Yum wha…?

•June 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Many of you will know that, at one point in my life, I lost a great deal of weight over a couple of years. It gave me a wonderful appreciation of food funnily enough, going through that process. Real food. The stuff that grows in the ground, or comes off trees, or even wanders around a paddock. There’s nothing like counting kilojoules, and comparing what one food actually DOES for you over another food, to really understand and marvel at the way real food works with our bodies, while artificial or heavily processed foods, to a one, do very little for us. They are good only for entertainment, rather than nourishment, offering nothing in the way of actual nutrition.

When you’re watching what you eat, it doesn’t take very long to realise that you can eat ‘real’ food all day long, and meet your kj-limited target with room to spare. Add just one ‘treat’ (a bit of danish, or a Maccas burger), and it suddenly becomes a struggle to reign in your kj spend for the day. (Of course, there are giant exceptions to this. Cook yourself a nice, all-natural apple pie, and you’re still in the red. Load yourself up with lovely, natural butter, sugar and cream, and all the vegies in the world aren’t going to help you.)

The thing is, I am now back on the wagon. After spending six months swanning about starry-eyed in a wonderful new relationship, with love arriving in the form of devil-may-care midnight veal scallopini-eating, double cream dessert-dipping and calorific cocktail-sculling, it has come to my attention that I could use a little dietary re-education. I have taken a rather monastic week aside to get this started. I have been documenting every morsel, remembering the value of real food and realising how far I have strayed from the fold.

But, sooner or later, I knew I’d need to re-enter the sociological mainstream, outside my determined, diarised dietary cocoon. It usually happens around Day 3. Still filled with zeal and vinegar, but now with added lunch invitation. And a family yum cha is too good to refuse at the best of times. Admittedly, with a squash game booked in the very near future, I have the kj to kill. So I went, today. With absolutely no idea where it all stood within my carefully constructed dietary framework, apart from avoiding the brown, glistening food and eating lots of the steamed stuff.

So how to attain calorific clarity when fitting in this lovely blow-out of a meal? The calorie counters on the internet and iPhone apps are so very obviously drawn from American sources, despite their conversion to kj for me. You know why? Every single item on their list has a brand name. I looked everywhere this morning for “apple” on my own little iPhone dieting app. I could find apple pie, apple turnover, spiced apple cider… but apparently, no-one has ever eaten a raw apple before. Those poor processed-food junkie ex-Puritans. It’s a sorry state of affairs indeed – well, if my freebie, half-baked iPhone app is to be believed.

And, like the exotic apple, yum cha (dim sum to some of you) is one of those things that lacks representation in most of these lists. It may be a staple for Sydneysiders, but calorie counters seem to intimate that, unless your prawn dumplings come from a freezer in a supermarket near you, it doesn’t exist.

Which is all an extremely longwinded way of saying, voila. Here you are. (Well, mostly for me, but I feel you can well use it, too.) A yum cha nutrition list, derived from a few different sources on the web (as with all things on the web, I don’t stand by this information in any way – and you can always look here at the Calorie King list which varies satisfyingly wildly with what I’ve documented here). Looking at this now, post-lunch as it were, it turns out that yum cha is not just yum cha. Like everything, it’s all about the choices you make. Stick with the steamed dumplings and you could have a feast and still stay on target. Or have one fried something-or-other, and find your whole plan blown out of the water. Either way – enjoy!

Steamed Siu Mai (dim sims)
Serving Size: One piece; Calories: 58 (244 kj), Total Fat: 3.8g, Carbs: 2.8g, Protein: 3.5g

Bbq Pork Buns, Steamed (Char Siu Bao)
Serving Size: 1 Bun (56g bun, 9.42g pork); Calories: 150 (630 kj), Total Fat: 2.9g, Carbs: 26.7g, Protein: 4.3g

Chicken Bun (Guy Bao)
Serving Size: 1 bun; Calories: 90 (378 kj), Total Fat: 1g, Carbs: 16g, Protein: 3gg

Steamed Prawn Dumpling (Har Gau)
Serving Size: One shrimp dumpling; Calories: 44 (185 kj), Total Fat: 1g, Carbs: 5.3g, Protein: 3g

