Culinary culture shock
Charcoal Lane is reinventing the wheel when it comes to Australian food. Photo: Supplied
Food, like language, is an expression of place. The blend of ingredients particular to a region's geography, the traditions around food preparation and consumption, along with the personal stories and associations with family and friends, act like a poem to home. When we're away, it's food we hanker for as an antidote to homesickness.
Luckily for us, Melbourne's population mix (of 140 homesick nationalities) gives rise to a growing number of niche restaurants offering a taste of exotic places. These eating houses are thick with accents, family recipes, music and customs; each place is a ticket to intriguing and sometimes unfamiliar territory.
Here are 10 good reasons to step outside the Italian, French, Mexican and American comfort-food zone.
Yemen, in southern Arabia, is an ancient country layered with legends: from the Queen of Sheba to the secret of eternal life (said to be hidden on an island). Yemenite Jews migrated to Israel in the mid-20th century, taking with them the malawach. It's a traditional Yemeni flatbread (like a roti) that's ubiquitous in Israel. Made to order, it's served traditionally with a sliced boiled egg and salsa (whizzed tomato, lemon and garlic), or with chunky roast eggplant and salad. It's at Falafel Omisi (359 Hawthorn Road; 9523 8882) in Caulfield, which also has an Israel outlet – run by the owner's grandmother, whose recipe you'll be tasting.
Pempek is the generic term for fish cake dishes – a specialty of South Sumatra's capital city, Palembang. It's a mix of Spanish mackerel and tapioca flour that, like pasta, is shaped and rolled around other ingredients. And it's what Famili Ria (1115 Riversdale Road, Surrey Hills; 9808 6767) does almost exclusively. The matriarch of this six-month-old "happy family" business, Hana The, makes six types of fish cake: one with egg, one with tofu, another a parcel of fish cake threads. Order a sampler (which includes five types). All pempek dishes come in a dark broth (made from palm sugar, garlic and vinegar) topped with a clutch of noodles.
If Noma keeps winning "best restaurant in the world" awards, the world will start to think all Danish food is high-concept New Nordic. Restaurant Dansk (Level 3 Denmark House, 428 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne; 9600 4477; denmarkhouse.com.au) keeps the more traditional line of Danish cuisine alive with an old-school smorgasbord on the first Saturday of every month, with gravlax, three kinds of herrings, meatballs and mayonnaise-rich chicken salad among the many serve-yourself dishes. Monday to Friday it specialises in smorrebrod (rye bread with toppings such as herring and marbled egg).
That deep, red spice-mix berbere is in everything Eritrean. Which is not to say that all Eritrean dishes taste the same. “It changes character, and can taste completely different depending on what you cook with it," says Ruta Ukbagerish from Little Africa (358 Victoria Street, North Melbourne; 9329 8018; littleafrica.com.au). The combination plates here are impressive: a tin tray laid with tangy, pocked injera "bread", which you rip and dip into various curries. They also come with turmeric-stained mixed veg and a mound of fresh salad. There's a neat range of African beers, too.
A bit like the first Europeans, most Australians are unaware of the foods that flourish under our noses. Kangaroo is a fine, yet rarely eaten, meat. And a variety of berries and leaves with bush scents are beginning to seep into the commercial food market. Charcoal Lane (136 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy; 9235 9200; charcoallane.com.au) has been fusing native ingredients with contemporary techniques for four years: you might try wallaby tartare with horseradish potato salad, egg yolk gel and smoked bread. The restaurant, run by Mission Australia, employs young Aborigines.
The darling of central Europe, Croatia's blend of beaches and ancient folk traditions bare out in its cuisine – a bounty of seafood and slow-cooked stews. Katarina Zrinski (72 Whitehall Street, Footscray; 9689 5866; ahdmelbourne.com.au) is part of the Croatian Club – its kitchen run by ladies from the club's committee. The traditional menu includes cabbage rolls (filled with pork and beef mince, rice and spices) served in a paprika-spiked sauce. There's also goulash, cevapcici with chips and salad, and grilled whole calamari with garlic and parsley.
Poland's warming, hearty food acts like a blanket against the country's cold climate. Key ingredients include mushrooms, cabbage, beetroot and pork, prepared and combined simply. Kluska (161 Foster Street, Dandenong; 9793 2154; kluskarestaurant.com.au) is a champion of the dumpling. Pierogi (egg and flour) with various fillings, pyzy (round potato dumplings) and gnocchi are made in-house. There's usually borscht, and there's always vodka: honey, bison grass, rye, and pepper among them. Friday nights there's a squeeze-box player, too.
Pig's ears, brawn (pig's head terrine), black and white pudding – offal is key in the traditional dishes of Ireland, where using every skerrick of the animal was paramount. The Last Jar (616 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne; 9348 2957; thelastjar.com.au) makes traditional dishes from scratch, including the pork sausages in the Dublin coddle – a traditional sausage stew, made here with Western Plains pork, bacon, baby carrots and potato. Top-shelf steaks also feature – served with hot Guinness mustard or green peppercorn and whisky cream. For dessert there's warmed gingerbread with mulled wine quince.
It shares signature ingredients of Thai, Indian and Malaysian food (fish sauce and masala, for example) but as a cuisine is distinct. Often described as home-style, Burmese food features curries (with a base of chilli paste, onion, garlic and ginger), soups and salads – all eaten with rice. Burmese House (303 Bridge Road, Richmond; 9421 2861; burmesehouse.com.au) has been serving traditional dishes for 15 years. For a taste of Myanmar, try deep-fried marrow fritters with tamarind, pickled green-tea leaf salad with dried prawn and fried mixed peas, the national dish – a vermicelli soup made with salmon paste – and one of the menu's 36 curries.
Sudanese (by Lauren Wambach)
Sudan abuts Egypt's southern border, and its cuisine features Middle Eastern riffs atop a drumbeat of distinctly African flavours. This tune is played out at Khartoum Centre Restaurant (145 Nicholson Street, Footscray, no phone), where two very different Sudanese breads are served. The daintier cousin to injera, kisra, is a paper-thin, lacy pancake made with sorghum flour. Try it alongside homely taglia, a minced-meat stew seasoned with weka (dried okra powder). Khartoum Centre's oven works overtime, turning out crusty Arabic-style bread with a warm, fluffy centre – perfect for mopping up juices from grilled lamb cutlets served with red lentil dip.