Sushi course at Sydney Cooking School


Once of my Christmas presents was a Red Balloon Day Experience for a cooking course at Sydney Cooking School; a great choice of present for a sushi lover like me. Finally having a weekend free after an extremely fun and busy January, on Sunday I went to Neutral Bay (North of the harbour) to learn some more about sushi and get better at making it.

In the lesson we learned:

  • Some of the history behind sushi
  • Visual demonstration of how to fillet a fish, how to present cucumber in interesting ways and how to make teriyaki
  • Practical demonstration making normal sushi rolls, inside-out rolls, hand-formed sushi (nigiri) and hand rolls

Since there are a huge number of intricacies associated with sushi, I won’t try and list them all, but here are a few interesting sushi facts (some of which I learnt yesterday):

  • In Japan a sushi chef will commonly spend a number of years merely washing rice (at least this was the case when the sushi master instructing us learned)
  • Pieces of sushi should be made such that they can be eaten in one mouthful (try telling that to chains like Itsu)
  • In sushi bars in Japan, the etiquette is to eat a piece of hand-formed sushi within three seconds of it having been placed in front of you by a chef
  • A single piece of hand-formed (nigiri) sushi with the most regarded piece of Toro (Bluefin tuna belly) can cost $100
  • Sushi was first developed in south east Asia and raw fish would be preserved by coating it in fermented rice. When eaten, the rice would be thrown away. The Japanese modernised and sophisticated the process into what is now recognised as Japanese cuisine
  • Hand rolls in the shape of a cone are an American invention, whereas hand rolls in Japan are similar, but are cylindrical, to maintain the correct balance of the ingredients along the roll

And importantly here’s some food porn:

Prawns, prawns, prawns & quality of life


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Provocative and insightful as he is, after a Skype conversation my friend Simon decided to highlight this amusing piece of commentary by Stuart Lee about the claims of expats to better quality of life and larger prawns. Bigger prawns, he eloquently suggests, do not necessarily denote higher quality of life. But it did prompt some thought on the comparison of London and Sydney from a cultural standpoint.

Some expats have cited a lack of culture in Australia, that has led them to depart for home, where stuff is older than a couple of hundred years and there’s more variety. Much of the reason for this could be that there is more of everything: more people and more cultural influences over a longer period of time. Thousands of years of cultural change, adaptation and influx, compared to a few hundred years. This gives way to a broader expanse of cultural variety and a Darwinian process by which it all becomes more vigourously specialised and perpetually changes.

The argument that the UK media environment is more sophisticated has merit, but is not totally defensible. There are number of reasons why no Australian news institutions have anywhere near the international readership that UK ones do. Because of how remote it is, there’s less focus on world events; some outlets do have a very provincial feel to them; and there’s less competition in the space partly because the country is sparsely populated. The fact that Australia is both younger and has a population approximately one third of the UK’s, is another major factor.

But recent (by the very historical standards I’m referring to) events in UK media – namely with News Corporation taking the beating it has deserved for decades – have hardly left it covered in glory. And the fact that tens of millions of people read the utter rubbish in the Daily Mail arguably reflects the same lack of sophistication that people identify in Australian media. At least columnists for other (equally scrutinised news organisations) are pointing this out on a fairly regular basis.

I certainly take Stuart Lee’s point about the insanity of exchanging intellectual standards in media for perceived quality of life (not to mention those lovely prawns). But the reason for going abroad is to explore and experience a different culture and live in it to get a genuine sense of how it operates, how it differs and ultimately, why home is home. Not to do so is to lay claim to an understanding of one’s environment that lacks an external perspective.

Breakfast in Bondi: the scores so far


I’ve always been a fan of a good breakfast on a Sunday; it’s certainly a Clark thing – we’ve always done it and I’ve become more than a bit particular about how my eggs are cooked. Probably because only rarely can you trust your breakfast to come out right in the UK. In Bondi however, most places have an interesting menu and turn out a great breakfast time after time. They also have some more interesting options than the classic (and awesome English breakfast)… here are some of my favourites so far:

  1. Black stone eggs (Brown Sugar)
  2. Feta scrambled eggs (Blue Orange)
  3. Eggs benedict (Blue Orange)
  4. Poached eggs with herb salad and lime juice(Blue Orange)
  5. Huevos rancheros (Cafe Bondi)
  6. Smoked salmon with seedy bread, rocket, beansprouts, creme fraiche & lemon (Gertrude & Alice)
  7. Morrocan baked beans and eggs (Brown Sugar)
  8. Pukunui (Katipo)

I don’t usually post reams of pictures – but in this case I feel compelled to punish you with food porn… Enjoy.

