Our National Dish is a Red Herring

Given that my thesis is on what part engagements with multicultural foodways play in the development of a cosmopolitan society, I’m pretty excited that New Matilda published my article today, which they titled: Is There Life Beyond the Barbie? The article explores Australia’s fascination with its national identity via a national dish.

Although it’s a short article written for an intelligent but non-academic audience, it’s given me a lot of ideas, maybe even (gasp!) chapter ideas. I’m particularly interested in pursuing something I’ve been working on the past six months, which is about the importance of the maintenance of vernacular food cultures to sustain a lively cosmopolitan society. That is, if Australia’s diverse foodways became a) all culinarily Anglicised, or b) hybridised to the point that hybrid becomes the new homogeneous, then we all lose opportunities for ‘openness to the Other’ that currently exist.

Zoe’s excellent post, ‘On sneaky racism and other culinary horrors’, explores some of these issues, as do the plentiful comments she’s received. Zoe’s the kind of global citizen I believe we should all strive to be (maybe one day, we won’t have to strive, because it will all come so naturally?), one who isn’t afraid to engage with others, irrespective of culture or class, even when she’s outside her comfort zone. She’s not afraid to admit she doesn’t understand something and ask for help, and similarly, she’s willing to try new things and discover firsthand whether she likes them or not. Her post and the follow-up commentors are all symptomatic of a thriving cosmopolitan community out there (and yes, I recognise they are unlikely to be the majority of Australians, but they do give one hope).

And yet, while all of this engagement and diversity is fascinating, and, in my opinion, welcome, it makes it difficult to maintain a ‘national imaginary’ as per Benedict Anderson (1983). Anderson’s argument is that the national imaginary was made possible by a broadly shared vernacular in print capitalism. Until then, nations had been ‘unimaginable’ due to a sort of Tower of Babel problem. And Anderson rightfully points to a number of benefits of national belonging, arguing that it more often creates something to ‘fight for’ rather than against – something to which people feel passionately attached that is much larger than themselves, and which is expressed through music, literature, and perhaps, food.

As someone who has never felt comfortable with nationalism (given my early exposure to its rabid cousin, patriotism), as I tend to read it more as a mechanism of exclusion than inclusion, I struggle with Anderson’s optimism. On the other hand, my entire project is about trying to understand how the diverse population of Australia can find a meaningful sense of belonging to each other and the world, and how we are or aren’t using food in that search. So really, I guess I’m a bit of a closet nationalist?

But to return to the problem of vernaculars (when there are many) and how they relate to both nationalism and cosmopolitanism. How can people imagine themselves into something collective from such wildly disparate food cultures (and, of course, the many other aspects of culture, but my primary concern is, as you know, food)? If that ‘something’ to which they are imagining themselves is cosmopolitanism, it makes perfect sense. If it’s nationalism, not so much. And yet without the broader recognition of ourselves as Australian, is it really possible to imagine ourselves further into the world?

As is appropriate for a PhD candidate halfway through my degree, I will leave these thoughts with those few gestures for now… (that is, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this just yet, and I have formed no conclusions.) heh. pax.

A Mongolian Feast!

Yet another wonderful opportunity to revel in developing community around food arose yesterday. My lovely mate Benj, who is working on a doco on Mongolian hip hop, invited us to join a night of feasting at his place. He invited some of his Mongolian friends, who invited their friends, plus his other mates who’ve spent time there and/or worked on the film with him – and us, the ring-ins because of our shared passion for food and community. πŸ™‚ It was quite an interesting social experiment, really – put a bunch of strangers in a room together with food, get one group to teach the other how to make something from their culture, and add vodka. Trust me, it was a raving success!

The evening began with some of the predictable stilted moments as we all sought to find common ground. Mostly, the Aussies were busy asking the Mongolians questions about the current political situation as they’ve just had a change of government (and I won’t tell you who asked ‘does China appoint your leader?’ – duffer), as well as learning more about what brought them to Melbourne (all are students, and all intend to return to Mongolia when they finish). I realised how little I really know about their country, including how much closer the Mongolian language seems to be to Russian than it is to Chinese. Most had brought a plate to share, so after recovering from an earlier outing to yum cha with Billy, we tucked in to a variety of pickled salads, a beef noodle dish, kim chee and khuushuur (deep fried large beef dumplings). And of course, that gave us plenty more to discuss.

One interesting observation by Zula, who is studying finance at Melbourne Uni, was that the beef tastes quite different here in Australia. Upon further reflection, we agreed that it might be due to the large scale farming methods used here and the relatively unvaried diet of the animals, as opposed to the free ranging of herds in Mongolia and the diversity of grasses in their diet. Zula reckons the beef in Mongolia is gamier and, essentially, tastier. I know it made me want to taste some!

