Dish Dining – Sri Lankan street food comes of age in Glebe

 

Tucked away near the end of busy Glebe Point Road, about a few minutes walk before you hit the Glebe foreshore, is this unassuming Sri Lankan Street Food restaurant that is the second outpost of the Dish Dining restaurants [there’s another one at Toongabbie]. It’s next to a vintage Cafe, a deli and an IGA, and is only a block down from the well established Toxteth Hotel pub.

With a street banner sign that looks like it was written in giant black texta for a school assignment, and a quiet dark interior with minimal decor, this place is easy to miss, and that would be a mistake. 

Dish dining Sri Lankan Street Food Restaurant is a surprise delight and a welcome addition to Sydney’s demanding food scene.

Before I ate here, all I knew about Sri Lankan food was that they used a lot of coconut and shared cultural underpinnings with South Indian cuisine. And I have to confess that Sri Lankan cuisine                                                                                              is not the top of my favourite foods list.  This wasn’t my culinary pick.

I came here to meet a good friend, ‘Pimp my Plate’ tour guide Awia Markey, who is quite the chef herself, and a true gastronome.  She picked this on the recommendation of a friend, and I was tentatively hopeful but dubious. A place that claims to be Sri Lankan Street food better live up to the hype. 

For those who don’t know, Sri Lankan food is an aromatic, spiced cross between South Indian Food and Malaysian cuisine but less of the extreme burning spice that scares some Westerners off South East Asian cuisine.

A cursury glance at the menu showed some reasonably priced dosas, hoppers, rotis, curries and finger foods. And the drinks ranged from chic herbal and iced teas to the gold standard of mango lassis garnished with cashews.

the balan dosa with avocado salsa and sambar curry and coconut chutney

We ordered a koti gala hopper and a balun musa dosa, some rotis and mango lassis.  We wavered over the Lamprais, and the begum feast.

the lamprais = a must try dish.

We weren’t sure what to expect but what we got was delicious savoury food that felt healthy and hearty without being heavy.

The Koti gala hopper was some fine lacy noodle doilies, with turmeric infused scrambled eggs, and grilled tomatoes with a dhal and coriander salsa.

lacy hoppers with turmeric infused scrambled eggs

The balun dosa was a mustard coloured yellow savoury crepe made with rice flour, and a came with a mild green coconut chutney, another red tangy chutney, an avocado salsa, and what looked like a small broth of samba curry. The rotis’ were accompanied by small side dishes of chickpea curry and yellow dhal.  I am now officially on the roti train and shall seek them out next time.

For those who have never eaten a roti, they are a round flatbread that come straight off a hot plate. that taste similar to chapatis but they are lighter and flakier. Commonly eaten in India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. The Sri Lankan style roti is a paler affair than the Indian ones i’ve seen, and I much prefer it.

I had to ask for raita to accompany the meal which is mystifying as I felt it should automatically come with it. But then I always feel that about Indian, Nepalese and Sri Lankan curries and flatbreads – raita, the indian cucumber and yoghurt side dish that is similar to tzatziki,  improves everything.  I was brought up to have a yoghurt side dish with all curries and dosas, as it gentles the stomach so that you don’t rush to the toilet after consuming spicy savoury food, and it’s an pleasant edible contrast to the earthiness of the curries.

The Dish Dining room – low key and unassuming.

Street Food is the new trend hitting the food scene around the world, with Aussie chef, Luke Nguyen, touring the streets of Asia and discovering tasty delicacies you don’t get in the kitchens of Sydney, and Brit chef, Ainslie Harriot has gotten in on the act with his off-the-beaten-track food discoveries across Africa. I’ve been waiting for this trend to sweep Sydney. It hasn’t yet but it’s slowly trickling in. I’ve seen lots of Thai Street Food joints opening up such as Bangkok Bites in Newtown.

But the driving force behind the international renaissance of Street Food is this social push to get back to the basics – fast, cheap-ish, healthy, food that you’d eat on the streets of the big cities, or the hideaways in village towns.

Street Food is about throwing away the snobbery of haute cuisine and rediscovering what the locals have always known – that finger food and meals from the food carts, street stalls, and backyard kitchens, are super tasty, fresh and inventive, and far more egalitarian than the stuff you pay $100 per head to consume. Street Food is everywhere across Asia, and Africa, and South America. It’s the stories that backpackers treasure, and tourists dare the backwater routes to experience.

I’m not sure how ‘street’ this Dish Dining Sri Lankan place is, but it’s a start. The lamprai, a mixture of meat, eggs and rice and spices wrapped in banana leafs like a pillow, that our adjoining customers ordered, looked very tempting indeed. And the dosa we shared was smaller than the usual massive sized dosa I’d get at Maya’s on Cleveland street or Kammadhenu’s in Newtown. Those dosas are like large savoury crepe rolls the size of the Magna Carta. I almost suspect that the chefs do write an agreement on them when they’re bored.

And whilst the prices weren’t as cheap as true street food. [You buy these delicacies for a few dollars on the streets of Asia – but then they don’t have the astronomical rents that afflict Sydney]. At $16 and $18 a dish – they were affordable.  Most dishes fall between $12 to $20. That won’t break the bank for an afternoon lunch outside.

We need to reclaim food diversity in Sydney. More street food places and uncommon cuisines are needed if we are to have any chance of being the premier city that we keep saying we are. At the moment, Melbourne and Hobart have stolen the culinary crown that should have rightfully been ours.

I looked at our lacy looking hoppers, and our yellow mid-sized dosa and though I could travel down the streets of Asia eating these.

Certainly they looked like something I would buy from a street stall in Sri Lanka.  And that is a start.

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Are burgers killing food diversity ?

