How eating in Sydney makes you fat
This article initially appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald
Words: Terry Durack
First of all, does it? Hell, yes. And why? Because so much of it is built on fat - marbled steaks, fatty lamb ribs, suckling pig, duckling, pasta, bread, butter, batter, mayonnaise, oil, cream, cheese and chips ... lots of chips.
And because it’s bloody delicious. Everyone loves fat, it’s what makes food taste good. And everyone loves eating out in Sydney – it’s what makes living in Sydney so good.
Renee Zellwegger couldn’t have found a better diet in order to turn herself into Bridget Jones than you can find around Sydney’s bistros and bars at the moment.
But I ask the question – is deep-frying pizza going a step too far?
Just take a look at what has happened to our menus over the past five or six years. No longer is carpaccio of hiramasa kingfish the default dish on every Sydney menu. Now its crispy this and crispy that, whether its lamb ribs, pork belly, calamari or whitebait. "Crispy" might not be a real word, but its effect on Sydney’s menus is very real. Every chef knows that if the C-word is on the menu, it will be the biggest order of the night. We crave crispy, without considering for a second how the food in question is made crisp. It’s a simple enough equation – crisp equals deep-fried equals fat.
Blame it on dude food
It’s a global trend, pushed along by the economics of the day, but Sydney chefs in particular have managed to make fat and carbs seem highly desirable. They’ve cutesied up anything deep-fried by calling it "dude food". They’ve legitimised mayo by adding sriracha and wasabi.
They’ve taken fast food into the dining mainstream by luxe-ing up the ingredients. The hamburger is now wagyu, the bun is now brioche, the hot dog is now chorizo. They’ve even made gross-out desserts cool by giving them drug-fuelled connotations as in Ms G’s "Stoner’s Delight" - the question being who needs drugs when you can get a sugar hit this big from a platter of doughnut ice cream, peanut butter, salted potato-chip praline, mars bar slice and banana fritter.
It’s a classy, fun, quality version of pretty much everything in the late-night munchies aisle – but it ain’t exactly number one on your local nutritionist’s list of recommendations.
Welcome white trash
The main reason for the rise in calories is the wholesale adoption of American food and American food culture by our younger set of chefs. They’ve discovered – as has America - that all they have to do is deep-fry a nice piece of fish or chicken, stick it in a sweet bun and squiggle it with yuzu mayo and they can feed a lot of people very cheaply and happily.
Hence we are currently in the Deep-fried Chicken Era, with every joint in town turning out good old trailer-trash Southern fried fowl, from District Dining in Surry Hills and Bloodwood in Newtown, to Chiswick in Woollahra, Jazz City Diner and Duke (where fried chicken is served with pine needles and garlic).
Cold-smoked fried chicken is one of the must-try dishes at hot-to-trot Newtown newcomer Hartsyard, teamed with house-made American "biscuits" (scones to us) and a rich, thick, creamy "gravy" studded with pork sausage. Chinatown drinking den The Dip does a fried chicken burger, while the Grounds of Alexandria serves up a buttermilk chicken pizza. Fried chicken is even on the menu at Claude’s new little downstairs bar, thinly (or should be fatly?) disguised as Pearl’s Lemon Chicken.
We all love fried chicken; biting through that golden dry/crisp shell into the juicy, soft, steamy blonde meat; evoking all the right junk-when-drunk memories without being too white-trash about it. But do we want it every time we go out? Where’s the balance here?
And don’t look now, but the bread used in these rolls, buns, sliders, burgers and hotdogs is designed to take you back to your happy childhood meals in McDonalds, and is so pappy and soft it compacts into moist, mushy white little bits that stick in the interstices between your teeth like spakfilla, leading to a new social phenomenon known as the spakfilla smile.
How to gain weight : Eat out
Of course, there’s nothing new about the lure of fatty foods – and little of the best eating in the world is fat-free. The askmen.com website recently published a list of the 10 fastest ways to get fat. Their Number 7 sure-fire method was: Eat out.
Many people do a great job at avoiding fast-food, they argued, but what most don't realise is that dine-in restaurants can be almost as bad, with an average entree coming in at over 1,000 calories. And I bet that research was done before we started deep-frying pizza.
Expect more international deep-fried eating pleasure as our new bars and casual eateries explore the deep south as well as south and central america for inspiration. At the new Panama House in Bondi, there’s corn bread, deep-fried oyster po’ boys, jerk chicken tacos and popcorn shrimp.
