30 June 2009

My Restaurant. It’s All Yours

Photo reproduced from The Age Online

"...it has my South Yarra friend wanting to claim it as her local
even though it's 10 minutes' drive away"
Matt Preston, The Age

Imagine if you will, a creamy sweetness that make your taste buds shriek, fused like a fine lacquer to a shattering shard of crispness. For most people this is heaven, and even though - due to a surfeit of taste buds -I am not a sweet tooth, I too was transported.

They say our predilection for foods that are both sweet and fat is a consequence of primal instinct. Apparently food occurring in nature that is not poisonous is generally both fatty in texture and sweet, which makes it desirable to all mankind. We are all also drawn to things that are thin and crisp, hence the popularity of deep fried snacks like crisps.

But I digress; you might assume - given the description of this particular confection - I was in a fine patisserie, eating a concoction originally served upon gilded platters to people of royal extraction. You'd be wrong.

I was at My Restaurant. No, not my own restaurant, that's the name of the venue. The setting itself is a scruffy low rent building, but bucking the trend for cafes and bars filled with grubby thrift-shop style furniture, it has clean modern dining tables and chairs. Common to modern dining venues there is also the ubiquitous open kitchen, but this one is fronted by a bain-marie filled with curries. Ok so, it doesn't sound flash, but it is honest and clean, your cutlery sits in baskets on the table with paper napkins and you can clearly see the selection of beverages in the drinks fridge, which you may happen to sit next to.

I don't tend to frequent venues based on décor, hype or fashion. My favourites are all about the food. So this place is one of my little secrets, a place where I don't have to fight for a table with people who want to be seen, and although I am loath to give it up, that amazing sweet has finally loosened my tongue. Location-wise, My Restaurant is off most people's radars, being away from Chapel Street in the least sexy part of High Street, Windsor, not far from Edwards Tavern.

In the last couple of years I've probably eaten more meals at My Restaurant than anywhere else, because not only is the food delicious, it is cheap and unpretentious. The service is friendly and eager, and I like that sometimes the staff's kids are doing homework at the next table. I also like that I can get a meal at My Restaurant, after 9pm after going to the theatre on a Monday night. And I don't think we've ever spent more than $14 for two courses, inclusive of drinks.

My Restaurant is a Mamak (Tamil Muslim) restaurant. It is halal, serving food from Singapore, Malaysia and South India. Although open for lunch seven days a week, you won't be able to dine here on Friday or Saturday night. The clientele is mostly South East Asian along with students of all nations and those who have travelled and developed a taste for such food. And the food, including the excellent roti, is cooked to order. The turnover is fast, with regulars also picking up takeaways.

The menu lists sixty two items - of which there are about thirty vegetarian options - however you will see even more items adorning the walls on a vinyl banner. Some of these items, such as idlis are only available on Sunday. There are Murtabak, stuffed roti with a side of curry sauce; long delicate Dosai, fermented rice crepes rolled with a variety of fillings and served with sambol and chutneys; fried noodles and Biryani rice's. I prefer Nonya style noodles, so am not a fan of the three Mee Goreng listed.

There are two curries however, that I might even crawl over hot coals for: the goat curry -which I can never resist - and the Chilli prawn. The goat is complex, unctuous, slightly oily and tender. The prawns seem a simple dish but strike a perfect balance in flavor. Both can be ordered to have with rice, roti or vadai; either may be ordered in medium or large portions.

Often I'm drawn to the Roti meal – a thali featuring a generous serve of roti, raita and three curries from the bain marie. Unlike many venues in Melbourne, the roti is made to order. Various curries, many of them vegetable, that don't appear on the menu can be tasted in this package, though invariably I cannot resist making the goat curry one of them. Like a small child at a sweet counter, I take my time choosing my three curries, frequently succumbing to trying something new at the suggestion of the staff.

Recently the treasure trove of a bain-marie gave up a minced lamb curry, subtly spiced, containing chunks of potato in a thin, non dairy based sauce that fabulously lacked the cloying fattiness of many lamb dishes. It also boasted a chicken curry had the silky texture of poached chicken in a delicious creamy orange sauce seasoned with a garam that tasted vaguely of nigella seeds.

The raita changes too, my favourite is the bright green mint raita which is a perfect palate cleanser and bridge between the various curries and takes the edge of any searing chilli hits. I tried to get the recipe, but it's a closely held family secret.

