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Monday, May 25, 2015

Toyama black ramen, firefly squid and a Cheap Eats cover story for Good Food

Soft serve challenge across Japan 2015

I'm back. If you've been following me on Instagram, you'll know I've just returned from a three-week holiday in Japan. The buy-one-get-one-free Jetstar sale tickets were too hard to resist. What did we do? Ate non-stop. We licked our way through a couple of soft serves too.

Premium gyumeshi gyudon at Matsuya, Ikebukero, Japan
Premium gyumeshi 480 yen (AU$5.20)
with spicy sauce, green onions and egg with free miso soup

We landed at Narita airport about 13 hours after leaving Sydney, including a plane change at the Gold Coast. Tired and grumpy at 10pm, I knew we'd end up at Masuya for our first meal, just one chain of many gyudon (beef and onion on rice) restaurants in Japan that are open 24/7.

Premium gyumeshi beef at Matsuya, Ikebukero, Japan
Gyumeshi beef, a mix of imported Australian and American beef

Gyudon is all about simmered beef and onions on rice. The meat is thinly sliced and tender, cooked in a sweet onion sauce that sinks slowly into your bowl of hot rice. This is a comfort food dish that hits all the right notes. It's hard to miss the irony of ordering the premium gyumeshi, a proud offering of imported Australia and American beef, but the meat is remarkably fatty and juicy.

Ontama egg on premium gyumeshi beef gyudon at Mastuya, Ikebukero, Japan
Runny egg yolk deliciousness

An onsen egg is essential. Pierce the bright yellow yolk for a flood of richness that drenches everything. Add a spoonful of the complimentary pickled ginger for a palate cleanser between bites.

Gyudon is impressively cheap, with small bowls starting at about AU$4. The food arrives fast, and our counter seats give us an intimate view of everything happening in the kitchen.

The tiny wooden box presented on our tray has us stumped until the staff laugh and remove the tiny wooden dowel sticking out. It's a vessel for chilli powder, adding the fiery punch we need after a long haul flight.


Tokyo to Toyama, Japan map

We leave Tokyo the next morning for Toyama, a new addition to the shinkansen or bullet train network. It now takes about two hours to get to Toyama from a Tokyo on a direct train. Previously the journey took about three and an half hours with a mandatory transfer. The brand new train station is bright and gleaming, and is expected to open up the city to a significant increase in domestic and international tourism.

Bridge over the river at Toyama Castle Park, Toyama
Bridge over the Matsu River at Toyama Castle Park, Toyama

The flood of tourists have yet to arrive when we visit though, and we're glad to have the wide streets to ourselves. At the centre of Toyama (population one million) is Toyama Castle, set within the grounds of a sprawling public park.

Toyama Castle, Japan
Toyama Castle, rebuilt in 1954

Like the majority of castles in Japan, Toyama Castle is a reconstruction, rebuilt in 1954 after earlier versions were destroyed. The original Toyama Castle was built in 1543.

Toyama Castle Park, Japan
Lakes and greenery in Toyama Castle Park

The surrounding gardens are immaculate, dotted with koi ponds and waterfalls that create a tranquil escape from the concrete jungle. More than 95% of the city was destroyed in World War II, after 173 American B-29 bombers dropped incendiary bombs on August 1, 1945. You won't find many old buildings in Toyama, but the city has been designed to be compact and accessible.

Firefly squid sashimi in Toyama, Japan
Firefly squid sashimi 800 yen (AU$8.80)

When it comes to food, Toyama is best known for its hotaru ika ほたるいか or firefly squid. If we'd been more organised, we would have joined one of the tours that visit Toyama Bay at dawn. The firefly squid emit a fluorescent blue light, creating an eerie and beautiful display in the unique bowl-shaped bay.

We tried them at the newly built shopping complex near Toyama JR train station with a bounty of restaurants and food stalls. Eating them raw is the best way to appreciate them, a chance to admire their glistening sheen. There's a slight stickiness to the surface. The flesh is mildly sweet with a gentle chew. The tentacles are slightly stronger in flavour. Both can be relished plain or with mustard and a soy dipping sauce.

Seasonal sashimi set in Toyama, Japan
Seasonal sashimi set 1,100 yen (AU$12.10)

The seasonal sashimi set is a showcase of all that is delicious from the local area. Thin slices of raw octopus are incredibly tender, and the raw squid has been sliced into the thinnest of ribbons. The raw shrimp, or prawn, is wondrously sweet.

Ramen Iroha, Toyama, Japan
Dining counters at Ramen Iroha

Toyama is also the home of black ramen, a local specialty that marries noodles with a distinctive black soy sauce soup.

