31 January 2008

The TasteSpotting Stalker

When she mixes her state of Florida psychotropic drugs
(mandated after her SECOND suicide attempt) with alcohol she goes onto numerous blogs and posts non-sensical ramblings such as the one above, using a Proxy Server so as to hide her IP address and to attempt to avoid further harassment lawsuits.

She claims to be a Professional Chef, a Pastry Chef, a SeriousEats advisor, and other "things".

An excerpt from a comment left by a Gastro Troll.
Reproduced from
Gastronomy Domine, December 2007

When The Grocer, Purple Goddess & I launched our new Meat Pie review blog I was allocated the task of promoting our new baby. Thinking that it was a site that would be appreciated by homesick expat Aussies I submitted a snap of the pie above and permalink, with a tie in to Australia Day on TasteSpotting.

For those unfamiliar with TasteSpotting it is a site where you can flag food blog posts you like, by inserting a piece of food porn and a permalink. The material may not be yours; the sole requirement is that you should register with them.

Now TasteSpotting can bring you a thousand hits if the viewers love your snap, but to our surprise it also delivered something more sinister.

It came in the form of a comment which set about deliberately to inflame us and other readers. It was childish, bigoted and a little twisted. It was couched as being written by a woman but to me seemed obvious it was from a man. Some derogatory responses ensued from others and I began to suspect that we had now become the focus of entertainment for a person with Multiple Personality Disorder.

We discovered that this Internet Troll had been doing the same on other blogs flagged by TasteSpotting. It was all put in perspective by a comment from ‘Elizabeth Anne’ with a link to a website that had posted an article from 2003 on a person in the Baxter Bulletin, which told of the troll's conviction for harassing several people in North Central Arkansas, USA. Elizabeth Anne also mentioned that he had appropriated the name of another Blogger, whom he had also been stalking. I suspect that the Blogger mentioned is just one of his personalities though.

I have since been researching this person and he has many pseudonyms, probably to the full range of his personalities. There are comments as Liz and Elizabeth claiming to be the wife of the stalker - that must be one of his personalities - the intro comment is an example of this. He mentions bashings and homophobia on other sites, possibly the trigger for his illness. I know that he uses search engines to see who’s talking about him, so will not mention his name or unique pseudonym’s, as this would give at least one of his personality’s great delight.

Bloggers be warned. If you post on Tastespotting, be wary. This man is targeting Food Blogs. He has visited many. It has been said that if he takes a fancy to your profile picture he will harass you by email as well. He is all over bulletin boards, chat rooms and travel forums. His Blog and Myspace page are testimony to his illness, and comically the other personalities in his head leave comments there too as readers.

If you see something fishy in your comments from a TasteSpotting reader, delete it. Don’t give him/them the time of day or satisfaction.

The Food Pornographer wound up posting the following after tiring of his harassment.

“Please read this before commenting. Due to recent events, all comments will be moderated from now on. Therefore, your comment may not appear immediately after posting. If you've left a legitimate comment I assure you I will do my best to moderate comments as quickly as possible. Any abusive or obscene comments, and comments which convey prejudicial sentiments such as those against persons of particular sexualities, races and backgrounds will be removed. Any comments which are intentionally inflammatory and specifically written against the spirit, context and culture of this site and/or its owner will be removed. In other words, trolling comments will not be tolerated. You may express your opinions courteously and disagree with something I've written, of course- I do not expect everyone to agree with my opinions 100% of the time, but I will not tolerate abuse from anyone. This also applies to any emails you may send to me. If these terms are violated I will take further action according to my discretion, which may include banning your IP and reporting you to your ISP. To the genuine readers and supporters of this site, I really appreciate your comments and support. I apologize for this rigamarole and hope you will continue to enjoy the site. Simple maths spam protection is in effect as that allows me keep spambots under control.”

26 January 2008

Aussie Icons

I Love a Sunburnt Country

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded Lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens,
Is running in your veins;
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies -
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains,
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me.

The tragic ring-barked forests
Stark white beneath the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes
Where lithe lianas coil,
An orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the crimson soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart around us
We see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold;
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand -
Though Earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown Country
My homing thoughts will fly.

