Tuesday, March 27, 2007



A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the first novel Xiaolu Guo has written in English (her earlier book,Village of Stone, was written in Mandarin and then translated) and it has been long-listed for the Orange Prize this year, and is a wonderfully endearing, beautifully written and very funny tale of love, identity and language. It is based on the diary in English which she kept when she came to Britain for the first time in 2002.

Zhuang Xiao Qiao, the narrator, is a young Chinese woman who calls herself Z because non-Chinese cannot pronounce her name.
An only child, her parents have sent her to London for a year to learn to study English so that she can return to China and head up international business for their shoe factory. She soon discovers that the English she has already learned before coming to Britain is totally
inadequate. Not long after her arrival in the city she meets a man and embarks on a relationship with him; he is twenty years her senior, a wannabe sculptor who earns his living as a delivery man in his old white van. Z falls in love, moves into his house in Hackney, and learns about sex, love and the English language. She eats in greasy spoon cafes, visits markets, goes to the cinema frequently tries to read newspapers and Virgina Woolf, and goes to a Soho live-sex peep show.

Every chapter begins with a dictionary entry for a particular word as Z slowly learns the intricacies of English, and muses on meaning and how differently things are interpreted in China. At the start of the book Z writes in her very minimalist quirky English which slowly becomes more fluent and sophisticated as her language skills improve. It is interesting to see our mother tongue from the point of view of someone who has to learn it from scratch, Z is bemused by some aspects of our grammar:
"Gosh, verbs is just crazy. Verb has verbs, verb-ed and verb-ing. And verbs has three types of mood too: indicative, imperative, subjunctive. Why so moody?"

"People say 'I'm going to go to the cinema...' Why are there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?"

There is a description of her attempt to read and understand the instruction leaflet that comes with a box of condoms which hysterically funny, and it made me laugh aloud so much that my DH woke up to ask what on earth I was reading.

She takes a month long rail trip round various European cities in Holland, Portugal, Germany, France and Italy, countries of which she knew absolutely nothing before leaving China and her observations on the people and places, just like her observations on London and Londoners made me realise how very differently we are seen when looked at by outsiders.

Back in Hackney she comes to realise that her lover is not going to commit to a future with her, and that eventually they will part.

Rating: 4*


I’ve just made a quick trip to the local high street to buy some fresh bread, fruit and veggies. Between the baker and the greengrocers I was accosted no less than three times by chuggers, all on behalf of the same charity. I began to feel really irritated by them, and quite antagonistic towards the charity they were working for. Its not as if they were rude or anything, they were incredibly perky and in-your-face smiley, but by saying “no” or “not now thanks” I was made to feel as if I was a mean-spirited child killer who wouldn’t give food to a starving man.

I do support charities, charities I know something about and really want to help; but being stopped over and over again by some out-of-work actor wearing a bright tee-shirt with a charity logo is not going to make me part with money. Crouch End Broadway must be one of their favourite target areas in North London because the street is awash with them week in and week out; I presume it gets some results or they wouldn’t be there.

Sometimes people are too busy to have to keep stopping, and they just don’t want to be hassled. Their behaviour today reminded me of a trip to Jerusalem some years ago. My DH and I took the kids to the Mount of Olives and from the moment we stepped out of the car we were surrounded by small Palestinian boys tugging at our clothes and wheedling “I guide you”, “I show you”, “Where you from?” “You American?”, “give me dollar please”, and finally realising we were from Britain “You want see Robert Maxwell grave?”…that was the final straw, I lost my temper and told them to b*gger off….Robert Maxwell’s grave, as if!


For supper this evening we had sausage and mash with courgettes and gem squash; a very ordinary English supper meal, but I decided that tonight I would make the mash a little different using a Japanese ingredient, Wasabi, to which I have become quite addicted. Wasabi is the root of a plant which belongs to the cabbage family, and it is sometimes known in the west as Japanese Horseradish. In fact it tastes more like a hot English mustard than horseradish. In oriental grocers you can buy the fresh root which requires grating, or you can buy it in powder form which is made up into paste using water. Alternatively, and this is what I usually do, you can buy it as a ready made paste in a tube.