Toyama black ramen at Ramen Iroha, Toyama, Japan
Toyama black ramen 980 yen (AU$10.75)

We get our fix of Toyama black ramen (富山ブラックラーメン) at Ramen Iroha, tucked into the basement of the CiC department store.

Toyama black ramen at Ramen Iroha, Toyama, Japan
Crinkly noodles in a black soy base

The black soy gives a hearty salty kick to the otherwise light chicken stock. The noodles are noticeably thick and chewy. Thick slices of fatty pork, a soy sauce egg and a pile of shredded leeks round out a satisfying meal.

Kushiage skewers at a Japanese supermarket in Toyama, Japan
Kushiage deep fried skewers at the supermarket

We only have a day in Toyama, but that's still enough time to stalk the local supermarket stocked with sashimi boxes, sushi, bakery goods and more. The kushiage section is always my favourite marvel, a self-serve display of fried deliciousness to take home.

Pluto pups a Japanese supermarket in Toyama, Japan
Pluto pups!

You'll find deep fried fish, sweet potato, chicken and prawns. The pluto pups are too exciting to resist. They're less of a frankfurt and more like a pork sausage inside, missing the drizzle of tomato sauce but still tasty.

Statue outside a restaurant in Toyama, Japan
Statue outside a restaurant

We only have a day in Toyama for tomorrow we head to Kanazawa! Post coming soon.

Boats on the river in Toyama, Japan
Hanging flower pots above the Matsu river that runs through the centre of Toyama

Spring blossoms in front of Toyama Castle, Japan

1-20-6 Nishiikebukuro Toshima, Tokyo
Tel: +81 (03) 5396 7631
Open 24 hours a day
Matsuya has outlets all over Japan

Menya Iroha
CiC department store basement (B1F)
1-2-3 Shintomi-cho, Toyama, Japan
Tel: +81 (076) 444 7211
Open 7 days 11am-12 midnight

Sydney's Best Cheap Eats

Sydney's Best Cheap Eats by Helen Yee for Good Food, 28 April 2015

And as luck would have it, my cover story for Good Food was published while I was away. You might say it was a surreal moment when Good Food editor Ardyn Bernoth approached me for this feature. The $10 issue celebrates Sydney's best cheap eats, the kind of food I always get excited about. Fancy meals can be impressive but a budget feed can leave you just as breathless with wide-eyed excitement and appreciation. My pick of restaurants was harder to compile than you could possibly imagine.

Sydney's Best Cheap Eats by Helen Yee for Good Food, 28 April 2015

Ten bucks might not seem like much but it can score you all kinds of awesomeness across Sydney. I tried to give a geographic mix of seated establishments, but you can tell my heart (and stomach) lies in Sydney's west.

Missed out on reading the two-page spread? You can read the full story online at Good Food.

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/25/2015 12:27:00 a.m.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Peranakan Place, Auburn

Ayam buah keluak Nonya dish at Peranakan Place, Auburn

Relax, there’s no hydrogen cyanide left in the buah keluak seed by the time it ends up in your meal here. The seed is found inside the "football fruit" of the keluak tree native to the swamps of southeast Asia – and thanks to that volatile acid, is highly poisonous. So why is it on the menu at this Auburn eatery?

Buah keluak seeds at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Buah keluak seeds

Here's why: they first boil down the seeds before burying them in ash for forty days. This allows them to ferment, and converts the flesh from a pale creamy colour to a midnight shade of black. Those seeds are the centrepiece of ayam buah keluak, a dark and spicy chicken stew fragrant with tamarind, turmeric and galangal.

Ayam buah keluak ($29.90) is a mainstay of Peranakan cuisine. And those seeds are unlike anything you will ever taste. You’ll get a crab picker to scrape out the meat from within the partially cracked seed. The flesh is ominously black, nutty and medicinal – with an unmistakeable bitterness.

Peranakan traditional metal tiffin at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Peranakan mortar and pestle and traditional metal tiffin

You can try it for yourself at Peranakan Place, Sydney’s only restaurant dedicated to Peranakan cuisine. There’s not much signage out the front but the interiors are new and sparkling, filled with Peranakan trinkets and a smiling host who’s eager to explain everything.

Like, for instance, what is Peranakan food? It’s the distinct strain of Malay Chinese cuisine which evolved in the 15th and 16th centuries in Malaysia and Singapore when Chinese immigrants integrated their food with that of the locals. Also known as Nonya food – nonya means aunty in Peranakan – the cuisine fuses Chinese ingredients with Malaysian spices. That means a little coconut milk here, a feisty wad of shrimp paste there.

Shrimp paste fried chicken wings at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Shrimp paste fried chicken wings $6.90 for four

There are plenty of less intimidating dishes on the menu, too. The shrimp paste fried chicken wings are boosted by a salty prawn intensity that makes you lust after more.

