Beginner’s Tuna

Why can’t Auntie Sally just cook authentic Chinese dishes? My 17 year-old nephew J asked my sister A last year. She always makes weird fusion food.

Because she never learnt to cooked when she was younger.

I was always the prep cook. My mum or my sister A, who was 2 years older than me, did all the cooking. I chopped up vegetables, took out the sauces, and I distinctly remember once stirring the stir fry because A needed to blow her nose. When A and I moved out together for uni, I learnt how to steam broccoli using a steamer while waiting for her to get back from her lectures, so she could cook dinner.

Even being sent to Italy or interstate for work for a few months didn’t prompt me to actually learn how to cook and expand my repertoire of simple dishes like heating up canned tuna or frying a steak and eating it with rice or pasta.

Still with my prep cook credentials intact at the age of 26, I moved out with a friend and spent the first few months driving home on the weekends to pick up frozen containers of meals from my mum. This system worked really well for everyone involved, because mum cooked for 10 whether there were 2 or 8 people coming for dinner.

I only started cooking when, for various reasons, I wasn’t able to go home to pick up the meals and then became tired of takeaway. I now find that being able to combine a few ingredients together to create a tasty dish is one of life’s true pleasures!

My first ever fully-fledged dish was a minuscule step up from my away-from-home tuna days. It was pretty much just warmed up flavoured tuna, a bottle of pasta sauce, maybe some zucchini, and if I was feeling extra fancy, a scrambled egg underneath, served with rice or pasta. That original dish has morphed into this tuna pasta recipe, which, oddly enough, is one of my nephew’s favourite dishes!

Tuna Pasta

Serves 4

  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic gloves crushed
  • 1 can 375g tuna in olive oil
  • 1 can tomatoes
  • 140g tomato paste
  • 100g mushroom, finely chopped
  • 200g zucchini, finely chopped
  • Pasta (whatever you like)

Let’s cook!

  • Cook pasta according to directions
  • Pour the oil from the can of tuna into a hot pan and cook the onion and garlic until fragrant
  • Add the tuna and break the tuna up. Cook until you can see some of the tuna has browned
  • Add the mushrooms and zucchini and cook for 5 minutes
  • Add the canned tomato and tomato paste
  • Cook on low heat for about 30 minutes (the sauce should just be gently bubbling)
  • Season to taste and serve garnished with parsley

Notes

  • Feel free to increase/decrease the quantities of the vegetables and even the tuna to whatever suits you. I usually cook this by feel (and my mood!) – it’s a very forgiving dish, so if you don’t like mushroom, just omit, or add carrots!
  • As the canned tuna is already cooked, you don’t have to simmer it for 30 minutes if you’re in a rush. I do it when I can because I think it gives the dish more depth of flavour.

Old friends, different equilibrium

I feel it faintly at first. It’s far off in the distance, yet it gently tugs at me again and again and won’t stop. The slow persistence of the cry continues to pull at me, louder and stronger. I open my eyes and I’m in bed. The crying is somewhere close.

My heart beats into a slow consciousness. I’m alone, and in the dimness of the room, something has shifted, and I’m there. The same light blue sheets and cream waffle blanket are in a tousled mess around me. Then Weight descends and settles in its usual spot on my shoulders. Daddyken’s in hospital Weight tells me. He’s there.

I roll onto my back, and my heart gains further speed as Weight calls its friend Despair to lodge in its familiar spot in my heart. I sit up, and the cool air envelopes me. They’re back. Did they ever leave?  I feel the walls, the floor and the ceiling move in on me.

The intense rays of the afternoon sun frame the edges of the wooden window blinds. A solar eclipse just for me. I shudder as my hot feet touch the cold wooden floor. I can feel the heat of the sun as I stand next to the window and rest my burning cheek on the cold pale blue brick wall of my room.

My heart goes into a gallop, my breath speeds up.  I look at myself in the green translucent glass of the wardrobe door and see her again. There’s Fear. With Despair. And my mind is a loud jumble of pain.

