Friday, November 26, 2010

Spice Temple, Sydney

When I was in Sydney in October, one of the restaurants that I was very much looking forward to checking out was Neil Perry’s Spice Temple.

The Spice Temple is located at 10 Blight Street, Sydney. I had trouble finding it, I walked up and down Blight Street and couldn’t find number 10. I eventually discovered that 10 was right on the corner intersection and the front is quite discreet, no signs, just a giant LCD door which you push to open. This is the sub-basement of the heritage-listed Art Deco City Mutual Building.

The dining room is quite dim but there is spot lighting directly above each table so that your food will be lit up but you won’t be which creates quite a nice, relaxed and intimate ambience. It was a great setting to catch up with my friend Steve who moved to Sydney from Perth last year. 

They have a different cocktail for each animal of the zodiac. I ordered the dog cocktail which was quite nice - ruby red grapefruit and agave, with pisco, lemon juice and aromatic fluff.

The meals are designed to share. Between the two of us we had one entrée and three mains to share with some steamed rice. The waiter questioned our ability to eat it all but we were both very hungry. 

We had the lamb and fennel dumplings for our entrée. The dumplings were crisp-bottomed potstickers laced with fennel seed and they tasted great. 

Guangxi style roast pork belly. The pork was lovely and tender, and the skin was most importantly crackling. Garnished with heaps of coriander, peanuts, red onion and sesame seeds which provided lots of crunchy textures.

While eating this dish, Steve and I had a conversation about eating pork belly. He doesn’t like eating it much because he finds eating the signature layers of fat kind of gross. I on the other hand, love pork belly, especially the fatty bits, whenever I eat it I always choose the pieces which have the most layers of fat because I find it delicious. When I eat with my family, everyone reserves the most fatty parts of the pork belly for me. I love the moist and juicy textural contrast of the pork fat to the layers of meat. It’s really unhealthy and rather disgusting if you think about it…but that taste of fat is good….really good. "Fat is flavour” or “fat equals flavour” are popular food expressions for cooking meat. A good marbling/layers of fat on meat is important as it helps to keep meat moist and tender, providing some protection against overcooking. Fat also generates flavour when the meat is cooked and it carries flavour when you eat it. Full fat milk, ice cream, mayo and yoghurt always tastes better than the low fat variety.

Hot and numbing crispy duck? (I think this was the name of the dish). The duck dish was the stand out for me, it was cooked perfectly with a crispy skin and the inside was tender, juicy and still a little pink. The sauce complimented the duck really well with complex notes of sweet, sour and a little heat. It’s one of those dishes where over the time that you chew it your mouth continues to detect the layers of flavours at different intervals which makes it very satisfying. 

Stir fried beef fillet with wok blistered peppers and black bean. 

Neil Perry is known for his commitment to sourcing the finest produce, especially beef which he gets from only the best Australian producers. It was evident while eating the beef fillets that it was quality stuff. The beef pieces were seared well on the outside while still being tender and pink on the inside, and there was some flavour coming from the peppers and black beans to spice it up a bit but they took a back seat against the tastiness of the beef which was the star.

After our meal we were satisfyingly full but we ordered desert because so matter how much you eat there is always room for dessert!

We were given complimentary almond cookies with our bill which was a nice touch.

The Spice Temple is a great restaurant. The food is damn tasty. The Spice Temple doesn’t serve your usual Chinese dishes but showcases regional Chinese flavours from Sichuan to Yunnan to Guangxi. The dishes are well thought out and I enjoyed the depth and balance of the flavours, and there are lots of contrasting textures and tastes. There is a nice lovely ambience and the service was fantastic, we had a dedicated waiter who made us feel very comfortable the whole night. My friend Steve said that it was the best meal that he has had in Sydney so far.

Neil Perry opens his first restaurant in Perth next year. The Rockpool at the Burswood Casino. Neil Perry has just expanded his Spice Temple franchise to Melbourne….hopefully one day we will see it heading West.

The only warning that I have to offer for the Spice Temple is that there is limited parking….actually parking in Sydney is a bitch and don’t even mention the traffic, we ended up being late for our booking because of crazy peak hour traffic on a Tuesday night.  

Parked in the basement of a building and after our meal at 10pm we found that the carpark closed at 9pm! Went around to check out the other entrance and found a car driving out (maybe someone who worked in the building?) and we ran under the gate as it started to close again….then we realized that we would get locked in so Steve went to get his car and I was given the duty of holding the gate up and stop it from closing down! I think there were sensors so I managed to disrupted it for a bit but then gave up as the gate was no longer registering that there was a human under it and just kept coming down and I was no match for it. Then a security guard come out and said “Oi! What are you doing?”. He must have seen me on CCTV (?) or noticed disruptions to the normal functioning of the security gate. At about the same time Steve appeared with his car and we explained to the security guard our dilemma and he was very nice to let us through. 

