Monday, October 14, 2019

A simpler 'cheesesteak' sandwich

September 21, 2019

All those banh mi in Hoi An stoked my enthusiasm for fancy sandwiches. They reminded me that I had unfinished business with this cheesesteak sandwich; a really great idea that was just too much work. So almost a year to the day after our first cheesesteak attempt, I tried again. 

The core of this sandwich is a 'meaty' mix of mushrooms and yuba/dried bean curd. I chose slight variations on the ingredients, going for common Swiss brown and portabello mushrooms instead of the rarer, chewier king oysters, and hunting out a dried bean curd that was formed as thin, bite-sized pieces. I condensed the mushroom-yuba flavouring way down to store-bought stock flavouring, vegan oyster and Worcestershire sauces, liquid smoke and a few pantry spices.

The second key element in a Philly cheesesteak is a cheese! The original recipe included a vegan sauce that needs extensive pre-cooking and a deep blend. This time I turned to our beloved Smith & Daughters hot cheddar and pickled jalapeno dip. It's still a bit of effort, but it stirs up in a single saucepan and tastes spectacular. It was the perfect partner to our mushroomy 'steak', melting just a little around the edges and adding some pickley piquancy.

The cheesesteak fillings are saucy, but not as horrendously messy as I feared, gently soaking into a soft long bun without too many drips. I even struck on a method for preserving the magic when taking leftovers to work; microwaving a paper-wrapped roll for 60 seconds to heat it all through without toughening up the bun too badly.

A simpler yuba mushroom cheesesteak sandwich
(a recipe inspired by a Serious Eats one we made previously)

1 teaspoon beef-style stock powder
75g yuba pieces
4 spring onions (would use 1 brown onion in future), chopped
200g Swiss brown mushrooms, sliced into large pieces
250g portabello mushrooms, sliced into large pieces
1/2 red capsicum, sliced into large pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup vegan oyster sauce
1 tablespoon vegan Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
black pepper, to taste
6 long rolls
half the regular quantity of hot cheddar & pickled jalapeno dip
pickled jalapenos, to taste

Place the stock powder in a medium bowl and pour over 1 cup of boiling water. Drop in the yuba pieces, stirring them around so that they're all softened by the water.

Heat the oil in a large frypan or pot. Add the onion and saute until soft. Add the mushrooms and capsicum, sauteing until the capsicum is softened. I found that this mixture dried out quickly, and poured over 1/2 cup water. Add the yuba and stir through, ensuring that the pieces are softened all the way through.

Add the condiments in succession, stirring them through the mixture: oyster sauce, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, paprika, garlic powder, mustard, and pepper. Continue to cook the mixture, stirring, until most of the liquid evaporates.

Cut the rolls lengthways, leaving a small seam where the roll folds open and shut. Spoon in the yuba-mushroom filling, spoon over a generous portion of cheddar dip, and add pickled jalapenos to suit your spice level. Close and eat.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Vegan enchiladas with coriander-cashew cream

September 16, 2019

When one of our friends has a baby, we have a tradition of delivering them a tray of tempeh lasagne. The newest little baby, though, has a gluten-free parent! Thus, we've prepared enchiladas as a wheat-free alternative.

I found this recipe on Oh She Glows during a brief browse online. It's a long recipe, but not at all unreasonable. I really liked the smooth and warmly spiced tomato sauce, based primarily on tomato paste and vege stock. The filling is a mixture of sweet potato, capsicum, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and black beans, moistened with a little of that sauce. Instead of cheese, the enchiladas are topped with a light, green cashew cream that's whipped up entirely in a blender.

I made two little changes. First, I recalled that American chilli powder doesn't pack the punch of typical Aussie stuff and dialled it way down. Second, it's really not my style to neatly pipe the cream at the end. My big dollops are much less photogenic, but I'm AOK with that.

These enchiladas are great fresh out of the oven, packed for lunch at room temperature, with a side dish or straight up on their own. Hopefully they'll serve these new parents well.

