Friday, 28 November 2014

Something exciting happened this week. I bought my first Christmas present! Well, technically I've already bought a couple online that haven't arrived yet, but this was the first purchase I made on a whim, and sometimes those turn out to be the best.

I was in a bad mood because Oxford Circus was extra busy and I was in desperate need of a parka coat because the weather in London is a bit miserable at the moment, to put it politely. Fed up, I wandered into the florist at the front of Liberty, which you will know if you have been there before, is exceptionally expensive. And then I saw this crown pot and just thought 'that is perfect for my mum' and the relatively inexpensive price tag was such a nice surprise. And then as I was queuing at the till I spotted this jug and I thought 'that is perfect for me', because sometimes you need a little midweek pick-me-up in the form of the flower vase/jug you have always been searching for. Such a serendipitous moment that made my week! Wishing you a wonderful weekend x

Also, thank you so much for all your comments on this post. It's given me lots to think about for the new year and I'm really grateful to everyone for sharing.

READING LIST: a christmas book club (2014 favourites)

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Have you started Christmas shopping yet? Are you mad at me for even mentioning it? I'm trying to get everything done early this year so I can just enjoy the few weeks before Christmas, so I thought I'd post this earlier rather than later.

I love giving books because they make such thoughtful presents - they could be your favourites, ones you know they'll love, bestsellers, classics - and it's easy to keep a stash of your favourite tomes for those gifting moments when you're caught unexpectedly unprepared. For my brother's birthday last year, I gave him a 'book subscription' and chose a book that I would post to him at the beginning of each month for the next six months. I liked doing it so much, I thought I would share the 12 books I read this year that I think would make perfect gifts this Christmas.

1. Sharks Fin & Sichua Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop - this still remains one of my very favourite, and most read books of all time. Dunlop has such a knack for describing (sometimes exceedingly odd) Chinese delicacies in a way that is utterly mouth-watering; a wonderful gift for enthusiastic foodies and travellers alike.

2. The Dinner by Herman Koch - I'm a total sucker for novels with a twist, especially when there is a big build up. In the case of this book, the suspense captivates you nearly until the end of the book, hinting at the climax. The whole story unwinds over a single evening meal, which makes for some seriously impressive writing!

3. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert - this book is a really interesting study into marriage and commitment across the world by the writer of Eat, Pray, Love. I love reading non-fiction, but this still manages to feel like a story and, despite the empirical subject matter, it's far from dry.

4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - I have to admit, I bought this for my work book club and I still haven't read it! But I included it in this list because it's a huge bestseller and I'm planning to read it over the Christmas break - who wants to discuss?

5. The Art of Eating Well by Hemsley + Hemsley - despite setting myself a cookbook challenge and promising not to buy anymore cookbooks until I'd cooked at least a recipe from each of the ones I already had, there was so much publicity around these sisters, and I've loved their recipes online, that I just had to get this. I love their principal of a healthy diet that doesn't restrict animal proteins and is pretty liberal with the fats (hooray for butter!)

6. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - this is probably one of the biggest books of the year. I've seen it read everywhere from train platforms to Indonesian beaches and I loved it. It's an easy read with a somewhat predictable storyline, but sometimes that's just what you need!

7. Orange Is The New Black by Piper Kerman - after devouring both seasons back-to-back on Netflix I had to read Piper's real-life memoir. They've changed so much for the tv show so it was interesting to see how the two compared.

8. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson - oh this book! It has completely divided opinion but I LOVED it. The author cleverly weaves together both present and past in a captivating story that encompasses the past 100 years of modern history. It had me constantly googling to see if the main character was actually real!

9. I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes - I only took thrillers on holiday with me this year. I started this before we went away but it was so slow to start with I gave up on it until we were 5000 miles away and I didn't have a choice. I hope they make this into a movie - it's insane! There's espionage, terrorist plots and chemical warfare all bound up into one very complex plot.

10. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn - have you read Gone Girl? Of course you have! Well this doesn't quite compare - what can!? - but Flynn just comes up with amazing story lines and after I devoured this in a day, I picked up her other book, Sharp Objects, too.

