COOKING SCHOOL

As a child, I cooked the things kids cook – pikelets, shepherd’s pie, pumpkin soup, pita bread pizza, cheese toasties. It was a little different for us because we grew up near the Swan River and that meant we went prawning too. With that, we knew how to shell a prawn from early on, just like we could gut a fish or get abalone from the ledges or knew the basics of curries. When I was a child, I was very close to one uncle in particular. He was a surveyor by trade and had worked all over northern Australia. When he retired he went to TAFE and learned how to cook in a formal way, making everything from vegan chocolate cake to almond croissants. He taught me how to bake and we would often spend the weekends making copious amounts of food for my extended family. That was real pleasure.

I got my first job at 13 at Pizza Hut, where I was a kitchen-hand making $5.62 an hour. This was a high status job among kids at high school. We had kids who worked at the supermarket, others on milk runs or newspaper deliveries, some who did gardening jobs or washed cars, even others who would only work during the summer at farms on the outskirts of Perth. But fast food was were you wanted to be because of its perks. This included bringing back stuffed up orders much to the delight of everyone at parties. When you finished your shift at 10 pm and kids were hanging out pretending to like the warm beer no one could finish or wondering why the goon was missing, you could arrive with three or four pizzas and everyone was pleased to see you. Sometimes they had to pick the anchovies off the BBQ meatlovers or reassemble something that had been dropped inside the box, but it was free food and that was all that mattered. No one cared, that the meat was cubed, the cheese rubbery, the dough starched and the whole thing greasy. We loved it. For me, I was determined to take a year off after high school to go travelling, and with every $38 paycheck I got I was a little bit closer to leaving home.

The summer before I left, I worked two jobs – daytime shifts at a fresh pasta place where I would spend countless hours cutting cannelloni into the same length. My nights were at a boutique woodfired pizza place where my boss was intent on keeping me well fed. Whereas Pizza Hut was strict with its staff, here we laughed and joked, and cut our produce fresh. I will never forget my first day there, where I spent three hours prepping mushrooms for dinner service. The other advantage was that I did not have to shampoo my hair every time I got home for lack of grease in the air.

As I backpacked around America and Western Europe, I ate in lots of places, mainly sandwiches, pizza and pasta as befits a seventeen year old kid on a grand tour of the big cities around the world. I do not remember any meals in particular though my sister tells me that I used to eat a lot of Carl’s Jr. in Los Angeles and we went for one extravagantly priced sushi meal on Sunset Boulevard. Occasionally, I would pine for a curry, and currywurst was never quite on par. But for the most part, food did not matter on that trip.

Something changed when I made my way to university in Canberra. During that time, I lived in sharehouses with vegetarians and vegans who were happy to cook a combination of any vegetables you could imagine with spices of all kinds. There were always plenty of root vegetables from our farm co-op boxes, maybe some lentils, and to vary it, someone would add either a can of tomatoes or a can of coconut milk. It was, inevitably, served over brown rice. Welcome to adulthood. It was different when I cooked because I adhered to an established set of flavours – making lasagne in a traditional way or curries from my mum in what approximated how she did it. If I was eating hippy slops, I did not want to cook it also.

The real difference between my friends and me was my semi-annual treat – dinner by myself at the city’s best restaurant, Chairman and Yip. For five years, I ate there at the start of each semester when my scholarship check came in. By the end of it, I was on a first name basis with the manager and, even now, can recall many great dishes they served – beef and scallop hotpot; shantung lamb; duck and mushroom pancakes; sea cucumber and pumpkin in chilli; braised oxtail. If I had grown up eating good food in Wembley and Redgate, Chairman and Yip was where I learned to dine as an adult, to overcome the fear of being alone in a room, the shame of wearing a t-shirt when everyone was in suits, the embarrassment of never leaving a tip because you could barely afford the meal to begin with. That indulgence kept me going when I was away from home as much as the warm community of friends with whom I went dumpster diving, ate button soups and drank home brewed kombucha.

I found a similar scene in Philadelphia where I lived with people who volunteered at co-ops. In the home, meat was never allowed. My escape there was a weekly game of poker held every Tuesday with Columbian friends from around the neighbourhood. They would bring empanadas from home and I supplied a case of beer – the cheapest I could find, which was ice-brewed Milwaukee’s Best. At $12 for 30 cans it was a bargain, and at 4.8% no one could beat it for easy drinking. If that card game was not a release from the puritanical wellness of my houses, then how I wound up the night surely was. When the game had broken up, I would go and have a City Wide Special at a local bar that was always open – a tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a double shot of Jim Beam for $3. Then I would bike down to South Philadelphia, a thirty-minute ride away, to get a cheesesteak from Pat’s. It was as ugly, basic and disgusting as Chairman and Yip was refined. But at 3am, it hit the spot and I will always love that place because of the accumulated memories. It was a guilty pleasure that would have outraged my moral housemates.
For a year or so after Philadelphia, I worked as a waiter. In Australia, no one needed a historian of the American west. At that time, people were needed to work on the mines. But that was never my cup of tea and so I took the only job offered to me – waiting tables at a winery up the road from Redgate. There, I learned how to hold three plates, to pour wine properly, to run the pass, but never how to make a good flat white. Without that knowledge, I was not going very far and when the union saw potential in me, I shifted gears and went to work as an organiser in the aged care sector. Visiting all those nursing homes, I did not even want to think about food.