This mashed potato is absolutely delicious, not only with the humble sausage, but with many other fish or meat dishes.


1kg peeled potatoes cut into equal sized chunks (use a floury potato such as Maris Piper)
150ml half-fat creme fraiche or single cream
3-4 teaspoons wasabi paste
Salt and pepper

Place the potatoes in cold salted water and boil until just soft enough to mash in the usual way. When mashed, add the wasabi paste and creme fraiche and blend in with a wooden spoon. Season to taste.

You can adjust the amount of wasabi and creme fraiche depending on whether you like your mash to be creamier or spicier.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A SO-CALLED FRIEND SENT ME THIS LINK THE OTHER DAY, I need help, I think I've become addicted, I've wasted so much time, its worse than Sudoku. And, no, I haven't got a clue why its called coldtomatoes.


Set in Nigeria during the 1960s Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a much darker and more serious story to tell than ‘Purple Hibiscus’ her first book which I and many other readers thoroughly enjoyed. At first I found it hard to get into the book, but little by little, as I got to know the main characters, I was drawn in and became totally absorbed.

The background to the story is the complex political situation in newly independent Nigeria which gave rise to a civil war that the west called the Biafran War, following the attempt by a part of the country to secede and form an independent state.

Adichie has skilfully pointed up the various ethnic divisions between the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa tribal groups within Nigeria, divisions which come to have a bloody significance as coup and counter-coup lead to all-out war, a war in which starvation was deliberately used as a weapon. The war is very much seen from the point-of-view of the Igbo people – the author being an Igbo whose parents survived the war.

The story is told from the perspectives of three characters; Uwugu, a young country lad who comes to be houseboy to Odenigbo, a famous Nigerian academic - a maths lecturer in a university town in the part of Nigeria which attempts to become the independent state of Biafra; Olanna, the UK educated daughter of a wealthy nouveau riche Nigerian couple who is in love with Odenigbo and goes to live with him; and Richard, a young Englishman who is in love with Kainene the non-identical twin sister of Olanna, and who is writing a history of the war. Around these three individuals are a larger cast of characters who impact on them in various ways.

My knowledge of the peoples of Nigeria and the political history of the country was extremely limited, so apart from anything else this book provided me with a rough and ready lesson. This book is about civil war from the perspective of a handful of individuals who are caught up in it. Above all, however, this is a book about love, loyalty, betrayal, family relationships and friendships, how these are changed by war and how ordinary people manage to cope during really dangerous and frightening times. Numerous books have been set against the backdrop of the two world wars in Europe and the Far East, but very few as this one set against a modern war, a war in Africa, waged by Africans.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is still a young woman, she is not yet 30, and she has already written two absolutely brilliant books set in her home country; I think she will become considered one of the great African authors of the 21st Century. This book has been long-listed for the 2007 Orange Prize, and seriously deserves to win.

Rated: 4*


Sometimes I could scream – this country is being strangled with thousands of rules and regulations, and petty officialdom loves nothing better than implementing them, even when their interpretation of the regulations is manifestly nonsense.

During the winter months the coast of England is often battered with gales and recently Arthur Bulmen who lives by the sea front in the Lancashire coastal town of Fylde found that nearly seven tonnes of sand had been blown off the beach and into his front garden. It had also blown all over the roads and pavements. The local borough council were busy trying to get the sand removed from the highways and back to where it belonged. Mr Bulmen, being a decent sort of chap (79 years old, retired bank manager) got busy filling his wheelbarrow with the sand from in front of his house, wheeling it across the road and dumping it back on the beach. So what do the cretins who constitute Fylde Council do? they threaten to prosecute him for fly-tipping.

