Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gandhi fusion

UPDATE: Just realised that The Star covered the opening of Gandhi's Vegetarian Corner's latest location. I think his old joint is more charming!

When there are so many different cultures living side by side in Malaysia, there is bound to be some borrowing, adaptation and assimilation. Not enough, by some accounts, since the government of the day continues to cling on tenaciously to the racial divide and rule tactics of the colonial authorities. But where seepages occur and people start living across ethnic and religious lines, it is indeed a thing of beauty, and often, very delicious!

And so, we come to Gandhi. No, not the great man of history, but the vegetarian restaurant tucked by the side of a parking lot in Brickfields (Kuala Lumpur). Well, this was as of a month ago, since they were supposed to have moved (directions below) on May 1, so this post is a tribute to a humble lil’ shack where my family and I enjoyed many a wonderful meal.

Mr. Gandhi (yes, that is his name) has a simple operation. His shack opens into a parking lot, with tables and chairs strewn all over under his zinc roof (too hot to open for lunch) or beneath the stars, side by side with the car you just parked. The man himself is poised over a wok by one side, with the menu pasted on the board behind him.

You choose your food either by reading the menu and pointing to it, or peering into Mr. Gandhi’s wok and asking him what he’s cooking, or stealing furtive glances/staring rudely at what other patrons are eating and pointing at those dishes. Nobody really minds, since everyone’s in good spirits (vegetarians are like that, except blood throwing, fur hating PETA folks).

What is distinctive about this joint is that Mr. Gandhi has fused successfully Indian and Chinese vegetarian worlds. He caters to the Chinese vegetarian predeliction for faux meat made with soy or wheat products – note the presence of ‘chicken’, ‘mutton’, ‘fish’ and so on, on the menu.

But he cooks the dishes with a zesty Indian sensibility – the spices making the dishes sing in ways that elude regular Chinese vegetarian places.

Yet, what makes us go back again and again to Gandhi's Vegetarian Corner is also his warm and welcoming smile, his winning personality…

… and his near-perfect Cantonese! Word is that he learnt his trade in a Chinese restaurant, and picked up the lingo along the way. We love watching him catch new Chinese customers unawares by launching into full throttle idiomatic dialect. You can see an initial wave of confusion in their faces, followed amusement and a grin that lingers for a fair bit.

The d├ęcor is appropriately eclectic (rojak is a word we’d use). There is a row of Buddha images keeping watch over the historical Gandhi in black and white.

On another wall are extracts from the famous Tamil teachings on living an ethical life (doing the right thing), cheek by jowl with somewhat more irreverent Irish quips on drinking the right thing(s).

And of course, there’s a small Hindu altar by the fridge. As you can see, this is not white tablecloth dining!

Our favourites from the menu are invariably the spicier stuff. The ‘fish’ curry is highly recommended (the family guzzled it down before I whipped out the camera) – the curry smooth and perfectly balanced. We once had their assam ‘prawns’ which was quite the winner – the wheat-made ‘prawns’ doing a respectable imitation of the original while the sauce was again well-balance between sourness, spiciness and savouriness.

The fried ‘chicken wings’ is not merely amusing – the coiled soy sheets are deliciously unputdownable.

But the best dish I feel is this blog’s namesake – the stir-fried petai with tomatoes and a slightly spicy sauce. Getting good petai is a hit or miss affair – sometimes the pods are too old, too bland, too small. On the day of this picture, the petai was plump and had deep flavours that suggested the plant had led a good life in some secondary forest along the spine of the country.

Our other favourites are regular ingredients cooked simply and without fuss. The lady’s fingers with dried chillies…

… and brinjals with potatoes are both regulars at our table.

Mr. Gandhi manages to vary the spice mix so that his sauces never slide into generic anonymity.

The restaurant was to have moved to a more proper space nearby on the first of this month.

Here’s the close up map. We’ll be there this weekend!


Jen L. said...

Yet another place I haven't yet been to with the Petai Family. Things need to change....

z said...

wah, i live in KL so long also never go here before. must go! must go! (even though i love my meat . . . maybe this will be okay for my dad since he has to cut down meat)

Aromatic Beans said...

J, when you return, you'll find that they've moved to a proper restaurant space, with much less characater, and, with its proximity to a major temple, likely to be more crowded... and with longer opening hours. Hope the quality does not suffer.

Z, aiyah, I too have only eaten at a tiny fraction places around here. I'm sure your Dad will like it. Oh, I missed out the mee goreng in my pictures, which was yummy!

Gandhi said...

HI. I am Priyan Gandhi here. I am so touched to see old photos of Gandhis's stall which my father started. By any chance, do you have more photos? can you please share with me? Thank you very much!