Since then, I have spent periods of time in Paris, Berlin, New Delhi, Melbourne, Bombay, Kochi and New York. In Paris, I fell in love with fresh produce, especially radishes; in Berlin, it was pickles care of Turkish cuisine and sauerkrauts; in New Delhi, I grew a sweet tooth that I did not know I had; in Melbourne, I ate so well on a regular basis that I began to understand what is wonderful about neighbourhood places; in Bombay where to eat street food is a blessing from the benevolent gods; and in Kochi my wife and I fell further in love with each other while getting in touch with the deep flavours of my family past.

I have travelled a lot as well – to Bolivia and Peru where I ate such wonderful grilled meats that hit somewhere deep; to Mexico where I ate a mole covered whole chicken in Peubla that was worth the bus trip there; to California and up the west coast where I understood what fusion was because people simply live it; to South Africa where I got why new world wine has such big flavour; and right through Asia from nasi padang in Indonesia to sour hot soup in Thailand to dumpling feasts in shiny new malls in China. I spent my honeymoon in Venice. On that trip, we ate the best steak of our lives served on a large wooden platter at a student haunt called Al Timon overlooking a canal in Canareggio. It came with grilled vegetables, chips, romesco sauce. The weather was balmy, the red wine was flowing, it was La Dolce Vita. We would never be this young again. I felt like a connoisseur getting used to the idea of using the word ‘wife’ in a sentence and understanding what it meant to truly live.

But for all that, New York was where I thought about the role of food in my life. In New York, like everywhere else, food matters. But, there you see so many kinds of cuisine, so many restaurants simply doing their own thing. New York is a city of villages and in our short time there, we became creatures of habit as much as anyone else. We lived on the Upper West Side, and, for the most part, never left it. Occasionally, we would venture downtown to see a show or hike to Brooklyn to catch up with friends. But we lived within walking distance of everywhere one would want to get to, and so, we ended up, by default or design, falling in love with our neighbourhood.

While we were there we had regular breakfasts at a butcher, White Gold, which served the best bacon and egg rolls I have ever experienced. The only one that got close was when I drove back to Western Australia from Port Augusta, right across the Nullarbor by myself before stopping at dawn at a roadside servo near Kalgoorlie. It was the best thing I had eaten for weeks, but perhaps this was not on account of the roll itself but my starved palate. Here in New York though, the fresh bacon, the melting American cheese, the poppy-seed Kaiser roll, all come to a delicious synthesis.

For lunch, we go to our favourite diner, which does a very good lasagne with burnt corners and extra sauce on the side with bread that reminds you of flying in an aeroplane as a child. For dinners, we often find ourselves at a ramen bar that has silky smooth, deep, bowls of flavour that keep you warm in winter. These are our neighbourhood haunts that we love to walk to and settle in with books. There we watch New Yorkers talking about how they are all the greatest ever, beyond doubt and without peer, truly masters of the universe.

We have also had festive meals that linger in the memory – Thanksgiving at a farm down south; an extraordinary Contemporary Mexican with an excellent meringue and corn mousse that ranks as one of the great dishes of my life; and a welcome plate of Southern food in Harlem on Martin Luther King day when good feelings where in the air at Sylvia’s.

And throughout it all, I have been cooking, including in a New York kitchen fit for someone smaller, where the gas stove is untrustworthy and bench space tiny. Here, I have made some memorable meals for family and friends: barley soup with fresh herbs and peas; heirloom carrot salads with seeds, black olives and goat’s cheese; roast eggplant and red onion dishes with soy and fish sauce served on rice. But, it is not home, it only is the finishing school for what has been my food journey so far.


MY FATHER'S PLACE

If chicken curry is one half of home, the other half is Redgate, which is our place in the country. Located in the Margaret River region of the south west of Western Australia, Redgate was where we went for weekends and school breaks. Sometimes we headed overseas, to see family in Singapore or further afield to San Francisco, Berlin, Cape Town. If cities seemed foreign, Redgate was where we had the freedom to explore the bush and the beach.

When we were there, we were coastal creatures – wake up, surf, eat breakfast, swim, eat lunch, nap, go fishing, watch the sunset, eat dinner, read, fall asleep with salt in our hair, midnight snack, sleep with sand in the bed; wake up, surf, eat breakfast, you get the idea. The days had a rhythm to them, which connected us to nature, connected us to something that was bigger than me, or my suburb or even the cities we loved to visit on distant shores.

Redgate was where I learned to respect and cherish the land. Without a grounding there I do not think I would have spent time in the Pilbara, the Kimberley, the Top End or Centre. I feel good there in a way that is different to the feeling in New York and India, different again from my family home in the suburbs. Redgate is a place I keep returning to, where I am pulled by the ocean, the beaches, the forest, the weather, the memories. And it is a place that reminds me of my father like chicken curry does with my mother.

