shiitake and stuff


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Khao soi

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I love eating food served in a bowl. There is something particular wholesome and complete about the concept. Asian food – especially street food – is often presented in a bowl. All of my favourites such as the Malaysian laksa, Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen and Taiwanese 牛肉麵 (beef noodle soup) all call the humble bowl their home.

I can now add northern Thailand’s khao soi to the list. Originating from Laos and Burma, khao soi has become a popular street food in northern Thailand. The picture above is from a particular stall I visited numerous times during my visit to Chiang Rai.

The soup is not unlike a thick red curry. Usually the northern Thai version contains chicken with egg noodles, chillies and shallots. The bowl is drizzled with coconut milk and topped with fried egg noodles. Usually khao soi is accompanied by onion and pickled cabbage, with the amount up to the gobbler.

It is remarkably addictive. The chicken has been slow-cooked to high heaven and the curry-like soup is comforting and warming, which is exactly what we need in 35 degree heat. Plenty of people don’t like the taste of raw onion but I found it a perfect accompaniment. The addition of fried egg noodles to dance with the its fresh egg noodle brother is the best of both worlds. If you had set the stopwatch on me, I probably wolfed down the bowl within two minutes.

I also tried a beef version of khao soi at the same stall, which is arguably better than the chicken. The beef was as tender as you would find in a French casserole.

Watch Farang featuring American chef Andy Ricker (of Pok Pok fame) where he talks about his love affair with khao soi and his version of the dish too.

Where can you find khao soi in Sydney?


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Malaysia

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The food in Malaysia far outstrips the cuisine of any other country I have visited so far. The dishes here are bold: both in presentation and taste. I am not even ashamed to admit I often had two dishes for lunch and dinner, just to maximise the types of food I could try.

It is a fascinating country. Influences from the large Indian, Chinese and Malay populations have made the place a dream for food tourists.

From the dishes Australians know and love such as roti canai, char kwey teow and of course the mighty laksa, there are many other types of Malaysian food which will blow your socks off.

Lor mee is a noodle soup with a thick, gravy-like soup which I gobbled to my heart’s content. Curry mee reminded me a lot of the laksa at home.

But it’s not all about noodles. I had an epic ayam goreng (fried chicken on rice pictured below) along the beach in George Town. The standard in Malaysia is ridiculous. If it is served at a street cart, there is a 99 per cent chance it is going to be good.

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Who can forget nasi goreng wrapped with banana leaf? An ensemble of coconut rice, dried fish and fiery sambal. It is the breakfast of Malaysian champions. And the legendary chicken satay.

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I am really glad I visited Malaysia. The people are friendly, the weather is hot and the food is incredible.


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A food epiphany

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I thought I would experience more “damn that is delicious” moments on my year-long sabbatical to Asia.

While the food here is excellent, these epiphanies are few and far between.

The bowl of phở above, which yours truly gobbled in Ho Chi Minh City however can be counted as one of these moments.

I arrived at the rather upmarket restaurant (by Vietnamese standards anyway) one afternoon, at a less than acceptable time in Vietnam where most of the country shuts down between noon and 2pm for a casual siesta. By upmarket I mean their were proper chairs and you could even sit inside.

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All of the lights were turned off and the owner’s son was slumped in his chair, lulled to sleep by a Tom & Jerry cartoon.

The owner himself was sitting directly in front of the fan, where the temperature inside the restaurant probably more than 40 degrees. He looked shocked when he saw Shan and I ask if we could order food.

Despite the long list of dishes on the menu, only two were available.

“Phở bò? Phở gà??”

Phở bò it was.

Now the phở in Saigon differs greatly from the bowls in the north towards Hanoi. Our friends in Hanoi swear by their phở and often talk as though the southerners only serve inferior noodle soups.

Basically, southern Vietnamese like to add more to their phở. Lime, bean sprouts, thai basil, hoisin and more, which results in a sweeter broth. This is the type of phở that is common in Sydney.

Anyway, back to Saigon. The owner shuffles around the kitchen, perhaps a bit dazed by our sudden arrival. He ambles over to a large fridge, which contains a beautiful piece of brisket.

I am shocked. In nearly three months while in Vietnam, we have never seen any sort of refrigeration in any street stall/restaurant.

I watch him work. A handful of noodles are dipped into boiling water and quickly taken out. Spring onion is finely chopped and brisket is carefully sliced. Broth is ladled from a pot with a capacity of at least 100 litres.

At this point I am sweating profusely. While Vietnam is hot, Saigon is a different beast. And here I was, waiting to eat a hot noodle soup for lunch. Go figure.

Our bowls of phở arrive and they look how they should. Noodles + broth + beef + herbs. Maybe it was the clean and simple taste of Hanoi phở that I was used to, but this unsuspecting dish in a standard neighbourhood eatery really blew my mind.

The noodles were perfect in all their bouncy glory. The brisket was meltingly tender and a wonderful balance of flesh and fat. And the broth was incredibly. Together, the combination made this bowl a triumph.

In Australia, we usually receive a plate of raw bean sprouts and coriander to add to our phở, but the owner gave me a plate of blanched bean sprouts, which is miles better in my opinion.

I could not stop to talk, or even think about anything else in the three minutes it took for me to finish.

In our short stay in Saigon, I went back to this place three times to eat phở. I wish I could eat it again and again and again.


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Attica, Melbourne

Grilled octopus, sour corn and spicy flowers

Grilled octopus, sour corn and spicy flowers

I’m often perplexed when people are not enthusiastic about food. Of course we need food to live, but it pains me to hear someone say, “it’s just food”. Yes we need to put something in our bellies for nourishment. Yes it is essential for our survival. So why not embrace the beauty of food in the many different forms it comes in?

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The Californian, Potts Point

Salt-roasted prawns with fennel, orange and pomegranate ($20)

Salt-roasted prawns with fennel, orange and pomegranate ($20)

A few years ago, going to eat at a pub meant a steak and chips, schnitty and chips, bangers and mash, etc etc etc.

The Drink’n’Dine group has really turned this philosophy on its head. The popularity of pubs such as The Carrington, The Norfolk, Santa Barbara, Abercrombie and Forresters is unrivalled in Sydney. And in the case of the Jamaican restaurant Queenies (probably my favourite restaurant in Sydney) inside the Forresters, the group has turned its sights to Madame Mofongo at the Carrington, which will follow a Guatemalan theme.

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momofuku seiōbo, Pyrmont

Pork buns ($15)

Pork buns ($15)

If you ever take a sick day on a Friday and feel like dropping some coin on food, make the pilgrimage across Pyrmont Bridge to momofuku seiōbo. Don’t have a booking? No worries. The three-hatted restaurant has five seats reserved for punters haven’t been lucky enough to book a seat in the main restaurant. And yes, you can get the pork buns. There are only seven items on the bar menu but it’s a great warm-up to the main event of a degustation at seiōbo. Hey, you can even throw some money at the roulette table at The Star.

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MoVida, Melbourne

Twice-cooked ox tongue with red pepper broth ($3.50)

Twice-cooked ox tongue with red pepper broth ($3.50)

When I went to Melbourne earlier this year, there was only one restaurant I wanted to visit. Although MoVida had already set up shop in Sydney, their flagship restaurant in Melbourne has been raved about for years.

To mix things up, I won’t be writing many words about MoVida, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Every dish we ordered tasted and looked magnificent. I loved the fact that you could order individual tapa and also bigger plates to share. That’s enough from me. Enjoy!

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