EATING BOMBAY

You don’t come to Bombay for salami. So, we didn’t eat it (even though they had it every morning at our hotel breakfast). What we ate was lots of glorious vegetarian food. In India, the culinary question people ask is: veg or non-veg? By that simple phrasing, veg becomes the normative standard, and, one is not assumed to be a carnivore. It is east to eat very well indeed without the slightest bit of meat passing your lips. I do think it is perhaps the best place in the world to be vegan.

If I am anything, I am a contextual eater. My diet, like my ethics and aesthetics, is determined by where I am and who I am with. This is not to say I do not have universal rules, but that I am a soft structuralist – I bend and flex depending on custom and ritual. And so, as they say, when in Bombay, go veg all the way. That does not mean there is only one diet here, but twenty million ways to eat. Many of them are vegetarian, so why not embrace it?

Bombay is a global city and a national hub. You get people from everywhere in India, which means you get great food from all over the subcontinent. This is to say nothing of cosmopolitans from other places as well. What is exceptional is street food; partly because people live such fast paced lives that they need to grab and go. It means there is always something good to eat within touching distance, and, sometimes even a little closer. However, we did not only eat street food, nor curry for that matter. We had good sandwiches, nice cakes, solid Western breakfasts, salad bowls, drinking snacks. This was with friends and when it was just the two of us, in cheap locals and metropolitan hotels, for lunch and dinner, and all the times before and after.

What I like about Bombay is hard to say exactly. I first came here in 2011, and, was exhausted after two days. I was travelling cheap and the hotel I had found was being renovated so they were drilling into the walls throughout the night. I caught a train all the way to Delhi, defeated by it with my brother-in-law, but not quite bowed. I returned in 2016, and, stayed for two months. That was a better trip, and, when I ventured out of town to a small hill station nearby I came back renewed for the monsoon. And yet, the second time here I was also trying to fight the city, criss-crossing town on a daily basis, going out in downpours when I should have stayed home, eating risky food and getting sick by being stupid.

This trip is short, for a week and because of work, but now it feels like I can get along with Bombay. I am fighting it less than I was. I am learning how to be here, how to be part of the city in a way I had not before. What has helped is where we are staying – Khar, which is a hip, welcoming and green district with a number of great, local things. The importance of neighbourhood charm matters here because Bombay is a city cut up by traffic. Avoiding traffic cannot be emphasised enough, at least for me. Sitting still, horns honking, lurching to and fro can take it out of you, especially if you are not used to it. If you keep it local, you will be better for it, even if you are travelling by car with AC. Some restaurants have AC, but all you really need is a fan or some shade, lest you melt into a puddle if you are outside for too long, at least for most of the year. January is supposed to be better, and, you might even need a light sweater.

As for what to eat, I like all the puri snacks – pani to sev to bell (they could be thought of as individual tapas for those who have not visited); I like vada pav, a kind of fried potato dumpling inside a white bread bun with chutney or pickle or sauce; I had some excellent okra that reminded me of small village meal on a trek I did ten years back in the Himalayas; plus dosa, idli, vadai, which are South Indian treats and remind me of the places my mother’s family comes from way down the coast. All of them were on the table this time around plus a great many other things besides. In terms of memorable moments from this trip, I had a wonderful thali lunch the first day I was here at Madras Diaries then there was very good mini vada pav at Pali Bhavan then there was a wonderful meal with friends upstairs downtown at Crystal Ice Cream (which does not serve any ice cream at all) then a cosmopolitan experience at Olive Bar and bits and pieces in between from all around. It was, in this way, somewhat hard to leave because there is a certain rhythm here that engages all your senses. There is a lot to see and do and eat along with simply being when we are in this city. I will have to come back for it.

And though my trip was mainly vegetarian, I did have one moment of glorious meat-eating sublimity. It was at a street side stall where two young guys grilling chicken over charcoal. They then wrapped these succulent pieces of thigh in a handkerchief thin roti before squeezing in lime, a coriander sauce, and pink onions. I ate it right then and there while it was steaming hot and fresh enough for the many, many gods. No finer moment was had, and, it was worth traveling all this distance for. To revel in chicken in a week of being vegetarian – I was the sweeter for it even if it was a little bit of mischief that made you think twice about it.