Our parking misadventures made for a memorable night but I was just glad that our dinner did not result in an extra $$ because we had to leave the car locked in the carpark overnight. 

Spice Temple on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Moving to a new domain name

I have bought a domain name and now own

My food blog content is in transition to the new address and it should take about three days.

Please update your links etc if you would like to continue reading my food blog.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pho in Sydney – applying the ‘harm’ principle to service

I was in Sydney in October for the Mont Pelerin Conference

Sydney has the largest population of Asians and the largest Chinatown in Australia.

In the southern part of Sydney’s CBD where Chinatown stretches over Haymarket it certainly felt like I was in some Asian city to the point where I almost felt like a tourist in my own country. 

On my first day exploring Chinatown, an old Chinese woman stopped me in the street and asked me what the time was in Cantonese and I answered her in Cantonese. It was such a surprise – how did she know that I could speak Cantonese, one of many Chinese languages, what if I had been one of those ABC (Australian Born Chinese) who didn’t know how to speak any Chinese (?!). 

(Chinatown Gate)

I was hungry for some pho. I needed a bit of a pick me up after my red eye flight from Perth. 

Pho (pronounced "fur") is a Vietnamese rice noodle soup with a clear beef broth, usually garnished with beef meat balls, sliced beef brisket, sliced raw beef, sliced red onion, bean sprouts, mint/basil leaves, chillies and a wedge of lemon. I find it a really hearty meal. Think of a real hearty chicken soup which is a classic comfort food. Pho to me is like chicken soup.

Pho is the most popular Vietnamese dish as evidenced by the number of restaurants which choose to include the word pho in their name – Pho Pasteur, Pho 54, Pho 236, Pho Tau Bay, Pho Bac Hai Duong…

I had done some research before coming to Sydney on the best places to eat pho. I found that a competition had been run earlier this year to find Sydney’s best pho restaurants. In the city Pho Pasteur on 709 George Street was voted the best in the CBD. 

I was the first customer in the restaurant at 10am on a Saturday morning (which would have been 7am Perth time!).

As I sat waiting for my pho to come I smiled to myself as I recalled the reviews that I had read of this place on Urbanspoon which criticised this place as having bad service…ha…so true!

“abrupt and steely service”
“service is very bad…rude staff”
“Cheap, quick, efficient but not overly friendly staff”
“Terrible service...but so rude it's funny.”

I didn’t get a friendly warm welcome, my order was taken abruptly and while I was eating my pho the waiter plonked a whole bunch of saucers which had just been cleaned on my table (I figured that he could have waited until I had finished eating and had left). 

(Offending saucers)

However, I have to say that I personally don’t have a problem with the service. 

I don’t know why so many people had complained about the service. 

One has to consider the context in which one is dining. If one is eating out at some fine dining restaurant, extra fringe benefits are expected in the service. But when one is eating at a pho establishement, don’t expect too many comforts or niceties, these Vietnamese noodle houses are about as fancy as your Uni refectory (difference being that the food actually tastes like food). Pretty basic, one could call rustic furnishings, keeping true to how the eatery would be like back in Vietnam. All your cutlery and condiments are placed in bulk on your table so after getting your dish it’s pretty much self-service.

When eating pho, it’s not going to be fancy, but the food will be cheap and delicious! I think people need to cut these Pho places some slack!

The most important thing for me when eating out is the quality of the food and that it arrives within a reasonable time. The cleanliness of the establishment is also important because I don’t want to have the runs the next day. I can tolerate levels of mediocre service as long as everything else meets my requirements.

As a guide for people eating at pho establishments or other low-end places, I suggest applying the ‘harm principle’ to the service that you receive.

The harm principle

The harm principle is the idea (as presented by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty) that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” 

This principle in applied to the reach of government intervention in society, where the only legitimate reason for the government to exercise power over its citizens is to prevent harm to others. 

The harm principle applies not only to the power of the state, it can also be applied to the actions of individuals within society. An individual should have the freedom to do anything he/she wishes, as long as his/her actions do not “harm” others. Harm is generally thought of in a physical sense.