The cry becomes desperate. In a trance, I walk to the familiar white door as my heart bolts over to greet Dread. Despair is growing. I feel Desperate. With these old friends, I pull open the door and the cry is loud. It’s somewhere. It’s calling for me. I drag my feet down the dark hallway and stop at the first door. I pull my breath in. She’s not there. No crib, no nappies. Single bed. Study desk. Ok breath. Please breath.

But I can’t seem to return.

At the next door, the crying envelopes me. I rush over to pick my baby up. It’s not Panda. It’s Soccer Boy. It’s not Panda. His chubby cheeks are wet with tears. He’s heavy.

I sit down and feed him. I’m alone with these old friends. I close my eyes momentarily and notice the room has a different smell. The white sleigh cot is the same. It’s in a different spot. The window is larger. The change mat is yellow with blue checks. No teddy bear print. I look at him as he suckles. This baby is wearing blue. Blue. He suckles differently. He’s bigger. Bald. It’s different.

I feel a shift as I breath in. I don’t think it’s that time. Daddyken’s not in hospital…he hasn’t just had a stroke. It’s not that time. Yes, not that time. It’s a different time. Not that time. And then finally, finally, the spell is broken as my body starts to shake as my heart swells out of my chest and I burst into a spasm of grief-laden tears, tears which fall like they did in his sister’s time, tears laced with all the Dread and Despair and Desperation of that Time. Tears which eventually drain Weight away. And with a shudder of relief, I kiss Soccer Boy’s soft warm head. And hold him tightly to me as I ride that last familiar wave of hopelessness from all those years ago.

**

A few months after Daddyken’s stroke shattered our equilibrium and I was scrambling to piece it back together with Panda in my arms, I resolved never, ever to have another child. I had no wish to return to the horror that shadowed me all that summer, autumn, winter and spring.

Of course, we eventually crawled out of that abyss, and found a different life and a different happiness on a different level of equilibrium.  And so 5 years after that time, we found the strength to have Soccer Boy.

Perhaps I was naïve, but I thought that the trauma from those earlier years was done. A memory filed away and a time already dealt with. But it was really only biding its time until the conditions were right. A baby. Another hot summer. Same house. And if I didn’t concentrate, if I lost my focus momentarily, then something would shift, and I would be back there. I would relive that horror. I would ride that wave again. And again.

**

Soccer Boy is 6 now, and looking back, it took about 10 months for me to achieve another level of equilibrium.

It took 10 months for me to be reassured that I was not back there. That I was here. That Daddyken would walk through that front door. He’d be without a sling for his arm, without a brace for his foot, without the pronounced limp in his step and without the need for assistance with his buttons. That I would pick Panda up from school. That Soccer Boy is in this new time. This new equilibrium. Because I was not back there. I’m here.

Approximations of the Nachos kind

I’ve mentioned the bountifulness of my pantry in a previous post, but what I didn’t mention was that its bountifulness means that I usually forget what’s in it. Sometimes I come home from the shops with 5 packets of pasta, only to find the pantry overflowing with their identical carb-loaded buddies. And then when I think I’ve got something in there, I actually don’t.

I used to flavour my beef for nachos and burritos with little sachets of Mexican seasonings purchased from the supermarket. Of course, one day when I started to cook nachos for dinner, my pantry yielded not even one little yellow packet.

Now Daddyken wasn’t home at the time, so it would have meant I either had to bribe the Cherubs with some lurid-coloured, sugar-infested sweet, or endure the wrath that is the Cherubs being dragged from whatever life-changing thing they were doing, into the car, in order to go to the shops just to buy a $2 sachet of ingredients that was probably more than 50% not natural.

So I rallied up my spices and winged it… and my family didn’t even flinch. Now the reason wasn’t because of my amazing culinary ability to reproduce authentic recipes based on the ingredients in seasoning packets, but because they’re used to me changing recipes on them. And unfortunately, they’ve never been to an actual Mexican restaurant… We have Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants in the suburbs, but Mexican restaurants aren’t common – they’ve only really started to pop up in the city in the last few years.

