28 August 2009

Toh Soon Café: Roti Bakar

An old twisted wire egg basket swung from an awning above; chatter, clutter, clatter and blurs of colour dominated the scene. Then an explosion of flavor and texture had me transfixed. Every movement in my vicinity seemed to slow to snail’s pace and then as though underwater, I was suddenly locked into my own void of silent discovery.

We were sitting upon low plastic stools at a folding tin topped table, its surface scarred by regular usage. We were in Malaysia. The venue was a narrow laneway, off Campbell Street in Georgetown, Penang. A tarpaulin was stretched overhead, spanning the lane and at the back a makeshift kitchen leant against one wall. The fast paced operation was manned by five people, each allocated their own tasks, two of them servicing two rows of tables.

This is Toh Soon Café. Open from early morning until late afternoon this quaint cobbled together venue is significant in that it’s the last remaining charcoal toasted Roti Bakar venue in Penang.

Roti Bakar is simple: two lightly toasted pieces of extra thick, sweet white bread, sandwiching lashings of butter and Kaya – coconut and egg jam. It comes with two barely boiled eggs which are broken into a cup. A little soy sauce is swirled into the runny eggs and the sweet toasted sandwich is then dipped into the slurry before being raised to your mouth.

In the face of modernisation and electric toasters, this particular stall still toasts the bread over hot coals through a window in a converted ten gallon drum. On our visit a young Indian man hunkered low beside the rustic contraption, toasting two sandwiches at a time, while above the coals the drum contained a chamber for heating the water, blanching the eggs and above that a providing a hotplate for the coffee pot. Simply ingenious - if a little uncomfortable for the staff member on toast duty.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case, it’s also the reason why locals flock here in large numbers when many others also serve Roti Bakar. Because, let’s face it, the turnover is high, the ingredients fresh and tasty, and of course there is the added advantage of eating smoky wood charred toast from a quirky contraption. And given the choice why wouldn’t you?

This, my first experience of Roti Bakar went off like a bomb in my mouth. I was struck dumb as I mentally probed the contents that provided this sensory overload: Crisp then spongy; sweet, salty, slippery; rich, really fresh egg yolk, silky egg white, soy sauce; palm sugar, coconut and more egg enriched unctuousness in the jam.

Crushing the smoky toasted exterior with my teeth, the soft centre of the sliced bread disintegrated on my tongue and the gooey egg, butter, coconut paste combination spread across the palate, soy sauce tipping the balance back from the sweet, rich Kaya.

I don’t think I heard another word spoken until it was finished, and then another round of toast appeared to mop up the rest of the egg.

I could not help myself. In spite of this being my second breakfast - following a nearby Hakka style Yum Cha - I dived into the intensely flavoured mixture of textures, washed down with a rich velvet stream of strong coffee mixed with condensed milk and a hit of chocolate, that left a caramel after taste creeping across my palate. I was temporarily rendered deaf, mute and blind to all around me. I had surely landed in breakfast heaven.

You can also read about Toh Soon Café
at My Wise Wife and Penang Food Galore

25 August 2009

TV Casting calls: foodies as cheap fodder

In the Early Period
of television broadcasting, the landscape was rapidly populated with locally produced homemaking shows hosted by prim home economists and righteous nutritionists.
These shows exhibited traits inherited practically wholesale from their radio progenitors. In the Modern Period, however, reproduction has become a central concept of television programming.

TV Cooking Shows: The Evolution of a Genre, by Kathleen Collins

Marketers see Food Bloggers
as the gate keepers to the food world online and therefore target people like myself. Such is the nature of food blogging. Marketing and PR folk don't really understand blogging and think we operate like journalists, willing to paste their press releases into our templates and hitting publish at the whim of their lascivious appr

Most recently I find I am becoming the target of casting agencies struggling to locate the required people for their cattle call of TV auditions. And what do I get out of it in return for publicising their auditions? Nada. They get paid, but I don't. Hello, isn't there something wrong with this picture?