Thus, if you are not “directly harmed” by the service provided. 
For example, one of the following things did not happen:
a) The menu that the waiter provides you, gives you a paper cut.
b) When you are about to sit down, instead of pulling your seat out for you, the waiter pulls your seat out from under you.
c) Instead of putting the bowl on the table, the waiter pours the hot steaming bowl of noodles over you, giving you third degree burns.
d) When you ask for additional cutlery, instead of just placing it on the table, the waiter stabs you with them.
e) When you ask for the bill, the waiter presents you with a bird that that tries to bite you with its bill.
Then what do you have to really complain about?

Anyway, I digress…

Back to my pho.

The quality of the broth is important. It should be aromatic with spices but not overwhelming. It should have a delicate but complex flavour.

The pho at Pho Pasteur was nice, it had a clean and delicate flavour. However, it did lack something that I have tasted in other phos. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was until I went to Cabramatta Chinatown a few days later and tried the pho at Pho Tay Bau. The pho at Tay Bau was great, really packed a punch and had an amazing whole mouth feeling - a sense of umami. 

Bingo! That was it. 

I now knew what it was that I felt was lacking from the pho at Pasteur that I could taste in the pho at Tay Bau. You can certainly taste the difference and the difference was the taste of umami! I could tell from the taste of the pho at Tay Bau that it must have had some MSG in it which gave it a special X factor which was lacking in the pho at Pasteur. I’m not sure if this was due to Pasteur not putting any MSG in their pho or maybe not putting enough MSG but the existence of MSG and its effect on the overall taste is unmistakable and not to be dismissed.

MSG!? wtf? People might say. 

There is no denying that MSG does get used quite a bit in Asian cooking and it often gets a bad rap.

MSG enhances the taste of food, so what makes it any different from salt or fish sauce? 

This makes me recall an article that Michael Ruhlman wrote earlier this year looking at the issue of salt and whether if it was good or bad. Recently, health experts have been urging the government to set mandatory salt limits for food.

MSG could be considered in the same vein as salt, where salt is often complained of being used excessively and contributing to bad health effects. 

So I think it’s time for me to set the record straight, and look at the pros and cons of MSG.

MSG is the sodium of glutamate which provides a similar flavouring function as the glutamate that occurs naturally in food (glutamate is 10 times more abundant in human breast milk than in cow’s milk!). MSG is made from starch, corn sugar or molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets and is produced by a natural fermentation process that has been used for centuries to make such common foods as beer, vinegar and soy sauce. 

MSG contains only one third the amount of sodium as table salt (13% vs 40%). When MSG is used in combination with a small amount of table salt, MSG can help reduce the total amount of sodium in a recipe by 20 to 40 percent, while maintaining an enhanced flavour.

MSG is used in cooking because it helps to bring out the taste in foods, enhancing flavours and harmonising taste. We have four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The use of MSG imparts a fifth taste called ‘umami’. 

MSG is not bad for your health, it’s pretty harmless. Some people may have sensitivities towards MSG, but then again some people have nut allergies, or are lactose intolerant, or need to eat gluten free foods … 

Cooking is all about making something taste good. It doesn’t matter what kind of methods/ingredients you use – it’s the end result that counts.

Hands up if you have ever added in more butter than required by a recipe…..opps did I just add 2 cups of chocolate chips into the cake batter (accidently of course) instead of 1 cup?...and how good is deep fried anything or cooking in fat (confit anyone?)

All the things that “appear” to be bad for us taste the best… 

The important thing to note is that you should only add a certain amount of MSG to a dish depending on the ingredients used and how much you are cooking because adding any more MSG or too much will not make a difference and can lead to a decline in flavour. If you are cooking with amino acid rich foods which contain glutamates and are naturally umami rich (for example, tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, soy sauce, fish sauce), you don’t need to add any MSG. The biggest problem is that it is used far too heavily by some Asian restaurants and without much thought which results in a feeling of an unnatural fullness and you feel thirsty.  
But, used appropriately, is fine.

p.s. There is a band called Notorious MSG with the hit ‘Dim Sum Girl’. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chawanmushi – Japanese Egg Custard

Chawanmushi is a Japanese savoury egg custard dish. Chawan means tea cup and mushi means steam, so it’s literally called “tea cup steam”. It consists of a delicate, stock-enriched egg custard mixture flavoured with soy sauce, dashi and mirin. Other ingredients are placed in the cup such as kamaboko, chestnuts, prawns, crab, chicken, ginko nuts and assorted vegetables like mushrooms, carrots and bamboo shoots. Even though the egg custard completely sets in steaming, the stock and juices released from the various other ingredients make the dish a little soupy. This dish is regarded as a soup in Japan and it is usually eaten as an appetizer.

