Mr Choi’s Swiss chard, onion and three cheese tarts

I’ve spoken to you before about the amazing Mr Choi. He’s our landlord in Vancouver, his favourite catchphrase is ‘holy mackerel!’ and he keeps a mean kitchen garden. But he’s anything but mean. In fact, he couldn’t be more generous with the bountiful fresh produce he grows, and is always knocking on our door with armfuls of amazing things. So far we’ve had the sweetest, most delicious tomatoes, fragrant basil and these prickly Mexican pears which I’m yet to successfully cook.

This time he brought us Swiss chard – a huge glossy bunch of it. I had some cheese in the fridge which was going a little dry around the edges, some left over sour cream, half an onion and enough butter and eggs to make pastry, so I decided on making a tart out of the earthy greens. Then I realised I didn’t have a big tart dish, so it would have to be little tartlets. A bit more fiddly, but in fact the result was rather a hit – the earthy chard perfectly tempered by the sweet onion and nutty cheese.

Mr Choi is so happy and kind, and full of stories of when he was a chef in the 60s in a now-defunct hotel in Vancouver. He’s been such an inspiration to my cooking, and we wish we could bring him back to London with us. I hope you enjoy this recipe, which I thank Mr Choi for!

Mr Choi

Mr Choi's beautiful chard

Makes 6 little tarts
(use springform tins) or one 23 x 2.5cm large tart

for the pastry
175g plain flour
1/2 tsp dry thyme leaves
1 tbspn parmesan/ grana padano
1 egg yolk
100g cold butter, diced
4 tbspn iced water

For the filling
bunch of swiss chard, thoroughly washed – stems and leaves separated
half an onion, finely chopped
1 tbspn olive oil
bay leaf
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper
1 tsp butter
3 eggs
1 egg white
1/2 cup sour cream
25ml whole milk
50g gruyere, finely grated
30g sharp white cheddar, finely grated
1tsp cider vinegar

To make the pastry
Put the flour, parmesan, thyme leaves, egg yolk, butter and iced water in a food processor and whizz until it’s a sandy texture, and melds together. Pour it out onto a floured surface and squish it into a ball. Wrap in cling film and blast chill it in the freezer for 5 minutes.

To make the tarts

Preheat your oven to 180. Brush your tart tins with a thin coating of oil.

Take the pastry out of the freezer, divide in half and then each half into three equal thirds. Squidge each third into a ball-like shape, and, on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll out thinly into discs.

Line the tart tins with the pastry discs, being careful to tuck the pastry right into the base and press into the fluted edges. To remove the excess pastry, press your finger against the edge of the top of the tin to chop it off. Pierce the base of each pastry case lightly with the prongs of a fork. Refrigerate again in the freezer for five minutes and place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.

Place the cases on the baking sheet and line them with baking parchment. A good tip here is to scrunch up the parchment so you can mould it into the base of the tarts. Fill with lentils, baking beans or coins and blind bake for 15 minutes.

While that’s baking, you can make the filling. Heat the olive oil and butter on a medium heat in a frying pan and gently sauté the onion, thyme, bay and garlic for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and sweet. Be careful not to burn the garlic at this point.

Slice the chard stalks and add them to the frying pan, sautéeing for about another five minutes. In the meantime chinois the green leaves, then add them into the pan and wilt along with the onion and stalk mixture. Once the greens have wilted, transfer to a bowl and add a tsp of cider vinegar, mixing it in.

Once the timer goes off for the cases, remove the parchment and baking beans and bake for a further five minutes, until golden.

In another bowl, break the eggs and lightly whisk together with the egg white. Add in the sour cream, cheese, salt and pepper and milk and mix.

When the cases are ready, divide the chard mixture between them and carefully spoon in the egg and cheese mixture being careful not to overfill the cases.

Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool on a wire rack for five minutes before removing from their cases. Serve warm, with a dressed green salad.

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Hot corn with Mexican butter

I ruddy love corn. Popcorn, sweetcorn out of a tin, corn on the cob – you name a corny foodstuff and the chances are I’ll be into it. Even if it does leave me picking at my teeth for the rest of the day, it’s worth it for that crunchy, buttery, addictive goodness. Gimme!