Vegan enchiladas with coriander-cashew cream
(very slightly adapted from a recipe on Oh She Glows)

coriander-cashew cream
3/4 cup raw cashews
1/2 cup coriander leaves
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup water
juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons avocado
1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons gluten-free flour
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 scant cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon salt

260g sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 red onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup jarred roasted red capsicum, drained and chopped
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
2 cups baby spinach, roughly chopped
400g can black beans, drained
juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt

~12 small corn tortillas
optional garnishes: more fresh coriander leaves, avocado, chilli flakes, etc

Soak the cashews in water overnight. Drain the cashews and place them in a blender or spice grinder. Add the remaining cream ingredients and blend until smooth.

Next, get the sauce going. Set a medium saucepan over medium heat and pour in the oil. When it's heated, stir in the flour to form a paste. Add the dried spices (chill through to cayenne) and combine well, cooking for a couple of minutes until they smell great. Stir in the tomato paste, and then the stock, until smooth. Simmer for about 5 minutes, and add the salt. Turn off the heat.

Time for the filling. Fill a medium saucepan with water and drop in the sweet potato pieces. Bring it all to the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes, under tender but still holding their shape. Drain the sweet potatoes and set them aside.

Set a large frypan over medium heat and pour in the oil. Saute the onion and garlic for 3-5 minutes, until softened.

Preheat an oven to 180°C.

To the frypan, add the sweet potato, capsicum, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and black beans. Cook, stirring, for 3-5 minutes until the spinach is just wilted. Stir through 1/3 cup enchilada sauce, the lime juice, cumin and salt. Turn off the heat.

Get out a large, high-walled baking dish. Spread 3/4 cup sauce across the base of the dish. Scoop some filling into a tortilla, roll it up and place it in the dish. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and nestle them up together in the dish. Pour the remaining sauce over the tortillas. Baked the enchiladas for around 20 minutes, until they're heated through.

To serve, dollop the cashew cream over the enchiladas and sprinkle over any garnishes.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Sana's vegan dumplings

September 14, 2019

It's been months since I last took on a real cooking project! This one does double duty, coming from my lab cookbook: it's Sana's vegan dumplings! I remember this prize-winning recipe fondly from the annual culinary competition in 2017.

Sana's recipe stretched to two pages, not just because dumplings take a bit of effort, but because she helpfully included resources and photos along the way. We took a few notes with us to KFL to seek out the right ingredients. We were pretty sure we recognised the shitakes on sight, but we couldn't find the bricks of wood ear fungus that Sana described, so we went with a more generic dried black fungus instead. It was easy to find good tofu, fresh veges and dumpling wrappers there.

Sana uses a little AGV BBQ sauce in her filling. We love the stuff, although we haven't had it in a few years, and our mate Steph helped us track it down to Vincent's Marketplace.

Once we'd assembled our ingredients, making the filling was simple methodical work I could easily complete with a couple of podcasts for company. I pleated my wrappers using the method we learned from The Humble Dumpling earlier this year; they weren't perfect but I was pretty pleased with my work. The quantities multiplied out well - the 40 wrappers I bought covered us happily for two consecutive dinners, and used up about half the filling. The remaining filling is now tucked in the freezer, waiting for our next dumpling night.

I experienced bigger challenges in the cooking phase. We've had success with potsticker preparation before, but I just couldn't get it right this time. Two batches stuck stubbornly to our cast-iron pan on Saturday night; on Sunday I simply boiled them instead (top photo) with more success.

Even stubborn, messy dumplings are tasty dumplings, and these have such a great, varied filling. We dipped them into a soy-vinegar-chilli sauce, and rounded out our meal with choy sum in vegetarian oyster sauce and garlic

Sana's vegan dumplings
(a recipe shared by Sana in the Lab Farewell Cookbook)

a handful of dried shitake mushrooms (about 50g)
1 'brick' wood ear fungus (we use ~15-20g dried black fungus)
1 cup celery, finely chopped
1 cup vermicelli, rehydrated according to packet directions and chopped roughly into 1-2cm lengths
1 cup fried tofu, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 stalks spring onion, finely chopped (white and green parts)
dash of soy sauce
dumpling wrappers (this quantity of filling makes about 80)

Place the two kinds of dried mushroom into bowl and pour boiling water over them; make sure they're completely submerged with extra water and bowl space for expansion. Let them soften overnight if you can; we gave them a couple of hours, and part-way through I chopped the shitakes into long slices so that the dry centres were exposed to water. Chop them finely; you're aiming for about a cup of each.

