On the lack of food blog coherence

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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.

Meandering through Sheung Wan

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Just to avoid the impression that I did nothing but eat in Hong Kong, I also spent a few lazy hours wandering the streets of Sheung Wan in a dumpling and pork induced stupor, planning which dumpling place I’d hit next and remembering dumplings past.

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Sheung Wan is where the edible dried miscellany vendors hawk their wares. If you can dry it, someone here sells it as food or medicine. If you need a whole Yunnanese ham, one hundred kilos of fish maw or a bag of assorted turtle plastrons, this is where you will find it. As far as I know, of these three ingredients only one ends up in a dumpling.

Every store has a rich odor of its own, a musty smell that permeates even the passing trams on Des Vouex Road. I find it homely but it is probably not the olfactory overload that most tourists are seeking. You can always head over to the Flower Market Street over in Kowloon.

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The surrounding alleyways are packed with small packing houses, distributors and vendors. Porters lug boxes in and out of trucks, and onto low-slung metal trolleys. A few streets specialise in abalone, bird’s nest and ginseng. Judging by the “No Photography” signs on the abalone vendors, I’d wager that a proportion of the abalone is smuggled.

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Pickled cabbage vessel, cracked and leaking lurid chili. Not everything stays intact.

Lin Heung, Hong Kong

Lin Heung interior

Lin Heung is proof that the advice from random strangers on the Internet is better than anything published elsewhere. A commenter whom I’ve never seen before mentioned this dim sum joint amongst a handful of the sort of hawker stalls that pique my interest, so I decided to hit it up. Just because I don’t know you does not mean that I don’t trust you.

On a Sunday, Lin Heung is dim sum as competitive sport. Half of the trolleys enter the crowded, windowless room and a mob of ravenous Hong Kongers descend upon it, dim sum chit in hand. There are no clear patterns as to what particular dumplings are most sought after: the crowd seems self reinforcing. Hubbub causes further hubbub. Seating is communal, insofar as there is nowhere else to sit.

Lin Heung siu mai
siu mai at Lin Heung, Hong Kong

Everything here surpasses their base ingredients. You can taste the chunks of roughly-cut roast pork in the siu mai.

Lin Heung

Their tofu skin is light and barely toothsome; steamed beef balls are as beefy as whichever cut and organs were ground into them. This is the first time that I’ve seen people compete for simple plates of steamed offal. There is none of the premium dumplings; no prawns in anything that I could see. Seafood is on the menu but not off the cart.

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The biggest commotion breaks out over their bao; steamed buns. The reason is obvious, the actual bun, normally a neutral and flavourless element is tasty. It tastes like a real bread not simply a indistinct white casing for pork or bean.

It is a very rare occasion that you can find a street vendor or restaurant that is elevating food and doing something greater than selecting the best components at their disposal then cooking them to order. As much as I enjoyed both Lung King Heen and Maxim’s this felt more like home.

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Anthony Bourdain gave it his thumbs up. I think that he was onto something.

Location: 162 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong

City Hall Maxim’s Palace, Hong Kong

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When people play the standards well, it is still exciting. To be sure, City Hall Maxim’s Palace isn’t the sophisticate jazz stylings of Lung King Heen but those culinary riffs wouldn’t exist without a benchmark. In Hong Kong dim sum, that ticking metronome is Maxim’s. They make the classics in plenteous quantity and they do it consistently well. Whatever your expectations are about Maxim’s dim sum, it is likely that they’ll be met.

After negotiating the queue, Maxim’s is like stepping into a Chinese wedding where you don’t know anyone. There’s a preponderance of movement, food, red and gold but the focus is getting you seated and a meal inside you at speed rather any nuptial function. The cheapish chairs and tables are somehow reminiscent of a suburban reception centre. It is a mixed crowd. Local families read newspapers while their children tend to their Pokemon, or whatever it is that children interact with on their Nintendos these days. Backpackers look bewildered.

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Steaming trolleys rotate through the cacophonous hall, waitresses yelling out the names of their contents. I speak yum cha. I don’t know the words for “Goodbye” or even “Thank you” in Cantonese but I can ask for a plate of fried squid. It isn’t the most functional or appropriate way to know a language but I never go squidless. I probably sound like the rudest person in the room, but also, the hungriest. The waitstaff are au fait with you poking around on their trolley and taking your time. You could nurse a few dumplings for the best part of a morning. It would be the most pointless of mornings, but you could do it.

Anyhow, on with the dumpling porn

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Har gau, two sizeable prawns lurk amongst the shredded bamboo shoot within. In the background is cheong fun but with chicken and shiitake instead of the usual prawn. Maybe Maxim’s does take the occasional liberty with dim sum standards.

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Sin Chet Kuen

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Siu Mai, plus corn and prawn ball that I picked out because it looked hilarious. Eating for one’s perverse sense of humour is probably not the best idea.

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The damage: around HK$400 for two.

Address: 2nd Floor, City Hall Low Block, Hong Kong
Phone number: 852 2521 1303

Lung King Heen: 3 star dumplings

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Scallop and prawn dumpling, Lung King Heen

It’s a strange thing to live in the bottom half of the planet that has no Michelin stars. In some ways, it has an internal logic for Michelin: the guide’s ostensible purpose was to get people out into the provinces by car and thereby burn through more Michelin rubber. Awarding stars to somewhere that can’t be accessed by automobile does not sell more French tyres. Hong Kong is one hell of a drive from France: it’s a possible but improbable journey, but the stars, they be there.

