Food in your country is probably crap if… people shop weekly rather than daily

14/03/2009

I live in a city called Perth in Western Australia (population is 1.6 million).  We have a lot of land and a great climate.  We have the kind of climate that southern Europeans make use of to provide nice fresh vegetables and fruit every day.

Instead of taking advantage of our climate, we in Perth have laws keeping supermarkets shut on weeknights and on Sundays.  So, even though we have a geographic advantage, we legally prevent ourselves from using it.  Perth residents tend to go shopping once a week – they buy a big trolley full of canned and frozen rubbish.  Then, all week they have a diet of rubbish, like they are on some sort of demented camping trip in their own homes.

shopping-trolley.jpg

these vegies will be ruined by the time you eat them

It would be nice if we could change the laws but a bizarre coalition of jesus freaks and closet communists are in the way.  Apparently, removing our current bizarre laws and introducing normal shopping to Perth is some sort of imperialist counter revolutionary subversion.

Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro may be ailing but their attitude to free enterprise is alive and well in Western Australian shopping restrictions!

I can remember listening to US Forces radio in Japan (Eagle 810) and they had a segment explaining to the forces that Japanese families liked to buy a smaller basket of goods each day so that vegetables, fruit and fish were in their prime.  That was why Japan had so many smaller, convenient stores, they said.  The guy on the radio encouraged people to try it, as it makes your meals tastier and healthier.  It is a shame that this kind of thing is illegal where I live.  Despite the great climate, Perth people have to eat as if they lived in the Arctic circle. 

It is not only wacky local shopping laws – many people actually choose to do a single weekly shop.  This means that for the second half of the week, everything you eat is past its prime.  Not only that but fish off the menu.

In countries where food is good, it is very rare to see a single big visit to the supermarket.  If that is what happens in your community, there is a fair bet that food in your country is crap.

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Food in your country is probably crap if… there are hippies working at your local food market

09/03/2009

Are stalls at your nearest food market staffed by normal locals who have produced food all their lives professionally?

Or are they staffed by unwashed hippies? Middle aged women pursuing a hobby career (while their real household income comes from their husband)? Are the stalls staffed by people who are “rediscovering” something or “getting back” to something?

Do the sellers want to engage you in conversation that has something to do with stuff other than the food?  Is the food only a part of some greater philosophy or politics that drives them?

Even worse, are the stalls interspersed with stall selling crap folk art, crystals, or other rubbish?

Sadly, at many farmers markets in Australia and the UK, the closest thing to good food you can get is from the ice cream van.

a market that sells tofu organic tacos is never going to provide you with good food...

In countries with good food, you will never see the crap photographed above.  In France and Italy they concentrate on selling excellent, seasonal food.  That is why they are happier and healthier.  It is also why they are sad about the food we have to eat in our country.

Food in good food countries is about excellence, not about some weird philosophy.

Kushiyaki of the week: Tsukune

07/03/2009

This is the start of a series on Kushiyaki.  Kushiyaki means any food skewered and grilled.  Yakitori and motsuyaki are both types of kushiyaki.  Mostly these articles will each be on a particular stick – but some will be about the types of restaurants that serve kushiyaki and how it is best ordered, cooked, served, eaten…  Kushiyaki are seasoned with either salt or sauce (shio or tare).  I will give my view on the best way to eat each piece.

TSUKUNE(shio/tare? – I think tare, few have shio)

There are so many types of different yakitori sticks and few are common to all yakitori shops.  Tsukune is one that seems to be.  Tsukune is essentially minced chicken mixed with negi (like leek but thinner and with a taste similar to spring onions), egg, salt and sometimes a bit of filler, like bread crumbs.  Yakitori shops all seem to have their own recipe.  Some include ground up cartilage that can give a slightly gritty texture. 

