@Milk and Honey Café, Kiama, New South Wales

I can’t believe it’s been two months since I moved to Sydney. It’s still too noisy, too crowded and too brash. It’s disconcerting that Auckland seemed so metropolitan after Christchurch (and Palmerston North), and now Sydney is another rung on the city scale.

I needed to get away from the city-ness, and so for my birthday, BL took me on a day trip to Kiama. Kiama is a seaside town, 1½ hour south of Sydney and is famous for two blowholes. The blowholes are a geological phenomenon caused by the erosion of basalt rock within volcanic latite rock. The erosion produces a chamber and a collapsed headland forming the blowhole. Waves build up the pressure in the chamber until the seawater erupts through the blowhole. We saw some ‘geysers’, but the photos in the Visitors Centre showed just how tremendous these geysers can be with the right waves.

The large blowhole is right by the centre of Kiama, and busloads of tourists come to be amazed. You have to be patient and/or lucky to catch an especially large geyser.

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Lynn Shanghai Cuisine, Sydney, Australia

Having been exposed to Shanghai cuisine from restaurants along Dominion Road in Auckland, I was expecting the food at Lynn to be the standard fare – large serving of nondescript tasting food that seem somewhat uninteresting compared to the more commonly available Cantonese cuisine. Well, I was in for a surprise, and a treat.

Prior to heading over to Sydney, I was under orders to head out to Din Tai Fung to try out their famous xiao long bao. Din Tai Fung has been reviewed previously so there is very little for me to add other than that their xiao long bao makes the ones in Auckland (found in most Chinese yum cha restaurants) look like cheap imitation and do not reflect what a real proper xiao long bao should be. After my dining experience at Din Tai Fung (World Square branch – this place fills up by 6pm; it’s that popular), a Sydneysider friend told me about another Shanghai restaurant that makes comparable but cheaper xiao long bao. That restaurant is LYNN Shanghai Cuisine. So a date was set for a group dinner there. Continue reading

A new breed of food documentaries

I have been watching some great tv recently, which combined stories about food with social commentary. Food is truly an icebreaker into all cultures and communities, and the foods we eat are insights into our way of life and our belief systems. Here are three series which I am/have been following:

The absolute pinnacle of food storytelling must be Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown on the CNN Network. As with good stories, you never know what will happen moment by moment. The pace, script and filming are so well edited. I find myself chuckling when he reaches pits of despair in Sicily; salivate at the ridiculously elaborate French meal in a Canadian ice-fishing shack and watch in disbelief at the religious conflict in Jerusalem. No matter how tense the situation, Anthony Bourdain always manages to charm the locals and coax a great story and a meal out of them. Being with the CNN Network allows the programme to go to places not accessible to any other food or travel show; such as Libya and the Congo. Here is the episode where he hangs out with RenéRedzepi, of Noma fame, and the driving force behind getting Nordic food (and foraging) onto the world stage.

On the hunt for seafood in Kuching

Dinners out with family and friends in Kuching typically revolve around seafood. Kuching is famous for its seafood restaurants where fish, crustaceans and molluscs are displayed for your selection. On this trip, I was taken to two of the excellent but less well-known locations.

I was surprised when CH, her sister Monica and friend Jenny took me to a mall. Seafood restaurants in Kuching are typically open air or at least self-contained. But there is a seafood restaurant on the top floor of One Jaya Mall, this is a sister branch of a seafood restaurant at Top Spot, Jalan Bukit Mata.

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On the hunt for (hawker) food in Kuching

It is impossible not to be a glutton in Kuching. My wonderful friends and extended family want to treat me, and I am very amendable to be indulged. I quickly gave up trying to pace myself and just surrendered into the fuzzy, food-filled clouds of joy. Unfortunately (or luckily, says my future cardiologist), this time I only had 4 days to stuff myself silly. Let the marathon makan (eating) session begin!

Mornings typically begin with my beloved popiah and teh-C peng (as per previous trips). Both Choon Hui Café at Ban Hock Road and Yun Nan Gardens kopitiam near Song Thian Cheok Rd served up excellent popiahs. I scrutinized the popiah lady and it finally dawned on me how she managed to get the popiah so tightly wrapped; she wraps the filling in half, then starts rolling.

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Secret to eating like a local (& cheaply) at Changi Airport

Eating at an airport is never a cheap option, even in Asia, where our Kiwi dollar goes much further. I always thought you just have to suck it up and chalk it to one of the costs of travelling. So, I was intrigued Lil Bro told me “You can get excellent hawker food at local prices at Changi!” It turns out Mi and Di had also stumbled across it; they had followed an informed traveller, but could not remember where it was located.

Changi airport is a old friend, Singapore being my preferred transit city, and I thought I had familiarised myself with all its nooks and crannies across the 3 Terminals; the Butterfly Garden, iConnect, the snooze lounge chairs and even where the supermarkets are located. But I’ve missed out on the most important part.

