On our Sydney to-do list is a train ride to visit Cabramatta, Australia’s largest Vietnamese community, known by locals as “Cabra”. What you’ll find is a small bustling suburb, not a tourist town – but for the food lover, photographer and blogger, Cabramatta is a treasure trove of interesting sights, delicious tastes and enticing smells, with authentic Vietnamese restaurants, coffee shops and groceries, takeaway snacks and sweets.
At the fruit and veg shop, tropical fruits feature prominently among the apples and oranges. A woman thoughtfully examines the jackfruit on display under the watchful eye of the shopkeeper. Nearby are coconuts, papayas and mangoes.
At another shop, bunches of bananas hang from metal hooks, reminiscent of markets in South-east Asia.
I’m delighted to catch a whiff of durian before noticing the thorny fruits in a box right at another shop’s entrance.
Enterprising grandmothers in floppy hats and sneakers sell home-grown vegetables, bird’s eye chillies and fresh herbs at makeshift stalls set up mall-side on old milk crates and shopping bags.
Cafe 86, John St, Cabramatta
It’s a typically muggy Sydney spring day and we’re hot and thirsty from our train ride. We’re pleased when we locate Cafe 86, almost hidden as it’s just off the main strip of John Street. The outdoor area is packed. It looks like the place to go for hot and cold Vietnamese drinks, a favourite spot for Vietnamese blokes to grab a coffee and smoko with mates.
No matter what you order, you are first served a tall glass of complimentary iced jasmine tea, bitter but refreshing.
Juji and Jay order Vietnamese iced coffee. It’s thick, dark and very strong, sweetened with condensed milk and made with plenty of crushed ice.
I order a jackfruit smoothie, made with real jackfruit. It’s delicious but very creamy and rich – I struggle to finish two-thirds of it.
There’s a steady influx of customers and the staff are kept busy blending up icy cold drinks, making coffee and delivering more glasses of complimentary iced jasmine tea.
There are lots of knick-knacks and bargains to be found. They aren’t kidding about the “variety” in this shop. It’s like a real life hidden object game.
In one of many arcades that twist and turn, we find this very festive butcher.
There is no shortage of places to get sugar cane juice made fresh to order. The sugar cane stalks are fed into a machine that crushes them to extract the sweet juice.
There are all kinds of takeaway desserts for sale.
A man works quickly, covering containers of takeaway lunches with food wrap.
Feel like a snack? There are boxes of sweet potato crisps and custard puffs ready to go.
All the sights and smells of food make us start to think about our own tummies. When we stumble upon this chap solemnly eating his lunch sitting next to a colourful wall of cookies and crackers, we know it’s definitely time to have something to eat.
Phu Quoc, Corner of John and Hill Street, Cabramatta
There are so many places to eat at in Cabramatta. Phu Quoc looks promising. The lunch crowd is in but we manage to get a table right away.
The most popular item appears to be make-your-own Vietnamese fresh rice paper rolls. Translucent circular sheets of rice paper, a bowl of water to soften the rice paper, vermicelli, meats of your choice and a basket of fresh salad and herbs including coriander and mint are delivered to your table ready for assembly. As good as it looks, I’m in the mood for rice and Juji wants egg noodles.
Walking around on this warm humid day has made us thirsty again. The tall glasses icy-cold fresh orange juice and coconut juice go down a treat.
I order broken rice with pork chop, shredded pork and fried egg (AU$10).
The fried pork chop is golden brown, on the greasy side but very tasty and tender. Shredded strands of pork skin are tossed in roasted rice powder, giving them a gritty texture.
Juji and Jay share egg noodles with crispy skin chicken (AU$10.50). The springy noodles are served topped with steamed greens and curls of fried shallots, accompanied by a bowl of hot broth and a big piece of fried chicken with crispy crackly skin.
It’s a great lunch – simple and satisfying.
After lunch, we buy some banh kep, or pandan waffles, to take back with us for a snack later.
Time for sugar cane juice!
We smile as we see the food-themed mural near Freedom Plaza. It features durian!
We’ve enjoyed our visit to Cabramatta. It’s definitely worth checking out if you like Vietnamese cuisine or are interested in Vietnamese culture.
Getting to Cabramatta
1 hour train trip (approx) from Central Station – South Line.
See CityRail website for more train info.
Sydney food blog Grab Your Fork has a post on a DIY food tour of Cabramatta. It’s a few years old now, but still a great place to get ideas for what to do in Cabramatta. There are more Cabramatta posts listed at the end of that post.
Australian readers – Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta
There’s a documentary series currently on SBS called Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta. It’s a three-part series, with the final showing on 22 January at 8.30pm on SBS ONE. It’s simulcast with Vietnamese subtitles on SBS TWO.
Watch a promo video of Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta:
If you missed the first two episodes, you can watch them online at SBS’ website. Do you recognise the Vietnamese man sitting on a milk crate at the front of a grocery shop in episode 2?
Read more about Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta at Sydney food blog Noodlies – author and Cabramatta resident Thang Ngo is featured in the documentary.
Luke Nguyen’s new TV series
For fans of Vietnamese chef and restaurateur Luke Nguyen – a new TV series, Luke’s Greater Mekong begins 23 February.
My Sydney trip (2011)
I went to Sydney with my sister Juji and her fiancé Jay in November 2011.
See the list of posts so far, in reading order. There’s still more to come.
Read Juji’s post – Things I love Thursday – Cabramatta edition