The Sydney of My Dreams (Three Blue Ducks, Porch, and The Bucket List)

The other night, I dreamed of Sydney. Not the house in the suburbs, or the high-rise office, or the long bus ride in between. I dreamed about the Sydney of postcards and bayside soaps. Where the ocean is a perfect reflection of a cloudless sky and the sands of the beach fade out to white.

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It’s a weekday, I’m blissfully unemployed, and I take two beautiful girlfriends to brunch somewhere famous. It has a silly name that makes no sense, but it’s okay because ducks can be blue in a dream.

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It’s small, cramped, and busy and the staff are cool and inattentive like we’re invisible. And maybe we are, it is a dream after all. Maybe our breakfast will just appear on our table like magic.

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But it appears that my imagination does not extend to magic, not even my dreams, so we order like in real life and wait a really, really long time for our food, like you would in real life, in real Sydney, at a real hipster cafe.

The food is, of course, vivid and specific.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, one small salmon steak, wilted spinach, a small pot of hollandaise sauce and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, two poached eggs, half an avocado sliced and fanned out, one cherry tomato, halved, a small pot of hollandaise sauce, some red onion and several fresh basil leaves.

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One slice of toasted sourdough, one roasted tomato, baked eggs with chorizo and cannellini beans and several fresh basil leaves.

It’s strange that I would dream up food so dull – especially at a highly anticipated meal at one of the most popular brunch spots in Sydney. The large plates and sparse presentation make each item look cold and lonely on the plate, and the flavours are entirely plain and ordinary. Anyone can toast a piece of bread. Anyone can roast a tomato. Anyone can rip some leaves off a basil plant. Anyone can slice an avocado. Anyone can (with some care) poach an egg. Hollandaise sauce is something to be poured over a plate with no concern for calories, not served “on the side” in a pathetic quantity that even Gwyneth Paltrow would approve of.

In real life, I would politely pay the bill and silently vow never to eat at this place again. But this is a dream, and in dreams you can do things without fear or consequence, so I flip the table and yell “I WOULD RATHER EAT A MCMUFFIN!” and teleport to North Bondi.

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We end up at a place called PORCH and order our second coffees for the morning.

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This tiny little cafe has more pretty white people than I’ve seen for over a year.

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My friend Minju is there, so I must really miss her. But all she does is chat with her fiance on her phone, so she obviously doesn’t miss me at all. But then I realize that what I’ve missed more than anything is this:

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Aussie coffee. Coffee in Korea may meet my daily caffeine needs, but it is so soulless. You, however, are full of heart. It’s not just a matter of beans or milk or technique, it’s a matter of love. It’s how you soak up the Aussie sun that keeps you warm on the outdoor table. It’s how you carry the care and passion of the barista who made you; a bearded priest of a coffee-worshiping faith. It’s how you’re presented in playful ceramic mugs, made to resemble paper cups, that boast the name of the local group of blenders and roasters from which you were born. I wish I was there with you today and I’m sorry that I can’t be. *weeps*

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The dream goes on and we’re hungry again. We stop at a colorful beachside bar that sells food in buckets.

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I see more bare female skin than I have in over a year. All shapes, ages, and sizes in bikinis and sarongs. This is the Straya I love.

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I swear this isn’t a drug-induced hallucination but the bar where we order is crazy psychedelic. One-eyed aliens, pickled brains, and neon tigers. C’mon everybody lets all be friends and dance together until the end. 

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There are floor to ceiling windows that curve around the whole restaurant so that all you can see is beach.

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We order a bucket of prawns, that turns out to be half-full of ice, but it’s okay because I have a beer in my hand, a good mate by my side, and everywhere I look, all I see colour and sun and sea and sky.

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Also, fries. Thick-cut, crunchy fries. And fries make everything okay.

I feel so happy to be home but sad to know that I can’t stay much longer. I look to my right and see a message tattooed on the wood panel beside me.

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And I think, “Yes, you will always be.”

