On sneaky racism and “other culinary horrors”

I started writing this post in June, but never finished it. I thought the moment had passed, but a conversation with my dear fellow food nerd Tammi about her PhD thesis brought the original article to mind, and when I read it again I was still pissed off. I’ve edited it a bit here and there.

The article is “Saucing the best”, written by Necia Wilden in The Weekend Australian Magazine on May 30-31.

For those scoffophiles who’ve had their head under a giant jamon for the last couple of several months, Wilden and John Lethlean have taken over the food and wine chairs at The Weekend Australian Magazine. I’ve stopped getting the Weekend Australian regularly – I almost never buy a dead tree newspaper anymore – but have checked out a few of the issues since the Food & Wine relaunch.

There’s potential for a beefed-up F&W section in a weekend broadsheet daily to really sing – but it will take more than I”ve seen so far. There was quite a bit of fanfare around the first edition, including a cover shot of Wilden and Lethlean, but it’s hard to work out who the section is trying to appeal to. The part I liked best was the double page focus on a particular ingredient, but I’m yet to see it repeated in the section. (Updated – still haven’t seen it again, but I’ve pretty much given up on it. I wonder if the new Simon Thomsen/Matt Preston section “taste” in the News Ltd tabloids on Tuesdays will be any better?)

The article rankled, but the reason why took some time to percolate through (updated: however the depth of the rankle proved long-lasting, as it turns out) It begins by saying that Ms Wilden’s Asian cooking has passable technique and execution but suffers because she can’t access the top drawer ingredients she uses to cook more familiar ie, European, food. Fr’instance, for Italian, she buys “the best”:

“costly extra virgin olive oil, Ortiz anchovies, imported durum-wheat pasta .. you name it, if it achieves a great result I buy it”.

She doesn’t mention how she learned to cook Italian food or where she buys her Italian delights, but it’s certainly a bit more glam than the Asian grocery, which is mysterious, confusing, and probably poisonous:

“I’m faced with row after row, jar after jar of anonymous muck loaded with sugar, preservaties, artificial colours, MSG and other culinary horrors. It’s odd how so many people seem to turn a blind eye to the truth about the staples of the Asian larder.”

Isn’t that creepy!

“I don’t know why food writers and chefs who should know better tell us to use hoisin sauce in our Asian cooking. Have you checked the ingreedients list on a bottle of standard hoisin lately? Or a bottle of so-called oyster sauce, for that matter?”

Well, inquiring minds and all, let’s see what’s in the fridge. A bottle of Tung Chun Hoi Sin sauce from Hong Kong, which lists these ingredients:


What’s the scariest sounding bit, maybe that “E129” there? It’s a red food colouring, Allura Red AC, the “E” indicating it’s approved in the EC. According to Wikipedia, it’s banned in a number of European countries, and approved for use in food, drink and medicines in the US.

Here’s the ingredients list on the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce:


Not knowning that this brand was the one recommended by Tony Tan “if you must buy oyster sauce”, I picked this brand for the excellence of the label:


If you chose to completely avoid artificial additives, colourants, etc, you won’t want to eat this stuff. If MSG has a nasty effect on you, as it does on some people, ditto. I certainly don’t have any a box of MSG in the cupboard, but personally I have no difficulty with small infrequent amounts of it. Barbara Fisher of Tigers and Strawberries has a post about it here.

Eventually Wilden gets to the nitty-gritty:

“Let’s cut to the chase. In a country where I can buy jamon made from pigs fed on acorns, real buffalo mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, carnaroli rice and single-origin coffee, why and I still only dreaming about their premium Asian equivalents?”

“It’s a minefield even for Asians … (says Tony Tan, man of impeccable credentials in respect of both food and personal Asian-ness)… This is a relief to hear, because so far in our tour the usually simple act of identifying the right product has involved so many bizarre clues and riddles I’m starting to feel like Tom Hanks in a Chinese remake of The Da Vinci Code.”

(Updated – as the months have passed the usefulness of twitter has become more obvious for those who lack (or have temporarily misplaced?) “an Asian friend” – there are a huge number of food bloggers and tweeters, particularly in Sydney, who either have Asian heritage or are extremely knowlegeable about Asian food. Twitter operates so often as a gift economy, and I have found people I’ve developed online relationships with really helpful with the round-eye questions – lookin’ at @stickyfingers and @thatjessho here in particular.)

I don’t have a problem with food snobbery, but while here it’s dressed up as a cry for excellence it’s standing on the shoulders of white bourgie entitlement. It sets up European food traditions as normal, and Asian food traditions as deviant. What if it’s more than a case of you say vanilla, and I say pandan?