Roti is a specialty at My Restaurant. I love watching it being stretched, tossed and folded on the large griddle. There are twelve varieties listed, you can have it with an assortment of embellishments: onion, eggs, cheese, chilli, banana and other sweet toppings. And then there's the wonderful Kottu roti – where it is finely shredded with a manic two handed chopping action on the griddle plate, then tossed with seasonings, green chilli, egg and your choice of meat or vegetables.

And now to the piece de resistance, that wonder of wonders I described in the beginning, Tissu Roti. A large circle of paper thin roti cooked with ghee is folded into a cone. Unctuous condensed milk made rich with the melted ghee or margarine, or both, is poured over the hot cone of pastry and fuses like caramel to form layer upon layer of toasted sweetness.

Its arrival strikes awe as it sits likes Harry Potter's sorting hat upon the table; a perfectly crisp roti and so fine as to be like caramel lacquered pastry. It's irresistible as you gradually eat your way around the cone, pulling off more crisp, sticky shards that melt in your mouth. A small pool of the caramel - like a vaguely salted, thin, Dulce de Leche - sits at the base of the plate and can be used to dip into for those who prefer their desserts extra sweet.

Wiping the unctuous sweet ooze from my face, I washed down the Tissu Roti with delicious, strong, Tea Tarik, containing yet more condensed milk. It's probably the most sugar I've consumed in the last month, but boy, was it worth it. Now, imagining the sweet crunch between my teeth has me wanting it and goat curry all over again.

Now my secret's out, please share it sparingly. I'd still like to get a seat.

My Restaurant and Takeaway

186 High Street, Windsor, Victoria

ph: 9521 4100

My on Urbanspoon

21 June 2009

The flavor of grass

"Ponder well on this point:
the pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a
more or less tangible link, with some memory of the
Charles Pierre Monselet (1825-1888)

I always think best whilst lying on my back.

In Ben's Balinese villa, Dewi sunk her lithe, oily fingers into the knots in my limbs, massaging away the humdrum of city life. A sense of relief swept over me. In tranquil surrounds, with my eyes closed, I was comfortably numb. A moment of pure stillness held my focus, before a childhood memory bubbled to the surface.

I was of course lying on my back. Around my neck was a daisy chain, and around me bees droned their way across the lawn. In the quiet, I had been transported back to when I was six years old, lying cushioned on the turf of the common that lay behind our house in England.

I recall I was chewing a young shoot of grass. The sweetness of the white of the shoot filled my mouth and as I made my way towards the dark tip, I was totally mesmerized by the complexity of its flavours: sweet, sharp, mellow and then finishing bitter.

Clouds rolled over the sun. Feeling a sudden chill I rolled over and sat up. There she was, waving me over; Auntie Renee or rather Ree-nie as she liked to be called.

Renee was our neighbor. A stout, childless woman with brassy hair and a penchant for bright, floral aprons, who had in her middle age, finally married her childhood sweetheart. When they were young, her beau Bert had gone to war. Renee had married another - one unable to be sent away - an older man. But Bert was constant and would have no other; she his only beloved. He waited for her. And when her husband died, he again patiently courted her.

Standing by the gate at the rear of her house Renee had been watching me amuse myself. We were silently bonded by our shared a secret: we hid Mum's crippling depression, even from Dad.

We said nothing. Taking me inside, my co-conspirator handed me a glass of milk and a Marmite sandwich; thick, sweet white bread, spread thickly with butter and the cloying, tangy-savoury, yeasty, black spread. Just as with the grass, I paused over each bite and dissected the experience - taking in the textures and the complexity of the Marmite, neutralised by the richness of a mouthful of unpasteurised milk. A simple yet reassuring meal for a precocious palate, watched over by a bemused sympathiser.

Next door, mum was fast asleep. On my summer holidays, she spent most of the day unable to rouse herself from her bed. Rising only a couple of hours before Dad came home, she'd fly into a frenzy of activity, tidying the house and preparing dinner.

On school days I would go into her wardrobe and pick out clothes for her, dragging them off hangers and placing them on the bed before climbing up to kiss and hold her until she was roused.

On the worst days I would pull on her outstretched hands to drag her out of bed. Then, she would - as if on auto pilot - boil me an egg and make me a slice of toast, served with a glass of milk, while I put on my school uniform. She held my hand and trudged the short distance to the school gates, expressionless and lost in the quagmire of her confused thoughts.

