Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Vapiano Si Si

European Italian pasta/pizza bar Vapiano has officially opened its doors in Brisbane’s revamped Albert Lane. Australia is probably as far flung a venue as it can get, the chain originates from Hamburg. Germany. Its concept stores are found across Europe, the USA and in Mexico, The United Arab Emirates and Korea. Will Cooke, local director of Vapiano is a courageous man with much confidence in Brisbane. Why courageous? Because he’s chosen Brisbane over Sydney to open the first Vapiano franchise. Red Agency’s Marissa Tree extended an invite to me a couple of weeks ago and I was keen to see what Vapiano has in store for Brisbane. It’s set up right at the end of the Albert Lane development – it’s big, bold and spacious. If you thought Melbourne alleyway, you’d be right; but this space is far more spacious than initially meets the eye. There are two levels of beech-coloured wood fitouts, smart and funky seats and nooks for casual lounging and bar hopping. There is a bar on each level with a choice of communal and individual tables for dining. The space doesn’t feel too contrived and the use of natural elements like the twig ball of lights, marble condiment holders and the fact there is a lot of natural light streaming into the space makes this a very pleasant place to eat and linger in. The décor is restrained and it’s nice that an olive tree sits, rather naturally in the middle of the room on the first level.

The terracotta pots of sweet basil and rosemary on each table make this a very homely and casual experience. Diners are encouraged to pick from the herb pots to add to their meals. There is chilli oil, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper on all tables so it’s very DIY. I think I’d like to see marjoram, Italian parsley and thyme being added to the family of herbs. The coolest part of the space for me, is the nursery of herbs in the elevated section of the first level – it feels a bit like a greenhouse and provides jaded city shoppers a fresh alternative to a walk in the Botanic Gardens.

You may be struck by the amount of people working behind the counters (I was!)– all staff members were going gung-ho at the same time – busy flipping pizza bases, running into each other, cooking pasta and making salads. There were the obvious first day jitters but the staff seem to have relaxed into their new roles on second visit.

The chip card system takes a little getting used to but if it works everywhere else around the world, it will work here too. Vapiano’s helpful staff are more than happy to explain how the system works. Order at either the pasta/pizza counters and then swipe your card –pay at the end with minimal fuss of splitting bills, etc. Vapiano may wear the fast food concept badge but Will says that the aim is to use locally-sourced ingredients. Cheeses come from far north Queensland, olive oils sourced from the South Burnett region and other produce from the South East corner. The philosophy behind the brand is admirable and let’s hope they keep it that way. Pastas and pizzas range from $13 to $19, with salads $7 and $13. Order your dish and the food is cooked before you.

Drink prices are kept reasonably low as well. Vapiano fills a bit of a gap in the market in Brisbane’s fast food scene – it provides accessible pricing for good quality food. It’s trading hours are also an attractive feature – it’s open 11am–11pm seven days a week. No longer will you have to grab a greasy burger or resort to starvation the next time you’re stuck in the city at night after a gig. The coffees are decently priced and are consistently made too, which is always a bonus in the heart of Queen Street.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Regional Chinese Cooking by Deh-Ta Hsiung

Regional Chinese Cooking: the art and practice of the world’s most diverse cuisine
By Deh-Ta Hsiung

Old cookbooks provide such useful social and cultural insights into how and what people ate in a certain period in time. Regional Chinese Cooking is no exception: it’s not entirely that old, printed in 1979 but the pictures, commentary and ingredients used is fascinating and reading through it tells us how much China has changed. The author, Deh-Ta Hsiung is a self-taught cook, food consultant and ex film assistant director, born in Beijing, living in London for the last 50 years. He boasts a classical Chinese upbringing, his ancestors include a host of scholars and gourmets. His travels around China is well documented in his book, Regional Chinese Cooking.

The photographs capture the 70s where everyday people still wore the blue Mao uniforms, and the People’s Liberation Army’s green military-style uniforms. The photos speak of a time when agriculture and subsistence farming was practiced widely and of great importance to the Chinese population. Take photos now and China is a very different place, the skies are polluted in the big cities, motorbikes and cars are now overtaking bicycles, and subsistence farming is well, pretty much being phased out. Nevertheless the photographs and commentary provide an interesting glimpse into Chinese psyche 30 years ago.

The book is divided into the basics of Chinese cookery with essentials like common utensils, cooking techniques and ingredients. Cooking styles are broken into Peking or Northern school, Shanghai or Eastern school, Sichuan or Western school and Canton or Southern school. The book is by no means an exhaustive treaty on all the regional dishes available but it does provide a good cross section of food – a lot of which we don’t ever see in restaurants in Australia, let alone Brisbane.

There are even recipes from the Imperial kitchens of the Forbidden City. Thousand-layer cake (okay, only 81 layers!) for special occasions complete with lard and walnuts. Sharks’ fin soup also features – no traditional Chinese person worth their salt would consider having a grand banquet, or any kind of celebratory banquet without this status-symbol dish. We all know how wasteful and environmentally unfriendly this little piece of fin is but try convincing the sharks’ fin die-hards that this practice must be stopped.

