When I went blind in the woods

I spent a week camping in the woods as part of a course in survival skills recently, which found me crawling through the forest, blindfolded, at night. Along the way I lost my glasses.


Yup that’s right. That woody, twiggy, leafy woods swallowed my spectacles whole. We were doing an exercise in which we were to find our way back to the campfire at night navigating by the sound of a drum. I took my glasses off in order to tie my blindfold tighter round my head. It was only when I got back to the fire and that I realised my glasses were no longer in my pocket.


The next day a bunch of us returned to our starting spot and rewalked the route, scanning the ground for my glasses. (Thankfully I had some contact lenses with me which I wore instead). It was difficult to know where to look, because I didn’t know which way I had walked/crawled when I was blindfolded and disoriented. The one potential clue to location was that I was probably doubled over at the time, since if I’d been standing up straight they couldn’t have fallen out of my deep pockets. So we looked around areas where there were low level branches and twigs. That didn’t narrow it down much.


It also didn’t help that my glasses are brown and blue and silver. Kind of like the colour of the birch tree twigs littering the woodland floor. After a couple of unsuccessful day time searches, Dan – also a glasses wearer, who made it his mission to help me find mine – joined me on a night time search.


We hoped that perhaps I could manage to retrace the path I took by recreating the disorientation I felt at the time and that the torch light might reflect off the glass/metal parts. As Dan paced behind me shining the torch about, I stumbled, half crawling, through the woods. And look what we found.


They were a couple feet away from a spot we had stood in earlier in the day, where Dan had noticed a small branch that was broken in 2 places – indicating that this path had been trodden more than once. Luckily, no one trod on my glasses.

(Thanks Dan – I couldn’t have done it without you!)

A Sichuan dish: Pork in hot and sour sauce

Here is my favourite Sichuan dish posted now in response to a call from the London food blogger, Helen Graves, of the Food Stories blog.  Helen has just started on a Sichuan food kick and recently shared her first adventures in Sichuan cooking in which she tried out the brilliantly titled “Pock marked woman” Bean-curd dish (I’ve made a variation of this which I wrote about here) and a rather enticing sounding Rabbit in peanuts with hot bean sauce which I must try.

I’m afraid this blog post isn’t strictly a food pictorial like this one (the inspiration for which I explain here), because I didn’t document every single step. I only decided to make the dish at the last minute, I didn’t have all the ingredients, and I was hungry! But since Helen has asked for other things to try, and I need to respond to this while she still has the wok on the hob, this will just have to suffice!

This recipe is from my Chinese Regional Cooking book by Deh-Ta Hsiung which I talked about more here. This dish actually comes from the Hunan province which borders Sichuan to the south-east, but their cuisine is closely affiliated, since they share a passion for hot chilli. The photo above is of the illustration for the recipe from Deh-Ta’s book.

You can see right away, it is one of those seventies cookbooks. Sexy food photography had not yet been born. But it is also one of those recipes that doesn’t match the illustration. Green pepper isn’t mentioned in the recipe (though I’m pretty sure it’s in that photo unless he had access to mega sized chillis!) but I think it looks better like that and tastes right too. In fact it is usually having got a green pepper-or a leek-in my veg bag that inspires me to make this recipe.


  • 300g pork fillet (you don’t really get pork labelled ‘fillet’ in the shops here so I tend to use pork chops)
  • 3-4 chinese dried mushrooms, soaked
  • 1 tbsp chinese pickled cabbage (look for a little packet, may be labelled ‘preserved vegetables’)
  • 2 tbsp bamboo shoots (you can freeze the rest of the tin for next time)
  • 50g hot green chillis (no idea how many that is, I use 2 long thin green ones which-coupled with the HOT chilli paste-seems enough heat for us)
  • 1 leek
  • 1 green pepper (this wasn’t in the recipe, but is in the photo, and I think goes very nicely!)
For the pork coating:
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
For the sauce:
  • 2 tbsp chilli paste (see notes, below)
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame seed oil

