Category Archives: Memory

Exploring my Food Heritage in Chuncheon: Dakgalbi, Makguksu, and Sundae Gukbap

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write up a blog about Chuncheon. It’s the city I visit most outside of Seoul – my father grew up there and my grandma still lives there, so it’s basically my second home in Korea.

Chuncheon is only 1 hour north-east of Seoul by train, and it’s a really great day trip – especially for couples! Chuncheon is where lovers from my parent’s generation would travel to spend long afternoons together away from Seoul, so there’s a bit of romantic nostalgia associated with the city. It also peaked in popularity as a tourist destination in the early 2000’s after mega-hit Korean drama Winter Sonata came out. The early episodes of the drama were set in Chuncheon and Chuncheon’s “Myeongdong” is where the ill-fated lovers Yu-jin and Jun-sang agree to meet for a date, but then Yu-jin is left waiting and heartbroken after Jun-sang “dies” when he is hit by a car on his way to meet her. The nearby island, Naimseom, is also where the couple enjoy their sweetest moments of first love, riding bikes down the tree-lined lane and making kissing snowmen.

If you haven’t guessed already I was one of the thousands of girls/women who cried buckets over this drama and fell obsessively in love with its star, Bae Yong Jun.

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Sorry, couldn’t resist.

These days, more than ten years later, the glow of Winter Sonata is finally fading from Chuncheon, but there’s plenty of other reasons to visit. And by plenty I mean two. And they’re both food reasons.

First, let’s talk about dak galbi. I’ve written about this before, but Chuncheon is the home of dak galbi, one of the most universally loved dishes in Korea. I eat it every single time I go to Chuncheon, but these photos are from recent visit when I went with my American friend who LOVES dakgalbi and wanted to see if the original version was any better than her favourite local restaurant in Seoul.

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This is the entrance to the famous dakgalbi alley in Chuncheon’s Myeongdong (the main shopping district). There has to be 20+ restaurants in there – ALL dakgalbi and impossible to differentiate if you haven’t done your research.

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My grandma’s favorite is a place called Yumi Dakgalbi, but I wanted to try somewhere different so I used my Naver skills and picked a place that had gotten pretty good reviews.

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It’s called Woomi Dakgalbi and it’s right near the end of the alley. According to the sign, it’s been around for about 45 years.

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Very basic menu – but surprisingly they had a choice between original dakgalbi and spicy dakgalbi, which is unusual. I realized this after we had ordered – I had just asked for dakgalbi like I always do and the waitress didn’t even bother asking whether I wanted spicy or not. Probably had something to do with the white girl at my table… how racist! Well, so much for stereotypes because this particular white girl likes her food HOT so we asked them to add some extra chilli sauce to our chicken.

The prices were higher than I expected – my friend’s favorite dakgalbi in Nowon (northern Seoul) is a sweet 7,000 per person and the portions are MASSIVE. They also have the option of adding cheese-stuffed rice cakes to your chicken. The four-item ‘extras’ menu here was a bit sad. I was starting to get nervous that my friend wouldn’t think this place good enough to justify the 1hr travel + 4,500 won per person.

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The chicken comes out within seconds: huge chunks of marinated, boneless chicken (skin ON), sliced cabbage, spring onion, perilla leaf and long white rice cakes.

The story of dak galbi is one that involves ingenuity and the noble desire to create food that is both cheap AND delicious. In the 60’s, marinated pork ribs barbecued over a charcoal grill (dweji-galbi) were a really popular “anju” (dish eaten with alcohol) in Chuncheon. However, pork supply became unstable and in the face of possible ruin, one restaurant owner had the genius idea of simply substituting the pork with chicken, and dak galbi was born! It became popular among university students as a cheap eat you could share with friends, and then just took the entire nation by storm.

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The original dak galbi, which is just marinated chicken grilled over charcoal, is coming back into fashion these days. I’ve tried it, but I honestly like this version better – mixed with veggies and other goodies, and cooked on a cast iron plate. My favorite thing to add-on are udon noodles. Sweet potato is also a favorite of many. Oh, and mozzarella cheese if you’re feeling particularly decadent. But it’s also perfectly delicious on it’s own, and that’s how we decided to eat it.

Arguably, the best part of eating dakgalbi is actually the fried rice (bokkumbap) at the end. You have to pay extra for the rice but it IS NOT OPTIONAL. Dakgalbi is not dakgalbi without the bokkumbap. You’ve heard of the “dessert stomach” right? Well in Korea, we have something called the “Bap Bae” or the “Rice Stomach.” No matter how full you are from the main meal, you always have room for bokkumbap. Don’t EVER make the mistake of saying something stupid like, “Oh I’m too full, let’s just pass on the fried rice today” because you will be judged and you will lose friends.