Written by Dorothea MacKellar 1906

January 26, Australia Day. A time to celebrate our national pride, to BBQ, parade and eat iconic Aussie foods. A day to play beach cricket with friends or family and to reflect on how damn lucky we are to live in a country at peace.

How fortunate a country, where the standard of living is high for most and education is accessible and encouraged, unhindered by propaganda. Where women have the right to vote, to choose for themselves and to earn in their own right and to be educated.

This country where diverse crops can be grown and all manner of sustenance can be cultivated in an ecology untainted by chemical warfare. Where no one has to starve and for those who are culinary advocates, it can be a food lovers paradise...

...I could continue to wax lyrical, but you know it already. I LOVE my home country.

For those who read The Vanilla Slice Blog, I have been too snowed under to post recently, but have two new reviews to post this weekend.

For lovers of the most iconic Aussie snack, you will find that I have joined PG & The Grocer in a you beaut blog reviewing Meat Pies. Visit us here for an orgiastic exploration of gratuitous pastry and gravy devotion.

So, it's back to a hard grind at the gym for me next week, before I become a candidate for Jenny Craig, Lite & Easy and Weight Watchers, whereupon I will start the blog - 'How to lose 20kg by cutting pies and vanilla slices out of your diet'.

'Av-a-good (long) weekend A-straya!

22 January 2008

Cooking Karma aka Vegie-Gate

Cookbook Author Sues
Jessica and Jerry Seinfeld

for Copyright Infringement and Defamation

NEW YORK, Jan. 7

Attorneys for Missy Chase Lapine, author of "The Sneaky Chef," today filed a lawsuit against Jessica Seinfeld and Jerry Seinfeld for copyright and trademark infringement and defamation in Federal District Court in New York.

The lawsuit alleges that Jessica Seinfeld blatantly plagiarized Ms. Lapine's book, "The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals," a critically-acclaimed and commercially successful cookbook with an innovative approach to improving children's eating habits.

"The Sneaky Chef" shows parents how to, among other things, camouflage purees of carefully selected fruits and vegetables as ingredients in less healthy foods that kids like, such as cheeseburgers, pizza and brownies. Running Press Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, published "The Sneaky Chef" in April, 2007, generating positive reviews and quickly becoming a New York Times bestseller.

Six months later, in October, 2007, Jessica Seinfeld released a substantially similar book, "Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Getting Your Kids Eating Good Food."

Prior to the publication of "Deceptively Delicious," Ms. Lapine saw promotional material and alerted her publisher to the striking similarities between the two books, including cover art, subtitles, structure, design and overall look and feel.

Running Press, seeking to prevent any violation of Ms. Lapine's rights, brought the striking similarities to the attention of Jessica Seinfeld's publisher.

Jessica Seinfeld's publisher, which had earlier reviewed and passed up a book
proposal by Ms. Lapine, nonetheless published the book with only insignificant changes. The lawsuit lists detailed examples of identical language in the two books.

At the same time, Jerry Seinfeld went on a malicious campaign against Ms. Lapine, publicly calling her a "nut job" and "hysterical." On an appearance on 'Late Show with David Letterman' in October 2007, Mr. Seinfeld called Ms. Lapine a "wacko" who had been "waiting in the woodwork" for a chance to attack the Seinfelds. He also asserted, incorrectly, that the two books came out "at the same time." The lawsuit cites several examples of defamatory language by Mr. Seinfeld, apparently intended to intimidate Ms. Lapine.

"This action for copyright and trademark infringement and defamation arises from conduct that gives new meaning to the terms 'arrogance' and 'greed,'" states the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also points out that Ms. Lapine is the former publisher of Eating Well magazine, is on the faculty of the New School and has extensive experience in child nutrition. She also serves on the Children's Advisory Council of Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, where "The Sneaky Chef" recipesare used with pediatric patients.

The lawsuit also notes that Ms. Lapine began researching methods for getting children to eat healthier foods five years before her book came out. She conducted numerous taste tests, focus groups and interviews, consulting extensively with leading nutritionists, pediatricians and chefs.

Ms. Lapine is represented by Marc E. Kasowitz and Mark P. Ressler of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, LLP.