One detail of this recipe I haven’t quite got yet – though it doesn’t seem to hurt, is that Deh-Ta says you should “cut the pork into thick slices [and] score the surface with a criss-cross pattern” before cutting it into small squares and marinating in salt, egg and cornflour.  The idea here being, that when you deep fry the pork “each piece opens up like a flower”. This never happens for me. However, I still score the meat each time like a good student. I guess I feel that at least it gives more surface for the egg to cling onto, and more places for the sauce to get a grip. I suppose I should try not doing this one time to see what the difference is.  (I’ll add the results to the comments if/when I do this!)

The other tricky thing here I suppose is the chilli paste. You may find it difficult to locate. I was lucky the first time and found this squat little jar in my local Chinese supermarket that seemed perfect. Then they stopped selling that and the next best thing I’ve found is a much taller jar, whose English language label is titled with “Black beans” but the first ingredient is actually chilli (then soybeans).  This stuff I find I need to chop or grind by hand (it appears to be predominantly black beans) to make it into a paste – the other jar was more a paste to start with. See how you do, and good luck!

Oh one more thing: can I just emphasize that the leek and preserved vegetables are crucial. Okay, so you can probably get away with out the latter-incase you struggle to find them too-but I just tried this with onion instead of leek and it was definitely missing something. So please use leek if you can.


You know what to do with the pork already (as decribed above: score/chop – add to egg, salt and cornflour). The vegetables: chop them all up finely; I find the green pepper should be roughly 1.5cm cubed, same with leek; the other can be chopped smaller, in proportion to their size. Grind the chilli paste if what you’ve found isn’t much of a paste. Get a colander/plate-with-paper-towels on it ready. Put some rice on.

Then heat a couple inches of oil up in your wok (a wooden skewer or chopstick left in the oil will indicate the appropriate temperature when it starts to fizz) and drop the pork cubes in, possibly in 2 batches so you don’t overcrowd it or cool down the oil too much.  You’ll need to give it all a good poke to stop it sticking together. I have an enormous holey spoon that helps with both this task and the fishing out of the pieces later. It doesn’t take long. If the pork pieces open up like flowers please tell me how you did it. If not just take them out before they start to brown. Drain them in a colander and/or on some paper towel. Tip the oil into a saucepan to cool (I then put in a jar for reuse another time).

Add 1-2 tbsp of the aforementioned oil to stir fry the vegetables. They only need a few minutes on a hot heat, stirring ALL THE TIME. Then add the chilli paste and pork, stir well. Then add the soy. Take off the heat, stir in the sesame oil, and serve with rice.


P.S. Deh-Ta’s recipe suggests you add some cornflour slurry at the end to ‘thicken the sauce’. I don’t find I have much of a sauce when I make this dish – just all the flavours which are clinging to the ingredients. There is no liquid left in the pan for the cornflour to thicken. However, if you would like to try making this more saucy, I guess you want to add more water (or maybe chicken stock) and then the cornflour slurry (cornflour/cornstarch mixed with equal parts water) will have something to thicken and you will have a wet sauce.  But I am pretty convinced you don’t need this.

Timelapse self portrait video with an extra dimension

The Longest Way 1.0 – one year walk/beard grow time lapse from Christoph Rehage on Vimeo.

This video is brilliant to watch because of the journey that you get to see a glimpse of as the background to this guy’s walk across China. But the reason I like this video so much -given that the self portrait timelapse video has been done many times before, the best one by Noah which was even parodied on The Simpsons- is that it uses video and not camera, and so each shot that makes up the timelapse has a little movement in it. Not always, but occasionally. From just a blink of the eye, through hair blowing in the gail force winds, to a brother or lover dancing around in the background.  It gives the whole concept a new texture which I haven’t seen before, and I love it.