Anyway, I picked up some corn on special offer the other day and, inspired by a little dish I had at my favourite Mexican restaurant here, Tacofino Commissary, I decided to get all Mexican on its kernals. This is a really simple recipe and it seems to work pretty well. I love the way the acidic lime and salty parmesan (used in lieu of queso fresco) work with the sweetness of the corn. The herbs offer a nice fragrant lift to the whole thing. You can use coriander in the place of parsley, but I just used what I had to hand, which was a nice bunch of flat leaf.

Serves four as a starter
Two ears of corn, stripped of their husks, cut in half
120g butter, at room temperature
2 tbspns of grated grana padano or Parmesan
the juice of half a lime
tsp red chilli flakes
2 tbpsn of chopped mint and parsley
Grind of black pepper and salt

First mix the butter with the cheese, lime and salt and pepper, then add in the herbs and chilli flakes. Now heat up a skillet really hot, rub your corn with a little vegetable oil and place them in the skillet. You could use a barbecue, if you had one to hand, but a really hot skillet works just as well. You could par-boil them before grilling, but I found that a few minutes on each side worked well. Turn the corn at intervals – some of the kernals will char and blacken but this just adds to the flavour. When the corn is tender and a good, deep yellow – after about six-eight minutes, remove from the skillet and smother in the butter. Eat immediately, with the butter dripping down your wrists. This is an optional extra, but it’s a little ritual for me when I eat corn: when you’ve chomped all the corn of the cobs, smear the ears with more of the butter, let it soak in, and then suck it out. SO good!

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Slow braised octopus with tomato, fennel, mussels and orzo

I have always been fascinated by octopus. I remember eating it on family holidays to Spain as a child, usually pickled or coated in oil and at the end of a cocktail stick, pleasingly chewy. I delighted in the texture of the tentacles – their beautiful gruesomeness, tinged with purple. I loved the way they felt against my tongue, the grooves of texture, their pleasing tangibility – they always reminded me of the suckers on those funny little furry toys I’d stick to every available window.

Whenever I’m at a fishmonger I’m drawn to the octopus – lying resplendent on the ice, dangling tentacles glistening like fishy chandeliers; but it’s never something I’ve attempted to cook. I suppose I’ve always been too scared to take such a magnificent, mystical creature and do the unthinkable to it: render it rubbery and inedible. But a gorgeous dish of slow-braised octopus eaten a few months ago at Rochelle Canteen has stuck in my mind as one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten this year, and something that I could at least try to recreate. It was deep, rich, velvety and heady – the octopus soft and tender and melding wonderfully with the olive oil, fennel, tomato and aromatic braising jus.

I’d also always assumed that cooking octopus would be super pricey, but when I was out shopping on ‘the Drive’ the other day I came face-to-face with a frozen whole octopus, priced very well at $7.99 (that’s under a fiver in British pounds!) so I thought I’d give it a go. I threw some mussels into the mix at the last minute because I was feeding three and was worried the octopus wouldn’t go so far – I was actually wrong as there was in fact leftovers – and the resulting dish was a bit of a hit. I will be making it again, and really the fact that the octopus was frozen didn’t seem to affect the flavour or texture at all. That’ll be the wonder of slow, careful braising!

Serves 2-4

1 octopus – fresh or frozen, about a kg
400g mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
half a small bulb of fennel, finely sliced
three large ripe tomatoes, chopped or, if not in season, a tin of chopped tomatoes
1 tbs tomato puree
half an onion, finely chopped
One large carrot, diced
2 sticks of celery, chopped
4 tbsp olive oil
two cloves of garlic, minced
1 glass of white wine (preferably a good chardonnay for its aromatic richness)
2 bay leaves
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
Pinch of dry thyme or a few fresh thyme leaves
Bunch of cavolo nero
Handful of chopped parsley

Prepping the octopus
First, if you’re using a whole fresh octopus you need to tenderise it, by either freezing it a few days before you cook it, or whacking it with a mallet for 10 minutes until it foams. If you’re using frozen octopus defrost gently on a plate in the fridge for about 24 hours, you don’t need to worry about tenderising it as the process of freezing does that.

