Eating with artists: Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran
He's nothing if not irrepressible, lively, curious, super-smart and engaging. Sydney artist Ramesh's art is a pretty good reflection of who he is.
He is part of a small group of artists who have secured year-long work studios spaces at Rydalmere, in the western suburbs, under the auspices of the Paramatta city council. Having trained in painting, Ramesh began making ceramic works in 2012, and his current suite of work is part of an impressive Archie Plus installation at the entrance vestibule of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
He is also a finalist in the 2020 Archibald exhibition which is on display until January 2021.
When I asked Ramesh if we could talk about food, his eyes lit up. He loves food he says, and yes of course he'd like to grab a yummy lunch somewhere and talk about a subject close to his heart. After some deliberation (with some great other options) Ramesh chose VN Vietnamese on Illawarra Road in Marrickville and we meet there on a cool summer day, lightly spattering with raindrops.
There was a line for a table when I got to VN, but found Ramesh had bagged a spot, and was perusing the menu like a true professional.
Deciding was not hard, as we both seem to lean towards similar taste preferences: punchy, textured, earthy.
As we slurped on delicious flat rice noodles slathered with condiments and piles of fresh herbs, sticky rice and pale rounds of fish cakes, cheesy prawn rolls and nem, we chatted about the artist's food history and culture.
With family who migrated from Sri Lanka when he was only one, Ramesh grew up in an environment of hard working parents seeking to establish a comfortable new life for their children like so many migrants everywhere. Art was not a priority at home, but education, safety and .......food were the focus. The wider Aussie life drew Ramesh out into the broader context of multicultural food on offer.
Raised in Auburn, attending high school at Sydney Boys High in Moore Park, and then gaining both his First Class Honours and Masters degrees from College of Fine Arts, UNSW, Ramesh is a Sydneysider through and through, well enmeshed in the fabric of this city and its cuisines.
Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Tina : How do you view Aussie cuisine Ramesh, and what kind of food do you favour?
Ramesh: (Lowers his voice dramatically) between you and me, I really feel like 'serious' modern Australian cuisine has come to a point where it is so refined, the end product is bland beyond recognition. I mean- my mother wouldn't know what to do with the food in front of her at some of our current 'popular' restaurants. Where has flavour gone? And realistic portions? Who needs to go home after a fancy meal and look in the fridge for a snack? (Laughs)
I love all the 'real' hole in the wall places which serve honest, hearty food from their own cultures without adjusting it for the Australian palate.
Tina: What did you eat at home?
Ramesh: White rice, a spinach curry, dahl, butter chicken curry or a goat curry; Sri Lankan curries are the staple at home, and being of both Burgher and Tamil parentage, I've enjoyed the variety that both traditions offer: hoppers, malung, pan rolls, cutlets, all that good stuff.
Tina: Favourite food growing up ?
Ramesh: McDonalds!! I loved it! I think all kids love McDonalds, right? It is what I craved if I was sick, my go-to comfort food!
Tina: Can you share some of your favourite eating places?
Ramesh: Some of my favourite places to eat are ...Ram's Food, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Homebush, Hai Au Lang Nuong in Canley Vale, and of course VN Street Foods in Marrickville. Also love Temasek in Paramatta, Ho Jiak, Ayam Goreng99, and Billus in Harris Park.
Tina: What is your stress coping food?
Ramesh: I love cake! Not the ones which have pastry and cream in them, but good old fashioned butter cakes with layers and icing on top.
There's a great bakery down the road from me and their cakes are very good. Its called Excelsior Jones (The Hopper Pan makes a great traditional ribbon cake which is something Ramesh remembers fondly from childhood. )
Tina: What's something you love to cook?
Ramesh: Friends always ask for my pumpkin curry. I'm giving you the recipe here to share....its pretty popular.....!
Tina: How do you celebrate Christmas?
Ramesh: It is always at home with my folks; they do the devilled prawns, the yellow rice. fried potatoes...
Tina: Food pet peeves?
Ramesh: I hate thick pieces of tomato. I eat everything else, I love food!
Ramesh's Popular Pumpkin Curry
Half a Japanese or Kabocha pumpkin, cut up into small cubes, about 20 mm thick (Ramesh cooks his with the skin on, I think I"ll cook it next time without.)
1 can coconut milk (250 ml)
10 cloves garlic peeled and chopped fine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon ginger peeled and chopped fine
1 large onion, peeled and chopped fine
2 fresh pandan leaves cut into small sections.
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1-2 sticks cinnamon
half a lemon, juiced
Heat the olive oil in a heavy based pan.
Soften the onion, garlic and ginger in the hot oil, and then add the mustard and cumin seeds.
Stir well until the mixture begins to turn golden brown.
Add the pandan leaves, cinnamon sticks and curry leaves.
Toss in the pumpkin pieces along with the turmeric powder, and stir well until all ingredients are well blended.
Now add the coconut milk and stir again.
Bring to the boil, turn the heat to low, and cover for five minutes.
Now remove the lid, stir well, add salt, chilli flakes, lemon juice, and sugar.
At this point, it is best to switch to a metal spoon, and stir the pumpkin carefully without smashing the pieces.
The pumpkin should be cooked through at this point but if not, add a small amount of water, (maybe a quarter cup) and adjust seasoning to your liking, and cook for a little longer.
When the pumpkin is ready, garnish with lots of fresh coriander.
Serve with other curries, or as a main for a vegetarian meal with a crisp salad.
I can attest that it was delicious, fragrant from the pandan and curry leaves, sweet and sour, and so flavourful.
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is represented by Sullivan & Strumpf
His work is currently on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.