Thursday, August 1, 2013

Taste of Sydney: How to run a food festival

Food festivals are always a big draw for me; and I dare say this is true for most other foodies as well. Apart from being a good reason to get out into the glorious sun with friends, such events provide an excellent platform for connoisseurs and industry insiders alike to interact and share ideas.

Taste of Sydney is Sydney's premier food and restaurant festival (okay, there's another one, The Crave Sydney International Food Festival, usually held in October). And of course I was there at the beautiful Centennial Park (just ten minutes from my place!) to savour every bit of it. As with the past three years' events, the 2012 festival did not disappoint. In fact, it has gone from strength to strength and this seems to be the most smashing one so far. The key to their success was simply letting the food do the talking. True to its name, it allowed visitors to taste what the city has to offer, a bit like a blown-up (and stand up) version of a massive degustation menu. Big on flavours, tapas-sized, easy on the wallet, maximum pleasure.

Gorgeous day, on equally gorgeous grounds!

In terms of planning, promotion and execution, it was largely a success (apart from the first-day cancelation due to bad weather, which is beyond anyone's control, really). It's certainly as enjoyable as Crave; as well as Singapore's premier food event, the World Gourmet Summit, both of which I've visited and noticed the application of the said food-and-taste-is-paramount formula. It should also serve as a bit of a reminder to Hong Kong, in my opinion, as to how to run a food festival. Yes, I am still reeling in horror at how last October's Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival was handled. Being one of top culinary destinations in the world, it's almost unbelievable that Hong Kong does not have a decent food event, or "restaurant week", as it is popularly done worldwide. Marred by subpar marketing strategies over the years, it's more of a overpriced wine sales event masquerading as a food festival celebrating local cuisine. And as though the "expensive wines" element did not give away the true intentions of pandering to Chinese Mainlanders' tastes, the organisers had to underline this by bringing them in to the event literally by the busloads. The West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade was not a fun place to be that weekend. Okay, I digress...

Back to Taste of Sydney. The four-day event brought together over 20,000 visitors, more than 100 premium food and drink producers and 17 of Sydney's top restaurants-- including my favourites: Four In Hand, Longrain, The Montpellier Public House (formerly Restaurant Balzac) and Otto Ristorante. A brand new feature introduced this year was the Sustainable Pop-up Restaurant, where a different sustainable restaurant would take the stage and showcase their dishes on each of the days.

Hordes of hungry diners...

...including hoofed ones! 
I was lucky to catch Agape Organic Restaurant & Bar (that day's Sustainable Pop-up Restaurant) in action and boy, did Chef Simon Lawson and his team deliver! They roasted beautiful Rosnay figs that were generously stuffed with Quark, Pecorino & Mozzarella, Apple Balsamic, Popped Quinoa & Basil for starters. It was easily my favourite vegetarian dish of the entire festival, not least because the figs (in season now!) were sweet and juicy. I also happen to have a weakness for quinoa (among other grains and seeds) and underrated cheeses such as quark. It's a soft and unaged cheese that is similar to cottage cheese, except it isn't made with rennet. I really wish to see it more often on menus. 

Agape Organic Restaurant & Bar's roasted Rosnay figs. 

Agape continued to fly the organic and sustainable flag high and proud by grilling an amazing Gundooee Wagyu Sirloin, with braised brisket, honey roasted carrots, royal black quinoa & truffle butter. Lady luck must've been shining on me as this iconic dish was very limited in stock and I got the LAST one! While the Wagyu sirloin was expectedly good, the true winners were the honey roasted carrots, and the innovative quinoa & truffle butter. They did well for their pork dish too-- a nicely roasted fillet of Berkshire pork with polenta, apple, sage, and salsa verde. Classic combination that was executed well.

Wagyu sirloin, done right, topped with quinoa & truffle butter.

Quite possibly the Rolls-Royce of pork: Berkshire pork scotch fillet, with apple, sage, polenta, rosemary and salsa verde.

Other memorable dishes include...

Otto Ristorante's Barbarossa Ravioli-- Ravioli of sliced pickled beetroot with goat's curd, pistaschio & horseradish. Beautifully done; the flavours were clean and very, very addictive. These are the sort of vego dishes that I love.

Four In Hand's Roast suckling pig getting a nice tan... It was served with a splendid coleslaw, hot sauce and good old onion rings. Again, the simple stuff done right.
I love Colin Fassnidge's (Four In Hand) cooking. Like me, he's an avid nose-to-tail-eating evangelist. His Licorice braised Beef Brisket with Carrot & Sherry puree was absolutely delightful.

