On Ramadan

I now live on top of a bakery, where Old and New Roads meet, next to the oldest lighthouse on the island.

In the mornings, there is sourdough in the air above my bed and The Harbour from the kitchen window. In the evenings, there is a moment just before dusk, when it should already be dark, but the cracks around the doors glow gold, the shadows soften and the walls of my entire, tiny flat are alight.

It lasts eleven minutes.

The first day of Ramadan was a day after storms, where the rain blew in horizontal streams, and rich people’s beachside infinity pools fell into the sea. Through the clouds, someone had found the new moon.

For a little girl in Malaysia, Ramadan meant changed opening hours, enormous feasts at friend’s family homes and trays of tiny, sugary sweets in pastel rainbows.

Golden minutes at sunset were accompanied by calls to prayer, scratchy through the TV, echoes through the window.

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On kitchens

My kitchen is on the sea, sailing to me in boxes.

I have Japanese knives in my suitcase, in newspaper and masking tape. My cocktail shaker is in a wardrobe in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve lost track of the location of my only reliable potato peeler.

There is an Airbnb in a converted nurses’ residence with a bookshelf arranged by colour; charming ferns in the sunroom, but no hot water in the shower after I’ve washed my hair. The kitchen is small, my host wrote to me, but kitted out. Don’t worry, we’ve cooked so many meals in there.

There is a single hotplate for a kitchen with a single crepe pan. On a night of utter desperation, I use it to sear kangaroo.

There are weeks of misshapen couches and musty duvets, spare rooms with juicers in the cupboard and visiting cats. Weeks turn into months, as I sleep in other people’s linen, searching for a place of my own.

I cook in their kitchens: to say thank you, to feel a part of something. I cook for moments of tangible achievement, of identity; because what I make reminds me who I am.

There have always been far flung makeshift dinner parties: poached coconut Nile perch in Juba, miso clam chowder in Amsterdam. But now, even I’m sick of my easy-zucchini-basil-ricotta-warm-gratitude-salad. While toasting slivered almonds to top lamb, I set a tea towel on fire.

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On Sydney

You know the feeling: those afternoons, after an enormous lunch, when the sunshine is delicious, so you curl up for a nap with the sheets twisted around your ankles.

You dream in high contrast - saturated meat dreams - spinning images filled with bad decisions. Then you wake, hours after you thought you set your alarm, and it’s dark. You can’t sleep because you just woke, you don’t know what day it is anymore and there’s a pervasive sense of annoyance; annoyance because even the surreality is vague and restless.

There is familiarity in this new city; a disconcerting sense of stepping backwards into a long-lost Australian childhood, in a place I’ve never lived.

There is a sense of blithe privilege, unacknowledged ghosts; invisible and oppressive. Activewear-clothed entitlement pressing in on all sides until the air is so thick and still, it’s hard to draw a breath.

I find an old friend. We go to a restaurant filled with botanic wall paper and enormous views, eat kingfish carpaccio with cucumber jelly on the deck of a creaky old terrace.

Show me how to love this city, I say. If you can do it, so can I.

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On departures

I didn’t tell people I was going, because I hadn’t told myself.

Sydney was a place where other people moved; after which, we’d agree to meet in other, more interesting places, because Australia was the place you went when you were tired, had had enough, had given up.

I hadn’t given up at all.

There had been years of What-Now conversations with dad on the other side of the world, words turning into a song in my head that never left me alone. His hair now entirely white, self-driving skills dubious. Then a phone call from a newsroom in need of a new correspondent, asking if, perhaps, I’d thought about coming home?

There was no decision made; in its stead, a sort of tacit acceptance, a vague sense of okay.

I packed blindly: a life into 2 x 23kg wheely suitcases.

What do you bring to start over?

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On private chefs

A French woman had been kidnapped, so tourists didn't go there anymore.

Lamu, 2 degrees south of the equator, just south of Somalia: a barefoot island of narrow dirt walkways, lush-lashed donkeys and storied Swahili houses for the European jet set; a new secret.

Over the week of New Year’s Eve, a transplanted community establishes itself, Nairobi relocated to the seaside: addresses and invitations given in the language of rented-holiday-homes. Come for lunch at New Moon, drinks tonight at Bembea.

We know each other from other places: Juba, Mogadishu, Goma, riotous Kenyan dinner parties that end with muddy dancing on the parquet.

Ours is Italian-owned, glazed butterscotch terraces, with a floating scent of almost-jasmine, rising and pervasive, its source a mystery, and a cook named James wearing a chef’s jacket, sweat and earnestness.

