At, or around, the solstice in December we begin to look at goals and intentions for the next 12 months. It makes sense then that at the halfway point in June we look at how we’re going against those.

Yep…moving right along. There’s very little positive to see here.

I can, however, update you on my reading stats for the year so far.

Part 1

According to Goodreads, at the time of publishing this post I’ve read 60 books. That sounds a lot, but I have spent a lot of time away from home so far this year and that equates to time on planes, trains and buses. Plus, I’ve had almost 4 weeks holiday – and I read a lot on holiday.

I read each night before going to sleep and I read most afternoons after finishing in the day job. Even though I work from home I take that time as a “commute” of sorts to bring a full stop to my day.

The longest book so far this year was “Anyone But Him” by Sheila O’Flanagan – 640 pages (of which I reckon it was a good 150 pages too long) and the shortest was a book of restaurant reviews by Jay Rayner, “My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways To Have A Lousy Night Out.”

Speaking of Jay Rayner, who is a British restaurant critic, I’ve read another two books, and countless articles in The Observer, by him in the name of research for “Escape To Curlew Cottage”. I could tell you why but that would be a massive spoiler.

Part 2

There are also 2 cookbooks on the list – and yes, I read cookbooks. These both got 5 stars from me. Both are more than cookbooks – they are books about food and the stories that you can tell through food, eating and, in the case of “How To Eat A Peach”, travel. I reviewed Ella Risbridger’s “Midnight Chicken” here, but am yet to tell you more about Diana Henry’s “How To Eat A Peach”.

I was pleased to see new offerings by favourite authors:

  • “Maybe This Time”, Jill Mansell
  • “Swallowtail Summer”, Erica James
  • “The Magnificent Mrs Mayhew”, Milly Johnson
  • “Something To Tell You”, Lucy Diamond
  • “Wedding At Comfort Cafe”, by Debbie Johnson and
  • “The Spotted Dog”, by Kerry Greenwood

My first read of the year was “You Had Me At Hello,” by (new to me) Mhairi McFarlane. I’ve since read another couple by her.

Thanks to Sydney Shop Girl I have a new series that I’m cultivating an addiction for – Faith Martin’s DI Hillary Greene. I really enjoyed “Murder On The Oxford Canal” and am looking forward to reading more.

The most unsettling book of the year so far for me was Sulari Gentill’s “Crossing The Lines”. This won the Ned Kelly award last year for the crime book of the year – and deservedly so. Perhaps it’s because I’m so used to her Rowland Sinclair series, but I found this really rattled me. Like Anthony Horowitz’s books within a book, this has the author deeply entwined in the story, but while his are quite tongue in cheek and sparkling this is much darker and twisty and really stayed with me. As a writer, I guess that’s what you want to achieve.

Karen Viggers’, “The Orchardists Daughter” also left me feeling quite unsettled – again, I think, because it felt dark, damp, and claustrophobic. Both books were good, excellent even, but at the time of reading each I needed more light and hope in order to enjoy the read. The same could be said for “The Other Half Of Augusta Hope”. Should you read them? Yes, probably, definitely. I suspect my view was more about me and the way I was feeling at the time of reading them than the story itself.

There are a few genre romances on my shelf this year, but far fewer than in previous years. I simply haven’t been enjoying them as much as I usually do. I suspect it’s just a phase I’m going through. The ones on my list I picked up for my kindle as free or very cheap Bookbub deals. (As an aside, if you’re a prolific reader and you use a device to read, Bookbub is an excellent source of well-price ie cheap books. Google it.)

Normally I do a bit of the reverse snobbery thing and steer clear of books that have won or been short-listed for major awards. I do the same with movies and TV shows. This year, though, I’ve started 2 such books but haven’t been in the mood to finish either – I think because when I started reading them I was stressed at work and needed escape rather than more angst, and I didn’t want to have to think too hard. If I finish them you’ll hear about them.

And so far my faves for the year? In no particular order and based on my enjoyment factor…

  • “The Magnificent Mrs Mayhew”, Milly Johnson
  • “Maybe This Time”, Jill Mansell
  • “The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton”, Anstey Harris
  • “Little Beach Street Bakery”, Jenny Colgan
  • “A Cornish Summer”, Catherine Alliott
  • “Swallowtail Summer”, Erica James

That’s what I’ve been reading, what about you? Any favourites or recommendations?