My father’s family lived in Scotland before they migrated to Australia. His father came to Western Australia at the age of nineteen in 1924 and set up shop as a baker, which had been his trade for five years. He worked all over the state from Albany in the south to Karratha in the north with time as a logger, tin miner, and whaler along the way. The last job he had was running a chicken shop with my grandmother in the years he should have been retired. But, he needed to keep the wolf from the door and food was what he knew how to sell. These days, my father still has family in his ancestral village in Scotland, including a cousin who is the last wild salmon fisherman in the United Kingdom. That cousin still rows out each day to catch his daily bread, which he smokes and sends down to Harrods for the luxury set.

My father is a fisherman too, but only a dedicated amateur. When he is down at Redgate, he spends the mornings checking his craypots and getting abalone off the rocks before going fishing in the evening. He is more successful than not and his love of it brings people with him, including my uncle and brother-in-law. It is how he recharges his batteries so he can continue to work up in the city and beyond.

It might be worth pausing here to think about what fishing means in Australia today, where there are myths that circulate about who we are and where our food comes from. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that we are an outdoor people, and compared to those who live in big cities overseas, that rings true. This is despite the fact that most of us live in the suburbs on a thin strip of land by the coast, and do not get into nature as much as we could.

Nevertheless, Australians care about the environment and there is work to do as a community. We have to fight to protect the places that are important to us just like we need to protect the rights of people. But, fishing in Australia is the largest recreational activity and it provides an opportunity for people to share and connect with each other. That means we must acknowledge the Indigenous presence as an ongoing and important part of history, belonging and identity. To see the fish traps, the middens, the stories that tell us about the land and sea is important and this can sit comfortably next to experiences of non-Indigenous people. Where would we be without people who have cared for country for as long as anyone knows? Where would we be without the work of rangers who come from all kinds of backgrounds? And where would we be without our own fishing trips as well?

For many years, my father has kept a record of the crayfish he has caught and submitted it to the West Australian Department of Fisheries. Along with thousands of other amateur fishermen, this goes into protecting the stocks. One year, the department gave out the first commercial license on the stretch of coast where we have our pots. That summer down at the reef we could see the boat pulling in hundreds and hundred of crays every day. That season was our worst on record. People were outraged and not only because it meant the amateurs were not catching their own, but because the professional’s pots were dangerous for surfers. We could not even buy those crays because they were flown overseas in ice filled polystyrene boxes that very same day.  People protested and the commercial license was revoked. It took a few years for the crays to come back, but last season was the best we have had for some time yet. It was how K and I fed our Wembley wedding guests.

You might be thinking now, how does one catch crayfish? Crayfish at Redgate are actually Western Rock Lobster, one of six saltwater lobster species found in the waters of Western Australia. There are also freshwater crustaceans called marron that you get in damns on the farms nearby and these have proved a hit with haute cuisine. The crayfish season runs from October 15th to June 30th, but most people take their pots out of the water before Easter. You can also dive for crays, snaring them with a loop or entangling them in the strands of a mop.

You can purchase a second-hand pot quite easily and there are two main kinds. The first are rectangular and the second are shaped like a circular beehive. Both of them have a large opening that the crayfish swims into and must be fitted with escape hatches so the undersize ones can find their way out. The pots have bait cages inside them and we use tuna heads. People used to use roadkill like rabbits and kangaroos, and, for a time, we used cows hooves. But those baits had been made illegal. Dad gets his tuna heads from the same place he always has, a warehouse in Fremantle that is a wonderful place for the fisherman with everything you could want. The pots also have weights in them so they are not washed away when the swell comes up. We have an engine manifold in one, concrete in another. They are fitted with ropes so you can pull them up and a buoy that has your initials on it so rangers can check whether you are licensed and other fishermen know what belongs to whom.

You cannot take crayfish with tarspots or berries (which are eggs) because these are the breeders that will produce the next generation. You have to adhere to size limits and you can ‘only’ take eight per pot per day. You must cut out part of the tail when you catch them so you cannot sell them to restaurants. And you would be best served by going with someone in case the ocean is rough or the pot is stuck. Every captain needs a first mate.

Over the years, my dad’s first mate has become my brother-in-law. Sometimes, my dad and his brother will go fishing together in the evening, come back afterwards and share a dram of whiskey as the sky melts into darkness. And, I have fished with my dad in Mexico, reeled in tuna the length of your body on the Baja Peninsula, eaten tacos al pastor and downed beers all day, laughing at the size of what we caught. But given that he checks the craypots at dawn, it has fallen to my brother-in-law to go with my dad to make sure he is not taken off by a wave, or if he is, we still get the crayfish and the story of his death that same day.

My brother-in-law is pretty handy and he is good at telling fishing stories. I have heard him entertain long tables with tales of the Gove Peninsula eating flying foxes when he worked in pearling, and those from his traditional country in the Western Pilbara getting chased by wild horses on the way home from fishing in rivers, or with cousin brothers on the Dampier Peninsula spending whole days reeling in dhufish and queenies and coral trout. If they catch nothing at Redgate, he still is able to make it entertaining when they come back in time for breakfast.