Now YOU know what fly-tipping is, I know what fly-tipping is, and I don’t think that returning sand to a beach fits into that category. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
A Fylde Council spokesperson said:
"The sand is actually part of the Queen's Crown estate,
which owns most of the foreshore around our coasts.
This year has seen an exceptional problem with wind-blown sand.
We have been cleaning up since Christmas.
But the council has no responsibility to clear sand
or any other debris from private land.
The owner must do this
They also said that anything removed from a garden and dumped on the beach constitutes fly-tipping which is a criminal offence and must be prosecuted. Even when it is the same beach sand that they themselves are scraping off the road in front of Mr Bulmer’s house and putting back on the beach. He should employ a specialist waste disposal firm who will put it in a designated waste tip (which would cost him approximately £500).

What truly ridiculous state of affairs – what has happened to common sense?

Tonight I am going to a Hen Party, a Hen Party which is being held in a beauty salon! The bride-to-be is a delightful young woman from Ecuador, and next weekend she is marrying a lad who comes from White River in Mpumalanga. I have been asked to provide something South African for everyone to try, and I thought that there could be nothing better, nor more typical, than the ubiquitous alcoholic milkshake that appears on menus up and down South Africa. So I have packed up my blender, a pack each of coloured drinking straws and plastic tumblers, ice cream and Kahlua in a coolie bag, and a packet of cocktail umbrellas for suitably gaudy decoration and I'm off to enjoy myself sipping a Dom Pedro whilst having either a facial or a manicure What a great plan for an all female pre-wedding bash.

Serves 2

4 scoops (300ml) good quality vanilla ice cream
4 shots liquor of your choice (I use Kahlua but you can use Tia Maria, Amarula or whiskey - in fact you could probably use just about alcohol of your choice)
4 tablespoons double cream.

Whiz all ingredients together in a blender until just mixed (don’t over blend). Pour into two tall glasses and serve with straws for sipping.

WARNING: Do NOT drive after drinking one of these!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Flask of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
from 'The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam'

I’m a sucker for encyclopedias, directories, dictionaries and all other books which gather bits of information together and catagorise them. I also love cooking, eating and reading about food. So when I saw this on the new books pile in my local library I simply couldn’t resist borrowing it, with, I must admit a view to deciding whether to buy a copy for myself when it came out in paperback.
The Compendium of Nosh by Jack McLean looked as though it would be just my sort of thing. Alas, not. As it says on the jacket blurb, the author is “opinionated, idiosyncratic and completely unreconstructed”. This book told me more about Jack McLean than about anything else, and I’m not sure I am terribly interested in him and his views, certainly not enough to buy the book – and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to any of my foodie friends. To give you some idea of the style of writing, and the appalling level of information provided, here are some examples quoted in their entirety:
eeling:This expensive tea is grown in the snowy foothills of the Himalayas. It is much exported to Russia.
These dumplings made from matzo meal are part of a traditional Jewish Passover soup. They are dreadful.
Mulled wine or ale:
Wine or beer heated up with sugar and spices. It is traditional at festive occasions and is thoroughly unpleasant.
If you are at all interested in food, its origins, regional differences in foods and how we use ingredients, don’t bother wasting your time on this book. The author, with an arrogance that is breathtaking, styles himself The Urban Voltaire.

Rated: 1*


A summer picnic (or a winter one for that matter) wouldn't be a proper picnic without a glass or two of wine. And one of the essential items in any picnic kit is a corkscrew, although with the advent of screwcap fixings on wine bottles that isn't quite as vital as it once was. What I will never, never buy - or hope to be served - is a Tulipa, a pre-filled, foil sealed plastic glass of wine. These are the brainchild of a company called Al Fresco who have spent half a million quid "developing the concept". Apparently they are going on sale in the UK in a few months time, priced at £3,75 for a pair. There will be a choice of an Australian red or white wine and a Californian rose.

I can see the clever dick thinking behind this "... imagine that you are going out for a picnic, and you've forgotten the wine, corkscrew, wineglasses. Just pop into a convenient branch of XYZ Boozers Ltd and pick up a double pack of Tulipas" This is a truly ghastly idea and begs so many questions - When will the wine be poured into the glasses? what processes will be needed to foil-seal the glasses, how long will they sit around on a shelf waiting to be sold?

