Curry up

Belinda Jackson gets an appetite for Indian on Melbourne's streets.

"And this ... is dosa." Himanshi Munshaw-Luhar holds up a wafer-thin pancake the size of a small pony. "Of course, this is the family size," she adds, rather unnecessarily. The dosa is more than a metre long.

Himanshi is giving a crash course on eating Indian food in Melbourne. The trick to successful eating out in any town is to know what to order, so it's with empty bellies and keen anticipation that a small troupe of Indian-food aficionados has gathered this rainy night to trail Himanshi around Melbourne's city grid for an insider's secrets on great Indian food.

But first, a quick word about the origins of Indian cuisine.

"Chilli came from the Portuguese, in the 14th century," Himanshi says. "Before that, we flavoured with spices only." She continues. Potatoes, tomatoes and onions, "three things we can't do without", also came from those far-travelling Portuguese. "The British brought morning and afternoon tea; we don't eat naan at home because we don't have tandoor ovens in our houses; and chai latte does not exist in India."

Coconut chutney, incidentally, is also very good for hangovers.

It seems Himanshi delights in smashing all my preconceptions. I'm not quite sure what is left for Indians to call their original cuisine, but the answer is to hand, in the form of a bowl of bright yellow dahl (lentil soup); idli sambar, a steamed savoury rice doughnut; and the paper dosa with coconut chutney.

This is the specialty of our first restaurant tonight, Flora. At first view, you'd walk straight past the dowdy restaurant. It's a rather nondescript joint dominated by a welter of bain-maries with the usual suspects - rogan josh, vindaloos and kormas - steaming up the glass. But Flora is a haven for Melbourne's southern Indian city workers and inner-city families who want a taste of home.

We finish the entree with masala chai, black tea blended with pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and mint. "Every home's tea is different, everyone's hand is different," Himanshi says. The chai warms my heart, though the trio of blokes in the group are happy to test the coldness of the Kingfisher beer.

The next stop is Melbourne's oldest Indian spice shop, a tiny box on Russell Street. Inside, it's stuffed to the eyeballs with spice mixes, rose water, microwave meals and boxes of fresh okra. There's an awful lot of Fair & Lovely ladies' ayurvedic skin cream and Fair and Handsome for the men, and a slushie machine stirs icy cold, sweet mango lassi that has us queueing for more.


"We don't eat a lot of stuff out of a can," Himanshi says, pointing to a tin of just-add-water dosa, "but everyone has this sitting in the cupboard." She's waggling a spice mix at us. "It's the $2 fix-all that will make your dish taste like it was supposed to taste. Great, especially when the mother-in-law is coming over." I buy two.

Himanshi ticks off the spice rules and remedies on her fingers: cumin for white meat. Mustard seeds for red meat. Cloves to stop getting car sickness. Turmeric for cuts or sore throats. Coconut chutney, incidentally, is also very good for hangovers, she says.

She also answers a few questions I have from half-translated Indian recipes. Mirch is basically chilli powder and khoya is a sweetening agent, sort of like a sweet cheese.

The last stop for the night is the main course and dessert at an upmarket Indian restaurant about 10 minutes' walk away. Only a few tables at Nirankar are occupied and the place feels a bit empty, even after the 12 of us settle in.

The waiters pour more Kingfisher beer, which I choose over the Haywards 5000: it sounds too much like motorbike fuel for me.

Later, I Google the name. "It is the language of friendship amongst men who are proud of their masculinity and look forward to a great time with their friends and peers," the beer's website tells me. Lucky I steered clear.

These food walks started as a get-to-know-you for the small tour groups Himanshi takes to India, but became tours in their own right. So Himanshi is geared up to prep you for a trip to India, with some home truths: "You can't refuse food in an Indian house. It's just rude." Sounds like my kind of place. We talk about wedding food, tiffins, traditions and, inevitably, Test cricket.

As we chat, the dishes start to come: chilli-heavy vindaloos for the men, paneer makhani for the vegetarians, and my new love, a delicious coriander-heavy kadai chicken curry.

Meanwhile, the restaurant starts to fill as large, boisterous groups pour in. "They're Indians on tour in Australia," Himanshi says, "and they're all very particular about their food." Even India has food nerds, as I spot a few cameras ready to snap the dishes.

The courses are broken up with a Bollywood boogie courtesy of local Indian dance group Rang De Basanti. With their movie-star grins and syncopated dance moves, the kids are sugar-sweet, which is a suitable lead into dessert, with hardcore kulfi, a handmade ice-cream so sweet it makes my fillings ache.

"This is an Australian version. I thought it was quite plain," Himanshi says with a wicked grin, noting my sugar shock. "You wouldn't be able to eat the Mumbai version." Note to self: surely the Mumbai version equals instant facial tic. Disfigurement or no, the walk has sated my appetite for food, but whets it for a return to India.

The writer was a guest of Masala Trails and The Prince hotel.

Trip notes

Staying there

A deluxe room in boutique St Kilda hotel The Prince costs from $175 a night.

Eating there

Nirankar, 174 Queen Street, (03) 9642 1995,
Flora, 238 Flinders Street, (03) 9663 1212.
Curry Corner, 188 Russell Street, (03) 9663 4040.

Touring there

Masala Trails run once a month on Saturdays from Federation Square, 11.15am-2.30pm, $75 a person. 1800 667 791,