This is where tuna ends

Tuna at Tsukiji
Whole frozen tuna on a forklift at Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo

I have no hope whatsoever for the future of tuna. The death warrant for Atlantic tuna was written at the last meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ensuring that current tuna stocks will have a 50% chance of recovering in the next decade. The tuna is one of the only endangered species that you could buy at the supermarket to feed to your cat or rave about eating a perfect red shard atop vinegared rice without social repercussions. I doubt this prevailing attitude will change before the bluefin and yellowfin tuna are well dead.

Roughly, three quarters of the world’s tuna is eaten by Japan and from four in the morning, it looks like roughly three quarters of the Japan’s tuna is at Tsukiji fish market in downtown Tokyo. Frozen torpedoes of fish are lined up in a warehouse for auction, a visual cliche of Tokyo that wrestles for space in travel brochures with Goth Lolitas and that busy intersection in Shibuya.

The auction rooms are currently cut off to tourists thanks to its popularity and the propensity of tourists to fall beneath forklifts. (It appears that the auction area is actually open to a limited number of visitors each day (Cheers, Akila) – I must have missed the cut). Austin Bush has some excellent coverage of the auctions. I concentrated on what happens next.

Tuna at Tsukiji

The areas where the middlemen transfer and dismantle the tuna is still accessible for death by forklift. Tuna are transferred from the auction area into stalls on handcarts yoked to the elderly, motorised gurneys which appear to be the offspring of a motorcycle and a double bed, and your construction-variety forklift.

Whole frozen tuna on a cart

Tuna are kept cool with blocks of dry ice while they await the bandsaw. The smaller stallholders break down their morning’s buy into component cuts, dividing the buttery belly cuts from the coarser red flesh. It’s a much less sterile process that I would have expected with tuna heads piling up on the concrete floor before the flesh is removed from their cheeks, collar and eyes.

Filleting Tuna at Tsukiji

Fresh fish are hand-filleted. If you’re at all interested in the full Japanese 27-step process for breaking down a tuna, Cooking Issues comes up with the goods.

Tuna at Tsukiji

Once removed from the bone, fillets are further onsold; restaurants and smaller vendors picking up particular cuts to resell elsewhere in the city and sate the endless appetite for this doomed fish.

At least she didn’t mention the war.

What is the point of swallowing the last 10 years of Hanoi food writing from U.S. magazines, visiting said city for a holiday-come-assignment, talking to the self same people you’ve read about in those U.S. magazines and spewing 2,129 words of uninspired, unoriginal, factually inaccurate, poop out the orifice of an American printing press at the other end? I dunno, but maybe the editors at The Smithsonian can tell us.

It’s worth taking a look over at Noodlepie as Graham Holliday eviscerates the latest steamy gut-pile of parachute journalism on Hanoian phở. I’m still amazed that there is a market for articles where the journalists interview just the “cultural translators” – those handy English-speaking experts who can be relied on for a pithy quote – rather than the people who cook the dish on a daily basis.

“It’s a minefield even for Asians”

I had dinner on Saturday at Poon’s Chinese Restaurant in Barkly Street, Footscray. It was the worst Cantonese meal that I’ve eaten in Melbourne. The service was gracious and friendly considering that they were packed and it was dirt cheap. The meal was a mistake but not an expensive one and it filled me with regret but not salmonella. The food was uniformly tasteless like some non-toxic, starchy glue.

Poon’s however, is popular enough to be ranked a local institution much of which seems to revolve around the ritual of regular dining in the same place over a period of decades. The result of a family decision where Friday night is fish and chips, Saturday night is Poon’s. Single sex groupings dining together, having the Boy’s Night Out with a table filled with Crownies; women on other tables sharing a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay and splitting Poon’s gigantic (and suspiciously Chiko Roll-like) spring rolls. There were no chopsticks on offer, anywhere.

At a guess, it has been doing the same food in the same place for half a century and the punters love it. Here’s a review from Menulog:

i have been a ‘patron’ of ‘Poons’ for at least 40 years, and would not go anywhere else. The food is fresh, nutritional and very easy to eat. The variations on the Menu are wonderful.

The staff and Management have ALWAYS been good to me and i feel part of their family after all these years, at being treated as part of their family.

i only wish they could deliver to Carlton to where i live, but at least i get a chance to mix with some of the ‘cream of the crop people in our Society when i visit them regularly.

Thank you for allowing me to tell you this wonderful news about ‘Poons’. ( i tell everyone i go there and love it and the staff too )

Who in Australia cares about “Asian food” in a world where Poon’s is rating as well as Flower Drum or Lau’s on user-generated review sites?

When it comes to food from Asia, most Australians are happy with average food. “Chinese food” means a regionless choice of meat stir fried in your choice of bland starchy sauce. Most Australians are content with the local Thai joint doing the traffic light curries (red, green, yellow) straight from the bucket of Mae Ploy. Vietnamese means pho alone. Japanese is aseasonal and what rich people eat (except for sushi, which is no longer associated with Japan). The rest of Asia is a vague unknown, summarised in the thinner chapters of cookbooks with the word Oriental in the title. Above all, the food must be “very easy to eat”. No bones, no heads, no need to even chew.