Chicken Feet
Serving Size: 100 g; Calories: 215 (903 kj), Total Fat: 15g, Carbs: 0g, Protein: 19g

Turnip Cake (pan-fried)
Serving Size: 100g; Calories: 130 (546 kj), Total Fat: 5.7, Carbs: 16g, Protein: 3.2g

Sticky Rice Wrapped In Lotus Leaf (lo Mai Kay)
Serving Size: 100g; Calories: 210 (822 kj), Total Fat: 6.7g, Carbs: 30g, Protein: 7.6g

Steamed Rice Noodles with Prawn
Serving Size: One plate; Calories: 75 (315 kj), Total Fat: 1.6g, Carbs: 12g, Protein: 2.9g

Steamed Rice Noodles with Beef
Serving Size: One plate; Calories: 83 (349 kj), Total Fat: 2.8g, Carbs: 12g, Protein: unknown

Steamed Rice Roll W/ Pork
Serving Size: 100g; Calories: 140 (588kj), Total Fat: 6g, Carbs: 17g, Protein: 5g

Deep Fried Taro Dumpling (wu Kok)
Serving Size: 100 g; Calories: 360 (1512 kj), Total Fat: 26g, Carbs: 26g, Protein: 6g

Fried Shrimp Ball
Serving Size: 1 ball; Calories: 116 (487 kj), Total Fat: 1.8g, Carbs: 3g, Protein: 18.6g

Baked Bbq Pork Puff Pastry Bun
Serving Size: 100 g; Calories: 440 (1848 kj), Total Fat: 31g, Carbs: 31g, Protein: 8.9g

Fried Onion Pancake
Serving Size: 1 Pancake (92g); Calories: 232 (974 kj), Total Fat: 6.5g, Carbs: 37.5g, Protein: 5.1g

Steamed Pork Ribs With Black Bean Sauce
Serving Size: 100g; Calories: 220 (924 kj), Total Fat: 15g, Carbs: 6.3g, Protein: 14g

Deep Fried Meat Dumpling (ham Sui Kok)
Serving Size: 100 g; Calories: 330 (1386 kj), Total Fat: 16g, Carbs: 42g, Protein: 4.9g

Steamed Egg Custard Bun/sweet Milky Bun
Serving Size: 100g; Calories: 250 (1050 kj), Total Fat: 6.4g, Carbs: 44g, Protein: 4.3g

Salted Meat Sticky Rice (ham Yuk Chung)
Serving Size: 100 g; Calories: 180 (756 kj), Total Fat: 6.7g, Carbs: 25g, Protein: 5.7g

Pan Fried Beancurd Sheet Roll (fu Pi Kuen)
Serving Size: 100 g; Calories: 310 (1302 kj), Total Fat: 26g, Carbs: 4.1g, Protein: 14g

Pork And Peanut Dumpling (fun Kor)
Serving Size: 1 dumpling; Calories: 41 (172 kj), Total Fat: 1.3g, Carbs: 4.5g, Protein: 2.5g

Pork Congee With Preserved Egg
Serving Size: 1 Cup; Calories: 208 (874 kj), Total Fat: 10g, Carbs: 16g, Protein: 13.6g

Steamed Bean Curd (tofu) Sheet Roll W/ Pork And Veg
Serving Size: 100g; Calories: 260 (1092 kj), Total Fat: 22g, Carbs: 3g, Protein: 11g

Steamed Minced Beef Ball
Serving Size: 100g; Calories: 180 (756 kj), Total Fat: 14g, Carbs: 6g, Protein: 8g

Peanut Butter Sauce (Chinese version)
Serving Size: 1/2 plate; Calories: 250 (1050 kj), Total Fat: 5g, Carbs: 35g, Protein: 4g


Feasting on Autumn

•April 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It’s been way too long between posts; but with the balance swung too far towards time spent in the real world, rather than online, I can’t be unhappy with that.

