26 January 2009

Sun Lien Fai Lok - a letter to The Kitchen God

First in importance among Chinese Festivals is the celebration of Sun Lien - Chinese New Year, which begins one week before the old year ends, and when the God of the Kitchen Jao Jun ascends to heaven to report to Sheung Duy, Almighty God - The jade Emperor, all the virtues and vices of each member of the family.

So, on the twenty-third day of the of the Twelfth Moon, the family gathers before the picture of the Kitchen God which is pasted upon the kitchen chimney of every home. Accompanied by the sound of noisy popping of firecrackers, which are supposed to chase the evil spirits away, the family worships him and then smears his lips with molasses and other sticky sweets. This is to induce him to speak nothing but good, or to seal his lips so thoroughly that he will not be able to utter anything evil.

Then the picture is taken down, placed upon a chariot or horse made of reeds and paper, and brought to the principal courtyard with great ceremony. With even greater ceremony, the Kitchen God upon his horse or chariot is burned, and in this way he rises to swiftly on his spiritual way to Heaven.

On the thirtieth day of the Twelfth Moon the family gathers around the kitchen furnace once more; this time to welcome the return of the God to the kitchen with displays of delicious food and the cheerful sound of firecrackers. The new and gaudy picture of the Kitchen God is pasted upon the chimney and prayers are offered to encourage his generosity and good will during the New Year.

This period of celebration reaps a world of good, for it promotes benevolence and reunions. People in their best finery pay their respects to parents, grandparents, friends, acquaintances, and deceased ancestors. Kindnesses are shown to one and all, and petty quarrels are patched up. Also before the breaking of dawn of the New Year, all debts are settled. This is to insure the saving of the face of the borrower and to bring good fortune to him and his family during the coming year.

Doreen Yen Hung Feng, The Joy of Chinese Cooking, 1964

Dear Jao Jun, honoured Kitchen God,

I hope that you had a comfortable and swift journey to the court of the Jade Emperor preceding the New Year and that when you reached heaven that you were welcomed with a great and sumptuous banquet, filled with your favourite and most auspicious dishes.

I look forward to your return to my kitchen today and want to apologise in advance for the state of disarray that will greet you. Brace yourself.

Unfortunately you will return amidst the stink of acrid fumes. The smell of bitter herbs is emanating from my brewing of Traditional Chinese Medicine, that I hope will eradicate my symptoms of Polycystitic Ovarian Syndrome. I have faith in Professor Lo's skill, as you may recall he fixed my spinal issues and restored my ability to walk unassisted with months of nasty brews, that you too were subjected to.

I hope that by employing his knowledge of herbs we might conceive a child in the year of the Ox, but ultimately it is in the hands of the Jade Emperor. If it is not in my destiny, so be it. At least, by taking the herbal mass of seaweed, crab apples, roots, branches, bark, spices and tubers, the elimination of the symptoms will bring great comfort to me.

As you cast your eye across the household you will be disappointed. It is a mess. I failed in your absence to clean and tidy the house as I should. I have been working until 7pm, returning home to cook and then working again until midnight or later. There has been no time. Forgive me.

Mr Stickyfingers boxes of goods destined for eBay are still cluttering the entry to the house and the rooms after a more than a year, and you will find that they have been joined by boxes of the detritus removed from his office pod at Telstra following his redundancy. We are drowning in clutter. Grandmother would not have approved and would have shot me one of her 'dragon looks'.
I know. I am ashamed. It's very poor Feng Shui.

In your report of our household to the Jade Emperor is there a chance that you were benevolent, in spite of the chaos of the home? Is it possible that you overlooked certain things in favour of other efforts?

In the year of The Rat you will have witnessed that I was concentrating on trying to be kinder, more understanding and less judgemental. I have been working hard to try to assist and improve the lot of others, through volunteering my services, teaching, spreading knowledge and mentoring. I have made an effort to remove myself from the toxic personalities that I was once drawn to and to be less bombastic myself.

I have been optimistic about mankind's abilities to support one another and to move forward in our respect for protecting the planet, its beasts and flora. And in order to save my beloved's face when others have said that I should work harder to support him financially whilst he enjoys not working, I have smiled, chewed my tongue and resisted the urge to tell them that it has always been me who keeps the roof over our heads and our bellies filled with food.

Speaking of which, I am indebted to you for broadening my cooking knowledge and skill, and for bringing along the opportunity and self awakening to newly explore more sustainable, local, ethical and organic foods. Thank you also for showing me that my passion for food could bring me fantastic new friends via the Blogosphere. I am grateful also for the opportunity I have had to visit South East Asian countries in the past 12 moons, learning more about the culture of my family and the recipes of the dishes that I love so much.

