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!