With him, I have found sugarbag on Croydon Station and hunted marlu (kangaroo) on the plateau outside Roebourne, chowed down on Mrs Lot’s chicken and spread goanna fat on damper at the law ground, gone to fine dining places on the East Coast of Australia, eaten apple pie in Los Angeles and fried sandwiches in Philadelphia, gorged on duck in Singapore and stuffed ourselves on Thanksgiving turkey in rural Virginia. He has brought me dumplings in hospital and I have stocked his freezer with bolognaise when he brought home his newborn son, who happens to be my nephew. More than anything, he has taught me what brotherly love is and the importance of his culture. As part of that, I have begun to learn a little about ngurra, which is to say ‘country’. Ngurra is like terroir but deeper, an attachment to place that matters within your mind, body, soul; it is the land you return to, come from, that you belong with. I think that is the hope of my father and my brother-in-law in seeing the dawn each day when they check for crays – that this ngurra, this place called Redgate, looks after us all, gives us a reason to go on when we are wrecked from life itself. But, that country is also simply beautiful, as beautiful as one can imagine, and the crays are as delicious as can be. That is part of what draws us to it and why we must look after it, always.

Let us assume for a moment that you have caught a crayfish, that your dad and brother-in-law have come home with a good haul. Let us also assume that you get to eat them today rather than freeze them for someone’s wedding a few months away. The day is sunny and warm, the sound of cicadas can be heard while you drink your tea at the table outside, the kids are happy playing, and your veggies are doing ok even though the possums have been in amongst the greens.

First you will want to make a salad – some lettuce and kale from the garden, some basil and mint too; then, because the tomatoes have come on, a handful of those. The farmers’ market was on this morning in Margaret River and you picked up some avocadoes from down the road. Slice them thinly. The dressing does not need to be fancy – some garlic, some maple syrup, some sherry vinegar, some good olive oil. And a sprinkling of seeds tossed in lemon myrtle powder – sesame, pumpkin, slivered almonds.

The crays are a good size today and there are enough for us to have a half each. You pierce the head and cut them down the middle, remove the guts. The meat is translucent, pearly even, and you marvel at the muscle in the tail because that is your meal. It is time to heat the barbeque up, to oil the crays a little, sprinkle a little salt, a little pepper. Once the hot plate is searing, place them flesh down and move them so they do not stick. Cook them for a couple of minutes until you see the shell start to change colour. Then flip them and cook them through, keep the middle a little raw but warmed. A garnish of lemon and chilli fresh from the garden and there you have it. Serve with a chilled chardonnay and talk about the world.

I have eaten crayfish other ways – in curry, in ceviche, in tacos, in pasta, in chowder. But I love the simplicity of the grill, of letting the freshness of the meat come through, of letting the taste of the ocean, of the ngurra, speak in the ingredients alone. It is summer too and the cooking should not take long. This gives you more time to drink wine and relax in the company of family you have not seen for a while. To think about crayfish like this is not to romanticise the country, or summers at Redgate in any particular way. Some days there is nothing in the pot, and, when that happens, you feel defeated by the ocean itself. But it makes you respect what nature has in store for you, makes sure you know that you are a part of something bigger and that counts for a lot. Its not what you catch, but how you live it up.

When I was staying there some years prior, I was part of community organisations caring for the coast, opening up public space for walking tracks and debating the merits of development that was happening at an alarming pace. Redgate is unique in many ways for it is in country Australia but it leans green; is obsessed with surfing; focuses on wellness culture, new age spirituality and healthy living; is wealthier than lots of other parts of the country; and is growing. Of course, one does not have to drive very far inland to see that the sea changers are not the only people here and I myself have friends who’d rather be hunting pigs than fishing.  Yet Redgate is a place that keeps me connected to my father and brother-in-law, to nature and the people who live there, to the spirit of a place and a community that are so very far away from the bagel days of New York. They are just as cosmopolitan as any big city however, and, in town, one can find any kind of food you want – there is Japanese omakase, authentic Korean, country Chinese, Contemporary Australian, classic bakeries, a fantastic gourmet pub that screens the footy, and too many other gems to name right here, right now.

My father grew up in the West Australian Wheatbelt in a time when the food choices were limited. In Redgate, which is different place in a different era, there is a cornucopia of food that connects us to everyone in the world. From the ocean to the veggie patch, crayfishing at dawn and watering the lemons at dusk, it is a place that allows us to enjoy ngurra in such a way that our palates meet over lunch and we can reconnect with what matters to us. The only thing we need is a chicken curry in the freezer for when the pots are empty and the surf is so good you come home later than you ever thought possible.




