Monica “Nyalong” Claughton was born next to a campfire in South Sudan. She contracted polio very young, leaving her left arm permanently paralysed. “As a female there you’re an investment not a person,” she says, “and when you’ve got a disability you’re not going to bring any wealth [dowry] to your family.”
Some of her earliest memories are of being forced to work unaided in the kitchen. “Food had to come out at a certain time, tasting a certain way, or else I was getting beaten,” she says. “At that stage of my life I never had the chance to say no – there were no excuses.”
More than 30 years later, her relationship with the kitchen has changed. She’s made peace with her past, and beams while talking about the North African-inspired dishes she creates at New Jerusalem – a restaurant she owns with her Australian-born husband, Daniel, on Kensington Road in Erindale.
The name refers to Monica’s newfound “spiritual home”, not the Hindley Street sheshkebab house or the Middle Eastern cuisine it serves.
She and Daniel, a doctor, most recently ran a medical practice in the rural town of Kimba on the Eyre Peninsula.
They opened New Jerusalem with a singular purpose: to help fund an orphanage in Aweil, the South Sudanese state where Monica was born. “We call it an orphanage but it’s more a safe place, a refuge,” says Monica, who spent much of her childhood fleeing war across North Africa. “I had my mum, I had that security,” she says. “But going back there and seeing exactly what people who don’t have anyone go through … it was too close to home.”
The aim is for the orphanage to be self-sustaining, and not reliant on charity. “Instead of pushing people here to donate, why don’t they just come and buy a meal,” Monica says.
Her menu is rooted in South Sudanese cuisine; it takes hints from what’s eaten in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia but bears obvious Western influence. It doesn’t fit neatly into any one category.
But, “Every dish that comes out of the kitchen – there’s so much love in it,” says Monica, through watery eyes. “And that can only come from the broken.”
She cooks with big flavours, and serves portions to match. Eight-hour slow-cooked osso bucco sits on a bed of semolina that’s similar to the North African staple asida. The 500-gram rib eye is slathered in blue-cheese sauce, which Monica says has a flavour profile like (but much tastier than) a fermented-cow-fat her mother used to make.
For dessert, there are luqaimat (fried dumplings), which have Arab origins. Monica gussies up the popular street food with sweet-and-sour lemon syrup, candied lemon and pistachios.
Before opening last year, the couple road-tripped around the state for three months, meeting local growers and sampling their produce at the source. “There’s a lot of corner-cutting in the industry, a lot of people claiming to be ‘certified organic’,” says Daniel, “so we like to have one-on-one relationships.” One of which is with Mike Kasprzak of Birdwood Venison, who delivers whole deer to the restaurant himself. Wines are from Piccadilly Valley producer Barratt Wines.
This article was originally published on January 25. Menu items may have changed.
370b Kensington Road, Erindale
Wed to Sat 6pm–10pm