Maybe Michelin makes tyres for planes these days.

With low-cost carriers now offering flights for roughly the price of buying a beer onboard said plane, I thought that it was about time that I did some serious offshore eating and start collecting stars like a proper, credentialed food critic. Maybe it would convert me to the lifestyle of a high-end eater and my days eating delicious soup in the gutter would be over. I could credibly complain about foie gras and table linen like somebody that works for a serious but doomed print publication.

So I booked in for at Lung King Heen, Hong Kong’s only three Michelin-starred restaurant. I’m probably not making the most of the experience by eating dim sum but then again, what have I got to prove to anyone? I love dumplings. If I could take the chance at having a meal at the only Cantonese restaurant that Michelin has awarded three stars to, and have them make me a selection of dumplings I would. And did.

Critics probably like writing about serious dining because it gives you much more to write about. Filling a thousand words is easy when you eat twenty courses and you’ve got much more leeway to pick faults when you’re paying a huge bill at the end. They seated me five minutes late. The linen on the table was not perfectly flat. Service is obvious, cookie cutter silver service. English is great. The room is simple: wood panelling; huge windows frame Hong Kong’s harbour which is the “View of the Dragon” to which the restaurant’s name refers. These things are utterly meaningless when it comes to food, but maybe they’re supposed to matter to someone.

Physically, Lung King Heen’s menu has weight and silken texture. Inside, it’s much the same, classic Cantonese dishes subtly tweaked with premium ingredients and new presentation. It is a menu that plays with your memory of other Cantonese food from your past – if you don’t eat much of it, you’d never notice but if you’re an aficionado, I imagine that Lung King Heen’s head chef Chan Yan-tak is permanently winking at you from the kitchen.

There are both vegetarian and organic vegetarian options on the menu which must seem abhorrent to the average Cantonese chef, but if it’s bringing in the stars, maybe it matters. I skipped most of it for the dumplings but ordered roast suckling pig. On with the dumpling porn.

Lung King Heen Xiao Long Bao

Xiao long bao come served on individual baskets; minimising the chances of puncturing the soup filled dumpling as you extract it from the steamer basket.

lung king heen roast pork

The roast suckling pig is presented separated; squares of rich meat topped with a square of pancake and a larger, thin pork skin hat. It’s tough to tackle with chopsticks and keep together in a single bite.

Lung King Heen Goose ball

Sesame balls, unexpectedly filled with chunks of roast goose. Scallop dumplings have two whole scallops in them; spring rolls with sea whelk crispness on the outside and gooey interior with chunks of whelk that taste like the fresh sea. The pastry on the beef and morel dumplings tasted like unadulterated butter.

About ten dumplings in, the whole experience reminded me of Maytel from Gut Feeling’s assessment of Thomas Keller’s food:

I know that if I was to put an oyster with a big dolllop of caviar and cover it all in a butter sauce people would probably applaud me too

Top end dining seems to be caught in a self perpetuating cycle – you get lauded by Michelin, you ramp up the use of premium ingredients, you get lauded further. Lung King Heen’s use of luxury ingredients is still restrained and judicious amongst the dumpling menu but it could go awry very quickly.

Does Hong Kong need Michelin’s external validation? The locals already know that they’re onto a good thing and somehow quantifying that experience into a range of zero through three stars seems to do it a grand disservice. I’ve always found anonymous food reviewing somehow dishonest. We all bring our prejudices to the table and stating those prejudices brings out the best in critics; even if that prejudice is unadulterated dumpling love. I’m not looking forward to Michelin stepping south of the equator. We have our own laughable hat system.

Price: ~HK$400 a head
Location: Four Seasons Hotel, Fourth Floor, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong
Telephone. (852) 3196-8888

Parachute Foodblogging 2: Restoran Nasi Kandar KL

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is the perfect town for stopover eating: parachuting into town for the few hours between flights. I’ve done it once before but this time was a bit more of a nostalgia trip. For me, breakfast in KL is synonymous with nasi kandar; Malaysian Tamil Muslim food from a cheap restaurant, leaden curries matched with feather-light .

Restoran Nasi Kandar KL on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, just around the corner from Petaling Street is by no means the greatest nasi kandar in town, but it feels like my nasi kandar. The grime-streaked yellow facade seems unchanged and the Indian Malaysian guy at the front counter still seems overwhelmingly pleased to see me. It was just between the cheap backpacker joint where I spent the most of my time in Malaysia and Pasar Seni station. The obvious place to stop on the way to eat somewhere else every day. They do an excellent roti canai: the accompanying curry is passable but the roti is spot on: buttery, both fluffy and elastic. It’s some of the best eating in transit that can be done.

Just in case roti is not enough, there is a decent kopitiam across the road with the usual jumble of vendors: a roast meat guy, various noodle soups and fried noodles stands that encircle a coffee shop. I hit up the pork and rice just in preparation for Cambodia.

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Fatty rice but dry pork. I should have had that third roti.