Braised shoulder of Lamb with Polenta and Salsa Verde. Unctuous, rich and unapologetically gamey. Every mouthful was sheer joy for lamb lovers like me. The Montpellier Public House ROCKS.

Smooth and luscious: Pepe Saya Buttermilk and Vanilla Panna Cotta with poached fruits by the Montpellier Public House.

A prawn salad by Agape Organic Restaurant & Bar. Flawless.
Heavenly: Chocolate & Spelt Brownie, almond praline, vanilla cream & chocolate sauce. Matched with Nespresso Volluto Grand Cru. 

Though largely touted as a restaurant festival, there were loads of other food activities that kept everyone happy. Cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, beer and wine booths... There's something for everyone. My faves were...

The De Dietrich Demo Kitchen, which featured three French chefs doing live cooking demos, proved really popular!
Hailing from New Zealand was Glasseye Creek BBQ "Wild meat" sauce. At $10, it was a steal.

Located three hours north of Melbourne is King Valley, where the Pizzini's vineyards produce one of the region's finest wines. I particularly love their Brachetto, which I never fail to buy every year at Taste. The Brachetto is a lightly sparkling pink moscato-style, that is pale pink in the glass and has a wealth of floral aromas, as well as freshly-sliced strawberry and apple blossom. They produce a very decent Nebbiolo, too.

Sweden's REKORDERLIG ciders have always been a favourite! I love you!

My 2nd Rekorderlig cider of the day deserves a photo... does my 5th!

Though I said it was a smashing success, I didn't say it was perfect. What continues to irk me at such events over the years (and this isn't unique to Taste of Sydney) is how wasteful they can be, with all the disposable cutlery and plates. Very few recycle bins were seen and there was no concerted effort to keep waste to a minimum. This made the Sustainable Pop-up Restaurant element into a bit of a sad joke, really. Not cool. And just as there were winners, there were those who weren't quite making the cut...

Zumbo decided that a macaron should mate with a choux pastry and bear a monstrosity of a child named ChouxMaca. He has clearly hit a creative wall.
Dreadful wines (with an awful name to match!) like this one made an appearance.

Attracting over 45,000 food and drink lovers nationally, Taste is undoubtedly one of the world's most respected dining experiences. It is part of a successful global string of festivals across 12 cities: Taste of Melbourne is a huge hit with foodies in Victoria; Taste of London is also massive, attracting Michelin-starred restaurants to set up booths at the gorgeous Regent's Park and showcasing their gastronomic delights. Other host cities include Amsterdam, Dubai, Milan. Check out the organisers' (Brand Events) website to look for a Taste festival in a city near you!

Not too surprisingly, I'm hoping the Taste brand would expand into Hong Kong, simply coz they actually know how to run a food festival with some finesse. What do you think? Were you at Taste of Sydney? How did it compare with other food festivals you've been to? Do tell!

Ending with another food poem!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Sojourn in Siam

Apologies for the dreadful attempt at alliteration there in the title, but I couldn't help but choose the historical name of Thailand as it has always given me that feeling of warm and almost epiphanic lustre when thinking of the kingdom. And who could blame me? I absolutely adore Thailand. I am rather lucky to have been there on numerous occasions since I was a kid, so it's safe to say I am more than used to the famous hospitality, cuisine, and culture of the Thais. It is also because of my early exposure to the land of smiles (and sanuk, or fun), I suspect, that I somehow do not see Thailand (or more like Bangkok in particular) as sort of a seedy destination, as so many others do. Instead, beyond the diesel fumes and neon lights of Patpong, it is the country's exciting dining scene, natural beauty and historical riches that keeps me going back for more.

Sukhumvit lights up!

Indeed I once again found myself back in Bangkok last month. Though it was a short trip, I pretty much covered everything, food-wise. I cannot stress enough that the dining scene in Bangkok is one of the most exciting in all of Asia. The thing I missed most about Bangkok was the street food. From Pad Thai, to Pad See Ew; Sai Oua to Som Tam, they make the infamous screaming traffic all worthwhile. In between four meals a day, I also ate my weight in roasted pork belly and fried chicken (with extra fried skin for a mere 10 bahts!-- who could resist?!) from the ubiquitous roadside stalls because, frankly, no one does it better at those prices. The entire in-your-face vibe of the city made it all the more conducive. Hot, sticky, and abashedly bold, the only way to do it in BKK is to do it big.

