16 April 2012

Vietnam on a Plate - food tour in Footscray

Vietnamese food is high on my list of favourite foods ever. I have always wanted to go to Vietnam, but health-wise, it is not practical. So the next best thing is to go on a food tour of Vietnamese markets, shops and restaurants in my own backyard.

On Saturday Heidi and I went on a food tour around Footscray. It was a guided walking tour run by Mei Ling from Vietnam on a Plate. Mei Ling provided us with a very comprehensive tour of the Footscray and Little Saigon markets, a number of shops and few restaurants and bakeries. Vietnamese community in and around Footscray is thriving, and it really was like experiencing another culture for five and a half hours.

The indication of the quality market sellers' produce is based on the number of people who shop there. Mei Ling told us that much of the produce in Footscray market is sold to local restaurants and the Victoria University's hospitality school. Here is the produce at Footscray market - the greens, all things chicken - the best chicken stockist in the market, including eggs from the inside and outside of the chicken, quails, pigeons and duck - and the view of Melbourne from the top of the carpark.
Mei Ling spend a considerable amount of time showing us vegetables, and telling us how to cook them. There are so many different green vegetables, and equally as many herbs! Here the photo I took of Heidi taking a photo of water spinach.
The Vietnamese don't waste much, and so in most cases, all of the vegetable (and animal) is used - even the sweet potato leaves. The eggs from inside the chicken - before shells had formed around them - were sold. (Heidi and I were discussing the line we draw about what we feel comfortable about eating - it's interesting that so many of us feel comfortable eating the outside of an animal, but not the inside.) Mei Ling spoke of a store that sold the three day old duckling in a shell. There was one market stall that sold pork, and next door the pet shop was selling dried pig's ears and tails.

We broke for morning tea where we were given Vietnamese pork rolls (my favourite - full of coriander, chilli and pork) and tea or coffee. I had a really good hot chocolate. 
The market sellers were vocal in selling their fruit and vegetables - it was loud, crowded, exciting and a bit scary. We were given custard apples and persimons to taste as we were jostling through Little Saigon - delicious!

We spent a long time exploring the supermarkets - we looked at spices and shrimp paste, and tofu and cookware. These pictures reminded me of the Asian Snack Challenge that a friend and I did after uni two years ago. I want to reignite the challenge!
At one point, a lady on the food tour asked me whether I was taking photos so I could remember what I'd buy later. I told her I am a blogger, and explained what a blog is, and she asked me if it was legal! Very cute :)

We learnt about cultural traditions - symbols to attract wealth and to ward away bad luck, and we saw these paper suits, that are given to the deceased for their afterlife.
We also learnt that the Vietnamese who come to Australia are often very stressed from the life they've left behind, and their health is often suffering.

Lunch was at Quan An (102 Hopkins Street Footscray). We shared a range of meals which were fantastic. Pictured (from top left, clockwise) is prawn, pork and green papaya coleslaw, authentic Vietnamese spring rolls (eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf with Vietnamese mint, lemin leaves and dipping sauce), grilled fish with rice vermicilli and steamed rice paper with minced pork and pork cake slices.
 We also had combination fried rice and fried taro cake with egg.

After lunch we walked some more, and were given egg tarts - my other favourite! =(I had three due to other tour walkers giving them to me!) - and saw these panda fish tofu and tiny eggplants. I found it funny to see the freshness of the fruit and vegetables, contrasted with the cutesy, highly processed food in various shops and supermarkets.
The tour was exceptionally good value (this was an extension of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and subsidised by the Maribyrnong City Council). Mei Ling was very knowledgable and I learnt a lot about how to cook with vegetables and herbs, and also about the cultural aspects of the Asian community.  Heidi and I were quite exhausted by the end of it though, and we thought it could have been a little shorter. I would have liked to have been given more opportunity to buy produce as they were being explained to us, because after the long day of touring, I was tired and not so much in the mood for shopping, and most of the produce I wanted had sold out (I only bought shrimp paste, duck maryland and curry paste.). I was also a bit tired of my "sunburn" being mentioned four times - I believe this was out of concern initially, but once I gave an explanation, it needn't have been raised again.

