Friday, August 30, 2013

A travel memory

It was January, 2012. I was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on my first solo backpacking trip. I was staying at a hostel in Ipanema, a relaxed, glamorous beach suburb. Every day, the surrounding streets were alive with all-day bars, beach cafés and young, beautiful Brazilians enjoying the sunshine. For me, everything was still so new and unfamiliar and surreal, I felt that every minute that passed made me happier and happier to be alive. I was on the other side of the world, and for the first time in my life, was truly free to do whatever I wanted to do.

It was only my third day. In the morning, I had been on a tour of Vidigal, a slum or "favela" which sprawled up the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. I went with a Scottish girl from my hostel called Julie, and about ten other backpackers. We all spent two hours walking through the slums, guided by a local. He told us stories about the people who lived there, the drug dealers, the spectacular samba schools, the political turmoil of Brazil, the stark socio-economic inequalities, the pride and loyalty of the favela community. I saw blinding white smiles of children walking around the favela, bare-foot, dancing in the rain. I saw dogs kept on balconies, barking non-stop and walking in circles because their enclosures were too small. Rubbish was strewn absolutely everywhere. Every house was missing a roof, a wall, a door, crumbling and barely held together. And when we got to the top, the view over the Atlantic Ocean was so breathtaking I just stood there silently, taking it all in. The lowest people of society had the best view in all of Rio. So they were rich in one way, yet so poor in another. Which one mattered more?

That night, Julie and I were both craving some familiar Western food and decided to have dinner at a place called the "Gringo Café". It was just around the corner from our hostel, with a cute green-and-white colour scheme and some hilarious English translations on the menu. I had sunny side up eggs and a hashbrown washed down with a Bohemia beer. She had a Chicken Caesar Salad.

As we were chatting over dinner, I told her about the scratch-off map I have in my room. Each time you visit a new country, you get a coin and scratch off the gold film, and it reveals different colours until the map of the world becomes a rainbow. She suddenly started laughing and told me she had exactly the same one in her room, the same brand and everything.

She took another swig of her beer then said to me: "I have this crazy dream that one day I will have been to every country in the world." I smiled and shook my head.

"That's not a crazy dream at all, Julie," I said. 

"Not even in the slightest." 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fuku Omakase & Teppanyaki

Fuku Omakase & Teppanyaki Restaurant
20 Glyde Street
Mosman Park 6012
Perth, Australia

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Figure 1: Whoosh

About two months ago I was in Italy backpacking, using the hostel Wi-Fi, when I received an email. It was the manager at Fuku Omakase & Teppanyaki Restaurant (who's name, incidentally, is Milan) inviting me to dine there as their guest.

I was so happy, I started squealing and flailing my arms around my head (this is generally how I express extreme emotion). The group of Germans playing cards opposite me probably thought I was a bit special. After I had composed myself, I wrote back like the classy young lady I am that I would be simply delighted to take up their kind offer to dine at their fine establishment. We set a date for August.

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Figure 2: Super intense camera? Check. 

I didn't think twice about who I was going to bring with me. You may have seen Angela on my blog before, my foodie partner-in-crime. Angela had also just come back to Perth from exchange (she did a semester in Shanghai). And since we hadn't seen each other for 8 months, it seemed only fitting that we be reunited over an 8-course meal. 

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Figure 3: Angela, the seaweed to my sushi, the teri to my yaki

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Figure 4: Full house

Fuku opened its doors late 2012 and is actually the sister restaurant of Tsunami Japanese Restaurant, run by the same owner and situated right next door. The word fuku (福) means "blessed" or "lucky", and the interior design of the restaurant with its beautiful golden hues, glamorous fit-out and staggering sake collection seems to fit the name. One thing to note: the only people who will ever see the inside of Fuku are the people who eat there. There are no windows. To get inside, you have to ring the intercom and wait for the door to slowly slide open, where the waitress will greet you and take you to your reserved place on the table surrounding the teppanyaki kitchen. 

Figure 5: Glass print of a Hokusai painting 

Fuku only does one thing, and does it well: Omakase/Teppanyaki degustation. For those of you who have no idea what that string of twelve syllables means: 

  • Omakase (お任せ) : This form of Japanese dining comes form the word makasu (任す) which means "entrust". Instead of choosing dishes à la carte, the chef prepares a series of dishes for you at his discretion. Typical characteristics are a good selection of the freshest fish, seasonal ingredients and immaculate presentation.
  • Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) : At a teppanyaki restaurant, dishes are cooked in front of customers on a flat-surface iron griddle. The theatrical aspect is integral to this form of dining - teppanyaki chefs will flaunt their knife skills, perform tricks and set ingredients on fire for their audience

There are three different menus: "Good", "Better" and "Best", each increasing in number of courses and price. Angela and I each had the "Better" menu ($135), and Angela also had the accompanying sake degustation ($75). 