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I’ve also found out recently that nachos isn’t actually an authentic Mexican dish. It’s Tex-Mex! Reminds me of when I tasted ‘Beef in black bean sauce’ for the first time in a Chinese take-away when I was a teenager. I couldn’t believe I was Chinese and had never come across the dish before! (there’s a reason why of course – it doesn’t actually exist in the dark, salty, gooey-sauce form that’s offered in take-aways). I have also never ordered it since.

Luckily Daddyken loves my approximation of Tex-Mex Nachos. It’s easy to make and the accompaniments make it light and fresh. And I hope that when we do eventually make it to a Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant, they won’t be too startled with the difference in taste!

My Tex-Mex Nachos

Serves 4

Gluten free (if using corn chips)

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 red capsicum, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 500g minced beef
  • Small bunch of coriander (plus extra for serving)

To serve:

  • Avocado, tomato, lettuce, chopped
  • Coriander
  • Grated cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Lime
  • Corn chips or tortillas (cut into wedges and toasted in oven)

Cook:

  • Heat olive oil on a medium-high heat and add the onions
  • Cook for 3 minutes and add the capsicum
  • When the onion and capsicum is soft, add the spices and tomato paste, and cook for 2 minutes
  • Turn the heat up to high, add the mince and cook until the mince is cooked through
  • Turn the heat to low and simmer for half an hour
  • Add the coriander and simmer for another 10 minutes

To serve, spoon the meat mixture onto a bowl of corn chips or tortillas, add a spoonful of each of the veges, cheese, sour cream, coriander and a squeeze of lime.

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Notes:

  • The general method is to put the cheese with the meat under the grill for a yummy melted cheese sensation. We don’t – just because we think it’s yummy as it is and it’s also too much effort!
  • Daddyken likes to add store-bought tomato salsa to his nachos, but I think it’s fine without.
  • Eat without the corn chips or tortillas and you’ve got yourself a yummy, filling carb-free meal!

The Yays! (and Boos) of a Mixed Race Marriage

While our families didn’t oppose our interracial marriage, we were the first in both our families to marry outside of our race, so they did have a few concerns. Daddyken’s parents were worried that our mixed kids would be bullied at school because one, they’d ‘look’ different, and two, they’d be taking rice to school instead of sandwiches. My parents were worried that this Westerner was just out for some fun – the ‘love you and leave you’ stereotype they had of a Westerner. It didn’t help that both sets of parents lived in suburbs not conducive to extensive interactions with cultures wildly outside of their own.

My mother-in-law coped by reading anything in the newspapers about everything remotely connected to ‘Asian-ness’ and reading it out to me… I remember telling Daddyken that I’d never been so reminded that I was an Asian person than when I was with her! And my mum told everyone that her daughter’s fiancée was a gweilo (ghost or white man)… BUT he was a really nice one.

I think that even if you marry someone from your own race, you’re still going to encounter some challenges, not only between yourselves but also the extended family. The merging of two different extended families who didn’t necessarily choose to be together isn’t always going to be a smooth ride. But naturally, when you add the extra ingredient of two different races, it’ll inevitably add some extra bumps to the journey.

For the record, we’ve just had our 14 year wedding anniversary, we live in an area where mixed kids form a sizable chunk of the population, and while the Cherubs love rice (and Panda does sometimes take fried rice to school), they also love their vegemite and cheese sandwiches.

So to celebrate, I’ve put together my top 4 list of advantages and disadvantages of an interracial marriage (I know 4 is an unlucky number for the Chinese, but 4 + 4 = 8, and 8 is a favourite number of the Chinese because it means ‘make a fortune’ : )).

Note that I could wax lyrical about the amazing romantic-ness of the union of two different cultures etc etc, but life isn’t lived in the serendipitous clouds all the time – let’s get into the nitty-gritties.

Boo for Interracial Marriages:

1. Separate togethers: My in-laws don’t speak any Asian languages, and my parents’ English is good for general conversations about the weather. Awkward for everyone when there’s a family get-together. As a result, we have separate family gatherings… some may say that’s a good thing though, and I admit I deliberated a bit when trying to decide whether it was a Yay! Or a Boo : )

2. Language Block: The Cherubs can be a little shy with my parents because they aren’t able to fluently communicate in Cantonese with them. I take some of the blame for that because my Cantonese isn’t so flash either, and I speak to the Cherubs in English. I’m reluctant to send them to Chinese school though because I hated it when I my parents sent me to one when I was young.

