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Archive for October, 2009

Phở

Pho Houng, Springvale

Pho Hoang, Springvale

I have never really enjoyed breakfast. For starters, I just can’t really face the thought of eating anything first thing. Add to that what is a dearth of breakfast foods I find appealing and there’s a long history of skipping the most important meal of the day. Cereal is boring and cold, bacon and eggs leave a greasy unsettled feeling, fruit is generally too acidic, and toast just sits in my stomach.

Then I discovered phở, and realised my occidental birth may have been accidental. A mistake. THIS is breakfast food. Potent and satisfying, this Vietnamese rice noodle soup is traditionally eaten for breakfast. Footscray and Richmond serve up oceans of the stuff. Some places specialise in either beef, phở bò, or chicken, phở gà. Others, like the popular Hung Vuong, do a roaring trade in both.  This chain offers four sizes, Pizza-style. I cannot fathom who might work through a “Large”.  The “Baby” at $5.50 is just right.

Phở bò tái at Hung Vuong

Phở bò tái at Hung Vuong

The best in Melbourne, hands down, is at Phở Hoang in Springvale. I particularly like their Phở bò tái. It sings freshness, and the stock is particularly rich. After what must have been my twentieth visit, I finally asked why their stock was so good. It turns out the owner also runs a butcher shop around the corner. This means plenty of  bones for the stock pot, and the freshest slices of beef to found floating in a bowl of soup anywhere.

Pho Hoang: 36 Buckingham Ave  Springvale  (03) 9558 4064

Hung Vuong: 128 Hopkins Street, Footscray  (03) 9689 6002

Hung Vuong 2: 150 Victoria St Richmond  (03) 9428 8680

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Chicken Pie

Roast chicken, sweet potato & cauliflower cheese

Roast chicken, sweet potato & cauliflower cheese

Sharing a roast chicken between two people almost always makes for leftovers. And leftover roast chicken makes for an excellent pie. I always make excess gravy for the roast as well, as it makes for a competent pie filling binder.

I never muck around with making pastry. The frozen puff pastry sheets, even the home brand ones, work well enough for me not to bother. With chicken for filling, which I roughly chop, I either go for mixing it with sauteed leeks or mixed vegetables. Carrots, celery, onion, peas, corn, green beans and asparagus are all chickenlicious.

Chicken, vegetable and gravy pie filling

Chicken, vegetable and gravy pie filling

Puff pastry needs a hot oven to crisp up nicely. 25 minutes at 220 degrees Celsius is the go. I brush my pie with a mixture of egg and a little bit of milk to get a nice golden colour.

Chicken pie

Chicken pie

As the pie will usually last two meals, say dinner and lunch the next day, I manage to stretch the one chook across three meals. If I make a stock from the bones to create a soup, which I often do, then it can stretch to four or even five.

Pie with rocket and avocado

Pie with rocket and avocado

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Coffee and dates before takeoff in Etihad's Diamond Zone

Coffee and dates before takeoff in Etihad's Diamond Zone

Call me perverse, but generally speaking I enjoy the experience of airline food. I love the little compartmentalised tray; peeling back foil to reveal portions that bear little resemblance to their menu descriptions; the challenge of dividing the one door-stop slice of cheese between three crackers with the plastic knife supplied. It helps pass the time, if nothing else.

I'll have the chicken. Qantas economy class lunch.

I'll have the chicken. Qantas economy class lunch.

Things do improve as you move up through the classes, of course. Most often I fly cattle. Every now and then my gig as a travel writer affords me a freebie in business class. And, on few remarkable occasions, first.

Business and first passengers can expect their meals to be served course-by-course from a damask draped trolley. Instead of choosing from the printed menu provided, one selects from the trolley as it wheels past. Here, food is served on real plates, saving it from the steamed sameness afforded by little foil trays.

Chicken fattee with Arabic chick peas, organic five leaf salad, potatoes. Etihad First Class.

Chicken fattee with Arabic chick peas, organic five leaf salad, potatoes. Etihad First Class.

Half a century ago this was de rigueur for all who took to the skies. These days it’s the preserve of those behind the curtain whose private little domain remains a sanctuary from the lumpenmass.

If you rarely fly in anything but pig pen, though, take heart. Whatever the class, food generally does all taste the same. Aircraft pressurisation and altitude compromise the tastebuds. There’s a whole field of science working behind the scenes to inject flavour into that little foil tray. Over-seasoning is the best defence they’ve presented. If you ate the same thing on the ground, you’d most likely find it too sweet or salty to endure.

