tofu laap (or laab, larb, larp, etc.)

Twice a year a group of government officials from Southeast Asia come to Wellington to study English for about 3 months with an NZAID/VUW scholarship.  I have gotten involved in the programme as a “conversation buddy” to several students.  I really enjoy meeting all the students, but of course, I have a special place in my heart for the ones from Laos!

The programme administrator normally organises about 4 or 5 different functions during each study term for the students and their conversation buddies.  This includes 2 potluck dinners.  The most recent potluck I attended I brought a large container of tofu laap and sticky rice.  They were both gone within minutes. The Lao people were amazed and surprised that I had made the laap.  Several of them said to me “You made this?!  I thought it was a Lao person!”.

Most of the Lao people had never had tofu laap before.  Usually laap is made with pork, chicken, or fish.  Sometimes it’s made with raw water buffalo meat.  However, some restaurants in Vientiane, mostly catering to tourists, do have tofu laap on their menus.   So, that is where my inspiration for this dish came.

You need:

  • 2 blocks of firm tofu
  • 4 tbs of oil
  • 2 tbs of fish sauce
  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro/coriander
  • 2 cups fresh mint leaves
  • 1 stalk of lemongrass, minced
  • 3 cms of ginger, grated
  • 1 fresh Thai chili, minced
  • 1 tbs sticky rice powder
  • the juice of 1 lemon

Cut up your tofu into very small cubes, about 1 or 2 cms in length.  Heat your 4 tbs of oil and then gently fry the tofu.  You want to cook it only lightly.  Then, set it aside to cool.

Coarsely chop up your herbs, and mix them together with your fish sauce, lemon juice, chili, sticky rice powder, and ginger.  Add the tofu and toss gently.  Taste it and adjust the seasonings, adding more lemon juice,or fish sauce if needed. Serve right away or the herbs will start to wilt.

This dish is excellent with sticky rice, and should be served at room temperature.

Autumn in New Zealand’s South Island

After living in Wellington for over a year, I had left this town exactly 3 times – once to go back to North America, once to go to Auckland for 2 days, and once to go to Paraparaumu for an afternoon (a town about 1 hour away by train).  I also went to my supervisor’s house in the Hutt valley once or twice, but I wouldn’t exactly say that’s getting out of town (though the Hutt river and views of Wellington Harbour from Petone are quite lovely).

So, when my mom decided to come visit, and I decided to officially take a post-proposal holiday, I didn’t actually consult her before planning our foray into New Zealand’s South Island.  I spoke to a number of kiwis for advice on where to travel in New Zealand, and independently they all unanimously suggested 3 places – the South Island’s West Coast, Central Otago/Arrowtown, and Fjordland.  Such consensus would be unlikely if asking an American “What are the best places to visit in the USA?”.  So, I planned a week of ferries, buses, boats and planes, and we did a full-circle tour of the lovely and wild South Island the 2nd week in May.

May is the perfect time to visit the South Island of New Zealand.  The majestic and magnificent Southern Alps boasted a fresh sprinkling of the season’s first snow.  The tourist hoards of high season (December – April) had vanished, and the weather was mild and surprisingly dry.  This is New Zealand, not new England, and the native flora is generally evergreen, so don’t expect fulgent autumnal colours.   In fact, if you do see yellow and red leaves falling from a tree (like the poplars lining the hills around Arrowtown), you can bet they are an introduced species.  However, the South Pacific climate has produced some extremely unique ecosystems and stunning scenery.  This country is the size of the UK, but has 1/10th the population.  That means there are lots of wide open, rugged, wild places.  And lots of sheep.

The first day we left Wellington at some ungodly hour and were waiting for the number 11 bus in Newtown before the sun was even properly up.  We got off the bus at the railway station, and walked over to the BlueBridge ferry terminal, where we boarded a gigantic vessel that had formerly carried passengers around the islands of Denmark or Finland.  The boat still bore signs in a language that used the “Ø” character.

