24 November 2009

My shameful gluttony

"Another story exists
about "stone soup", that in the United States of America, during the Great Depression, families were unable to put food on the table every day. It became a practice to place a large and porous rock in the bottom of the stock pot.

On days when there was food, the stone would absorb some of the flavor. On days when there was no food, the stone was boiled up, and the flavor would come out of the stone into the water, producing a weak soup, which was better than not eating.

This in theory is similar to China and Japan cooking using ceramic pots which adds flavour to the food after long term usage when the pot absorbed different flavours every time being used."


It started with a comment on Twitter:

"Mr Sticki says I cook European/Asian/Fusion cooking is better than some restos,
but I'm sick of the taste of my own cooking. How did THAT happen?"

It's true, I had begun to loathe the thought of eating my own food. It's embarrassing. It's shameful. Just to clarify, I wasn't sick of eating. I wasn't even sick of cooking. But I wanted my meal to be a surprise to the palate. The kind of good surprise you get when someone cooks a lovely meal for you.

I had become afflicted with the malaise of the spoilt. I harbored the ugly conceit of the wealthy - or of those who need not worry about where the next meal is coming from. I longed for something beyond what was available - forgetting that what I already had was exemplary. In the void of abject consumerism, I had developed a sickening greed, an avaricious obsession with the next great thing to eat. And I had forgotten the lessons of my youth.

Regrettably despairing of yet another home cooked meal for two, I set myself a challenge to cook a meal without tasting it during the cooking process. I would also avoid adding seasoning beyond what was in the garden. Worst case scenario, if it worked out crap I could fix it anyway. This is a game of the bored. I aimed to trick myself; to trick my palate.

As is the case often in our home, everything in that meal was either locally sourced produce, home-made or home grown. I would not be sourcing the finest European smallgoods made from pigs that had been hand fed Vietnamese lychees by nuns in a copse in Northern Spain and cured by a 104 year old Brazilian Bishop in a thousand year old smokehouse, built by gnomes.

There would be no truffles, nor expensive condiments. In short, there would be no gourmet exotica in the meal that would make online foodies rapturous. Despite of the lack of pretentiously labeled ingredients, I was blind to the fact that my kitchen contained a wealth of magnificent produce.

By my standards it was a simple meal: Hartdale Park venison fillets seared in a hot cast iron pan then rested for ten minutes, warmed through with beetroot and a reduction of juices made with a touch of sage, quince jelly and beetroot juice. Salad leaves and wild rocket were gathered from the garden along with more herbs. I tossed them with tomato and Meredith marinated chevre, a vinaigrette made with King Valley honey, mustard, oil and vinegar. Home grown potatoes were sliced, layered with thyme from the garden and baked in mornay of whole wheat flour, unpasteurised butter, Blue Bay Gruyere and raw milk.

I resisted the urge to taste anything while cooking. I was adamant that the flavours would be a surprise to me. No salt, pepper, dried spices or Asian condiments were used. Mr Sticki remarked at how fabulous the cheese sauce smelt. He had no doubts that this would taste good. And he was right. Call it a leap of faith on my behalf, but I won myself over.

The exercise came down to proving to myself that I had the technique nailed and that my olfactory senses were primed enough to judge without tasting. It also proved to me that while we expect great meals made from world renowned ingredients, it is also possible to make an exemplary tasting meal using a combination of the humble home sourced and the less fashionable, local produce, sourced farmer direct.

While I've always acknowledged this about meals in some of my favourite restaurants, I had a double standard for myself. I had presumed otherwise when it came to my home cooking. I shouldn't have, because it was one of the first lessons I learnt about cooking, watching my parents in the kitchen.


When I was a child, my parents shopped at wet markets overseas and at big fresh markets like the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. They rose early and we'd be there, armed with wheelie bags at 6:30am, listening to stall holders shouting out the day's specials. It was exciting and fascinating. Subconsciously I absorbed a great deal of knowledge about produce in that time. Sometimes - while living with other families - the food I ate came from supermarkets, and when I eventually left home, so did mine.

My passion for eating was cultivated from the time I began eating solids, I wasn't fed packaged baby foods. At the time we lived in Hong Kong and I spent a great deal of time in the care of my paternal grandmother and Loong Por, the elderly Chinese Nanny who continued to live with my Grandparents long after she had raised my father.

My Chinese granny introduced me flavor. At yum cha she would peel the skin from dumplings and tell me to taste the filling on its own. She did this so that I could appreciate the sheer simplicity of the ingredient's flavor, without the added complication of understanding the various textures of the whole. I suspect that she also felt the slimy rice skin on some dim sum as not sufficiently nutritious for infants.

In Hong Kong during the Second World War, my family suffered along with the rest of the territory, when food was in short supply and many survived on the famous 'stone soup'. This dish constituted a soup made with a handful of weeds or herbs and sometimes thickened with arrowroot. A stone was placed in the bowl so as to cheat the mind into thinking some solids had been taken, by licking the solution from the stone. It was also considered that the stone would absorb some of the flavor and would continue to add to the soup on a daily basis. Although my family fared a little better than some at the time, being raised under these circumstances influenced my father's attitude to food as an adult.

As a child I ate whatever Mum and dad ate. My mother never made me separate meals. We always sat at the dining table and ate together. They also took me out to dine with them in restaurants - in Hong Kong - where it was the norm for children to be present - and later, when we moved to London - where it was not the case. From sitting in a high chair, or sometimes upon their coats piled so that I could reach the table, I grew accustomed to the etiquette and privilege of dining out.

