Monday, June 11, 2012

Kimchi and more

A few years ago, I travelled to Korea for a very unusual festival.

Well, it was unusual to me, but for millions of Koreans in their own country and overseas, it  was celebrating perhaps the most important part of their menu. Kimchi.

If they know nothing else about Korean cuisine, most people will have heard of kimchi, that fiery, cabbage-y condiment which appears at every meal. And I mean EVERY - breakfast included.

In case this has not entered your shopping list yet, you need to know a few things.

Kimchi is an authentic Korean side dish of pickled vegetables, often (and perhaps mainly) made with Chinese cabbage. However, almost any food can be kimchi-ed, and there are over 170 varieties!

References to kimchi have been found up to 3000 years ago in Korea. Like many countries with cold winters, a way was needed to safely preserve food for use when it was no longer available fresh. Fermentation (think, sauerkraut and pickles in Europe) was the ideal solution.

Although the version most people know involves rubbing a crimson spice mixture between the leaves of brine-soaked Chinese cabbage which is then put to ferment, often for months, in an earthenware pot, there are at least a hundred other types. Even water kimchi, a sort of spicy turnip broth, appears often as one of the multitude of side dishes which are essential at each Korean meal.

Focused as they are on health, the country's 48 million inhabitants believe kimchi is what keeps them well, and some even credit it with protecting them during the SARS epidemic.

There is an annual Kimchi Festival in the southern city of Gwangju and a Kimchi museum in Seoul.

However this is not the only unusual food on tables in Korea. Acorn jelly a wobbly unappetisingly-coloured dish served cold is an acquired taste, as is raw crab which even my guide refused!


In this picture, the roasted chestnuts look delicious, as do the wafer-crisp breads. But look carefully at the simmering pot in the background. Yes, you’re right. Those are silkworm larvae. Having done their work of spinning silk, once it is unwound, they are tossed into a basket ready for their next use – boiled as a protein-rich addition to someone’s lunch. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beware Indian Figs

One of the most painful foods to eat (painful, that is if you try to handle them with your fingers) are fichi d’India, literally ‘figs of India’ or, as I grew up knowing them, prickly pear.

Anyone who has travelled through Sicily and southern Italy as we did a few years ago (see my book Just a Little Italian) will remember the huge cactus plants growing on roadsides and dotted incongruously in fields.

Those pale-green pads the size of tennis racquets are spiked with vicious thorns, and the plump red or yellow egg-shaped fruit that grow from them are just as dangerous. Their skin is a booby trap full of the finest, almost invisible hairlike spines which attach themselves to clothes and skin without invitation.

So why trouble with such a fruit­ – one that is intent on becoming your enemy, it seems?

Southern Italians have long prized this fruit for a number of reasons. It grows readily in hot arid soil, and it is generous with the fruit it provides. It is free food for foragers, a plus in the past when these regions were sorely poverty-stricken.

After getting our fingers well and truly prickled by the spines in Sicily, we were later told that we should have held them in newspaper while we scooped out the flesh. Some people rub the fruit in sand or swiftly pass them over a flame to remove the spines.

Elsewhere in Sicily, at Modica on the southern coast, in one amazing shop we discovered chilli chocolate and  a liqueur made from fico d’India. The owner warned us that if we ate the chocolate and then drank the  liqueur, ‘then you need someone standing by!’ because of its aphrodisiac results. I didn’t test that tale.

This cactus is only native in the western hemisphere, not on the Indian subcontinent. So why the name ‘figs of India’?

Prickly pear cacti are indigenous to North America, occurring from the arid north-west, through the Rockies, and down to Mexico where they are abundant. They were named for the Native American ‘indians’ and when the fruit was introduced into Europe, the name went with it, at least to Italy. I didn't know that.

Fans of fichi d’India say the flavour is like a cross between strawberry and watermelon, but personally, I would rather eat either of those fruits individually for the rest of my life, (and especially real figs) rather than risk another cactus attack simply to enjoy the flavours in unison!

Do you like this fruit? What is your tip for eating it comfortably? Do you use it in cookery – and if so, how?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Another thyme, please!

My friend Bechora is one chef I absolutely trust my palate and my plate to, so when he brought me a herb from his garden, I was interested.

“Do you know this one?” he asked. Well, it looked a little like rosemary, but the leaves were too soft. It smelled faintly of ….. of what? I hesitated and he helped me out.

“It is thyme. Lebanese thyme.”

Bechora should know. He grew up near Tripoli in Lebanon and he would have often walked through the mountains as a child, crushing this wild herb underfoot. Here, in Australia, he has it in his garden and it grows luxuriantly in the Mediterranean climate of Mudgee in the central west of NSW.

