Red Spice Road

Name: Red Spice Road
Location: 27 McKillop St, Melbourne CBD.
Price: Early banquet is $30 per person, includes 1 appetiser dish and 5 main dishes to share
Cost: 3/5
Taste: 10/10
Would I come here again? Yes, for special occasions.

Red Spice Road (RSR) offers banquets for a set price. Here is the $30 menu, as of 17 August 2011: (the menu changes over time)

Banquet Menu

  • Appetiser: Betel leaf topped with Chicken, Chilli, Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass

Shared Mains

  • Lamb Rendang- Malay style lamb, potato and coconut curry
  • Chicken with Kailan, Snake bean, chilli and basil
  • Tomato, Cucumber, Fresh Herb, Green chilli and Asian celery salad
  • Snapper, watermelon, coriander, mint and lemongrass salad
  • Pork belly with apple slaw, chili caramel and black vinegar

But I found there was more dishes than on the written menu, but that might be my imagination. Or that dishes were split into different plates for ease of sharing. I do not think I have a snapshot of the Chicken-Kailan-Snake bean dish. But onwards!

Before I get to the food photos, I wanted to show you the interior of RSR. Once your eyes adjust to the dim lighting, it’s really quite pretty. (Unfortunately, my camera doesn’t do a good job of adjusting to light levels. I have trouble taking photos in dim lighting because it becomes very blurry. Photos have been quickly retouched by adjusting light and contrast.)

A floating lantern/ Claim to fame: Largest in the /Southern hemisphere

Curved tables look good/ But bares an intrinsic flaw/ Chairs don't fit neatly

Paper lantern lights/ An attempt at poetry/ It looks like the Moon

Red: A colour theme/ Even the pitchers are red/ Colour matching win

Light bamboo screen doors/ A case of room-jealousy/ An unused bright room

Now for food.

Appetiser: Betel leaf topped with Chicken, Chilli, Kaffir Lime and Lemongrass
Taste: 10/10, no complaints here

Dig in, use your hands/ Chicken-betel leaf for all/ Sharp and peppery

The chicken mix sits on top of a betel leaf. Betel leaf has a crunchy texture like crisp nori, and a sharp peppery taste. A win as an appetiser in my books.

To clear up any confusion, culinary betel is different from the betel nuts and betel quid, which are associated with oral cancers. From now on, when I mention ‘betel leaf’, I am refering to ‘Piper sarmentosum‘, and not ‘Piper betel‘. They are related plants, but culinary betel does not contain the carcinogenic compounds in chewing betel. Nor does it have that strong taste that can only be acquired through sheer will to impress your locals, or the ability to dye your teeth yellow and your spit red, or the numbing sensation, or you know, gives you cancer. No, culinary betel leaf is safe to eat, delicious, and has positive health effects.

Betel leaves are most commonly found in tropical areas of South-East Asia (SEA), north-east india and south China. But it is more commonly used as a foodstuff in Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam. In Thailand, betel leaves are a snack food commonly found at festivals. You get the leaf, put stuff on top and use the leaf as a vehicle for toppings. Thai miang kham (betel leaves with topping) is very similar to the betel leaf appetiser at RSR, which isn’t unexpected as RSR does draw a lot from Thai cuisine. I doubt that the Thai version would use chicken, but it’s a good addition here. Food is continually changing and adapting to fit the tastes of the people. If people are more comfortable eating a shiny green leaf that looks like it was plucked from an ornamental plant with something familiar, such as lemongrass chilli chicken, then let it be so.

Betel leaves have medicinal effects. In SEA medicinal philosophy of ‘heating’ and ‘cooling’ effects of food on the human body, betel leaves are seen to have a ‘cooling’ effect. It’s believed that it replenishes energy and helps recovery from lethargy associated with humid hot summers. It’s also delicious. But now western medicine has something to say about betel leaves.

