Thursday, 21 August 2014

zimari, prahran/windsor: a cretan restaurant

Warm pita bread at Zimari.

Another catch-up meal, this one from late July. By then, Simon had arrived in Melbourne, and my friend June happened to have an unshakeable craving for Greek food, specifically saganaki cheese, so I suggested the three of us make our way to Zimari (268 High St, Prahran/Windsor) for lunch.

Zimari's Facebook page describes themselves as "a modern Greek Restaurant with clean, simple flavours influenced from the Greek Island of Crete."

The decor is clean and simple, too; there is an airy feeling with the space and lots of natural light during the day.

The waitress who served us suggested that we try their assortment of dips with warm pita bread. We didn't end up ordering this, however they gave us a complimentary little sample plate anyway, which was lovely, in more ways than one. The pita was gratifyingly warm, dusted with spices and dotted with olive oil. The dips - a pretty purple beetroot dip, and a pale pink taramasalata dip (made with cured fish roe) - tasted fresh, and we happily mopped it all up.

Beetroot dip and taramasalata dip, served with warm pita.

Of course we also started with saganaki. Here, they fry it with graviera cheese, which is a specialty of Crete. It had a nice crust, texture, and the expected saltiness without being too over-the-top salty, which I appreciated.

Saganaki - grilled graviera cheese with lemon and oregano. ($12)

Their spanakopita - which boasts a homemade pastry and a filling of spinach and mizithra cheese, another famous Cretan cheese - is also delectable. 

Spanakopita - homemade pastry filled with spinach and mizithra cheese. ($9)

For something green and healthy we had the marouli salad with mixed greens, pear, dried figs and walnuts. Nothing remarkable, but fresh and pleasant.

Marouli salad - mixed greens, pear, dried figs and walnuts. ($13)

This stifado from their specials menu that day was homely and comforting - a braised beef stew cooked in red wine, tomato and shallots, served with potatoes on the side.

Stifado - beef braised in red wine and tomato salsa, shallots and oven potatoes. ($19)

We really enjoyed the tigania - pork fillets in a honeyed, herbaceous lemon-mustard-oregano glaze, so charmingly sweet and tender.

Tigania - pork fillet in a lemon, mustard and oregano glaze. ($14)

For desserts, we wandered over to the counter, where the options were explained to us. We were drawn towards the portokalopita, an orange yoghurt filo cake - something different and interesting to us. I had always associated filo pastry with crispy baked goods, but here it is soft, syrupy, and unexpectedly luscious. We went at the cake again and again with our spoons, which quickly disappeared. So glad we tried this.

Portokalopita - yoghurt, filo and orange syrup cake. ($7 by itself, $9 with ice cream)

As we paid for our food, we had a chat with the guy behind the counter, who I think is the owner. He tells us he came here from the island of Crete, Greece, and has now lived in Melbourne for about five years. I tell him that this was my first time to Zimari, and that I wished I had discovered it sooner. Next time I'm in Melbourne and craving Greek food, I know where to go.


Zimari on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

luo han guo tea / monk fruit tea

Luo han guo tea / monk fruit tea.

Here's another beverage that came about while I was clearing out my cupboards for the big move.

When my parents visit me every now and then in Melbourne, they invariably stock up my fridge and my pantry in their efforts to look after me. One of the ingredients they provided one time was dried luo han guo (also known as monk fruit, buddha fruit, or arhat fruit). The luo han guo beverage is something I drank often back in Malaysia, yet it was always prepared by someone else. I never got around to making it myself - so as an ingredient, the monk fruit remained so enigmatic to me.

But I was moving house and I couldn't bear to throw it away. That's as good a time as any to get out of my comfort zone, right? I vaguely remembered my mum's reassurances: "It's really easy to make luo han guo tea, just crack the fruit and simmer it in water until the flavour comes out."

So that was what I did, and it was truly that easy. Like so many things, it's not as scary or as mysterious as it seems, once you actually try it.

Dried luohanguo / dried monk fruit.

luo han guo tea / monk fruit tea

Use approximately 1 litre, or 4 cups of water, for every piece of whole dried monk fruit. Break open the fruit with your hands, so that the dried flesh inside gets some exposure. Bring the fruit and the water to boil in a pot, then cover and allow it to simmer for at least 20 minutes. The longer you cook it, the more intense the flavour is. If it becomes too strong, simply add more water to dilute it.

As monk fruit is naturally very sweet, there should be no need to add any sugar. Strain out any bits and pieces of the broken fruit, and the tea is ready to enjoy immediately if you wish. This is a beverage which is delicious with its sweet herbal quality, at all temperatures. I had it hot on this occasion, but I love it really cold with ice.

Note: I just asked my mum and she generally uses 1.5 - 2 litres (6 - 8 cups) of water for each fruit, and simmers it for around an hour. I guess mine is the shortcut method, haha!