For many years I detested the thought of boiled eggs and glasses of milk. I couldn't bring myself to have them and by then my nutty professor father had concluded that milk contained too many sugars and would potentially rot my teeth. By the time I was old enough to make my own breakfast, to my relief, the school was given instructions that I was neither to have milk at recess, nor with my typically nasty British school dinners.

The demon that held Mum clenched between its jaws was not to have a name or treatment until she was almost sixty. In its grip she was frail and vulnerable. I rode her illness with resolve. Like being on the front of the most torturous roller coaster, I stoically withheld my anguish for nearly 40 years. But in the face of her personality disorder, Mum triumphed every night with amazing Cantonese, pan-Asian and Fusion food. She gave this skill to me - it is also how I show that I love my closest friends and my own beloved.

The night before Dewi's massage opened the door that led me back to my childhood, I had cooked a meal in our friend's Balinese villa. Guided unconsciously by my inner muse, it was a pan-Asian, it was fusion and I was sharing it with people I loved.

On three long, modern rectangular silver platters sat mahi-mahi barbecued with Sumatran rempah on rice noodles; a cucumber, coriander, shallot, green mango salad with smoked chicken and a light Vietnamese dressing, garnished with crushed peanuts; a salad of the slimmest young green beans, blanched and rolled in sesame oil, tossed with roasted red capsicum and fresh young watercress, and then drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

I owe that skill and the enjoyment of cooking to my mother, who somehow, through the blur of her mental illness was always able to show me her love and appreciation via her creative cookery.

My life has been in many respects like the young grass shoot; sweet and sharp - at times mellow - with a bitter finish. While I would not wish it on others, it has certainly been a character building journey.

And in that magic moment, while being soothed with small expert Asian hands kneading away my pain - lying on my back thinking - I finally understood my 'cooking mojo' and where to locate it.

13 June 2009

Makan Pagi Canggu: Masakan Padang

Call me a masochist
but there is definitely pleasure
in certain kinds of pain.

It was mid morning and the sun was intense. Mango trees - boughs heavy with green fruit - cast magnificent shadows on the ground, and dappled the light on the faces of children in orange plaid school uniforms making their way up and down the main street of the village. Uncomfortably damp, I tried to find a breeze but the humid air hung like a wet blanket, dashing any hopes of my emerging into a cool oasis. Just moments before, I had been in a delicious kind of hell.

Inside, the moisture had beaded heavily on my skin. Rivulets of sweat ran down my face and swam in a pool on my chest that was feeding a stream between my breasts to my belly. My hair clung to my neck like a wet rag, my shirt gradually becoming sheer with moisture. I counted my blessings that Balinese women traditionally wore semi sheer Kebayas, and that I wouldn't be offending anyone with the emerging outline of my bra through my thin linen shirt.

A comment was made that I looked like I had been crying, but looking around the weathered old timber table and rattan chairs; I found that I wasn't the only one suffering this condition. In the heat of the shady outdoor room, with our feet planted on a cool tiled floor, we were all red faced, blotchy and wet. Three foreigners suffering in the airless climes of a Canggu village eatery in Bali - earnestly pressed into our pursuit. All of us exploring our preference for native cuisine, over Cuisine Touristic, while pointlessly trying to mop the resulting perspiration from our heads.

Gasping for air, a tidal wave of chilli and spice induced sweat prickled my pores and welled up behind my knees as I made my way through a meal that few foreign visitors deign to eat, and to that end a plate was pushed away, barely touched by the fourth person in our party. For me, the pleasure of eating was intense - despite the feeling that I was sitting atop an erupting volcano, turning me into a leaking human spigot.

I wondered what the cook and host must think of us – was she proud or were we to become a hilarious anecdote to be told to others in the village? I know we're crazy, that's a given. And it was certainly worth it to take this journey into her culinary inferno. Her dishes were so tasty, with melt in the mouth meat, intentionally chewy fish, and fresh vegetables. These Indonesian dishes were prepared in ways that offered a range of textures and flavours that celebrated the spices native to the region.

Now people keep telling me that the Balinese don't like chilli, but every time I have eaten like the locals in village 'restorans' and hawker stalls I have found myself in the grip of a heavily spiced meal with the full side effects of capsaicin. This particular meal was Masakan Nasi Padang, an Indonesian spread of various curries, deep fried items, sambol (chilli chutneys) and blanched vegetables eaten with rice. The recipes originated in West Sumatra, the cuisine of the Minangkabau and usually halal, but the Hindu Balinese also love it and they include pork in the selection.