Food was a ritual, a celebration, an exploration. Food was something that was constantly asserted as a wonderful gift that I was lucky to be partaking of. When I lived with my foster families I was a peculiarity, I sat quietly at the dining table and immersed myself in the meal. Their children on the other hand, watched TV while eating or fought amongst themselves, some scowling at their food and needing to be bribed by dessert to empty their plate.

When I lived with my Hungarian foster family, the lesson of the privilege of having food on the table was re-iterated. Whilst the children were indulged and not indoctrinated, I observed the reverence to food that the holocaust survivors in our midst paid to every meal, every snack.

I learnt that my new 'aunts and uncles' had suffered the loss of their children, spouses, siblings and parents in concentration camps, and that their own bodies had wasted from severe lack of food. They had gone without for the longest time and scavenged whatever they could. The psychological and physical scars had impacted to the point that now, living in 'The Lucky Country', their bodies continued to struggle to cope once again with eating wholesome food.

In hindsight I truly regret forgetting this lesson.

I personally did not begin cooking in earnest until I was sixteen. I was immature and naive, and desperate to be free of the dysfunctional home. But I did have the capacity to realise that I had been spoilt when it came to matters of the table. I had eaten game and offal cooked beautifully, I had experienced both haute cuisine and provincial dishes. Asian food and fusion I took for granted. So whilst I yearned to escape the madness of my family home, I was held back by my tastebuds.

In my parent's kitchen there were over one hundred cookbooks and even more cooking magazines. The room itself was designed so that a number of people could share the cooking. My Mum had at one stage held Chinese cooking classes in our kitchen, so it was a spacious room. My father had learnt the art of making Chinese roast meats from a master of the craft in Hong Kong and had qualified as a professional Baker and Patissier, all just for fun. He had also devoted a number of months learning the art of the Masala and regional Indian cooking.

With the realisation that culinary skills would be vital if I were to leave home, I began to read everything in the house that contained a recipe, discourses on world cuisine and culinary text books. I read the Time life world cookery collection that included magnificent photos and cultural anecdotes and histories from Europe, Africa and Asia. I read the entire series of magazines published by Fannie & John Craddock and some culinary classics from the sixties.

I immersed myself in the Larousse Gastronomique. Someone asked Mum "Why would she read Larousse at her age?" Mum, blithely, "She read the dictionary, the encyclopedia and the Bible because she was bored, so why not The Larousse?" I was precociously nerdy.

I watched cooking shows with my folks, stood at Mum's elbow watching her work her alchemy and observed my 'aunties', the women who fostered me when Mum was too ill to cope. When the Asian aunties got together to make dumplings I was in the thick of it. Whenever we ate out, I quizzed mum on the techniques.

When I first started cooking, Mum remarked that I would add about half of the seasonings in the pantry to my meals. My dishes were complicated and fanciful. The exuberance for heavily flavoured dishes gradually dissipated. My folks had always bought good quality produce and many things were made from scratch when I was small. Good cooking in their fabulous kitchen was easy and I discovered there was no need to overcomplicate the flavours.

When I moved out of home it was to a significantly more modest abode. My kitchen didn't even have a workspace. But I loved cooking. The nature of the tiny cooking space meant that I had to buy fresh practically daily. But when I moved to a slightly larger kitchen, with a pantry almost as big as the kitchen I began a love affair with the supermarket.

My friends would pile over to my place to eat my food and watch my TV. I loved it. There would be bodies slumped all over the lounge room floor, waiting expectantly to be fed. I hated the trash telly shows they watched, but I loved catering for others.

When I look back at that time I realize that I once again became heavy handed with seasonings. My pantry was filled with cans, packets and jars from all over the world. Rubs, oils, pastes and seasonings, cans of exotic ingredients and gourmet items purchased with the sole intention of punching flavor back into the tasteless 'fresh' produce I purchased at the local supermarket. At the time, cooking for me was all about putting flavor into meat and vegetables

Then one day I stopped in at the local greengrocer. The gentleman who ran the business turned out to, like me, be Eurasian, only he was half West Indian. His Chinese Aunt Rosie worked in the shop with him. As we swapped anecdotes, Auntie Rosie sidled up to me with a piece of orange. "Eat this now." She demanded. "It's local. You won't have eaten anything like it; so sweet" she clattered with a strong Hong Kong accent. As a respectful Oriental, I did as I was told.

She was right. The orange was intense. I shut my eyes. It felt like my eyeballs had ricocheted off the top of my cranium and then bounced back into place. It became apparent that my taste buds had been dormant since I left home and that fruit and vegetables always tasted this intense in top class restaurants, but never in my own kitchen.

I imagined that this must be what it was like to eat something after being long deprived of food. Immediately, I stopped buying fresh fruit and vegetable from the supermarket and went back to the greengrocer or to the local fresh market instead.

It wasn't until I began shopping at farmers markets that I experienced the same wonderment with meat, cheese, milk and eggs. Yes, eggs. I really didn't care for eggs before then. Fresh, non-supermarket bought eggs taste so different and are a breeze to poach. The flavour of rare breed meats and heritage vegetables, freshly harvested, leave supermarket produce in their wake and as I proved to myself, require hardly any seasoning. They keep for weeks and make everyone look like a star in the kitchen.

My cooking is no longer about dialing up flavours, but rather showcasing what is already there. Now it feels like an insult to the integrity of the produce to go overboard with the preparation. Shamefully in my recent conceit I had forgotten the great privilege it is to dine on this wonderful food.

