Getting back into cooking since 2009.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Eating my way around Singapore

A copy of Makansutra in hand (thanks, Max!), I've spent the past week eating my way around Singapore, mostly in hawker centres and food courts. What a city for food! The dishes below are some of the best I've eaten. Forgive the iPhone photography, please, and also the lazy year or so since either of us posted on this blog. 


Beef Kway Teow soup at Changi Beef Kway Teow Mee

A bit baffled by the hawker centre at first, I stumbled over my words as I ordered. The helpful old lady manning the counter tried to help me out: "you want stomach, or no stomach?" I wussed out and chose the "beef only" option, which ended up bearing a striking, if superficial, resemblance to pho tai. In fact, I had a Singaporean explain to me that she'd had great beef kway teow soup in Melbourne, but I'm pretty sure she was describing Mekong on Swanston St. 

The broth is light, without the deep beefiness of pho. This is exactly the sort of thing you want to eat in the Singapore heat, where it feels as if you're drinking the air: a light, refreshing, soup, all celery and basil and beef. A big bowlful was $SG 4. 


Char Kway Teow at No. 18 Zion Road Fried Kway Teow, Zion Riverside Food Centre

Somewhat confusingly, No. 18 FKT is now located at stall #17, but it doesn't appear that anything has been lost in the move of a few metres. This place has quite the soup nazi vibe, with an old man hunched over his wok, intensely concentrating on each batch of noodles as he fries it, barely acknowledging the orders as they're passed to him. 

You have three choices: small, medium or large noodles, for $3, $4 or $5 respectively. A few people in front of people got theirs to take away, wrapped up in a piece of paper and whisked away to elsewhere. Why people eat KFC in this city, I will never understand.

The 'dude food' descriptor is a bit obnoxious, really, but if anything fits the bill it's this. A gutsy mound of fried noodles, heaving with slivers of lap cheong and briny, sweet cockles, the noodles seared so precisely that you'd swear he'd cooked them separately, doting on each strand like an adoring dad. Devouring this with my good friend, a mug of Tiger, sitting next to the river in the open air, left me in the sort of euphoric revery that is usually only sparked by tasting menus at thirty times this price. A real meal to remember.


Chicken Rice at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, Maxwell Road Food Centre

I walked nearly every aisle of the food centre looking for Tian Tian, but I needn't have bothered squinting at the signage: it's easily identified by the queue that snakes around the double-fronted hawker's hut, around the back of the centre and out into the open air. Locals gladly queue for half an hour or more for their plate of chicken and rice. I had to try Tian Tian, given Bourdain's raves and the three chopstick rating from Makansutra ("die, die, must try!"), but I must admit I was less excited about this than some of the other dishes on my extended SIngapore menu. While I've had good chicken rice in the past, I had never quite understood why people hold this simple dish so close to their hearts. Now I'm a believer.

I stood there queuing in the midday heat, sweating like the sunburnt Pom I almost am, genes more suited to Manchester and jeans to Melbourne, unsure of what to expect. I'm still not sure I'm able to discern the subtle qualities that distinguish a great chicken rice from the merely good, though the quality of the sauces has been quite variable at the few places I've tried here. Perhaps it's a bit like a poached egg: it's easy to tell bad from good, but to separate the great from the good requires the sort of studious devotion to a single dish that those of us with a more varied diet struggle to attain. 

Nevertheless, Tian Tian's reputation is clearly well deserved: the chicken has that gelatinous wobble, the rice that mysterious, fragrant depth of flavour and the sauces are fresh and pungent. I just might have to eat chicken rice more often so I know how good Tian Tian truly is.

Chilli crab at Dragon Phoenix, Clark Quay

At first I wasn't sure what to make of this place, up on the sixth floor of a shopping centre/hotel complex… I was expecting to emerge from the lift to see a food court, an air-conditioned equivalent of the hawkers centres, with a big queue snaking around to the chilli crab place. Instead, a couple of chinese symbols that I guessed meant "Dragon Phoenix" were all I could see. It was an actual restaurant, with tables and a roof and the whole extravagant production. Something different!

The hosts looked like they didn't know what to make of me either, a lone, youngish white guy wandering in with my Uniqlo shopping bags and a confused look on my face. They sat me near the only other two gweilo in the place, a disgruntled looking pair in their 50s, who sat silently seething at each other through their brief and perfunctory meal.

I was expecting the sort of abrupt indifference that often characterises the service in Chinese restaurants, but the hosts bent over backwards to be friendly and explain things. I ordered a whole chilli crab and some steamed peanuts and chilli sauce to start, and I was reunited with my old companion, a mug of Tiger.

Chilli crab is not a dainty dish. It is not a delicate dish. It's a brute force, all hands on deck, sauce and shell flying everywhere, messy hands, messy face sort of a dish. I got up a rhythm that became compulsive, cracking the claws, gouging out that sweet flesh into the sour-spicy broth, scooping up the larger morsels with my chopsticks, soaking up as much as I could with a fried bun, rinse, repeat. It's an involved ritual but it's very much worth the hassle. 

