In the very first episode of Rick Stein’s India, we get a glimpse of how passionate he is when it comes to Indian cuisine. Trying to contain himself, he explains to a member of his crew that the curry back home in England isn’t the same as the curry in India.
On a recent trip to India, I had a food experience that, has at times, returned to me in my dreams. It was a dish called Thali. It is native to Southern India and is traditionally vegetarian. It comprises of seven or so smaller dishes of different types of curry, Rasam, yoghurt and Sheera (a very sweet semolina dessert). They are placed on a very large silver dish (called a Thali meaning plate) with rice and naan. Then you tuck in!
It quite literally looks like a food palette. All of the smaller dishes compliment each other as some are more spicy or sweet or sour, creating a gustatory explosion in your mouth.
Upon arrival back in Australia, the lingering memory of that Thali haunted me. Until, I remembered I live in Melbourne; Food. Snob. Heaven. I should be able to find it in some back-street hipster certified joint somewhere in the city. Zomato led me to Delhi Streets rated 3.8 with over 200 votes (impressive, I know). In preparation for the seven dish meal I was about to consume, I walked into the city fuelling my hunger and my anticipation. After fourty minutes of mission walking I was ready to eat, a lot.
The venue is located in the Archway on Katherine Place in the CBD, it’s back-street enough to maintain good Melbournian vibes. The venue itself is fairly pokey with only a handful of tables and some bench space by the counter and the window. On the walls are some Bollywood film posters taken from the golden years of Bombay’s cinema history. Aesthetically this was fitting and brightened the intimate space. I couldn’t really fault the ambiance and I hoped it would reflect the meal.
The first thing that sent up red flags was that on the menu it said that there was a choice of a two dish Thali or a three dish ‘Special’ Thali. Off the bat, it’s clear that the Australian version comes with some cut backs. You could have a mix of vegetarian or meat curries, but the choices weren’t listed. Furthermore, you could add extra curries to your Thali for $4 each. However, when I asked the waiter about the options, I was presented with butter chicken (surprise surprise), beef curry (not even a specific kind of curry), aloo gobi, red kidney curry and another special that involved ricotta (not impressive enough to remember).
Maths is not my strongest suit, but even if I added all those curries, I would not have the seven curry gastro-experience that I missioned here for.
A small part of me died. Not for me, but for all those people in Melbourne that yearned for authentic Thali and were presented with this. Technically it did come with a yoghurt, but who really cares at this point.
Fairly crestfallen at the whitewashed selection, I ordered ‘meatlovers’ delight’ with the butter chicken and the vague beef curry. To tie myself over, I also went for the Papri Chaat. Chaat (another kind of street-food that is difficult to find in Melbourne) had been another mindblowing experience in India, and I looked forward to tasting it again.
Most of the restaurant and I could see into the kitchen and the naan maker provided some light entertainment, almost reality TV like. For me at least, the whole naan making process was quite therapeutic as he lowered the dough into an oven and then would use giant tong-like pincers to get them out.
THE FOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
The Papri Chaat arrived and it was very sweet, someone was clearly tamarind trigger-happy. It didn’t encompass the delicate balance of spicy, sour, sweet and crunchy experience I had had in India. Sure, I could write it off as being westernised, or perhaps (dare I say it) even fusion. But no, this was none of those, it was just disappointment in flakey crust and some sad sauce on top.
Not long after, the Thali arrived. The naan was quite delicious, in fact, it was the best part of the meal. Perfectly cooked with great texture and seasoning. Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for the rest of the Thali. The curries were generic, lacked soul and were overall very underwhelming. The chicken was tender, but the unfortunate butter-chicken sauce resembled a packet mix. The beef curry tasted like the chef changed his mind half way between a Madras curry and an Irish stew (a futile attempt at fusion if so). My Thali dreams were symbolised perfectly by the tatters of naan and rice on my plate, but I did eat the yoghurt (not a plot twist).
ALL IS NOT LOST
The restaurant got the price point spot-on. Looking around the room, I sensed that people were enjoying their meals. There were even some who got turned away at the door. From my observation they have regulars as part of their clientele. This leads me to believe that to the untrained tongue, this Thali must be decent if you haven’t had the privilege of eating an authentic one in India.
It left me with the vision of Rick Stein, explaining that the curries on High Street (or in this case in Katherine Place) bare no resemblance to those in India. Melbourne can be proud of its gastronomical authenticity when it comes to different meals. However, for this one, maybe you’ll just have to go to India.