How to start a food blog

Honestly ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”

I want to share recipes/restaurant recommendations/my boundless food wisdom with friends – If you want nothing more than to share your thoughts about food with people whom you already know (and you are being honest), your best bet is to get over to Blogger.com and start writing as soon as you finish reading this sentence. Reading their help section is all you’ll need.

You are wasting valuable time reading anything past this point.

I want to meet people who write on the web that aren’t freaks and be a part of a community of like-minded, passionate food junkies
– I haven’t physically met any food bloggers whom I don’t like, but then again, I was living in a country where I was the only food blogger. My neighbours in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, China and Laos were all fantastic as were the few that dropped by Cambodia.

I want to make money – If you’re in Australia, writing about Australian food, this is not going to happen in at least the next five years. The online advertising market in Australia is growing but is too small at the moment. If you’re going to rely on Google Ads, Yahoo or other big ad networks, you need either a huge number of visitors to your site or to attract a very valuable niche who will be convinced to buy whatever products you pimp from Amazon or Chitika.

The alternate route is to sell ads directly to businesses – which is not impossible – it’s just that you’ll probably end up spending more time pitching to businesses than you will writing about food. I briefly made a living from my blogs alone but this was because I was living in one of the world’s poorest nations and I sold ads directly to an ad agency who thankfully hadn’t noticed that I had called the product that they were advertising “insipid”. In the First World, I’d have starved.

I want to be a famous food writer/photographer
– Name five famous food writers that began as bloggers. If you said Clotilde or Julie five times, it does not count. I’d doubt that you’d know who they are unless you have already started foodblogging, in which case, this guide is not for you.

Sure, blogging has only been around for a few years but it doesn’t yet seem like the springboard to you being the next Steingarten. If you want to be a food writer in the offline press, your time is better spent hassling editors and pitching stories to the offline press than it is blogging. A great place to start this is Mediabistro or with your local media. This doesn’t mean that you can’t do both but every minute that you spend on your website is time that could be used to develop your offline work. As I mentioned earlier, every major food media outlet will have a food blog within the next few years and it requires a skill set different from your average journalist – starting blogging now will put you a long way ahead.

If you want to publish a recipe book, why would you give away all of your valuable content for free on the web? Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are clavicle-deep in experimenting in this model, as is science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. More relevant to food writing, Chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot from Ideas in Food have self-published a photobook of their molecular madness but still haven’t landed that publishing deal that they richly deserve.

Any writing is good practice and doing it in public gives you the chance for people to write back to you, telling you that you’re crap (or otherwise). If you want to be well-known amongst a small cadre of other food bloggers, food blogging is the best avenue for this. I imagine that it’s kind of like being world famous in New Zealand. Domo Arigato, Dr. Ropata.

I have a food business/restaurant/am a food professional and need somewhere to honestly link up with the punters/debate my awesomeness – There is nothing better than blogging to keep you connected and no easier way for people to meditate on how terrible your business is, to your face. You need a thick skin and to be responsive to criticism.

I love writing about food and photographing it and don’t honestly know why I want to start blogging
– my guess is that 90% of food bloggers have this as their sole reason to start writing about food on the web. It is not a bad reason. At least you’re being honest.

If you answered honestly, this will divide you into two categories:

I don’t care how many people read my blog, apart from my friends
– You said that you just wanted to share things with friends. I told you to stop reading earlier, and go over to Blogger, which I guess means…

I care (or at some time in the future, I might care)
– from here on in, I talk about the nuts and bolts of building your blog; then attracting, maintaining and measuring an audience.

What to write about


I’m going to write about X
– You have an unwavering passion for or business interests in X. You might be addicted to eggs, bacon, chips and beans; eating what you shoot; or Cambodian food. In the biz, this is called your niche and if you’re doing this for any sort of professional/money-making reasons then it is easier to build an audience if you start like this. People who have a vague interest in X will gravitate towards you and over time, you’ll become the world’s leading proponent of X. It’s also a great way to link up with others who have an unhinged obsession with X.

Every single post that you write on the web should somehow add value to X. Linking to someone else’s news article about X doesn’t add any value to your blog unless you have something insightful to say about it.

Traditionally, this is what most web marketers will recommend that you do when starting your blog but ultimately, most food bloggers don’t stay on mission. Once you’ve built an audience of readers, they’ll either forgive you (or love it) when you stray off topic. Here is RealThai eating real Swedish, Ed Charles talking about his dog, me talking about obscure Cambodian/Vietnamese geopolitics.