Figure 6: The menu

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Figure 7: Kawa Ebi and sun dried crispy nori sheet

First up, we were presented with an elegant little box, filled with shrimp served amongst some crispy seaweed pieces. I started munching away, removing all of the prawn heads when I saw that Angela was eating them whole, popping one after another into her mouth. I'm glad I decided to copy her - the heads added extra crunch, and tasted just as good as the body. And if you can imagine the texture of good quality pork crackling, without the pork taste - that's what the seaweed was like. Very thick, surprisingly strong and delightfully crisp. A suitably light and morish way to start our meal.

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Figure 8: Gary plating up

The next course was a plate of otsumami (おつまみ), which comes from the word tsumamu (つまむ) meaning "to grab". Otsumami are the little snacks that Japanese people eat alongside alcoholic beverages (much more refined than beer nuts, believe me). Our selection included two medium slices of chilled wagyu beef with a white miso sauce, rice-stuffed squid dressed with a squid reduction, and finally a tempura oyster served in its shell, topped with crushed ginger. Angela preferred the oyster, but my favourite was the squid. I liked the firm, al dente texture and the sweet-and-salty sauce, which concentrated all the flavour to the front of your palate, and brought out the natural flavour of the squid.

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Figure 9: Wagyu beef, squid and oyster

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Figure 10: Sashimi platter

Something very odd happened to me during the next course, the sashimi platter. There was some prawn, two slices of Tasmanian salmon and some Fremantle tuna. When I inspected the plate, I couldn't help but notice that the tuna looked so very appetising, this deep purpley-red colour with a very slight sheen on it. I dipped it in a little bit of wasabi soy sauce, put it into my mouth, started to chew, and after a few seconds... I started laughing uncontrollably.

You heard me. The sashimi was so incredible, I started laughing. Angela took one look at me and followed suit, and we both sat there laughing with our mouths full of exquisite tuna not knowing how to deal with the situation. It was just so impossibly delicate it was barely there, so tender, fresh, the right temperature, everything. It was like eating sashimi ice cream, which disappeared your mouth like a cloud of sashimi goodness. The pickles on the side wrapped in kelp and ginger were little kicks of freshness, a perfect acidity to complete the culinary picture.

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Figure 11: Wait for it...

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Figure 12: Plating up
Course number four was organic free range quail warm salad, scattered with little blobs of dashi jelly and drizzled with truffle dressing. The unusual presentation of dashi (usually served as a hot soup) was quite clever, and left a refreshing, piquant taste in your mouth which lifted the richness of the truffle oil and other warm ingredients. The enoki mushrooms which had been grilled on the hotplate were like little bursts of flavour, and brought some moisture to the dish (quail is generally leaner and drier than other poultry). Some thinly sliced grilled pumpkin brought home the sweetness. Although the quail was the main ingredient, it was the other elements of the salad that made it work. A harmonious variety of textures and flavours.

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Figure 13: Warm quail salad

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Figure 14: Neatly shelling prawns

Next was scallop, prawn & crispy prawn head. This was where we got to see a glimpse of the teppanyaki tricks to come. To warm up, Jaymon started juggling pepper shakers, then proceeded to completely de-shell and divide up each prawn into legs and tails with a giant knife and fork. The amount of precision he got out of them was incredible. Human beings aren't even supposed to have that much control over their hands and feet. Then Jaymon got bored of juggling pepper shakers and decided to juggle sharp metal instruments.

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Figure 15: Neatly laid out prawn tails

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Figure 16: Scallops sizzling on the griddle

We were shortly presented with a little bowl with just three items in it: a prawn tail, a segment of crispy prawn legs and a seared scallop. The scallop was luscious and silky and smothered in rich butter. Despite the just-cooked centre, Jaymon had managed to get some really nice golden-brown caramelisation on the outside. The prawn legs were also excellent - strong in flavour, crispy yet delicate.

