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Eating our way around Footscray

Meld Magazine

Tue Nov 13 2012

Ethiopian food 1

YAOCHENG Lee takes us on a culinary and photographic tour of the beautifully diverse Western suburb, Footscray.

As I stepped out of Footscray station, my first impressions were everything I had expected. It looked seedy and unkempt. Graffiti lined the walls everywhere – and most of it wasn’t the good kind.

In stark contrast to the centre of Melbourne, just two stations away, most things in Footscray seemed to be in a state of squalor and disarray.

In the years that I have lived in Melbourne, Footscray has come up in conversation many times. More often than not, it bears a negative connotation.

I have been frequently warned about the dangers of going there alone at night, along with the other dos and don’ts.

And surprise, surprise, on my way there, I met an Australian friend who once again warned me to get out of Footscray before dark.

But despite its reputation as a crime ridden area, Footscray is also a place of cultural diversity and incredible food.

Footscray, originally dominated by Italian and Yugoslavian immigrants, has now become a hub for the Vietnamese, and increasingly, East Africans.

And it doesn’t take more than a few steps out of Footscray station to notice the cultural diversity. So instead of heading straight towards Hopkins St or the popular Footscray market, I paused for a while along Irving St and looked for a doughnut van called Olympic Doughnuts.

Photo Yaocheng Lee

Somewhat imperceptible at first, it is much like the Leaky Cauldron pub in Harry Potter – invisible to the muggle eye – its shabby exterior camouflaged perfectly into the surrounding construction sites.

But for “gifted” people in the know, this place offers addictive little jam-stuffed wonders.

Crisp on the outside while soft and fluffy on the inside, the delicious jam doughnuts from Olympic Doughnuts are cooked fresh everyday and only cost 80 cents a pop.

The quaint little store is a Footscray institution that has been around for more than three decades and even survived the surrounding railway works, which once threatened to shut down the local icon.

Perhaps in testament to the inveterate popularity of the store, the Regional Rail Link team even took extra effort to work around the doughnut van and keep it in operation throughout the construction works.

Walking further into the heart of Footscray, I encounter an eclectic mix of supermarkets, shops and restaurants. Vietnamese bakeries, Ethiopian restaurants and Greek pastry shops can all be found along Hopkins St.

My first stop, without a doubt, is Nhu Lan Bakery on Hopkins St for their famous banh mi or Vietnamese baguette.

Photo Yaocheng Lee

The banh mi is a sandwich made from an assortment of hams, pickled vegetables, pate, fish sauce and cilantro. And the one from Nhu Lan is arguably the best you can find in Melbourne.

To get there, walk past the Subway at the start of Leeds St. If the thought of stopping there for a bite crosses your mind, I beg you, walk on.

One does not go to Footscray for the Subway just as one does not go to Tokyo for McDonalds.

Take advantage of the fact you are in such a culturally diverse neighbourhood and walk one more block down to Nhu Lan. I promise you will have a much more satisfying meal at only half the price.

Nhu Lan Bakery also offers a range of traditional Vietnamese desserts like the che khoai mon which is a coconut milk based dessert with glutinous rice, taro and other ingredients.

The chekhoai mon is almost cloyingly sweet and will no doubt appeal to people with a penchant for saccharine foods.

Also along Hopkins St is a homely Ethiopian restaurant called Dinknesh Lucy Restaurant and Bar. The restaurant is run by a mother and daughter team and offers up some classic Ethiopian favourites.

Ethiopian cuisine usually involves stewed meats and vegetables of some sort served with injera bread.

Injera bread is the national dish of Ethiopia and eaten daily by them. It is a flatbread with a spongy texture made from fermented flour, similar to the South Indian appam.

Typically, Ethiopians eat with their hands and use the bread to scoop up the stews and sauces.

Although I have never had Ethiopian food before, it tasted very familiar. The stews are similar to Indian curries.

The characteristic Ethiopian hospitality and warmth shown at Dinknesh Lucy was so overwhelming that the restaurant’s owner/chef was even kind enough to teach me the correct way to eat with injera bread.

Photo Yaocheng Lee

The culinary experiences in Footscray extend far beyond its restaurants and into its markets and small shops.

Cheaper Buy Miles on Nicholson St is great for stocking up on snacks and groceries at a bargain price.

A Mars bar here will cost you only a dollar, compared the $2 you will pay in Woolworths or Coles.

Photo Yaocheng Lee

Little Saigon Market further north on Nicholson St is another gem with a great selection of foods at wonderfully low prices.

While walking through the Little Saigon Market, jostling with Vietnamese housewives and Vietnamese sellers, it is easy to forget you’re in Australia.

Although smaller than Footscray Market, Little Saigon Market lives true to the saying, “good things come in small packages”.

The market’s sellers have free samples of fruits all year round, and they sometimes stock more exotic tropical fruits like rambutans and mangosteens.

You’ll also find iconic tastes from home like bamboo shoots and freshly made sugarcane juice.

And while you’re there, don’t miss out on trying the absolutely delicious Vietnamese crepes stuffed with minced pork and fish sauce. Need I say more?

As it turned out, Footscray wasn’t the dingy and unsafe place I had expected.

To my pleasant surprise, I discovered a suburb that had great food, diverse cultures and warm, helpful people.

I had a fantastic afternoon immersed in the many cultures of the world without straying more than two stops from Melbourne CBD, and I definitely recommend you ditch the warnings and explore this amazing Western suburb.

To get to Footscray, take the Sydenham line from any of the City Loop stations.