Dal-ing, may I check your pulse?

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Until very recently, the happily growing number of years we have spent in our current abode have found us – well, me actually – falling into slothful habits when it comes to food storage.

Thus it became routine when a new bag of pulses, beans, lentils were acquired from one of the Indian groceries in Barkley St, to fling the opened bag in a corner of our kitchen where it joined many others.

I was a little more careful with grains – rice and oats and so on.

But still, it was a sloppy look and it had to end.

The mice made sure of it.

I was finally spurred into action one recent night when I heard, while trying to fall asleep, a bunch of the little buggers obviously not just eating … but having a grand old time, a real party, as well.

I found four of them, immobilised and trembling with fear, behind one of our chopping boards.

They looked small and pitiful. But I knew, too, they were the party animals I had heard, for they were all wearing shades.

I did what I could that night, vowing to get some food container action going at the first possible opportunity – probably on the coming weekend.

In the ensuing few days I discovered, however, that while mice may prefer other goodies, when push comes to a shortage of yummy grains, they will indeed consume pulses.

In this case, they turned to a bag – yes, an opened bag – of those small, dark chick peas.

They were dragging them out of the bag, shelling them with paws or teeth and scarfing the innards.

The dark shells were washing up in the benchtop corner.

The resultant detritus reminded me of a bar near where I used to stay In New Orleans, in the days when I travelled there regularly.

O’Henry’s was not the sort of place in which me or my Crescent City friends frequented, it having none of the funky music or food we were into. It was a sort of burger ‘n’ beer place, and I only recall spending time there to watch major league sports events.

What they did offer patrons was an unlimited supply of peanuts in the shell, consumed in vast quantities along with equally vast quantities of beer. The peanuts were, of course, pristine but the shells were salted – meaning thirsts were inflamed.

By closing time, the shells were damn near ankle-deep throughout.

Happily, our storage woes were solved in a single stroke by Peter from Yoyo’s Milkbar, who provided us with two boxes of plastic containers that formerly housed Gum Balls.

I read somewhere a while ago that archaeologists examining ancient human remains can tell whether any given corpse is from the upper classes or the peasant class simply by amount of meat (in the former case) or pulses (in the latter) they have eaten.

We eat meat, but we’d like to think we keep the pulse count up very high.

Of course, it’s the norm that peasant/working class food traditions sometimes work their way up the, ahem, food chain.

Hence the ongoing use of puy lentils in some of your pricier restaurants.

Our minimal exposure to such food – and the use of lentils and other pulses therein – leaves us no doubt that for us such food is a bit flaky and unfulfilling when compared, say, to the recent foul meddammes I had at Al-Alamy.

Nor does it do the job, or have the same oomph, as the many pulse-based dishes we make at home.

We have red beans and rice, New Orleans style, made with a ham hock, ham bone, bacon bones or – at the very least – bacon fat.

We have southern-style backeyed peas the same way. Nice and smoky even without the porky bits!

We use red beans, too, in dal makhani with black lentils, channa dal and perfumed with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, garlic and chilli powder.

We have all sorts of other dals, using mung dal and many other varieties, most often with roasted cumin seeds, ginger, lemon juice, fresh green chillis and fistfuls of fresh coriander.

White beans – sometimes canned – go into minestrone and other thick soups and stews.

Ever since reading many years ago a very evocative passage in a crime book set in the Florida Everglades describing a simple lentil soup/stew heady with cumin, I have been trying to recreate the same.

With only limited success, it has to be said, as the more roasted ground cumin I use, the more bitter becomes the flavour. Generally speaking, Bennie likes the results more than his father.

But my most recent pulse project involved the simplest, and in many ways best, concoction of all, the result of a little ongoing whisper in the back of my mind banging on like a mantra: “Red lentil soup, red lentil soup, red lentil soup …”

Onion, garlic in olive oil, throw in a mashed can of good tomatoes, a cup of red lentils, water, salt, freshly ground pepper.

So simple, so very tasty – with a tangy flavour attained without the use of lemon juice – and so incredibly cheap.

We love our pulses!


Al-alamy

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Al-alamy, 51 Waterfield St, Coburg. Phone: 9355 8866

Since making  a mental note of this intriguing, fantastic joint while checking out the adjoining Wang Wang Dumpling, a fair bit of time has elapsed, during which we’ve ascertained that Al-Alamy is something of a magic foodie hotspot.

And not just for those, bloggers and more, who love to blather on about food in the cyber world, either.