Most of us were drinking vodka, though a number of people did enjoy Stuart’s homebrew and I noted that a couple of the Australians who had lived in Mongolia stuck to wine. I should really have taken better note of that, as I suspect they had learned a lesson up there. What I understand today is that our drinking habits, usually restricted to wine and beer, are totally unsuitable when drinking vodka. One should really sip small glasses of the stuff if you’re going to have it at all, but I know I for one was impressed at how smooth it was (especially the delightful Mongolian Chinggis) and drank it rather like I do water. Ahem.

After a couple of drinks and a bit to eat, it was time to make the buuz, which are steamed dumplings. We made three fillings: beef with red onion & garlic, lamb with red onion, garlic & coriander, and another lamb with the same fillings, but with kim chee added as well. To salt the mince, Zula dissolved salt in hot water and we mixed that through, which also made the mixture more moist. At one stage, we forgot which bowl had the beef and which the lamb, and I think because it was quite cold from the fridge, it was difficult to smell the difference. I suddenly remembered that a cook should taste everything as you go along, even crazy raw stuff (thanks to Masterchef!), and that actually there is nothing crazy about raw beef anyway (and so presumably lamb, too?), so tasted for the difference. I love those visceral moments when you feel like you’re inhabiting your ‘real cook’ disposition.

The dough for the wrappers was equally straightforward, made simply of flour and water. It was then rolled into long cylinders, chopped into smallish pieces, slightly flattened and tossed into a bowl with more flour to dust it well. Next each piece is rolled quickly from the edges to make a circle, leaving the centre slightly thicker than the edges. A scoop of filling, and then to quickly fold each dumpling closed in a pretty (sometimes) little flower-like shape. Some were folded more like gyoza, which was meant to identify them as the ones with kim chee, until people got confused and just rolled them however they wanted. Fortunately, I don’t think any kids ended up with a kim chee buuz! The girls told me that one’s grandmother would usually teach you to make buuz, and the shape would be according to her habit, so would vary from family to family. This is exactly what Masa taught me years ago about Japanese dumplings, and what I learned in Vietnam about spring rolls. Standing there in the warmth of Benj’s kitchen, chatting, cooking, learning and tasting, really epitomised what I love about food – it’s such a conduit for engaging with people and their histories, and even in an unfamiliar place, it’s ultimately such a homely experience.

Once the buuz were made, they were steamed for about 15 minutes and then served. They were all very delicious, and I discovered the pleasure of adding a little pinch of kim chee or pickled cabbage and carrot to each bite rather than dipping them in a sauce. We made dozens of them, but they still disappeared very quickly.

After the buuz, the Mongolians sang some traditional songs, with a haunting sound reminiscent of throat singing, though it wasn’t actually. In response, the Aussies sang Waltzing Matilda and Botany Bay, though our mastery of the lyrics was somewhat wanting. Throughout the feasting and cooking, our three children and the three Mongolian children present ran madly around the house, stopping to grab a fistful of lollies each time they passed through the lounge room. And perhaps inspired by Benj’s filmmaking talents, they spent quite awhile ‘making a film’, but needed a camera with night vision, so moved on to finding ghosts.

I’ve often compared food with music in terms of its cultural significance, issues of authenticity, and capacity to bring people together. Last night was a brilliant example of exactly that, just as the weekends we spend with Benj and the Binks in Violet Town harvesting olives are particularly joyful as they’re centred around food and music. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a really lovely time, learned a great deal, made new friends and tasted new horizons last night.

The Great Pho Party ’09

So I’m back. Hopefully this blog will come alive again now that I’m back to focusing on food and identity full time in my PhD (after a manic year off as a worker). But on to the real story…

Last weekend, to celebrate receiving a scholarship for the rest of my PhD (yay!!), I invited about 20 of my friends and family who have been through the first couple years of my part-time student/mother/worker struggles with unfunded study. Most are fellow students, all are lovely, and most also really like pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). (N.B. I know I should use diacritics, but am too lazy to go copy them and paste them here, so indulge me.) I had never made pho before, though in a cooking class in Saigon I was shown the basic method for pho bo (beef pho). As the grateful recipient of a lovely big 15L stainless steel pot for last summer solstice, what better way to use it than to make pho for loads of people? Well, you’ll see that my lovely pot wasn’t as big as it seemed…

Friday morning, Stuart and I wandered dreamily through Minh Phat (Vietnamese grocery off Victoria St, Richmond) gathering crucial ingredients, then over to a fruit shop for a few missing herbs (esp. sawtooth coriander) and finally the butcher for the meat and bones. I first asked for 4kg of shin bones and was told they didn’t have any. Weird, huh? I accepted this bizarre response and asked for 4kg of flank, which I got (and realised was A LOT of meat!). I then asked for 1.5kg of topside, whereupon the woman serving me lfinally ooked quizzically at me so that I said, “I’m making pho”. She appeared quite excited about this and thrust a bag of beef balls at me, insisting I needed them too. Sure, why not? Finally, she asked me to wait, rushed out back and dragged a huge bag of bones in, pulling four out and telling me, “for you, no charge today.” I was delighted (and she clearly was too – I guess not many Anglos pop in to get ingredients for serious quantities of pho – and I think she must originally have thought I wanted their bones for a dog?), thanked her graciously, paid for the rest (only $47 for all that!) and then Stuart and I lugged our 10kg of meaty goodness back to the car and rushed home.