The provenance of fresh produce sourced farmer direct is the result of passion, care and hard work. It has integrity. It is not palm oil and chemical loaded convenience food. The fruit and vegetables are not tasteless and genetically modified to withstand long freight trips, where they are jolted and knocked about. And they have not been bred to be picked green and warehoused for months before hitting the shelves after artificial ripening. The meat has been slow raised in happy conditions for flavor and butchered with respect. In order for the supermarket produce to turn over quickly and at the cheap prices demanded for their large profit margins, the meat has been raised to grow fast, have volume, but not density which affects the taste.

Looking at back at the recent boom era of consumerism, I see how I became greedy. How blasé I had become when others in the world were suffering from a global food crisis, while others faced war in their backyards. I lost sight of what is important and fell into the trap of expecting the next culinary thrill with the ability to show off here on the blog and on Twitter. What a pretentious twat!

To think that I was sick of eating my own cooking was pathetic. No, it was disgusting. With an embarrassment of riches at my fingertips I ought to have been joyous. But no, I behaved like a gluttonous brat. I had become the culinary embodiment of the consumer durable obsessed Paris Hilton. And I am thoroughly, cringingly, ashamed of myself.

03 November 2009

Eating With Relish

Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I hated school. At my right wing, white, Anglo Saxon, protestant school I found that there wasn't a lot to look forward to. One of the reasons was because I was the 'noticably ethnic' - being Eurasian.

I arrived two thirds of the way through the course of primary school with an English accent and barely a clue about Australia, even though I was born here. But I may as well have come from the other side of the galaxy. It was the seventies and Australia felt small minded and isolated compared to London, at least to a small, precocious and well traveled child, used to the company of adults, not other children.

I was a square peg who didn't fit the prerequisite hole - in any shape or form - and the daughters of the prominent politicians and matriarchal social mavens of philanthropy, eyed me with suspicion. In particular, my lunches were deemed "too bizarre" to them: cha sui sandwiches one day, chicken liver pâté with lettuce the next, and Liptauer on rye bread when I was living with my Hungarian foster family. It was odd that opinions could be so quickly formed based on the examination of the contents of one's lunch box. No cordial, no white bread with Vegemite, no Twisties and no lunch orders from the tuckshop - no good.

At lunch time I was relegated to the corner of the courtyard outside my classroom with the girl whose mum gave her hard boiled eggs. Although I did not enjoy the odour of the eggs, they were exquisitely wrapped in rainbow coloured wax paper and came packed with miniature salt and pepper shakers. Her Mum kept venison in the freezer and I had eaten some of it with their family. That was the first foodie secret we shared: weird food tastes good. Years later I heard that her Mum had spitefully been tricked into eating Snappy Tom 'Seafood in Aspic' cat food by one of the other mums, who found her more refined taste in food "just too eccentric".

Three times a year at school we had a mid term holiday. Half term was actually a half day. This was the one thing about school I looked forward to. If my mum was well enough she would swing by school in the yellow sports car and collect me. We would ride home in the low slung beast, singing along to the radio.

On the way home, we would make a stop at a Milk Bar. I quietly watched as she paced a lap of the small general store, then went to the pie warmer to get me a pastie. Back in the car, I would cradle the pastry in my lap, its warmth spreading through the white paper bag onto my thighs. The curious smell of parsnip, turnip and carrot wafted into the dark, leathery interior of the car.

At home in the kitchen, the pastie felt heavy in my hands. Carefully removing the treat from its bag, I would pick at the twisted seam of pastry that bound the parcel of mixed vegetable and minced meat. But as much as I loved eating the pastry, it was the accompanying tomato relish that I really longed for.

The relish was made by my nasty, bulimic, Nana. She bottled it in skinny old Nescafe jars with yellow plastic lids. It was dark brown, chunky, and contained both tomatoes and sultanas, heavily spiced and sweet. I loved it. The smell made me purr. I could have eaten it on everything, but for some peculiar reason, it was reserved only for pastie eating. Mum however also got to eat it with cheese and crackers. Starved of decent meals by my mean spirited, image obsessed Nana, Grandpa lived on the stuff.

The last time I tried to make relish, I had a mediocre result. I unsuccessfully tried to recreate Nana's and I blogged the result. Silly to try to cook up something when you have a cold and have lost your palate really. This time I turned to Mr Sticki's Nana's recipe - he figures it must be at least one hundred years old - and it worked a treat. Hailing from Shepparton she was apparently the antithesis of my Wimmera raised Nana and Mr S has warm memories of her.

This recipe was transmitted down the phone line from Mr Sticki's Mum, Bunny, and transcribed by my beloved. I have written it here for you verbatim. It's so simple.

Following the recipe, I chose to drain the tomatoes overnight in a muslin bag suspended over a mixing bowl. Instead of discarding the juices, I made absolutely the best tomato soup with them. It was pretty much the same as Shannon Bennett's tomato consomme, a fresh, light and pretty, ideal for an entree or amuse bouche.

I did find myself adding more sugar to the relish than specified, as the requisite 'covering the tomato mix with vinegar', did make it face wrinkling in its sourness. My choice was a combination of Demerara and low GI sugar - for health and flavour - plus cooking the mix for longer than the recipe specified, which darkened the finish. Use white sugar if you want it to stay bright red and in that case ensure you stick to the specified cooking time. Other changes I made were to add less flour and a bit more curry powder.

And the result? Although Bunny's mother's relish doesn't have as much spice as my Nana's and lacked sultanas, I would happily slather it on anything. I haven't had it with a pastie yet, but it stood impressively alongside my frittata (pictured) made with freshly laid eggs, Boks bacon, home grown herbs and vegetables. And tomorrow it will travel to work in my lunch box, which my colleagues will examine as usual with enthusiasm and excitement. How times have changed!

