Food Diary: Reuben Hills, Surry Hills

IMG_3828Reuben Hills is an institution and an incredibly busy one. It has spectacularly good coffee, and is a fun place to hang out. The food, Latin American influenced, is interesting, though a bit pricy.


I remember when it arrived thinking that Single Origin’s dominance was being challenged, but there’s room enough for all coffee lovers in Surry Hills, it seems. Last time I came here I just had coffee and sweet treats with a pal.

Reuben Hills Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Food Diary: Jonkanoo, Surry Hills, Sydney

IMG_3806It’s strange to say that I miss Caribbean food when I can’t say that I’m all that much an expert in it. Jamaican patties in Vancouver (possibly not the best) and superb rotis in Toronto (oh my god, these were amazing). I’ve tried various ‘jerk’ seasonings. In any case, with a weird Caribbean renaissance in my neighbourhood (now THREE restaurants), I can’t say I’m lacking now (though none of them have Caribbean rotis). However, our Thursday night meal at Jonkanoo was… amazing. I wasn’t expecting it to be soooo good, and now give it a high recommendation.

IMG_3807With a tropical beach shack feel, and staff who all have authentic accents and looks, the thing is: the food was amazing. The fish fins were a highlight: perfectly spiced, salty and crisp, what a surprise. I loved the goat curry, matching perfectly to the spiced peas and rice. The salad was tasty (usefully balancing so much rich flavour). And the jerk pork: my god, this was beautiful, fatty, charcoaled, salty. So this is why one makes a fuss over jerk seasoning, not just the spices but the technique.

IMG_3805Matched with a bottle of white wine that came in the fanciest wine cooler we’ve ever seen, and this was really a wonderful meal. But wait: there’s more. With Dimmi reservation IMG_3804system’s $50 voucher, the already very reasonable prices became ridiculously cheap. We tipped generously, and deservedly as the waiter advised us that we were ordering too much food. Now, when do you get a waiter who can give you honest advice like that?

Jonkanoo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Food Diary: Firedoor, Surry Hills, Sydney

IMG_3814 Wow.

I’d heard good things about Firedoor, but we had a pretty much perfect food night: surprising, tasty and innovative with an extremely fair price of $85 for a whatever-the-chef-decides kind of night.

IMG_3810The interiors are Surry Hills chic (and a complete transformation from the cozy café Strawberry Cross that occupied the space beforehand).

The open kitchen was very fun to watch with an international crew of men putting together the dishes.

We felt sorry for the guy at the station in the back with the charcoal and hot pans. I reckon he doesn’t have any fingerprints left.

Service was superb and engaging, helping to get us even more interested in the food that arrived.

IMG_3809The theme of this restaurant is fire. Nearly everything is cooked on a grill or with a wood-fired oven. They actually make their own charcoal out of different wood and use it as to add flavour to the food! Crazy and unique and yet the essence of the food is not trickery, but primally good food! So, a delicious smoke flavour was added to nearly each dish, from the delicious butter that accompanied the homemade bread to the wonderful ricotta starter and then the awesome grilled beans.

We both loved the fennel and orange with fish…

IMG_3812The Murray codhead (first photo above!) was probably the most challenging; there wasn’t a lot of meat, and the IMG_3811gelatinousness of it was its pitch. But I couldn’t bring myself to suck back the eyeball. Cheeks are always good though.

It made for a dramatic visual.

The squid was so tender and delicious, and the squid ink puree with a hint of tomato and (what was that secret ingredient the waiter told us?). Regardless, simple and delicious.

IMG_3813A simple salad preceded the Jurassic Quail, which owner-chef Lennox Hastie (great name) told us was the most beautiful of quails that he’d encountered, killed on a Tuesday, brought to them on a Wednesday. It was indeed more tender and bigger than any quail I’ve tasted – and delicious. With spelt and kale, yummilicious.


Ah, a digression. As my fabulous dining companion doesn’t eat red meat, we had to skip what is apparently the restaurant’s specialty, which we saw being cut each time it was ordered, and then grilled to perfection and then cut into pieces by the head chef (who was friendly and engaging and also made our evening more memorable, watching him work, and being able to ask him about some of the dishes).

