KIMCHI TOASTIE

To date, this blog has focused on restaurant reviews. There have been a couple of exceptions to that, including posts about Thanksgiving and chicken curry. But for the most part, I have been interested in meals I have eaten outside of home. It has been about the joys of going out, of finding hidden gems, of discovering new things in old neighbourhoods, or simply embracing the suburbs with all that it has to offer, from New York to Margaret River. This is going to change. Now, I am also going to include dishes I like to make at home if only because my readers are spread all over the place. You all though have kitchens that you can cook in, and, it might be easier than coming to Western Australia for a gelato.

I was also prompted to do this after seeing friends’ reactions to an article I shared about what makes breakfast in Kerala so great. A couple of them recalled the putu I used to make when we were students in Canberra. And, I thought of the joy I get from cooking for other people. It also did not hurt that I watched Julie and Julia for the first time the other night, which features a blogger making the full complement of dishes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I will continue to write about restaurants, but I will also pepper this with dishes that I make at home, which might be fun for other people to try as well, no matter where they happen to be.

This brings me to a lunchtime classic that I recently shared with M. (a friend of mine who I met through a trad union). M is a beekeeper and a barbeque master who comes from California. He has spent time in Texas and Japan, which makes his palate and sensibility unique. M. likes to pickle and jam, and, he really knows his way around the kitchen. We were talking, as you do, and he mentioned he had recently made a batch of kimchi at home. And so, I asked him what he does with it? Noodles, rice, meat, by itself, and all the other usual assortment of ways to eat it.


And this was when I confessed that I had been through a kimchi phase where I was eating a lot of it. My favourite way to eat it though is in a toasted cheese sandwich – two slices of sourdough bread, a vintage cheddar, and kimchi in their with it. Butter it up, put it in a sandwich press, and you have a funky, salty, sweet, yummy delicious sandwich. It goes well with beer and can easily be vegan. Nothing is better when you want to mix up the sandwich option. And M. seems to agree, from what I gather, he is hooked on this way of eating kimchi. And I for one, think that this is a great way to mix and match the best of different cultures.

* I also don't mind an apricot jam, walnut, blue cheese toastie; or, a black olive, pickled Japanese ginger, and gruyere number.


MOSMAN PARK SEAFOODS


Tonight I had two serendipitous food wins (and that is even without counting a sublime mulberry granita topped with cream that I snuck in before an afternoon meeting). The first was an impulse buy that involved no food at all, but a little keyring charm made by two enterprising twelve year olds who were hustling counterside at the local pizzeria. You can see the merch below and you can find out more at Craft Freaks. All power to them. It made me reflect on the fact that I had a few of my own hustles before I began my first job, which was at Pizza Hut when I was 13. Before that, I would wash cars in the neighbourhood, sell the occasional lemonade, mow lawn; exactly what you would expect growing up in the suburbs. I had a close friend who always sold eggs, and, street parking on the weekends in football season. He always had the most cash amongst us, and, this was before he got into dealing basketball cards.

The second food win was actually about food, and, for that I have to thank Mosman Park Seafoods. K and I have recently moved into the neighbourhood and are housesitting a place with river views for the summer. We are getting used to the lifestyle of the rich and anonymous, which includes the restaurants on offer. The other day we enjoyed some good lunchtime tacos down the road at Piggy in North Fremantle (photograph included as evidence). They were $5 each, which is about the right price for us. And, truth be told, we do not go out that much. I like to cook and host at home, and, we have great lemon trees, a healthy herb garden, and plenty of greens that go into big salads. For regular readers, you might have the wrong idea if you read this regularly, and could think that I have an unbalanced diet without enough veggies. And, my many vegan friends would be truly, and rightfully, appalled if they saw Food Blog as representative of what I ate as a whole. My home cooking is not like this, which brings me to point out that eating out means eating things you cannot cook at home, which brings me to Mosman Park Seafoods, which is the local fish and chip shop in between the IGA and the BWS.

