“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

On the lack of food blog coherence

grapes
Grapes, apropos of nothing

Sorry I’ve been a bit light on providing content over the past few weeks, I’ve been busy elsewhere, in a frenzy that sounds lke it comes straight from the kitchen of a Wes Anderson film. At SBS, I’ve been writing on those interlinked topics of mince and chicken tikka lasagne from Iceland. I am still flying a mouldering Cambodian flag back at my other Cambodian food blog, a habit that I can’t escape. As a snapshot of my domestic life, I took an annotated photograph of my refrigerator for the world’s greatest food blog, Gut Feelings. It is a sad indictment of my current lack of regular eating habits and a reminder that I should buy a refrigerator less than two decades old.

In the real world, last weekend, I rode a bicycle around the Mornington Peninsula in service of the Wall Street Journal (article forthcoming), just to prove that pinot and physical exercise are not diametrically opposed pastimes.

I’m not sure where or how any of these disparate strands tie together but they certainly don’t make for coherent food blogging.

Northern Thai in Western Melbourne: Bonus Content

Austin Bush has been hanging out with me in Melbourne over the last week and we’ve been doing the sort of thing that food bloggers do when they run into each other: drink every single pale ale made in Australia and New Zealand; eat several times a day with no regard for socially accepted “meal times”; and cook food that takes regional authenticity to ludicrous lengths which he has amply documented on his Thai food blog.

Both Austin and I are huge fans of Northern Thai food, the cuisine that skirts the Burmese border in Thailand’s northern provinces. He’s been spending plenty of time up there and myself, not nearly enough. Austin came up with a menu.

Here’s my take on it.

Sai Ua

Sai Ua at home

I’d been keen to make David Thompson’s recipe for sai ua in his book Thai Food for quite some time. It’s a greasy pork sausage from Chiang Mai that is packed full of chilli, lemongrass, coriander, shredded lime leaves and hog fat. You spot it throughout Northern Thailand as a , chopped into bite-size chunks and served in a plastic bag. The chilli-reddened grease from it coats the inside of the bag and as a consequence, your hand.

When I came across the handful of sausage recipes in Thai Food, it did make me wonder, how many of these recipes have ever been cooked by the owners of Thompson’s tome? Chiang Mai sausage making requires an interlocking interest in regional Thai cuisine and charcuterie. In my experience, these fascinations tend to be mutually exclusive.

I’m not going to repeat the recipe here. Do David Thompson a favour and buy his book. Recipe is on page 518. My liner notes for the recipe:

  • There is no need to smoke the sausage over dessicated coconut. Just grill it over an open fire. I get the feeling that Thompson added this step because it works in a commercial kitchen. If you’re cooking commercially, you can smoke the sausage in advance then finish the sausage on a flat grill because it is much quicker than the leisurely route of slow-cooking it over coals.
  • More chilli. The recipe suggests 6-10 dried chillies and we used about 20. If you feel unsure about this, grind up the sausage mix with only half the chilli then fry up a test patty. We still didn’t get the color quite right – it needed to be redder. The next batch that I try will use a mix of powdered chilli and dried chillies. Otherwise the mix of herbs is spot on.
  • If you’re using a commercial sausage maker, use the coarsest grind available and aim for a fat content of around 35-40%. They’re fattier than your average sausage and don’t need to bind as firmly as a western sausage. The herb mix can run straight through the meat grinder instead being pounded into a paste as Thompson suggests. The result is much closer to Austin and my recollection of Northern sausages, which have very coarse chunks of lemongrass and fine shards of lime leaf still intact.

Kaeng Hang Ley

Austin brought with him a collection of spices from Mae Hong Song, including the freshest turmeric powder I have ever smelled and the local Mae Hong Son “masala” powder, so we hit up Footscray for fresh ingredients. If you’re keen on making this particular curry, Austin has the hang ley recipe. For Thai ingredients in Melbourne, visit Nathan Thai Grocers at 9 Paisley St in Footscray. They’re amazingly well stocked with Thai goods and have a pre-prepared Hang Ley paste. At Nathan, we could find a Thai-brand sweet sticky soy and shrimp pastes just to take the dish to an extreme of regional correctness. As a coincidence, I already had Thai tamarind pulp (which is really no different from any other tamarind).

Pork belly is official local meat of Footscray. It can be found at every single butcher in the suburb, apart from the two lonely Halal meateries. I buy mine in Footscray Market because there are enough suppliers there that you can always pick out the right piece.

Saa

This recipe calls for young pea shoots and leaves, we had to settle for some slighty older and more bitter ones from Little Saigon Supermarket in Footscray. Multiple vendors had deep fried pork skin used to top this salad, but the Northern Thai-style of pork crackling which is cut into thin strips was nowhere to be seen.

Key Sources

Nathan Thai Video and Grocery, 9 Paisley St, Footscray. They’re friendly guys and even have a blog, documenting incoming Thai videos.

Little Saigon Market, 63 Nicholson Street, Footscray. Best for vegetables from across Asia. Also a good spot to pick up hard to find dried fish.

Footscray Market, 81 Hopkins St, Footscray. I only visit here for meats, mostly fish and pork.

Four Seasons Claypot Rice

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Tasty lens flare

When there is a queue of twenty people out the front, take the hint. It is either very good or super cheap.

Most of the time, I have a plan to eat my way around but after knocking back a handful of dumpling meals, I was satisfied by Hong Kong. This opened up the chance to eat at random. This joint , just near Temple Street, was doing a roaring trade in something that involved a giant stack of claypots which was reason enough to eat there.

Across the road is a hole in the wall place selling boiled offal in curry sauce. Once a family had joined the queue for the claypot joint, an emissary was sent over to the offal house to pick up a styrene clamshell of chopped tripe to see them through the queuing. Standing in line is reason enough to eat and the claypot restaurateurs were happy to let patrons bring in their own offal entree. This is probably a great measure of a food obsessed nation: that the only appropriate behaviour when waiting to eat is to eat something else. And there is always something else to eat at hand.

Once crammed into a communal table, I ordered what the people next to me ate.

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Oyster omelette, deep fried until crispy with a sweet chilli sauce. This dish pops up all over Southeast Asia, but I’d never had it before in this crisp form.

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Burnt claypot chicken rice; advertised as “Four Seasons Claypot Rice” on the menu. Rice is cooked in the claypot over a relatively high heat, which steams the chicken and burns a rich toasty layer of rice onto the bottom of the pot.

The local tactic for eating this dish is to pour a slug of soy sauce into the dish and then sit and wait for five excruciating minutes. The only two valid reasons that I can muster for the wait is firstly, the pot is damn hot; and secondly, maybe the extra liquid and steam from the soy lifts and softens the rice that is burnt onto the bottom of the pot. Maybe soy sauce represents the missing fourth season. If any claypot junkies can enlighten me, I’d love to know.