Sunday, February 7, 2016

Happy Chinese New Year! Zodiac and traditional Foods


Happy Lunar New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Welcome to the year of the Monkey!


So the story goes: The great Jade Emperor of heaven and earth called on all the animals for a great race to name the years the order would be determined by which place the animal came in. Before the end was a great river which was a major obstacle that each animal had to overcome to finish the race. Rat came in first by hitching a ride with Ox and then jumping off on shore to just beat out his ride. The rest of the animals came in various fashions each displaying their unique characteristics (force, teamwork, cunning, speed etc.) The stories are all a little conflicted on the details but that’s how it goes sometimes. There’s also a side story about how rat and cat were neighbors and either rat screwed over cat and didn’t wake him for the race or when they were riding on ox over the river rat pushed cat into the river and he drowned (thus explaining why cats hate rates, and maybe water).

Sydney has a pretty big Chinese New Year celebration (Lunar/Chinese I’m gonna use them interchangeably they refer to it as Chinese New Year CNY here.) full of events, parades and fireworks. They had 12 zodiac animal lanterns all around town that I decided to hunt them down pokemon style. I’m also using it as an opportunity to talk about some of the foods we eat during Chinese new year for good luck and prosperity. We’ll go in order of the animals but the food in no particular order. 

Our first two winners Rat and Ox. Rat won out of intelligence and eagerness (it was the least favored to win and only jumped ahead of ox because it was excited), Ox from strength and charity (some stories naivety )  for taking rat on it’s back to cross the river. (Sorry they were still constructing the Ox statue out of mahjong tiles.)Dumplings: dumplings are shaped like chinese gold ingots during the imperial age and represent weath and prosperity. Growing up, coins were hidden in the dumplings and it represented good luck to have “discovered a coin”. (not sure if it’s good luck if you happen to break your teeth on the coin.)

Tiger and Rabbit came in next, Tiger through sheer determination and stubbiness. Rabbit was nimble and quick for hoping stones across the river. Noodles: Noodles represent long life. In fact they serve “long life noodles” which are really really long noodles during new years. But any noodles usually work.

Dragon was held back because it was busy bringing rain and helping the people. Snake won by sneakily riding across with horse and scaring it at the last second the secure it’s 6th place (cunning and unscrupulous). Fish is a must have, fish (Yu) sounds like “excess/surplus” so we eat fish hoping for surplus for the year, it’s also tradition not to eat all of the fish to represent the surplus you will have. Some customs also dictate that the fish must face the guest and you leave the head and tail etc. Yeah, I cheated and had some sashimi, I did leave a piece per custom. 

Horse comes in seventh because of snake. Goat and Monkey cooperated with Rooster. Goat chewed up the grass to free the the boat that Rooster showed Monkey and Goat. Fruit shows up a lot during new years specifically Pomelo, Tangerines and oranges. Usually stacked up on the offerings to our ancestor and deities. Again with the homophonic words Pomelo sounds like “to have” and Tangerine/oranges (same word) sound like the word for success. 


Monkey helped tug the boat to the water that brought Goat, Monkey and Rooster. Rooster found a boat and showed Goat and Monkey to get their help. Spring rolls are also shaped like gold (bars) which is another symbolism for wealth.

Dog, while a strong swimmer stuck around to playing the water. Pig was famished half way through the race and had a snack and took a nap, but made it none the less. Finally dessert we have “Nian Gao” also called Year cake it more resembles a japansese mocha. Nian Gao sounds like Year higher and we eat it hoping that each year gets better than the last. 


There’s other stuff we eat but I didn’t happen to 1) eat them or 2) get in a picture this weekend. Also I understand that each region and family may have their own foods, so this is just some of the things we ate while celebrating the New Year growing up. Fortunately Chinese New Year is a week long celebration so I have some time to hunt down the rest.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year from Fiji!

We spent the last two days taking in some sights outside the tourist area.

Picture of the Fijian Chief's governing building at the "first/head village".

The inlet of the "first landing" where the first Fijian people landed and colonized the islands from Africa.

We toured a local market. Lots of tropical fruits and vegetables. They had a whole room of just Kava in various states of processing (apparently not just a popular drink in Hawaii).

We had some local food. Sea Cucumber, Octopus, shrimp, mud bugs, Kokoda, clams, snails, spinach fritter, cassava and fish.