Nana Burgess's Tomato Relish

6lbs Tomatoes
2lbs Onions
1 1/2 lbs Sugar
1 1/2 tbs Curry powder
2tbs Mustard
4tbs Flour

Cut up onions and tomatoes, sprinkle with a handful of salt. Stand them overnight.

In the morning drain the tomatoes and onions and place them in a pot. Cover the mix with vinegar. Boil for five minutes.

Add the other ingredients mixed with a little vinegar. Boil for one hour. Bottle in sterilised jars.

20 October 2009

Asian Pastry: Sweet Yet Savoury

Sexbomb sex bomb, you're my sex bomb

You can give it to me when I need to come along

Sexbomb sex bomb you're my sex bomb

And baby you can turn me on

Tom Jones, Sex Bomb

People who know me appreciate that I'm not a sweet tooth. They also know that I'm an intuitive cook, not a baker - not a person who is systematic in checking weights and balances, following recipes to the nth detail. Curiously often - I won't say annoyingly, as I don't mind being challenged - I find myself being requested to make dessert when invited to dinner.

Neither Mr Sticki or I eat dessert at home, though he does claim that he has a separate stomach just for ice cream - making it possible to eat it even when he's stuffed to the gills. I on the other hand, am rarely tempted and will often choose cheese instead. If George Biron had not had Hungarian pancakes on the dessert menu last week, when we visited Sunnybrae, I would have chosen the savoury dessert option of black and white pudding.

I have, however acquired a taste for Asian desserts. I'm Eurasian so I guess this is fair enough, given the kooky nature of Asian sweets. Sugar came to the world from China but it is hardly a world of sweets. In fact most Chinese snacks are savoury, not sweet, and many of the desserts are soups, with a touch of sugar. In fact, with the exception of Indian sweets, the majority of Asian desserts are not excessively sugary.

Of the Asian sweets I love, topping my list recently was the Mamak Roti Tissu (image by Chocolate Suze); a cone of gossamer thin pastry laced with sweetened condensed milk and margarine, that fuses on a blistering hotplate to become a crisp caramelised cone of decadence, up to two feet in height.

And then it was j
oined by Roti Bom.

Roti Bom (pictured at the top of this post) consists of a two inch thick disc of roti bread, again drenched in condensed milk and margarine. The sticky emulsion is poured onto the bread as it cooks, soaking into the body of the pastry and providing a glossy caramel finish. It's cake-like, it's sweet tempered with a little salt. It's slightly burnt, with crisp edges and it is a sensational finish to a meal. In short it's sexy, voluptuous and marvelous, especially when taken with a nice polystyrene cup of Teh Tarik - spiced sweet tea with more condensed milk, poured from a great height to produce foam on top.

Recently while in Singapore my dear friend Bin took us to a Traditional Chinese Dessert venue in Temple Street, Chinatown. The bustling business was on the ground floor of an old Chinese shop house, furnished with camphor wood stools and tables. Outside the street was lined with cars, crowds and the clamour of day to day life in hot and humid surrounds. The laminated menu consisted of many sweet Asian delights such as Chendol, sweet almond soup, mango pudding with sago, fresh tofu and lurid displays of Ice Kachang, furnished with beans, corn, grass jelly and rose syrup poured over shaved ice.

We had just had the fish head curry you read about in the last post, and so feeling pretty full, we ordered just a few things. For the man who always has room for ice cream, a tall mound of shaved ice drenched in chocolate syrup hit the spot. It looked to all intents like a massive icy turd, but it made him happy given the heat of the day, compounded by a boiling, chilli laden fish head curry.

I ordered coconut jelly - a childhood favourite - and a single pineapple pastry. These pastries are famous in Singapore and the waitress was aghast when I said I only wanted one. I had to blame it on the fish head curry and from food fatigue.
Just days before, we had been eating eight times a day whilst visiting Mr Chew in Penang.

The coconut jelly is often seen on yum cha carts. It is simply coconut milk, set with agar-agar, made in trays and served
chilled. Each portion is a one inch square opaque white cube. On a hot day it's refreshing and not the slightest bit filling. It slips cool, smooth and delicious over your tongue. In particular it soothes the burning hell that your oral cavity may have become during the lethal onslaught of a cavalcade of chilli and spices. I'm also a fan of the lurid green striped lime jellies that alternate layers of coconut and lime jelly.

So, on to the popular Singaporean pineapple pastry, it's made with a very short pastry common to China. The Chinese mainland not being a country particularly endowed with dairy products, traditional Chinese pastries are made with lard and hot water - unlike the Vietnamese delights, influenced by the French method of shortening pastry with butter. So the pastry around the famous Singaporean pineapple sweet is very flaky with a flavour distinctly different to butter pastry. The pineapple filling is more like an intense jam, and at two bites, it was just enough of a sweet hit for me. The same pastry is used on Chinese custard tarts and dim sum items such as cha sui soh - BBQ pork pies.

This same pastry was wrapped around a morsel we ate in Penang recently. Though sweet, it was a savoury dish, and not something I had eaten since I was a child, when dining with my grandfather at his usual reserved table at Luk Yu Tea House in Hong Kong.

This time, we ate this delicacy at a Chieu Chao (aka Teochew) dim sum restaurant in Georgetown, Penang, around the corner from Campbell street. The nostalgia it brought back was immense. I instantly pictured my wrinkled, bald, little Oriental grandfather in one of his many dapper three pieced, pin striped suits, laughing with his cronies at lunch.

The delicious item in question is something that I've never seen in Melbourne on dim sum carts. You take a rod of pork fat and wrap it with a slice of rich duck liver cooked in Cha Sui marinade and barbecued. Then add a piece of Cha Sui - lean shoulder pork cooked in the same marinade and wrap the lot in Chinese flaky pastry; eggwash, then bake until golden.

