Wednesday, 25 April 2012

jiro dreams of sushi

A ten-seat sushi restaurant tucked away in a Tokyo subway station. An elderly sushi chef obsessed with his craft. A three-Michelin-star rating.

It's enough to make anyone dream of booking the trip and shelling out the 30,000+ yen for the omakase of their life.

Jiro Ono, the man himself. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

If you have a love for the refined art of Japanese food, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one documentary that will tug at your tummy-strings.

But the movie is more than just a series of mouthwatering sequences involving raw fish and vinegared rice.

This is the story of a man who, well into his 80s, eschews retirement in favour of a lifelong journey towards perfection at his world-renowned restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. It is the story of a chef's dedication to his work, and, along the way, a glimpse of a father's relationship with his sons.

A big hunk of fresh tuna. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Director David Gelb infuses Jiro Dreams of Sushi with a fittingly reverie-like quality; and the lilting beauty of the Philip Glass score is one that sings to the heart.

In the end, though, the indelible mark left in my mind - the one that almost sends chills down my spine - is Jiro's unwavering, enduring joy in what he does: "I feel ecstatic all day... I love making sushi."

After all these years.

Jiro's sushi. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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Wednesday, 18 April 2012

french fantasies, south yarra

Sometimes life gets in the way of the things you would like to do more often.

Sometimes you let life get in the way of the things you would like to do more often.

One of these things, for me, is a visit to French Fantasies (15 Toorak Road, South Yarra).

A few years ago, my office was a mere 10-minute walk away from French Fantasies. I'd finish up work, and every now and then, on my way home, I'd pop by French Fantasies for a little piece of my own French fantasy... usually - alright, pretty much always - a blissful slice of their baked cheesecake.

My office has since relocated, and along with it, my rituals changed. I now take the tram home instead of walking. I look wistfully at their shopfront as the tram trundles by, my desire to just get home as quickly as possible after a long day flicking aside that little glimmer of yearning in my heart.

Like an old flame re-ignited, however, I've recently started to make time for French Fantasies again.

Like an old flame, there are still new things to discover.

A few weeks ago I bought a takeaway pie for lunch... a lamb and vegetable pie. I've never tried their pies, and I wasn't expecting much. It had a blushing, golden appearance, but so do most pies. When I dug into it, however, it became clear that this was not the typical takeaway pie. The crust was light and flaky. The filling was a slow-cooked lamb stew, strewn with homely chunks of carrots. onions, and the crimson hue of disintegrated tomatoes. This is a pie made with love.

Lamb and vegetable pie from French Fantasies.

Like an old flame, there are old memories to re-discover, too.

A few days ago I brought home a slice of my old friend, the baked cheesecake.

Soft and creamy. Dense with the taste of milk fat that slowly melts in the mouth. Just like I remember.

Baked cheesecake from French Fantasies.

French Fantasies doesn't always live up to their promise, however. Their chicken curry pie, while pleasant enough, lacked the sigh-worthy charm of the lamb one I had. And I will always, always remember how deliriously divine my first French Fantasies cheese twist was - an explosion of ethereal, gooey warmth - but subsequent purchases have fallen short, a pale shadow of their predecessor. Perhaps I need to be there at the right time - when those babies are still fresh from the oven.

Nevertheless, these recent visits have reminded me again of my appreciation for French Fantasies. I'm planning to try their beef bourguignon pie next, and the tarte au citron.

And I won't let life get in the way.

French Fantasies on Urbanspoon

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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

spicy eggplant fettuccine, a twist on aglio e olio;
aka sichuan meets abruzzo

Spicy eggplant fettuccine, a twist on spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino.

One of the first meals I learnt how to make from a cookbook was spaghetti aglio e olio.

I was eighteen when I left Malaysia to pursue a university degree in Australia. My sister and I rented a unit together. Our repertoire of dishes was limited back then, and truth be told, my knowledge of Western cuisine didn't go much beyond a simple grilled salmon with salt and lemon, and - shock, horror - assorted meals composed from packet mixes and jarred sauces from the supermarket shelves. (Mind you, they weren't all bad!)

But one day, my sister received a cookbook from my aunt - one that, in retrospect, encouraged our first baby steps in Western cooking. When I flipped through the pages, it was an easy pasta recipe that caught my eye. Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. Ingredients: spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, chilli, salt and pepper.

Enticed by its simplicity, I made my first spaghetti aglio e olio. It was a revelation in the strength and beauty of basic ingredients, and I've made it many times since.

Eggplants from my aunt's garden, sliced, in a bath of lightly salted water.

Now, many years later, I rarely rely on cookbooks, and most of my meals are either the tried-and-true, or on-a-whim creations. Today's recipe is a blend of both. That old Italian favourite, given a new twist with classic ingredients from my Chinese upbringing... a hot and tingling eggplant fettucine, where Sichuan meets Abruzzo.

