Top 10 Asian Oz childhood foods

This post is inspired by this article on Foodbeast that floated my way through Facebook: 16 things that taste just like your Asian American childhood.

I browsed through it with glee, loving these kinds of walks down memory lane. Even if it wasn’t necessarily my memory lane.

Oddly enough, I encountered quite a few of the items in my adult life rather than my childhood.

I didn’t have my first Pocky stick, for example, till I was 27 years old. I was in Canada doing research for my PhD, visiting one my favourite Canadian authors, and she offered me a Pocky stick. It was the start of a long and fond relationship (for me and Pocky sticks, that is; the author’s pretty damn cool, too, it must be said).

Some of the food items did strike a chord, and reminded me of my Brisbane childhood, the trips to Fortitude Valley, and the evolving Asian grocery shops and malls through the 1980s and 1990s.

The items from the Foodbeast list that populated my childhood as well are: haw flakes, shrimp-flavoured chips, and pork floss (aka ‘pork sung’ in the Foodbeast listing). There were, however, many others that loomed large for our family. I’m not sure if they were unique to us, or whether they reflected a broader pattern of Malaysian-Chinese consumption.


REVIEW – Stax Cafe

Cafe Stax - upstairs (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Cafe Stax – upstairs (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

[I had written this post, queued it for publication, then went there again just recently – the menu has changed! The burger menu I so loved (see below) is whittled down, to the detriment of my all-time favourite…]

If there’s one place near work that I embrace as my regular haunt, it’s Cafe Stax on Little La Trobe Street. I usually cut through Literature Lane, and mosey past two places I frequent less often (WE Cafe [Taiwanese] and Wonderbao).

The first few times I went to Stax, it was because other people had organised meetings or lunches there. While the food and prices were consistently good, I didn’t really like the downstairs seating – too close and noisy. It felt too small.

Then I discovered there was an upstairs!

The upstairs section is rarely brimming with people, much lighter, and had corrugated cardboard furniture. Walls are papered in old comics. I was sold. It’s the first place I suggest to meet anyone.

Though space is at a premium at Stax, the menu is extensive: soups, all manner of burgers, wraps and sandwiches, fish and chips, pasta dishes, salads… I rarely stray from the burgers, but I have tried a few of the things there and they’ve all ranged from fine to really good.

Burger #4 is my favourite, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post:

Burger 4 – Moroccan marinated chicken thigh, grilled haloumi, lettuce, tomato and harissa mayonnaise.

It’s the haloumi and harissa mayo that really lifts this one, and the fact that they use chicken thigh. Most of the reason why I never have chicken burgers is because places tend to use the chicken breast, which I always find too dry/dense/thick. This Stax burger, though, is always tasty and just right. Sometimes, they get super generous with the haloumi. Those are good days.

I try to wean myself off Burger #4 every second visit, but I don’t always succeed. it’s a keeper.

[Further to my earlier note: This burger is no longer on the menu – they do have a 4th burger on the list but it’s a “haloumi burger”, by which I thought they meant a normal burger + slices of haloumi. Meh! Wrong guess. What they meant was a haloumi burger: brioche bun, salad-y stuff, and a thick slab of haloumi. A vegetarian burger. I am not a vegetarian burger eater…]

Another aspect of this cafe that I like is that the service is always very good: friendly, fast, efficient. I’ve never had a hassle with any of my orders (and I’ve been many times now), and the delivery and clearing of food/drink is quick and unobtrusive.

My only caveat about the cafe is that I’ve only ever had lunch there, not breakfast. And an important element, without which I couldn’t be a return customer: Stax coffee is consistently good. [<– I don’t think this has changed – same people running it; just a menu re-vamp]

Solo eating

Burger time at Stax - not Burger #4 (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Burger time at Stax – not Burger #4 (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Apparently, eating solo is an underrated thing, just as open-plan offices are an overrated thing.

I don’t always take Sunday Life magazines to heart, but this juxtaposition spoke to me recently.

Maybe it is nothing more than the fact that, to me, open-plan and solo eating present two ends of the sociability spectrum.

The thing I actually want to talk about in this post is how I agree that eating solo is an underrated activity.

I ate solo the other day.

It was meant to be a group lunch, a buzzy affair of catch-ups and re-meetings. Instead, I sat alone, with no-one else in the cafe space at all.


