Thursday, March 24, 2016

Train Trip Album Reviews: 'Alligator' - The National

After a period of not listening to albums and a (very) long period of not blogging, this column is an attempt to re-ignite two old passions and curing commute-itis.  Please excuse any ramblings or grammatical errors - it's drafted from Ashfield to Liverpool and finalised from Liverpool to Ashfield.    

The National doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for headphone listening, but such treatment reveals their strengths - the intricate guitar interplay, the subtle piano textures and the cracks and inflections of Matt Berninger’s voice.  

While we’re on the topic, I don’t think anyone is arguing that Berninger’s voice is classic - not in the traditional sense anyway.  His baritone drawl is more character than classic technique and barely holds up live.  However, I don’t think many other voices could pull off lines like “Karen, can you pull up a chair, fuck me and pour me a drink?” or “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls”.  Sometimes the lines are almost as bad as Coldplay lyrics (almost), but I feel that Berninger has big enough balls to pull them off (actually I think I stole this comparison from someone.  Yup, I did).  

The narratives he gives voice to are mysterious, intimate and completely alluring to me.  It feels like you’re listening in on a phone call, reading the draft of a memoir or eavesdropping on a conversation between old friends at the pub.  

The National are often accused of being a mopey, depressing band (much like one of my favourite other bands funnily enough).  Heck, they even called one of their albums ‘Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers”.  This is undeniable - most of the songs are shrouded in neuroticism, occasionally dipped in paranoia.  

There are the cathartic releases though.  ‘All The Wine’ feels like a victory anthem for an alcoholic’s night out - charming, confident and brimming with charm (for a limited time only).  ‘Mr November’ was used in one of Obama’s campaigns, and fittingly so - joyous, passionate and almost desperate conviction given full voice.  

They do feel like an American band to me.  That could be because of the overt references ("you know you have a permanent piece of my medium-sized American heart") or because of the sarcastic tone inherent in lines like that.  I feel like they are simultaneously paying tribute to and paying the shit out of America.  

If all the elements of the National were stuck in a house fire, the drumming might well be the thing I’d save.  

If i think about this band logically or try and explain them to someone else, they end up sounding like a boring band. - unconventional drumming, intertwining guitar arpeggios, ‘Into My Arms’ era Nick Cave vocals and tales of middle class quarter life crisis.  However, when I listen to them, it feels so comforting, so intimate - like I’m on the other end of the phone, or like Matt Berlinger’s just bought me another whiskey.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Tale Of Two Dishes: 通心粉 + Macaroni Naporitan

For me, food is best when it's honest, thoughtfully inventive and shared with loved ones.  I was lucky enough to have grown up in a food-obsessed family and to have an amazing cook to call 'Ma'.  Stealing Adam Liaw's idea of combining old classics and new creations, each pair of related dishes will be cooked side-by-side by 'Mummy Chenga' and I during a visit to the family home and recorded here for culinary and (hopefully) drool-worthy posterity.  

Wikipedia is awesome for many reasons, including these facts about macaroni soup:

*  The soup was discussed as a food to improve the health of poor miners.
*  Weeds can be used in macaroni soup in times of poverty to provide vitamins and minerals.
*  One book suggests using it as a food to comfort distressed mental patients.

My memories of macaroni soup consist of sitting down to a bowl of Ma's 通心粉 (tooong sum fun - literally translating as 'empty heart noodle') on a wintery Sunday arvo.  In hindsight, it's really a 'there's nothing in the fridge' meal, but my 7 year-old self thought much more of it - nourishing, delicious and made with love.  Sitting down and eating this recently really evoked those feelings again (a little bit like David Simon* and his father's pickles and cream).  

I'm fascinated by Japanese culture, especially the way it seamlessly integrates influences from other lands.  Naporitan (not a spelling error) is one example of that integration - a pasta dish of spaghetti and ketchup created by a Yokohama chef inspired by the military rations of the allied forces occupying Japan in World War 2.  I've included ingredients from Ma's 通心粉 along with some of the ingredients you would find on a supreme pizza, but anything goes.  Just ask - what would a Japanese grandmother do? (or what would someone that's cooking with dog do?)