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I like leaving it on the hot plate for a while to let the nooroong-ji crust get nice and crunchy.

I think what makes dakgalbi and dakgalbi fried rice so addictive is the marinade – it has all the elements of a good Korean sauce (gochujang, garlic, soy, and sugar) but also has an extra kick to it that’s quite unique. From the recipe’s I’ve seen, the secret is actually curry powder, which is not a very common ingredient in Korean cooking. But the cast iron plate must have something to do with it to, because I tried to make it at home once with a regular frypan and it was an absolute disaster.

So is dakgalbi in Chuncheon worth traveling for? I’d say yes. Even though my friend and I both agreed that we’d had better dakgalbi in Seoul, it’s just more fun when you eat food in it’s hometown, made by people who have been making the same thing, everyday, for decades. You know, like eating a croissant in Paris or a pizza slice in New York.

Also, you’ll get to try Chuncheon’s SECOND most famous dish, makguksu. “Makguksu” roughly translates to “recklessly made noodles” because back in the day, the noodles were made from unhulled buckwheat. Now that buckwheat is much easier to hull and process into noodles, makguksu has evolved into a much more elegant dish that is quite similar to bibim neng-myun, but MUCH better.

The cold buckwheat noodles are served with a small amount of icy broth, spicy sauce, some thinly sliced veggies, picked radish, seaweed and sesame seeds. You mix it all together and it is THE BOMB. There is a perfect balance of sweet/spicy/tart in the sauce that makes me think this dish also has a secret ingredient… A-Ha! Naver tells me that the sauce includes crushed apple or Korean pear, which totally explains the fresh, just-sweet-enough flavour.

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It’s quite photogenic too, don’t you think? There are many restaurants in Chuncheon that specialise in makguksu, but we just ordered it as a side because it goes well as a light and refreshing accompaniment to the dakgalbi. The makguksu at Woomi was really good… I’d actually rate it higher than the dakgalbi.

Makguksu and Dakgalbi are the main event in Chuncheon, but while I was there I ate one more thing that was too good to leave out of this post. Hanging out with my grandma after church on Sunday, she took me out for lunch nearby at a popular sundae gukbap restaurant.

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Sundae gukbap is blood sausage souprice and has long been a favorite of mine and my brother’s. People are always a bit shocked when they find out how much we like it, because it is real Korean country town old-man food, and we’re two very culturally Australian immigrant kids. But I am 100% Korean by blood and nothing proves that fact more than my love for sundae gukbap.

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Looks kind of like Busan’s pork souprice, right? In many ways the two soups are similar but Sundae Gukbap raises the intensity level to about 9000. The base is a milky beef bone broth, and the soup is packed with pieces of blood sausage, a variety of offal (liver, kidney, heart, etc) and sometimes, if you’re lucky, pieces of actual pork meat. This is all very tasty, but the thing that makes this soup truly awesome is the spoonful of crushed perilla seeds that is added as a seasoning. Perilla seeds have a very unique flavour that is something like roast sesame seeds mixed with strong black pepper, and adds this gritty texture to the soup, which doesn’t sound pleasant, but makes the soup taste really wholesome.

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The soup varies from mild to spicy depending on where you go but of course I like mine nice and hot. This particular restaurant specialises in a spicy version of the soup, so you if you can’t handle it, you have to ask them to make it a milder for you. I sweat like crazy eating it and went through about ten napkins just wiping my brow, but it was the best sundae gukbap I’ve had in my life. The flavour is so rich and just overpowers you with heat and salt, which I love so much and will probably be the death of me one day.

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They also sell the steamed blood sausage separately, but it wasn’t that great. It’s the type of very firm and glutinous sundae that works much better in a soup than just by itself. I’ve had much much better.

I am yet to try a gook sundae gukbap place in Seoul – it’s not exactly the kind of food that young people (particularly foreigners) get excited about eating (unless they’re hungover…) I suspect, however, that being a country-town food, it is probably done best in restaurants like this, outside of the main cities.

Spicy chicken, spicy noodles, and spicy souprice – no prizes for guessing which side of the family my tastebuds are inherited from! Chuncheon is a great food-adventure day trip from Seoul – really easy to get to (there’s an express train called the ITX that goes straight there from Yongsan station) and really easy to navigate since it’s a small city. They also have an annual Makguksu and Dakgalbi festival every August, which shows you how much pride the city takes in these two humble dishes. All the best Dakgalbi and Makguksu restaurants in the city come together and set up outdoor food stalls right opposite Chuncheon train station – sounds looks like a pretty fun time.

