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The great global buffet comes to Lakemba, CNN // 12 May 2011

My latest food feature for CNNGo…
Island Dreams CafeIsland Dreams’ food is Malay-influenced and served with rainbow crackers.

As media mogul James Packer blasts the tourism industry for marketing clichés, attention is turning to Sydney’s lesser-known treasures.

The multicultural food offerings in Lakemba, in southwest Sydney, are really spicing things up.

What down-at-heel Lakemba — which is named after a group of islands in Fiji — lacks in colonial charm and overpriced Ken Done apparel, it makes up for in exotic flavours and bargain meals. This melting pot of nationalities and creeds carries an ambiance more like downtown Beirut than Bondi Beach.

The area’s modus operandi is halal to satisfy the burgeoning Muslim population.

Let’s stake out six multicultural eateries in Lakemba.

Island Dreams Café

Specialising in home-cooked meals from two of Australia’s far-flung territories — Christmas and Cocos Islands — Island Dreams Café delivers a dose of sleepy island life to the suburbs – despite there being fewer than 200 islanders in New South Wales.

The islanders’ Malay ancestors heavily influence this cuisine’s flavors and it’s hearty stuff. Typically popular dishes are ayam panggang and acar –- lemon chili chicken and cucumber and carrot pickle.

Coconut oil features throughout (palm oil is used on the islands) and the fresh chili used in the special sambal tumis cuts through the rich chicken and fish dishes, which are prepared each morning by Islander Alimah Bilda.

The fish crackers — alarmingly rainbow-colored — are also a delicacy.

Island Dreams Café, 47-49 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9740 9909, Sunday-Thursday 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-midnight.

Al Madina Bakery

Al Madina Bakery

Some 35 years’ experience is a tasty ingredient in Al Madina Bakery’s Lebanese pizzas.

You’d hope that after 35 years of crafting lahmacun — sometimes called Turkish pizza — Ahmad Gaber of Al Madina Bakery would know his way around a Lebanese pizza; and yes, he’s nailed it.Hundreds of these freshly baked, doughy incarnations go for less than $1. This truly democratic fare keeps everyone from tradies to the old Lebanese guard satisfied.

The meat lahmacun is authentic –- the sweet and perfumed cinnamon-edged lamb is topped with a sprinkle of chili flakes and lemon juice.

All the usual suspects are also there — from fragrant thyme za’atar to spinach and cheese in all different sizes.

A varied sample of these flavors barely breaks $5.

Al Madina Bakery, 156 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9758 2665, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

Warung Ita

Warung Ita

Humble, cheap and halal — just like Sumatra.

This Indonesian canteen is unpretentious, bursting with flavor and cheap as banana chips. The halal fare is served up by the humble Nazar family.Serving the typical Sumatran buffet-style food, nasi rames, the restaurant is bare and plain, leaving diners to focus on the flavours in front of them.

The chunks of meat in the deep, rich, coconut sauce of the beef rendang contrast with the eggplant and chili. The chicken curry is light and lively with hints of lemongrass.

Peanuts and crunchy anchovies are served on the side, while a homemade, smoky sambal is perky without being nasal-passage-clearingly fiery.

Warung Ita, 1/168 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 5527, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

Patisserie Arja

Patisserie Arja

Sweet: znood el sitt at Patisserie Arja.

Lakemba is strewn with patisseries serving Lebanese sweets.As well as the idiosyncratic baklava, Patisserie Arja does a mean znood el sitt — or ladies’ arm –- a tube of flaky pastry stuffed with ashta (sweet Arabic-style cream) then soaked in sugar and rosewater syrups.

It won’t win awards for healthiness but the level of sweetness is fiendishly more-ish.

If this taste leaves an addictive inclination, whole platters include samples of bird’s nests, baklava, finger rolls, and a variety of pastries with date, walnut, pistachio, almond and ashta fillings.