For this style of eating, a generous serve of steamed rice is added to your plate and a selection of toppings chosen from either the window display of the venue or from a glass cabinet in an open air venue or hawker stall. In larger, city restaurants, all the items displayed are dished up on separate plates - often covering your entire table - and you pay only for those you have sampled. Uneaten dishes are transferred to the next table for their perusal. None of this food is refrigerated. It is believed that the spices actually preserve the food to a certain degree.

In this particular instance the venue was at the front of a family home, with cooking and preparation occurring in the family kitchen, the drinks station and the behind the the street facing display. In a glass cabinet fronting the main road of the village there were three stainless steel bain-marie inserts sitting on a tiled bench with heavily sauced curries. Next along the bench were four more, with deep fried then sauced dishes, another with soy braised eggs, and three of blanched vegetables. Balancing on top were a stainless bowl of peanut sauce used on Gado Gado or sate, and a dish of fresh green chilli sambol. On the glass shelf above towered plates of deep fried meats & patties arranged in columns and something that had been grilled in banana leaves.

From a large rice cooker a mound of fluffy steamed rice was dispensed to our plates. I chose Rendang immediately. This particular beef Rendang was the real deal – a dry curry made with an intense, dark rempah that is is designed to soften the sinews in beef. An excellent example of one of our home staples, this one was complex in its range of spices and ramped things up again from the generic, thickly sauced version - employing coconut milk - that I had eaten the night before in a restaurant catering to the local expat community.

I passed over the coconut curry with slow braised pork and green vegetables and went for small dice of tempeh marinated in tamarind, onion, chilli and sweet Kecap Manis, that had been fried crisp. From the next platter came grated, deep fried potato stir-fried with chilli, tamarind, galangal and tomato, which was chewy and tangy – a great foil for the dry curry. From the top shelf I chose a couple of plain fritters, as it turned out, the only items I picked that did not contain chilli, but went very well with the explosive green chilli sambol. Finally I chose blanched Kangkung – water spinach – with bean shots and semi sweet palm sugar infused peanut sauce flecked with minced lemongrass, galangal and tiny ballistic strength chillis.

I passed a tablespoon of the green chilli sambol to Mr Sticky to eat with his meal but unfortunately his breakfast brain was engaged, driving him to mistakenly put the whole lot in his mouth at once. He sat very still and realizing his anguish, I surrendered one of my corn fritters to him to rescue his mouth. In return I found myself with a mouthful of deep fried mackerel encrusted with pulverised red chilli – seeds and oil; deliciously excruciating.

When I felt that I could not go on, I reached for a few sheets from the green plastic table top toilet paper dispenser and mopped my entire head. Then taking a mouth of Kopi Susu - finely ground local coffee taken like Turkish coffee and stirred through with condensed milk - I found the sweet, gritty beverage took the edge off my pain for five seconds. The heaviness of the condensed milk carried most of the coffee grounds to the bottom of the glass and the result was strong, creamy coffee, forming the perfect counterfoil to a palate whimpering for mercy from the after burn of local style Nasi Padang. The respite was enough to allow me to forge once more into Hades.

The pain made it difficult to speak. We concentrated mostly silently on our own personal Everest's, climbing painfully to the peak of intensity and navigating our way carefully down the other side, while our abstaining friend drank coffee and spoke of other things, of what I'm not sure. I found it took my full morning concentration to compose each mouthful upon my spoon, in such a way that I would not repeat Mr Sticky's mistake with the sambol.

When my plate was clean – bar a wedge of rice that I was too full to eat – I felt as though I had run ten kilometers in the desert wearing a plastic suit. I was exhausted, invigorated and burning inside and out. I felt the hot slurry engorging my gastrointestinal tract. We concluded that this must be the way to stay slim in a climate that makes exercise outdoors difficult. With cries of 'Enak sagali' (delicious) we surrendered two dollars each for our meal and walked out to the street in search of a cool breeze.

I felt the heat in my body for a long time, sustaining me and robbing me of hunger for many more hours than usual after a meal. Lunch passed with no inclination to eat. The abstainer amongst us ate chocolate brownies purchased at the local market over the course of the afternoon, but I felt that nothing more could pass my lips save, iced lime tea.

When we made it back to our villa, I plunged into the pool and felt steam rising from my head as I endeavoured to shake off the residue of the delicious gut burning heat. I bobbed there with the flavours still lingering in my mind and on my tongue. All thoughts of the pain superseded by the exhilaration of the adventure and endorphin rush, the madness of the moment and the sheer love of life.