In the hour or so I am in-house for a Monday lunch, an endless stream of savvy regulars comes and goes – young mums with tots, workers in suits and shorts, grandparents with tots, larger family groups, singles such as my self, content to hunker down with their chosen lunches and a newspaper/magazine/book.

There are a number of reasons for the intense popularity of Al-Alamy.

The prices, for starters.

A plain zaatar pizza costs $1.50, dressed with onion and tomato $2.50.

The rest of the usual lineup of pies and pizzas range from $2.50 up to $4.

For about the same price, you can have one of the saj pizzas, in which saj bread is stuffed with fillings and then draped over a spherical heating plate. Different!

The dips platters cost $7.

Outside of the pay-if-you-want Lentil As Anything outlets, could be this is the cheapest of cheap eats in Melbourne.

But that, of course, would mean nowt if the food wasn’t as spectacular.

It is, well based on my magnificent foul meddammes ($7) anyway!

This perfect little spread is cheap, healthy and likely to set a template in our house for lazy don’t-feel-like-cooking summer days – vinegary pickles, olives, pita bread, dips/foul, what could be better?

The plate of pickled cucumbers slices and pink turnip, beautifully fresh tomato chunks and wrinkled, chewy olives is the perfect foil for its lunch companions.

It might be thought all the zing and tang would come from them, with the beans playing straight man, but that’s not the case. Yes, the beans (and a few chick peas) have some of the pasty blandness I expect and desire, but there’s an undertow of lemon in there, too.

What an incredible feed!

A few tables over, I see a couple of blokes tucking into a spread that has the same bits and pieces as mine, but with awarma (scrambled eggs with minced meat, $8.50) instead – and that looks so fine, as well.

My cafe latte is hot, strong, sensational and another bargain at $2.50.

Al-Alamy is one of the enlightened, sensible places that will feed you and sell you stuff to feed you and yours at home. Think Mediterranean Wholesalers, La Morenita or Little Saigon Market.

So obvious on one level, such genius on another – and a potent alternative to the supermarket for shopping, restaurant for eating out syndrome.

It’s been open for about five years, but feels a lot more homely and lived in than that – in a positive way!

I only wish it was closer to home – the traffic hereabouts is a mess just about all the time, and on my way across town I made the killer mistake of joining Sydney Rd WAY too early in the piece.

On the way home I do better by a mixture of Bell St, Moreland Rd and Pasco Vale Rd.

Before departing Al-Alamy, I buy some eggplant and beetroot dips to go, pita bread and half a dozen pieces of a wonderful sweetie that is part marshmellow, part nougat, each piece studded with a piece of Turkish delight.

I truly love this place – how can I not when it’s an establishment that has a head-scarfed female staff member placing my lunch on my table with a cheerful, “There you go, mate!”

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Philippine Fiesta

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Melbourne Showgrounds Grand Pavilion

Having missed the previous year’s Philippine Fiesta through illness, and having only heard about this year’s bash the previous night, and having somewhat lethargically got myself out of the house and into the rain, it’s a pleasure to be striding towards the showground’s Grand Pavilion, where – happily – the entire proceedings are taking place.

My pace picks up as I hear the music and inhale the tantalising aromas caressing my nostrils.

Inside, the entire pavilion is hazy with smoke from barbecues.

Sweetness!

Who needs dry ice?

The fiesta has been going a good few hours already, will continue quite late into the night and on into the following day, but there is a good size crowd on hand already.

There’s all the commercial stallholders you would expect – travel, insurance, immigration services, real estate and more.

But your blogger, of course, heads straight to the food section.

It’s not as big as I expect, but more than big enough, with all the stalls – maybe about 10 in all – all doing a roaring trade.

Except the Spanish paella folk, who seem to be suffering from attention deficit disorder. Such a shame, as their goodies look the goods.

As if almost in an unintended rebuff to them, I start my afternoon’s eating with a serve of paella and chargrilled chicken from one of the Filipino stalls for $10.

The rice is good, the chicken better – chargrilled to a crispy outer and juicy as can be, although pretty much unseasoned.

All the tables adjacent the food area are packed, so I make do with some plastic storage containers out the back of the coffee caravan set-up. Despite its deliciousness, I leave much of the chook uneaten in the knowledge I’m up for some serious grazing.

By far the most popular food item are the barbecue skewers – there are at least four places selling them.

I grab a pork number for $4 and feel a bit shattered.