This post will also appear on my author blog so apologies if you see it twice!

Okay, here we go again, my look at the 5 things that made me smile over the past week…


I got stuck into my wardrobe during the week and did my once every six months or so clean-up of anything that no longer fits me, is falling apart or hasn’t been worn in the last two seasons. My wardrobe is again super tidy, everything is in its place and I feel lighter already. On the not so smiley side, it’s made me realise how long it’s been since I bought anything other than wear around the house basics. I’m definitely overdue for a transformation of sorts.


It was so cold the other morning I had to get my beanie out. Okay, my cold mightn’t be your cold, but it was about 8C and for the Sunshine Coast on the beach that’s cool.

But how do you like my selfie? I think it shows my good side…

Other people’s photos…

Just how great are these aerial shots of Mooloolaba?

A different perspective

This view from the end of the rock wall the other morning.

Tonight’s Masterchef invention test

No spoilers for my Kiwi friends but when presented with vegemite I’m so surprised no one made vegemite and cheese pasta…just saying…and you’ll need to wait for the release of “Escape to Curlew Cottage” to know why.

Speaking of which I’m now almost 60,000 words into the rewrite and well on track for delivery to my editor at the end of July.

Did you know…

…that post-menopausal female killer whales become the leaders of their pod because they carry so much memory and wisdom?

The things you learn on Instagram…with thanks to @elizabeth_gilbert_writer


Okay, it’s yet another rabbit hole but I’m having fun creating boards for our UK road trip later this year and my current novel. I’m yet to work out how I can use it from a sell more books viewpoint, but that’s a work in progress.

Anyways, if you’re into Pinterest, you can find me here.

My Friday Office

I’m doing really well at the no day job on Friday thing and spent the morning working on the deck at the Surf Club. Not a bad view from the office…

Date Night

Sarah was house-sitting up in Yandina on the weekend so we had friends over on Saturday night and date night on Friday – with Coffin Bay oysters and a Queensland mud crab to start. Yum.

Home-made Lavosh

As I mentioned, we had friends over for dinner on Saturday night. I was just doing a roast with all the trimmings, so made up some of these sesame lavosh crackers to serve with my fave quick salmon dip. You’ll find the recipe for the lavosh here and the salmon dip is pretty much a small tin of smoked salmon (I used a 125g tin), a half a packet of philly cheese and some lemon juice all blended up.

Quick recipe for the week – Peanut Sauce

Poach and then shred a couple of chicken breasts, julienne some carrot, red capsicum, spring onions and cabbage and toss it all together with some of this sauce and you have a quick and yummy dinner. If you need some carbs you might want to add some noodles.

We use the no sugar added real crunchy peanut butter and I also only use 1 tbsp of honey, but I’ll leave that up to your taste buds. If you’re using a mainstream peanut butter you might find that it has enough sugar in it to start with. I also substitute some finely diced chilli for the Sriracha, which has added sugar in it, but again, your call.

All you do is mix together the following, adding a couple of tablespoons of water to let it down as needed.

  • 3 tbsp crunchy peanut butter
  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 garlic cloves, grated
  • 1 piece of ginger (about 1/2 a thumb size), grated (include the juice)
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp Sriracha sauce

The sauce is also great over some barbecued or tray-baked chicken.

Okay, that was my week, how was yours?

Friends of ours – more escapees from Sydney – have just finished building their dream home in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. They moved up about a year after us, and have been living in a caravan and a shed on the block until their home was finished – even through the summer…with no air-conditioning. #respect

And what a home it is! With incredible views down the valley, they can watch storms blow in, sea eagles circle above and hear the cows in the paddock below. It’s definitely been worth the wait.

We visited on a cold and drizzly Saturday afternoon, so what better cake to take along than a little lemony sunshine?

This cake is one of my husband’s favourites and comes from one of the first cookbooks he ever bought me – The Crabtree & Evelyn Cookbook. Reading this cookbook has the feel of an English summer day – or rather the Country Living idea of what an English summers day should be like, with menus to match.