The ferry that crosses the Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton takes about 3 hours.  The Cook Strait is known for its rough seas and wild weather.  On the day we took it, it was cold, and raining, but according to a fellow passenger who regularly took the ferry, it was “a very calm crossing”.  We encountered 3 meter swells which made me and mum a little queasy, but no seasickness!  However, the BlueBridge staff do provide seasickness bags in case you make the crossing on a particularly rough day.  Warning – never ever go out drinking the night before you are going to take the ferry.  This is not the kind of trip you want to make hungover.

Here are some pictures mom & I took on the ferry:

The brave antarctic explorer

The trip takes so long, even though the distance is not great, because the ferry has to navigate the Marlborough Sounds on the North end of the South Island.

This is a beautiful area, parts of which make up the Abel Tasman national park, and from what I hear, also very well worth visiting.

After arriving in Picton, we hopped on a bus to Nelson, about 2 hours away.

The sun shines briefly in Nelson

Nelson is a cute town and we would have liked to have stayed longer than one night, but unfortunately the bus schedules were against us, so after one evening in Nelson, we boarded a bus to Franz Josef Glacier.

This bus took us all along the West Coast of the South Island, and it is truly wild and beautiful.  The waves from the Southern Ocean pound against the rocky beaches and miles go by without a sign of civilization.  Rainforest covered mountains on one side meet the wild ocean on the other side, in one of the rainiest places in the world.  The area around Franz Josef gets 5 meters or rain a year, as clouds collect moisture over the ocean, are blown East, and hit the Southern Alps, releasing their rain on the coastal forests.

Our bus stopped at Pancake Rocks and gave us some time to take pictures in the rain.

After the stop we continued on to Franz Josef village, arriving just before sunset, and checked into the YHA before heading out for a romantic Mother’s day dinner.   The food was unimpressive and overpriced, but the company was excellent.

The following morning was rainy and wet, but the sun came out for a brief second and we decided to take the next shuttle to the face of the glacier while the weather looked promising.  Upon arriving at the glacier car park, it started pouring rain again, but, about 100 meters into our walk, the sun actually came out, and a sparkling blue sky appeared over the glacier.

This is before the sun properly cleared away the fog around the glacier.

I could write an entire post about glacier moraines and how the nevé forms blue ice… but I won’t.  I’ll just say the Franz Josef glacier is pretty spectacular, and one of the few places in the world you can get up close to a glacier and even go tramping around on it (if you can afford it!).

About 1 hour later, it promptly started raining again.

We spent another night in Franz Josef, and visited the glacier hot pools, which were very nice, though pretty expensive.  I splurged for it as I felt the lady who gave birth to me 31 years ago deserved a Mother’s day treat.

We headed to Queenstown from Franz Josef the following day.

This route took us through the Haast pass, which was also lovely.  There were beautiful mountains on every side, pristine kettle lakes (formed by glaciers) every few miles, and lots of cute little lambs and cows frolicking around. The road into Queenstown is winding and slow, but presents spectacular views.

We arrived just in time to stop at the Salvation Army and do a bit of browsing before we headed to our hostel by the lake to relax and prepare some kind of meal.  The following morning we were up at 6 to meet the bus that would take us to Milford Sound, leaving town at 6:45 am in complete darkness.

We pulled out of the Queenstown just as the sun was rising over the Remarkables, turning the clouds into golden strawberry cotton candy!

The bus passed through Te Anau and stopped at Mirror Lake, before arriving at Milford Sound.  We had a 90 minute cruise on the sound, before heading back to Queenstown and finally arriving at around 7 pm, a very long day.

However, well worth it, as the sound was lovely, and we got to see some cute little seals!

Milford Sound

seals amongst the rocksSo, after an exhausting 13 hour day trip to Milford Sound, we arrived back in Queenstown under the cover of darkness, and promptly went to sleep.  We may have eaten something beforehand but I can’t remember where or what.