It looks insanely delicious, but it’s SO fatty. In this sort of context, such a thing would not ordinarily disturb me. But in this case, the fattiness is as much a textural thing as it is flavour or health related. That I don’t like pork belly – at all – may give you some idea of my dismay.

I see people all around me happily consuming skewers – pork, chicken and beef – that appear to be meatiness defined in a way mine is not.

Oh well!

It’s time for time out from food, it’s time to take in some of the more cultural aspects of the fiesta.

At the entertainment stage, I quickly surmise that it’s mandatory for female Filipino pop singers to wear dangerously elongated high heels.

Gwen Zamora (pictured above) sings two songs, the first pleasingly close to the sunshine pop so close to my heart.

However, as the entrants in the Miss Philippine Fiesta of Victoria and Charity Quests and the Mrs Philippine Fiesta of Victoria and Charity Quests strut their stuff, I quickly learn that vertigo high heels are pretty much the all-round go.

Except, maybe, for the wrestlers, none of whom appear to be Filipino, be they male or female.

High heels may be part of their private lives, but they put on a good show anyway.

Even a sport fan and pop culture creature such as myself normally finds “wrestling” of only the most passing interest.

But it’s surprising how visceral, loud and – yes – violent it seems when you’re standing a few feet away.

More food!

I order a serve of callos.

It’s only when the deal is done that I fully realise the contents of what I am about to consume.

Thus this, of all places, becomes the first time EVER I have tried tripe.

I don’t like the tripe; I don’t really dislike it, either.

But a lifetime of wariness is a big hurdle.

I push it all to one side and enjoy the remaining stew of  pork, chorizo, greens beans, peas and chick peas.

I have room and money for one last hurrah – churros!

These are much less chewy and of much less substance than I am familiar with.

So light, so very evil and so very delicious with the chocolate dipping sauce – and truly perfect with a brew from the Three Beans Coffee folk.

It’s my best coffee for the week by a mile – bravo!

I have a ball at the Philippine Fiesta.

But I am by now accepting of the fact there is something of a disconnect between me, my tastes and Filipino food. There are numerous dark, lusty and mysterious dishes at the food booths that I don’t even consider.

I suspect that at a similar event hosted by the Indian community, just for instance, I would not feel a similar distance.

But that’s cool, too!

Flemington Kebab House

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301 Racecourse Rd, Flemington. Phone: 9376 2767

This Flemington institution didn’t get a write-up in the whiz-bang new book on Melbourne kebab shops, but it certainly would’ve been a worthy inclusion.

It’s never been at the top-tier of our choices for such food, as there are options closer to home.

As well,  the last time Bennie stuck our noses in the door the prices had crept up, and the previous dad-only visit had left me feeling a little shortchanged in terms of quantity.

So it is with much interest and a little wariness that I enter for a midweek dinner.

The place has had some simple renovations done. It’s homely. Tiles, photos of Turkey – the pics tug at my heart. From what I’ve gathered over the years, Turkey is right at that the top of the list of countries worth visiting for foodie reasons as well as friendly people and drop-dead gorgeous scenery.

As my dinner ritual unfolds, I relax in the knowledge that the previous disappointment can be written of as little more than a blip.

This kebab joint is at the top of its game and my meal is excellent.

A kebab wrap will cost you $9.50 here.

Meal platters range from non-meat for $13 up to mixed grill for $21.

My spread of lamb from the spit, two salads, two dips, rice and bread clocks in at $15.50.

There’s only one size, which is a bit of a blow – my plate could feed dad AND son.

The meat is tender, perhaps not crusty and crunchy enough, but light on the fattiness.

The chilli dip is of a pleasant spiciness, fine and fresh and tangy, and goes fantastic dab by dab with the meat.

The babaghanous lacks the smokiness that tends to come with coarser versions, but its smoothness is full of lemony, garlicky tang.

The rice is good, the salad of lettuce, cabbage, carrot and so on nice and crisp.

The other salad – of red capsicum, leaves, olives and even a couple of cubes of fetta cheese – seems a little excess to requirements.

I envy Flemington residents having this place ready as a groovy go-to option to the many Asian eateries surrounding it.

Flemington Kebab House on Urbanspoon

Cafe Noodle House

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Level 1, Building M, Victoria University Footscray Park Campus. Phone: 9919 4339

It’s a little odd to be navigating the corridors and stairways of Victoria University – a mere day after doing much the same at Melbourne University while tracking down a very cool book on Melbourne’s kebab shops.

Your blogger bypassed tertiary education entirely, heading straight from high school to newspapering, and have never for an instant regretted doing so.