Some dishes border on obsessive about the intricacies of colour and contrasting textures. ‘Mixed Three Whites’ is curiously indexed under ‘Vegetables’ when its major ingredient is chicken breast. I digress. The three whites here are: cooked chicken breast meat, canned (!) white asparagus and white cabbage heart. The three major ingredients are kept as white as possible with the addition of milk and cornflour. The obsession with white continues throughout the book. Another all white dish is the ‘Three Whites Assembly’ again complete with canned white asparagus, abalone and winter bamboo tips. And no, we haven’t accidentally ventured onto Krzysztof Kieslowski’s set of the Three Colours:White series.

The Chinese appreciate beautiful and poetic-sounding names for dishes – crystal sugar pork, plum blossom and snow competing for spring (a dessert dish of apples, bananas and milk), dragon and phoenix legs, bright moon and red pine chicken, three fairies in their own juice (poussin, duckling and pork in case you’re wondering) and perhaps, not the most flattering – ma pa tofu or its literal translation, ‘pock-marked woman bean curd’. Delicious though! Continuing on from the poetic dish names, Cheong Liew must have been inspired by the ‘stewed four treasures’ as inspiration for his upmarket version in ‘four dances of the sea’. Hsiung’s version is a much simpler but still complex stew of rehydrated fish lips, abalone, bamboo shoots, broccoli, rice wine vinegar and Chinese aromats.

The photo above is of the Stewed Four Treasures dish.

Kidneys feature highly on Hisung’s cooking radar; about four in total dedicated to the star ingredient, pork kidneys. Other offal are co-stars in his concoctions. How often do you see shredded kidney in wine sauce, five-fragrant kidney slices, stir-fried kidney flowers and hot and sour kidneys in your local Chinese takeaway?

You’ll discover in reading this book that monosodium glutamate reigned supreme in the 1970s. Judging by the recipes, it was used liberally in the restaurant industry. You probably won’t find any Chinese cookbooks now urging you to add a teaspoon of the white powder. I remember my grandmother using the msg brand of Ajinomoto liberally in my childhood – no bloody wonder the food tasted so good!

Chinese restaurants that pour commercial sweet and sour gloop all over chicken, pork and fish should be ashamed of themselves. They really give Chinese food a bad name. Here, in Hsiung’s book – you’ll find recipes for sweet and sour sauce. Wait for it – it’s not all red food colouring, chemicals and artificial thickeners. Authentic sweet and sour has a balance of sweet, sour and salty. Basic sweet and sour sauce is a combination of wine vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, rice wine and cornstarch with other modifications, or additions, depending on your choice of meat, etc. There really is no excuse for not making your own, especially if you’re a restaurateur with some shred of culinary dignity.

Last but not least, Hsiung gives helpful hints to the tea novice – how to pick what teas and the art of drinking and brewing tea leaves. And there’s no better time to drink copious amounts of tea when you’re diving into steamers full of dim sum.

This book is really interesting even if you don’t make anything from it – it provides a brilliant culinary time capsule on what was acceptable 30 years ago and how some of those ingredients are almost taboo now, i.e. the use of msg and sharks’ fin. The author’s done a fine job of knowing which popular dishes to showcase; juxtapositioning crowd favourites with more obscure dishes you don’t ever see in restaurants. It gives us a glimpse into how diverse and varied Chinese cuisine really is, and to start to eat like the Chinese, we’ve got to somehow demand for better and more interesting dishes from our Chinese restaurants.

Friday, December 4, 2009

getting over baking phobia with bananas

Baking phobia aside, I am turning over a new leaf by Christmas 2009. I have been compelled to bake recently. I’ve baked two cakes in a week! Perhaps I was bored and perhaps I need to fill in time while I procrastinated by not wanting to finish my index projects. I mean what on earth was I going to do with my very black, almost liquefied bananas fermenting in the fruit bowl? What does a non-baker do when starting to bake? Why, we look up the most easy recipes to work with! It’s surprising to me how many cookbooks don’t have basic recipes for things like banana cake. I finally found one online – it looked so simple and no-fuss, I almost didn’t copy down the recipe. Those who know me will know I didn’t follow it 100%.

I tweaked the recipe here and there and the result is I have to say, pretty smashingly delicious! This banana cake recipe is for those who have no time but want to bake and see results within an hour; and useful to those who have festering blackening bananas abuzz with fruit flies in the fruit basket. Apologies to the person who came up with this recipe online, I cannot for the life of me find the site where I found the recipe. This is by far one of the easiest cakes I’ve ever made, it was moist and very tasty.

Here is original banana cake recipe:

125g butter
¾ c sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 egg
2 ripe bananas
1½ c self raising flour
¼ c milk

Melt butter, sugar and vanilla together.
Add mashed bananas to the mixture until well blended
Add eggs and mix well.
Stir in flour, add milk and mix lightly.

Bake in 170c oven for around 40 mins.