LAST SUPPER MEAL

My last supper meal is a chicken curry. Chicken curry made by my mum is what I want to eat one last time before they send me on my way. It is the meal that I long for when I have been away and it is the food that opens up so much feeling that I wonder if I will break. This has as much to do with the dish as it has to do with the setting, the feeling and the people. I long for mum’s cooking because it means I will be where the sky is limitless and the ocean blue, the garden in full bloom, the daylight stretching into the evening where we can sit and talk for hours on end about what we have been up to. My father will be there with aperitifs to begin, then wine, followed by whiskey while the moon rises higher and we look up, hoping that the stars will shimmer. My wife, my sisters, brother-in-law, nephew, niece are there too, maybe a cousin, all feasting on a banquet whose centrepiece is chicken curry. If I am eating that, I will get to live a little longer in the best way possible.

I was born and raised in the suburb of Wembley in Western Australia. That was where we lived, went to school, had our friends, played sport, watched movies, read, took music lessons, and ate. My parents home is an old bungalow that my dad renovated with the help of friends – the wood was reclaimed from demolition sites all over Perth and, as you walk in, the house opens up to a kitchen, dining and living area in a wide open space. The centre of the house is where we cook and eat, and one is immediately drawn to a table that can comfortably seat sixteen.

Growing up, my father would cook twice a week and he had a memorable roster of dishes – chicken wings, pork vindaloo, cheese on toast, scrambled eggs, and his piece de resistance, osso buco, of which he was immeasurably proud. Cooking was never relaxing for him, he could never flow in the kitchen, but he had a go. On the other hand, mum set a high standard for anyone else to follow. She used to run a catering business, and, on special occasions, she would make chocolate eclairs, curry puffs, sausage rolls, profiteroles, cakes shaped like rockets or swimming pools or teddy bears. During the week though, we had a routine in what we ate – fresh pasta for Tuesday dinner because the store was next to where my sister trained for netball, school canteen on Wednesday lunch where I always got a choc milk, take out on Friday night because it was the end of school and work. These are stories I imagine many Australians of my generation can relate to. What was less common was that we ate fish twice a week and curry twice a week as well.

Growing up, we ate all kinds of curries – pork, lamb, beef, fish, potato, cauliflower, beans, egg, lentils, eggplant. There were rarer occasions when we had South Indian specialties – putu, a breakfast dish that is somewhere between gelatinous rice and couscous, which you eat with banana and sugar, or fish curry and pepper water depending on your mood; appam, a crispy yet spongy pancake like the marriage of a crepe and injira that you have on the side of everything or simply with an egg cooked into the middle; aluwa, a sticky, sweet desert that is like a combination of dulche de leche and fudge toffee that takes hours to cook and is truly a group effort.

But for all these dishes, curry was the heartbeat of our kitchen. My grandparents lived with us until they died when I was ten. They migrated late in life from Singapore to join their children, who had come to Australia many years prior. With them in the house, our taste was shaped by their South Indian upbringing and their South East Asian experience. We would often marvel at how much rice my papa could eat in one sitting. But they encouraged us to eat everything from char kway teow to curry laksa to roast lamb with mint sauce to cucumber and sambal sandwiches to croissants with homemade jam. They had learned this openness from experience and knew that to refuse anyone’s cuisine only hurt one’s self.

For all the curries we ate, chicken curry was my favourite. I hear you ask, why not fish which South Indians do so well? I ask myself that question now partly because my taste began to shift after living in Kerala. While I was there I fell in love with seafood even more, craving the polichattu where they grill fish with tomato and spices in a banana leaf over hot coals; or the moilee that elevates prawns and coconut milk into a fragrant delicacy that rivals everything else; or the simple fish fry that is exactly what it claims to be but is mixed with secret herbs and spices. Seafood is what I love now, but chicken curry is my madeleine dish. Of all the dishes we ate as children, it opens me up more than any other food. I have memories of it that sit in my body, mind and spirit. It tells me about my self the way very few foods do.

For most of my childhood in Wembley, we had chickens. They lived in a coop in the backyard but would free range all over the place during the day. Each morning, we would check to see if they had laid eggs and feed them scraps from the bucket that sat on the bench next to the toaster. I loved those chooks. They were our pets and lived so very far from the dining room table, so much so that we never gave a thought to what we ate. I no longer have chickens, and neither do my parents even though they live in the same house. But, I still eat meat and am happy with that choice especially because I justify it through confining my consumption to a minimum of organic varieties.

Chicken in my childhood home was a treat. We ate it on Christmas wrapped in bacon and stuffed with brown rice, cashews, dried apricots and mint. We ate it on Sunday, roasted with rosemary and lemon with potatoes that were crispy and peas that were mushy. We ate it at picnics in sandwiches with avocado and mayonnaise. It was not everyday meat for us, and I do not know if anything was except for ham, which made its way into our school lunches. But, I was always fond of chicken because that was my favourite curry.
When one makes a curry, it is not only the curry one must attend to. You have to think about the side dishes – rice is non negotiable even though appam, roti paratha and chapatis sometimes get you through; dhal is always there, made from red lentils in my house with potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, curry leaves, spices; and there are a range of vegetarian dishes, my favourite of which is avial, a mix of vegetables thick with coconut. This is to say nothing of smaller accoutrements like tomatoes and onions; cucumber and yoghurt; mashed fried eggplant; chutneys; and chilli sauce.

