Foodie Trails – Gourmet Indian Masala Trail, Melbourne CBD

It’s funny how we are prepared to try new experiences on holidays, but rarely undertake similar adventures in the places in which we live. One of the first things that I do when planning a holiday to a foreign destination, is to sign up for a culinary food tour or cooking class in that country once I arrive, so that I can get a greater appreciation of the cuisine and culture. Although I live in a beautiful city with a rich and diverse offering of foods from many different nationalities, I rarely take the time to discover the edible treasures readily available on my own doorstep.

When I saw an advertisement for a walking tour around the Melbourne CBD with Foodie Trails, sampling authentic Indian cuisine combined with the opportunity to discover wonderful new places to source spices and obscure food items, it was a journey of discovery that I didn’t want to miss.

The starting point of the journey was the Visitor Information Centre at Federation Square where we met our guide Himanshi, before setting off on our gourmet adventure. What was exciting was that we only needed to walk a couple of hundred metres down Flinders Street before arriving at our first location on the tour, an Indian restaurant and café called Flora. I actually walk past this restaurant every day on my way to work but never had the courage to actually step inside and discover what lay beyond the glass doors.

Seated at a large table towards the back of the restaurant, Himanshi treated our group to a narrative of her love of food and travel stemming from her childhood upbringing in India. With maps of the states and provinces before us, we learnt about the origins of popular Indian dishes and spices, and how centuries of various rulers and empires from around the world had contributed to and influenced, what we know as Indian cuisine today.

The best part of any food tour is being introduced to new dishes under the guidance of someone who knows how it should best be eaten. Himanshi had arranged for servings of a traditional South Indian breakfast dish called idli, a savoury cake or dumpling, served in a warm red lentil and vegetable soup flavoured with chilli and mustard seeds known as sambar for everyone to try, served with a cold coconut chutney as an accompaniment. After watching Himanshi demonstrate how to eat the dumpling with the soup and coconut sauce, we all reciprocated and tried it for ourselves. Yum! It was absolutely delicious, and I particularly loved the coconut sauce which had fresh coriander through it.

No breakfast is complete without a hot beverage and Himanshi obliged by ordering chai masala tea for us to enjoy with our soup. Vastly different from a chai latte, masala tea is made from loose leaf tea, fresh ginger, various herbs and dry-roasted spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, which has been boiled and strained before served with milk. The warm spiced tea had a lovely taste and was very easy to drink, and although I could have happily indulged in another cup, it was time for us to leave and head towards our next destination.

After a short walk through the Melbourne city centre, we arrived at a small shop located in Russell Street called Ceylon Curry Corner, which is in close proximity to Chinatown. I must admit that one of the main motivators for joining the tour apart from my love of Indian cuisine, was to discover a place in the city that sold spices and traditional Indian foods. Once we walked into the shop, I knew that I had found that place.

With walls laden with packets of dried herbs and spices, and shelves stocked with jars of various foodstuffs, Himanshi took the time to explain the traditional elements and key ingredients found in Indian cuisine by passing them around our group. We then had an opportunity to buy our own spices to bring home and incorporate into our own cooking. I had been searching for a five-seed spice blend called panch phoran to use in a recipe for a Sri Lankan curry for quite some time, and I was excited to finally get my hands on a packet for only a couple of dollars.

Our last destination for the afternoon was a well-known Indian restaurant located at the top of Bourke Street called Red Pepper. Red Pepper has a contemporary, modern interior and our group was looking forward to enjoying what Himanshi had ordered for our lunch. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an authentic mango lassi and didn’t hesitate to order one to accompany the food, but I found that it was so delicious and refreshing that my glass was empty within only a few minutes.

Soon after, several individual platters of food were served, containing large portions of warm butter naan, and smaller bowls of goat curry, raita, butter chicken, chicken curry, lentil soup , rice and a small salad. Thankfully I had brought my appetite with me on the tour but where to start? Butter chicken is always a favourite and a dish that I have mastered making at home in my own kitchen, so naturally I started there. Everything on the platter was beyond compare – fresh, delicious, full of flavour, the meat dishes were tender and succulent, the sauces were beautifully spiced and not unbearably hot to taste. Naan bread is always wonderful and this was no exception yet somehow I had some left over to mop up the left over remnants of the curries at the end of the meal.

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another mouthful of food, our gulab juman dessert arrived. These delectable dumplings are made from cottage cheese, immersed in a sweet sugar syrup with a touch of cinnamon and absolutely yummy, even on a full stomach.

This marked the end of a wonderful tour of the Melbourne CBD area, sampling a fantastic selection of culinary delights at popular Indian cafés and restaurants within its locale. Himanshi surprised us all with a little goody bag by way of thank you for participating in the tour which contained a lovely key charm and a packet of spice mix to make our exotic Indian creations at home. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the city?