Khao Neow Ma Muang (Mango & sticky rice) from a true BKK institution: Mae Varee. It's made its name by serving the best Khao neow ma muang and stocking really high quality fruits from all over Thailand for over 20 years. Their secret is in the coconut milk-sugar-salt reduction, which is infused into the sticky rice to create a nutty and slightly chewy texture. My absolute fave.

I can never get enough of these sausages. Called Sai oua, it's a specialty hailing from northern Thailand. Not pictured, but also another northern Thai delicacy, is Sai Krok Isan-- fermented sausages that somewhat remind me of Chinese preserved sausages (laap cheung) and chorizo.

I love my crustaceans: the Thais have Pu dong-- salted & pickled crabs!
Cute bricks!

This is not to say I have completely shunned the fine dining temples of Bangkok; I still love Bo.lan, Banyan Tree Bangkok's famous Vertigo & Moon Bar, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the incomparable Siam Kempinski Hotel, and would love to try David Thompson's venerable Nahm, and the newly opened Issaya Siamese Club-- the hip and gorgeous flagship restaurant by internationally renown chef, Ian Kittichai. Other somewhat fancy restaurants that deliver the goods time after time include Lan Na Thai (part of the now global empire that is Face Bar & Restaurants), Hyde & Seek Gastrobar, and American food writer Jarrett Wrisley's wildly popular brainchild: Soul Food Mahanakorn.

A must-visit when in Thong Lo: Soul Food MahanakornJarrett Wrisley and his team serves up really good dishes along with strong, proper cocktails. A real gastronomic gem.

What's Thailand without Nam Dok Mai mangoes?

"A Cork & A Bottle": One of many amazing cocktails I've had at what I consider one of South east Asia's best bars, Hyde & Seek Gastrobar. Other faves: "Horse's Neck", and "French 75". Located at the gorgeous PlazAthénée Bangkok, it was a mere five-minute stroll from my hotel.

Another perennial fave from the streets: Khanom bueng, crispy pancakes!

The aforementioned pork bellies. Never seen so many in my life! And the crackling was mental. It was worth every single calorie.

The aforementioned fried chicken. Again, it's the only reason needed to not become vegan.

The obligatory shot of a tuk-tuk ride.

Bangkok's Chinatown is lively, bustling, and filled with great Noms...
... like these gorgeous preserved ducks; and...

... Birds' nest with gingko nuts dessert.

The splendid pool at my gorgeous hotel: Tenface Bangkok. Thanks for the hospitality!

Signature dish at Lan Na ThaiFace Bangkok Restaurant & BarGaeng phed ped yang (Red duck curry).

You know you're in Thailand when you see rows & rows of chilli sauces. 

This trip also saw me learning a lot more about regional cuisines, mostly by wandering around markets, talking to chefs and above all, just tasting as I go. I shelved initial plans of enrolling into one of many cooking schools as I felt that I could learn more by 'roughing it out' on the ground than getting spoon-fed by a chef next to a clueless honeymooning couple asking, "Is there a substitute for lemongrass/tamarind/galangal?" Remember, I was there for a holiday, not to strangle annoying tourists. Okay, I digress. The more I delved into the regional variations of the cuisine, the more I was able to distinguish the various herbs and spices that form the cornerstones of Thai cooking. I was amazed by the produce that Thailand has when I frequented Khlong Toey Market and Or Tor Kor Market (near the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market).

A few core ingredients that you'll definitely need to know: Lemon basil (Bai maeng-lak)-- not to be confused with Holy basil (Bai ka prao); Fresh green peppercorns (Prik thai on); Banana flowers (Hua pli); Tamarind paste (no, there isn't a substitute!); Palm sugar; Bird's eye chillies (among other variations with differing levels of oral torture); Lemongrass (Dakrai); and Galangal (Kha, or Kha yai, or blue ginger); garlic; Turmeric (Kha-min); Kaffir lime leaves (Bai magrood); and Chinese chives (Ku-chai).

Now that I've gotten my head around the essentials, I'm certain that I'll be whipping up more Thai dishes! And so should everyone, because it's clear that Thailand, with all her gastronomic and cultural splendour, is about harmony and love that's truly worth embracing. There's no better time to visit Bangkok and experience her magical, chaotic, orderly, yet a little enigmatic sides all at once.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


The following anthropological poem by Singaporean writer Carol Chan first appeared in the ninth issue of the Mascara Literary Review. It was then featured in the fifth installment of Babette's Feast, named The World Must Weigh the Same, as part of Singapore indie bookstore BooksActually's publishing initiative: the Math Paper Press.