What do you like to cook, I ask him.

Fish-chicken-meat-pasta-rice-lobster-thermidor-anything-all, James says.

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On holidays

Johannesburg is a thirsty city.

Winters so dry, your skin flakes in scales and your bones crack so the cold can get inside. Summers wrapped in a hot fog of waiting; waiting for rain, foot-tapping, restless, impatient anticipation of something-but-what.

We wait behind desks, in the traffic, in the lethargy and swirls of dust that blow low along the curbs; we wait for respite, for endings, to be quenched.

Holidays are hard to imagine in cities. But escape can take many forms.

We can pine: longing for salt breezes and bare feet.

We can wish: that we were slurping oysters on Wild Coast cliffs, bowls of amêijoas by the waves.

We can pretend: drive south of the city and eat crisp rissóis de camarão with peri-peri and choose imported tiger prawns from a tray.

Or, we can submit to her seduction: in the gentle calm of December’s empty streets; on rooftops under zigzags of a grand highveld lightshow, accompanied by a bass drum in the sky; in the damp of morning, coffee sipped with the smell of earth and her renewal, the wake of a storm.

We can embrace our city in all her fickleness: her dusty streets and glorious tempests, and drink a holiday toast to her.

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On Kenya's Muthaiga Club

At six o’clock, the power goes out on Bishiara Street.

Mr Bhupa clutches his smartphone, aims its torch at the sewing machine needle.

We stare at the fraying kikoy ballgown in the encroaching darkness. The tailor pats me on the shoulder.

The theme for Nairobi’s Polo Club ball is Arabian Nights. My attempt at flying carpet is a semi-hemmed flying dishrag. 

It is the Muthaiga Club, so I have visions of men in tailored tuxedoes and women draped in jewel-toned silks; Karen Blixen, pink gin, on white tablecloths.

Locals call it The Pink. There are watermelon walls and Doric columns and Legends. Once upon a time, Lady Delamere shot off rounds from her revolver on a founding New Year’s Eve to make up for the absence of fireworks. The crew from Out of Africa were forbidden to film here, so they built a Pink replica. There is an Italian fascist memorial in the Garden Room.

I walk into a crowd of faux Indian maharajas who went lunchtime shopping at Diamond Plaza, deciding that the unintended racial slur was worth the convenience of a mass-produced kaftan. There are bellyfuls of jangly belts and a human rights researcher dressed as Aladdin’s monkey, Abu.

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On farewells

Karin is drinking whisky because it’s the only booze left in the flat.

There’s half a litre of grapefruit juice in the fridge, the dregs of a bottle of white vermouth in the pantry.

The apartment is empty except for three heavy-duty packing crates bound for Amsterdam, the modernist sideboard I’m inheriting, and a corridor of give-away miscellany on the herringbone parquet. Bulbless lamps, bubble wrap.

I’ve brought negroni ingredients, because that’s what we’re supposed to drink on a night that’s nearly the last.

The last remaining orange is dusted in flour and black sesame seeds. I wash it in the bathroom sink with a bit of hand soap, and slice it into our glasses.

We stand and sip at the kitchen island where we’ve drunk countless cups of Earl Grey, poured wine through unending renovations, eaten Sunday afternoon madeleines, planned adventures, toasted a marriage, commiserated break ups and break ins, and sipped negronis; so many negronis.

Now it is covered with keys which open unknown doors. The ghost of where her pasta maker used to sit is pale and clamped to the granite.

The Camper Red table where we ate fresh angel hair and brown butter tomatoes has been disassembled. There are no more St Joseph’s lilies. Strange men will move in next week.

My life has been peppered with departures. I can’t say goodbyes.

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On legacies

When I come home from long trips, I always make the same thing: a slow-simmered chicken broth, rich from carcasses, necks and sea salt, with generous handfuls of garlic cloves and watercress, wilted so it melts over the meat.

I eat it in an enormous blue china bowl, with spoonfuls of rice in my soup spoon. I pick the meat off with my fingers when it’s cooled, dip it in soy laced with fresh red chillies.

It is a bowl of Ah Keng, my childhood nanny, her dish for Sunday afternoons when a return to school was nigh.

People leave their imprints on us: watermarks on our lives, visible if you look closely enough.

She is there too, in the placement of my thumb on a knife blade, when scaling fish.

I hear my dear, old, English friend Ed, every time I say “dee-LISH-us”; onomatopoeicly mouth-watering.

There are dishes and longings, bequeathed and inherited. I’ve always hankered for carpetbagger steaks: thick-cut fillets stuffed with fresh oysters, last seen on menus in the 1960s, a staunch favourite of my mother’s.