My favourite shop keeps the mix in a cold container and they only shape it onto the stick to order.  Others seem to do it in advance.  Some shops make it like a series of balls on the stick, but I have noticed that these are often mass produced ones that are full of filler.  Some of the fancier shops will serve it with raw egg yolk to dip it into.

tsukune

tsukune

 

Good tsukune should be hot through and never dry.  They are a great introduction to yakitori for people who have never been lucky enough to have real yakitori before – especially if they are victims of the “yakitori” served in those weird Japanese restaurants in Australia!

So far in this series I have only done tsukune.

Food in your country is probably crap if… children’s menus are popular

05/03/2009

Part one of  “Food in your country is probably crap if…”  I will outline at least ten differences between countries with good food and countries with bad food.

Kids in Italy don’t eat chicken nuggets and chips while the rest of the family get stuck into real food.  If you find a children’s menu in Italy, it is probably in a restaurant that is trying to cater to tourists who are hell bent on teaching their kids to be fussy.

Some people tell me that there is something innate in children that means they can only eat baked beans, frankfurts, chips and so on.  Personally, I think this is a purely cultural phenomenon.  Parents assume this to be true, so they act like its true.

You almost never see this kind of crap in Japan, Hong Kong, France or anywhere that has good food.  Feeding kids this sort of rubbish is what makes fussy, unadventurous adults.  And when a country is full of fussy, unadventurous adults, restaurants have to follow suit.  That is why in some countries the restaurants are full of bland unauthentic muck. 

I thank my lucky stars that I always ate whatever my parents ate.  I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to like it.  My family had not been degraded down to that kind of thinking at that time (or since).  I have met adults for whom fast food is not an occasional convenience but a savoured treat.  That is seriously screwed up.  All of them were fed a specially selected bland diet by their parents who wanted to keep things simple. 

One of the excuses I hear is that kids will kick up a fuss unless they are given this kind crap food.  However, I never see kids in Japan or Italy turning away pasta etc and asking for junk.  I think it is a case of the parents opening a gate they can’t close.

Can matsutake be grown in Australia?

04/03/2009
Probably some some of the most significant food news out of Australia in the last ten years is the successful growing of truffles in the Manjimup area of Western Australia.  They haven’t grown the easy ones, they have gone for the real deal.  And the results are not the dry hard lumps other “new world” projects have resulted in. 

One of the good things about Australia is the size of the place gives us a massive variety of climates, soils and weather systems.  Surely, somewhere, we can grow almost anything.

Which brings me to this:

The price is 30,000 yen - nearly 500 Aussie dollars

The price is 30,000 yen - nearly 500 Aussie dollars

I photographed this punnet at a food market in Kyoto – it is slightly bigger than my fist and costs nearly 500 Aussie dollars – they throw in three little yuzu citruses with it to sweeten the deal.

These matsutake mushrooms are in season in the northern Autumn every year and have an amazing long and warm taste.  They are a key feature of the autumn season kaiseki cuisine.  Here is a pic of a dish I was halfway through while staying at the Benkei Ryokan in Arashiyama, Kyoto:

the beer was nice too...

the beer was nice too...

This is a soup that is made with matsutake when it is in its prime.  As you can see, a bit of fresh yuzu squeezed in really freshens things up and provides the balance in flavours.  This is a premium product and you can’t really make matsutake dishes with a substitute mushroom.

The question is, can Australia succeed where China has failed?  Can we grow a quality matsutake mushroom?

Japanese Mayonnaise Banned in Australia?

03/03/2009

I can’t believe I am posting this – I will check the facts and see if it is true.  It can’t be?  Can it?  I hope I can post a retraction!

The owner of a Korean supermarket told me that the Australian government is not allowing imports of Japanese mayonnaise – even though the egg content is heat sterilised.  Surely this can’t be true?

If a truck load of this fell on you, you'd be in trouble!

If a truck load of this fell on you, you'd be in trouble!