Yum Cha, Cathay Pacific Business Class

Yum Cha, Cathay Pacific Business Class

Over the years I’ve consumed many calories in the air. A few of them have been more than tolerable. I’ve been seduced by yum cha in business on Cathay Pacific and spoiled forever by an Arabian mezze in first class on Etihad. These, it must be said, were a tad better than the Chicken or Beef options down the back.  Hands-down winner, however, came in a little foil tray on Royal Nepal Airlines. It was the best dhal and rice I’ve ever had, served, gratis, by the national carrier of one of the poorest countries on the planet.

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Canned Meat

Canned meat at the Helsinki Old Market Hall, Finland

Canned meat at the Helsinki Old Market Hall, Finland

At some point, it is hard to decipher exactly when, a compulsion for acquisition suddenly becomes a ‘collection’.

Beef Goulash

Beef Goulash

My collection of canned meat is something I can, with some certainty, trace. It is really a spin off of my collection of recalled items. UK and EU beef products were banned, and pulled from shelves, during the mad cow disease scare. And so I began to collect canned meat, beginning with corned beef from the UK. Then I began to pick up any canned meat with an interesting label, from anywhere. Old fashioned illustrations of  animals and fish being the most highly sought after.

This label was probably recently designed, yet looks antique.

This label was probably recently designed, yet looks antique.

Eastern Europe and China by far have the most diverse beasts in tins, and the prettiest labels.

There's a bear in there, and a reindeer as well

There's a bear in there, and a reindeer as well

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Bob the Food Snob

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I have a friend who is a food snob. We’ll call him Bob. Largely because Bob is a three-letter name and I’m lazy. Also because Bob the Food Snob has a pleasantly evil ring to it.

Bob is a particular kind of food snob. Which is to say, he’s more prole than posh.  He cares not for provenance of his baby beets or the onset of truffle season. His raison d’être is to find, sample, and ultimately pontificate about curious cuisine. In this, he and I are gastronomic soul mates. And, we are fiercely competitive.

When I stumbled upon Café Armenia, then in Carnegie and now in Caulfield South, I was quite sure I‘d trounced him. I tucked into basturma, finely sliced and subtly spiced sun-dried beef, a perfect plate of pickles and succulent charcoal grilled lamb skewers. With a toothpick still in my gob, I rang Bob to gloat about my conquest.

Bob yawned. He’d been there, and if I hadn’t tried the solinka, a soup with ham, sausages, olives and lemon (I hadn’t), then I’d missed out on the best dish on the menu.

It was infuriating. At least he hadn’t been on a Saturday when there’s live Armenian music. He was gratifyingly miffed as I recounted the atmosphere.

The Armenian incident spiralled into our mutual quest: find great African.

Ethiopia is well represented.  Most particularly in Footscray. Bob and I argue about the merits of one or another and agree: they’re all essentially good. An important element at the Ethiopian table is injera, a traditional bread. Sharing is every bit as central to a meal as bread. At Cafe Lalibela, wat, thick spicy stews, are served on a single tray for all to dip into and enjoy. The flavours are rich and the spices complex. The heat is not explosive, rather gently warming. Eaten with injera, the stew is mopped up and eaten without utensils. This is a dish best enjoyed with Ethiopian beer or a delicious concoction of frankincense and coffee.

Over on Brunswick Street, Nyala is pan-African. It’s a good place to go to try dishes from different parts of the continent. Here, train your tastes buds and settle on a region you’d like to explore further. Try a sweet version of cous cous from Morocco, baboutie, a South African specialty made from mincemeat, fruit chutney, sultanas, almonds, and other spices, or Tanzanian futari, a mixed vegie dish cooked with spices, coconut milk and served with injera.

There’s an Ethiopian maxim: people who eat from the same plate never betray one another. I’ve shared plenty of plates with Bob, but I remain eager to betray him.  Or, at the very least, to stay one step ahead.

And I think I am.  Hello Afghanistan.

Nestled in Oakleigh, Nights of Kabul serves Afghanistani and Persian cuisine of a sort unique in Melbourne. The charcoal meats and kebabs keep the regulars coming, but subtler flavours are to be found on the menu. Mantu, traditional Afghan pastries, filled with mince meat, onion and mild spices then steamed are reminiscent of yum cha. Kitcheri kroot  arrives as pleasantly spiced rice and mung beans topped with yogurt and served with meatballs. If you’re looking for that special place to enlighten your friends about, come here.

Just don’t tell Bob.

 Café Armenia 179 Booran Road, Caulfield South, P: 9578 8151

 Nyala African Restaurant 131 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, P: 9419 9128.

 Nights of Kabul 39 Portman St, Oakleigh, P: 9564 7749

 Cafe Lalibela 91 Irving Street, Footscray, P: 9687 0300

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iDuck

I didn’t try this. But I do love the almost desperate duck on the packaging. Like he’s really really trying to convince you that duck gizzards are tasty. Photographed in the basement supermarket at Super Brands Mall, Pudong, Shanghai.

Tasty Smoked Gizzards

Tasty Smoked Gizzards

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