11. Green Kitchen Travels by David Frenkiel and Luise Vindahl - I love the blog Green Kitchen Stories so it was only natural that this cookbook would also flout the conditions of my cookbook challenge! I love everything about this book, and I really recommend it for veggies and non-veggies alike.

12. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - for the past few years I've stopped reading during my commute, just picking up the free paper in the morning instead, but this book has reignited my love of reading on-the-go. I don't want to give too much away, but a big twist comes right at the beginning and the rest of the book tries to explain the story behind it, mixing historical fact with pure, raw emotion. Please go buy this!

What were your favourite books you read this year? Please let me know in the comments so I can start my 2015 Amazon wish list!

LET'S TALK ABOUT: alternatives to the pill

Monday, 24 November 2014

Can we get a little personal over here today? I think it's important to talk about issues that affect women with your girlfriends, so why not here? I've been on the contraceptive pill for a long time now and I think it's time to start thinking about some alternatives. Doctors have told me lots of different things about how long you should be on what we call the combined oral contraceptive pill in the UK before you should take a break - some have advised no more than 6 years, others have told me 10 is fine, and I'm sitting somewhere in the middle.


Friday, 21 November 2014
Clearly this photo is not mine, unless you could believe I've been in the middle of the desert and not, as luck would have it, at my desk in dreary London. A work colleague of mine quit his job to travel the world before moving back to Canada and his instagram feed is the stuff of travel dreams. Who would have thought you could find a desert palace in China or a towering pagoda in the middle of Taipei?

A word of warning: his instagram will induce wanderlust and I won't be responsible for any rash decisions you might make relating to work or money. Mmm'kay?


Wednesday, 19 November 2014
I had an amazing brunch at Dishoom, a "Bombay cafe" in London the other weekend (get the masala chai!) and I ordered their Bombay Omelette, which inspired me to add a bit of spice to my usual breakfast.

Seriously, I think I could eat this every morning. People are often surprised to hear I'll happily scarf down leftover noodles or curry first thing in the morning, yet find eating sausages and bacon perfectly normal (and delicious, obvi). Well, if you prefer your breakfast on the sweet side, don't let me stop you - this recipe makes a lovely (frugal) lunch or dinner too. 

To make one omelette:
2 fresh, free-range eggs
Red onion
Green pepper
Curry powder

To serve:
Cherry tomatoes
Apple cider vinegar
Crusty bread

This recipe comes together really quickly, so you want to make sure you have everything on-hand so you can serve it all at once. I like my omelette with a little salsa - finely slice some of the red onion and marinate for a couple of minutes in a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and a pinch of salt to soften, halve the tomatoes and add to the onion with a few coriander leaves.

Dice as much of the red onion and green pepper as you like, as finely as you like, and set aside. Whisk the eggs with a pinch of curry powder - I think Dishoom's version didn't actually have any Indian spices in it, but I prefer mine this way.

Slice your bread into a big thick slab. You can toast it, but for special occasions (i.e. weekends), I like to rub it with a little olive oil and salt and pop it on a hot, dry griddle pan while my eggs cook.

I like my eggs cooked with butter, but it's up to you if you use olive oil, vegetable oil, coconut oil, etc. Heat a non-stick pan on a high heat with your chosen fat and add the diced peppers and onion. I like to sauté them for less than ten seconds so that they retain their fresh flavour and crunch, but you can cook them longer too. Then pour the eggs into the pan. A proper omelette really shouldn't take long at all (Julia Child says 20 seconds!!). When the bottom starts to brown and it comes away easily from the pan, fold the sides in to create a roll shape and slide it onto a plate. Finish with a generous sprinkling of coriander - after I took these photos, I literally covered mine with the stuff!

p.s. restaurant-style scrambled eggs for the traditionalists.


Monday, 17 November 2014
I'm a big fan of buying souvenirs, but I'm always careful to choose things that 1) go with the look of our apartment and 2) will be used or appreciated almost every day. When I came back from Cambodia, I talked about buying memorable souvenirs, but this time in KL I just wanted to hit up all the shops in Chinatown for cheap and cheerful homewares.

