Friday, 29 November 2013

icecreams and sundaes out and about

Yesterday was 32C here in old Melbourne-town, and despite today's amazing and delightful rain and coat weather it truly is heading towards summer, so I've started meeting people out and about for fancy iced treats.

Notable eats so far:
Coconut + Sago Sundae - St Ali South (pictured)
At $13.50 this sundae is not cheap, but it's also giant, gluten free, filling, and totally shareable between two people, which I wish is how I'd eaten it. It's served with gluten-free muesli, pineapple, mango, and topped with freeze-dried fruit. I ordered it without the pineapple, and despite my scepticism re: the muesli I was totally into it. It was very, very rich though, which is surprising to me given it's on the breakfast menu. I would eat again, but only if I was feeling rich and could share it with someone. 12-18 Yarra Pl, South Melbourne

En-Thai-Sing - Gelato Messina
$9, still pretty exxy, but SO INTO IT. Pandan and coconut sorbet, mango, simple but delicious. Desperately want to make coconut and pandan sorbet this summer at home. I believe their menu also includes a huge range of delicious dried fruits including dragonfruit, and a ginger and five spice pudding. They also do a chocolate sorbet, which intrigues me. I would eat this again but probably not too often, and definitely not while their queue goes halfway down Smith Street. Also that NAME, geez. The owner had better be South East Asian is all I'm saying. 237 Smith St, Fitzroy

Passionfruit Sorbet with Chocolate Soya Icecream - Casa del Gelato
This is my standard, I will never part from it, it is the best combination so give it a go. Casa is the best because they have so many vegan options including baci, and also they are just down the road from my house. Cones start from $5. I just wish they'd engage in some queue management on beautiful days when you have to push five people deep. 163 Lygon St, Carlton

Blood Orange Sorbet - Spring St Grocer/Primavera Gelateria
Primavera Gelateria does a variety of rotating flavours, with at least two dairy free on each of my visits. I think it was $6 for a scoop, so it's exxy but it's good. 157 Spring St, Melbourne

Eats to which I'd like to extend:
Frozen Cheezecake - Merry Cupcakes
I miss ice cream cake a lot. I hope this will turn out to make up for that. 261 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

Any icy highlights come your way yet? Please share the icy love.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

totally not feeling the good food night noodle markets

Let's talk Pasar Malam. 

Pasar Malam (or night market) is a stalwart of my childhood: many evenings spent swinging my legs under my chair, eating my char kuay teow or my lontong and slurping on my freshly squeezed watermelon juice, served to me in a clear plastic bag. The noise and the clatter of two dozen stalls, woks hissing, and over it all the yelling and the chatter. The floors were always solid, the chairs plastic and uncomfortable. The food was fast, and cheap, and if I was feeling picky I'd stand with the lady at the front and add and remove things from my order until my char kuay teow was perfect (I've never liked prawns, or chinese sausage), and this was not an inconvenience, it was merely an expectation. 

There are other Night Markets, across the rest of Asia and indeed the rest of the world; but to Australians, the image of a night market most frequently conjures something like a pasar malam. 

This week, the Night Noodle Markets have come to Melbourne as part of Good Food Month, and it is nothing like this. 

If you were lucky enough to gain entry on Monday night (25 000 people attended, and some were turned away at the gates), you might have passed through a Shinto Arch, erected at the Western Entrance. That's funny, you might think. Shinto temples do indeed host festivals, and I've had some delicious noodles at festivals held on Shinto grounds, but they're nearly always religious and the Shinto Arch, religious as it is, seems an odd choice for a pan-asian food festival. 

To one side are the food trucks. If you're wondering where you're going, there's poorly planned signage: with streets like Lotus Avenue, Jasmin (sic) Way, Orchid Lane and Peppercorn Lawn, coupled with the Shinto Arch and the names of some of the vendors, perhaps you're thinking about losing your way. 

The Night Noodle Markets are nothing like what they're trying to evoke: they're trying to evoke something South East Asian. The Good Food Month webpage talks about SEAzn experiences, describing the market as hawker-style, and even quotes Teage Ezard (of Ezard), saying about his first pasar malam experience in KL: "I ate late at night with a local who took care of our ordering. We ate a huge amount for next to nothing!" 

Here's what I ate on Monday night:
Mint, ginger and lemon iced tea: $5
Serving of sweet potato fries (not that large) and one single spring onion pancake from Ghost Kitchen: $10.50 
Pandan, coconut and mango sundae (called the En-Thai-Sing, which, ew but also lol): $9

Originally I joined the Wonderbao queue, because I've never tried Wonderbao and I've heard many a good thing. However after standing in the queue for ten minutes and not moving a single step, I ditched it and wandered over to the food trucks, where at least the queues were faster, though dumplings were still $2.50 each. 

Street food across Asia is a success because it's ordinary, cheap, accessible and fast. Vendors often do only two or three things but they do those two or three things well, and fast, and to order, which none of the vendors were doing. As a vegan, when I'm hanging in the pasar malams of Penang with my sceptical extended family I never have any problems modifying my dish to get exactly what I want. Asian street food gets a bad rap amongst vegos, which is totally unfair - I so rarely have problems, particularly in SEA, due to the fact it is literally put together in front of me. It is always convenient, cheap, fast, and exactly what I want. The food available at the Night Noodle Markets is none of these things, and is the antithesis of a pasar malam in every way. 