Where to eat: MadrasDiaries lunch thali; Pali Bhavan appetisers; Crystal Ice Cream for North Indian; The Village Shop for cake and tea; Olive Bar for cocktails; KitchenGarden for salad; any guy on the street for all the snacks, please.





TWIN BEAKS BURGERS

Of late, I have been writing some reflections on the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs and consider myself a suburban person more than anything else, at least in terms of identity. It has the possibility of being a different kind of being that comes after some others; it is located; and for me, it feels like a true reflection of who I am, by experience and upbringing.

So, what is happening in the suburbs when it comes to food? Lots of things are happening there; and, a lot of my previous posts have featured suburban restaurants, from Monsterella to Claremont Bunnings to Subiaco Farmers Market. It is impossible to write about the suburbs in any complete way, other than to suggest they are capable of diversity, richness, and pleasure. They are a place that is a world. Some of my favourite places are suburban, especially the Wembley Food Court.

If this blog started on the Upper West Side in New York, it has come to rest in the suburbs of Perth (at least for now). Perth does suburbs very well, which is to say it balances the city and the country, synthesising them into something better than the sum of their parts.

Now, I do like a suburban adventure, but what makes it suburbanist? It might be necessary to suggest that a suburbanist experience of the world is the negation of a suburbanite in the popular imagination, which is to say that it is the opposite of the alienated, late-capitalist, isolated, individualist, regulated. Being a suburbanist is a good thing. It is a true thing with meaning, value, reason, beauty, and importance. This being a Sunday, I felt like I needed something like that, and, given I have recently moved from Wembley to Mosman Park, I wanted something local that would satisfy me.

Enter Twin Beaks.

Twin Beaks is an occasional fried chicken burger pop-up in North Fremantle. It is a twenty-minute walk from my house and is run out of a garage by an enterprising trio Duncan, who I had met before and recall as a very nice bloke, took the orders, while Max, who I recognised by name, fried the bird, and the third, seamlessly readied the burgers before they were placed in their cardboard boxes. The chicken portion is generous with a crispy bready batter; the slaw a crunchy complement; and a choice of many sauces slathered on there. You can choose two with one on the bottom half of the bun and the second on the top – this seems like a very good idea, because it helps you retain the moisture without squeezing the sauce out because of excess at the top. I liked that feature most of all.


But, perhaps what I like about Twin Beaks, is how suburbanist it is. By this, it is small scale, local, artisanal of a sort, well intentioned, fun, tasty. It sees the potential of the suburbs for what they truly are, and, works with it to produce the first suburbanist burger I have ever had. This is not the home-made rissole slapped on a BBQ had in the backyard, but nor is it the fast food drive through that is replicable anywhere in the world. This one had soul, or, to put in the language of my in-law, a bit of mabarn. And that indefinable something is what sets it apart. I cannot wait for it to show up, wherever it does, whenever it does. I will walk there from home again even if it means crossing a highway, rounding a river, and stumbling home in the dark. Superb.




CHICHO GELATO

‘A hard earned thirst calls for an ice-cold gelato. Choose Chicho Gelato.’ That is what I think should be on every billboard on Perth, maybe a jingle on the local radio, perhaps even a short spot on community television. I came to this conclusion as I hit the end of the working week. As you might know, early starts and the 9-5ish grind are not my normal operating hours. This week I had a couple of extra classes at the uni so had to adjust when I got out of bed. But, I was happy. I like teaching and it brings a sense of satisfaction to know that you have earned your crust giving students something to think about. I try to make my classes safe for everyone, and, we have all kinds of people in there – kids from religious minorities, kids transitioning, kids up from the country. And they come to us to learn about literature, and, in the process about themselves, life and the world. It is a privilege to engage with them. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy my self when I finish up for the day, week or year.