Meemuncher tweaked version of banana cake:

125g butter
¾ c sugar (a 2/3 mix of caster sugar & rest brown sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
3 ripe bananas (for extra flavour and moistness)
1½ c self raising flour (add another handful of flour to the1½ c as there is slightly more banana now)
very small pinch of baking powder
¼ milk
grating of nutmeg (to taste)
a dash of ground cinnamon
handful of pecan or walnuts to sit on top of cake

Melt butter, sugar and vanilla extract together until all melted through.
Mash bananas, add grated nutmeg and cinnamon, throw into melted butter mixture.
Add egg and mix well.
Stir in flour and lightly mix.
Add milk and incorporate thoroughly.
Delicately place nuts on top of cake batter.
Bake in 170c oven for around 40–45 mins in 20cm tin.

Verdict: pretty damn delicious for something that almost takes no effort.The nutmeg and cinnamon give this cake a bit of the oomph factor I think it needed.

I was so chuffed I thought I'd post some photos of my cake, minus a big slice!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Traditional Torres Strait Island Cooking - Ron Edwards

Traditional Torres Strait Islander Cookbook: favourite recipes from the Islands
Collected and compiled by Ron Edwards

The prolific bushie/folksinger/publisher/bushcraft collector/writer/illustrator Ron Edwards died in 2008. He left the rest of us a rich and lasting legacy of the culture of indigenous peoples up north Queensland and beyond to the islands of the Torres Straits. His publishing company Rams Skull Press published approximately 350 books on bushcraft, leatherwork, whipmaking, bush ballads, songs from indigenous tribes and the odd cookery book. Traditional Torres Strait Island Cooking is a collection of favourite recipes from the Straits. Edwards collected the material back in the 1960s but the collection was only published in 1988. Let’s not underestimate the curiousity in island cooking, with 3 editions under its belt it’s testament of the public’s growing interest in indigenous methods of cooking.

The book is apparently being used by younger generations of Islanders trying to reconnect with their ancestry by cooking traditional fare. The cooking of the Torres Straits is an interesting and diverse mix of culinary input from the Chinese, Indonesians and Japanese. This intermix of ingredients and techniques highlight the multicultural diversity of this little known region.

Islanders also cook using the ‘kup maori’ method: cooking over hot stones, yes, just like the hangis the Maoris of New Zealand love so much! Coconuts feature heavily in Islander cuisine as it will come as no surprise. Many dishes called ‘sabee’ are meat cuts or cassava and vegetables stewed in coconut milk. Taro and taro leaves and stems are another favourite of the Islanders – these delicious tubers take on another dimension when braised for hours in rich coconut mik.

The Islander love their fish and they have a version of the ceviche called numus. Sabee numus (raw fish) is any close, textured raw fish soaked in lime juice and coconut milk. Numus is raw fish steeped in a concoction of onion, garlic, baking soda and vinegar. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the beloved green turtle – a favourite with many traditional Islander and Aboriginal groups. I have partaken in a little green turtle stew, a Maori Islander friend flew all the way back from Weipa once with a tub of the stuff for me to try. It was an interesting texture, the gravy was slightly grainy – the meat tasted a little like pork but stronger flavoured, and I kept thinking there was a distinct aquatic quality to the meat somehow. My friend says that turtle blood is bright green!

I remember sucking on rubbery turtle eggs as a child. My grandmother brought them home from the wet markets one day and I remember squishing the rubbery egg sacs to get its contents out. I don’t remember the taste of them but memories of them being like flattened ping pong balls when we finished with them come to mind.

The book is broken up into an introduction of traditional cooking utensils; use of coconuts; meat; chicken; seafood; turtles; sambals; fruit; rice and dampers and sweet and savoury fruit salads.

There is a whole chapter dedicated to the beloved green turtle – a favourite with many traditional Islander and Aboriginal groups. I have partaken in a little green turtle stew, a Maori Islander friend flew all the way back from Weipa once with a tub of the stuff for me to try. It was an interesting texture, the gravy was slightly grainy – the meat tasted a little like pork but stronger flavoured, and I kept thinking there was a distinct aquatic quality to the meat somehow. My friend says that turtle blood is bright green! There are 8 recipes in the book for turtle. Turtle soup sounds interesting if anybody is up to making it, here is the recipe:

Turtle Soup

Turtle tripe, diced
1/2 kg turtle fat, diced
1kg turtle meat, diced
some small pieces of turtle liver, diced
set of turtle lungs, diced
6 turtle eggs
1 bunch lemongrass or 2 knobs of crushed ginger
¼ litre turtle blood
salt to taste

Place all ingredients except the blood in a pan, cove with water and simmer for one hour.
Thin blood with half cup of water, add this to the pan and simmer for another hour. Discard the lemongrass before serving.

There’s curried turtle flippers, and turtle sausages and scrambled turtle eggs too. I remember sucking on rubbery turtle eggs as a child. My grandmother brought them home from the wet markets one day and I remember squishing the rubbery egg sacs to get its contents out. I don’t remember the taste of them but memories of them being like flattened ping pong balls when we finished with them come to mind.

This recipe caught my eye:

Roast banana and turtle oil

12 half ripe bananas (plantains)
1 cup turtle oil

Place the half ripe bananas on hot coals until the skins are charred. Remove the skins by scrapping. Place the bananas in a dish and mash them. Stir in the turtle oil and serve.

