Friday, April 30, 2010

Tan Thanh Loi

Tan Thanh Loi is a sweet little restaurant near Little Saigon market.  It had never caught my eye until one day, when my father and I strolled past and saw a mini production line of plates of Com Tam being crowned with delectable pork chops.

For the longest time, I eschewed Com Tam as it seemed too boring.  I was having a serious love affair with Bun - warm rice vermicelli noodle salads, with shredded vegies and all manner of grilled meats.  Who wants a pork chop and a boring old egg, and what is "broken rice" anyway?

Com Tam Bi Suon Cha Trung, $9.00

More the fool me.  This particular Com Tam was divine.  The bi (shredded pork skin) was so fresh, garlicky and pleasantly chewy.  The chop, redolent with lemongrass, was perfect - tender and bursting with flavour.  It came with an interesting eggy prawn meatloaf and a fried egg.  The accompanying seasoned fish sauce was not required, so tasty was each individual component.

A bowl of perfectly clear chicken broth is a Zen moment for me.  Like a perfect bonsai or a Japanese stone garden, it makes me pause and reflect, no matter how busy I am.  This comes with your Com Tam.

I totally dig the pictures, and Tan Thanh Loi have been kind enough to mark which meals contain which particular common allergens, such as gluten, peanuts, and egg.  I want to try Banh Cuon Cha Lua (steamed rice rolls with pork loaf) and Bo Luc Lac (fried beef, so-called for the way you shake the wok when you cook it).

I'm glad I have finally discovered Com Tam.  Sometimes in our quest for the new and exciting, we forget that simple is often best.

Tan Thanh Loi
73 Nicholson St, Footscray (map)
9687 4886 
Hours:  Mon - Sat 9.00am - 7.00pm (Fri til 9.00pm), Sun 9.00pm - 5.00pm

Tan Thanh Loi on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shelf Gleaning - Berbere

Ethiopian cuisine - bright splots of spicy wats on round, tangy injera bread.  As pretty as a painter's palette.  For a while, though, it was a "restaurant-only" thing for me.  I had it in the "do not attempt" pile, along with making filo pastry from scratch or deboning a chicken.  There was no particular reason, only ignorance.  The lovely Bianca changed all that by surprising me one day with my first tubs of berbere and niter kibbeh, from Mama Rosina's in Footscray.  Now, Ethiopian is as easy as whipping out my trusty Old El Paso taco kit!

Berbere is a brick-red spice combination that is arguably the foundation of Ethiopian cuisine.  Blends are individual, but feature chillies or paprika, fenugreek, and warming spices such as cloves and black pepper.  The spice mix may be dry or made in to a smooth paste with the addition of onions and garlic.  Mesnoy sell the paste for $40/kg and have 500g tubs in their fridge.  Their blend is not particularly hot, which means you can add a lot, without scaring the children.

I regularly cook Misir Wat (red lentil dal) with berbere, and an accompanying Tikil Gomen (fried cabbage, carrot, and green chilli).  I based my recipes on those from Rachel's lovely blog, The Berbere Diaries.

Misir Wat

1 cup red lentils
1.5 onions, chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or up to 1/2 a cup to be more authentic)
1/3 cup berbere (if you like it spicy, like me!)
3 tomatoes, chopped (I use from a can; you could use fresh, but remove the skins)
2 cups water
1/4 cup finely chopped garlic
1/4 cup finely chopped ginger

Wash the lentils very well in several changes of water.

Fry the onions over medium heat for around 10-15 minutes without any oil. (This is the traditional method - they won't burn as long as you keep the heat to medium, rather they will cook in their own juices.)

Add the oil and cook for a few minutes.  Add the berbere and cook well for 5-7 minutes.  Add the tomatoes and lentils, and mix well.  Add the water, bring to the boil, and simmer for around 20 minutes until the lentils are cooked and the wat is thick.

Add ginger and garlic and cook for 5 minutes more.  Serve on top of injera.