She does provide some pointers, of course –

“It is possible to find good quality in Asian supermarkets here, You just have to know where – and how – to look.”

That’s putting the cart before the horse. To my mind, what you need to do is buy and taste. When I started learning more about Asian food, I never finished a bottle of soy sauce, fish sauce, any bloody thing without having another ready to go in the cupboard. Not out of some freaky survivalist mentalitity, but out of a desire to educate my palate and learn. If the soy sauce was nearly finished, I opened the new, different bottle. I poured some into little glass saucers and tasted, sniffed, looked. I asked Owy to do the same, and we talked about what we sensed and thought.

The article suggests that you buy fish sauce with “Nhi” on the label, which “means first-pressed and is a designation of high quality. Aha! The extra virgin olive oil of fish sauces.”

Did you know there’s three other methods for working out the good fish sauces? (1) choose a bottle wrapped in plastic. If you peer through the plastic, you’ll see the magic “Nhi” on the label. (2) Choose a bottle that costs more than $3. (3) Ask the shop attendant.

It’s this last one that’s the sticking point, innit? Christ knows I’ve bumbled my way around enough different tiny bloody grocery shops of one flavour or another to know. In general, if you’re keen and polite and have a specific question, people will help you where they can. But they might not know the name of that handsome shiny dark green leaf in English, having never had need to call it by its English name before. It’s nothing to get cut about, or feel your sense of entitlement under threat – in general it’s just a fact of life dealing with a small low profit margin business run by people who work really hard.

(Updated – of course that whole discussion of fish sauce is now moot, a white guy having decided to bring us the best fish sauce available to humanity. Haven’t tried it yet, as I haven’t seen it in any of the places I shop.)

Part of the problem Wilden sees is that we don’t have a “one-stop, upmarket Eastern shop, no Simon Johnson of Asian ingredients“. It’s part of her problem, anyway, because she might live close enough to where it might be profitable to locate that shop. Unless there’s some kind of “trickle down” culinary effect she anticipates, the rest of us are left shopping at whatever little Asian grocery we can find near us. Much better to teach people to taste, to eat, to read and to trust their palates than to tell them to hold fast for announcements from on high.

The article makes me shitty enough to write a response to it a many months later because it’s something I really care about. I want people to love, and understand and cook Asian food at home. I want them to know the excitement of coming home with a bag full of stuff that they don’t understand yet, and coming to understand it. I don’t want people like Wilden to take all the risk, iniative and excitement out of learning about ingredients from an Asian grocery store. It’s not like you’re paying the prices that get asked for acorn-fed jamon, after all.

While it’s a low-cost high-return activity it’s important not to be stingy, as I mentioned in an earlier article about demystifying Asian ingredients – for example, buy the relatively expensive paler dried shiitakes with lovely cracks across the top of the cups instead of the dark, tight brown ones. They cost about four times as much by volume, which is still, frankly, bugger all for what you’re getting.

I spend hugely on food, a lot of it organic, artisan-made, etc, etc – so if I’ve got a problem with this stuff I’m guessing Wilden’s on pretty shaky ground. I think she wants to be, actually, as the article ends:

“And will I get accusations of elitism from some? Of course.”

I don’t have a problem with culinary elitism, but the average journalism and exclusivist underpinnings of the whole article are a killer.

I suppose you can’t criticise an article for not acheiveing something it didn’t set out to do. But what it did set out to do is provide guidance to entitlement-minded foodies who need to be told what to think. There’s as much trickery and marketing guff in Asian food items as there is anywhere else. Look at things carefully – as Tony Tan points out in the article, one golden pagoda Shao Xing wine is great, two golden pagodas is crap. You should investigate and draw your own conclusions.


In which I go to Wheeo

Dinner outside

There’s something about the sound of that name “Wheeo”, doncha think? It came to mind today, watching my elder son hurtle down the slide at the waterpark – it’s a sound of exhilaration and anticipation, but there’s a delicious thrill of risk to it, too. At least the first time around, you don’t know how cold it’s going to be when all of a sudden you’re immersed.

It can be a little daunting when Twitter comes to life, but like splashing down on a hot day it’s relieving and exciting all at once. I first met Tammi of Tammi Tasting Terroir (and @tammois) when she’d come to Canberra for a conference related to her PhD (yeah, it’s about food). We’d planned to go out for a drink but the combination of my small children and her tight schedule made it too hard. Instead, she came to my house, the morning after the conference had finished.