The whole effect is rich, sweet, savoury and fatty. The sweetness is formed by the BBQ marinade that is a mix of maltose and fermented sweetened bean paste. As much as I adore these beautiful little parcels of excess, I felt as though I ought to order a stent for the arteries that begin to close over while digesting items such as this. Copious amounts of Chinese tea neutralised the fatty residue in my mouth and allayed my guilt temporarily. But it's really no wonder that my Grandfather had angina related problems.

At the heart of this dim sum delight is the seed of why I don't revere sweets. The Chinese dining philosophy is to mix savoury with sweet and with sour, with hot and cold in the selection of dishes served at meal time. Along with that is a fundamental need for all meals to have a mixture of textures. Hence desserts like sweet syrupy soups containing crunchy savoury snow fungus and lotus root or lotus seeds. Or Chinese doughnuts (above) that are only vaguely sweet, designed to be dipped in congee, herbal soups or braises. And then there are my favourite snacks - Asian pork jerky made from bacon that is savoury from Nam Yu - fermented red bean paste - smoky & charred from the drying process and finished with sticky, sweet maltose.

The other reason that I'm not fussed by sweets is that on a few occasions I have been tested positively as a 'Supertaster' by researchers at a couple of Universities. A Supertaster is one who has more taste buds than average. So I perceive flavours more intensely than most. Some chemicals in food 'burn' my tongue. Broad beans and certain bitter foods make my tongue ache and hurt. Sweet things can seem too cloying and make my eyes water.

So, why do I favour Asian sweets over European style sweets? The secret is that they often contain a savoury element, or do not embellish a naturally sweet ingredient. So while I can cope with the occasional vanilla slice or Sacher Torte, I'd rather bring on the Roti Bom.

Roti Bom, Roti Bom - you're my sex bomb....oooh and baby you can turn me on!

27 September 2009

Singapore: Ocean Curry Fish Head

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

They can't play baseball, they don't wear sweaters
They're not good dancers, they don't play drums

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

Rolly Polly fish heads are never seen drinking cappuccino in
Italian restaurants with Oriental women.

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

The Fish Head Song

When in Singapore
there are a few things that I insist on eating, without exception: Hainan Chicken Rice, Satay, either Pepper or Chilli Crab, and lastly, Fish Head Curry. Of these favourites, I have yet to find a venue in Melbourne that produces them to the high standards of Singapore.

The recipes for these Straits Chinese dishes have evolved in the kitchens of generations of Nonya's - female Peranakan's - descendants of the Fukienese from China who married local Malays. From as far back as the fifteenth century, The Peranakan made their homes in the former British colonies of Malacca, Penang and Singapore, as well as parts of Indonesia and the Isthmus of Kra.

Some Peranakan came via Phuket and brought with them a love of sour tamarind flavoured dishes, chilli and fresh Asian herbs. All seemed inspired by the local confluence of trade, where markets were filled with an abundance of spices from India.

The Malay influence in the cooking can be found in pounded spice pastes made from candlenuts, rhizomes and belanchan. The Chinese love of pork, duck and seafood is also evident. Chinese pickles and sauces are widely used; tropical coconut and pandan leaves drift into many dishes too

Along with practicing Chinese Ancestor Worship and upholding Confucian values, educated Peranakans very much embraced Western ways. In terms of food, they took on Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, breads and pastries. From this melting pot of cultures evolved a unique fusion food that I often crave.

On our latest trip
to Singapore, we spent time with my dearest Bin, who I love as my sister. In my childhood, it was Bin's mother who cared for me in many times of family stress. And through her I was first introduced to Strait's Chinese cooking. The pull of this cooking is as strong as my link with the Hungarian food that comforted me at other times of my dysfunctional childhood.

Bin checked with her colleagues as to where to find 'The Best' Fish Head Curry in Singapore and as I expected, it was not a glamorous venue but a simple shop in Chinatown with many tables on the pavement. She cautioned us to meet her at her office by noon as the restaurants with the best reputation are full to capacity within minutes of opening for lunch.

We strode quickly to Ocean Curry Fish Head on Telok Ayer Street and grabbed an al fresco table. I gazed at the colourful old Chinese shop houses around us, while Bin went inside to the counter and ordered. Very quickly our fresh lime soda's arrived in large glass mugs and by that stage the venue was full.

Situated on a corner, the venue was open on two sides to the street, with large striped awnings sheltering customers below. We sat on red plastic stools at a round Formica topped table. A very basic set up, there were no frills when it came to accoutrements at Ocean Curry Fish Head, its reputation alone seemed to be all that was necessary to draw crowds. Furnished with cutlery and a moist towelette in an Ocean Curry Fish Head branded pack, we were equipped and anticipating a good meal ahead.

Inside, the counter, a bain marie and a TV dominated the room. A queue snaked its way to the counter as the hungry lunch time horde descended. Off to the sides, those who missed out on a table, waited like hungry seagulls, keeping eyes alert and making ready to swoop on any table where diners looked as though they might leave.

Bin ordered us stuffed squid, beans with XO sauce and a dish of Chilli clams - a dish many avoid in Singapore in fear of contracting amoebic dysentery, but we took our lives into our hands and indulged anyway, finding no side effects felt later. The dishes were simply prepared but delicious, a good foil texturally to the centrepiece to come. And then the curry arrived. Resplendent in a well used claypot, it wafted its steamy aromas seductively across the table to me.

On a hot humid day in Singapore, the heat put out by this heavy clay dish made the sweat flow freely. Beside us, local workers were mopping their brows and looking a little dishevelled by the exertions of plowing through both the heat and chilli of the dish in steamy conditions.