“Aqueous extract of piper sarmentosum decreases atheroschlerotic lesions in high cholesterolemic experimental rabbits.” It’s a mouthful, and the words are too long. Culinary betel is good for you. It decreased the chance of the poor fatty rabbits from having a heart attack. While there hasn’t been any studies on humans, I think it’s a safe bet to say that culinary betel won’t hurt you. It might help clear up atherosclerotic plaques in humans. But that goes without saying that eating more green leaves is good for you. (Betel leaves are also good in a lean beef stir-fry.)

If that wasn’t enough, here’s another long line of text. “Intrinsic anticarcinogenic effects of Piper sarmentosum (our culinary betel leaf) ethanolic extract on a human hepatoma cell line.” Say what now? Some people infused some ethanol with betel leaves to extract a bunch of chemicals, and dropped it onto a liver cancer population. Cancer-in-a-bottle shrivels up and dies. (Well, not exactly, it’s not the Witch of the West. It’s not Oz either.)

The point is, betel leaves are an interesting ingredient and they could be the next broccoli. Having said that, betel leaves should not replace a healthy diet and an active lifestyle. It doesn’t hurt to eat betel leaves every now and then though. They are quite tasty. Go forth and eat leaves.

Lamb Rendang- Malay style lamb, potato and coconut curry
Taste: 10/10, love that galangal kick

The word galangal/ Is a lot of fun to say/ Galan-galan-gal

Rendang is a curry-like dish originating from the Minangkabau ethnic group of Indonesia, but is nor served all across Indonesia. According to wikipedia (my favourite go-to site for entertaining light reading. Also, not the most reputable of articles, so you have been warned.), rendang is made from beef and is ‘slowly cooked in coconut milk, spices and sometimes toasted coconut paste’.
Rendang is a coconut-based wet curry. Unlike like many curries which are coconut milk-based, rendang is based on ground-up toasted dessicated coconut. I am going to go by my favourite rendang (home made by a not-Indonesian friend) because I enjoy culinary bastardisation. (I don’t even have a cuisine to call my own, so I’m going to claim as many as I can. All in one.) Her rendang consists of toasting dessicated coconut, and grinding it in a mortar and pestle until it resembles tahini or natural peanut butter. It takes a while. Then grinding galangal, ginger, garlic, chili, tamarind, kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves and soemthing else into a paste. Slowly fry up the coconut paste until it drives your neighbours mad with the toasty coconut-ty goodness, then add the spices to release aromatics. Throw in your lamb (we like using lamb instead of beef. I prefer the texture and taste of lamb fat to beef fat.) Add in some crushed lemongrass. Then slowly simmer for at least 3 hours.
In the mean time, you’re rolling around feeling hungry, and sewing your arms back on from having them drop off after grinding coconut flakes. Rendang is a and time and effort-heavy curry to make from scratch. The point is, if you want an authentic rendang curry and don’t have the time to make it yourself, go to RSR.

It’s full of toasty coconutty goodness, with a kick from the ginger and galangal. A strong kick. No skimping on the galangal here. No shortage of sauce here either. None of that super-lean lamb either. It has some collagen and fat on it for that gelatinous texture that comes with slow cooking. There’s also a giant bowl of rice to soak up that sauce with.

Rice, delicious rice/ the staple food of Asia/ Good for soaking sauce

Gotta love sauce. Sauce and rice.

Chicken with Kailan, Snake bean, chilli and basil
Taste: 9/10, shaved off a point because it could do with a crunchy component. My standards are high here.

Hello gluttony/ Singularity to eat/ Basil fried chicken

I’m sure there is chicken (fried), with basil and chilli. Where I  start to become confused is where the kailan (chinese broccoli) and snake beans are. Maybe I just missed them, it is a long table afterall.
Either way, good fried chicken. It has tangy components in the salad too, to cut through the fried batter. The batter isn’t heavy, or greasy, but there’s another fried item on the shared menu and I think it is considerate of RSR to add something refreshing and zingy with this salad.