I am not particularly reknowned for my Green credentials, but even I can see that this cannot be an environmentally friendly concept. The "glasses" are plastic and not reusable, the foil seal makes for more waste, and the packaging/production process must use energy rather than conserve it. How much simpler, cheaper, and more eco-friendly to simply open a bottle of wine and pour it into glasses - or mugs, or ladies shoes - whatever fancy takes you.

And how much better it will taste - and after all, that is really the point of drinking wine in the first place.

As part of my current belt-tightening regime, I am determined that no food is to be wasted. Lurking at the bottom of the fruit bowl were four apples, no longer crisp and looking rather unappetising, so I decided to use them together with some rather squashy tomatoes, a head of winter celery which was languishing in the fridge and an onion to make soup. This is a recipe I stumbled across years ago, I can't remember where, and it is ever so easy. It is low-fat, low calorie (if you leave out any garnish of cream!) and yet sophisticated enough for a special dinner - and it makes my halo positively glow when I consider the virtue of frugality!


125g butter
400g onion, roughly chopped

400g apples, roughly chopped (do not bother topeel or core the apples)
400g celery, roughly chopped
400g tomatoes, quartered (do not skin the tomatoes)

750ml chicken or vegetable stock
Salt & Pepper

Melt the butter in a big pan and sauté the onion until soft and golden. Add all the other chopped ingredients. Pour in enough stock to cover the vegetables and bring to the boil, simmer gently for about 30 minutes until all is very soft and almost collapsing into the liquid. Using a hand-held blender (or a food processor) whizz everything together until no lumps remain. Pour the soup through a sieve to remove all the coarse fibres of skin, apple core, celery strings, tomato pips etc.

Add the remaining stock and season to taste.

Serve piping hot with a very thin slice of apple floating on the surface as a garnish, and a thin swirl of pouring cream.

Melba toast is great with this.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

In their hearts a burning hunger, beneath the copper sun.

Johnny Clegg & Savuka


With his latest novel Restless William Boyd has joined the ranks of literary thriller writers such as Alan Furst, Graham Green and John le Carré. Selected by my book club as the March reading, I raced through it, relishing every page.

The story is a double helix with the past life of 65 year old Eva Delectorskaya – who is now known as Sally Gilmartin, twisting round the present day life of her twenty-something daughter Ruth.
At the start of the long hot summer of 1976, Ruth is living in Oxford with her six year old son
and working as a TEFL teacher whilst ostensibly writing her post-graduate thesis. One day her mother presents Ruth with a sheaf of papers which are the details of her early life. To Ruth’s bewilderment her mother is not the person she has always presented herself as being. She was born in Russia, grew up in France and in the late 1930s following the death of a dearly loved brother, she was recruited into an obscure branch of the British Secret Service. Following intensive training into the craft and techniques of espionage, Eva is eventually sent in 1940 to join a small team in New York, who are working covertly to encourage America to join the war. Suffice to say, and without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, Eva eventually returns to Britain, marries and spends the rest of the war in Ireland. After the war she and her husband set up home in England where Ruth is born. Now Eva/Sally feels someone is after her again, and she wants Ruth to assist her in tracking down the one person she believes had betrayed her all those years ago so that she can be safe once more.

Ruth teaches foreign students, many from Iran who oppose the Shah’s regime, and who are possibly members of the Iranian Secret Service or its potential targets. To make her life as a single parent even more complicated, a young German to whom she is tangentially related has foisted himself on her and brought with him a scruffy young woman. The police are interested in this young woman and there are hints that the couple are connected to the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.
As her mother slowly unfolds the story of her past, Ruth is forced to consider the worlds of truth and untruth, suspicion and trust, and how difficult it is to determine what is real and what we are made to believe is real. She comes to realise that her mother has spent her whole adulthood being wary, expecting to be unmasked and even when, after Ruth has helped her to achieve her mission, Eva/Sally will continue being restless and on her guard until her death

Members of my book club have frequently discussed how, when an author writes a first person narrative, where the narrator is not the same sex as the author there is often an artificiality about the book, and the narrator’s viewpoint never quite rings true. However, in Restless I think Boyd has managed the cross-gender voice very well indeed, and has managed to find female perspectives that seem totally natural. He has built the plot up with tiny details piled one on another -and they seem impressively accurate so the reader feels that it must be a “true” story - rather than using a broad brush approach, and I think that is what makes it a literary thriller rather than one of the more common mass-market thrillers that are read today and
discarded tomorrow.