You might look at this heading and blink twice or hiss ‘What the actual f**k are you talking about ?’.

So let me clarify this with a sweeping statement that I will stand by in the hail of protest that is sure to follow :

There are too many burger chains and burger joints in Sydney right now.  At first the burger craze to do American styled burgers was fun. We had some crazy themed joints, some groovy attempts at Yankee burgers with ingredients that either made your mouth water or your eyes roll.  And, I’m the first to admit that some places do a very delicious job of making very nice cheeseburgers, beef burgers, aussie burgers etc.

A big USA style burger with the standard ingredients and a couple of extras

But the fact is that when you decide to eat out in a suburb and you are hit with more than two burger joints all serving variations of the same thing – I’d portend that there’s one too many burger places out there.

And this doesn’t take into account that most pubs, clubs, bowling alleys and game houses have burgers taking up a large part of their menu. If only we could see the exciting street food trends hitting our streets with the same speed as a new burger joint. I’m waiting to see South American food take off, or Malaysian street food, or South Indian backyard dishes, make an appearance on Sydney streets. The people who haven’t tried tamales and pani-puris, don’t know what they’re missing.

pani puri = little pockets of scrumptiousness that you’ve gotta try. Choose your filling and presto ! Bite sized yum.
The Tamale = the Mexican and South American dish you haven’t tried.

The booming burger joints stacking our suburbs are a taste numbing exercise in gastronomical monotony that has to start failing soon.  Food is very trend driven, and as with all trends, everyone jumps on the bandwagon until your current favourite food becomes so ubiquitous you start getting queasy at the sight of it.  Remember when every block had a Thai restaurant until we were saturated with Thai food.  It was usually cheap and tasty, until it wasn’t.  Now some of those shops have shut down because there was an over supply in the market. (I’d argue that there still are too many Thai restaurants). The same with Portuguese chicken a decade ago. It wasn’t uncommon to see a Nandos, Oportos, and chicken shops serving Peri-Peri chicken, all in the same suburb, and even in the same street.  Now you’re lucky if you see one in the neighbourhood.  I keep waiting for the same thing to happen to the burger craze but burger joints are hanging in there. And they show no sign of shrinking, to our culinary detriment.

You have The Burger Project [chef supreme Neil Perry’s foray into fast food], Burger 10, Big Daddy Burgers, Burgerlicious, Burgers Anonymous, Moo Burgers, plus all the independant burger shops such as Mary’s in Newtown, Down N’ Out in George st etc.

The Burger Project – probably the most successful high profile burger chain out there. And yes, the burgers taste great but it’s a bit pretentious. Cattle fed from Tasmanian grass is the big selling point.

Apart from the Grill’d chain, which is Australian owned and operated, and very supportive of local causes, social issues and even indie filmmakers, do we really need all these other chains. [ I gotta confess here – Grill’d sponsored the last web series I helped produce – so I can’t complain too much about them. And they’re actually pretty good, with a wide ranging menu that includes vegan burgers and low carb options].  The Burger Project brings the gourmet touch to the burger enterprise and are also Aussie owned, and uses Aussie ingredients, so maybe there’s an argument in keeping them around, but the other chains – not so much.

Grill’d – the Aussie burger chain success story and one of the first burger franchises out there.

[Note : I’m not including Soul Burger which is a strictly vegan burger chain].

Look I do understand why the burger trend has spread across the country so fast.

Hamburgers are cheap to make when compared to other cuisines. And they used to be cheap to buy but now gourmet burgers range from $10 to $22. I’m told that some venues even exceed that price range, which is frankly ridiculous. Burgers are also pretty easy to make. Once you have good quality beef, such as your Angus and your Waggu, with the right fat-to-meat proportions, it’s just a matter of slapping those ingredients together. No Masterchef genius required. Burgers are easy to eat – you just need your hands and a big hungry mouth – no cutlery required.

But they’re a disaster on several fronts. Burger shops are to food courts, and eat streets, on par with Marvel movies at the cinema. They’re easy, predictable nature steals patrons from other eateries that they would normally try and experiment with. I’ve seen this experience first hand – you go out with friends, and no one can decide what they want to eat, so rather than take a risk, we settle for a burger joint.  It’s like an admission of defeat.

Then there’s the environmental factor. Yes, you knew this argument was coming and you may groan, but facts are facts. Excessive meat eating is terrible for the planet.  The methane expelled by cattle, the sheer amount of pollution caused by industrial cattle farming, the enormous scale of land clearing that is impacting our flora and fauna – you can’t write off these so easily as the consequences are long term, and will affect your children and their children.

And the rise in burgers fuels the rise in meat consumption at a time where we need to be cutting down on the amount of meat we’re eating not stocking up.

Over a decade ago, in 2006, the UN calculated that livestock [animals bred for food] accounted for near 20% of all climate change emissions. God knows what it would be now, but that figure hasn’t gone down.

Scientists and biologists reckon that if all the meat eaters across the globe went vegan for at least 2 days a week, we’d reduce climate change emissions and take a big step into that mega-challenge we are all avoiding but we all need to face : save the planet.

And then there’s the dietary factor – burgers really are just carbs with a slab of protein. Few vitamins or minerals and almost no fibre.  One burger is often half, or more, of the average required calorie intake for your normal healthy person.  Watch the calorie count when you put your burger into the MyFitness App, and feel your face fall. The only food item that is as calorie dense in a small portion is pizza.

There’s also the links between excess consumption of burgers, and the increased risk of  heart disease, diabetes, cancer.  Too many burgers now could mean too many trips to the hospital later in life.

And that’s a place no one wants to visit.

So maybe next time you reach for that burger for the second time this week, give yourself a mental tap and try something else.

Stab the burger so it stays put. Try something else !