Friday, October 12, 2012


Cabramatta shaped my childhood palate: moulding it with the smells of noodle soups, the sights of fresh greens and the sounds of people slurping soup. It was a privileged childhood…absent material wealth but abundant in flavours.

Until I hit my teenage years, I had assumed everyone had experienced the warm embrace of a hot noodle soup in the morning. I was shocked to hear people butcher the pronunciation of the word pho. Whilst I don’t speak Vietnamese, I know this all important word and the joy it can bring.

It’s Cabramatta, where my admiration for food began, and it is where I will begin my journey to fall in love with Sydney again. And the courtship starts with love it at first sight, taste and smell….pho!

Hyperbole abounds when it comes to talking about this humble noodle soup. It’s a meal, it’s a great way to wake up…damn it’s like a bear hug from your mum in the morning. It is so unbelievable good…and best of all it is cheap.

The meal below includes pho, an assortment of accompaniments (basil, bean sprouts), a pot of Chinese tea and an iced Vietnamese coffee….for $11. 

The Vietnamese coffee too, makes me reach for the superlatives…it also keeps me wired for the rest of the day. Super strong coffee, combined with a heap of sugary condensed milk = jet fuel for your morning.

Admittedly, as with all good things in life…there is a come down after the great high. Just 30 min after finishing this meal, I’m thirsty…and waddling around from overconsumption. But it’s a satisfied waddle.

People in Cabramatta are food connoisseurs…not of the Michelin star variety…instead they expect and demand the freshest of produce at the lowest price.

It means you get the best produce of anywhere in Sydney. Sometimes on weekends, you’ll even be able to buy from small backyard growers. It’s not technically legal but old ladies will sit on the benches in Cabramatta with a bunch of vegetables they’ve grown in their own garden. Just like they must have done when they were living in Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos…and I love it. I especially love how they have defied the council rangers all these years. Despite attempts by the rangers to move them on and throw their produce in the bin, they keep coming back…with even more produce.

Cabramatta is the very best of Asia captured in a handful of main streets and a myriad of tiny laneways. That means you not only get great produce you also get food particular to South-East Asia that is considered ‘exotic’ in other parts of Sydney.  Durians, jackfruits, rambutans, mangosteens…hard to pronounce, sometimes hard to handle and for some people hard to smell. But to me, delicious and sublime….and so much part of my childhood.

There is the delicious roast duck, roast pork and chicken on display in the windows…tempting you as you walk past.

It isn’t just food which makes Cabramatta great, it’s also the resilience of the community. Resilience and renewal…qualities which are probably expected from a community made up of people of who came as migrants or refugees. I saw the resilience and renewal up close as I went through high school.

During the 90’s, Cabramatta was known more for her crime than her cuisine. Heroin was coursing through her sewers. It greeted you at the train station and haunted you as you walked through its streets, especially at night. The blue glow from all the lights used in public spaces was the visual nightly reminder that heroin was present, it was being injected. 

Growing up, I just assumed this was the way Cabramatta would always be…drug-ridden, gang-fighting and a largely scared community. A fear which peaked when Australia’s first political assassination occurred within her borders, I’ll remember being the most scared I have ever felt following the night John Newman was gunned down outside his house. It was an assault of our democracy, an assault on the community and totally obliterated my sense of security. For a community who had come to Australia fleeing political persecution, it was particularly confronting that Cabramatta hosted Australia’s first (and hopefully only) political assassination.

Given her sordid history less than two decades ago, the success of Cabramatta today is all the more remarkable. The dealers at the train station have long gone. The waif-like addicts shuffling through the streets have disappeared. The blue lights in the toilet blocks have been replaces with white ones.   

Now, we have a suburb which is highlighted in tourism brochures, plays hosts to food tours and some of the biggest community festivals in Australia. Just last month, almost 90000 people converged on Cabramatta to celebrate the Moon Festival.

Cabramatta is indeed a suburb with soul …loads of it.