Snap Shot of India and a delicious Indian breakfast recipe – Pongal

Happy New Year to you all. I have just returned from three glorious weeks in colourful, warm-spirited India (hence my lack of blog posts). I have seen and experienced so much that it feels that I have been away for far longer. I feel uplifted and invigorated and have returned to cold chilly London with a positive outlook and excitement for the year ahead.

If you’ve never been to India then I urge you to go. It’s incredible and, like Africa, seeps into your soul and never leaves you. It’s frenetic, chaotic and providing you leave your Western ways and customs at home, you can acclimatise to the way of life there pretty quickly. It’s crowded, intoxicating and full on, but remember to breath and relax and you will begin to enjoy everything about this magical country. I was pretty active on Instagram so if you are keen to see some of the Indian street life, food and people, then please follow me over there as well. Here are few snaps to whet your appetite.

We spent 9 days in beautiful Kolkata, visiting family and generally relaxing and seeing more of the city. Followed by a two week tour of Rajasthan. I have lots of tips and suggestions on the food front, but I am presently writing an article that I hope to get into one of the magazines or newspapers – so watch this space. The photo of ‘papri chat’ below gives you an idea of how epic the street food is in Kolkata. It is commonly thought of as the street food capital of India.

The best way to get under the skin of any city is to pound the pavements on foot and see everything up close. It’s an overload of the senses and truly engaging. In Kolkata one day, we walked 10km along the Hooghly River – a distributary of the Ganges River – and saw everything from the Mullick Ghat Flower Market, people bathing in the river, a wedding couple, the cremation ghats (I particularly wanted to show my children this, as death is dealt with in very different way in India and it is nothing to be afraid of), the district of Kumortuli Pally – Kolkata’s Potter’s community, to the Marble Palace.

Rajasthan was the second part of our trip and whilst, on paper, the trip sounded rather exhausting, it was in fact not the case. We combined culture and sights with relaxing in beautiful surroundings and meeting the local people. Staying in the Aravalli Hills, in a stunning heritage hotel in a small rural village, was a highlight. It you are planning a trip to Rajasthan, make sure you book a night or two at Rawla Narlai – where you will get to meet this fine gentleman, who I think without doubt has the best attire of any hotel staff I have ever met.

Without overloading you on my first blog post back, let me introduce the recipe that I wanted to show you today. To give you a brief back story, I was poorly for a few days with Delhi belly (not from street food but from a ‘smart’ hotel dinner). After eating next to nothing for a few days I wanted to eat comforting food that would ease me back. At our hotel in Delhi ‘pongal’ was on the breakfast menu. It’s actually a south Indian breakfast originating, I believe from Tamil Nadu. It is often referred to as ven/ghee/kara or milagu pongal but the one in the hotel simple said pongal, so I will go with that. It is made with rice and a small yellow lentil called moong dal – which you can order online from Asian Dukan in the UK. It didn’t look dreadfully appetising, but my goodness it tasted wonderful. A cross between a savoury porridge and dal – not dissimilar to Chinese congee, but in my mind – better.

I have a couple of other tasty Indian breakfast recipes on this blog – Upma  and Hoppers or Appam so thought this might be a good one to add to the list. You can make it the night before then leave it in the fridge until morning. Simply add a little boiling water to bring it back to life, and hey presto you have a deliciously subtle and tasty Indian breakfast. It’s also perfectly tasty to eat for lunch too so you can make a batch and eat it as you want over a couple of days.

 

Pongal

serves 4-6

120g basmati rice

120g yellow moong dal

900ml cold water

1 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)

10 approx cashew nuts

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

1/2 tsp roughly broken up black peppercorns

1 tsp grated/chopped fresh ginger

1 stem of fresh curry leaves (Sainsburys now sell them)

1 fresh green chilli, finely chopped, optional

pinch of asafoetida/hing

pinch of turmeric powder, optional

1tsp salt, to taste

handful of freshly chopped coriander, leaves and stems

  1. This first part is optional, but it gives the dish a slightly more smokey flavour. Dry roast the dal until it begins to bronze slightly. It will take a couple of minutes, but use a wooden spoon to move it around the pan so that it does not burn. You can omit this part and simply go to 2. should you wish.
  2. Add the rice and place some water in the pan. Move the spoon around the pan then discard the water by gently pouring it out – you don’t need to use a sieve. Repeat twice and then add 900ml cold water.
  3. Leave to simmer for around 20-25 minutes, by which time the rice and dal will be soft and the water soaked up. If it becomes too dry simply add in a little more water.
  4. Using a potato masher, mash the rice and dal so that it gets broken up and more ‘mash’ like in appearance. Place to one side whilst you do the next steps.
  5. Using a frying pan, add the ghee. Once it has melted add the cashew nuts and gently move around the pan for 30 seconds before adding the cumin and mustard seeds, black pepper. They will begin to pop, so make sure that your heat is on low.
  6. Now add the fresh ginger, turmeric (optional), asafoetida, curry leaves and green chilli (optional). Move around the pan for 20 seconds or so and then add the contents of the pan into the rice and dal mixture.
  7. Move around the pan and add salt to taste. Add more water if necessary. Check to taste and heat up again if necessary. Add some freshly chopped coriander and serve.

With these cold, dark mornings we are having in the UK, what better way to start the day than with some delicate spices in a comforting bowl of Indian pongal.

More exciting Indian recipes and photos next week. Have a good weekend in the meantime.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Ten Things To Do in New York City

I was recently in New York and spent a lot of time on my feet, pounding the pavements to see the sights and explore – clocking up over 80 miles in a week. I have been to New York many times before, both for pleasure and business, but this time it was definitely pleasure and I had the whole family in tow. My last trip I posted a post here  – so take a look if you are planning a trip. Here are some of my suggestions on things to do in the city that never sleeps.

  1. Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum

Ok, before you switch off and give up on my suggestions before they have begun, let me just say this. This museum completely knocked us for six, it’s brilliant. My girls (12 and 8 yrs old) LOVED it and my husband and I were equally absorbed. It was so interesting in fact that we left if at lunch time to grab something to eat to then returned for another session after lunch. The museum is on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid and the cruise missile submarine USS Growler, both of which are fascinating to explore. In addition they showcase a Concorde SST, a Lockheed A-12 supersonic reconnaissance plane and the Space Shuttle Enterprise. It was all quite overwhelming to have all these things in one place.