However, with my very favourite foodie time of year upon us, I couldn’t help but share a few autumn harvest ideas.  First up: mushrooming.  I love mushrooming.  The very act of driving into the State Forests round Oberon, west of the Dividing Range here in NSW, with a basket and a knife to harvest wild mushrooms and blackberries, feels like a fairytale every time.  This year, even more so, accompanied by the gorgeous Polo, who brought his mad mushrooming (and photography) skills as we traipsed around grinning like idiots, gently moving aside the forest floor of pine needles to uncover juicy, orange mushies for our cooking pot.

This season has been a bumper crop – way too many to bring home.  We were tripping over them everywhere – particularly the saffron milkcaps, though the slippery jacks were just starting to appear, too.  But, while there is lots of information about the milkcaps online (my recommendation: roasted whole or halved drizzled with olive oil, plenty of garlic and a little salt), there is much less about how exactly you go about preparing a slippery jack.

The slimy coating on the mushroom is not only offputting, it can make you sick – but peeling the mushroom of its outer layers is the best way to just use the delicate, really delicious inner meat.  Here’s how we did it:

With a small paring knife, peel off the outer skin over the top of the mushroom.  Then, turning it over, use your thumb to gently coax the spongey undersurface off the mushroom as well.  Ensure you DON’T wash the mushroom during any of this process – it soaks up water like a sponge, ruining the texture of the remaining creamy mushroom meat.  Then, use like you would any mushroom!  I’d say they’d be particularly tasty in a linguine, or in a fairly delicately flavoured sauce for veal.

(Please note, I’ve included photos of the most fairytale-like mushrooms – red, with white spots – because they’re pretty and photogenic and make me want to watch a Disney movie – or play Super Mario Bros – but please don’t touch them out there in the real world… they’re very poisonous.)

Now, while you’re at it, it’s also the season for chestnutting.  They drop from the tree in clusters, wrapped in spiky little sacks, which are easily removed with a deftly placed foot on one side to split it open.  I dearly want to go – but there’s been no time, and I’m ashamed to say my chestnut gathering this year went on at the supermarket rather than out at Mt Irvine (a fantastic place which is worth a visit simply to taste a fresh, sweet, soft walnut straight off the tree – you’ll never want to have one of those aged, bitter old biddies from anywhere else again).  Still, chestnuts are very cheap right now, and, being not that well-used by Australians generally, they’re quite exotic and fun to plan a menu around.  Mine are planned to either stuff a goose, American thanksgiving-style, or perhaps a pork roast.  The fig season is very sadly drawing to a close right now, but if you do find some stragglers, I can’t help but think about how delicious a chestnut-stuffed roast pork would be, served with an apple and fig compote.  Just saying.

As a side note, for those who feel uncomfortable putting different ingredients together in a dish without a recipe, and wondering if they’ll gel, it’s amazing how seasonal commonality is a great place to start.  Chestnuts, apples and figs for autumn, or quince and walnuts; lamb and new spring veges for spring; berries and stonefruit for summer.

In the meantime, in honour of the colder weather, I also recently invested in a slow cooker…  It seems like a slightly nanna purchase, but we quickly figured out a nice weekend timetable for it.  Set it cooking at lunchtime/early afternoon.  Head out on the town.  Drink and be merry.  Come back home late and in the mood for something filling (rather than the usual Bacon Deluxe munchie stop), and luxuriate slightly drunkenly in the heady smell of cooking when you walk in the door.  Alternatively, set it overnight on a weekday, put the meal in the fridge as you leave for work, and salivate all day, thinking about the dinner that’s already prepared and ready for reheating when you get home.  Yes, I am now a fan of the slow cooker.  And this is some fairly healthy cooking – using usually around a tablespoon of oil for about 3 1/2 litres of food – although the use of cheaper cuts of meat means your fat percentage is pretty variable.

All up, there’s a reason why the American Thanksgiving feast happens in Autumn.  Harvest time is traditionally a time of abundance when you all revel in the plenty your fields and farm have (hopefully) provided, eating fruit from the trees, nuts from the orchard and drinking cider by the bucket with the buxom wenches from next door.  These days, a little has changed (just a little) – but being able to eat produce that really has been freshly and very recently picked (even by your own hand, in the case of mushrooming), as opposed to missing out on that explosion of flavour that is the first to disappear in supermarket cold storage… it’s still a buzz, and worth celebrating with at least one feast.  BYO buxom wenches.