I first had chawanmushi when we stayed at a Buddhist Temple in Mount Koysan.

Chawanmushi is easy and relatively quick to make, and it can be eaten hot or chilled. To make chawanmushi you need to make some dashi stock which is combined with egg to make a light custard that is steamed with various other ingredients. 

Dashi is essential to Japanese cooking, it provides the umami taste that is the foundation of Japanese cuisine. It is a clear, fish stock (generally made with kombu and bonito) used for soups, simmered dishes, salad dressings, and marinades. Dashi enhances all the flavours that surround it due to the kombu’s high levels of naturally occurring glutamate (think MSG). 

Basic Dashi Stock
6 cups water
approx 8cm square of kombu (dried seaweed/kelp)
3 tablespoons dried bonito flakes

Put kombu in pot and add cold water. Soak the kombu for 30 minutes (it will soften and expand).

Bring the water and the kombu almost to a boil over medium heat (this should take around 10 minutes). Just before the water comes to boil, remove the kombu and discard. Add the dried bonito flakes to the pot, boil for 30 seconds. Turn the heat off and let steep for 5 minutes. 

Strain the stock and allow to cool.

Note: Don’t boil the kombu as it will turn slimy, and the stock will be cloudy and bitter. The dashi stock will keep for two days in the refrigerator and can be frozen.

(This recipe yields 4-6 cups, depending on the size of the cups or bowls/ramekins)

4 eggs
2 ½ cup dashi stock
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce (kikkomon brand)
1-2 tablespoons mirin or sake (to taste)
2-3 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and thinly sliced
4 prawns, shell/deveined and diced, and marinated with a little salt and sake
garnish with your choice of greens – mitsuba, watercress, coriander or spring onion

To make the custard - in a bowl, beat the eggs lightly with chopsticks (be careful not to aerate and whip in bubbles). In another bowl, mix room-temperature dashi, salt, mirin, and soy sauce (taste the stock before adding it to the egg and adjust the seasoning to desired taste). Pour stock mixture into beaten eggs. Mix well but do not beat (the surface of the mixture should be free of bubbles or foam). Strain the mixture through a fine sieve.

The seasoned stock mixture should be 3 times the volume of beaten egg, so apply this ratio of 3:1 in adjusting this recipe to the number of diners.

In each chawanmushi cup (or custard cup or ramekin) put in a few pieces of prawns and slices of shiitake mushrooms. Fill cups with custard mixture and skim off any bubbles that appear on top of the mixture, cover with a lid or foil. 

Preheat a steamer on high heat. Turn down the heat to low and place the cups in the steamer. Steam for about 15 minutes until the custard is just set. After 12 minutes, open the lids and add some greens to each cup, replace the covers and continue steaming for the remaining 3 minutes. 

The chawanmushi is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The custard should be set but still very soft and jiggle freely. It should have a silky, smooth texture similar to that of soft tofu.

Note: The chawanmushi needs to be steamed on a low heat because if the temperature is too high the egg protein coagulates leaving many tiny air pockets and the custard becomes tough. Also, do not overcook it and steam it for too long as the custard will be overdone and the top will be pocked and cracked, and loose its silkiness. 

Chawanmushi is so silky and light it literally melts in your mouth. The custard is very flavourful and packed with umami from the dashi and shittake mushrooms, and as you consume it, you find little bits of prawn and shitake mushrooms.

I only added shittake mushrooms and prawns to my chawanmushi but feel free to change the fillings – you can add anything that will complement the taste of the savoury custard base. Provide little surprises and varying flavours for your diners to find at the bottom of the egg custard cup!

A good chawanmshi should have a subtle flavour so do not overload the cups with too many ingredients. I recommend the addition of just 2-3 other ingredients. The additions of other ingredients should fill the cups no more than one-third of the way.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Seaweed, Pork Balls and Tofu Soup

I really like this soup because it contains seaweed which provides a distinctive flavour with its high mineral salt content and packs the soup with umami!

You can buy seaweed (laver) from Asian supermarkets. It's black with a purplish tint and dried into thick round sheets.

Pork Stock (makes about 1.5 litres stock)
1kg pork bones
3 litres water
3-4 slices ginger
¼ teaspoon (~10) whole black peppercorns
3 sprig spring onions
1 stick celery with leaves
1 carrot
few stalks coriander
light soy sauce (~2 teaspoons) and salt (~1 teaspoons) to taste

Put pork bones into a large pot with cold water and bring to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for a few minutes, and skim off the fat and froth/impurities that rises to the surface. Then add in the ginger, black peppercorns, spring onions, celery, carrots and coriander stalks. Simmer on low heat for 2 hours. Add soy sauce and salt to taste. Strain.

