Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Our Malaysian guide Ping Ping loves her food. We know this because she talks about it – a lot. When we walk on along the riverside in Melaka for a few minutes, she stays behind, and admits to us when we return that she has used her time well.

Call it reconnaissance if you like. Maybe research, but she’s been snacking on a special – ‘very special,’ she says – delicacy.

She quickly hustles us into the air-conditioned and spotless Yong Ann Birds Nest restaurant ( where we are seated on wooden chairs. She urges us to taste the café’s specialty which, she underlines, has been harvested at great risk. We give in to please her, and Ping Ping orders a second helping of bird’s nest tart for herself.

The menu in this small unprepossessing café offers a range of dishes, all featuring this rare ingredient. Under Ping Ping’s close scrutiny we order some desserts and a ginseng birds’ nest drink. She has already half-consumed the last tart in the shop.

I feel she really doesn’t mind at all if we don’t like our choices as she will happily clean up the leftovers. Did I mention she quite visibly loves her food?

It’s only when, as the sweetly gelatinous substance slips between our teeth, that we are told what it really is, and realise queasily what we are eating. This bird’s nest is not exactly the bird’s nests, the bedroom and nursery built by tiny cave swifts. That had seemed bad enough. But it’s worse. It’s the bird’s own dribble!

Melaka is one of Malaysia’s oldest cities and perhaps the second most important tourist destination in the country after KL. The food here showcases Malaysia’s wonderful mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese, with a touch of Dutch and Portuguese and the magic fusion of Malay and Chinese in its Nyonya cuisine

But Ping Ping wants us to experience a Chinese delicacy- and we’re not sure we want to.

First some history. The shallow cup-shaped nests are built by tiny male swiftlets, and are usually stuck on to the walls of coastal caves in Indonesia. Harvesting these is perilous and, you could argue, ecologically wilful. They are said to be one of the most expensive animal products in the world. Regardless of this, the Chinese have been savouring this delicacy for at least four centuries.

Because these nests are not made from straw and hair and the usual bird’s nest building materials, the ‘interwoven strands of salivary laminae cement’ are able to be dissolved in water to give a silky texture to soups and desserts and to impart a certain flavour to ice creams.

Typically, the health-conscious Chinese believe that eating these nests (which are high in calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium) provide health benefits. It seems that after this our digestion, concentration, immune system, and, yes, of course – the old standby­ ­– libidos, will improve.

There are both red and white nests, and a red sells for about five times the price of a white one. To one side of the café there are shelves holding packages of bird’s nests products and they are certainly not cheap. However, even if the flavour or cost or ethics don’t stop me buying one as a souvenir (and they do), I am pretty sure my own country’s quarantine restrictions would.

So what does it actually taste like? I nibble some mango bird’s nest ice cream before pushing it across the table to the helpfully available Ping Ping.

Hmmm, unremarkable, I decide. Sweetish. Nice texture. Certainly not worth the danger for the harvester or the loss of a home for the swiftlet family. And, although it’s a possibility that perhaps I need to have consumed more, I just don’t feel markedly healthier afterwards.

Perhaps Ping Ping does. She’s smiling and looking very content. But then she’s possibly put away three or four good helpings today!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Like most Australians, I probably met my first lamington before I can remember it. Kids love them.

And let’s face it, there has to be something about a country that has such a thing for stale sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and furry with desiccated coconut! There’s even a National Lamington Day – and today is it!

Over a hundred years ago, a French chef in Brisbane – now there’s a cultural divide to begin with – first knocked up an impromptu batch for some guests having afternoon tea with Lord Lamington, the second Baron of Lamington and Governor of Queensland from 1896 -1901.

No doubt wanting to keep his job, on the spot the chef obsequiously dubbed them ‘lamingtons’, and undoubtedly the good Lord did nothing to let the guests know that they weren’t biting into the results of an ancient family recipe handed down throughout the centuries along with his title.

The concept of lamingtons is simple: cut stale cake into large cubes, dip these carefully into thinnish chocolate icing, then toss in coconut. Please note: the pertinent word here is ‘simple’.

The one and only time I tried to make this staple of all good CWA cooks, P&C mothers and fundraising organisations (think, lamington drives) the word ‘simple’ was a long way from my vocabulary, which turned shorter and pithier as I became more and more coated with the major components.

Unless you have done this several dozen times, the whole crumbly cake, sticky icing, coconut routine is NOT simple. I had icing on my hands, face (well I had to lick my fingers!), cake rack, floor, clothes, cupboard doors, bench tops – ditto the coconut. Everywhere, it seemed, except on the cubes of cake which stubbornly sprouted bare spots as the icing refused to adhere and began to drip off onto my hands, cake rack, floor, clothes, cupboard doors, and bench tops.

In a clever example of role-reversal, the bowl of icing became crumbier, as an exchange plan between it and the cake cubes came into effect.

Despite my shambles of an effort, lamingtons remain a favourite of mine. A staunchly Aussie food icon they are available in every cake shop and supermarket and sold in dozens for charity. My private guess as to why they sell exceptionally well is that they are so tricky for the not-too-talented-and-coordinated home cook to execute.

Me? I’ll buy any number for a good cause. I am just happy to let the experts make them, rather than go through another ordeal like that.

National Lamington Day today – go buy a few dozen!

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