Food news, February 9, 2012

February 2012

Coffee on a high

How many cups of coffee are sold in cafes, restaurants and other outlets in Australia every year? More than 1 billion, according to researcher BIS Shrapnel in a report called Coffee in Australia 2006–2008. How many of those cups were good is perhaps the more pertinent question. It’s still hard getting really good coffee in Sydney, I reckon. But we’re working on it.

On the basis that the coffee is only as good as the human bean behind the machine, the Australasian Specialty Coffee Association (AASCA) holds barista competitions every year. And this year, roasters and café operators Mecca Espresso ( have cleaned up. Trisatya Dharmawan for Mecca Circular Quay got the top gong and colleague Bettina Furth came 5th. Iaian McRae and Tuli Keidar of Ultimo came 7th and 10th.

Each competitor has to prepare three sets of four coffees: espresso, cappuccino and a signature espresso-based drink. And after the barista championship there’s the Cup Tasting Championship, where competitors have to identify (by taste) the odd coffee out in sets of three. Sam Sgambellone of Mecca won this gong for the second year in a row.

I once judged a national barista competition and I came to the conclusion that a really good barista is a bit like a winemaker — only more so. Consider: A top barista must know about the origins and qualities of beans; the palate juggling craft of blending; the mechanics and the electronics of the machine and its settings; the climatic component of the grind; turning milk into silk (and judging the best blends to add it to). All these elements go together in a way that produces the elusive and rare perfect cup of coffee.

But, unlike the winemaker, who works his or her magic in private, once a year, the barista has to do all this complex work in public, all day every day. Oh yes, it doesn’t hurt to be a bit of a performer, either.

It’s not enough to look like Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson. It’s not enough to make coffee the way Penfold makes Grange. It’s not enough to know more about coffee origins and beans than a Brazilian blender. It’s not enough to be funnier than Billy Connolly.

You have to combine all these qualities. And then, on the day, you have to hand your customers a cup of coffee that leaves them smiling for a couple of hours at least.

So, any wonder why good coffee is hard to find? And congratulations to Mecca for their results. Trisatya and Sam will be competing in the finals in Melbourne in May.


How many Tim Tams?

Have we got some stats for you: according to Amazing Australia (, we gobble up 300 million Tim Tams every year. Most (69 per cent) of us like sharing Tim Tams with friends,
40 per cent hide them from friends and family,
66 per cent like to eat themwhen watching TV and a deviant 3 per cent eat them in the bath. Cairns Woolworths sells more Tim Tams than any other shop in Australia due to Japanese and Korean tourists stocking up, as they are cheaper here than back home. Me, I can’t stand them.


BYO crab

It seems to be a neck-and-neck race between South America and Malaysia for the hottest new cuisines in 2012 — see last week’s review and the one before that — but as well as Petaling Street I went recently to the longer-established Malacca Straits on Broadway (66 Mountain St, Ph8021 7069). Some good food, some curious dishes — prawn with cereal, for example. Nobody could tell me what the cereal was. We guessed everything from Corn Flakes to sweet biscuit, though it’s probably crushed prawn crackers. But the other thing on the menu that’s sure to please is BYO mud crab, and chef Tan (ex-Malaya and Neptune Palace) will cook it for you as dry curry crab or Singapore chilli crab for just $20. So nip down to the fish market, buy your live muddie ($28/kg at Claudio’s at time of writing) and hand it over to Chef Tan. Bargain.


Fresh Mint

It came as a surprise to me to realise that Hugh Foster has been at Mint (597 Crown St, Surry Hills, Ph 9319 0848) with partner Yonatan Kalfus for nine years. I still remember Hugh at Fez on Victoria Street, Darlinghurst, with great pleasure. And the times I have eaten at Mint have also been greatly pleasurable. Messrs Foster and Kalfus know their Middle Eastern and North African munger and now they’re slipping up a notch to convert Mint from café into restaurant and bar, with a deeper exploration of these cuisines, lumped together as Mod Med — things like ras el hanout-spiced chicken skewers, seared scallops on carrot puree with sucuk sausages ... sounds good, and very reasonably priced. See our review here.