Get out a very large bowl and drop in the chopped mushrooms. Add all of the other ingredients, except for the wrappers (!). Add salt to taste; I went pretty light because of the BBQ and soy sauces but Sana recommends slightly over-seasoning because the wrappers will weaken the overall flavour.

Place a heaped teaspoon of filling in the centre of each dumpling wrapper, and wrap them into your preferred shape. There are plenty of tutorials online! I used the method I learned at The Humble Dumpling. Repeat with as many wrappers as you want.

If you want to simply boil the dumplings, get a very large pot of water up to a rolling boil and drop the dumplings in, in batches. Make sure the batch size allows them all to float to the surface, a stir them regularly to make sure they don't stick to each other. When they're ready, the dumplings will puff up slightly. Pull them out with a slotted spoon.

To make pot-stickers, heat a thin layer of vegetable oil in a frypan over medium-high heat and have a lid that covers the pan at the ready. When the oil is hot, arrange a layer of well-spaced dumplings in the oil. Allow them to fry for about 2 minutes, until they're golden brown on the bottom. Give them a little shake to ensure they don't get stuck. Pour in just enough water to cover the whole base of the frypan and swiftly cover them with the lid; allow them around 4 minutes to steam and add a little more water along the way if you think it's needed. Remove the lid and cook for a further 2 minutes; allow the water to evaporate and give 'em a little shake again to avoid sticking.

Serve the dumplings with a dipping sauce such as soy, black vinegar and chilli in your preferred proportions.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Soba noodles with lime, cardamom & avocado

September 12, 2019

We've been a bit remiss with Simple - we bought it hoping to use it in our mix of speedy school night meals, but with some added Ottolenghi flair. We turned to it again as we settled back into real life after a week of eating ridiculously well in Vietnam. This noodle dish was the perfect return to the kitchen: fresh, tasty and - yes - surprisingly simple.

I had to laugh when a so-called 'simple' recipe starts with scraping out cardamom seeds and grinding them to a powder, but once that step was out of the way there was nothing to it. It just about stretches to two dinners and two leftover lunches too - a perfect option for our regular rotation.

Soba noodles with lime, cardamom & avocado
(slightly adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Simple)

200g soba noodles
12 green cardamom pods
small bunch of basil leaves, roughly chopped
small bunch of coriander leaves, roughly chopped
2 limes, zest and juice
70g pistachios, roughly chopped
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 green chilli, seeded and finely sliced
2 ripe avocados, sliced
chilli flakes and an extra lime to serve

Crush the cardamom pods to extract the seeds and then grind them up in a mortar and pestle to get a half teaspoon of powder.

Cook the noodles as per their instructions, refresh under cold water. Stir everything through with the noodles. 

Serve, topped with a sprinkle of chilli flakes and with a lime quarter on the side.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Sweet stuff in Hoi An

August 31 - September 4, 2019

It's no secret that I've got a sweet tooth, so naturally I was keeping an eye out for desserts on the menus throughout Hoi An. The most common offering was a couple of pieces of fruit at the end of a meal, and that was indeed a fitting and refreshing end when the evening was warm and we'd already eaten plenty. But here are a few other treats we snuck in along the way.

We came across a couple of Cocobox cafes on our first day exploring the ancient town. It's clearly aimed at tourists, with its wifi and its extensive drinks menu providing a cheap means of accessing said wifi. We stopped in when we were hot and tiring of walking, and I was primed for a Coco Choco (75000 VND ~ AU$4.85). This was a cute little cupful of creamy coconut icecream, topped with toasted coconut and thick flakes of dark chocolate. It was really special, a lovely contrast of dark and light flavours.