Nonya pie tee top hats at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Pie tee top hats $9.90 for four

Pie tee is another classic Peranakan dish. Little top hats of deep-fried pastry get turned upside and filled with cooked turnip shreds, prawn and coriander.

Babi ponteh pork belly and trotters at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Babi pongteh pork belly and trotters $16.90
with coconut rice $3

Splurge on the coconut rice and have it with babi pongteh, a comforting stew of gelatinous pork trotters cooked with chestnuts and shiitake mushrooms.

Kang kong water spinach with belacan at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Kang kong water spinach with belacan $13.90

Achar pickled vegetables at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Achar pickled vegetables $4

Durian with sticky rice and coconut cream at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Durian with sticky rice and coconut cream $8.80

Durian with sticky rice and coconut cream at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Durian and sticky rice

Go hard on the durian custard for desserts, either served in a choux pastry puff or drizzled over sticky rice.

Pulot hitam black sticky rice and coconut cream at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Pulot hitam black sticky rice with coconut cream $6.90

It’s also worth checking out the pulot hitam, a rice pudding made with chewy black rice sweetened with palm sugar and decorated with coconut cream.

Teh terik and lime soda drinks at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Teh tarik pulled tea and lime soda drinks

Original Peranakan hand-painted tiles at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Original Peranakan hand-painted tiles

Nonya cuisine at Peranakan Place, Auburn
Nonya cuisine at Peranakan Place

Peranakan Place, Auburn

Peranakan Place Nonya Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Peranakan Place
139 Parramatta Road, Auburn, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9737 8989

Opening hours:
Wednesday to Sunday 11.30am-2.30pm; 5.30pm-10pm

This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Time Out Sydney in my monthly Food & Drink column Eat This! [Read online

Read more of my Time Out Sydney reviews

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/17/2015 12:00:00 a.m.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Crispy Cluckers, Newington

Korean fried chicken with soy at Crispy Cluckers, Newington

Have you ever been to Newington? The development that was once the Sydney Olympic Village is now a quaint suburban neighbourhood that seems to suddenly appear out of nowhere. There's a Korean grocery store, a Woolworths supermarket and a whole row of restaurants and cafes catering for locals. It feels like we're in a university town with its quiet cosiness. What brings us here? Korean fried chicken. Of course. But with a name like Crispy Cluckers, how could we resist?

Korean fried chicken diners at Crispy Cluckers, Newington
Young crowd at Crispy Cluckers

Newington is the second branch opening for Crispy Cluckers, expanding on its Lidcombe original. There's a small range of chicken burgers and salads (the deep fried prawns with garden salad sounds like my kinda health kick) but really, everyone is here for the fried chicken.

There's a huge group of uni students booked in when we arrive, decimating endless platters of fried chicken. Unfortunately they were yet to receive their liquor licence but are allowing BYO beers and ciders for the thirsty.

Korean fried chicken with soy at Crispy Cluckers, Newington
Deep fried chicken with soy Selection one on our half n half chicken for $30

There are only three of us tonight so we go for tactics, opting for the half n half chicken to maximise our research options. The chicken doesn't take long to arrive, served on rectangular platters that soon jostle for space on our table. The batter has a deep golden colour, with promising curls of crispy bits at the edges.

Our first half order is the soy fried chicken coated in a sweet soy marinade. It's a touch too sweet for me but the sauce does add extra juiciness to the flesh.

Korean fried chicken with spring onion at Crispy Cluckers, Newington
Deep fried chicken with shredded spring onion Selection two on our half n half chicken for $30
($5 surcharge for the spring onion)

The other half options are hot n spicy or sweet chilli but the kitchen is happy to provide our requested spring onion for a surcharge of $5. We're happy to pay it, and our fried chicken is draped in a mountain of finely shredded spring onion, soy and garlic. There's as not much of a wasabi kick as you find in similar dishes at Naruone or Sparrow's Mill.

Complimentary daikon pickled white radish at Crispy Cluckers, Newington
Complimentary pickled daikon (white radish)

We don't have beers to wash down our fried chicken but we do pounce on the refreshing cubes of pickled daikon. They're an essential palate cleanser and oil-overload reset. Staff will also provide you with free replenishments if you ask nicely.

Kkan Pung boneless fried chicken at Crispy Cluckers, Newington
Kkan Pung boneless chicken $27

We commit to a complete blowout with the the kkan pung boneless chicken too, a Beijing-style sauce that reminds me of sweet and sour. It's spicy, sweet and tangy with a medley of finely chopped shallots, carrots and red chillies thrown into the mix.

