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

Gordon Ramsay’s Melbourne Restaurant

Unless you’ve been bound up in real news in Australia (e.g. remember Iraq? there’s still a war there), you’ve probably heard the words Gordon Ramsay Lesbian Tracy Grimshaw combined in some unholy fashion with great density. Chef Gordon Ramsay has been in town, stirring up the sort of misogyny that could only be surpassed by a visiting rugby team.

The media is loving it and milking it for a full week of coverage. The Prime Minister has weighed in saying Ramsay’s comments’ “as reflecting a new form of low life” which left me wondering what were the older forms of low life that are of concern to an Australian Prime Minister? Libertines? Footpads? Mountebanks?

Generally when you meet chefs or see them interviewed, their obsession with the minutiae of ingredients and the process of transforming those ingredients into food is evident and inescapable. Any attempt to interview them about nigh on any other topic eventually gets steered back to eating. What is most dismaying about Ramsay’s flight through town is his lack of focus on food and the media’s lack of care.

He’s planning to open an outlet of his Maze restaurant in Melbourne in the Crown Casino complex, and it hardly rated a mention by himself or anyone else. Odds on bets are that it will be doing haute tapas as it does in Cape Town and New York which will lead to an inevitable showdown with Movida. Anchovies at high noon. It is opening in the middle of an economic downturn. These are compelling food stories and they’re not being told. Ramsay seems to be too busy telling dick jokes to talk about food.

This is the outcome of food and television. Food plays a backdrop to human drama rather than a central focus because food alone makes for bad television. To be sure, television can mirror the soft-focus porniness of food magazines or blogs – the panning shots of a steaming meal, wide vistas of a cornucopia of ingredients – but to draw and keep an audience it needs narrative drive.

The narrative of food alone is either recipes or the path from living animal or vegetable to the plate. You could tell these stories almost without human intervention. By themselves, neither of these narratives are engaging because for the former, we’ve had almost 70 years of the “stand and cook” model of recipe TV to be oversaturated and for the latter, most of the public still don’t want to know from whence their food came. If you eat food with a head on it, you’re amongst the minority.

This is how we end up in a situation where we have food television without food. Human drama is the driving force behind food television. It seems that (in Australia, at least), we want chefs who say “fuck” to camera (Ramsay) or game shows (Masterchef). Nobody wants to see the prep chef peeling potatoes in the basement. The prep chef is only intriguing when she knifes someone.

Most telling of this whole foofaraw is a comment by Jason Atherton, one of Ramsay’s chefs, who is also in Melbourne at the moment presumably to begin staffing Maze. In Hospitality Magazine, he mentions:

“Atherton said Gordon Ramsay will spend as much time at the Melbourne restaurant “as the concept needs him”.”

It’s similar to McDonald’s: the concept needs the clown Ronald to make the occasional appearance. (At least, it used to). Gordon Ramsay’s primary qualification is no longer chef, it’s television presenter; the provider of drama against a food backdrop. He still needs the pretence that he cares about food lest the whole edifice and concept behind his restaurants crumble. The concept needs celebrity to survive and give it sustenance. It needs celebrity to somehow differentiate itself and draw in the punters who would never otherwise throw down a hundred dollars for a meal.

It no longer needs food.

Queen Victoria Market Borek

Borek stall at Queen Victoria Market

Having Austin around did act as a handy reminder of the unparalleled diversity of food in Melbourne. For example, I live in a suburb dominated by two of the most disparate of the world’s cuisines: Ethiopian and Vietnamese. As I wander about a market named after an English monarch, I snack on Turkish (or maybe, Balkan(?)) street food because I can’t help myself.

Borek, QV Market

This borek is a spicy lamb-filled pastry, baked in flat rows on a tray, on site at the Queen Victoria Market. Served hot, the oil oozing from the pastry burns through the paper bag. They also do spinach and cheese, which compared to the lamb, is almost superfluous.

A decent length of borek still retails for $2.50; one of the great Melbourne bargain street foods.

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.

