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Australia’s southern metropolis boasts a vibrant culinary scene that incorporates the many waves of immigration Down Under. Writer Erin Walton tempts our taste buds with a tour of its neighbourhoods and restaurants.
Text by: Erin Walton
Country: Australia

ying in Australia’s far south is Victoria, a state teeming with culture despite its tiny size. Unlike other corners of the country offering dramatic landscapes and exotic wildlife, Victoria is home to a tastier style of life, and its capital city, Melbourne, is Australia’s patron saint to cuisine, culture, and coffee. For travelers and locals alike, there’s nowhere better to let the taste buds roam free than in this southern city where well-made coffee, quirky hole-in-the-wall restaurants, international eats, and long weekend brunches tempt.

Immigrant history

Since it was settled, Melbourne has been a melting pot of overseas immigrants and visitors. Immigration to Victoria first skyrocketed in the 1850s when the Gold Rush took hold of the state, and British, Irish, North American, German, and Chinese nationals uprooted their lives to try and strike it lucky in the goldfields. Later, after World War ll was finally an unpleasant memory, the European wave began arriving in full force, most notably lead by tides of Greek, Italian, Lebanese, and Turkish families. Immigration from several countries was so strong that their people and food is now synonymous with the city: In Melbourne’s phone book, “Nguyen” – a Vietnamese surname – is the second-most common one listed after “Smith”; and with over 180 years of Greek immigration to Melbourne, the city now boasts the largest Greek-speaking community outside of Europe.

Immigration has flavoured the local dining and restaurant scene. “Melbourne’s food scene is a lot more multicultural than the rest of Australia, and restaurants here are a lot more experimental with their menus,” explains Keith Resoort, chef at Peruvian restaurant Pastuso. These days, with more than 135 cultures making up Melbourne’s cultural heritage, a curious punter can sample overseas cuisine and travel internationally any day of the week with a simple menu as their guide. “Diners can expect a whole range of fusion restaurants,” says Keith. “Japanese, French, Thai, Chinese, and Italian are the main types – but a lot of Latin American and African restaurants have opened up (as well).”

The locals – Melburnians – are fiercely proud of their city’s foodie reputation. But they don’t applaud blindly: they expect quality as well. “Melbourne’s scene is full of amazing food and drink. The city’s foodie reputation means the locals expect a high standard of everything,” says Anita Vee, a proud local. “Having lived in various Australian cities, I can attest to the quality and choice Melbourne offers.”

Authentic cooking far from home

As a chef, Keith’s primary culinary interest is Latin America, through which he has travelled. “The main aspect that made me fall in love with Latin American cooking was that nothing is plain. All oils are infused, everything has some kind of marinade, and it’s all made from fresh ingredients,” he says. As can be expected, there have been challenges; such as the logistics involved in cooking authentic Peruvian food in southern Australia. In Pastuso’s case, the restaurant imports some ingredients directly from Peru – think herb pastes, coca leaves, and native Peruvian chilies – and is able to source other products in Australia. “Casa Iberica is a deli /market that stocks all kinds of Latin American goods; from cured meats to dried chili, sweets, and Argentinean mate. There is also an alpaca farmer just outside Sydney that supplies us with fresh alpaca meat,” explains Keith.

Apart from the challenges of sourcing authentic produce, there are kitchen contraptions and cooking methods to learn. Keith’s work at Pastuso has certainly taught him new skills. “We have a traditional Peruvian cilindro (smoking chamber) and parrilla (grill), which I had never used before. Also, learning to cook alpaca was a challenge as it’s nothing like I’d ever cooked before, because it’s so lean it can be really dry if not cooked properly.” he adds.

