Footscray food safari!

Posted on: August 24, 2009

[galangal at Little Saigon Markets, Footscray, from my flickr]

Last month I played tourist in my own neighbourhood – a FOOD tourist, if such a thing exists.

I feel quite spoilt that our local council puts on things like free gardening workshops and free food tours! That’s right – FREE FOOD TOUR! It’s called ‘Vietnam On A Plate’ and apparently the tours have been running them for about 12 years now.

It was kind of like that SBS show Food Safari, except in my own neck of the woods! I have been living in Melbourne’s inner west for almost 5 years now – Footscray for the first few and now Maidstone.

When we first moved here we were both intrigued and intimidated by the sheer abundance of eatery and food shopping choices available to us in our new area. There are a couple ‘little Vietnam’ areas in Melbourne. The most famous ones are Victoria Street, Richmond and Barkly Street, Footscray. I am sure there are more! Footscray is also home to quite a number of African restaurants (mainly Ethiopian) and bakeries, a couple of Filipino food stores, many Asian supermarkets, Indian food stores, vegetarian food stores – you name it!

It wasn’t long before we started sampling the many Vietnamese restaurants in our area but the problem was trying to pick which one. They were all so busy and each seemed to specialise in something different. And then when we did find one we enjoyed and wanted to revisit we couldn’t remember which one it was. The busy one… with a glass front… with a mirror along the side… oh that’s ALL OF THEM!

We finally have gotten our head around it somewhat. We have our favourite pho place, hot pot place, we did have a favourite roast place but they retired 😦 , favourite Ethiopian place…

But what we really wanted was a local to show us the neighbourhood’s best kept and not-so-well kept secrets. We had only managed to find out our local haunts by trying them ourselves but I am sure there are PLENTY we haven’t gotten to trying yet, and our friends, like us, are folk who have only recently moved here too.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I read that our council were running a free tour of Vietnamese stores and eateries. The tours are very popular. I tried to sign up to attend one in 2008 but was too late and all the spots were booked.

2009 I was very lucky. I had my email address added to a list to find out when the next lot of tours were being run. I was in Bali at the time I received the email but I still managed to get a spot, but only for myself.

They keep the tours very small. There were only about 7 of us in my group. We met at the Rooftop of the Footscray Markets at 10am. I had never been right up to the rooftop. It was freezing and windy but there is a fabulous view of the city skyline from there, Footscray really is so close to the city. So sad to think the city views are steadily vanishing from our area as developers building big ugly apartment blocks everywhere.

The tour was led by Mei Ling, a Malaysian born Chinese, just like my Dad! As she took us through the marketstalls in the Footscray Markets we were able to ask her to identify all the strange Chinese vegetables we’d always wondered about and she would tell us what it was and the common ways of preparing it. She also gave us lots of tips on how to choose the good ones (I’ll share some random notes in another post).


[lotus root]

Though I have shopped at Footscray Markets many times, Mei Ling took us to stores I have always walked past. She showed us which one was best for western style herbs (a real rarity in Footscray – where everything is catered to the Asian consumer), identified a wide variety of mysterious Asian vegetables, herbs and spices for us, and showed us the unusual cuts of meat you can get at different butchers in the markets. For example, there is a store you can you get chicken spare ribs! There is only one pair per chicken I think they said.

All good markets are hectic environments, and Footscray Market is definitely not for the faint hearted! But personally, that is what I love about the place. I don’t mind a bit of hustle and bustle, you just can’t be shy or delicate about it, you have to roll up your sleeves and get amongst it, or the little Asian grandma next to you is going to elbow her way to the front and get the best fish right from under you!

[world’s weirdest cacti at a flower store at the Footscray Markets. are these things grafted? look like bizarre underwater creatures]

Our tour took us beyond Footscray Markets. We ventured out onto Barkly Street and I was finally able to sample some food at the Bo De Vegetarian Restaurant run by the local monks. I have long been working up the courage to go in there. I remember reading a review in Cheap Eats that talked about the special banquet they have available on the full moon, but that the service might be particularly slow because the monks are all fasting! Wasn’t able to test the accuracy of that statement, but we did have the most delicious vegetarian cold rolls there.