Yum yum cha

I’ve been heavily involved in Chinese food culture this last Chinese New Year period, first taking Chinatown food tours for the City of Sydney, when we lunch at The Eight (Market City, Shop R3.06, 9–13 Hay St, Haymarket, Ph 9282 9988) and then sitting in on a tea tasting at Zensation (656 Bourke St, 9319 2788). All this got me to thinking about the origins of that wonderful ritual beloved of so many Sydneysiders: yum cha.

Yum cha means, literally, drink tea. And the little morsels you eat with your tea are dim sum, translated as either point of the heart or touch your heart (take your pick). The tradition began, it would appear, along the Silk Road, where tea shops were situated along the edges and tired and hungry travellers could stop for a snack and a cuppa. The habit spread to local farmers who would drop in after a hard day’s yakka.

But the tradition and the food really took off in the Guangdong province of China; at first in the same way — tea houses serving snacks — and then, from about the 1970s, it was transformed into the noisy experience it is today, with whole families descending on the yum cha palaces from around 11am (in China and other Chinese cities yum cha is served as early as 5am) to choose delicacies from trolleys pushed by the Yum Cha Maidens — or, as they’re known in Singapore, the Dim Sum Dollies (there’s even a musical of that name).

At Zensation, you can go back to the early days of a tranquil time with tea and just a few little dim sum snacks and be guided through the selection of teas — most of which will be new to you — by Raymond Leung or his daughter Christina. I love both experiences. And it’s another reason why I’m glad that all those Chinese miners decided to make Sydney their home after working the gold fields of Ballarat and Bendigo: can you imagine Sydney without yum cha? Aiyaaa! as they say in Cantonese.


Valentine’s advice: don’t do it

Every year at this time I advise strongly against going out on Table for Two and Free Red Rose night, that night named after any one of a number of obscured sanctified martyrs whose link with romance was probably invented by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) in a poem Parliament of Birds. And every year I’m sure that the incurable romantics among you descend on restaurants staffed by grumpy waitpersons whose least favourite night it is. Take your loved one out on the 12th or the 15th, I say. But this year I have a solution.

Give your lover, husband, wife, intended a cake. Not just any cake but a Bed of Roses designed and made by Vincent Gadan, master patissier at Patisse (197 Young St, Waterloo, Ph 9690 0665 You can see how gorgeous it is but wait until you both taste it. Vincent named it after a Bon Jovi song of the same name ... but maybe I shouldn’t have told you that. Forget I said it. Just order one online or by phone.


DIY Sushi

If you want to learn to make your own sushi you can do no better than learn from Hideo Dakura, the author of (among many other books on Japanese food) The Encyclopedia of Japanese Food. Hideo-san will demonstrate classical and modern sushi as well as talking on the history of Japanese cuisine, the use of Japanese knives and practical ideas on cooking Japanese at home on Thursday February 23, 12.30–1.30pm, Newtown Library (8 Brown St, Ph 8512 4250). Amazingly, it’s free but you must book through the library. I’d hurry.

Once, Hideo rang me and asked, “John-san, I’m doing a story for a Japanese newspaper. Can you tell me the traditional food served at the Melbourne Cup?” I thought for a while and offered pies with tomato sauce washed down by copious drafts of bubbly.


Viva Italian cuisine

I have been put on the mailing list for a webzine from Itchefs, whose lead article tells me that IDIC 2012 Celebrated the World Culinary Leadership of Italian Cuisine. IDIC is the International Day of Italian Cuisines, and it was held in New York on January 17. Now, I like Italian food as much as the next bloke — or tipo — but must they be so damn full of themselves?

It turns out that Itchefs is the organ for “a network of chefs, restaurateurs and culinary professionals working in the Italian cuisine industry outside Italy. They belong to the moderated internet Forum of GVCI, Virtual Group of Italian Chefs, which has over 1700 associates working in 70 countries in the world”. And, boy, do they know how to promote.

But I’m reminded of a routine I heard recently given by Vietnamese comedian Anh Do, whose family, he told us, was mystified by Italian food, especially risotto, which they called “f#%*ed up rice.” A different perspective, Luigi.

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