Sunday, May 26, 2013

Noma

Noma
Strandgade 93
1401 Copenhagen K
Denmark 

+45 3296 3297
www. noma.dk

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Figure 1 : Happiest day of my foodie life 

I know what you're thinking.

"Bel... How the fuck did you end up at Noma?"

This is a very good question which can be answered very simply: because I love food. So much, in fact, that I bought a plane ticket from Paris to Copenhagen, just to have lunch at this restaurant. But Noma is not any ordinary restaurant: it's the Best Restaurant in the World. And that's not a figure of speech.

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Figure 2: Ready for service

For three years in a row from 2010, Noma was named "Best Restaurant in the World" by Restaurant magazine, the voice of authority on international fine dining. Ever since Noma's first win, head chef René Redzepi has become a celebrity of the culinary world, winning titles such as International Chef of the Year by Lo Mejor de la GastronomiaTIME magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World", and also made his mark on the Aussie food scene when he appeared on the third series of MasterChef Australia (he made an edible snowman, it was amazeballs). Other career achievements include two Michelin stars, pioneering the New Nordic Cuisine movement together with Claus Meyer (co-founder of Noma) and writing several cookbooks.

During an interview, when asked what he would make if he could only prepare one last meal, he answered: "It would probably be a loaf of bread. I love to bake."

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Figure 3: Sneaky shot during our personal kitchen tour

Noma's new-found fame has sparked international curiosity in New Nordic Cuisine, which is basically a modern take on traditional Scandinavian recipes. Seafood appears regularly on the menu, as does more unconventional ingredients, like foraged berries, fungi species and even edible components of insects. There is emphasis on purity, simplicity and freshness: seasonal ingredients from the source, antiquated cooking methods, and greater attention to safeguarding natural flavours. At Noma, it's not just the way food tastes that makes the experience special - it's the knowledge that you are eating something that has been so carefully considered at each stage of its journey, from the moment it is taken from the earth, until it is served upon your plate. 

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Figure 4: Natural light

Noma is located in what used to be an old warehouse, sitting in amongst the canals in central Copenhagen. You park your car (or your wicked hipster-looking bicycle, if you're a Dane) and walk out towards the water over the cobblestones. Everything around you is quiet and calm. The only indication that Noma lies inside the building on your right is the four letters of its name, written in unadorned grey letters next to the entrance. 

Upon entering the restaurant, we were greeted with no less than four smiling waiters and three chefs, standing in a semi-circle, to greet us by name. Our coats were taken and we were shown to a table right next to the kitchen, where we could see the chefs at work throughout our meal.

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Figure 4: Team Noma - Anna, Jack, Kitty and I

For an institution of so much fame, the interior design of Noma is disarmingly understated and simple. Space Copenhagen, one of the most prestigious designer studios in Denmark was responsible for furnishing the restaurant, and has given it a natural yet sophisticated feel that perfectly complements the gastronomy. What I really liked was the spaciousness - each table had a fairly large area of the restaurant floor all to themselves, and each diner had ample space on the table itself. During my semester in Dijon, I did a study on comfort levels and their impact on dining enjoyment. Noma is a perfect example of how to get it right. 

And the service? Difficult to describe, but impossible to forget. Our first waiter, Anders, seated and greeted us, and gave us the low-down on our degustation. And as I watched the service continue, I realised that I was witnessing a small miracle - we were pretty much being served by a different waiter or chef each time, who were each exactly on cue. Courteous and friendly, but still incredibly professional. Every waiter knew every detail to every dish, from the way it was prepared to the origin of the ingredients. Not once did I have to stand up and ask for more water or cutlery. Nor did I feel that we waited too little or too much between courses. And not a single item of crockery was dropped in the restaurant in the four hours we were there. As a waitress myself, I'm in awe of Noma's waitstaff. 


First Section 
Assortment of appetisers

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Figure 5: Nordic coconut

To start off our meal at the Best Restaurant in the World, we were presented with... four potatoes. With little green straws poking out of them (made from a lovage plant stem, naturally). I thought it was hilarious, and everyone at the table couldn't help but giggle a little bit as we drank up the broth - a herby potato consommé with a hint of acidity, a good way to prepare our stomachs for the epic meal ahead.