Published in 1989, the book is essentially a book of menus – and I do love a good menu, it’s what makes our Saturday night cuisine challenges so much fun. Which reminds me, I need to tell you about Diana Henry’s How To Eat A Peach; but I digress.

Take the Picnics section, for instance, which is where my lemon drizzle cake can be found. The menu titles are almost as evocative as the illustrations: Weather Permitting, Punting Downstream, and Sporting Afternoon. Then we get into Tea where we have Smashing Service, Croquet and Cucumber Sandwiches and English Farmhouse Tea.

Speaking of illustrations, there aren’t very many photographs of the food, but the book is full of gorgeous artwork.

There’ll no doubt be more tea time treats from this book as I get closer to publishing the novel previously known as Christmas at Curlew Cottage but that will henceforth be titled Escape to Curlew Cottage, but for now, here’s the Lemon Drizzle Cake.

This is one of those cakes that’s fabulous served still slightly warm, topped with softly whipped cream – or a combo of yoghurt and softly whipped cream – but is equally as good the next day (or the day after) with a cup of tea.

I make mine in a loaf tin, but if you wanted it to be a bit more special – not that this cake isn’t special enough in all its unadorned glory – you could also bake it in a round tin and slice through the middle when cooled to form two layers, and then fill with fruit conserve or curd.

If I’m baking this to take someplace else I double the recipe so I get two cakes – one to take and one to keep.

What you need

For the cake

  • 140g plain flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon bicarb soda
  • pinch salt
  • 60g unsalted butter, softened
  • 135g caster sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 5 1/2 tablespoons buttermilk – or runny plain yoghurt
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

For the syrup

  • 100g sugar
  • 5 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

What you do with it

  • Preheat oven to 180C and do the usual buttering/lining of your tin. I use a small loaf tin, but you could also use a 20cm round tin.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt and set aside.
  • In a stand mixer cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  • Add the egg and beat it into the mix enthusiastically.
  • Fold in a third of the flour, followed by a third of the buttermilk, the next third of the flour and so on.
  • Stir in the lemon zest and spoon the mix into your prepared tin.
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
  • When the cake has about 10 minutes left to cook, prepare your syrup by combining the sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan over low heat.
  • As the cake comes out of the oven spoon the syrup evenly over the top, tipping and rotating the tin gently to make sure that it’s all covered.
  • Cool in the tin on a wire rack and dust with icing sugar before serving.

Okay, it’s Thursday and that means it’s time for the Lovin’Life linky brought to you by Team Lovin’ Life: Deep Fried Fruit, DebbishWrite of the Middle, and me. Feel free to share your happy…

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter…

Okay, here we go – the weekly rundown or wrap up or whatever you want to call it of the things that made me smile.

The weather

I know that the calendar says that it’s supposed to be winter, but we’ve had temperatures in the mid 20’s all week – that’s celcius, for US readers.


Of course. We’ve had some great colour in the sky this week, but missed the best one on Saturday. Thankfully, the rest of Instagram didn’t.


We mixed our morning walk up a tad on Friday and caught the sunrise at Point Cartwright. Same same but different

Public Holidays

Although Queensland doesn’t celebrate the Queen’s Birthday until October, my office in Sydney was on holiday on Monday and so was I. I used the morning wisely and went up to the picnic tables at Alex Hill to get some words written.

On Friday our half of the coast was on holiday for Sunshine Coast Show Day. Again, the morning found me up at Alex Hill with my laptop, a thermos of hot water, some tea bags and a mug.

This meme

Get it?


No work on Monday also meant an afternoon beach walk as well as a morning one. Adventure Spaniel was pretty happy with that too.

Eat Street, Northshore

We’ve been meaning to head down to eat Street in Brisbane since we first moved up. Sarah went down with some friends a couple of weeks ago and told us we had to go. At it’s simplest form it’s a heap of food stalls and food trucks in a heap of shipping containers on the waterfront at Hamilton. But it’s so much more than that.

We had problems making decisions so ended up having a bit of this and a bit of that. The live music was great, the vibe was great, the night was mild, and the food was everything you’d want from street food.



