Thursday, 9 October 2014

Biona organic coconut flour: Product review

From time to time I get sent delicious vegan products to review. This time I was sent a box of Biona coconut flour from Real Foods Edinburgh, a product I was excited to try. Coconut flour is quite "in" right now, its high fibre and naturally gluten free status making it great for baking for people with coeliacs disease or a gluten intolerance. What I didn't realize is that using it in this way was a little easier said than done if trying to create something which is also vegan. Please excuse the phone camera images, I was in a mad rush to complete and eat!

Well-loved box of Biona organic coconut flour

The recipe on the back of the box was pancakes, the recipe I wanted to use to taste-test the product. Though very simple (and only using two tablespoons of the coconut flour), this recipe contained eggs. Having successful replaced eggs with mashed bananas in pancakes in the past this was what I did. I noticed that there wasn't much batter and it was very thick. My flatmate and I both took turns trying to toss the stodgy mixture in the pan. It didn't flip, it crumbled...

The result was quite tasty but resembled mashed potato rather than pancakes. We added chocolate to the goo and decided it was quite delicious, in a "that's so wrong kind of way".

gooey chocolatey sweet thing

One week later and I was still trying to fathom what had gone wrong. Had I used to much mashed banana? Too little milk? I decided to try again using ground flax seed plus water as an egg replacement. There was still not much batter, and what there was turned out very thick and grainy. I fried the batter this time, and came out with beautiful little wholemeal/high fibre pancakes. They bound together well and I could turn them without the fear of eating pudding for breakfast. I served them with sliced bananas and a little agave syrup.

Browning nicely...

Ready to devour!

The coconut taste was quite evident and did make the texture more grainy, but in a good way. I loved the exotic flavour it added to my pancakes and look forward to diversifying a bit, maybe by trying to make ome raw cake next time?

Biona organic coconut flour is available from Real Foods Edinburgh, 500g coming in at £3.99. If just making pancakes, this will last for ages!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Goodbye Summer...

After two awful days (including waking up in Scotland, 5 hours in Germany, one day and one night in Amsterdam) I am free of a curse which lay over me. What was otherwise a horribly unplanned day and night  in Amsterdam was made better by the kindness of strangers. I did make the most of my time too, stocking up on gelatine-free fizzy cola bottles at Candy Freaks and walking along the pretty canals. Edinburgh is windy but the air somehow feels calmer, the atmosphere less hostile and far more welcoming. In the last few weeks I have walked around Edinburgh a lot, drank many cups of coffee and renewed friendships which I had almost on pause during my year abroad. I have become closer to people, less nauseous and more optimistic about the future. I also woke up with a comforting feeling in my chest. As that cliché goes, look beyond the storm and there's a rainbow. I am finally allowed to enjoy the present moment, which is currently lying in bed "doing translations", i.e. taking a study break.

Not quite as nice as when I was here in May...

When he asked me how many cola bottles I wanted, I replied "all of them".

I have been invited to go to Atlanta for Christmas to spend time with my brother with a trip to New York for new year. I am back to feeling motivated about progressing with my studies after being a little distracted for a while. For next year I have many options, but no rush to decide is required. Whilst I will still be applying to teach in Asia, thoughts of doing postgraduate studies in New York have been resurfacing (an old dream). Subjects in my mind range from Chinese language and Oriental art to International Development. No idea where I end up, but I hope I end up doing something meaningful. Oui, la vie est belle. For now it's time to enjoy the last bit of time I have in Edinburgh.

Arthur's seat from Salisbury crags

Victoria street, Edinburgh

I was pleased to see that Scotland didn't get its independence and remained a part of something bigger with no borders. More chances for a socialist Britain. Conversely I am glad to have my own independence back after quite a few years. I can finally step out and do things without feeling guilty about dragging someone along or leaving someone behind. 

Backing track to my life right now:

And to finish on a cheesier note, I walked up to the top of Salisbury crags to the place where the film One Day was filmed. Admittedly I must face up to the fact that I am a helpless romantic, knowing that the film is set in Edinburgh makes it resonate more with me.

Salisbury crags

“Live each day as if it's your last', that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn't practical. Better by far to simply try and be good and courageous and bold and to make a difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Go out there with your passion and your electric typewriter and work hard at...something. Change lives through art maybe. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.”