Dosa Hut

dosa hut

Dosa Hut is the best restaurant in Melbourne; at least it is if you have $6.50 in your pocket and a hankering for Indian street food, which neatly outlines the problem with picking “best” restaurants. It’s contextual. I hate recommending restaurants to people that I don’t know because I’ll get their context wrong with invariable certainty. Dosa Hut has the utilitarian feel of a joint built by someone whose chief skill is making dosa rather than interior design. Cheap lattice and leftover Christmas decorations spruce up the hasty mango paint job.

dosa

Above is the lamb dosa ($6.50), a pancake with a gradient from crispy on the outside edges to chewy at its core, filled with cooked ground lamb and masala. There are not less than 20 different dosa on the menu and I haven’t been in Dosa Hut once when they have had a stock of paneer, India’s favourite cheese, to make any of the three or four paneer dosa. The tray’s contents are spicy/sour tomato chutney, the ubiquitous sambar and coconut chutney. I’m still not sure how it is possible to make coconut chutney that keeps its whiteness whilst retaining chili heat.

Location: Dosa Hut, 604, Barkly Street, Footscray. Open 12:00pm to 10:00pm every day.
Phone: (03) 9687 0171

Kebab Pizza

A few weeks ago, a Swedish friend contacted me to tell me that she couldn’t believe that we never had discussed kebab pizza. I’m sure that I had discussed both of these foods with her, but in complete isolation. Someone in Sweden has popularised the notion of combining two of the world’s disparate s into something loosely obscene but nonetheless popular in Scandinavia. The photo that I saw looked more like an actual kebab only served flat. Maybe someone in Sweden decided that kebabs needed to be shared in an equitable manner; there is no way to slice a rolled kebab once the meat is removed from the rotating platform.

Kebab pizza

Within a few days of becoming kebab-pizza aware, I discovered that a local pizza joint cooks kebab pizza without me having to con them into it on behalf of a drunken homesick Swede (above pizza).

This version is pizza base, tomato paste, lamb kebab meat, red onion and finished with a generous spray of tzatziki.

Spotted at the sacrilicious Mama Theresa’s, 587 Barkly St, Footscray, VIC, 3011 (Note, March 2011: Mama Theresa’s is now closed. No kebab pizza for you.)

Guerrilla Garden Bounty

The best part of growing a garden is harvesting more than you can eat in a single sitting. It’s easy to see how harvest festivals started with a seemingly endless bounty of food in a few scant weeks of ripeness.

Guerilla Garden Tomatoes, Melbourne

The bucket of “Tommy Toe” heirloom tomatoes is hardly endless but the tomatoes have completely subsumed the entire garden. Originally there were four varieties of tomato in there, but I’ve only managed to harvest two.

Guerilla Garden, Melbourne

Somewhere beneath are some suffering cucumbers, an eggplant that has borne a single fruit and a capsicum that has done nothing. I should have planned for this to happen. Just for comparison, below is how the garden looked in winter, detailed in the earlier guerrilla garden post. Neat rows, nothing untoward.

the garden

Gong Xi Fa Cai, Rendang

Dragon dancer

Another year, another chance for lion dancers to molest the unwary.

lion dance

The risk of a lion dancer catching aflame grows each year.

A hanging lettuce

The hanging iceberg lettuce attracts them. Welcome to the Chinese New Year.

I had a vague plan to hit up some dumpling joints but was derailed by a newish Malaysian place: Old Town Kopitiam. It looks much like the gentrified coffee shops in Kuala Lumpur with shiny marble table tops, uncomfortable stools and dark timber aplenty. Maybe they’re not just a clone of the Old Town Coffee but a real franchisee? On the upside, the menu reads like Malaysia’s greatest culinary hits: bah kut teh, , , rendang, cendol. Their char kway teow comes with the option of bonus clams which is always a good sign. And they’re all priced in the pre-millennium sub-$10 a plate range.

Nasi Lemak, Old Town Kopitiam
The nasi lemak ($8!) is a bit short on the coconut but has the crispiest ikan bilis (fried anchovies) possible. The beef rendang was collapsing under its own weight, thick with actual herbs and spices rather than something that had come from a can.

They were fresh out of . All the more reason to go back.

Location: 195 Little Bourke St, ,