Caveat: long post covering 2 days, 4 places & a million photos
Yesterday was Vaidehi’s birthday. I have not met her yet. But my stay at Melbourne was a lot warmer thanks to the hospitality of her husband, Kunal. Thanks to him I feel like a part of their family now.
One of the first things I saw on my phone as I entered the hotel was a blog comment from someone named Kunal. A first time commenter. Turned out the he lived at Melbourne and reconnected with his home town of Mumbai through Finely Chopped. He offered to show me around.
The last thing I remembered before giving in to the arms of jet lag sleep was replying to Kunal and saying that I was at the Crown Promenade Hotel. Hours later, after I fought my way through swirling waves of slumber, I saw Kunal’s reply. Turned out that he was a chef at the Crown Hotel. This was less than even six degrees.
We met up in the evening. Kunal is a Hindu Goan Saraswat Brahman. His manner has the same pleasant, easygoing friendly welcoming manner which one associates with Goans. We walked down South Bank as he led me to an Irish pub called O’Brien’s.
We sat on just the sort of sofas which you want to sink into after a flight to the other end of the world. The theme of the pub was brown, the lights pleasantly yellow, old newspaper ads stuck on the wall. But for the happy crowds sipping on their drinks and barmaids smiling and scurrying around, I would have been lulled into thinking that I was at Kunal’s parlour at home.
As we sipped on our Jameson’s (the least I could do as I didn’t go for stout) and vodkas, I got to know of Kunal’s life as a settler at Australia. He had moved in more than a decade back, leaving a thriving career at Mumbai, studied further here and then progressed his career in the hospitality business. I got to know about his mother who had moved in and Vaidehi and their lives here. And a peek into the life of immigrants, some skilled like him seamlessly fitting into their new country and others who took coaching classes at up country Punjab and Haryana to become cab drivers here and were creating their little corners of India at Australia. I got to know about the Australian government and their welfare schemes which ranged from giving stellar support to the elderly to looking after those who had a drink too many on Saturday nights.
|"hey papapparazzi take our photo"|
The the nights at Melbourne come awake on Saturdayst and as Kunal walked around one saw the sort of uninhibited revellery that seemed very unique. Making the most of their weekends was the Aussie way of life. Possibly the reason why they seem so full of life and cheerful through the week.
We reached Melbourne’s China Town after walking through the CBD (Central Biz District). I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to the city. Kunal loved his adopted city of Melbourne the way I loved his city of Mumbai. We were two migrants walking together that night in a world which is increasingly fluid.
We stopped at the Super Inn for dinner. The Quantas in flight magazine said that it was a favourite with chefs of the city for a late night dinner. And, as the magazine promised, it was tucked into an alley peeping out to you only if you were escorted by someone who knew his Melbourne.
The place was buzzing and we only managed a table downstairs. Pork spare ribs crumb fried in rice flour. Cousins of the rice flour coated prawn balls of the Cantonese restaurants of the Chinese settlers of Calcutta. Perhaps the world is not as big as we think. Though the ribs could have been a tad juicier.
But we got all the juice one wanted and more with the next dish. The most incredibly flavoured roast duck that I have ever had. You bit into a slice, crunched through the crackle of the skin and was squirted at by the most tantalising flavours in the world. It was as if the duck was playing Holi (the festival of colours) with your palate.
A pork fried rice followed. I like trying out fried rices from different parts of the world to decode the legend of ‘Indian’ Chinese. As in other parts of the world, the rice at this Cantonese restaurant at Melbourne, was far more flavoured than the white, ascetic fried rices one gets at restaurants at Mumbai. Add a slice of red chilli and you had a Chinese classic playing for you. The sprouts in the rice were rather sharp and soapy if you were not used to them
|fried spare ribs|
A long walk down Flinder’s Station across the Yarra river and I was back at the hotel. According to Kunal legend has it that the design plans of Flinders were swapped with those of our Victoria Terminus by mistake when both were commissioned.
We both got busy with our work over the next couple of days though Kunal’s SMSs would keep guiding me through my stay. It was fitting that we caught up again on my last day at Melbourne. It was Vaidehi’s birthday and Kunal took a day off. And she was working through the day so Kunal
We drove off to Footscray and the Vietnamese Quarters there. It used to house Italians earlier Kunal said, when only Caucasians used to immigrate to Australia. Things changed as Australia opened up to the ‘boat people’ who literally sailed down from Vietnam after the war. The Vietnamese refugees who were industrious, as Kunal pointed out, setting up new lives rather than giving in to hopelessness and depression.