-David Nicholls, One Day

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

After a couple of weeks in Cambridge, a 10 hour drive from south to north and two days saying goodbye to my beautiful feline friends and my parent's home in the highlands (and helping to box up my things), I am back in Edinburgh.

I said goodbye to this...

My home for the last 4 years.

and hello again to this... The meadows

During my year abroad I largely avoided winter. With the exception of a two day coldspell in Grenoble and a -12 degrees celcius weekend in Berlin, I had a very long summer. But now, it must be said,"winter is coming".

Whilst down south I did have a bit of the post-year abroad blues (mainly when thinking about Grenoble), but I am extremely happy to be back to my busy schedule here in this city... Even if winter is on its way. I am back to friends (new and old), cosy coffee shops, great teaching, interesting courses, live Doctor Who, the V sign clearly written on every package, climbing, yoga, a pretty flat and a beautiful new neighbourhood. There is a wee bit of pressure and stress to follow, but nothing too painful I hope.

I am not sure whether or not this will be my last year in Edinburgh, but I love this city.

Tomorrow the Scottish referendum will take place. After much deliberation I decided I will be voting no. Mainly because I am not a fan of nationalism, prejudice nor borders. I believe in uniting nations, not dividing them.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gone in a flash. Goodbye Asia... For now...

After a 18 hour flight (including stopovers), no sleep, a missing bag and much running for connecting flights, I am back in the UK. The final week in North Vietnam was a highlight. After a bumpy 14 hour bus journey from Hue to Hanoi and a lazy day coffee-crawling around Hanoi we took an overnight train to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is only 3km from the Chinese border, though most tourists (us included) use it as a means to get to Sapa.

Sapa is a small French hill station in the North-Western highlands.With its meandering colonial streets and outstanding views of the mountains and rice terraces, it is a truly picturesque place. Local women coming from tribes such as the H'mong (with Tibetan origins) where colourful clothing and carry straw baskets try to sell their home stays and handicrafts, immediately presenting the traveler with a culture quite different to that of the low lands. Most are friendly but they can also hassle you a lot if you decide to go on a hike without a local guide... Sapa is a nature-lovers paradise. Whilst lacking in wildlife (as is the case in most of Vietnam due to excessive poaching), there are numerous waterfalls, peaks, treks, raging rapids, valleys and deep canyons to explore. We visited the Silver and Love waterfalls by motorbike, did a 15km hike through the Muong Hoa valley and visited Cat Cat village. In town we ate a lot of pumpkin soup, fresh tofu and French baked goods and I indulged in a few spa treatments. I could have stayed longer in Sapa even if I were just hanging around. This was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

View from our motorbike ride

Silver waterfall

Love waterfall

View from our room in Sapa


trek through the Muong Hoa valley

"splurgey" £3 meal with a view at the Hill Station

Cat Cat waterfalls

Whilst waiting for our train back to Hanoi we attempted to cross the Vietnam-China border.Yes, you need a visa, but we were told that there are some areas where you can go across for a little to go shopping. We got turned down, of course, but looking at China which was a few meters away made me feel a little nostalgic for a trip I made 2 years ago.

Directly after our overnight train back to Hanoi we got a pick up to join the luxury Imperial Junk cruise for a night in Halong bay. As expected, the structure of the trip was a little too rigid though what we saw was interesting and the room was comfortable. With the trip we visited the Surprising cave, kayaked around the bay and spent a bit of time on a small island. The food on board for vegetarians was pretty bad. There was tofu and many vegetables but everything was floating in MSG and made with little love. After dinner we took a cocktail to the top deck and I counted 8 shooting stars. Meanwhile a big group of English people were drinking, likely vomiting, and as cliche as it is, spending the next few days talking about how wasted they were, and consequentially, what a great night it must have been.

Halong bay

surprising cave

After a-far-too-early breakfast and an unnecessary trip to a pearl farm (felt sorry for the oysters...), we took a small boat deeper into the bay and arrived at our bungalow on Nat Cat island. The light on the way to the island was quite magical, though interrupted by a brief but violent storm. We had a sea view onto a secluded bay and kayak rent was included, so we spent the afternoon exploring the local coves, caves and beaches and chickening out of going deep water soloing. After a bit of time chilling on the beach we got fed again, this time in an excessive quantity.

gliding through misty mountains

bungalows on Nat Cat island beach

view from our bungalow

The following morning we got yet another early boat trip, this time heading to Cat Ba island. After finding an inexpensive hotel and resting we explored the island a bit by motorbike, heading to hospital cave and afterwards taking a short "walk" through Cat Ba national park,home of the rarest primate on earth, the Cat Ba languor (being rare we obviously didn't see any of them). This walk turned out to be more of a muddy and rocky climb through a jungle full of beautiful butterflies and not-so-beautiful mosquitos. We emerged from the rocky limestone outcrop with a beautiful view of the misty, hilly jungle-scape. That night we witnessed a crazily loud storm in the bay, one clap of thunder sounded like a bomb and shook our room.