SOURCE Marc Kasowitz,
Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, LLP

It is proven that the power of celebrity and strong Media Public Relations can have a significant impact on the success of an idea. It is also a dead certain way in the USA to attract litigation. Jerry Seinfeld with his celebrity clout and Jessica with her PR background are now discovering this.

It seems their cook book's publicity backfired after an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey show, when as per usual Oprah was pushing all kinds of food that had been sitting under studio lights into her mouth voraciously. A number of viewers began to report the similarity between the two books, and as it turned out, Ms Lapine’s proposal had been circulating long before the Mrs Seinfeld nee Ms Sclar’s, but as it lacked the ‘Star power’ that the Seinfeld name wields, had seen some early rejections from Publishers.

Jerry Seinfeld’s attempt at damage control, or perhaps to garner further PR has resulted in a defamation suit. You can read the actual papers filed against the Seinfelds on The Smoking Gun.

Now I am not a fan of Jessica Seinfeld’s ideas or of her cookbook. I abhor both author’s concept of treating growing children like infants by feeding them pureed vegetables when they refuse to eat healthy foods. Hiding vegetables in other food? Hiding spinach in brownies and Kumara in hot chocolate? You’ve got to be kidding.

How is a child to learn about the texture in food and contrasts of taste when you pasteurise their diet to feature only what their unsophisticated palates and minds want? How do you expect a child to grow into a vegetable eating adult when they’ve never seen whole vegetables on their plate? How will that young mind react when believing that they hate vegetables, they find out that you’ve been duping them?

I think Oprah Winfrey was remiss in promoting Jessica’s book and helping to send it to the top of Amazon’s best selling list. Nutritionally, eating twice-cooked pureed food does not give much benefit in terms of fibre or dental and gastrointestinal health to a growing body.

OK, I admit I’m not a mother but I have had experience with obstreperous children and I know that you never give a child the upper hand over you. Their brains are developing, they do not know what’s good for them and as adults it is our task to teach them right from wrong.

The fun in food is in discovering new things and experimenting with colours, textures and flavours. The theatre of dining and the kitchen can be very entertaining for children and the earlier you involve them, the better equipped they will be to make healthy eating second nature.

But sadly I think there is a certain kind of parent who does not realise this, and I think that in the US especially, the demise of sitting down to a family meal at the dining table, away from TV and computers is contributing to the poor diets of children and teenagers.

By the way, neither party involved in the cat fight mentioned above is an innovator with their ‘hidden food’ books. Apparently they are predated by another author, Jane Kinderlehrer who earlier wrote Confessions of a Sneaky Organic Cook: Or, How to Make Your Family Healthy When They're Not Looking!(1972).

Get real people and get to know your kids better.
Read more at The New York Times.

21 January 2008

Indo Bento

CocoRice 1

Coconut Rice is an authentic traditional dishes from Indonesia. As a tropical country, Indonesia is fortunate with a variety of herbs and plantation. Coconut is found everywhere and the juice is used as an ingredient for many dishes, including rice. With additional secret herbs and spices, the society create a recipe for a fragrant and distinct flavour of rice called Coconut Rice. The society enjoy the Coconut Rice any time of day, from breakfast until dinner. And it is usually accompanied by chicken or meat, egg, and fried shallots.

Now you can taste the true Indonesia Coconut Rice at Coco Rice. We made our rice using traditional recipe which has been passed on for generations. The rice is made fresh everyday to ensue the perfect taste just for you.

Menu - Coco Rice, Melbourne.

At first glance after reading the above I thought WTF? But as I sat with my lunch in front of me at Coco Rice, I realised the joys of the Internet - and the ability it has to provide instant translations services - which I believe is how the above piece of Advertising copy had come about.

Had it been written by a Copywriter under my supervision I would probably have sent them to work in despatch and provided some part time literacy training, until such a time as they had mastered the local patois.

I had happened upon Coco Rice at lunchtime, enroute to my favourite Melbourne CBD precinct, emanating from Flinders Lane into Manchester Lane, Degraves Street and Centre Place.

In this buzzing hub, I once had an office - where Journal Canteen now is - and some very dear friends live next door in Bible House. This intersection of laneways has been cultivating some very talented individuals and their businesses over the last ten years. It is a Mecca for the non-franchised, anti-establishment kind of commercial enterprise.