Luo han guo beverage / monk fruit beverage.

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Friday, 8 August 2014

tsukiji, prahran

Trays and trays of sashimi-grade fish and other seafood in the fridge - take your pick.

It's not the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, but Tsukiji grocery-cafe-restaurant (237 High St, Prahran) definitely has their fans amongst sashimi-lovers in Melbourne.

I only sigh because I never got around to visiting this place until the few weeks before I was due to move interstate, despite it only being half an hour's walk from my apartment for the past several years. But I made up for lost time, you bet I did. In the space of just 18 days, I managed to visit Tsukiji not once, not twice, but three times.

The first time around, my lunch date and I kept it simple by ordering one sashimi set each, which came with assorted sashimi, rice, miso soup, and a smidgen of seaweed salad. The fish was of excellent quality and tasted very fresh. My friend, upon taking a bite, exclaimed, "melts in your mouth".

Sashimi set ($15).

We enjoyed our meal so much that we decided to get takeaway for dinner, too. I grabbed a few trays of raw fish from the fridge, and had them slice it up for me - which they do for free - to take home.

A succulent, dewy, exquisite selection of sashimi ($11.90).

I chose the smallest pieces of raw fish - one modest portion each of sea perch, salmon, tuna, gurnard, and hapuka. After getting home, I put my sashimi treasures in the fridge, and opened it up not too long afterwards for an early dinner - I wanted to savour the fish while they were still reasonably fresh.

As expected, the tuna and salmon were beautifully creamy, like what I already had for lunch. As for the white fish, the gurnard and hapuka were firmer, and had more of a bite. The sea perch was surprisingly tender, delightfully gentle. It was a fun and tasty selection and I was happy with my choices.

Salmon, Hapuka, Gurnard, Tuna, Sea Perch.

The following weekend, a friend visited from Adelaide, just to catch up before I go - isn't that just awesome! - and I brought him and his partner to Tsukiji. We went all out - in addition to the usual suspects, we also had generous amounts of scallops, uni (sea urchin), and toro (tuna belly). I can't remember exactly how much it all ended up costing us but I believe it was around $25 per person. We would easily have paid twice that in any other Japanese restaurant in Melbourne, considering the luxurious, sought-after items that were on our plate.

One of the sections of our luxurious sashimi platter.

Seriously, my interstate guests went crazy at the fridge section, picking out two trays of toro, claiming that they can't get that stuff in Adelaide. The label doesn't specify whether it's chutoro or otoro, but looking at the marbling I'd say it's the latter. Fatty, rich, totally decadent - and I can only have a tiny bit before it becomes too much for me. No matter, for my friends merrily devoured it all.

Why, yes, there is such a thing as too much toro (tuna belly).

I went back to Tsukiji for a last hurrah when Simon came over, and we caught up with a friend there, too. They both ordered unagi don - yes, there is a hot food menu, even if I tend to neglect its existence - I had a taste of the glazed grilled eel, and it was delicious. But it is still difficult to go past the sashimi here...

Gorgeous ruby-red tuna sashimi.

Even though it was winter, I opted to have a dessert of their black sesame ice cream. It seems to be a homemade version that looks like it was frozen in a small plastic tub, before being turned out into a bowl. Needless to say, the presentation wasn't the most attractive, and the texture was a little hard. However, it had a nice subtle sweetness, and the black sesame flavour rang loud and clear. I had no problems finishing it at all.

Black sesame ice cream.

Anyway, I guess for the month of July, I had enough sashimi to tide me over for a while, in case I don't get any more raw fish for the rest of the year.

As for the rest of you who still reside in Melbourne - if you want to eat in at Tsukiji, get in right when they open at noon to secure a seat - just in case. Otherwise, there's always takeaway.


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Thursday, 31 July 2014

chamomile almond pear smoothie

Chamomile almond pear smoothie.

Big events, or at least the lead-up to them, can be stressful. Moving my belongings interstate, and following that with international travel, is definitely one of those things. I'm getting rid of the items I've accumulated over the years. Cleaning. Tidying. Packing. Dealing with red tape. Wrapping up loose ends. Trying not to freak out, trying to make time for friends and relatives before I go, trying to keep my sanity amidst it all.

Perhaps this is why I was drawn to create something with the gorgeous loose leaf chamomile tea I have in my pantry, an ingredient which I thought might help encourage relaxation. Besides - let's face it - I wanted to finish as much of my food as possible, before I go. Can't let the good stuff go to waste!

So the pretty dried chamomile flowers are put to work, and their soft, mellow perfume infuses this gentle chamomile almond pear smoothie. I drink it quietly, slowly, and I find a little moment of calmness.