REVIEW – Pappa Rich

Pappa Rich - QV (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post is brought to you after lunch at Pappa Rich Chadstone two days in a row.

I had just gone there with my buddy @sommystar and my family felt deprived when I told them that I was going there without them. Hence, a second visit there today.

Our family’s been fans of this franchise since they started opening in Melbourne in March 2012. My first experience was in QV, and the queues are now notorious. @sommystar tells me that the Nunawading restaurant takes bookings, but the ones I’ve been to (QV and Chadstone) do not.

My Malaysian colleagues all love going there, and my family is always happy to make it our go-to place for lunches. The key, of course, is to go slightly earlier than peak – for example, turning up at about 11 or 11.30am guarantees you a good table, but getting there after noon means you may be stuck in the queue (this has been our Chaddie experience). Prices are reasonable, with the drinks obviously a money-spinner (that said, I don’t think I’d find Malaysian-style drinks like this easily elsewhere).

We’ve browsed our way through the menu broadly, with the roti, laksa, and chicken rice staying in ‘staple’ territory. While occasionally transparent in its pre-prepared-ness, the food is tasty, fast, and consistent.


REVIEW – Auntie’s Dumpling Restaurant (Carnegie)

Auntie's Dumpling Restaurant (Source: The Age review)
Auntie’s Dumpling Restaurant (Source: The Age review)

Every couple of weeks, we’re in Carnegie to visit the library. It’s a great library, with a playground just outside that the kids never seem to get sick of.

While we’re in Carnegie, we inevitably find ourselves at Auntie’s Dumpling Restaurant.

I realised how attached I was to the place when we went there two Saturdays ago.

The place had always had a very lived-in look. Basic and not particularly fab decor, but we didn’t care. It’s certainly not “squalid” or as one would imagine an “opium den”, as another Orientalising fool of a blogger declared.

For Lunar New Year this year, they’d repainted the walls of the whole place. Then, that Saturday, we found that there was all new furniture: wooden tables and chairs that were way better than the old chrome settings.

We sat down, and a guy who’d never served us doled out menus. We probably stared at him too much, all wondering whether there’d been a – *drum-roll* – change of ownership.

Shortly after we got our menus, and were still watching the man suspiciously, our regular server/restaurant manager turned up, hauling groceries and looking harried. We were so glad to see her. SO GLAD.

That’s when I realised how much we liked it, and the familiarity of the staff was fun. They’ve watched our kids grow up over the years, as we’ve divested ourselves of prams, strollers, etc.

We don’t go out much, what with two young kids and living in the ‘burbs. This isn’t a problem, but it does mean that there’s a comfort we derive from  fronting up at Auntie’s every fortnight.


Crowded kitchens

Mum's sayor lodeh (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Mum’s sayor lodeh (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I take my family’s kitchen skills for granted.

I forget how much food and cooking knowledge I’ve gained purely through osmosis, and watching others do their thing.

Like many Malaysian Chinese families (or Asian families more generally?), we’ve always been big on feasting and special occasion meals. Wisely, my siblings and I also snagged partners who were similarly appreciative of sharing food and making meals meaningful.

My mum and dad have always been keen cooks, and my mum has taken formal cooking classes in a broad range of cuisines. She takes on the lion’s share of the household’s dinners, and we have a family dinner every Sunday night. Her collection of cookbooks is formidable, and it includes a lot of bilingual 1960s/70s books from Malaysia. Once upon a time, we used to have regular dinners for 40 or more people at our Brisbane house in Chapel Hill. It wasn’t that large a house, and the 1970s kitchen from which she and my dad produced massive feasts was tiny + very badly designed.

My brother is a chef; he’s been in the hospitality industry for over 20 years. He has worked at a whole range of restaurants, bistros, and cafes – in Brisbane, Melbourne, and around the UK. He’s currently in his cheffing dream job, one that allows him to get home in the afternoon so he can focus on gardening and having a life outside the industry. That said, he’s an obsessive breadmaker (and loves experimenting with sourdough and ciabatta), and loves crossing the back fence to bring us samples. This is a practice we encourage. Greatly.

My SIL is a qualified chef. Of course. She introduced us to the seductions of whole cauliflower mornay and excellent coleslaw. She joins my brother in culinary adventures, not to mention the incredible food hampers we are privileged to get every Christmas. C. also writes a food blog and has overall mad kitchen skills.