I spent Saturday morning with a great bunch of people at a workshop run by Belinda Pollard of Small Blue Dog Publishing. Aside from the fact that it’s always good to meet and talk with people on the same publishing journey as I am, I also learnt some more about distribution channels, action plans and publishing hardcover or photography books – something that will absolutely come in handy for a project I have in mind. #clancyofthecampfire

It was definitely a morning very well spent.

Speaking of writing…

I’m 25,000 words into the re-write of Escape To Curlew Cottage… and it’s coming together very nicely. So nicely that I’ll start to tell you bits and pieces about the location, the characters and the foodie stuff in the next few weeks…

That was my week – how was yours?

Rendang Daging

a photo of the photo in the book

Okay, I promised you some recipes from our travels to Penang and Singapore. I’ve already brought you Hainanese Chicken Rice, and now I give you Beef (Daging) Rendang – a dish you see a lot in Malaysia; especially as one of the components of nasi lemak, that fabulous mixed rice dish.

According to everything I’ve read on the subject, Beef Rendang originated in Western Sumatra (Indonesia) and was brought to Malaysia and Singapore by the Minangkabau settlers from Indonesia.

These days it’s one of the most popular dishes in Malaysia. The arguments of its heritage, however, are reminiscent of the Australian/ New Zealand argument about the real origins of pavlova. And no, I’m not entering into that debate.

One time I wrote about including it in a Malaysian themed dinner I was cooking and someone who obviously knows about these things commented with something like, ‘are you dreaming? It’s Indonesian, you idiot!’

Another time I wrote about including it in an Indonesian themed dinner I was cooking and someone who obviously knows about these things commented with something like, ‘are you dreaming? It’s Malaysian, you idiot!’

Translated, Rendang comes from the Indonesian word Merandang which means to slow cook a dish of meat (usually beef) in coconut and aromatic spices until the liquid is all but evaporated. For this reason, rendang is not strictly a curry. It is, however, associated with patience, persistence and wisdom by the Minangkabau people as all three of these traits are required to cook it properly.

John Torode and Gregg Wallace of British Masterchef caused an international scandal a year or so ago when they criticised a Malaysian contestant for not having crispy chicken in her rendang – something that’s absolutely impossible in a dish that is cooked as slowly as this one is.

It starts as a wet gravy, or gulai. Over the next couple of hours, the gravy reduces to what is known as a kalio. The meat is cooked still further until it absorbs most of the gravy, although in Malaysia it’s eaten drier than what it is in Singapore and Indonesia.

Towards the end of the cooking, coconut is roasted and then pounded until the oils are released and it becomes a paste called kerisik. It’s this that gives the dish its rich, dark colour. In Malaysia, you can buy the paste, but I do it the old fashioned way.

The recipe I use is from Adam Liaw’s Two Asian Kitchens.

What you need

for the base paste:

  • 8 shallots
  • 6 small red chillies
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 3cm piece each of galangal, turmeric, ginger – peeled and thickly sliced
  • 2 teasp sea salt

Whack the lot into a mini blender (I used the Nutri-bullet) or a mortar and pestle and grind it into a smooth paste.

…for the rest:

  • 1kg braising steak. I used gravy beef. Chop it into cubes.
  • 1 tbsp neutral oil – I use coconut oil
  • 3 stalks lemongrass (the white part) bruised up a bit with the back of a knife or a pestle
  • 1 turmeric leaf, shredded. If you can’t get this, substitute with 3 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 400ml coconut cream
  • 100 g grated fresh coconut (or 130g shredded coconut)

What you do with it…

  • Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the paste for about 5mins or so. It will get a little darker and will smell amazing.
  • Add the beef, leaf, lemongrass and sugar and mix it about until coated.
  • Add the coconut cream, about 250ml water, and bring to a low simmer.
  • Cover and cook for 30mins, then uncover and cook for a further 90 mins – 2 hours. You’ll see the coconut cream split a bit in this time- that’s ok. The gravy should have reduced a lot by this stage.
  • In the meantime, dry fry the coconut in a frying pan until golden. Watch this as it can turn quickly. Pop it into a mortar and grind to a sticky paste. This is worth doing by hand.
  • When the meat has been cooking for 90mins – 2 hours, and most of the liquid has evaporated, add the coconut paste and cook over low heat for another 30-40 mins. Stir it often to make sure it doesn’t burn. By the end of this process, the meat is essentially frying in the separated coconut oil.