Michael's already mentioned our splendid dinners at Minh Hien, and I left room for dessert on our first visit. Here I was most drawn to the young rice icecream (45000VND ~ AU$2.90). Swirled with pandan and sprinkled with peanuts, it looked a little like someone lopped the top off a Cornetto! The first mouthful had a bright rice-and-pandan flavour, but my palate rapidly lost sensitivity to its subtlty.

The fancy Nu Eatery had a very European little dessert list of cakes and pies (55000VND ~AU$3.55 each), very well executed. We doubled down on a cheesecake with mulburries and cashew crumble, and a mocha cake layered with spiced cream cheese and sprinkled with peanut brittle.

We have our friend Ash to thank for steering us towards the beautiful tea house Reaching Outwhich provided a timely refuge from a heavy downpour. It's a social enterprise that employs local people with disabilities and stocks fair-trade teas and coffees; there's a rule of speaking minimally and quietly inside and we were happy to honour it during our break. We kept our mouths busy with a sampler of their biscuits; this array of crunchy morsels was flavoured with the likes of ginger, passionfruit, coconut, black sesame, sweet potato and chocolate. Most novel for us were the long ribbons of sweetened, flavoured and dried coconut.

Michael and I are almost polar opposites when it comes to coffee in Melbourne: Michael can't do without one or two each day, while I don't drink it at all. In Vietnam, we're agreed that the sweetened iced coffees are awesome! They're easily the most common sweet thing in Hoi An, and we ordered them almost daily while we could, at any time from breakfast through to after dinner. Well, Michael was game - I'm more inclined to restrict my caffeine intake to daylight hours on hot, distant holidays.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Lunch in Hoi An

September 1 & 4, 2019

There were abundant vegetarian restaurants for us to try around Hoi An! While many were clearly targeted towards tourists, some were frequented equally by locals and by veg*n visitors. We noticed a variety of customers at most of the banh mi vendors we tried, and the same goes for the following two restaurants - both places with local staff speaking limited English, offering clearly translated menus and fantastic food.

Quan Chay Dam is centrally located in the ancient town, although it's tucked into one of the narrower laneways. It opens into a simple but sizable space with a buffet up front and laminated menus available at the table. Yearning for the cơm chay experiences of our last Vietnam holiday, we both ordered the mixed fried rice (30,000VND ~ AU$1.90) and were treated to so many different flavours! A small nest of noodles as well as rice, a spring roll and stir-fried vegetables, samples of four mock meats, and a few pickles. Like the market meals we remembered, it had all been prepared earlier and so was just a little warmer than room temperature but still an absolute delight.


Quan Chay An Lac is a kilometre or so further east along the river; we looked out for it on the day that we borrowed bikes from our hotel and explored the beach. With both pictures and translations on the menu, it was easy to point out what we wanted.

There was pretty much just one staff member running the place, so after she took our order she set to work on our dishes one at a time. We were in no rush and didn't mind sharing so this worked fine for us. First to arrive was the chicken rice (30,000VND ~ AU$1.90); we liked that little yuba strips were used to imitate chicken, and we were most taken by the fresh and distinctive herbs all through the dish, including one we've never encountered in the Vietnamese restaurants we've visited in Australia.

We'd pretty much finished the rice by the time the banh xeo (30,000VND ~ AU$1.90) arrived. It was very thin and crispy with oil, stuffed with more of those gorgeous fresh herbs and veges, and topped with sesame seeds.

Michael ordered a lemonade, and we were initially puzzled that it was the last to arrive of all the dishes... until I figured out that our chef had sent a family member out to purchase ice to make it with! We were so grateful for the hospitality, and for these unique renditions of dishes that we thought we knew well.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Hoi An restaurants

August 31 - September 8, 2019

When we weren't eating banh mi or exploring some casual lunch places (post to follow), we were eating our way through Hoi An's more tourist-oriented vegetarian restaurants. There are plenty of vego places to choose from - this is a quick run down of the places we tried roughly ranked from our favourite onwards.