Turtle oil is obtained by skimming it off when the turtle is being cooked in the shell and keeping it until needed.

This is an extremely rich dish and not to everyone’s taste.

Having set down some sensationalist-type recipes to tantalise the cogs of your culinary imagination, rest assured, there are some more modest recipes that you can use at home. This is a recommended read for anybody with an anthropological interest in indigenous peoples’ foods.

Below is a turtle flipper spatula given to me by my dear friend Muriwai, her family's eating memories are rich and steeped in a mix of traditional and contemporary dishes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Halfway to non-discrimination Cantonese

In a previous post I complained about being discriminated against in Chinese restaurants. I worked up a tirade against Cantonese restaurants giving only Chinese customers free house soup and dessert. Well last night, I found a place that doesn’t discriminate against Asian women with non-Asian men, nor Asian men with non-Asian women. What a joy to be treated like everyone else! It was almost too good to be true, for later, I noticed the ‘anglo’ couple who started their entrees off with the ubiquitous spring rolls got no soup – I wasn’t there long enough to see if they got any dessert, but I’m guessing not. Perhaps some restaurants have a rule of withholding soup to people who order stereotypically Westernised Chinese dishes? I can’t work it out! Still it was a triumph for me to be able to partake in what should be my cultural right to a free house soup and sweet treats.

This Cantonese eatery in Sunnybank Hills gave us a very generous serving of house soup of pork bones, wolfberries and carrot. The rice arrived in an insulated wooden bucket I kid you not. The salt and pepper quail came halved on a bed of deep-fried mung bean vermicelli studded with deep fried eschallots, spring onions and chilli. The birds were nicely seasoned, the skin was achingly crisp, including the bones, the flesh was moist and retained its juices.

Mains included broccoli braised with 5 kinds of fungi and bamboo pith: the broccoli was fresh and still crisp, the bamboo pith an interesting contrast to the slippery shiitake mushrooms. The ma po tofu (this version had hand-minced pork, preserved vegetables, garlic, silken tofu and a spicy gravy). The dishes were well-balanced in flavour and not over-oily.

I waited nervously to see if bowls of dessert soup would be brought out to us. The boss man presented us with bowls of redbean soup with a taste wallop redolent with dried citrus peel; and to top things off, a mound of wobbly (very good) mango pudding made its way into our stomachs. I slept soundly that night. As for that ‘anglo’ couple I sure hope they got some free pudding.

As is my aversion to cameras in public places, no photos were taken, only words regurgitated.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

To Die For: 100 food experiences to have before you die

Okay, the man’s had about 30 years worth of food critiquing, interviewing for the Herald Sun and no doubt, much cooking and tinkling about in the kitchen in his own private time. So who better to write a book about the essential food items to try before you kick the milk bucket, so to speak. Not having read a lot of Downes’s reviews in the past, I got the feeling after I finished the book that this was a man with considerable wit, a loosely hanging acerbic tongue – not afraid to call a spade a spade; generous with his gastronomic knowledge and by the sounds of things, a mean jam maker and cook.

I also learnt that Downes was banned from eating at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant, and from 8 other restaurants, back in 2006. Perhaps they were all pooing in their black and white chequered pants that he’d give them an unbalanced review?

The book is broken up into four distinct sections: Eating Out, Eating In, Worth the Effort and Perfect 10s. Self explanatory really. So want to know what Downes rates as his number one food experience? Downes is clearly a fan of Cheong Liew; the father of the famed ‘four dances of the sea’ signature creation. The ‘four dances of the sea’ comes in at 1 and 34 being Liew’s sea cucumber and sharks’ lips braised in carrot oil.
Those of you who read the Australian in July 2009 will remember John Lethlean’s scathing review of the Liew’s The Grange. I wonder what Downes thought of the review?

The disparity behind these two reviews four years apart can’t get any more disparate. Downes relives the joy of eating this dish:
“…four small islands of seafood on a bare white plate. They were arranged at the points of the compass, and eaten in the order in which I’ve listed them, which meant you ascended in strength of flavour. Each mouthful had meaning.’

Lethlean on the other hand, found no meaning or narrative behind the four dances: “There’s a story to the dish but it’s not told here and, without it, they are merely four seafood elements on a plate with no connection: cherry vinegar-pickled fish with avocado; squid ink noodle with raw calamari (a textural gem); grilled octopus with confit eggplant and harshly chillied aioli; and a prawn with yellow curry sauce heavy on peanut and kaffir, sitting on a glutinous rice patty. It is not the epiphany I’d hoped for. Nowhere near.” Oh dear.

I guess it’s important to note that years have elapsed since the writing of these two reviews, new concepts become old and experimental techniques that were once lauded are now commonplace in fine dining establishments.

Downes also weaves in a couple of his own political feelings on issues like political refugees and migration in Australia. Remember, he was writing in the era of John Howard and the Tampa fiasco was still fresh in the minds of many emphatic Australians. He writes of the migrant Cheong Liew and his impact on the Australian culinary landscape; and ends the article with this little political jibe/plea. “Especially politicians, who need to be continually reminded that two of Australia’s best chefs were refugees. And that our national dish is not pie ‘n’ sauce or steak and chips. We don’t need to cringe. We lead the world, but our leaders neither know nor care.”