The décor is wonderful, the family who own and run it are friendly, and the serves are generous. It is well priced and very quick. On a busy Sunday night, we got our food within ten minutes, and, for under $20 that meant minimum chips, two pieces of fish, two prawns, two squid rings, two scallops, two mussels, two hash browns, and a serve of tartar sauce. They had it billed as a ‘fisherman’s dinner for one’, but I thought it would be better to think of it as a seafood sampler for two. It was that big. The batter was golden and crunchy, not too thick or thin, the fish was fresh, and the prawns were perhaps the best I have had at this kind of establishment. When I reflected on it, with a full belly, I could not help but feel warm inside. I was happier for it, and, I imagined what might come next from Mosman Park Seafoods. Here, I thought of simply ordering fish so I could make my own tacos instead, with slaw and samphire and fingerlime; or, maybe just a cheeky $4 of chips to share with friends when we walk down to the jetty. The possibilities are endless, especially if you feel like contributing to the meal, meeting take away halfway with home cooking. And, perhaps, that is all you can ask of anything, or anyone, that you meet them in the middle so that everyone is better for it. 



SPICE EXPRESS NASI LEMAK


Nasi lemak has to be one of the world’s great dishes. Like a thali or a degustation or a salad bar, it is a single thing that contains multiplicity. How they come together is what matters and as a diner you are looking out for the harmony that happens with synthesis. Will this curry go with that pickle? Will the amuse bouche be referred to in the desert? Will I make the right choice of salad dressing given that I ordered spaghetti carbonara at Sizzler? All of these are major culinary questions, no easily given over to whimsy, caprice, or solved simply without reflection. They all matter for eating. But, with nasi lemak that guesswork is taken out of it, precisely because you know what you are getting – rice (often made with coconut), egg, ikan bilis (a little crunchy fried fish), peanuts (sometimes roasted but often boiled and unsalted), cucumber, a chilli sambal, and a piece of meat (could be grilled chicken, could be lamb, could be chicken curry). What matters about nasi lemak is how all these pieces work together, becoming a kind of team, that is greater than any individual player. Eat any of these items alone and they may be very boring, but when they combine, it is a truly sublime dish. In my lifetime, I have eaten many nasi lemak, from trips to see family in Malaysia and Singapore, to short holidays in Indonesia, to moments when I am missing home flavours in Philadelphia. It is a go to dish for me, but that does not mean I love every single one I have. On odd occasions, I have had a bad one, including at Kuala Lumpur airport (which I claim responsibility for). I have though eaten very good ones, and, overall, it is one dish that I simply love to bits. My favourite nasi lemak at the moment is at a little place behind a suburban car yard in Myaree, south east of Fremantle. You would never know to go there, but Spice Express is in a dynamic little hub of activity next to a speciality kimchi shop and a wonderful ramen place. There is a very big Asian supermarket nearby, and, a sense of community. Spice Express though is where it is at for me, and, not only for their nasi lemak but also for their vadai, which comes with some truly great sambar. It is worth a little trip for, if only to surprise yourself with what is out there.


TRANG'S IN GIRRAWHEEN


In one narrative, a narrative that is often forgotten, Perth is a suburban place. There was a moment when suburbia was thought of and spoken about – think Donald Horne’s The Next Australia, Robyn Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness, Patrick White’s Season at Sarsparilla (and I have written on this elsewhere). But, right now, there is something happening in the suburbs. There always is, but it has different inflection points, different moments of historicity, different people who take the narrative and make it their own. I am interested in articulating the distinctions, intersections, and possibilities of the suburbs. I say that as someone who grew up in them, has affection for them, and reflects on what I like about them and what they might become. After all, suburbia is where a lot of people live, and there are good and bad things about that. Right now though, small bars are popping up, there are social media savvy hipsters turning Willagee, Myaree, Scarborough, and elsewhere, into destinations worth living in no matter who you are. Young families are moving in and making the place their own – more cosmopolitan in some cases, more beautiful, more suburbanist in the true sense of that word.

I was thinking of the suburbs, and all this, when friends of ours, A. and C., invited me over for a meal near where they live, in the northern suburbs. I had an aunt who lives nearby, in Noranda, and when I was younger we used to play soccer out this way. Weekend sport, that great ritual of a suburban childhood, took me all over the city – from Rockingham in the south to Joondalup in the north to Kelmscott in the east. We used to come near here too, to Girrawheen, and, I always got the sense that each suburb had its own culture, its own idiosyncrasies that mattered for the people who lived there and the soccer teams we played against.

Tonight, I drove over and we hung out at their place, having a couple of after work beers, before we drove to the restaurant they had spoken of. They lived about fifteen minutes from this shopping square, which was dominated by Vietnamese businesses from the pharmacy to the money transfer to the butcher. Out of the three restaurants, we were there for Trang’s, which my friend’s assured me was the friendliest and tastiest of the lot.