Annen already featured in our banh mi post, but the rest of their menu is definitely worth your while - we went three times! It's a yoga studio with a courtyard restaurant, friendly staff who speak excellent English and a good range of local dishes to choose from. Cindy couldn't get enough of the quang noodles with Vietnamese pesto (local basil, peanuts, oil and garlic), a deceptively simple dish loaded up with fresh veggies and the tastiest noodles we ate all week (60,000 VND, $3.80). When I wasn't eating the banh mi, I tried the Annen verson of pho - it wasn't the oily mock-meat feast I was imagining, but it was loaded with mushrooms, tofu, fresh herbs and the perfect amount of chilli (60,000 VND, $3.80). With a friendly courtyard cat wandering around and a lovely laid-back vibe, this was probably our favourite restaurant in Hoi An (we're slightly biased 'cause it was ~500m from the hotel).

Am Vegetarian

Am was a little bit further away, but well worth the effort. The courtyard was beautifully hung with lanterns and the atmosphere was a little trendier than Annen's hippie vibe.

On our first visit, I adored the braised tofu in tomato sauce (55,000 VND, $3.50), even if Cindy said the sauce kind of reminded her of tinned spaghetti. We both loved the traditional fresh spring rolls with mock sausage (60,000 VND, $3.80). The fried rice with vegetarian fish (55,000 VND, $3.50) didn't come with chunks of mock fish unfortunately, but worked well alongside our other dishes.

Second time around we got a zingy papaya salad (60,000 VND, $3.80), which came with a side plate of crackers to start things off.

We also tried a serve of Am's version of beef in lá lốt leaves (betel leaves), which were dense little cigars of absolute deliciousness. We got properly stuck into the mock fish this time, with a hot-pot full of braised fish with Vietnamese mint (60,000VND, $3.80) - this was some very fine mock meat in a week where mock meat proved harder to find than expected.

Nu Eatery

We got a couple of recommendations from friends for Nu Eatery, an omni place in the ancient town with a good range of vego options. It feels a little higher end than most of the other places we ate - still casual, but there's a bit more emphasis on presentation and atmosphere. The food is excellent too - we split three savoury dishes: a serve of the fresh rolls (filled with tofu, jicama, young coconut and toasted peanuts, 45,000VND, $2.90), the cumin carrot (with tahini, spring onions, puffed rice and sunflower seeds, 75,000VND, $4.80) and the vegetarian rice (with charred eggplant, braised tofu and chayote, 100,000VND, $6.40).

These were all really fabulous - the cumin carrots in particular stood out with a fantastic mix of textures and flavours. This is almost the entire set of vego options on the menu, otherwise we'd definitely have been back for a second round.

Minh Hien

Minh Hien is a mini chain of vego places in Hoi An - there are 3 different branches dotted around town. We went to Minh Hien III, which was the closest to our hotel and had a lovely outdoor garden vibe going on.

In contrast to Nu, the menu here was an overwhelming array of options - all vegetarian and mostly vegan. Over a couple of visits we tried some vegetarian versions of Hoi An specialties - white rose dumplings (top left) and cao lầu (bottom left). I was a big fan of cao lầu (49000VND, $3.10) - a simple noodle dish with plenty of trimmings. The white rose dumplings (79000VND, $5) were good too - cute little flower-shaped dumplings filled with a minced tofu mix rather than the traditional pork.

The two highlights though are in the right panel - the grilled tofu in banana leaf (top right, 69000VND, $4.40) and the banana blossom salad (bottom right, 69000VND, $4.40). The tofu was stuffed with onion and mushrooms and loaded with chilli and was easily my favourite. The salad was Cindy's favourite - filled with fresh flavours and interesting textures. There's such a lot on the Minh Hien menu that we could easily have gone back for a third trip.

The Fisherman

We did a day trip to An Bang Beach one day and stopped off for lunch at the only vegan place on the beach - The Fisherman.