Korean fried chicken with soy at Crispy Cluckers, Newington
Deep fried chicken with soy

We'd heard people wax lyrical about the chicken here, but it must be an off night. The chicken is reasonably good but not, shall we say, groan-worthy. Yet between three females we still manage to finish almost everything. Only three lonely pieces defeat us. Staff cheerfully pack this in a takeaway box and insist on giving us some free pickled radish with it too. We'll strike that up as a win.

Crispy Cluckers, Newington

Crispy Cluckers on Urbanspoon

Crispy Cluckers
Shop C03/3 Avenue of Europe, Newington, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9648 8282

Opening hours:
Monday to Saturday 11.30am-10pm
Closed Sundays

Also at:
20 Joseph Street, Lidcombe, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9649 8282

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Korean fried chicken - Arisun, Haymarket
Korean fried chicken - Beschico, Epping
Korean fried chicken - Kim, Potts Point
Korean fried chicken - Moon Park, Redfern
Korean fried chicken - Naruone, Sydney
Korean fried chicken - Red Pepper, Strathfield
Korean fried chicken - Seoul Orizin, Haymarket
Korean fried chicken - Sparrow's Mills, Sydney

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/10/2015 12:00:00 a.m.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville

Hearts of palm salad, cactus salad, ceviche and tortilla soup at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville

There’s something you need to know about the huaraches gigantes here. It’s not gigantic – it’s colossal. The 40cm long torpedo of homemade fried tortilla dough laden with chicken, chorizo, capsicum, lettuce and fresh cheese is called a huaraches because it looks like a sandal of the same name.

Huaraches gigantes homemade tortilla at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Huaraches gigantes $22
40cm long homemade tortilla with refried beans and your choice of chicken, beef or chorizo

Maybe that explains why it can be a little chewy in parts, but its density means there’s no chance of sogginess from the avalanche of fillings on top. In addition to the enormous huaraches, there’s a whole range of South American dishes to explore from this grandma’s kitchen (La Cocina De la Abuela in Spanish) in Marrickville.

Huaraches gigantes homemade tortilla at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Huaraches gigantes on the table

Tables and decor at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Tables and decor at La Cocina de la Abuela

The owner’s Uruguayan heritage makes an appearance in the chivito al plato, a thin piece of steak with pancetta, ham, cheese, fried egg and chips, as well as Grandma’s Milanesas beef schnitzel. The walls are resplendent with embroidered sombreros and colourful piñatas and fresh flowers on every table are a thoughtful touch. It’s quiet when we visit for a Sunday dinner but we expect things to pick up once word gets out about their tortilla soup.

Tortilla soup sopa Azteca at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Sopa Azteca $11.50
Traditional tortilla soup in Guajillo broth

The tortilla soup is thick and deep red in colour, piled with a mountain of deep-fried tortilla shards. There’s a complexity of heat and spice in every spoonful of this textural soup that combines soup-swollen tortilla bits at the bottom and still-crunchy tortilla straws at the top. Strewn across the top is a cool scoop of guacamole and crumbled fresh white cheese (queso fresco).

Cactus salad ensalada de nopales at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Ensalada de nopales $12.50
Cactus salad with tomato, Spanish onion, avocado and queso fresco

Cactus salad is a rare treat that’s worth ordering. The cactus pieces come tossed through with red onion, tomato wedges, guacamole and more queso fresco.

Hearts of palm salad esalada de palmitos at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Ensalada de palmitos $11.50
Traditional hearts of palm salad

We dig the hearts of palm salad too, mixed with green capsicum in a creamy dressing.

Ceviche with tortilla chips at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Ceviche $12
Fresh fish marinated in lime juice 

Continue the Mexican fiesta with tamales steamed in banana leaves and slow-cooked chicken with mole sauce. Don’t forget the ceviche either, bright and zingy with lime and surrounded by crunchy tortilla chips.

Dining room with lanterns at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Dining room with lanterns

Hearts of palm salad, tortilla soup, cactus salad and ceviche at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Hearts of palm salad, tortilla soup, cactus salad and ceviche

She might not be your maternal grandmother, but drop in on this Marrickville matriarch and she’ll treat you to a South American feast without any surly questions about what you’re doing with your life.

Creme caramel flan at La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville
Flan $9
Creme caramel

Latin American restaurant La Cocina de la Abuela, Marrickville

La Cocina de la Abuela on Urbanspoon

La Cocina de la Abuela
208 Marrickville Road, Marrickville, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9569 3331

Opening hours:
Lunch Wednesday to Sunday 12pm-3pm
Dinner Tuesday 6pm-9pm, Wednesday to Saturday 6pm-9.30pm, Sunday 6pm-8.30pm

This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Time Out Sydney in my monthly Food & Drink column Eat This! [Read online

Read more of my Time Out Sydney reviews

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/03/2015 12:00:00 a.m.

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