•November 3, 2010 • 2 Comments

As all bad good news stories do, this started with Good Food Month.  Yes, I know it’s now called the Crave Sydney Food Festival. I just like the old name better. Either way, October in Sydney has become, for me and my ilk, more of an endurance event than a mere foodfest.  As I watch my friends and colleagues drop one by one with sudden bouts of pancreatitis (or just acute indigestion and neverending hangover), I do try to pace myself these days; stepping carefully over the bodies strewn on the foodie path, it’s so important to choose your events, like battles, carefully.

One thing, though. I was never going to get around going to the Cheese Showcase in The Rocks – a follow-on from the annual Australian Specialist Cheese Awards. Housemate made it so.

Housemate is obsessed with cheese. He holds Will Studd as one of his heroes; TiVo is set to record every episode of Studd’s Cheese Slices telly series, and we’ll watch it four episodes at a time. Thus, my fairly metered diet is punctuated regularly with ridiculously cheese-based meals. The only faint nod to health is using fruit, such as pink lady apple slices, rather than crackers if we can. And no, I am certainly not complaining. Because this is a House of Quality Cheese. No storebought stuff here.

The Cheese Showcase didn’t start out as a bacchanal. Actually, I felt it was all quite measured. I particularly wanted to pick up a little goats’ cheese for the blog-aforementioned pumpkin salad, so this seemed like a good way to do it. And goats’ cheese is most certainly at the forefront of local cheese production right now. Big, soft, handmade mountains of goats’ cheese. Covered in edible ash and mould. Or marinated, like the beautifully flavoured ‘Cardi’ cardamom-soaked goats’ cheese from Yarra Valley Dairy, a gold medal winner in the marinated fresh curd category that I ultimately brought home (the cheese, not the medal).

And sheeps’ milk cheese. Showing maturity of flavour and complexity and sophistication that could only survive right here, in the midst of the Masterchef generation, and now, after decades of proud multiculturalism that has widened our experience and the reach of our tastebuds.

Would you believe, I even picked up one of my favourite cheeses of all time, tasted for the first time there in a tent: the Shaw River Buffalo Cheese Buffalino. This is a concoction which manages to be creamy, crumbly and almost waxy in texture, all at the same time. It’s very mild and pale, coming from the sweet, porcelain white milk of Australia’s only dairy-bred water buffalo herd, but with a nutty finish that makes it more than able to be eaten alone. I’ve checked. Several times. (Their buffalo mozzarella took out the gold in its category, too). On top of that, they tell me that water buffalo milk contains about 30% more calcium and a higher level of antioxidants than bovine milk. Considering the taste and the unbeatable texture, they could pretty much tell me it’s filled with nicotine and manure – I’d still wolf it down. But it’s a lovely plus.

The elevation to bacchanalian proportion, however, came at the Capra goats’ cheese tent. This is where the wheels fell off. Capra, just like Yarra Valley Dairy (of course) and Shaw River Buffalo Cheese, is based in Victoria. A state I now want to visit more and more, and would cheerfully call the foodie capital of Australia. The cheese. The wine. The produce generally. I remember turning up at Bress Wine and Cider in Harcourt one sunny day, to find Adam Marks himself chasing the rooster and chickens around with some giggling kids. The whole place was full of that almost effortless European provincial style, and spontaneity, and tastings. Ah, the cider tastings. No wonder the stuff tastes like joy itself.

But where was I? Ah – Capra. This, to me, was where Australian cheesemaking, particularly with goats’ milk, finally all came together. Every single product here was, is, of international standard. You just wouldn’t have found this kind of thing anywhere in Australia, say, ten years ago. Sure, we have a long way still to go, considering the continued stupidity of the archaic laws still banning the local production of raw milk cheeses, but again, the market has finally caught up with the complexity that’s possible with a good, sophisticated soft cheese. We now know that they should be left to mature, like a fine wine, and acclimatised to room temperature – not wolfed down straight from the fridge. Well, I hope we do. Mould doesn’t scare us now – it seduces us. We’re ready for the next level, and that’s what I found in that tent.

