Treasure Island: Koh Phangan

This is the island time forgot.

More significantly, this is the island McDonald’s forgot. No regimented French fries, conformist fried chicken and skinny lattes here. Instead we roll out of bed and slouch across to Rambutan café next door, for strong local iced coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, served in a tall glass clinking with chipped ice. Two fat puppies tussle under the table, coming up every five minutes or so to rub their cold, wet noses on our knees.

The lady that runs the restaurant takes our order with a shy smile. As we start on our coffee, her husband bows and disappears, like a zippy little magician. We watch him zooming towards the local market on his scooter to buy ingredients for our breakfast. Brown, airy omelettes served with crusty garlic bread fluffy, brushed with a generous amount of golden butter. Pad Thai, bright with flavour. Fresh, local, regional. It doesn’t get better than this.

We’re in Koh Phangan island, Thailand, famous for its notorious Full Moon parties. It’s a ‘girl gang holiday’ (five of us in all) and we decide we’re too grown up for Full Moon’s drunken shenanigans, involving buckets of vodka, fluorescent body paint and overly-rambunctious 18 year olds. So we fly into Surat Thani and take a three-hour ferry ride to the island as the moon begins to wane. The party crowd is heading home, resplendent in striking tattoos, golden tans and Ray Bans. As they leave, massage parlours empty, restaurant lights dim and beach bars grow quiet.

Thailand’s a conveyor belt for tourists. Everything geared towards quick and profitable service. Whether you’re in a gaudy Bangkok bar or waiting in line for a pancake from a vendor in Pattaya, you’ll be served with impersonal efficiency. Eventually you get so used to the practical commerce of tourism, you stop expecting to make connections or have conversations. In Phangan, we rediscover the joys of travel. And food.

After cautioning us against hurling his TV through the window, Canadian Scott Williamson, who runs Baan Tai Backpackers, where we are staying, draws us a map, pointing out the best places to eat. Fresh cheap sushi at the night market. Mexican tacos with frozen margaritas down the road. And an honest to goodness French restaurant right opposite the hotel. Our reaction: ‘But… But why would we throw your TV out of the window?” Well, this is Koh Phangan. Party island. You never know.

As it turns out, we’re probably his best-behaved guests, despite our penchant for frightfully pink Bacardi Breezers with breakfast. Fortunately, the island is so laid back, no one seems to mind. At chic Nira’s Café by the pier, as we eat fluffy pancakes sprinkled with tart, sweet lemon sugar, the waiter asks my Breezer-addicted friend if she’d like a cup of coffee. It’s 8 a.m. after all. Then he notices her drink, and laughs, “Ah. Alcohol. That’s better!” Nira’s was started by a couple who took the wrong boat, landed in Phangan by accident in the 1980s, and fell in love with the island.

We hear stories like that all the time. And wonder if we’ll be able to get on our planes home when the time comes.

Every restaurant charms us in different ways. The French restaurateur at Franck’s introduces us to Calvados, an Apple brandy from Normandy, served with hot water and honey to deal with bad throats caused by too many beers at the neighbouring pool bar. In crazy Haad Rin, site of the full moon party, we find a shack on the beach, where they serve a pancake bigger than our faces.

Later in the week, we shake ourselves out of our island stupor, and head to Koh Samui, an hour away by ferry. Our cab drops us at Chaweng beach, right opposite McDonald’s. That’s when we realise this is the first food chain we’re seeing all week. Breakfast is at a fancy hotel buffet — featuring food as disappointing as the hotel is pretty. We relocate to trendy Arc Bar for lunch throbbing with funky house music and Louis Vuitton tourists. The food’s tasty and stylish, designed for jet setters who want to nibble on demure canapés as they work on their tans. Frou-frou ham and black olive sandwiches with icy Caipirinhas.

Rambutan welcomes us back to Phangan with open arms and spicy pork fried rice. When we finally leave the island, they give each of us a hug and a postcard. The message scrawled carefully across the back: “Thank you very much. May you succeed in life. We hope to see you again. Love you so much.”

How can we not go back?



Thai Safari

Pad Thai

We break down mid-safari. Since this isn’t Masai Mara, we’re ridiculously laid back. Besides, it’s stifling in the bus. So we saunter out, watched by astonished deer. And Japanese tourists. They drive past in meticulously sealed vans. We wave cockily. Till a pair of stocky wildebeest charge at us. Unfortunately our response is more Britney Spears than David Attenborough. Though to be fair, Spears probably wouldn’t have squealed like a little girl.