As for the chicken curry itself, you will need to get a whole bird because the bones matter for flavour. When I have been by myself, I will cut a Maryland into pieces and that is often good enough. The next question you have to answer is what kind of curry do I want, and that depends on ingredients you have with you. It will also depend on the cook. My mother makes my favourite chicken curry, but she has seven sisters who each make it their own way. Some use more coconut milk, others use cinnamon, some are salty, some add a little more lemon juice at the end, sometimes they cook it dry, some fry the spices in coconut oil, which my elder sister took to after living in New Delhi for a while. There are so many options to consider in making chicken curry your own way, and that is its inherent appeal. It is infinite. It can become so many dishes even with the same ingredients. I love knowing that it will change each and every day.

My mother’s chicken curry, or the favourite one that I long for when I am away, is a simple one. You need a whole chicken that you cut into individual pieces – each of these should have some bone in it, even the breast. This helps keep the chicken moist, but it also makes sense given that we eat with our hands at home and need something to grab onto. For spices, you need turmeric, cumin, coriander, chilli, all ground to a fine powder and fresh as you can get them. After living in India, we wondered why the food there tasted so much better. It has to do with the relationship of the produce to the terroir, with how fresh the spices are, just like how mozzarella tastes the best in Italy or corn comes in so many varieties in Peru. That is why Indian food tastes so good there. This is not to consider that it is appropriate for the place and the climate, the pace of life, and the tendency to share meals in large numbers with extended family and friends so you can have several dishes that combine into a harmonious feast. Here at home, sometimes we have relatives bring us spices from Singapore, or we re-stock when we come back from overseas our selves.  

Once you have your spices, you will also need aromatic garlic, pungent onions, juicy ginger, ripe tomatoes, fresh lemon juice and curry leaves. These are all things you can find in your pantry, or maybe your garden in the right season. The difficult thing to find for the Australian pantry is curry leaves but you can get them in the fridge of Asian groceries. And, curry leaves grow well in most places – we even have some down at Redgate that have lived through frosts in winter to produce a fine crop of leaves. Please note this is not a curry plant, but a tree that you use the leaves of. These are, for many people, a kind of secret ingredient – wonderfully fragrant, inviting, subtle and add a depth of flavour that tastes wonderful, as secret but as known as an anchovy in a bolognese to add umami. Whatever the case, the quality of the ingredients matters for the outcome of the chicken curry. To make this chicken curry is to respect the culture, is to respect the mother, is to get the heartland flavour.

You need a heavy bottom, deep, fry pan though we have clay pots we bought from the side of the road last time we were in Kerala. If you cannot find that bloke, just see how you go. First, choose your oil. You can use coconut or something neutral like grapeseed, then heat it on a medium flame and fry the onions, garlic, ginger until they brown a little; then add equal parts of cumin, coriander and turmeric with a half portion of chilli powder; fry this until the aroma comes up; you might even cough a little. That is a good sign. Put in the tomatoes (not too much) and bring it together, then add the chicken, brown the skin a little, add some water, cover the dish, turn down the flame and wait. You could mix the water with coconut milk, but the choice is yours. Cook it until it is done.

That is how you make a chicken curry.

You will have noticed in the short account above that there are no proportions. I have not said one tablespoon of cumin, three tablespoons of oil. That is the alchemy of curry – you have to find balance yourself, a balance that makes sense for your palate, one that tastes good to you and your guests. You might find that balance by cooking your curry leaves with your spices like some do, or it might come by adding them in later when the liquid goes in. You might like to fry your chicken first and begin to crisp up the skin only to add it back into the gravy to finish cooking. You might choose not to add salt and pepper at the end, or the squeeze of lemon, though I would highly recommend it. These decisions are the beauty and the secret of cooking curry.

I think my mother’s chicken curry is the best partly because of who she is and what she means to me. But she had a mother too, who my family talk fondly of. My grandmother was truly the source of so much food and culture. My father particularly loved how she took him in and gave to him an understanding of India. She was a proud woman with a fierce and charming character, the counterpoint to my quiet grandfather, who spent his last days bereft without her. I have memories from my youth that allow me to think back fondly of what she cooked for us and how we sat at the table in Wembley listening to papa, having him educate us on manners, politics, culture. To me, and this is only because of how I know them, their greatest gift to the world was their children who have shared with me a love of food as an opening out to life in the largest sense of that word.   

Growing up, there were times when I struggled with my identity and chicken curry was part of that. Although I loved to eat it at home, sitting down with a thermos at school to have it as leftovers was a little difficult when everyone else was eating vegemite sandwiches. For the most part, I liked being a fish out of water, was proud of who I was and what that meant. And, I always had friends and curious bystanders who wanted a taste of what I was eating. Yet at times I wanted to know where was my place in the world? Who was like me? What did I want to be? Everyone asks those questions, not only people who come from diverse backgrounds and we answer them in different ways. Some find sustenance in food, others in family, still others in books. I have found it in all three, which is not that different from when I grew up and was looking for answers.