I was especially baffled with how on earth they had managed to hollow out an entire potato, making only one small hole. When I asked the waiter, he said that the instrument they use looks something like what a dentist would use to kill someone.

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Figure 6: Malt flatbread and juniper

Our taters were whisked away and shortly replaced with two small ramekins of cream. The waiter smiled while we looked at him cluelessly, then gestured towards the pot of flowers sitting in the middle of the table: "Your crème fraîche dip is to be eaten with the malt flatbread, dusted with ground pine needles, sitting amongst the flowers of your centrepiece. Enjoy." So we all reached in and pulled out the brown-grey twig-looking bread, which was delightfully crispy and nutty, and went well with the creamy, slightly sharp crème fraîche. 

The presentation took me completely by surprise. I started wondering if components of the chairs or the napkins were also edible... from that point on, everything was a suspect. 

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Figure 7: Moss and cep


The moss we were served next, also known as "reindeer lichen" had been blanched, deep-fried then dusted with powdered cep mushroom. What I liked the most about this one was the texture. It was so incredibly delicate, like some kind of crispy fairy floss that softly shattered in your mouth. Again, very earthy flavours, accentuated by the slightly bitter taste of the mushroom. 

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Figure 8: Cheese cookie, rocket and stems 

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Figure 9: Why so cute!

Presented in a super-cute Danish vintage tin, these little morsels of buttery goodness were a delight. The biscuit melted in your mouth while the punchy flavours of the rocket and other herbs got your taste buds all hopped up. These Noma chefs are clever buggers. All of these appetisers were just making me hungrier and hungrier! 

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Figure 10: Jack and Kitty deep in concentration

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Figure 11: Berry and roses

This was one of my favourites during my meal at Noma. A man-made "berry", with a shell made of solidified berry juice, filled with an absolutely divine passionfruit and cream mixture, topped with a tiny sprig of dried herbs and folded inside a pickled rose petal. Breaking into the ever-so-thin shell with your teeth was like an explosion of sweet-and-sour creaminess. I could have eaten ten. The intensely sweet passionfruit and berry flavours were a great contrast to the more subtle savoury tastes that we had been receiving so far.

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Figure 12: A burst of flavour

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Figure 13: Dried carrot and sorrel

These carrots had been dehydrated upon birch wood, served upon hay ash with a side of sorrel cream. The unusual cooking process that the carrots had gone through gave them a taste and texture I'd never come across before, and a gummy texture almost like candy. Their shape kind of reminded me of liquorice sticks, and the small flakes of sea salt and ash which clung to the carrot gave more dimension to its taste.

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Figure 14: Pickled and smoked quails egg 

Our table then received two more presents: two egg-shaped containers, which housed two real quail eggs within. Pickled in apple vinegar, then smoked, they were perfectly cooked and slightly runny in the middle. There one minute, gone the next. 

By this time, I was also really enjoying how it was perfectly acceptable to eat all of these little dishes using your fingers. The presentation of the food at Noma really encouraged you to "get your hands dirty" when eating, adding to the enjoyment of the dining experience. There is just something so liberating about removing knives and forks from the equation. In my opinion, cutlery is just an obstacle between food and man. It must be avoided wherever and whenever possible. 

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Figure 15: Aebleskiver and muikku

This was just another example of Noma's revitalisation and reinvention of traditional recipes. Aebleskiver (apple skewer) is a Danish Christmas dessert of fried donuts filled with stewed apples, served with jam and castor sugar. Here, Noma put a savoury spin on the dish, replacing the apples with cucumber, the sugar with vinegar powder and adding a muikku, a freshwater white fish found commonly in Scandinavian waters as the "skewer". A nice firm texture and a very strong, fishy, salty flavour, bolstered by the more subtle surrounding donut. I dig. 

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Figure 16: Lumpfish and apple

The unique assortment of different textures just kept coming, particularly with this dish. The thin, crispy pastry base was stacked with small pieces of apple amongst a portion of lumpfish roe (yes, that's what they're actually called and yes, they are butt-ugly). The structure was topped was this shiny shard of duck "skin": duck broth and duck fat brought to the boil until a "skin" formed on top, used to top off the canapé. The result was that when you bit into it, the duck fat on top started to dissolve and melt away at your lips, yet still had the delicious taste and texture of a crispy slice of skin. And you inevitably ended up with lumpfish all over yourself. 

