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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Spice Up Your Life Part II: Janani, Homebush

"I have this place in mind for lunch; it's a little plain and dodgy-looking so I hope you're not too disappointed."

We'd spent Sunday morning on an Indian and Sri Lankan spice tour led by fellow foodblogger Saffron. Pinkcocoa and I had discovered gulab jamun, idli and stringhoppers in the aisles of various grocery shops and, after three hours of relentless pavement pounding and compulsive photo-snapping, our stomachs grumbled like any good foodblogger's should.

So with this ominous-sounding sub-clause in mind, I trailed after Saffron with piqued curiosity, finally following her gaze to the restaurant in question.

Janani looked like a cobbled together hodge-podge of restaurant frontage. Glass-fronted entrance was combined with an afterthought of verandah extension--lined with incongruous newly-laid bricks which complimented neither. The tables were fairly busy outside though, and a prominent sign outside advertised its noted specials:

As we stepped inside, I noted the tables topped with 70s-style embroidered tablecloths and topped with thick heavy plastic sheeting. I paid attention to the functional stainless steel cutlery receptacles, the gaudy laminated menus and the random sauce bottles scattered throughout.

"I'm very disappointed," I murmured to Saffron.

She turned to me, aghast. "Really?" she asked, her face falling.

"You said this was dodgy," I explained. "What are you talking about? It's fantastic!" I cried, breaking out into a grin.

And it was. As we waited just inside the entrance to be shown to a table, I watched entranced as the jovial atmosphere within unveiled itself. Indian families sat clustered around tables, parents finishing the last of their meals as the children fidgeted with impatience. At the back of the room a small TV flickered with the overwrought scenes of Bollywood pay TV. Wisened old Sri Lankan men held serious nodding conversations in the corner, and throughout the scene before me, waiters weaved in-between the major characters, bearing giant silver trays laden with a colourful painter's palate of curries, sambal and giant naan.

The trays were like giant TV dinner trays. A large rectangular trough held the main part of the meal, and was surrounded by six rounded indents. Like intergalactic obento boxes, they were big, and silver, and so very very shiny.

"Do we get to have a tray? Do we get to have a tray?" I clamoured, almost bouncing with excitement.

Saffron just smiles as we are seated at our table.

Imported Sri Lankan soft drinks $2.00

We order a number of entree-sized dishes to share, keen to try the dishes which Saffron has been trying to explain to us all day. As the waiter begins to prise the tops from our soft drinks, Pinkcocoa asks him if she can please keep the bottle tops.

"As souvenirs," she explains, with utmost sincerity.

He nods obligingly, but the pressure to now remove the bottle tops in pristine condition gets to him, and the final bottle top ends up significantly more mangled than the first two.

As we wait, our attention turns to the advertising paraphernalia on the table.

Less air, more ice cream?

We laugh at this blatant celebration of value and reach for our cameras in unison.

And then suddenly, the food arrives.

Idli (four pieces) with sambar and chutney $5.00

We'd seen packets of idli powder in the grocery shop and as we cast our eyes over the descending dish, we nod approvingly. Four warm and soft UFOs of steamed fluffy rice cakes are torn apart and dipped into alternate dousings of sambar or chutney. The sambar is like a mild curry sauce, and the red and the green chilli chutneys offer a pleasing coconutty and creamy richness.

Lamb Koththu Rotti $9.00

The arrival of the lamb koththu rotti demands a rapid doe-si-doe of plate shuffling and condiment manouvering as the giant obento box in the sky descends with sun-glinting glamour.

The koththu rotti is a lightly compressed mound of lamb, shredded rotti and fried egg. It is this dish which is the reason for the jarring clash of metal on metal emanating constantly from the kitchen. Sounding ominously like a chef on a knife-wielding spree of vengeance, Saffron assures us that a special knife is used for this process, and only fresh crisp rotti are harmed in its production.

String Hoppers (5 pieces) with sothi and pol sambol $4.00

Packets of flour for string hoppers were another product we'd puzzled over earlier on in the day. Saffron's detailed explanations had fallen on deaf ears, and it is only when we see the finished product that we can finally comprehend. Apparently [and I still could have this understanding wrong] a thin batter is hand-piped over a steamer contraption, the coil winding upon itself until a "pancake" of vermicelli is created. The pancake is then steamed for a few minutes and removed, and then the next pancake doodle is begun.