Which is all a very longwinded way of explaining why, today, I have a cheese hangover. Last night, having stuffed some artichokes with feta, garlic, mint and parsley (as loosely based on the beautiful Artichokes Rusticana served by Tim the chef at small bar Love Tilly Devine), we sat down to an entire heart-shaped, super-mouldy, smelly, aged-to-the-limit-of-health “Serenade” cheese from Capra. I’ve linked there to another blog that describes it quite sweetly, but let me say that, with this much ageing and care, the sweet heart-shaped Serenade turned ugly in a wonderful, wonderful way. The way good loving can be ugly and beautiful, the maximum ageing gave it at least four different textures, and as many flavours happening at the same time. It would’ve been a crime to leave much left, the way I see it. Well, the way I saw it last night. Today, I might have to go have a nice apple. But I regret nothing.

in which I gloat about the downfall of something truly evil

•October 31, 2010 • 5 Comments

Today, Krispy Kreme in Australia announced that they’re going into voluntary administration. Australia, I’m proud of you. *wipes away a happy tear*

Look, I’m not made of stone. In the past, I’ve spent three days in a darkened room watching Simpsons episodes back to back, nourished by nothing except boxes of Krispy Kremes and endless homemade chocolate martinis. Hey, haven’t we all? It’s only natural that, at some vulnerable point in one’s life, one turns to the most ridiculously sinful, and certainly least made-for-humans food that can possibly be found. I understand that. But, as a lifestyle, we seem to have somewhat turned our backs on one of the main players in America’s trend towards mass morbid obesity. And that’s got to be a good thing.

Learning a few basic facts about the way your food interacts with your body can seriously mess with your head. Over a brunchtime bloody mary with one of my best mates, who, apart from being a bad influence (hence the bloody mary), boasts a degree in bio-science and a skill in explaining the inexplicable, I had what Oprah would nauseatingly describe as an “a-ha” moment.

He was telling me about carbohydrates. Let’s put a subheading on this conversation – “Why Krispy Kreme doughnuts turn me into the three-headed bitch from hell”.

See, we all know that complex carbs are good. Stuff with lots of refined sugar is bad. Brown rice, good. White Sunblest, bad. Krispy Kreme, unstoppable evil. I’d say we’re all up to speed on this? We’ve all heard about the Glycemic Index (GI) of food. But it seems to me that people are still lumping carbs into one basket, rather than understanding just how different they can be. No-carb diets are still wildly getting around like so many Justin Bieber jokes  – at least as much as the more sensible low-GI eating plans. So what’s going on in there when we take these foods in?

Complex carbs are just that – complex. They’re made up of all different kinds of energy-giving molecules. Imagine our digestive tract being a conveyor belt, along with a whole line of workers dedicated to deconstruction. Each little Laverne and Shirley that mans each station along the line has its own particular kind of molecule that it takes care of. Because complex carbs are so diverse, it takes a while to take them apart, since each molecule is taken out one by one. Every time a bit is taken out, it is converted into energy for our body – hence the slow, even distribution of energy that we enjoy over a decent period of time. Low GI.

Refined carbs, though, are big, long chains as well – but they are made of the same kind of molecule. So Laverne at station number one just picks it up in one go. End of story. And it’s converted into a massive big bang of energy, much more than we need in a single hit. Sugar high – and high GI. Followed by all the other stations standing there with nothing to do and no energy to convert. Sugar low. It’s also easy to equate this kind of wild behaviour with such super-fun health problems as longterm diabetes.

So where does the aforementioned Krispy Kreme stand in all of this?

In engineering the Krispy Kreme doughnut, they have managed to do something almost groundbreaking in the field of anti-nutrition. Quite apart from the fact that over half the calories you’ll take in from eating one stems from fat rather than carbs (this is fairly standard for a doughnut from anywhere), the real magic lies in their GI rating. GI is measured on a scale of zero to one hundred. Pure liquid glucose has a GI of 100. GIs below 55 are considered low, 56 to 69 medium, and above 70 high. Some reports have Krispy Kreme products beeping at up to 130 GI. Quite a feat!