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Sokcho: Seafood by the Seaside

My pork/chicken dominated food blog is now being taken over by seafood. Korea really does change people.

I’m starting to understand now. I’m starting to understand the obsession that drives my people to swarm Sydney’s fish markets every weekend, illegally harvest pippies at the beach, and risk their lives rock-fishing before the sun rises. Noryangjin Market is great, but there’s something different about eating seafood with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the water. Even though I’m told (by cynical party-poopers) that coastal seafood markets are tourist traps where prices are higher and most of the products are imported from other countries anyway, the sheer novelty and fun of pigging out on seafood on a seaside holiday is not to be underestimated!

Sokcho is a city on the eastern coast of Korea, most well-known for its proximity to Seorak Mountain, and is mainly used as base for travelers who want to hike during the day and sleep in affordable “pension” style accommodation at night. I went with my bestie to admire the autmnal colors of Seorak in October, and taste the all-year-round delights of the Sokcho seafood markets.

We arrived in the late afternoon, and just wandered around exploring the area, looking for something to snack on before dinner. We found a decent looking restaurant and just ordered some stuffed squid (ojingeo sundae). Regular sundae is a Korean street food staple, and is a simple blood sausage filled with noodles. Ojingeo sundae is a little fancier and is stuffed with a mix of squid tentacles, vegetables, meat, and sticky rice. This one was served “jeon” style, meaning it was covered in egg and pan-fried. We all know that jeon-style is my favorite style.

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Nom.

We were staying near Daepo-hang, which is a port on the southern end of Sokcho city. It has its own markets, and since they were walking distance from our pension, we decided to go there for dinner instead of the central fish markets in Sokcho.

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The market is just one, long enclosed lane that wraps around the inlet, both sides lined by seafood vendors and restaurants with no discernible differences between them.

This place operates a little differently to Noryangjin. Each shop is also a restaurant: fish tanks in the front, tables and seating in the back. The shopkeepers have also conveniently put together little baskets that include a variety of fish and other sea creatures, and sell them at a package price.

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This is very handy when you’re a tourist who has no idea what tastes good or what anything is called. We went for the little green basket in the corner, minus the squid, for around 40,000 Won.

We also considered taking the mung gae (or sea pineapple) out too, one of the many strange, alien-like sea critters that Koreans like to eat for reasons that are still a mystery to me. But we thought we may as well try it since it is such a well-loved Korean delicacy.

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It came out sliced up and looking even nastier than it does whole. I mean, look at that. It looks like something that was blown out of a whale’s bloody nose. And it tastes like it too – like a chewy, saltwater-soaked, whale booger. Ugh. Never again. (EatYourKimchi share my distaste and quite accurately named it “Satan’s booger”)

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Here is the sliced, raw flesh of the two fishies we bought. Delicious, but a gets a bit tedious after the first ten slices.

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A meal of raw fish must end with maeuntang, which is my favorite part. Never disappoints.

Tummies full and looking for something to eat for dessert, we came across the Wonjo Twi-Gim Gol-Mok, which roughly translates to the Wonjo Alley of Deep Fried Delights!

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It’s a mini-market that sells a variety of deep-fried Korean favorites – but the main attraction are the jumbo prawns.

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Like all Korean markets, the stores sell basically the same thing so we chose one at random and ordered a couple of things.

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Yes we had just had a really big dinner… but you don’t find an alley full of deep-fried prawns and just walk away empty handed!! That would go against everything I believe in.

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We got two of the largest-sized prawns (deep-fried whole, with shells still on). Korean twigim is a bit heavier than tempura – the batter is quite thick and very crispy. The thing in the background is a deep-fried perilla leaf… which totally counts as salad, right?

The next day we went hiking in Seorak Mountain. Hiking in Korea is really special, not just because of our many beautiful mountains and the dream-like autumn foliage, but also because of our very unique “hiking culture.” Korean hiking culture involves men and women, middle aged and upwards, who spend hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars on professional hiking attire and gear (hiking boots, pants, shirts, jackets, gloves, sticks, hats, everything – head to toe, the more brightly coloured, the better), and join clubs where they hike different mountains with a group of very similar people every single weekend. These guys are no joke. They’re the first ones to arrive at the mountain and the last ones to leave. As we were huffing and puffing up the easy, half-day track we had chosen, this technicolor army stormed past us in the opposite direction, on the final stretch of a trek that started at 4am and had reached the peak at noon.