Tonight we will celebrate the new year with my parents. They have chosen not to eat the traditional Cantonese fare of our ancestors that is full of symbolism at new year, but to eat Hakka Chinese food in a restaurant in Glen Waverley instead. Traditionally there is no love lost between the Cantonese and the Hakka, so I have no idea why we are doing this, other than that my folks are eccentric to say the least. I'm sure it will be an education and no doubt, delicious. Last year we ate Malaysian food and didn't hook up until the fifth day of the new year. It is enough today that the family is together, as that is what Choy Lien Yut is all about.

As I look towards the year of the ox I am preparing my list of what I wish to relinquish and what I aim to gain in the next 12 moons. After holding my nose to swallow my nasty herbal brew, I will chew a preserved plum and burn my annual list with joss paper to be received into the heavens.

Until tonight when I will celebrate your return, I am as always forever in your hands,



Sun Lien Fai Lok - gung hei fat choy!!

Happy Australia Day

12 January 2009

A Shining light - Bobby Chin

Restaurant Bobby Chinn Rules:

This restaurant is an Abba, Kenny G, and Gypsy Kings free zone. We also refuse to play any bands with more than one lead singer or matching sweaters. Female singers dressed like whores with synchronised dancing are also banned!

To preserve the dining experience, we request that you are
well versed in mobile etiquette (SILENCE). All our poultry & meats are halal or as close as it gets to kosher...Except the pork of course! None of the staff were harmed (physically) to bring you quality food and service tonight, or ever.

Childrens menu available on request and duct tape is available
for hyperactive children. Please do not ask us to split the bill other than by a number. We do not do "She had this, and I had half of that" very well.

Please note that we have smaller portions at the same price for anorexics and those aspiring. Also this restaurant allows smoking, non smokers please refrain from farting in the smoking area unless it is a cigar. Thank you....

The evening menu, Restaurant Bobby Chinn,
Hanoi, Vietnam.

Through the all enveloping dark there was a fluttering of red silk and as my eyes adjusted it appeared that I was seated in the boudoir of a Madarin's concubine.

But in fact, this was Restaurant Bobby Chinn overlooking the Hoah Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The restaurant is swathed in red silk. According to Bobby, he's hung over 1000 metres of the stuff around the venue. From the pleated wall coverings and pieces hanging artfully from the ceiling, to the curtains sheltering low divans surrounding hookah pipes, the decor is a melange of San Francisco and a Western fantasy of Asia, created because silk is cheaper than paint in Vietnam.

Flowers too are cheap, so white roses are hung from the ceiling in strands from threads and everything is awash in red rose petals, right down to the toilet bowls; just some of the many quirks of the venue and of the nation. Bobby's retro Asian theme is punctuated by modern art and the antics of his staff, dressed in black so only their faces and hands emerge from the darkness, almost like mimes.

Enormous dehumidifiers loom like Daleks in the corners of the venue. And the theatre of the restaurant is so pervasive that my eyes hardly stray from the drama of the venue to the activity outside on the lake. But it is the evening service and it is dark, so very dark in here.

On arrival we were told that our table would not be ready for another ten minutes, and in happy holiday mode we settled in easily at the well lit bar. It was then that the laughs began. First a laugh of joy because they had pickled onions, and therefore I could order my favourite aperitif - a Gibson, a dry martini without olives - but most of all I was tickled by Bobby's sense of humour, which although he is rarely here now, reaches into all corners of this happy place.

Take for the example the bar menu, where he lists the ten stages of drunkeness. They extend from being witty and charming after the first drink to thinking Kenny G is a genius, to finally being bulletproof. I loved it. But the humour extends right through the menu into why he does not list vegetarian offerings to the fact that a children's menu is available along with duct tape for passifying them. Listed under side dishes and bar snacks is: We tell you "You are beautiful" all night long. (Includes a signed copy of the menu) $5

But the biggest hoot of all comes after we are seated at our table and receive our menus. Just as Mr Sticky tells me that he cannot read it whilst cloaked in darkness, our waitress descends with two illuminated magnifying glasses.

Mr Sticky was saved a trip to the rose petal strewn toilets with menu, and you could have heard me cackling all the way over at Uncle Ho's Mauseleum at the hilarity of weilding these things over the menu as service hummed away in the inky recesses of the venue. I loved the gadgets so much that I later bought one from an old man on the streets of Bangkok. Bobby sells them at the restaurant, but other than for an autographed copy of his book, I resisted the urge to pay the big bucks for Bobby Chinn themed merchandise.