Next morning he surprised us with this herb made his own special way, in oil and lemon juice, and topping slices of toast. Could there be a simpler and healthier way to start the day?

Lebanese people are noted for their generosity and so it was no real surprise (but a welcome and delicious treat) that he packed us a hamper to bring home: pickled pink turnips, glace lemon, a huge bunch of the wild thyme, pots of stewed rhubarb, pickled thyme, tarator (a white garlic dip found in some shape or form throughout all the eastern Mediterranean countries), and his wonderful creamy soft-curd cheese. Oh, and a huge bunch of spinach, freshly picked from the vegetable plot.

Bechora and his wife Sybil run Deeb’s Kitchen in Mudgee, a hugely popular place to dine as their welcome is as genuine as their meals are generous and authentic. Best of all, most of the fresh ingredients – herbs, veggies, fruit – come from their garden. They even have a couple of rooms for B&B guests, one of which we had stayed in for the weekend.

Back home in Sydney I felt I wanted to continue my ‘Deeb-experience’ so here is what I made using the goodies he had given me – and let me tell you, I think Bechora would have been pretty pleased with it too.

1 bunch spinach, well washed, ribs removed

2 sheets puff pastry (I use 25 percent fat-reduced)

6 button mushrooms sliced and sautéed in butter
2 tablespoons wild thyme, pickled in oil and lemon juice
2 tablespoons tarator (garlic dip)*
125g grated haloumi cheese (or sheep’s cheese)
3 eggs
salt and pepper to taste

Place the whole spinach leaves in boiling salted water and bring to the boil then turn off heat and leave for at least 10 minutes. Drain (reserving the water for another use if you like) then chop finely. Place spinach in a bowl and add all the other ingredients, mixing well.

Line a 20cm square cake tin or similar with one sheet of thawed puff pastry, pressing in well at the sides. Prick and place in a preheated 200C oven and bake for 15 minutes until becoming golden. If it has puffed up, just prick a few times to let out the air.

Remove from the oven and pile in the filling, then top with remaining pastry sheet. Turn the overhanging pastry back on top at the edges and press well with a fork or your fingers. Prick the top with a fork and return to the oven, baking for a further 30 minutes or until the pie looks well browned. Cool on a rack and serve cut into pieces.
Serves 4-6.

* alternatively use 2 cloves crushed garlic and 2 tablespoons yoghurt.

Have you discovered a new herb or spice recently? Please tell us about it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When Alice meets Adrià

“Eat this one first,” says Vicky, introducing herself as a ‘guide’ (not waitress) for our meal at Ritual Restaurant in Nelson Bay, north of Newcastle. She’s not wearing a headband, but there’s a definite Wonderland feel about her comment.

She brings a slim dish of three bite-sized morsels. They don’t look like anything I have ever cooked – or eaten.

Carl and Kelie Kenzler have arrived at this point – running this tiny restaurant seating just 12 diners, in a country town shopping strip – from widely different places.

In practice Kelie uses her scientific knowledge from her background in marine biology, while Carl applies his cookery skills and together they come up with some truly amazing concoctions. It works like this.

Once Kelie has selected the foods she feels should balance each other, according to their flavour molecules (I told you it was tricky), Carl’s role is to develop the recipes. In some dishes he partners eucalyptus and blackcurrant,  in another parsnip, pear and vanilla – but the aim is  never to shock or alarm, simply to alert the tastebuds. To surprise you. And they do that, for sure.

Chef Kenzler’s batterie de cuisine is not mainstream either – a soda syphon for gases, a dehydrator (for ice cream shards) a domestic fairy floss machine, and a thermomix. Most of them don’t come cheap. In addition to grappling with the logistics of preparation, his artistic eye envisions the colours, placement, shapes and design of the food on the plate.

‘Molecular cuisine’ is not quite the right term, for what they are attempting, they say, despite the couple’s familiarity with the careers of Ferran Adrià, Hervé This, and the one they lean towards most, Heston Blumenthal, chef-proprietor of Fat Duck, at Bray in England.

“He really does look at how things work, how to make the entire experience the most memorable. He is an amazing man,” they tell me.

”Just call our cuisine avant-garde,” Kelie decides.

Surprised locals are warming to the ‘Tasting Journey’ that presents 10 or more mini-courses and forty foods over a couple of hours. Palate cleansers prepare for the next combination, there are ‘interim dishes’, and occasional ‘edible menus’ where your choice of flavour combinations decides which dish will be served next. A culinary detour, if you like.

The complex set menu changes according to the season, and organic produce is used if possible. Even the paint on the walls is chemical-free.

