29 September 2008

Pick Mee. Hokkien Mee.

Dear Diary
, it is day five of our holiday and Stickyfingers is still dropping food into her cleavage.

Mr Stickyfingers' Malaysian Holiday Diary, May 08

Hawker food. It excites me. Towards my middle age, sex is sadly becoming a distant dream, but the thought of hunkering down beside a cart to eat a simply prepared dish - that's native to an Asian culture - makes me positively rapturous.

Prolonged rhapsodising causes dribbling. Waiting for my order starts me trembling. And then on its arrival I bend
in low over my dish, cup, bowl, plastic bag or paper and inhale deeply and rhythmically.

The first attempts to eat or drink are ham-fisted efforts just to get the comestible to my mouth. You see I tremble quite violently with excitement.

Quivering in my anticipation I botch any attempt at hand-mouth co-ordination. Plop! Food and drink hit my ample bosom, to grace me with yet another stain with which to match the faded one that I may have garnered earlier. In May I was so bad, I began to wonder if I should ask Mr Stickfingers to feed me my initial intake, before handing over the item as though to a small child?

Malaysian Hawker Food is definately at the top of my hawker food experiences. The range is enormous, never ending, and somehow the locals manage to graze all day on it without gaining weight. I want their metabolisms and bottomless pits of bellies, their ability to eat palm oil fried everything and coconut flavoured foods without having cholesterol issues and I want a gut and mouth that can withstand a lick of Hades infused chilli.

In Malaysia we eschewed restaurants in favour of hawker food. The lure of restaurants paled into insignificance beside dishes we could never eat back home. In fact, eating in restaurants felt oddly ostentatious there and removed from local culture. So to food courts and hawker centres we went.

Dripping with sweat by roadsides we slurped slippery noodles while hunkered on low plastic stools. We ate samosas at a cart outside a wet market, Kerupok from a cart on a beach, hot biscuits from the back of van parked outside a hotel, chestnuts from the back of a bike and heavenly barbecued chicken in an abandoned carpark late at night. Smoke billowing down a street led us to the best satay EVER and to Onion Roti Paratha, a firey Nonya fish made with sting ray and to claypot sausage rice.

In Penang our appropriately named new friend, Chew Fa Ming, led us through a merry dance of delectable hawker treats, and frankly why wouldn't you? He seemed to know so many of the hawkers personally, selecting wonderful dishes for us,
and introducing us to fruit we had not seen before in our travels. What a Godsend! We were in heaven. Days later we were tramping around the back streets for wonderful Hainan Chicken Rice, Char Kway Teow, Mee Goreng, Dosai, Banana Naan, various Kuih and Murtabak.

Back at home I also cook Malaysian
food. You've seen my Satay, Rendang, Char kway Kak and Mee Goreng recipes, and although delicious, they will never match the flavour of charcoal cooked food or the taste of the char of a well seasoned wok, searing over jet blastingly ferocious heat.

One of the reasons I love to cook hawker dishes is that it is quicker to pull together than many Western foods on a work night and because it is quick and intense, it can be quite healthy if you avoid their chosen fats palm oil and lard. Naturally the flavour suffers a little without the appropriate fats, but I do try to be healthy at home. Thankfully in Australia most of the produce is locally grown too, and it's easy to get Asian groceries in the urban sprawl.

And then, there are the great leftovers. Here's my lunch - leftover Hokkien Mee. Basically the same ingredients as Mee Goreng, but substituting a dark soy based sauce for the potato and tomato curry sauce.

I love it when I open up a take away container of hawker noodles at an office and sniffing with enthusiasm, colleagues ask me where I bought my lunch? Once, a vegetarian was so enticed, as to prevail upon me for a taste of my Char Kway Teow, and loved it. But then gutted, acted as though I'd poisoned him when he found out it contained meat. He didn't tell me he was a vegetarian and you could plainly see it contained meat.
Go figure?

In the not too distant future I will again be packing the baby wipes to remove stains from t.shirts worn while eating more hawker food. This time we will be heading back to Vietnam and Thailand, with a side trip to Laos for a spot of Flashpacking. That's moderately more comfortable backpacking for old farts who love an adventure on a budget.

Mr Stickyfingers will most probably spend his birthday basking on a white sandy beach eating food on a stick,
cooked on a portable brazier
by a hawker. Can't wait.

Hokkien Mee

/1 packet fresh Hokkien noodles
1 tablespoon oil
1 large clove garlic,
150g sliced chicken breast
150g fresh prawns, peeled & deveined
150g squid, cut into bite sized pieces and scored

2 cups sliced bok choy or mustard greens
1 cup bean shoots
Sambal Oelek or Sriracha (chilli sauce)

fried tofu, sliced
Cha Sui cubes (BBQ Pork)
Chinese Sausage slices (roasted or wind dried)
Oriental Fish Cake, sliced

Garlic shoots, chopped into 15mm lengths

2 & half tablespoons black soy sauce or Ketchup Manis
tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Oyster sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons cornflour
1 cup water

Serve with lime, extra chilli and Sambal Belanchan

Mix all sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Warm oil in a hot pan/wok and brown the chicken, add garlic, squid and prawns. Fry until golden, also aiming to char them a little. Add any of the optional items and heat through.