Again, this is something that's in line with what I set out to achieve with this blog: a bit of food anthropology, if you will. This poem succinctly explores social issues through food. How we perceive and interact with food according to our cultural backgrounds, is both fascinating and sometimes bewildering. 


5pm, and I’m craving popcorn, one of those afternoons
that smell of warm rain that hasn’t yet fallen, the smell

of warm, baked roads and the anticipation of a real good
wash-your-migraine-out storm. I want popcorn.

Popcorn in a bag from the margins of Bangkok, caramel crisp
coffee popcorn from that loved-up train station where

the corn-popper is also a barista who lovingly burns my coffee.
I’m sure she never drinks that filth. But she’s not here

so I make do with cheap popcorn from 7-11. I almost miss her.
The bag says it’s made in Singapore, product of America.

So much of what we eat and do is a product of America
and China. Just last week a Chinese migrant told me he’s never

drunk canned Chinese herbal tea with his meal before. You’re joking,
I said, surely you drink tea with meals. This isn’t tea,

it’s a soft drink, qi shui, he insists, and by the way
in China only white collared workers drink coffee.

His small eyes widen as he adds, and the food here is inedible.
Your people mix different foods together on a plate. It’s all a mess

and tastes nothing like home. He should know; he’s a chef back home.
I don’t tell him that this is home on a plate for me, that in Melbourne

where I lived for four years, I missed this shit everyday.
He spends his days here slicing gourmet cakes, twelve hours a day,

in a factory I have never seen. Those delicate cakes sold in cafes
slicing up his hours, graying those small, surprised eyes. 

But now this popcorn will have to do. It’s too soft and plasticky,
tasting of nothing but 7-11 florescent lights

and first-world boredom,
human dreams.


What do you think? What foods remind you of home? Can food bring joy and unhappiness at the same time? In today's highly globalised world, how has food changed in where you live? Tell me! :)

Just a lil more info...

BooksActually: One of my favourite spots to hang out at whenever I'm in Singapore, BooksActually is a charming independent bookstore specialising in Fiction and Literature. This includes Poetry, Essays, Literary Journals, alongside obscure, critical works and antique editions. I particularly like what they stock for the genres of Travel Narrative, Food Narrative, and Aesthetics.

Mascara Literary Review: A bi-annual literary journal founded in 2007, Mascara is particularly interested in the work of contemporary Asian, Australian and Indigenous writers.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

So what's the fuss about?

"Food is an important part of a balanced diet."
-Fran Lebowitz

Famed American author, social commentator, Warhol-approved columnist, and style icon Lebowitz couldn't have said it better. Sardonic she may be, she clearly put across how we see food in today's deranged world. Bluntly put, food's but an essential part of life which many have grown blase to. This is especially true if one lives in an urban environment greatly detached from farms, oceans, and nature in general. With all the advancements in GMO farming, agriculture, food logistics, refrigeration, packaging, marketing, and so on, comes a heavy price of a generation with limited knowledge--or worse, limited interest-- in food. Food, to many, has become cheap, abundant and part of going through the motions of everyday life. Needless to say, what you don't know, you don't treasure. This, I believe, is one of the greatest tragedies of the modern world.

Just earlier this week, I witnessed my new flatmate cook fried rice with diced up--wait for it-- DOG FOOD SAUSAGE. My jaw dropped when I saw him toss that pile of sausage meat--perfectly cubed, no less-- into his wok. True, he may be new to this country, not familiar with the language and what's offered at the supermarkets. But having little or no will and common sense to read the label of the roll of sausage before AND after buying it just goes to show how little interest he shows in his food. 

Exhibit A: NOT for (human) fried rice

DAFUQ?! He what...?!

It wouldn't take a lot, however, to change this. If everyone would just take a moment every day to ponder a little on food; be it the ingredients at the supermarket, the farmer/grocer at the market, or even the uni-student-moonlighting-as-a-waiter at the local cafe, it could encourage a somewhat positive mindset. It may not be a lot to start with but it sure is a beginning. Think of the history and origins of food, why certain dishes are cooked the way they are cooked, how everyday consumer choices can affect farmers and traders thousands of miles away. The value and impact of food should never be underestimated. Indeed, food conjures up many images in our daily lives. Far from being a just a source of nutrition and energy, it brings people together, sparks debates, provides emotional support, brings back childhood memories, and even decides on the fates of famished nations. In short, food can change the world and (major cliche alert!) make it a better place, if we allow it to.

So is food worth fussing about? Definitely yes. If anything, it's for your freaking balanced diet!