We’re coming back in January to eat THIS:


With all that heat coming from the kitchen, a cool dessert was a relief; and it was a marvelous combo of textures and flavours. The wine list is extensive here, and a little pricy (as you’d expect for a top-end restaurant) but they serve a surprising amount of them in a carafe, which I think is a nice option. We had a yummy Orange wine which got better the closer it came to room temperature followed by a carafe of a French wine, light enough to pair with the seafood. IMG_3821

I haven’t given a 5/5 rating here since Quay, but why would I be mean with stars after such an amazing evening.

Firedoor Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Food Diary: Shakespeare Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney


The Shakespeare Hotel in Surry Hills on Devonshire Street is an institution. It has remained the same since I first arrived in Sydney, and describes itself as one of the last ‘authentic pubs in Sydney’. It even has accommodation upstairs, which, my non-Australian IMG_3799friends, is a very Australian thing to combine a hotel and bar, and is the reason why so many of the pubs in Sydney (and elsewhere in Australia) have the name ‘Hotel’ in them. I’ve actually stayed in accommodation attached to pubs twice here, and the only possible advantage of staying in a not-great room with a noisy bar below it is if you want to get so drunk that you can’t go further than a set of stairs.

But I digress.

IMG_3798This last visit to Shakie’s coincided with a trivia night upstairs. We’ve decided this is the go-to location for our alumni gatherings as the meals are cheap enough for folks on a budget, and it’s close enough to Central Station that people can get to it from many parts of Sydney. Food specials are $12.50. Yes, you read that correctly. And the drinks are fine. This time I had the chicken schnitzel (it took me over ten years here to hear the Aussie nickname: schnitty; this particular one was crisp, tender, smothered in tasty salty gravy on top of mash and a nice coleslaw on the side). The time before it was chicken parmigiana but I’ve tried other dishes on the menu, and it’s tasty, fresh and cheap, in a fun and unpretentious atmosphere. For that, it gets four stars out of five!

Shakespeare Hotel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers

Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m feeling really ambiguous about Malcolm Gladwell lately. In some ways, it’s related to how GOOD his writing is. He spins a great story. They’re the kind of stories that I immediately want to share with friends at dinner parties. They all have the sort of idea of challenging a perceived notion, backing it up with an engaging interview with someone to prove the point, and a somewhat grandiose but repeatable and understandable argument.

I devoured all of his articles up online on the New Yorker and was particularly taken with his first book, The Tipping Point. The thing is that he’s so popular that his arguments are taken not as interesting theories but as fact. The title of this book was so catchy, I’m pretty sure the use of the word ‘outlier’ jumped exponentially after the book was published. Only a few weeks ago, I read a reference to the argument in this book about 10,000 hours needed to master a subject. I think this idea described in this book has been visible and discussed ever since Outlier’s publication in 1998.

He also has the ability with his writing (as mentioned in a blurb on the back cover from The Times) to make it feel like you’re the smart one making the discovery, rather than being lectured to or talked down. So, while the various ideas in the book make me want to run out and tell everyone what I’ve learned, I worry whether they are accurate or not.

His very first argument, that success in the Canadian Junior Hockey League relates to your birthday as much as anything, says that the league will be filled with young men born in the first quarter of the year (with January being the most advantageous). Coincidentally, the nephew of a friend is playing in the WHL, a junior league, and excelling. I looked up his birthday online… and it’s September. Of course, he’s not saying that it’s impossible for someone born in September to succeed in hockey; yet, there’s something in the tone and drive of narrative which seems to lack ambiguity or alternative possibilities.

Another idea about rice cultivation leading to a cultural history of hard work includes a footnote to support his argument, which I’ve written about on my blog, which is presented as fact – but with a little research, it sounds like this idea – that a particular group of people (the Sze Yap, my ancestors) were from an area with less-fertile land and were lower achieving academically – is really very tenuous.

Then again, it’s not his role to argue against himself; I guess it’s the role of active thinkers to not take his arguments as fact, and do some of our own research to see what measures up or not.

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Food Diary: Lal Qila, Redfern, Sydney

IMG_3792All those Indian restaurants along that stretch on Cleveland Street, between Bourke and Crown, are tasty enough, and inexpensive, but none has ever stood out to me. Instead, I’ve been a number of times to this crowded Pakistani restaurant, with one of those menus that goes on and on with hundreds of items, and I’ve found it delightful.

