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Chickpeas The Chickpea that Ate Melbourne
By Kurma Dasa

Kurma Dasa was head chef at one of Australia’s most famous Hare Krishna Restaurants - “Crossways”, at 123 Swanston Street Melbourne- in the late Nineties. Kurma no longer cooks there (he lives in Perth, Western Australia), but the restaurant still serves massive quantities of delicious wholesome budget meals cooked according to Kurma’s recipes. He wrote this essay after a busy week in the kitchen in 1998.

The other day a mature-age lady, who looked and spoke uncannily like Dame Edna Everidge, stopped me on Swanston Street for a chat. She said that she recognised me from my TV shows, and she asked me what I was up to. I told her that I had just cooked a lunch featuring a spicy chickpea, spinach and tomato curry for four hundred diners at Crossways, the Hare Krishna budget eatery.

“O my goodness!” she squeeled, raising her eyebrows so high that she almost dislodged her enormous sequinned Dame Edna glasses from her equally enormous, heavily powdered Dame Edna nose. “Four hundred possums for lunch. That’s a lot of food. Tell me all about it, daaarling”.

So we sat down on a quiet bench where I proceeded to tell a tale of that morning’s events in the kitchen.

My day begins as the last stars fade away above the rooftops of Albert Park. I enter the clean quiet kitchen, and reverentially approach the six large buckets of chickpeas that have been peacefully soaking all night.

First I pour off the soak water, and rinse all the nasty oligosaccharides down the drain. Those pesky starches lurk in the soak water and creates a lot of gas (read 'fart'), unless you change the water before you cook them.

Next I go to the coolroom and drag in the vegetables – forty kilos of chopped spinach, eighty kilos of cubed potatoes, and forty kilos of chopped tomatoes - all cut up the day before (just as well).

Two one-hundred-and-twenty litre pots are half filled with water and placed on two industrial-size large burners on the heavy-duty custom-built low stovetop. The drained chickpeas are poured into one, half the potatoes in the other. I add salt to one pot (for the potatoes) but not for the other. Chickpeas cook much quicker in unsalted water. Just covered with boiling water, they’ll be butter soft in a little over an hour.

When the chickpeas start to boil, I scoop off the murky foam that rises to the surface, and discard it. This helps the chickpeas cook quicker, and saves a lot of mess.

The potatoes, when just bite-tender, are quickly scooped out of the boiling water with an enormous sieve and gently transferred into large plastic containers and sealed. The remaining forty kilos of potatoes take their place in the boiling, lightly salted water.

By now I am working up a serious sweat, even in the early hours of a chilly Melbourne morning. No need to work out in a gym if you cook like this every day.

Next I pour three litres of olive oil (remember, I’m cooking for four hundred) into another outrageously large stainless steel saucepan, and heat it in preparation for the spicy sauce. I like this part the best. When a slight haze starts to hover over the pot, I add about a kilo of shredded fresh ginger root, and fry it for a few minutes to extract its wonderful bitey fragrance.

On top of that I toss in two cups of black mustard seeds, and when they crackle healthily, I add four cups of cumin seeds, and fry them until they darken a few shades. Then in goes a cup of asafetida powder (yes, one cup), half a cup of turmeric, four cups of chana masala, (a secret combination of Colonel Kurma’s herbs and spices) two cups of sweet paprika and three cups coriander powder.

After that’s all whisked in, and the salt is added, the forty kilos of tomatoes enter the fray. Now I reduce the bubbling ruby red sauce until it’s thick, rich and fragrant. The aroma is indescribably wonderful – spice heaven. A neighbour four doors up on Danks Street once commented that she could smell it over her burnt toast.

When the chickpeas are butter-soft, they’re scooped out, drained and sealed into containers. Finally, twenty five kilos of freshly-chopped spinach gets a quick blanche in the boiling hot chickpea water, then the whole caboodle is mixed in three enormous containers.

While all this is being prepared, I somehow find time to steam thirty-five kilos of Thai Jasmine rice, and cook a giant sour cherry semolina pudding called halava, and thirty litres of creamy vanilla custard.

It’s now close to 10.30 in the morning. The lunch is finally loaded aboard a scrupulously clean food transport vehicle bound for the city, and I set about cleaning the kitchen. As I hose down the stainless steel benches and squeegee the floor I marvel on the Crossways experience: by two-thirty this afternoon the entire enormous quantity of food that I just cooked will all be eaten. And this daily phenomena is repeated week after week, month after month.

A noisy tram breaks my culinary reverie. The Dame and I have wandered back onto Swanston Street, and Edna is looking decidedly hungry. I glance at my watch.

“It’s nearly two o’clock”, I exclaim, but before I can say ‘oligosaccharides’, Mrs Everidge is off to Crossways for a slice of the action.

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