There’s an entire aisle dedicated to spices – whole, ground and jarred – at Melbourne’s MKS Spices'n Things stores, but the “Things” part of the name is harder to sum up. The Sri Lankan and Indian supermarket-slash-diner chain is a maze of frozen samosas, tinned gulab jamun, Sri Lankan coconut biscuits, bulk bags of jaggery (raw cane sugar), five-kilo tubs of Indian yoghurt, rice in all shapes and colours, and every pickle under the sun.
Then, to the left of the heaving shelves and often eclipsed by queues, there’s a kitchen and food counter with a display of chaat (crunchy Indian street snacks); a cabinet of Technicolour sweets made from chickpea flour, nuts and coconut; and a procession of steaming bain-maries filled with curries, biryanis, string hoppers, vadai (fried lentil patties) and crumbed lamb rolls.
Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day in Sri Lanka and the southern states of India, consisting of rice and several coconut-based, chilli-heavy curries. At 11am, the in-house chefs (who clock in at 9am to prepare everything fresh) start to bring out deep trays of curry-leaf-garnished prawn masala and cottony basmati rice, and local office workers and shoppers are filtering in for a quick, generous meal.
$8.95 gets you a plate piled high with three vegetarian curries and rice. For an extra dollar or two, you can opt for a meat (usually goat, lamb and chicken) or seafood variation. There’s also a short, made-to-order menu of parathas (chewy pan-fried flatbreads), Jaffna dosas (crisp, fermented rice and lentil crepes served with chutney), chole bhature (a flatbread that’s deep-fried until it puffs like an inflatable pillow) and puri (hollow, deep-fried crepe balls filled with spiced potatoes and tamarind).
MKS Spices'n Things has five locations, with the first (and largest) outlet opening in Dandenong 25 years ago. Its newest branch sits among automotive garages in Epping, a 40-minute drive north of the CBD.
“25 years ago there were not many [Sri Lankan or Indian] shops in Melbourne, especially grocery shops or takeaway shops, and people used to travel from Epping to come to Dandenong to do their groceries,” co-owner Vernon Balendra tells SBS Food over a masala chai at the Epping store. Balendra moved to Melbourne from his home in Jaffna in the north of Sri Lanka in 1996 at age 23, after his uncle Navaneetharajah arrived and founded the now-family-owned business.
At 11am, the MKS Spices'n Things chefs, who clock in at 9am to prepare everything fresh, are starting to bring out deep trays of curry-leaf-garnished prawn masala and cottony basmati rice, and local office workers and shoppers are filtering in for a quick, generous meal.
Since the early '90s, Australia’s Sri Lankan community has more than doubled, and Balendra says demand for these flavours has soared.
Today, India-born Australians make up the country’s third-largest ethnic group, and Sri Lanka-born Australians are the 12th-biggest. In Dandenong, MKS Spices'n Things' customer base is largely Sri Lankan; in Epping it’s Indian; but at its second store in Preston, Balendra says the lunch rush often welcomes mostly non-south-Asian Australians, curiously gnawing on fried whole sardines and chugging mango lassis to extinguish the heat of the potato and banana dry fry.
Even with an evolving clientele, Balendra says very little has changed at MKS Spices'n Things over 25 years. “We still do the same thing. No other food, just Sri Lankan and Indian,” he says. Perhaps the main difference is that now, as a thriving business, MKS Spices'n Things is able to sponsor chefs from Sri Lanka and India to relocate and settle in Australia.
Since Balendra and his family landed in Melbourne, and he started a family of his own, he says he’s never once missed food from home because MKS Spices'n Things provides him with every edible comfort.