(Snake beans, also known as yard-long beans. Also known as Vigna unguiculata subspecies sesquipedalis. Despite its name ‘yardlong bean’, it is only about half a yard long. Which is still very long. They also grow incredibly quickly. I find that they are softer and more tender than green beans. Green beans are crispier. Both have their place. I wish I found the snake beans at the table so I knew more about them at RSR. But I didn’t, so I don’t know.)

(Chinese broccoli. It’s that vegetable you get at Yumcha. You’ll see ladies with carts laden with a wall of trimmed kailan. You order a plate, and she’ll toss a pile of kailan into a vat of boiling water, boil them for 90 seconds, put it on a plate, drain the water and then drizzle it generously  with oyster sauce. Ridiculously easy, but so good and crunchy. Chinese restaurants go through a lot of kai-lan. I have spent hours of my life trimming and portioning kai-lan. ‘Nough said.)

Edit: The snake beans and kai-lan were separate from the chicken. Apparently, they were just average. Unfortunate.

Tomato, Cucumber, Fresh Herb, Green chilli and Asian celery salad
Taste: 10/10, no complaints. How can it go wrong?

Crunchy and zingy/ The way I like my salads/ No need for dressing

Refreshing too! Good after the curries.

Snapper, watermelon, coriander, mint and lemongrass salad
Taste:
10/10

A phrase comes to mind/ Thai food, italian phrase?/ Chi mangia solo... (crepa solo)

Oh my goodness. This! I apologise for the lack of photos of this dish. It had chunks of lightly battered and fried snapper (honest battered fish. None of that mucking around with my fish thank-you!), generous sized chunks where you can bite into it and see the fish flake into layers. Chunks of watermelon, which may seem a little odd considering this is a savoury dish, but the watermelon adds that summery flavour and adds to the juiciness of the salad. There’s also coriander, mint, lemongrass in the dressing and beanshoots for crunch. We have a winner. (I wish I ate more of this instead of being preoccupied with photos. Then perhaps I would have remembered to take a photo of it.)

Edit: Found a photo! The snapper salad on the left end on the edge.

Chi mangia solo crepa solo translates to ‘those who dine alone, die alone’. Eat with friends whenever you can.

Pork belly with apple slaw, chili caramel and black vinegar
Taste: 9/10. Good, but it can be over-fried for some pieces. I had one of those pieces.

Tender pork belly/ Reminder that fat is good/ In sparing amounts

Here’s the one that everybody’s been waiting for. Pork belly.
It wasn’t quite what I expected, actually. I had expected a mass of soft gelatinous chunks of pork marbled with fat and collagen, yielding to the bite yet not greasy when it goes down, just the sweetness of pork and its subtle broth bursting from within. I did get that, but what I didn’t expect was the extra frying for the crispy exterior.
You need to eat this pork belly with the apple slaw, and the black vinegar. The vinegar is the hard part. I settled for biting into the pork belly chunk and dipping it into a spoonful of vinegar in my bowl to mop up the tartness. The pork belly is good on its own, but the vinegar adds another level. The slaw adds texture and sweetness.

There were more things that weren’t on the menu. Perplexing, but welcome.

FRIED FISHCAKE/FOOTBALL
Taste: 10/10

I have no idea/ Good things come in small package/ and vinegar slaw

I have no idea what this is. It seems to be minced fish, possibly mixed in with prawns for texture and flavour. The overall flavour is mild and sweet. (Not in sugar-sweet kind of way, either. It’s great.) There are also spring onions and possibly bamboo shoots too. The slaw on top is coriander and cabbage with a bit of vinegar. Whatever it is, it was very tasty.

POTATO, EGGPLANT, BABY CORN CURRY
Taste: 10/10. I could dock off a point because I don’t like baby corn, but that would be petty.

Potato eggplant/ Two of my childhood favs/ One yummy curry

A curry based on coconut milk. I am not familiar with spices to name the spices in it, but it’s a mild curry without any strong flavours that might upset people. The potato texture is just about perfect.

That’s all for today. Long post. Have one more picture, just in case.

Stare at the platter/ Visual feast for all viewers/ Emtpy stomach growls

Red Spice Road on Urbanspoon

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