“We want to break down cultural barriers,” says Himanshi, tour guide and founder of Foodie Trails. “When you’re unfamiliar with a culture, you can be overwhelmed. But food can break down barriers because people are willing to try something different.”
She has a point, especially as she’s making it while we’re seated at Khartoum Centre, a restaurant in Melbourne’s fabulously multicultural suburb of Footscray.
Though 10 minutes from the CBD by train, Footscray isn’t often visited by tourists. Which seems a pity. As its shabby but friendly streets have welcomed wave after wave of immigrants, it’s come to resemble Australia itself – a diverse community, radiating a distinctive cultural energy.
In recent decades Footscray has attracted African migrants. It’s this community that has recently been used as a political football, with one senior figure suggesting that locals were afraid to visit restaurants at night due to African-Australian youth crime (to which many Melburnians responded: “Let’s eat!”).
Certainly there’s nothing scary in this laidback Sudanese eatery on Nicholson Street, a thoroughfare lined by African-connected businesses. Diners around us are leisurely chatting and eating as our waiter, Ahmed, delivers cups of ruby-red karkade (hibiscus tea) to our table.
As we sip the hot drink with a citrus-like flavour, Himanshi gives us an overview of Africa’s diversity – “54 countries, 2000 languages and dialects” – with a focus on the Horn of Africa region from where many Footscray residents originate.
Though cattle-raising is a common activity in the region, she says, there’s plenty of interesting vegetable dishes involving lentils, beans, pepper and okra.
We’ve gone for a largely vegetarian selection today, the star of which is ful, comprising slow-cooked fava beans embedded with crunchy chunks of Sudanese-style falafel. There’s also a lentil dish, and a lamb stew in a glutinous okra sauce.
Accompanying these are two types of bread. There’s some evidence that wheat originated in north-east Africa thousands of years ago, says our guide, so it’s not surprising that it’s a common part of meals in the Horn region.
There’s a flatbread here that resembles its Mediterranean counterparts, and something far more interesting: kisra, a tissue-thin fermented bread made from sorghum and wheat flour.
Ahmed explains the process by which the sheets of kisra are made: by spreading the batter over a hot metal dome until it’s thin enough for the purpose, then whipping each sheet away once cooked.
The final component of the meal looks insignificant – a small container of chilli paste – but plays a major role. With a huge kick, it’s an effective flavour enhancer for the otherwise mild dishes.
After a final chat with Ahmed, son of restaurant owner Mohamed and in training to become a pilot, we resume the tour. Between food stops, this walk is designed to show off local African-related businesses – and so we drop into the compact premises of Lemat.
This bakery specialises in injera, the traditional unleavened bread of Ethiopia. Its flat but spongy form is perfect for wrapping around food that’s eaten by hand, and the teff flour it’s made from has a distinctly healthy profile.
A passing customer tells us we should be buying injera for its iron content alone. And he’s right, it’s a bread unusually high in iron, calcium, and healthy minerals.
The shop’s shelves are also piled with other Ethiopian ingredients, including spices, lentil and green coffee beans. My eye is caught by berbere, a hot spice mix that is far cheaper here than I’ve ever found it in more gentrified districts.
Next we make our way to a homewares shop with a startlingly blingy gleam. It’s full of Middle Eastern and African coffee paraphernalia with gold highlights and intricate metal lacework, high-quality services to be used for special occasions.
Our final commercial stop is at a hair-braiding business. According to Himanshi, braids were once connected to status in African cultures, but are now more about individual style. To one side of the shop, there are rows of packaged hair extensions hanging from racks, and at the back of the shop a young girl is having her hair expertly braided by a staff member.
After another stroll we reach our last destination, Dinknesh Lucy. The owner of this Ethiopian restaurant has borrowed the “Lucy” nickname of the famous hominid skeleton found in the Awash Valley in 1974. One of our distant relatives from more than 3 million years ago, this famous fossil is a reminder of our common origins in Africa.
The restaurant is an unfussy old-school suburban eatery, with heavy metal-framed chairs at simple wooden tables, and wicker lampshades hanging from the ceiling.
The food, however, is spectacular. Centre stage is a platter featuring lentils, cabbage, beetroot, spinach and a selection of sauces. There’s another variant of ful, this time served with chunks of egg and tomato among the fava beans.
In a steaming dish is doro wat, a chicken stew with berbere spice, onion and tomato, cooked over an open fire. A basket of injera, each piece neatly rolled, completes the (filling) meal.
After we’ve eaten, owner Lucy pours us Ethiopian-style coffee, served from a tray with a bed of grass sitting beneath the cups. The coffee comes from a pot inscribed with decorative patterns, as incense burns on a small brazier. It’s a delicious brew, imparting an earthy taste that marks the end of a delicious day.
For Himanshi, however, these tours are not just an eating experience, but a chance to make connections at a time when we sorely need cross-cultural understanding.
“Sometimes you need that interaction, one-on-one, to give you the full picture,” she says.
Qantas flies to Melbourne from across Australia. See qantas.com.au.
Jasper Hotel, jasperhotel.com.au. Accommodation near Queen Victoria Market, from $109 per night.
Foodie Trails’ African Food Walk takes place monthly. Fee $125, book via foodietrails.com.au.
SEE + DO
The food, art and music African Festival is at Queen Victoria Market from September 15 to 16, 2018 (see foodietrails.com.au); The African Music & Cultural Festival is in Federation Square each December (see africanmusicfestival.com.au).
Tim Richards was hosted by Foodie Trails and assisted by Visit Victoria.
FIVE MORE TASTES OF AFRICA IN MELBOURNE
THE ABYSSINIAN Small but lively Ethiopian restaurant in Kensington, decorated with traditional art. Best value here is the Chef’s Platter, which comes laden with colourful foods laid upon injera, to be scooped up and enjoyed. See theabyssinian.com.au
NEW SOMALI KITCHEN Informal Flemington eatery with simple contemporary decor, and splashes of colour from flowers and potted plants. The signature dish involves lamb cooked in Somali spices, on fragrant rice with braised vegies and fresh mixed leaves. See newsomalikitchen.com.au
POLEPOLE This CBD bar serves its own South African-style biltong, alongside African beers and cocktails inspired by the continent. See polepolebar.com.au
SAHARA Long-lived Moroccan restaurant atop a CBD building, its menu featuring a range of tagines. See saharamelbourne.com.au
NYALA A Fitzroy stalwart, Nyala’s menu ranges across the continent, with dishes from Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Gambia, South Africa and more. See nyala.com.au