It's a lovely setting - opening up right onto the beach. The menu is a bit all over the place - you can get all kinds of non-Vietnamese food: burgers, falafel, scrambled tofu burrito as well as pho, noodles etc. Cindy ordered the sunrise smoothie bowl (mango smoothie base with oats, fruit, chia seeds, shredded coconut, toasted nuts and coconut yoghurt, 90,000VND, $5.70), while I tried the bibimbap (tofu, spinach, carrot, mushroom, zucchini, bean sprouts and rice, 95000VND, $6). Both were fine: the bibimbap had lots of different pickled veggies with a few nice tofu chinks for protein and the smoothie bowl toppings were an excellent mix. In general though, The Fisherman was a bit underwhelming compared to all the fantastic Vietnamese food we'd been eating - it's worth a visit if you're at the beach, but I wouldn't make the trip just for the food.

Vegan Zone

Vegan Zone was just around the corner from our hotel - a cute little place with a much more vegan-oriented philosophy than most of the other places we'd been eating.

We ordered four small dishes to share - clockwise from top-left: eggplant crepes (55000VND, $3.50), vegan fried rolls (45000VND, $2.85), mustard rolls (45000VND, $2.85) and potato cakes (55000VND, $3.50). This was a bit of a mixed bag - the eggplant crepes were a bit too chunky for my tastes and the two sets of rolls were fine without really standing out. The potato cakes were the star - crunchy exteriors with puffy potato fillings and a lovely mustardy dipping sauce.

We ate exceptionally well in Hoi An - Cindy will follow this up with a few of our outings to the more locally-oriented vego places.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Banh mi in Hoi An

August 31 - September 8, 2019

We didn't have too many plans for our week in Hoi An: take a cooking class, go birding for a day, swim in the pool and eat as many banh mi as possible. We went wandering on our first day in town and found our way to the central market. We'd had breakfast at the hotel and it wasn't yet lunch time, but there's no harm in a wander through the food court, right? We didn't find an entirely vego stall like the ones we feasted at in Da Lat, but we did find a couple with vego menus, including Mrs Ha. I decided a second breakfast was in order and grabbed a vego banh mi - it cost 20,000VND (about $1.25) and was a pretty basic tofu, veggies and sauce roll. Nothing fancy, but a good way to get a week of sandwiches underway.

We had to visit Banh Mi Phuong, made famous by Anthony Bourdain's endorsement. It's become a go-to place in Hoi An and there are usually queues out the door. We somehow hit a quiet patch, which meant we didn't have long to wait for a pair of tofu and avocado banh mi. This is a good sandwich - rich and creamy with avo and stuffed full of slightly sweet tofu. Add some chilli for optimal results. It's also vegan (although everything's cooked and served using the same implements), and just 20,000VND ($1.25).

One of the other hyped-up banh mi places in town is Madame Khan. They have an off-menu vegan option (tofu), but we ordered the regulation vegetarian roll: tomato, cheese, egg and veggies (20,000VND, $1.25). This was really great as well - probably my favourite bread of the week - worth your while if you want a break from tofu-based sandwiches.

Happy Cow pointed us to the one entirely vegan banh mi in town, a street stall that sells out by about 10am each morning. We went for 2nd breakfast one morning to try it out. This was pretty classic - nothing fancy, but a great combination of tofu, crushed peanuts and veggies on a crunchy roll. It's also the cheapest on our list, at just 12,000VND ($0.75).

Our last day in town was a two banh mi day, starting at Phi Banh Mi with a vegetarian special, that combined spreadable Laughing Cow cheese with crispy tofu, cucumber, fresh herbs and carrot (25000VND, $1.50). I wouldn't have guessed that cheese and tofu would work together, but they were a surprising hit here (you can sub the cheese for avo if you're vegan).

We signed off with a visit to the fanciest vego banh mi in town at Annen, a yoga studio and vego restaurant that we visited repeatedly. The banh mi comes with  crispy lemongrass tofu, mushroom, tomato, cucumber, papaya/carrot salad, greens and a big slab of nori. It's fancy, and you pay a premium for it - 55,000VND (a whopping $3.40) - but it's definitely worth it. I would eat this every day if I could.

