Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Budapest Restaurant and Palinka Bar

For something different to our usual Melbourne dining adventures, I organised dinner at Budapest (273 Glenhuntly Rd, Elsternwick), situated in Melbourne's Jewish and Eastern European heartland. (I'm tempted to make a bad pun about feeling hungry for Hungarian food, but I won't... or maybe I just did.) For a group of us (me, Sheree, Carpell, Carissa, Ching and Ava) raised on Asian cuisine, this was a new experience indeed. The first thing that stuck out here was size - the main portions are massive. The meal required a dogged determination from us to finish everything we ordered, and after cleaning our plates there was a feeling of pride for having accomplished such a feat. It's not cheap here (mains average around $23), but it would be hard to argue that its not value for money.

Calorie counters need not bother to turn up. Our appetizers consisted of crumbed mushrooms stuffed with dill and goats cheese, and crumbed and deep-fried camembert cheese. Continuing the crumbs-and-cheese theme, the Sajttal Toltott (Veal Schnitzel stuffed with Cheese - photo right) is the kind of thing you expect only Americans to eat. It came with cheese sprinkled on top, just in case you missed the fact that it was stuffed with cheese; so it was kinda like one of those cheesy-crust pizzas, only made with meat instead of dough. My fellow diners informed me it was pretty darn good. If you like cheese. Ava got another traditional Hungarian dish, a veal-stuffed cabbage roll (Toltott Kaposzta), which she also gave the thumbs up.

My Mushroom Crepes (right) were a revelation - filled with a powerfully intense mushroom ragout and topped with a creamy paprika-infused sauce, it was a very satisfying dish. A number of sides accompanied the meal - creamed spinach, braised red cabbage, lecso sauce (roasted capsicum & onion), fried potatoes with parsley and onion, and nokedli (tiny flour dumplings), garden salad - but none of them really set our mouths alight.

Desserts (right) were a mixed bag. The Gundel Palacsinta is a crepe filled with walnut and dried fruit, topped with chocolate sauce and set alight with flaming alcohol - it didn't really work for me. The Sweet Cream Cheese Dumpling was the size of a baseball, flecked with cottage cheese and topped with a cream-cheese sauce. In case we hadn't eaten enough cheese so far. Not bad, although my fellow diners found it a bit odd. The Apricot Dumplings from the specials menu were wonderful, coated in sweet breadcrumbs, stuffed with apricot and with vanilla sauce on the side.

One last word must go to the Palinka, which is a kind of Eastern European fruit brandy, of which several types appear on their interesting beverages list. Carissa ordered the Miskolci Golden Pear liqueur (44%), which was very sweet but wonderfully fragrant. I tried the Miskolci Silva plum liqueur (also 44%) which I figured would taste of plum - I was mistaken. One of those drinks that puts hairs on your chest (and I could use a few), it gave me little pleasure aside from the feeling of being tipsy after one sip.

This was one of those meals where you feel like you've eaten a lot, but not stuffed yourself too much - until you get up and try walking to the car, upon which time you start groaning ("urgh...cheese...") and realising what a pig you are.

Rating? I give it three and a half cheeses out of five.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Premier League Team of the Season: My Picks

Football (soccer, whatever you wanna call it) season is over and I love making lists, so here it is:

Goalkeeper: David James (Portsmouth)
Right Back: Pascal Chimbonda (Tottenham)
Left Back: Gareth Barry (Aston Villa)
Centre Back: Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)
Centre Back: Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)
Right Midfield: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
Left Midfield: Ryan Giggs (Manchester United)
Central Midfield: Paul Scholes (Manchester United)
Central Midfield: Michael Essien (Chelsea)
Striker: Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
Striker: Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham)



Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Malay/Thai Dinner Party

Making teh tarek! It tasted great, with a hint of ginger and cardamom, although my tarek-ing style lacked the all-important flamboyance. Ditto for my roti-flipping technique.

Jason and Cherie kindly provided the venue for this little dinner party. It was a good excuse to work on our skills at making roti chanai and teh tarek, and to make the mango-sticky rice dessert that I've been craving since Thailand. Jean made the roti dough and we all took turns trying to squash and flip and fold it into the correct form for Malaysia's favourite bread. They tasted just right, good texture, but we clearly need more work at the all important flipping technique - we tried to add some theatricality but it just resulted in dough hitting the cupboards.

From top: Belachan Okra, Cherie's Mum's Chicken Curry, Jean's Raita, Roti Chanai, Tom Kha Gai.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sudanese Youth Leadership Camp

Lookin' real fresh - some of these cats definitely know how to dress.

My main occupation (when I'm not in bed with your mama) is running educational and motivational workshops with young people, to promote healthy relationships and non-violence. One of my most enjoyable experiences was to speak at SEAAC's camp for young Sudanese people, held in Portsea. This actually took place late last year, but I only just got the pictures back.As well as various leisure activities, there were sessions about positive leadership and communication, and I presented a workshop on safe sex, consent and relationships.

This refugee community has been getting a bit of a bad rap recently, with the Australian media all too happy to draw attention to law and order problems; the Sudanese make an easy target because their appearance stands out amongst the wider community. Yet I wish the xenophobes and right-wing columnists could see what I've seen - positive, fun-loving young people looking to better their community and succeed despite all that life has thrown at them.

Anyone know where I can buy a set of abs like this guy's?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Tibet or not Tibet?