I constantly go between wanting a minimalist home straight off the pages of Kinfolk magazine or having a vibrant haven of textiles and bold pops of colour. Bordering on kitsch, there's something about the traditional crockery and utensils that I love - I find them nostalgic and when I'm eating a big bowl of noodles then I definitely want a pair of authentic chopsticks to slurp them up with!

I picked up more pairs of chopsticks than we could ever need at a restaurant wholesale supplier, as well as a couple of tres useful dishcloths, a sweet tray* and some tea, which was actually from Singapore, but comes in the best packaging.

*in the interest of being practical, this was not a savvy choice. The tray is slightly domed at the centre, making for some hairy tea-carrying moments!

p.s. 5 tips for the reluctant haggler.


Friday, 14 November 2014

My mum's side of the family live in Kuala Lumpur, and every time I go back I feel more and more fond of it. Not only is it a wonderful hub to visit beautiful, far-off places, but it's like taking an amazing holiday without having to leave home. I don't know about you, but two weeks in a hotel would drive me round the bend! Of course, our first port of call the morning after we arrived was my favourite noodle shop, which I'm sure you're sick of hearing about now!

Actually, this trip was extra exciting, because the whole reason behind us going was an exhibition put on by the national bank of Malaysia, Bank Negara, with my mum as the star! It was really exciting to see her beautiful artworks displayed on such an impressive large scale and I'm so proud of her (not to mention thankful for the tickets to Malaysia to go see it!). The bank's museum is in a beautiful building called Sasana Kijang, a super-modern structure with plenty of glass panelling and a seashell-inspired swirling staircase.

It was also Deepavali, the Indian festival of lights, while we were there. My grandparents' house is close to Little India, and it was fun to drive through and see a riot of colours and beautiful outfits.

It's actually a little embarrassing, but I hadn't really done much touristy stuff in the city before, as we spend a lot of time at home with my granddad, who doesn't like to go out often (though he made an extra-special effort to come to the exhibition, decked out in his best batik shirt!). We spent one (very hot) day out and about, exploring the area around KLCC, the twin towers, and trying lots of street food.

My cousin and her husband came into KL from Singapore for the weekend and they took us out to a few bars - let me tell you, a hangover in 100% humidity is NOT fun.

The best part of the trip for me, though, was just spending time at the home, having lots of crazy family meals and hanging out with the dogs. We're heading back for my granddad's 90th birthday next March and I don't think it can come soon enough!

I've been itching to finish posting all my holiday updates because I have some really exciting Christmas posts planned for the next few weeks! I think I'm going to write a little bit more about travelling next week, but after that I'm warning you - it is going to start feeling very Christmassy around here!


Wednesday, 12 November 2014
When we first arrived at Qunci Villas from the Gili islands, I have to say we were a little disappointed - I know, right!? But hear me out: we'd just spend six days on an island, with really only a handful of other people, being able to stroll out from our hotel to grab a beer or a snack and slobbing around in our swim stuff, so arriving at this incredibly beautiful, pristine resort was a bit of a shock! I think the crux of the problem is that we're really not fancy people at all, and we sort of felt like impostors, but I have to say we made ourselves at home pretty quickly in the end!

It seems a little crazy, but at first we weren't blown away by the room. Our hotels on the Gili islands were much cheaper, and they all had the simple Indonesian style that we love, but we realised that we really lucked out. We picked an ocean view room, but it was the last bungalow at the edge of the resort, so we could walk straight out onto the deck, grab sun loungers and come and go as we pleased. We had every intention of exploring the surroundings of the hotel, but in the end we didn't even step onto the beach just over the edge of the infinity pool! I never want to be that type of person that doesn't really make an effort to leave the resort, but after six days gallivanting around our little islands, it was lovely to stay put and be pampered!