IMG_3790There’s always something new to discover by randomly choosing something that sounds good, and I find the food tasty and the portions generous. A recommendation on Zomato said the biryani was tasty, and indeed it was: surprisingly light for a rice dish, though it was such a big portion, it overwhelmed all else. I’d say order one of these only if you’ve got a table of at least four and maybe more. The deep-fried okra to start with was tasty and unusual; the tandoori fish beautiful. A classic yellow dahl was really good.

IMG_3791I’ve had meat dishes here on other occasions, which were tasty too. All for a very reasonable price ($30 a head) and BYO. The service was friendly and efficient, though IMG_3793because they’re so busy (also managing take-away orders), it can be hard to get their attention. Very pleasant. My current go-to South Asian restaurant.

Lal Qila Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter

A Place Called WinterA Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I’ve written before in book reviews, I often look to books in slightly opposing ways: both to find myself, and to be introduced to a completely different world. Patrick Gale’s latest novel, A Place Called Winter, has a pleasing familiarity to me as a Canadian, as Canada is the setting of much of the book, where the protagonist battles to establish a farm in the Canadian prairies.

I also have a connection with Denmark, and though Dane in the book is a villain, I still liked seeing the way he was translated to the page. The parts of the book set in pre-war England were familiar, but not in as enjoyable a way: I feel somehow that I’ve visited this period a lot through film and other books.

Addressing sexuality, and repressed sexuality, and how people in an earlier time made connections with each other without language about sexual identity, is perhaps not a new topic anymore, but I liked the way it was handled.

In any case, there is a broad enough range of themes tackled and characters described that a reader will find interesting new worlds as well as the familiarity of human nature. The book is structured in a complex and engaging way, going back and forth in time, and as with my experience of Gale’s work today, his writing is incredibly readable. I mean this as a compliment: it’s not particularly showy but is beautiful and serves the narrative well.

I managed to avoid reviews and other profiles before reading the book so was nicely surprised at the end to find the book is an interpretation of Gale’s own family history; it makes the story all the richer.

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Food Diary: Buster Brown, Darlinghurst, Sydney

IMG_3789Sunday lunch, on the terrible day after the events in Paris, it seemed appropriate to discover a French cafe in my neighbourhood, and perhaps in a misguided way to show support. With a name like Buster Brown, who knew? But they had a nice little chalkboard that clearly said it was a French bistro, and more than that, it was nice to hear that the majority of staff were French, though I didn’t feel up to chattering with our waiter (who had a fantastic accent) about what had happened.

I had a salad niçoise, as above – colourful and fresh with a tasty piece of poached salmon on it – and my pal had a chicken and leek pie, all done up in filo pastry, looking like a giant version of a Thai deep-fried money bag. We found the food pleasing, also washed down with a glass of wine, and the courtyard out back was pleasant enough. Vive la France!

Buster Brown Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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The Sze Yap underachievers

CIMG2378 I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and came across a passage that struck me.

His theory is that the cultures that cultivated rice paddies, as compared to other crops such as wheat, learned that their success depended not on the whims of weather or the will of god, but on hard work; and that the complex, involved and constantly demanding all-year-long task of rice cultivation lead to a culture of hard work that leads to academic success and has been mistaken for high IQs.

Well, that’s my summary anyways.

As a footnote that supports his argument, he included reference to a paper by James Flynn who said that the majority of Chinese immigrants to the West were from the Pearl River Delta, which looks on the map to be about half of the province of Guangdong (or Canton as my family knew it), the middle half, and whose descendants were often at the top of their class at MIT.

CIMG2399Bolstering the theory of rice cultivation = hard work and smarts, he said the lowest-achieving Chinese-Americans were the Sze Yap people, who ‘come from the edges of the Delta, “where soil was less fertile and agriculture less intense”.

Since my background is Sze Yap, I thought I’d look into this. As far back as I know, granddad’s family had a shoe factory, and sent him to Canada to work as a houseboy when his age was a single digit. He also sold fish on street corners, so was evidently rather hard-working. He returned to China and then immigrated back to Canada where he opened a produce store, and was a successful businessman. I’ll have to see if we know of any rice-growers in the paternal family (Mom’s great-granddad came to Hawaii to plant rice which, I suppose, means we should be harder working than we are…)

An article by Flynn can be found here, which is an excerpt from a longer book. The chapter only mentions the disproportionate number of Asian-Americans in the MIT entrance class, but it sounds like the stats on achievements may be in the full book. He credits his anecdote on my underachieving ancestors from:

Lee, R. H. (1960). The Chinese in the United States of America. Hong Kong:University Press.

