Monday, January 5, 2009

Week 1: Australia

Of all the places I have traveled to, Australia is the one country I actually spent a decent amount of time visiting. Australia is a large and diverse country, and three months wasn't long enough to see everything, but what I saw, I loved.

This was my "escape from reality" trip. It was 2004, and I had just graduated from University and felt that this would be my only opportunity to taste freedom, before being chained to a desk for the next 50 years. I got a student work visa and an Around the World ticket -with plans to stop in Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan- and left with a big backpack and a sense of adventure.

Arriving in Australia, I was immediately struck by how laid back and matter-of-fact the Aussie's were. On my second day in Sydney, I couldn't figure out how to use the pay phone, and I asked the guy at the front desk of my hostel to help me out. He said something along the lines of "I'm gonna make you feel like a right idiot when I explain this to you". Coming from the land of PC (politically correct), it initially comes off as rude and insultive, but you quickly warm to it (how do you stay mad at someone who calls you mate?), and it is almost liberating to be able to really speak your mind.

My first week I stayed with a really nice family who were friends of my Aunt, in Blue Mountains located about an hour from Sydney. Blue Mountains is a beautiful place, and named after the blue tinge it takes on when viewed from a distance. It's a great place for hiking and enjoying the outdoors.

That first week I sampled kangaroo steak (best served medium rare), battered and fried salty pineapple, Vegemite, and a burger at Hungry Jack's (the Australian version of Burger King). The burgers are not anything different from back home, but the condiments make it special, and you may need to take a double dose of lipitor with this. If you get it "with the lot", it includes tomato, lettuce, cheese, beetroot, fried egg, bacon, grilled onion and pineapple.

The first time I ate Vegemite on toast, I am sure my face probably puckered a bit. It was incredibly salty and bitter, I learned quickly this is one spread where a little goes a long way. But when eaten thinly spread on toast and topped with scrambled eggs, it made for a pretty good breakfast.

The must try food in my opinion includes Vegemite (dark salty spread made from leftover brewers yeast), Tim Tams (cookies), meat pies, kangaroo, Milo (malt chocolate drink), anything on the barbie (BBQ) and of wash it all down with a nice glass of Australian wine.

After a week in Sydney, I flew to Alice Springs, which is in central Australia. From Alice springs, I took a three tour of Ayers rock (Uluru), where I hiked in Kata Tjuta National Park , and slept out under the stars on the desert floor. It was the end of winter in Australia, and I was freezing at night time, which made sleeping difficult. I was also slightly paranoid of snakes making their way into my sleeping bag, so I took plenty of Australian sleeping aids i.e. cheap wine, before going to sleep.

After "roughing it" in the desert, I flew to Cairns on the east coast. The start of the Great Barrier Reef. I got my PADI certification and enjoyed three glorious days of nothing but diving, eating, and sleeping on a dive boat.

My diving excursion pretty much bankrupted me, so I needed to find employment. Which for a backpacker is really easy, as long as you are willing to work hard and get dirty. Farmers are always looking for laborers, so I headed to Bowen in Queensland to begin my tomato picking career. Which was very short lived, I might add.

Tomato picking is back breaking,monotonous,energy sapping work. You wake up at 5:30 am, out on the tomato fields by 6:30 am, and you pick until 5pm. 6 days a week. There are no washroom facilities, the fields are your toilet (another reason to wash your veggies, if for no other reason than this)and lunch break is spent lying under the truck, trying to get a respite from the hot brutal sun. Three weeks felt like a lifetime, but it earned me enough money to live another month without working.

Australia is a wonderful place to visit. The food is great, but familiar with a lot of British influence (obviously). The people are laid back and friendly, the climate is nice, and the nature is diverse, abundant and breath taking.

My in-laws will be going to Australia and New Zealand in March, and what better time to introduce them to a bit of the food. I made them burgers on the grill, accompanied by the fixings "for the lot", an Australian potato salad, and for desert some sweet dumplings. Served with a cheap but good bottle of Yellow Tail Riesling.

Potato Salad, Australian Style
Source:In Mamma's Kitchen

6 large potatoes
1 onion, chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped click for note
1 teaspoon deli-style mustard click for note
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 hard-boiled eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Gently boil scrubbed potatoes until a skewer will penetrate to the center. Turn off heat, pour off water and fill pot with cold water. Leave until potatoes are quite cold. Lift from water and peel off outer skin.

Chop potatoes into even sized cubes and place into a bowl with onion, parsley and coriander.

Mix together mustard and mayonnaise. Add to potatoes with chopped eggs, and mix gently to combine.
Refrigerate until served.

Golden Syrup Dumplings
Source: In Mamas Kitchen

1 cup of self-raising flour (or add two teaspoons of baking powder to flour)
1 egg
1 Tablespoon of butter
1 Tablespoon of milk

1 cup of water
1/2 cup of sugar
2 Tablespoons of honey
1 Tablespoon of butter


Sift flour into a bowl. and rub in the butter until it is like breadcrumbs. Beat the egg and milk together, and carefully mix with the flour to make a soft dough. Do not over-mix as this will make the dumplings tough.

Place the water, sugar, butter and golden syrup into a large saucepan and bring to the boil.

Drop in teaspoonfuls of the dough, cover with a lid and simmer over a moderate heat for about 12 minutes or so until cooked. Remove from the heat and serve with warm runny custard or ice-cream.

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