Challenging food prejudices is not easy, and winter in beach towns means the dining scene gets quiet, so the couple use their expertise in other ways with Carl sharing his skills with young chefs at the local TAFE college.

More recently the couple have moved their menu towards providing ‘multi-sensory experiences’. Whatever that is.

After my mind-blowing meal wandering through 'wonderland', I reckon I can trust this couple to do that sensationally too.

Guess I’ll just have to go again to see what they are up to. Soon.


Ritual Restaurant, Armidale Avenue, Nelson Bay, NSW, 02 4981 5514, Tasting Journey, evenings by reservation only, set price for menu only or matched with tasting glasses of wines.

The special invitation-only twelve-course multi-sensory dining experience, the Twelve Days of Christmas menu, is available from 12th to 24th December, 2011.

Please tell us, what is the most unusual place you have dined at?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Toffee Potatoes

I have waited until now – just in case you thought this blog was going to be all about toffee  – to mention another savoury toffee dish I have encountered on my travels.

Also in Asia.

Actually China is very fond of toffee. We saw beautiful glass-like shards enclosing pieces of fruit in the justly famous Wangfujiang Street night market in Beijing. Many other roadside stalls offered skewers of Chinese dates also dipped in toffee, much like my much-loved toffee tomatoes of Taiwan, but they were just too sweet for my taste.

But it wasn’t until we were high on the Tibetan plateau that we encountered this unusual dish. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw it, and although it sounded so unusual, it was quite delicious. I guess it’s only a few culinary steps away from the much loved US Thanksgiving dish of sweet potatoes in maple syrup.

Geographers, if you are correcting me here and saying that Xiahe is not in Tibet, you are right … and wrong. The plateau extends far beyond the recently-drawn borders of modern Tibet. It was in Xiahe, referred to by many as Little Tibet, that we discovered a huge Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and in nearby Lanzhou, a tiny café with this interesting dish which I just had to try at home.

My Chinese extends to hello and thank you so I couldn’t ask if this was a traditional Tibetan dish, but it was on the menu and we enjoyed it twice here.

1kg potatoes
3-4 tablespoons cooking oil, butter or ghee
salt to taste

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

Peel potatoes and cut into quarters. Boil until tender then drain thoroughly. Heat oil, butter or ghee in a large heavy frypan and, when hot, add the potatoes, stirring until they are browning well. Season to taste with salt. Meanwhile make toffee by placing the sugar and water in a small heavy pan. Cook, stirring occasionally until it becomes golden. Place potatoes on individual plates or a serving dish and immediately pour some of the toffee lightly over the potatoes, enough so it is attractive but not so much as to form a hard shell. Think of using about the same amount as you would if generously sprinkling grated cheese over the dish. Serves 4.

Has anyone else eaten this delicious dish?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Oui, oui! Rabbit. NOT!

Language difficulties can prove at best, a problem when ordering from a menu in other countries. At worst, it can be dangerous, frightening or nauseating.

On one trip we confidently ordered from a  French menu. Cervelles d’agneau. Fine! We knew that agneau was lamb, so how bad could a cut of lamb be?

When the fried brains arrived, my partner blanched. He’s not an offal-eater. Luckily I am, so we switched.

But I was the unlucky one in France (why is it always France we get caught?) hmmm - gotta learn the language, I guess.

Here is an extract from my book Pardon My French where, in the west of France, my menu-French was just not up to it!

‘At Coulon it becomes vital for us to eat soon before it is too late to find a restaurant open. Today we don’t want to picnic. This is our last Sunday in France and I have my heart set on lunching in a restaurant, somewhere memorable. The water’s edge it has to be, and when we sight La Pigouille, with its apple-green shutters and awnings, it seems to have everything I want. Unfortunately on joining the queue, we are told, brusquely, it is absolutely full, and to try again in half an hour.

These restaurants are doing a roaring trade in lunch and boat tour packages. Apart from that, the weather is showing off the Marais at its loveliest and you’d be mad not to want to dine outside by the canal. Further down the barge path, shortly we come across another restaurant, La Passerelle, equally well-located. Also full. However, there is one empty table for two in the corner of the terrace, beside the footpath.

That’s ours!” I say.

As we approach the waiter, he begins to shake his head until I point it out, and he nods. We’re in! What’s more the blackboard offers a generously priced Menu du Terroir (regional food menu). There is local ham, and fresh Atlantic-caught fish, a plate of regional chevre with salad, and a terrine of myocastor. I query this last one, but the waiter shrugs and makes 'small-animal' running movements with his hands. I ask if it might be rabbit, and he shrugs.