Oh, and the finished product? My photo is crap. Brown against white…yes, quite literally. So I took a photo of the photo in the cookbook. It, at least, has been styled. By the time that you reduce the gravy, that’s exactly what it looks like.

almost there…but not quite…
The Restaurant

If you search The Spirit House on this website you’ll find a lot of entries. It is without a doubt my absolute favourite place to eat here on the Sunshine Coast. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve eaten here over the years.

It’s also one of the most respected cooking classes in the country – and for good reason. At a Spirit House cooking class you’re doing – not watching.

photo credit to John

This class was titled “Taste of Vietnam” and I was lucky enough to be my friend’s “plus one” – her hubby had bought the class for us as her 30th wedding anniversary gift. I haven’t said as much to her, but I think he’s probably a keeper.

When we arrived the benches were all set up ready for us.

Our menu for the evening?

  • Crispy rice paper rolls with chicken, prawns and cloud ear mushrooms
  • Barbequed cuttlefish with crunchy Vietnamese style herb salad
  • Clay pot of pork with coconut water, caramel and star anise
  • Wok-seared choy sum and oyster mushrooms
  • Char-grilled spatchcock with lemongrass, ginger and five spices
  • Sweet and sour pickled vegetables

The first thing we did was get the pork into its marinade – and then we began to chop. A Spirit House cooking class runs very much like I’d expect a mise en place to run in a restaurant. Everything is prepped and ready to go and everyone has a job to do.

Once everything is prepped, the pork is in its clay pot and cooking, and the spring rolls are made and are frying, we plate up the herbs and sit down with a glass of wine to enjoy our spring rolls.

We eat these by filling a lettuce leaf with herbs, placing half a spring roll inside it, and wrapping the whole thing up. Fantastic.

From here we head outside to the barbecue and the hibachi grill to cook our spatchcock and calamari…

and then it was back inside to cook the gai lan (which we were using instead of choy sum), put the salads together and plate the dishes up.

With all the prep done and everyone helping out, dinner was on the table and wines poured in no time. All that was left to do was eat.

And the finished product? All I can say is wear comfy pants or elastic waists. Plus, this is the only cooking school I’ve been to where they serve beer and wine (complimentary) with your food. Bonus.

Once the class was finished we met up with our designated driver (ie our husbands) at the Spirit House bar for a rejuvenating purple gin.

The Verdict…

Well worth the money and the pre-planning. If you’re doing this as part of a Sunshine Coast holiday, I’d recommend booking as soon as you book your trip to the coast. If you’re coming up from Brisbane or are local, the classes book out a few months in advance – especially during summer and July holidays. More info and booking forms can be found here.

Getting there…

The Spirit House is located at 20 Ninderry Rd, Yandina. It’s about a 20-minute drive from Noosa, a little longer from Mooloolaba or Buderim, and about 110km or 90 minutes (if the Bruce Highway is behaving itself) from Brisbane. You’ll need to drive – or book a taxi/uber. Directions are on the website.

Food Allergies?

Gluten-free and vegetarian diets are catered for. The soy sauce and oyster sauce we used in class are both gluten-free.

Okay, it’s Thursday and that means it’s time for the Lovin’Life linky brought to you by Team Lovin’ Life: Deep Fried Fruit, DebbishWrite of the Middle, and me. Feel free to share your happy…

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!

Click here to enter…

Winter has really set in here in South East Queensland – and yes, I’m aware that ugg boot weather here on the Sunshine Coast is probably very different from winter where you are.

I think I’m finally on the mend in regards to the head cold from hell – it’s amazing the difference that being at home and taking it a tad easier on the socialising front can do.

Anyways, without further ado, here’s the stuff that made me smile last week.

Morning walks

With views like these how could they fail to inspire me?

This word

Now you have a name for it…you’re welcome.

This quote

As a young man Winston Churchill was asked about a dinner he’d had the previous nice. “Well,” he replied, “It would have been splendid…if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the main as willing as the duchess.”

Just brilliant.

This day in history

For the Useless Book of Knowledge, last Thursday, the 6th of June, was the 160th anniversary of Queensland’s separation from NSW.