A passing ranger shoos them away like they’re goats, and the wildebeest obediently take their high jinks elsewhere. Hopefully not too close to the lions. Oh, yes. Did I mention there were lions? And tigers. Lying side by side in a detached stupor barely 200 metres away. (Bangkok’s Safari World is a strange and troubling place.) Apparently it’s a ‘picturesque African wilderness setting’. I’ve seen more realistic African vistas on Dora the Explorer.

It begins to thunder in the distance. Just as the scene gets a little too “Jurassic Park” for our liking, a replacement bus arrives. And a good thing too. Otherwise this column would not have been about having lunch. It would have been about being lunch.

Lunch by the way is as mystifying as our safari. We’re proudly told it’s an ‘International buffet’ set in a tropical forest. We end up eating fried rice under plastic trees. Why is tourism always so bad for a country’s cuisine? Logically, it should be a great impetus to showcase the best you have to offer. However, it’s a universally accepted fact that ‘touristy’ places generally have bad food, sullen service and ludicrously high prices.

Fortunately, it’s just as easy to avoid a tourist trap as it is to trip into one. Google makes planning a foodie-holiday really easy. Read articles, food blogs and follow local websites to decide where to eat. If there’s a restaurant you want to try, you can find the website, check the menu and even make a booking before you travel.

When you’re travelling, keep away from the tourists. Tourists tend to have a herd mentality, and very few of them move beyond the areas they are bussed to. They do all their shopping, eating and drinking around the key ‘sights’ of the city. Walk for ten minutes away from the discounted souvenirs and ticket counters, and you’ll find yourself amid the locals. Then just stop someone and ask for a recommendation.

We take a train into the heart of the city looking for dinner. Walking down Sukhumvit, we’re channelling Mike Tyson’s version of ‘One Night in Bangkok’. That’s how we find Nancy, a wise-cracking, Panama-wearing, cocktail-juggling roadside bartender, who fixes us icy margaritas. We sip them regally, seated besides a main road watching traffic whiz past. It’s unexpectedly relaxing.

Following her directions, we end on a bustling neon street, where vendors sell sizzling satay under bright pink lights. I’m a little wary of satay. I’ve learnt to make detailed enquiries about innocuous deep-fried objects served on sticks in South East Asia. Especially when they’re served beside deep-fried bugs.

Yet, I slip up in Pattaya. We are at a night market, torn between candy coloured sunglasses and oversized hats, when we see the satay seller. It looks delicious, and she assures us its chicken. “Fair enough,” we shrug, ordering two. The first is chewy and tube like. “Intestines,” I squeal, going green. “Yum, Yum,” says my friend, chewing her way happily through them, and simultaneously trying a hat so big it looks like it’s swallowing her head. I try the second stick. Deep fried chicken skin.

We ramble on, and make friends with the sweet corn lady. She shaves it off the cob and tosses it with pepper, salt and slices of coconut, ending with a generous squirt of lemon juice. There’s a street band playing, and crafty entrepreneurs fill buckets with ice and cold beers to sell them to passers-by. It’s 2 a.m., and we’re in oversized hats accessorised with ridiculously pink bows. It seems like the perfect time to eat pancakes. The pancake lady doesn’t bat an eyelash as we approach, looking like a pair of batty escapees from the sets of Pride and Prejudice. She swiftly pours out batter in a pool of golden butter, slices in ripe mangoes and tops it with a generous dollop of condensed milk.

We’ve lost the tourists. To be honest, we’ve also lost ourselves. “Ah well,” my friend The Hat shrugs. “Let’s just get some more intestines.”

Seriously Slow Food

Terence working his way through a plate of Hokkien mee


I kissed a snail. And not in that metaphorical ‘someday my Prince will come’ sense. I mean an honest-to-goodness crustacean (or would that be mollusk?) from a plate of stir fried spicy sea snails.

I blame Terence entirely. He made it look so easy. “Just scoop up a shell with sauce, and suck,” he says, languidly working his way through the first few. “We call them chut, chuts,” because that’s the noise you make when you eat them,” he laughs. Later, I’m told “chut chutting” also means ‘kissing a snail’ in Cantonese. They taste musky, of dark water and deep fish tanks. The sauce is thin and fiery, a clever foil to their chewy heaviness.