Cat Ba national park

The following day we got picked up again by our tour and had an even worse lunch whilst cruising through the beautiful halong bay back to the harbour. After a bit of waiting and 4 hours in a minibus we arrived at our final destination, Hanoi. That evening we ate in a vegetarian restaurant which had received good reviews, but was a little disappointing with regards to the high price and mediocre food. We then walked around the centre, the lake, spoke to locals in a park to help them with their English and rested. The following day we did the same, but also visited Notre Dame, the Opera house and the temple of literature.

Hanoi French quarters

Notre Dame

Hanoi Opera house

The temple of literature

As tradition somehow goes, our farewell lunch was a vegetarian Indian feast. It's always sad to say goodbye to a continent, a place and a person...

And so ends my official year abroad, but definitely not my last. I have visited 11 countries this academic year and three continents. Now for one final burn at Edinburgh University and then onward and outward to other things...

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Vietnam-half way point

After a strange night sleeping at Manila airport we took our connecting flight to Saigon (otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh city). We arrived in the morning, took a very cheap bus into the centre and from there walked to our hotel, Linh guesthouse in the tourist district of town. Saigon wasn't quite as hot as Japan and walking around was quite pleasant. It was also the start of the rain season when we were there which meant the occasional unexpected heavy downfall was actually to be expected, despite the blue sky.

We just had three days in Saigon, on the evening of the 8th we caught an overnight train to Danang. We checked out the Vietnam war museum, which was full of disturbing images but quite interesting. I went to the Mekong delta alone, doing one of the highly inadvisable but cheap tours which quickly take you in and out. On our last day we went to China town, which now feels very Vietnamese, and a couple of buddhist temples. Saigon is extremely busy and the road chaos is reminiscent of India, minus the tuc tucs plus motorbikes. We traveled by foot, taxi, bus and motorbike. The food in Saigon was surprisingly good for vegetarians, and I just discovered that the international vegan chain Loving Hut actually originated here in Vietnam. If you see the word "chay" in any restaurant it means vegetarian, and the local options are often very cheap.

delicious pho at loving hut

The Mekong Delta

Fresh tofu spring rolls

Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon

Scarily convincing rice and veggie pork

The overnight train journey to Danang was in a very comfortable soft sleeper. We arrived in the afternoon on the 10th and immediatly got a taxi to the Blue Clouds homestay in Hoi An. I was a little disheartened on the way into town as we saw so many tourists and so few Vietnamese people, so many sterile looking resorts etc, but Hoi An turned out to be a very pretty little town with a lot to do in the surrounding area. We both briefly got a bit of Delhi belly there, but that didn't prevent us from cycling around the old town, taking a motorbike to the marble mountains and My Son and scuba diving at Cham Island. We also spent a bit of time on the beach... We were in Hoi An just in time for the monthly full moon lantern festival, which made everything look very pretty. Our homestay was particularly nice, with friendly and very helpful staff who went out of their way to help me when I was feeling sick.

Hoi An old town

Lantern festival, Hoi An

Japanese bridge, Hoi An

Hoi An beach with a view of Cham island

Tofu and lemongrass noodle soup

View of Cham island from the Marble Mountains, Danang

A series of impressive buddhist caves

climbing through caves

My Son

Scuba diving off Cham island

Cham Island

Yesterday we took a sleeper bus during the day up to Hue. We are staying in a nice hotel called Hotel Hong Thien 1. There is even a tiny swimming pool... Hue is a quiet and quite laid back city, but I have been quite underwhelmed by the 19th and 20th century tombs, replica of the Beijing Forbidden city and charred remains. Tonight we are taking a sleeper bus up to Hanoi, where will pass a day before taking an overnight train to Sapa. I am looking forward to being back in the countryside, and hopefully somewhere slightly cooler.

Hue Imperial Palace

Khai Dinh tomb, it's more recent than it looks...