Mei Ling also took us to the biggest Asian supermarket in the suburb:

I have driven and walked past this place COUNTLESS times in my five years in the inner west. It really looks like nothing much from outside, just another fruit and veg store. How wrong I was! It has such a huge range of items inside. Including a whole aisle of religious paraphenalia:

From your more traditional kind of shrines through to your plug in and glow variety, paper money to burn for offerings, incense and these things:

You can also buy these packets of paper versions of worldly possessions for you to burn, so your loved one can take it with them in their afterlife. Here you can see a paper shirt and tie, watch and mobile phone!

In another aisle I was wondering why these ceramic pots had 2 handles and this other weird third handle with a hole in it:

Actually seems it’s used for medicinal purposes. And old school style humidifier?

This store also sells packets of seeds to grow your own exotic Asian vegetable.

I scrambled down notes throughout the tour as we quizzed Mei Ling on her preferred brand of soya sauce, rice paper rolls, curry powder etc.. She also gave us great tips on how to choose the best vegetables, prawns etc.. I’ll share them with you in another post!

We moved along to Little Saigon, which are some other markets in the neighbourhood. Crazy that we have 2 big markets in the area – there is Footscray Markets which are very easy to spot on Barkly Street. But there are also the Little Saigon Markets which are a street back, on the opposite side of Barkly Street.

First we stopped in at a local Chinese medicine store. Here you can see them making little packets of herbs ready to be cooked up in a chicken broth to cure and ease your ailments! This was a revelation to me. When we were in Korea last year, we came across a famous restaurant that only sold one very famous dish – ginseng chicken soup! I tried to replicate it when I found you can buy packets of herbs ready to go in the Asian supermarkets to make your own Ginseng chicken soup. BUT you can hop along to your local Chinese medicine store, tell them your ailments and they will put together a specialised mix of herbs for you to cook up to treat your particular dreaded lurgy!

On to Little Saigon Markets. These guys seem to open longer hours than Footscray Markets. In fact apparently 7pm is a good time to rock up if you want to really score some bargains.

Here we are at the fruit stall, where they are letting customers sample some jackfruit segments.

Here is one of my most favourite fruits! MANGOSTEEN! I was looking for it everywhere when we were recently in Bali but I think it might have been the wrong time of year because I couldn’t seem to find it. Little did I know, I could get it in my own ‘hood.

Look at these cute little eggplants. Don’t find these at Coles, now do ya!

And all the big bunches of fresh, fragrant herbs! Such an integral part to Vietnamese cuisine and one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. So cheap, so fresh, so healthy!

The main dish I know of Vietnamese cuisine is Pho – big steaming bowl of broth with noodles and your choice or chicken or beef. You can add fresh chillis or chilli oil, bean sprouts, Vietnamese mint and regular mint… It’s great in winter. We eat it quite regularly. There are lots of Pho restaurants in Footscray and everyone seems to have their favourite.

But Mei Ling took us to a different kind of Vietnamese restaurant, and included in our tour, we were treated to some traditional dishes I hadn’t seen or tasted before!

Firstly we tried a deliciously refreshing green papaya salad. The papaya tasted just like apple, and was mixed with shredded pork and prawn, peanuts, carrots, cucumber (?), coriander and other herbs. We mixed it up, put it on top of the crispy crackers and it was a wonderful mix of textures and flavours – sweet and sour, moist and crunchy.

Next up, some grilled fish served on a bed of onions, in a sizzling hot plate and topped with lots of fresh dish. We ate it in the traditional Vietnamese style – using lettuce leaves, filling it with soft cold white noodles, fresh mint leaves, some fish and dill, wrapping it up and dipping it in the sweet chilli sauce. Delicious!

And finally, a Vietnamese omelette, again filled with prawns and pork and various fresh veggies and herbs.

Phew I was stuffed! Not bad at all for a free tour!


2 Responses to "Footscray food safari!"

[…] [image from my flickr set] Back in August I posted about the fantastic Vietnam On A Plate tours that are put on FREE by Maribyrnong Council in […]

Hey there Moo,

I’m so glad I found your blog – otherwise I wouldn’t have known about the council sponsored tours. I got to go out with Mei Ling on Saturday and it was such a fantastic day! I got some good pics but have already forgotten just about everything she taught us – I’ll have to refer to your post again in the future.

I’ll put a few pics up tonight, feel free to have a look…

thanks fellow local!

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