It is located at Pier 86 at 46th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen neighboured on the West Side of Manhattan.

yes it snowed when we were there can you believe it……kind of pretty with the blossom, in a surreal way!

2. The Met

An obvious choice I know, but my goodness the place is fascinating. Focus on one of two periods and then absorb yourself in these rooms. It is based in the Upper East Side just by Central Park. After visiting the Met you could pop into another of my favourite galleries The Frick, which I mentioned about here.

 

3. The Tenement Museum 

Try and book tickets before you arrive in New York for one of their tours as they sell out fast. The museum is interactive in many respects and focuses on Americas urban immigration history. There are a number of tours which allow visitors to view restored apartments from the 19th and 20th centuries, walk the historic neighborhood, and interact with residents to learn the stories of generations of immigrants who helped shape the American experience.

Based on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

4. Katz Deli

Close by to the Tenement Museum so a great place to go for lunch if the timing works. This kosher style Jewish deli has got to be one of the oldest in town – first serving customers in 1888. Tourist and locals equally adore the fanfare that goes into making their sandwiches. The portions are epically huge so order one sandwich between two.

Located at 205 East Houston Street, on the southwest corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, New York City .

5. One World Observatory

There are a number of place in NY to get that birds eye view of the city, but One World Observatory is pretty impressive and worth booking tickets in advance online. If you manage to go up on a clear day you really do feel on top of the world. Whilst visiting the observatory, just near by are two pools – approximately 1 acre in size – of where the original twin towers stood before that fateful day on 9/11. Take time to pay your respects to those who perished and see the names engraved around the outside. Behind the memorial you will see the impressive Oculus building, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to look like a dove in flight. Some critics have been rather harsh but I personally loved the structure. It is in fact a train station for the PATH train over to Jersey City and cost the grandiose sum of $4 billion to build over 12 years.

Based at 285 Fulton St

6. Nom Wah Tea Parlor and a walk around China Town

Book at table at Nom Was Tea Parlor, which has been serving dumplings to hungry New Yorkers since the 1920. There are a number of pleather booths (book one of those if you can), or tables scattered across the restaurant. Order the Xia Long Bao, which are called Shanghainese soup dumplings. It was raining cats and dogs when I visited so provided the perfect respite to warm up and fill our bellies with delicious dim sum.

After lunch have a wonder around Chinatown, which is a feast for the eyes. Mott and Grand street have a host of interesting food stalls, but stay south of Broome Street and east of Lafayette to get that real Chinatown experience. I managed to pick up a gorgeous Chinese teapot for my sister – so much so I returned and picked up one for myself a day later.

Photo credit: @sahirschmann of Five Leaves

7. Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Take some time to explore Brooklyn. As it is such a huge area, aim for Williamsburg which has a host of fabulous, shops, eateries and great street graffiti. Just walking the streets and soaking up the vibe will be interesting enough. There are some great places to stop for a coffee or a bite to eat.

Marlow and Sons – is regarded by some as ‘the best place to eat in the city’. It is great to stop for a snack or just a coffee or a more main meal for lunch or supper. It’s rustic, down to earth charm gives the place a genuine warmth and an enjoyable place to pass the time in good company. The American menu has an emphasis on fresh food and menus that change daily.

Five Leaves, based at Greenpoint, is another good option if you are after brunch with a hip crowd creating a nice buzz to the place.

If you love a bit of thrift/vintage shopping, those in the know head to Beacon’s Closet, which have a few locations, but one is a stones throw from Five Leaves.

Photo credit: @reynardnyc of Wythe Hotel

If you fancy staying in Brooklyn these hotels are worth checking out:

Wythe Hotel: 80 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11249; tel: 1.718 460 8000; rates from $300; www.wythehotel.com

right next door is: The Williamsburg Hotel:  96 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11249; tel: 1.718 362 8100; rates from $285; www.thewilliamsburghotel.com

1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge60 Furman St, Brooklyn, NY 11201; tel: 1.718 631 8400; rates from $350; www.1hotels.com

Urban Cowboy: 111 Powers Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211; rates from $195; www.urbancowboybnb.com

McCarren Hotel & Pool60 N 12th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249; tel: 1.718 218 7500; rates from $350; www.mccarrenhotel.com

8. Moma – the Museum of Modern Art

If you feel the urge for a modern art fix then Moma is definitely worth a visit. The Tarsila Do Amaral: Investing Modern Art in Brazil exhibition was on when we visited, but most of all we enjoyed admiring the permanent collection, including works by artists such as Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh.

18 West 54 Street

9. A browse around the East Village neighbourhood

We were staying in East Village so over the course of a week got to know a number of the eateries in the neighbourhood. Some evenings we ate in, stopping off at nearby Russo’s for some fresh pasta and sauces and the BEST fried artichokes, to take back to our apartment and devour. This Italian deli has been serving customers for over 100 years so is definitely worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood.

Another must is to either eat in or order take out at Xian Famous Foods (which I recently discovered is about to open a branch in London). I ordered take out ‘spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles, which were heavenly, but I could quite easily have ordered the whole menu.

A few streets away is an adorable little treasure trove of a shop, called Casey Rubber Stamps, owned by an affable Irish guy called John Casey, selling all manner of rubber stamps. It’s the type of place that you wander in and before you know it you end up buying quite a number of rubber stamps. They are great as gifts or to keep for yourself. It’s is so important to keep small business thriving so make sure you visit John’s store. My whole family loved it and spent time admiring the wide variety of stamps for sale.

For those who have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I love Vietnamese food. Thankfully there is a great Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village called Hanoi House  which is definitely worth a visit, if you are in the nighbourhood. Right next door to Hanoi House looked a rather good neighbourhood bar called Ten Degrees. and a little further down the street you will see a sign saying ‘Eat Me’. If you head into the door below this sign, you walk into a random hotdog vendor where you will find a telephone booth. You then have to enter and dial a number where you will be asked if you have a booking (make sure you do). Then the wall springs back and you enter the speakeasy. It’s called ‘Please Don’t Tell’ or ‘PDT’ for short. As we had our daughters in tow, we were unable to go in, but my sources tell me it’s a fun place to have a few cocktails and beers.