This adventure begins at the Taman Paramount railway station, in Petaling Jaya, a Malaysian city adjoining Kuala Lumpur. We’re meeting Terence, who is the co-founder of ‘Food Tour Malaysia’, ( which focuses on guiding tourists through the country’s intimidatingly diverse cuisine. And I’m keen on exploring a world beyond gleaming food courts set in shopping malls, where I’ve been eating little besides Char Kway teow, sweet Kaya toast and steaming teh tarik, ever since I landed in Kuala Lumpur.

As we walk to Terence’s car, he explains why we’re in the more prosaic Petaling Jaya instead of glitzy Kuala Lumpur. “Most people work in Kuala Lumpur, and live here. So it has a much more local flavour… The restaurants are home grown and passed down from generation to generation. Recipes are guarded.” He adds thoughtfully, “Chinese cooks are like Kung Fu masters. If there are 10 secrets they will only tell you eight.”

We begin at his favourite Malaysian hawker centre. It’s dinnertime, and customers relax over sentimental soap operas on television while chatting with the cooks over dinner. As I watch a bowl of cockles breathe heavily, Terence gestures to a stall owner and he brings us a handful of warm banana leaf packets, held together with toothpicks.

“Otak Otak,” says Terence, explaining how the stingray is marinated, wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. It’s spicy, with sharp definite flavours: kaffir lime, red chillies and smoky charcoal. We’re given small blue bowls of aromatic lamb stew next, tasting of coriander, pepper and golden fried onions. Of course no Malaysian meal is complete without nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and served with crisp anchovies, peanuts, a boiled egg and generous dollop of spicy sambal that stains the rice red.

The next stop is the rambunctiously energetic Chinese Restaurant Ahwa, known for using coal fires to give their food an unmistakable edge.

There are cheerful yellow-orange paper lamps dancing between ceiling fans like pineapples on parade. We begin with tall glasses of cool barley water, and refreshingly tangy lemonade spiked with dried sour plums.

Terence orders vegetarian Popiah rolls, rice crepes stuffed with shredded jicama, a Mexican Turnip, stir fried so its unusual nutty flavour and juiciness is a contrast to the crisp cucumber and bean sprouts, all topped with a thick sweet bean sauce. There’s also a plate of boiled squid, curling at the edges, tossed with spinach and covered with big handful of crushed peanuts. We also eat Kwao Teo in a glistening glutinous sauce, embedded with coral prawns. And chicken satay served with an addictively sweet-salty peanut sauce, spiked with galangal. The snails make their appearance at this stage. They’re followed by another challenging dish-fried Hokkien mee, thick noodles blackened with rich soy sauce, and cooked in pork lard. It’s a cult dish is Kuala Lumpur, and Terence’s infectious enthusiasm — the same reason I’m a crustacean’s kissing cousin — inspires me to try a few bites. Let’s just say I expanded my horizons, and then went back to eating satay.

Dessert is at a bustling night market, alive with chatter and randomly placed tube lights. We head to a Chinese sweet soup stall, featuring massive bowls from which you serve yourself. We try sweet red bean, mung bean and peanut soup, sitting on unstable plastic chairs and soaking up the sense of community.

“Indian?” asks Terence. It seems like the ideal way to end the night.

The Indian hawker centre’s reassuringly familiar, alive with Tamil music and girls in raucously coloured skirts. We’re served hot masala tea and sweet appams, with a jiggly core of coconut milk and jaggery.

I chat with the store-owner in Tamil. “What’s he saying?” asks Terence, curiously. I plot my revenge. The joys of turning tables on a local when you’re abroad!

Kuala Lumpur: Going Underground

With Jennifer (centre) after a spectacular dinner.

For how long can you admire the Petronas Towers? Following tourist trap tradition in Kuala Lumpur, we have a drink at the chic Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel, dutifully gasping at the startlingly pretty towers while sipping on over-priced cocktails.

Then, we rebel. Hop into a cab and head to Jennifer’s Underground Supper Club. We’re determined to make the most of our ‘city break’ by exploring layers of Kuala Lumpur independently. There has to be more to Malaysia than the staid KL-Cameron Highlands-Batu Caves-package advertised mindlessly by hordes of over-enthusiastic travel agents.