I’m going to write about whatever the hell I feel like. Not even food sometimes. You can’t stop me
. – This is a harder path because the appeal of your site isn’t going to be the subject matter; it’s going to be you. If you’ve got self confidence and know that your voice alone is going to attract readers, then go for it. I’ve begun thinking that one of the reasons that many food bloggers burn out within a year is that they run out of subject matter (X) and don’t know what to do next.

Michael Ruhlman, David Leibovitz and Aun from Chubby Hubby all tend to write about whatever they choose but the focus stays on food. They all also have offline food industry experience (or readers of their books) to back them up.

Technical issues – the nuts and bolts

Which blogging platform?

I’m not going to do an in-depth review of the best blogging sites and software out there. Others have already done this in an approachable manner – see the links below.

As for my recommendation for food blogging, I choose WordPress – It’s flexible, relatively easy to extend and most foodbloggers who start with another platform and don’t quit within the first year of blogging end up moving to WordPress. The downside is that you’ve got to pay for hosting (between US$6 and US$12 a month) and have some confidence with technology. I recommend Bluehost for hosting – they have an auto-install function for WordPress and they’re currently less than $7 a month.

For more information on WordPress, visit their site. Their documentation on getting started is expansive and tailored to all levels of knowledge.

If (after looking at WordPress) you’re not feeling confident with the technology (or simply, just don’t want to pay), sign up at TypePad, Blogger or LiveJournal. It’s as easy to start blogging there as signing up for email. If you don’t mind paying just a little, I’m impressed by newcomers Squarespace – their stock blogs are world’s apart of getting something off the rack at a free blog site.

Regardless of which platform you choose, I strongly recommend buying your own domain name (e.g. www.yourfoodblog.com) before starting for a few reasons:

  • It is painful if you move platforms and lose the incoming links that you’ve built over time
  • If you’re good at blogging, someone else will buy it before you. This happened to Pim of Chez Pim, who only recently moved from Typepad to chezpim.com

For more information on choosing a blog platform

For more “getting started in food blogging” articles

In my next instalment (next Thursday), I fill in how to design your blog, attract the audience that you want to attract and make (a little) money. Continued at “How to start a food blog, part 2“.

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Kimchi jeon (김치전)

kimchijeon ingredients

I’ve personally eaten half a kilo of kimchi this week. There have been no ill effects. Something about the idea of Korea’s national obsession being shot into space has piqued my tastebuds. Their mastery of the controlled fermentation of coleslaw is no longer earthbound.

A recipe for kimchi jeon is about the laziest that a recipe can be before it becomes a convenience food. If I described it as a kimchi pancake, then chances are that you could cook one just by guessing, even if you didn’t know kimchi from Lil’ Kim. There are four ingredients and if you’re reading this blog, I’ll bet that you already own three of them.

Ingredients:

100gms of plain flour
150gms of kimchi
2 eggs
100ml of water

Kimchijeon batter

Mix flour, eggs and water, stir through kimchi.

Kimchijeon

Fry on both sides, then cut into bite-size pieces.

I can’t believe it’s not Chợ Bến Thành ™

Ben Thanh Market?

There is nothing like a high degree of architectural verisimilitude to brighten up my day, be it a Big Banana, Giant Merino or in this case, a fake Ben Thanh Market building in the middle of Melbourne. This model of Saigon’s Ben Thanh Market is so accurate that the clocks are all set to the same incorrect times that they are on the real thing.

Ben Thanh Market?

Rather than the tourist gewgaws that pack most of the Ho Chi Minh City prototype, this one houses one of the more useful Vietnamese grocers in Melbourne, Huy Huy, reliable stockists of the herbiage for great pho (and other Vietnamese soups) such as ngo om (limnophila aromatica), sawtooth coriander (eryngium foetidum), fishwort and a range of basils.

Location: 240 Victoria St Richmond, Vic, Australia.

Five Links on Friday: Leap Year Edition, 2008

Sausage Fancier

sausage fancier: urban garden

Once you’ve seen how sausages are made, you’ll want to eat nothing but sausages. This was my first impression of home sausage making; my second was that making sausages is possibly my true calling and that my university loan debts could have been better spent on a meat mincer and practicing the barbecuing arts rather than on undergraduate degrees.

I started with a setup familiar to all new converts to the testaments of sausage making: a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie and George Foreman’s Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine. That George Foreman lends his moniker to an electric meat mincer is no great surprise to me. I discovered years ago that Foreman had made not less than nine billion American dollars from selling a multitude of appliances in no way limited to the indoor grill. The hypocrisy of adding the word “Lean” to a product that should be pumping out sausages that should be about 25% fat is not lost in me.

