15 September 2010

Cheesy, I know

I couldn't resist posting this fake cheese ad by John Nolan. It's cheeky. Don't worry - no animals were harmed in the making of it - John Nolan Films are specialists at working with animatronics. Their work has featured in films such as Where The Wild Things Are, Skellig and HellboyII.  
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14 September 2010

Light at the end of the tunnel

Pepper Puss

Life, life is a pigsty. Life is a pigsty
And I’d been shifting gears all along my life
But I’m still the same underneath
This you surely knew

It's been a peculiar year. I've been ill for nearly half of it. And working like a demon on hot coals for the remainder of the time, in an awkward and uncomfortable business culture.

This is the year my Aunts were diagnosed with bowel cancer and their brothers had polyps discovered in their colons. I underwent testing for a variety of things as a consequence.

Our dear friend Ben died suddenly in Bali. Then recently, I lost one of my oldest friends, my familiar and companion of 16years, a dear sweet cat named Pepper. 

I don't like to dwell on the bad, but I spent months barely able to draw breath this year, and was without a voice from the start of April until early August. There were weeks where my lung capacity was so reduced, that I was warned I might have a heart attack.

My body shut down. I was weak. I couldn't think. I couldn't speak. I was in no man's land. But my saving grace was Twitter.

Reading my Twitter stream of food loving tweeps' comments jollied me along and possibly prevented me from feeling depressed by my situation. The kindness of those who extended their commiserations touched my heart.

The Mental Oriental Parentals were otherwise occupied with their Grey Nomad lifestyle and Mr Sticki had compressed himself into a pirate music torrent and morphed into the laptop. From bed, I had to send him an email downstairs to attract his attention. So Twitter became my cultural and emotional umbilical chord.

From living vicariously through the planning of tweetups and the eat-n-tweet of Duckfest and Suckling Pigapalooza, to simply listening-in to the day to day of people's lives and the tweets accompanying food shows, it kept me hanging in there. From my sickbed, wearing an oxygen mask, I was still happily able to engage with the outside world.

Twitter worked for me when I couldn't concentrate on DVDs. Lacking focus, 140 character tweets were the maximum length I was capable of digesting at any given moment; perfect.

I thought of food often. Mr Sticki, the Trophy Husband - more accustomed to pleasing himself - was not initially programmed to take care of me, and at times forgot to feed me until late at night. But it didn't matter, I lacked an appetite.

I did manage to teach him some new dishes using Speak It an iPhone app that speaks aloud on behalf of the vocally dysfunctional. After six weeks working with a Speech Pathologist my vocal chords switched back on. And eventually Mr remembered that we were in possession of cookbooks. Things looked up from that point and he even ventured out to farmers' markets without me.

I'm back at work now. But I'm counting down the sleeps as in just a few weeks we will finally be on holiday. The beacon that is beckoning me towards the finish line is a lunch reservation in October at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant in England. Sigh. I'm referring to it as the #FatDuck50 trip, as it is The Trophy Husband's 50th birthday present.

The dilemma it has thrown up is how will I cope with the 12 course degustation? Eating small portions for months has shrunk my appetite considerably. Over the weekend I dined out on a two course meal plus a shared dessert, with aperitif and matched wine, only to leave feeling turgid and bilious. It was a feeling that intensified the following day. Mr Sticki felt full, yet fine. Only I felt that my gut was organizing a mutiny and enlisting various other organs in its quest to digest.

Should I train up and endeavour to increase my capacity? I don't think I want to. My father has elderly onset diabetes and I am very mindful of what's in my diet as a consequence.

The website of the Fat Duck recommends allowing four hours to eat the meal. Perhaps that will be sufficient to aid the digestion?


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Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...Image via Wikipedia

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12 September 2010

Roadblock: Perfection is unattainable

Hoi An Vn. P1010820

When you aim for perfection, you discover it's a moving target.
George Fisher


Seven years old and dressed in seersucker flares, sporting a London accent and the latest bowl cut hair fashion, I waited quietly as the adults chatted. I knew the mantra "children should be seen and not heard" so busied my mind by observing all around me. '

Planting my hands under my chin, I rested my elbows on the linen clad table in a restaurant nearby my little Chinese Grandfather's favourite Macau casino, The Lisboa. I observed the porcelain teapot and cups were trimmed in pink and the walls, a gaudy lemon. I smelt the heady combination of spices in the Portuguese influenced Chinese food.

Waiters in white jackets with brass buttons flew by us with plates of Meccanese food. The din of Cantonese chatter seemed to fade into the background as mesmerised, I watched their balletic movements as they burst in from the kitchen doorway into service, ricocheting haphazardly between the tables around me. It was human pinball without the benefit of levers.

The night ahead would see me witness Pelota (Jai Alai) for the first time in that casino – a fast, adrenaline filled sport where balls were hurled at a wall via a cane cage attached to the arms of the players. While I didn't see the point of the machismo and the danger, luckily I had the wherewithal to realize that this spectacle was part of the slowly eroding Portuguese heritage that infuses Macao. 

The players in their white garb and long sashes certainly captivated my mother as she hastily went to bet on the outcome of the game. After a relatively short time I tired of the testosterone fueled display and was returned to our hotel room.