We drive away from the city’s sparkling skyscrapers into quiet residential areas filled with sprawling bungalows. Jennifer Palencia aka ‘Jen’ is part of the first wave of cooks in Asia opening its homes to guests. Underground restaurants such as this allow people to experience unconventional settings and unexpected food. I found Jen on Facebook, and booked the dinner online. Even as we draw up to the house, I’m not quite sure about what to expect.

Natasha, Jennifer’s eldest daughter, is standing at the door in a stripy apron welcoming guests with smiles and hugs. Featuring three fat tabby cats, who stalk around like stern food inspectors, the setting manages to be both formal and welcoming. We walk into a living room draped in golden light from chandeliers twisted with flowers. Every surface is covered with quirky knick knacks ranging from polka-dotted porcelain gumboots to a big pot flashing with tiny golden fish. As we’re assigned our places on a long tables set with professional precision, featuring gleaming wine glasses and a regiment of cutlery, the room fills with soft jazz music. The artist is Mia Palencia, Jen’s second daughter and a popular jazz singer.

Everyone’s dressed up in pretty dresses and stiff shirts. Jen’s youngest daughter is sitting on my right, along with a group of her friends discussing the best places to grab a snack after a night of clubbing. They open a bottle of wine for everyone. The generosity is as unexpected as it is endearing. It quickly feels like we’re having dinner with friends and family. An astonishing feeling in a city where we know nobody.

On my left is a charismatic young man who works for Facebook. “And don’t even think of telling me you hate the new timeline,” he groans, mock rolling his eyes, before enthusiastically helping me plot my next few meals in Kuala Lumpur. His charming housemate pulls out her iPhone to give directions.

In the meantime, Natasha arrives holding up and explaining the first course: mushroom tartlets, with buttery pastry. The evening unfolds like theatre. There are risotto balls, savoury madeleines topped with plump caviar and moreish truffles of chevre and cream cheese rolled in crunchy crushed almonds then wrapped around juicy grapes. And these are just the highlights.

By the time we hit the entrée, luscious Portobello mushrooms filled with a blend of ricotta cheese and sundried tomatoes, we’re on a food high. While we eat the main course, roast beef served with billowy Yorkshire pudding, Natasha introduces her teenage brother Christian Palencia (So that’s four children in all) who strums on his guitar, and performs a couple of original songs. He’s cutting his first record this month (I’ve been listening to him on SoundCloud ever since I got back).

Despite protests on being stuffed, we manage dessert (And some of us manage two). Apple pecan buttercrisp pie scented with cinnamon and served with ice cream. And flaky French pastry topped with vanilla bean flecked Chantilly cream and berries.

I’ve been plotting another first on this holiday — signing up for a cooking class. Jen’s tourist cooking classes are fairly recent, but have enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor. I’m back at her house bright and early the next morning. My classmate today is Chris, a hunky young Californian backpacker who’s travelling the world. Over cups of strong coffee in Jen’s living room, he tells me about his adventures in Beijing involving encounters with fried scorpions (Backpackers always have the best conversation openers). We’re learning how to make Malaysia’s staple dish: Nasi Lemak. The kitchen is bright and airy, mercifully air-conditioned and we cook in time to a peppy playlist courtesy a laptop in the corner.

Natasha showing Chris how to make a killer turmeric chicken

The class is deceptively laidback, with lots of banter and laughing, between cooking tips and history lessons. Later, I realise I inadvertently learnt a lot about Malaysia in the process. Jen’s husband Brabon opens by showing us how to make his ‘Fast and furious salad’, a crafty mix of tinned pineapples and cucumbers spiked with chillies, shallots, vinegar and lime. By mid-morning, there’s turmeric chicken roasting in the oven, coconut rice bubbling quietly on a stove, and we’re knee deep in colourful family history. Like much of Malaysia, Jen’s family is a mix of various influences. Her grandfather was Australian, sent to Sabah to manage a plantation. He married a local girl. Her Eurasian father fell in love with a woman of Filipino and Spanish decent.

When he was captured as a prisoner of war, Jen tells us, her mother would swim underwater to set up fishing nets so she could feed her children. Brabon’s grandfather was a Belgian soldier who married a girl from Sabah. Their daughter in turn married a Filipino man and had nine children, the youngest of whom was Brabon.