A summer frenzy of fireworks

For 2 nights each summer, most of its local population descends on Plymouth’s waterfront, the Hoe, and (by boat to) Plymouth Sound to watch 2 nights of the National Fireworks Competition. This year I got to experience this delight for the first time.

Fireworks display on night 1 of the competion

I took the week off to it spend with my friend who lives in Plymouth, and also to celebrate my birthday which happens to coincide with this spectacular event (as well as the annual Perseids meteor shower, which unfortunately we were prevented from enjoying due to cloud cover).

Plymouth is a great location for the fireworks competition because the waterfront of Plymouth is large, meandering and on many levels which means there is no jostling for positions and you don’t have to worry about being stood behind the tallest-person-in-the-world. Having said that, there are definitely some prime spots for watching the fireworks display. The grassy embankment of the Royal Citadel is a prime spot.

People watching the fireworks from the Hoe

In fact on the second day I was walking on the Hoe at about 4pm and I saw people taking up their positions at the top of this embankment already, 5 1/2 hours before the fireworks display begins! Not surprising then, that they were kitted out with deck chairs, tents, tripods and cool boxes.

Photo of a grassy embankment

I’m imagining that the person who made the following video was probably one of those getting into position early. This video is a recording of the winning display which was by a company called Phoenix Fireworks from Sevenoaks. Apparently members of the public could vote online, though we didn’t. If you have the broadband speed, I recommend you watch this full screen and in HD – it’s pretty impressive. Oh and listen to the background commentary too, its quite amusing.

In this photo of one of the lower levels of the Hoe I explored earlier in the day, you can see the jetty from which the fireworks are set off. All the water surrounding the jetty is full of boats during the displays, though overnight mooring isn’t allowed so they all go shooting off to their marinas as soon as the last firework has exploded.

Lower levels of the Hoe with the jetty beyond

Here you can see the little fishing spot where we sat on the 2nd night, with our feet dangling off the edge as we enjoyed our front row seat of the fireworks displays.

Photo of the rocky surrounds of the Hoe

I know I said you don’t have to worry about people getting in the way of your view, but I took this next photo while I was still getting into position. I rather like the way the person’s head has a halo of firework though, don’t you? The big firework above reminds me of photos of jellyfish underwater.

A big blue round firework explosion

You can see all my photos in this slideshow below. They’re a bit blurry but they do capture the scale and calibre of the displays. Check out the reflection of the light in the water. That was really fab.

How I am learning to fly

I’ve been practicing yoga for 5 years now, starting seriously with a couple years of regular Bikram practice, then switching to do a meddley of ashtanga and Iyengar and Hatha yoga. Then I discovered AcroYoga.

Inverted Thai MassageAcroyoga group formationAcroyoga pyramidFlying acro yogis

London AcroYogis doing a demo at The Yoga Show in 2008

Though I practice yoga regularly I’ve never really been part of the community, so it was actually through work that I ended up going the The Yoga Show last year (thanks to Paul of Yogamatters for the ticket!). There I saw a demo by the London AcroYoga team and I walked away thinking “I am going to try that!”.

Acroyoga basing and flying

A little later than than I’d have hoped, due to a strained tendon and some time away, I attended my first AcroYoga workshop (every 3rd Sunday of the month at Globe House near London Bridge). There has been no looking back.

AcroYoga is a combination of acrobatics, yoga and Thai massage. You don’t really need experience in any of the above, but it will help. It shouldn’t replace your yoga practice (I still practice ashtanga/hatha at home) but it compliments it nicely. AcroYoga is different to yoga because you work in pairs or in larger groups, so it is requires you to put your trust and confidence in – and have fun working with – others.

What has really amazed me is how much you can achieve, even when you are new to the game. The teachers are constantly demonstrating a formation which I look at and think “yeah, right!” and 10mins later, with the careful and attentive assistance of a spotter, I’m in the middle of basing or flying it. For that reason it is incredibly rewarding and very addictive! Doing AcroYoga regularly will build up your core body strength, as well as strengthening your arms and legs. I come away from the classes feeling exhilarated.