Patisserie Arja, 129 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 8320, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Great Wall Kitchen

Great Wall Kitchen

The food at Great Wall Kitchen looks like Chinese but is Bengali-fused.

Indian-Chinese food with a halal bent? Where else but Lakemba? The Li family is originally from China but moved to Sydney via Calcutta.At first glance the menu seems mostly Chinese, but there’s a giveaway sign on the wall that reads: “Sweet Paan available here.” This eatery’s sleepiness feels more Indian than Chinese.

Don’t expect dim sum –- dishes are only loosely based on Chinese. Chicken Manchurian is a speciality but the most popular dish is fried chili chicken –- soya heavy and fresh without any sweetness.

Great Wall Kitchen’s fan base comes from local Pakistanis and Lebanese who return for the hot and spicy food.

Great Wall Kitchen, 154 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9759 9531, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Tuesdays.

Banoful

Banoful

The servings at Banoful will fill you up.

Banoful is the third in a chain of lively Bangladeshi restaurants that cater for a curry-hungry Bengali and Indian locals.Flavours are enriched by ghee and the servings are huge — the undisputed heavyweight king of Bangladeshi food, kacchi biryani, comes with a borhani yogurt drink and salad. It’s one of those dishes that’s best left to master chefs: the combination of steaming rice, fragrant spices and tender goats’ meat is close to faultless.

Not for the first time, diners are left to wonder how such exotic, sultry flavours have quietly found their way to Sydney’s west. How long will the secret last?

Banoful, 49 Railway Parade, Lakemba, +61 (0)2 8084 0187, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Or, read over on CNNGo.
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6 Vietnamese dishes in Cabramatta, CNN // 4 May 2011

My piece for CNN:

Pigs’ trotters, congealed blood cubes, clawed chicken feet and duck fetuses were once more common in Saigon than Sydney.

But Cabramatta, a western suburbs enclave of all things Asian, is home to 40 per cent of New South Wales’ Vietnamese population. And where Vietnamese tread, the country’s fragrant, subtle, poignant flavours are sure to follow: The area is bursting with restaurants, markets, street traders and hawkers peddling everything from freshly-made noodles to sugar cane juice.

There’s something about Vietnamese food that brings out the addict within. Its heady, sweet spices and grassy, fresh herbs are thrown in with off-kilter texture combinations and punches of chili. The likes of pho and banh mi have converted even some of the staunchest Aussies; but what about some less common –- and more challenging — flavors of Vietnam?

Cabramatta expert, Thang Ngo of Noodlies.com, shows us where the locals eat.

Pho Tai

Cabramatta Vietnamese food
The salty, meaty pho at Pho Tau Bay.

It would be churlish to omit Vietnam’s most famous dish from the proceedings and where else to head to but local hero, Pho Tau Bay. To stay as true to “real Vietnam” as possible, the essential ingredient is pho tai — noodles with raw blood-red beef that’s gently cooked in hot, fragrant soup.

A pho is a subjective dish and there are two schools of thought – salty and meaty versus floral and spicy. For proponents of salty meat, this pho is manna from heaven. Torn basil leaves and fresh chili at the table perk it up.

Pho tai ($10) at Pho Tau Bay, 12/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9726 4583, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-7 p.m.

Com Tam (broken rice)

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Once a cheap eat, com tam has become a modern-day delicacy.

Com tam was originally a pauper’s dish, originating from the days when broken grains of rice sold for rock-bottom prices at market. Humble as its origins may be, broken rice is now a delicacy.

A mound of al dente vermicelli with pork skin sits beside the rice, which is topped with a softly fried egg and accompanied by a pork chop, egg and vermicelli cake and cucumber slices. The gamy pork skin flavors the rice and runny egg yolk boosts the richness of the chop, which is heady and smoky with five-spice and chili.

Spoon over some nuoc mam (fish sauce) for sweetness, chili and salt and it’s easy to see why broken rice is the rags-to-riches story of Cabramatta.

Com tam (broken rice) $12.50 at Pho Tau Bay, 12/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9726 4583, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-7 p.m.

