Tuesday, August 25, 2009


You might have noticed I like to eat. There have been a few twists and turns in finding the foods that make my body feel good. Meat and dairy headed the list of childhood favourites. In equal measures, there were the frequent trips to the doctor, blood tests, throat swabs and antibiotics. I’d top the class each year for the record number of sick days.

From babyhood til my early 20’s I ate my fill of fillet steak. I sucked the caramelised fat off the juicy lamb chop bones. Melted cheese on toast was my favourite snack, even better sprinkled with diced bacon. I would have lived on chocolate ice cream if my parents had let me.

Vegetables were a means to an end. I selected a narrow few staples and refused all others. If there was a 2:1 ratio of baked potatoes to boiled vegetables I could almost swallow them down. Fish was crumbed and fried in lard with a side of home made chips on the side.

My later omnivorous years saw me sample snails and frogs legs, develop a fondness for quail and consume the breasts of battery chooks at an alarming rate. The year before I turned my back on meat my favourite thing was homemade hamburgers, the best quality mince, lots of onion, garlic and crispy bacon, topped with a thick slice of cheddar grilled on the bun.

Do I miss it? Not really. I enjoy the lack of “tummy bugs” and never ending colds. Though I eat a much wider variety of foods now, I can feel a little short changed at restaurants. Too often my selection is between one fish dish and a vegetarian option, the later eliminated due to being riddled with dairy products. I hungrily peruse a big fat menu and feel bereft of choice.

Asian eateries tend to offer a vast array of mysterious dishes. While fish and vegetables are common ingredients, so too are meats like pork and chicken mixed in with the so called “vegetarian” delights. While avoiding dairy can be relatively easy, the addition of MSG becomes a harder bullet to dodge. It’s all swings and roundabouts.

I have fond memories of visiting Victoria Street (Richmond) in my earlier years in this city. Eating cheap Vietnamese food with friends, leaving cramped, noisy restaurants on hot summers nights, the air humid and peppered with foreign voices. But the safe options I chose so often tasted predominantly salty and unexciting, I’d crave the company and the atmosphere but not the food.

A few weeks ago, armed with a great review from The Age I decided to give Vietnamese food another go. After the vegetarian soup that made my heart sing I knew I wanted to try more dishes from this busy, new kid on the “Little Saigon” block. As we paid a pittance for the feast we’d eaten the manager (like most restaurants on the strip this is a family business, his mother is the cook) talked about the authenticity of the food and offered to let us put ourselves in his hands next time.

I felt so safe there, they don’t add MSG (there’s the risk of pre-made sauces being adulterated but this is food cooked by a woman whose family can’t tolerate the stuff either) and that “vegetarian” means no chicken stock or just a little bit of pork. I couldn’t wait to go back and share the experience with friends.

This weekend I booked a table, knowing the place would be full at lunchtime and half a dozen of us placed our hands in the lovely manager’s hands to be served a seafood and vegetarian experience. My request were that there be only one meat dish (I toss the odd bone to the carnivores) and I had to have the little “rice pancakes” again that I fell in love with on my first visit.

I can’t do justice to describing the meal we ate, other than saying there was some significant envy going on amongst the few Western diners sitting at nearby tables. The “pancakes” (a crispy seafood filled shell served with sweet chilli sauce and coconut cream) were as good as the previous visit, there was also a larger version of the shell filled with bean shoots and prawns, some (non-traditional but yummy) steamed prawn dumplings, an Asian coleslaw with an unknown green vegetable fit for a king that I could have munched on all day, eggplant stuffed with seafood, a rich soy based fish dish counterbalanced by a slowly steamed fish and vegetable soup made at the table. Finishing with a bowl of cleansing soup was a perfect way to restore us after a delicious few hours of eating. The Significant Eater commented the peppered beef dish was the least interesting, so I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything.

We ate like Kings and Queens for under $28/head (we bought our own champagne, with minimum corkage charged). Though the place was busy, the meal was well paced so we could leisurely savour each course, spending almost 3 hours to enjoy the food and the company. It's hard to find better value than that.

So now the reveal! What is the name of this place? If you promise to be adventurous and let this gorgeous man order for you then I’ll tell you. There is so much more to Vietnamese food than rice paper rolls.

Thanh Nga Nine
160 Victoria St, Richmond, Melbourne

(Image courtesy of Lucy@Nourish Me)
Fighting over the last of the rice pancakes!

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

random supermarket pic

I don't like supermarkets. The artificial lighting, being corralled like cattle though the aisles and being manipulated into impulse buying is not my idea of fun. So it was unusual that I initiated a visit to a foreign interloper that opened a while ago in Brunswick.

We didn't buy anything, just went to gawk at the strange brands. I'd have gone the frozen smoked cod or the hoki from NZ if the check out queues hadn't been so long. The fish would have defrosted by the time we'd got home.

However, this anonymous shopper at Aldi made me smile.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The organic conundrum

Warning: a long, possibly biased rant with no pictures or recipes.

I trundle up the organic aisle not sure what I will find. I watch the seasons come and go by the availability and price of the produce. Cavolo nero, our new best friend has been looking a little weather-worn in recent weeks while the chard has stood proud and glossy. An easy segue from one leafy green to another, unique in flavour but close enough to substitute. This week my friend has picked up her frilly skirt and run, perhaps we won’t see cavolo nero til next winter.

I can live with that. Sure I get a little toey at this time of year when the Australian grown, organic garlic is hard to find and pricey when you do but I’m getting better at planning ahead for that seasonal eventuality.