I urge you to try it.

The video below is a beautiful demonstration of AcroYoga and one which proves that it doesn’t matter how big or small you are – you only need to build up the strength and confidence to be able play.

Related Links

Official AcroYoga website
Jesse Saunders – London AcroYoga teacher Jesse’s website
What is AcroYoga? – on teacher Jaqui Wan’s website

Plaster impressions of real life

I saw this brilliant artwork by Daniel Arsham on the fabulously inspirational Swiss Miss blog.

Daniel Arsham sculpture "Curtain"

If you are familiar with my sculpture making past you’ll instantly know why this caught my attention, but if not, this piece will give you an idea.

Photo of plaster sculpture by Emily Heath

I’m not saying my work matches the level that Daniel Arsham is working on – I am comparing my student work – but I do feel it kind of demonstrates the direction I might have taken my sculpture had I pursued it further. Having given up making art, I do rather love it when I see work like this that makes me think “There. I didn’t need to carry on cos someone else is doing it for me. Good!”

The glamour of independent London shop fronts

There is little bit of magic in the moment when you see a photo of your corner shop or local dry cleaners’ published on the web.  No, really! I suppose in a small way it is like those rare times when you see your local neighbourhood in the background of a mainstream movie.  At least it is rare if you live in Hackney – I’m sure those living in Notting Hill are used to their streets being used as a film set.  I can pretty much guarantee* the streets documented in www.londonshopfronts.com haven’t been used as mainstream film sets, but they are no less fascinating for it.

Glamorous Dry Cleaners - photo by Emily Webber
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Fragrant pork and aubergine cooking pictorial

Inspired by the Chinese Food Pictorials I mention in my previous post I have started to make my own cooking pictorials.  The following photo gallery will show you how I made the aubergine and pork stir fry recipe which I found on the BBC website.

This is a variation on a popular dish called Ma Po Tofu, where aubergine replaces the tofu. When making the Ma Po Tofu dish a couple times before, I found it was much better if you use homemade minced pork instead of shop bought ground pork.  This is a time consuming adjustment that you’ll probably choose to ignore, but I include instructions on how to mince your own pork in the hope of persuading you!

I also recommend marinading the pork as Ah Leung does here (but which I forgot to do in this pictorial) because “white pepper gives it great flavour and authentic chinese taste”. In a mixing bowl, add to the 1/2 or 3/4 lb of ground pork: 1/2 to 1 tsp of ground white pepper, 1 tsp of sesame oil, 1 tsp of corn starch, 1 tsp of light soy sauce, and 1 tsp of ShaoHsing cooking wine. (I’ve included his photo of this process in the gallery).

I only discovered after making my pictorial that you can watch a video of Ching-He Huang making the dish on the BBC website too.  I do recommend watching this for the explanations she gives about adding water to the aubergines when you fry them (you don’t need so much oil) and adding cooking wine to the meat (it gets rid of the ‘rawness’ or odour of meat/fish).

Learning to cook Chinese food

The last couple years I have dedicated a lot of time in the kitchen to learning how to cook Chinese food. I’ve posted about this a couple times already, first here and then here.  In this post I’d like to introduce you to my inspiration and my teachers.

Ingredients for Chicken with Cashew Nuts in Bean/Hoisin Sauce
Ingredients for Chicken with Cashew Nuts in Bean/Hoisin Sauce posted by hzrt8w on EGullet

I was initially inspired by a user of the EGullet forums known as hzrt8w (aka Ah Leung) who posted a series of Chinese food pictorials. Ah Leung is a Chinese American (born in Hong Kong) living in California and as well as being a computer geek he writes these fantastic step by step guides on how to cook his favourite Chinese dishes, illustrated with photos. The photos are obviously just taken on the fly as he makes his dinner, totally anti-food-porn, but they still make me think YUM! I want to make that! So I have gradually been learning to make a handful of his dishes. Admittedly I haven’t been so adventurous as to try the more obscure (to the Western eye) dishes like Stir-Fried Lotus Roots with Dry Conpoy and Hairy Moss Fungi but I’ve tried a lot of the chicken based stir-fries. What is particularly useful about Ah Leung’s pictorials, is the photo he takes at the start of all the ingredients. Sometimes it is hard to find the ingredients you need in the Chinese shop because you don’t know what you are looking for – these photos show you what the containers look like.