Political seriousness aside, Downes does have a playful side to him, much of the reviews are witty and many will find his quirky touches a pleasurable read. You see Downes has a bit of a thing for wee. Yes, we’re talking piss. Steady on because it’s not that sort of pissing you’re thinking of. Fruit bat stew comes in at number 9 on his list of must eats.

“Bats hang upside-down most of the day and their toilet habits are, to say the least, lazy. I suppose it depends on the age of the bat, but, after a while, they inevitably begin to self-marinate. A light urinal whiff gets cooked into any stew made from them, matching, of course, the kind of delight Mr Leopold Bloom used to take in his breakfast kidney. (Joyce tells us in Ulysses that Mr Bloom loved ‘stuffed roast heart’ and ‘fried hencod’s roes’. But he especially delighted in his grilled breakfast kidneys of mutton, which gave to his palate, as Joyce put it, a ‘fine tang of faintly scented urine’.) Downes love of wee is strangely referenced in the number 12 must eat item: andouillette sausages at Chartier, France. Bear with me. He writes nostalgically: “Some of us – I was one – who fell in love early with the whiff of urine in food. Perhaps we were bed-wetters.”

The Eating Out chapters are no doubt the most entertaining read. The Eat In section may infuriate those who relish in exact measurements and quantities, cooking times and heat. Downes’s recipes are slapdash, happy-go-lucky, a pinch of this-n-that, a handful of salt, a glug of wine, prepare a hot oven, cook until you think it’s cooked type concoctions. I cook that way and I respond to that kind of instruction but others will probably want to throttle him over the sink for it. His selections are a combination of high-brow and comfort foods – with a tinge of cheekiness added for good measure. Love or hate his reviews, it's worth having a flick through. This is the sort of book you take on a plane en-route somewhere special (preferably with good food), or take with you to bed, tucked up, snug under the doona covers with a hot mug of cocoa, or a tumbler of gin.

This book won the 2005 Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Food Literature Book and I can kind of see why.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Something's rotten with the state of some of our Chinese restaurants

There’s something fundamentally rotten with the state of some Cantonese restaurants. Traditionally, a good Cantonese restaurant serves complimentary ‘house soup’ to its customers. House soup is usually a clear broth made with pork or chicken bones, with fresh vegetables or preserved mustards or radish tops, it can come in form of carrot, corn and pork soup, lotus root soup, watercress soup or preserved radish soup. These soups are usually nourishing and warming and act as a nice prelude to the meal ahead. Customers have their rice and mains and then finish off with a house dessert and fruit slices. The Chinese aren’t big on rich, sugary desserts or heavy cakes; more often than not, the house dessert will come in the form of agar and coconut jellies, simple mango or sago puddings, sweet dessert soups like red bean or mung bean soup. These simple, home-made desserts are a nice way to finish a meal. The generosity of these little food gifts is what make a diner’s experience authentic and uplifting.

What I mean by rotten earlier on is the discrimination dished out to customers who come through the doors of some Chinese restaurants. The average Caucasian or non-Chinese person may or may not have noticed but soup that is given to Chinese diners by default but may not given to anybody else. Chinese families or Chinese couples usually qualify for this free soup. If you’re an Asian female dining with a non-Chinese male, or Asian male dining with a non-Chinese female – good luck with the free soup, or dessert. Over the many years of dining out with non-Chinese friends, I have definitely noticed this disturbing trend. Things have not changed and it doesn’t seem to matter what city you’re in – the less discriminating (better places) will serve non-Chinese diners house soup and desserts – the discriminating only serve Chinese diners, or people-in-the-know. The excuse most likely heard is that free house soup and dessert soups will not be appreciated by others, therefore these dishes will be wasted. I want to know who in their right minds, is going to turn down free soup and dessert. Good, knowledgeable restaurateurs should encourage adventurousness in their customers to go beyond the sweet and sour pork and fried rice combinations. I have now eaten in many Cantonese restaurants in various states and have noticed that I am discriminated against if I dine with a Caucasian companion, or with a group of Caucasians. Sometimes, if I am cheeky I actually ask for the free house soup – usually they make a bit of noise and grudgingly give us a tureen. If I’m brave enough I will also ask for the house dessert too. The point of the matter is that if I turned up to dinner with my family – we would be given these dishes by default. Just because I turn up with a non-Chinese companion shouldn’t mean I miss out on these things.