It's hard to go too far wrong with banh mi - we had a great time exploring all that Hoi An had to offer. We'll have to make do with Trang and La Panella until we can go back.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Red Bridge Cooking School

September 2, 2019

We saw winter out with a wonderful, relaxing holiday in Hoi An, Vietnam. A week or two before we set off we made sure to book in a couple of outings: one centred around bird watching (with an excellent lunch rolled in) and the other, a cooking class. There are numerous cooking classes around Hoi An, and my online reading suggested that Red Bridge Cooking School would suit us well. 

Their half day tour (US$34 per person) took us and about a dozen fellow students through the central market to learn about ingredients and tools (it wasn't a veg*n class, so that included visiting the meat and [sometimes live] seafood). From the market, we took a boat along the Thu Bon river to the cooking school itself. The school has a lovely herb garden, and covered open areas to cook and eat.

The class is structured as a series of short demonstrations and do-it-yourself. We started with banh xeo, turmeric-tinted rice pancakes that I was already fond of. As we rolled our pancakes in rice paper, we learned that it's stored and softened in banana leaves rather than hydrated in a water bowl.

An even bigger revelation was to come, when we made our own fresh rice paper! It's formed from a simple batter, spread and steamed over boiling water for just one minute, before it's quickly but gently prised off the cotton sheet. We weren't good at the manoeuvre, but nevertheless we were rewarded with the freshest, most special rice paper rolls we've ever eaten. I'm not sure that we'll repeat this at home, but we'll keep this memory for a long time. 

A short lesson in food decoration was fun but produced mixed results: I sliced my cucumber a little too thick for it to bend into the loops we were aiming for. Surprisingly, our tomato-skin roses turned out pretty well!

We also made a neat little tofu-mushroom claypot, and received tuition on papaya salad. While everyone else shared a steamed whole fish, Michael and I were treated to eggplant in a thick peanut sauce.

We had a great experience at Red Bridge Cooking School. They're very well organised, with lots of staff on hand to assist and ready to tidy around us. The tour guides and chefs were charming and upbeat, cracking plenty of jokes along the way. The pace was reasonably fast, and our contributions to the cooking were often more a brief practice of a technique (e.g. cooking ready-made batter and adding pre-chopped veges, julienning vegetables for the salad) rather than seeing a dish through from market to plate. 

While we received many handy tips throughout the class, we weren't individually tutored on the techniques - the couple of times that I stumbled, the nearest assistant tended to just take over and keep things moving rather than coach me through an improved attempt. This is a small quibble, though - overall, the approach enabled us to try and eat many different dishes, and feel equipped to repeat them at home. I reckon the banh xeo is on the top of our to-make list, with the papaya salad a close second.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Sichuan House II

August 21, 2019

We recently met up with a big gang of vegans for a weeknight feast at Sichuan House. There's nothing very fancy about the venue - it's been pumping out amazing spicy food for years and the decor could easily have come straight from the 90s. It's a surprisingly veg-friendly place - we ordered 9 vegan dishes to share and we still had more options on the menu we could have tried. We kicked off with one of my absolute favourite dishes - Sichuan cold noodles ($7), a gloriously spicy treat that zaps your mouth and sets you up for the rest of the meal.

Someone in the group insisted we try the spicy cumin cauliflower ($20.80), and I'm glad they did - we'd never had this before (although we ate very similar dishes in China last year) and it was one of the best dishes of the night. As the name suggests, it's spicy, it's cumin-y and it's cauliflower. The spicy dried tofu ($11.80) is more of an old favourite - chewy tofu strips, slathered in more zingy sichuan pepper sauce.

We added a plate of greens with the Chinese broccoli with garlic ($16.80) and an order of Cindy's dish of choice: fish-fragrant eggplant ($19.80). The lightly battered eggplant has a sweet, vinegar-y sauce, along with a good hit chilli of course. It's always a winner.