By the miracle that is Google, the secret was readily revealed. The food courts in Terminal 1 and 2 are in fact the staff canteens that are also opened to the public. The one in Terminal 3 is apparently a more fancy shopping-mall-type food court. These are all in the public side of Changi, which means you will have to go through immigration into the public area. A very straightforward task if you don’t have much carry-on luggage; you’ll have to fill in a departure card to say you’re in Singapore for 1 day and get your passport stamped. Continue reading

Tasting Vietnam with Ms Vy in Hội An

Hội An is my favourite town in Vietnam. After the chaos and noise of Hanoi, the shuffle of tourist hoards at Halong Bay and the heartbreaking ruins at Hue, I was ready to be one of those tourists. You know the ones; they order cocktails by the pool and cast a customary glance at historical relics before indulging in shopping and restaurant hopping. Yes, the very tourist I claim to eschew.

I happily wore my mea culpa in glorious Hội An. The whole town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so technically you don’t even have to venture to see historical buildings. Historical Old Town also houses some of the best restaurants in Vietnam. I don’t know whether its history as a port, with Chinese and Japanese influences resulted in this happy situation, or just that as a small tourist town, competition begets quality. The worst thing about Hội An was that we only had two full days to cram in as much relaxation and the best eating of the trip.

Trinh Diem Vy is a culinary legend in Hội An. She opened Mermaid in 1994, the first ‘Western-style’ restaurant in Hội An to have an English menu and a range of authentic local dishes in a formal dining atmosphere. Success followed, and now the Vy umbrella covers 4 restaurants, a cooking school and a boutique hotel. Each new venture has elevated the standards of hospitality and cuisine. Continue reading

Madame Hien and Port d’Annam, Hanoi, Vietnam

The Al Brown of Hanoi is Chef Didier Corlou, who has spread his culinary empire to include 4 restaurants covering the cuisine spectrum from French, Vietnamese and fusion. During my time in Hanoi, I managed to make my way to two of them, Madame Hien (traditional Vietnamese food, named after Didier’s Vietnamese wife, Mai’s grandmother) and Port d’Annam (a slightly more casual counterpart to Madame Hien).

I felt somewhat guilty dragging Di all over Vietnam looking for eats, so as a compromise, I ensured that dear old dad got somewhere decent to rest his weary feet.

Madame Hien is housed in a beautiful old French colonial villa, recessed off the busy Chan Cam Street. It offers different dining options; casual courtside, semi-formal or private room. Following the French tradition, there are prix fixe menus for lunch. Madame Hien offers up several menus to choose from; a great value Hanoi Family lunch tray (VND$147,000+VAT = NZD$9.50), the traditional Madame Hien menu (VND$397,000+ = NZD$25.70), 36 Streets (named after the 36 streets which make up central Hanoi, VND$535,000+ = NZD34.60), and two fusion fine-dining set menus.

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Cà phê sữa đá (Iced milk coffee)

The first foodie revelation I had in Vietnam wasn’t food; it was a beverage. And it laid the groundwork for my meals for the rest of the trip.

Even though I am not a coffee connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, in the last year I’ve lucked my way into two coffee tasting sessions (Peoples Coffee and Gravity Coffee). Apart from learning how to brew coffee, different flavour notes (and I can barely detect them!), I also learnt a little about coffee growing regions. I was surprised that Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer, and has a massive domestic consumption. I finally figured out why.

Cà phê sữa đá is coffee with sweetened condensed milk (sữa) and ice (đá). The condensed milk is added to the base of the glass, to which filtered coffee is added to about half full and it is thinned out with ice, which melts quickly in the heat. Vietnamese coffee is filtered using equal amounts of hot water to powdered coffee resulting in a thick and strong brew. I found the coffee in Vietnam to be highly aromatic with no hint of bitterness. Just rich and flavoursome, and in no small part to the sweetened condensed milk which added a mellowness to the brew. A glass of cà phê sữa đá ranges from VND15,000 to VND25,000 (NZD$0.70 -1.50).

Cafe Pho Co, Hanoi

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KOTO, Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It was my first trip to Vietnam, and what a remarkable country it is. Vietnam is a country just tumbling into globalisation, and everyone seems to be clambering for a piece of the action, from Han, our amiable Intrepid Travel tour guide to the fruit sellers hawking their wares and the myriad of small shop owners on every street block. You cannot forget its harrowing past and what the country has had to overcome, but its people are so full of hope for a better future that it is difficult to not want to contribute in some way.

My journey to Vietnam was to savour the fresh flavours of its cuisine, and at KOTO, you can do that and assist a lauded charitable organisation.

KOTO, an acronym for ‘Know One, Teach One’ was started by a Vietnamese-Australian, Jimmy Pham, to equip street kids in Hanoi and Saigon with both vocational and life skills in a nurturing environment in order to break the poverty cycle. The students are trained at internationally recognised standards, and graduates are offered positions at 4-5 star hotels in Vietnam and overseas.

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