The following day was literally our first “take it easy” day since the start of the trip – no early morning start, no buses to catch.  But, I didn’t get much of a lie-in as mom woke me up at 7 am demanding coffee and breakfast.  I tried to make some oatmeal, but due to the ambiguity of the dials on the stove, ended up burning it so badly I think I ruined the backpacker’s pot (Sorry!)  I did try to clean it, but it was no use.  I left it on the bench to “soak”, but when I came back a few hours later it had mysteriously disappeared.  Anyway, my second batch of oatmeal with dried apricots and a bit of milk & sugar turned out lovely and we relaxed in front of the backpacker’s giant window looking out over Lake Wakatipu.  Then we headed out to visit the Queenstown Salvation Army, in the midst of a 1/2 off sale.  I thought I took a long time in 2nd hand shops, judging by Ticker’s complaints, but whoa, my mom really takes the cake.  Approximately 4 hours after entering the tiny shop we finally left, mom having scored a number of really fantastic Merino jerseys, and me with a nice black Merino turtle-neck that only strangles me slightly.

After our shopping trip we rode the gondola up to the top of a mountain beside Queenstown.  It was spectacularly sunny and beautiful.

By then, we had had enough of Queenstown’s “party!” atmosphere and the onslaught of bungie jumping/hang gliding/jet boating/other extreme sport advertising, as I think most of the blog audience knows how I feel about extreme sports.  We decided, upon excellent advice, to head to Arrowtown for the remainer or our trip.

Arrowtown is only a 30 minute bus ride from Queenstown but feels like a million miles away.  It’s quiet and cute, in a middle of lovely hills planted with poplars turning yellow and gold in the autumnal air, with the Arrow River running alongside the 2 street downtown.

It’s full of amazing restaurants & bars, an awesome movie theatre, and a wonderful museum of the Lakes district.  I highly recommend skipping Queenstown entirely and spending your holiday in Arrowton.  There is a very reasonable priced backpackers right in the centre of town with a great kitchen and homey atmosphere.  This was by far my mom’s favourite place we visited and stayed; possibly mine as well.

During those 2 days we panned for gold in the Arrow River (but didn’t strike it rich unfortunately), went on a few lovely walks, visiting the museum, and discovered Provisions – the most delicious sticky buns I have ever tasted, mushrooms on toast, and eggs benedict.  DAMN!  Their food is good.

After our delightful two days in Arrowtown we got on a bus to the Queenstown airport, and in a plane that took us to Christchurch and then Wellington, and safely home.  Mom had 2 more days in Wellington and then flew back to Chicago and the springtime.  I miss her already, but know she’ll be back soon…

I took over 700 photos during the trip, but have selected about 200 that I posted on Picasa.

Mexican in Wellington

Yesterday Ticker and I went to the newly opened Mexican restaurant in Miramar, “La Boca Loca Tacqueria”.  After reading a review on the Wellingtonista, we were really excited to try the food there.

Well, boy were we disappointed.  It seems like they had taken real Mexican food, and tamed it down to suit the Kiwi masses.  While they do provide food that is a bit more authentic than places like “Arizona” (don’t even bother) and “The Flying Burritos Brothers”, and “Sweet Mother’s Kitchen”, so far, the only place we have found serving decent Mexican food is The Taqueria in the Left Bank, off Cuba Street

Our meal cost us over $40, for (not bad homemade) tortilla chips, (not exciting) guacamole ($8.50), tortilla soup (with burned bits of tortilla) ($7 x 2), slow roasted pork tacos ($9.50), chicken enchiladas ($10).

Both the mains were very disappointing, and I could make better guacamole in my sleep.  The enchiladas were under seasoned, not even remotely spicy, despite claiming the “smoked ancho chili” sauce, and “pobalano chicken”.  The whole thing was mushy, under salted, bland, and not worth $10.

Ticker’s slow-roasted pork tacos with pineapple salsa were at least somewhat better… but the pork was also under seasoned, and somewhat bland.

The one positive comment Ticker and I have is that the homemade corn tortillas and tortilla chips were quite nice.  I can never seem to get mine that thin and soft.  The chips that they made are better than I have ever had before in New Zealand, certainly better than the ones available in the supermarket.

However, the service was also somewhat lacking, and for the money, we weren’t very satisfied.  Especially me, with the terrible enchiladas!

The restaurant is new, and it seems like they are still trying to figure things out, so, maybe there is potential for them to surpass the Left Bank Tacqueria for good Mexican food in Wellington?  For now, it seems like they are quite popular, and satisfying the Kiwi’s desires for tamed-down Mexican food. So, we’re waiting to see what happens and may give them another try in a few months.