And just in case you’ve actually come to this blog looking for helpful information, here are some handy links and maps 🙂

Woomi Dakgalbi
50-5 Joyang-dong
Chuncheon-si, Kangwon

강원 춘천시 조양동 50-5번지
033-253-2428

Jobuja Maeun Sundaega
61-3 Joyang-dong
Chuncheon-si, Kangwon

강원 춘천시 조양동 61-3번지
033-252-1655
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The Sydney of My Dreams (Three Blue Ducks, Porch, and The Bucket List)

The other night, I dreamed of Sydney. Not the house in the suburbs, or the high-rise office, or the long bus ride in between. I dreamed about the Sydney of postcards and bayside soaps. Where the ocean is a perfect reflection of a cloudless sky and the sands of the beach fade out to white.

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It’s a weekday, I’m blissfully unemployed, and I take two beautiful girlfriends to brunch somewhere famous. It has a silly name that makes no sense, but it’s okay because ducks can be blue in a dream.

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It’s small, cramped, and busy and the staff are cool and inattentive like we’re invisible. And maybe we are, it is a dream after all. Maybe our breakfast will just appear on our table like magic.

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But it appears that my imagination does not extend to magic, not even my dreams, so we order like in real life and wait a really, really long time for our food, like you would in real life, in real Sydney, at a real hipster cafe.

The food is, of course, vivid and specific.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, one small salmon steak, wilted spinach, a small pot of hollandaise sauce and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, half an avocado sliced and fanned out, one cherry tomato, halved, a small pot of hollandaise sauce, some red onion and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, baked eggs with chorizo and cannellini beans and several fresh basil leaves.

It’s strange that I would dream up food so dull – especially at a highly anticipated meal at one of the most popular brunch spots in Sydney. The large plates and sparse presentation make each item look cold and lonely on the plate, and the flavours are entirely plain and ordinary. Anyone can toast a piece of bread. Anyone can roast a tomato. Anyone can rip some leaves off a basil plant. Anyone can slice an avocado. Anyone can (with some care) poach an egg. Hollandaise sauce is something to be poured over a plate with no concern for calories, not served “on the side” in a pathetic quantity that even Gwyneth Paltrow would approve of.

In real life, I would politely pay the bill and silently vow never to eat at this place again. But this is a dream, and in dreams you can do things without fear or consequence, so I flip the table and yell “I WOULD RATHER EAT A MCMUFFIN!” and teleport to North Bondi.

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We end up at a place called PORCH and order our second coffees for the morning.

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This tiny little cafe has more pretty white people than I’ve seen for over a year.

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My friend Minju is there, so I must really miss her. But all she does is chat with her fiance on her phone, so she obviously doesn’t miss me at all. But then I realize that what I’ve missed more than anything is this:

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Aussie coffee. Coffee in Korea may meet my daily caffeine needs, but it is so soulless. You, however, are full of heart. It’s not just a matter of beans or milk or technique, it’s a matter of love. It’s how you soak up the Aussie sun that keeps you warm on the outdoor table. It’s how you carry the care and passion of the barista who made you; a bearded priest of a coffee-worshiping faith. It’s how you’re presented in playful ceramic mugs, made to resemble paper cups, that boast the name of the local group of blenders and roasters from which you were born. I wish I was there with you today and I’m sorry that I can’t be. *weeps*

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The dream goes on and we’re hungry again. We stop at a colorful beachside bar that sells food in buckets.

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I see more bare female skin than I have in over a year. All shapes, ages, and sizes in bikinis and sarongs. This is the Straya I love.

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I swear this isn’t a drug-induced hallucination but the bar where we order is crazy psychedelic. One-eyed aliens, pickled brains, and neon tigers. C’mon everybody lets all be friends and dance together until the end. 

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There are floor to ceiling windows that curve around the whole restaurant so that all you can see is beach.

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We order a bucket of prawns, that turns out to be half-full of ice, but it’s okay because I have a beer in my hand, a good mate by my side, and everywhere I look, all I see colour and sun and sea and sky.

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Also, fries. Thick-cut, crunchy fries. And fries make everything okay.

I feel so happy to be home but sad to know that I can’t stay much longer. I look to my right and see a message tattooed on the wood panel beside me.

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And I think, “Yes, you will always be.”

