Food fun in the Far East
Food, food food. So often when speaking or thinking of East Asia, its food emerges as the key topic. The food of the region is varied, exciting and, for those who don’t want to board a plane, often fairly accessible back home.
Peking duck: A royal meal made public
Behind fried rice, it’s perhaps one of the most known of Chinese dishes. It is a meal so beautiful, one of the world’s most resplendent cities has attached its name to it.
Most people might comment first on its crispy taste, the sweet sauce, the crisp scallions, the satisfying pancake. I would agree. I would suggest, though, a slightly more original, if odd, place to start. It is a fun eat.
It is a meal you make. Place a chunk of duck into the pancake, top it with the hoisin sauce, garnish with the scallion, wrap, then enjoy. One pancake is never enough. Then, too, there is the second course. The cut-up duck meat served in bowls of cabbage.
The dish, with centuries of history, was originally an exclusive treat for the emperor and entourage. However, the recipes were smuggled out of the palaces and onto the streets, likely to the pleasure of many.
It has since spread across the globe and one need not venture to Peking, also known as Beijing, to enjoy a good version of the dish (in fact, from my experience, the best Peking duck I have had was in, of all places, Canberra.) The Chinatowns of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane will all offer what you want.
Korea's kicking kimchi
Korea’s kimchi carries not quite the repute of Peking duck. I can imagine no-one who would not like Peking duck. It blends sweet, salty, crispy and tender in a manner easily savoured by all but the surliest of eaters. Kimchi, on the other hand, is a more acerbic eat.
This near-national dish of Korea can be summarised as a vegetable, such as cabbage (though it varies), marinated in a soft chilli sauce. This is an undue simplification. There are literally hundreds of variations.
The taste is rich and softly spicy. The vegetable retains an edge of crispiness, but is still softened in the marinade. The best way to enjoy kimchi is not on its own. Include it as part of a larger meal, say Korean barbecue, which essentially involves cooking a range of ingredients on a hotplate (it's fun in the same way as Peking duck).
Korean barbecue restaurants are fairly ubiquitous in Koreatowns. Sydney has a number of Koreatowns, including those in Strathfield, Eastwood and Campsie. Further in the city centre, just a little way north of Central, is a string of Korean restaurants. The Korean barbecue joints are easy to spot. Look inside and see if the tables have a circular hot plate built into their centre. If so, you’re close. In Melbourne, look to go to La Trobe street and its vicinity.
Okinawa’s squid ink noodles and Taiwan’s egg pancakes: Reasons to travel
It is a striking dish: stir-fried charcoal black noodles, with bean sprouts and a choice of protein. Squid ink noodles, like the noodle soup Soba, are ubiquitous in Okinawa — an island chain south of Japan. It felt close to something like fried rice. The dish is odd in image but quite pleasant, easy even, in taste. The ink adds a savoury touch to the whole affair. To be sure, I haven't found squid ink noodles in Australia. It certainly doesn't mean they are not there. Perhaps they are just harder to find.
Meanwhile, a day or so west on boat is Taiwan. Here, apart from the oft-discussed Din Tai Fung, is another pleasant specialty: Taiwan omelettes. They are a simple, hearty, even staple, breakfast cuisine. A circular, thin dough is fried on a plate until crisp. When ready it is taken off. An egg is then cracked over the plate. The bread is placed atop. Described pithily, the meal is just bread and egg. That may be right, but it doesn’t matter. This wholesome, simple meal, cooked by an old couple at their small stall on the street side, is unfortunately not all that common in Australia.
A reason, then, to travel.