So Necia Wilden’s article in The Australian newspaper regarding her inability to find or discern premium Asian ingredients was no great surprise to me. Boneless and free from the shackles of mastication. I’m only bringing it up because of the interesting discussion it has spawned over at Progressive Dinner Party. Like Zoe, I read it in the physical newspaper. I paid good money for it in the hope that food journalism in The Australian (and coverage of food from Asia) would be better in 2009 under Lethlean and Wilden’s gaze. I haven’t bought an edition of The Australian since. If it’s been a bumper year for food writing in The Australian, apologies for not supporting it.

I’m not going to tackle the racism behind grouping food from Asia together into an undifferentiated and monolithic bloc, skipping between cuisines as if there was no need for specialist knowledge in any of them. Provincial food for The Australian, it seems, only comes from refined palates in Europe.

It’s the Chicken Tonight approach to food that also concerns me: if only I had the right stir-through sauce recommended to me as authentic, the curry would taste the same as at my hotel in Phuket. So how to come by this knowledge? Getting a recommendation from the person that owns the store is just not good enough, as Wilden puts it:

“How do I know this soy sauce is organic?” I ask the young woman in the Japanese grocery store near my home. “Because it says so on the label,” she says, pointing to the Japanese characters on the bottle’s posh paper wrapping. Ah, right.

The key, according to the article, is to get a chef to tell you what is good, preferably one with an Asian last name or a cookbook the size of a family sedan. Actually going out, buying a few things and then tasting them is not mentioned. You only learn to cook through your own experiences and your sense of taste is subtly different to everyone else and above all, should be trusted. If David Thompson recommends Megachef brand fish sauce but you enjoy $3 a bottle Tiparos, go with your own tastes. At most, experimenting with different brands will be less than $5 a hit.

Buying ingredients is no minefield as Tony Tan mentions in the article, at least in comparison to the minefields that I’ve seen built for Cambodians and by Cambodians. Ask the shopkeeper. Try different things. You won’t step on anything that will turn you, your children or your livestock into a fine pink mist. So who is this article meant to service? What is to gain from making cooking certain cuisines at home look more difficult and less satisfying?

Just to put on a particularly Bolshie hat, newspapers have so little to gain from pimping out fresh food – it is the Simon Johnson’s of the world that buy ads in the food sections of newspapers and not your local Vietnamese grocer. There is a need for newspapers to prop up a system that recommends branded goods over raw ingredients. If word got out that fresh ingredients make much more of a difference in cooking than processed ones, all hell would break loose. People would be smashing in the Lean Cuisine fridges in your local duopolist supermarket in a fit of rage.

Just to bring things back to the world of Poon’s rather than some parallel universe where people care about what they eat, The Australian’s food section is aimed squarely at the Poon’s market and not at me. It’s aimed at people who buy the best fish sauce as a display to others that they buy the best fish sauce rather than as a pungent condiment whose value is in its consumption. This is the food journalism for the people who have been eating the same Chinese food for decades and are unwilling or unable to try somewhere new without someone else validating and translating the experience for them.

Xiao Long Bao in the Gastrodesert: Little House, Bundoora

Xiao Long Bao, Little House, Bundoora

I think that it was Australian food writer John Lethlean who labelled the region north of Heidelberg in Melbourne as a gastrodesert. On the surface, it’s gastronomically grim up north; the oleaginous wasteland of charcoal chicken and Smorgy’s. People speak with fondness of shopping mall food courts and premixed bourbon and cola. If Stuff White People Like was written by an Australian white person on unemployment benefits, these are the Likes with which they would Stuff themselves.

Like any desert, the surface appearance is deceptive. There is a whole hidden ecosystem, not as rich as much of , but still prepossessing. Witness the above xiao long bao, the Shanghainese soup-filled dumpling that is currently enrapturing well to do Melbournites via the CBD restaurant Hutong. This was to be had in Bundoora, well north of the Heidelberg hinterlands at Little House Restaurant. I’d always thought that the idea of a hidden menu at suburban Chinese restaurants was a racist conceit. Sure, there is the occasional suburban menu where you need to read between the lines of poor translation but my experience is that restaurants put whatever they’re trying to sell at front and centre. The specials board in Mandarin tend to turn up on the menu elsewhere in English. The secrets involve organ meat.

This is not the case at Little House. Xiao long bao appear nowhere on the menu – I’d received a tip from a previously unknown source that these were some of the best dumplings in the state, a claim that I was only going to verify simply because it sounded too ludicrous to carry any truth. Anonymous tipsters paid big bucks in Hong Kong, so why not north of the gastro-divide?

Granted, it is not as good as Hutong’s version – Little House’s xiao long bao has slightly thicker pastry and is not formed with the same delicate hands – but it is a good third cheaper and it fits with the homely appeal of Little House. They are a dumpling that is well above average. Hutong is opposite Melbourne’s best known Cantonese restaurant, Flower Drum. Little House is next to a suburban tattooist run by a man named “Nugget“.