And in case you didn’t know

New Zealand was also once a part of NSW and was proclaimed a separate colony on May 3, 1841. So there.

What I’m working on

I got the notes back from my editor during the week for the novel formerly known as Christmas at Curlew Cottage. It will, henceforth, be known as Escape to Curlew Cottage – at least until I decide that title doesn’t fit either.

Seriously though, I’ve started the rewrite and am really enjoying the slightly different direction I’ve decided to take my characters in.

my “office” at Mooloolaba Surf Club

Donkeys on walls

I love the mural on the wall of the Columbian Coffee Club in Brisbane Rd. Every cafe should have a donkey on the wall.


At some point during last week, the 2 millionth visitor since midway through 2014 clicked in and had a wander around my astro site. I still can’t believe those numbers. As an aside, I suspect something is going on though as my numbers on that site over the last couple of months are down by about a third what they were in January and February. Whatevs.

Noticing things

I reckon last Sunday night’s episode of Harrow on the ABC was filmed partly at Sealife in Mooloolaba – the jellyfish tank scenes, at least. Something else for the Useless Book of Knowledge?


I’m putting in a real effort to eat more healthily during the week so made this pho on Wednesday night. It’s the ultimate treat your body like a temple soup. You can find the recipe here.

I also prepared a braised pork in kecap manis, star anise and ginger that I was trialling for the Clancy’s Campfire Cook-Off at Eucumbene in a couple of months. I’ll post that recipe in another couple of weeks.

Finally, I baked (but didn’t eat) this lemon drizzle cake to take along when we called in to see some friends who have just moved into the fab new home they’ve been building in the Hinterland.

Keep an eye out for the recipe – it’s scheduled for the next week or so.

Okay, that was my week…how was yours?

I’ve been away a lot of late so haven’t had much chance to update you on my progress through “How To Eat”.

This dish though is well worth talking about. It’s one of those ready in as long as it takes to cook the pasta dishes – which makes it perfect for lunch on a cold day or a quick Sunday night supper when you’ve been out for lunch and probably shouldn’t be eating dinner anyway.

In a way, it’s like carbonara with lemon instead of bacon – although carbonara doesn’t normally have cream in it, at least not the way that I make it anyway – but you get the idea. However you look at it this isn’t a dish you make if you’re into the whole treating your body like a temple thing – although it absolutely is good for your soul.

Nigella’s recipe is for 6 (with a green salad and Irish tarte tatin for pudding) and I made it at lunch for 2 with no pudding so the quantities I used were loose indeed. I wouldn’t have a clue how much pasta I used, but it was spaghetti, not linguine.

It was, however, easy. I popped the pasta on to boil and in a bowl mixed together an egg (I used a whole egg rather than an egg yolk), a couple of tablespoons of creme fraiche that I’d got from the Gympie cheese man at the markets (instead of double cream), a good handful of grated parmesan, the zest of a whole lemon and juice of half a lemon, some salt and pepper. I also added some chilli flakes for a little heat.

When the pasta was done I scooped out a half a cup of pasta water, drained the pasta and then tossed it back into the hot pan, but off the heat, and threw in a good knob of butter, swirling it around until it was melted and all the strands of pasta had been covered. Then I poured in the eggy, creamy, cheesy, lemony mix and stirred it through well. The pasta water is for if it all still seems a tad dry.

It’s served immediately with parsley and a green salad but I made it on a Monday lunchtime and couldn’t be faffed with the salad. We didn’t miss it.

Every culture has one – a dish that makes you feel so good inside, it can’t possibly be wrong. A dish that tastes like it should be good for you, that it should be able to beat anything that ails you into submission. Folk food, family food, street food.

Pho, (pronounced “fur” or “fuh” for the uninitiated) is one such dish. It started life as a labourer’s breakfast and is now a lunchtime favourite.

It sounds simple enough – flat rice noodles, thinly sliced raw beef, a few herbs and spring onions, and then an aromatic boiling broth is poured over the lot to cook the meat. How hard could it be? But all pho is not created equal.

Good pho has hidden depths of flavour, enhanced by the chilli, lemon, basil and whatever you add to it. It’s the noodle soup of the Gods, and just by eating it you’re treating your body as a temple.