250g macaroni
2-3 frankfurters, sliced into rounds
4 handfuls of frozen corn
6-8 cups of water + 1 tsp chicken powder (or 6-8 cups of any stock)


- bring water and chicken powder (or stock) to the boil

- add macaroni and cook to your preference, as long as it's past al dente

- add frankfurters and corn

- allow to come to a boil for a minute or so

- serve in a shallow bowl with a big spoon whilst watching bad Sunday arvo TV

Macaroni Naporitan


250g macaroni
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, medium dice
1 capsicum, medium dice
handful of button mushrooms, medium dice
2-3 frankfurters, sliced into hemispheres (little bit bigger than the above dice)
6-8 tbsp tomato sauce
1-2 tbsp soy sauce
4 grated handfuls of whatever cheese is in the fridge
hard-boiled egg (everyone has a spare one lying around, right?)
black pepper


- Cook pasta until al dente (it'll keep cooking a little later).

- Saute garlic, onion and capsicum in 2-3 tbsp of oil over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until softened.

- Add mushrooms and frankfurters and cook for a further 2-3 minutes.

- Add pasta and mix well.

- Add tomato sauce and soy sauce and mix well - add more of either to taste.  The sauce should coat the macaroni - add a little water to loosen if required.  

- Divide into 4 bowls and top with grated egg, cheese, black pepper and tabasco.  A spoon should do the job - the dice should mean that you get a bit of everything every spoonful.  You should feel like a nap afterwards.  

* Creator of TV series 'The Wire' - cheaper and more swearing involved than doing a degree in Social Work (so my colleagues that did Social Work say).

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Tale Of Two Dishes: 沙爹锅 + Prawny Puttanesca-ey Pasta

For me, food is best when it's honest, thoughtfully inventive and shared with loved ones.  I was lucky enough to have grown up in a food-obsessed family and to have an amazing cook to call 'Ma'.  Stealing Adam Liaw's idea of combining old classics and new creations, each pair of related dishes will be cooked side-by-side by 'Mummy Chenga' and I during a visit to the family home and recorded here for culinary and (hopefully) drool-worthy posterity.  

My parents will never eat Italian food outside - they just won't do it.  They will, however, eat pasta dishes that I occasionally cook for them (I firmly attribute this to filial bias).  This particular one is an attempt to emulate the type of pasta dishes that the Chelsea Hotel in Chatswood (an old university haunt famous) used to cook up - a bastard combo of puttanesca and prawn linguine.  

When I think prawns and noodle-y things, I think of Ma's 沙爹锅 (satay hot pot) - always brought to the table in the wok cos we didn't have any plates big enough to hold it!  The use of Jimmy's Sate Sauce is pretty crucial, as is tracking down this specific type of Chinese vegetable for it's mustard-ey aftertaste.

Despite sharing common core ingredients and dynamics (al dente-ness / glutinous-ness of the carb), the techniques differ, as does the cultural context:

- High heat to wok-fry and dry-fry  Vs  Low heat to infuse the oil with the puttanesca flavours
- Unshelled ("Good flavour!  Fun to Eat!")  Vs  Shelled prawns ("Prawn heads - Ewww")
- Served banquet style with rice  Vs  Usually served individually, maybe with bread

The honorary father and sister gave ticks of approval to both, but I think Ma's dish has superior flavour and technique - but it's not about winning when it comes to family (right?).



100g thick vermicelli
1 bunch gooong muuun (translated roughly as 'asshole moon' by my dad) book choy 
16 raw prawns, shell on

1 cup chicken stock
1 tbsp light soy
1 tsp oil
2 tsp sesame oil
A little salt

1 tbsp Jimmy's sate sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp water


-  Soak vermicelli for 15 mins in tap water, wash the veg

-  Mix sauces together - it should have the consistency of ketchup and be a balance of salty, sweet and satay-ey.

-  Boil stock and add the seasonings and dissolve.  Add vermicelli in and cook until translucent and 'al dente'.

-  Take it off the boil and stand to allow noodles to absorb the flavours (and ensure that the noodles don’t absorb the flavours of the satay sauce later)

-  Dry-fry the prawns over medium heat for 5 minutes in a wok until curled and cooked through.  Set aside.

-  Wok-fry veg with 1 tsp oil and a scant tsp of salt for a minute.  Cover to steam until cooked through.  Set aside and clean wok.  

-  Wok-fry the garlic in 2 tsp oil over medium to high heat to infuse the oil.  Add the prawns and stir to coat.  Add the sauce mixture and toss quickly to coat the prawns.    Add the noodles and veg and mix.  

-  Serve banquet style or with rice for a quick meal.  