Little House, Bundoora, Melbourne

The rest of the menu is modest Shanghainese with a heavy dose of Szechuan – mapo tofu, lamb, chili aplenty. Malaysian is on the sign but barely referred to on the menu, maybe a remnant of a previous owner.

Location: Little House Restaurant, Dennison Mall, Bundoora, Vic

Hùng Vương, Footscray

You could probably map pho in Footscray as a means to learn Vietnamese legends of prehistory. Hùng Vương was a mythical king; the founder of the first Vietnamese dynasty. He descended from a dragon and taught the Vietnamese people to cultivate rice. Nothing of Hùng Vương’s past can be verified.

The restaurant Hùng Vương’s past is easily verified. It has been serving up phở on Hopkins Street, Footscray, for almost two decades – a period that has seen it gentrify from cheap phở joint to slightly upmarket phở joint. The renovations from a few years ago – dark timber veneer and polished floors – looks like a loving homage to Vietnamese phở franchise juggernaut Phở 24.

Phở from Hung Vuong, Footscray

The pho remains constant: sweet and beefy; soggy flat noodles and a hint of cinnamon. The tendon count is impressive in the phở bo dac biet: two gigantic, glossy chunks of connective tissue. It is also one of the few times that I craved more slices of lung in a dish.

In something of an attempt to be more social, I met up with food blogger Jeroxie, non-food blogger but pho aficionado Cloudcontrol and chilli junky Th0i3 for the trip, a short gustatory interlude before hitting Saigon Supermarket for Vina supplies. I have never seen a man put more chilli (oil, fresh and sauce) into a bowl of pho and retain some vestige of sanity.

Having lived in a nation where I was the only food blogger, it still seems like a novelty that there are hundreds of people doing the same nearby. I probably should get out more.

Location: 128 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: (03) 9689 6002

Bánh Xèo from Đình Sơn

Yes, I’m going a bit nuts on the Vina diacritics.

Banh Xeo, Melbourne

The equation that can’t be avoided when you travel for food is the one where you compare Third World prices to First World and try to account for the differences, offseting rent, ingredient quality and labour. It is a fun but fruitless diversion. The above bánh xèo from Quan Đình Sơn, next to Saigon Supermarket in Footscray is $10 for a crepe the size of your forearm. A full cubit of bánh xèo.

$10 would buy 16 plates of bánh xèo from my local market in Cambodia but it wouldn’t buy one this good. Once again, my weekend phở trip gets derailed.

Half eaten Bánh Xèo, Melbourne

Đình Sơn’s is packed with shelled prawns and slices of fatty pork. The crepe skirts the border of crispy and chewy. It’s rich and coconut-y. The side plate of cos and butter lettuce, used for rolling up chunks of the crepe and dipping in the sweet dipping sauce nước chấm, is generous and refilled as I plough through it. There isn’t much else in the way of distraction in the restaurant: the obligatory TV is on the blink; there’s barely enough mirrored tiles to form an entrancing hall of mirrors; their shrine is perfunctory. Shoppers pass on the way into Saigon Supermarket and pick up meals to go from the bain marie.

The menu boasts about a hundred Chinese and Vietnamese dishes but the key here is to order from the corkboard just below the plastic menu board which contains a few kho dishes, dry fried noodles and the bánh xèo, written up in permanent marker.

Dinh Son restaurant at Saigon Supermarket, Footscray

Location: Shop 1, 63 Nicholson Street (cnr Byron St), Footscray VIC 3011

Phở Chu The, Footscray

Pho Chu The, Footscray

I had grand plans to work my way through the phở of the Melbourne suburb of , bucket-sized bowls of beef soup every weekend, but never quite got there. There are no less than 20 phở establishments within easy walking distance but every time that I kick things off, I get the nagging feeling that it is just not worth the effort. Phở in Melbourne is above average. Terrible phở is the exception (but not impossible to find). Brilliant phở only exists in people’s homes.

I’d love to be proven wrong.

You’ll never find a rich, herbal phở on the streets of Melbourne. The herbage that accompanies usually will only stretch to basil with the occasional appearance of mint. Sawtooth coriander, ngo om (rice paddy herb), or any other miscellaneous herb that could differentiate an outstanding bowl of phở, while widely available across Melbourne, never make it into a phở restaurant. The broths are beefy but the spice is toned down. The meat in each bowl is great – a big step above the Saigon street corner – but it can’t carry the dish.

Chu The has two outlets: one in Richmond, the other in the dead centre of Footscray, opposite the market. The Footscray joint is packed, all the time. Their phở bo dac biet (beef special), above, is sweet and umami. A few glassy fingers of tendon are glassy and cooked to rubbery perfection but it is otherwise much of the same.

The damage: small bowl of phở bo dac biet: A$7.50

Location: 92 Hopkins St, Footscray