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Figure 17: Scallop, prawn and crispy prawn head

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Figure 18: Fish of the day

Course number six was a fillet of swordfish, served upon a bed of julienned burdock root and asparagus cooked in sea urchin butter. On top was a rosemary and miso sauce, which I absolutely loved. I didn't notice it at first, but towards the end you could taste an interesting blend of flavours going on which really lingered on your palate: rosemary, spiciness and a very smooth nuttiness from the miso. Swordfish generally has a less distinctive taste than other fish, so the sauce was really the champion of this dish.

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Figure 19: Blast off

In the build-up to serving our seventh course, Jaymon upped the ante with the teppanyaki show. He used his utensils to deconstruct an onion and stack it into layers, filled it with a mystery substance, then set it on fire. Most people call this trick the "onion volcano", but I prefer "onion rocket ship". That onion had horsepower, dude.

As he was leaving the onion rings to caramelise, Jaymon started preparing the fried rice to go with our wagyu steak, in which there was some scrambled egg. Most people would just take an egg, crack it on a corner then split it over the grill. But not Jaymon. He likes to toss his eggs above his head and slice them open mid-air instead. 

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Figure 20: Spinning the egg like a top

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Figure 21: Flicking the egg up with the spatula 50cm into the air

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Figure 22: Goal

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Figure 23: Nothing says love like heart-shaped fried rice

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Figure 24: Flame grilled

Fuku orders their wagyu beef directly from Mayura Station in South Australia, one of the best suppliers in the country. Angela and I received a portion of full-blood wagyu sirloin steak with a side of wagyu fried rice. The wagyu was grade 9+, which is the highest quality grade you can get by Australian standards. Each customer was asked by the teppanyaki chef how they would like their steak, I asked for medium-rare, as always. My first piece was a little more well done that I would have liked. The second, getting there. But the third mouthful was cooked exactly how I like it, with a sublime texture, marbled so magnificently it was like a hybrid between flesh and fat. And the flavour? This beef was packed with full-bodied, natural flavour, so aromatic, and ever so slightly salted.  Store-bought beef tastes like cardboard in comparison. A couple of fried garlic chips set on top sealed the deal. 

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Figure 25: Grade 9 wagyu beef

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Figure 26: Yuzu Cheesecake, Chocolate drink and Mountain Peach

The dessert we had to conclude our omakase was very decadent, which was fine with me, especially since Japanese is a relatively light cuisine. Yuzu is an asian citrus fruit that looks like a cross between a mandarin and a lemon, and this was the main ingredient of our cheesecake. Just next to it was a little twirl of wasabi cream, whose flavour was so gentle that Angela and I sat there making "tchup tchup tchup" noises for a while before we decided that there was in fact wasabi in it. A mountain peach, also known as Chinese bayberry, was placed on the side, adding a splash of bright crimson colour and a sweet, tart flavour. A little cup of hot chocolate was a perfect way to finish off dessert, and to warm ourselves to face the cold night air outside.

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Figure 27: Complete focus 

I think the best part about eating at Fuku is that the customer gets to witness how their food is prepared, at such close proximity. From where I was sitting, at any point throughout the meal, I could have reached out and poked Jaymon in the eye if I had really wanted to. I could feel the rush of heat hit my face as the oil caught fire. Angela and I even got to ask Jaymon and Gary a couple of questions about the ingredients (when they weren't too busy setting things on fire or juggling appliances). At a regular restaurant, the customers will never see the amazing processes that go into the making of their meal, let alone have a conversation with the chef.

Many thanks to Edward Teh for letting me use his camera for this review, and to Milan and all the staff at Fuku for the amazing foodie experience. It was one hell of a welcome back to Perth.

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Figure 28: My happy food face

Fuku - Omakase and Teppanyaki on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 19, 2013

Slow Food

Published in Grok Magazine Issue #3 - 2013, page 32-33

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Figure 1: Awesome work by the graphic designers!

“I dream of a world where fruit is cheaper than Froot Loops”, proclaims Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA. “Where there are more school gardens than McDonalds has franchises.” And when you put it like that, it does sound a bit ridiculous. How can it be that ultra-sugary cereal which only vaguely resembles fruit, has become cheaper to buy than a bag of fresh apples?

This is just one example of the modern-day irony that we have found ourselves in: a world where fast food, industrial food production and globalization are robbing our society of good, simple food. 

As life gets faster and time becomes scarcer, we are becoming more and more inclined to look for food that is quick and cheap. Unfortunately, this choice inevitably leads us to eat and buy food that has been transported over several continents, is packed with additives, produced unethically, and probably contains as many nutrients and vitamins as a rubber duck. Not to mention it is destroying our planet. And unfortunately, for the most part, this is the way our food production system has developed in order to feed our growing population, and its need for speed.