Black Stone Eggs from (Brown Sugar):

Poached eggs with chorizon and roasted capsicum from Bondi FM:

Dill salmon eggs from Brown Sugar:

Pukunui from Katipo:

Eggs bennedict from Blue Orange:

Feta scrambled eggs from Blue Orange:

Morrocan eggs from Brown Sugar:

Salmon, creme fraiche, rocket salad & seedy bread, from Gertrude & Alice:

Sydney: beach life and breakfast


A picture of life in Bondi

Having been in Sydney now for just over five months, I’ve had long enough to get into a routine and gain a sense of life in a new city. The most interesting revelations have been the breakfast culture and beach lifestyle.

After my travels in South East Asia, I was curious to see how the beach would fit into daily life; would I be visiting the beach every day and getting sunned before and after work? The reality of working PR is that work/life balance often comes second to the urgent deadlines that appear to crop up on an hourly basis. But for those pals back home wondering: it’s a weekend thing; I’m not hanging out on the beach all day every day!

Bondi beach - on a nice day, for those who missed it

As a few visitors have already noted, it’s not sunny all the time here; in fact it can be rather Scottish at times, with plenty of horizontal rain, but there have been loads of weekends spent on the beach already – even when it was still early spring! There seems to be a tragic trend of poor weather when people visit.

What’s become weekend ritual with my flatmate Louise, aka “Lomax”, is a weekly breakfast (or more usually brunch) at the nearly innumerable cafe/bars. In the past ten weeks, I’ve been to at least eight different cafes – all with their own personality and varying menus. More on those later.

The grass behind Bondi beach

I’ve also had the chance to meet Bill Granger, probably Australia’s most well known chef in the UK. Writing a profile article about him for an Australian ex-pat magazine, I was able to ask him about his new restaurant in London (in Westbourne Grove) through which he’s hoping to sell the culture of brunch to London’s Notting Hill types. Having lived near Bondi, in Bronte, he’s all too familiar with the local cafe scene and loves to take advantage when he’s home.

A thoroughly genuine bloke and emphatic Bondi export, he’s managed to generate success in Japan and Australia, so has the nouse he’d need to crack London. Having spent a lot of time in London, I reckon there’s a gap there for good brunch cafes and hope to give it a try when I’m back in Blighty.

Being in Sydney has allowed me to start exploring more of the east coast, which I’m making some progress on. I’ve taken a trip up to the Whitsundays, started exploring some of Sydney’s restaurants and visited the Hunter Valley wine region, which is just a couple of hours away by car. More to follow on those too.

Margaret River, Western Australia – Wine Tasting Tour


I always had this image that Australia had balmy weather all year round, but oddly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Neighbours lied to me. Home & Away lied to me. On my arrival in Perth I was greeted with showers and rain and most of all, cold temperatures. Their coldest for years, apparently. It’s currently been raining in Sydney for about three days nearly solidly. I had to buy a jumpers and everything.

And is is why English ex-pats are referred to as Whinging Poms.

Anyway. In between the rain has been some shine and also, more to the point plenty of wine. Starting in Perth and joined by my nefarious drinking buddy Richard, we decided to take a road trip to the Margaret River wine region to take a wine tour and see the surrounding area.

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The tour started quite informatively and inevitably ended up as a lash up well into the night after the official tour ended. Some things I did learn and commit to paper were:
- Because wines from Margaret River are regarded as finer, the region takes a disproportionately high share of Australia’s wine revenue, producing 4% of the volume and taking 20% of the revenue.
- The vines in the region only date back to 1967 when a doctor named Tom Cullity decided to try making wine. Quickly (by wine growing standards) it gained international recognition and in 2008 there were 138 wineries (Wikipedia)
- Australia’s wine export market has become of notable national importance in a relatively short time; it’s grew from $40m in 2002, to $3bn in 2007
- The main grape varieties grown in the region are cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, merlot, chenin blanc and verdelho. (Wikipedia)

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As part of the Bushtucker Tours outing we had a great (and much-needed) lunch of smoked kangaroo & turkey, beef and salad. Other than the Aussie meat, there was a distinct Mediterranean mezze feel to the food, which in the sunny – albeit cool – weather and pretty surroundings at Knotting Hill was great.