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Christmas Turkey: a Retrospective

It’s almost Christmas, which means it’s almost time for my annual roast turkey feast. Except that this year, I don’t have an oven. Little bit of Korean household trivia for you: the kitchens in this country generally don’t include ovens. It is partly a space issue but is also due to the fact that while Koreans like to fry, steam, braise, boil and pickle, they do not bake or roast. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest shortcomings of Korean society. A messed up education system, rampant gender inequality, and ovenlessness is what is really keeping us back as a nation.

So to help me grieve over the fact that I can’t roast a turkey this year (it actually really upsets me and makes me not want to celebrate Christmas at all), I thought I would write a “turkey retrospective” of sorts and also share the tips and techniques that I have learnt in the art of turkey roasting over the years.

As you will have seen from the few cooking posts I’ve published on this blog, as much as I love food, cooking is not something that comes naturally to me. But there is one notable exception: turkey roasting. I OWN turkey roasting. I would happily and confidently go against Martha, Nigella, Maggie, and Jamie in a turkey roast-off and I would SLAY THEM ALL. My annual roast turkey is famous. By famous I mean renowned and praised amongst family and friends which is as famous as anything I do will ever get, so yes, FAMOUS. My dad even spoke about my turkey in his Father of the Bride speech at my wedding. My turkey is the shiz and ya’ll should listen up to everything I have to say because I am the definitive WORD on turkey roasting.

But before I impart my sage advice with you all, I should probably provide some photographic evidence of my turkey roasting prowess. So here it is, 2008-2014 A Turkey Retrospective.

2008: “Challenge Accepted!”

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In Australia, Christmas dinners traditionally involve barbequed steaks, snags, and skewers and a big bowl of fresh prawns. Roast turkey isn’t actually that common, and is an idea that has been completely stolen from the Amuuurrrcans. In 2008, a group of friends and I had the wild idea of making turkey dinner for Christmas. It was novel, it was ambitious, it was a challenge to make a Christmas dinner that would slaughter all other Christmas dinners. And I took it on with gusto. The above may look a bit rough, but it was a result of hours of research, about ten combined recipes, a full day in the kitchen, and pure, extravagant love. Serving around twelve people, it’s the biggest turkey I’ve ever made, and the most memorable. We made it and ate it not even knowing what a roast turkey was meant to taste like, but it blew all our minds and ruined all future Christmases because we all knew that no Christmas dinner in our remaining lifetimes would taste as glorious as this one did.

2009-2010: “The Dark Ages” 

No photo records exist of these turkeys because we were too hungry and excited to eat them to waste time taking photos. They did exist, you need to trust me on this one.

2011: “InstaTurkey” 

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This year I followed a Neil Perry recipe that introduced me the miracle of stuffing a turkey’s skin as well as the cavity. I never looked back. This is why the turkey looks so swollen and bloated, like it just binged on its own Christmas dinner.

2012: “Crispy Skinned Chicken Turkey”  

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I used a stuffing recipe for roast chicken because it included parmesan and parmesan makes all things better. The cheese also had the pleasant side effect of making the turkey skin deliciously crispy. Oh, and perfectly roasted potatoes.

2013: “Mastering the Art”

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One of the best things about roast turkey is how photogenic it is. Look at that heart shaped breast, those shapely thighs, the red-brown glow of the skin.

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From all angles, she is a beauty.

Now, I send you forth to cook your own turkeys in remembrance of me, who will be spending this Christmas ovenless and turkeyless. To help you on your journey, I will generously impart my invaluable expertise with you all.

1. Don’t be intimidated. 

There is an urban legend going around that roasting a turkey is “difficult” or requires “skills.” DO NOT BELIEVE THE LIES. Preparing and stuffing the turkey takes less than an hour and the oven does the rest of the work. Yes, you do need be at home to monitor the bird and baste it at regular intervals, but most of the time is just spent waiting. Use it as an opportunity to read a thick novel or binge-watch The Mindy Project. You could even do something more productive, like prepare sides and dessert.

2. Buy a good bird. 

The frozen turkeys at the supermarket do the job, but if you want to take this seriously, you need to see your local poultry specialist and order a fresh, free range turkey. To help you decide how big you need the bird to be, you can use one of many size guides available online. I usually get a 6-7kg turkey regardless of the number of people I’m serving because when it comes to turkey, SIZE MATTERS, and the bigger the bird, the bigger the impact. It takes longer to cook, but who cares, carrying the finished product out of the oven and having all your guests bow down to your domestic goddess status makes it totally worth it.

3. To brine or not to brine? 

Most Americans I talk to seem to think that brining the turkey is an essential step. I can see how brining can add to the flavor and moisture level of a turkey, but I’ve never brined and I’ve never had any problems. Prepping and cooking a turkey already takes a FULL day, so spending additional time making a luxurious salt bath for your bird seems to be taking the joke too far. My advice is, don’t bother. You can make a perfectly delicious and moist turkey without it.

