In My Kitchen, November 2018

It’s around 5 pm and my mind reluctantly begins to address the question of dinner. Lacking inspiration, I pour myself a drink, an encouraging white wine and immediately think of risotto, a dish that asks if it may share some of the bottle. There are tons of broadbeans ( fava beans) and leeks in the garden and plenty of herbs: a risotto primaverile could be the answer. At other times, I do the common thing and google a few ingredients in the subject line, hoping for an instant answer, fully conscious of the fact that random internet recipes are unreliable and are simply another form of procrastination. I often ask Mr T what he would like for dinner. In our household the answer always comes back as a one word statement indicating a particular ethnic cuisine. “What about some Indian?” (or Thai, Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, French, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese)? he responds. Vietnamese is off my cooking list- I save that cuisine for at least one economical dining option when out and about. When Melburnians eat, they choose from a huge array of influences and are familiar enough with many cuisines to cook them confidently in their own kitchens.

Risotto Primaverile. Inspired by spring vegetables and white wine and of course, Italy.

It’s one of the reasons why I love Melbourne so much. Sitting in the A1 Bakery yesterday, a cheap and cheerful Lebanese restaurant in a vibrant inner suburb, we were surrounded by Australian people of the world, dressed in all manner of clothing styles, from Hijab to Hipster. The decor is eclectic and a little quirky. Above the counter stands a large statue of the Virgin Mary, draped in all her blue and white Catholic glory, an outfit not dissimilar to that worn by some of the customers, while displayed in front of her is a long row of 1 metre high golden hookahs. An odd assortment of pictures decorate the far walls:- a primitive painting of Ned Kelly, the Irish- Australian bushranger legendary hero, an oil painting of Saint Sharbel, a Lebanese Maronite saint dressed in brown monastic garb, a large velvet rug featuring some knife wielding Ottoman Cossacks, and a childlike painting of a cockatoo. The place is always noisy and very busy. On a nearby table, a large group of girls are enjoying a shared lunch together: they have just finished their final year school exams and are celebrating at one of Melbourne’s most affordable eateries. They are Middle Eastern, Turkish, African and Asian Australians. A couple wear glamourously draped head-dress over their teenage uniform of jeans and t-shirts. They speak Melburnian – time to recognise that Australian English has many distinct dialects – and their youthful laughter is infectious.

Below, my home-made falafel, this time with more Egyptian influence and lots of herbs

 

My next door neighbour in the city has just returned from her annual holiday in Greece. For the last 22 years she has tried to teach me basic Greek. We chat in a mixture of broken English and, in my case, almost non-existent Greek – a case of trying to recognise as many Greek roots and suffixes or Italian sounding words, over a some warm Tiropsomo, a fetta cheese bread snack. Like a little bit of Ouzo, says Anna at any time of the day. Oooh, my favourite Greek word: yes please. She pours herself a thimble full while I receive a good little glass, enough to change the flavour of the day. Cheers, Stin ygiasou . She is now 86 and I want to spend more time in her kitchen. Greek influence in my kitchen extends to old favourites such as Spanakopita, that famous greens and fetta pie, Gigantes, the best of bean dishes, home-made taramsalada and dolmades. I’m keen to learn a few more Greek tricks.

Crostini with smashed broad beans and Greek Fetta. Italy meets Greece via Sicily often in Melbourne. Pick one kilo of broadbeans ( fava), shell them, boil for one minute then remove tough outer casings, mix and smash, season well. Top grilled sourdough with mixture, then add some crumbled sheep fetta, olive oil and mint leaves.

The annual Spring BBQ at Barnardi’s place took place recently: this is one of the culinary highlights of my year. When I arrive at most parties, I usually reach for a glass of wine before perusing the food offerings. At Barnadi’s, I head straight to the buffet table- the anticipation of his traditional Indonesian food is so overwhelming, I become outrageously greedy. Barnadi is a chef who once ran a famous Indonesian restaurant, Djakarta. Lately, he has returned to his roots and is cooking more traditional Indonesian recipes. The Australians attending this event all share a diverse background- Indonesian, Thai, British, Greek, Italian and Swedish, a healthy Melburnian blend. The dessert table included a tray of sticky rice green and pink Indonesian cakes, some Javanese Gembong, a rich Spanish flan, a chocolate cheesecake and a Hummingbird cake for Adam’s birthday.

Barnadi’s sweet creations, photo courtesy of Adam. The long dish second from the left contains Gembong, my favourite Javanese sweet, sold in streets of Cipanas, West Java.

 

My mother recently moved into an elderly care facility, commonly known as ‘the place’. The first thing we checked out was the menu. The food is fabulous and varied: the chef, who once had his own restaurant and is of Indian Fijian background, has a great approach to the menu. He hopes to eat this well when he is elderly and so he cooks as if he were a guest at the table. Yes, it’s Karma, we both agree. Visitors can eat with the residents with notice, and there’s always a spare dessert available when visiting during meal times. They are sensational. Each member of staff, from manager to cleaner, is genuinely caring and friendly: they smile, dance and chat to all. These Aussies have Chinese, Malaysian, and Filipino backgrounds and I am so thankful for their loving care of my mother.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite Australian comedy clips, each with a multi cultural theme.  Laugh or cringe. Thanks Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings, for hosting this monthly series.

In My Kitchen, August 2016

This month, In My Kitchen takes place in a Vietnamese kitchen in Hôi An. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had arranged to do a private cooking class which took place in the back rooms of Minh Hiên Vegetarian Restaurant in Hôi An. What an amazing experience. Here is an excerpt from a future, still evolving post, highlighting some of the gems found in a Vietnamese kitchen.

Great little grater. I want one. Better than the Thai version.
Great little grater. I want one. Better than the Thai version.
Staff member using the great grater.
Staff member using the great grater.

Cooking classes not only introduce the participant to local recipes and new ingredients, but more importantly, they reinforce good technique, economy and the importance of mise en place. Vietnamese cuisine looks fast and easy to cook, but the flavour comes from careful and exacting preparation and the making of rich stocks beforehand.

The importance of Mise en place.
The importance of mise en place in Vietnamese cooking.

The tools and gadgets used on that day were perfect for each task. Long chopsticks are used for cooking, frying and stirring eggs. Turning over tofu slices with long chopsticks stops them from breaking, once you get used to handling slippery tofu in hot oil that is. Scissors are used to cut the green ends of spring onions: this part of the onion is never wasted and is also never cooked. The green part is usually cut into 2 cm pieces while the white onion end is always cooked, and is usually cut vertically.

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Mr T learns better technique.
Draining fried food without paper towels.
Draining fried food without paper towels.

Using a strainer over a bowl or saucepan is an economical and efficient way to drain fried food, and makes more sense than using paper towels. The strainer placed near the stove before any frying takes place. Above, some Banh Xeò ( crispy rice pancakes) drain before wrapping and eating. The street version of Banh Xeò includes prawn and pork in the filling. This vegetarian version substitutes hand torn oyster mushroom and thinly sliced cooked carrot. These colours resemble the colour and shapes used in the original version. The fun comes in the eating. Cut the Banh Xeò, using scissors, into two, lay it in rice paper, add lettuce, long strips of cucumber and mint, roll and dip in a special sauce made from fermented soya beans. Recipe will be coming soon.

A couple of nice blokes playing in a kitchen is a joy to behold. Here Nhien and Mr T are discussing technique. More on this amazing cooking school in a future post.

Nhien and Mr T discuss technique in a Vietnamese Kictehn
Nhien and Mr T discuss technique in a Vietnamese Kitchen.

Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant

50 Trần Cao Vân, tp. Hội An, Vietnam