In part, this is due to the participating vendors. To get a more accurate night market we should be staring down the face of Camy's Dumpling House, a Dessert Story or two, and the Noodle Kingdom. Some of the vendors come from outside the CBD (Footscray and Burwood), and some are lower range, but for the most part the vendors were all inner-city, catering to toned-down Asian (ie, for white people) mid-range to high-range dining. The Good Food website describes the vendors as "Top-notch eateries." If I wanted to eat at a top-notch eatery at higher than usual prices, I'd go to those eateries and book a table. That's not what a night market is for.  

This is different from the specific cultural events like the Melbourne Malaysia Festival, which are usually run in partnership and aimed at both those whose culture is being eaten, and those who just want to share in our deliciousness. This superficial pan-Asian (but not even really) event appeals to us, but ultimately cannot meet our expectations, because they're not designed for us, the Asian-Australians (or Asian Expats) who long for these things familiar to us. This event is not that event. This is exotification and appropriation, dressed to be Good Food. Good Food is special, by this definition. Hawker food is not Good Food, and there will never be a real pasar malam if this is all we can aim for: an event for those who love us for a specifically modified image of our food, rather than its reality. 

Even the setting was like nothing out of a pasar malam. When I arrived, everything was wide and spread out, necessitating a five minute trek between sections. When I was leaving, there were queues at each entrance, with people being turned away or choosing to turn themselves away and venture into the CBD for their dinner. 25 000 people visited on that first evening, and that is a fucking nightmare by any standards, in a space the size of Alexandria Gardens. The queues at each vendor were ridiculous, and often poorly managed, and a commenter on the Good Food webpage mentioned that it closed at 9pm, which is hardly late at all given sunset is currently 20:16.

The punters were heavily on the asian-side, which isn't a surprise: we love our night markets (a generalisation by which I will stand). The servers at a number of the venues were not-Asian, though, and this is not an article on authenticity (which is why I haven't really talked about the food) but it does serve to support the idea that this is a Night Noodle Market that doesn't really meet Our Asian Needs: it's got some familiar elements, but it's not exactly what we want, the cheapness, the accessibility, the speediness, the convenience. 

This failure and disappointment was inevitable, given the lack of a real pasar malam. A part of a night market is, in its way, its accessibility and familiarity. A pasar malam should not be an Event - it should just be a thing. Perhaps the real answer is not a Good Food Month night market which runs (poorly) for two weeks out of the year, but a year-round (or summer round) under cover pasar malam, with actual prices (not show prices - Hayley, my companion in this adventure, noted that Wonderbao had increased its prices approximately $1 per item for the market). It leads to the question, then: at whom is Good Food Month aimed, if the Good Food Month Night Noodle Market met none of the assumed criteria. What defines good food? Surely the very definition of good food as presented here, with Chin-Chin and Longrain right here before us, cannot include hawker food. Perhaps the actual real answer is not a year-round pasar malam: perhaps the answer is that Melbourne can't support a real pasar malam, because costs are too high and there's no established history of it and who is going to establish it and keep it running? I'd like to say it'll be me, but it really won't. 

Actual Night Market food, it seems, and an actual night market, is not good enough for Good Food Month. 

And there was a detestable lack of noodles. 

The Night Noodle Markets are held at Alexandria Gardens from now until November 30th. Entry is free. Don't go. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

lunching and music at little king

Today I ventured in to Little King twice: once, to see my friends play at 9am, as part of Melbourne Music Week; and the second time, to meet Hayley for lunch before we ventured off for an afternoon of art and criticism (and later, crowds and a severe lack of noodles - review to follow probably Wednesday).

Little King is a tiny little cafe just off Flinders Lane, behind St Paul's Cathedral, situated in the alley that links the Westin with Fed Square (across several roads). And before this weekend when my friends told me I needed to go, I'd never heard of it (despite its regularly vego menu and its adorableness). It's a beautiful spot, when it's not filled with chefs from the Westin smoking, and at 9am on a lovely warm day it was a great place to listen to Prudence Rees-Lee play (my friends are her harpist and her percussionist).

After the lunch rush (and racing home to do some work), I zoomed back down on my bike, which I locked to the gate (a serious lack of parking on Flinders Lane on the east side of Swanston! Totally outrageous), and settled down to wait for a delayed Hayley with my book and my notebook and a coffee served in a totally adorable cup and saucer.

Little King's menu changes daily, based on what they feel like making. It's mostly vegetarian. There's some vegan baked goods and a soup (today: vegan pumpkin and leek), but today despite the simplicity of it all I elected for the avocado on toast with a bit of tomato. Topped with some lemon and pepper and a bit of herbs and things, and served on some sour dough, this was actually really lovely and I had no regrets.

I bought a berry friand to snack on later. Total costs came to about $20 for the lot. Seating is some excellently hipster boxes and tables at the same height, and the venue is awfully inaccessible with misc steps all over the place. Credit card facilities are available. 

Little King
4/209 Flinders Lane
(just behind St Paul's Cathedral)
Melbourne CBD