Flora Indian Restaurant & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ceylon Curry Corner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Red Pepper Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Grab-A-Yabby, Melbourne CBD

One of my favourite memories from my childhood is eating the yabbies that my uncle caught with his traps from a nearby dam or river. Believe it or not, one lucky yabby escaped his fate and managed to live around our pool for a year or two, showing up in the most unusual places and often giving me a fright in the process.

When a friend of mine told me about a new restaurant that had recently opened in The Causeway (near the Bourke Street Mall) called Grab-A-Yabby, the promise of freshly cooked yabbies served with a spicy sauce was more than enough to persuade me to leave my warm home in search of a different source of heat.

Aside from finding deliciously cooked seafood and crustaceans in the CBD locale, the novel thing that I discovered about this restaurant is that while it only operates from Wednesday evenings through to Sunday nights, another café business with different owners and staff occupies the same premises during the daytime hours.

So when I arrived at Grab-A-Yabby in the early evening, the whole space had completely transformed into an elegant restaurant and was already hosting a busy evening trade. Seated and perfectly relaxed listening to a great techno soundtrack and glass of the house red wine in hand (only $6 and absolutely drinkable!) I decided to start the evening with one of the restaurant’s more popular appetisers – Soft Shell Crab Sliders (2) for $12.

Presented on wooden boards, the sliders were generous in both proportion and composition – soft white buns, mayo, lightly battered crab, lettuce and special sauce. Wonderfully succulent and wholeheartedly delicious, it’s little wonder that they are a crowd pleaser.

Bec Truong, who started the restaurant with her husband Phil, after becoming inspired to create her own blend of seafood specialty sauces following a recent trip to the United States, kindly joined me for dinner. Thankfully Bec was on my wavelength and was more then happy to share the couple of items on the menu that I had wanted to try.

Ordering is a relatively simple process – you select what type of seafood you would like, the accompanying sauce (choose from the Grab-A-Yabby Special with Cajun flavours, an Asian-inspired XO sauce, the fiery Moroccan-infused Inferno or a robust Garlic Butter) and your desired heat level. We naturally ordered a serve of yabbies with Grab-A-Yabby sauce with a bit of a kick in the heat stakes. There are a couple of main dishes and combos available on the menu as well. It’s been a while since I have been able to indulge in a Surf’n’Turf (Scotch Fillet Steak seasoned in special spices accompanied with a Lobster tail in a chosen sauce and served with chips – $49) so we ordered a serve with a milder version of the Moroccan-inspired sauce.

One of the precepts behind Grab-A-Yabby is that its a fun dining experience where friends and family can come together and share food in a relaxed atmosphere and by just looking around the restaurant, it was clearly evident that this vision has come to fruition.

I was a bit reticent about getting down and dirty with seafood in my best Saturday-night attire but all my fears were allayed with the provision of a sizeable plastic bib, disposable gloves and my own selection of tools to safely tackle all those claws and tails that were about to come my way. So no need to fear about lingering smells on the way to the footy!

Surf'N'Turf - Grab-A-Yabby, Melbourne CBD
Surf’N’Turf – Grab-A-Yabby, Melbourne CBD

The Surf’n’Turf was the first dish to arrive at our table. Beautifully presented on a large wooden board with a fresh salad, side of crisp fries and a seared steak topped with specialty sauce and caramelised onion, the meat was both moist and tender. A steamed corn cob in the chilli and herb-infused Moroccan sauce propped up the large Lobster tail in a side bowl. The seafood was quite generous in size, quantity and flavour.

Not long after the steak had been served, the long-awaited yabbies were brought to the table. I can’t tell you how many years it has been since I’ve had fresh yabbies but the wait was worthwhile. Smothered in spicy Cajun flavoured sauce, and served with segments of orange and corn, these beauties were again larger than I had anticipated. All those Body Pump classes seem to be paying off as I found it quite easy to extract the meat from the shells without using too many of the weapons of mass destruction that I had been equipped with! The accompanying sauce was both plentiful and delicious and paired nicely with the moist meat from the yabbies.

Looking around the busy restaurant, all the diners looked like they were having fun with their bibs and wooden hammers, eating together and thoroughly enjoying the experience. In truth, the food was delectable and given the fun I was having tearing into freshly cooked yabbies covered in a scrumptious sauce, I was beginning to plan in my mind’s eye which friends and family I could bring with me to Grab-A-Yabby for a return visit.

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I dined as a guest of Grab-A-Yabby, however this blog entry reflects my own opinions formed during my dining experience.