Then you must remove the head, innards, ink, eyes and beak.  But don’t be alarmed! This is not as hard or as horrible as it sounds. You just cut below the eyes, separating the head from the tentacles. You’ll see there’s a hole where the tentacles meet, and inside that is the ‘beak’. It’s easy to remove – just push it out with your finger or thumb. Now take the head, cut the eyes off the bottom and discard. Rinse it inside and out, getting rid of the insides, and also rinse the rest of the octopus under cold water. Separate the tentacles too.

NB if you’re using a frozen octopus you won’t have to do this as the innards will have been taken out before it’s frozen. It’s still worth cleaning it in cold water though.

Put the tentacles and sack into a heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, cover with about 130ml of water and cook for 20 minutes on a low heat. This serves to partially cook the octopus, but also to extract its flavourful juices, which you can use later.

When that’s done, reserve the cooking liquor and chop the tentacles up into chunks of about 3-4cm or whichever size you prefer. I like to keep nice meaty chunks.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the onions, fennel, carrots, celery and sautée until the onion and fennel is turning translucent and soft – about five minutes. Then add the garlic, bay and thyme and cook for another one to two minutes. Now add the octopus and sautée for a further few minutes, stirring, before adding the tomato, tomato puree, wine, octopus juice and black pepper.

Bring to the boil and then lower to a gentle simmer and cook for about 40 minutes. It might be a little less, you just need to keep testing the octopus until it’s tender but still meaty and not in the least bit mulchy.

About eight minutes before it’s ready, cook some orzo in boiling salted water until al dente and dress with a little extra virgin olive oil.

When it’s nearly there, de-stem your cavolo nero and chiffonade the leaves. Throw in the mussels and kale, cover with a lid and cook for about three-to-four minutes, until the mussels have opened and exuded all their tasty juice into the braise. Then taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Stir through the parsley and a dash of extra virgin olive oil, and serve in big ladlefuls on top of piles of orzo, making sure to dish out some of the octopus.


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Blueberry, basil and almond pudding pie!

Nowhere does blueberries quite like BC, and at the moment it is the season, so I am loving all the local bakeries with their blueberry pies – bursting at their golden, cross-hatched pastry seams with molten purple sweetness. Because they are in season, and plentiful, they are also very easy to come by: big, heaving punnets of the super fruit setting you back just a few bucks.

I wanted to create a cooked dessert/bake with the blue beauties, but it being so hot, couldn’t be faffed with pastry proper. Plus, I love ground almonds with any kind of soft fruit, so I came up with this incredibly easy pudding recipe which is somewhere between a clafoutis, sponge cake and a pie. I used half shop-bought ground almonds and half whole, skin-on blitzed-up almonds to give a bit of texture and rusticity, and the result is rather lovely – the squidgy, ever-so-sweet fruit melding with the sponge and the crunchy almonds. I popped some basil leaves into the mix as well, because Mr Choi grows the fruitiest, most fragrant basil I’ve ever tasted and I think it goes just lovely with the sweet blueberries, giving them an extra flavourful edge.

This recipe makes a whopping big pie, because I was using our massive cake tin (sorry, no ruler to measure it yet), so if you have a more diminutive vessel it might be worth halving the quantities. Or you could make two and pig out! I really like this with sour cream or yoghurt rather than cream as the blueberries are so sweet I think they benefit from slightly piquant dairy.

600-800g blueberries
Five big, fragrant basil leaves
4 eggs, at room temperature
Soft butter, for greasing
120g caster sugar – I like golden caster
180g ground almonds (option: you could use 90g finely ground, 90g blitzed whole, skin-on almonds for a bit of crunch – as I did)
20g flour
Sour cream or creme fraiche, to serve

Preheat the oven to 180. Grease a big cake tin or flan dish with softened butter and place the basil leaves on the bottom of it. Pour over the blueberries and put to one side. Combine the flour and ground almonds. In another bowl whisk the sugar and eggs until frothy – for about 3 minutes. Gently fold in the flour and almonds, keeping as much air in there as you can. Now pour this on top of the blueberries, let it settle for a couple of minutes, and cook for 35-45 minutes – until the batter is golden and the blueberries’ liquid is bubbling up the sides of the tin.