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Figure 2: Carlo Petrini at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, May 2013

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Figure 3: Slow food logo

It is to this epidemic of fast food that the “Slow Food” movement responds. Started in 1986 by Carlo Petrini of Italy, Slow Food now has more than 100,000 members in over 150 countries all over the world. Their mission: to lead everyone back into the direction of “good, clean and fair” food, and to highlight the inextricable link between food and the environment that has been overlooked for too long. 

Viertel phrases the situation like so: “Every problem… whether it’s environmental degradation, or social injustice, a problem of the global economy, or a problem of education, has at its core issues linked to food and farming. And if we’re going to address those problems in ways that are meaningful, we have to transform the way we grow and share food together.” 

The Slow Food organization is split up into “conviviums”, regions within each country that are responsible for their own food scene. Their job is to promote the local food industry through supporting fresh food markets, local farmers and products that are unique to the region. Larger culinary events are also held throughout the year, such as Salon Del Gusto, the world’s biggest food and wine fair held in Turin, SlowFish, a fish festival held in Genoa and Terra Madre, the annual summit of the international food community which brings together chefs, farmers and artisans from all four corners of the globe.  

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Figure 4: Members of the Terra Madre community in their respective traditional dress

Slow Food is also very active politically, lobbying against forms of food production that are destructive and unethical, for example: use of pesticides, genetically modified crops and “Land Grabbing” (when multinational entities exploit large tracts of land purchased from local communities). They also call upon governments to include organic farming concerns within agricultural policy, so that wholesome methods of farming are fostered through legislation. One major goal is to preserve foods that have become “endangered”, which I didn’t even think was actually possible. 

Carlo Petrini explains: “In the past hundred years we have lost eighty per cent of the world’s biodiversity. So we had this wonderful heritage built up over thousands of years and in 100 years we have destroyed it. Every day we lose five to six species of fruit and vegetables. In Italy, where I come from, we have lost three breeds of milking cow, four breeds of sheep, and two breeds of donkey. The only breed of donkey which keeps surviving is the one walking on two legs – that one never goes on to extinction.” 

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Figure 5: Palestinian farmer following the destruction of his olive farm

Slow Food is also fighting for Mother Nature with what is probably the most effective weapon: education. Campaigns are run throughout the year to raise awareness about the consequences of commercial agribusiness and fast food. Even more hands-on are projects such as “A Thousand Gardens in Africa”, which has resulted in 782 school gardens being completed in Africa since 2010. Slow food has even opened a University in Northern Italy, solely devoted to the study of Gastronomic Sciences. Alumni will graduate equipped with knowledge on how to develop a sustainable future for food in their area of expertise, and will go on to become the new leaders of Eco-gastronomy. 

And to all this, you, a Curtin Uni student may say: So what? Got nothing to do with me. It all seems very far away, based in Europe, unconnected to us Perthians. But Slow Food Perth is also alive and kicking right here in our city. Current projects include a WA Producers and Food Directory, a collection of traditional recipes from West Australians that reflect our rich multicultural heritage called “Slow food at the edge of the world”, and ongoing support of Perth farmer’s markets. In the metropolitan area, there are farmers markets in Mount Claremont and Subiaco every Saturday from 8am – 12 noon. So why not check one out this weekend, instead of heading to Woolies and lining up for 20 minutes? You will find some amazing local produce, a relaxed atmosphere and a small community of the Slow Food world that can only get bigger.  

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Figure 6: Subiaco Farmer's Market (Photo:

One thing we can take away from observing these enlightened foodies is this: we need to get back to basics. We need to stop loading up our food with additives and preservatives. We need to cut out the middle man and start buying straight from the farmers, or as close to local agriculture as possible. We need to stop importing orange concentrate from Brazil to Australia just because it’s cheaper than getting a delivery from Harvey, just 2 hours away from Perth. And we need to realize that eating food that isn’t good, clean and fair has consequences, even if it is more “efficient”.

Picking up a fresh, organic apple grown in the South West of WA, and eating it? Now that’s what I call efficient.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

10 lessons I learned in Europe

1. Dream big.

2. Get lost.

3. Do what you love. 

4. Know what you deserve. 

5. Embrace difficulty.

6. Don't worry.

7. Follow your gut. 

8. Slow down. 

9. Cherish friendship.

10. Believe in yourself.