Across this city, from Frankston in the south to Preston in the north, via landmark locations such as the Queen Victoria Market and the MCG, you will find hot-jam doughnuts. Take a drive out of town, and you’ll see them sold along the roadside in places as far apart as Tooradin, Coldstream and Bendigo.
Hot-jam doughnuts are such a familiar part of the Victorian capital’s homegrown cuisine that many fail to realise their iconic (and local) nature.
"Not even any other state in Australia does it hot," says Karl Boening, director of operations at the Queen Victoria Market’s American Doughnut Kitchen. "I've just got back from Vancouver, Seattle and Nebraska, and the doughnuts over there are all cake based, which works best for a cold product."
It’s a similar story in many parts of the world, where a red-hearted ball of deep-fried dough is often known as a Berliner, a nod to its German roots. (The Berliner can still be found around Hamburg and Germany's north, though in Berlin itself, the jammy doughnuts are known as pfannekuchen, and southern regions such as Bavaria call them krapfen.) But almost everywhere else, they are only ever served cold from a baker's counter, never hot from the window of a van, as they are almost exclusively in Melbourne.
The epicentre of this local doughnut tradition (and the pioneering food-truck spirit) is the famous van at the Queen Vic Market. It began life as the German Doughnut Kitchen, but the name obviously didn't resonate with hungry shoppers following World War Two, hence the re-branding to the American Doughnut Kitchen in 1950, which it is known as to this day.
But despite the international flavour of those names, the hot-jam doughnut is very much a Melbourne delicacy. Boening says Melbourne's specialty doughnut is made with a yeasty dough, which needs to be left to rise like a bread before it goes in the fryer. Anyone who has been to his van will be familiar with the trays of uncooked dough-balls stacked up around the van. That’s the dough still proving.
The "Melbourner" – if we can call it that – is designed to be eaten hot. And fresh. "Some people take them home and microwave them for 10 seconds, but for me they're not the same,” Boening says. Once cooked, they are coated in sugar and bundled in white paper bags.
The popularity of the hot-jam doughnut boomed in post-war years, with vendors popping up all over Melbourne. In the ’60s, former employees of the American Doughnut Kitchen branched out and opened up the Dandee Donuts van. For decades they had a fleet that spread out across the city, especially when big events were on. Their van at Dandenong Market is still going strong, and they can also be found at Hallam and the Berwick Market.
They’ve even started selling Nutella doughnuts – which is no surprise, given the omnipresence of that treat in Melbourne right now – but they do theirs piping hot. Boening has little time for his Nutella-filled competitor. “It’s a fad,” he says, a little derisively, before reeling off a few of the other doughnut styles he’s seen come and go.
There are always hot-jam-doughnut vans outside the MCG on game day. Inside the ground, caterers provide some of the only ones sold from an outlet that can’t be jacked up and towed away.
Sadly, the Olympic Doughnuts caravan that greeted commuters coming and going from Footscray Station for more than three decades is no longer a thing. Instead, the business was moved into a schmick new kiosk as part of the station’s redevelopment. It lost a bit of its old-school charm in the process, and even kissed goodbye to the upside-down Olympic rings that used to sit above its window.
Thankfully, its iconic dolphin is still eyeballing customers from the shop’s front window. We say eyeballing because there is something slightly unsettling about this thing, and it starts with the eyes. Then there’s its hollowed-out spear of a nose, which is what proprietor Nick Tsiligiris uses to give his doughnuts their hot jam injection (yes, the jam is pumped out of a dolphin’s snout).
“Everybody gives him a name,” Tsiligiris says, laughing. “Too many names! The kids love to do that.” He has never given it one himself, and won’t reveal what the best suggestions are. Nor will he say if it’s a he or she. But we do know it is 36 years old – as old as the business itself – and was hand-crafted by a friend at Tsiligiris’ request.
Seeing it in action is all part of the fun. After all, it wouldn’t be a real hot-jam-doughnut experience if they weren’t being made right there in front of you.
American Doughnut Kitchen
Queen Victoria Market Food Court
39 Clow Street, Dandenong
51 Irving Street, Footscray