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The Melbourne Foodie Culture Walking Tour will delight tourists and locals alike. For tourists, it's a great introduction to Melbourne's history, our ethnic diversity and a chance to try foods which have ended up in Melbourne from across the globe, but for locals, it is also a chance to discover new foodie finds.
On my recent tour, I noted the vegetarian was well catered for, the overseas guests loved the snippets of local history as well as meeting locals (there is a lot of sitting down and chatting at the various pit-stops), and the young couple visiting from Sydney got to experience Melbourne's thriving food scene. Yet, the tour also offered new foodie discoveries to a couple already living in the CBD and as I live in the suburbs, most of the delicious food stops were revelations to me as well.
Our tour leader was Indian born Himanshi Munshaw Luhar, who has long been on a quest to break down cultural barriers through what she recognises as humanity's shared bond— our common love of food.
She started her business Foodie Trails eight years ago and already organises regular home cookery style classes where presenters hand down recipes for family favourite dishes, whether they be Sri Lankan, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican or Indian. Himanshi is also a key figure in organising a number of events such as the Indian Summer Festival at the IND v AUS Boxing Day Test, Diwali at Bunjil Place and The District Docklands - Multicultural Festival. Then there are her excellent food trail tours such as African Trails in Footscray, and Masala Trails in the CBD and Dandenong which allow her to share her unique insights into ethnic food.
But all her interests and passions for tourism, food and multiculturalism come together in this new tour. "The Melbourne Foodie Culture Tour is one I have been planning for some years, ' she says. "Immigration is the most important aspect of Australia and our food culture came to us through waves of immigration."
Immigration Museum. Where we all came from is also where our food comes from. Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
Fittingly, this tour started at the Immigration Museum on Flinders Street, where our group learns about the waves of migrants who came to Australia such as the early British, the Chinese during the 1851 Gold Rush, the displaced persons after World War 2, the 10 pound Poms (the price of the ticket), the Italians and Greeks, the wave of Indochinese refugees, and families from the Middle East and Sri Lanka.
"Today Victorians come from more than 200 countries, speak 260 languages and dialects and follow 135 religious faiths," says Himanshi.
Afterwards, our group followed in her footsteps as we explored Melbourne through her taste buds as the research for this tour involved taste-testing some of Melbourne's best dishes.
While the entire tour took four hours, the walking is not onerous. About 40 minutes in total or 8000 steps but this was made up of short stretches broken up with lots of seated eating and chatting and learning from Himanshi but also from each other. As we all come from different ethnic origins, this only adds to the conversation surrounding food.
In the Block Arcade, we milled with other tourists but our destination was the aromatic Gewürzhaus a spice shop started by two German sisters who stock 300 herbs and spices that you can scoop into bags. It smelt heavenly. And as we were led by an expert foodie, there were lots of tips on herbs and spices to use for our own cooking but also for medicinal purposes.
A plate of food coming out at Brunetti - photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
Then onto buzzing Brunetti in Flinders Lane. The decor harks back to 1950s and '60s Italy, with an enticing gelato bar, whirring coffee machines, and a paninoteca, serving sandwiches and deli eats.
I thought the Sydneysiders took it pretty well when Himanshi said "Melbourne has the best coffee culture in Australia. There were already cafes in Melbourne but the Italians started their own because being so family orientated they wanted places that were family friendly. The also brought with them Melbourne's first coffee machines."
Looking around I could not help but notice the Brunetti espresso machines were highly polished and took pride of place.
We moved on to Chinatown, established by Chinese prospectors during the Victorian Goldrush and once home to Chinese laundries, herbalists, furniture makers and opium dens." It is the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world although today has over 100 different types of Asian cuisines including Japanese and Korean" Himanshi told us.
Himanshi has a wonderful way of identifying the unifying the common themes in world food."While we think of dumplings as being Chinese" she said," there are variations around the world from Indian samosas, to Polish pierogi and Italian ravioli."
Himanshi serving out group some dumplings - Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
She explained that the origin of Chinese dumplings was over 1800 years ago when Zhang Zhongjing, a medical master wanted his patients to take certain herbs to cure the frostbite on their ears. He cooked chunks of mutton with various warming herbs and spices hiding the medicine in dough wrappers, boiled them, and gave the dumplings with broth to his patients, who were cured. It explains why dumplings are ear-shaped.
In making dumplings, Himanshi said the pinches on top are like a code denoting the type of filling.
We also tucked into pork buns with red bean puffs for the vegetarian in our group.
At every tasting, Himanshi was like the Scheherazade of tales, filling us in on background legends. "The story is that the bun was invented by Zhuge Liang, the celebrated Chinese general from the third century. During one campaign, he was told his troops could only gain safe passage across a river if he beheaded 50 of his men. Not wanting to lose his men he tricked his opponents by creating gigantic steamed buns and throwing them into the river so they appeared from the distance as bobbing heads. "
Steamed pork buns - China Town Melbourne photo @nadinecresswell-myatt
I don't think I will look at a pillowy steamed bun quite the same ever again.
Moving to Swanston Street, we experienced the very best Vietnamese rice paper rolls their tautness luminous over the rich green of Vietnamese herbs and the coral-coloured prawns. These were accompanied by bowls of peanut sauce. Double dipping mandatory.
Swanston Street is not an area locals often walk down as we are more accustomed to weaving in and out of the alleyways, so it came as a surprise to see how many of the once Greek souvlaki shops have now been taken over by Vietnamese vendors.
This lead to Himanshi telling us of how Melbourne changing waves of immigration and of where to find the best ethnic food precincts in Melbourne such as the Vietnamese strips in Richmond and Springvale, Oakleigh with its strong Greek cultural influence, Little India in Dandenong and the African restaurants in Footscray.
We couldn't end the tour without an Australian meat pie. I am not sure that many of us still eat them, at least the ones in cellophane wrappers. But it was fun to hear Himanshi tell the story of the Flying Pieman in Sydney, who would race the ferry to greet potential customers at both ends and of the football club, which started the original pie nights in 1921.
Nothing like a splash of red on an Aussie meat pie - photo @nadinecresswellmyatt
The pies we tucked into at Princes Pies, in Howey Place, were nothing like the ones of my youth. These offerings were made from ethically sourced, grass-fed meat and cooked with fresh herbs from the garden. The owners had the vision of making the Australian meat pie great again. And they have succeeded.
I can well imagine seeking this place out again at even the hint of a cold wintry day in Melbourne.
The tour ended with Indian cuisine near Flinders Street Station. Seated and hovering over bowls of Iddly, savoury pillows of fluffed up rice cakes submerged in red lentil soup and accompanied by fresh coconut chutney tempered with spices and mustard seeds. This was followed by rasmalai (discs of paneer) in an aromatic milk syrup and topped with nuts. Definite clouds of desire.
It was a chance for Himanshi to tell us of her own experience of coming to Melbourne. "I came here as a student in 2005 and went on to do a Masters degree. Education is one of Melbourne's booming industries with overseas students paying roughly $2000-2500 per subject per term. But most students return to their country of origin."
Thank goodness Himanshi ended up staying as in doing so, she is enriching our booming, multi-cultural food scene and helping us to appreciate what we have on our doorsteps but don't always know about. The Foodie Cultural Tour might be a walk across town but it is a walk across several countries as well.
When:Himanshi's Foodie Culture Tours start at the Immigration Museum Discovery Centre in Flinder's Street a t10.30am and concludes at 2.30pm They presently run on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays although there are plans for additional days.
Phone:Email - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 1800 667 791