10. Visit Central Park

No visit to New York is complete without a stroll around central park –  you can even hire bikes or take a horse driven carriage, although the latter might scream ‘TOURIST’ more than you would wish. It maybe good to combine it with a visit to The Frick, The Met or MOMA. If you are visiting over winter you can have a go on the ice rink and in spring and summer there is the option of the zoo. It’s also a great place to have a picnic and watch the clouds float overhead.

Whatever you decide to do, have fun, walk as much as possible and don’t feel you need to cross of everything off your list on your first visit. New York is a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by. There are so many interesting characters that you’ll never have a dull moment.

 

 

 

 

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A Weekend in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Fancy a weekend of fresh air, open spaces, glorious views, rolling countryside and peace and quiet? Then I have just the place for you. The weekend before last  – you know the glorious hot one  – me and a couple of girlfriends – headed to the Brecon Beacons in Wales,  an area of outstanding beauty. Not sure that’s the official line but it definitely warrants that accolade. It was a very stress free journey from London Paddington to Newport, a quick change of trains and then a further 30 minutes or so onto Abergavenny – a charming station, which really makes you feel as if you have gone back in time.

Greeted by one of my friends in her car (she had driven from the Cotswolds) we whizzed a further 45 minutes to the picturesque Brecon Beacons National Park where we would be staying for two nights in Fan Cottage (sleeps 6), which is part of the Cnewr Estate. If you are with a larger party you can book out the Farmhouse (sleeps 16). You can book them for the week or the weekend. Fan cottage is the little white cottage that you can see in the photo above.

Both properties have been tastefully refurbished in 2017. The beds are super comfortable (that’s mine above) with puffy pillows and duvets, the bathrooms have excellent power showers (one had a bath and shower), there is a snug and sitting room and a good sized, well equipped kitchen with stylish crockery. I was also really impressed by the quality of the curtains – random I know – but seriously people they were so beautifully made. Also the place is really well heated – we had to turn off some of the radiators the weekend we visited as the weather was a scorcher. We couldn’t resist putting on the log burner one evening though to add to the atmosphere of the cottage – so warm and inviting.

Both cottage and farmhouse afford incredible vistas of the Cray Reservoir (no swimming as it’s super dangerous), but fun to admire and walk around at leisure. The dam was pretty spectacular, although am I the only one who imagines it breaking when waking this side of it? Now the sunsets from the cottage were just divine.

It did not take us long to feel relaxed and rejuvenated. One day we went and ate lunch at The Felin Fach Griffin which is about 10 minutes on from the town of Brecon. I had met the owner – Charles and his family – last year at the Ballymaloe Food and Drink Festival in Ireland and he had spoken about his three Inns – two in Cornwall and one in Wales.

The food and service were excellent and I would return in a heartbeat. The place is rustic and low key, the perfect place to nestle in for the afternoon around the fire with the papers or in our case on the grass outside. The food was full of flavour, original, but not too left field, and platted in a way that makes you want to actually dive in. The faro risotto was the tastiest I’ve eaten – just check out the colours on the plate.

Whilst we didn’t even see even half of the Brecon Beacons we did climb the highest peak in South Wales – Pen Y Fan – 886 metres about sea level and Corn Du just next to it, which enabled us to see for miles around.

The round trip, interspersed with lots of chatter and going at a slow and steady pace, is about 3 hours. We did pass a few people running up and down it – but each for their own hey!

We rewarded ourselves with lunch at the beautiful fishing hotel of Gliffaes, which is perched above River Usk. My cauliflower and roasted garlic soup definitely hit the spot after my hike.

The place is enchanting and feels as if it’s from another era, where time has literally stood still. Imagine grandfather clocks, roaring fires, tea in the drawing room, butler service (not quite, but almost) then you get the picture. The grounds and position are beautiful and great to wander around after a bite to eat and before catching the train back to the big smoke refreshed and rejuvenated after a wonderful weekend in Wales.

 

 

To Book:

Fan Cottage or the Farmhouse on the Cnewr Estate – click here

Felin Fach Griffin – click here

Gliffaes  – click here 

 

 

 

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Travels in Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Kep-sur-Mer)- Part 2

A short plane ride – under an hour – from Siem Reap and you arrive in the capital, Phnom Penh, which is a buzzing metropolis. We were only there for two days but managed to see a huge amount. As a family we visited the splendid Royal Palace, which is still lived in by the ruling King of Cambodia. He lives in one part of it – which is closed off to visitors – but the rest of the palace is there for tourists and locals to visit and enjoy.

I adored the stunning yellow – possibly gold leaf –  roofing and the mellow yellow paintwork. With the bright blue skies as a backdrop and the fuchsia pink flowers, the whole place looked really magical.

The other place of interest nearby is the National Museum, housed in an equally impressive building – this time a distinctive rust-red colour.

There are over 5000 objects on display – many Angkorian era statues including the legendary statue of the ‘Leper King’. After our mornings culture we decided that my husband and elder daughter would visit the ‘Killing Fields’ and ‘Toul Sleng Genocide Museum’, whilst my younger daughter and I would check out the two key markets in Phnom Penh known as ‘Central Market’ (Psai Thmei) and ‘Russian Market’ (Psah Toul Tom Poung).

We headed to Central Market to begin with, which is housed in a beautiful historic building with an impressive yellow dome.

In the main hall jewels of every shape and colour were being sold and leading off this central area where a labyrinth of passages selling a wide range of goods from clothing to manicures.  Naturally the food area is what attracted me the most.

Every possible form of dried fish was on offer, but I particularly liked the demure and stylish lady below selling honeycomb.

We picked up some donut looking snacks to graze upon whilst we surveyed all the wonderful food on offer, although we were tempted to have some Banh Xeo.