Having worked in Marketing and Advertising for over twenty years, I keep abreast of media trends and am fortunate to have insight into the industry. As a consequence I have not regurgitated any of these casting calls here. But for the average food blogger it's different, a casting call may - in the backs of their minds - be construed to be the opportunity to the career in the food media they've always dreamt of. In the main it will not be. More likely it will be a humiliating experience, because cooking shows that use amateurs are all about a free ride for the TV station and production company at the expense of the passionate amateur gastronome.

Think of a traditional, well produced TV show as a banquet. In order to elaborately feed the hunger of many with enticing morsels, thousands of dollars are required, along with a brigade of highly strung creative professionals who take a great deal of time to prepare an offering which is downed in mere moments. After it is served, there is no guarantee of a good review or repeat custom.

The fortunes of any free to air network TV show is determined by Advertising. Production companies dream up TV shows in the hope that they will be purchased by a TV network who - hoping to draw big marketing dollars - in turn shop the idea to media companies and advertising agencies. The idea is to use these gatekeepers to lure multi national company marketing people to spend millions advertising during the airing of the show. Ad dollars then cover cost of producing and purchasing the show with the aim of everyone making a profit.

Advertisers hope that the viewers will be enticed in turn to buy the items advertised. The more popular the show, the higher the ratings, and the better the exposure for the advertisers, who aim for a sales spike and to build brand loyalty - preferably the 'cradle to grave' variety, which influences children and in turn their parents to buy those particular brands for life.

Compared to sit-coms, soap operas, tele-movies, mini-series, comedy and dramas, reality shows are cheap TV shows to make. They are the snack food of TV: highly processed, full of undesirable ingredients and are unhealthy in the grand scheme of not being a source of income for professional actors and media personalities in our small film and television market.

The sets used in reality shows are cheap, the lighting rigs simple and the cast is generally made up mostly of non professionals who, provide their own wardrobe and cost considerably less than actors and performers to hire. And because people leave the room or channel surf during ad breaks, advertisers will also pay for product placement of their goods during the filming of the show, again reducing the cost of the production for the makers. Instead of offering you an adventurously creative meal to dwell on and ruminate over, reality shows are equivalent to the cheap thrill of junk food when a Stoner gets 'the munchies'.

Last year, when it was clear that Big Brother had out stayed its welcome globally on prime time TV, Australia's Channel 10 was hungry to continue reaping the rewards of cheap reality shows filled with free products supplied by advertisers. They followed up with a syndicated version of the USA's Biggest Loser. But although it rated well, this show did not meet the heights of Big Brother in the ratings. It also had a limited scope in terms of which companies would advertise alongside a dieting show.

Then late last year I received an email from a production company asking if I would consider auditioning for a new food show, or at the very least, could I spread the word amongst cooking enthusiasts that auditions were being held?

I declined on both accounts. The show was Australia's syndicated version of Masterchef. It was a concept ripe for heavy product placement of kitchen equipment and packaged food goods, using non actors for entertainment.

When I made background enquiries about Australian MasterChef I discovered that this was not going to take the form of the UK MasterChef, as aired on the Lifestyle Channel, where talented cooks who were looking for a career as a chef were discovered. Instead it was to be a sensationalised reality show hybrid, taking elements of the original and mixing in all the tricks of previous reality shows that played people's natures against each other, distorted personalities with clever editing and generally reduced the contestants to awkward and cliched caricatures. If you will, it was to be a combo cooking show meets Survivor, Big Brother, Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

Being a talented non professional cook was not going to be the primary thrust of the casting of contestants. Typically in this medium, it was key in auditions to locate personalities that could be moulded to create popular entertainment and potentially be marketable in the broader sense of advertising and merchandise opportunities. There would be the scope to guage popular sentiment from the viewership via Social Marketing in order to adjust the show in order to engage the viewers as the series stretched out.

Being in the business of spin myself, I struggle to watch reality shows. For me it's like knowing the ending of a book before I read it. I know exactly what will happen. But worse is the notion that naive individuals will be manipulated and humiliated for an audience braying for blood in the most base form of human nature, for the purposes of entertainment and primarily so that the TV network and production company turn big fat profit.