So my parents converse with the Cherubs in broken English, with a few Chinese words thrown in, and the Cherubs use the few Chinese words they know whenever they see my parents, like hello, good morning, good night and good bye. And I think they all also assess the situation they’re in and just bluff their way through.

3. Pure Misunderstandings: I’ve perfected the outwardly calm, nonchalant, show-your-teeth-slightly smile, while frantically messaging Daddyken with my eyes and (hopefully) subtle movements of my head to give him an ‘ABORT. I REPEAT: ABORT LINE OF QUESTIONING/COMMENT/JOKE IMMEDIATELY’ signal.

It may have happened many, many years ago, but don’t put China.

Japan.

And War. together in the same sentence to a Chinese man who grew up in the aftermath of that conflict.

Also, try translating a joke into another language. There are SO many things that can get lost in translation that it gives me heart palpitations just thinking about it. Best case scenario is that the joke just falls flat and there’s an awkward silence. I repeat, BEST CASE.

4. The Issue Of Prawns: The Cherubs don’t like prawns. What Chinese kid doesn’t like prawns, albeit a half Chinese kid? Just eat half a prawn then. One cannot thrive on vegemite or cheese sandwiches alone, says this Chinese mother. I blame Daddyken for that. The White half of them has got the Chinese half in a headlock over prawns. I’m working on this difficult situation and will keep you posted.

Yay! for Interracial Marriages:

1. Cultural Collision: The Western side has an advantage with this culture thing because we live in Australia. However, I’m very close to my family and we live a few minutes away from both my parents and sister, so the Cherubs get the full Chinese family experience on a regular basis.

Our interactions with Daddyken’s family is very calm, orderly and planned. We ask how the other is, discuss the weather, what the other has been doing since we last met and how much rain each family has received in their respective locations. We eat quietly and the conversation is very polite.

As to my family? (Daddyken has a lot to say about this, but his main point would be that when he married me, he didn’t realise that he also said I do to my whole family) I’ll summarise: eating too much, having family members drop by all the time, any day of the week, any time – not necessarily to see us, maybe to get something out of the pantry that they need (even while we’re sleeping… yes, they have our house keys), cooking for 16 when there’s only 8 for dinner, being upfront and blunt about anything and everything (Your hair looks bad today or Those pants don’t suit you or Denim’s not in this winter and This doesn’t taste very good at all), an insane focus on eating all the time and the loud incessant conversations that overlap one another with no break in-between because everyone’s trying to say something and not willing to wait for an appropriate break in the conversation because frankly if you do wait you’ll never be able to get a word in and then apparently it’s just your bad luck you didn’t say something when you had the opportunity.

I like to think the Cherubs will grow up well-rounded.

2. Bridge of Pardons: Don’t like what the other is doing? Typical crazy Chinese people. Don’t understand why that’s happening? These white people have no idea. There’s a world of pardons that helps to smooth the bridge between our 2 families.

3. Happy obliviousness: Daddyken doesn’t understand many Chinese words except for gweilo, go lo (tall man) and a hand-full of random words that you wouldn’t be able to string together to make a coherent sentence. Which can have its advantages. For example:

Daddyken sat between my parents at dinner once, and mid-way through that dinner, my parents started arguing loudly and heatedly behind and across the front of him (I’d like to say that they fought over the top of him, but at 183cm tall, not many people would be able to do that, let alone two elderly Chinese people) about who dug up whose chives in a certain large black pot and now who won’t have any chives in their noodles and who should have marked that black pot in the corner with a sign so that there would be no confusion as to whether or not the large black pot was empty and who should have known…

Daddyken calmly ate his dinner, finished eating, thanked me for cooking and left the table. After they went home, I commented on the fight my parents had just had. When? and Really? Your family always speaks so loud and fast all the time I didn’t notice. So how did it go?