I was lucky to come of age in a sweet spot of multiculturalism, when Paul Keating was talking about reconciliation, the republic, who we were and what we wanted to become. It was an intoxicating vision to me. He will always be a hero of mine, just like Whitlam, who let my mum into the country, and Bob Brown for being ahead of his time. This holds true regardless of their complexities and their failings. As a child, it felt like Keating allowed me to have a place in Australia, and that fact cannot be cherished enough after Pauline Hanson arrived. In that later time, people would abuse my mum on the street and call up our house to tell us to fuck off back to where we came from. Keating was the kind of person who would have a go at chicken curry when Hanson would scoff at the very thought of it.

But that is only one part of the story – I did not grow up in the abstract, did not grow up in the body politic, but in a home in the suburbs with family who loved and cherished me, who fed and clothed me, who gave me a library and encouraged my writing. That was as much a part of coming of age as the marches and the speeches, the things history books look for and remember. As an adult, I have travelled to Singapore, where mum grew up, and further back to India, where our family comes from. My wife has fallen in love with Bombay and I like being there as the gears of world history change our direction in the coming century, or so we like to predict. Eating chicken curry is part of that, part of who I am and the world I live in.



  

COSME HUSK MERINGUE, CORN MOUSSE

Why do we live? I ask myself this question often. There are variations of this, some of which are more tortured than others: what am I doing here? Where am I going? What’s the point? I do not ask these questions flippantly as if to make existential dilemmas a plaything in the world of food blogging. Or to grandstand and overreach about what the scope of this platform is. I ask them because it is important to know the direction to take, the goals to set, the way to move onwards and ever upwards never forgetting where you have been or what you have tasted.

To answer that question, I have some answers that I tell myself – to write, to be a good husband, son, brother, uncle, cousin, to enjoy life, to take pleasure, to teach, to experience, to be, to savour, to embrace, to give, to nurture, to inspire. Sometimes it is hard to keep one’s eyes on the prize, to think about whether the suffering is worth it. And I say that as someone conscious of my privilege – as someone with opportunity, wealth, health, access, capital in all facets of my life and body. But, some days it feels hard to get up and at them, to wake up in a cold apartment, to see whether the water is hot, to realise there is no food in the fridge, to struggle for the daily existence that is our bread as writers far from home.  And this feeling is compounded in the festive season, when the tyranny of distance is keenest and the temptations of the city are just beyond reach with the sun setting earlier than I am used to. I miss the long days at the beach, the home caught crayfish, the family around the table. But, to lament as much when one is in a great city of the world is to be a pessimist and a whinger, something I never want to do.

Luckily, K and I have had some visitors of late – Y, S and C are in town. It feels good to be surrounded by family and friends, with people you can trust and collaborate with. They help us answer the question I opened with – why do we live? We live with and for other people. We also live to enjoy food, to take pleasure in eating and drinking, to share stories over a common table. And we have been doing that in spades today. Y, who is a chef, takes us to Cosme. He has worked in their mother restaurant, Pujol, in Mexico City and this New York edition came highly recommended, with a reputation as being one of the best in the world (40th at last count).

The lighting is dramatic and intimate. The service is impeccable and welcoming, with every server being aware that we have a nut allergy at the table.  We order liberally – Y and I get Tecates, K gets a margarita, S a martini and C a whiskey. The sommelier and I share a laugh about Tecate and how good it is despite its formerly odious reputation. To be in one of the world’s best restaurants and able to order a $6 beer is truly sensational – quality does not need to be expensive and for easy drinking there is nothing I prefer, not even Emu Export.

The menu is divided into three sections – raw, vegetable, meat. We get an uni taco; a cobia al pastor with yuzu and pineapple puree; and a salad with cactus, cheese and avocado. The flavours work well together in each of the dishes and as a whole. They are all to share – the rich and refreshing uni with a deep flavour, the cobia is sweet and citrusy in equal measure, the salad doused in oil of the finest quality.

Our second course is a beef short rib with onions; a deboned duck with radishes; a honeynut squash tamale; a mushroom huarache; a 300 day old mole (a 300 day mole!). There is balance, harmony, joy. They are all served with the best tortillas I have ever eaten. There is something light and fulfilling in this bread, an evenness and calm that is delicious. We order a second round and mop our plates until we can eat no more. The conversation is flowing and the share plates allow us to relax, be comfortable with each other, to celebrate this place and the greatness of Mexican civilisation in company that gets it.

We finish with the husk meringue and corn mousse. It is plated beautifully, like some sort of yin yang cross, a pale purple colour that reminded me of lavender. The texture is full and creamy, it is smooth and sophisticated, refined and smart, accessible and delicious. There is something touching in it. Y says 'what is going on with that' and is incredulous and impressed in equal measure. K simply says 'oh my god, what the fuck' and C lets out a declamatory 'damn'. S and I recline, sigh with happiness. This dish might be the best thing I have eaten all year. It is a pillow of dreams. It is unforgettable like Ben Shewry's kangaroo tartare, Paul Iskov's marron, and Dan Barber's nine grain risotto. It ranks as one of my all time eating experiences.

