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.
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.
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.
Helped a friend out with his first cookbook. Happy to see it go into the world, and, really proud of Paul Iskov and the Fervor team too. It is available for pre-order here, and, you can see @chrisgurney_ for photos. Get around it.
From the Margaret River Press website:
Fervor takes you on a culinary journey from ocean to forest to desert. It is an accessible and exciting recipe book featuring beautiful photographs and short stories about ingredients. Using native Australian produce with refined technique, Fervor offers a new way of cooking for the home chef. It invites you to share in Paul Iskov’s knowledge of food and will encourage you to find out more about your own country.
In the book, Paul shares his ethos, his experience and his training in approachable, honest and insightful language. He talks candidly about the challenges and opportunities of working with native foods, and shares his connection to landscape and the relationships he has with Indigenous communities.
Paul also reveals his gastronomic secrets from damper to ice cream to everything in between, allowing home cooks to push the boundaries and make their own delicious food. If you love the great outdoors, a healthy lifestyle and high-quality cooking, Fervor will appeal to all your senses.
Paul Iskov is one of Australia’s leading native food chefs. He has experience working in the world’s best restaurants from Coi in San Francisco to DOM in Rio de Janeiro to Noma in Copenhagen. Upon returning to Australia, Paul established his roving dining restaurant, Fervor, which travels to natural settings and uses local, seasonal and foraged ingredients. He has appeared on a number of television shows in Australia and America, and is a winner of the WA Good Food Guide Industry Leadership Award. This is his first cookbook.
There is comfort food and then there is comfort food. After two weeks in India, my comfort food was not a chicken curry, not my last supper meal. When we landed back in Perth, my mum had a batch of bolognaise waiting for us. It was a good welcome home meal. Pasta is one kind of comfort to me. But, I also had another itch to scratch, which was Vietnamese. As soon as I arrived, I could have gone a banh mi. I could have gone pho. I could have even gone fresh spring rolls. There are many dishes I love that also go beyond these three popular ones.
My favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Perth is Tra Vinh. I like the original one on Brisbane Street in Northbridge, from the white leather Louis Vuitton chairs to the television playing Home and Away in the background. They are warm and welcoming and reliable. But more than that, they are delicious and know what to do when it comes to food. Of all the dishes there that I love to eat, I love to eat their broken rice with pork chop the most. There have been times when I have craved it for days in a row, returning again and again, eating it back to back like sporting teams who are hungry for yet more championships.
It was Thursday, four days after my return from India, when I got back to Tra Vinh and that broken rice and pork chop dish. The day was sunny (as always) with the sky being an endless blue that stretched onto the horizon. There was no traffic and no pollution. There were no crowds on men on the street watching you walk by, drinking cups of chai. Here, it was clean and empty, occasionally a person making their way slowly to an empty bus stop to wait longer still before gliding off into the distance. There is infrastructure here but very few who use it. That is what it means when they say it is capital rich. In any case, I have digressed. I was looking for my pork chop.
The pork chop here is superior not only because of the strength of the component parts, but also because of how it harmonises together. The chop is golden, pliant and caramel; the shredded pork is stringy, salty, and gloriously noodled; the meatloaf is soft and springy and salty yum yum; the rice is broken (as was advertised) and does not disappoint; the egg is fried but the yolk still runs away when the fork comes to coax it out to play; the pickled radish and carrot is vingary and sweet; the cucumber is generously portioned and refreshing; the sweet chilli dipping sauce is spot on if not perfect; and the pork broth with coriander soup is the thing you need to wash it down. I love this dish for all its simplicity and complexity, for how it fits together and makes you wish that comfort was always like this, never a disappointment. I love it. Home is where the stomach is, and, as you can see from the before and after images, nothing was wasted. * Please note in the top image that the rice is hiding under the cornucopia of other elements (this is a generous plate of deliciousness).
I was thinking of Nam Le's The Boat too as I ate this meal. And what it is to be at home, and what it is to be in the world. In that collection, you get a sense of the cosmopolitan way of living, which is to say it is rootless and moves around with a sense of disengagement. I do not necessarily take issue with what that might be, though I, of course, live somewhat differently. I like to feel connected, which is not to say rooted or settled or simply transplanted. I like the idea that comfort is transient but that we also take some of it with us, no matter where we end up or what we have done. Being back in Perth, at least for the moment, gave me the sense of how different it is to Bombay, for instance. And yet, there is always pleasure to be gained from eating our way back to health and happiness. I like this to take stock of all the flavours on offer from chicken curry to spaghetti bolognaise to broken rice with pork chop. All of them belong at the table I like to sit at and think about the world from. From tomorrow, there will always be other dishes on offer, but for now I was glad to be at home where there were also good condiments.