There is no substitute for Japanese mayo on the market, so if it will be banned, how are you supposed to adjust your diet?  What?  Do we just stop eating dishes that require Japanese mayo?

Australia is a country that allows rugby, rockfishing, phenomenal binge drinking, prostitution, cage fighting…  and we ban condiments?  What the hell sort of risk management is this?

NEWS – Now I am told that it is only Kewpie brand (the most popular brand) they are harrassing.  Hanamasa and the others have not been targetted yet…

Restaurant Review – Satsuki (Subiaco, Western Australia)

26/02/2009

Satsuki is the latest offering from the group that brought us Yahachi and Ha-lu.  They also had an interest in a restaurant in Tokyo.

Satsuki is located in Subiaco just near the train station.  The layout is interesting  – there is a very Japanese counter that is great to sit at but lacks the see through fish display that could get the taste buds moving early.  This, and the heavy ratio of outdoor to indoor seating is a mistake.  Counter dining in real restaurants is sorely lacking in Perth.  It gives a date a different feeling and it allows solo diners a comfort that an unreadable newspaper does not.   Adding a glass presentation case would bring that extra bit of authenticity and interest.

The real feature of this restaurant is the sushi chef, Yamahara-san. For a Japanese restaurant to feature such a well qualified Tokyo trained, Edo style sushi chef is a coup – especially since he seems committed to stay.  His technique and presentation is up there with the best in Ginza.  It is a shame that Satsuki, then, has such a limited selection of sushi to order from.  It is my hope that by consistent customer demand that they expand the list of fish they use and allow him to serve a wider complement of sushi.  I have had the privilege of sitting at his counter before and I can vouch that your appetite will run out well before his imagination does.

The rest of the menu is presented in a nice izakaya style – salads, nimono (simmered things), agemono (fried things) and so on. This allows you to order and eat a Japanese meal the way it is intended to be eaten. A variety of dishes is ordered, several times throughout the evening, carefully balancing and complementing textures and flavours.   Thankfully, they have included ochazuke to finish off with.

Complaints?  Menu could be a little wider, shouchu and sake prices are astronomical (thanks to the supplier) and there are no kushiyaki on the menu. 

Other than that, it is great to see real Japanese food, prepared well and washed down with a decent beer.  Lets hope they can maintain a bit of authenticity and hold out against the teriyaki munching, california roll loving unwashed masses!

Subiaco’s Funtastico

26/02/2009

Were were happy to find Funtastico open on a Monday after NYE – an evening when most Perth restaurateurs were giving their customers a break, Funtastico was too short staffed to deal with the influx of second choice refugees in the Subiaco area. Service was flustered; drink orders came after three reminders and kitchen was visibly disorganised. In fact, the kitchen staff found themselves flatfooted while waitstaff were fielding a chorus of “Is my main course still coming?” from several tables. Shared antipasto platter was well thought out and varied. Main course of chicken fagottini had an unacceptably gluggy texture and some pieces were difficult to ply from the plate. As it turned out, it wasn’t worth the physical effort for each bland morsel. Spaghetti Marinara al Cartoccio was uncharacteristically salty – if that is how it is meant to be then this restaurant owes me a few tablespoons of salt that were missed last time I orderd this dish. Pasta in a bag is always going to be a novelty but I would prefer it to be better than pasta in a can by a somewhat wider margin. Overall, the shared entree platter and one of four mains was worth eating. Didn’t bother with dessert.

how risky is fugu?

21/02/2009

Every now and then you hear a story about the “dreaded pufferfish of Japan.”  Often these stories tell us that eating fugu is dangerous.   I have read a lot of stuff in the papers telling me that fugu (blowfish or pufferfish) is very risky.  People even tell me that “it is only eaten for the thrill”.

Hmmm…

There are plenty of restaurants in Japan that sell fugu as their main dish.  There are also lots of places that sell it just as one of many things they sell.  Overall, it is estimated that there are over 80 million serves of the stuff every year in Japan – which sounds like a lot until you remember that there are nearly 130 million people in Japan.