Sunset as we waited for midnight (frogs everywhere).

Happy New Year everyone!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

TRIP: Flavours of Fiji cooking school


While here in Fiji my wife and I decided to take a half day class at the Flavours of Fiji cooking school. It is located just outside of where we were staying at Denarau island it was a easy hop over from our hotel to the industrial estate.

The cooking facility was pretty impressive, they had cooking stoves setup for up to 16 people (one instructor 15 students). It was a large hall that had two primary vents in the ceiling and two massive AC units to help keep things cool (towards the end when we had our curries going it did get a bit hot).

Our host Ethee start off showing us the best way to pick between drinking and cooking coconuts. Ethee explained that you want young green coconuts (that you must pick off the trees) that don't actually slosh around when shaken (meaning there's no air space in the nut so it was full of jelly and water). Alternatively for cooking you want a brown coconut with plenty of flesh (just fallen off the tree would be good).

Next Ethee was showing us how to actually crack open a coconut. I just assumed you hacked at the thing or drilled into one of the three "eyes", i've been apparently doing it wrong. Ethee showed us the three "seams" that meet at one end of the coconut and terminate near the "eyes". You go around in turn and hit the middle of each seam perpandicular to the seam with the back of a cleaver. One of three seams will give and crack the coconut in half.

Then came the demo of the scraping of coconut meat out of the shell using both a more modern scraper and a traditional sharpened tree branch.

We learned about the traditions of Fijian villages. For instance the chief of the village is always served his food "whole" (e.g. the whole pig etc) and portions are separately prepared for everyone else. She also explained the importance of the family gathering and dining together as well as ingredients and influences (such as Indian cuisine).

The class was divided into two sections: Traditional Fijian cuisine (three course) as well as Indian cuisine (four course). We stopped after each section to dine on our meal. The flow was really well prepared we started each section with "shopping" where we collected and learned about our ingredients (all pre-portioned) and then we cooked along with the instructor. (I wasn't able to catch the name of our Fijian instructor)

All of the pots and pans were collected under our workstations and every step well rehearsed that even beginners would have no trouble following along. Every step that required new utensils were perfectly arranged and we were instructed between steps to grab the right implements.



We cooked a coconut curry mahi mahi over bok choy, braised taro leaves (which she referred to as fiji spinach), and cassava tapioca balls cooked in coconut caramel sauce. I'll skip all the details but you can see the collage of the various preparation steps. Every step was well explained and with an interesting narrative about the ingredients and their use in daily Fijian cooking. As we cooked the other instructors that weren't actively teaching helped each student as well as helped collected and keep our mise en place clean and orderly.

Here's our finished three dishes. Yum!


Next was our Indian cooking instructor Arti. We cooked a Dal Shorva (lentil soup), Murghi Aur Aloo (chicken and potato curry), Roti, and a dessert of caramalized shredded coconut (I didn't hear a name for it).

Again, a very thorough and well timed conversation and cooking demonstration. She explained everything as we waited for things to simmer and had us simultaneously prepare three of the dishes

We finished by rolling out and pan frying our roti. Arti explained she had to make 50 of these everyday for her family for their breakfast and lunch. (That's some dedication right there.)



Here's our wonderful Indian "second lunch".

In the new year Flavours of Fiji will be offering a market shopping tour (which we might try attend). I highly recommend checking out this class, we had a great time!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Happy Holidays 2015


Happy Holidays from Fiji!

Just a few quick photos from the small island of Mana just off the coast of the main island.

Sunset Dinner 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hawaiian Bento 2


BBQ (more accurately grilling) culture is pretty big here in Sydney, I was talking with my coworkers about my friends back home and their awesome briskets and pulled pork in their big green eggs. Here they are more into grilling kabobs and steaks on the "barbie" it's a little more rare to hear about smoking and slow cooking. So folks seemed pretty excited when I told them I had previous made pulled pork in a slow cooker, I ended up promising to bring in a "Hawaiian" bento with my slow cooker Kalua pulled pork.

I suppose this one is not much different than my first Hawaiian bento. The box is smaller and no compartments so I've had to learn to deal with "sauceless" dish (rather my backpack learned the perils of sauces during my walk to work).  One of the "cool" things here is that most everyone has standardized on "takeaway" boxes (the clear container above). They're all microwave safe and dishwasher safe, every lid fits on every box and there are two sizes that are all uniformly the same (more or less).  I'm probably more excited about this than I should be but you have to take your small victories where you can.

