Saturday, 30 April 2016

Happy Masterchef Eve

Happy Masterchef Eve Y'all!

Now I am not one to spout lyrical about a television program, particularly a reality style tv program but seriously, Australian Masterchef is worth getting excited over. For serious cooks this is the Super Bowl, the tv event of the year not to be missed. The show has been stripped back and rid of all the gimmicks and bullshit that so many reality style cooking shows get bogged down in, this is not a game show this is the cooking Olympics.

The show has always been good but since moving the show to Melbourne a few seasons ago and with a renewed focus on beautiful produce, strong cooking technique and fostering the education of passionate home cooks the show is now great. As if that isn't enough to float any foodies boat there is the added entertainment provided by the hosts, what colourful cravat or crazy pants will the enormous Matt Preston be wearing each night. How many spicy dishes will it take to turn George Calombaris's head into a fountain that needs regular mopping and how many slabs of butter will one plate of food require to get Gary Mehigan rubbing his portly belly and licking his lips like a five year old about to receive a lollypop.

I have pondered of late that maybe one day I would like to compete on Masterchef. I was recently pursued by the Great Australian Bake Off but with work commitments and the lack of any prize as a drawcard it was just not going to happen this year. After reading the contract for the Great Australian Bake Off I also realised that once you have been on a show like that your arse is theirs for ten years. You cannot appear on other shows or pursue any media opportunities without the channels permission for a whole decade. That is a big commitment and at the end of the day although I was once a cake decorator I am interested in expanding my horizons to envelop all culinary fields.

This years masterchef has touted itself as the most intense apprenticeship program in the world. I know it is media spiel but as you watch the contestants progress from good cooks to outstanding cooks over a 6 month period it is clear that there is a strong focus on learning and growing and that is what I am interested in. It would be a life experience that few people get to have and for many past contestants, like my cooking hero Poh Ling Yeow who went on to host her own SBS food program, it opens many doors.

There are a few issues with auditioning for a show like Masterchef. The first is that the calibre of contestants they get these days is high. It isn't unusual to see audition dishes that I would be happy to pay for at a high end restaurant, delicate parcels of ravioli floating in crystal clear consomme's and rich desserts with complex techniques. Although I am an adventurous cook a lot of the techniques are out of my current league but that is not to say if I practiced and developed my skills further I couldn't get to that level. The next issue is that the style of cooking on Masterchef is very "cheffy". I use to be ashamed that I thought "cheffy" food with it's artistic plate smears a little wanky. But then I heard Rick Stein commenting that he finds "cheffy" food pretentious as well and I suddenly felt vindicated. Rick is a chef and cookbook author of the highest standard and if he doesn't see the need for food to look like a pretty little garden on the plate complete with edible flowers and chocolate dirt then that really is a valid point of view from a lover of cooking. Rick is a man of my heart with his love for hearty peasant style food that is packed full of flavour but I just don't think that type of cooking will pass muster on Masterchef where trends are set and world class chefs pop in for a cuppa. It becomes a little like an ice skating competition where artistic expression is as important as technique.

For me the be all and end all is taste. I want food that makes your eyes roll back in your head in ecstasy but when presented on a visual format like television that isn't going to be enough. The famous saying repeated time and again on Masterchef is that you eat with your eyes. Quite frankly I eat with my mouth so that could be an issue.

I now await the first episode to air with anticipation as I will be coming at this season of Masterchef with a new perspective. One of eager observation and critical analysis with the overarching idea...could I do that?

Originally posted on Saturday, 30 April 2016 by

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Secret Life Of The Japanese Appetite

Gyunyu Purin (milk pudding)

I can remember a time when I didn't eat sushi. Early 20's, so naive. When you think back on your former self it can be a surprise to realise that you haven't always been the way you are in the present. At that point in my life I hadn't eaten a prawn, I wouldn't go near an oyster and I thought all sushi involved raw seafood so I kept it at an arms length. Yes folks I was as far from a foodie as you can imagine.

Just as surely as the primordial blob evolved into humanity I too evolved. Sushi is a standard on my lunch menu despite bemoaning the dearth of the really good variety and just to ensure my former self is truly gone forever my absolute favourite is the raw seafood variety.

Till recently sushi was as far as my knowledge of Japanese cooking extended. Beyond that I was intimidated. It appeared to be so steeped in tradition and history not to mention technique that I thought there was no way I would be able to cook authentic Japanese food at home.

Enter Tokyo Cult Recipes by Maori Murato. From the get go Maori informed me I was all wrong about Japanese food. Yes there are sushi masters who train a lifetime to master their technique but Japanese food is so much more diverse and making it at home can be simple. Maori's words gently took my hand and guided me the full way through Japanese food, the food he grew up with and the food the Japanese population are eating on a daily basis.