And although the eating across Vietnam is very light on the purse, meals here don't come cheap. The average Vietnamese citizen can't afford to eat here, so it is the domain of expats, successful businessmen, visiting dignitaries, tourists and gangsters. It cost us roughly the equivalent of at least 60 bowls of street hawked Pho, at tourist prices, each. So the average man gets to watch the goings on through the large street level windows, but really, they're not particularly interested. I think that they probably think it's a whole lot of stuff and nonsense. And quite right they are.

I actually felt that we were surrendering wads of dough for the spectacle, the occasion and for the humour of a stand up comedian turned chef. And although the food was delicious, the portions enormous and the service envigorating for that part of the world, it was the extraneous matter that widened my grin as we loped out into the evening air for a stroll around the lake before retiring to our hotel.

What did we eat? Well that deserves its own post. Stay tuned.

07 January 2009

A Road Map for Epicure

“The cook doesn't want to be locked away in the kitchen anymore. He or she wants to be around the guests, ... That means that kitchen appliances suddenly become like a sofa and table - things that everybody is going to look at. I think it's a real indication of where we are in food culture today."

Ruth Reichl

How would I feel if I had recently been annointed the new Editor of The Melbourne Age's food supplement Epicure? Most probably I would be quaking in my boots.

From past experiences of being meted out daunting challenges, I know that I would rise to the occasion, so why the dramatic knee trembling? Melbourne Foodies are savage critics. By Foodies I mean the phalanx of media consuming Gastronauts who consider themselves well endowed of the metier gourmand.

They dissect; they nit-pick and they enjoy a grumble amongst their community. I expect that there is not a journalist who has been on the staff of the publication who has not been lambasted pompously over a few buckets of semillon sauvignon in the eastern suburbs or muttered at in restaurants. And let's not forget online. After all there's been a hearty flow of criticism between both Australian Bloggers and the traditional food media.

In the column to the right I have a section called "Stickyfinger's dream food magazine contains these stories...". It is a cross section of blogs from my feed reader. The blogs included are diverse and run from the poorly written to the professional. There is humour, audacity and pathos, events, reviews, food themed trends, restaurant news, recipes or tips and foreign tit-bits. But most of all they reflect what's real in our food community from writers young and old, the battlers and the affluent. In short, it's relevant. More relevant than Epicure has been.

I think the reason I stopped buying Epicure was because the reading online was so
much more rich and juicy, so ripe with deliciously outrageous opinion and way less sycophantic than the newspaper. The information available online is often better and generally speaking, the food porn's more tantalising. And the language more colourful. OK, I understand that in print there are advertisers to appease and litigious types to avoid, but the material that surfaced in Epicure was becoming as dry as mouthful of Salada's to me.

So to the new Editor of Epicure, here's my wishlist of new things for your rag in 2009. Please consider:

  • 'Going Dutch' - When restaurants are reviewed, publish at least two opinions - and don't publish the photos of your journos so they have some hope of anonymity and objectivism
  • 'Vin de Siecle' - Give us more stories about wine regions - both old and new world so we can understand what is on offer in the bottle shop
  • 'Provenance' - A regular column that singles out one of the rare breed meats and one heritage fruit and vegetable, available at farmers markets and organic stores (what, wherefore and how to use them)
  • 'Waiter there's a blog in my soup' - Publish a juicy blog post, excerpt or photo that you've found that week, with the consent of the author of course
  • 'Just like Mum makes' - Australia has migrants from more than 50 countries, so a monthly piece on an homecooked meal from one of these cultures would be relevant - and please, not some aproximated version by a staffer. Recipes that work in a home kitchen with the same techniques used by Mama
  • Gadgets - road test new devices on the market from silicon cookware to Thermomixers
  • Kids - a humourous column on eating with them, hints on how to get them to eat new things and a recipe
  • Sustainable food - farming, eating, family budgeting and keeping a green kitchen
  • Kitchen porn - show me some drool worthy kitchens and how they're laid out. Even show me Chef's home kitchens
  • Letters - let's read about the Melbourne Food Nazi's grievances and delights

...I could go on, but one last suggestion, 'Morning Glory' - A weekly column on breakfast venues - and I'll be more than happy to write it for you - LOL!

What do you think? What would you like to see in the new Epicure?
Disscuss it here...