Eventually I got talking to one of the old men who seemed to run the place, he seemed genuinely happy that I enjoyed the crab and didn't find it too spicy. I wandered back to my hotel, along the river, wondering why I'd never been to Singapore before.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The first night I arrived in Melbourne, almost exactly 9 months ago, I decided to take a walk around Brunswick. I headed east from my friends' house, walked up Sydney Road for a bit, past the dual-purpose kebab stand/car washes, and then kept heading east to Lygon St, becoming increasingly hungry. By this time it was about 9pm on a Saturday and I'd been walking for about an hour. My plane had landed at six that morning and I was exhausted. 

I came across Hellenic Republic, a restaurant I was aware of thanks to the owner's ubiquity, and decided it would be a good place for a solo diner. I had assumed that being by myself would mean that it would be easy for the restaurant to accommodate me. Apparently I was wrong! I asked for a seat for one at the bar, and the host sort of rolled her eyes at me, looked over at the half-empty bar and seemed reluctant to let me in. I'm used to being treated a bit dismissively in restaurants; I'm from Perth. I just wasn't in the mood to put up with it that night. Instead, I walked straight out and kept walking down Lygon St towards the city.

Eventually I arrived at Rumi, a place I recognised as the object of Bourdain's near-ecstatic praise in an episode of No Reservations. The maĆ®tre d’ was the opposite of Hellenic Republic: warm, friendly, happy to welcome me. I sat at the bar and proceeded to have an incredible meal of slow-roasted lamb shoulder and deep-fried cauliflower, drank a couple of beers and read a book. I was immediately sold on the place, and I've been back many times since. 

The food is the attraction. The chef, Joseph Abboud, cooks the Lebanese dishes he grew up with, but updates it and gently modernises it around the edges, bringing his classical training to bear on food that's far from French. On one of my solo visits he saw me reading The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman and we got to talking about the French Laundry and Thomas Keller. The chef is a guy who is clearly in love with his craft, and it shows in his food. 

The lamb shoulder, a staple on an ever-evolving menu, is slowly roasted on the bone for some absurd length of time, its exterior deep black, the gelatinous flesh collapsing under the weight of a fork. It's served with sirkanjabin, a sweet mint sauce that is comfortingly familiar to those of us with a family background more Manchester than Marjeyoun

I had a near-religious experience with the cauliflower. It's just slightly crispy fried florets, big enough to retain their earthy interior, with sweetly caramelised onions, pinenuts and raisins. Maybe it doesn't sound like much, but holy HELL is it Much. It is very much Much. This dish kicked off a cauliflower odyssey, I started eating the formerly-boring vegetable whenever I saw it on a menu, but nowhere quite hits the heights of this dish. 

Bourdain raved about the quail, and he wasn't wrong. Two skewers of quail breast and thigh, grilled and smoky on the outside, a faint pink within. They seem to be served a different way each time I go back: sometimes they're smothered in grape molasses, or perhaps pomegranate, sticky-sweet luminescent pink against the bird's charred skin. The last time we had the pleasure of eating this dish it was served with a Lebanese version of salsa verde (the name escapes me). 

It's obscenely good value, too. Order the banquet and you'll get five ample courses for $45 per head. It'll probably include the cauliflower, lamb shoulder and a version of the quail, but you'll also get pickles with labne and flat bread, addictive little puff pastry cigars stuffed with salty cheese (sigara boregi), several delicious and inventive salads (freekeh, if you're lucky), a plate of lightly-spiced school prawns that you devour in their entirety, amongst other things. 

This is, for so many reasons, my favourite restaurant in Melbourne.

Rumi on Urbanspoon
132 Lygon St
Brunswick East

Note: Claire at Melbourne Gastronome has a bunch of photos on her blog, as she is not a lazy, scared little man.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Los Amates!

Here is what happened on Wednesday:

1. KH comments on the previous post asking what we think of Los Amates, a Mexican restaurant in Fitzroy.
2. I say to Matt "we should go there"!
3. He says "Yes! Tonight?"
4. I book us a table. The girl on the phone has a devastatingly cute accent.
5. We go to there.

To start we ordered some Guacamole con totopos. Here is Matt:

I'm among friends here (hello, three readers and a spam bot), so I'll tell you what I really think: avocado is pretty much the worst. Not literally the worst; it is not as bad as soy babycino, vegan meat substitutes or fat free alternatives to mayonnaise. No, avocado is just boring, with its gelatinous texture and bland flavour. The thought of some smug yummy mummy gently smushing an avocado on her linseed rye makes me want to gag. Use butter, people.

Anyway, good guacamole manages to transcend its origins by spiking the avocado with enough salt, lime juice and occasionally other things (a little bit of tomato concasse, in this case). Los Amates serves good guacamole. What more is there to say? 