Dried camomile flowers / Loose leaf camomile tea.

chamomile almond pear smoothie 
(makes 1)

1/2 teaspoon dried chamomile flowers or 1 chamomile tea bag
1/2 cup freshly boiled hot water
1/8 teaspoon honey (Optional, omit if vegan, or use maple syrup. You may add more, but I like the subtlety of less.)
1 soft, ripe pear
2 tablespoons almond meal
3 ice cubes

Steep chamomile in hot water for a couple of minutes (or you may time it according to instructions on the package, or just wait till the tea reaches your desired strength). Remove the tea bag / Strain out the chamomile flowers.
Allow the tea to cool down to room temperature, or chill in the fridge. Stir in just a tiny bit of honey, if using.
Remove the skin, stem and pips of the pear, chopping up only the flesh to use. Do make sure you use a soft, ripe pear - you want the flesh to be creamy (rather than crisp), for a good smoothie texture.
In a blender, whiz together the chamomile tea, pear, almond meal, and ice cubes.
Serve, sip, and chill out.

Pear, almond, and chamomile smoothie.

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Saturday, 26 July 2014

ayomo, south melbourne

Banella waffle from Ayomo, with lots of banana and Nutella, served with a dollop of frozen yogurt.

I know, I know. We're in the middle of a chilly Melbourne winter right now. But I don't care. I'm still eating fro-yo (soft serve frozen yoghurt) when the cravings strike.

One of the things I will miss about working in South Melbourne is being in close proximity to Ayomo (226 Clarendon St, South Melbourne). Their cute name is derived from the phrase "A Yoghurt Moment". The people there are always nice and friendly, and they make some tempting fro-yo.

I've been there a few times since I first discovered it last year. They have both their standard natural and signature macadamia yoghurt all-year-round, with other flavours filling in the roster as they see fit. If you're not sure what to get, you can try samples first. And what I really like is that even when I get the small serving (which in my opinion is still quite generously sized), I can opt for more than one flavour in the cup. Awesome!

I've tried the lychee, which was graceful and floral, the young coconut, which was beautifully light with a taste that is more like coconut water than coconut cream. I've also tried the dairy-free mango, and the more indulgent salted caramel. So far, though, their signature macadamia fro-yo trumps all others, for me at least - it's gentle, tangy, just faintly sweet, and wins me over with the subtle, but distinctive nutty taste of macadamia.

The frozen yoghurt here is good enough to enjoy plain by themselves, but Ayomo offers an array of toppings, too, and my favourite is the halva.

There are other items on the menu as well, like the waffles in the picture above. They certainly don't skimp on the ingredients, as you can see from the plentiful slices of banana and lashings of Nutella on mine. Served with a frozen yoghurt of your choice, it makes for a very filling dessert.

Due to my big move, I don't know when I'll next visit Ayomo again. But hey, who knows? I may be back in Melbourne one day, and perhaps I'll even ask them if they have any job openings - it would be pretty cool to work in their Flavour Lab...

Frozen yoghurt from Ayomo with various toppings.


Ayomo Frozen Yogurt on Urbanspoon

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Monday, 21 July 2014

dolan uyghur food heaven, melbourne cbd

Lamb skewers / Zih Kawap. ($12)

With the big adventure coming up and all, I've been crazy busy.

Dealing with my rental lease, clearing out my stuff, packing up my belongings, wrapping up loose ends...

Phew. It's hectic. I don't deal well with this kind of hectic.

But you know what helps? Catching up with my good friends before I go. Yes, meeting up with people takes up more of my precious time, but it's only right that my precious time goes towards precious friendships. Plus, having delicious conversations over delicious food is always, always worth making time for.

For our catchup, my friend Scott (by the way, check out his food website, MealDish) and I decided to go with Uyghur cuisine at Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven (166 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne). I had never been to a Uyghur restaurant before, so this was rather exciting.

The menu arrived and there were so many interesting dishes that sparked my curiosity. However, having heard about the generous servings here, we limited ourselves to just two items.

First, we decided upon the lamb skewers (zih kawap), which seem to be popular here, and I can understand why. Dusted with spices, they tingled delightfully upon the tongue. Actually, I think I've tried this dish before, at a street stall in Beijing a few years ago.

I was initially intrigued by the chopped noodles, but lured by Scott's promise of gigantic noodles instead, we ended up going for the stir fried spicy whole chicken with potatoes and capsicums, special homemade sauce and noodles (dapanji - which literally means "big plate chicken" in Mandarin, or yangyu tohu kormisi). The handmade noodles were indeed massive, and so was the dish itself. Scott says he’s had better - it seems this may have been at least partially prepared ahead of time rather than being made to order, as the potatoes looked a bit old, and the chicken was a little dry - but still, while I can see how it could have been better, I enjoyed it - not sure how much of that is due to novelty, but I'll take what I can get.