Whenever I feel as though I need a little self-care, as if the sniffle could possibly be threatening to turn into my annual head cold, as if I’ve been spending too much time doing tasks that I don’t find in the least rewarding and my brain is tired and my soul empty – that’s when I go for this soup.

The problem is, the really good pho – the pho that you get at really good pho places – involves making stock from beef bones and simmering it for 4 hours. Of course, you get the benefit of the bone broth, but it’s not exactly a quick fix for a craving. The other thing is, a real pho, as fabulous as it is, does have a reasonable amount of fat in it – which isn’t a great thing when you’re the heaviest you’ve ever been and trying not to be so anymore.

To this end, I’ve come up with my cheatie pho – the one that you go to after a long day when you don’t have time to think but you want to be healthy and feel warm and cosy on the inside. And there’s nothing to be guilty about here.


Yes, it’s quite a list but the aromatics tend to be ones we usually have on hand and the whole thing goes together quite quickly. As with all my recipes, this is a combo of a few ideas and the quantities are, shall we say, inexact. Taste the stock as you go and adjust to your own taste. This quantity feeds the 3 of us with leftover stock for lunch the next day. We find 225-250g steak is ample for the three of us for dinner.

If you want you can do this with chicken as well – just substitute good chicken stock for the beef and a couple of thinly sliced chicken breasts that you poach in the soup before serving.

For the stock

  • 2 litres beef stock
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • a good size knob of ginger – I use a piece about the length of my thumb – sliced but don’t worry about peeling it
  • 4 cloves garlic – smash with the back of a knife but don’t worry about peeling it
  • 1 cinnamon quill
  • 3 pieces star anise
  • 5 cardamon pods, bruised
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tsp five-spice powder
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce (you can add more later if it needs the salt)
  • a few whole cloves
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves (or some peeled lime rind)
  • If you have one, a stalk of lemongrass (bruised)
  • Optional: 1 tbsp grated palm sugar (or caster sugar)

For the soup

  • Noodles – you can use 200g rice vermicelli or fresh rice noodles – it’s up to you.
  • 250g beef fillet
  • 2 spring onions, sliced
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 long red chilli, de-seeded and sliced

To serve

  • 2 small chillies, sliced
  • fresh basil
  • lime cheeks

Making the stock:

  • Fry the onion, garlic and ginger in a couple of tablespoons of oil (I usually use rice bran) in a large saucepan. You want them to soften and colour just a little.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to the boil. Once the stock is boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-30 mins. Check for seasoning and add more fish sauce or some grated palm sugar to taste. We tend not to use the sugar. Squeeze in some lime or lemon juice if required.

Putting the soup together:

  • Place your noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Vermicelli normally needs about 10mins soaking.
  • Slice your beef as finely as possible. It will cook in your broth so needs to be as thin as it’s possible for beef to be. A good trick is to put it in the freezer for an hour or two – it’s much easier to slice when you take it out.
  • Strain your stock and return it to the pan, bringing it back to the boil.
  • Divide the noodles between the bowls, top with the onions, then the beef and pour over the hot soup. If the beef is thin enough, the stock should be enough to cook it to medium-rare.
  • Garnish with the spring onions and chillis.
  • Serve with the basil, sliced hot chillis and lime on the side. Traditionally you’d also serve with bean sprouts but I’m not a fan.
ginger flowers at the fishing village

So anyways, we got talking to Mark – remember I told you about him? From our foodie walking tour in Georgetown? He was telling us about the durian and how during the season people come from everywhere – and I mean everywhere ie Singapore, elsewhere in Malaysia, Indonesia, and further afield – to eat it.

As an aside, they say it’s the fruit that tastes like heaven and smells like hell, but I’m not a fan. The smell is foul and the texture is one that I don’t find pleasant. I have tried it a few times – both fresh and in ice cream, but I’m still not convinced. Apparently, you love it or you hate it – like coriander; although I don’t understand anyone who hates coriander. But I digress – Mark was telling us about the fruit and its value and how fruit from the older trees was worth more.

Then we got talking about nutmeg. We were drinking a nutmeg drink at the time and I mentioned that I wanted to go and have a look at the spice gardens. Mark told us that if we wanted to see the real spices, away from the touristy path we needed to go to the other side of the island.

