Alvin Sim came to Tasmania from Malaysia 20 years ago and never left. Now head chef of Old Wharf, the flagship restaurant at Hobart’s MACq 01 Hotel, Sim considers his home state as something of a culinary paradise. “It’s a chef’s dream to be here,” he says. “Everything is within short driving distance so we get the best and freshest produce. We get our oysters from Bruny Island, that’s just an hour away down the river. We get alot our vegetable produce from Longley Organic Farm, which is a 45-minute drive from the hotel. They pick the produce and an hour later it’s in the restaurant. Not many chefs can visit their suppliers and see the produce so easily, and ultimately that’s why guests are excited to dine in Tasmania.”
Like Hobart itself, Sim’s Old Wharf menu blends international influences with local touches for a uniquely Tasmanian take on dining. “The population is changing, we’re getting people from China, Japan, Korea, Nepal – I like to try and highlight all those different influences in there while highlighting beautiful Tassie produce.” This cultural and customer awareness means you’ll find braised Bruny Island wallaby pie and Cape Grim porterhouse at Old Wharf among more far-flung inspiration, as Sim’s recipe for salt and pepper squid shows. “The idea behind it is, ‘what can I do to make it really Tasmanian?’” he says. “Instead of Sichuan peppercorn, black peppercorn and salt, which is the traditional recipe, what counterparts do I have to make it really Tasmanian?”
Instead, Sim uses native pepperberry, kunzea leaf and saltbush. Local Kunzea leaf – a fragrant herb somewhere between thyme and rose – brings out the pepperberry’s fruity flavours, while Sim forages for the dish’s signature salty kick. “I get saltbush from Kingston Beach, just five minutes from my house,” he says. “It’s named saltbush because when you bite into it, it tastes like the sea.”
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If you’re dining in at MACq 01, Sim suggests starting at the waterfront The Story Bar and finishing up at Evolve Spirits Bar (which, with a 100-page spirits list, is an appropriate way to complement a full stomach). However, if you’re taking on his recipe at home, he has a couple of tips to get you through, starting with attire. “Don’t wear white when you’re cleaning calamari,” says Sim. “Wear an apron.” Along with the squid, you’ll also need to clean any sand from the saltbush ahead of time if you’ve foraged it yourself.
Before you fry the calamari, everything else can be done in advance. Sim has given quantities in the recipe for the salt and pepper seasoning but suggests adjusting to taste. “[Taste] the balance of flavours,” he says. “If you put too much pepperberry in the salt mix, you’re going to have a really numb tongue.”
The saltbush garnish, too, can be done ahead. “You don’t want to fry it for too long,” says Sim. “Saltbush is kind of silvery in colour, but when you deep fry it, it turns to a darker green quite quickly.”
To fry the squid, make sure your oil has come up to temperature, then dredge the squid in beaten egg white and potato starch. The batter is Sim’s secret to getting moreish, crispy calamari. “When the egg white hits the hot oil, it puffs up so you get this really crispy, light coating around your squid.”
To serve, plate the squid alongside a simple mix of kewpie mayo, lemon juice and lemon zest and garnish with the crispy saltbush. A Tassie beer is highly recommended, too. “There’s always the local favourite, which is [James] Boag’s Premium, but the Hobart Brewing Company’s pale ale – that’s it for me.”
Alvin Sim’s Tasmanian Salt and Pepper Squid
Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 5 mins
100g Tasmanian sea salt flakes
10g ground pepperberry
10g ground Kunzea leaf
Oil, for frying
Saltbush leaves, to garnish
100g kewpie mayonnaise
1 lemon (juice and zest)
1 egg white
To clean squid:
Rinse, drain and place squid on a chopping board. You will see the head with the tentacles and the large body with fins attached. Pick up the squid and hold it firm by the body. Slowly but firmly pull by the head to pull all the innards out of the body. A little twist motion will help separate the innards. If there are still some innards attached, you can gently squeeze them out on the chopping board.
Separate the tentacles. Using a sharp knife, cut the tentacles below the eye to separate from the head. Remove the beak by squeezing the tentacles and gently pull it out. It should come off fairly easily.
Remove the cuttlebone. The cuttlebone is a thin piece of clear bone or cartilage. It resembles and feels like a piece of plastic. It is very easy to pull out. Feel for the cuttlebone in the hood. Firmly grab it and pull. Discard.
Peel the skin off. The skin is edible, but most chefs remove it for presentation purposes. To peel the skin, simply pinch it at the opening of the body and gently pull it. It should come off in one go but if it doesn’t, it is easy to scrape off with a knife.
Clean. Rinse the prepped squid in cold water. At this point you will have a nicely cleaned body and tentacle to use.
Make the Tasmanian salt and pepper seasoning by mixing the sea salt flakes with ground pepperberry and ground Kunzea leaf. Set aside.
Prepare the squid (see cleaning instructions below). Slice the body in half lengthwise and slice into thin strips. Cut the tentacles into smaller portions and set aside.
Set a deep fryer or a pot of oil to 180°C. Pick the saltbush leaves off the stem and deep fry till crispy. Set aside for garnish.
Mix the kewpie mayonnaise with the lemon juice and zest. Add salt to taste. Set aside.
Whisk the egg white lightly to break it up. Coat the squid, shake off any excess egg white and dredge the squid in the potato starch. Deep fry until golden brown and crispy. Be mindful the oil may spit from the deep frying.
Remove from the oil and place into a mixing bowl. Coat with the Tasmanian salt and pepper seasoning to taste. Serve garnished with saltbush and lemon mayonnaise on the side.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with MACq 01 Hotel. Turn a dinner reservation at Old Wharf into a staycation by booking a room at MACq01 Hotel.