Also, I have to admit being some what of a Mexican-food snob.  Coming from Chicago, home of a million Mexican restaurants, and living in Pilsen for years, I know what to expect.  I also like cooking Mexican food, and got Diana Kennedy’s “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico” book last year, which is a fantastic resource for Mexican cooking.  Unfortunately, many of the ingredients called for are not available in Wellington.  I did, however, come across a site ““, where you can order stuff like masa flour, mole sauce, tinned chipotle peppers, etc.  But I still can’t find a source for queso fresco!

I have had a lot of success making pumpkin & cottage cheese enchiladas, with a nice chipotle tomato sauce.  I also do my standard lentil or black bean burritos with refried beans with mexican rice and salsa fresca on a regular basis, which I would say are truly the best in town!

Also, recently, the Pak N Save in Kilbirnie started carrying my favourite Buffalo chiptle sauce, and Herdez Salsa Verde!!!!!  So, that is really exciting.  Unfortunately the problem still remains of decent tortilla chips… even Tostidos are better than that shi* they sell here!  I guess I’ll have to order the 2kgs of masa and try making my own again….

After that disappointing meal yesterday, Ticker and I are heading to the Left Bank Tacqueria today, in search of real Mexican food!

** UPDATE:  We tried to go to the Tacqueria… and it was closed!  How unfortunate that the best Mexican food in Wellington is also woefully undependable and inconsistent with their opening hours!  Of the 5 times I have tired to go there, they have only actually been open once!  And on the door the opening hours are listed as “Midday ’till late”… as if that wasn’t intentionally vague.

self preservation

The autumn harvest is upon us here in New Zealand.  That means baby root vegetables, new season apples, and the end of summer fruits.  As the last of the summer’s peaches, nectarines, apricots pears, and plums have been coming in, I have been bottling them for winter treats.

I also did a few jars of preserved lemons, after a preserving workshop at Moore Wilson’s, where that was the main recipe demonstrated.

In addition to bottling, I made a batch of pickled beets, and a few jars of lemon curd, which are long gone by now!

But, my most exciting (and tasty!) accomplishment on the home-preserving front thus far has been my fire roasted tomato and chipotle ketchup!

How did I do it?

Well, I started out by cobbling together my own home-made charcoal grill from bits of scavenged garden and kitchen supplies, including, an old terra cotta planter, a rusty brazier that has been holding a bucket of clothes pegs since we moved in, and the grill rack from the broiler (which clearly now needs a good clean).

homemade grill

I threw some balsamic-marinated tomatoes on the grill, let them char a bit, and then peeled off the skins once they were cool.  I also threw on a few jalapeno chilies I had picked last weekend at the chili pepper patch in Kapiti, and let those get nice and smoky for a few  hours.

Once it had cooled a bit, I blended up one chili, one can of chopped tomatoes, about 1 cup of the fire roasted tomatoes, 1/2 a white onion, 1/4 cup cider vinegar, 2 tbs white sugar, 2 tbs brown sugar, some salt until it was fully pureed.  I then added a few cloves and pepper corns, and let that mixture cook on a very very low heat semi-covered for about 3 hours.  After it had thickened up and there was not too much liquid left in the pot, I took it off the heat and let it cool. It thickened up quite a bit after that, and I pushed the whole thing through a sieve, which was very messy and a lot of work.  But the taste… was worth every minute of effort.

Below are some pictures from my trip to the chili pepper patch last weekend!

Wellington earthquake

Just when you thought it was safe to put a teapot on the top of your kitchen cupboards…

a 4.5 magnitude earthquake shakes your kitchen!

Ok, not exactly.  Yes, there was an earthquake in Wellington on Monday night.  Yes it was 4.5 magnitude.  Yes, a lot of people felt it.

No, I did not feel it, and no, it did not shake my teapots.

In fact, I probably would never have even known there had been an earthquake if Ticker hadn’t called me from work, where he informed me that the entire kitchen at Maria Pia’s (the establishment where he is employed) was shaking.  Thanks to that call, I barely slept a wink all night.