Dearie me, I wish I’d started the stock earlier, but I think I had extra bone, which made up for a slightly too short cooking time… so now it’s 11:30am, guests will arrive at 7pm, and this stock wants a minimum of 6 hours…

Method & Ingredients

Remember, I was cooking for 20 (and ended up serving 25, with plenty of ingredients except the rice noodles, which ran out for the last 5 of us, but I had some dried to make up the shortfall).

4kg shin bones
4kg flank, cut into pieces about 15cm long
1.5kg topside, sliced thinly
4-5 brown onions
8-12 shallots
2-3 bulbs ginger
6 cinnamon sticks
12 star anise
4 brown cardamom pods
6 cloves
1/2C salt
1/2C sugar
1/2C fish sauce (buy a good brand, which should say “Nuoc Mam Nhi” – any from Phu Quoc are great)
4kg fresh rice noodles
spring onions, finely sliced
sawtooth coriander
coriander
bean sprouts
Vietnamese basil
chilies, sliced
lemons, quartered
chili paste
hoisin
nuoc mam cham (dipping fish sauce: fish sauce, lemon, garlic, chili, sugar)

First, take your bones and soak them in warm water with lemon juice and a generous pinch of salt for about 1/2 hour. This starts to release the blood so you will get a clear stock. Then pop them into boiling water for a further 5-10 minutes, before transferring them to your stockpot full of boiling water. I put them into my 15L pot and simmered them there for about 3 hours, skimming the scum off the top frequently.

While the bones are simmering, lightly bash the cinammon, cloves, star anise and cardamom to break them into smaller pieces, then dry roast them for a few minutes in a (preferably cast iron) frypan (to release more of their oils before adding them to the stock). Put the spices into a muslin bag and drop into the stock.

Next, hold the onions, shallots and ginger over an open flame until chargrilled and set aside to cool. When cool, pull and rub the blackened skins off, cut the onions in half, and pop all of it into a muslin bag. Add these to the stock after about 2 hours.

Next, you’re going to add the flank to cook for 2-3 hours. This is when I realised I needed the bigger pot. Stuart dragged his brewing pot out for me, which is about 40L – it takes up 2 burners but does the trick. πŸ™‚ Add the salt, sugar and fish sauce now. After 2-3 hours, pull the flank back out, pop it into a baking dish with some of the stock and leave to cool.

Once the stock has been simmering for about 6 hours (you can definitely go longer – this is a minimum), pull the bones and muslin bags out and strain it through a piece of muslin into a clean pot. (I was able to put it back into the 15L pot at this stage – and I had added some water when I went into the big pot.) Did I mention that it’s very very helpful to have a second person around when you’re making this much pho? Stuart was very helpful and appreciated!

Your stock is ready! The flank should have cooled, now you can cut it into bite-sized pieces (and I removed a lot of fat whilst doing this – very happy chooks Saturday morning!). Taste the stock and adjust seasonings if you need to with salt, sugar or fish sauce. It’s also common in Vietnam to adjust with msg or ‘pork powder’ or ‘chicken powder’, which are msg-free stock powders (Knorr is a favoured brand in Saigon). I was very happy that I had no need to add any.

As guests are ready to serve, have your flank in one bowl, the topside in another, a pot of boiling water next to the stock, and your rice noodles ready to go, as well as your array of plates of herbs, lemon, bean sprouts, fresh chilies, and chili paste and hoisin. I used Stuart’s brewing sieve to dip the noodles into the boiling water to heat and soften them before placing them into a bowl. Next, I added the raw sliced topside, then boiling stock, then flank pieces before handing the bowl to the grateful recipient to add their own herbs, etc. Voila!

My favourite comment of the evening may have been, “I’d pay $8.50 for this” from a Vietnamese Australian friend, though I did also appreciate, “it tastes just like real pho in Saigon”, even though much of my theoretical work thus far has been contesting notions of authenticity and its instability as a category, let alone its essentialising tendencies… I guess the point is that we all agreed it was rather delish.

I think next time, though, I might cook it for just 10 people!