Remove the tin from the oven and run a palette knife around the edge to loosen the pudding. Leave to stand and cool a little for five minutes, then put a big plate on top of the tin and flip it upside down to plate it. This is nice served warm, with a big dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche, or kept in the fridge and eaten cool and squidgy at any time of the day. Hell – it’s got blueberries in it so you can happily have it for breakfast! NB – don’t put it in the fridge until it’s cooled to avoid condensation.

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From Vancouver, with love – and lots of courgette flowers

So it’s been three weeks since I’ve been living in Vancouver and I thought it was about time I wrote a ruddy blog. Sorry for the delay, but the truth is, I’ve been having something of a summer holiday. The weather, which has now turned – and all the Vancouverites, bless their delicate souls, are insisting that it’s now ‘fall’ (it’s not) – has been amazing, and we’ve been spending time on the beach, cycling lots around the wide, tree-lined avenues with their sunflowers and wooden Victorian houses, and generally I’ve just been getting to know this unique, scenic city.

My favourite flower shop in Vancouver: Olla flowers

This kind of thing is EVERYWHERE

And oh my gosh have I been eating. And cooking. And eating. And cooking. I don’t know whether it’s a comfort thing – but being somewhere new without my family and friends has just made me lose myself in food even more than usual (recipes forthcoming). I’m really lucky in that my boyfriend (who’s been out here since March) has chosen to live in an area known as Commercial Drive in the east of the city, and it’s basically this mile long drive that’s choc-full of amazing independent restaurants, businesses and food shops. It reminds me in its way of Brixton or Hackney, and I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to bakeries, health food places, specialist shops, coffee shops and grocery stores selling everything from tinned oysters to achiote paste.

So I bought this baby, and have been filling it regularly with ingredients from ‘The Drive’.

But one thing that has been really quite shocking is the price of everything. This is a very expensive place to shop in, and very often it’s actually cheaper to eat out than it is to buy a load of ingredients and cook them. Dairy products are the absolute worst:

Decent, affordable cheese is very hard to come by. I’m yet to find mozzarella that isn’t the consistency of halloumi (middle class crisis alert), and a tub of marscapone for cheesecake set me back $7. The best I’ve found so far is a gorgeously juicy, creamy truffled goat’s cheese from Salt Spring Island cheeses which is sold at the amazing Trout Lake Farmer’s market – a market that takes place every Saturday five minutes from our house, showcasing the best produce from around BC.

Space ship squashes (yes really!) at Trout Lake Farmer's Market

We’ve also been eating out quite a bit, as I’ve been researching a couple of travel pieces. My favourite place so far was Pidgin – an amazing restaurant on the Downtown Eastside which has been continually picketed by anti-gentrification protesters since opening in February. There’s a huge debate going on here in the Downtown Eastside about its low-income residents being displaced by new residential and business developments pushing up prices in the area, and protestors have been very vocal about trying to make an example out of this place, and shut it down. But given that this is a small, independently-owned, owner-run restaurant doing some really good, creative things and employing local people, and it’s a two minute walk from a cluster of places in Gastown (including Starbucks and Spaghetti House), this vitriol seems to me displaced and misguided.

Makoto Ono (left) hard at work at Pidgin

But above and beyond that, the food here is utterly amazing. And the prices are very, very reasonable for what you get – so a sharing plate of melting lamb belly with piquant pickled mustard seeds and silky, smoky egg plant was $16 (that’s under 10 English pounds). The chef, Makoto Ono, is Canadian-born Japanese but is classically French-trained, and his cooking is absolutely incredible – using French and Asian technique applied to fantastic local produce.

The delectable soft-boiled, ramen-marinated dipping egg with summer beans and yuzu brown butter at Pidgin

The above dish of ramen-marinated dippy eggs with sauteed summer beans and mushrooms in a yuzu brown butter was a total revelation, the eggs deeply savoury yet rich and creamy, and it even inspired me to have a go at my own version! I bought some kikkoman noodle base (which includes bonito, mirin and soy), gently soft-boiled a couple of eggs an picked off the shells, then packed them into a glass with the marinate and left them for an hour. The result wasn’t half as good as Pidgin’s – I think I should have diluted the marinate as it was too intense, but it was certainly a start and something I’ll carry on experimenting with. I ate them with wok-fried beet tops, radishes and zucchini from the garden, cooked in the marinate.