4. And the ultimate pièce de résistance: THERE’S NO FIGHTING OVER WHO’S HOUSE WE GO TO FOR CHRISTMAS OR CHINESE NEW YEAR!! Christmas is Daddyken’s domain, Chinese New Year is mine, and never the twain shall they ever, ever collide.

What’s in Honey Soy Chicken Wings?

I’ve espoused the virtues of chicken wings before in a previous chicken wing recipe, but I’m surprised it wasn’t for this honey soy recipe (probably because I’ve made it so many times I’m on auto-pilot and forget that I’m actually making them).

The actual name of the dish is pretty misleading. If you just mixed honey and soy with chicken wings, it’ll taste pretty flat. It should actually be called Garlic, ginger, honey and soy chicken wings, because it’s really the garlic and ginger that gives it that delicious kick. When I first found the recipe, I scoffed because I really did just want to mix honey, soy and wings together. Who wants to fuss with garlic and ginger? Well, you need to if you want something yummy.

If the Cherubs have a friend over for dinner for the first time, there’s a fair chance they’ll ask for honey soy chicken wings to be served. It’s almost an initiation ritual – if you like these wings as much as I do, then you’re ok and we can definitely be friends. Thus far, luckily for the Cherubs, the wings have received a resounding thumbs up from everyone. And I usually then get a text from their friend’s mum asking for the recipe. So here it is!

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Honey Soy Chicken Wings

Serves: 6 people

 Ingredients:

  • 2 kg chicken mid-wings
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons ginger, finely grated

Cook:

  • Preheat oven to 180 degrees
  • Line 2 baking trays with baking paper
  • Mix honey, soy sauce, garlic and ginger in a large bowl until combined
  • Add the chicken mid-wings and mix well
  • Arrange the mid-wings in a single layer on the baking trays
  • Bake for 20 minutes, then turn mid-wings and bake for another 20 minutes or until the chicken is nicely browned.
  • Serve with rice and steamed vegetables or salad.

Notes:

  • Mid-wings are the wing bits of choice in our family, but if you’re keen on meatier parts, go for the drummettes.

Pronunciations of the edible kind

Many years ago in my youth, I was a management consultant and worked in Italy at a multi-national beverage company for a few months.

I lived half an hour’s walk from the city centre in a serviced apartment with a pizzeria, bakery and gelateria across the road. I wasn’t keen on the rock hard bread they seem to like there, but the pizza and the pasta was amazing – I seriously still drool when I think about those meals. And don’t get me started on the gelateria’s spectacular seasonal gelato flavours or the fact that I shipped back 16 pairs of shoes… that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, after the first week of reveling in their glorious restaurants and gelato, I craved simpler meals back in my apartment. Not accustomed to supermarkets even back at home (I was living at home and my mum did all the cooking and shopping), I found the local Italian supermarket super confusing. So in the second week, my meals alternated between pizza from the pizzeria and canned tuna (because tuna in cans is easily recognizable and the canned tuna aisle was close the supermarket entrance) and pasta.

Another week went by and I craved some steak or chicken. I braved the supermarket again, but couldn’t find the meat section and I was too shy to ask because I couldn’t speak Italian. I’m sure the security cameras would have been following me – that small Asian woman is back again, walking up and down the aisles again, looking up and down and around again and then finally just paying for a tin of tuna. Again.

The local staff at work helped me with my Italian language skills during lunch later that week, emphasizing the importance of pronunciation. I marched into the supermarket that same afternoon and walked boldly up to a staff member at the back of the shop, brimming with my newly acquired confidence in the Italian language. Well, for buying meat anyway.

Scusi, car-ne? I said triumphantly.

He looked at me alarmed. No, no he said nervously.

Um… Car-ne? CAR-NE? (because of course, if you speak louder, they’ll be able to fully understand what you’re trying to say).

No, no! he repeated, shaking his head vigorously and looking somewhat distressed.

Determined, I repeated Car-ne! Car-ne! and gestured a little desperately at the shelves (avoiding the canned tuna aisle) and doing eating movements with my hands.

He seemed to grow a little frantic No, no, no! And then he paused. No bow bow. Another pause. Then he put his hands in front of him and impersonated a dog. No bow bow.