As I added the slurry of coconut based sauce to a mound of rice before me, the scent of fresh turmeric greeted my nostrils. A second later I felt the tickle of chilli making my nostrils flare like an impatient racehorse.

Burying my tongue in the rice and sauce mix, I picked up ground coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, wafts of ginger, garlic and tamarind, sweetened and thickened with coconut cream. I was in raptures of ecstasy - this was a dish fit for the Gods.

I felt sweat beading on my nose as I ate. In the mix were large chunks of white fleshed fish head, and we dove in for cheeks, and I for eyes and the tongue. There were whole ladies fingers - also known as okra - slices of long slim brinjal - slender purple eggplant - onion and chunks of tomato. The concoction was odd texturally; soft and vaguely slimy elements offset by an intense, rich and spicy sauce.

I don't tend to eat a lot of rice, but in this instance it was the best way to enjoy the sauce. I would have been as happy with a big loaf of stale bread to soak up every last drop, but I doubt that I would have made it through, as the dish is deceptively filling. Like that expanding gap filler available in hardware stores, it seems to swell up from within.

The hovering, late-coming, hungry hordes, desperate to snare a table had moved just feet from our seats as we launched into the dish. And as our plates began to empty, they made their presence clearly felt standing just inches from us. So mopping ourselves down with our complimentary moist wipes, we paid up. And to the relief of the human seagulls, beat a hasty retreat around the corner to wander through hospitality-ware stores and to go to a traditional Chinese shop to eat some uniquely Singaporean Chinese desserts.

Within seconds back at Ocean Curry Fish Head, our seats had been taken and the process of enjoyment had began again, and again.

19 September 2009

Tasmania: The Red Velvet Lounge

The King will walk on Tupelo!

Tupelo-o-o! O Tupelo!

He carried the burden outa Tupelo!

Tupelo-o-o! Hey Tupelo!

You will reap just what you sow.
You will reap just what you sow.

Tupelo Written by: Cave, Harvey, Adamson 1984

Slowly raising my sleep encrusted eyelids, I peered out across the doona. A smoky eyed youth dressed casually in torn stone washed jeans and a bared six pack stared back. His blonde frosted, spiky hair was nuzzled by a barefooted woman with a huge cork screw perm and they were draped decorously over an old Buick in a field: the ultimate ‘80s pin up couple in a black metal frame. Was I dreaming? Had I gone back in time?

No. It wasn’t 1984. It was 2009 and we were in a Southern Tasmanian B&B in The Huon’s beautiful Cygnet, fifty minutes drive south of Hobart. This is the town where my friend and chef, Steve Cumper has settled. Back in ‘84, Steve and I were probably rocking around the same Punk scene in St.Kilda, Pogo-ing on sticky carpet and watching a baby faced Nick Cave tear up the stage.

It was in this momentary time-warp however and later - standing in the ensuite’s marble patterned Formica time capsule of a shower cubicle – that I began to understand the mindset of the local customer who criticized Steve for daring to break from the formulaic pub approach to meals with his wonderful evening menu at The Red Velvet Lounge.

You see Cygnet is vaguely reminiscent of Victoria’s Daylesford in 1984. Early invaders - crusty folk singing, tea cozy wearing types - are gradually making way for a trickle of self funded retirees from the mainland settling into a tree-change, alongside a small gay community who’ve also recognized the town’s potential. But forming the core of the community are those born and raised in The Huon Valley, some perhaps frozen in another era - possibly also locked in a culinary limbo - and who I suspect may still be coming to grips with Steve’s efforts to create a contemporary menu supporting local and artisanal produce.

On the periphery of the community, former Chef and Sydney Morning Herald Restaurant Reviewer, Matthew Evans can be found acting out a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall scenario whilst being trailed by a film crew around his twee sounding property, Puggle Farm. In October, they will bring their footage of Cygnet to Australian TV viewers via SBS broadcasting.

In this picture, I imagine Steve Cumper to be Tasmania’s Alla Wolf Tasker - of Daylesford’s The Lake House - or an early version of Gourmet Traveller ‘National Treasure’ George Biron of Sunnybrae, tending his own farmlet and pushing the barrow of Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical (SOLE) food.

Back in '84 there was no way that I could afford to eat at a venue such as Alla’s or George’s. I couldn’t even afford the standard issue Punk studded leather motorcycle jacket. Steve couldn’t afford a car stereo so apparently had a cassette player taped to the dash of his old car.

In the eighties people my age who chose the ‘Alternative Lifestyle’ of local, biodynamic and artisanal food were presumed to be an unwashed hippie akin to Neil in The Young Ones, and not fit to dine in a fashionable restaurant. Now it’s all changed. Today SOLE food is becoming ‘de rigeur’ and Mr Sticky and I happily tucked into Steve’s special Friday evening meal at Red Velvet Lounge (RVL).

We came to RVL on what became our ‘Tasmania: Closed for the Weekend’ tour of the Apple Isle. Nearly everywhere we wanted to go was shut, in spite of advertising that they’d be open. Seems that those who could, had left Tassie for a break on the mainland. They must have flown out on one of those ridiculously cheap flights that had brought us there in the first place.

Consequently it was an unusually quiet night at RVL, with the subtle sounds of bossa nova from the stereo mingling with a few tables of polite chatter, until an aging folk music duo quietly settled on a couch in the corner of the room for guitar strumming, humming and harmonizing. There was a time where the folk music was the focus of this venue, not the food. But the balance has now changed. The diners we saw were indifferent to the music played at the front of the restaurant.