This Sri Lankan specialty reminded me somewhat of the Vietnamese vermicelli pancake steamed with sesame oil and chopped spring onion, but even that is prepared using store-bought vermicelli. Making "vermicelli" from scratch sounds painstaking and I indulge in every mouthful with mindful appreciation.

Saffron seems disappointed that these stringhoppers are a little on the dry side, but I find its slight crustiness means it is better able to absorb and retain the generous pool of sothi I pour onto it. The sothi, Saffron explains, is made by infusing coconut milk with onion, saffron, garlic and curry leaves. Often a cube of potato is included, but a series of furtive spoon trawling is fruitless (or potato-less).

The tantalising-looking pol sambol is made with Maldive fish, coconut, onion, chilli and lemon juice. I dump a generous handful of it onto my pancake masterpiece. We eat it in the traditional Sri Lankan fashion, using our hands to rip off handfuls, squeezing it in our fingers to mop up the trails of sauce on our plate, before bringing it up to our greedy wide-opened mouths.

Masala dosai with sambar and chutney $6.00

The dosai, a trumpet-looking giant pancake, arrives to ooh and ahhs by both Pinkcocoa and I. I've heard of dosai, and I'd seen dosai (on TV), but I'd never eaten dosai, a dish which seems to rarely be available in your generic Indian restaurant.

I cannot resist but peek into its interior (and yes, take a photo).

Saffron takes to the dosai with a knife and hacks into it like someone who has done this many times before.

The potato masala filling only takes up the middle third of the "pancake". The pancake itself tastes slightly sour, with the edges taking on a light but crunchy crispiness. The potato masala within adds a heavy sustenance to the pancake and we douse our portions with sambar and chutneys.

It tastes like an extra crispy crepe Indian-style, and again, the carbohydrate mattress is perfect for soaking up the sambar and chutneys.

Pinkcocoa in action.

We eat until we cannot move, finally leaning back into our chairs, replete and happy. There is still a portion or two of dosai left, and a string hopper lays abandoned, but we cannot eat anymore, no matter how much my eyes try to will me to.

The bill arrives and it comes to exactly $30.00. My eyes goggle in disbelief. $10 each for the banquet we have just feasted upon? I can almost feel my stomach smiling as it churns with increased appreciation.

We pay the friendly gentleman at the counter and spy the adjoining sweets shop which Janani operates out the front.

I catch Pinkcocoa's eye and we both reach for our cameras instinctively.

The dessert stomach is a separate compartment. We'd better investigate.

Janani on Urbanspoon
32 Burlington Road, Homebush
Tel: 02 9763 2306

Related GrabYourFork posts:
Janani, Oct 2005

More forkfuls of our Spicy Sunday:
Spice Up Your Life Part I: Saffron's Spice Tour
Spice Up Your Life Part III: Janani Sweets, Homebush

Saffron from Writing on a Paper Napkin
Spice Adventures Part I
Spice Adventures Part II

Pinkcocoa from Pinkcocoa Tabetai
A Little Spicy Adventure Part I: Sub-continental Shopping Spree
A Little Spicy Adventure Part II: Eat Up!
5 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Anonymous on 7/05/2005 11:59:00 pm


  • At 7/06/2005 9:39 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    oh my.... those look reaalllly yummmmyyy. i'm just learning to cook indian food and your pics are so inspiring!

  • At 7/07/2005 8:42 am, Blogger Jess (fushmush) said…

    I adore dosai! We go to Malabar in Crows Nest when we need a dosai fix. I only know a few restaurants that do them. We need a list!

  • At 7/07/2005 9:08 am, Blogger deborah said…

    Another great write up AG. It's so interesting to read other people's perspectives - especially new ones.

    The images beamed on the flatscreen tv in the resto were infact Singhalese movies - which are from Sri Lanka and not India like Bollywood films. Just as different film industries exist all over the world, the Singalese ones have their own unique style :)

    Also the stainless steel trays are often used to serve thali - the dishes where there is an array of curries, rice and flat bread served. Thali is often reveered as the meals of kings because of the magnificent array!

    Now for our next tour... my chopsticks are already clicking impatiently! :)

  • At 7/07/2005 7:38 pm, Blogger Reid said…

    Hi AG,

    You are so lucky to have such a varied selection of Indian/Sri Lankan food. *sigh*

  • At 7/10/2005 9:26 pm, Blogger pinkcocoa said…

    AG, you are hilarious! And I can't believe you put my pic up. Lucky I had my face covered. :"P


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