It is only much later that I Google it and discover I have consumed coypu, a small rodent. Yes, I know, I’m pretty shocked to learn this too. It is not consumed in most other parts of Europe (they all say it is harmful – whatever that means) yet is considered a delicacy in Central and South America. It lives in marshy areas, so it is certainly regional here, and looks like a water rat. Too much like a rat, I decide when Google helpfully directs me to a photograph.

I have a Fawlty Towers flashback, channelling Manuel. ‘Eees haaam-ster!

I thought I was well up on food names but this one has caught me. Silly, but I feel quite nauseous for the rest of the day after I find this out. All I can say is, it ‘terrined’ very nicely and tasted enough like rabbit to fool me!’

If you thought this blog had died and gone to blog-heaven, it hasn’t.

It has merely stalled because we’ve had a huge assignment, visiting 200 Sydney cafes for an exciting app. Find Sydney Café Culture on the iTunes App Store.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Squeamish Ominvore

Once, long ago, I was a vegetarian. Now I define myself simply as a ‘squeamish omnivore’.

To explain – I have never seen the Sardinian cheese meant to be consumed maggots and all, and I don’t know how I would fare with that. But washed rind cheese is fine with me, and while we are onto smelly food, so is durian that love-it hate-it fruit of south east Asia, every bit as ugly to look at as some people say it tastes.

But perhaps the worst-smelling dish I have ever encountered was in the Marquesas in French Polynesia. A favourite local delicacy is raw fish marinated in seawater – for a few days. The stench when the lid was lifted to show me the great treat inside was overpowering. Thank goodness they liked it so much (or me not enough) that they did not offer a taste.

There are some things, though, that I’ll be happy if I don’t ever eat again. Witchetty grub comes right up there at the top of the list. Vic Cherikoff is an Australian bush food expert and he was at a food event many years ago, which I also attended. He was determined I should try witchetty grub. These are fat white grubs a few centimetres long, which live underground and are actually moth larvae. I grew up in Western Australia knowing them as bardi grubs. Either way I had no desire to eat one, even though indigenous people regard them as a delicacy.

Vic was adamant I should taste a grilled grub and I gave in when my generally honest husband, assured me he had already downed one. I have to say the taste was not so bad – buttery (some say they are like peanut butter) and not unpleasant – but it was the texture that got to me. Because it had been grilled, the skin was tough and rubbery and I could not chew it and had no option but to swallow it down pretty well whole. It was only after we left the event that my partner admitted he had disposed of his witchetty grub in a convenient nearby potted palm!

Chicken’s feet in China, or in any dim sum restaurant for that matter, need never be on my plate again either. Nor sea cucumber which I once ate (no, I didn’t – it was like chewing an eraser so I spat it out) at a Vietnamese wedding, and water rat (in France – that story coming up soon) or raw crab in Seoul. Even my Korean guide shuddered at the idea of eating that.

Some other foods I am simply ethically against. Shark fin soup, turtle, bear, tiger, monkey – anything that is rare (and here I don’t mean barely cooked), endangered, or may have been treated cruelly in order for it to be considered fit for human consumption. Foie gras is borderline for me, because of the last point, although I have eaten it often, especially in France.

I can tackle a plate of haggis, and black sausage or boudin noir depending on which country you are in. Andouillettes, too, without a quibble, although for some reason once I get as far south as Lyon they become so strongly flavoured and rank smelling that I swear off them until I reach Paris again on the next trip and discover I can’t resist them, all over again.

In China I have been served pigeon (or some entire small bird, with its head hanging over the edge of the bowl) and camel, alligator, caribou, snails and frog’s legs in other countries.

I grew up eating offal, so brains, bone marrow, tongue, liver, even stuffed heart are no problem – which is lucky, as once in France my husband ordered cervelles d’agneau. The last word meant ‘brains’. We weren’t sure what the other was until the dish arrived – perfectly cooked lamb’s brains, as any Francophone would have known. A quick switch of plates saved the day. Emu, kangaroo and possum, I can stomach, and wallaby is delightful, but caribou - sampled once in the US, was too rare and too sinewy.

Then there is what I call shudder-territory. I hope I am never in the position of being expected to eat any of these creatures – or parts of them: crickets, bugs, snakes, centipedes, dog, cockscombs, bull’s ‘bits’, lark’s tongues, silk worms, duck webs, white veal (aka the unborn foetus), partially developed chickens still in the shell, puff balls, eyeballs, snake blood or fallopian tubes!

And, no, I did not make that last one up – I have a photo of it listed as an ingredient in a restaurant dish in Shanghai.

There’s a lot to make you think twice in this omnivorous world. So, how about a nice drink to calm our nerves?

But not tequila, please. I hear there are worms in that!