When I look at broccoli, I see my Italian half brother’s Pugliese orchiette, boiled in the same pot, until it metamorphosises into creamy sauce, tossed with anchovies and chilli.

When I think of Greece, it is of the happiest day I can remember: dripping salt from a foraging dive next to a crooked peninsula, legs dangling in glassy water from a boat named for the moon; fresh urchins perched on my lap, delicate ahinos roe to be gently lifted from shells, licked from fingers.

When relationships end, you must unknot lives that have become intertwined.

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On returning

When I turned 21, we went to the seaside.

It was spring, so we drank champagne on the pebbles in folds of viscous mist with disembodied hands and plastic glasses, picked at clams in paper cups.

We lay on Brighton Pier and stretched bare legs in pocketfuls of sunshine blown by the seabreeze. We went to a restaurant with enormous windows and ate panfried sole with beurre noisette.

It was an escape from London that involved running for the train. Later, the escapes spanned continents.

Returning is a peculiar thing. It lacks the profundity of epiphany, yet buries itself in your skin, your hair; woodsmoke the week after a fire.

There is fleeting familiarity on every London corner; uneasiness, gentle self-judgement.

There I am: terrifyingly young and blithely confident; on the Tube reading Alexander McCall-Smith.  There is the scent of stale Saturday nights, the imprint of crushed grass-blades on my belly. Purring bicycle chains, slow breaths of posh gardens wilting in the heat; twinges of annoyance at the tourists who never stand on the escalator-right.

It returns, in wheezing flashes.

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On grieving

When I came back to my flat, they’d eaten all the chocolate.

They’d scaled the side of the building, packed my mother’s jewellery, my work archives on hard drives, my Converse trainers, my whisky, into my backpack, urinated on my bathroom floor, and then absconded.

There was no chocolate left, so I ate teaspoons of peanut butter instead.

In the highveld cold, next to an ineffective halogen heater, I wore Mexican wool socks and considered recent events.

Other breakups had taken place in more understandable surroundings: over a flour-dusted kitchen bench while making Christmas mince pies, over countless glasses of wine during countless circular conversations.

This one had taken place over WhatsApp, with a single line. The reverberations from the shock of out-of-nowhere black and white finality inscribed on a smartphone hadn’t fully faded.

I stared at my empty jewellery box and thought of my mother, ten years after her passing.

I went through the motions.

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On hearts

On a narrow street in Rivonia, in a room of plastic tablecloths, you can order a plate of hearts.

At the Little Sheep, they’re of the chicken variety and served raw - dark, shrivelled things, thawing on a saucer - for you to cook yourself, in a tub of bubbling Szechuan stock.

Other hot pot ingredients are easily executed: fish balls can be left boiling for an hour; paper-thin slices of beef only need seconds. Hearts are particular.

Slowly simmered at the right temperature, they are tender, a delicately-fibred cut; yet, any great shocks - too hot, too quick - and they become gumboot tough, unyielding.

Hearts need care.

The Japanese have two words for heart. Hāto, the organ; and kokoro, the heart, mind and spirit, the essence of a being. When they make yakitori, they use both.

For weeks, my own heart, recently broken, wouldn’t allow me to eat.

I was offered tea, toast, cake, whisky. I chewed dutifully, tasted nothing.

For days, I sat, heart thudding hopelessly fast against my ribs. When it quietened down, I would check to see if it was still there. I wondered how a part of me that was capable of loving so fiercely could feel so hollow.

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On ambition

We’re renovating my childhood home.

Recently reclaimed from the clutches of a house-sitting cousin and her giant guinea pigs, it’s an old block of chocolate face-brick on the West Australian coast, near the Indian Ocean, with cupboard nooks full of dusty memories.

I found myself knee-deep in old Tupperware and Moulinex food processors circa 1983: melamine and plastic, scratched and desolate.

In the depths of the pantry, shadows lurked: an unopened Black & Decker SnowMate, for Malaysian ice kacang and mojitos. Chinese claypots for slow-cooking in a nest of charcoal. A smiling Kitchen Helper set of every slicing blade imaginable. A Fujimaru teppanyaki griddle, three juicers and a waffle iron.

I don’t recall having eaten anything produced with the aid of any of these items.

It is a collection curated with deft domesticity, with visions of sumptuous big-haired dinner parties: lavish with melon balls, and hope. My mother hated cooking, yet planned for greatness.

Her culinary ambition - however misplaced - is part of her legacy, bequeathed to the next generation.

Easter has always been a time for enthusiasm.