If you’re looking to lose weight, eating pork fat stuffed into a tube is not your best option. I’m sure that George would argue that his Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine means that the home sausage fancier could control the fat content in their sausages just like he himself took control of his 1971 battle with Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, but I’d rather be eating richer, fattier sausages in moderation than the fat-free simulacra of a sausage. Fat is vital for human survival, just like the footwork Foreman displayed in his 1987 fight with Steve Zouski.

My first batch was perfect. I followed Ruhlman’s basic garlic sausage recipe and added a tablespoon of roughly crushed cumin seeds, chilli flakes, Kampot pepper, then lowered the salt content. The Lean Mean Meat Mincing Machine shudders away. I achieved the “primary bind” that Ruhlman mentions; once ground, the meat turns sticky as the protein breaks down. The casein skin burst only once while stuffing.

sausage fancier

I grilled the sausages over charcoal as slowly as possible. I ate them with friends in absolute stunned silence.

I’ve begun eyeing off the greying cut-price meats in the supermarket refrigerators with a single question in mind: will it mince? What else can I stuff? What memories of sausages past can I recapture? How much of my life has been wasted not making my own sausages?

If there is one thing you can expect from this blog in the coming years, it is more sausage.

My basic garlic, cumin and pepper sausage recipe

(based on Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s “Fresh Sausage Master Recipe: Fresh Garlic Sausage”)

Yields: about two and a half kilograms of sausages.

The original Ruhlman/Polcyn recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of salt. I ground in two tablespoons of this and fried up a patty of the mince to test the flavour before stuffing the casings. For me, it was salty enough but add more or less to your taste. Real intestine casings are tough to find in Australia. I went with casein.

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon of cumin seeds, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
1 tablespoon of Kampot pepper (or the best quality black pepper you can get), coarsely ground.
2 tablespoons of the cheapest salt available*.
3 tablespoons of minced garlic
2 cups of white wine
2.5 kilograms of fatty pork meat (approx 25% fat. I used 2 kilos of shoulder to 0.5 kilo of belly)

Method:

Pound the cumin, pepper and chilli flakes in a mortar and pestle until most of the cumin seeds are broken. Finely chop the garlic. Chop the meat into pieces small enough to fit into your mincer. Mix meat, spices and salt together in a bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Soak casein casings in one cup of white wine.

Mince all ingredients into a bowl set in ice, on the fine (0.25cm) grade. Add one cup of wine and mix the mince until it becomes sticky. Fry up a patty of meat to test flavouring, then adjust anything to taste.

Change mincer to stuffer attachments. Thread about a metre of casings over attachment and tie the end in a knot. Pour mince into mincer and stuff away!

Section the giant sausage into odd lengths by twisting the casings – it is much easier to make one metre-long sausage and do this at the end of the process rather than juggling the sausage and the mincer. Charcuterie has a twee picture of measuring a sausage with a ruler as to ensure uniform size; my approach is less anal but equally obscene. Cook over a fire, as slowly as you can bear.

For a much more pictorial recipe, buy Ruhlman and Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

* – Expensive salt makes no difference when dissolved in food, especially in sausages such as these which are packed with other aromatic components. Jeffrey Steingarten tests this out in It Must Have Been Something I Ate.

The possibility of a guerrilla garden

In the modern city, horticulture is a transgressive sport. Modern urban developments tend to preclude growing fruit and vegetables as a possibility by offering only dark, windy balconies or paving over backyards, only conceding the mere edges to decorative, inedible shrubbery. The walls of suburban McMansions creep closer to the boundaries of their allotments offering scant room for plants.

After having spent the last month touring rental properties in Melbourne, the trend in renovating homes is to eradicate as much greenery as possible and replace it with pavers and a box hedge that looks indistinguishable from a plastic version of itself. The heartening trend towards adding grey water and rainwater tanks hasn’t filtered down to rental properties and most likely won’t while there is the trend for investors to buy houses and flip them onto the rental market as soon as Ikea drops in their cheap stainless-on-softwood kitchens.

These are spaces not meant to grow food.

Urban life in Australia (and much of the Western world) is designed to be separate from farming. There is the occasional community garden and the hardcore few who raze their lawns to plant vegetables anew (and add an obligatory chook shed) but these number amongst the minority. Subsisting in a city, while possible, is not preferable nor socially acceptable.

The possibility of a garden

Behind my new apartment a typical Melburnian bluestone laneway has been curbed off by the local council, creating a semiprivate patch that is now overgrown. A bamboo plant battles for supremacy with an English climbing rose which offers a strange parallel to my eating habits. If I can weed out the overgrowth then there is a small chance to grow my own food and possibly some for the neighbours as well.

The real question is how much food?

And how soon?