This city owes its culinary diversity to the influx of immigrants throughout its history
In 1851, Edward Hargraves discovered a grain of gold in a waterhole in New South Wales, Australia. Wanting to capitalize on the burgeoning gold rush, the Governor of Victoria offered up a reward of GBP200 to anyone who found gold within 200 miles of Melbourne. It worked. In just two years, the state’s population grew from 77,000 to 540,000, who with their fellow gold diggers unearthed more than GBP100 million worth of gold in the 1850s, permanently transforming this penal settlement into a sought-after destination.
While the gold rush fizzled out by the end of the 1860s, “Marvellous Melbourne” has experienced a modern-day boom, being Australia’s fastest growing city over the past 11 years. Much of this population surge is due in part to recent immigration, with approximately a quarter of Victoria’s residents having been born overseas, leading to large ethnic communities within this leafy, sophisticated city. Glance around the faces on the street or fellow riders on the tram and you’ll find it’s visibly the most ethnically diverse and integrated city in all of Australia.
Melbourne’s immigrant legacy makes it a haven for the foodie traveler, a worthwhile stop even in the chilly southern hemisphere winter. Luckily, the city’s full of soul-warming comfort food to satisfy any craving, so we set off one drizzly Monday to a few of the city’s ethnic enclaves in search of our favorites.
Our first stop is in a narrow laneway between Bourke Street and Little Bourke, where the spicy note of star anise tells us we’ve arrived in the heart of Chinatown. Established in the 1850s with the first wave of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush, the area’s still full of Chinese shops, little storefronts selling bean paste-filled pastries, elegant eateries serving cuisines from Sichuan, Shandong, and Canton, and traditional medicine vendors with bins of dried roots, leaves, and mushrooms. We turn a corner, beyond the ornate welcoming gates and red lanterns of Little Bourke, into a laneway vaguely reminiscent of Beijing’s hutongs, which is where we find Hutong Dumpling Bar (14-16 Market Lane).
Walk in and you’re greeted by manager Patrick Liu’s wide smile and some of the most authentic dumplings in the city. Their secret? “We make them fresh, every time,” he says, pointing to the dumpling masters rolling, stuffing, and crimping behind the large glass viewing window that separates the dining room from the kitchen. We order tea and an assortment from the homemade dim sum menu, xiao long bao, duck dumplings, and pork wontons in chili oil that take me back to a nippy autumn afternoon in Chengdu – perfectly thin wrapping with a soft meat center glistening in a shallow pool of red chili oil and crushed Sichuan peppercorns that wake (or numb) your mouth with their liveliness. But unlike the busy street shops in Chengdu, the décor here is classic Melbourne chic, exposed brick walls and modern black lacquered dining sets, the atmosphere subdued.
Still in need of our morning coffee, we head over to Lygon Street in the Carlton District. This is Little Italy and a sure bet for the best coffee around, although after weeks in Melbourne I have yet to drink a bad cup in the entire city. General consensus has it that is because of the city’s Italian influence, mainly post-WWII.
Wide awnings stretch across the sidewalks and the smell of coffee and fresh baked bread envelops us. We’re lured into multiple eateries by signs advertising homemade gnocchi and cakes with attractive meringue crowns displayed in front windows, but none holds our attention like Lygon Food Store (263 Lygon Street). While most storefronts have expanded, making them feel impersonal, Lygon FS is still in its original cozy shop, a deli-café with just a few coveted seats. There are a handful of baked goods and lunch items here, made fresh on site, and the zeppole with custard peeking attractively out of its fried doughy home catches my eye.
One of the owners, Pasquale Coco, makes our coffee himself. My fellow foodie for the day, Joana, has intuitively scouted out the oldest Italian deli in Melbourne. The shop’s been around for 65 years, Australia’s first importer of Italian foods, including espresso. An Italian couple from Adelaide sitting at the table next to ours assures us there’s nowhere better. This is their compulsory food stop in Melbourne, the husband tells us. “We come here to eat every time, then we go shopping.”
The rain’s picking up and it’s time for lunch. My Armenian roots pull me to the Lebanese enclave, a 20-minute tram ride off the tourist map into the Brunswick neighborhood. The cultures have similar foods and it’s been a while since I’ve had a taste of something like home. We pass a shop hazy with shisha smoke, an Afghani kabab shop with spits of rotating lamb in the window, pass the bewildering concentration of bridal shops, and walk into A1 Market and Bakery (645 Sydney Road).
This café, grocery, and bakery-in-one has been open since 1991 and is now run by Elias Farah and his wife Nadia. Melbourne’s Lebanese community has been building steadily since the first immigrants in the 1880s, with more recent waves coming to find respite from war and political unrest. The community has a long history of contribution in the area, one of its most visible being Victoria’s Premier Steve Bracks, who served from 1999-2007.
A1 is something of a community institution, the tables in the front filled with both regulars and curious foodies. There is a small but well-stocked grocery store and two food counters, one in the bakery and one selling coffee and sweets. Breads and savory pastries are pulled out of the oven daily. I’m after lahmajun, a round thin flatbread topped with a paste of spiced minced meat, herbs and tomato, and at A1 they make it fresh, a rare find. The posted coffee menu is standard; ask for traditional style and you’re in for a treat.
Super fine espresso grounds are whisked with water in a stovetop vessel called a jazzve. The jazzve and two tumbler-sized porcelain cups are brought to the table for us to serve ourselves. A colorful mosaic-patterned plate holds our baklava and rose-water nougat candies. The coffee is a warming jolt. I leave mine black, as my grandfather would, alternating the bitterness of each sip with a bite of syrupy sweet dessert. We turn over our cups to read our fortunes in the runoff from the coffee grounds when there’s a knock from outside the window. A man simultaneously smoking and sipping coffee outside (who later introduces himself as Jimmy from Morocco), smiles and gives us two thumbs up, craning his neck as if to check our destiny inside the cups.
Our foodie tour today has given us a glimpse of Melbourne’s famed diversity. As the city’s immigrant areas become more integrated so do its eateries. On Lygon Street we pass Thai, Indian, and Nepalese restaurants. In Chinatown you’ll find a Taiwanese dessert shop, sushi, pho, hipster cocktail bars and traditional Australian minced meat pie shops side by side. Taking its place alongside the globe’s great melting-pot cities of New York, London and Singapore, Melbourne’s ethnic neighborhoods ensure you won’t have to venture far to find the world on a plate.
Bio: A nomadic homebody, Colleen Khachatourians is a writer with a flight addiction currently working on fiction. Her diverse interests have led her to the classrooms of inner city Los Angeles and the hiking trails of small-town Oregon. She’s danced in a wedding procession in Azerbaijan and led sea kayaking tours in Thailand. Follow her travel musings at www.colleengetslost.com. Images by Joana Focking. For more of her work, visit her German-language blog.