Coming up, wat's wat on niter kibbeh - a spiced clarified butter that is used to make many other traditional Ethiopian recipes.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Little Saigon Market

Little Saigon Market is somewhat hidden behind Hopkins St, and conceals a treasure trove of colourful, fragrant, tasty delights.  The first time I went to this market, I felt as if I had been magically transported to Vietnam itself.  Strange vegetables were piled high, glistening with water droplets.  Curious cakes were for sale, straight out of the Mad Hatter's tea party.  The chickens in the butcher still had their feet on them.  Patrick, a reader of this blog, writes:
When visitors arrive from interstate and overseas I hustle them off to the unlikely tourist attraction of Little Saigon market and the surrounding shops to pull together the ingredients for a meal. Luckily most seem to like it if only because it does not correspond with their idea of Australia.
And that is what I love most - Little Saigon might feel like Vietnam (at least to me, who has never been there), but it is still so much a part of the Australia I know and love.  Who wants to live in a place where there is only Coles to shop at, only toasted sandwiches and milky tea to sup on, and only Slim Dusty to listen to?  Certainly not I - unless the milky tea were bubble tea, perhaps!

Here's Ms Baklover's guide to the Little Saigon Market.  Please write in with anything I've missed!

First, stop by the sugarcane juice shop to get you in the subtropical mood.  They are just on Byron St, near the Leeds St corner.

Long poles of sugarcane are passed through a simple yet powerful "wringer" to extract all the sweet juice.  You will see a garbage bin full of the twisted, juice-less remains.

Sugarcane juice, $3.00

They will give you "one they made earlier" so that it's really nice and cold.  Aaah!  The sweetness is really complex, unlike a regular cordial or soft drink.  A small mandarin bobs amidst the ice cubes, complementing the faint lemon flavour of the sugarcane.

Next, some sustenance.  Step into the market - there's a entrance just down from the sugarcane stall.  On your right is this shop, Sun Wong Kee.  Pick up a bag of delicious, salty, tender fried squid legs and proceed to munch, à la hot chips - but so much better!

Bag of fried squid, $4.00

The best thing about Little Saigon is the plates of fruit you are encouraged to try before you buy.  This is also a sneaky pit stop if you have hungry, whining children (as is Baker's Delight - they always have some sort of new product on the counter to ply the kids with, I mean, sample).

I always do my main shop at Footscray Market, as I know and am fiercely loyal to Masters' Fruit and Buttacavoli's Fish.  I do like perusing the fruit at Little Saigon, though, as they often have fabulous, exotic finds, like mangosteens, rambutans, dragonfruit, and cheap mangoes.

If you haven't tried mangosteens, you simply must.  Inside are lobes of soft white flesh, which taste like a cross between banana, lemon, and mango.

When you've picked up all your goodies, stop off at To's 2 Bread & Cake and pick up something sweet to have at home.

I love these little pillowy sweets, called Banh Bao Chi.  They are made from glutinous rice and rolled in coconut, and these particular ones are filled with a sweet/salty peanut mixture.

Banh Bao Chi, $3.00

Now, put your feet up, pop your banh bao chi on a saucer, and have that cup of milky tea - bubble or not.

Little Saigon Market (map)
Byron St, Footscray (between Nicholson & Leeds)
Hours: Sun - Thurs 9.00am - 6.00pm, Fri 9.00am - 9.00pm, Saturday 9.00am - 7.00pm

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Master Restaurant

What's your fail-safe hangover cure?  Big plate of greasy bacon & eggs?  McDonalds?  A bloody Mary?  For whatever curious reason, the only thing that can make me feel better if I've seriously over-indulged, is yum cha.

We had some American family staying with us recently and they bequeathed us a killer margarita recipe from their student days in New Orleans.  Anything concocted to deal with both frat house initiation rituals and surviving Hurricane Katrina needs to be treated with respect.  Unfortunately, I, Jules, and the long-lost Chan were somewhat reckless with it, around the fire in the backyard.  Side effects included Jules lying in our new redgum sleeper-lined raised vegie bed, imagining she was in her coffin.

Thankfully, Mr Baklover let me sleep all morning, and I atoned for my subsequent mother-guilt by taking the big girls with me to find some yum cha in Footscray.  Unlike the eastern suburbs, our "big barn" yum cha options are pretty much only Gold Leaf in Sunshine and Plume in Maribyrnong.  In my delicate state, I couldn't face the scrum that chokes the entrance to both of these (for good reason - Gold Leaf in particular is great).  I decided to try to find something local.

Our first stop was Dai Duong on the corner of Moore & Hopkins.  I peered into the gloom, through the smoky glass.  A lone table of diners looked up warily from their table in the middle of an empty dance floor, while a mirror ball spun forlornly overhead.  A sign on the door informed us that yum cha service would cease as of the following Monday.  Much as I would like to think this would have meant a grand finale - a swansong of dim sum - I suspected it would more likely mean that the trolleys would be filled with the last odds & ends of the freezer.  With pounding head and hungry girls in tow, I headed back down Hopkins St.