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Figure 17: Whoops 

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Figure 18: Sorrel and nasturtium 

Everyone who's heard of Noma has heard of the controversial dish on their last summer menu: freshwater shrimp, served alive in a jar. With some tasty brown butter sauce on the side. So when we sat down to eat, we knew that some kind of creepy-crawly would be coming our way. Our "insect-dish" was in fact long sorrel leaves with a dark, sticky paste of fermented grasshopper smeared on the inside, served upon a bed of nasturtium snow. We were instructed to break off a leaf, scoop up some snow, and chow down. 

What do crickets taste like? In brief, the dish on the whole was cold, sour and grassy. But very refreshing, and served as a very effective palate cleanser. Also, when I Google-image searched "nastirtium", I realised that they're the flowers I always see spilling from European balconies in colourful cascades. 

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Figure 19: Cricket purée, anyone? 

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Figure 20: Leek and cod roe 

Another favourite: a leek that had been chargrilled just outside the Noma kitchen in the open-air, which was just so sweet and tender and fragrant. The outside was burnt black, but the very heart of the leek had been carefully cut into small segments, and sprinkled with a little cod roe. The smokiness combined with the caramelisation really brought out a deep flavour in the leek. Warm, tender and juicy. Delicious. 

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Figure 21: Dig in!


Second Part 
A series of more substantial plates


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Figure 22: Heaven bread

Picture this. After going through 11 amazing appetisers, your digestive juices are going bonkers, and you're ready to sink your teeth into something more substantial. The waiter brings out a little grey parcel and places it gently on the table. He opens it, and presents to you a loaf of steaming wholemeal sourdough bread, still hot from the oven. Then this glorious, glorious smell of freshly baked bread and earthy grains hits you (Noma mills their grains in-house). You grab a portion of warm bread and smear a good half-centimeter of the luxurious accompaniment, pork fat topped with broken pork rind, which starts to melt into it. You bite through the bread - the crust crackles in your mouth like a dense, crispy wafer, and then comes the soft, moist bread. 

This bread was served as an unlimited accompaniment for the second part of the meal. It took every ounce of my self-control to not devour the whole thing, and to save room for the next 12 courses. 

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Figure 23: Fresh milk curd and blueberry preserves

First up, fresh milk curd topped with a blueberry sauce and lemon thyme. I love lemon thyme, because it gives the usual soft thyme flavour with a hint of citron, without the bitterness you can sometimes get with regular thyme. And the dish was kind of cute actually, a fragrant little blob of purpley-red in the center of your plate. Sweet, fresh, tangy and light in texture. After snooping around on the web, turns out there was actually a paste of forest ants somewhere in there too, to enhance the lemony taste. The more bugs the merrier. 

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Figure 24: And then you realise it's not a long-sleeve shirt

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Figure 25: Onion and fermented pears 

Was a little confused about this one - the chef beamed at us and said "Now this dish here, is deceivingly simple. Onion and fermented pears. Let me know if you guys have any questions." I tucked in and tasted a really lovely, musty sweetness, brought out by the sugars in the fermented pear. The slices of onion had a pleasant, firm texture. But that was about it. Never got round to asking what was the "special thing" about this dish - if there are any food bloggers who've been to Noma and know, do tell! 

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Figure 26: Beets and plums

In this dish, the beetroot had been grilled for 3 hours, which gave it a firm, almost leathery texture and a surprisingly intense flavour. It was served with fermented plums, plus a fennel and verbena sauce (verbena's a type of herb, which kind of sounds like a Microsoft Word font). The result was layers and layers of flavours: like maple syrup, root vegetables, aniseed, and a certain woodiness. 

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Figure 27: Dried scallops and beech nuts, biodynamic grains and watercress

Another favourite of mine from this meal. First, there were the colours: the pasty orange-brown scallops set delicately upon a bright green dollop of grains, surrounded by a dark, murky squid-ink sauce. The scallops were sliced thinly, and crisp like a shard of caramel. The grains were a refreshing contrast to the strong, fishy taste of the squid-ink sauce, and the slices of scallop were exactly the right size to fit in your mouth and over your tongue, so you could really taste its flavour. Loved it. 