Weirdly enough, I did spend a lot of time on the campus of my hometown university while still at school. The reason was simple – that’s where a better class of rock ‘n’ roll, and even blues and folk music, was to be found and heard.

Much, much more recently, Bennie’s swimming lessons have seen Victoria University become part of the family routine, such regular visits alerting us to the existence of Cafe Noodle House.

It’s one of several food outlets scattered around the campus, and like some of its competitors it takes something of a jack-of-all-trades approach.

So while it’s ostensibly an Asian affair, it stocks and sells sandwiches, muffins, wraps and the like.

The bain marie offerings hold little appeal, although the beef curry I observe being served to a fellow customer looks worth a try.

I focus my eyes and appetite on the photographs of the made-to-order soup, noodle and rice dishes displayed behind the servery.

They all seem to be a buck or so below the prices demanded out in the real world, and cover all the usual bases – mee goreng, hokkien mee noddles, Hainan chicken rice and so on.

There are a few surprises, though, and it’s one of them that becomes my lunch.

Hue spicy beef noodle soup ($8.50), sadly, comes in a disposable plastic bowl.

It’s good without being sensational – pretty much par for the course when compared to other versions I have had of this dish in other places.

It’s got a nice chilly kick.

The very plentiful slices of fat-on beef are both chewy and tender.

Texture is added to the plump, white round noodles by lots of lettuce, which gets that cool wilted thing going as my meal progresses, and a handful of bean sprouts likewise stewing away under the noodles.

Maybe you’d not want go out of your way to eat here, but if in the vicinity it’s worth a go.

40 Melbourne kebab shops in 500 pages? Book of the year!

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Derham Groves is a man after my own heart – he’s passionate about things.

Quite a few things, actually.

Let’s see – architecture, on which he lectures/teaches at the University of Melbourne; rabid Geelong Football Club fan; really big on crime literature, with a special and obsessive penchant for Sherlock Holmes. And that’s just for starters.

But I’ve wandered on to the surprisingly expansive and unfamiliar surrounds of the university campus to talk with him about his latest “baby” – a 500-page book concerned solely with an in-depth survey of 40 Melbourne kebab joints.

After a few wrongs turns and helpful guidance along the way, I meet Derham outside University House, in to which we scuttle for a couple of outstanding coffees.

As we sup, I hear the fascinating story of how Kebab Shops In Melbourne – An Architectural Survey came about.

In 2010, Derham visited Iran for three weeks, courtesy of a travel grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation, to look at Iranian brickwork.

As he moved around the country, he needed to eat – as you do – so found himself in many kebab establishments.

Quite apart from the no-doubt delicious food of which he partook in such places, he often found himself befriended, offered food to share and otherwise engaged by the locals.

All this got him thinking … about kebab shops, their role in the community.

And it got him thinking, too, about their equivalents back in Melbourne.

Back home, he initiated a project in which the 90 students in his Popular Architecture and Design course – in teams of two – dispersed across the city, with each team given the task of profiling a kebab shop.

The result is Kebab Shops In Melbourne – An Architectural Survey.

It’s a beaut read, by turns entertaining, revealing and – for the likes of your blogger – absolutely riveting.

Because of the quick turnaround time, the students’ work is unedited and as presented.

Not only do their individual voices comes through loud and clear, but so, too, do those of the small business folk and families who run the kebab places – which in Melbourne, as in Iran, are a ubiquitous yet rarely studied or even appreciated beyond the sometimes urgent needs of a quick, cheap and delicious feed.

This came about because the students were given marching orders that not only covered topics to be expected of an architectural project – fittings, furniture, signage and so on – but also interviews with the operators.

As a celebration of the every day, the book closely mirrors the evolving ethos of Consider The Sauce.

So, too, does the journey undertaken by the students.

Derham tells me that 70 per cent of the students on the course are Chinese. How wonderful and enriching, then, that they ventured out of whatever CBD enclaves, peer groups and noodle shops they ordinarily frequent to meet another vital part of Melbourne’s make-up.

Of course, unlike in Iran, Melbourne’s kebab shops are dominated by families of Turkish and Greek heritage, but that didn’t stop Derham’s students from taking to their tasks with relish – and enjoying some magnificent food along the way.

Included among the 40 kebab shops is long-time Consider The Sauce favourite Footscray Best Kebab House.

Crazy Kebabs in Mount Alexander Rd gets a guernsey, too, but other than that the books finds Brunswick, Sydney Rd, Melbourne’s CBD and Fitzroy heavily represented.