Race is usually never an issue but I must apologise for referring to diners so blatantly as either Caucasian and non-Chinese. My dining experiences in Chinese eateries of late, have really shown up this racial divide. My Caucasian dining companion and I were dining out at a suburban Cantonese restaurant not so long ago. What caught my attention was a table of middle aged Caucasians next to us, they obviously ordered the banquet meal. First course was sweet corn and chicken soup, second a platter of deep-fried spring rolls, dim sims and other bought-in things with prawn crackers. The deep fried bonanza made way for the sang choi bow, fried rice, sweet and sour pork, sizzling beef and black bean and a seafood combination. I don’t think these diners had encountered a sang choi bow before. The two couples scooped all the filling out of the sang choi bow and left the lettuce cups. I felt so sorry for them for the crispy lettuce cups are an integral part of the sang choi bow experience – the lettuce provides necessary textural contrast to the meal. A sang choi bow is not a sang choi bow without its lettuce cups. Should I have said anything? Should I have gone over and instructed them how to eat the things? I was tempted but thought they might think me rude for observing them so closely. What if that was not the first time they’d had a sang choi bow? Had they always eaten it like that? My point is the waitresses or restaurateur should have pointed this out to them while they were eating. I think the waitress might have said something (I can’t be sure) when she collected the plates but it was too late, the lettuce cups had been emptied of their contents. The equivalent of this, to me, is like ordering a hamburger, eating the patty and throwing out the bun and its accompaniments.

I am a fan of Chinese cuisine but I fear the pandering to what a Western audience might want is actually dumbing down the beauty, authenticity and variety of the cuisine. I have known people who have been unfamiliar with Cantonese/Chinese cuisine say they don’t like the cuisine because it’s too sweet, or unhealthy or too oily. I take them to an authentic Cantonese/Sichuanese/Hunanese place and order typical dishes for them –a lot of the time, they’re blown away by the flavours of the ingredients and the variety of cooking styles. Slowly but surely, the eating public is going to discover other more authentic eateries who provide these bonuses. Those good-value eateries that provide an authentic experience and don’t discriminate with these little free goodies will triumph in the end. Those contemptuous eateries that rely on serving the sweet and sour varieties and the ubiquitous Mongolian meat dishes who think their customers don’t know any better, will one day wonder where all their custom went. And yes, my dining companion and I, an Indian couple and all the other Caucasian groups may have missed out on house soup and mango pudding that night (we got dried out bits of cut oranges instead) for dessert, but there will be other places that will serve us the right way, and we will eventually find places that don’t discriminate people for not being Chinese.

Dunlop - Queen of Sichuanese

Fuchsia Dunlop may be an Englishwoman but her culinary deftness definitely has a very Chinese flavour. Fuchsia Dunlop is the Sichuanese Queen of Cookery. She is a fluent Mandarin speaker and spent years in Chengdu studying Sichuanese cooking at Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Her ‘Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province’ is an excellent resource for anybody interested in regional Chinese cookery. The book is mostly recipes from the Hunan region, part social and travelogue. Her unpretentious narrative about the people she meets and the region is refreshing and inspiring. She doesn’t name drop, she doesn’t mention friends in high places – the people she associates with are down-to-earth village people she has met and befriended on her journeys. Her use of ingredients is authentic and never overdone or so oversimplified that the cuisine loses its appeal. Her taste is refined and suited to the Chinese palate. We can expect to find recipes for dishes we won’t normally find in a Sichuanese restaurant – these recipes come straight from her travels and from the families she’s stayed with. Expect to find dishes like sitr-fried bitter melon with chinese chives, lily flower, cloud ear and sliced pork soup, mung bean and rice porridge. Dunlop understands the balance of sweet, sour, savoury and spicy in her recipes – the recipes reflect the sophistication and diversity of the food in the Hunan region. If you’d like a recipe for Chairman Mao’s favourite dish – red-braised pork, it’s even in here. For those new to China and its varied regional cuisines – this is a wonderful introduction to the region; Dunlop demonstrates how to marry different elements of flavour, balancing the characteristic Sichuanese peppercorn chilli-hit with other subtle taste dimensions as well. One gets the feeling that she is sensitive and respectful to the people featured in the book and it shows in her rich narrative and cooking.

Bartender! There's an egg in my cocktail!

Imagine you take a sip of water from a glass. The last thing you would expect is the water glass to smell like egg. One of my pet hates is drinking from glasses that smell like raw egg. Cafes that wash up glasses with egg-sullied plates should really try drinking from their glasses – it’s not a pleasant experience. I’ve always been a little strange with eggs. I don’t mind them cooked – properly but as soon as I get a whiff of raw egg yolk – my gag reflexes activate and there’s nothing worse or glamourous about gagging over an innocent glass of water. As a child I was forced to have super soft-boiled eggs for breakfast – I can even see them now – and smell them. I used to pour soy sauce and shake white pepper all over them to make them taste better. Usually post-breakfast would consist of me stopping myself from throwing up on the school bus. Most children, and some adults I know look forward to licking remainder cake mix from the mixing bowl. I personally can’t think of anything worse. But I will happily slather mayonnaise on my sandwich! Continuing with my exploration of Esquire’s Handbook of Hosts, I was very interested in reading what cocktails the 1940s/50s set drank. It was a surprise to find in total, 25 cocktails that have an egg yolk or white incorporated into the recipe. If you, like James Bond, like your martini shaken to a blurry, alcoholic mess; and not stirred, I’ve chosen some standout egg-infused drinks for you to make, or avoid. These, I think take the eggy-smelling water glasses to a new high.