The stir-fried five-spice tofu and chives ($19.80) is another old favourite, although it didn't quite live up to our memories this time. The tofu was a bit lacking in flavour alongside all the other dishes - it's usually great though, so we'll probably order it again next time. The absolute show-stopper of the night was the mapo tofu minus the pork ($16.80) - a rich and spicy dish that I will dream about for weeks.

The spicy and sour potato threads ($19.80) and stir-fried tea-tree mushrooms with five-spice tofu ($19.80) were both just okay - the potato lacked a bit of sourness this time around and the tea-tree mushrooms are an acquired taste.

On the whole though, this was an incredibly good meal - it's so great to go somewhere like Sichuan House with a big group so you can really delve into everything they have to offer. Sharing this food around is delightful, messy fun - it's got to be one of the best big-group options in the city.

Read about our first visit here. More recently, Enlightened Decadence enjoyed a selection of their tofu dishes, while there are positive meaty reviews at Foodie About Town and streaky eats.

Sichuan House
22-26 Corrs Lane, Melbourne 
9650 8589
menu samples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Accessibility: Entry includes about six steps, and we didn't see a more accessible alternative. Tables are densely packed. We ordered at the table and paid at a high counter. Toilets were gendered, flat-floored and narrow.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Rice Paper Scissors

August 18, 2019

We went hard at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year! I was expecting this to mean hasty stops for dumplings, street-side crepes and Lord of the Fries between sessions but we actually had several more leisurely sit-down meals. Our friend Jess organised a booking for Rice Paper Scissors, which we hadn't previously bothered investigating for veg*n options. As Jess well knew, there's actually a clearly marked vegan section to their menu (with gluten-free dishes also marked), and were able to sample almost all of it between the three of us.

The two things I most liked about the menu arrived up front. First, there's a list of six mocktails on the drinks list - I ordered a Yuzu Can't Touch This ($9.50). Second, the roti is vegan-friendly! We ordered two of them with peanut dipping sauce ($7 each) to celebrate.

Half the vegan menu includes the word 'salad', but they proved to be varied and substantive dishes that do the word proud. The tempura eggplant salad ($14, above left) arrived first, with the battered pieces keeping crisp alongside julienned green mango, chilli, coconut and herbs. The Asian greens ($13, above right) looked pretty salad-y too, with wood ear mushrooms, bean shoots and ginger sauce.

The smoked tofu had us doing a double-take - its density and texture was more like a mock-meat (or even possibly a real meat) than regular bean curd! It popped up in generous, marinated chunks in both the crisp, tangy green apple salad ($14, above left) and the sweet, saucy bao (~$7 each, above right). These were probably my two favourite dishes of the day.

The mushroom salad ($14) featured all sorts of barbecued funghi; I overlooked the banana blossom and rambutan here as a consequence.

We had a big wait after our salads were done. We were full, took a while to notice that we were missing a dish, and weren't inclined to remind the staff about it. Actually, they'd deliberately paced the ma hor ($12) for us. It was great to receive fresh fruit at the conclusion of our meal, piling it with a caramelised five-spiced tofu and peanut 'mince' as best we could.

The dessert menu's an interesting one, though sadly not so vegan-friendly. No matter - we were well looked after by a vegan staff member and clearly had no end of sweet, sour and savoury vegan mains to enjoy. The only downfall we experienced at Rice Paper Scissors was its interior design - it's densely packed, its seating doesn't include back support, and it's noisy. We'll choose carefully when and with whom we make reservations there.


Yoshiko has attended a vegan degustation at the Fitzroy restaurant - it looks like these still occur with some regularity.

Rice Paper Scissors
19 Liverpool St, Melbourne CBD
9663 9890
omni menu, vegan & desserts, cocktails & mocktails, wine, beer & other drinks

Accessibility: Not high! It's loud and crowded, with a mixture of high and low tables and stools (I don't think any of the chairs had backs). We ordered at our high bench and paid at an adjoining high bench. We didn't visit the toilets.