Luke is the chef/owner of Red Lantern Restaurant, cookbook author (Secrets of the Red Lantern and The Songs of Sapa was released on 10/1/09), and a travel-TV show host. He’s also giving back to his community of Cabramatta by being its unofficial spokesperson. For months on email he’d been telling me how keen he was on taking me to his Little Saigon in Sydney.
First off, it’s not in Sydney proper like lots of Little Saigon’s I’ve been to. Cabramatta is highly unusual as it reflects an Asian-Western sensibility as I’ve not experienced. It felt oddly like a cleaned up version of Saigon. The shops, food and liveliness made me feel right at home. My kind of people.
I was so impressed with the vibrant community as it’s had its fair share of challenges in the past. Luke recounted how unsafe it used to be browing up with gang and drug trafficking problems in this area. Sydneysiders (it’s a strange term) were scared to go to Cabramatta (or Cabra as the locals say it). But when we went on Thursday, it was nothing but bustling with shoppers, food and amazing produce. I spent time in Los Angeles during the post-riot era and there was no sense of fear or impending doom in Cabramatta. It was mellow. We met with city managers who have various campaigns going to highlight Cabramatta’s cultural and culinary offerings to the urban Sydneysiders. Nowadays, it’s not so much a public safety issue but of of a distance. Convenience? Okay — the train takes you directly from downtown Sydney to Cabramatta and the
toll roads are even faster.Cabramatta is located 45 minutes away from downtown Sydney. It takes longer to get to Saigon itself!
I don’t have time to go into all the details but wanted to post some photo highlights here for you.
What sticks in my mind about Cabramatta — the Little Saigon in Sydney:
- The local population is 67% Vietnamese – that’s 2 out of 3 people!
- The condensed area is lively with shops, alley ways, and markets that say, “All Viet All the Time” but in an oddly Australian-Vietnamese-Asian kind of way. Look at the banh mi vendor stall that looks like a super cleaned up stall in Saigon.
- Great bun mam noodle soup made with a mam nem, a funky, murky, sludgy anchovy fish sauce. Tastes much better than it sounds.
- Shopkeepers are Viet, Lao, Cambodian or Chinese. See the text on shops.
- You can get kangaroo meat, which tastes kinda like buffalo and venison, Luke said.
- There are separate vendors for meat, seafood, and produce like in Vietnam. Totally cool in an old-school way.
- Just as I had heard – the produce is super fresh (perky, just-harvested herbs) and the fruit is gorgeous (mangosteen, jackfruit, and 3 or 4 types of mangos).
- Crazy good seafood in the form of fresh fish, giant tiger prawns, tiny raw school prawns (sorta like tom tep, I think), mud crabs, blood clams, and new things like spanner crab.
I’ve been eating very well but I wished I had a kitchen to cook some of these ingredients!
Have you been to Cabramatta? What are your favorite shops and restaurants? I’m going to Melbourne next week, so let me know your insights there on Viet stuff too!