At Hartsyard, there’s the totally over the top poutine, a hangover dish from those wacky French-Canadians that’s pretty much big chips with oxtail gravy, fried shredded beef, and a butt-kicking sauce of cheddar and beer.
Schnitzilla conquers food world
The July 2012 issue of TimeOut Sydney nailed the current fatgeist with their "Don’t Worry, Be Fatty" cover, an "anti-Olympic, guilt-free Guide to kicking back, pigging out, lazin' around and treating yourself". Inside was a challenge to eat Schnitzilla at Essen Restaurant & Beer Café in Ultimo, a 3.5kg plate of chicken schnitzel, potato roesti and cabbage salad.
For those in need of a few calories and carbs, their handy guide highlighted the Mars Bar tempura at Toku Toku in Glebe, the deep-fried Golden Gaytime at The Abercrombie, and the deep-fried banana split at The Dip. In the same issue, however, was a considered interview with American food activist Michael Pollan, whose mantra is "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants", and who wants us to cook at home more. We’re all torn – and like TimeOut, we all give ourselves a choice.
What else can we deep fry?
At the born-again Abercrombie Hotel in Chippendale, they clearly sit around asking themselves just how they can trash every fast food option around. The menu is smart, funny, hysterical – starting with deep fried mac'n'cheese balls, moving on to a deep-fried scotch egg slider drenched in mayo and served with chips; and ending with a Philly cheese steak with copious slices of beef, lots of mayo and a melting rivulet of cheese, set on a long bun.
At The Norfolk in Cleveland Street, Redfern, it’s all soft shell tacos, beef nachos, and deep-fried pickles with ranch dipping sauce. To be fair, they also have salads – not sure if they’re deep-fried or not.
It’s not just fast food, it’s slow food too.
But its not just the Americanisation and mayonnaisation of our diet that’s whacking up the calorie count, the good stuff is getting more fattening, too. There’s just more of it than there used to be. More marbled steak, more pork belly, and more slow-cooked lamb shoulder (so much fattier than lamb leg).
Then there’s the popularity of charcuterie boards, loaded with pates, terrines, sausages, salamis and cured meats with a high proportion of fat. Wagyu – layered, marbled, riddled with glorious, delicious, fat - is served not only as burgers, but as meatballs, Bolognese sauce, short ribs, sausages. The Japanese eat their high-fat beef in very small, measured, treasured portions – we eat it in huge slabs, with chips on the side. As for sliders, do you think your mother would have suggested that starting your dinner with a miniature burger is a good idea?
We drink hot milky cappuccinos (70% of us) instead of milk-free espressos all day, and then go out for pizza, pasta, and crème brulee (which is pretty much cream, topped with sugar). What used to be fast food – deep-fried potato scallops and fried dimsims from the chippy are now on the menu on the Merivale Group’s poshed-up fish shop, The Fish Shop in Potts Point. Renee Zellwegger couldn’t have found a better diet in order to turn herself into Bridget Jones than you can find around Sydney’s bistros and bars at the moment.
Sweets for the sweet, fats for the fat.
So you’ve managed to steer a course through the deep-friedness of everything, you’ve played with your pasta, drunk wine instead of creamy cocktails, and shared a main. But you’re not yet safe, because the ice-cream sandwich is gunna get you.
Whether it’s the Dogg’s Breakfast at Reuben Hills (sandwiched with salted dulce leche); the Lodge wine bar in Balmain (cherry and coconut ice cream in choc biscuits); the toasted brioche sandwich with vanilla ice-cream at Wilbur’s Place in Potts Point; the salted caramel ice cream sandwich at The Dip, or the arteries-be-damned peanut butter and banana sundae served with pretzel ice cream, banana doughnut and salted fudge at Hartsyard.
Aw, what the hell. Why do I care?
Because I’ve been fat and I’ve been skinny, and I’d rather not go back to being fat again, thanks very much. And because these changes to our menus have been relatively sudden, and I don’t think a lot of diners really know just how a steady diet of this sort of food can be.
And because once crappy food is a habit, it’s hard to get yourself off it. I know there’s good fat and bad fat, that trans-fats are evil and avocadoes are next to godliness, but overall, there’s just TOO MUCH FAT and TOO MANY CARBS in our restaurants. Even Japanese restaurants – long the model for sane, healthy eating – are deep-frying more, and mayonnaising more.
Being healthy will always require us to make choices – between big or small portions, between lying around or getting off our bums, between second helpings or thirds, and between dessert or no dessert. All I’m asking for is a few more choices that aren’t deep-fried, tucked into soft, sweet bread, and squirted with mayo.