Rated 4 *


When I hear or read news from Zimbabwe I want to scream, yell, do serious harm to Robert Mugabe, and weep, weep, weep.

I spent my formative years in central Africa, and visited or passed through Zimbabwe many, many times. I find it so hard to accept that a fantastic country, with great people, has been systematically destroyed by the crazed, greedy behaviour of this vile man and his henchmen.
This is a country twice the size of Britain, which was once referred to as the breadbasket of
sub-Saharan Africa; it lead most other African nations with its productivity and economy. All gone, all destroyed. Famine now stalks the land, infant mortality has doubled in the past five years, and the average life expectancy of a woman is 34. Today, inflation is running at 2000%.

It joins a list of African nations which have been raped by their own governments since post colonial independence. It didn’t have to be this way.

And today, when the leaders of the official opposition, in what purports to be a democratic country, appear in court having been beaten within an inch of their lives by the police/army following ZANU orders, does our Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett make any fuss, contact the UN Security Council or stop British aid to the country? Does she hell.


This past week the weather has been so sunny and on Sunday we were able to have lunch outside - in early March! I think this is a record for us. Anyway, as Spring is very definately here, and therefore Summer is just around the corner, I have made a huge bowl of a middle eastern salad I absolutely love - to the point of addiction at times. I no longer even bother to measure the ingredients, just sling them together following the recipe loosely. The finished salad should be very green with the tomato and burgul playing second fiddle to the herbs. It is great with grilled lamb or with braaied meats, it also makes a super lunch sandwich in pitta bread with a dollop of Hummus. Hard to believe that something so delicious can be so good for you!


125g burgul (bulgar/cracked wheat)
2 bunches spring onions, washed and chopped
250g tomatoes, skinned, chopped and drained
4 heaped Tablespoons chopped parsley
4 heaped Tablespoons chopped mint
4 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
Salt + Freshly ground black pepper

Put the burgul into a bowl and pour in enough fresh cold water to cover. Leave for ½ hour to soak. Drain, then squeeze dry between your hands.
Put the prepared burgul into a bowl, and add the finely chopped spring onions, mint, tomatoes and parsley. Stir well to mix then stir in the oil, lemon juice and season to taste.

Leave for an hour before serving.

Keeps well in fridge for 2-3 days. Rich in vitamin C.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Horses sweat and men perspire but ladies only glow.

(whoever wrote that must have been on HRT)


American literature has a long tradition of “immigrant fiction”, novels which tell of America through alien experiences and Harbor by Lorraine Adams fits squarely into that tradition.

This is the story of Aziz Arkoun, a young illegal immigrant from Algeria, who arrives in Boston a year before the horrors of 9/11. He arrives as a stowaway on a fuel tanker, and though penniless, injured and unable to speak any English, manages to link up with a group of fellow Algerians many of whom are illegal refugees like himself. He has come to America to escape the bloody civil war in his homeland, and in the hope of earning enough money to build a new, better life and to be able to send money home to his parents. Aziz is haunted by the brutality he has suffered and inflicted back in Algeria, episodes of which are told in flashback. He finds life in this new country lonely and bewildering, ”Days -- no, weeks -- went by without a person speaking to him, and longer still, without someone's eyes meeting his own.”

The other Algerians are a motley crew, some are loosely related to one another and to Aziz, some are working legitimately, some are involved in credit card fraud, shoplifting, drugs and smuggling. They are not religious, taking to drinking, and promiscuous sex with gusto, most of them regard fundamentalist Muslims as “mosque heads”, and they have no real empathy with the politics of terror: ''Irhabiya, khandjiya mujahadeen, jihadists, terrorists. Same, same, same same,'' says one.