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As well as Knotting Hill, the tour took us to the Hay Shed Hill, Tasselled Park and Grove wineries, a cheese factory and a chocolatier. The Grove had a number of sweet aperitifs including white port, limoncelo and raspberry/white chocolate and macadamia liqueurs. these were made into some great layered cocktail combinations like lemon cheesecake.

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Sadly due to Australia’s silly responsible serving of alcohol laws, these had to be mixed before they served them to us.

All in all, it was a great day out and I’d recommend the Bushtucker Tours experience. I’ll be doing some more wine tours in the not-too-distant future, nearer Sydney, which along with (hopefully) some better weather offers a big ray of sunshine :-)

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Cracking On With A Bit Of Cambodian Crabanus


Cambodia will now always be synonymous with crab for me, having gorged on it during my stay there. Starting in Siem Reap (so named as to remind us that Siam [Thailand] destroyed the ancient Angkor city there) I had dinner with a couple of Kiwi chaps who I met on the flight from Vientiane. We found a local seafood place which – amazingly – was only just off the beaten path, but had no other tourists in.

We got stuck into some crab, steamed fish and grilled prawns. As former coastal-dwelling divers and massive seafood fans, they didn’t leave any prisoners, my favourite quote of the night being – after being encouraged to suck the crab shell dry – was “get into it mate, there’s nothin’ wrong with a bit of crabanus, Robbo!” (this is inexplicably hilarious in a kiwi accent) We pretty much ate our bodyweight in fish and looked a bit like this…

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I also spent a few days cycling around the Wats (temples) and saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat with my Scottish pal Lynsey as well as getting involved with yet another cooking course, amusingly named “cooks in tuk tuks”. Amusingly, because “tuk tuk?” is the perpetual question asked by lines of charming Cambodian guys along the streets, everywhere you go.

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The cooking course taught us few new things, including how to make Amork – the traditional Cambodian curry soup – banana leaf salad and a simple Hibiscus tea. Amork is made with a fairly gentle masssuman-like curry paste and a loose water/coconut milk mix, so it’s a bit soupy.

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After a few nights in Siem Reap I headed down to Phnom Penh where at the central market they have excellent seafood, including prawns the size of lobsters, which I went to town on over lunch!

It was very sobering to visit the S21 detention centre – one of the epicentres of the Khymer Rouge regime’s genocide. The trial of some of Pol Pot’s senior staff is currently underway [http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/jun/27/truth-khmer-rouge-court-case] over 30 years on, so in light of having very recently learned about the disgusting torture inflicted on so many people, it’s fascinating and saddening to see this piece of history being addressed and its perpetrators put to justice.

During the Phnom Penh stage, there was time for a trip down to Kep (on the coast) which seems to be a holidaying spot for Cambodians with means and it’s famous for its pepper crab. This allowed for a few days just chilling, dipping in the pool and quaffing seafood, which was a very relaxing way to end the SE Asia portion of my adventure. It’s a lovely area, but there are still a lot of deserted buildings from the genocide era which is a tad spooky.

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Finally before I left Cambodia for Aussieland, there was time to drop back into Phnom Penh and had a great meal at ‘Friends’, a Friends International [link] project that helps people off the streets and into the hospitality sector. The food and service were amazing and it was a great way to see out the end of my SE Asia and Cambodian adventures.

Next stop, Perth and South West Australia’s Margaret River wine region :-)

Laos – Plenty of Dining with Rice


After crossing the Thai border with Laos at Chiang Kong, me and my pal Charlie stopped in Huay Xai and got stuck into some traditional Lao cuisine in the form of Lap Kai. This is a meat salad which is cut with beans, chilli, lemongrass, galangal, coriander, lime and suchlike. After this brief stop we got the slow boat down the river to Luang Prabang, meeting some lovely folk along the way.

Typically, I heard equally conflicting arguments and rumour about the boat ride before going on the two-day cruise. Some reported dire conditions and others enthused about the beauty and camaraderie of the confined conditions. I personally found I great and was very happy looking at the beautiful Mekong views in between playing poker, scrabble, chess and various other card games for hours with new friends.

In Luang Prabang I got stuck into another cookery school, which if anything, was better than the first in Chiang Mai. The chef at Tum Tum Chong cookery school, Chandra Vongsalavanh, is a bit of an all-round legend and has plied his trade in busy hotels and restaurants in the West including Germany, Hungary and New York. As well as learning five traditional dishes, we did five or more of his own recipes – a lot to fit into just 4-5 hours, since we also did the obligatory market tour and education price about the ingredients. In the cookery school at Chiang Mai, we all cooked our own dishes, but here we got involved less occasionally, which actually turned out better, as it was easier to pick up the recipes and techniques.