He starts where all good books start and that is with the essentials like correctly preparing rice in the Japanese style which surprisingly involves a number of rinsing and resting steps. He takes you through making a dashi broth, an integral part of many Japanese dishes. This is where you get your first introduction to cooking with seaweed and katsuobushi (dried fish flakes). You will also be stepped through all the different variety's of miso and their uses. You will learn to pickle vegetables which are the perfect accompaniment to a Japanese meal. You then have a master class in the noodles like the Yakisoba we whipped up with Maori's help adorned with rich fatty pork belly and topped with a fried egg, as well as noodle soups soups such as Ramen that are so popular in America at the moment. You will learn to assemble a Bento Box which is the Japanese version of a lunch box. We ventured into the fried food territory with Tonkatsu (fried crumbed pork) that you would think would be more at home in a German pub than on Japanese dinner tables but when served as a Katsudon which is basically a fried pork omelette on a bed of rice you are in a Japanese world all of your own. Of course the book holds a touch of sashimi because where would Japanese food be without it's raw seafood and you will play around with Japanese desserts. We indulged in the velvety smooth Gyunyu Purin (milk puddings) which we topped with a black sugar sauce. Maori does all this through his recipes as well a taking you on a visual journey. There are step by step how to style pictures as well as photography that takes you behind the doors of Japanese homes and restaurants. It is about as un-intimidating as you could hope for when taking your first steps into the world of Japanese cooking.


Of course my journey to understanding Japanese cuisine never ends with one cookbook. Zenbu Zen by fellow Aussie Jane Lawson first presents itself as a tranquil drift down a calm river. It's pictures of sunlight on autumn leaves and frozen ponds will lead you to believe you are entering the more austere side of the Japanese culture when in reality you are actually being drawn into Janes story of a gaijin (foreigner) loose in Kyoto. This book is actually a hybrid, part cookbook part memoir Jane leads you through her memories of Kyoto through a series of tales interspersed with recipes.

Jane bought Oyakodon to our dinner table. Like many Japanese dishes this recipe starts with a dashi, in this case a Tori Dashi which is essentially a chicken stock with the additional of the ever ubiquitous seaweed. Wanting to get the flavours right we hunted down Kombu for this dish, no mean feat seeing as it is illegal to import into Australia. Once found we were not disappointed in how foreign this ingredient is to the westerner. Opening the packet of dried papery seaweed it soon became apparent that it was not just seaweed we had here, with it came a considerable amount of sand and possibly some sea life of the crustacean variety, no wonder the lady in the Asian supermarket warned us about rinsing it off before using it. Once re hydrated the Kombu became thick and leathery and I am certain if we had not found this elusive ingredient at the shops we could have just gone to the beach to collect the seaweed washed up on shore. Making the dashi turned out to be the time consuming portion of this recipe, once done it was a matter of simmering some dashi with onions, adding some diced chicken and finally pouring in some beaten eggs to form a loose omelette. Served on rice the flavours were subtle but topped with a little Shichimi (Japanese 7 spice powder) it was a tasty dish, so much so it became my lunch for the next three days.

The more Japanese food we cooked the more I wanted to experience. We ended up hunting down local Japanese restaurants to seek out more complex dishes that we had not had time to cook in our own kitchen. The restaurant Mr Shabu Shabu located in the City West region of Canberra has become a fast favourite and I have already been back a number of times to indulge in their cook your own hot pot's called...Shabu Shabu. These guys do a mini single serving Shabu Shabu where each person is presented with a bubbling broth on top of a small burner and a selection of ingredients such as mushrooms, beef, pork, and noodles to pop into your broth and cook to your own liking. The broth itself was clearly in the vein of what we had been making at home, a seaweed infused clear stock but this was more complex with a sweetness and depth that suited it being eaten as a soup. This is the type of dish that is best eaten out, with good company and an insatiable appetites.

With Shabu Shabu bringing the joys of cooking your own food at the table we decided to host a tempura party for two at our very own dining table. The perfect host to guide us through the techniques of this slightly kitsch dinner was Charmaine Solomon. Her timeless book The Complete Asian Cookbook is the perfect reference point for everything Asian and she didn't disappoint with her Tempura. The light airy tempura batter when eaten straight from the fryer at the table is a crunchy delight and is ideal for all manner of seafood and vegetables. With a simple bowl of Shoyu (light Japanese soy sauce) as an accompaniment the produce is given space to really shine.

Tempura party

Every cultural food immersion comes with surprises, unexpected twists and turns and the food of Japan has been no exception. The images most easily conjured to mind of expertly cut slivers of fish and tiny serves of daintily rolled sushi are only a very small part of the Japanese cuisine. The Japanese have somehow hidden from the world that they want to hunker down on a big piece of fried pork or slurp up a massive bowl of noodle soup, they have kept hidden their appetites for big serves, greasy fry up's and sweet as sweet desserts and it turns out they are just like the rest of us. Now go get cooking and see for yourself.

Originally posted on Sunday, 17 April 2016 by