Master Restaurant beckoned - small, reassuringly busy, but plenty of spare tables.  First plate off the cart was har cheong, prawns wrapped in wide rice noodles, with a sweet soy sauce.  This is one of my favourite yum cha items - the rolls can also be filled with BBQ pork, among other things.

These were OK, a bit mushy - I've had better.

Next, everybody's favourite, siu mai.  These are pork and mushroom dumplings which, instead of being enclosed in dough, are made to look like little cupcakes, if you like, the filling peeking out of the pastry wrapper, studded with a piece of carrot or orange fish roe.

My little dumpling!

By this stage, I had had a whole pot of jasmine tea and was starting to feel much better.

We called for chao shao su, sweet BBQ pork in excellent, flaky pastry (I suspect made with lard).  Delicious!

Next, har gow, prawn dumplings encased in delicate rice flour wrappers.  These are one of the hardest yum cha dishes to get right, in my opinion.  So many times you lift the dumpling, only to have its pearlescent exterior tear off and remain stuck to the bamboo steamer - a flabby, gelatinous reminder of what could have been so light and delicate, complementing the juicy prawn filling inside.

Thankfully, these did not stick to one another or to the basket, and were very good.

A special order was put in for ham sui gok.  These are footballs of sweet dough, deep fried; their sweet, crispy exterior bitten into to reveal a savoury minced pork filling.  These were excellent!

Was it the best yum cha I've ever had?  Not the best, but it really hit the spot.  If you can't face the trek and wait out at Gold Leaf or Plume, do check Master Restaurant out - I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

We returned home and I felt like a million dollars... for about an hour.  By the afternoon, Mr Baklover and I were in a terrible state that no amount of black aspirin (Coke) could remedy.  The marvellous Bianca and Den came to our rescue, firing up the barbie, and I can subsequently and happily report that when you're in need of a hangover cure, chili kolbasi from Michael's Deli will really cure what ails you.

Master Restaurant (map)
Cnr Hopkins & Leeds Sts, Footscray 
Phone: 9689 8796
Hours: Open 7 days, 9am til late
Yum cha $4 - $8 per plate
Licensed and BYO (wine only)

Master Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Katarina Zrinski Restaurant at the Croatian Club

When we are back in the States, many people ask us to describe "Australian food".  I never really know quite what to say.  The fact is, my parents are self-imposed castaways from mainstream Australian food.  They shrugged off the white sauce and Sunday roasts of their childhood, and raised us on a hodge-podge of interesting things they had gleaned from various cultures - pretty progressive in the 1980s.

I remember in Home Economics at school, in the lesson on carbohydrates, my horrible, smug teacher neatly explaining, "You see, we all eat potatoes with our meal. Katsy [the lone Asian], well, she eats rice."  A small hand rose, quavering from the back, and Ms Baklover interjected - quite truthfully, "We never eat potatoes.  We eat rice with every meal."  I was on her blacklist ever since - more so when I later stole her thunder by knowing what dal was.

Sunday often meant yum cha, and char siu bao and siu mai are the foods of my childhood, right alongside tinned tomato soup.  Mum did cook spaghetti bolognese, but also stuffed peppers, the aforementioned dal, and proper chicken stir fry with a light sauce thickened with a little cornflour.  This wonderful, eclectic diet made for adventurous, irrepressibly "foodie" children, but it did set us adrift from a discrete food tradition.  In my family, there is no dish "made as Grandma did".  Christmas always ends with plum pudding, but what comes before drifts with the years.

Unlike my food traditions, Katarina Zrinski Restaurant at the Croatian Club is certainly not adrift.  One could be forgiven for thinking it is a depot for the fire brigade, with its steely grey bulk overlooking the road into Footscray.  It wears its red and white chequered crest proudly, as if it were a medal on a soldier's chest, swollen with national pride.

Inside, national heroes gaze into the middle distance above men playing cards and (I daydream) telling bawdy jokes.  The tables are lovely, with crisp linen and I dare say the most comfortable chairs this side of Zagreb.

Mr Baklover shares none of my sense of cultural displacement, firmly rooted as he is in the German-Irish traditions of Chicago.  Since living with me, he has learned to love tofu and bean sprouts, but I know he secretly dreams of bratwurst and liver sausage.  He was ready for a feast so we got started.  