The use of peanut oil gives this a heavier character than olive oil in the original aglio e olio recipe, but also a fragrant nutty quality. The skin of the eggplants crunch up a little when fried, while the flesh almost liquefies. The pungence of the garlic, paired with the numbing heat of the peppercorns and chillies, keeps the tastebuds on the edge. I threw in the garlic chives almost as an afterthought - I have the plant growing in a pot on my windowsill these days, courtesy of my parents from their most recent visit - and they turned out to be the perfect crowning touch of piquant green goodness.

So here you have it, my playful translation of West to East.

Dried Sichuan peppercorns and chillies.

sichuan-inspired spicy eggplant pasta (serves 1)

2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
4 dried chillies, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 serve of pasta (approx. 200g fresh or 125g dried. I recommend fettuccine, linguine, or spaghetti)
4 baby eggplants (approx. 200g)
2 tablespoons chopped garlic chives
Chinese light soy sauce, roasted sesame oil and black vinegar, to taste

Warm up the peanut oil over low heat. Add garlic, Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillies. Gently fry, taking care that they do not burn, for 2 minutes or until the oil takes on a rosy hue, and before the ingredients turn black. Stir in the salt, set aside to cool slightly, then strain.

Slice eggplants lengthwise into quarters, soaking them in lightly salted water as you do so to keep them bright and fresh. Retrieve and squeeze out excess water before frying.

Boil your pasta in a pot of salted water according to packet or vendor instructions until al dente. (Times will vary depending on whether you are using fresh or dried pasta.) When the pasta is cooked, drain in a colander (but reserve a little of the pasta water).

While you are waiting for the pasta to cook, return the spicy infused oil to a pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, throw in the eggplant strips and let them fry for 1 minute, then turn them and fry for another minute. Retrieve eggplant and set aside so that it does not continue to soak in the oil.

Toss together the cooked pasta, eggplant, infused oil and fresh garlic chives. Add Chinese light soy sauce, roasted sesame oil, and black vinegar to taste, if desired. If the mixture is too dry, add a little of the reserved pasta water to loosen it up.

Tuck in and bask in its greasy glory. A refreshing salad on the side wouldn't go astray!

Notes/Variations:
To make this dish vegan, make sure you use an eggless pasta.
To make this dish gluten-free, use gluten-free pasta or rice noodles.


Spicy eggplant fettucine - when Sichuan meets Abruzzo.

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Tuesday, 3 April 2012

a lime & fig compote... an existential crisis

I was having a bit of an existential crisis the other day.

You know, the sort where you know you're not getting any younger, and you feel like you haven't accomplished much.

The sort where you look back at the dreams you had, and how you fell short.

Despondent, I asked Simon what he thought made a successful life. "Enjoying it," he said simply.

Therein lies our differences. I have an ego, a hunger for approval, a slightly competitive streak, and yet I've never been able to stay passionate long enough to be exceptional at anything, invariably resulting in a self-flagellating sense of failure. He, on the other hand, is unburdened by the weight of covetous aspirations, and finds it almost bewildering.

Sometimes I feel so influenced by the world external to me that I no longer know what it is that I really want. What it is that will really make me happy. I wish, wistfully, for grand accomplishments, but I'm beginning to realise what I really need is to be at peace with myself.

sweet and sour... lime and fig compote.

So that brings us to this lime and fig compote. Basic techniques. Uncomplicated flavours. Stack it on some freshly toasted bread, and eat it while it's still blissfully warm. Not really a huge achievement, making this. And yet, in that quiet, fleeting moment, I found it unassumingly sublime. The rest didn't matter.

lime & fig compote

300g ripe figs (approximately 6 - 7 medium-sized figs, or 2/3 lb)
3 tablespoons raw sugar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon lime zest (optional)

Trim off the hard stems of the figs and discard. Slice the figs into eighths. I do this by vertically slicing them into quarters, then horizontally halving the quarters.
Simmer the chopped figs with the rest of the ingredients in a saucepan for 15 - 20 minutes until the figs are soft and the juices are reduced. I like to turn up the heat towards the last few minutes, partly to hasten the process, and partly to introduce a lovely thick hint of caramelisation.

If you're going for a compote that goes with some bread, as I was, aim for a final result that is moist and plump, but free from excess liquids. You want a compote that is dry enough to sit pretty on toast, yet still succulent enough so that the fleshy, almost jelly-like fig pieces burst with juices as you bite into them.

So serve this while it's still comfortingly warm, on slices of freshly toasted bread, and congratulate yourself on this little triumph: one of the many you can celebrate amidst the ups and downs of life.

lime and fig compote on toasted pane di casa.

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