When Amy Ramachandren arrived in Sydney there was hardly anywhere for her to eat the food of her culture. “I was here for 10 years and I was longing for my mum's food.” Ramachandran is Malaysian-Indian, and although there are a fair few Malaysian restaurants in Sydney, almost all of them are Chinese-Malaysian (check out Peranakan Place for Peranakan food and Cafe Nur Muhammed for Malay). “It's very different. Malaysian-Indian food has a touch of the tastes and textures of South India,” she says.
The only place Ramachandren could find it was at Kammadhenu (a restaurant in Homebush), cooked by chef Sandra Ponniah. “She cooked just like my mum.” At the time Ramachandren was a disillusioned accountant. “I made lots of money but I was sick of it. I wanted to do something else,” she says. She used to run a fish-head-curry and crab-masala restaurant in Malaysia, and wanted to open something here, too. “So I called auntie [Ponniah, Malaysians often refer to older women as aunties] and I said let’s start a food business.”
Together, with Ramachandren’s brother, chef Devan Vallipuram, they started Amma’s Modern Kitchen (amma means “mum” in Tamil) in Homebush. Now with a new site in Toongabbie, Amma’s Kitchen is famous among local Malaysians for doing the best Malaysian-Indian food in town. The most popular dish – despite only being available on the weekend, or by ordering ahead – is a tangy and pungent salmon-head curry with okra and tomatoes. “Our curries are very different, we don't use coconut milk but they're still creamy,” says Ramachandren. In Malaysia and Singapore fish-head curry (there it’s usually red snapper) is a popular street-food dish often sold by Mamak (Malaysians of Muslim-Tamil descent) hawkers.
The most famous of all mamak dishes is roti canai, a buttery flatbread usually served with dal and sambal. Amma’s Kitchen is one of the few Sydney restaurants to make its own. “We have a special roti master who trained in India. He's very good,” says Ramachandren.
Roti canai is one of the few Malaysian dishes common to all the country’s cuisines and ethnic groups. For a more distinct Malaysian-Indian experience try the murtabak. It’s like a gozleme made with roti and filled with spiced meat. Or Ramachandren’s favourite dish, the rojak, which is a salad of yam beans, cucumber and boiled egg dressed in a rich sauce made by slow cooking sweet potatoes and dried prawns. And the sup kambing, a rich and peppery goat soup usually eaten in the middle of night. “It's for when you finish at the club at 3am. You need energy to recharge. You finish the soup and then you wake up at 5am and eat breakfast,” says Ramachandren.
Amma’s Kitchen also has an extensive range of South Indian and Sri Lankan street foods, and many Chinese-Malaysian staples. The front of the restaurant has a well-stocked takeaway counter with various curries, deep-fried snacks and Indian sweets.