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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Snapper, Spice and Rice

snapper mousseline
Red snapper mouselline steamed in banana leaf cups

Australia is built on a nation of immigrants. From the first colonial invaders to Gold Rush entrepreneurs to the post-war waves of refugees, Australia wouldn't be Australia without its multicultural melting pot (which still hisses and sizzles occasionally).

In recognition of the South-East Asian voyages taken to reach our shores, a Snapper, Spice & Rice Festival was held at the Maritime Museum last weekend.

festival poster

There was an extensive range of boats on display, most noticeably the Tu Do (meaning Freedom) which was built in 1975. This hand-built Vietnamese fishing boat survived a 6,000km journey to Darwin in 1977 with 31 passengers on board. Tan Lu helped build the boat and navigated the journey using only a simple compass and a school map of the world.

tu do boat

Of course it was the food stalls that caught my attention and the South-East Asian cuisines we take for granted were celebrated all weekend. Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Cambodian, Indonesian and Laotian delicacies were all on offer, but I only had eyes for the green papaya salad.

papaya salad prep
Green papaya salad about to be pounded

rice warmer
Sticky rice bamboo warmer

green papaya salad
Laotian green papaya salad $5.00

sticky rice
Sticky rice $2.00

I always underestimate my ability to handle chilli Thai or Laotian-style. Medium, I had asked, and then watched her throw in two whole chillies into the mortar.

The salad had a lot more dried shrimp (Good for skin, the stallholder had assured me with a smile) than usual and was served with a side of raw shredded cabbage. Big chunks of tomato and lime were present too, although I did find myself craving the crunch of roasted peanuts.

The plate of sticky rice was starchy and satisfying. It felt rather strange to be eating sticky rice that wasn't sweetened and plump with coconut milk, but it did help the burning tastebuds in-between mouthfuls of fiery papaya salad.

joanna savill

I caught the last bit of the first cooking demonstration featuring Sunthree Pancharoen from Thai Wild Rice preparing hor mok pla, or red snapper moussline steamed in banana leaf cups (see picture at the beginning of this post).

I made sure I had front row seats for the next demo featuring Tony Leung from Sky Phoenix cooking sea cucumber soup.

sea cucumber
Dehyrdated sea cucumber on the left;
rehydrated sea cucumber on the right

Sea cucumber is a huge Asian delicacy often served at weddings and other celebrations. The Australian export market is significant and with a retail price of $150/kg this is a lucrative business to get into. Sea cucumber can only be picked up off the ocean floor by divers, limiting supply and hence, increasing demand.

It has only been relatively recently that sea cucumber has been available semi-dehydrated. Most often it is sold in a solidifed dehydrated state which takes some time to reverse into a useable form. Rehydrating, we learned, requires the sea cucumber to be placed in a large pot of cold water and heated until boiling. The flames are then turned off and sea cucumber must then be left in the pot until the water is cold (about 5-6 hours).

The water is drained off and the pot is refilled with more cold water. Again the sea cucumber is heated until boiling, taken off the heat and left in the pot until the water is cold.

This boiling process is repeated 4-5 times or until the sea cucumber is soft and pliable. And three days later, you can finally understand why sea cucumber dishes are so expensive!

tony leung

Chef Leung prepared a sea cucumber soup with chicken broth, dried scallops and enoki mushrooms, a quick dish which only took about five minutes in a huge boiling wok.

sea cucumber
Sea cucumber soup sample

Being a clever front-sitting audience member, I was lucky to receive a sample bowl. As warned, the sea cucumber was flavourless. Much like shark fin and abalone, the flavour lies not in the product, but the soup in which it is served. The chicken broth was tasty and slightly thickened with corn flour.

So why is it so popular? According to Sky Phoenix co-owner, Alice, the Chinese revere sea cucumber as it is high in protein, has zero cholesterol and makes skin look youthful. Sceptical or not, I'd rather have this than botox!