They are the yellow rice pancakes above and the large photo below. They are absolutely delicious and you can stuff them with whatever you fancy, although typically they are filled with slices of pork belly, prawns, beansprouts and herbs. I often tend to leave out the pork belly and just have prawns. My recipe for them are here. so take a look and give them a whirl. Let me know how you get on !! They are far easier to make than you think and my whole family adore them. You can easily pick up rice flour now at all the large supermarkets. The summer rolls below look tempting don’t you think?

We then headed over to the Russian market, which is fairly similar to central market in as far as goods are concerned, although I did see more stalls selling some beautiful looking crockery, which I was tempted to buy. Russian market is darker and a little more claustrophobic and I imagine on a hot day with lots of people it could be rather sweltering inside. For both markets we had a guide, but in all honesty this is unnecessary as you can easily wander around at your own speed and feel quite safe. Getting a tuk tuk is easy so moving around the city is pretty straightforward.

We stayed in the old US Embassy, which is now called the White Mansion. It was in a great location to everything we wanted to see, the rooms were large and spacious, there was a pool and the cafe attached to the hotel- Eric Kayser – offered incredible pastries and breakfasts. It is for the public as well as hotel guests, so worth a visit even if you are not staying here. They do offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, although we only ate breakfast there.

On the first evening we dined at a fabulous restaurant that we booked again the following night. It’s called ‘Khmer Surin’ and it is the perfect place to savour real Khmer cuisine in a cosy atmosphere with local musicians playing traditional Cambodian music.  There is an English menu and such a range of dishes that over the two evenings we worked our way through a number of memorable Khmer dishes. They also served great fresh juices and cocktails. We also discovered that they operated as a guest house. The rooms look characterful – with Khmer furniture and decor and are very reasonably priced indeed, so I would definitely consider staying here if I were to return to the city.

Our final destination was in the very south of the country in a place called Kep-sur-Mer, which, as the name suggests, is by the sea. We were heading there for two main reasons – to relax and to eat crab, as the town is famous for it’s ‘crab market’.

The drive took a few hours from Phnom Penh but once we reached this sleepy backwater (it used to be THE place to hang out Cambodian high society and French colonials and now is making a bit of a revival) we checked into our hotel – Knai Bang Chatt – a beautifully stylish boutique hotel – only 18 rooms, set in lush tropical gardens overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.

Before we even explored the hotel, we left our bags in our room and headed off for lunch in the local crab market. It was a lot smaller than I had imagined, but nonetheless it was exciting to see our lunch being prepared so freshly. The fisherman would bring in the crabs, then the amount of crabs was agreed – we went for 1kg of crab and 500g prawns. You need to pay the fisherman separately from the cooks.

Watching the preparation is not for the faint hearted. The crabs were severed and cut into four pieces, their  lungs – the feathery cones lining the side of the body – were removed. Within minutes they were tossed into the pan. Cambodia is famous for its pepper – particularly its Kampot pepper – and many dishes are heavily peppered. We decided that for the crab dish we would include pepper but the prawns we would keep it simpler so that my youngest daughter could dive in.

Minutes later we were walking away with what looked, and tasted, spectacular. From a separate stall we bought rice, some chilli sauce and water. We found a pew and joined others by diving into our lunch. There is no polite way to eat this so use your hands and get involved.

Back at the hotel we discovered a beautiful space with manicured lawns, a gorgeous pool, a library and lots of day beds, swinging baskets to lounge upon. Next to the hotel (and owned by the hotel), we discovered a rather stylish sailing club, with a great bar and restaurant, pool table, table tennis and volleyball courts. It was a little enclave of cool, which would not have looked out of place in the Hamptons or the South of France. Hotel guests mingled with other tourists and Cambodian families, down from Phnom Penh for the weekend. Happy hour was particularly popular as the bar was particular good at creating fabulously tasty cocktails accompanied by the tasted spiced nuts I have ever eaten. I am going to do a blog post on how to make them as they are seriously addictive and perfect with a good beer, cocktail or glass of wine. One evening we ate in town, which is a short 5 minutes walk from the hotel. There are a handful of restaurants overlooking the sea by the crab market and we were recommended to Kimly, which was good, although our crab lunch will always remain the more memorable.

As far as trips from Kep, one day we ventured over to ‘Rabbit Island’. Go with low expectations and then you won’t be too disappointed. It certainly doesn’t have same turquoise waters that surround the Thai islands such as Phi Phi as I guess it is literally a stones throw from the mainland. I was saddened to see quite a lot of discarded rubbish and bottles as we walked over to the other side of the island to find a place to snorkel. The rubbish is apparently taken off the island every day, but with fairly basic accommodation on offer and no fresh running water, I guess it is hard to keep the place spotless of rubbish. Apparently the islands that are further from the mainland are more inline with our idea of a white sand, crystal clear waters desert island. Islands like Koh Rong Sanloem may be worth checking out if you are keen to find this kind of escape, although I reckon it would be worth staying a few nights as some of the more remote islands take up to 3 hours to reach. Needless to say on ‘Rabbit Island’ our hotel had organised a lovely lunch for us and we had some incredible massages on the beach.

If you are planning a trip and there is something I have not covered here, then write a comment in the comments box below and I will get back to you. Cambodia has a lot to offer whether you are travelling on your own, with friends or family.

Phnom Penh

White Mansion

Khmer Surin Guest House

Khmer Surin Restaurant

Eric Kayser Bakery and Cafe

Kep-sur-Mer

Knai Bang Chatt

Kimly restaurant

Kep Sailing Club

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Travels in Cambodia – Siem Reap (part 1)

Cambodia is a wonderful country that is most definitely worth visiting, but you need to be aware that it is still trying to find its way in the world after the horrific genocide that was carried out by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime between 1976-1979 killing up to 3 million Cambodians. There is clearly a huge amount of wealth in the country, if the number of Lexus, Porche and Range Rover cars on the roads is anything to go by, but this wealth is clearly not trickling down to the average Cambodian. Corruption is evident and the coffers tourists give to see the Angkor Archaeological Park are not all going into the restoration of other ruins as this seems to be done by overseas organisation and UNESCO.