Prairie Chicken
1 pony* of gin
1 egg n claret glass
pepper and salt
Cover top with gin and serve

My Sin Cocktail
1 oz. absinthe
1 oz. anisette
1 drop bitters
white of egg
Plenty of ice, shake well and strain

Lil Naue
1/3 cognac
1/3 port wine
1/3 apricot brandy
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lemon peel
yolk of egg
Shake well with cracked ice and serve with cinnamon on top

Pousse L’Amour
1/3 Maraschino
drop in 1 yolk of egg
1/3 crème vanilla
1/3 brandy
Egg yolk must not run into the liqueur.

1 pony = 1 oz.

Here are more eggy cocktail recipes should you crack a craving for them.


Another stab at this thing called blogging

Well, after my last server permanently deleted my blog because they thought my site was spam, and after a long hiatus, and several false starts, I've decided to give this thing called blogging another go. I mustn't have the heart of a blogger really, a feeling of self-consciousness washes over me when I try to take pictures of my meal in public. Blogging about eating out is very possibly out of the question, besides there are so many good foodies blogging about their food adventures, supplemented by gorgeous pictures and shots of stunning food. Food photographer I am not. I also cannot bake successfully, my tendency to alter recipes is disastrous in the arena of baking, though sometimes, surprises do come out of haphazard experimentation. I don't use recipes, I don't cook a hell of a lot. I mainly cook from memory and mood, I also happen to like the challenge of making whatever is in the cupboard/fridge. Okay, so what does that leave me to blog about? Well, I do like reading food books and leafing through beautiful cookbooks. We'll see, the blog will evolve hopefully, in its various guises and rhythms. If you stick around, I hope this will be a good distraction. I'll post up some of my old entries to get this baby boiling!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Esquire's Handbook for Hosts

I recently stumbled upon a 1949 edition of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts in an op shop. It was a rare find, I could hardly contain my excitement – I couldn’t believe my luck when the volunteer asked for $1 for the book. I did a little private jig inside, paid my $1 and set off my merry way. It’s been such an interesting read, dipping in and out of this book that I thought I’d share some bits and pieces from the book.

The chapter on kitchen equipment that a man-host needed made me take notice. We are talking late 1940s here – I was expecting the list to read something like this: wooden spoon, big frypan, saucepan, potato masher, carving knife, bread and butter knives and a wooden chopping block. Here are necessities Esquire recommended that a ‘man’s kitchenette should contain’:

A kettle, a set aluminium saucepans preferably with long handles, a frying pan, a roasting pan, a double boiler, at least one earthenware casserole, a wire sieve, a wire salad basket, an egg beater, mixing bowls, three kitchen knives, a small wooden chopping board, a vegetable brush, a wooden spoon and fork, a spatula, a long fork, a grater, a funnel, a pepper mill, a pair of scissors, an aluminium measure, a basting spoon, a coffeepot, a teapot and a wooden salad bowl…a pressure cooker is helpful for vegetables, onion-chopper to wire whisks, a good can opener, a good toaster, a waffle iron and a good coffee-maker that does it work at the table make a good kick-off.

Special equipment included: skewers for shish kabab, alcohol-flame chafing dish for almost anything dressy. Deep-fry kettle and basket, rolling pin, pastry board, baking pans, special molds for baba au rum or the like; small, shallow frying pans for crepes Suzette, an omelette pan.

I don’t even have half of these items in my own kitchen and I live in the twenty first century! What an eye-opening list of must-need items. Perhaps the sophisticated post-war man was a lot more capable than we first imagined. It certainly blows away my stereotypical image of the 1950s man coming home to his wife who waited hand and foot with slippers ready, pipe and tobacco primed, with dinner warming in the oven. Perhaps this was what bachelors had – not married men. Married men didn’t have to worry about their own meals, of course, their wives did all the chopping, dicing, baking and roasting. It was the single man who needed to deck out his little kitchenette for he was out to impress with his cooking skills and cocktail-making abilities to woo the single woman.

For table ware, it was even more interesting and actually, surprisingly quite strict – modern china and linens with simple and striking designs (preferably devoid of pink rosebuds) , with streamlined silverware were recommended. Esquire recommended tablecloth or runners in solid colours with contrasting borders, or resplendent with your monogram in big, bold letters. ‘Peasant designs’ apparently allowed for a lot of latitude. A man may have used gay Czechoslovakian linen cloths in raucous plaids or checks. ‘Your china may be Mexican pottery, Californian pottery in vivid sun-drenched colors or French Provencal or Italian pottery’. The modern 40s man may have even allowed himself such whimsies:- wooden-handled cutlery or salad forks with bright painted handles. I wonder if a single woman who had dinner cooked and laid out for her on dainty pink rose plates sitting on gaudy table runners who have thought her date a little fruity – would she have run away a mile?
As for your pantry shelves in your bachelor pad – these were Esquire’s emergency stock: butter, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, onions, oil, vinegar, baking powder, gelatin, Parmesan cheese, coffee and tea, cocoa, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy sauce, Hungarian paprika, curry powder, capers, bay leaf, garlic cloves, vanilla, caraway seeds, raisins, rice, macaroni, black peppercorn, nutmeg, prunes, brown sugar and arrowroot.