As we settle for lunch, Christian comes downstairs and teaches us how to tie a batik sarong, while Natasha mixes us rose milk, made with ruby-coloured syrup, thick evaporated milk and lots of ice. They tell us, with unconcealed pride, how Jen was Sabah’s first woman DJ. “We lived so dangerously,” sighs Jen. “We would leave the club at 3 a.m., then take a boat to an island to swim in pitch darkness.” The children grew up running on the beaches and swimming in the sea. “We’re a real Malaysian family,” smiles Jennifer. “We’re American, European, Asian. And we cannot live without our Indian roti-dosais !”

(Find Jen’s Supper Club on Facebook or call them on +60 377287909)

Good Mornington

I start by falling off my horse. We’re riding through the vineyards, tasting crisp chardonnays and heady pinot noirs at every cellar door we pass. I wish I could blame it on the wine. However, I have to admit, I make my unglamorous descent right at the beginning, tasting mud before we even start tasting wine. Fortunately, Toby, my horse, is a perfect gentleman. He waits patiently, standing still and sighing gently, as I’m fished out from between his hooves.

Barring my Humpty-Dumpty moment, it’s a perfect day. The Mornington Peninsula’s rolling vineyards, olive groves and pastures are lit with gentle sunshine, the flowers are ferociously bright, the ground is still plum-pudding fragrant from last night’s rain. This is one of Australia’s favourite picture-postcard escapes — just an hour from Melbourne. It’s difficult to believe it used to be shrub and bush land before the European settlement. Now, the Peninsula is home to roughly 1,35,000 people. A number that swells to 2,50,000 in summer, when the vineyards and their restaurants welcome visitors from all over the world.

We drive through caravan parks, golf courses and small art galleries on our way to the Horseback Winery Tours. The winding mud roads are fringed with wild flowers and hand-made signs advertising just-harvested apples, cherries and ‘punnets of raspberries’. At the stable, we pat the horses’ warm velvety necks, admiring their long eyelashes before saddling up. Or in my case, down. I clamber back on, and we trot through the meadows in a single file. As we wind through forest trails, ducking trees while our horses daintily pick their way through slush the colour of chocolate, the only sounds are birds chirruping, occasional metal jangles from the harness and soft harrumphs.

Our first stop is Ten Minutes By Tractor, where we do a tasting, studiously swirling our way from white to red to sparkling. I wish I could tell you more — but my tasting notes fell off the horse. And Toby and I decided they weren’t worth diving after. What I do remember is, the name comes from the fact that all three vineyards are 10 minutes from each other. Yes, by tractor. The sommelier here also introduced us to WIT, or wine in a tube. A single glass, sealed in a glass test tube so you don’t have to open an entire bottle. Watch out for this — it’ll revolutionise solo drinking. Our next stop’s the pretty Green Olive farm shop, offering fragrant espressos made from beans roasted on site, crusty bread with bush-infused olive oil and a cold cellar lined with homemade sausages.

We also drop by the Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm, Australia’s largest strawberry producer. Sunny Ridge sets five hills aside for tourists to pick from, between November and April. Guests pay to go out in the fields and pick their own strawberries. Tom Sawyer whitewashes the fence, I snort, grouchily pulling plastic bags over my shoes before walking into the slush with a plastic container. Yet, it’s unexpectedly relaxing. Walking between the rows, lifting dew-drenched leaves, searching for perfectly sun-ripened strawberries. Especially because I eat as I pick. Fresh, juicy and sweet, strawberries never tasted so good.

Lunch is at the Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove. We dine among 50 acres of fruit-laden vines, olive trees and dramatic installations by local artists. The restaurant, with its timber structure and glass walls, gives the impression that you’re dining in the garden, though there’s nothing rustic about the meal. Stinging nettle risotto with Main Ridge goats’ curd, followed by cardamom and honey glazed duck breast: a clever combination of local produce and global flair.

After all this hard work, the Peninsula Hot Springs seems like the ideal place to end the day. Victoria’s first natural hot springs and day spa centre, it’s a sprawling property with unexpected nooks and crannies hiding small springs, baths and plunge pools of mineral rich thermal water. We’re scheduled for a spa treatment, a kodo massage inspired by traditional aboriginal techniques. It’s done in a wind-buffeted tent set to aboriginal music, conjuring up images of drum circles, fierce forests and red wet earth.

In the evening, in my room at the Pepper Moonah Links Resort, I study the silent golf course that encircles my mostly-glass room suspiciously. There’s a helpful notice by the bedside, with pictures of the three varieties of venomous snakes found on the property. Fortunately, I’m quickly distracted. Dinner. We eat at The Baths, in laidback Sorrento, right by the beach. Freshly shucked oysters, with a squeeze of lime. We watch the sun sink in a spectacular show of might and colour, as we drink ‘Stickys’, a glass of late picked semillon.