Also as there are still a huge amount of unexploded landmines around the country that will take years to uncover, so wandering off on hikes in jungles is best avoided unless you are with a guide who knows where is safe to walk.

Our trip was split into three sections:

Siem Reap – to visit many of the temples and see the floating villages on Tonle Sap – the largest fresh water late in South East Asia.

Phnom Penh – to visit the Royal Palace and temples, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, the markets

Kep – in the south to relax and visit the crab market

Siem Reap

We stayed at the beautiful Heritage Suites Hotel nestled in a quiet location in Siem Reap, near Wat Polanka. Guests are often collected from the airport in one of their old classic Mercedes, very Agatha Christie don’t you think? The hotel is at the edge of town giving really easy access to the Angkor temple complex, which is around 15 minutes drive away. The day we arrived our guide arranged for us to collect our 3 day temple passes – worth doing to avoid crowds queuing to get theirs the next morning. There seems to be a wide range of places to stay in Siem Reap for all budgets. We ate at great place called ‘Chanrey Tree‘ which I would recommend and they also offer boutique accommodation which may well be worth checking out.

Angkor Wat is probably the most well known of all temples in Cambodia and whilst it is incredibly impressive there were heaps of tourists, which is a shame (although expected/pre-warned). We went mid morning and others at our hotel went before dawn  and said even then there were still huge amounts of tourists waiting for the sun to rise. So my advice is to definitely go and visit but make sure you spend time also seeing some of the others, which we found less crowded and in some cases there were only a few others wandering around the ruins. Ta Prohm and Bayon temple were our favourites. Both are featured in the “Tomb Raider” movie staring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

Ta Prohm looks as if it is almost being eaten up by either the silk-cotton, thitpok, gold apple and strangler fig trees.

Tree and brick entwine and almost hold each other up. Ta Prohm is an ancient Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university built between the 12th and 13th centuries by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII. The walls are decorated with deep bas relief of female divinities, devatas or apsaras. It’s pretty impressive.

Health and safety doesn’t really operate in Cambodia so you can scramble around as much of it as you want, just be vigilant that there aren’t any snakes hiding! You’ll certainly see bats.

At Bayon Temple (below) built at a similar time, it was the official state temple and its most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene smiling stone faces on the towers and upper terraces. Apparently there once 54 towers each with four gigantic faces so making a total of 216 faces. Now however, there are 37 stone towers in ruins.

As to who the faces are remains a debate. Many think that it is king Jayavarman VII who built the temple. He apparently created these faces as a dedication to Buddha.  Others believe it to belong to Bodhisattva (Buddhist enlightened being) of compassion known as Avalokiteśvara. As King Jayavarman identified himself with Buddha and Bodhisattva it makes sense that the faces are a combination of both.

Back in Siem Reap it is really easy to get around. All tuk tuk rides seem to cost $3 and it was a fun way to whizz around town. Siem Reap river runs through town and it was certainly easy to walk from our hotel to see some of the temples and markets.

Being on foot you often get to see Cambodians going about their daily chores up close. The one below we found rather fascinating.

We visited the Old Market, known as Psar Chaa which is a good place to pick up some kampot pepper and a host of other interesting spices. The food hall was interesting with beautiful produce on display, although the meat and fish section is probably not for the faint hearted.

It’s sells a lot of trinkets and tat but there is always the odd unique gift.  For scarfs and blankets head to ……..

As far as eating out is concerned “social enterprise eating” is very in vogue and should be supported. The restaurants provide a training for vulnerable young adults from poor rural areas, orphanages or safe shelters, which can then help them in the real world, giving them a chance to end the circle of poverty they are trapped in.

A couple to recommend (although there are many more) are:

Haven it took us about 10 minutes by tuk tuk from Heritage Suite Hotel

Marum Restaurant It is literally 2 minutes walk from Heritage Suite Hotel.

There is one street to avoid or head to, depending on your idea of a good time, called ‘Pub Street’. We did venture there one evening and had a great and very reasonable meal at Khmer Kitchen which served up all the Cambodian classics.

After a days touring you may want to rest up or visit a spa (there are so many in Siem Reap), but if you want to be entertained I can highly recommend a visit to Phare – which is Cambodias answer to Cirque de Soleil. They were really impressive and fun to watch. You can book tickets here.

The other trip we went on from Siem Reap was to the visit the floating villages on the freshwater lake (which looks rather brown!), known as  Tonle Sap.

Around 90% of those living on Tonle Sap are Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese (circa 700k) who are forced to dwell on the water in really poor conditions and with very little opportunities.  Apparently law restricts land to Cambodian citizens only, but this does not apply to the water – hence the ethnic Vietnamese populations move onto the water.  Many are living mere metres from land.

Fishing provides them with a small income, although they have to pay arbitrary taxes as they can’t prove they are in Cambodia legally. It all seems unjust and unfair and they are caught in a limbo situation.

The lake does provide food to eat, but the lack of basic sanitation is apparent and disease is rife. There were a few tourists at the part of the lake we went to, which brings some extra income for them, taking tourist on their boats out onto the lake. With little opportunity or investment one wonders how the cycle of poverty will ever end.

If you do make a trip please be sympathetic to the communities who live on the lake. Whilst I enjoyed this trip, I do have mixed feelings about the predicament they find themselves in.

My next post will be on  the capital – Phnom Penh and Kep in the south, so be sure to check back in next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ten Reasons to Visit Joshua Tree, California

On a recent road trip around California my family and I stayed in Joshua Tree for four days and three magical nights. My sister and her beau had gone the previously year and had raved about the place so I decided to follow their lead and include it in our trip this year. There is a lot going for this little town, so I thought I would break it down into ten reasons to tempt you to visit.

1. The main reason to visit Joshua Tree is to actually see the National Park itself, which is breathtaking in its stark beauty. The park includes not one but two deserts: the higher Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert. Each have ecosystems whose characteristics are determined by their elevation.

Picking up my dose of Vitamin D – breathtaking views of the San Andreas Fault, Mount San Jacinto, Mount San Gorgonio, and the Salton Sea.

