the most special way to see it. You begin to appreciate the expanse of water, the beaches stretching away north and south, the bush lands never far away from the modern city centre and the way in which the plain on which the city sits nestles in the arms of the Blue Mountains. And then of course there is the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, both beautiful from any perspective but especially from a low-flying aircraft.
Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House

A fascinating angle on Sydney Harbour

Verdict: This was a special trip and definitely a once-in-a lifetime experience, both because it is very expensive and because the memories of that unique perspective on Sydney and its environs are powerful enough to last a life time. Lunch is included in the price but drinks are not and they are pricey at $15 for a glass of wine. It would be nice to have a little time to explore the immediate area around the Inn but the leisurely lunch service did not allow for that.
All, in all a great day out and worth saving up for if you are ever planning a holiday Sydney.
I’m not surprised that Sydney Seaplanes won the 2009 Australian Tourism Award for best Tour/ Transport Operator.
For a much larger selections of photos from the day see the gallery below.
Thank you Andy and Sydney Seaplanes.

Sydney Seaplanes –


Stir-fried Honey Sesame Beef

Listen up friends you are going to LOVE this recipe.
When I first visited Australia in the mid-1990s, long before I knew I would have a daughter living there, I was blown away by what was being described then as “fusion cooking”. I felt as if  I had discovered a big secret – that Australian cuisine could be sublime – a combination of wonderful fresh ingredients, the best of fish, meat, fresh fruit and vegetables and subtle Asian influences in the flavourings. There was something really exciting going on and I thought the world should know more about it but, at that stage, my own knowledge of good food was limited and my experience of cooking it even slighter.
This Christmas Claire sent me a book from Sydney as a surprise. It is called Fire – A World of Flavour by Christine Manfield and features recipes from Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Bali, Sri Lanka, Mexico, France, Italy, the Middle East… 20 locations in all.
Claire came across the book in a bookshop in Sydney some time ago but couldn’t remember the name of it. Then she stumbled on a copy in a “home stay” on the central coast where she and Mike were spending a weekend about 6 weeks ago and knew I would love it.


Christine Manfield is an Australian chef, author, food writer and traveller and has built her reputation through three restaurants – Paramount in Sydney from 1993 to 2000, East@West in Covent Garden, London from 2003 to 2005 and now back in Sydney where Universal Restaurant opened in August 2007. She appeared as a guest chef on Australian MasterChef 2012 and her signature icecream dessert “Gaytime” featured in the finale.
Beautifully bound and illustrated, Fire is a travel guide as well as a cook book. It includes suggestions on where to stay, visit and eat in all the places from which Christine has drawn inspiration for her recipes. I have already identified a few new restaurants to try in Beijing that Shane hasn’t eaten in yet and of course we hope to go to Universal Restaurant the next time we visit Claire in Sydney.

Her  philosophy is to prepare food “that crosses cultural boundaries with confidence without being labelled ‘fusion’ and parallels… a culinary freestyle that has enriched our food culture and given it maturity and world renown.” She says in her introduction to Fire: “the sharing of food knows no political boundaries; it is a reminder of remarkable places visited, with tastes that transport me immediately to any given place. It’s as if I can taste the character and essence of a place through its food.” That expresses perfectly my own love of food and travel.
I’ve adopted a rule of thumb that, when I find a new cook book, I will include a few recipes from it in the blog, sometimes with a few tweaks of my own, to give you a taste of what is on offer and in the hope that it will encourage you to get hold of the book yourselves. I’ve chosen two of Christine’s Chinese-inspired recipes to try – this stir-fried honey sesame beef and a one-pot chicken rice, the stock for which is simmering on the stove as I write.
The beef dish below just about sums up the way food can bridge the divide between 3 continents – a Chinese-inspired dish, created by an Australian woman, once a firm favourite in her London restaurant, re-created by me on the night of a full-moon in Duncannon in the south east corner of Ireland and, as soon as I tasted it, I was plunged back into a taste memory of a meal I shared with Shane and Shan in Beijing. Such is the power of food to transport you to another place and time.

Last full moon of 2012, Duncannon Ireland

Sometimes the discovery of a new recipe excites me. This dish is one that made me need to start writing at midnight. It has “umami” in abundance with its evocative flavours and is simple to prepare. Christine used beef tenderloin fillet and 3 bird’s eye chillies and added watercress sprigs to garnish. I used the cheaper bavette cut of beef which I find so flavourful and the slightly milder Chinese red chillies. I picked up my beef yesterday from Fintan at Dunnes of Donnybrook in Dublin, Craft Butcher of the Year 2012.
Stir-fried honey sesame beef
Stir-fried Honey Sesame Beef