Anyway back to the box. First the Kalua pulled pork. I applied my learnings from last time, I had the butcher take the skin off. The rest was super simple, Pork shoulder, Himalayan pink sea salt, banana leaves, and 1 tbsp of liquid smoke (I used mesquite). I liberally seasoned the pork, "forked" the pork, added the liquid smoke and wrapped the whole thing in a couple of banana leaves. 


Into the slow cooker and you're done. (yes that's it.) The cook time depends on the size of your pork generally I go for about 1.5 hours per pound of pork so this one went for about five hours.The pork came apart into a few big pieces as I tried to take it out. It's such a simple to make dish but very flavorful the banana leaves make all the difference in the world.

Spam Fried Rice, you can read about it in my previous post. Same as last time only this time with a few detailed pictures of making it. I opted for Spam "lite" which is still reasonably salty. The recipe is pretty simple. Beat the eggs with a touch of salt and make a omelette/egg pancake. Slice the egg into two inch by half inch strips and cube the spam. Pan fry your spam to give it a little bit of a crust, and remove it from the pan. Heat some oil and add five cups of cooked white rice (use short grain you need it to stick together a little) and toss it in the pan, once the rice loosens up with the oil, add in your spam and eggs and half of your scallions. You want to get some of the onion flavor going as well as get some of the rice a little toasty to give it nice aroma. Just as your about done toss in the rest of your scallions and take it off the heat and stir and incorporate the scallions (the residual heat will gently cook the newly added scallions).

Finally the cucumber kimchi, Hawaiian food is heavily Asian influenced you can find kimchi just about everywhere. This dish is very similar to the Chinese pickle I've done before (actually I've done quite a few). This one is just a lot more spicy. Unlike regular cabbage kimchi I didn't let this one ferment over weeks. Kimichi sounds intimidating but it's really not that hard, there's just a bunch of prep work involved. Yes the ingredients are many (see recipe below) but most of the work is in chopping up front. So you mince a bit of garlic (ok that's more of a chop than a mince) and slice some scallions. For the cucumber I like to cut them in half lengthwise and them bash them with the flat of my knife. This opens up the surface area in the flesh of the cucumber to absorb the seasoning. 

After you get all the prep done it's just a matter of mixing in chili flake, gojchujang, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and sesame seed. Give it a good toss and I put it in a standard size Mason jar. It's relatively good to go after an hour but I held it in the jar for a week and it only got better. Be warned this stuff is pretty salty, so it goes really well with the fried rice and the pork, eating it together you don't really need to add any salt to anything. 

Everyone was very pleased with the bento. The extras were gobbled up pretty quickly at home.

Box Contents:
  • Kalua pulled pork
  • Spam Fried Rice
  • Cucumber Kimchi

Cucumber Kimchi
2 lebanese cucumbers (if using english cucumber deseed)
4 scallions chopped (whites and greens)
3 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 tbsp korean large chili flake
1 tbsp fine chili powder (less if you want to reduce the heat)
1 tbsp Gochujang (fermented chili paste)
2 tsp white sugar
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cu soy sauce (I would recommend lite soy sauce)
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

Cut cucumber lengthwise, using the side of your knife "smash" the cucumber halves until they split (so you end up with quartered lengthwise cucumber). Chop into 3/4" segments.

Into a non-reactive bowl combine cucumber, garlic, scallions, chili powder, flake, gochujang, sugar, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and sesame seeds.  Cover and chill in the fridge for minimum of 30 mins optimally an hour before serving.

Kimchi can hold for a week (probably longer, I've never had it last that long)

Monday, December 14, 2015

Ginger Chicken with Soba salad


The Missus had a hankering for soba noodles so I did a little search in the backlog and found a cold soba salad that seemed pretty yummy. I paired it with a Japanese ginger chicken recipe to add a bit of protein to round out the bento.

First up the ginger chicken. There are quite a few variations of this recipe and it's been referenced as a "comfort food" with many tales recounting mothers or grandmothers serving this dish over a bowl of rice. They're all about the same recipe wise so I picked this one that I saw featured on pbs.org. The ingredients are pretty straight forward: chicken thigh soy sauce, sake, honey, ginger, vegetable oil, chopped scallions and sesame for garnish.