The landscape is otherworldly and would not surprise me if other planets have similar terrain. You get that feeling that perhaps Mars is not that different!! The famous Joshua trees (first photo) litter the horizons in every direction, but the park offers so much more in as far as wild life and cacti.  Go and seek out ‘Cholla Cactus Garden’ (pictured below), which is pretty cool. These beauties have super sharp needles so wear covered shoes and watch where you are walking. There is a clear short loop through the garden to follow.

There is also a plethora of wildlife which have adapted and learned to survive in this desert landscape. You may come across scorpions, black-tailed jackrabbits, rattle snakes, as well as non-venomous varieties, tarantula, coyotes, bighorn sheep, lizards, kangaroo rats (these were pretty cool)and lynx.

2. The nights sky is pretty epic in Joshua Tree due to very little light pollution. Every evening we would head out and sit in the jacuzzi – yes there was a jacuzzi in the airbnb we were staying in (more of that later), and watch the shooting stars and satellites zooming overhead. Sadly the iPhone isn’t advanced enough to have a beautiful photo of the milky way and stars so I can’t include a photo here. Does anyone know an app that perhaps allows you to take photos of the sky at night? Leave a comment below if you do please.

3. Airbnb offers some wonderful places to stay across the world. We stayed in the stunning Joshua Tree House (Casita). With over 117k followers I kind of knew that this place would be something special. Firstly the location is magical – about 15 minutes from the park entrance and about 10 minutes from the town of Joshua Tree itself. To reach it you drive off road down a sandy track. It’s right next door to Joshua Tree Hacienda, but both places offer privacy. Walking through the front gate you are treated to a stunning desert garden which overlooks a great expanse of desert stretching towards the town of Joshua Tree. The Casita, which has a dusky pink exterior, has been lovingly styled by Sara and Rich who have oodles of creative flair and taste.

The furniture, vintage books, lighting, swing (in the living room) the wood burner, the guitar you can use – all add to the charm of the place. Everything has been thought through and has a meaningful place. It’s also an instagramers dream.

4. If you are travelling with children, they can become ‘Junior Park Rangers’. You pick up a booklet from the tourist office at one of the gates and they need to look for things in the park and answer questions. When they have completed the booklet they return it to the tourist office where a park ranger will ‘test’ them on their knowledge of the park and what they have seen. All being well they will become Junior Park Rangers and receive a badge and little hat.  It’s fun for them to get involved and learn more about the park and wildlife in this way.

5. If you like hiking then Joshua Tree National Park offers many trails to follow. There are a few rules though that you need to pay heed to as the desert and sun does not offer those who get lost much comfort for survival. Our favourite trail, which was only 1 mile in length – but perfect considering the heat, was ‘Hidden Valley’. There are a lot longer trails, which could be good when the weather cools off in the autumn or early spring. We were also pretty cautious about going on longer hikes as a couple had gone missing on one of the trials two weeks before we had arrived and, as I write this post they have now been missing for over a month, which is pretty horrific.

It is worth following the pointers below before you set off on any hikes.

– Obvious I know but make sure your tank of petrol is full – you would not want to break down here if you have taken the car off the main roads through the park and gone done more of a track to reach some of the longer trails.

-Carry loads of water with you and in the car.

-Stick to the trails as the place is very disorientating and it could be  easy to get lost. There are lots of old gold mines in the park, and whilst most of them are covered over apparently there are some that are not.

-Take maps and a phone

-Wear sunscreen, a hat and light clothing

-Tell people where you are going

-Wear good walking shoes/trainers/boots.

6. Go and have a sound bath at the Integratron in Landers (which is near to Joshua Tree). Whilst the timings did not work out for us, my sister loved the whole experience on her trip and highly recommends. The structure was designed and built in the 1950’s by George Van Tassel (ufologist and contactee). He claimed the Integratron was capable of ‘rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel’. He apparently built it following instructions provided by visitors from the planet Venus. The sound bath 60 minute experience allows ‘deep relaxation, rejuvenation, and introspection’.

To book your sound bath click here.  

7. Want to live out your cowboy fantasies? A short drive from Joshua Tree is Pioneer Town, which is definitely worth scoping out. The place is a real life Old Western set created in the 1940’s that actors actually lived in whilst films were being shot – films like ‘The Cisco Kid’. The place is pretty cool and many  of the places on the ‘high street’ you can actually go into and there are locals selling all manner of things – including saddles and pottery.

8. Whilst you are in Pioneer Town head to Pappi & Harriet’s. This BBQ restaurant and music venue is pretty legendary, with big names singers occasionally making an appearance, including Paul McCartney in December 2016. They also have ‘open mic’ for those budding vocalists out there. The venue is great and definitely my kind of venue fitting less than 300 people in all. Intimate and cosy in one. Click here to see who is playing in the coming months.

9. Love vintage clothing and eclectic antiques? Then Joshua Tree and neighbouring Yucca Valley are definitely worth exploring for picking up that unique outfit for Coachella or Burning Man festivals or that special piece for your home. Most of the boutiques are based on or near by Twentynine Palms Highway. You can’t miss the brightly coloured exterior of ‘The End’ which is packed to the brim with brightly coloured vintage and contemporary clothes. Also worth checking out is the ‘Hoof & Horn’, ‘Funky and Darn Near New’, Ricochet Joshua Tree, 62 Vintage Marketplace and Pioneer Crossing and Antiques.

10. Under an hour away is beautiful Palm Springs. If you think Joshua Tree is hot then wait until you get to Palm Springs. In August it is SO hot that even restaurants with tables on the pavement are spraying diners with cooling water spray. This place sizzles but is also achingly hip. If you love midcentury modern design then you will be in heaven. We only stopped briefly (note to self to stay a few days in the future) but managed to soak up the vibes of the stylishly sophisticated, The Parker.

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Sri Lanka’s Tea Gardens, the Coast and Beetroot Curry

This is quite a long post so boil yourself some water and make yourself a cup of tea. Sitting comfortably……..then let’s begin.