Interestingly, Krispy Kreme pundits are blaming high rents and distribution costs as the main reason for the one-month administration period – and assure their customers that they’ll keep pumping out those doughy little rings of cultural terrorism throughout this period. Phew! Might be a little reminder that they’re not dead yet – so this is a very important time to be voting with your feet. C’mon, Australia. No doughnuts for a month and we might even be rid of them altogether. I still remember going to the doughnut shop in Hornsby Westfield as a kid, getting a grease-soaked little paper bag full of locally made fatty goodness. If not for yourself, do it for the local doughnut guy!

Of course, according to Krispy Kreme spokesman Matt Horan, we really should be able to go without them altogether. “The company has never claimed doughnuts are a food group.” Clever marketing, Horan. Damn straight.

salad porn

•October 10, 2010 • 1 Comment

This one is for those at today’s picnic – an absolute postcard of a Sydney day at Beare Park in Elizabeth Bay. And for those who want a slightly sexy salad. The perfect excuse to get the spring garden produce in there, too. I’ve been reading a little food porn lately – Damien Pignolet’s latest cookbook called, wouldn’t you know it, Salades. These are not healthy salads, in the weight-loss, crunchy-fresh, you-don’t-make-friends-with-salad sense. There’s a lovely casual French decadence about these salads, filled with foie gras and roquefort. You don’t make friends with these saucy concoctions in Salades; you gain lovers.

Which is an uncomfortable segue indeed, but I’ll forge ahead. Forget what I just said. It sounded nice, but it’s not leading anywhere. I’m being metaphorical. Reset, please.

Second point of inspiration: a simple but beautifully tasty pumpkin and feta salad, made by a gorgeous friend in honour of the visit of a very famous pornographic writer. Look, there it is again. Two porn references in as many minutes. But, just as salads can range from stoic to luxurious, so this purveyor of perv was both fascinatingly intellectual and, as we ate and chatted, quite obviously aware of that most wonderful of links – the sensuality of food giving as much pleasure as the more traditional kind of corporeal delight.

Laura – I do hope you make that banana recipe, by the way. I have a very immature thrill from giving a pornographer a banana recipe.

But, I digress. Today’s salad recipe, as inspired by all of these things (the flourishing spring garden, a wonderful hostess, a kinky pornographer, a decadent Frenchman), is as follows… Oh god, the build-up!
*1/3 small pumpkin (Queensland blue used here, but any pumpkin or squash would do) – cut in 1/2 inch cubes
*virgin olive oil
*salt and ground pepper
*1 red onion
*a large handful baby spinach leaves
*a handful common mint leaves
*a handful flat leaf parsley leaves
*Danish (softer) style feta cheese or goats cheese – I used Yarra Valley Dairy cardamom goats cheese “Cardi”

*2 parts wholegrain mustard
*2 parts balsamic vinegar
*1 part raw honey
*a splash maple syrup
*ground black pepper

Lightly coat the pumpkin cubes in olive oil, spread on a foil-lined tray and lightly season with salt and pepper. Bake in the top third of the oven on 200 degrees C for around 20 minutes or until soft. Leave to cool to your own taste – I like it slightly warm.

Roughly chop the greens, finely chop the onion, roughly cube the cheese and stir everything through until just mixed. Mix the dressing to taste (measures are rough) and toss through as well.

It’s embarrassingly simple – but I really appreciated so many people asking for the recipe. Who says you don’t make friends with salad? Lovely to meet you all today!

a Spring rabbit tale

•September 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Spring has well and truly sprung! And if I read “Spring” and “sprung” in one more headline, blog post or status update, I shall get somewhat testy. But hey, everyone else is doing it.