Driving back to Melbourne, I watch fat cows contentedly scratching their heads against knobbly trees. Horses in sturdy, weathered blankets grazing in daisy-strewn meadows. Paths fringed with purple flowers. And every once in a while, a ‘house for rent’ sign. We stop briefly at the famous bathing boxes, as bright as candy, and dip our toes in the icy waves.

We pass small towns with big signs advertising Friday night barefoot bowling, salsa classes, psychic dinners. Perhaps I should investigate the houses for rent. For Toby’s sake.

Melbourne: More than just Kangaroo Burgers

Hippy gourmet meets hipster-chic. Sustainable, recyclable, biodynamic. And always – unabashedly provocative.

Greenhouse by Joost could be a metaphor for the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival as well as contemporary Victorian cuisine. A living ‘pop up’ restaurant, the Greenhouse is as flamboyant as it is conscientious. As rooted at it is rebellious. As avant-garde as it is traditional. Sounds as pretentious as it is ephemeral? You’re in for a surprise. Starting with our waiter (who in that uniquely Melbournian way, looks like he spends every lunch break at the gym), flaunting a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Greenhouse takes the piss.’ Quite literally.

Created by Joost Bakker, Dutch florist turned artist turned eco-warrior, this restaurant set beside the muddy Yarra river has a life span of just 20 days, which is how long the festival runs. One of the focal points of the festival, it’s famously self reliant. To the extent of creating its own energy by harvesting urine from the men’s toilets. It will be used to fertilize 20 hectares of mustard crop, the oil from which will power next year’s Greenhouse.

Entering the restaurant’s Lego-like arrangement of three shipping containers, I weave through vats of basil and stop to admire Joost’s signature ‘plant walls’ filled with pots of strawberries. This building is the culmination of years of research by designers, builders, engineers, scientists, farmers and chefs. Inside, it’s fragrant with the scent of fresh wood shavings. In the flickering yellow light of beeswax candles, muscled chefs flex their tattoos under meticulously ripped t-shirts. The beer is artisan. The food local. The structure cozy. “Our walls are filled with straw bales to keep interiors warm. The floor’s made of old conveyor belts from a factory,” smiles Joost, who pops by to say hello. “And all our wine, beer and milk come in returnable kegs.”

Drinking water from a clunky jam jar and eating baba ganoush off a wine bottle that’s been reheated and reformed into a serving dish, I can almost hear the restaurant breathe. Graffiti above the bar reads “Imagine buildings that grow food.” This is a model building for urban agriculture. Mushrooms spurt from logs along the wall. Above us, the roof garden is lush with lemon grass, basil and rocket. And then of course, there are those strawberry walls. Rene Redezpi, commonly acknowledged to be one of the world’s best chefs and inspiration for the current food foraging trend, cooked a meal here for the festival. It’s a good place as any to start unraveling Melbourne’s unique food style.

Australia’s multicultural immigration program enables it to absorb authentic food cultures from around the world. Being ‘Down Under’ seems to have worked to its advantage. With a wide array of lush seasonal ingredients and a crop of young talented Chefs, instead of being buffeted by transient trends of world cuisine, Australia’s absorbed various ethnic influences, melding them together to create its own distinctive style. It’s not all Crocodile steaks, Kangaroo burgers and Vegemite sandwiches, as the Food and Wine Festival proved.

The event began with the ‘World’s Longest Lunch’ set on a sun dappled long table, along the river. The setting’s earthy, rural, sophisticated. Hats and pearls, sunglasses and summer dresses, a canopy of trees and a carpet of damps twigs and crisp yellow leaves. About 1200 people sit along a 500 metre long table to enjoy the bounty of a very Victorian autumn, cool and sunny.

The meal begins with a delicate tangle of leafy vegetables and herbs, served with smoked trout the colour of coral. It’s followed by Chef George Biron’s Turkey with tomatillos. Over dessert, a vacherin featuring rich cream stained pink with rhubarb, Biron tries to explain the essence of contemporary Victorian food. “This is a cerebral city,” he says, talking of how it’s embraced visitors. “The gold rush brought us Chinese food. The Italian immigrants came next. Now the Africans are here… We’re so lucky. In Melbourne we can travel the world in one evening. One street is Hanoi, the next is Ethiopia.” His Turkey and Tomatillos, inspired by Mexican cooking, are an attempt to showcase new world food. “They were all picked yesterday from my gardens. That’s the ethos here: everyone bringing their best to the table.”

