Vanessa Pike-Russell
I love the Gong. I'll say it loud and strong. It's easy - there is so much to love about a town with so much to see and do, and eat! I have to admit that it took leaving the Gong, living in Tasmania for two years, to realise how special it really is.

I live in Lake Illawarra, just the other side of the Windang Bridge. Technically I am located within Shellharbour City as the Wollongong City boundary ends on the south side of the bridge. In my heart I am a 'Gong girl, born and bread. I was born in Wollongong Hospital, studied at the University of Wollongong, lived for many years near the Wollongong Botanic Gardens and love the walk from the serene streets of Keiraville into what is now known worldwide as 'The City of Innovation', Wollongong.  

My husband was born in Hobart, Tasmania and when we met at the University of Wollongong I played tour guide for him, showing him the sights and he soon felt at home here. Then when his Father passed away we moved to Tasmania for two years. As a tourist in Tasmania I enjoyed exploring the many restaurants on offer, the food market stalls, events and documented my travels to share news with family and online foodie friends.

I loved being in such a beautiful location but I missed The Gong,  homesick for the close-knit community, family and friends. When asked by Tasmanians and travellers on a tour around Tasmania where I come from, there would be the knowing smile and inevitable 'Ahh! The Gong!'I kept telling everyone about my life in Wollongong and felt the need to come home. You can take the girl out of The Gong but you can't take The Gong out of the girl.

When I returned home in December 2002, after two years interstate, it felt like so much had changed in my absence. I felt like a tourist again. Camera in hand, I decided to continue journaling my adventures and become a 'tourist in my own backyard'. For me this included taking photos of the wonderful food available in our region. There is such a rich diversity of cuisine and high quality of food that I feel blessed at such abundance of foodie delights. I felt that I would take the opportunity to promote the local businesses and food experiences and give something back to a city which had given me so much.

When talking with people outside the Wollongong area they did not associate good food with The Gong. That is until recently with The Chopping Block TV show featuring local restaurants Tandoori Junction and Angelina's, as well as the success of The Lagoon Seafood Restaurant in the I Love Food competition on Lifestyle TV. Finally people are starting to sit up and take notice and realise what locals had known for years - we have some of the best restaurants in Australia with stunning coastal views.

I grew up in a large, extended family that loves food. Christmas lunch was always a highlight of the year. My eight Aunties and two Uncles all foodies,  providing an array of foods from around the world. Family favourites included Aunty Jeanette's Polish cabbage rolls; Antipasto and Lasagna from Aunty June; Aunty Nita's Aussie pavlova piled with fresh fruit; Aunty Sandra's potato bake;  Nan's devilled sausages; Aunty Rita's Chinese spring rolls; not to mention my Mum's highly sought after authentic Italian spaghetti bolognaise, German sauerkraut and potato salad. Then there was the 'supposed delicacy' of tripe that I refused to eat - until relenting a few years ago (Not bad but I don't see what all the fuss is about). Games of cricket at a nearby park, eating until we could barely move. A wonderful family tradition. That's what I love about Wollongong. I grew up with friends who were Greek, Lebanese, Filipino, Macedonian and many other nationalities. There were no divisions and I enjoyed birthday parties and family events where the traditional food would be served. A fusion of cuisines with recipes adapted to locally sourced ingredients and shared with anyone who showed an interest. I would rather live in a city of immigrants than in a city of racists. There is much to learn from others and I like to keep an open mind and allow myself the opportunity to learn from every experience.

I remember watching  the talented Mrs. Dressino, my cousin's grandmother, cooking in her kitchen. In awe, I watched her creating authentic Italian cuisine - gnocchi, cannelloni and lasagna - all made from scratch. She would cook for days and everything was always of the best, made fresh and with love. "Eat! Eat! You are too thin!' she would say. "Replete! Replete!" I would reply, patting my bulging stomach. It spoiled me for Italian food forever and instilled in me a love of being around people who love and respect the food they serve for others.

My Chinese uncle (by marriage) would cook up a storm at the Illawarra Yacht club, my Mum often assisting him and learning the recipes on the go. I was Mum's chief taste tester and soon developed a taste for Asian food. 

When living on campus at the University of Wollongong  accommodation, 'Koolabong', I lived with students from other countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Canada, amongst others. They were so impressed with the quality of food available in what has become a University town of world renown. Japanese students have said that the food at Fujiyama teppanyaki restaurant was better than they had tasted in Japan. I have heard the same said about other cuisines including a Spanish restaurant (La Marina), the very popular French restaurant ( Caveau) and the Vietnamese restaurant with a cult status amongst foodies (Mylan). Meals prepared in the small kitchen with five students and their many friends brought smells of lime, chilli, coriander, fish sauce and galangal wafting through the halls. I took the time to learn from Patra larkatipanich - Tip for short - and learned how to cook some Thai recipes from an amazing cook. I was given a box of chokos by a friend and offered some to Patra. She soon fell in love with the vegetable and started using it in stir-fry meals, desserts (in fruit syrup), choko relish (I gave her the recipe) and as choko chips. That's what I love about sharing. You always get back more than you give. I learned so much and will never look at the humble choko - vegetable pear - the same way again again. My maternal grandmother, Nana Downie, would cook them very simply by peeling the skin off, boiling, and serving with butter and salt. Delicious :)

In the last few  years I have been sourcing ingredients for recipes and  revisiting the European delicatessens in Warrawong that I grew up with. As a child I loved exploring the aisles and reading the labels on exotic products. I always enjoyed learning about European-style small-goods, exotic cheeses and delicacies from the store owners. Sometimes sampling the wares or looking forward to special occasions when I would visit Tonnitos Patisserie in Port Kembla for their world-famous cannoli, Tiramisu and rum babas. The best way to eat Italian sponge fingers is to dip them in coffee. Delicious! Both Port Kembla and Warrawong boast a series of small stores creating our own 'little Italy',  with a long history of quality produce and community spirit.

Another foodie goldmine is the Chinese Butchers in Keira Street, Wollongong. Cantonese roast ducks hanging within view of the window, cheap cuts of meat such as chicken feet and pork bum to challenge yourself with.  If marinated and cooked like ribs they taste amazing! Half the price and twice the meat!

Pay a visit to one of the many Chinese Supermarkets and Greengrocers in Wollongong and Warrawong. You will be surprised at the range and quality of the goods on sale. If you are interested in cooking Asian foods and need to source difficult to find ingredients, stay a while and  talk to people that shop there.  Ask them what they are buying and how it is cooked. Don't wait until you travel to Bali or Thailand to learn about another culture or try new food. Become a tourist in  your own backyard and then go home and share your adventures with friends and family and pass on your discoveries.

I love the Gong and will continue to document my journey eating my way around it. I have a taste for the Gong, and that will  never change.

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