(Skimming off fat and impurities)
(After simmering for 2 hours)

Pork Balls
300g mince pork
½ cup chestnuts, finely chopped
2 sprigs spring onion (only use the bottom third), finely chopped
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
½ tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1 ½ teaspoon cornflour
1 tablespoon water
pinch of salt and white pepper

Mix all ingredients together until well combined. Refrigerate for one hour. Form into small round balls.

Other soup ingredients
10g dried black seaweed (laver), cut the required amount into smaller pieces, wash and drain thoroughly
2 blocks of soft tofu (~200g), cut into cubes
salt, light soy sauce and sugar to taste
spring onion and coriander for garnish

To make soup

Bring stock to boil and add in the pork balls one at a time making sure that they don't stick together. Cook the pork balls for 4-5 minutes, add tofu and cook for another minute. Then add in the seaweed and boil for 30 seconds. Season to taste with salt, light soy sauce and a little sugar. Serve and garnish with spring onions and coriander.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

My risotto is pumpkin, bacon and sage risoni

There are a few skills that one needs to master in order to consider themselves a real cook (or at least to establish that you are a better cook than your friends). Like being able to make pasta from scratch, making your own pizza dough, whipping egg whites until they have reached that soft peak or stiff peak stage, cooking your own stock and another thing is being able to cook risotto. I wouldn’t say that risotto is difficult to cook but it can be a challenge to make perfect risotto - you need to be able to manage the cooking process well to get a good outcome.

I have only cooked risotto once. It was done in a wok and I stirred and stirred for hours (well probably just a little over a hour). I added stock one ladle at a time and I wasn’t sure when to stop. I couldn’t really judge when it was done and in the end I just ended up with a gluggy sluggy stuff. It was edible but the beauty of a really good risotto was lost, that lovely rich soft creamy consistency with a just-right doneness, where the rice grains still have a bit of bite and remain separate. That was almost three years ago, I have not made risotto since.

I plan on cooking risotto again one day, it is on my list of dishes that I want to cook. I have a huge list of dishes that I want to cook. It is a moveable feast and risotto keeps moving to the bottom of the list, especially when I discovered risoni and decided that it was the next best thing to risotto. Risoni is rice shaped pasta so it looks like risotto and it’s pretty much fail safe to cook.

Please do not judge my pretend risotto harshly. Can I redeem myself by the fact that it contains bacon and roasted pumpkin? - two things that are individually awesome and also make a good team in this dish.

One day I will try my hand at risotto again, in the meantime I like cooking risoni. 

If you have any helpful tips on how I can perfect the art of risotto I would like to know them. 

Pumpkin, bacon and sage risoni


1 kg pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes
100ml olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper
2 medium brown onions, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
175g eye bacon, trimmed and sliced
2 red bird's eye chillies, chopped
2 tbsp sage leaves, chopped
400g risoni
1 litre chicken stock


Preheat oven to 200C. Place pumpkin on a baking tray and drizzle with a little olive oil. Season and roast in the oven until deep golden in colour and soft, about 25 minutes. Remove and reserve. 


While the pumpkin is cooking, heat the rest of the olive oil in a saucepan over a medium heat and add onion, garlic, bacon and chilli. Season and cook until onion is soft and starting to brown, about 15 minutes. Add sage and cook for another minute. Stir through risoni and add 750ml of stock. Simmer gently and continue to stir until risoni is al dente and stock has absorbed. Add more stock if necessary. Stir through pumpkin and serve.

VERDICT: It tastes great - the risoni has taken on some of the stock flavour, you can also taste the bacon and hits of chilli. Then you have morsels of sweet roasted pumpkin and sage…..sage! that was freshly picked from my friend Danica’s (of the awesome Nook and Cranny blog for your guide to Perth!) herb garden in her backyard.

I live in a little unit with no balcony so I do not have the space to grow fresh herbs. One day I wanted some sage for a gnocchi dish I was making but I couldn’t but any. I went to numerous shops to no avail. But never fear, I found a solution to my dilemma – I went to Bunnings and bought a little sage plant for around $2, I picked off all the sage and then threw the soil back into the gardens of my complex (costs about the same as buying from the shops!)

My tip for buying herbs – also available from Bunnings if you are really desperate!