4. Go nuts with the stuffing 

Stuffing is something that is foolproof, easy to make, and for which there are THOUSANDS of recipes online. This means you can just have fun with it and experiment. A quick review of a few stuffing recipes will help you realize that stuffing is basically just whatever you want + stale bread. Seriously, anything goes: from gourmet (wild rice and goat cheese stuffing) to dude-food (tortilla chip chorizo stuffing), to gluten free (quinoa stuffing). Sausage-based stuffings seem quite popular, and I’ve tried it once but didn’t really like it because I feel like heavy meat in your stuffing distracts from the taste of the turkey. Bacon, however, is completely acceptable. As are all bacon-like cured meats such as pancetta and prosciutto. Also, CHEESE. My current go-to stuffing is based on this recipe and includes all the classic components plus parmesan cheese and chopped pancetta. I’m not a huge fan of nuts, but I’ll add some walnuts to please the crowd. My favorite herb for stuffing is sage, because it smells heavenly.

5. Stuff EVERYTHING 

When I learned that you could stuff the skin of a turkey as well as the cavity, this really changed the game. It elevated my turkey from amazing to mind-blowing and I’ve never looked back. You need to be little bit careful when separating the skin from the breast to create a pocket, but the fatty turkey skin is pretty resilient. Stuffing the skin has the quintuple effect of:

1. Adding flavor to the breast meat.
2. Making people more excited about eating the meat meat, which has a hard time competing with the dark meat.
3. Keeping the breast meat moist.
4. (If you use my parmesan recipe) Causing the skin to crisp up and go a gorgeous brown color.
5. Acting like breast implants and giving the turkey a plump, fuller, more youthful look.

One year, I used Neil Perry’s ricotta stuffed turkey recipe and it was a real hit. It wasn’t quite salty enough for my liking, but this was one of my more popular turkeys.

6. Trussing is NOT optional 

If you do not truss your turkey, you will end up with wings splayed, legs spread-eagled, with a crusty bulge of stuffing bursting out from the cavity. Luckily, I did not learn this the hard way, I learnt this from laughing at other people’s mistakes. Your turkey is meant to be photogenic, not pornographic. Please, protect your turkey’s modesty. Plus, trussing a turkey is super easy if you follow a helpful instructional video like this. I would always kindly ask the butcher next to my poultry supplier for a length of butcher’s string, but really, any clean, strong, string will do.

7. The Three “B”s: Bacon, Butter, and Basting 

The no.1 fear that people have about cooking a turkey is the fact that it “dries out easily.” And I’ll admit, dry turkey meat is nasty. It tastes like a hybrid construction material made from cardboard and rubber. But keeping the meat moist is really not as hard as people make it out to be. A lot of recipes will give you different tips and techniques on how to do this, but the key is to just do all of it at once. Everything that anyone tells you about keeping the turkey moist and tender: do it all. This will guarantee succulent, juicy turkey every single time. Here’s what I do:

1. Cover the turkey in bacon. This will flavor the skin as well as keep the breast from drying out. Also, you can eat the baked bacon as a snack later on.

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2. Go to town with the butter. People talk about how turkey is a “lean meat” but you need to un-lean that baby until its fattier than a Krispy Kreme donut. I usually buy two sticks and melt one down to pour and brush over the bird before it goes into the oven, and then I chop up the other one and squeeze as much of it under the skin of the breast as will fit.

3. Baste every 30 minutes. This is probably the hardest part of cooking a turkey, because just getting a 6kg bird out of the oven every half hour is a big effort, but don’t get lazy. It’s essential. Most Aussies don’t have access to a proper baster, so I just used my pastry brush to cover the turkey with the fatty juices and butter pooling at the bottom of the pan.

4. Keep the turkey loosely covered in foil until the final hour of roasting, when you can take it off to let the turkey brown. This is a bit fiddly, especially when basting, but I believe plays a big part in preventing dry-out.

5. Roast at the correct temp for the correct amount of time. BBC Good food have this really nifty roast time calculator that looks pretty accurate. To test that it’s fully cooked, just stab it with a skewer and if the juices run clear, it’s ready!

8. SAUCE!  

When I made my first turkey, I wanted cranberry sauce because it’s traditional, but I also wanted gravy because GRAVY. Then I came across this recipe for cranberry gravy and I loved it so much that I have used it every single year since. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much it. Merry Christmas and happy turkey roasting! And in times of doubt, always remember:

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