I think I'll let the pictures speak for themselves - we had two nights of gorgeous sunsets and worked our way through the cocktail menu. We'd been advised to steer clear of drinking strong spirits on the Gilis, and to stick to beer, as there have been issues in the past with local, illegally brewed spirits that can be dangerous - though I'd assume mostly in excess quantities like full moon party bucket drinks - so we made very good use of the happy hour. On our last night we ordered lots of small dishes and about half the cocktail menu and relaxed on our terrace, listening to George Ezra and Sam Smith and talking about what we were looking forward to doing when we got back to KL. 


Monday, 10 November 2014
I've been back from my holiday for a few days now, but we were actually in the Gili Islands nearly two weeks ago now, so it definitely feels like a long time ago! There are three islands, Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan, so I thought about writing three separate posts, but as it turns out I must have been relaxing way too hard to remember to take any particularly informative pictures, but hopefully this little photo dump will be enough to take you away from your desk on a Monday morning for ten minutes.

To get to the Gili Islands, you can fly into Lombok or Bali. The Gili Islands are just off Lombok, but Bali offers more international flights. You have to take an hour and a half taxi (or a bus!) from the airport to a harbour on the west coast. The route takes you up into the mountains, driving through local villages and speeding past lots of monkeys. We opted to book a private taxi transfer and private speedboat through our hotel to easily navigate the (small) airport and avoid the bustling public harbour - which we heard has some fairly aggressive touts, though I can't really vouch for that. To put it into perspective, we paid about £50, whereas a local taxi would probably cost about £15 and the public boat, which goes from Bangsal Harbour until about 3pm, costs in the region of 50p! It was worth it though to hop on our own little speedboat which took us to Gili Air, the island closest to the mainland, in less than 10 minutes.

Each island has its own character - Gili Trawangan is supposedly the party island, with a big main strip of bars, while Gili Meno is the quiet retreat which is the least developed of the islands. We decided to stay on Gili Air first as it was supposed to be a middle ground between the other two, with a relaxed vibe and the largest local population of the three islands. I must have been so relieved to arrive, and totally switched-off, because I didn't take any photos of the island at all, apart from our hotel and one of our dinners! We booked into the MantaDive Resort, which was perfect. Our little bungalow was completely spotless (a recurrent theme in all three of our Indonesian hotels) and we loved the ubiquitous outdoor shower.

You can walk the main strip of bars and restaurants in Gili Air in the length of a leisurely 10 minute stroll, all with beachfront locations and chilled out bamboo huts filled with plenty of cushions to lounge on. To be honest, I can't even remember what we did that first night! I expect it included an 8pm bedtime.

The next day was a write-off. We hardly even explored, we just lay out on the beach, reading books and drinking ice cold Bintang beers, pinching ourselves at the view of the crystal clear waters directly in front of us. On our second full day, we took a snorkelling trip on a glass bottom boat, which cost us about £12 each. The little boat stopped off at about six snorkelling spots - I was skeptical that we would see much so close to shore, but it was amazing! As well as colourful tropical fish like angel fish and parrot fish, we also saw a trumpet fish, which I'd never heard of before, and a couple of sea turtles too. I took a disposable underwater camera with me, so I'm looking forward to seeing what the prints look like! Unfortunately I managed to get seasick in the water - how does that happen!? - and spent the hour long lunch on Gili Meno miserably hunched over the table trying not to be violently ill. A big highlight of the day, though, was visiting the turtle hatchery on Gili Meno. It's run by a local woman who collects the turtle eggs from the beach and raises them for 8 months, before releasing them into the waters just off the shore.

On our last night on Gili Air, we treated ourselves to a big barbecue dinner at Scallywags Beach Club. I really wanted to eat local food for the entire trip, but we just couldn't resist the gigantic prawns (some as long as my forearm!) and it was one of the best meals I've ever had. Of course, we over-ordered, but we wanted to try everything. As well as the huge prawns, we also got a rack of ribs (boyfriend's choice - seemed odd, given the seafood was so fresh - but they were the most succulent ribs I've ever had), huge vegetable kebabs and a seared tuna steak that tasted like melt in your mouth wagyu beef. The candlelit atmosphere was really romantic too - such a treat!

