Melbourne, Portland of the Southern Hemisphere

29 Sep

I tagged along with Tom on his trip to Melbourne last week. This being my first time in Australia, I wasn’t sure what to expect; food-wise, I was looking forward to indulging in red meat, cheese, and wine, things that Malaysia doesn’t do so well. Especially wine. Asia still doesn’t have much of a wine culture (and really, who wants to be drinking red wine in 90-degree heat?), and with the high taxes in Malaysia, it’s both difficult and expensive to find a decent bottle. (Case in point: Yellowtail costs nearly $20 here.) Melbourne, on the other hand, is in the heart of Australia’s lesser-known wine country, the Yarra Valley, which is sort of the Oregon to the McLaren Valley’s Napa.


The bucolic hills of wine country in the Yarra Valey


I was surprised to find out that Melbourne is something of a food destination. The focus on local eating would put Alice Hoffman to shame. I mean, even the olive oil and salt they put on the house-made pasta are likely to be local. Also, much like the Pacific Northwest, Melburnians are obsessed with coffee. (There’s even an app for it.) There are literally hundreds of European-style coffee bars (though they don’t charge you for sitting) tucked into laneways and dotting the streets. As far as I could make out on my brief visit, the reason for all the cafés has its roots in 1) the Italian immigrants who came during the 19th century and after World War II, bringing café culture with them, and 2) the practice of closing pubs at 6 pm, from which coffee bars were exempt, even if they might be serving something a little stronger than espresso. (N.B.: the early closing was abolished in the late ’60s, but the coffee bars remained.)


Caffe latte, served authentically


Perhaps because coffee is part of Melbourne’s heritage, coffee shops are mostly independent (I only saw one Starbucks the entire week), and the drinks are served as they would be in Italy — even the McCafe lattes come in a glass.

I was also surprised by how acclimated I had gotten to living in Malaysia, even after a month. Literally — I was so cold in Melbourne (it’s spring there now, so temps were between 50 and 60 degrees) that I had to buy a new jacket. And portion sizes! Somewhere in the back of my mind I expected Australia to be quasi-British, and was unprepared for the massive, American-sized plates of food.

The shift in portion size, along with the sizable Chinese population in Melbourne, has produced this specialty: the dim sim.


Behold, the dim sim


When I first saw an ad for “dim sim,” I thought it was a typo, but then I saw other places advertising their “delicious South Melbourne market dim sims” and came to the conclusion that it must be A Thing. The dim sim is like a potsticker on HGH: a ball of seasoned pork the size of a child’s fist in a very large wonton wrapper, which you can get fried or, as a concession to health, steamed. I guess “gut bomb” wasn’t as marketable. (By the way, if you’re wondering “why dim sim?”, have an Australian try to say “dim sum.”) I got mine fried, of course, because when you’re eating a quarter-pound of minced pork, you might as well go for the gusto. It tasted kind of like a Chinese food version of another Aussie staple, the sausage roll. I imagine these would be very popular in Wrigleyville after a Cubs game.

Another Melbourne specialty, allegedly: cakes. Acland Street in the St. Kilda’s district is particularly known for their pastries.


Cake display on Acland Street


There are three or four of these cake shops lined up along the street. Which brings me to another Melburnian (or maybe it’s Australian?) specialty: incomprehensible terms for common things. A cake isn’t a cake, it’s a “slice,” which is actually a square. A pot of beer is smaller than a pint of beer. I still don’t know what a “milk bar” is. And it took me a while to figure out that when people ask you “How’re you going?”, they’re not interested in your transit plan.

The vanilla slice I had was delicious, though it was neither a slice nor a cake. (Definitely vanilla.) It was more like a mille-feuille, but with about two inches of cream filling. This thing was huge. (See above regarding Aussie portions.)

Melbourne is also famous for its food markets. These are like permanent farmers’ markets that have been around since the 19th century, and like a supermarket, you can get anything: meat, seafood, vegetables, deli items, uggs (this being Australia, after all). I couldn’t resist a trip to the seafood section:

The finest from Australian shores




As I bemoaned my lack of a kitchen to prepare these delicacies, I noticed that a couple of gentlemen were enjoying cold beers and oysters on the half-shell. The stall had set up an impromptu oyster bar, and was running a $1 oyster special!


Oysters, straight from the market


I love oysters. When I heard Shaw’s Crab House had a 25-cent oyster special (they still have it: 3-6pm on the last Monday of the month), I had two dozen of them. By myself. However, I restrained myself this time (I’d just eaten that dim sim, after all) and only got three.

My only regrets leaving Melbourne were that 1) I didn’t get to eat more, and 2) I couldn’t smuggle in cheese to go with my wine. Next time, I’m bringing a cooler.


2 Responses to “Melbourne, Portland of the Southern Hemisphere”

  1. Doug Inglis October 2, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    #1) The picture captioned: “The finest from Australian shores” would not load.
    #2) Shouldn’t the “u” in “uggs” be upper case?
    #3) A plural subject should take a plural verb. So the sentence should read: “There are three or four of these cake shops . . .”. (Or at least that’s what us old geezers were taught back in the old days. . .)
    The quality of the blog is top notch.

    • rgautz October 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm #

      1) Thanks for the catch. I will fix the link.
      2) Capital “u” Uggs are trademarked products now produced in China. Uggs, non-capital, is the generic Aussie slang for sheepskin boots. There’s an interesting WSJ article about this.
      3) As an English major, I am terribly embarrassed. My copy editor must have been taking a coffee break.

      Thanks for reading!

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