I’m not really sure what fuels their passion – it could really be a love for the mountains and a desire to stay fit… but I also suspect that they just like to show off their expensive hiking gear and get drunk on makgoli (Korean rice wine) in the open air.

There are many makgoli pit-stops along every hike… which I don’t quite understand because national park + mountain + drunk hikers does not seem like a good mix to me… but you know, give the people what they want.

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They also sell pajeon (seafood pancake) as an drinking snack and it smelled so good we couldn’t resist it on the way back down from our hike.

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Demolishing a pajeon in the mountains after a good hike is just glorious. Didn’t get any makgoli because I really, really hate it. I think it tastes worse than soju, which says A LOT.

On our last day, we walked to the port near the bus terminal to find something to eat for lunch. We really wanted to have king crab, which is THE THING to eat when you’re in Sokcho, but it’s so expensive in not justifiable between only two people. We found a row of abalone restaurants that looked pretty legit, so we decided to try one out. We ordered grilled fish and seafood ttukbaegi (clay pot).

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I used to hate Korean grilled fish. It just seemed so small, bony, and inferior in flavour compared to the salmon, trout, snapper and barrumandi that’s readily available in Sydney. I never ate it. I didn’t even count it as meat. But now, thanks to the Koreanisation of my taste buds, I freaking love it. I don’t even know the names of these three fish, but I’ve fallen in love with the dry yet oily, salty and slightly smoky flavor that all Korean grilled fish has.

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Perfect with rice, gim (seaweed) and a little bit of ssamjang.

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The ttukbaegi came out overflowing with all sorts of shellfish – prawns, clams, muscles, and a seashell that was so pretty I couldn’t bear to eat the rubbery little mollusc inside it.

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The main event, however, was the abalone. Believe it or not, this was my first time eating one. I guess with my general lack of enthusiasm for seafood and high price tag attached to abalone, I never got around to trying it. And while it looks really ugly, like a giant cooked slug, I kind of understand what the fuss is about. It has this perfect texture which is neither rubbery (like squid), mushy (like oysters), or grainy (like muscles), and has a really pleasant, mild taste.

So that was Sokcho, and also the final Korean eating adventure I would go on with my bestie, who’s back in Sydney now. This one’s for you, babe ;)

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Christmas Turkey: a Retrospective

It’s almost Christmas, which means it’s almost time for my annual roast turkey feast. Except that this year, I don’t have an oven. Little bit of Korean household trivia for you: the kitchens in this country generally don’t include ovens. It is partly a space issue but is also due to the fact that while Koreans like to fry, steam, braise, boil and pickle, they do not bake or roast. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest shortcomings of Korean society. A messed up education system, rampant gender inequality, and ovenlessness is what is really keeping us back as a nation.

So to help me grieve over the fact that I can’t roast a turkey this year (it actually really upsets me and makes me not want to celebrate Christmas at all), I thought I would write a “turkey retrospective” of sorts and also share the tips and techniques that I have learnt in the art of turkey roasting over the years.

As you will have seen from the few cooking posts I’ve published on this blog, as much as I love food, cooking is not something that comes naturally to me. But there is one notable exception: turkey roasting. I OWN turkey roasting. I would happily and confidently go against Martha, Nigella, Maggie, and Jamie in a turkey roast-off and I would SLAY THEM ALL. My annual roast turkey is famous. By famous I mean renowned and praised amongst family and friends which is as famous as anything I do will ever get, so yes, FAMOUS. My dad even spoke about my turkey in his Father of the Bride speech at my wedding. My turkey is the shiz and ya’ll should listen up to everything I have to say because I am the definitive WORD on turkey roasting.

