Thoroughly un-gentrified and home to a hypnotic blend of cultures and culinary inflections, the Springvale Markets, located in Melbourne’s outer southeast, are a vibrant reminder of the sophisticated ethnic cuisines to be found far from the city’s contemporary multicultural dining sanctuaries. Home to a thriving community of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian and Laotian migrants, Springvale is a suburb of honest, unglamorous hustle and bustle. With parking at just 70 cents per hour, the Springvale Markets promise low prices, mouth-watering snacks and some of the city’s most interesting fresh produce. Run by long-time fruit and vegetable specialists, the compact stalls are stocked with generous bunches of watercress, Thai garlic shoots, fresh curry leaves, okra and water spinach – with both imported and locally harvested produce on offer. Polystyrene boxes spill over with fresh tapioca, mangosteens, lychees, rambutans, star fruits, cumquats and durians blocking isles and slowing foot traffic.
Keep walking and find yourself in the more methodically arranged meat section, where neon lights cast a soft pink hue on head-to-tail butchery. While shoppers squabble over pigs’ ears, blood jelly and chicken livers, don’t be shy to ask local shoppers what they plan on preparing with their purchases – these kinds of conversations can uncover plenty of secret family recipes.
In the seafood section, giant mud crabs, lobsters, oysters, snails and live fish can be found among less conventional molluscs and crustaceans like the Bailer Shells dressed in hazardous-looking yellow and orange spots that scream danger from behind the glass. The fishmongers from Hai Trieu Seafood are likely to insist on their deliciousness though, encouraging shoppers to be daring. “You can just boil the Bailer shells and enjoy them with sauce or in a salad, no worries mate,” a young man from Hai Trieu Seafood says with casual Vietnamese inflection.
It wasn’t a huge surprise to have found Attica’s Ben Shewry wandering the Springvale Markets on a Saturday, with his children and their spring rolls in hand. Casually directing a young Chinese vendor towards a particularly succulent piece of barbecue char siu pork hanging from a window, Shewry revels in the collective chaos of Golden Lake Cake and Roast – a favoured Springvale retailer for the quiet gentleman with the 21st best restaurant in the world.
“I was driving here in the car with my family thinking about how underrated the Springvale Markets are,” Shewry says. “It’s definitely one of my favourite places to shop in Melbourne.”
Lining up behind Shewry, local families succumb to the irresistibly slick, glazed jackets of Golden Lake’s famous Peking duck, placing orders for roasted meats, rice and an accompaniment of spicy square pork sheets glowing from a bain-marie. The friendly proprietor throws a container of sweet pork floss into a customer’s plastic bag as he boasts of selling an average of 150 Peking ducks every Saturday.
When you make it to the market’s central food court – where over a dozen local men concentrate on a permanently fixed Mahjong tournament across several tables – be sure to sample the exotic snacks on offer. From rich barbecued meats to sticky rice parcels containing mushroom and lap cheong wrapped in banana leaves, it is impossible to go hungry here. Fluffy barbecue pork buns and salted duck eggs can be washed down with fresh sugar cane juice or thick Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. Bright pink and green glutinous Indonesian sweets called kueh and pink sago pudding from Golden Age Bread and Cake can be enjoyed for sweets. From Bao 8 Takeaway, we recommend ikan bilis (a fragrant Indonesian fried fish dish with chillies) and Vietnam’s famous banh mi baguettes with homemade pate.
If subjecting your body to the thousands of edible delights at Springvale Markets isn’t quite your passion, there are plenty of other enjoyable things to do. From unisex hair salons specialising in men’s and ladies’ haircuts from $7 to $9, to top-quality kitchenware stores selling woks, cleavers and chopping boards at a fraction of the cost, there’s barely a moment to take a deep breath in Springvale.
But at the Springvale Markets, life goes on at the same pace every day. An explosion of hyperactive cultural worlds slapped into the back streets of Melbourne’s outer suburbs – Springvale might just be an imagined reality.
Springvale Markets are open 7 days a week from 10am until 6pm, and span across four central shopping complexes, with weekends being the busiest time to visit.
Hai Trieu Seafood
12/258 Springvale Road, Springvale
(03) 9546 4458
Golden Lake Cake and Roast
46 Buckingham Avenue, Springvale
(03) 9574 6881
Golden Age Bread and Cake
Shop G5B, Springvale Shopping Centre
46–58 Buckingham Avenue, Springvale
(03) 9574 2332