Prawny Puttanesca-ry Pasta


250g linguine
16 raw prawns, peeled (leave the brains in - insane flavour here. Just peel the shell on the head and snip a centimetre from the top)

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4-5 anchovies
2 tbsp capers (no need to rinse - that brine is flavour!)
1 heaped tsp chilli flakes (this will give you the necessary mid-level hum)

400g tiny tomatoes (cherry, baby roma), halved
bag of rocket/spinach

100g ricotta (or parmesan if you ain’t a fan of ricotta)
1 lemon


-  Put pasta on - aim for 80% cooked.

-  In a wide pan or wok, fry prawns in 2 tbsp oil over medium-high heat until cooked through (about 2 minutes a side).  Set aside.  If you kept the brains in (and I hope you did) it may be a little messy, so rinse the pan with hot water, scrub clean and dry quickly.  

-  Saute garlic, anchovies and capers in 3 tbsp oil over low to medium heat until the anchovies break down and the flavours infuse.  

(Your pasta should be ready around this time - drain and reserve some of the cooking water)

-  Increase to high heat and add the tomatoes.  Cook for 2 minutes until they give off some of their juice and start to collapse.  

-  Add the pasta (if it has clumped in the colander, use some of the cooking water to loosen it up) and toss until well-coated with the sauce.  

-  Add prawns and veg until veg wilts slightly.

-  Serve in the biggest plate/bowl you have in the middle of the table with ricotta crumbled on top and a drizzle of olive oil.  Lemon, black pepper, chilli flakes and extra leaves to taste.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Guide to Post-apocalyptic America: 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy


When it comes to Vinnie's/Lifeline/Salvo shops, the further west you go, the better.  I knew that Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men, so paying $2 for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 2007 seemed like a pretty good punt.  I don't think I've ever read a book quicker, and it's certainly one that changed the way I looked at the world (for a few days anyway). 

So, here's what I learnt about what life might be like if you survived a catastrophic event:
It will be a bit like a video game
The story of a father and son travelling south to escape the cold in post-apocalyptic America felt a little bit like playing Resident Evil 2 with the lights out after your parents went to bed – searching abandoned towns for supplies, the constant fear of running out of pistol ammunition and never knowing what’s lurking in that mansion basement.
You can eat pretty much anything to survive
In Cormac McCarthy’s pseudo science-fictitious world, an unnamed catastrophic event has turned the country into a gloomy, desolate wasteland (many critics claim this novel is a crude examination of the consequences of climate change). Witnessing them survive on completely rotten apples, decade-old pickles and ash-ridden snow put my at-times insatiable food obsession into some perspective.  Speaking of survival...
People will start eating each other
Cannibalism becomes a horrifying reality for many of the surviving members of the human race.  This lead me to one of the most interesting Wikipedia pages I’ve read in a long time – the psychological underpinnings of this seemingly inhuman behaviour, very recent instances of cannibalism and a fascinatingly descriptive account of eating human meat by a New York Times reporter (tastes like veal, apparently).
Shit's gonna get deep
For decades, natural disasters, catastrophic human events and alien invasions have been backdrops to the consideration of philosophical themes, and The Road is no different.  The essence of being a father, the survival mindset and the inherent good (and evil) of man are explored through McCarthy’s poignant, poetic prose. 
Kids will still be kids
McCarthy dedicates the book to his son, who would have been about the same age as the boy in the book when it was released.  The dialogue is littered with his seemingly naïve observations and enquiries.  At one point, the boy guilts his father into sharing a meal with an elderly man they encounter on the road.  In a world struggling to survive, it is in these rare moments of shared humanity that hope resides. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Listomania: 7 quotes (of quotes) from 'Status Anxiety'

I saw this title on my sister's bookshelf and was immediately intrigued - this blog post is a 'thank you' for the lend.  I'd heard good things about the author and the title seemed relevant in the context of the incredible popularity of social networking websites.

Upon reading, Alain de Botton not only reveals himself to be an eloquent writer and insightful social commentator, but also an incredibly thorough reader of history and philosophy.  I highly recommend reading the whole book, but in the meantime, here are some notable references that he makes:


"When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention.  But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed… "

-        French lawyer and historian Alexis De Tocqueville analysing the relationship between dissatisfaction and high expectation


"Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions"

-         Psychologist William James’ equation that backs the cognitive strategy of lowering expectations


"I have often seen chance marching ahead of merit, and often outstripping merit by a long chalk."

        -    Renaissance philospher Michel de Montaigne illustrating the point that success isn't always planned.


"Public opinion is the worst of all opinions."