Now… should I take the wine bottles and teapots down off the top of the cupboard?

Oh, in unrelated news, I also wanted to mention that I recently participated in Wellington’s “Round the Bays” 7-km fun-run, my first time ever participating in an organized sporting event.  At a pretty slow jogging pace I completed the 7 km run in just under 52 minutes.  I am certainly proud of myself.  Will I go for a 10 km or half marathon next?  Pretty unlikely.  Running more than an hour is pretty boring.  I’d rather stay at home and knit while watching Louis Theroux documentaries.

Speaking of knitting, I have been on a rampage lately!  I finished a tea cozy last week, and am about 75% done with my first ever pair of mittens!  I shall post pictures time permitting.  I have also been doing quite a bit of sewing and baking, much to the detriment of my progress on my research.  My most recent interest has been in savoury muffins.  A sample recipe follows – spice it up with your own personalized additions!

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 2 tbs baking powder
  • 1/2 cup grated cheese (colby or cheddar are nice)
  • 1/4 cup toasted seeds (sunflower or pumpkin are nice)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (I used parsley and sage)
  • a pinch of salt
  • pepper
  • 2 tbs sweet chili sauce
  • 1 tsp crushed dried hot chili flakes

mix and match your favorite savoury ingredients, including stuff like:

  • spring onions
  • walnuts
  • blue cheese bits
  • bacon
  • ham
  • olives
  • sauteed mushrooms
  • corn
  • fresh tomatoes
  • chopped spinach
  • goat cheese
  • a handful of chopped sundried tomatoes
  • 1/2 an onion, finely sliced and carmelized

Whatever you throw in, don’t over do it, remember “less is more” when it comes to flavours, and just be careful not to overmix your batter, or the muffins will come out tough and rubbery.  Mix everything together with a few swift strokes of a spoon or knife, until just combined,  Spoon into greased muffin tins, sprinkle a bit more cheese on top, and bake at 375 F/180 C for 25 – 30 minutes or until golden brown.

They’re great on their own, or served with a nice bowl of soup.

Hrm… now I’m hungry.

The Turkey – not just 3 strikes in a row

One of my goals in life is to bowl a turkey.  Another goal had been to roast a deliciously succulent moist Turkey.  On my last attempt, in February 2010, I failed miserably.  However, last week, I finally managed to accomplish this long-sought triumph.

The secret?


I soaked the turkey for about 4 hours in 4 liters of water with 2 cups of salt dissolved in it.  It’s important to thoroughly wash the turkey inside and out after brining and before it goes in the oven, or you end up with a very salty bird.

The brining some how keeps the turkey moist and flavourful during roasting.  The only snag I ran into was that the gravy made from the brined-turkey drippings was waaaaay salty, even watered down with stock and some red wine, it was a bit too much.

So, that is the secret to my success.  A number of guests at my Thanksgiving dinner had never eaten turkey before- and when I asked them what their favourite dish was, they said “the turkey”.  Personally my favourite was the cranberry sauce:

and of course, the pumpkin pie!

Though, choosing one of my own favourite dishes is like choosing a favourite child… you have to love even the ones that don’t turn out great (The candied sweet potatoes… with raisins, pineapple, and coconut.  Something wasn’t right with that one.).

The full spread:

My babies include the turkey, the stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie.

Thanks to everybody for bringing such delicious plates – 3 different salads, garlic bread, green bean casserole, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, apple crumble (not pictured), and pecan pie (not pictured).

Whether it was a first Thanksgiving or 31st, it was a delicious and lovely evening!

it’s coming. are you ready?

I’m talking about Thanksgiving.

Preparation in my house has already begun.

This morning I made some bread dough, and left it to rise, to bake when I get home this afternoon.  This is the first step in making stuffing, which will go into the turkey, which is currently defrosting in the fridge.

Other preparation I have already completed included tracking down where to get frozen cranberries (can’t get fresh ones in Wellington!), buying them, as well as essentials such as a pumpkin (for the pie), ginger cookies (for the pie crust), and of course, the turkey.

Let the feast begin!  Well… just as soon as everything is ready.