Their muddled views on America are frequently based on misunderstanding, and when this group comes to the attention of the various anti-terrorism intelligence agencies this misunderstanding is reciprocated. Relationships, conversations and intentions are misinterpreted in ways which illustrate just how difficult it is to monitor potential terrorists, and how easy it is to get it wrong and let the real culprits slip through the net.

This was a difficult book to read, my knowledge of the Algerian political situation and the civil war is non-existant, and the author describes the incidents in Aziz’s past life in such a confusing way that I couldn’t always tell who was doing what to whom, and became really irritated. The same was true about what was going on with the various Algerians in Boston; trying to figure out what was actually happening was difficult and there were several points where I almost gave up reading. The book jumped from the life of the Algerians in Boston, to Aziz’s tormented military service, to the surveillance of the anti-terrorist agencies and then back again and this fragmented structure made it even harder to get a clear picture of the story. In fact near the end of the book Aziz himself summed up my frustrations when he said:

"The CIA has no one in Algeria. If they did, how would they tell who is who? I am Algerian, and I could not tell."


George Bernard Shaw’s comment that the US and the UK are two nations divided by a common language has become something of a cliché but I was forcibly reminded of it when I came across this new website Conservapedia
Apparently there are a whole lot of people in the USA who find Wikipedia anti-Chrisitian and anti-American, so some of them have set up this new site which they define thus "Conservapedia is an online resource and meeting place where we favor Christianity and America."
How absolutely awful if those poor thin-skinned little Yanks were to be contaminated by the fact that on Wikipedia dates are referenced as BCE or CE rather than BC and AD, and that words are usually given the English spelling rather than the American spelling – eg: flavour not flavor;
Aah, diddums. You SHALL have your own ikkle wikkle encyclopedia on the big bad web. It would be too, too horrid if you had to read anything from another point of view.
Its only finding things like this that make me remember what a huge population America has, and how not all of them are witty, erudite, charming people with a good sense of humour (English spelling) like the Americans I know and love.


Up in Scotland last week I went out to a wonderful restaurant
The Cellar, in Anstruther for a celebratory meal with my APs. I've eaten there several times over the years and the seafood is always superb. After dithering over the delights on the menu I finally chose scallops as my main course. They were divine. Whilst enjoying coffee and a digestif at the bar afterwards, I was wondering aloud why when I cooked scallops at home they were always so tough when the ones I had just eaten were tender as butter. To my chagrin, my musings had been overheard by the chef/patron Peter Jukes, who proceeded to talk me through a master class in how to cook scallops to perfection. Apparently I was making the common mistake of cooking them for too long. Inspired by this, I purchased some fresh king scallops the next day and brought them down to London as a treat for my DH and son.

Here are Peter Jukes' words of wisdom:
Only use fresh scallops, not frozen.
Prepare everything else needed for the final dish before cooking the scallops.
The pan you cook them in should be very, very hot before you put them in it.
Only use a tiny drop of oil to cook them.
Do not put too many in the pan at once.
Place them in the pan and DO NOT, stir them about, shuggle them or anything else for half a minute whilst they caramelise slightly on the base. Then turn them over and cook for a further minute on the other side. A quick squeeze of lemon juice, a knob of butter (or garlic butter) and a quick stir and they are done.

3 King scallops per person
3 asparagus spears per person
6 small new potatoes per person
Salad leaves - I used a mix of frisee, rocket and oakleaf

Juice of a lemon
Garlic butter
Salt and Pepper
A little roughly chopped parsley and
lemon wedges to garnish
(I had six Quail's eggs left over from something else so I added them as well, but they are not essential)

Olive oil for dressing

Boil the potatoes until just cooked, keep warm.
Trim the asparagus spears, and if very large cut each into two, steam until tender (you can do this in a steamer basket over the potatoes).
Place a good amount of mixed salad leaves on each plate.
Cook the scallops as described above.
Arranged the potatoes, cut in half lengthwise, the asparagus and the scallops over the salad leaves. Spoon the butter/lemon juice from the pan over each plate as a dressing. Garnish with a wedge of lemon, and put olive oil on the table in case anyone wants more dressing.