Was it boredom or biliousness that drove me to ask to go to bed? I do not recall. What is etched into my mind was the fried rice that grandfather had ordered at the restaurant. It wasn't usual for him to order fried rice, but he made an exception for this one. And I had astounded everyone at the table by eating eight small rice bowls of it. So as a result, everything else paled into insignificance. 

I recall my parents' embarassment of my gluttony. My grandfather: proud. And I've yet to live it down. Even now, as a middle aged woman, my father likes to recount the story of his greedy little girl. 

My retort has become that it was the best I'd eaten. And from that point I pestered Mum to teach me how to cook it. But while our Chinese friends raved about her fried rice, I felt it never matched that particular one. 

Many years later, I watched my grandmother make it and discovered that she added fish sauce, which was the key secret to make it extra fragrant. Finally I had unlocked the unwritten code to recreating the dish.


Recently I was pondering on the subject of why Asian food often tastes better in restaurants and is especially delectable in Asia. In fact I wondered why there was no perfect Char Kwei Teow in Melbourne or why some of my Twitter friends were on a quest to find the best Peking Duck

When I thought about the dishes I had faithfully recreated from my old and worn Asian cookbooks or from watching my family cook, I was confounded. While they all tasted delicious, to my mind they lacked a certain something. What was the 'je ne sais quoi?' 

While I've found that using farmer direct sourced produce lifts many European dishes to restaurant quality, it didn't give my Asian cooking the same edge. As in the fish sauce in the fried rice, there had to be something more to unlock the unwritten code.

That same week, I happily discovered a 1980's edition of my Mum's Chinese cooking Bible – The Hong Kong & China Gas Chinese Cookbook. I glued myself to it one Saturday and through its pages, relived some childhood memories. 

In the following days, I began to introduce some of my old favourites back into my cooking repertoire. And then I began to began to unravel my dilemma, discovering there are a series of keys to Asian cooking, unwritten rules, that affect the flavour.

In Asia, before the days of refrigeration, ingredients were bought immediately prior to cooking the meal and were skillfully transformed in an uncomplicated manner. In households generally there was extended family in the kitchen, making the production of items such as dumplings swift. So timing is a key. Although not the case here in Australia, in some parts of Asia this tradition continues.

Every recipe in my old Asian Cookbooks and in my newer Vietnamese cookbooks includes monosodium glutamate. It certainly does enhance the flavor, but given the negative health connotations, I don't use it myself and increasingly restaurants are reducing or removing it from their dishes. There is a marked difference in taste as a consequence.

Traditionally everything in Asia was cooked over charcoal burners. The flavor imparted to dishes either through ferocious heat or infused with smokiness is impossible to recreate on your standard contemporary European style stove. In Asia, many hawkers and some restaurants continue to use charcoal. Here, most Asian restaurants use gas. The volume of gas at my place is weak. It's just not acceptable for Asian cooking. So rather than put up with the mediocre, I find better results cooking on a butane camp stove turned up to full ferociousness than on my gas range.

What a delectable substance. It's the hidden fat in many Asian dishes, the fat that must not be named; an ingredient unwritten in most recipes although frequently used. Sometimes you'll find a recipe stipulates peanut oil, another essential flavor in Asian cooking. Both fats withstand the ferocious heat required for most dishes and also impart lashings of flavor. Again, for health reasons I have cut both from most of my cooking, using canola instead. 

Any professional practitioner of Asian cooking will have a pot of masterstock on the go constantly. Deep in richness and flavor, this will generally have a base stock that was started years ago. Chefs will also have other broths made from scratch to use in soups. The older a masterstock, the more it brings to a dish, so if you're using stock cubes or commercial tetra packs of stock in your dishes, they will never achieve the same result. The only exception I have observed has been Malaysian Hawkers, who not only use powdered commercial chicken stock but also flavor enhancers and even commercial Ketchup.

Let's face it, modern equipment is not necessary in Asian cooking. Non-stick woks in particular are pointless as they can't deal with the heat required. Big heavy cast Iron woks heat up too slowly and hold the heat too long. A series of different sized lightweight woks, claypots and a steamer will do the trick.

Modern ovens don't do any favours to Asian recipes either, as we are forced to lie meat or bread down. Traditional Asian ovens are vertical so that bread can cling to the walls and the meat hangs vertically over a flame allowing for self basting as the fat renders downwards off the meat. It's one of the reasons Heston Blumenthal could not recreate the super crisp skin on his Peking Duck, without removing it and sewing it to a rack.


There was a time where Chinese restaurant food in Hong Kong didn't hold a candle to the food served in my Paternal household. With a few exceptions, Grandmother's Vietnamese influenced Cantonese fare was always far superior. The exceptions being yum cha and specialty roasted meats that were customarily left to 'the experts' or were ordered in. 

In my father's childhood, my family enjoyed a large household with a generous retinue of staff. Restaurants were less popular and the best Chefs were quite possibly located heading up the kitchens of families like mine. In some instances, those Chefs had been raised in the household and had been taught recipes passed down within the family. 

But those days have long since gone. I have resigned myself to the fact that my home cooking will not match that of the dishes of my Grandmother and that occasionally I will indulge the MSG, the lard and the peanut oil when I dine out.

I now have the keys. I can't unlock their magic without certain compromises. And instead, as in a successful marriage, will accept the best outcome that I can manage .... within reason.



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