Throw in the noodles and fry until warmed through.

Heat the sauce briefly in the microwave until just warm, then stir into the noodles, distributing evenly.

Throw in the greens and bean shoots and add a couple of teaspoons of water if the sauce has been totally absorbed by the noodles. Cook until the vegetables are softened and bright green. Extra Ketchup Manis may be added to taste at this point, along with the chilli sauce or extra pepper. Sichuan pepper is excellent in this dish if you have it.

Serve garnished with coriander, lime and fried shallots. Place a bowl of Sambal Belanchan and chilli alongside the dish for extra seasoning.

21 September 2008

Bully Beef: David Vs Goliath

STEPHEN LONG: In Australia, in the food business, two retail giants dominate the supply chain. It's among the highest concentrations of retail power in the developed world.

Last month the competition watchdog delivered its report on grocery prices. It says the market is working.

GRAEME SAMUEL, ACCC CHAIRMAN: We characterise it as workably competitive.

STEPHEN LONG: But there's another story that hasn't been told. It's about buyers, sellers and power and how Coles and Woolworths are squeezing more and more concessions from suppliers.

DAVID KERR, REDLICH SMALLGOODS: It's extremely hard for a small supplier to do business with Coles or Woolworths. It's just almost impossible.

STEPHEN LONG: Is it driving efficiency or threatening the food bowl?

REG CLAIRS, WOOLWORTHS CEO 1993-98: I am immensely worried about the ultimate destiny of a lot of food manufacturers in this country.

EMILIO GOTTANI, GROWER: We're just a dying breed. Our use-by date's gone, you know. We're just finished.

STEPHEN LONG: Tonight, "Four Corners" shines a light on the retail duopoly and asks: What's the price we pay?

Australia is awash with supermarkets - more supermarkets per capita than America, nearly three times as many as Britain, and Coles and Woolworths own most of them. Together they control at least 70 per cent of the dry groceries; 60 per cent of the dairy market; and about half the fresh food.

GEOFF CUTLER, RETAIL CONSULTANT: I think it is generally agreed that this is the most severe concentration of power in the world.

STEPHEN LONG: It's not just supermarkets. The two retail giants touch us when we eat, when we drink and when we drive. They've got close to half the retail liquor market; more than 1100 petrol stations, hardware, variety stores, pubs and pokies.

Coles used to be the biggest. Now it's Woolworths.


THE PRICE WE PAY. View it...

By Stephen Long, broadcast 1st September 2008
'Four Corners' program, Australian Broadcasting Commission

One Monday night in front of the telly...

Mr Stickyfingers: "From now on, let's stop shopping at Coles, Woolworths and their subsiduaries."

Me: "You're on." I said. How hard could it be?

"We barely buy anything there anyway."

And that's how it happened.

When the ABC 's Four Corners aired The Price We Pay by Stephen Long, a piece on the relationship between the two major Australian supermarket groups and small local producers, we were gutted by what we saw. It added to our friend's experiences and my own enquiries, showing that local producers were being sent to the wall by supermarkets and their offshoots in the liquor industry. It confirmed why more manufacturing is going to China instead and in its wake, our people are losing their jobs

"...Coles and Woolworth’s sell 70 per cent of the dry groceries and half the fresh food that Australians consume – among the highest concentrations of market power in the developed world.

Last month the competition watchdog the ACCC officially ticked this arrangement, insisting the market is working.

But the growth in supermarket muscle has come at a cost to many suppliers and small retailers. "Crippling" is how one industry analyst terms Coles’ and Woolies’ power over food producers; the regulator calls it "simply tough dealing".

"It’s just eating my farm away, we’re just finished," says a despairing pumpkin grower whose produce retails for as much as 10 times the price he gets for it. He scoffs at the ACCC’s view that the gap between farm gate prices and the checkout isn’t growing.

Don’t like pumpkin? How about an ice-cream story to illustrate supermarkets’ throat-hold? Four Corners meets an ice-cream maker who buys a lot of milk – and bizarrely he gets it cheaper from his local supermarket than from the wholesale processor. Why? Because the wholesaler has to accept ultra low prices from the supermarket - and compensates by inflating his price to smaller buyers, says the ice-cream man.

Or try sausage. One sausage-maker explains the choice he made when the supermarket told him he had to cut his supply price or get kicked off the shelf: "The only way we would do that was by using lesser quality meat product... and adding soy proteins and what some people might call 'fillings' to extend the product." He then volunteers to Four Corners that he wouldn’t even eat the product himself.