For years now - through baking sessions of hot cross boulders, and Good Friday fish braais - I have longed to roast the Bunny himself.

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On substitutes

My Greek boyfriend’s mother was in the country, and I needed to impress.

It would be a romp across wine country, thought I, lubricated by copious amounts of chenin blanc, interspersed with sun-speckled lunches under 100-year-old trees, accompanied by light laughter and birdsong.

There was the charming sandwich lunch at Babylonstoren with greens from their garden, watercress vichyssoise and mildly-underseasoned-but-still-delicious antipasti under the plane leaves at Bread & Wine, riverside breakfasts by our little Franschhoek cottage of fresh croissants and sweet locally-smoked trout. All was going to plan.

Then, we went to Zevenwacht.

It was to be a strategic pit stop, a place to leave luggage and sleep en route to the city, departing so early, breakfast didn’t matter. But an afternoon nap was non-negotiable, I was told; a drive to Stellenbosch for dinner was out of the question. Cancel the booking at Makaron. Let’s eat here.

The Manor House sits on the lake, with its piped soundtrack of Blind Melon. Occasionally the waitstaff sing along. Its turn-of-the-19th-century walls are lined with black and white images of sad jacarandas, possibly reprinted from someone’s daughter’s high school photo project. Its menus are heavy, laminated in plastic, and contain such joys as R96 gourmet burgers with slap chips.

The grilled aubergine arrived in enormous undercooked slabs, slathered in a cream over-salted by the tears of anyone who tasted it. “Oh, the rocket is perfect!” exclaimed Effie, of the garnish. We poured her more merlot.

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On survival

There’s that old conversation starter, for awkward dinner parties: What would take to a desert island? Who would you want to be with?

I’ve always been concerned with a much more primal enquiry: What would you eat?

Icelanders have answered it.

It’s bleak on their patch of lava, with the 2ºC Arctic Ocean swishing around, a whole lot of lot of volcanoes, winter and darkness, and only the occasional tree.

When the Vikings arrived, they had to feed themselves out of some poisonous sharks and a few seasick sheep. So everything that’s traditionally Icelandic is about survival: killing things, eating all the bits of every animal and making things last.

There wasn’t enough wood, so those wiley pagans smoked animals in their own manure. They still do.

They dried cod in the seabreeze, fermented skate in barrels til it turned to ammonia, buried sharks in the rocks to try to get rid of the cyanide in their flesh, and made all the animals’ insides sour with whey.

They found enormous whales landing themselves on beaches, dolphins prancing about their fjords, and ate those too.

Last Friday, I found myself on a boat, in such a fjord, staring at a baby-pink buoy and a man with a gun. Asgeir was on the hunt for dolphins.

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On comfort food

I’ve been living in a small Icelandic fishing town.

It’s home to 800 people, snowy mountains on three sides, the sea on the other. No one’s seen the sun for 54 days. Troll FM is the local radio station. Festivity is brewing vodka in your garage, taking it to parties in 1.5L Coke bottles.

One of the town’s two policemen invited me to dinner, a three-pronged affair: a Viking feast to fight the dark, the yearly recital for the hobby farming association, and an annual commemoration of pagan sacrifice to Thor, despite conflicting opinions about whether he was the old King of Norway or the God of Thunder.

It’s been a frustrating mating season for Jón, because his latest ram acquisition turned out to be gay. Still, at the Bóndadagur BYO banquet, there are platters of sheep everything, sliced, on foil.

There is svið, pressed lamb head, in terrine form, with at least five different textures, gelatinously tender and reminiscent of cold chicken. There are boiled testicles, lightly salted, in honest, cold slices: like slightly spongey sweatbreads, dense and delicious. Anna, next to me, sneaks me a half of a hot one, lightly smoked: like mouthfuls of warm, sweet fish roe.

There is sweet béchamel sauce, poured from a Thermos onto mashed turnip and hangikot, magenta slices of lamb smoked over local manure, with the intensity of an airport smoking room.

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On fried chicken

During February’s rains, a tent city emerged from the damp cement roof of Pretoria’s central post office: a buzzing metropolis of metal poles, canvas, gaffer tape and tripods.

For nearly eight months, the corner of Madiba and Palace Streets became home to thousands of satellite engineers, photographers, fixers and correspondents, who spent their year covering a never-ending celebrity murder trial.

Who was to feed them all?

Behind the BBC’s prime real estate, candy-striped PVC rose from the pavement, exhaust fans all a-whir.

Fried chicken: the sustenance of good journalism, so one enterprising Dros Fried Chicken franchisee thought.

