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!