In these lanes are tiny little businesses. Like a pocket full of scuffed, brightly coloured old miniature toys they sit cheek by jowl, nestled in impossible spaces. Making use of the lanes and discarded furniture for seating, the miniscule eateries hug shops full of eclectic and eccentric attire, arty acquisitions, not to mention a frumpy shop stuffed to the gills with everything you could ever need for baking.

On the walls of one lane is spectacular Stencil Art and Grafitti. In another pocket is a regularly changing exhibition of backlit works of art. This is my world. This is how I refresh my mind in town. This is where Barry Humphreys launched his retrospective exhibition with a fleet of Dame Edna look-alikes waving Gladioli.

This slice of Melbourne’s underbelly is what characterises my hometown. For me, it is what sets our city apart from other state capitals. It reflects a strong force in the community who have the wherewithal to optimistically make something from nothing, and to make it in a creative and quirky way that stimulates the passing trade. However, if there wasn’t a slice of Melbourne society with an artistic bent, who seek to rail against the beigeness of ‘keeping up with the Jones’ in the antisocial and sprawling ‘Mc Mansion’ suburbia, it would never have survived to now be enjoyed by tourists, whether foreign, domestic or local.

This is also what once drew me to Acland Street, St.Kilda as a teenager. Sadly the personality that comes with this kind of enterprise has now been driven out by cashed up franchised businesses. The spirit of that precinct has been cannibalised by the kind of shops that service the masses, businesses that have deluded themselves that the cachet of the area will rub off on them on moving in. Heaven forbid that this should ever happen to my downtown paradise.

But back on the subject of food, this area is like striking a vein of gold in an old mine. Melbourne has great fine dining, casual dining and even grazing venues, but here you will find the quick and the cheap eats in abundance. There is great coffee, pastry, snacks and breakfast to be had, and there is the quick lunch.

Coco Rice is set up for the quick meal, in a small, narrow space in Manchester Lane. It is one of the new shops in a spot alongside a space that once housed an x-rated cinema, but now sits mercurially alongside a jazz club, jewellers and merchants of street wear.

I love a single-minded idea and the concept behind this business is simple. They combine Indonesian Curry and rice with the Japanese notion of the Bento Box selection of rice and small savoury dishes, served with a miniscule finisher of something sweet, often fruit. The food here is presented in a plastic bento container that can be topped with a lid for a takeaway or tucked into a purpose made wooden tray for in-house munching.

The space is modern, clean and efficient. The galley kitchen sits on an upper level at the back. I was their first customer of the day. A diminutive Asian girl was playing solitaire on the screen where orders are taken - at their open frontage.

The tables alongside her looked like old trolleys. Their spindly legs are supported by small castors, which run along a track inset in the blonde wood flooring. Their glass tops are underlaid with copies of the menu and a light box also show cases the offerings outside.

The menu consists of eight ‘packages’ and one daily special. The first three items are simple, non spicy - chicken, beef, fish – options, accompanied by a mound of Coconut Rice piled with shredded omelette, then in other sections of the container sit a little sambal, pickle or cucumber and their ‘homemade chips’ which appear to be spicy crisps.

The remaining five items offer a range of Asian dining favourites. They do not come with omelette and crisps, but are far more interesting on the whole. You have the option to have steamed rice or coconut. There is a Sino-Indo Fusion, a Jap-Indo Fusion, a Javanese combo and an Indo beef curry.

I went with the Beef Rendang, which was a perfect dry style curry common to Malaysia and Indonesia. My nostrils flared when greeted with the scent of coconut, galangal and lemongrass. Chilli can be dialled up or down to order, and as someone who loves spice, I found the medium version quite fiery enough to have me reaching for a Kleenex to mop my runny nose.

The Coconut Rice was piled high and unlike many others offered around town was not excessively gluey, but perfectly cooked and subtly flavoured. With it came some pickles, cucumber and fruit. Priced at $9.50, the menu may have read like Asian flier, but it wasn’t as cheap as sitting on a plastic stool by a Hawker’s cart somewhere in South East Asia. It was tasty and good value for Melbourne though. As I made my way across to Flinders lane I felt light with pleasure, my lips stinging from the chilli.

