When an offer of being guided around one of Sydney’s most dynamic foodie suburbs arises you’d have to be stupid to turn it down. Cabramatta, for those that don’t know, is located in the western suburbs of Sydney and is predominantly Vietnamese. It’s a hive of bustle and activity from well-seasoned pho establishments to super cheap fresh produce shops selling things you’ve no idea what to do with, to elderly Vietnamese nanna’s trying to make a buck from chopped fresh lemongrass or banana-wrapped parcels of sticky rice.
Ring leaders and Cabra locals Amy and Betty proudly and patiently guided our small group (MInnoDB, Richard and Angie plus diligent non-bloggers (Mr K, Pizza Boy & Ryan) around their neighbourhood exposing us to the things they probably take for granted. Yes I’m used to Asian supermarkets, restaurants and shops in this town but somehow out here in Cabramatta it all seems a bit foreign, like downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Many things were seen, sipped, tasted and photographed so I can’t help but divide our tour in two: Street Food and Restaurant Food, otherwise this will end up an epic post that may end up boring you to tears.
One thing that strikes you in Cabramatta is the abundance of fruit, vegetable & herb markets and it’s no wonder such things come with the very low prices they do. The pungent smell of fresh durian wafts through crowded arcades alongside the sharp fragrance of Vietnamese mint, garlic chive flowers or just unscented coils of blooming lotus stems ready for being tossed in a wok for some fabulous stir-fry.
Our first stop takes us to Kaysone Sweets where we sample some smoothies made with unconventional (to some) ingredients. The durian smoothie and avocado smoothie look harmless enough but the aquired flavour is one that is not loved by all. The durian is initially creamy and sweet but the pungent aftertaste is a bit much for me and a couple of the others, whereas the avocado smoothie reminds me of a similar drink I had in Fes, Morocco back in 2002. Avocado pureed with sugar – not something I can associate drinking through a straw. I forgot to take a photo so a big thanks to MInnoDB for handing over her wares!
In the same place the first thing I noticed was the tray of beautiful banana leaf-wrapped parcels almost identical to the ones I tried in Phnom Penh, Cambodia five years ago. Under-ripe banana encased in sticky rice, wrapped in banana leaf and grilled. The only difference here is you have the delicious option of having it served with sweet coconut milk and sprinkled with crunchy toasted crushed peanuts. Talk about heaven in a plastic bowl, and at $3.20 a pop you can’t go wrong.
Walking along John Street gives you one of the best snap-shots of Cabramatta as this is where most of the (mainly elderly) locals sell their wares from cardboard boxes, trolleys and crates all lined up on the footpath like they were in some Asian backstreet. Selling things like this is against the law in Australia so when the cops decide to show face an immediate scramble happens before settling back to “normal” after the law enforcers leave.
One of our group picks up a container of freshly-warm custard cakes from a bakery that has a fascinating robotic contraption endlessly making these little delicacies by squirting batter into moulds to cook before being removed for us curious hungry hoards. The thin doughnut-like pastry is soft, warm and eggy and gives way to a creamy and gooey sweet filling.
Cabramatta is known for its delicious pandan waffles (1.5) and this is something that just has to be had. Not as crispy as your conventional Western waffle, this one is on the softer side, is deliciously sweet and has a hint of aroma from pandan. Opposite the waffle vendor I spotted a plate of great-looking pastry-like morsels that I soon found out to be prawn cakes. Not really a cake but a soft and thin pasty cup holding a savoury eggy custard rich in prawn flavour, topped with spring onions and a whole unshelled baby shrimp. While being on the greasy side it was tasty nonetheless.
A container of nem chua was picked up from one of the “street ladies” and handed around for all to try. The small squares of cured pork are the same that are used in those beautiful Vietnamese bread rolls that also contain liver paté, chilli, coriander, pickled carrot and onion. The flavour is distinctly lemony with chunks of garlic, chilli and mint and the texture is on the rubbery-side with thin strands of pork skin.
One thing I did notice, that nobody actually pointed out until we entered Hunan Smallgoods, is the balut. These fertilized duck eggs are an absolute delicacy and contain the fully-formed fetus of a duck. All you do is crack the shell and chomp into the head, wings, beak and soft bones, perhaps with a little salt. This is one thing I would never try!
Cakes and sweets are never too far away and at this place located outside a butcher you can pick up boxed portions for $3 each or 3 for $5. The very camera-shy girls ducked for cover as soon as I pulled out the DSLR as if I was throwing something at them! I grabbed three boxes without really knowing what the contents tasted like, so here goes. The banana jelly tastes clearly of banana and the side of coconut cream is a nice touch. The cassava cake is also a bit gelatinous in texture, very sweet, syrupy and coconutty in flavour and has a semolina-type consistency. The speed-striped green bean jelly cake is also gelatinous and layered with a gritty sweet coconut paste.
At the end of our tour Richard and I pick up a couple of the great-looking meats from Hunan Smallgoods. I’ve had lap cheong sausage before in rice dishes but the variety they have here is made using kangaroo meat, so I had to buy some. Just near it was a bucket containing glistening strips of cured dried pork belly that were just beckoning to be bought, so Richard and I go halves in a long strip. I used some of the sausage here.
All in all our food tour was a fascinating and successful one and gave some of our group an incredible and exciting insight into this Vietnamese hub located 30km from Sydney’s CBD. A big thanks to Amy and Betty for showing us around!
Keep posted for my next instalment of the restaurants we sampled more food at.
Related post – Cabramatta Eating Tour, Restaurant Food