Reality shows are reliant on drama. If there is no naturally occurring dramatics, they must generate it. They do this by magnifying small things that appear irrelevant in the day to day of the contestants performance, they do it by inserting expressions and sound bites out of context to create 'issues on set'. They do it by repeating these scenes after each ad break. To my chagrin, this is undertaken at the cost of the dignity of contestants aiming for a chance to change their fortunes.

Aussie MasterChef's final episode recorded an average national audience of 3.745 million, making it the most watched non-sport TV show, beating out Australian Idol in 2004 which held the previous record of 3.3million viewers. Capitalising on this success in the near future will be the celebrity version of the show and a childrens version is up for discussion.

The advertisers involved are ecstatic to say the least, and naturally the other networks are scrambling for their piece of the action. Before the MasterChef series had finished airing, I was sent a casting call for Channel 9's The Coles Great Aussie Cook Off, a show that "aims to find Australia's greatest family of cooks". The idea would appear to be a spin off of a Coles instore promotion which was a “real-time shop & cook competition”. Not a supporter of the big two supermarkets, I again declined to promote the show.

Channel 7 is not to be left out, a couple of weeks later they too contacted me for their show My Kitchen Rules which is not a follow up to My Restaurant Rules but a challenge between teams of two home cooks, filmed cooking in their own kitchens. They are required to transform their homes into a restaurant "for one pressure filled night" - heaven help us! How cheap is that? And thus far no indication of a prize for any contestants.

And finally, the last horse to bolt over my line is the LifeStyle Food Channels' Come Dine With Me. This is syndicated from the UK's Granada production and is also produced in Germany, France, Hungary, Spain, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. Twenty half hour episodes are planned to air early next year, with hopes that it will be as big a success as its tedious UK counterpart, which has run to nine series.

If you haven't seen it, this one takes five average folk who feel that they are good dinner party cooks and hosts. Again they cook in their home kitchens, taking it in turns to host a dinner party for the other contestants, who then grade them on their performance. Expect to hear petty comments, general nastiness, personality clashes, whilst witnessing teary melt-downs and amateur dramatics along with tasteless decor and general humiliations, in this even cheaper production. In England contestants vie for a thousand pound prize, but as this show has not announced any sponsors, a prize is yet to be determined.

Watching the networks scramble into this genre is fascinating to watch. The success of their productions will be weighted heavily on their timing and execution. My advice is if you plan to dip your toe into the action, be wary and go in with a sense of humour. Expect nothing and you may be pleasantly surprised. But most of all be prepared to be manipulated cheaply for entertainment purposes.

21 August 2009

From Ratatouille to Meatballs

The tiny town of Chewandswallow was very much like any other tiny town except for its weather which came three times a day, at breakfast lunch and dinner.

But it never rained rain and it never snowed snow and it never blew just wind. It rained things like soup and juice. It snowed things like mashed potatoes. And sometimes the wind blew in storms of hamburgers.

Life for the townspeople was delicious until the weather took a turn for the worse. The food got larger and larger and so did the portions. Chewandswallow was plagued by damaging floods and storms of huge food. the town was a mess and the people feared for their lives.

Something had to be done, and in a hurry.

Get ready for the hype machine! Soon to be released in the USA is the animated movie 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs'. Based on a children's book written by author Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett it's about a town where it rains food at meal times and features James Caan and Mr T along with the stars Bill Hader and Anna Faris.

In the making since August 2006, Aussies will have to wait until November 26 before they can see it. Meanwhile it will debut in US cinemas on September 18, and Sony has slated it's release to video games for XBox 360, PSP, Playstation 3, Wii and Nintendo DS on September 9.

Co-directors Philip Lord and Chris Miller say that it will be an homage to and parody of disaster movies such as Twister, Armageddon, but I wonder, will the foodie theme be enough to make it as popular with audiences as Ratatouille was?