But before I impart my sage advice with you all, I should probably provide some photographic evidence of my turkey roasting prowess. So here it is, 2008-2014 A Turkey Retrospective.

2008: “Challenge Accepted!”

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In Australia, Christmas dinners traditionally involve barbequed steaks, snags, and skewers and a big bowl of fresh prawns. Roast turkey isn’t actually that common, and is an idea that has been completely stolen from the Amuuurrrcans. In 2008, a group of friends and I had the wild idea of making turkey dinner for Christmas. It was novel, it was ambitious, it was a challenge to make a Christmas dinner that would slaughter all other Christmas dinners. And I took it on with gusto. The above may look a bit rough, but it was a result of hours of research, about ten combined recipes, a full day in the kitchen, and pure, extravagant love. Serving around twelve people, it’s the biggest turkey I’ve ever made, and the most memorable. We made it and ate it not even knowing what a roast turkey was meant to taste like, but it blew all our minds and ruined all future Christmases because we all knew that no Christmas dinner in our remaining lifetimes would taste as glorious as this one did.

2009-2010: “The Dark Ages” 

No photo records exist of these turkeys because we were too hungry and excited to eat them to waste time taking photos. They did exist, you need to trust me on this one.

2011: “InstaTurkey” 

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This year I followed a Neil Perry recipe that introduced me the miracle of stuffing a turkey’s skin as well as the cavity. I never looked back. This is why the turkey looks so swollen and bloated, like it just binged on its own Christmas dinner.

2012: “Crispy Skinned Chicken Turkey”  

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I used a stuffing recipe for roast chicken because it included parmesan and parmesan makes all things better. The cheese also had the pleasant side effect of making the turkey skin deliciously crispy. Oh, and perfectly roasted potatoes.

2013: “Mastering the Art”

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One of the best things about roast turkey is how photogenic it is. Look at that heart shaped breast, those shapely thighs, the red-brown glow of the skin.

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From all angles, she is a beauty.

Now, I send you forth to cook your own turkeys in remembrance of me, who will be spending this Christmas ovenless and turkeyless. To help you on your journey, I will generously impart my invaluable expertise with you all.

1. Don’t be intimidated. 

There is an urban legend going around that roasting a turkey is “difficult” or requires “skills.” DO NOT BELIEVE THE LIES. Preparing and stuffing the turkey takes less than an hour and the oven does the rest of the work. Yes, you do need be at home to monitor the bird and baste it at regular intervals, but most of the time is just spent waiting. Use it as an opportunity to read a thick novel or binge-watch The Mindy Project. You could even do something more productive, like prepare sides and dessert.

2. Buy a good bird. 

The frozen turkeys at the supermarket do the job, but if you want to take this seriously, you need to see your local poultry specialist and order a fresh, free range turkey. To help you decide how big you need the bird to be, you can use one of many size guides available online. I usually get a 6-7kg turkey regardless of the number of people I’m serving because when it comes to turkey, SIZE MATTERS, and the bigger the bird, the bigger the impact. It takes longer to cook, but who cares, carrying the finished product out of the oven and having all your guests bow down to your domestic goddess status makes it totally worth it.

3. To brine or not to brine? 

Most Americans I talk to seem to think that brining the turkey is an essential step. I can see how brining can add to the flavor and moisture level of a turkey, but I’ve never brined and I’ve never had any problems. Prepping and cooking a turkey already takes a FULL day, so spending additional time making a luxurious salt bath for your bird seems to be taking the joke too far. My advice is, don’t bother. You can make a perfectly delicious and moist turkey without it.

