Carrots aren’t of the ‘heirloom’ variety in Cabramatta, nor are the lettuces. If there’s one place that offers respite from Sydney’s often over-fluffed menus and pricey boutique grocers, it’s here. Menus are laminated and sticky in parts, the most popular dishes photographed in stark lighting and tacked to the wall as a crude form of advertisement. Grocers are busy and brisk, buzzing neon signage signifying one from the next. Bunches of small, finger-sized green bananas swing from rails while glassy, bronzed glazed ducks hang from hooks in the butchers and barbecue shops. If you close your eyes and open your ears, you could be standing on any given street in Hanoi.[fold]
Thirty kilometres southwest of the city centre, or a 40-minute train ride if you don’t feel up to tackling the M5 motorway, Cabramatta is home to the largest Vietnamese community in Australia and is the closest experience you’ll find to the real deal. Though fraught with a somewhat turbulent history, including a period in the 1990s when the area was riddled with such a pervasive heroin problem that the local Cabramatta train station became known as the ‘smack express’, it was the influx of post World War II immigrants that came to define the area’s multicultural identity. A second wave of immigrants swept through the infamous (and now demolished) Cabramatta migrant hostel and nearby Villawood after the Vietnam War in the 1970s, including groups from China, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Cabramatta is also home to many from Macedonian, Italian, Serbian and Croatian communities, cementing the suburb as one of the most truly diverse in Australia.
Crime has been rapidly reduced in the last decade following a targeted police crackdown and these days most travel to Cabramatta (or ‘Cabra’) for the pho rather than anything illicit.
There’s no best way to work your way around Cabramatta, as half the fun comes from picking your way through each store and stall, discovering as you go. John Street forms the main thoroughfare through the suburb and shops are compacted into about a 200-metre stretch from the train station entrance. A good place to start is at Thahn Binh Restaurant (52 John Street) for a lunch of bánh hoi rice paper rolls. An almost whipped mix of prawn mince is packed around stalks of fresh sugarcane before being puffed up in the deep fryer. Flat, stiff disks of rice paper are softened at the table in a small bowl of lukewarm water, ready to be filled with the sugar cane prawn mince, bundles of vermicelli, fresh mint and pickled carrot cut with a crimped knife. Sip tall glasses of lemon ‘drink’ or a frosty custard apple smoothie before ordering plates of bò tái me (beef marinated in tamarind and mint and served with a side of crisp sesame rice crackers to scoop it all up). The beef pho here is also fragrant and excellent.
Across the road, you’ll find a queue of both locals and visitors lining up before a yellow sign proclaiming ‘Hot Bread’. This is the báhn mì vendor you don’t want to bypass. Soft bread rolls are spread with pâté, topped with thin slices of roast char siu pork, hollow green spring onions, chilli and pickles and are best eaten right there on the sidewalk before the juices escape. Takeaway cups of sugar cane juice are pressed before your eyes here too – a good remedy for those heavy handed with the hot sauce bottle.
Avoid the plethora of blaring frozen yogurt shops and bubble tea vendors and slip down the alleyways to snoop around in the grocery stores for some curious finds. Spiky, stinky durians are piled up next to green okra, gnarled ginger and bitter melons, while daikon as thick as a man’s forearm are stacked 10 rows deep. If you’re not so confident with Asian greens, stock up on spices and bushels of fresh herbs. Aromatics like star anise, cinnamon and cloves are sold together in packets ready to be dropped straight into beef stock, while packs of dried rice noodles come in every colour. Wander down the lane to the row of fishmongers, where buckets of salmon bones with the head still attached are sold for a song, the key to a top-notch fish soup. Fresh mussels and frozen squid are all incredibly cheap, too.
A little further along, the next row of stalls will reveal tables of take-home packed meals (an insider’s secret). Noodles with chopped peanuts and vegetables are wrapped tightly with cling-wrap on polystyrene plates, while savoury, pyramid shaped sticky rice parcels are swathed in banana leaves ready to be steamed. Luminous green pandan leaf-infused waffles for one dollar each scent the air with a sticky sweetness and are a great snack to chew on as you wander the aisles of fabric spools. Coffee is also a treat here, laced with condensed milk and served in highball glasses, it’s strong enough to rouse anyone from a lunch-induced food coma.
Typical plastic kitsch abounds in Cabramatta and it isn’t so different from what you’d find in any Chinatown worldwide. Rubber and bedazzled iPhone cases, incense by the kilo, gilt statues and the odd firework (if you look hard enough) are to be found if you feel guilty spending all your money on waffles and noodles. But if after a day spent in Cabramatta you don’t head home laden with bags of groceries (and promises to make your own beef stock on a regular basis), you’re doing it all wrong.