I have friends in the public service and corporate sector, and, without fail, they go out on Friday after work. They are not drowning their sorrows but celebrating the wins they have had and the fact they get to spend the weekend sleeping in or taking their kids to sport or having a sausage sizzle somewhere in the sun. For the most part, I work by myself, with freelancers and academics, and, there is not really a culture of end of work drinks. That makes the rituals more individual, and, this week, I found myself at a late meeting with a community partner in Northbridge. I was done for the week but they were all coming back to the office tomorrow. I was an hour from home by public transport, and, I had a cornucopia of delights right there in front of me. What would I do?

I thought about a beer at any one of the local watering holes from Mechanics Institute to Bivouac to PICA Bar. And, I love them all for dipping into. Then I thought maybe a cheeky pani puri from Sauma down the road, but I am off to Bombay in a month, and decided it was better to hold off until I was in the heartland for that stuff. Then I wondered about some sushi as a snack as I walked to the train station on my way home. It all did not cut the mustard. Drinking alone is not something I want to get into, nor late-in-the-day sushi when dinner will be on the table soon. It also needs to feel like a celebration. 

What else to choose but gelato?

Chicho is, hands down, my favourite gelato in the Perth metro. I might even think it is the best I have had in Australia. When I lived in Melbourne, I had some very memorable moments at Messina in Fitzroy. And when Pidapipo came to Carlton down the road I gave it a red hot go. But Chicho is home. I often go at odd hours – just when they open for a brunch gelato by myself, right after work as people are racing to make their commute, before a theatre show. I am often served quickly and with good humour. This is partly what makes them special. It suggests the attentiveness and care that go into everything they do. From the design to the décor to the Instagram, I find myself thinking, hey, they must really like gelato. They show me what is possible. They lead me towards what is good, and every now and then, you need to be reminded of the fact that there is world class quality right on your doorstep.

For my knock off gelato, I ordered a scoop of this month's collaboration gelato, Pineapple Lumps. This was made with input from Albany chef Amy Hamilton who runs the kitchen at Liberté. I have never had the Kiwi lolly it is named after, so I cannot compare it to that. But it was delicious. It has chocolate crackle bits, chocolate bits, pineapple swirl, creamy gelato. And it is topped with a wafer that has pineapple sherbet inside. It all comes together into a messy good time, a way of taking the essence of pineapple, summer, fun into your mouth all at once. All I can think is that this is the way to celebrate the end of the working week. Gelato is living. Chicho is living. This is living.    When I was a child, my uncle used to tell me that he would buy me an ice cream when he won lotto. That day never came, but we ate ice cream together down by the wharf in Fremantle on more than one occasion. That same uncle liked a knock off beer as well, but here, all I can think of is that he would love this Pineapple Lumps just as much, if not more. And that surely is more than we can ask for from anyone who is serving up happiness for the same amount as it takes to ride the bus home. And the dusk fell and the birds rose to the sky and all was right with the world. More gelato for all! More Chicho to quench a hard earned thirst. Come with me next time I go.



CLAREMONT BUNNINGS SAUSAGE SIZZLE

As I am sure you are aware, the sausage sizzle is a national institution. When I lived in Philadelphia, the only other Australian I knew longed for a sausage sizzle more than other food from home. It wasn’t Vegemite or Tim Tams or a meat pie. It was a sausage sizzle that was a comfort food, the kind of thing that recalled long days in the sun, living one’s best life, embracing all the things that are on offer in the lucky country when you are elsewhere. For me, I often countered with mum’s chicken curry or a good sausage roll or actually just decent bread (maybe a croissant for breakfast instead of cereal). But those days are distant memories, if only because I am here now and there are sausage sizzles on offer everywhere.

One thing my friend particularly loved was the slice of white bread rather than the hot dog roll that has now become commonplace. I tend to agree with him then (when we compared the sausage sizzle to the hot dog) and even now. The slice of bread tends to get the ratio right, allowing the sausage and onions and sauce to shine, being moister than American or IKEA versions. But then, you can get a good sausage sizzle where they use a bun. I had one just yesterday.