Cover of Chinese Regional Cooking
Cover of Chinese Regional Cooking by Deh-Ta Hsiung

I have 2 other sources for recipes, one I already mentioned on this blog, is a book published in 1979 by Deh-Ta Hsiung called Chinese Regional Cooking.  I’m guessing this book was one of the earlier books to try to present Chinese cooking to a western audience. One thing it didn’t get quite right was that it translated the names of dishes into English, so intead of a recipe for Ma Po Tofu (funky!) that recipe is called ‘Pock marked woman’ bean-curd (yuck!). Still, I went ahead and tried making that recipe anyway (it’s one of the easier ones) and it is OK, but I prefer Ah Leung’s version.  The other shortfall of this book – not surprising for its time – is that the recipes tend to use a lot of oil – but once you learn this, it is easy to adjust.  The photography in this book is classic seventies food photography: not that appetising, but it gives you the idea!  What I like about this recipe book is that it includes an introduction to Chinese cuisine: the fundamentals (history and the elements of taste), techniques and how Chinese meals are served.  Then there is also an introductory background to each region that the book covers. A random fun fact for you which I just learnt from his website: Deh-Ta went to the Slade School of Fine Art here in London (in 1960)!

Photo of Zesty Chilli Tiger Prawns from BBC website
Photo of Zesty Chilli Tiger Prawns from Chinese Food Made Easy website

The other Chinese cook I’ve been learning a little more from is the star of the recent BBC TV series Chinese Food Made Easy, called Ching-He Huang. As Deh-Ta’s book was a reflection of his time, so Ching-He’s program is a reflection of the current fashion in cooking – beautiful looking food made by an attractive presenter that doesn’t take long to make.  Ching-He Huang’s main aim in this series was to show us, a nation consuming vast quantities of take-away Chinese every day, that you can easily make the same food at home and it will taste better and be much healthier.   I watched her series out of curiosity: comparing my experience following Ah Leung’s pictorials and Deh-Ta Hsiung recipes, to her methods.  She didn’t marinate her meat, whereas the others would always marinate for at least 20 mins  (I find this fits in while I’m preparing the other bits and it makes the meat noticeably more tender), but Ching-He Huang is much lighter in the use of oil, and finds a good way of including vegetables in her dishes.  She also demonstrated various preparation techniques – you can still watch the videos on the BBC website.

Chinese shop called Great Wall in Lower Clapton taken by Dave Hill
Chinese shop called Great Wall in Lower Clapton taken by Dave Hill

Finally, I was also inspired by the fact that a Chinese shop called Great Wall opened at the end of my road – this was perfectly timed with my discovery of EGullet and my new recipe book.  I find Chinese grocery shops fascinating (well to be honest I find most grocery stores fascinating, especially those selling ‘ethnic’ ingredients) and I can never go in to pick up some noodles/tofu/dried mushrooms without spending some time browsing the peculiar cans, jars, packets, vegetables and live animals they stock their shelves with.  It was also just super handy to have this shop so close (107 Lower Clapton Road, Hackney), and open ’til late (10pm) – so I could not even think about dinner until 7pm and still end up making something new and exciting!  I say this in the past tense because I’ve now moved 1 mile away (towards Upper Clapton) so I have to get on my bike to go to this shop, but its still better than having to go all the way down to Mare Street or worse still, to Chinatown in central London!