This week’s market haul featured no new stars but a greater variety of affordable basics – broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, new season potatoes and leafy greens. Not quite a cornucopia but ten different types of vegetables plus an expensive local bulb of garlic and some fresh turmeric. Enough veg for two massive consumers to eat their way through over a week at a cost of $40. We’d easily get 5, often 7 plus, serves of vegetables a day. Sadly the Significant Eater consumes fruit at too higher rate for us to be completely organic at this time of year.

Australian Food News yesterday reported that an average basket of organic groceries costs 70% more than its conventional counterpart. This includes things I don’t eat such as meat and dairy (the former having the highest price difference and the latter being at the lower end) or buy (like biscuits, baked beans and sugar). Taking all this into account, the premium for organic fruit and vegetables alone, according to the report, is still a hefty 60%.

Before we plunge headlong into the latest organic debate regarding nutritional value. I’d suggest that any canny shopper doesn’t do the “standard basket” approach. We buy what is in season at a reasonable price, allowing for the odd weakness (garlic or fair trade organic chocolate). We make choices over what tastes better (organic strawberries) and what we don’t mind compromising on (Coff’s Harbour conventional but naturally ripened bananas and passionfruit). Heading off to shop with a flexible grocery list and to somewhere like Vic Market where there is some healthy competition, rather than an organic superstore (like Macro when it existed), certainly reduces the organic premium. Sometimes a particular organic fruit or vegetable is cheaper than the conventional but overall with savvy shopping I’d estimate it’s less than 30%.

So is it worth it, this sizable mark up at the cash register? Last month a British report stating that ”Organic has no health benefit” hit the headlines. While the independent study commissioned by the Food Standards Agency crunched the data and could not find any strong evidence to support the nutritional benefits of eating organic produce, there are some inherent flaws. The biggest problem is study size. The bigger the study the more it costs to fund. Oil companies, the manufacturers of conventional agricultural chemicals, have the money to potentially fund big research projects that can select limited nutritional criteria when comparing organic and non-organic produce. The organics industry however, cannot. Study size determines whether it can be included in the meta-analysis. The many smaller studies that overwhelming proved case for the nutritional benefits of eating organically were excluded.

But ignoring my paranoid ravings for a minute, The Organic Center has gone over the original report with a fine tooth comb and their analysis of the flaws in the FSA study make illuminating reading. Before you swallow the version the media has served up for you, read a little more deeply and make up your own mind.

Ironically, on the BBC news page that I linked above I noticed today’s top health story is “Primary liver cancers 'soaring'”. No link with eating conventional produce? Well, that hypothesis hasn’t been tested yet.

Buying organic produce is a luxury and it is about personal choice. But making an informed decision remains a vexed issue.

A few links to studies demonstrating the nutritional benefits of organics

Biological Farmers of Australia (I heard the fabulous BFA nutritionist, Shane Heaton, speak at the Organic Expo)

Organic Trade Association (USA)

The issues around the potential health risks of pesticides and herbicides touched on in the Food and cancer report included a suggestion that “a precautionary approach is wise for women of reproductive age”.

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Monday, August 10, 2009


Like our wayward cat, I’ve been absent without leave lately.

It has been a strange few weeks. While not blogging my fingers have still clocked up a record amount of keystrokes writing content for a website I've launched for my other life. The toil and RSI has been worth it but I have needed a break from the keyboard to recover.

Just when I thought I was getting my mojo back one of our cats went missing. I know felines tend to wander, one of my childhood kitties went away for months yet returned in good shape. But this particular creature is a 14 yo Siamese who until last month had never left the house or the garden before. 24 hours later she turned up, loud and hungry and now won’t leave my side. We are both a bit tired as a result of the middle of the night reunion.

But this is a trivial matter compared to events in my home town with the wonderful Maranui SLC and café burning down and worse, my friend The Editter’s recent cancer diagnosis (she’s reinstated her blog and is happy for you to pop by and cheer her on).

So what about the food?

I’ve been keeping it simple:

At least once a week am having a “detox” meal featuring seasonal steamed vegetables.

Whipped up some arepas on the weekend to eat with a bowl of chilli beans.

Making dry-style curries with fresh turmeric and ginger plus roasted and ground spices. How easy is it to toss some cumin, coriander seeds and chilli in a pan and pound them once toasted? Fry off some onion, garlic, ginger and turmeric with the other spices, toss in diced potato, add water as required to keep it moist, then cauliflower and any other vegetables that tempt you. Top up with water as needed, add salt til the flavours come together, toss through a generous handful of coriander leaves before serving and there you have it, a basic curry packed with flavour.

Made a variation on The Moosewood Cookbook’s satay sauce* – though I substituted peanut butter with cashew butter, used some lovely palm sugar for sweetness and (no doubt to Molly Katzen’s horror) added fish sauce for salt. Delish!

Out in the world, hit Victoria Street and had a REAL vegetarian soup at a Vietnamese restaurant. The stock was authentically vegetable-based, not chicken in disguise. To carnivores this may sound like a trivial matter but with the world of pho and all the other fragrant, spicy Asian soups closed to those who eschew meat – it was an exciting find. There were other highlights on the menu but I need a few return visits before I can do the place justice in a review. (I did however fire off a red-hot email to my favourite local vegetarian duo to share the find).

Here’s to a calmer month!

* The Moosewood was one of the first vegetarian cookbooks I ever owned. I get nostalgic whenever I open the pages. The peanut sauce was my all time favourite and I remember making it for a dinner party I went to hosted by a work colleague. I was the youngest by far and everyone seemed so glamorous and politically correct. Whilst dipping artful bundles of carrot sticks into the sauce there was a heated discussion about phone tapping - it seemed we all were convinced that the NZ secret squirrels were interested in our personal calls. In reality, they likely were. I know for a fact my housemates at the time had ASIO files. I can't make satay sauce these days without it feeling like a subversive act!

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