K and I have moved houses of late, and, in our new abode, we have a woodfired pizza oven. In preparing to use it, we needed to pick up some tools so off we went to Claremont Bunnings. It was the middle stop in our suburban Saturday, picking up furniture and doing the weekly shop. It fell right at lunchtime, and given that this is a food blog with the title written up top, you will get no prize for guessing that we stopped off at the BBQ out the front.


This week the UWA Indonesian Students Society had the tongs and they knew how to do it right. Onions cooked slow and low with a hint of char at the end, almost a confit rather than a burnt mess that is only crispy. These went on first. Then came the standard mystery bag but it was fresh on the grill rather than sitting there until it dried out, followed, of course, by dead horse that I applied myself. I have been to other sausage sizzles where they put onions on top and you are forever losing bits and pieces from the sides and ends. I have been to others where you do not get to self-sauce and they are stingy without purpose. And then there are others with old bread that dominates all of it, the proportions all wrong. This week it was a bun, but somehow it was thin and fresh, and it all made sense. This was a democracy sausage on any given weekend. The sun was out in the middle of winter, people were embracing the break in the rain, and the flavour packed goodie was a perfect way to support the community and to take a break from the duties we had in front of us. Hats off to the cooks. That is living your best life before you crank up your own kitchen for a home meal with friends over that stretches into the inky night.



SUBIACO FARMERS MARKET

There are farmers markets and there are farmers markets. The first kind is where you meet people with dirt under their nails. If you scratch the surface about the produce they can talk for hours on end with knowledge and insight; maybe telling you about why this variety has come on this year and this one hasn’t; informing you about the best way to look after it before you cook it (which really should be tonight). This is genuine farm to table. The second kind of farmers market is where there are people who have already prepared food – the kind where there are ten different types of olive oil at a stand; the ones with dips that range from a simple hummus to a pumpkin, feta, spinach number that contains more ingredients than you thought possible; the ones with all kinds of smoked meats ready for you to eat right then and there where they have samples pre-prepared waiting for you to snaffle as you walk past. These two types are, of course, ideal types of farmers market, for there is no pure one that is just like this. All farmers markets tend to have a mix of produce and finished product, of raw ingredients and ready-to-eat dishes, being greater than the sum of their parts. 

We have a very good one in Margaret River where we stop in for a sausage sizzle as soon as we arrive, putting our $3.50 towards a local charity be that Margaret River Karate or the local theatre company or the Lions Club. Then we do the rounds, picking up local meat, the best potatoes going, kale if we have raided the veggie patch a little too much since last week. This time though, we were up in Perth, seeing family and getting ready for the school semester. That meant we caught up with cousins at Subiaco Farmers Market. They live around the corner and not too far from us, and we joined them on a cloudy Saturday morning, the drizzle falling, making the dogs damp if not wet. There were dogs everywhere from puppies that looked like teddy bears to pugs impersonating wombats with their snuffling to border collies patiently waiting for treats. Some of the dogs, like some of the people, listened to the jazz band jangle their way through harder standards, not the easy muzak you used to get in elevators, but bebop and freeform like they were listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane at home, not only Louis Armstrong. Everyone got a coffee and we wandered round. As is our want, K and I got bratwurst, and the cousins got corn fritters with haloumi on top. 


We bought fresh pasta, and apples to make a pie with, walking past bakers with their cakes, tapas stands telling us to take some home, and butchers who had racks and racks of dry aged steaks behind them in refrigerated cases that looked like museum displays. And on we wandered, stopping to pick up a plant and watching the 30 members of SUFFA (Subiaco Ukulele Free for All) sing out Vance Joy’s ‘Riptide’. They were infectious, enthusiastic, joyous, making the sun with their voices while the drizzle continued to fall. And the dogs stood there and watched, nonchalant as they had been with the jazz, nonchalant as though the farmers market was no big deal at all.