Aubergine salad parcels recipe:

Although I was keen to learn the traditional dishes, my favourite dish of the day was one of his; an aubergine salad which we ate in parcels. I (conveniently enough) was the volunteer who helped cook this one. After warming some chopped garlic and ginger in hot vegetable oil, I added some aubergine pulp gained from steaming some large aubergines. This was stir friend until the spices were incorporated. This was left to cool and we then made parcels in some simple green leaves and blanched cabbage leaves.

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In these leaves we put a small spoon of the aubergine and a small slice or two of crispy (small) aubergine, along with a pinch each of chopped lemongrass, galangal, garlic, chilli, ginger and shallots. This tasted absolutely amazing and would be great as a sharing salad for a summer dinner starter with friends.

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Interesting sticky rice facts:
- It was also interesting to learn that sticky rice is not only culturally preferred in Laos, but it has broader significance in terms of having a role in wedding traditions. It’s eaten with every meal and also used in wedding ceremonies to underscore the values of equality and everyday diligence.
- Quite often in Laos you’ll be served cold rice with your meal because it’s usually prepared once – in the morning and then used throughout the day. If any is leftover, it is used to make rice crackers.
- [For the uninitiated] With sticky rice, you use your hands to eat it but rolling it into a ball, flattening it and using it to scoop food.
- The powder of cooked and dried sticky rice is used as a thickening agent in many dishes
- Sticky rice is more agriculturally intensive, as it is grown for four months instead of one-to-two with normal rice.
- When you cook sticky rice, it starts very white-coloured and becomes translucent when cooked; the opposite is true of long grain rice.

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Cooking Chiang Mai & Thai Food Facts


I’ve cooked a lot of Thai curries before, including making pastes, but was keen to learn more, get some ideas and of course, spend a day cooking. Something which one doesn’t get to do a hell of a lot while on the road.

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The course I chose was one outside of Chiang Mai, on a small farm where they grow some of the ingredients you use in the recipes. After visiting a local market to learn about some of the main ingredients such as pastes and rice and the staple flavourings in Thai food (fish sauce et al) we were shown around the garden to see things like lemongrass, kaffir lime plants, chilli plants, basils and papaya growing.

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We then got stuck into making a curry paste (I made green) and talked through the curry recipes, which we all did with no problems. I then made papaya salad, tom yam soup, pad Thai and banana in coconut milk. The course was made all the better by out highly enthusiastic chef. Joking and laughing the whole way through, everyone thought he made it a lot of fun.

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Few things I learnt:
- orange chills are the hottest. Green ones are more bitter and the seeds aren’t fully grown and the flavour hasn’t developed, while red chills are less hot because they have sweeter flesh and the flavour has started to mellow.
- you can replace green papaya with carrot as it has the most similarities, texture and flavour wise
- of the chilli pastes, green is the hottest as it is freshest; red is milder as dried chillies are used; yellow is made with turmeric. Massuman has bay and clove in, which gives it the more mellow rounded flavour, while Penang paste has peanuts in.
- using coconut milk, one should use 60% cream with 40% water for curry; 50% cream for soup; and 100% for desserts
- fresh green coconuts are where we get coconut juice, but coconut cream is made from pressing the pulp of brown (older) coconuts
- there are two types of rice: sticky rice and everything else! Sticky rice starts off very white (is dryer and more starchy) and becomes translucent when cooked; jasmine & other long grain rices starts more translucent (not dry; contains more sugars) and is white when cooked. Also, when you think about it, if you ask for steamed rice, you get long grain, which is boiled in water, whereas sticky rice is actually steamed. Brown rice is a variety of long grain and simply has more fibre, so takes longer to cook.

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Chiang Mai – & The Cool Curve of Coffee Bars


The Gulf Islands seem to represent Thailand’s mainstream/gap yah partyville and short holiday culture and Bangkok the loud smelly, vivid sensory big city experience. Meanwhile, Chiang Mai carries the alternative or younger cultural scene. I’m not pretending it isn’t geared for tourism; there are tourist markets and innumerable travel agents make sport out of selling a ‘same same’ set of excursions (I’m a particular fan of the ‘non touristy’ bullshit in the picture below) typically including trekking, cooking, zip lining, ATV and mountain biking. But Chiang Mai also seems to have this underlying young alternative personality.