No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without a stay in the tea gardens. The cooling climate, the rich green tea plantations and the slower pace of life is very appealing, especially after spending time in the hot dry lands of the cultural triangle. I loved the experience of staying in them when I visited Kerala so made sure they were included in our Sri Lanka itinerary. Many travellers head to Nuwara Eliya often referred by the Sri Lankan tourist industry as ‘Little England’, a nod to the British summer time retreat in the 1800, but instead we opted to stay in a few valleys away, near to a small town called Hatton. There is a train station in Hatton and if I were to revist I would take the slow steam train from Kandy to Hatton to admire the scenery and avoid the hairpin bends, which make even the most hardened traveller feel car sick. Tickets need to be bought in advance so think about this as an option even if you have a driver.

We stayed a night in Mandira Dickoya and a night in Mandira Strathdon both old colonial ‘planters’ cottages who managed the tea estates. Mandira Strathdon is best for those travelling with a family as there are adjoining rooms. On arrival you are transported to another era where the pace of life was slow and charmed.  The food at these boutique hotels is homely and authentic – check out these delicious bowls of curry that we had for supper.

Breakfast involved a freshly squeezed juice and some beautifully presented fruit – papaya with fresh lime being my favourite.

This was followed by buffalo milk curd and coconut treacle – I*N*C*R*E*D*I*B*L*E. Don’t be fooled into thinking it looks plain and tasteless. You’ll become addicted I promise you.

This was then invariable followed by the ubiquities rice hoppers with dal, chilli and pickle, sometimes with an egg in the middle. Tasty and certainly very filling.

 

 

 

In order to walk off breakfast, a guide showed us around the neighbourhood and the numerous tea plantations so that we could learn more about the tea, flora, fauna and general wildlife. Can I recommend that if you do this you wear long trousers and socks that pull up. My husband decided to take a stroll in shorts and ended up with the inevitable leeches, which caused his ankle to bleed for the proceeding three hours.

 

We met with some of the tea-pluckers, many of whom are the older women. The fear is that by the next generation there will be no one left to actually pick the leaves as the younger generation are not wanting to take on such hard labour. The tea plantations will revert to the forests that they once were before the arrival of the British, Dutch and Portuguese. To give you an idea of a ‘day-in-a-life’ of a tea plucker we learn’t that they rise before 6.30am and report to the factory where they are allocated an area to pluck tea leaves. They must pluck 18kg a day to get paid. For their labours they will receive the equivalant of £7 a day. As part of the job they will receive lodgings until their retirement.

A derelict tea factory stood alongside a hindu temple and tea pluckers cottages were painted in vibrant colours,  some with beautiful flower garlands adorning the porch area.

There was even the most beautiful Christian church that was still well maintained and cared for, with graves from British planters who called this corner of the world home; the views from the church were magnificent.

We visited Norwood tea factory and got to see the full cycle of a tea leaf, leaving with an enhanced respect for both the tea pluckers and the process involved to create the tea that is drunk the world over. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. 

On our return to our lodgings we chanced upon a rather fascinating festival where crowds of people had gathered. As the traffic was brought to a standstill we decided to get out on foot to take a closer look. From afar we could see young men tied to large bamboo poles that were leavered up into the air and then attached to small lorries. There was a lot of colour and noise and it looked intriguing if not a little surreal. The mind boggled as to what on earth they were actually doing. On closer inspection what appeared to be a rather jolly occasion looked, to the Western spectator (there was only us), to be dreadfully painful.

We discovered that the young men were actually tied up to the poles with small cleaver hooks going through their skin. Bizarrely it was our youngest daughter who first spotted this, who inquired whether we thought it would hurt. Bewildered and fascinated in equally measure, back at our hotel I discovered that the festival was called – Thirunaal, which coincides with the full moon around the 13/14th April and practiced by Tamil Hindus. I discovered that Sri Lanka is not the only country which practices such extreme religious devotion, it is also hugely popular in Indonesia and am sure it also takes place in India as well. The belief is that ones devotion to the hindu gods will free the body from pain incurred from the hooks. Being part of this festival the young men fulfil their vows to hindu gods.

Throughout the night, drums were heard and the festival continued as the full moon shone. It was certainly interesting to stumble upon, but felt a world away from Western civilisation.

The following day we headed for the coast, using the super highway from Columbo to Galle – 100km which takes no time at all owing to the fact that it was tolled and hence no one used it other than tourists, not even the sacred cows! As much as I love the hill stations and mountains I adore being near the sea – smelling the salty air, the sound of the waves and the palm trees gently blowing in the wind. We stayed in a small boutique hotel called Apa Villa, which is owned by Hans Hoefer – the photographer, designer and founder of Insight Guides.

It overlooks the sea, but due to the reef it is impossible to swim safely here. We didn’t mind as we had a beautiful pool to do some laps.

It was whilst staying here that we spent half a day with the kitchen staff at Hans’s other residence Apa Villa Illuketia a few kilometres inland, and which you can also stay in. This was the estate that Hans originally bought before buying his property on the coast. It has plenty of old world charm and we spent a peaceful morning with the staff, before sitting down to the lunch that we had watched being prepared.

Galle is definitely worth a visit, which was 15-20 minutes up the road from Apa Villas. This Dutch built fort town is walkable, absolutely charming and filled with fascinating shops, museum and churches.

It feels very European – well Dutch to be precise – once you get within the city walls.

We loved this great retro poster shop and thought this poster was rather apt.

We couldn’t resist a London priced cocktail at the Aman Galle Hotel occupying an elegant, 17th-century Colonial-style building to watch the world go by.

The beetroot recipe below was one that I was taught during the morning at Illuketia and works as a great accompanying dish with other fish/meat/vegetable curries or a simple dal.

Sri Lankan Beetroot Curry

2 tbsp rapeseed/coconut oil

1/2 red onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

10 fresh curry leaves

1 pandan leaf, cut into 4 strips

1 small/medium tomato, roughly chopped

1/4 tsp Sri Lankan chilli powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp garam masala

1/4 tsp turmeric

2 medium sized beetroot, peeled and chopped into batons

pinch of freshly ground black pepper

25ml water

200ml coconut milk

  1. Heat the oil in a pan and add onion, garlic, curry leaves, pandan leaf and tomato and allow to soften for a 5 minutes.
  2. Add the chilli powder, salt, garam masala and turmeric and stir into the other ingredients.
  3. After a further five minutes add the beetroot and, to help soften it, add the water and coconut milk. Simmer gently for around 20 minutes so that the beetroot has softened and the liquid reduced slightly.
  4. You are now ready to serve.