4. Go nuts with the stuffing 

Stuffing is something that is foolproof, easy to make, and for which there are THOUSANDS of recipes online. This means you can just have fun with it and experiment. A quick review of a few stuffing recipes will help you realize that stuffing is basically just whatever you want + stale bread. Seriously, anything goes: from gourmet (wild rice and goat cheese stuffing) to dude-food (tortilla chip chorizo stuffing), to gluten free (quinoa stuffing). Sausage-based stuffings seem quite popular, and I’ve tried it once but didn’t really like it because I feel like heavy meat in your stuffing distracts from the taste of the turkey. Bacon, however, is completely acceptable. As are all bacon-like cured meats such as pancetta and prosciutto. Also, CHEESE. My current go-to stuffing is based on this recipe and includes all the classic components plus parmesan cheese and chopped pancetta. I’m not a huge fan of nuts, but I’ll add some walnuts to please the crowd. My favorite herb for stuffing is sage, because it smells heavenly.

5. Stuff EVERYTHING 

When I learned that you could stuff the skin of a turkey as well as the cavity, this really changed the game. It elevated my turkey from amazing to mind-blowing and I’ve never looked back. You need to be little bit careful when separating the skin from the breast to create a pocket, but the fatty turkey skin is pretty resilient. Stuffing the skin has the quintuple effect of:

1. Adding flavor to the breast meat.
2. Making people more excited about eating the meat meat, which has a hard time competing with the dark meat.
3. Keeping the breast meat moist.
4. (If you use my parmesan recipe) Causing the skin to crisp up and go a gorgeous brown color.
5. Acting like breast implants and giving the turkey a plump, fuller, more youthful look.

One year, I used Neil Perry’s ricotta stuffed turkey recipe and it was a real hit. It wasn’t quite salty enough for my liking, but this was one of my more popular turkeys.

6. Trussing is NOT optional 

If you do not truss your turkey, you will end up with wings splayed, legs spread-eagled, with a crusty bulge of stuffing bursting out from the cavity. Luckily, I did not learn this the hard way, I learnt this from laughing at other people’s mistakes. Your turkey is meant to be photogenic, not pornographic. Please, protect your turkey’s modesty. Plus, trussing a turkey is super easy if you follow a helpful instructional video like this. I would always kindly ask the butcher next to my poultry supplier for a length of butcher’s string, but really, any clean, strong, string will do.

7. The Three “B”s: Bacon, Butter, and Basting 

The no.1 fear that people have about cooking a turkey is the fact that it “dries out easily.” And I’ll admit, dry turkey meat is nasty. It tastes like a hybrid construction material made from cardboard and rubber. But keeping the meat moist is really not as hard as people make it out to be. A lot of recipes will give you different tips and techniques on how to do this, but the key is to just do all of it at once. Everything that anyone tells you about keeping the turkey moist and tender: do it all. This will guarantee succulent, juicy turkey every single time. Here’s what I do:

1. Cover the turkey in bacon. This will flavor the skin as well as keep the breast from drying out. Also, you can eat the baked bacon as a snack later on.

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2. Go to town with the butter. People talk about how turkey is a “lean meat” but you need to un-lean that baby until its fattier than a Krispy Kreme donut. I usually buy two sticks and melt one down to pour and brush over the bird before it goes into the oven, and then I chop up the other one and squeeze as much of it under the skin of the breast as will fit.

3. Baste every 30 minutes. This is probably the hardest part of cooking a turkey, because just getting a 6kg bird out of the oven every half hour is a big effort, but don’t get lazy. It’s essential. Most Aussies don’t have access to a proper baster, so I just used my pastry brush to cover the turkey with the fatty juices and butter pooling at the bottom of the pan.

4. Keep the turkey loosely covered in foil until the final hour of roasting, when you can take it off to let the turkey brown. This is a bit fiddly, especially when basting, but I believe plays a big part in preventing dry-out.

5. Roast at the correct temp for the correct amount of time. BBC Good food have this really nifty roast time calculator that looks pretty accurate. To test that it’s fully cooked, just stab it with a skewer and if the juices run clear, it’s ready!

8. SAUCE!  

When I made my first turkey, I wanted cranberry sauce because it’s traditional, but I also wanted gravy because GRAVY. Then I came across this recipe for cranberry gravy and I loved it so much that I have used it every single year since. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much it. Merry Christmas and happy turkey roasting! And in times of doubt, always remember:

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