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From the (admittedly very limited) two weeks I’ve hung around here, it seems down to the lesser presence of a music scene and cafe culture. There are fewer late tourist-only bars with drunk people falling out and not so many international retail/food chains. There are lots of great coffee bars and cafes and you aren’t hassled past the point of “no thanks” by tuk tuk drivers. Unlike in Bangkok, where they’ll chase you down the street and take umbrage if you ignore or dismiss them.

There’s, some good live music in many of the bars. People seem happier, younger and there is a strong university presence. Again, it’s subjective and partly based on my having landed in a great chilled out hostel with a great cafe next door. Now here’s a cafe with personality that I’d love to have near where I live. It’s called Birds Nest and is charmingly decked out.

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It’s themed like a bird cage (bear with me), with a hand-painted tree on the wall, painted and model birds and associated paraphernalia (like the eggcup) around. It plays varied background jazz music, as the owner also owns a local jazz club and it’s got nicely miss-matching wooden furniture. There’s an impressive array of modern classic and reference books (from Bryson to Bennett, Tolstoy and travel guides). There are also board games like chess, go, draughts, scrabble and brain teasers like rubix cubes.

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And I’m not only bigging it up because it did one of my favourite things which was to serve me perfect soft boiled eggs. The majority of its food is freshly cooked and cheep (like the budgie). For example, you get a great breakfast of fresh fruit, yoghurt and muesli (which would tend to see me through to dinner); green, red, massuman and Penang curries; hot sandwiches with fresh bread and even homemade pita bread and hummus.

Its the kind of place you meet very interesting people. For instance, I met a local guy named Pisit, known as Peter, who was jamming on the guitar and killing time before a job interview. We had a chat about music and we talked about out favourite current bands (he also works as a DJ) and he is launching an online music radio station. It’s launches today, so have a look: http://www.marchroom.com/.

Back home, I think too many cool places like this fall foul of the a dangerous curve. People seek reliability, so the economics of what I call ‘the cool curve’ destroy fun of places like this. A place becomes well known and usually prices rise, the brand is used to open a chain or group and standardisation takes over. The more people go there, the less cool it gets and the more standardisation happens. The less cool and charming it is. The chain then trades off a standard quality or reliability brand and the magic is gone. The cycle is to an extent, inevitable, but some cities manage to cultivate a culture where more of these great little boutique places pop up.

That’s the kind of city I’d like to live in.

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Ko Tao, Ko Phanang and an Outstanding Italian


Culturally speaking, our trip to the islands was very western with the exception of there being some Thai people there and the odd green curry. A lot of time was spent on the beach, in bars and numerous buckets of drink were consumed. As usual (aside from the sparkling company) for me, the highlight was the food. Little of which was traditionally Thai. The seafood was largely flavoured with familiar flavourings or grilled plain, but was to be fair, cooked very nicely. The standout highlight was a pizza joint on our last night in Koh Phanang, which rescued me from utter desperation.

First, on Ko Tao a lovely piece of Barracuda, which was steamed on a grill with some vegetables and served with a refreshing spicy sauce and rice. I ignored the salad, since they slap loads of this horrible dressing all over everything.
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Banana Lassi – my new favourite drink. Closely tied with coconut lassi. Essentially a ‘shake but with yoghurt.
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A seafood feast, which I shared with Karl. The king prawns were amazing – perfectly soft and as fresh as if they’d just been caught moments ago. Tuna was a bit overdone for my liking and the crab, prawns and squid were all great too. It was all grilled plain, so again it was chilli lime sauce on everything. Simple and tasty.
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Now who’d have thought there would be an amazing Italian place in a side street in the lash capital of Thailand? Most likely, the majority of people that eat in this place have no idea how good they’re getting it and are merely looking to layer some booze on top of a pizza. We went there on a recommendation and it was not all that easy to find. Brent and The Destroyer had pizzas and just because the Italian owner suggested it, I went for the fresh homemade pasta – with salmon. For starter we shared bruschetta with gorgonzola and prosciutto and we were all delighted in surprise at how good the bread was (obviously made same day). Accordingly, we were all blown away by the main courses.

I’m not going to go into a rant about how amazing it all was. Italian cooking is simple stuff done very well through practice and experience. This was that. And timely, having long since bored of the daily rush to get drunk in Ko Phanang. I’m on a mission to find out the name of the place. And go to Rome :-)

Salmon Pasta
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Diavola pizza
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Sautéed potato and pesto pizza
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