We share a lot as it turns out. We are Serious Home Cooks, both completely obsessed with food and feeding people, and we both love reading and writing about food. We hit it off, and Tammi and her family recently invited us to spend New Year’s Eve at the country house of their friends Antonia and Mark, a couple of hours drive from here. Owen was in Melbourne with an old friend for NYE itself, but joined us after a couple of days.


The house itself was beautiful, the only drawback the sincerely expressed and repeated warnings about brown snakes. I’m not too thingy about snakes as a rule, but that’s because I live in the suburbs and never see any. So the idea of my rather silly 18 kilo toddler being bitten in a place which is out of mobile range, has no landline and is a good hour’s drive away from a hospital made me a big angsty. Fortunately Snake Education 101 from the four larger children seemed effective. The one snake that was spotted (yep, a brown one) was terrified off by Tammi’s husband Stuart’s desperate desire to kill it, by his stashing of sharp threatening spades near the scene of the spotting and by his general air of manly readiness.


For fear of brown snakes, no clothes were washed.

I mentioned that the house was beautiful, but it was also full of beautiful things – indigenous and contemporary art, wonderful books, rooms crammed with beautiful Turkish carpets, interesting found things, such as the beautiful bowl of nests which brought Gay Bilson to mind, and linen cupboards stuffed with super-soft old white damask sheets.

bedroom view

From the bedroom we stayed in.

We had a few friends around for a drink before Christmas and my friend Chris (an ex-chef) asked laughingly while she enjoyed a Rhubarb Fizz made by one of the other guests whether my friendships were self-selecting around food. I suppose it’s no stranger than others who share a common interest coming together; probably less so because food is so social. And while it’s true that most of my friends care about food and cooking, to most of them it’s not so deeply embedded as it is with Tammi and me. We could talk about food all day, interrupting that only to read about, make or eat food. And we both left Wheoo with new treasures jotted in our little notebooks – for me in particular, Tammi’s basil and garlic hollandaise which is so good that it has returned hollandaise to my inner list of Things Worth Eating.

The books I took for my holiday reading were Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, and Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. I didn’t open any of them, as it happened, although Stuart read some of the Olney. Tammi had brought her own stash of books, so I read Lauren Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken and some of Barbara Santich’s Looking for Flavour instead. The owners of the house are also food nerds, and in addition to the supremely well-stocked kitchen, there was a bookcase of food and wine books. Whenever it wasn’t stuffed with food, the table looked like this:

I don’t always cook well with others (sounds like it should be on my school report), particularly in my own kitchen, but Tammi and I quickly settled into a rhythm of each preparing parts of the meal. The exception was my introduction to ravioli making, and there I was very much the student. In the week I’ve been home I’ve broken my pasta machine, bought a new one and read quite a bit of Marcella Hazan.

Despite the thousands of recipes in the house, mostly we both cook improvisationally. One of us would suggest a dish, the other come up with something sympatico to accompany it. Tammi’s described some of the yummies (with pictures) at On Cooking and Feasting, Merrily.

Here were some of the highlights that occurred before my poor little camera died:

Tammi's bread proving

Tammi embraced breadmaking at Wheeo. It meant we could stay in the house and not have to go anywhere and still eat proper bread. WIN

Really Very Large T-Bones

Pasture fed Columbooka T-Bones from my sister-in-law’s farm in Southern NSW. We shall not mention the little incident with the brazier. Stuart made a giant bowl of horseradish sauce so delicious we ate it all. That would have been at least half a cup each, but in our defence it was made with yoghurt rather than cream.

Stuffed tomatoes

Tammi and I share a predisposition to frugality and a hatred of stingyness. The tomatoes were stuffed with crumbs made from one of Tammi’s loaves, herbs from the garden, olive oil and about 18 cloves of minced garlic.


We had no cream so Tammi infused some milk with herbs from the garden to make a delicious potato gratin to eat with the pork. Stuart’s home-cured olives were what really made it sing.

Prepared pork

I unrolled a rolled boned forequarter of Wessex Saddleback Pork from Mountain Creek Farm and found some nice things to go with it. I love fennel with pork, so made Owen pull over on the way back from picking him up to join us. If you are going to pick herbs from the roadside, there are a few things to keep in mind – the less traffic the better, wash the spiders off (there were two) and if you’re in an unfamiliar place, check the goddam garden first. There’s no point foraging if it’s there to harvest.

Pork Cooked

We cooked the pork on horseradish leaves from the garden, and they became so deliciously luscious what with the pork fat, lemon, fennel and wine that we ended up slicing them finely to eat with the pork. I brought some horseradish home and planted it, so hopefully there’ll be a lot more of this in the future.