I’m also pretty lucky that the flat we’re living in has a kitchen garden, maintained by our lovely landlord Mr Choi. The garden is alive with runner beans, Japanese squashes, tomatoes, really fragrant basil and zucchini (courgette for us Brits), and Mr Choi was kind enough to let me have the flowers, which have been growing in abundance because he doesn’t use them. Now I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with courgette flowers, but I’ve always found them hard to come by in London – I just never seem to have been at the right Farmer’s Market at the right time (middle class trauma mark two), but now I find myself surrounded by the lovely little delicate yellow flowers!

So after paying above the odds for some marscapone I decided to stuff these beauties with it, mixed with a tin of smoked oysters, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. I then coated them in a tempura batter and shallow fried them in some olive oil. The result was a punchy, crunchy, creamy yet subtle snack which we enjoyed with some pale ale. Rather a nice way to see in a summer’s evening.

Tempura coated, smoked oyster and marscapone stuffed zucchini flowers

Last night I decided to make pizzas, as we had a friend coming over – and there were still lots of courgette flowers, so I picked them, took out their pollen-laden stamens and used them as a pizza topping along with some garden zucchini and the attractive space ship squash we bought at the farmer’s market – all of which I marinated first with a bit of lemon juice, white pepper and olive oil. I used a sour cream and raw garlic base, and chucked over some chunks of mozzarella, which was really sub-standard, and browned rather than going all creamy and gooey – but the result was still one of the prettiest pizzas I’ve ever made. And SO summery.

The experimentation continues.


Posted in Canada, Canadian food, Flowers, Food Styling, markets, Photography, Recipes, Uncategorized, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tofino: a wilderness paradise with an incredible food scene

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From Victoria, we headed up the island’s only highway for just over four hours (with a quick wild swim in Lake Sproat) until we reached Tofino – a small surfer wilderness town with incredible beaches and, as we’d discover, an … Continue reading

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To Victoria, BC: Red Fish Blue Fish, The Fairmont Empress and the bees knees

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I was definitely expecting Vancouver to have a cracking food scene, given its location on the West Coast (some have called it the ‘original’ Portland), all the different cultural influences and the fact it’s a major city. But what I … Continue reading

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Tacos, Japadogs and a LOT of sushi… welcome to Vancouver

A heron near Stanley Park

A week ago today I was dancing to Daft Punk (and then later, and much more sexily, to Right Said Fred) in the Tiki bar at the Waldorf Hotel in Vancouver, a pint of Aperol Spritz in my hand, my belly full from an incredible meal at Chinese brasserie Bao Bei (more on that soon), and my nose freckly and golden from the sun. Now I’m back in England, waiting, like everyone else, for summer to make an appearance.

Chef Joel Watanabe from at the pass in Bao Bei

I’d popped over to visit my boyfriend who’s out there on an ‘Explore Canada’ visa, and also to do a recce because I’m going to be going to join him, and doing some work out there for a few months as of August: woo hoo!

Before we met, Canada had been vaguely on my hit list of places to go visit and eat in, but it was more Toronto, with its award-winning food market and big name restaurants (hello David Chang) that seemed to be pulling me in. But, having just got back, I can happily say that Vancouver, aside from being one of the most beautiful places on earth, has one of the best food scenes – food cultures, even – that I’ve ever experienced, and I am absolutely champing at the bit (love that phrase) to get back there.

In just under two weeks, I ate more tacos than I thought possible; had my fill – and then some – of super fresh sushi, feasted on amazing West Coast seafood – including oysters almost the size of my head – and tasted some incredible local beers and wines. The microbrewing scene is getting pretty big in Vancouver because the alcohol laws have been relaxed more recently, and it turns out British Columbia has a rather amazing wine region in the Okanagan Valley – an arid expanse where much of the country’s wine is produced. If like me, you’ve never considered Canadian wine, it’s probably because it’s so good and made in such small quantities that they keep it for themselves and little is exported.

