Travel on a plate: it's a concept I've embraced over the past few months, the idea that the best way to experience the world during lockdown is through food, through authentic dishes that capture a place and a culture.
At my house we've had yakitori night, we've had Moroccan tagines, we've had Indian thalis and even Swedish meatballs. And now, with restaurants opening and people trickling back onto the streets, it's even easier to see the world through food. You can go almost anywhere.
Almost. Because as lucky as we are in Australia to have a whole world full of cuisine, there are still certain styles of food that remain unattainable. You just can't recreate some dishes outside of their home environment. Travel on a plate doesn't work for these.
This is not a bad thing. In this globalised world it's comforting to know that some things just don't travel, that you need to go to the point of origin to truly enjoy them.
I love the idea of "travel on a plate". But I'm also hanging out for these unique experiences.
(Please note: I am also 100 per cent happy to be proved wrong on any of these. If you know where to get good, authentic versions of any of these dishes or experiences in Australia, hit me up in the comments below or via email.)
Sure, this bakery you know over the other side of town does an amazingly good baguette. Their sourdough is world-class. I hear you. But it's still not as good as French bread in its home country. There is something otherworldly, something almost alchemical in the way bread is baked in France. Smeared with a little demi-sel butter, or topped with a hunk of stinky cheese, it's just about the best thing on Earth. No one else can compete.
Vietnamese cao lau
Tasty Vietnamese food is easy to come by in Australia. You can get a faithful rendition of Saigon pho; you can find banh mi in most food courts; you can sample banh cuon (rice-noodle rolls) or banh xeo (seafood pancakes). But what about "cao lau"? Even in Vietnam, it's debatable whether you can get an authentic version. This is a dish that's particular to the city of Hoi An, with noodles made using water from a particular well, and the ashes of plants grown on the Cham Islands. There's said to be only one or two families who make the real deal, and they sell their noodles to various restaurants, which add pork, bean sprouts, herbs and broth to produce a unique and delicious dish.
There's plenty of great beer available here to see us through lockdown. You can travel the world through ale, from Belgian tripels to New England IPAs to Japanese lagers. About the only thing you can't get is a real British ale. This is the stuff brewed in small batches, stored in casks and poured using hand-pulled taps at traditional British boozers. Real ale isn't everyone's cup of tea – or their schooner of lager – but it's a cultural experience, and not one that travels well.
"Thai food" in Australia means a very narrow reading of the dishes available in Thailand: coconut-milk curries, stir-fried noodles, deep-fried goodies. What's far more difficult to find is authentic Isaan food, the cuisine of Thailand's north-east. There are a few eateries in Australia serving the likes of "gai yang", barbecued chicken, with sticky rice, "sai grok", spicy sausages, and "som tam", green papaya salad, but even if you do find them, half the fun in Thailand is the setting: open-air restaurants where the food is cheap, the chat is loud, and the beer is served on ice.
You might have a restaurant in your town serving tapas, or small plates of Spanish-influenced food. Some of those restaurants might even be good. But that's not tapas culture. To properly recreate tapas culture, you would need at least 20 or so of those restaurants all crowded into the same area. You would need those plates of food to be cheap. You would need to be allowed to carry your drink outside on the street and chat to people and move from bar to bar, from plate to plate, long into the night. That's never going to happen here.
Yeah yeah – you can get sushi in Australia. You can get sushi EVERYWHERE in Australia. But can you get good sushi? Can you get the sort of sushi you find in Tokyo, the stuff with no mayonnaise or cream cheese or other abominations like that, where the rice is the star and the fish is so fresh and delicious that it barely needs adornments? Minamishima in Melbourne and Sokyo in Sydney are doing Japan-quality sushi. But to experience the full breadth of this culture in all its delicious glory, you have to go to the source.
Where are you at, Burmese restaurants? You're certainly not as pervasive as Thai, or Vietnamese, or even Malaysian. The truth is there are barely any eateries in Australia specialising in the food of Myanmar, and even fewer serving mohinga, the fishy, turmeric-spiced noodle soup that's ubiquitous in its homeland. It's a difficult dish to recreate: banana-tree stems are hard to source here; the right catfish isn't always available. And there's certainly no one carrying the soup in large vats swaying from a beam across their shoulders.
Italian tortellini in brodo
It might be because of the time it takes. To assemble true Bologna-style tortellini in brodo is to spend hours kneading and rolling dough, chopping and mixing filling, dolloping and then delicately folding tiny tortellino after tiny tortellino, while brewing an intense broth made with the bones of a capon chicken. Who has time for that? Barely anyone, it seems, because good, authentic tortellini in brodo is a rare thing in Australia. Better to go to Bologna.
There have been gradual improvements in Australia in recent years, but on the whole our Mexican is a pale imitation of the real thing. Travel to Mexico and you realise just how good the cuisine can be, how packed full of flavour the dishes are, how perfectly balanced they are between hot, sour and sweet, how complex the sauces, how delicious the combinations, and how varied the styles. Case in point: chilaquiles, a dish of tortilla chips soaked in a soupy, spicy salsa, topped with queso fresco cheese, shredded meat, and maybe a fried egg. Best of luck finding a good one here.
Singaporean Hainanese chicken rice
Little bit of a mouthful this one, because the name is "Hainanese" but the development of the dish is Singaporean. Anyway, what you have is a chicken that's gently poached and then served with rice cooked in chicken fat and other aromatics, plus soy sauce, chilli and sliced cucumber. Hainanese chicken rice is everywhere in Singapore: every hawker centre, every high-end restaurant. And yet it's difficult to come by in Australia, and rarely lives up to its inspiration.
Which dishes have you been recreating at home during lockdown? Are there any that you think are impossible? Which foreign cuisines or dishes have you been missing the most?
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