‘Can you take us?’ I asked.

He told us that he runs (unadvertised) tours for visiting chefs and other foodies to the other side of the island to see how the durian and nutmeg on a family farm. ‘We’ll taste the best laksa you’ll ever have,’ he said, ‘and we can visit a fishing village for lunch and see how shrimp paste is made.’

‘When can we go?’ I asked.

‘How about tomorrow?’

view from the top…

Balik Pulau

Our first stop was in a village called Balik Pulau for the promised amazing laksa. Mark was not exaggerating. This truly was great laksa. They do just two kinds: assam laksa, which is the local Penang version made with tamarind; and Siam laksa which is the Thai style that we’re more familiar with here in Australia. Both were 5RM for a small and 6RM ($2) for a large. We tried each; with a fresh white nutmeg juice to go with it.

Speaking of which, nutmeg juice comes from the fruit around the nutmeg. Hold that thought – I have some more to say on that subject shortly.

When we left the restaurant we noticed trays of nutmeg and mace (the lacy red outer layer of the nutmeg) drying on top of a couple of cars. That’s it in the photos below.


There was also some fabulous street art in and around the town. These were all done by a Russian artist named Julia Kolchkova.

There was another hidden away that I caught a glimpse of…

and yet another that you need to look really carefully at the see the work. It’s a silversmith and the artist has blended the colours so that it’s barely there, but at the same time once you see it you can’t unsee it.

Lim Brothers Orchards

The farm produces both free-range and barn eggs.

Before walking up the hill to see the durian Mark warned us to watch out for the snakes in the trees. Apparently, they keep them there because of the bats…or something like that.

can you see it?

I nearly walked right into this one. After that Mark walked up the hill in front of us…just in case. We didn’t see any more snakes but we did see plenty of durian, papaya and nutmeg. In case you’re wondering, the nutmeg is in the bottom centre & right pics. It looks a little like an unripe apricot.

When we left the farm we went up a side road to another durian farm and spoke to an old man who was in charge of looking after the trees. He said that at nearly 70 he was too old now to be climbing the ladders, but still had to do it. They thin the fruit off the trees so that it won’t be too heavy and drop…the fruit, that is.

Shrimp Paste

Have you ever cooked with belacan? If so you’d know how rank this stuff smells. I keep it double wrapped in my pantry, but seriously, there is no substitute for it when cooking Malaysian or Indonesian food. And this is how it’s made.

The whole process takes a few months of drying and grinding. It’s hard manual work. In the picture below right, the belacan is at its final stage. One last round of grinding before it is compressed into a block and packaged.

Yes, it was, shall we say “fragrant”, but it was totally fascinating to see how one of the ingredients we use so often was made.

Fishing Village

From here it was a short drive to the fishing village.

This is a serious boat to barbie type of experience. As the boats come in the produce is sold. Then and there.

We bought 6 whiting and 6 large prawns for 23RM ($7) and took them next door to the restaurant to be cooked.

We also ordered some rice, some tofu and some green veg – sweet potato leaves. All up, lunch for 3 including beers (for Grant and I) and nutmeg juice (for Mark) cost 83RM – about $27.

As for the nutmeg juice, here’s how it’s made.

As simple as the meal was, it was so fresh and tasty – and a highlight of our time in Penang.

Mark’s off the grid tour isn’t for everyone – which is the exact reason he doesn’t advertise it. It’s raw and real and an incredible insight into Penang’s food, life and culture. It was also possibly THE best foodie tour we’ve ever done. Really.

Some will, however, worry about the cooking facilities and the food storage and the toilets (which are really primitive at the restaurant and enough for me to decide to hold on…too much information?) – all of the things that we tend to worry about. The thing is, the seafood is as fresh as it’s possible for seafood to be – and it tastes amazing.

If you’re a serious foodie and want to see where your spices and pastes come from, as well as sample the best laksa imaginable and enjoy a seafood dinner almost straight off the boat, and have a day you won’t forget, this tour could be for you. If so, contact Mark at Simply Enak.

Okay, it’s Thursday and that means it’s time for the Lovin’Life linky brought to you by Team Lovin’ Life: Deep Fried Fruit, DebbishWrite of the Middle, and me. Feel free to share your happy…

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