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!