We Wander The Streets Of Melbourne To Trace Its Culinary History

Australia’s culinary capital, Melbourne, has an interesting food scene that was shaped by waves of immigrants. T+L India & South Asia wanders the streets of the city to trace this history. By Chirag Mohanty Samal

The food scene in Melbourne is a melting pot of different cultures. To understand where the culinary capital of Australia gets its unique taste and flavours, one needs to trace the immigration history of the city. So, on a chilly morning in June, I found myself queuing up outside the Immigration Museum in the Old Customs House on Flinders Street along with a motley group of people. 

A Melting Pot Of Cuisines

A street in Chinatown, Melbourne

Excited to unearth the history that lay confined in the precincts of the museum, we eagerly listened to our guide Janet from Foodie Trails as she briefed us on how the immigrants who came to Australia from the 1800s till now, brought their food along with them, which later became an integral part of the city’s food culture. That explains the teeming Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Italian, African, and Indian restaurants in the city. A quick tour of the museum gave context to the onslaught of food that was to follow. Chinese were the first non-white and non-European immigrants who came to Melbourne during the gold rush of 1851. In the present day, the city has a sizeable. 

Chinese community in Chinatown, centred at the eastern end of Little Bourke Street, in the central business district (CBD). From the museum, we headed to Chinatown. As we entered the place, we were greeted by rows of 19th-century buildings housing a bevy of vibrant, modern eateries ranging from fine dining restaurants to hole-inthe-wall dumpling bars. Janet informed us that over the weekends, vendors selling all kinds of delicious food fill the streets, creating a maze of aromas that could confuse even the most discerning of food connoisseurs.  

Baked purple yam with South Australian native succulents at Big Esso by Mabu Mabu.

We, however, walked a little further on Bourke Street to Tim Ho Wan, the Michelin-starred dim sums chain from Hong Kong, to satiate our rumbling tummies. Without wasting a moment, Janet ordered sweet pork buns, chicken dim sums, and chamomile jelly for desserts. While the perfectly steamed dim sums packed a flavourful punch, it was the bun that impressed the most. Crusty on the outside and soft in the inside, filled with tender and sweet pork chunks, the bun is the sure shot way to an intense foodgasm. 

Besides the Chinese settlement, Melbourne also has a significant Vietnamese community, that majorly came into being after the Vietnam war when people fled the country to escape the communist government. “Vietnamese people mostly took up jobs in the textile factories in Richmond, a Melbourne suburb, and cooked delicious food for themselves, which later became popular,” said Janet. But there are Vietnamese restaurants in CBD that saves you a trip to Richmond. 

A scoop of mascarpone gelato topped with caramel sauce at Pidapipo Gelateria.

We made our way to Little Brother Vietnamese Kitchen and Bar on Collins Street. The two-storey eatery serves Vietnamese street food including bahn mi, rice paper rolls, pho, and vermicelli noodles. We called for the soft and spongy steamed bao buns filled with crispy pork served with a side of zesty salad. There are some traditional creamy curries on the menu if you are looking for a filling meal. Collins Street also houses some Irish pubs, and Malaysian, Korean, and Indian eateries. You could walk down the lanes spilling into narrow by-lanes and arcades and assess the options before walking into a restaurant.  

The Michelin-starred dim sum chain from Hong Kong, Tim Ho Wan, on Bourke Street.

By the time we left Little Brother, the rain cast skies had given into a drizzle. We opened our umbrellas and steadily marched down the street looking for some hot and comforting coffee. We found a hole-in-the-wall coffee place and quickly placed our orders as Janet filled us in on Melbourne’s age-old coffee culture. “Back in the mid 1800s, the city had huge coffee palaces to entice men away from demonic alcohol. But they didn’t survive. Later, carts that sold coffee from barrels sprung up on the street to cater to people’s demands. During the 1940s, when the Italians migrated to the city post World War II, they brought about innovations to the local coffee,” she said adding that it only got better thereon with scores of cafes competing against each other. No wonder, Melbourne features in the top five coffee destinations of the world.  

Melbourne’s Native Ingredients

Pork buns at Tim Ho Wan.

Any food tour of the city is incomplete without sampling indigenous aboriginal food made with native ingredients. To tick this off our list, we went to Big Esso by Mab Mabu, located in Federation Square. ‘Big esso’ in the Torres Strait of Australia means ‘the biggest thank you’ and the place aims to bring the relaxed, casual dining of Australia’s tropical north to Melbourne. You can try uniquely Australian dishes like a bucket of king prawns with native succulents, or namas (coconut cured ocean fish) or lemon aspen charred octopus with sea noodles. We ordered some charred emu meat cooked in pepper berry sauce and topped with spicy cassava chips. The place also has plenty of vegetarian options. We dug into baked purple yam with sea parsley, saltbush, Warrigal greens, and pickled karkalla (a succulent coastal groundcover plant native to southern Australia) and weren’t disappointed.  

Interiors of Little Brother Vietnamese Kitchen and Bar.

Anyone who’s aware of the dessert stomach phenomenon would know how difficult it is to turn down desserts even though you might be full to the brim. So, much to my stomach’s dismay, I treaded along with Janet to dig into some artisanal, Italian-style gelato at the popular Pidapipo Gelateria in Flinders Lane. What makes Pidapipo different from other Melbourne gelato shops is that you don’t see your scoop until it’s on your cone. All gelato is stored in a stainless steel Italian-built Pozzetti fridge at an optimal temperature so that you get to taste the gelato at its best. It was difficult to choose from the sea of options, but being considerate to my grumbling tummy, I ordered a single scoop of mascarpone peppered with crushed chocolate cookies and topped with caramel sauce. This was the perfect, sweet denouement to a day filled with food adventures and the entailing anxious anticipation. I bid Janet goodbye with a smile and a promise to return to Melbourne soon to embark on other adventures. 

Getting to Melbourne

Singapore Airlines operates connecting flights to Melbourne from multiple Indian cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bengaluru. The airline offers unparalleled services across all its cabins.

Staying in Melbourne

Next Hotel Melbourne is set amongst the city’s new 80 Collins precinct of industry influencers, high fashion, and hospitality hotspots. Doubles from INR 15,363.

Hilton Melbourne Little Queen Street is conveniently located in the heart of Melbourne. Doubles from INR 15,421.

Related: Melbourne Travel Guide—Things To Do And Vacation Ideas

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