Coco Rice, 10 Manchester Lane, Melbourne, Victoria.
ph. 9654 0090. Mon - Sat: 11am - 8pm

13 January 2008

You Tarzan. Mee Goreng.

A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah
Ronald Reagan 1911-2004, 40th US President 1981- 89

Tarzan: [inside the smoke-filled Club Moonbeam in New York]
Smell like a Swahili swamp. Why people stay?

Jane: It's what they call having a good time.
Tarzan's New York Adventure, 1942

1981. I was feeling a little lost in the world as my emotions spun around family dilemmas and the necessity of swallowing my feelings in order for the world to seem brighter. I reconciled myself to the pretence that on the surface of things, all would appear normal and undisturbed. Lost in thought I sat at a Laminex table in the midst of the clatter and bustle of Penang Coffee House in Hawthorn. The smells were peculiar to me and the people in the room noisy and exuberant.

Danny Ko tossed his woks with vigour - and no fear of getting tennis elbow - while sternly surveying the dining room, lit brightly and highlighted by the glow of neons. If a patron stayed too long after eating, Danny would glower at them until they jumped up to pay the bill. The table would be turned immediately to people waiting patiently outside on the street.

It was here, in the care of my Uncle Alan - a Hong Kong Chinese - and his
Singaporean wife Kitty, that I ate my first Mee Goreng. It was a complex seduction that has had me search time and time again for the holy grail of perfection. I now happily make a faithful version of Danny Ko's Mee Goreng and have visited him occasionally at his current venture Nudel & Wraps for a soul defining fix.

This is a dish of multiple textures and contrasting flavours.
A thick spicy tomato sauce clings to thick chewy noodles. Within the mix are pieces of fried egg, and a slurry of chewy ingredients highlighted with lime and finished with a crisp chiffonade of iceberg lettuce, garnished with coriander and fried shallots. The flavours are rich and tangy, your nostrils will tingle with the smell.

Mee Goreng in my opinion is the dish which most epitomises the Malaysian cultural fusion of races. It is a dish commonly served there by street hawkers from glass fronted carts. Although the fundamental flavour is always the same, the ingredients vary depending on the location and religious mores of the diner. Mee Goreng is a spicy Nonya dish and literally means fried noodle.

In Malaysia, Nonya's & BaBa's were the women and men of Peranakan families. The Peranakan were men of Chinese descent, most notably Fukien from Fujian who came to Malaysia as Seamen, Merchants and Labourers. They married local Malay ladies and immersed themselves in local life. Nonya food fuses the two cultures in a most delicious way.

Mee Goreng takes that heritage and folds in the other major cultural influence in Malaysia - Indian. The spice mix that defines this dish is pure Indian masala. The noodles are Chinese Hokkien style - thick, round egg noodles which soak up the sauce - also Chinese are the bean shoots and sliced fried beancurd (tofu). The spice mix, lime, tomato, potato and chilli reflect the trade routes of the Merchants who settled in Malaysia.

In parts of Malaysia Mee Goreng is served Halal as per the Muslim Indian tradition, where no pork is included, but for me, the best tasting ones always seem to contain lumps of deep fried pork fat and fried Lup Cheong (Chinese Wind Dried Sausage). Cooking in lard makes a difference too.

Fujian cooking incorporates seafood, so into the mix goes squid and prawns. Also native to Fujian cookery is a slight sweet and sour flavour, but not to the effect of the Thai or Cantonese clear sweet pineapple or palm and rock sugar based sauces, this is more of a tang and a sizzle.
Into the mix there can also go chicken and some people like to add Cha Sui (Chinese BBQ'd shoulder pork).

You start with the Masala, mixing a paste of chilli, a little tamarind and Indian garam (spice blend) in the wok at high heat, sometimes I add a touch of Belanchan too. Then comes the chicken, sausage and seafood. Then the bean shoots and the noodles. At this point some people add ketchup manis (Kecap Manis) and tomato sauce (Ketchup), I don't, but I throw in the tofu and sometimes, cooked cubes of potato.

