It’s one of my favourite foodie events. Whether you’re a local or a visitor in town, the Night Noodle Markets do a great job of representing the many cuisines that have played such a major role in shaping the way Australians eat.
Countries from across Asia were represented including China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, India, Japan and beyond.
Last year I attended the Brisbane Night Noodle Markets which were characterised by dozens of food trucks. These new kids on the block syphoned huge crowds away from traditional stalls. In contrast at Melbourne’s Night Noodle Markets this year the focus was definitely on stalls from household-name restaurants offering a street-food spin on their cult classics. The supporting cast was made up of mad-scientist style dishes and abstract cultural cross-pollination as well as stalls from traditional Asian eateries serving classic dishes.
Melbourne is a city that values style and substance, so there was just as much thought put into stall designs as there was in the menus. My favourites were by Yalumba, Gelato Messina, Hoy Pinoy and Thatcher’s Cider Orchard.
I visited the markets with my boyfriend, and my uncle Thomas and his friend Cindy, two bonafide foodies with a particular knack for finding the best Asian dishes in the city. I arrived an hour early so I could photograph the markets before everyone else arrived, but it started to rain as soon as I got there. I took refuge at the Yalumba pop up, the only stall which provided undercover seating. It was a cute setup and I didn’t mind having an hour to myself with a glass of their pinot grigio.
Not long after Thomas & Cindy arrived the rain cleared up and by the time David arrived half an hour later, it was a beautiful evening. This really worked in our favour because I think the rain discouraged many who were planning to go straight after work. Friends who visited earlier in the week described huge lines for every stall but on Friday evening it was busy, but there weren’t too many big queues and it was easy to find a seat. Perfect! If you don’t like the weather in Melbourne it is worth sticking it out because there’s a very good chance it will change within an hour.
The festival is spread out over the gentle hills at Birramung Mar, the public park between the city and the Yarra River. It’s a great outdoor event space because the crowds can spread out over two levels and it makes it much easier to navigate a large festival, which would otherwise sprawl endlessly over one flat area.
Smoke coils wafted from Asian barbeques and fuschia lanterns strung up across the markets popped against the striking backdrop of the city skyline. The markets pop up in several major Australian cities, but this iteration was a distinctly Melbourne event.
Burma Lane is my favourite restaurant in Melbourne, so when I heard that the restaurant’s older sister, Red Spice Road, would also be at the markets I knew I had to try it. It’s a Melbourne institution and yet somehow I’ve yet to visit the restaurant – probably because my list of restaurants to try grows by the day.
Cindy recommended their crispy five-spice pork belly, the restaurant’s calling card. Usually, David and I share dishes at food events like this to maximise how many dishes we can try (#tacticaleating), but Cindy warned us that we wouldn’t want to share.
The five-spice pork belly is served on a chilli caramel sauce and with a side of Asian slaw. Great dishes are often let down by a token salad, but this was not the case at Red Spice Road – it was fresh, zingy and had a kick of heat. Pork belly is ubiquitous these days, which is a shame because it requires a skilled cook and high-quality pork to avoid those awkward mouthfuls where you’re choking down pork fat and regretting everything.
Not surprisingly, this was not a problem at Red Spice Road.
Cindy was right. I absolutely did not want to share even a single bite of this pork belly, which incited many involuntary “happy eating noises”, sounding somewhere between Nigella Lawson hamming it up for the camera and a happy six-year-old cleaning out the cake batter bowl. It was also really filling, but I didn’t mind blowing my dinner appetite on such a tasty dish.
Chris Lucas’ restaurants Chin Chin, Kong and Hawker Hall were a tour de force at the markets, but I wasn’t particularly tempted. I thought Chin Chin’s offerings sounded a little unexciting compared to everything else that was on offer and compared to the restaurant’s creative, tastebud-tingling menu. Cindy tried the beef rendang from Hawker Hall and gave it her seal of approval for tasting like the real deal Malaysian dish. This is very high praise.
A majority of the stalls were from Asian restaurants in Melbourne, but a few Melbourne favourites had a more tenuous connection to the festival. Hats off to Gelato Messina for being a good sport and getting into the Asian swing of things at the markets. The Sydney native has a permanently-packed outpost in Fitzroy and has just opened a southside store in Windsor, which is no doubt just as busy.
The popular gelateria put an Asian spin on things, offering a number of gelato-based desserts with a Chinese twist. Bao was the name of the game with desserts like Bao Chicka Bao Bao and the David Bao-y, a nod to the recent retrospective at ACMI.
I was full after the pork belly, but David convinced me to split the Bao Chicka Bao Bao. The dessert is a deep fried gua bao filled with peanut gelato, topped with milk chocolate sauce and a generous sprinkle of crushed peanuts. Italy meets China.
In theory, it’s interesting. In reality, it just didn’t quite do it for me. We found that for a start, it was hard to eat since we were only provided plastic spoons. It was too slippery and sticky to eat with your hands, but it was impossible to get the bao and the gelato onto our spoons. The patty-shaped peanut gelato was very firm and didn’t really gel with the smooth, firm bao bun. It was easier to eat it as separate components, which kind of defeats the purpose.
I think something crumbly or with a bit more texture, like a cinnamon doughnut, rice bubbles, some type of sponge or liqueur-soaked biscuit would have played much more nicely with the gelato. We ended up eating the gelato with the milk chocolate sauce and peanuts, which was delicious, and leaving most of the bao behind.
It wasn’t the only wacky invention. Thomas and Cindy gave the sushi tacos from Mr Miyagi a big thumbs up, and we also saw a couple trying to figure out how to eat the ramen burger from Everybody Loves Ramen. The ramen was cooked in a way that it formed the burger buns, and it was served sideways in a big cup, overflowing with filling.
Another non-Asian restaurants throwing their hat in the ring was Lady Carolina, a profit-for-purpose restaurant which serves Latin American cuisine inspired by Mexico, Cuba and Peru. At the markets they teamed up with a renowned Japanese chef to present dishes with a Japanese-Peruvian twist.
The Brulee Cart gave the classic French Crème Brulee an Asian touch with flavours like matcha, coconut chai and ginger. These crazier ideas added interest, surprise and memorable moments to the market experience.
Festivals like this are the perfect opportunity for chefs to let their imaginations run wild. It’s a fleeting opportunity to try something crazy.
Chefs and restauranteurs must think carefully when designing dinner menus because diners will expect even the craziest dishes to work. At a festival, the rules are looser and the environment rewards those dishes which err on the side of bonkers. A crazy $10 dish at the Night Noodle Markets is less of a risk than a bizarre-sounding $30 main at a restaurant.
The markets struck the perfect balance between classics, cult favourites and crazy inventions. There was a foundation of smaller providers serving classic dishes from around Asia, providing the chance for suburban restaurants with a time to shine in the city.
The major players on the Melbourne dining scene, whether cheap & cheerful favourite or talk-of-the-town trendsetters, such as Red Spice Road, Burma Lane, Kong, Mr Miyagi, Misschu and Wonderbao give the Melbourne event a distinct Melburnian panache.
This makes the markets a great opportunity to try the dishes that make the restaurants famous for at a fraction of the price. Finally, the crazy experiments made the event intriguing and exciting, offering something you won’t find anywhere else.
The Melbourne Night Noodle Markets close this week on Sunday 29 November! This is a free event and the markets usually open in the late afternoon or early evening. Check out the event’s webpage for more details
Mystery giveaway! Burma Lane & Red Spice Road are giving away mystery gifts at the Night Noodle Markets.
Follow this link for your prize!
Have you been to the Night Noodle Markets? What is your favourite foodie event?
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