Mixed grill, $18.90

The mixed grill was fantastic, with tender, flavorsome raznjici (grilled pork pieces) and juicy cevapcici, mini skinless sausages of beef and pork.  It came with fabulous sautéed capsicum and onion.  Don't sneer at the chips!  They put a special spice mix on them that is just divine.  It rivals chicken salt in this heart of mine.

Salad (included in mixed grill)

This is how coleslaw should be - ultra-thin and crispy cabbage with a piquant vinegar dressing.  We never got around to eating the iceberg lettuce, however.  You will see why!

Sarma with mash, $18.90

Sarma are parcels of beef/pork mince and rice, rolled in pickled cabbage leaves.  We have had these before and enjoyed them, but the mince in this day's version was somewhat grainy and unappealing.

Grah, $18.90

The day's special was Grah, "bean stew served with smoked meats and pickles".  Now, do not judge the bowl by the perceived size of the spoon, or rather, consider that the spoon is in fact a ladle.  It was a veritable tureen of Grah.  Plus it came with this:

The Grah was a very thick bean stew with a lovely warm, soothing texture.  It was so filling, though.  After a few bites, I was starting to say not Grah but "grruhhhhh...".  Like an over-poached kransky, I was about to burst.  I am no slouch when it comes to appetite, but this kind of food is way too heavy to overeat, at least for me.  Luckily, Mr B rolled up his shirtsleeves and, with his Teutonic appetite, made sure we didn't embarrass ourselves too much by leaving too much food.  At least, that was his excuse as he cleared every plate.

Croatian food is known as "the food of the regions", and next time I'll be sure to pick something from her Mediterranean coastline, to complement the heavier fare.  I've had their Lignje before, which is delicious, tender squid, which has been marinated in garlic and parsley before being quickly grilled.

Food, like sport, transcends cultural barriers.  You may not speak the same language, but you can kick a ball between you, and you can connect through wonderful food too.  The Croatian Club serves proper food from the "old country" - it might not be my "old country", but it feels like home just the same.  The chairs encourage slouching, time passes slowly, and the food begs to be dribbled down your chin.  Plus, if you've ever found yourself trying to entertain hungry children with nothing more than some napkins, a menu, and a toothpick dispenser, you will appreciate this:


72 Whitehall Street, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9689 5866
Hours: Mon - Wed 12.00pm - 3.00pm, Thurs & Sun 12.00pm - 8.30pm, Fri & Sat 12.00pm - 9.30pm

Katarina Zrinski on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 15, 2010

2, 4, 6, 8...

Thank you Tan Truc Giang for letting me cosy up to your counter!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dinh Son Quan

I really love my beauty salon.  No herbal tea, mood lighting or lifestyle questionnaire here - just line up in the dingy corridor and, when prompted by the little lady in a floor-length plastic apron, tell her (and everyone else waiting) what you want waxed.  Seriously though, their prices and efficiency leave me enough time and money to try a new Footscray treat afterward.  And what better companion, when dining alone, are sexy eyebrows?

The last rays of summer steered me towards a subtropical treat - banh xeo at Dinh Son Quan.

When I sat down, I was given a menu, but luckily I had the hot tip that the corkboard menu underneath the colossus above was the way to go.  Upon choosing banh xeo - coconut/rice flour crêpe filled with prawns, pork and vegies - the waitress exclaimed, "Oh!  Big one for you!"  Erm - at least my eyebrows are skinny!

Banh xeo, $10

This was one of the best (and biggest) banh xeo I've had.  It's absolutely enormous and stuffed with small yet juicy prawns, fatty pork belly, bean sprouts and onions.  You take pieces and wrap them in the accompanying forest of mustard greens, butter lettuce, and your choice of herb, be it common or Vietnamese mint, or purple, aniseed-y perilla.  These little parcels are then dipped in sweet and tangy seasoned fish sauce.  Yum!

I'm looking forward to trying the other dishes on Dinh Son Quan's corkboard, from bo kho (Vietnamese stewed beef) to bun rieu.  I love places that don't have huge menus, but just a few dishes that are their specialties.  I can't say the same for the beauty salon - who knew so many places on a body could be waxed?!

Dinh Son Quan (map)
Cnr Byron & Nicholson Sts, Footscray
Tel: (03) 9689 3066
Hours: 9am - 9pm, 7 days

Dinh Son Quan on Urbanspoon
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