Tuesday, February 16, 2010


‘Bitter’ is not a flavour many of us favour. Or think we do. When you get down to it, bitterness is essential in many dishes and often our favourite foods – think dark, dark chocolate, tonic water, marmalade, beer, some olive oils. Get my drift? The stomach welcomes it too. Bitters and herbal tonics such as Swedish bitters are said to help the digestion, getting everything get back to normal after a meal.

But a bitter dessert?

Come with me to a restaurant tucked away down a side street in East Sydney.

La Mint has been here four years, owner Leanne Lai told me. Sydney has a large Vietnamese population, but mostly situated in other suburbs to the south and west. Leanne and her husband wanted to reflect Vietnam’s French history – and little wonder when at least that colonisation brought fresh yeast breads and sauces and a style of cooking which worked well with fresh herbal local dishes.

In the dead-end of Riley Street they have created a little piece of Hanoi with candles, rattan backed chairs and elegant banquettes. On one wall a disconcerting gaze of a golden Buddha follows you wherever you go and we watched, amused, as diners walked back and forth in front of it to test it out.

The crowd here was not the pho-slurping youngsters, the students you might find in Bankstown. These diners were Anglo, affluent, and executive. They were picking the golden pavé de pork, pork belly with chilli sauce, and enjoying it’s melting tenderness as much as we were, I am sure. We passed on the escargot, though, and went for the more trad ‘shaking beef’.

Relax, vegetarians! The name refers to the cooking technique of tossing the eye fillet rapidly in a pan – not its mental state at execution. Despite not being marinated it was remarkably tender too, and served with an addictive lemon and green pepper sauce. But enough of our meal – read the menus on the website www.lamint.com.au

I am here to tell you about the dessert.

Bitter melon looks like a squash or a marrow or even a light-skinned cucumber with a particularly bad skin condition. Its wrinkled, pitted, warty exterior gives little hint of its flavour or what is inside.

In Vietnam, raw bitter melon slices are often eaten with dried meat floss. But that’s another story. The melon may be stuffed with ground pork and used to make bitter melon soup. Or it can simple be stewed. That dish is usually cooked for the local Tết holiday because of its name – a reminder of the bitterly desperate conditions experienced by Vietnamese people in the past.

And so we order La Mint Pudding – as the name suggests the restaurant’s signature dessert, and cast on the menu as ‘exotic bitter melon jelly pudding and coconut milk’. Chef-owner George Lai, Leanne’s husband devised this dish using the juice of the bitter melon which turns the jelly a rich bottle green. It is mixed with cooked sago, set into a mould, and then at serving time drizzled with coconut milk.

It looks luscious, with the shine and colour of a satin evening dress. My tongue hunts for bitterness. There is just a little, a subtle tickle at the back of my tongue as each spoonful slips down. Yet it has not been laced with sugar either to mask the flavour. It is refreshing, elegant and sensuous. Most importantly it tastes nothing like the bitter melon looks.

And I imagine it has done wonders for my digestion.


La Mint Restaurant & Bar, 62-64 Riley Street, East Sydney, 02 9331 1818, (www.lamint.com.au) has a cooking class on the last Sunday of each month. Maybe, they will teach you how to make this dessert!

Sunday, February 14, 2010


It is generally agreed that the French have long held monopoly in the romance department. With Cupid in their corner it seems, while they somehow understand exactly how to maximise the moment of seduction, they still also take sensual delight in many everyday situations. Throw in a celebration and they are never happier.

So picture this. The wedding is over. You have finally shaken off the last of the friends and relations, kissed your family goodbye (or so you thought) and, with a sigh of relief, you stagger upstairs to the honeymoon suite. Just moments later, as you are about to relax, there is a gentle tap at the door, and from the other side, muffled chuckles, excited noises and an unmistakable odour. That smell! Is that, can that actually be – onions?

On investigation, you beaming well-wishers proudly presenting you with two bowls of onion soup.

"Eat it all," they tell you, then warn, "We will be back!"

And they are – quite soon, to make sure those bowls are good and empty, signifying that you have been properly, finally, launched safely onto the turbulent sea of matrimony.

While urbane French couples will possibly never be faced with this post-nuptial activity, that would have been the scenario if you had married in parts of rural France some time ago. No one knows the reasons behind the custom, but people still living today remember their mothers and grandmothers recounting tales of those bowls of steaming onion soup, their own strange wedding night fare.

There is certainly no doubt that onions are basic to French cuisine. Even the language supports this. 'Occupe-toi de tes oignons' you will be told swiftly – literally, watch your own onions – if a French person thinks you need to mind your own business. Make a scene, and they say you have created 'un spectacle des petits oignons', but take extra care when you do something and they will praise you for making it 'aux petits oignons.' And those same family members who toasted the bride and groom with soup at midnight, when lined up to kiss them after the ceremony in a queue, would be described in French as 'en rang d'oignon'.

It is hard to know how that onion soup custom came about. Onions, as indeed all members of the lily family, asparagus included, have long been dubbed aphrodisiacs, so perhaps that may be the link. Certainly onion soup has also long been considered a great restorative – although surely yiu would think that should better qualify it for a place on the morning-after menu, rather than the night before!

Tears and weddings traditionally go together, and onions and tears have a natural affinity too. Although they have been cultivated for 6000 years, still no one has yet developed a varietu which doesn't make us cry. It is believed that when the slaves assigned to building the pyramids were not consuming garlic, they ate onions, a tribute to that vegetable's strengthening properties.

Hippocrates thought onions were good for the sight, but while love is blind, could this be taking the supposed romantic powers of onions just a bit too far? One 16th-century food writer assured his readers that onions promote sleep. Fine advice, but not necessarily on the wedding-night and, when you think about it, how romantic is onion-breath, anyway? Perhaps that is why both the bride and groom were asked to drain the bowls.

Folk-sayings are thick with claims for onions. They make peasants work harder, cure bee stings, frighten away snakes, allow roses to smell sweeter if planted between the bushes, clean out the bowels and reduce blood pressure. If a man sleeps with an onion under his pillow, people were once told, he will dream of his future wife.

Modern health experts now accept that onions contain a natural antibiotic, but still steer clear of the old claim that onion juice squeezed on a bald head will cause hair to regrow. Even more archaically it was once suggested that onions increase 'lust and lecherye'.

While it is easy to sneer at simple wisdom, perhaps the French knew something we don't, for onion soup is a great dish at any time of the day or night. Maybe the custom is worth reviving. With a bit of luck it might just arouse the passions, restore your strength, or, at its worst, merely lull you both into a sound night's sleep.

In case you want to try it for yourself, here is a simple recipe.


30g butter

1 large onion, thinly sliced

l clove garlic, crushed

l teaspoon flour

pinch sugar

1 1/4 cups beef stock

1 cup water

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon dry sherry or red wine

Heat the butter in a large heavy pan and add onions and garlic. Saute gently, stirring constantly until the onions are golden. Add flour and stir well, then add sugar, stock and water. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sherry or wine, and simmer a few more minutes. Meanwhile cut 4 thin slices of french bread and sprinkle with grated cheese. Ladle the soup into two heatproof bowls and top each with 2 slices of bread and cheese. Place under a preheated grill and cook until cheese is melted.