Photo time! Hang on, someone's missing. Typical - Braybrook is wagging school again. No great loss, smirk the mean girls, tossing their hair. Her uniform is never on right, it's always unironed and she seems to skulk around on the outer. Still waters run deep, though, and I believe Braybrook will come good. Right now she's lying on her bed in her fibro house, dreaming of the person she will be and all the places she will go one day... maybe even Sri Lanka.
Braybrook is often where you drive through to go somewhere else, but if you slow down you will be rewarded. Right near the shell of an abandoned factory and next to an old-school Aussie takeaway, Sri Lankan restaurant Hop & Spice offers refuge from the roar of passing cars on Ballarat Road.
Sri Lanka has been called "the pearl in the ear of India", delicately poised just off its larger neighbour's southeast coast. It was known during British rule as Ceylon and the tea brand Dilmah for one still uses this term. The cuisine has overtones of south India in its use of curry leaves and a final "tempering" for dal (popping whole spices in oil separate to the lentils and adding them at the end of cooking). It is also very unique, particularly in its use of Maldive fish, chips of dried tuna that looks like pinebark, and its unique dark-roasted curry powder. There are echoes, too, of Sri Lanka's colonisation by the Dutch and the Portuguese, as well as their trading partners from Malaysia and the Middle East
Pan roll, $2
This is a typical Sri Lankan "short eat" or snack - a spicy minced meat, potato and pea filling (similar to that a samosa filling) tightly rolled up in a coconut pancake, dipped in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. So yummy! It came with a side of good ole dead horse. Pan rolls - if only the tradies going in and out of the takeaway next door knew what they were missing out on!
String hoppers are a very cool foodstuff unique to Sri Lanka. They are little "webs" of what looks like rice vermicelli. They are made from rice flour that is extruded by hand through a special press and steamed on individual mats (see here). Bharat Traders sell them ready-made dried in boxes if you want to cook them at home. Anyway, they taste different to rice vermicelli and because they are like little mats, you can pick them up and use them to mop up sauces and grab pieces of meat that you couldn't do with regular noodles.
String hopper pack, $7.50
My "pack" came with my choice of curry (I chose chicken) as well as dhal (parripu) and pol sombol (coconut chutney). The dhal was absolutely fantastic - creamy and sweet with coconut, fragrant with curry leaves and mustard seeds and with a big chilli kick. The lentils were perfectly cooked, neither hard nor too mushy. The coconut chutney was fabulous - I am sure it was fresh coconut, not dessiccated, mixed with red chilli and lemon. It hit all the right notes - sweet and somewhat cooling yet tangy, rich and spicy all at once.
Although tasty, I have to say I found the chicken somewhat dry. Next time I will choose the lamb or the beef and see if either are the Sri Lankan "black" curry style, which is made with spices that are roasted until a very rich, dark brown and ground until they almost resemble coffee. There is a really exciting range of vegetarian dishes like bathala - "sweet potato in thick sauce", stir-fried snake bean in hot chilli and even kaju hodi in which cashews are cooked with coconut and green peas until amazingly plump and creamy.
Pol roti (coconut roti), $4.50
These small roti were flavoured with onion, fresh coconut and a little green chilli and came with a very sweet onion sambal. I did find these somewhat heavy. Really I was craving the aapa or "hoppers", bowl-shaped pancakes made of a fermented rice flour and coconut batter, cooked in a special pan and not flipped - dosa or injera's Sri Lankan cousin. These are available only on Friday and Saturday nights when Hop & Spice have their fabulous-sounding buffet. For $20 for adults and $8 for kids, you can have a veritable feast of pan rolls and other "short eats", breads, hoppers and string hoppers as well as curry of all persuasions. Unreal!
Kalu dodol, $2
Who can resist subcontinental fudgy sweets? This was a yummy, jelly-like sweetmeat made from jaggery (unrefined cane sugar said to be higher in trace minerals than the white or even the raw supermarket stuff), coconut milk and cashews. Ah, naptime may be sweet but it is made even sweeter when savouring a little slice of Sri Lanka, and sweeter still to know that it is from this fabulous little restaurant - a Sri Lankan pearl in Braybrook's slow but inexorable awakening.
Hop & Spice
284 Ballarat Road, Braybrook (map)
Phone: 9310 2000
Hours: Tues - Sun 10am - late (buffet Friday and Saturday nights)
Entry: Large step inside the doorway
Layout: Could accommodate