“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.

8 Comments “It’s a minefield even for Asians”

  1. Duncan | Syrup and Tang

    Phil, you seem to restrict this type of bland, comfortable food ignorance to “Asian”, but look at the popularity of so many other beacons of what many of us would regard as mediocrity: La Porchetta, Souvlaki Hut and countless suburban Italian places serving up utter shit (increasingly to a suburban population who are willing to fork out ludicrous prices for such shit, too). Many of these places (viz La Porchetta) rate in the online world as well as Grossi’s or any other places attempting to produce serious food.

    I’m not trying to argue that the “Asian” metacategory thing isn’t a serious problem in perceptions of food and cooking among great swathes of the eating public, but I don’t think the basic problem is unique to the multitude of cuisines that fall under that ignorant umbrella.

  2. Andrew

    Hmmm…fair point and I will definitely don the “Bolshie hat”…however, perhaps it is a bit overthought. Whilst you may have used it as a metaphor, Poons is what it is and serves a narrow market (especially in the greater context of Footscray)…Further, I doubt many of its patrons buy The Australian either ;)

    In this respect, I suggest such articles/publications do not hold much weight with people who are more confident about cuisine (regional asian or otherwise) as you discuss. Yet, I am sure those who are “fashion conscious gourmets” may find value, or perhaps a beginner will get some break-out inspiration. Like Phil indicates, I wish people were more demanding and grassroots with food, however I guess it must be taught and learnt. This is the part that is missing, probably from some journo’s too. From a media perspective, I suggest blogs cater to the more serious guerilla gourmets.

    anyway…it is hard to resist a steaming bag of Poons Dim Sims…except they could taste even better now as I feel more guilty submitting to such comfort and behavioural urges!

  3. Zoe

    Like Phil indicates, I wish people were more demanding and grassroots with food, however I guess it must be taught and learnt.

    Exactly; but the way to learn is by exposing people to information and sensory experience, not by telling them what is the best. It’s a top-down, authoritarian method of instruction that doesn’t leave people with the skills and confidence to make their own judgements.

    My parents are the Poon patron type – and they’d never read any article about food or cookery. If you’re interested enough to be reading the food section, you deserve something better than Wilden’s guide to snobbing.

    Great post, Phil.

  4. Gilbert

    I agree that most people just aren’t aware of where to find proper, authentic cuisine.

    However I think that many restaurants tend to ‘dumb down’ their menu because their patrons stick to the well-known dishes like Pad Thai, ‘Mongolian’ Beef, etc. So they don’t offer or promote the more interesting, but lesser known dishes.

    I remember standing in line at a Thai outlet in a food court once and saw the guy in front of me order a tasty-looking dish I hadn’t seen before. When I asked the staff what it was, I found out it wasn’t on the main menu, but on the specials board written in Thai.

    So I ordered it as well and it was simply delicious. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten the name, and haven’t seen it at any other Thai restaurant since.

  5. Eurasian Sensation

    “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.”

    Amen, brother.

    It’s an unfortunate malaise that infects food appreciation in Australia. Before SBS’s “Food Safari” program, there was no cooking program in this country that dared to show how Asian people made Asian food. Inevitably it would be a white Australian chef giving his own “interpretation” of an Asian dish, while Asians watching at home pull their hair out in frustration at the bastardisation of their favourite dish.

    Still, I can’t help but chuckle at those who are too scared to buy an ingredient from an Asian grocery, yet will happily buy the same thing for 4 times the price at The Essential Ingredient once it’s placed in a fancy jar with a celebrity chef’s name on it.

  6. Phil Lees

    Zoe – I grew up very much as a “Poon’s type person” (this is why I ate there) and still have a soft spot for beef and black bean but tend to cook it at home.

    Duncan – Cheap and bad but popular, I understand; expensive and bad but popular leaves me equally bewildered. Pizza is a great example – how does La Por’s flourish when people could get an equally good (or bad) pizza both nearer to their house and at a cheaper price? I’d hardly put it down to marketing. Force of habit maybe?

  7. Tim

    I still get the hankering for nuclear-glowing-yellow lemon chicken at times, but a good roti will override it. I wish the place at QV was not closed for renovations.

    Strange that there seems to be a bit of a Malaysian kick on for restaurants in the CBD, more students from that country?

    I put a photo of my lunch on Facebook, prompting my sister to ring me up and ask what the hell I was eating, it looked like a slug on the plate with blue rice and dropped-on-floor salad. Sometimes I try a bit too hard to find something new.

    Not sure why Tawaiian Cafe on Swanston St is so popular, if they can’t even give me a fresh can of coke when I order a drink it’s a bit worrying.


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