Ohhh… cue the lightbulb please.

Um… moo moo? Baa baa?  Um… oink oink?

Ah! He looked relieved. Card-ne! si! card-ne!

Wasn’t that what I had just said? Sort of?

Looking excited, he took me over to the refrigerated (why didn’t I think of that?) section and happily pointed to the lamb chops and steaks nicely packaged up, with minuscule pictures of the relevant protein on the front.

The next day, the local staff at work pointed out to me the difference in pronunciation between meat and dog. They also found it exceedingly amusing, while my Australian colleagues benefited from my gallant effort. But at least I got to have my steak and eat it.

The Price Of Tea At QVB

The first time I went to high tea was about 15 years ago for a girlfriend’s birthday at the Victoria Room in Darlinghurst, Sydney. It was very bohemian and very dim. Sheer fabric separated the tables and the room looked a little bit like an old claustrophobic antique store. Crammed into the room were tassels, fringes, crystals and bejeweled items in a room full of strong red and purple colours. Bottles of champagne popped amongst teapots and teacups and I wondered if the name should have been changed to high booze.

I had expected something more ‘English’, more country manor, less dimness, more restraint in colour and noise. Surely the English spoke in muted tones when partaking in such an esteemed event as high tea? Surely the English would not have popped champagne in the middle of the day?

Fast forward 15 years, and I’m at The Tea Room in the Queen Victoria Building (QVB) in Sydney with Panda, her friend G and G’s mum. The QVB itself is a beautiful historic building built in 1898, and the girls are extremely excited to be posh ladies for 2 hours. I’m also extremely pleased – things are as I expect high tea to be.


The Tea Room is located in the original Grand ballroom (swoon). The lift entrance is encased in glass and reception is outside the actual dining room to keep noise levels down. When you walk into the large room, you barely hear a murmur even though there are guests already enjoying their morning tea. We are seated on large single person lounges at a low table. Baccarat crystal chandeliers hang from the very high ornate Victorian ceilings, the carpet is soft and thick, and there is a huge urn in the middle of the room with a large pastel-hued flower arrangement. Sumptuous is the word.

There’s also something very grand about drinking tea from a silver teapot and dining on delicate morsels of food from a 3-tiered plate stand, and a Royal Albert one at that.

With my carb-sensors switched off, the afternoon high tea is all fresh and reasonably tasty. The hot course includes Peking duck pancakes (bingo! say Panda’s eyes) and a savoury cheese biscuit with smoked salmon.

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For the cold course we have crust-less sandwiches (which were a little lacking in the wow factor that I was expecting for the price we’re paying) with fillings like coronation chicken (chicken in a curry sauce is our explanation to the girls), egg and chives, and cheddar and chutney.

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The sweets are done well and include a salted caramel macaron, chocolate mousse cake, blood orange jelly cheesecake and a lovely mini fruit tart. I struggle to finish an extra-large scone which comes with jam and cream, however I do enjoy the sweet and slightly crumbly texture.

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The girls share a serving, which turns out to be a wise move, because we go from totally famished to Oh no, you have it, I can’t fit anything else in with 3 sweets and a scone left. Although the girls do manage to polish off the bowl of cream (I’ve always told Panda that dairy is good for you).

While the food isn’t going to get them into any food guides, in between the girls fluttering their eye-lids while drinking tea with their pinkies raised (because apparently that’s what posh ladies do when having afternoon tea), the attentive service of the unflappable waiters, the lavish surrounds and tranquil atmosphere of The Tea Room, it was a great afternoon out for two harried mums and two wonderful tweens who deserved the day out.

Verdict: High tea isn’t cheap – you’re paying for both the food, surrounds and the feelings that the experience evokes (which isn’t always a bad thing). It’s definitely not something you would do on a regular basis, and it’s best shared with family and friends.

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Cost: Afternoon tea $45 pp and $6 for a glass of orange juice

Website: http://thetearoom.com.au/

Photo Credits:

Exterior of QVB: denn via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Interior of QVB: NickiMM via Visualhunt.com / CC BY