Happily, these same challenges aren’t shared by diners: in Melbourne, finding good grub in an attractive restaurant is not a hit-and-miss adventure. “There are amazing places all over,” says Mandy Welfare, a British serial expat who lived in Melbourne for many months. “Brunswick has some very cute places which are reasonably priced. For more posh dining, I’d recommend South Yarra, and for funky cafés, Yarraville and Williamstown.” The sentiment is shared by the locals. As Anita puts it, “…there are way too many places dotted around the city and local ‘burbs ’ for a killer brunch or coffee: stacks of cheap food/beer combo meals for backpackers, great cheap Asian food everywhere, totally upmarket degustations, moderately priced fine dining. Whatever you want, you can find it.”

But with so many good options to choose between, where should a hungry punter centre their search? Well, as with most travel and culinary adventures, it depends on what you’re looking for.

A menu as your guide

To dive into Asia, start off in the narrow streets and arcades of Australia’s oldest Chinatown. Here, in and around Little Bourke Street, several restaurants and stores have had their doors open since the 1860s, and their yum cha, traditional dishes, and Chinese medicine make the experience about as authentic as can be hoped for outside of China. From there, wander through Victoria Street’s Vietnamese quarter and tempt your taste buds with rice paper rolls, pho, and tangled noodles that aren’t only delicious, but extremely affordable.

Melbourne’s homage to Europe begins in Lonsdale Street, where a delicious Greek precinct has been alive and kicking since the 1930s. There, you’ll find tasty baklava, souvlaki, and meze served beside shops full of Greek trinkets, home wares, magazines, and music. From Greece, visit Little Italy in Lygon Street; Carlton’s über-famous, terrace-lined love letter to all that is Italian, where menus sporting gelati, pizza, and biscotti make your mouth water just looking at them.

Looking for tapas, sangria, fajitas, and mojitos? Spain and Mexico are waiting for hungry visitors in Johnston Street, Fitzroy. Finally, wind up your international food fair in Afghanistan (the Afghan Bazaar, Thomas Street, Dandenong), India (Little India, Robinson, Walker and Foster Streets, Dandenong), Turkey (Sydney Road, Brunswick), and Africa (Central Footscray).

From the diners’ point of view, it’s safe to say that foreign flavours in Melbourne are packing a positive punch: Far from dumbing down dishes to bow to uninitiated palates, Keith notes that the customer response to the menu has been positive. “Australians love the cuisine, the feedback we have been getting is fabulous,” he assures.

Melbourne’s rich cultural tapestry makes for a tasty way to catch up with friends over a plate of treats. As Anita puts it, dining in Melbourne is all about “… good music playing in the background, dashingly bearded baristas, and just the general attitude that people come together over food – and the food will be good.” From Africa to Asia via Latin America, there’s something waiting for everyone in a Melbourne restaurant.

What to visit in Melbourne
Melbourne international community festivals:
· Chinese – Asian Food Festival (August-September) and Chinese New Year (February).
· Greek – Festival of the Antipodes (March)
· Italian – Lygon Street Festa (October)

Where to visit:
· Lygon Street (Italian)
· Little Bourke Street (Chinese)
· Lonsdale Street (Greek)
· Victoria Street (Vietnamese)
· Johnson Street (Spanish/Mexican)
· Brunswick, Dandenong (various)

Foods to Try:
· China: Yum Cha

Italy: gelati, coffee, pizza
· Greece: meze, souvlaki, baklava
· Vietnam: pho, rice paper rolls, and noodles
· Peruvian: ceviche, Japanese-Peruvian fusion



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Touring Melbourne on your belly

landscapes and exotic wildlife, but the city of Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, is also known for its fabulous cuisine. Melbourne is a melting pot of overseas immigrants and visitors from all over the world.

baklava, souvlaki, and meze, Peruvian restaurants with alpaca meat, and many more. Today you can also find a whole range of fusion restaurants.

to source all the ingredients they need to prepare authentic meals. There are some stores that sell foreign products, but some of the more unique items like coca leaves and herb pastes have to be imported from their country of origin.

Melburnians are very proud of their culinary culture. But they don’t accept just any different kind of food, they expect excellent quality as well. If you are looking for an interesting experience, one that combines good music, a positive attitude, and delicious dishes from any part of the world, Melbourne is the place for you!


 

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