After three days on Gili Air, we hopped on a boat and headed for Gili Trawangan. We got totally ripped off - we are really bad travellers, we always know it's happening but can't quite manage to turn it around - but after my seasickness episode I was happy to have a quick, private ride over to the next island.

Gili T is an island of two halves; the south end is the 'party side', heaving with bars, happy hour deals and magic mushrooms everywhere. I picked a hotel on the north end of the island, which was supposed to be much quieter, with untouched beaches and really good snorkelling right off the shore. We were dropped about halfway up the island and had to walk about twenty minutes to reach our next hotel. I was starting to regret my decision to stay up in the quiet end - the walk was hot and sticky and, I predicted, would be a bit perilous at night, but when we arrived at the gorgeous Wilson's Retreat I felt a lot better!

That evening, we found a little local restaurant about five minutes' walk from the hotel, and had another early night - quite apart from the fact that we were pooped, it was really very quiet, with the only bars belonging to the hotels along the beachfront. The next morning we woke up to an amazing local breakfast of mee goreng, which I had every night, with lots of fresh fruit and amazing coffee too.

Darren had heard a couple in another bungalow saying they'd walked the perimeter of the island that morning in about an hour, so we decided to spend the morning doing that. Of course, we set off at about 11:30, so within ten minutes we were soaked with sweat and feeling delirious. Luckily we found a nice spot to stop off for a fresh coconut!

What's amazing is that as you walk around the island, the view completely changes. From the east side of the island, where we were dropped off, you are so close to Gili Meno (the middle island), you feel like you could wade out and stroll ashore. Then as you get up to the north end, you are looking out to the open ocean, though the water is calm and bath-like thanks to a shallow coral reef. As you round the top of the island and start walking down the west coast, there are completely breathtaking views of Bali. The sky looks hazy in so many of my photos - it was actually rainy season while we were there, but the Gilis supposedly enjoy a microclimate that sees less rain than the mainland, and those lingering clouds only passed over us once or twice during the whole week.

By the time we reached the southern tip of the island we weren't feeling (or looking!) our best and stopped off for a quick drink to recuperate. Any doubts I had about staying up at the quiet end of the island evaporated - the main strip is fine, and the beaches, at first glance, are much prettier, but the swimming waters are shared with all of the boats coming in, you're constantly offered souvenirs and trinkets to buy, and it was pretty chaotic, with horse carts and bicycles (no motorised transport on the island!) contending with so many people. We smugly took ourselves back to our hotel and collapsed on the sunloungers (somehow the walk took us nearly two and half hours!) and treated ourselves to a round of sunset cocktails as the evening drew in.

The next day we took advantage of the gorgeous beach and the pool, too! There was a big rainstorm, but the skies cleared in the afternoon and the golden hour light on our way to dinner was just beautiful.

Power on the island can be a little temperamental and that night there was a power cut that lasted ages! We'd seen a little local place (called a warung) that we wanted to stop off at, so we popped by to see if they were open. We walked for a couple minutes in the complete pitch black until we found the place and the owner ushered us in, or rather out, to the beachfront bamboo seating. It was some of the best (and cheapest) food we had the whole time we were there, and we made sure to go back twice more.

We got up early on our last day on the islands, hence my slightly bemused expression in the picture below, to head back to Lombok and our final hotel. We splurged on the last spot, so we were eager to get over there and make the most of it! Are you still reading!? Well done if you are! I think I'm going to share our lovely stay in Lombok on Wednesday and some snippets of our family life in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. 

A note on Indonesian hospitality: OH MY GOSH. Really, the people are just lovely. Everyone remembers your name (good morning, Miss Catherine!) and the service at both of our hotels was so friendly, without being overbearing. The people were just so kind and we loved everyone we met, particularly the owner of the little local warung where we ate by candlelight, a woman with three adorable children who didn't understand a word of English and just smiled and nodded while we asked about her kids and complemented her on her food. I can't speak for the rest of Indonesia, but if you find yourself in South East Asia, I would really recommend the Gili Islands and Lombok.