We found the service to be good at RVL. So often it is hard to manage this in regional venues, but I suspect that Steve’s nurturing nature knits this loyal group like a family. We began service with a couple of local beers, a Moo Brew from Moorilla and a ‘Cleansing Ale’ sighted on a chalkboard while considering the menu.

Although by day the Red Velvet Lounge is a small town café selling delicious wholesome daytime meals, suitable to vegan, vegetarian and omnivore alike, Friday and Saturday nights’ menu allows Steve to show off his prowess. Simple rustic sounding dishes - that won’t scare the natives - abound. But when you taste the food you realize that under the surface is a complex and imaginative array of meals that other chefs might be tempted to describe in four flowery lines of text. I love the restraint of description here. It allows you to discover the depths of Steve’s creativity orally with no major preconceptions to hinder the process.

Surveying the menu I wanted all the entrees on offer; we sampled three between us. I could not fault any of them. All wore a simple mantle that disguised the technical degree of difficulty combined with imagination that an experienced, meticulous chef can seemingly effortlessly pull off.

Between us we shared a rabbit pie floater with mushy peas and roasted parsnip which could have passed as a meal in-itself, as Steve doesn’t like to skimp on portions. There was no corner cutting here, a properly formed pie with lid sat picture perfect in the centre of the dish. Steve’s sour cream pastry was the perfect foil to the unctuous filling, offset beautifully by fluffy mushy peas and the sweetness of a roasted parsnip.

When it came time to swap plates, my nose was greeted by the wonderful aromas of the grilled Rannoch Farm quail. I lingered, inhaling it and then the saliva swarmed my palate until I just had to taste it. This was not a dish I anticipated in a regional restaurant but it was everything you would wish for – a fine mélange of fresh local flavours: delicate moist flesh with artichokes, punctuated with the tang and firmness of olives, then vine leaves and finally the verjuice, which made me think of Steve’s days with Maggie Beer in the Barossa.

Thirdly, we shared the duck neck sausage which was a thick, coarse, almost terrine like item, sliced and served with a wee jar of smooth, rich pâté, celeriac remoulade and some cornichons. The lot sat on a thin, long wooden board which was also graced by thick char-grilled slices of Steve’s famous bread, baked in the Restaurant’s original Scotch oven.

The pâté had Mr Sticky hooked, so silky and flavorsome was it. Perfectly rustic & slightly gamey, the total combination of textures and deep flavours in this entrée made it subtly sophisticated, and yet had me imagining that it would have been the ideal picnic dish for sitting by the water, watching the pod of whales that had recently graced the locals with a sighting.

When the main courses arrived, I was feeling nearly full already. But we forged on. Before me sat an impressive thick cut, crumbed pork Cotoletta upon a mound of velvety parmesan enriched mashed potato. Greed took over. Slicing in, it was perfectly moist and satisfied my wicked desire for crunchy, crumbed and fried meat. Baby rocket rounded out the vegetable content and a wicked dish of aioli flecked with local truffles sat alongside, enriching the palate further.

It crossed my tongue with a sigh of satisfaction. Whilst the execution was technically perfect, what made this special was that the integrity of the high quality produce was not compromised or gussied up as to become pretentious. It was a homely Mittle European style dish and for those who might be wary of modern ways, did not make a song-and-dance about the skill required to produce and prepare it.

The slow roasted leg of lamb rendered Mr Sticky speechless with admiration. Slow cooked for five hours, then pressed and finished again in the oven, it was a melt in the mouth, rib-sticking piece of deliciousness. The seasoning added richness. The lamb lost none of the honesty of its flavor in the process and did not have the cloying fattiness that some lamb dishes suffer. With the Cassoulet like braise of Cannelini beans, spinach and another side - this time of anchovy mayonnaise - it was a hearty dish that I could see my beloved was almost loathe to part with as we swapped plates. In my opinion it was an exemplary dish, the likes of which one might have presumed ought to have earned RVL a place in the 09 Gourmet Traveller Food Guide had they tried it.

I was thankful that the restaurant was quiet that night, as it allowed Steve the chance to come out and chat. At this point, chatting excitedly - albeit with food still left on our plates - I was already in a food coma. Mr Sticki however was tempted to order dessert. His choice was the chocolate mousse with peppermint praline. He may have felt full, but this slipped down quickly, lubricated with cream.

I took one mouthful and it was a trip to chocolate heaven, smooth and rich, offset by the crunch of the crumbled sugary mint candy. It was elegant and unbound by gimicry. My coffee sufficed to end my meal. Enlivened by good conversation and a fine repast, I was thoroughly sated.

One of the things I admire and respect in Steve is his optimistic and humble nature. He keeps his head down and charts his own course without hype or braggadocio. Early in his career he worked at Melbourne’s famous Tsindos Bistrot, under Ray Tsindos, son of iconic Chef George Tsindos, the man who for 40 years brought Florentino’s high repute.

Later Steve joined Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm Restaurant in The Barossa Valley, at that time regarded as Australia’s equivalent to Alice Waters. Other highlights include launching Soul Mama with Paul Mathis, raising the reputations of the Zampelis Restaurant Group and later winning Vogue Entertaining’s Award for use of local produce at Tasmania’s Peppermint Bay Restaurant. Not that he’ll wave any of that in your face. Steve is a thinker, an artisan, a talented chef and family man with his feet planted firmly in the ground while he dreams up beautiful recipes.