Eggs are beaten, then you push the other ingredients in the wok to one side and briefly cook the eggs on their own before stirring through. Then I toss in coarsely chopped tomato and cook the whole lot down with little water. If it's not spicy enough I may add a glug of the lurid red ABC brand tomato chilli sauce that is popular in Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

You then plate it up. I top with coriander and
crisp deep fried shallots, but put the lettuce and extra lime wedges to one side so that they can be added at the diner's discretion. The pieces of lime are squeezed over the dish to enliven the flavour and heighten the tanginess. Then I pretend I'm Danny and yell at my guests - not!

It's something I just can't get enough of, and has got easier because if you can't be fussed making the spice mix - or haven't the room to store all those spices - Asian Home Gourmet makes an excellent blend in a sachet for the cheat's version that'll evoke the smell of the street on a hot night in Gurney Drive, Penang; tropical dining heaven.

With a waft of the dish I can hear my Uncle Alan's voice again, breaking my reverie, shouting above the raucous restaurant patrons "Me Tarzan, you Goreng" and my own voice responding "You Tarzan. Mee Goreng!".

Nudel & Wraps, 264 Blackburn Rd, Syndal, Victoria (no bookings)

Penang Coffee House, 395 Burwood Rd, Hawthorn, Victoria,
ph. +613 9819 2092

05 January 2008

Too hot to cook

As I looked across the river the sweat dribbled down the back of my neck. My face was red and blotchy with discomfort, my fingers swollen. Local women were dressed in long sleeves and trousers, socks, gloves and face masks under conical hats to prevent tanning. I felt hotter just looking at them.

The cold local draught beer offered temporary respite from the 80% humidity, 38degree C heat. While we waited for our White Rose dumplings and banana leaf grilled fish, I felt lucky. At least I was I was here, finally in Vietnam, the resting place of two of my great grandparents.

Last year in Hong Kong my paternal grandmother died aged 90. She had been born in China before the revolution and grew up in Vietnam, again before the revolution. As a teenager, after her mother died and her father remarried she was sent to live with her Aunts in Hong Kong in order to find a husband. She was one of the few lucky ones who escaped the deprivation, re-education and the horrors witnessed by family in both countries.

I was very close to my grandmother. She raised me as a baby - and later intermittently - as a child, in an intimate way that she had not had the chance to experience with her own children.

An elegant woman with a strong sense of style, manners and etiquette, she had a stare that could stop you dead in your tracks. The stories she told of her life were lush and exciting stories of a privilege in a wealthy Hong Kong Chinese family, under the care of the family patriach, my paternal Great Grandfather's older brother. Here they lived in a family community where her father in law, his wife and eight concubines, and the huge extended family resided on an enormous property and compound - with a swimming pool so large they used a row boat to get across it.

It was a life of indulgence where parties lasted for days and featured performances and fireworks. Where she had tailors and jewellers come to the house to service her needs and had her own particular perfume blended. When a new outfit was completed, she would go to a photographic studio and pose for a full length portrait in the ensemble.

She had five children and three nannies were employed to care for them. The household had numerous servants across three houses, one in Tai Po and one each on Hong Kong Island and Macau. When they took the yacht out a whole retinue of staff would accompany them and set up a picnic on shore wherever they dropped anchor.

She only ever once spoke to me of Vietnam and that was to say that she lived in a traditional Chinese house with a central courtyard, in an area surrounded by ethnic Chinese, where even the servants spoke Cantonese. Consequently she never learnt to speak Vietnamese.

Although I was hungry for information about her childhood, her memories were too painful to share. She had fought so hard with her father after my great grandmother's death, that she had never spoken to him again, and simply immersed herself in a new family with a husband who doted on her, erasing her years in Vietnam. I know she regretted her stubborness and it was that which later made her afraid of death and what may come in the after-life.

My grandmother was - in spite of having cooks and maids - a very good cook in her own right and directed the servants accordingly. Outside of the family, aside from in good restaurants, the Chinese food was never quite as good.

It hadn't occurred to me until last year that this was the one link to Vietnam that manifested physically in her. My grandfather laughingly had said the difference in her cooking was that she was partial to fish sauce. Because it's used in Cantonese cooking, it did not occur to me until later that he was inferring that this was a particularly Vietnamese affectation. She also refused to eat anything that she considered ugly - such as snake - in Chinese society this was considered very eccentric.