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Figure 28: My Happy-Food-Face 

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Figure 29: Pike perch and cabbages, verbena and dill

Pike perch, sometimes called Zander, is a freshwater fish consumed widely in Europe and popular for its light, tender meat, delicate flavour and few bones. Noma presented their pike perch wrapped in a cabbage leaf, cooked over charcoal, served with a vibrantly green verbena and dill sauce. Then the waiter came and topped the fish with an almost foamy kind of sauce made from the fish bones, white wine and butter. Beautiful presentation, and obviously, cooked to perfection. 

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Figure 30: Sauce served like "ripples"

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Figure 31: Beef rib and lingon berries 

Our final savoury plate was a magnificent, aged beef rib, which had been marinated for 3 weeks, then cooked for 3 days at 57 degrees. Finally it was coated with a mixture of lingon berries and subtle chopped herbs. Because of the ageing process, the beef had a sharper, slightly cheesy flavour. This was set off nicely by the brightly coloured lingon berries which taste like something between raspberries and cranberries. With all the green and red in this dish, the rib looked kind of like a Christmas tree, and tasted like joy. Pure joy. 

Desserts
Sweet treats

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Figure 32: Gammel Dansk 

Gammel Dansk (which translates into "Old Danish") is a Danish liquor which tastes a lot like Argentinian Fernet - herby, grassy and spicy. It is matured with 29 types of herbs, spices and even flowers including star anise, nutmeg, ginger, Seville orange and cinnamon. Here, it had been made into a sauce and served with a perfectly circular round of frozen yoghurt. Lots of herby overtones but just sweet enough, a perfect start to progressively make our way from savouries to desserts. 

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Figure 33: Potato and plums

As an Asian, I love sweet things made from vegetables like mung bean cakes, cendol (my favourite Malaysian dessert of all time) and even corn ice cream (you can buy it from the silver little trolleys on Orchard Road in Singapore). So this dessert was right up my alley. The dark blob is a plum compote, which was in the form of a paste but still pleasantly coarse. The yellow blob was a subtly sweetened potato mash, light as a cloud. The third was the most interesting for me: a cream made from crushed plum kernels, which gave the dish a nutty character. A thick plum sauce was then poured in to surround all three elements. Absolutely delicious. 

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Figure 34: Look mummy a rainbow


Petit fours 
Served with coffee

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Figure 35: Beetroot and liquorice

Then came a little string of petit fours... almost there guys. Stay with me now. You've done so well!

The first: a stick of dried beetroot dusted with liquorice powder, wrapped like a bon-bon. A chewy texture, resembling the dehydrated carrots we had had in the entrées. Fortunately for Anna, beetroot and liquorice are the two things she hates, so I don't think she liked this one too much. Jack was perfectly content to finish the tasty treat for her. 

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Figure 36: Chocolate, pork crackle and berries

The next was a real crowd-pleaser: huge, thick strips of pork crackle... coated with chocolate. And an assortment of dried berries. Never thought that a combination like this would work, but it was the light airiness of the pork crackle with no trace of oiliness that did the trick. If the skin had been any richer, it would have been too overwhelming. And just a thin layer of chocolate was enough to make it a luxurious treat. 

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Figure 37: Bread, skyr, sea buckthorn coulis

Skyr, a cream cheese from Iceland, was served in a cold ramekin with a filling of sweet sea buckthorn (a type of sea-side shrub) coulis. Our table decided to scrape into the bottom of the ramekin with a knife and mix up the spread a little, which created a pretty marbled orange-and-white colour. We spread this over the "bread" that was served, which was in fact a frozen sweet made from butter, caramel and milk. The final component was a little sprinkle of elderflower salt on top. I really liked the sweet, slightly sour dairy flavour of the Skyr spread and coulis, but I would have been equally happy without the elaborate bread and salt topping.

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Figure 38: Drip-brewed coffee


Kitchen tour
Accompanied by a Noma Chef 



Figure 39: Behind the scenes

After our meal, we were met by a Noma chef who took us on a tour of their kitchen. After eating all the dishes from the kitchen for the last four hours, it was the icing on the cake to go behind the scenes and see where it had all come from.

