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Melbourne : The world on a plate Melbourne

One of the great pleasures of modern Australia is the multicultural variety that has produced its enviable lifestyle, culture, and cuisine. Take the time to explore Melbourne’s diverse ethnic neighbourhoods and your appetite will be very well rewarded.

Words and Photography by Brian Johnston

What do plump pork dumplings, chicken fried rice, linguine with prawns, and espresso coffee have in common? They’re all Australian, even if they did arrive from somewhere else. Few countries have embraced foreign foods with such enthusiasm. Talk to Melburnians and soon they’ll be advising you where to find the best soup noodles, or red duck curry, or almendrados Spanish almond biscuits, crunchy on the outside and deliciously chewy inside.

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You don’t have to go far to eat well in Melbourne, or find diversity on the plate. A visit provides the chance to eat your way through world cuisines all in one place. It was successive waves of immigrants that brought the new ingredients and new dishes that have become staple Australian fare. In the 1950s it was southern Europeans, in the 1960s Vietnamese, in the 1980s Lebanese, among many more.

After the British and Irish, the Chinese were the first major ethnic group to arrive in Australia, lured by the gold rush. Melbourne’s 1850s Chinatown is the oldest in the Western world. Few historical buildings remain, but locals and new immigrants alike flock under the ornamental gates of downtown Little Bourke Street for good food.

Weekend mornings are popular for yum cha (or dim sum), a lingering meal of small dishes plucked from passing trolleys, including spring rolls, sliced roast meats, rice porridge, and steamed dumplings, washed down with green tea. Lunchtime is the moment to try noodles or Peking duck; dinnertime anything from peppery stir-fries to the challenge of a Sichuan hotpot loaded with chillies.

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What’s wonderful about Melbourne, though, is that a stroll away you’ll be in another place entirely. The Greek Precinct around Lonsdale Street admittedly had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but you’ll still find old-fashioned shops, plus a Hellenic Museum that tells the story of Greek culture and Greek immigrants.

Even better, enjoy the living culture in a coffeehouse, where the coffee is dense and strong and the pastries extravagantly sweet. Try voutímata cinnamon-andmolasses biscuits, or baklava (thin layers of filo pastry and chopped nuts soaked in honey), now an Aussie classic found in cafés everywhere, not just Greek ones. There’s always something good to eat in a Melbourne coffeehouse, whether it’s Turkish delight flavoured with rosewater, a lurid French macaron, or an American-style brownie.

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Post-Second World War immigrants from the Mediterranean gave Australia one of the world’s best coffee cultures. European-style café life first emerged in Lygon Street in Carlton in the 1950s. It’s still referred to as Little Italy, not just for its cafés but for its many delicatessens and restaurants. Other suburbs with great café streets are Richmond, Prahran and beachside St Kilda, plus city-centre laneways; Centre Place feels as if it could be in Rome.

It isn’t just about coffee. Chapel Street in Prahran offers restaurants, eateries and delis too. Dine on Polish soup, Mexican tacos or delicate Shanghai seafood, or get your dose of Southeast Asia in the Hawker Hall. Victoria Street in Richmond is nicknamed Little Saigon for its informal Vietnamese food. Footscray too has lots of Vietnamese eateries, as well as an increasing number of East African restaurants, the gift of a more recent immigrant wave.

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Many of the exotic ingredients with which Australians have become familiar were introduced at food markets – and still are, with foodstuffs from Ethiopia and the Philippines now attracting attention. Don’t miss a wander through Queen Victoria Market, piled with chickpeas and kidney beans, candied orange and Middle Eastern dips. Vendors are more than willing to share the secrets of curious-looking vegetables, strange spices, and sauces from around the world.

When these ingredients fuse on the plate, you get modern Australian cuisine’s fresh and unexpected tastes, with strong Mediterranean and Asian influences. Hit the suburb of Fitzroy to find out what it’s all about, even at breakfast time; the Australian habit of weekend brunching offers tastes of Spain, France, Mexico, Asia, and America. In Melbourne, you can taste the world, sometimes in a single restaurant.

Jakarta to Melbourne


Flight Time 5 hour 50 minutes

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From Colours March 2020

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5 Senses – Sight
Immigration Museum

Get an overview of the history of Australian immigration (and its present issues) at this intriguing museum, which offers touching, first-hand migrant stories, and explores topics such as culture and cuisine. 400 Flinders Street.
museumsvictoria.com.au