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The Chef Visits Australia
by Elliot Essman
I've always looked at Australia from two different sides. As to way of life, it seems a lot like the U.S., and yet, it's literally a world away. My son Thor moved to Sydney last year and immediately found a comfortable berth with his Australian fiancée Joan and her extensive Philippine family. Not being one to argue with the logic of love, I made my own travel plans.

Bringing spice and dried pepper packets from my home in New Mexico as a gift for my food-loving hosts fit in well with my need to travel light. Easily half my luggage allowance would be consumed by the contents of my son's extensive wish list: American cold remedies, cough remedies, stomach remedies, headache remedies, athlete's foot remedies, soap bars, shampoo. "But don't bring in any food," Thor warned me. "They're really paranoid about that here. They'll confiscate it, fine you, or both."

"I bought you the Santa Fe Cooking School Cookbook already," I protested. "I've got to bring spices to go with it."

"The customs people are state-of-the-art here," he answered. "If you try to smuggle any food in, they put your luggage through an automatic detecting machine and catch you, then you're really in trouble." I had been in trouble with hot pepper mixes before, but rather in a different way. I keenly felt I could handle any pepper problems that came my way.

Despite my protestations, Thor continued to lecture me. "Bring sun-screen," he demanded. "There's a great big hole in the ozone layer." I was about to explain that I knew about sun protection already, that I lived a mile closer to the thing than he, but I've learned long ago not to argue with my son (or anybody his age).

I was nevertheless not going to take the restraint on my share of the international ground spice trade lying down. The Australian Customs Service web site was helpful about many food items but didn't give me information exactly on point for, say, salsa verde mixture. I slept on the matter, then woke to realize that with my new nine-cent-a-minute rate to Australia, I could afford a few calls to see what I could do. I waited out the time difference (Sydney is eighteen hours later than my home in Albuquerque, the equivalent of six hours earlier, tomorrow). I called the Australian Customs Service and carefully laid out my dilemma. I had a feeling of foreboding when they told me I had to speak to the Australian Quarantine Office. Would my spices have to sit in a locker for six months? Twenty-seven cents the poorer now, I dialed the Quarantine Office. Eighteen cents later I had my answer: if the spices come in commercially sealed packages, just declare them on that little card they give you on the plane. As I shopped for chipotle powder, jalapeno and dried ancho chiles later that day, I felt an abiding feeling that I'd gotten my forty-five cents worth.

Going through customs in Sydney took me less time that those two calls. I had traveled from winter to summer, from what had been a Tuesday to a Thursday, with no accounting for the missing Wednesday. Within a few hours, I was eating fish I'd never heard of, like barramundi; it's a marvelously meaty white fish you find grilled, steamed and fried on menus everywhere. Fast-food joints all over Sydney sell schnitzels, breaded meat cutlets with toppings like fried egg and mango chutney. You can find pizza, burgers and such anywhere, often from familiar American franchise names, but our Mexican, New Mexican, Tex-Mex, Cajun, Southern and other down home cuisines are not widely known.

Sydney is flush with Asians of all varieties; they've already made their mark on the city's cuisine. My future in-laws, Celeste and César, prepared a Philippine banquet for me at their home. "I am from New Mexico," I had to explain several times. "It's part of the, um, United States." They seemed to be soaking in this odd fact, when one of the young men at the table remembered: "Isn't Albuquerque the place Bugs Bunny was always trying to get back to?" I nodded, more from jet lag than from agreement. The main course, spicy shrimp you had to peel, was served before I had to give additional geography lessons.

Having been given a good start with the Philippine banquet, I went on to eat Malay, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Indian food in both sit-down and fast food configurations. The tiny local Thai place seemed the best, serving fourteen of us in what might have been ten minutes. I remember fresh hot spices, fresh ginger and vegetables, fresh crispy rice noodles. The wine at all times was Australian, very drinkable and kind to my credit card.

My first notable break from Asian food at Sydney restaurants consisted of a typical English breakfast: eggs, fries, thick bacon, fried tomatoes, baked beans, and fried mushrooms, with plenty of black tea. The only other significant ethnic variation came at an Italian restaurant at Circular Quay (that's pronounced "Circular Key"), just down from Sydney's top icon, that Opera House. My two guides, an Australian woman of Italian descent and another of Sri Lankan birth, explained that though the service was cafeteria style, the food was top notch. I had a pounded, breaded veal chop with broccoli rabe and pan roasted potatoes. We then went on for drinks and dancing at one of the gaggle of outdoor bars in front of the Opera House. Sydney is a young town, the music was loud, but I still managed to catch a glimpse of the opera house every now and then and imagine less pulsating entertainment.

After only a twelve-day stay in Sydney, I was keenly aware that I had left key culinary ground undisturbed. Sydney boasts scores of quality European restaurants. The city, with its cousin Melbourne, also serves as a culinary new frontier, with top-notch fusion restaurants where anything goes, as long as it's excellent. No one can truly explain what the new Australian cuisine is, except to say that it is still creating itself in the hands of energetic chefs. As the youngest of the "western" countries, Australia, if its food practitioners are any example, is not waiting calmly to take dictation from its older siblings.

The Australian airline Qantas treats you well for your fourteen hour flight, giving you two full meals, snacks, and frequent beverage service. With your hot beverage they hand out what are supposed to be coffee stirrers, but which I instantly recognized as perfect spoons for handling the New Mexican chipotle powder I had so carefully shepherded through Australian customs. The ground powder is flavorful but also very hot. The trick is to use just a pinch to add heat and flavor to soups, stews, or even omelets. You don't want to actually touch the stuff or get it under your cuticles. Qantas had the answer.

At Thor and Joan's between our restaurant outings, I dipped into the spices I'd brought for nearly every meal I prepared. I made a slow cooked stewed chicken on a base of whole shallots with red and yellow bell peppers (the Aussies give bell peppers the oddly scientific name of "capsicums"), adding just two Qantas spoons of chipotle to add depth. By leaving the shallots peeled but uncut, I used them both as an aromatic and as a vegetable. A three-hour or more slow cook left the shallots tender, with slightly crunchy centers.

The chipotle powder and some of the other New Mexican seasonings I brought to Australia could last a considerable time in the hands of a frugal cook. The salsa and buffalo chicken wing spice mixtures I brought were only enough to use once. I made it quite clear that if my son wants more of these addictive spices, he'd have to arrange his own visit back to their source. The round-trip I'd taken across the Pacific was punishing. Besides, Qantas be praised, I already own two custom-crafted chipotle powder spoons. Top -- Food Articles Home

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