Banh Cuon

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

The traditional breakfast dish served at Phu Quoc.

If there’s one dish that exemplifies the counter-intuitive, shouldn’t-work-but-it-somehow-does pairing of Vietnamese textures, it’s this. Starchy folds of wide rice noodles stuffed with spicy pork mince and Chinese mushrooms sit next to slices of peppery devon and vermicelli, chili and cured pork sausage.

Cucumber and herb salad blast the palate with freshness and chunks of deep-fried prawn and soybean cake add a fatty depth. To top it all off, crunchy fried shallot delivers a hit of sweetness. The contrasting textures and flavours of this traditional, work-intensive breakfast dish are washed down by free tea.

Banh cuon ($10.50) at Phu Quoc, 11/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9724 2188, Open 7 days 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

Bun Bo Hue

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Meaty noodles and a suckable trotter rewards bold eaters at Dong Ba.

Pho’s unruly cousin, bun bo hue, is a fiery bowl of lemongrass-edged porkiness. From the jelly-like cubes of congealed blood to the cloudy-skinned trotter lurking beneath the oily, red surface, this is not one for the faint-hearted.

But meaty noodles carry the big flavours and punches of chili cut through the fatty meat. The trotter can even be chewed and sucked with wild abandon.

Bun bo hue $10 at Dong Ba, 5-6/40 Park Road, Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9755 0727, Open 7 days 8.30 a.m.-8 p.m.

Goi Ga Chay Bo

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Get it before it runs away: goi ga chay bo.

A chicken salad with clawed chicken feet is, well, a little unnerving. Especially when the chicken in question is goi ga chay bo, or ‘running chicken’, which can only mean well-travelled feet.

But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and if chicken skin is your thing, then these bony, sabre-like appendages are worth a try. Sinews aside, the salad provides the perfect foil to the chewy free-range flesh and fatty skin –- slivers of pink and green cabbage sparkle with lime and fish sauce.

Goi ga chay bo $15 at Diem Hen, 205 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, +61 (0)2 9724 9800, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-11 p.m.

Hot Vit Lon

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Eat the hot vit lon before it comes to life.

Even Anthony Bourdain, master of the gastronomic challenge, calls hot vit lon a “difficult dining experience.” Yes, foetal duck eggs, known more sympathetically as “half-hatched eggs”.

So, crack the shell, add salt, pepper and lemon, drink the foetal fluid, scoop out the mix of feathers, flesh, egg white and yolk and intersperse with leaves of Vietnamese mint to cut through the richness.

Easy? Not really –- it was fiddly, smelly, warm and furry. The intensely sweet, umami-heavy fluid had a pungent funky stink and there was an odd disk of crunchy, alien albumen that beat me. Not one I’ll be adding to my breakfast routine anytime soon, but a good route to a Saigon street market without leaving the city of Sydney.

And, just to prove it, a vid of me eating the duck foetus in question. Mmmm.

Hot vit lon ($3) at Diem Hen, 205 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, +61 (0)2 9724 9800, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-11 p.m.

Or, read my piece at CNNGo.com.

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Fan-tache-tic India, CNN // 27 April 2011

Mo, tash, ‘stache, lip caterpillar, slug, even snickering cockroaches (as a pitiful poet once called Stalin’s).

Call it what you will, the mustache comes with a fair dollop of history — and mirth — wherever it grows.

From Magnum PI-styled symbol of virility to Borat-esque nose-tickler, the mustache shouts “pride” louder than most hairstyles.

And nowhere is man’s dedication to the hirsute upper lip more apparent than in India.

Indian history is inexorably linked to whiskers and though historians can’t be positive about its exact origins, the finely coiffed ‘tache can be at least partly attributed to the British, says Chris Stowers, co-author of “Hair India, A Guide to the Bizarre Beards and Magnificent Moustaches of Hindustan.”

Read the rest of my piece for CNN International’s CNNGo.com.

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