These I thought were pretty solid ingredients to have in any pantry – the prunes and arrowroot perhaps a little old-fashioned but nevertheless, caraway seeds, garlic cloves, Hungarian paprika and capers are all very exotic and impressive. I would have been impressed if a man opened his cupboard and had all those ingredients on his shelf!

And if he serves you tongue tidbits* as a starter on plain white china – you know you’re in for a real saucy night!

* Tongue tidbits, by the way if you’re interested in making for a truly authentic 1940s canapé goes something like this (a la Esquire):

Spread English mustard, red pepper and olive oil on sliced tongue. Then pack the slices together and put the whole business in the icebox until the mixture soaks into the meat. When ready to serve, pull the slices of tongue apart and fry in butter. Serve hot, with thin slices of bread.

(Recipe can be found on p. 23)

Crazy for noodles

Those of you addicted to noodles will know that there are several things in life that really satisfy – and noodles is one of life’s little satisfactions. For some, it’s chicken noodle soup – home-made, not the canned variety, mind you. To me, few things comfort like a bowl of nutritious Vietnamese pho. A plate of smoky Malaysian char koay teow can also tip me over the edge into nostalgia and feeling like I’m home. Nothing beats a good robust laksa either. Imagine my delight when I chanced upon Terry Durack’s book, Noodle, at the library.

It may be an oldie but it’s definitely a goodie. Despite the curious, overblown font size throughout the book – the photographs by Geoffrey Lung are beautiful. The book is broken up into useful sections: First section ‘noodle i-d’ helps readers identify the type of noodles available. Durack describes the general mouthfeel of the noodle, where they’re commonly used, what names they disguise themselves in different countries (very useful), how they’re sold and packaged and lastly how to cook them. The other half of the book is recipes. Noodle recipes are broken up into countries, covering China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, India, etc. There are traditional recipes i.e. wonton soup with fresh egg noodles, pad thai, and some glammed up, modernised noodle twists like bang bang chicken noodles, cross the bridge noodles. The recipes are easy to follow, earthy, not pretentious and very multicultural. The book is interspersed with quirky little narratives about the act of noodle-making, the history behind famous dishes, and the magic of longevity noodles. The book ends with Durack instructing on ‘basics’ like tempura batter, laksa paste, Sichuan chilli oils, and homemade udon and egg noodles. Noodle makes a good reference book as well – something definitely to have on your cookbook shelf.

All snooty dining and haute cuisine aside, “Terry Durack tosses truffles and caviar to one side to declare his obsession with the world’s most nutritious and nurturing food: the proud, brave, democratic people’s noodle. ‘I’m over the rare, the exotic, the extravagant,’ he claims. ‘Noodles are the future’”. So you heard the man, find your nearest pho restaurant or ramen shop and slurp those slippery things with abandon.

The world according to Ferran Adria

A Day at elBulli: an insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria is one of those intimidating tomes you don’t want to carry around for too long in your bag. The damn thing feels like it weighs about 10kgs! The folks at Phaidon have gone all out in producing a spectacular and aesthetically interesting book on the culinary maestro. The book is broken up into a kind of a diarised-day-in-the-life of elBulli, down to five minute intervals in the day. The day starts at 6:05am and finishes at 2am. A Day at elBulli charts Adria’s creative processes and development stages of his dishes. The book is visually appealing and kept interesting with the interspersion of smaller inserts of text and photography. Staff are even named and photographed. It even goes as far as describing Adria’s criteria for choosing his produce and the provenance of produce. Foodies who want to know how a successful restaurant runs its reservations systems will be fascinated to discover that elBulli receives 2 million requests each year; and only 8000 places are ever released. The reservations manager explains how a complicated preferential system for new and old customers, considerations for diners who will travel around the world to eat at this gastronomic temple. Having said that there is no prejudice against local Spanish diners either, a percentage of places is set aside for the locals who want to dine at the temple. Just reading about the amount of emails and phone calls they receive about reservations boggles the mind.

The photographs of Adria, his brother, Albert and their staff in the kitchen and dining rooms feel authentic and impromptu. A lot of the shots look untouched and everybody looks natural, like no camera was present. Foodies with a penchant for food porn will no less find this, extremely pleasurable! Come closer for intimate shots of the making of pistachio freeze-dried foam, ogle at the caramelisation method of encasing pumpkin seed oil in an edible caramel vessel. The shots are amazing and the experimental techniques used in this high-tech kitchen are even more amazing. There are even shots of several of the lucky 8000 guests who have managed to score a place. Extremely happy people embarking on a culinary once-in-a-lifetime adventure for the night – lucky bastards! For those who have a kitchen laboratory at home and a liquid nitro tank on hand, there are recipes to be read very thoroughly and made. For those of us who don’t have access to a kitchen laboratory, or 200 pounds to spare, or incredibly lucky to score a reservation – this is probably the next best thing to being there. A Day at elBulli is 527 pages of pure indulgence and a good insight into what makes Ferran Adria tick.