Suppliers can reel off a list of punishing "rebates" – fees - that they must pay supermarkets for product promotions, to get paid on time, or just for the privilege and opportunity of supplying goods. But few are bold enough to do so publicly.

Like suppliers to the big supermarkets, minnow retailers are fed up – but more outspoken. Small liquor merchants can get some beer and wine cheaper from supermarket-owned retail grog barns than they can from wholesalers. Some refuse to see this as competition: "In the 36 years I’ve been in our two shops I’ve had 12 armed hold-ups, 11 with a gun and one with a machete, and the biggest predator we face is this company here."

While Coles’ and Woolies’ market clout can translate into cheap prices for consumers, there are fears it may threaten the survival of Australia’s food industry. As reporter Stephen Long reveals, these concerns are held by eminent people at the very top of the food chain."

I had presumed in my indignation that by the following day, everyone would have been abuzz with these revelations. When everyone heard that Aussie Battlers were being forced to sell to the two supermarket majors at prices that didn't cover costs, and in turn having to pass on inflated prices to family run grocery or liquor businesses and farm gate shoppers, we would all be outraged.

I thought that consumers would be livid about finding out they were being cheated. After all, when you heard that Coles and Woolworths had vastly increased their profit margins on certain lines by arrogantly selling an inferior item that looked the same, cost the same but was actually a cheaper, no frills version of you were used to, you'd feel cheated - wouldn't you?

Surely when everyone heard that people were losing their farms, small factories, jobs at companies like SPC, Arnotts & Don Smallgoods, their shops - their livelihoods - to the stranglehold of two mega corporations, that also controlled Hardware, liquor, electronics, petrol sales, pubs and pokies, we would do something to put a stop to the rot .... right?

But I was wrong. So wrong. The whole thing seemed to be quietly swept under the rug like a dead spider when the 'relies' drop in for a cuppa.

And then the penny dropped. My day-job brain kicked in.

TV, Radio and Newspapers rely on income generated from placing advertising to survive. According to the Advertising Federation of Australia, last year $13.2billion dollars was spent in Australia on advertising. Without which, the media has less money to spend on content with which to entertain you. And with $2.3billion spent by advertisers on metropolitan papers alone, media companies are loathe to jeopardise their revenue by pissing off the companies who place thousands of ads.

So it's no wonder the public are now claiming to go to the internet for the truth, citing Bloggers as more truthful than the mainstream media because they're not treading on eggshells to protect the hand that feeds them. In fact, nothing feeds a Blogger but passion and the freedom to express themselves.

For three consecutive years Coles Myer was, according to Nielsen Media Research, Australia's top Advertiser with an estimated spend of $190million. Since the Myer business was sold off and Wesfarmers took over, the group has dropped down to third place behind the Australian Government and Telstra, but the spend, without the department store is still around $175million. By March next year the figures will show an increase in spend when Bunnings is bundled into the mix.

Last year Woolworths spent $115 million dollars advertising their Supermarkets plus Tandy, Foodland, Big W and Dick Smith. But those figures didn't include their spend on hardware interests, Food For Less, Flemings, Thomas Dux, AHG pubs and Pokies, Dan Murphy & BWS Liquor.

Bottom line: The big supermarkets are spending enough money in the media to be influencing what we hear about them.

So it was left to good old Aunty to spill the beans. But I doubt there was a journo in the mainstream media who was commissioned to follow it up with another juicy piece, exposing the underbelly of the major advertisers. There was probably no Editor who would have dared to sanction an irate opinion piece on the subject either. The ABC were even quite low key about it, and unless you were a regular viewer of Four Corners, this particular show may have flown under the radar.

That sucks. But as usual I am going forward in the only way I feel I can. The way to effect change is not to whinge and bitch while sitting on the fence, but to live it. So our household is boycotting any business owned by the big two chains.

This is particularly poignant for me as I have turned down work with one of those groups, so am definitely biting the hand that feeds. On SOLE Mama you can read about how Mr S and I are getting around relying on Coles, Safeway and their subsiduaries. It's actually quite easy, you just have to be bothered to do it.

Going to Coles or Safeway was the lazy route for me, so like any bad habit I want to rid my self of, I made the effort to change. I chose to shop at the independents instead. The topic's also up for discussion at the SOLE Mama Forum, where you'll find a list of Woolworth's and Coles companies' offshoots.

For various reasons, the supermarkets are already seeing a shift in public attitudes regarding them, and the most effective way to continue to ensure that they notice public displeasure, is with a noticeable decrease in consumer spend. In the next eighteen months they will both be ramping up their presence online with multi million dollars allocated to the process to boost their already flagging image in the public eye.

My suggestion to you is to support the Aussie battler and show the supermarkets that you won't complacently support their bullying tactics. What's more important? The wealth of a few at the expense of our children's future, or a fair go for all in the lucky country? Thankfully, we still do have a choice, for now.

View 'The Price We Pay' free, at The ABC's Video on Demand.

Dial up and broadband versions available.