Vancouver has one of North America’s largest Asian populations, including one of the most diverse Chinese diasporas, and as a result is a paradise for Asian food lovers like myself, with a wealth of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and Korean eateries and shops. One of the first things we did when I arrived, after getting lightly sozzled on a bottle of prosecco with some juicy local strawberries, was go for sushi. Even the average places are better than most sushi restaurants in England, and you can get delicious sashimi for about $7-8 a plate – that’s a blumming fiver!

The 'Erotica Roll' at Kojima Sushi

Our favourite spot for the time being is Kojima Sushi. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but I’m telling you the sushi is amazing and incredibly affordable. They bring you complimentary green tea when you start the meal, and the handmade rolls have hilarious names like the ‘Erotica roll’ ($8.25) – which we had to order, but it turned out to be an insanely delicious mix of crispy tempura yam with crab, avocado and topped with fresh raw salmon.

Me on 'The Drive'

Jamie lives near Commercial Drive in East Vancouver – and it felt like a bit of a home-from-home thanks to all the fresh grocery stores which are heaving with diverse ingredients – both local and more exotic. Wandering up to his house with my suitcase I had to keep stopping to gawp at all the big, green bunches of different kales (I’m obsessed), asparagus, herbs and bags of different coloured tortillas, various yummy looking breads and olives. There’s also a strong Italian community, so there are little delis with nice hams and freshly stuffed raviolis. It took all my strength not to bust in there and start grocery shopping before I’d even dumped my bag! Seriously looking forward to cooking with all this fresh produce on my return so watch this space for recipes, though fresh food is not cheap by any means, so they may have to be a bit on the frugal side.

Hot dog with fried noodles and pickled ginger on it? Yes please!

I’d heard about Japadogs – an inspired Vancouver invention of Japanese fusion hotdogs, which has stalls all over the city and one tiny little sit-down place. There’s a Japadogs in New York now, and it’s easy to see why – we’re talking about hot dogs (beef and pork) topped with things like fried noodles, bonito flakes, wasabi mayo, seaweed and miso. Umami doesn’t quite cover it. We shared three between us – a Yakisoba: pork wiener and fried yakisoba noodles, pickled ginger and seaweed ($7); a Teriyamo: beef wiener, teriyaki sauce, seaweed, Japanese mayo and fried onion ($4.75), and a Okonami: pork with Japanese sauce, Japanese mayo, bonito flakes and fried cabbage – along with some Shichimi and garlic shaken fries. I am still having cravings. They are SO GOOD!

Ooh yer - beef Teriyamo Japadog

Obviously all this eating needs to be offset with a bit of exercise, so while I was there I got back into cycling – something that’s fallen by the wayside along with any semblance of summer in the UK. It was great to be back on the bike and Vancouver is a VERY cycle friendly city – there are cycle paths all over it, and one of the best routes is the one down to Granville Island, one of Vancouver’s most happening neighbourhoods where there also happens to be a rather kick-ass food market and brewery…

Beautiful cherries at Granville Island Market


Candied salmon/salmon jerky is a big 'thing' here

Don't mind if I do

A tasting flight at the Granville Island Brewery

Jamie enjoying some Granville Island Brewery IPA

I know I’ll be coming back here in the summer to buy some special occasion meat or fish and seafood, and next time I want to head to Tony’s Cafe which, judging by the menu does a mean line in fried oysters and local fish dishes.

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Roz on film: Masterchef, 60 Second Reviews and my Brixton Kitchen Series for Videojug

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When I was about 12, my camcorder was one of my most treasured possessions. I would spend hours with long-suffering friends encouraging them film me as I mimed along to 90s abominations like like Meredith Brooks’ ‘Bitch’, wearing outfits (watch … Continue reading

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India revisited: Mumbai’s Irani Cafes for The Guardian

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I’ve been lucky enough to visit India three times. The first was as an 12-year-old with a bad fringe and even worse bum bag: awkwardly chubby, pale and privileged and utterly gobsmacked by the smells, colours, craziness and social disparity … Continue reading

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