CEO of the festival, Natalie O’Brien, talks of how they’ve hosted over 70 Michelin starred Chefs over the 20 years of the festival. “This is best of Victoria, but it’s also the best of the world. We want to show the spectrum we have: East African, Afghan, Middle Eastern and Asian food.” It’s more than just a database of traditional recipes and venues. “It’s the sum of the small things. The experiences people share.”

Making Passata with Mangia Mangia is all about the experience. In Carlton, the Italian quarter of town, where families sit at pavement cafés eating gelato, we’re introduced to ‘Passata’ at the Museo Italiano courtyard. Despite the incessant drizzle, spirits are high as Angela explains why her family gathers together every year to make this rich sauce of poached tomatoes and basil. “It’s about preserving our tradition. Food is the very essence of who we are. It transcends culture and individuals,” she says, passing around jugs of coffee and a platter of biscotti. She adds, “In two generations there have been so many changes. We used to spend time cooking together. If we lose our tradition it would be a tragedy.” It’s slick marketing, no doubt. The process is embarrassingly simple for a cooking class. Poach, pulp, bottle. So much for “families’ secrets and techniques.” But there’s an all-pervading sense of goodwill in the air as people settle down for a simple, and hearty, lunch of pasta served with generous shavings of sharp Grada Padano cheese and home cured olives.

Food in Melbourne is about celebrating variety. The city’s most popular chefs blend traditional and contemporary influences. At the Carlton Wine room we sit in a private dining room in the style of an old-school Gentlemen’s club. Croatian Chef Matthew Silovic’s food is ‘Modern European,’ rife with Melbournian influences. More about meticulously sourced and intelligently combined ingredients than convoluted techniques. The star’s a mixed tomato salad with brittle toasted almonds, puffed brown rice, unctuous blobs of burrata cheese and a sticky olive oil jam. Later in the week we eat at Coda by Chef Adam De Silva, who’s heavily influenced by South East Asia, particularly Vietnam: Rice paper rolls with smoked duck, prawn and tapioca betel leaf and – his signature dish – sugar cane prawn.

Variety isn’t limited to what’s on your plate. The city’s rife with surprising venues. Mathew Bax, who runs the legendary bar, Der Raum, and well as the well-hidden Bar Americano, says Melbourne is a competitive market, but one that appreciates quality. “Anyone can create a short term buzz with a gimmick or nifty location but the real trick is to keep them coming back.… Bar Americano was designed to be fad proof, the interior is very classic. Many of the features are based on the great “old rattler’ wooden trams of Melbourne… Our carpenter restores the old trams and works to create furniture from them.”

Early in the week, we stumble upon another pop-up, the Broadsheet Bar, humming with activity despite, or perhaps because of, its exposed pipes, wobbly makeshift shelves and industrial vibe. Walking along the Yarra later that night, we’re chatted up by the cheery bouncer at Ponyfish Island, a floating pop-up turned permanent bar under a bridge offering crocodile skewers, kangaroo kebabs and Sichuan smoked quail.

There are other festival highlights. DJ’s playing at food truck jams and a lecture titled ‘“How Not to Drink Wine like a Wanker’’ by Dan Sims. Culinary rockstar, the 34 year old David Chang of Momofuku, a Michelin starred serial restaurateur and pioneer of cross-cultural cuisine, takes a Master class on the ‘Flavour of Fire’ and there are reports of journalists bumping into Antony Bourdain wandering about the hotel lobby. We drink champagne at a cocktail party with eight Michelin Chefs, including Tokyo’s Jun Yukimura and France’s Thierry Marx, at the Crown Casino. Stumble upon ‘rooftop honey,’ a project that aims to bring bees back to the city, thus addressing issues of sustainability. And attend a very soggy ‘Cellar Door and Farm Gate’ event, where with wet hair, slushy feet and frozen fingers we sip samples from boutique wineries, specialist brewers and artisan producers.

The taste of Melbourne – and in fact Victoria – is unique because it’s an expression of so many different factors. A multicultural populace. A bounty of fresh local ingredients. An active conscience. What we eat is who we are. What makes Australia so exciting is the fact that this is tantalisingly transient. And proudly so.