Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The month away (part 8)

There is a lot of Asian food here in Sydney but a lot of it is not really authentic which is totally understandable because restaurateurs need to cater to the local palate. Another thing I will never get in Australia is home-cooked food by my mum and that is something I will never stop missing. In this penultimate vacation-post, you will be able to sample a cross-section of the food I got to savour during these 31 days away. Credit goes to my trusty spreadsheet for the names of some of these dishes (and all credit for the spreadsheet goes to me!).

Gastronomical Delights

Home-cooked wanton spinach noodles. The translucence of the wanton skin showing the gentle tint of pink from the shrimps inside invites you to bite into them all the more. Coupled with the simple yet flavourful sauce, this dish is comfort food taken to exquisite levels.

Another sampling of mum-cooked fare. From top left going clockwise, we see steamed minced pork topped with salted fish and sliced ginger, shrimp omelette with a generous dose of onions (my favourite), and vermicelli stir-fried with cucumber and dried shrimps. These are some of the must-have dishes that I ask my mum to prepare during my going-home trips.

Steamed broccoli with oyster sauce with huge fresh scallops, stewed sea cucumber, and squid stir-fried with a vegetable medley—seafood offerings from the recipes plucked right of my mum’s head.

Talking about sea cucumbers, here is a tale of extreme rip-off at a Singaporean restaurant. In the top left, we see the sea cucumber dish as shown in the menu and the bottom left shows how it looked like untouched when it was served (the standard-sized Chinese tea cup beside the dish gives a good measure of the tininess of the pieces). For this miserable dish we were charged S$20! Rip-off to the n-th degree!!! The biggest picture shows from left to right a good piece of dried sea cucumber, then how it looks like when soaked in water (the standard 500ml drink bottle shows how large the soaked pieces are). This is how quality (and expensive) sea cucumber should look like. Name-and-shame time—the restaurant is “宝香绑线肉骨茶” or “Pao Xiang Bak Ku Teh” at Nex in Serangoon Central. Seeing how sky-high their prices were, mark my words—I think that rip-off joint will go out of business soon (if it has not already).

More on sea cucumbers—they can cost up to a few hundred bucks a kilo. A lot of foreigners cannot appreciate its taste and texture but my family sure can and do! In this preparation, mum wrapped marinated chicken thigh pieces along with hair-like seaweed and dried scallops in a whole large sea cucumber and stewed it for hours in low heat till the chewiness of the sea cucumber became just right—that was also when its flavour seeped into the chicken and vice versa. This dish has a very delicate and sophisticated quality to it and I am sure it can sell for at least a hundred dollars if served in a restaurant.

Culinary genius at work. You don’t need to be a master chef to know how to cook well—years and years of experience, experimenting and most importantly the genuine love of cooking and providing for the family can easily out-trump the oft-esoteric characteristic of the cooking techniques and skills of top chefs. These four pictures (clockwise from top left) show how mum's deep-fried pork balls with century egg and salted egg yolk centres were prepared. This is yet another of those must-have dishes that my mum would make for me.

The sea cucumber and pork balls were part of my farewell home-cooked dinner. Also shown in this picture are a stir-fried squid-and-cuttlefish combo with vegetables, stewed large dried shitake mushrooms as well as chicken and vegetable soup flavoured with dried anchovies. Yum factor to the max!

One of my favourite things to do with mum is a relaxing dinner-then-movie excursion. Before we watched “Priest” on this night, we dined at a Japanese restaurant called “Shin Kushiya” at a new mall near where we lived. Not too fancy yet refined enough to resemble fine-dining, we had a wonderful meal sampling the more unique dishes the eatery had to offer. From top left going clockwise: tako (cuttlefish) wasabi, pumpkin croquettes, grilled goose liver with caramelised green apple, grilled lady fingers wrapped with thinly-sliced pork and in the centre: ika kimchi (charcoal-grilled squid stuffed with kimuchi).

Continuation of the meal we had that night. From top left going clockwise: yaki onigiri & katsuoboshi (charcoal-grilled rice ball with eel), garlic rice, shisamo maki (deep-fried capelin fish topped with bacon in a sushi roll), okura mentaiko (tempura of ladies' fingers with codfish roe) and in the centre: umeshu (plum wine) tiramisu. The total bill was under S$100—not-too-bad at all!

Turtle soup. The last time I had this was eons ago when my father was still around and so I had totally forgotten how it tastes like. Well, the soup was rather heavily-spiced with Chinese medicinal herbs so I couldn’t really get to the basal taste of turtle. The most-coveted part is the skin and its texture is just like sea cucumber except that it is more collagenic and hence sticky. As for the meat, I know it is a cliché but it does taste like chicken but only chewier.

This was the breakfast I had in Taling Chan Floating Market in Bangkok. From top down: spiced minced fish with coconut milk (commonly known as “otah” in Singapore), chrysanthemum tea and palm juice, grilled giant prawns, sponge cake topped with caramelised coconut, spicy mango salad with dried fish and peanut. I also had deep-fried breaded shrimp cakes (not shown here). Feast like a king for only 235 baht (AUS$7.30—cheap as!) and we are not even including in that cost the enjoyment I got from dining amongst the friendly locals, great Chao Phraya scenery, sights and sounds wrapped in that authentic Thai flavour.

This is what you could get from Bangkok street-stalls—simple food heavy on taste and light on cost. Hot and sour shrimp and vegetable soup (not tom yum), BBQ chicken skewers and seafood fried rice for only 180 baht (AUS$5.60). Now when I look at these pictures again, I feel like planning for my next Bangkok trip already!

This is steamed frog legs doused in Brand’s Essence of Chicken which my mum and I had in a hawker centre in Johore Bahru called “Pusat Buah-Buahan Taman Sri Tebran”. It was very fresh and succulent—you should try it if you haven’t.

One of my quests in Vietnam was to have some authentic pho and I had that twice (one of which was at that chain Bill Clinton once visited). The other quintessentially-Vietnamese food item that was part of my quest was fresh rice paper rolls, which I had quite a bit of during the trip. Frankly I think the Vietnamese food in Sydney is better—it is much cleaner in taste perhaps because higher-quality ingredients and meats are used in Australia (with more sanitary food-preparation techniques I bet).

For one dinner, my friend and I decided to go to one of the most up-market restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City just for the fun of it. We originally wanted to go to a French one but it was too out of the way so instead we picked this Chinese restaurant called “Mandarine”, which boasted Condoleezaa Rice as one of its patrons. Top: spicy and sour seafood soup in coconut. Bottom: "Mandarine"-style spring roll with shrimp and pork.

The dishes at “Mandarine” were all very well-decorated and the clientele was mostly rich businessmen. The ambience was great as well with live Chinese music being played and polite and attentive service. Top: grilled fish wrapped with rice pancake. Bottom: steamed king prawn with garlic.

There is an impressive VIP room with a very well-stocked cellar on the first floor of this restaurant. I must say this was the best meal we had in Vietnam—no surprise given its total cost (2,323,000 Vietnamese dong or AUD$104). That being said, this meal will definitely cost at least twice more in Sydney. Too bad I had a toothache from the second course onwards and couldn’t even take a bite into the ice-cream dessert. Top: steamed rice in lotus leaf. Bottom: grilled chicken with cinnamon and foer dessert, fresh mango flambe with rum.

After having an abundance of cheap and good food for a month, I came back to Sydney and was greeted with this bit of irony. What bitter irony!

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