Serves 3 – 4
Continue reading Stir-fried Honey Sesame Beef

Unveiling the Secrets of the Red Lantern

When I was discussing Asian food with Kevin Hui, owner of the China Sichuan recently, he mentioned his interest in Vietnamese food and his belief that it will grow in popularity in Ireland in the coming years. He introduced me to the writings of Luke Nguyen and lent me his book Indochine which documents the profound effect of the French on Vietnamese cuisine. He told me a little of Luke’s fascinating personal journey from being born in a Thai refugee camp, after his family fled Vietnam as boat people, to becoming chef and owner of the award-winning Sydney Vietnamese restaurant, The Red Lantern.
I’ve ordered the book Luke co-authored with his sister Pauline Nguyen, Secrets of the Red Lantern, from Amazon, so that I can get some sense of how Vietnamese food differs from Chinese.  I look forward to trying out some of his recipes starting with this one which, in yet another coincidence, @Pat_Whelan passed my way recently. These Red Lantern Crisp Parcels – Cha Gio – are another take on spring rolls and different in filling and dipping sauce to the recipe I used earlier today.
But first I wanted to hear first hand what his food is like.
So, after whetting my daughter Claire’s appetite with a sumptuous Chinese meal at the China Sichuan when she was home in Dublin for a few days recently, I despatched her and Mike for dinner at The Red Lantern, on one condition – that they would review it for me (I love this delegation lark). I will let her take up the story from there.
“Review of Red Lantern on Riley
No AA Gill, my review can be summed up in one word, YUMMY!
I was thrilled when Mum (Shananigans blogger, social media guru and slighted obsessed Chinese cooking nut!) asked if she might send myself and my husband Mike off to the Red Lantern so that I could review it for her blog. It ended up being our 2nd Anniversary celebatory dinner following a trip home to the UK and Ireland, where incidentally I ate more Chinese food than on my trip to Beijing in June!
First up I must confess that I booked us into the wrong place. I had thought that we were going to the original Red Lantern on Crown St but we were actually eating in the 4 month old new addition to the the Nguyen clan food empire on Reilly St. The restaurant is the brainchild of TV chef Luke Nguyen, his sister Pauline, brother-in-law and chef Mark Jensen and partner Suzanna Boyd.
My initial disappointment at my mistake was quickly dashed on arriving at the restaurant, cozy and dark with red wallpaper and obvious Saigon influences in the furnishing. Tables are close together but not on top of each other. My husband does not enjoy it when you are sitting on the knee of the person next to you so he was suitably pleased. Best of all the kitchen is glass fronted so you can see the chefs working away and the dance of an Asian kitchen in full flow.
The staff are great and put my inner waitress at ease immediately. They are the right mixture of bubbly, knowledgeable and engaged. They got us started with a cocktail from Red Lilly the funky cocktail bar at the restaurant. Mike had a whiskey sour which he enjoyed and I had a Halong Breeze, yum, I’m a sucker for anything with passion fruit and vodka!

Life’s a (Halong) breeze in Sydney

We decided to have the 5 course tasting menu plus wines (thanks Julie and Derry) called ‘Delicious Dalat’ at $135 with matching wine.
The first course was Goi Cha Cuon, soft rice paper rolled with pork and duck terrine, vermicelli, cabbage and pickled carrot and Muc Rang Muoi lightly battered chili salted squid with fresh lemon and white pepper dipping sauce. In Vietnam we took part in a Vietnamese cooking class in Hoi An and I can tell you the Red Lantern’s rice paper rolls were a lot better than my attempt! Both the rolls and the chili squid were very tasty and a great start to the meal. Continue reading Unveiling the Secrets of the Red Lantern

Connecting Ireland, China and Oz through food

Two of my great passions in life are travel and food.
I love to visit new places and to get authentic experiences a bit off the beaten track – more as a traveller than a tourist. Italy is my first love but my son Shane married in Beijing to his lovely Chinese wife Shan and my daughter Claire married to her “hot” (her words) Welshman Mike and living in Sydney have got me to places I never expected to visit in my lifetime, let alone return to again and again.
Shananigans was born out of a recent visit to China as I attempted to share a flavour of that roller-coaster experience in tweets and photos. By the end of the trip 140 characters no longer seemed enough to capture the small glimpse I got of that extraordinary country as it assaulted my senses and I came to terms with the way it and its people are set to get tangled up in our lives.
More than anything the visit opened my eyes to the treasures and variety of Chinese regional cuisine. I thought I had some understanding of their food from visiting Chinese restaurants here in Ireland and trying to cook it over the years but I really had no idea how rich and varied it could be and how healthy and fresh-tasting. During our 3 weeks in China I set my daughter-in-law to be Shan the challenge of finding us a different regional cuisine each night we were in Beijing. While we were in her hometown of Urumqi in Xinjiang province we got a real sense of their provincial cuisine. I handed over complete control to her allowing her to choose the number and types of dishes using her own instincts for what constituted a balanced meal. As a result every meal was a surprise and every meal worked.
By the end of the holiday I had completely rebalanced my diet – with far more and a wider variety of fresh vegetables and fruit, relatively smaller quantities of meat, fish and tofu, modest amounts of rice or noodles and virtually no processed sweets or desserts. The holiday seemed to involve almost non-stop eating in large quantities and yet I lost weight and came back feeling healthier and fitter than I had for some time.
Since I arrived back I’ve been missing the food – the spiciness, the colour, the range of different dishes in a meal, the sociability of communal eating, the chopsticks…. And so the Shananigans will continue. For starters I’ve asked Shan to teach me long-distance how to cook the Chinese way – a kind of on-line tutorial using iPhone and iPad to help source ingredients and re-create, in an authentic way, some of the dishes I enjoyed so much using the best Irish ingredients I can find. My plan is to intersperse the Chinese the blogs about food and cooking with other tales and photos of travel in China, Italy and beyond.
I hope you will join me on my journey, no doubt with many mishaps along the way and with a glorious sense that I’ve no idea where this journey will take me. So here goes with a very simple start….
Fried Green Beans