The contents don’t actually divide the Chinese up into categories, and don’t specifically mentioning anything about the Cantonese or those from the Pearl River Delta.

CIMG2432A review of the book from 1961 describes Rose Hum Lee as “a professional sociologist” and the book is one “in which what she feels about America as an American-born Chinese and what she assumes to be the proper roles of the Chinese in America obscure her perception of the reality she is supposed to describe” (Maurice Freeman). Ouch.

An academic pal found a biography of her online. Born in 1904 in Montana, she apparently used her family often as examples in her sociological work, but made them anonymous under the fiction that her work was ‘detached’.

Knowing what little I know about Sze Yap and combined with what was said about her book, it’s fair to assume that her assertion is not based on any statistics. To compare Sze Yap descendants to another group, she would have had get a reliable sample size of stats on the Cantonese, find out which villages they came from, and then ascertain that those from the small Sze Yap area of the Delta were lower achieving. And then, lower achieving by what measure? And would the comparison be to an average of all other Chinese, Cantonese, or to other districts of Canton? If any comparison could be made, it would have been between those from Sze Yap (the four districts) and those from Sam Yap (the three districts), as these were the two neighbouring regions in Canton where most of the early Chinese immigrants came from and then settled all over the world, from North America to South America and Europe and Australia.

I found another mention of Sze Yap as “a district in south China that was more commercially sophisticated than many other parts of the country, with a history of contacts with foreign traders”. But, according to Gladwell’s thesis, wouldn’t commercial activities and trade, with people from another culture and language, be as stimulating, complex and demanding as rice cultivation?

It probably sounds like I’m trying to defend my family honour, but I’d rather believe it’s more a statement on the way Gladwell puts his arguments together, and the way non-fact and opinion can work their way into our thinking as facts.

Rose Hum Lee likely made a personal observation about the Sze Yap people. This was used in an argument many years later by Flynn, and then taken from there by Gladwell. The original statement and thesis may not be true at all, but this factoid is stated so plainly that it could be taken as truth, and the popularity of Gladwell’s writing means that untruth gets widely spread.


(photos are from a family trip to the ancestral village, in Kai Ping in Sze Yap, 2005)

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Home Cooking: Mango Sticky Rice

One of my favourite treats when visiting Bangkok is to sneak into a food court in a shopping mall and order a Mango Sticky Rice (Khao Niew Ma Muang). There’s usually a whole floor or at least a large corner of a floor with food stalls, easier for me to navigate than one outside, and I think an order is about 70 or 80 baht. Not even two bucks. I’ve even bought it at the departure gates of the airport; there’s one place that sells it along with packaged sweets.

The combination of fresh, sweet mango, with the texture of glutinous rice, covered in coconut with a bit of sugar and a hit of salt, is magical. I’m not sure if I’ve thought of making it at home before in Sydney, but for some reason, right now in the middle of November, mangos are pretty much perfect. I combined recipes from the web, and my god: this was a triumph.


Mango Sticky Rice (serves 4)

150g glutinous rice (also sometimes called sweet rice)
250ml of coconut milk
2 tablespoons caster sugar
Large pinch of salt
1 large mango, or enough for 4 people, sliced or cubed

*Place rice in a microwavable glass bowl. Cover with cold water, about 2 cm and soak rice for at least ten minutes (I usually rinse it off a few times too). Microwave on high for 3 minutes. Stir it up. Do this 3 or 4 times until the rice is cooked: it will be translucent and sticky.
*Heat, but don’t boil coconut milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan. A generous pinch of salt makes for a fantastic sweet-salty taste.
* Add half to two-thirds of the coconut milk mixture to the rice, stir and rest 5 min.
* Divide the rice up among serving plates. Maybe use a serving ring to shape, or as I sometimes do, press it into a small bowl and then turn it back out over the plate. It’s prettier than a wet scoop of rice. Top with mango and pour over the remaining coconut milk.

Aroy (delicious!).

Most of this is from a 2007 recipe by Gemma Purcell from Australian Good Taste as found on, but the microwave rice method can be found in a few different places.

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