We then shared the Taquiza Platter which is a selection of three tacos. This was way too much food for two people. We could've fed at least three, maybe four from it if we had also had the Chicken Mole Tamales we were eyeing off. We chose Tacos de Cochinita Pibil (Braised shredded pork Yucatan style, marinated with achiote & spices), Tacos de Lengua (Ox tongue Mexico City style, steamed with herbs & spices) and Taco de Tinga (Chicken cooked in a tomato & chipotle salsa). Again here is Matt to talk about the actual food:

The ox tongue was my choice, and I was a bit disappointed. The slices of tongue were slightly chewy and strangely spiced. Still, not THAT bad. The other two meats were much better. The chicken in particular was outstanding, with its chipotle smoke and heat the highlight of the night. The tacos were served with two salsas, one a verde with tomatillos (bonus points there), the other a mild, sweet tasting red sauce. 

In conclusion, Los Amates was pretty good! It came to about 85 bucks, including 2 beers each and a bag of leftovers that would easily have fed a third person, but instead will give us some lunch or dinner instead. Definitely would go back again and try other dishes!

Los Amates
34 Johnston St, Fitzroy

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Queso Blanco for Mamasita Inspired Corn

Mamasita is an awesome mexican restaurant in Melbourne. It is young (it opened the same night I arrived here, four months ago, which makes us soulmates) and it is great. I've never been to Mexico and so I can't say whether this is authentic or not but I also don't give two shits. It's the closest to the great mexican food we ate in the States, and that is good enough for me. If you live in Melbourne, you should go to Mamasita. If you don't live in Melbourne, you should come and visit, and go there, and take me with you. Everything we have eaten there has been excellent, but they have this corn on the menu that is so good, you will want to cancel every other dish ordered and just get repeat corn instead.

("The Corn" is actually Elotes callejeros: "Street Style" chargrilled corn with queso, chipotle mayonnaise, & lime)

Anyway. The other night we had friends over for tacos and as a starter I attempted to recreate this dish. I made Homesick Texan's chipotle mayonnaise and I also used her recipe for Queso Blanco which is a soft creamy and very mild spanish/mexican cheese:

2L whole milk
1/4 cup lime juice

Bring the milk to an almost boil, add the lime juice and let it simmer for 5 minutes or so. From here on, it looks pretty disgusting as the milk curdles and goes lumpy and you have flashbacks of being spewed on by baby cousins.
Pour the contents of the pot into a cheesecloth lined colander in the sink and drain for a few minutes, and sprinkle with salt.
Bundle up the cheesecloth and tie it so the cheese is all in a ball, and hang it somewhere to drain for a few hours. I left it overnight, which was fine as it is winter but obviously you wouldn't want to do it if the temperature was anything near warm.
In the morning I untied the cloth, and inside was a neat little white ball of cheese! It held together pretty well, there was quite a bit stuck in the cloth but I don't know if that is just what happens.. The cheese apparently will keep in the fridge for as long as the milk would have.

For the corn, we simply grilled it in a pan, brushed on some chipotle mayonnaise and grated the queso over. It didn't grate particularly well, as it reached room temperature it got quite soft. Next time I would make sure to grate it straight from the fridge - or even frozen might work. We ended up just sort of crumbling it over the corn, and then sprinkled some smoked paprika over and served with limes.
Not as pretty as Mamasita's but it tasted good, and having leftover chipotle mayonnaise and queso in the fridge is a good bonus!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


"If you have a good palate and oodles of patience, you can achieve amazing dishes with the right recipe. You must, however, follow the recipe". -Matt Preston.

What a load of crap.

Preston is a very good food writer, despite being prone to the occasional lapse into encyclopaedic recitation of factoids. His unfortunately-titled book Cravat-a-Licious is an enjoyable read. 

However, I couldn't disagree more with his "rule" about recipes. In Cravat-a-Licious, Preston lists a number of "rules" that he thinks ought to guide home cooks. They're mostly fairly unobjectionable, if a tad patronising. The recipe rule, however, is pretty much offensive. Preston's silly rule tells us home cooks that the fundaments of cooking are beyond our feeble grasp; that our role is merely to reassemble pre-ordained dishes as if they were flat-packed furniture.

It's also at odds with his rule #13, "cook from your heart". How can you "cook from your heart" if you're robotically, slavishly following a recipe?

I started out highly recipe-dependent and completely scared of failure in the kitchen. Cooking, for me, was something I took up as a means to an end when I first moved out of home, the end being my slightly gluttonous love of eating. I soon found that I loved cooking for its own sake, but it took a while to learn when and how to veer away from the strictures of recipes, to substitute and improvise and even create dishes of my own: ie., to actually cook properly. 

Preston's rule tells us not to bother, that we're better being fearful of food and dutifully following a recipe, measuring out 125 grams of flour here and 15ml of olive oil there. He does backtrack a bit with rule #34: "if you are a good cook you don't have to follow a recipe word for word". What a generous concession to the abilities of home cooks.

As I said at the start, I like Matt Preston. I didn't watch Masterchef, but I do think he's a good writer. I just find his attitude towards home cooks a bit patronising and dismissive, which is surprising from someone who often seems to value rustic "authenticity" over fiddly fine-dining.