Food story: “Borek in Melbourne and the Indonesia factor.”

Eating as a source of pleasure obviously has a long history. No doubt there is a physiologically based link between that pleasure, registered primarily in the mouth, nostrils and stomach, and the urge to eat to sustain ourselves. The pleasure can be very private, as when we indulge secretly in a favourite chocolate or a stash of durian fruit while alone at home or go out by ourselves for a curry in a favourite restaurant. It cannot be denied, however, that apart from the quality of the produce, the combination of spices and herbs and the skill of the chef, another element that very frequently enhances the pleasure of eating is the ambience experienced during the eating.

Some restaurants make their extra profits by creating a particular ambience and then charging for it, although it does not appear as a separate item on the bill. Some try to make you feel like royalty with expensive cutlery, crockery, table clothes and surrounds. Others might rely on panoramic views or another kind of closeness to nature, such as in a garden restaurant. The provision of such ambiences, or similar, all come with an increase in the price of the meal.

On the other hand, some of the best ambiences come free. The crowded soto resto in Java where people are so mesmerised on the deliciousness of their bowl of soup that a camaraderie of calm raucousness envelopes the venue, despite the queues. The hot dog stand in Vondel Park, Amsterdam where it is the simplicity of the food in the midst of a beautiful park that creates the shared ambience. There are no doubt millions of such examples. I want to talk about one such example, from Melbourne, Australia.
I have been off and on based in Melbourne now for more than a decade. One of favourite culinary pleasures has been ordering two beef and onion borek and a long black coffee at Drago’s in the delicatessen section of Queen Victoria Markets. Either alone, or with my partner, Faiza, or a friend, the borek and coffee could be devoured sitting at an outdoor table, preferably with some direct sunlight, in the outdoor alley. A warm sun and blue sky, and the sight and sound of groups of friends, or couples, or lone strays eating and chatting or reading their mobiles is indeed a most pleasant ambience – with no cost added to the bill. A borek costs $2 and the coffee $3.50.

Drago’s black coffee is my favourite. There are other kiosks selling coffee. The speciality coffee store, Market Lane, must sell very nice coffee as the queues to pick up a coffee there are always very long, despite being more expensive. But I have always most enjoyed Drago’s. It has this delicious, burned flavour, which I have never found anywhere else. When I first started ordering there, I used to chat with the man who served me. He told me their secret was adding an extra shot to their coffees, but I am not sure if that was indeed their secret. He was very proud of his coffee and always insisted it was better than that made by one of his older, female co-workers, whom I later found out was his mother-in-law. The taste of the coffee has stayed the same over a decade, so perhaps it is type or brand of the coffee, or the way it was roasted.

borek 4

Drago’s is not a speciality store. It sells pizza slices, hamburgers, rolls as well as borek. It sells beef and onion, spinach and cheese, and sweet pumpkin borek, among others. As far as I am aware, and I have not researched this topic thoroughly, borek is a food eaten in the area from Turkey through to Greece and even Palestine. It is a hot pastry served with fillings such as those above. At Queen Victoria Market I have seen two kinds of borek. Dragos uses filo pastry, where is the other shop’s pastry seems thicker. I like the balance between filling and pastry that the lighter pastry achieves.

The beef and onion Borek are very tasty, but not with identifiable spice, apart, perhaps, that of a little pepper. It is delicious and so clearly popular but my taste buds have been trained by habits picked up in Indonesia/ So, I must make a confession. I eat my borek in a Borek-Indonesian fusion style.

What do I mean?

Boreks are cooked in an oven. But the pastry is clearly oiled and comes out with that yum savoury oiled pastry flavour. There is sufficient similarity with an Indonesian lumpia (spring roll) in shape and in the oiled pastry texture, even though the borek is oven baked and the lumpia fried. There are numerous fried snacks in Indonesia, of which the lumpia only one. There are garlic corn patties (bakwan jagung), tempe in shallot embedded batter, plain fried beancurd and a host of others. These are all called gorengan, from the Indonesian word for “to fry” – goreng as in the now well-known nasi goreng.

All gorengan are eaten held in the right hand while the left hand holds a small, hopefully quite pedas (hot), raw skinny variety bird’s eyer chilli, red or green. A bite off the gorengan is preceded by a little bite off the chilli. Gorengan and chilli fuse in the mouth. Oil, salt, a little spice and maybe garlic, savoury filling or batter is sparked to greater intensity by the heat and the fruitiness of the fresh chilli.

borek 2borek 1
In my imagination, it was chillies that first arrived in Java, before gorengan became a habit. The chilli has such a delicious taste and zestiness, that I think that gorengan were invented as an accompaniment to the chilli and not the other way around. But perhaps I am just a bule (white foreigner) who has become over-chillied – perhaps by the prawn sambol at Sydney’s Malaya. Perhaps.
Thus it is that, surrounded by other happy, socialising eaters, I eat – borek in one hand and my thin, green hot chilli in the other, sipping regularly that hot, strong coffee, sensing also the coffee aroma each time the cup nears my nostrils.
And it cost nothing at all for all the ambience and extras.

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