Big Plate Chicken / Dapanji / Yangyu Tohu Kormisi. ($26)

Anyway, we spent over two hours in the restaurant and in that time, we managed to finish the lamb skewers and polish off most of the chicken noodle dish, albeit only gently grazing by the end of the evening. I’m quite impressed at our efforts, I must say.

All in all, it was a great night out - so many things to talk about, lots of laughter, and, for me, a newly discovered appetite for Uyghur food.


Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven on Urbanspoon

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Sunday, 13 July 2014

bitter melon soup / bitter gourd soup

Bitter melon soup.

Wow. Firstly, I want to thank you all for the overwhelming support that you have shown for my recent decision to quit my job to travel. As I prepare for my adventure, I hope to share more details about our plans.

But for now, let's talk about food again!

So, obviously, I am going through interesting times at the moment. It's a time to say goodbye to some, but also a time to say hello to others.

It's a bittersweet time.

This bitter melon soup, then, seems like an appropriate dish to serve up in my life, and on my blog. I rarely cook with bitter melon, as I don't usually get the attraction of such a bitter vegetable. However, this is a soup that my mum cooks for my family. It is a soup that my sister likes. And recently, when I visited my uncle and aunt, and offered to cook dinner, they had a bitter melon waiting to be eaten, so this soup was, for me, the obvious solution.

A bitter melon / bitter gourd.

The bitter melon does have its distinctive bitterness, but it is balanced out by the sweetness of the carrots and ikan bilis (dried anchovies).

My uncle and aunt enjoyed the bitter melon soup. I liked it, too, more than I remember ever liking it. I was surprised.

Cross section of a bitter melon, when sliced lengthwise into half.

So much so, that two weeks later, I bought bitter melon, so that I can make the soup again, all for myself.

Perhaps, as I grow older, my appreciation for this bittersweet soup grows, too.

Bitter melon soup with carrot, tofu, and dried anchovies.

bitter melon soup / bitter gourd soup
(Serves 2 when accompanied with rice, as a main dish. Serves 4 as an appetizer or side dish.)

1 small to medium bitter melon (approx. 250g)
2 medium to large carrots (approx. 200g)
1/3 loose cup ikan bilis i.e. dried anchovies with guts and heads already removed (may be substituted with a few pieces of pork bones and/or dried cuttle fish)
1 small block tofu (approx. 200g. Optional if not serving this as a main dish.)
salt and white pepper, to taste

Cut bitter melon lengthwise into half. Scrape out the pith and seeds, discard those so that you're left with what looks like two empty green boats. Chop up the flesh into bite-size pieces. (First, slice the "boats" into half-rings, then chop those again into quarter-rings.)
Chop carrots into rounds.
In a big pot, put in the bitter melon, carrot and anchovies/pork/cuttlefish with 4 cups of water to boil, then turn down the heat to let everything simmer, partially covered, for around 30 minutes or until bitter melon and carrots are tender.
Cut tofu into bite-sized rectangles or squares. Add to the soup, bring it back to boil, and simmer for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and white pepper.

Serve.

Notes:
I usually use a ratio of similar amounts of bitter melon and carrot, with a bit more bitter melon (it’s supposed the be the main character, after all).
If I recall correctly, my mum usually uses pork bones and dried cuttlefish to flavour the soup, but I substituted with dried anchovies (ikan bilis) here instead.
Choose the bitter melon / gourd with plump, succulent grooves rather than the ones that look shriveled up, dry and skinny.
I prefer to use semi-firm tofu (with a softness somewhere in between silken and firm, not too fragile) for this dish. This is usually just the regular type sold in tubs in Asian grocery stores.


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Sunday, 6 July 2014

i am quitting my job to travel.

After seven years at my company, I'm quitting my job, and leaving Melbourne, to travel.

It is difficult to leave behind the people at work, with whom I've spent the larger part of my life for such a long time.

It is difficult to leave behind a steady job, and the fortnightly payments that provide me with a sense of financial security.

It is difficult to leave behind my friends and relatives here, and I wish we had caught up more often.

It is difficult to give up the lease on my little apartment in South Yarra, and it is difficult to leave Melbourne, for I have come to see it as my home.

Yet, despite all these elements tugging at my heartstrings, I feel it would be a mistake if I continued with my routine. The past seven years have gone by fast, with each year going by even quicker than the one before.

My life right now, right here, is great. I am happy. Yet I am also restless, wanting more. Wanting to break free from the 9 to 5, to do something a little different, to explore more of what I can do beyond the cubicle.

I am afraid that if I stay, I will wake up one day another seven years later, wondering where all that time has gone. Wondering if things could have been different, if only I had been willing to take a risk.

And for years, Simon has yearned to travel. Not just for a few weeks every year. No, a few months, at least. With the option for an extension. Perhaps even with the option of being a digital nomad, travelling indefinitely.

So here we are, doing this together. The world is out there, and it's waiting for us.

Stepping into the unknown.


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