 

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Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle and Sri Lankan Dal

Sri Lanka’s temperature can change dramatically depending where you are in the country. The cultural triangle is in the interior dry lands, also known as the northern plains (and traditionally known as Rajarata, or “The King’s Land”). Earthy scrub mingles with dense jungle and this is in turn is punctuated by  small mountainous boulders – such as Sigiriya (below) and Pidurangala.

We climbed the less touristy Pidurangala, which is a few feet shorter than Sigiriya and far less crowded, we probably saw no more than 15 people there and back. It offered us the same views, at a fraction of the cost apparently, and a good view of Sigiriya itself. It does not have the same ruins that Sigiriya has at the top,  although it does have it’s own temple and buddha, but if it is the view you are after then you have the same experience on either rock.  I will say however that the final part of the climb is precarious – a case of heaving yourself up onto a giant boulder – so makes it tricky for children or those not sure on their feet!

For three days we did some serious cultural touring in the heat, travelling a good distance on some days. The main sites that draw locals and tourists alike are the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and to a lesser extent on Pidurangala and Daumbulla cave temple (below).

However for those keen on wildlife, Minneriya National Park is also within the cultural triangle and an absolute must. The park forms part of the elephant corridor, allowing elephants to migrate between the protected areas of Kaudulla National Park in the north and Wasgomuwa National Park in the south. Hiring a jeep we spent a few hours in the park viewing all the wildlife (over 200 elephants) as well as wild buffaloes, land monitors, a vast array of birds and even a crocodile. There were a number of other jeeps with other tourists, so it did feel a little bit like feeding time at the zoo, but that said I would recommend a few hours scoping out the place.

The largest site to see is Anuradhapura, which was founded in the 4th century BC and was one of Sri Lanka’s greatest centres of religious and political power. The ancient city is sprawling with numerous temples, massive dagobas – which are the Sinhalese name for the Buddhist stupa, a mound-like structure with relics, used by Buddhist monks to meditate (see below).

You can also see remains of ancient palaces, pools and auspicious trees.

Local pilgrims far out numbered tourists and with the heat blazing down my one piece of advice is take a pair of socks to slip on when you visit the temples and dagobas. You have to remove your shoes and the stone is scorching hot. I learned the hard way on the first day.

Outside all the temples there are flower and incense sellers selling stunning purple lotus flowers to passing pilgrims, which in turn buy them in order to offer them to buddha within the temples.

Stone elephants stand proudly guarding the boundaries to the temple complexes.

Polonnaruwa is not as sprawling as Anuradhapura and less busy, but offers the traveller as rich an experience. During the 12th century the kingdom went through a golden age where monasteries and  temples where built on a massive scale. The prosperity was not to last and by 1293 the city was abandoned and the jungle quickly consumed it. It wasn’t until the 20th century that excavation and restoration began and in 1982 it was a declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our driver kindly drove us from ruin to ruin, but if you are feeling up to it you can also hire bikes, which looked a fun, albeit hot, way to move around the city.

With all this touring we parked ourselves at the Water Gardens Sigiriya (a few hours away from these ancient kingdoms) which had a rather impressive view upon arrival.

It opened at the end of last year (2016) and offers incredibly spacious rooms (I think a villa would be more apt), with plunge pools in some. Although when you have the main pool like this –

then your plunge pool becomes pretty redundant. The hotel is beautiful and has been thoughtfully created in the natural habitat. Peacocks roam around the grounds – apparently eating up the snakes (Sri Lankan has more venomous snakes than any other country), although they have a cry similar to a young child, which is a little disarming to begin with but after a while you don’t even notice it. Golf buggies are on hand to  ferry guests from their rooms to the restaurant, bar or pool.

The restaurant had both Western and Sri Lankan fare, although I personally wish they had had more of the latter and less of the former. Eating Western lamb shanks in Sri Lanka just isn’t my thang! The Sri Lankan food was very good, but after three days I was craving more variety.   We were on half board and the menu for supper included starters, soups, then the main event – the Sri Lankan food, followed by dessert. The starters and soup were more Western in flavour and to be honest I would have preferred more continuity of Sri Lankan food throughout…….but maybe that’s just me.

This week I wanted to show you how to cook a delicious dal I was fed on numerous occasions in Sri Lanka. It is very different from my Bengali dal but equally as moreish.

Sri Lankan Dal

Serves 4-6 if served with other dishes

300g red split lentil dal

1 red onion, roughly chopped

3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

2 pandan leaves *

10 fresh curry leaves **

1/2 large tomato, diced

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1 heaped tsp Sri Lankan curry powder ***

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp chilli powder

1 fresh green chilli, sliced in two

400ml coconut milk

400ml water

1. Wash the red split lentils and then place all the ingredients on top along with the coconut milk and water.

2. Simmer gently for 15 -20 minutes. Check to taste the salt levels are correct and add a little more water as required.

In Sri Lanka two varieties of coconut milk were added and no water. First they added the less thick variety and then only at the end, on a low simmer, did they add the thicker coconut milk. 

*pandan leaves – you can pick these up from your local Asian or Sri Lankan grocers or equally you can order online here.

*** fresh curry leaves you can pick up easily at Asian grocers or online.

***There are two types of curry powder in Sri Lanka – roasted which is redder in colour and unroasted, which is browner in colour. You need to use the unroasted in this dal. I bought back both varieties from my trip but if you want to make your own simply unroasted then blend 2 tbsp coriander seeds with 1 tsp of cumin seeds and 1 tsp of fennel seeds. Very easy.

If you want to make the roasted curry powder: Warm a frying pan and then add 2 tbsp of coriander seeds, followed by 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, 5 cloves, 5 cardamom pods (seeds only), 6 dried chillies, 3 stalks of fresh curry leaves, 1 tbsp cumin seeds and 1/2 tbsp fennel seeds. Move around the pan continuously for 5 minutes so that they do not burn and then place in a spice grinder.

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