And so, this meal is the answer to our question. This is why we live, to eat like this. Cosme is an affirmation of what matters, a place of welcome in a cold city, a kind of homecoming that allows one to breathe life in, to take a break from the familiar and get on with the hard labour of helping make our place a little easier for everyone to find pleasure in.

Cosme
35 E 21ST St, New York, NY 10010
Subway: 6 at 23rd.
~ $110 per head







MAISON PICKLE DELUXE FRENCH DIP

It is hard to estimate the importance of French culture in America. From the Louisiana Purchase to Alexis du Toqueville to Marquis de Lafayette to freedom fries, France has played an integral role in shaping the American imagination, including its very real palate. I am tempted to demonstrate the differences between the two, pointing to the bread being crusty, chewy and savoury, or soft, white and sweet. There is a reason that we say ‘this is the best invention since sliced bread’ in the settler societies. But, I am always tempted to look for similarities, to find out what brings people together even if they retain a certain individualism. In that way, the root of the Franco-American love affair is to be found in a shared revolutionary spirit, a kindred desire to overturn monarchs even if that means installing tyrants in their place. They have both encouraged a society that is passionate, grand, dramatic, which comes through in imperial presidencies with cults of personality complete with entourages, tanks and triumphant music.

The revolutionary spirit in cuisine though is somewhat different, with France perceiving itself to have a tradition to uphold; an empirical reality that means good taste is to be found in the palate of every citizen. However unenlightened the average Frenchman gets, he will always know how to dress a salad. The same cannot be said in America, notwithstanding that, at the top end, they are able to do it with the very best. Rather than excelling at delicate croissants, it is the processed donut that becomes the apotheosis of common taste here. I say this as someone who loves to eat in both nations, particularly in Paris and New York, where you can find Japanese or Chinese or North African that lifts you up by your very bootstraps.

What all revolutions share is a desire for the new, a reset button that marks a year zero and allows the people to re-boot. This is there in Paris to which one only need to cite Adeline Grattard’s restaurant yamT’cha that fuses French and Cantonese into something wholly new. In the American case, this has meant the proliferation of new dishes and the re-working of flavours into distinct combinations. This comes about is in fusion food such as the celebrated Korean-Mexican. As delicious as that is, French and American is the dominant fusion, at least when it comes to the meeting of cultures (rather than chefs and New World ingredients). It is there most explicitly in the dishes from New Orleans, but we get it in New York too. I am not talking about the steak frites and onion soup that one gets at Bar Olivier in Park Slope or the coq au vin at French Roast just down the road. I am speaking here of American dishes that betray a French influence. One exemplar of this is the Deluxe Beef French Dip from an Upper West Side haunt called Maison Pickle.

The French Dip is a sandwich of thinly sliced roast beef served on a baguette with a side of jus that you dip your sandwich into, hence the curious name. There are competing claims as to who invented it, but it is a toss up between two Los Angeles restaurants. This is a rivalry that started in 1908 between Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet and Phillipe the Original. At Cole’s you dip your own sandwich while Phillipe serves it ‘wet’. The use of ‘French’ in the title comes from the type of bread used and the dip tends to be quite thin, not something thick like hummus or yoghurt or aioli. There are variations of this found in Chicago and across the Midwest, but it is not synonymous with one place like the cheesesteak is in Philadelphia. To be certain, it is part of the burgeoning sandwich culture of America. What should be noted is that the French do not have something similar. In that way, the bread has crossed the Atlantic but, in a revolutionary twist, is now part of a new dish.

In the Maison Pickle version, one first notices the mood of the restaurant. As it is French in America, it is built for romance. The dim candlelight takes a little while to adjust to and the waiters in white shirts pour water out from silver jugs. Across Broadway, there is a cinema with flashing bulbs and they cast shadows across the bar. People come here on dates, or date nights when the kids are asleep around the corner, or pop in for tuna nicoise on their way home from the office wearing cashmere jackets and wondering where the day’s stocks ended up, scrolling through news about NFL players kneeling in protest of this president. K and I first came here before we went to Murder on the Orient Express, spending our daily budget on two glasses of (very good) wine and pull-apart bread that was garlicked to high heaven before being entertained by a campy interpretation of a classic tale.


Tonight though, we have come for French Dip sandwiches. I take mine Deluxe Beef and it comes with strands of onion that are like necklaces of caramel, a rich gooey gruyere fondeau that is silky smooth, and packed with rare roast beef that is thinly sliced. And, of course, a side of jus that is thin, perfect for dipping into or drinking as a soup. I love it and make short work of it. But, as with any revolution, there are dissenters, and K has a few things to say: 'the most disgusting eating experience'; 'it's repulsive and I never want to eat meat again in my life'; 'this is for people with gout, you might as well be dipping it into fat'. I have learnt that it is not good trying to persuade her otherwise (especially with raw meat or fish), but she agrees that the atmosphere is convivial and it is a welcome place to be when it is cold outside. That makes her enough of a fellow traveler for me.

Maison Pickle 
2315 Broadway, New York, NY 10024
Subway: 1 at 86th. 
Open 9am - 4am on weekends.