Rhubarb Fizz

There were a great deal more veggies and salads that it may seem here, and considerably more wine, as it happened. This wasn’t wine, however, but the Rhubarb Fizz made by my friend Jem. It was supersweet, but a nip of gin balanced it up nicely.

It struck me thinking about it afterwards that Tammi and I cook together like musicians jamming – confident, mature, communicating with a glance, riffing off each other and then getting to feast too. Neither setting out to impress the other, but to make something that is impressive, something coherent, satisfying and enriching to the people we care about.

Since coming home I’ve finished the Julian Barnes book I took away and neglected (hmmm, in my best Marge Simpson voice. Despite long experience of sophisticated cooking he has remained a bloody kitchen pedant, and I’m no friend of them) and I’ve started the Olney (a proper book, with long complicated sentences).

My favourite food of all to make is a composed salad, a meal on a plate, heavy on the veg. It was the first food I made for Tammi, and I can’t think of a more perfect example of food guided by experience and taste rather than recipes. It is the joy of food that is never the same twice, the ingredients, company, location, mood, season, changing but never losing the heart-joy of placing on the table something that you are hopeful – and confident – will be enjoyed. Richard Olney is speaking here on the subject of such salads, and their endless variation, but I hope that his words are as true of these friendships born in front of the computer screen and cemented at the table –

… One could go on forever, and, in practice, one does.
Richard Olney Simple French Food


Tammi in the kitchen.

Pammy Faye finds over 120 varieties of home-made bliss

There is a man called Keith who lives in Huskisson on the NSW south coast. Keith loves jam and relish. In fact, he loves jam and relish so much that he has dedicated that last 17 years of his retired life to the business of making and selling over 120 varieties of the stuff.

It’s a rough and ready operation, a back yard job turned semi-professional but nevertheless one that appears to be carefully observant of food safety and handling regulations (all his bottles are labelled with a ‘best before’ date but I didn’t ask how he sterilises the jars). He uses recycled jars and his niece makes the labels for him on her home computer. On his business card Keith describes himself as a “Maker of Quality & Fancy Jams & Pickles for Australian & Continental Tastes”, and I would not disagree. They are indeed quality, and many are really rather fancy.

I discovered Keith’s jams during a three-week writing retreat I organised for myself late last year. Every day after my early morning ocean swim in Jervis Bay, I’d make myself a strong cup of coffee and a plate of toast with lashings of jam, and sit quietly in contemplation of the words ahead. Under conditions of self-imposed social isolation, this ritual of morning toast and jam was incredibly comforting, so much so that it quickly became habit. And Keith, god bless him, was my dealer.

Hundreds of jars of jams and pickles line the walls of Keith’s modest weatherboard home. He’s got your tried and tested traditional sorts: plum, strawberry, raspberry, apricot, and smooth and creamy lemon butter with just the right amount of zest. He’s also runs a line of offbeat moderns and fusions: tomato and pineapple jam, chilli jam, mango jelly, rhubarb and apple jam, onion jam, and banana jam. He makes over fourteen varieties of marmalade including cumquat, ruby grapefruit, melon and lemon, bush lemon and tangelo.

Then there are his relishes and chutneys, many of which give expression to his love of all things spicy: mexican tomato chutney, choko chilli garlic chutney, plum and chilli bbq sauce, and cauli chilli relish. For the curious, a chutney is a form of relish, specifically indian relish, derived from Hindu word chatni. A relish is a form of pickle served as a condiment. and we all know a pickle is something that is difficult to get out of. And for those of you are aware of my passion for all things beetroot, you can only imagine how excited I was when I discovered both beetroot chutney and spiced baby pickled beetroot.

One could spend a lifetime tasting them all. What a pity I’ve only got a few days over Christmas and limited luggage space in the Troopy .

Keith grew up on a farm in the nearby district of Tomerong. The farm had over twenty different fruit trees, all of which were at various times in glut and therefore preserved and shelved in his mother’s walk-in pantry. Keith didn’t lay eyes on a commercially produced tin of jam or relish until he was married; in fact he reckons he didn’t even know they existed. Keith went on to spend his professional life working in kitchens, and when he retired just kept on cooking, preserving whatever local produce he could get his hands on. He makes his LillyPilly jam, a delicate little jewel which might be compared to a good sparkling from the fruit of the LillyPilly trees [insert link to LillyPilly info page on net] he planted in his front yard.

Keith and I both agree that his fig and ginger jam constitutes his masterwork. I didn’t ask him which was his favourite pickle, but his recommendation of green tomato and chilli mustard relish to accompany our Christmas day ham this year was genius and did not disappoint. As you can see, it hasn’t taken us long to put a rather large dent in it. Home made bliss indeed.