My husband is a great cook, he’s the obsessive genius behind our family’s novelty cake series. He’s the kind of person who can turn his hand to anything and, with vague instructions from the internet, make it a success. His Christmas puddings have all been excellent (traditional plum pudding, as well as chocolate), and I remember very fondly the meals he cooked for me when we were dating. They were fab, and – strangely enough – seemed inspired by 1970s Women’s Weekly cookbooks (e.g. beef stroganoff, prawn cocktails).

Why am I telling you all this?


Flavour’s in the fat

A hoard of bittergourd (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
A hoard of bittergourd (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

So, I got some stick for declaring that I liked sweet and sour pork some posts ago, when I wrote about being a “Bad Asian“.

It made me feel like writing this post that you’re reading now – a post that is a paean to all the ‘bad’ food that I like. Because I’m appropriately exotic and relatively well-travelled, people want to assume that I’m culinarily sophisticated. I’m afraid not.

While I do draw the line at Chiko Rolls (I’ve only ever eaten half of one in my entire life – I couldn’t finish it), I have a simple palate. Just as I constantly disappoint people who expect someone with a PhD in English to be au fait with all the ‘classics’, my affection for things like sweet and sour pork, and char siu bao, is viewed with some regret.

I wouldn’t be the one leading the way to food adventures, Andrew Zimmern-style.

Something that our family – and many other Chinese Malaysian families – specialise in is lots of ways to eat pork-belly. Before various blood pressure and gall-stone scares, you can guarantee that there would always be a slab of pork-belly in our freezer. Always.


TV miracle

Screencap from “Rigby’s Body” episode (Sourced from’s_Body/Gallery)

There’s a lot of hyperbole about the (perceived, presumed) detrimental effects of television on kids.

I’ll not hear a word against TV. I love it.

I’ve always loved it. And I hope my kids grow up loving it, too, in between bouncing on the trampoline, riding their bikes, colouring in, reading, and whatever else funsterish under-6s do these days.

Our family got its first TV when we still lived in Alor Setar in Malaysia. This was in the early to mid 1970s. We used to watch Ultraman and Astroboy, and creepy Malay horror movies with pockmarked women looming from kampung windows. Through high-school, my parents never really stopped me from watching TV while I was doing my homework. I think about that now and am amazed. Would I have passed maths properly if I hadn’t been watching TV? Would I have not got a distinction in English if I hadn’t been watching TV?


Cake update – 2008-2010

It has been quite a few years since I wrote this post in 2008 and presented a round-up of the novelty cakes that our family had done. Four and a half years later, the tradition is still going strong.

I’m updating the cake pics, and these ones take us through the tail end of 2008 to 2010, and I’m only including those that have novelty aspects and were made by S.

Click on the cut for the rest of the pic-heavy post!


Fiesta Malaysia 2012 – One view

I found out about Fiesta Malaysia 2012 the way I usually find out about events these days: on my Twitterfeed. While our household still gets the paper delivered every day, I never read it anymore. My mum does, and so does my partner. My kids like cutting it up and using it for projects, or mucking around with strips to make papier-mache animals.

I’ve acquired some bower-bird habits since becoming so dependent on Twitter. One of them is noting things for the different feeds I maintain (current count: 4), which is what I used to skim my email for. Usually, this noting doesn’t mean I intend to act on events/gigs myself. My weeks are usually fully subscribed with work, kiddie time, family time, writing, and occasional other things.

Lygon St bombing (Photo by Tseen)

Something that did catch my eye, though, was the Fiesta Malaysia the other weekend (23-25 March).

My partner and I used to be great food/culture festival people, then we had kids. But it’s not as if the kids kept us from going anywhere; we just ended up going to different events: local school fetes, shopping for an endless parade of shoes, library-runs, zoo trips…

Anyway, we thought this might be fun, and my mother would definitely want to go along, if only to declare that her char kway teow was better.

We made it to Fiesta Malaysia on its last day – Sunday – and arrived just as it started at about 11am. We’d parked at the Melbourne Museum and had a glorious stroll to Lygon Street, encountering some great yarn-bombing on the way (pictured left).

That day also happened to be the Melbourne City Romp and spotting marauding crazy-hatted / costumed teams can sure whet one’s appetite for roti.