Claypot cooking is a tradition arising out of cool evenings and the intent for capturing all the goodness and flavours of carefully chosen ingredients to be combined in a one serve dish. The outcome of such dishes, whether as double-boiled herbal soups, rice-based vegetable cuts and meat slices or as noodle creations, is often aromatic. At First Taste, one gets personalised servings, the feel of home cooking and the chatter of an informal community all gathered to enjoy such a common penchant for this style of cuisine. Originating from China, the dishes are as safe and reliable for young kids and elderly nannas. As with Oriental dishes, there are lots of cutting, assembling of the ingredients and consideration for the balance of sensations (sour, sweet, savoury and salty) for each dish created. Shallots, garlic, ginger and bits of red-black Cantonese sausage are often used for garnishing, together with various sauces, ranging from XO to oyster.
Suan and Elaine had accompanied me to Box Hill in the greater Melbourne area one afternoon for a drop by at the First Taste outlet. The chain has other branches in Footscray and Springvale in Victoria, and I had recalled how I had been also introduced to the Hurstville outlet in southern Sydney by Tom and Nae. The Box Hill entrance is unassuming, but promised and delivered much variety and choice in different kinds of claypot combinations. Visualise black skinned chickens (silkies), black fungus, smooth tofu sheets, quail, scallops and prawns. Whether you view such things as acquired tastes, or as an adventure not far from home, is up to you.
The cooked white rice at the bottom of each claypot can be burnt. The other caution is to be ready for really hot servings placed in front of you. Do we consume the little bits of meat found hidden amongst the rice pile or floating in the soup? Use discretion, depending on the type of meat and whether you reckon the taste from such meats has already been transferred to the soup or rice. It can be fun, digging through your order, to find delights, mysteries and that item you have seen Mum cooked before.
My Caucasian friends vouch for black pepper diced beef sitting on claypot rice, especially during the rainy weather that we have been having. Whatever they choose, do not steer them to the durian flavoured soup as it is definitely an acquired taste! Then there is the risk of chicken feet herbal soup, complete with skin intact but supposedly providing some nutrition benefits for those already convinced of the beneficial effects of this dish. My weakness is stewed pork claypot, on the fatty side but tasty and irresistible! I enjoyed the food choices in front of me and was so engrossed in conversation with both Suan and Elaine that I totally forgot to take pictures.
I could be mistaken, but I reckon there is another First Taste outlet at Campsie in NSW. I recommend you try their fare on a cool night and you do not have to spend much to transport yourself to an authentic Chinese experience. Claypots can also be obtained for your home at most Asian groceries, usually at the back shelves. Clay is a porous material and such cooking is not confined to Asia, but also practised in different styles in Morroco, Spain and Italy.
My impressions of First Taste at Box Hill in the Melbourne region are:
Atmosphere: Crowded and noisy
Location: Near to suburban rail station, always something interesting outside as well
Taste: Varying and wide choice, flavours depends on what you actually have and experienced before.
People Engagement: As a matter of fact, I reckon the staff are asked to churn customer turnover.
Service: Quick and no time for conversation with customers. Best to point to menu pictures even if you speak Mandarin or Cantonese.
Best Time to Visit: Avoid lunch and dinner time slots.
Fav Dish Experienced: Wolfberry double boiled with other herbs, good for eyesight!
Would I Return?: Yes, for what I see as comfort food.