The marinade becomes the sauce, you cut the chicken in bite size pieces and drop it in a marinade. I let it go for a few hours as I ran some errands.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and pan fry in batches until brown. Remove the chicken and then bring the marinade to boil and reduce it until it's a thick sauce. Add the chicken back in until it's well coated and cooked through
.

To serve garnish with sesame seeds and scallion. It's usually served over a bowl of rice or in this case I served it with:


Soba Salad with Seaweed, Cucumbers and Asparagus. This recipe I got from the guys at SeriousEats (I'm a a big fan of the site).

The big surprise was the 1/2 ounce of wakame seaweed. I rehydrated it in a bowlful of boiling water and it started overflowing the bowl and I had to change bowls.

The rest was pretty easy, blanching the asparagus

Cooking the soba noodles and chilling them under cold water

Whisking together the dressing

and then putting everything together.

Lessons learned on the soba noodles: I tried to scale the recipe to 2x but it's way too much noodle to easily toss and incorporate the other ingredients. Also, my noodles appear to be thinner than the noodles they used (the picture they had makes it look like they used something with a lo mein noodle thickness). The weaker, thin noodles broke way too easily. I personally think a cold udon noodle would have been a good idea. Also soba noodles don't store very well, again Udon noodles would have faired better. Still it was a very light and zesty dish.

I loved the ginger chicken, It's definitely on the keeper list.

Box Contents:

  • Ginger Chicken
  • Soba Salad with Seaweed, Cucumber and Asparagus


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Aqua Dining Sydney


I took the Missus for her birthday dinner over to Aqua Dining. It was located right off the water on the north side of the bridge next to Luna Park (literally). I was so delighted with the meal I had to share.

Aqua is located in same building as the North Sydney Olympic Pool. It's got a great breath taking view of the harbor bridge and opera house. It's situated over the main pool, I'll say it's a little weird having dinner overlooking a bunch of people in their speedo's doing laps it's a very busy pool. Since you're sitting above the pool it kind of fades into the background, eye level is the harbor view. The staff were very attentive (our waiter noticed the table was wobbly and brought over cork shims to immediately rectify the problem) and did a great job of checking on us without being intrusive. Normally this isn't worth calling out, but in Sydney service is a bit less attentive than what you might be use to in the US. On to the food:

I had their take on the Moscow mule, I didn't write down the contents but it was rum and raspberry, it was quite good. I liked the ice "flower" on top.

We were presented with an amuse bouche of cured salmon with squid ink and pickled beet.

Both of us chose to go with the 3 course selection. The menu was organized by course and you could choose 2,3 or 4 courses. I started with the veal sweetbreads with pickled kohlrabi and puffed amaranth. She had the scarlet prawns with buckwheat, buttermilk and black sesame. The shrimp were small but every morsel was very sweet and delicious, we're told very difficult to get and we can see why. Apparently for Christmas, prawn (shrimp) are very popular (instead of say turkey and ham).

For the pasta course she went with the Maccheroncini, with 62 degree yolk, spinach and eggplant sauce.

I went for the burnt semolina tagliolini with sea urchin, fennel pollen and shaved bottarga. WOW, ok when (not if) I come back I could easily order 4 courses of just this. It's got two of my favorite things in the world Uni (sea urchin) and Bottarga (an Italian version of 烏魚子)  the pasta was toothy and super creamy (from the sea urchin) I didn't even mind the licorice of the fennel pollen. Don't let the plating fool you, it was a good amount of pasta.

Main course: she selected the Wagyu beef with celeriac and pizzaiola sauce (a tomato based sauce with basil and oregano).  Super tender and the Wagyu just melted in your mouth.

I had the lamb rump with roasted baby lettuce and macadamia. I did ask about the preparation, sometimes lamb rump could be slow cooked or stewed (which i'm not partial to) but he said cooked at 60 in a water bath. This was a good temp, very flavorful and perfect tender juicy texture.

We didn't go for a dessert course, I actually bought a cake back home. They have a 85 degrees bakery (it's a Taiwanese bakery) here and we love their "Taro Fantasy" cake.  Taiwanese cakes tend to be a lot less sweet than their western counterparts and the cake very spongy and light in texture.

Back to the restaurant. We were surprisingly full after three courses. The food was amazing and it was a great place to celebrate a birthday. It's definitely on my list of favorites of all the places we've eaten here in Sydney. If you ever make it out here check it out.