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
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
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
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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