Something else that everyone’s been doing? Armagnac. It’s a leftover from winter and a feature on, say, one in three winter-spring menus that I’ve been reviewing lately. The best example has, most probably, been the excellent prune and Armagnac semi-freddo with toasted marshmallows, over at Courgette restaurant in Canberra. The whole menu right now is filled with a good, traditional cross-season mix of lamb, raspberries, Jerusalem artichoke and pears. The dessert in question is served with honey glazed cardamom paradise pears, and the almost chewy texture of the marshmallow crust puts it over the top. Courgette is a Canberra institution, so I automatically didn’t want to like it so much – but the cuisine is firmly on-trend without being faddish. Highly recommended.

But Armagnac can do so much more than dessert. Sure, I’d prefer it straight with a Cuban cigar for company, but considering the season, let’s have a look at throwing it into a spring stew. Here’s a recipe I love, not just because it combines fresh spring sprouts with the most vernal of ingredients – rabbit – but because it calls particularly for cottontail rabbits. Uh, yes. Look, I was brought up on Peter Cottontail like most others – but I’m also okay with the fact that my meat comes from animals. That’s kind of how it works. It’s almost charming, in a visceral sort of way.

A propos of very little, did you know that the word “rabbit” has only been in common usage as a general term for about 300 years? Before that, it was often known as a “coney” (rhymes with “honey”), as written in the King James Bible amongst other places. Not surprisingly, given the sound of it, the Brits used it as a dirty pun – so the authorities tried to get rid of the word altogether but, given that it was in the Bible, they had to just officially rule that it be pronounced to rhyme with “boney” rather than “honey”. After all this fuss, the word for a young coney (“rabbit”) just became preferable. True story.  And when you go to Coney Island at Luna Park now, you know how you should really pronounce it.  It’s okay!  It’s Old English!

Sorry to bring dirty words into this. But it is Spring, after all.

Random nerdy fun with languages

•August 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I love languages.  I love what they can do.  Spend much time studying what people around the world do with them, and you’ll end up with a smile.

Last night, at a small party where this kind of thing was actually acceptable, I got to share my very favourite little Latin riddle – not only is it a riddle, and open to any number of esoteric translations, but it’s also a very long palindrome (read the same forwards and backwards).  This is my idea of a good time.


“We enter the circle by night and are consumed by fire”.  The simple answer?  Moths.  Other translations can range from the moralistic to the pagan to, well, pretty much whatever you’d like.  That’s the fun with Latin – you can take words literally or metaphorically.  For example, “nocte” could mean “by night”, or “in darkness”, etc.  Hence the basic problem with later versions of the bible, having passed through thousands of semi-literate monkish hands, zillions of differing translations like a tournament of Chinese Whispers through the ages, ending up with one in every 450 people in the world ordered not to eat pork or shellfish.  And don’t get me started on Leviticus.

If this all sounds a bit straightforward to you, let me introduce you to the wonderful world of Japanese poetic and court usage of language.  I need to put up a very large caveat here that I don’t speak Japanese at all well.  But I have enough to understand how damn difficult it is to get a grasp of every meaning of even the most basic words.

For a long time, I’ve been studying a simple concept: that of “雅び” or “miyabi”.  It translates as “grace” or “refinement”.  Then there’s a background of elegance and the idea of being high-born.  Then there is a slightly poetic bent to it.  Then there is also a sadness associated with it.  Then it turns out that the sadness is the reason for the grace – that beauty and elegance comes from transience and impermanence.  Some give examples such as cherry blossoms being all the more beautiful and graceful because they only appear for such a short time, or a single dying tree in a field being so elegant because of its “miyabi” quality.  I recently watched a Youtube presentation of John Adams’ piece “On the Transmigration of Souls” featuring footage of the 9/11 attacks on New York.  My Westerner soul had to work through why exactly the terrible sight of bodies falling to their deaths was also beautiful – and yes, that is “miyabi”.  

Not bad for one word.

But finally, on a happier note. “Miyabi” can also be written in numbers. It can be written “382”, rather than in characters – here’s the explanation. And while you’re there, read about the coolest little language shortcut I’ve heard in some time. It’s so cute, in the whimsical way that only the spiritual home of Hello Kitty can pull off. The word “arigato”, meaning thank you in Japanese, is also widely written in shorthand by the kids as “39”. Those numbers are said in Japanese as “san-kyuu”. Say it. Ha! See, that’s gorgeous.