It proved popular with schoolchildren, peckish after their autograph-imploring screams. The foreign reporting hordes mostly wrinkled their noses and headed for the fried chicken salad (on iceberg, more socially acceptable) at Tribeca, down the road.

What makes your chicken special? I asked Eckhart, a broad man in a broad Dros-red golf shirt.

He paused to consider with furrowed brow.

Is it free range? Organic? South African? I pursued.

“It’s, um, frozen,” Eckhart looked pensive.

Rows of fried chicken pieces - breaded on site with an egg wash - sat on pyrex in a little glass fronted warming cabinet, as if Colonel Sanders’s tannie had donned a hair net and opened a food truck.

I ordered a thigh, which came with half a Parson’s nose. As I passed the Sky News tent, telltale carton in hand, Jeremy Thompson appeared, eyebrows raised.

“You’re a brave woman,” he told me.

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On summer

For some reason, I’ve started chipping my teeth.

I went to see my dentist - with whom I have a long-standing annual Valentine’s Day engagement - on an emergency basis, during Wimbledon.

As he and I watched the lithe Chinese number two seed get knocked out on his ceiling-mounted television, I sought advice.

What can I do to stop my teeth falling out, I asked.

“Meditate,” he answered.

It turns out I grind my teeth. From stress, Dr K believes, compounded with self-inflicted structural weakness. So the bits of my incisors falling off at will can all be traced back to the first critical crunch.

It was a crab claw in Maputo, eaten cold, with a dollop of tangy mayo on a 16th floor balcony: one of those scarlet shells, thicker than a bread plate and equally solid.

I remember thinking, at the time, it was all worth it.

My Mozambican crab love affair has known no bounds. The best I’ve had was out of town, north of the capital, in the Bairra dos Pescadores, a cluster of fishermen’s huts, next to their dhows.

We went for fish, but that Thursday they hadn’t caught any, so I bought a dozen enormous mud crabs, the size of rugby balls, pulled out of fresh malarial waters, instead.

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On fish

Last week, I cooked for my boyfriend’s mother for the first time.

She is Greek. He is an only child. I was suitably terrified.

We were in Athens, so I spent the morning traipsing around the Varvakios market, wandering the bloodied alleys between glass fronted fluorescent butchers’ stalls, prodding rows of glistening bream, being winked at by gregarious fishmongers.

I settled on Martha, a buxom Romanian with a hiccupy laugh, a damp store sign celebrating her love for Obelix, and the only trout in the market. “From the North”, she nodded vigourously.

The fish looked perfect: clear glassed eyes, bright red gills, unbroken mottled skin, fat and happy. I bought two.

That night, gulping a calming Aperol spritz, I rolled out some old favourites: grilled strips of zucchini and halloumi, with lashings of lemon zest olive oil and triple-washed basil from the dusty inner-city balcony (home-grown, more charming). An vaguely Middle Eastern roast sweet potato salad with fresh figs and crumbled chevre, chilli and a stovetop balsamic reduction.

Everyone made the right noises while eating.

Just wait for the main, Yiannis told his mother, it’s a surprise.

I’d decided to roast the trout, rubbed with sea salt and black pepper and crushed local oregano, and when the skin started going crispy on top, I toasted crushed almonds and threw them over with a handful of fresh pomegranate. I was terribly pleased with myself.

Then I served it.

Damn you, Martha.

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On instagramming

Three Saturdays ago, I went to watch a friend showjump. We sat in the sunshine on plastic chairs in front of the stables and listened to a nasal MC gush about lilac ribbons to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga.

The sweet woman selling breakfast rolls out of an upcycled horse cart refused to give me a second slice of limp bacon, “Madam doesn’t allow it,” she told me. Then a small dog peed on my coat.

So we drove to an office park in Ferndale, sat down at the corner Italian under a green umbrella, and ordered Sangria and calamari fritti and stracciatella soup. It came, delicate fronds of egg swimming in a warm parmesan broth: a Roman grandmother’s hug in a bowl. It was one of those moments when everything makes sense again.

We passed around the spoon.

“Shame, you really can’t take a photo of that,” my friend Karin said.

We stared at the bowl, pale and beige and lumpy.

My main, an enormous dish of trippa, was equally unphotogenic. I considered my plate. The strips of tripe, slow-cooked to the texture of butter, in a subtle red sauce creamy with meat juices and melted fat, was never going to be an Instagram ingenue. But its reality could take on a million Pinterest “Things I want to eat” walls in an instant, leaving the crumb carcasses of blueberry and goat’s cheese pizzas in its wake.

How did truly good food get trumped by prettiness?

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