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Melbourne’s Little Indonesia: A tour for the tastebuds

Jamie-maree Shipton

Tue Jun 05 2012

Indonesian supermarket, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn

THE delicious tastes of sambal, kue lapis and jasmine tea. No we’re not in Indonesia. We’re on Glenferrie Rd in Hawthorn – Melbourne’s very own Little Indonesia. 

Laguna Asian Market, Indonesian supermarket, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorne.

Laguna Asian Market. Make yourself at home in Melbourne’s Little Indonesia on Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn. Photo: Shaun Lee

A car horn erupts, then another. Cars and bikes flood the street. The masses of people don’t hesitate as they weave through the mayhem to cross the street. And yet, the atmosphere is somehow peaceful. Despite the noise and clatter, everyone seems to flow around each other.

I quickly became accustomed to my surroundings. The repeating horns and screeching tyres fade away and I just cross, one foot in front of the other, not stopping. I learnt this trick in Bali.

I’m lost in the tangled paths of a market place. The batiks that hang from the second storey wave in the slight breeze, people haggle, switching between Indonesian and English. I have begun to aimlessly wander, motorbikes buzz through the market, the paths get narrower but the crowd grows.

I’m on Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn, to the right of Glenferrie Station, but I feel like I’m in Indonesia.

At first glance the stores appear continuous, piled on top of one another. It’s hard to separate where one begins and another ends. The shopfronts are decorated with colourful foreign writing, their windows plastered with images of unusual food. Despite their contrast to the surrounding cafes and upmarket clothing stores, most people just pass them by.

Only the smell of kecap manis and sambal (sweet soy sauce and chilli sauce) draw me to them.

Baskets are piled on top of each other, cloth and material layered so high I fear as I try to squeeze past that they might tumble. Everything is blended together, I’m seeing the same things over and over, yet all these people are trying to make a living separate to the stall a metre away.

I open the door of Nelayan Indonesian Bakery and Restaurant. The striking smells are heightened.

Nelayan Indonesian Bakery and Restaurant, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn

Indonesian bakery. Nelayan Indonesian Bakery and Restaurant. Photo: Shaun Lee

Indonesian people sit chatting, their plates pilled high. The cafeteria style service has them talking across the room as they walk over to have their plate filed by an attendant. It’s hard to tell who works here and who’s a customer. They all seem to be relaxing and participating in the conversation.

To one side is the bakery. Glass cabinets enclose treats with Indonesian labels like Roti pisang, Roti coklat (banana bread, chocolate bread), ongol-ongol (a jelly-like sweet treat covered in coconut) and kue lapis (a small dessert cake). Kue lapis reminds my taste buds of the time I stood in an Indonesian market where woven baskets were filled with exotic provisions. I remember being curious as to whether the cake would actually taste sweet.

Eat where the locals eat. Nelayan Bakery and Restaurant. Photo: Shaun Lee

I take a bite of ongol-ongol. It takes me back to that little stall on the side of the road in Bali with its miniature stools. The locals around me gathering to relax and get the best homemade treats.

Nelayan almost entices me to sit down and spend the rest of the day eating and being drowned in the babble of Indonesian.

But I continue wandering, passing more Indonesian restaurants, each bursting with the sounds of Indonesia. Then my nose scrunches up and I know I have found what I’m looking for.

Indomart Asian Grocery, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn

Indomart Asian Grocery, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn

On both sides of the street are Indonesian supermarkets and I can smell the foreign smells of dried foods, fish and noodles.

A girl stands at the till of the Indomart supermarket. Asian beer sits on a shelf behind her.

Small children simply run around my feet. I wonder if they should be in school and whether they should be out alone. But they tell me you grow up quick here.

A man whom I assume is her father busies himself around the store. He exudes the smell of the store, but stronger, it seeps from his clothes as he passes you by.

No aisle numbers or titles are allocated. There are simply fridges and shelves of products. The packets and jars have only Indonesian and Chinese writing. You have to pick them up and observe the packet at every angle to find an English translation (if there is one).

Cartoon men, prawns and pandas wave from the packets.

Then I discover the shelves of tea. This is what I came here for. Lychee black tea, oolong, lotus, rose, prunella, honey suckle, jellygrass and chrysanthemum.

The tea is sweet as it comes through my straw, I’m glad I can read Indonesian. The packets look similar to chocolate milk, but they’re not. The lady at the stall says only 10.000 rupiah for the can of jasmine tea.

Laguna Asian Market, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorne

Pick up Indonesian goodies from home at Laguna Asian Market on Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn. Photo: Shaun Lee

Laguna Asian Market, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn

Laguna Asian Market, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn. Photo: Shaun Lee

Laguna Asian Market, Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn

You can also pick up fresh produce at Laguna Asian Market. Photo: Shaun Lee

The Indonesian Experience

Glenferrie Road has plenty of Indonesian stores and restaurants. Here are four of the best:

Indo Mart Supermarket:
739 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn

Nelayan Indonesian Restaurant and Bakery:
768 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn

Laguna Oriental Supermarket
772 Glenferrie Road

We’re looking to find the best places to eat in Melbourne, no matter what cuisine you’re craving. Do you know of any other great Indonesian eateries or supermarkets? Share in the comments section below.