Every year a handful of people get sick and sometimes they die.  Importantly, it has been years since anyone died from eating fugu prepared by someone licensed to serve it in a restaurant (there are licences for nearly everything in Japanese kitchens!).  So, nearly all of the people who get sick do so from eating fugu at home, prepared by someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.

So, if there are 80 million serves per year and it is years since anyone died from eating fugu prepared by a licensed chef…  what does that mean for the “risk”?  Put in perspective, it is said that commercial air trips have about a one in 80 million chance of resulting in death. 

Roughly one in every 9,500 Australians dies on the roads each year, more in the US.

From a numeric point of view, there is not a lot to support the notion that eating fugu is risky.  I am not sure how many people die from choking on steak but it could even be a more prevalent problem.

There are plenty of examples of indefensibly bad risk management in regulating foods.  I will post more on them later.

Maybe fugu is a bit like a rollercoaster?  Maybe it feels risky without actually being all that risky?

are you too scared to fly on a commercial flight?

are you too scared to fly on a commercial flight?

This is a pic of some fugu tempura.  It is not the most usual way of eating it – I find the subtle taste of fugu to be lost in the “fried” taste of the batter.

gintara saikyo yaki

21/02/2009

It surprises me that outside Japan, the Japanese food we can get is very unrepresentative of what is eaten in Japan.  It is especially surprising when you see how delicious the real thing is, even to the western palate.  Hopefully, it does not come as a surprise that Japanese people don’t go out in the evening to eat teriyaki chicken (if they ever eat it at all!) or roll sushi. 

There are many great grilled fish (yaki sakana or yakizakana) dishes in Japan.  One of my favourites is “gin tara saikyo yaki”.  Tara means cod, gin means silver (what North Americans call black cod, the Japanese call silver cod), saikyo is a type of very light coloured miso paste that the fish is marinated in and of course, yaki means to grill.

gintara saikyo yaki

gintara saikyo yaki

 

The dish is a little unusual because the fish is packed into the sweet tasting saikyo miso (usually in a plastic box) and left in the fridge for 2-4 days.  That is unusual because Japanese fish dishes are usually very fresh.  When the time comes to cook the very traditional method is to cook it over sumi (charcoal).  Since that is a pain, the next best thing is a kind of gas grill.  This is a very common cheap home dish or a cheap lunch at a yaki sakana restaurant.  Near my old office in Tokyo I could have a large serve of this dish, with rice, soup, tsukemono (pickle) and a small salad for about $10 Australian or $7 US.  The quality was incredible.

The fish itself has a good spread of fat throughout.  When you push it with your chopsticks, the segments should separate from each other but tend to stay in one piece (making it about the easiest fish to eat with chopsticks!).  Just under the skin is a very juicy, fatty layer.  The flavour is surprisingly sweet, smoky and like nearly all Japanese fish dishes, very salty. 

In Australia, the fish is called Patagonian toothfish and Australians generally haven’t eaten it. 

Some Aussies have eaten this dish in Melbourne at a certain high profile Japanese restaurant.  The place in question has branches is the US, UK and Australia and is part owned by a famous actor. It sells “dumbed down” Japanese food, primarily for customers without a lot of experience in Japanese food.  Some of the reviewers really talk up this dish as a really special one and some of his customers come away thinking that he invented it!  In reality, it is basic, cheap family food eaten in every suburb, every day.  I was not surprised when this group’s restaurant in Japan closed down.  There are so many better places to eat and it is sad that outside Japan people think this restaurant’s weak, adulterated, bland dishes are representative of real Japanese cuisine.

I sometimes make this dish at home.  We can buy the fish but we usually have to buy the saikyo miso from Japan and bring it into Australia ourselves.  Now, if we lived in Singapore, we could buy this miso at the supermarket underneath Takashimaya!