And thanks to this turn of events I had my first taste of authentic Vietnamese food that Anthony Bourdain, Simon Majumdar and other food writers rave about. We went to a restaurant called Ding Que VN. This was a place recommended to Kunal by a Vietnamese colleague of his in the kitchen. What followed was a riot of colours and textures and tastes celebrating food in a way that only the Orientals can.
Prawn spring rolls in rice paper. As salady, steamed and healthy as food gets. You knew it was good for you, like your mother told you studying would be while you were growing up.
But to be honest what turned me on were the flavours and juices and the Mrs Robinson’like allure of the pork with broken rice. This was the ‘Summer of 42’, Malena, Sadie Thompson and every other forbidden pleasure you could think of. Food so sinful that you could never forget it. Stamped in your conscience for ever. The shredded pork, the broken rice, the slab of pork and even the fried egg for Pete’s sake were memories that you knew would flash in front of you and make you smile in the dampest and darkest of moments.
And then there was the legendary beef pho or clear noodle soup that Anthony, Simon or even Rushina can’t stop talking about. It was steaming when the smiling waiter got to our table. Kunal and I let it cool as we revelled in the pork rice first. The soup was a bit lukewarm by the time we got to it. And yet it was so mysterious. So deep. So mysterious. So Saigon. The taste came from a faint mix of five spice and star anise as our chef Kunal explained. A touch of lime making it zestier. The slogan ‘Amar naam tomar naam Vietnam Vietnam’ (Your name & and my names are tied to Vietnam) that the Naxalist youth of Calcutta in the ‘70s chanted came to my mind. Wonder if they knew about this soulful dish of Pho? I can bet that they would have protested even more strongly if they knew about the wonderful broth that they were defending.
Kunal told me that raw beef is added to the soup and that it cooks in the heat of the soup along with the flat slurpy noodles. Ours was over- cooked unfortunately as we left the meat too long in the soup at the table. Honestly the beef and the noodles worked for me better as flavours in the soup than in actuality. And I have it in good authority that a thin, hard working Vietnamese can finish this mammoth bowl of soup without batting an eyelid. Two comparatively ‘healthy’ Indians struggled though.
The restaurant was Spartan and looked straight out of a Vietnam episode of Bourdain’s No Reservations. I guess I had my moment as I swaggered down the paths of Little Saigon talking to Kunal imagining a TV crew walking behind us.
|Vietnamese spring rolls|
|I was just posing|
|pork with broken rice|
We did a tour of the Saigon and Footscray markets and then a Thai and a Bangladeshi shop too. The Saigon Market was an Eden’s Garden of fresh produce and meat. Abundant samplers of unfamiliar fruits all around. I must had an equivalent of two plates of ‘fruit salad’ while walking around. A done thing to do apparently. Kunal and Vaidehi and even Mamma Kunal loved shopping here and the prices were apparently a lot cheaper than at the city Super Markets.
Kunal told me about the Australian government’s efforts to keep their food as pristine pure as possible. No pesticides, heavy quarantines... almost made me wonder how the Aussies coped when they left this celestial Old McDonald’s Farm and went into the bad bad real world of preservatives, food adulterations, dust, grime and flies.
|at the bangladeshi store|
|Indo Pak Bangaldesh unite|
|The place to buy mutton|
We drove back and stopped at South Melbourne at a quaint coffee shop called Stone Monkey. The six month old shop stood where a Sri Lankan restaurant, Sinhalese Curry, stood before. On an innocent and picturesque footpaths in a peaceful neighbourhood flanked by one of the legalised brothels of Melbourne. Fairly close to the Crown Complex.
The coffee shop run by the charming Louise had a very nice sixties Mad Men Suburban house feel to it with old box radios, yellowed globes, olive green walls. I requested for a hot cappuccino, in a city which believes that your cappuccino needs to be served at 65 degrees to be enjoyed properly. What followed was the most wonderful cappuccino that I have ever had in my life. Full bodied, solid, manly with the cocoa on top adding a feminine allure to it. Hot, steaming, warming the cockles of my heart, as I told Louise and Kunal, I couldn’t have left Melbourne with a better taste in my mouth. What a send off it was from this lovely city with some wine and bush spices, condiments and chutney as gifts from the very generous and ever smiling Kunal.
I now head to Perth where I hear that the pitch is not as bouncy anymore. This is the first post that I have written flying high in the sky, even if offline.
The blogger’s equivalent of the Mile High Club?
PS Posted this at Perth the next day