-         French writer Nicolas Chamfort expressing that the views of majority of the population are often confused or wrong


"There is in the world only the choice between loneliness and vulgarity"

-         Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explaining the folly of attaching too much value to the opinions of others


"… the desire to remove human error, clear human confusion and diminish human misery" 

-         Critic Matthew Arnold on the characteristics of the work of any great artist


"... those who most keenly felt wonder beneath the stars at night or were best able to interpret and alleviate the sufferings of others."

        -    Art critic John Ruskin's hope for the new definition of 'the wealthy'

Monday, November 5, 2012

In Conversation: Chatting Radiohead with Robbo

In the lead up to their first Australian shows in over 8 years, I sat down with a treasured friend to discuss all things Radiohead.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you Matt Robinson - actuary, Robert Pattinson look-a-like and music fan extraordinaire.  

 C.  When did you first hear Radiohead?

MR.  It was 2006.  OK Computer was the record.  I was coming out of a long phase of listening to Pink Floyd, so it fit in with the whole concept album thing - the album as a self-contained entity. 

C.  That's so interesting!  I've always linked 'Lucky' and 'Breathe' - same chords (Em, A) and incredible guitar crescendos. 

MR.  I don’t listen to it (OK Computer) much now.  Gravitating towards different albums. 

C.  Which ones do you mean?

MR.  In Rainbows and Kid AKid A is this moody electronic album that you can really immerse yourself in.  I think In Rainbows is a social record, one you can play for new fans to enjoy. 

C.  For me, it's Radiohead's most relaxed record.  All the albums up to that point had a vibe of angst or conflict.  Songs like 'Nude' and 'House of Cards' just feel so chilled and at peace. 

MR.  It seemed like they didn't need to make a 'transaction' on that record (without a record label), so maybe that meant that they were more relaxed.  The second disc is amazing too. 

C.  Totally.  Have you seen Thom have a go on the drums on 'Bangers n Mash'?

MR.  No.

C.  You saw Radiohead at a festival in Bilbao earlier this year.  What was that like?

MR.  Festival audience, Festival-friendly setlist.  Really varied crowd.  Spanish hipsters, of which there are a fair few. 

Aforementioned Spanish hipsters at Bilbao festival

C.  What songs are you looking forward to seeing in Sydney?

MR.  'House of Cards',  'Bullet Proof..Wish I Was)', 'Drunken Punchup At A Wedding'.  

C.  I wanna hear Punchup too !  So many great songs on the second side of Hail To The Thief - 'Wolf At The Door', 'Myxomatosis', 'Scatterbrain'.

C.  See you in the mosh, man.

Robbo and I will be attending the Radiohead show on Tuesday 12 November.  I will also be attending the show on Monday 11 November.  There may be tears and manhugs on both evenings.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Live Feed: Mamak, Chinatown

Inspired by the "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke format, this review will be written entirely in the form of questions and answers. 

Q:     Why did my girlfriend and I travel across town at 10:30pm on a Friday

A:     To eat Mamak's fried chicken (we'd had a few drinks and dinner was
         torturously delayed).

Teh tarik ($3.50) - warm tea sweetened with condensed milk and 'stretched', creating a frothy head.

Q:     Why is Mamak's roti canai the best in Sydney?

A:     Because it's light, fluffy and served fresh with 2 delicious curry sauces and
         fiery sambal.
         Also, if you're waiting in line, you are conveniently entertained by the
         chefs as they pound, stretch and spin the roti dough with acrobatic ease. 

Roti canai ($5.50)

Q:     Why is Mamak's ayam goreng one of the best forms of fried chicken in

A:     Because it's spicy and oh-so-crispy on the outside and always juicy on the
         inside.  Best eaten with nasi lemak - coconut rice, slices of cooling
         cucumber and aforementioned sambal for those that want the extra kick.

Up close and personal with Mamak's ayam goreng

Nasi Lemak ($8.50) with ayam goreng (+$3.00)

Q:     What is rojak?

A:     A Malaysian-style satay salad - fried tofu pieces, shaved yambean and
        cucumber and hard-boiled egg halves are topped with a spicy peanut
        sauce and freshly fried coconut and prawn fritters to delicious effect.

Rojak ($14.00)

Q:     Why are there still lines for this place at 11:30pm?

A:     Because it's quick, cheap, authentic and open till 2am.  You'd be hard
         pressed to find better versions of these Malaysian staples anywhere
         in Sydney (and according to parental reports, maybe even in Malaysia!). 

15 Goulbourn Street
9211 1688