Watching them work was like observing some kind of super race - all the chefs were perfectly groomed, in the zone, and there was even some chill-out music playing in the prep kitchen. But what I noticed most of all was that everyone was calm, relaxed, and for want of a better word: happy. Each time I've peeked behind a kitchen door in other restaurants (which happens more often than it should... I'm creepy) I've seen some pretty horrible scenes: chefs yelling their heads off at apprentices, miserable dishwashers, sweating waitresses. But here, they were a community of passionate professionals, united by the fact that they are excellent at what they do.

Also during the tour, we spotted René in the corner of the staff room, on the phone with someone. I was a good girl and didn't approach him for a photo though. Poor guy, he must get psycho foodies asking him for photos 24/7!

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Figure 40: Outside grill 

Looking back on my first blog, which was of a little café in Victoria Park, Perth (for which I received some pretty derogatory comments, may I add), I've come a long way as a foodie. I left Noma with a full stomach, but also with a mind that had been filled with new ideas about food. Deep down inside I know that I will be back in the not too distant future.

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Figure 41: Noma staff dining room

One final word must be said for my lovely friend Anna, who had the idea of going to Noma in the first place, and somehow wrangled us a coveted reservation. I wouldn't have set foot in Scandinavia this trip unless Anna had suggested it. Coming to Denmark for this meal led me to discover the wonderful city of Copenhagen, much of which I saw from behind the handlebars of the bike she let me borrow. I fell in love with the canals, the white swans, the bike culture, and pretty much every biologically-perfect Danish man I saw. Thank you Anna, for showing me your home away from home (and letting me clog the floorspace in your room with all my travel bags)! 

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Figure 42: Nyhavn

I've seen some amazing things during my travels around Europe since I left Australia in January. But my meal at Noma is without a doubt, one of the best things I've done this trip. And unless I had followed my love of food so blindly, almost stupidly, I never would have had this experience. The more I continue to pursue my love of food, the more I realise that it is something that I will never, ever give up.

Because food always seems to lead me to exactly where I am supposed to be. 

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Figure 42: Why yes, I do eat constantly... even ice cream, after a 23-course meal

NB: As of 29 April 2013, Noma is now No.2 to El Celler de Can Roca, Spain. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Living Below the Line... Moroccan Style

This week, thousands of young Australians will be part of the Oaktree Foundation's "Live Below the Line" campaign. In English, this means that they can only spend $2 per day on food, in order to raise money and awareness of extreme poverty. And for a passionate foodie like me who has no qualms about spending $20 on breakfast alone, the whole concept of Living Below the Line, quite frankly, has always scared the crap out of me.

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Figure 1: Kasbah

But this afternoon I found myself in Morocco with some spare time to kill, so I left my hostel and hit the streets of Marrakesh with just 8 dirhams (equal to $1) in my pocket.


NEK MINNIT

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Figure 2: Charmoula sole and fresh tomato cous cous with grilled eggplant 

Somehow, I managed to put this meal together with those 8 dirhams, in just under 30 minutes. And I've never even cooked couscous before! Although I can't take all the credit - the lovely Samir who works at my hostel gave me a hand cooking the couscous, and also put out the fire I started in the kitchen. 

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Figure 3: My assortment of ingredients, featuring my new camel-skin bag

And if you don't believe me (about spending only $1, not the fire), here's a breakdown of my ingredients:
  • Couscous: 2 dirhams, bought at a small grocery store in the Kasbah district
  • Fried sole: 2 dirhams, from a stall at the Marrakech souk
  • Prawns: For free because I said "thank you" in Arabic to the guy who sold me said fried sole
  • Tomato and eggplant: 4 dirhams, from the fresh vegetable stall outside my hostel 

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Figure 4: Moroccan spices

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Figure 5: Figs, dates and other dried fruits

And just in case you're wondering: no, I did not use any oil or salt; no, I did not buy a meal and pass it off as my own; and yes, it actually tasted good. The fried sole had a strong taste and was extremely salty when eaten on its own, so I decided to break it up and mix it with the couscous to give it some flavour. It worked a treat! And the eggplant didn't need any oil because it's already quite moist when you grill it on a hot pan.

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Figure 6: Grilled eggplant

So although I'm not able to do the full week of Live Below the Line, I wish all of you guys participating the best of luck. The Oaktree Foundation is a pretty amazing organisation of young Australians. You can learn more about their cause on their website here.

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Figure 7: Djemaa El-Fnaa by night