Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Lunch in a cold climate.

I usually take my lunch to work. I'm finding that more and more people are doing this. (Must be the huge mortgages.)

There's a kitchen with a microwave and people bring in something left over from last night; some pasta, maybe some soup or curry, perhaps some sliced cold meat and salad. It's fun to see what people have cooked up.

The kitchen is fully stocked. There are biscuits, cookies and crackers of all kinds laid on; together with jars of salsas, spreads, peanut butter, margarine, cheese slices and other things that can be added to crackers or bread; crisps and corn chips in several different varieties; plus fresh fruit every day. There is always a stock of avocadoes as well, they are great for spreading on crackers. Then there are the drinks, tea and coffee, of course (plunger and instant); and another fridge full of mineral water, soft drinks, fruit juices, beer and wine.

If you wish, you can snack all morning and all afternoon; and at lunchtime, you can simply heat up what you've brought to work. Or go out and buy something.

I guess it's kind of lucky in a way that I'm not really the snacking type. I tend to eat only at mealtimes. But it's nice to know it's there, I suppose.

Now. Sometimes I like to go out at lunch time, just for a walk. Occasionally I'll eat out.

This week has been the coldest I can remember. I'd had enough of work by around midday; took the elevator down at around 12:30 and set off along Bourke Street. It was cold and grey and there was a chill wind blowing, making people wrap themselves up in their coats all the tighter.

I turned left at Hardware Lane where there are probably twenty or thirty cafes and restaurants, mainly Italian bistro style - pasta, grills, foccaccias and the like. They all have their outdoor sections and even in this cold weather, the tables are packed at lunchtime. (They have those gas heater things that project the heat downwards. Don't ask me how that works, I thought heat rose.)

Then I turned right into Little Bourke Street and walked down the hill past all the hiking, camping and outdoor shops, crossed Elizabeth Street and walked past Myer, the major department store. Myer is on both sides of the street, the glitzy cosmetics and beauty store on one side, the food hall on the other. Inside the window, there's a long bench with fixed stools where you can sit and eat, watching the world go by.

Proceed past David Jones, the 'second' department store, and you get to Swanston Street. On crossing that, you enter Chinatown, heralded by Chinese decorations at the entrance. The food gets really interesting up here, there are laneways and arcades all over the place, all jam-packed with cafes and restaurants. Mostly Chinese (Cantonese, Szechuan etc), some Malaysian, Japanese, Indonesian, the odd Indian, Vietnamese, Thai. Some are grand in the opulent Asian style of gold and red decor, plush furnishings and uniformed waitstaff, others are mere rooms with laminated tables, vinyl chairs and super-fast service.

I turned down a laneway and stopped at the door of a plain white building with 'specials' scrawled on a large sheet of paper stuck to the single window. Don't know what they were, it was in Chinese.

I opened the door, entered and found a table. Having been here before, I knew what I wanted: congee.

Congee is possibly the perfect cold-day asian meal. It's rice porridge, not a soup, not a stew - just a porridge. Hot, wobbly, comforting, delicious. I ordered the 'combination congee' - a huge bowl of the rice porridge with delicious pieces of assorted seafood and meat that you find as you reach down with your spoon to the bottom. Adding more flavour and texture are generous slivers of ginger and it's all topped with shredded spring onion (green onion). Chilli sauce and soy sauce bottles are on every table so you can spice up your meal as you wish; and Chinese tea is brought, by the pot, to every table. You can drink as much as you want, no extra cost.

I paid the bill - $5.50 - and walked back to work warm on the inside. I got out of the elevator and went to the kitchen to make a nice after-lunch coffee.

They were just breaking out the corn chips and salsa.





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