Similarly the venue is humble. Like a big warm hug from Nana, the venue allows you to rest in the comfort of its vaguely retro bosom. A former double fronted General store, the café-cum-restaurant features a counter and display cases showcasing Steve’s breads, jams and preserves. An open kitchen is disguised at night by an enormous floor to ceiling red curtain. There is a wood combustion stove, leather couches and heavy tables and chairs. It walks a dignified line between a busy casual breakfast and lunch café for most of the week, and an approachable rustic restaurant on Friday and Saturday evenings that doesn’t intimidate the old school locals.

Evidently Steve’s taken the softly-softly approach here, evolving the venue’s approach gradually from Crusty-Wholefood café to City style dining. So it was no surprise when Cygnet locals told us “they went spare” when RVL closed for renovations, feeling bereft without Steve’s handmade bread, asking if he could continue to service them in spite of the closure. Also the Tree-changers declaring that RVL had “The best coffee for miles” who suffered in silence before they could again enjoy their ritual caffeine hit.

After enjoying both, I can totally understand their loyalty and why the people of Hobart and beyond will drive out of their way to eat Steve’s food. For at the heart of this place is a quiet, determined passion within a spirited thinker who cares not a jot for fashion, but for what is intrinsically good in the world. If you’re visiting Hobart, I highly recommend that you book a table there one night and see for yourself....and tell him Sticky sent you.

The Red Velvet Lounge

24 Mary Street, Cygnet, Tasmania, Australia
03 6295 0466

03 September 2009

The Rose Hotel

One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.

Once in a while I hook up with old friends - and a couple of new ones - from the advertising industry to chew the fat over a lunchtime cheap eat. I love the comfort of the outing, exchanging news, experiences and ideas. I get excited and chat my head off. The Banff in St.Kilda has been a popular venue for this gathering, but it is always heaving and not a particularly comfortable venue for a medium sized group, so we adjourned today to The Rose in Port Melbourne, which is now run by the previous owners of Banff.

The Rose has been through many incarnations in the twenty odd years that I have been an irregular patron. In the eighties it was a trendy, yuppie pub, popular with the Marketing crowd, then it became a party pub, eventually a retro party pub - playing music from the yuppie era when eighties parties came into vogue - and then for a time a serious wine pub. For the last few years it has been a Gourmet Traveller and Good Food Guide vaunted Greek restaurant and bar, surviving two different ownerships. And then Port Melbourne changed.

The restaurant got increasingly quiet and even enticements to the Greek community such as live basouki music failed to draw them in. A nearby Greek Restaurant that had also once drawn big crowds at a sister venue in Swan Street, Richmond also felt the pinch and moved their focus to a generic European offering, serving cheese degustations, breakfast, coffees and a deli selling pre-made take-home meals.

The elderly Greek community began to die out and their children took advantage of sky-rocketing property prices to sell the down at the heel Port Melbourne family homes that had nurtured them since geting off the boat at Station Pier. I suppose many built Mc Mansions in Oakleigh, and with the move, the local demand for Greek Food was ably sated by Old Man Stavros' plate smashing institution in Albert Park. The Rose was regularly empty and eventually sold. The owners moved to South Melbourne to sell pizzas.

The first I heard of the new regime at the venue came in the form of a flyer - from Rose Bar Pizza - also touting Gourmet pizza albeit with a cleanskin bottle shop. "Not another pizza venue?" I said to Mr Sticky, "We already have eleven pizza joints within walking distance of home. How will they survive?"

But we were sufficiently enticed to try it, being at the end of our street, and because I wanted try Italian Sausage pizza with caramelised onions; Roast pumpkin, Gorgonzola, rocket & pine nut pizza, along with Prawn, chilli, saganaki, lemon & rocket pizza. We did not regret it.

Essentially the menu here is the same as Banff's because the former Chef is now at the Port Melbourne venue. Since her departure, I've noticed that the food in St.Kilda is less reliable and so our moving our group's lunch to Port Melbourne was a sound one. As one of my locals, their offer of a selection of 10 excellent gourmet pizzas at $5.50 for lunch Monday to Friday, and on Monday & Tuesday nights is hard to go past. And I love that this is further proof that you can get gourmet grub that beats Maccas for value.

At Rose Bar Pizza, as it is now known, the pizzas are midsized and thin based with a generous serve of quality toppings. There's no bulk bags of commercially grated cheese or ham of dubious origins here. Each pizza is flavoursome, with the right amount of crunch and chewiness. I can also recommend their salads, the potato, saganaki and rosemary pizza; Chorizo, artichokes, cherry tomato and olive pizza; Moroccan Lamb with mint yoghurt and za'atar pizza and the velvety Macaroni Cheese which arrives in a miniature paella pan.

As a chick, I never seem to be able to finish the pizza on my own so although tempted, I have yet to try the chocolate, cherry & ice cream pizza or the apple crumble & custard version. Given that they have happy hour from 3-6pm every day, I may just have to slide down there for 'afternoon tea'.

Like Banff, they also serve the delicious frothies made by Bearings Brewery in Geelong at $2.50 a pot. So today, at lunch the boys enjoyed a meal for $10.50 including a couple of beers. A couple of them tried the tasting tray at the bar to sample which cleanskin they fancied quaffing, and a good time was had by all in this large, modern yet comfortable room, with it's long marble topped communal space and walls festooned with art and customised pizza boxes decorated by regulars.

Time slipped away quickly in such convivial surrounds. I left clutching a box of my leftover pizza and a takeaway so that my beloved did not miss out. As I walked home to work again overlooking my garden, I counted my blessings: a beautiful Spring day, great friends and simply prepared quality food that didn't break the bank. Life is truly good.

Rose Bar Pizza
309 Bay Street, Port Melbourne,
Victoria, Australia ph. 9646 3580
Mon-Fri Noon until late, Saturday 5pm until late

Rose on Urbanspoon

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