Monday, August 20, 2012

Ramen in the Southern Hemisphere

One of the things I forgot to take into consideration when booking my flight to Australia is the seasons. Crazily, Australia is located in the Southern Hemisphere and as such, has Christmas in summer.

In the dark recesses of my foggy, American memory I recall having heard this before, but my association between August and heat is so strong that I only realized I would be traveling in deep winter weeks after my flight was already booked. (Note that I say flight because I only booked a one-way ticket, at least initially.) 

Once I realized my mistake, I rushed out to buy a pair of jeans and a cardigan. I don't already own these things because I live in the tropical hot-damp ecosystem that is Cambodia. So a few weeks of worry plus a pair of jeans and a cardigan was the sum total of my preparation for winter in Australia. Because really, what more would one need? 

As it turns out, winter is a real season in Australia, despite what their tourist board might prefer you to think. It reminded me of my youth in California, which also has a deceptively cold winter, which most people seem to be in denial about. The vendors in Chinatown always did a brisk trade in tacky San Francisco sweatshirts, sold to shivering tourists who had shown up in t-shirts, expecting Hawaii. 

So on arrival in Australia, I borrowed a coat, stuck a hot water bottle down my shirt and headed out into the frigid night. By the time I got to Melbourne last week I had mentally adjusted to the idea of cold (it's been more than two years since I've felt it, after all) and am now starting to embrace it. 

The best part? It's ramen weather. To be fair, it's always ramen weather in the geography that is my brain, but I certainly enjoy it more when my teeth are chattering and I can't feel my toes. 

I was delighted to find good ramen, finally. We have a couple ramen places in Phnom Penh. One is just okay, and the other is excellent, but completely non-traditional ramen. So I haven't had a good bowl of traditional Japanese ramen in a while and was interested to see how the stuff stacked up in Melbourne.

I went with my old buddy Jenn, who I had met while I was backpacking in Japan on what was basically a month-long ramen binge (I later stayed with her in Vietnam on what was basically a month-long pho binge, but I digress.) This time around, though, Jenn was accompanied by a ravenous toddler, who was also eager to see what the ramen scene was like in Melbourne.

Like everything in Melbourne, the stuff was expensive, but not quite as expensive as I feared. $14 got a set menu with a giant bowl of ramen, 3 gyoza and green tea. I wavered between tonkotsu and miso ramen, and was swayed by Jenn's firm declaration of a preference for the fatty pork bone goodness of tonkotsu, so I ordered the same.

 The broth wasn't as rich as it could have been, but it was still delicious. I appreciated all of the extras in the soup: seaweed, marinated bamboo (menma), seasoned hard-boiled egg, fish cakes, scallions, red pickled ginger and what I think was pickled cabbage. Usually tonkotsu ramen doesn't have all of these toppings involved (some of these are usually used for miso or shoyu ramens instead) but I'm always a fan of more rather than less when it comes to ramen. The ramen noodles were fresh and springy, but could have been slightly more al dente for my liking.

The gyoza were perfect, especially with a little splash of chili oil, and I was pleased with myself for not having to share any of my dumplings with any offspring, like poor Jenn had to.

By the time we left at noon or so (we had an early start), the place was jammed with Australians who seemed just as enthusiastic about ramen as myself and Jenn.

My overall verdict? B+, factoring in non-Japan location. Would eat again.


350 Bourke Street, Melbourne

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

First impressions of Australia

I've long known that Australians were serious about food. Years ago, while consoling me about a terrible breakup I was enduring, my friend Holly made me ricotta hotcakes from Bill Granger's cookbook Bill's Open Kitchen. I promptly recovered from the failed relationship and went out and bought the cookbook. I'd pore over it, open-mouthed, entranced by the practically-Asian recipes and the exotic photos of Sydney Harbor.

This was my first introduction to the cuisine of Australia, which is known for its Asian-Western fusion made with fresh, locally-grown ingredients. I'll admit, I was impressed. Soon after, I decided that I was probably trans-racial (likely Asian trapped in a pale, white girl body) and began to shift the focus my cooking efforts to the East, forgetting about Australian cooking almost entirely. However, I will always fondly remember that cookbook for expanding my horizons to the Southern hemisphere.

In Cambodia, I have had my first contact with Australians en masse. They're lovely people, mostly. But one of my Australian friends spends an awful lot of time making comments that are meant to be interpreted as well-meaning and sincere, but are mainly just jibes about the ignorance and inferiority of Americans. This person also told me that Asian food in Australia is just better than it is in Asia because the ingredients are "better" and "fresher." Not just Asian food, really, but all food. I chafed at this, and it was the beginning of a serious nugget of resentment towards not only Australians but their food as well.

Now that I'm here in Australia, I've managed to keep my grudge against its people at a low simmer and I've fully embraced its food. There's no denying that I've been eating well here; my few days in Sydney left me full of flavors I can only dream about in Cambodia. On my first night we had tasty tapas made with succulent meats and Spanish cheeses and bottles and bottles of relatively cheap wine. Phnom Penh this was not. By the time the bill came, I was almost drunk enough to not notice that it was nearly the price of my monthly apartment rental.

The next night we went to a Japanese restaurant chain, Wagaya, with more than 200 seats and a half hour wait even with a reservation. That may sound horrifying -- and in some ways it was -- but they were serving the freshest sashimi I've had outside of Japan, at prices that were almost reasonable by Australian standards. Plus, they have a BYO policy, which is hard to argue with.

Even on our touristy ferry trip to Manly, I was greeted on shore with a delicious roast beef sandwich that puts stringy Cambodian beef to shame. I don't know if Australia considers itself to have a sandwich culture, but I had another great one today in Melbourne. And the beer! They've got great beer that even my unrefined beer-palate can sense.

Last night, though, I ate at a Thai-Lao restaurant, and while it was delicious, I was pleased to see that contrary to what my so-called Australian friend in Phnom Penh had assured me, it was neither better or fresher than what you'd find in Thailand or Laos.

But then today, as I was browsing at a bookstore in Melbourne I came across a couple of Bill Granger's cookbooks. As an adult, they aren't quite as entrancing as they were back then (apparently he's a big time celebrity chef in these parts) but I'm still tempted to buy one so I can go home and cook like an Australian.