Lighthouse at the Maritime


The Snapper, Spice and Rice Festival takes place every two years at the Maritime Museum in Sydney's Darling Harbour.

This was the third time the festival has run.
10 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (AugustusGloop) on 11/08/2005 11:59:00 am


  • At 11/09/2005 1:01 am, Blogger Cat said…

    mm sticky rice, there are few things that satisfy the way a simple bowl of sticky rice does :)

  • At 11/09/2005 9:33 am, Blogger Kelly said…

    Hi AG, I love the sound of this festival - yum! (And I'm really going to have to try some green papaya salad next time I get the chance, after reading all your posts about it recently!)

  • At 11/09/2005 7:41 pm, Blogger Rachel said…

    When I saw your first picture, my first instinct was otak !! I guess thats just the malaysian/ singporean version. I know the thai ones have a more delicate red curry and coconut flavour and the chunks of fish are bigger.

    It looks like you had a grand time at the festival. Hopefully I'll get a chance to be at the next one. Do you know of any sites that tell you whats happening in sydney?

    I don't know if you have had sea cucumber this way as it is teochew style, but my grandmother used to prepare the sea cucumber, then stuff it with a minced pork/mushroom/water chestnut mixture and steam it again, then finally adding a gravy over the top. It was heavenly !!

  • At 11/09/2005 9:15 pm, Blogger deborah said…

    WOW look at that durian. It the punk of the fruit world for sure!

  • At 11/10/2005 1:12 am, Blogger Helen (AugustusGloop) said…

    Hi Catesa - Sticky rice definitely fills you up quickly!

    Hi Kelly - lol. I go through my food phases. Spice I Am is still the winner though. It is amazing how recipes vary though.

    Hi Rachel - Oh I love otak otak but this was more delicate I think.

    There doesn't seem to be a good central website for all Sydney events which is why I keep my own! I've always supplied dates for all upcoming Sydney events (esp foodie ones) on my right-hand side panel. I created this manually by checking all the local Government websites and keeping my ear to the ground.

    I've seen sea cucumber prepared this way but never tried it myself. I've had it in a similar style using bitter melon as well as zucchini/courgette and it was delicious.

    Hi Saffron - lol. Indeed. All it needs it the safety-pin ear-ring.

    ps. perfect new profile photo! =)

  • At 11/10/2005 6:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm Vietnamese and also an American Immigrant. I had no idea that Australia had that large of an Asian influence, but I should have figured seeing how the orient is not that far away. I'm still awaiting the day til I'm able to visit Australia. That's been put on hold since Hurricane Katrina hit my city...

    I don't know if I've asked you this before, but, What do you do for a living? It must be really nice to have the time to chronicle your passion..(i.e. food)... I'd love to do what you're doing some day...

  • At 11/10/2005 6:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…


  • At 11/10/2005 4:32 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    every two years?!?!? nooooo!
    and i love sticky rice by itself! or with mango... or durian... mmm

  • At 11/10/2005 9:54 pm, Blogger Rachel said…

    Ohhh! Yes you do have a diary on the right margin. Lol your food photos are so distracting that I failed to see the surrounding information :) Thanks for that AG :P

  • At 11/10/2005 11:29 pm, Blogger Helen (AugustusGloop) said…

    Hi Allen - Oh I'm glad to hear you are ok. I actually did remember you as a New Orleans blogger when Katrina hit.

    I do all my blogging when I get home from work. I don't work in a food or hospitality-related field, but yes, I am lucky to have a 9-5 job.

    Hi chocolatesuze - There's a bonanza of food festivals this Sunday to console you - Newtown, Spanish Quarter and Thai! I had links on the right hand side of my template.

    I love sticky rice with mango too, but usually that's cooked with coconut milk. Savoury plain sticky rice tasted strange but still delicious!

    Hi Rachel - Hehe. No problem. I understand completely =)


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