(Apologies about the bad pun in the title of this post)
Had dinner at Wild Yak Tibetan Restaurant (350 High St, Northcote) the other night. Interesting...
Let me state from the outset that no, I have never been to Tibet, so I am hardly the world's greatest authority on what they do and don't eat there. But I have a fair idea. So you can imagine my surprise when we noticed calamari on the menu at a Tibetan restaurant. CALAMARI! Now, my knowledge of marine fauna is rudimentary at best, but where does one get squid in the snow-covered slopes of landlocked Tibet? That was the first clue that the food served here is not an accurate representation of Tibetan cuisine.
But does that matter? Maybe not. Much of the food here seems like the kind of cuisine the Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala in Northern India might eat - a selection of Indian-influenced curries, which were good, and Chinese-inflected fare which was more bland. And besides, from what I do know about Tibetan cuisine, perhaps inauthenticity is not a bad idea. Tibet's staple food, tsampa, is a gruel made from roasted barley mixed with a bit of tea, while hardened chewy yak cheese is a common snack. (Neither of these featured on the menu.) And as for the national drink, bo cha... well, more on that later...

Momos are usually decent value. Imagine a cross between a dim sum and a curry puff and you have your momo. The vegetarian ones here are spicy and more interesting than the bland beef ones (so I'm told). Another unique dish was the tingmo, a coiled steamed bun similar to the Chinese bao. Stick to the curries here - the "honey and lemon" sauce that flavours some of the other dishes is too close to commercial sweet-and-sour sauce for comfort.

But the Tibetan tea (bo cha) is the most noteworthy thing on the menu. It is one of the most challenging dishes to appear in any Melbourne restaurant. There is black tea in there somewhere, but it's mixed with milk and butter. Yes, butter. It is incredibly rich, and slightly oily and salty. A popular drink in the cold and mountainous regions of central Asia, its appeal is yet to spread beyond there, and its not hard to see why.

To be honest, it's not too bad. You just need to adjust your notion of what tea is. After all, the ancient Ethiopians who discovered coffee used to eat the beans with butter and salt. Think of butter tea as a kind of rich mild savoury soup, and it's ok. I didn't say its great, but it's ok.

One more thing about Wild Yak: the Tibetan lady serving us (who seems to run the place) is so nice and has such an affecting aura of warmth and inner peace, that I feel really bad saying anything less than wonderful about this place. Maybe she gets that inner peace from drinking lots of bo cha, I don't know.
Anyway, in summary: Pretty good if you order the right stuff. Could do better.

Bo cha (Tibetan butter tea): notice the oil floating on top!

Weird Things That White People Do, Part 1 (or: How to Eat an Asian Meal)

(Warning: Rant coming up)
There's this certain thing that I often see white Australians do, that bugs the sh*t out of me. I'm not sure why it bugs me so, because its totally none of my business, but every time I see it I get agitated and want to slap someone.

Ok, when you go to an Asian restaurant with a group, there is a certain way to eat. Basically, you order rice and a number of dishes to be shared amongst the group. All the food goes in the middle of the table and people help themselves to what is on offer. This is the "proper" way - I say this because Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant, or Indians in an Indian restaurant and so on, will eat this way without even have to discuss it - its just assumed.

HOWEVER, I frequently notice white folks in Asian restaurants (particularly Indian restaurants) doing this nonsensical thing where they order a dish each, then only eat that dish, while taking the rice and spooning it into their bowl or plate of curry or stir-fry.
WHAT IS UP WITH THAT? I don't wish to tar all white folks with this accusation, because most Aussies seem to be getting hip to the multicultural experience and know how to eat an Asian meal properly. But those of you who insist on eating in that very individual manner described above, I'm sorry but I just don't get you.

There are a number of reasons why this is bad and stupid:

1. NUTRITION: In most modern Western-style restaurants and cafes, most dishes are complete meals; for example, on your plate you might get steak with some salad, chips or whatever. Each dish in an Asian restaurant however, normally highlights only 1 or 2 ingredients. Examples might be a chicken curry, a plate of stir-fried chinese greens, or whatever. To eat only one of these dishes does not give you your full complement of proteins, vitamins and other nutrients. They are designed to be eaten alongside a number of other dishes.

2. VARIETY: Why the hell would you want to go to a restaurant and eat only one dish, when you could sample a number of different dishes? "No, I don't want to try your dal, or your malai kofta, or your lamb curry. I'm only going to eat my butter chicken and that's it."
What a boring, one-dimensional and sh*tty way to eat. Shame on you.

3. ECONOMY: If you order a plate of curry and accompany it with rice, chances are you aren't going to finish it - most Asian main dishes are a bit larger than one normal person can eat. However, if you have 4 diners, 3 main dishes is frequently enough, particularly when factoring in accompaniments and starters. The value for money is therefore much greater.

4. COMMUNAL SPIRIT: This is one of the most important reasons why eating Asian-style is a more rewarding experience. By sharing food, you are sharing the experience of eating. You can discuss the food that you have all had the opportunity to try, and become closer and more inclusive in doing so. Ethiopian cuisine takes this idea to its logical conclusion: everyone sits around a small table and eats off the same large plate, using their hands. It is more than just food - it is a wonderful communal bonding experience. To eat only your own dish transforms the dinner into a santitized, sterilized affair which places an artificial barrier between diners. So in conclusion - Don't make me come over there and tell you off! SHARE THE FOOD, DAMMIT!