She kindly taught my western mother, who hung out in the kitchen with aunties and my grandmother's house keeper, and who went to the stinking wet markets in Hong Kong with them, gradually taking on the language and cooking skills.

Years later, it was acknowledged by Chinese family friends that Mum, although white, was the superior cook amongst their social circle and consequently she felt confident enough to set up a Chinese Cooking school. I too soaked up the techniques and recipes unconsciously, so much so that I consider Chinese cooking almost too easy and simple to serve to friends.

I had always had a compulsion to visit Vietnam. Two months after my Grandmother died I visited for the first time and felt instantly at home. These were more my kind of people than most of the 'fast lane' Hong Kong types that I had lived and worked with.

The Vietnamese I met had the same old Chinese Buddhist values loaded with Confucian philosophy and rituals of filial piety, that have shaped my nature. Their outlook was resilient, tenacious, cheeky and optimistic like my own. Their generosity under the circumstances was overwhelming.

The food in Vietnam was delightful and very much to my palate. In the moment that I learnt the difference between Vietnamese fish sauce and the pungent dark Thai version, I began to unravel the rationale behind my grandmother's fragrant cooking.

As I ate my way around the country learning as much as I could about the history, food and culture, I visited temples to pray for she and her mother. I felt it was my duty to make peace with the ancestors on her behalf.

Gradually the all encompassing grief which had paralysed my sense of hope and direction after losing her, slipped quietly away as a new understanding emerged.
I felt like a hitherto unknown part of my psyche had hatched in Vietnam and new doors in my mind began to open. Even in death my Grandmother had found a way to broaden my horizons.

Occasionally when I was twelve, my grandmother would give me Banh Cuon for breakfast - when my Grandfather wasn't pushing thick, sweet toast with tinned meat or pate on me. Banh Cuon is similar to Cheung Fun served at Yum Cha, and although I hadn't seen it outside of the home, I had not realised that it is a Vietnamese dish until I saw it in a Vietnamese Grocery shop.

Essentially it is a steamed rice flour pancake which is rolled up with minced pork and shitake mushrooms. Alternatively a topping of reconstituted dried shrimp and pork floss can be used for a simpler dish.

In the south of Vietnam it is served with all the herbs they garnish many dishes with, but in the North where it originates, I believe the accompaniment is cucumber, bean shoots, the ubiquitous meat loaf that resembles Mortadella and Nuoc Mam sauce.

On our increasingly hot days when I can't be bothered heating up the house, I like to eat Banh Cuon in a hybrid Cantonese way with red roasted meats.

I just go down to 'Little Saigon' in Victoria Street, Richmond, where I procure Cantonese roasted meats - duck, Cha Sui (red roasted shoulder pork) and Sui Cheung (A thick, long coil of sausage made with the same red marinade). I can make all these things well, but am lazy and time poor. If I can't be bothered making the pancake I buy freshly made ones, from my favourite Vietnamese Grocer Huy Huy, which are plain and simply garnished with some ground dried shrimp.

What goes with the rolls is dependent on my mood. Sometimes I chop a
selection of whatever roast meat I fancy, lay them on the pancake and roll it up and steam them. If I'm lazy I top a u-shaped pre-made roll and nuke it briefly. Once hot I add some finely julienned young ginger, finely sliced spring onion, torn coriander and Thai basil. If I have duck in the mix I'll add shavings of cucumber and a few dots of Hoi Sin sauce and dress with warm Lao Sei mix (the dark soy based sauce that comes with the roast meat) heated with a couple of drops of Canola oil, or I'll dress it with Nuoc Cham.

The slippery texture of the rice pancake is infused around the edges with the warm dressing and is a geat vehicle the richness of the meat. The herbs offset the richness and for a bit of crunch I throw on some fried shallots. Perfect for the kind of day when the sweat is beading on the brow, served with a chilled Aloe Vera drink.

Banh Cuon
Fresh Rice Paper Pancakes

1 cup of Jasmine rice (rice flour will not work)
Pinch of salt
2 cups water
1 extra long bamboo cooking chopstick or foot long skewer

Soak the rice overnight (7+hours). Wash the rice at least three times, thoroughly draining the water each time.

Mix 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of water, plus a pinch of salt. Place in a food processor until a smooth, thin white batter forms. Rest batter for one hour. It will keep for four days maximum in this form.