Derham’s students may not have become life-long kebab fans and may duly recall their study sojourn in Melbourne as merely a step on their life journeys, but he tells me that nevertheless when each of them was presented with a copy of the book, it was notable that many of them carried them clasped to their chests, front cover out and clearly visible.

Heck, I’d be a bit proud of such an effort, too!

Kebab Shops In Melbourne – An Architectural Survey is published by the Custom Book Centre of Melbourne University and is available here or from the university’s book shop.

As an academic exercise, it could be argued that the work of Kebab Shops In Melbourne – An Architectural Survey has already been done.

Derham harbours a suspicion, however, that it could go “feral” and become a cult classic.

Me?

I think it should be a bestseller.

A wrap on Derham’s Iran trip – including pics of particularly succulent looking kebabs – can be found here.

Thanks to Derham and his students for letting me republish here a couple of the kebab shop surveys.

 

Kasim’s Indian Cafe, Sirens

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Kasim’s Indian Cafe, 44 Mason St, Newport. Phone, 9399 483

Sirens,  Beach Pavilion Esplanade, Williamstown. Phone: 9397 7811

It takes some cajoling to get Bennie off the sofa and away from the TV and PlayStation this Friday night.

In the end, we experience a role reversal – with Bennie energised by the magic combination of beach + boy and his dad wanting to head for home.

To get things rolling, though, I make a concession – instead of heading for the wilds of Deer Park or Taylors Lakes, we stick closer to home, intent on checking out a typical suburban Indian eatery, the windows of which we’ve peered through a number of times but never previously entered.

We’re interested in exploring the theory that by mostly limiting ourselves to the cheaper end of the Indian spectrum – at, say, Consider The Sauce favourites such as Classic Curry in Sunshine – we are depriving ourselves of an occasional repast that is richer, sexier and more celebratory.

So it is with metaphorically loosened wallets that we hit the Willy road.

Our straightahead Indian meal is indeed more expensive than our usual – but not by a lot.

We’re hungry and waste no time in ordering lamb bhuna gosht ($13), aloo gobi ($11.50), plain nan ($2.90) and rice ($4), and “kuchumber salad spicy” ($4).

We suspect Kasim’s, with its plain but nice enough dining room, does most of its trade in takeaway. We’re the only customers, but as we are paying and leaving a young couple saunters in followed by a Muslim family comprising mum, dad, two daughters with iPads and son with PSP/DS.

We hope they have a better time of it than we do.

Our meal is edible.

We eat it.

But – oh dear – it’s truly spectacular in its mediocrity.

The salad – a mix of finely diced tomato, lettuce, cucumber and carrot – is not in the least bit spicy.

The aloo gobi seems like leftovers.

The bhuna gosht meat is tender, has textural variety courtesy of green capsicum and onion, and is the best thing going in our meal.

The nan is very average for the price.

The final bill of just a touch over $40 is fine for two mains, three side dishes and two cans of soft drink, but our wallet-loosening experiment is a failure.

Did we order the wrong dishes? Any Kasim’s regulars out there?

It’s still early in the night and Bennie is happy enough to humour his father’s interest in sweeties and coffee/hot chocolate.

The esplanade/beach precinct of Williamstown used to play a major role in our outings, one that has faded.

Mind you, we’ve never taken the plunge by getting on the fang at Siren’s, daunted by the high prices and the fear its fare will tainted by the same fodder indifference that infects nearby Nelson Parade.

It’s all very well to say that as food bloggers we should keep open minds and chance our arms on occasion, but as full-fare payers we are tugged, too, in the other direction, towards caution and conservatism.

Tonight, the place is close to packed and very busy. But still, we fear that has more to do with the superb beachside location than anything coming out of the kitchen.

What we have done many, many pleasant times is hit Sirens for coffee and Greek-style biscotti – and that’s just what we do tonight.

It turns out to be a thrilling half-hour or so.

The proximity of beach and sand brings Bennie alive.

There’s a classic Willy sunset on hand, thunder clouds and lightning in the other direction, and a rainbow between them.

The floor manager is bemused by our insistence on doing coffee imbibing out on the deck because everything is sopping wet.

That’s cool, mate, we’ll stand.

The choc-dipped bikkie is less impressive than we recall from previous visits; the shortbread number much better; our hot drinks are very good.

As dad calls stumps on the outing, Bennie shouts from water’s edge: “I want to stay here!”

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