After driving through dark suburban streets that were silent, we came upon a packed dining room filled with local families talking loudly, slurping noodle soup, and spending time with each other at the close of the working week. It felt like stepping into another, more secret world. There were peanuts on the table, a little gift upon entry, and tea waiting as well. Chris ordered entrees for us, and, together we had wontons and spring rolls, crispy on top of lettuce leaves, and with sweet chilli, tangy dipping sauce. I ordered, as I am want to do at Vietnamese restaurants, a pork chop with broken rice. As you may recall from my Tra Vinh post, it also comes with fried egg, meatloaf, shredded pork, pickles, soup. In comparison to that one, this was a little porkier, the flavours a touch heavier, in a good way, more reminiscent of a tropical place. I also tried some stir-fry beef, which was seared to perfection, and came with herbs mixed through it. It was simple, top quality, food.

In thinking about Trang’s though, what struck me was how it constituted a local. It was a neighbourhood place and people were heading out on a Friday night. And it was packed to the gills when we arrived at 7:30, but by 8:15 we were the only ones left there. And that might be what it is to eat in the suburbs, to have a certain rhythm that is expected, to fall into routines that are demanded of working regular hours and living for the weekend. In any case, it is a cultural experience and not only as a slice of Vietnamese-Australian life, but of what the suburbs can offer to being satisfied. It brought with it an earnest type of hope that we might enjoy being here with a fundamental sense of eating our way to heaven.




UNIVERSITY STRAWBERRY LAMINGTON

As readers of this blog may be aware, I do like to reflect on the ordinary moments of eating today. This is about the mundane, the close at hand, the banal, and all as a way to help us understand contemporary identity, place, and belonging. In Perth, the banal often means the suburban, which is the dominant lifestyle here. The suburbs sprawl from north to south, peeling along the coast for kilometres on end, hemmed in by the ocean to the west and the scarp to the east. This is the ordinary as it manifests here.

I think there are lots of reasons why the close at hand matters. It might not only be the challenge of thinking about what is immediately around us, but it might also have to do with what we can afford, the idea of the normal, and the celebration of those moments that go unnoticed. The glue of life, the substance that binds it together like flour or egg or sometimes rice, is the everyday, and, it is worth celebrating for that reason alone.

A lot of my everyday takes place at a local university, where I do some teaching in an arts department. I am on campus four days a week, and, besides my desk at home (where I am writing to you from) it is the place I am most often in. There are a number of food options that are on campus or nearby, including international food courts with Japanese, Malaysian (2 kinds), Lebanese, Italian, Chinese, fish and chips, and, an American burger place; cafes that look out across the river with birds flocking and boats crowding the immediate view; and there are places at the university itself. This last group includes a tavern, a number of food trucks, a couple of student dominated clusters, and, a club for faculty only. There is also a café at the library, where I often refuel, because of location and selection.

I will often catch up with students or staff at the library café, Quobba Gnarning. I do not drink coffee, and, I usually only have one cup of tea each day. But, I do not offer that digression up out of piousness, but simply to point out that when I ‘meet for a coffee’ I am often drinking something else. Quobba Gnarning has recently put milo on the menu, and, I think my students are pleasantly surprised when they discover that it is my hot beverage of choice. It helps them comes to terms with authority, which is, I think, one of the major changes between school and university. I am not there to discipline them, at least not in the way they have come to expect, but rather to educate them within a discipline, which is to say cultivate a way of thinking that comes with a sense of tradition.

The other day, there I was catching up with a prospective honours student, having ordered a milo. In his twenty two year old wisdom, he was having a long mac (no judgement). And, out of the corner of my eye I spied something that I had not seen in the cake cabinet before. As you will have guessed, this was a strawberry lamington. It must be said, that this is not my preferred flavour of lamington. That would belong to the classic chocolate one, but decked out with a thin layer cream and raspberry jam in the middle. Nevertheless, I persisted. I did what any university lecturer, and someone willing to lead by example, would do. I ordered the strawberry lamington to go with my milo. I had to show my student what was ahead of him if he continued to study at such a venerable institution.


The lamington itself was disappointing – the icing was a little chewy, and not in a desirable ‘this has Q’ kind of way, but more that it had been in the fridge a little long. The sponge was fair enough and the flavour rock solid gold. It succeeded in nostalgia factor despite making me a little sick and without the need to get another one for a long while. And yet, it brought with it a certain comfort, if not joy, that in the small break in the day one could holiday in the return of youth and celebrate something so ordinary. That is not a bad outcome for $2.90 not matter the day.