In a small stock pot, place 7cm of water and then stretch a piece of white cotton or double piece of muslin over the top of the pot, securing with elastic. Bring the water to a rolling boil.

Using one ladleful of the batter
, spread across the fabric into a disc shape, using the bottom of the utensil to spread it. Cover and steam for 1 minute.

Using the extra long chopstick, insert the length of it under the pancake and gently lift it up off the fabric and place wet side up on a plate. Add meat or shrimp fillings and roll up, bend into a u shape if it's too long for your plate. (Optional) Return rolls to steam for a minute before dressing.

This is also the wrapping for the very popular rice paper rolls. If you're making a heap that you would like to fill later, cut a small tab of banana leaf and attach one to each pancake. This will make it easier to separate them down the track when you're ready to use them.

02 January 2008

Pasteis De Nata

“YOU....are barking MAD!” I said loudly to myself.

“It’s over 40 degrees centigrade outside, nearly 50 in the kitchen and here you are flouring your rolling pin and working with puff pastry of all things. It’s just wrong

Talking to yourself. A clear sign that you’re losing your marbles.

In the lounge room in front of the fan, Mr Stickyfingers – just as batty as I – was ironing. A newly acquired skill designed to kill two birds with one stone, resulting in having pressed clothes and the satisfaction of working his way through over 300 Arthouse DVDs in our collection. My beloved was cool as a cucumber and hardly broke a sweat. Onscreen was the enthrallingly balletic cinematography of The Road to Perdition.

Why do so many people always ask me to make dessert? And then why do I instantly feel I must bake? It must be from having been raised part time in the Magyar tradition by my Hungarian Aunty Susi, where to feed is to love. I can hear her say to Uncle Tomy “It’s OK, have some cake Mütze.” Or is it because Dad went to William Angliss to learn to be a Pastry Chef, just for fun?

I hate baking. I should have made Malaysian Gula Malacca. That’s idiot proof. Sago pearls in thick coconut cream with a touch of pandang essence topped with a rich swirl of dark palm sugar syrup. God I’m a dolt!”

The sweat was dripping into my eyes from my brow as I wielded the heavy wooden rolling pin. I dashed back and froward to the fridge. My red Birkenstock thongs were dusted with flour. I would take out a small, chilled cut round of pastry and roll it out. Then back to the fridge to get out the muffin tray and insert the rolled round into one of the cavities. Back into the fridge the tray went and I took out some more pastry to roll.

Back and forth for 24 rounds of pastry, praise the lord that the humidity was down to about 15%. The Convection oven was heated to 230 degrees centigrade; pant, pant. The searing heat of the day had caused the double cream to separate in the custard and I had to rescue the oily mass with a solution of cornflour and milk; BUGGER!

The house smelt wonderful. The ailing custard failed to produce the trademark black blotches. The separation had prevented the smooth tops I am accustomed to. But what else do you serve the Vanilla Slice critiquing Custard Crusaders on New Years Eve, but buttery, eggy, sweet Pasteis De Nata - Portuguese Custard tarts?

They went down a treat. One friend asked to come and live with us and there would be no tarts to bring home. On the verge of heat exhaustion I thirstily settled into drinking champagne. That was to prove to be another crazy decision. New Year’s Day became a nauseous blur.

The history and the how of Portuguese Custard Tarts was eloquently laid out by my blogging friend Duncan Markham of Syrup and Tang in The Age newspaper’s Epicure section. Read it then go to his blog. There you can appreciate the man’s fastidious approach to baking in a way I admire and respect, though have no inkling to emulate.

Given the unpleasant heat of this, the last day of 2007, I opted for Bill Granger’s quickie version and imagined him beaming his pearly white smile and scrunching his cherubic face as I nattered and cursed in frustration.

For Sydney readers, Joanna Savill also wrote a piece for the SMH good Living, which lists some venues from which to buy Portuguese Custard Tarts. She also mentions Darn Tart, the lard based pastry Chinese custard tart I used to eat fresh from the oven for breakfast in Hong Kong. I believe that lard is also employed in the delicious Portuguese tarts made in Macau and it gives the pastry an extra melt in the mouth flakiness.

How was your New Year's Eve?