A few things didn't sit well with me either - and this isn't a reflection of the tour itself, but rather a culture shock, or my naivity. We were told Footscray is largely a cash economy, and it made me wonder about the tax implications and regulations around hygiene and quality of the food. We saw a group of people selling counterfeit Louis Vuitton out of a van. I was also hesitant to buy the meat from the market because of the smell, and I wondered about the farming ethics of the meat and fish. There were lots of crabs in crates, their legs tied, and they were out of water.
Some of the other tour walkers and I talked about how this seemed cruel - they'd die a slow death. We also saw a live fish shop - the boys went in to explore, the girls shrieked at the fish being killed in front of them. I guess these new sights really opened up my eyes to the way food is treated in other cultures.

Overall it was a good experience. I left feeling more equipped with the knowledge of different Asian fruit and vegetables, and how to cook with them, and also found that Footscray is a lot safer than when I used to visit there, every day in transit between train and tram when I first moved to Melbourne. I definitely want to spend more time shopping at the markets there. I do recommend a food tour - it's a great way to experience the culture of your city!


  1. Very few people in Vietnam have fridges. If its not alive or recently alive many people will not buy because its not safe. This is unlikely to be the case in Australia however the cultural perception of what is safe to eat remains.

    1. Thanks for clarifying this Anon - appreciated.

  2. I love vietnamese food! :D I miss Springvale and Footscray ... Melbourne seems to have a more thriving vietnamese community than Sydney. You can still get yummy Vietnamese food here but the food market culture is not as apparent.

    1. The tour guide said Cabramatta is quite a far way out of Sydney city. She raved about Springvale too.

  3. What an amazing food tour. I would say all the things you saw are just a reflection of the food culture of Vietnam. I remember going into my first market over there and being overwhelmed by the tables and tables of raw meat and the fish in buckets. It is very different from our "packaged" view of food. I wonder about the humaneness of some of it, however I also feel in a way it makes you more aware of the animal, it is much less "sanitised" and I mean that in the metaphorical rather than health sense.

    But it does show how lucky we are here to have access to such amazing food cultures without having to leave the country.

    1. You are so right - I love that we have access to amazing cultures and food. It was a good experience. I went on a visit to a farm a couple of years back, where they killed pigs and made sausages. It was an interesting visit.

  4. I love these urban adventures. And I want that Panda Fish!

    1. Mrs BC - I wonder if you can get the panda fish in your city? They looked cute. I think it's fish flavoured tofu.

  5. This isn't meant as an attack on your perspectives more just "food for thought" so to speak. After having seen the way animals are treated at that market and your views on the questionable ethics of these methods of farming, will you be ordering vegetarian the next time you eat at a vietnamese restaurant?

    Plenty of people bang on about the cruel practices associated with the meat industry or would not purchase from such a market where those practices are really in your face, yet would happily tuck into those same crabs at a restaurant just because they didn't see how they were caught, kept and killed. It just seems a bit hypocritical to criticise it when it's in front of you, but be all for it or more likely just totally apathetic when it's behind closed doors.

    I'm not saying that you specifically subscribe to that point of view, merely pointing out that a lot of people are very quick to criticise when it's in front of them, yet remain deliberately ignorant when it suits them (or suits their tastebuds).

  6. I can definitely see your point. Thanks for your comment. I felt uneasy buying from The market due to What I saw.
    In the past year I've tried to purchase my meat and fish more ethically. Farmers markets, parents' paddock and green grocers. It is harder when I am out and I don't want to be a vego. I wrote a blog lady year about trying to what I can to eat more ethically. If that means buying more ethical produce then that's a start.

  7. Great post, Carly! Had a lot of fun with you on Saturday. I'm v keen on ethical meat production too. Raises some interesting issues. In Vietnam the markets were indeed very different, no refrigeration etc. Was interesting to see similar practices so close to melbourne.... & i wish i gave you my tart. ben has still not eaten it :)
    Heidi xo

    1. haha last time I give you a tart ;)
      It was a great day and I am so glad you came along. I think our discussion on what we consider "ok" to eat was interesting.

  8. The restaurant where we had lunch was Dong Que. I like to bring people there because it prepares great food and is now "trained" to recommend and vary foods to suit people with allergies or certain food requirements.


    Mei Ling

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