“This is what Adelaideans do,” Mark Gleeson explained to me, as we wandered through Adelaide’s bustling Central Market. “The Market is a part of how we live, and has been since 1869.” Gleeson, a retired chef and owner of the Providore, a market shop selling pastry and picnic items, also leads public market tours. I’d hit the market on previous visits to South Australia’s charmingly provincial capital city. This time, however, I was his willing disciple as introduced me to vendors and gave me a detailed history of the state’s ethnic culinary influences.
The indoor public market, which is owned by the city council, is far more than a tourist attraction. That much was apparent from my first visit, in 2005. It’s always thronged with hungry locals shopping for weekend barbecues and beach picnics, sipping coffee, or savoring a bowl of Malaysian beef rendang.
As we walked, Gleeson told me, “Adelaideans are pretty savvy about food- we take an interest in how it’s produced, where it’s from. Knowing the vendors who make or sell it is part of the social fabric. We’re a multi-cultural city.” Unlike the rest of the continent, South Australia wasn’t settled as a penal colony, and the market reflects that.
The first German immigrants, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, arrived shortly after the colony was established in 1836, followed by Russians, Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians. The state (indeed, all of Australia) also has a considerable Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian population. This mash-up of ethnicities have had a significant impact upon the food of South Australia, but none more so than the Eastern Europeans (wine, beer, and charcuterie being the most obvious examples).
As we wandered the marketplace–a tantalizing cacophony of sights and smells–Gleeson brought me to some of his favorite shops so I could try some ethnic specialities. Because of him, I’m now into a half-decade-long affair with the delicate piroskhis at Taddy Kurgan. These ample, fried puffs of dough resemble yeasty, perfectly-made doughnuts, except they’re stuffed with savory fillings of ground beef and rice or braised cabbage, or spinach and feta. The original shop owners emigrated from Kazakhstan. They recently sold to a Chinese couple, after training them very carefully in the art of piroshki and pelmeni-making.
Over at Sevenhill Fine Foods, Mr. Waldeck, a Polish refugee, sells traditional tastes of his homeland, including makowiec, a poppy seed bread, and regional charcuterie like mettwurst and lachshinken. Sun Mi runs a small stall offering her Korean take on made-to-order sushi, while Tony O’Connell of O’Connell’s Quality Meats specializes in local product, such as lamb. O’Connell, 52, started in his family’s shop at 15, and treats his customers like relatives. The first time I met him, in ’05, he gently tucked a couple of extra-fatty lamb chops into the display case while we talked. “We’ve got a couple of older ladies who will be real happy with those, so we’ll keep them,” he murmured. You don’t find personalized customer service like that too often these days.
At Wild Oz, you can buy native game such as emu, kangaroo, and wallaby, and feral (aka, “environmental nuisances”) wild pig and goat. A number of shops sell regional and indigenous “bush tucker” ingredients such as lemon myrtle, wattleseed, and quandong jam, and flaky, red, Murray River salt. House of Organic sells pristine, sustainably-grown Australian produce: Mildura asparagus, Adelaide Hills beurre bosc pears, kipfler potatoes. Seafood shops display local Smoky Bay oysters, sweet, teal-hued, blue swimmer crabs, scallops in the shell glistening with neon-orange roe, octopus, and bugs, a delectable Australian slipper lobster.
At dough!, Turkish pide and Lebanese flatbread compete for space with quiche, pastry, and locally-made, whole, glaceed figs, clementines, and kumquats, and plump, dried muscatel grapes from Barossa Valley vineyards. Across the aisle, The Smelly Cheese Shop is one of Australia’s finest specialty providores, stocked to capacity with imported and Australian artisan cheeses and housemade condiments such as skordalia, oil-packed, dried tomatoes, marinated bocconcini, and other picnic and cheeseboard items.
You need to fuel up for all of this browsing. Local’s love “brekkie” at Zuma’s, a coffee house serving savory muffins and egg dishes. The first place I always head, however, is Asian Gourmet. This unassuming, somewhat dumpy restaurant inside the market is famed for its laksa, a spicy, coconut milk-thickened noodle soup (the Singapore version with egg noodle is my pick). I’ve never had a better version, and I’m not ashamed to admit I actually plan my schedule around market hours, so I can get a daily (sometimes twice daily) fix.
Speaking of Asian food, the Market is conveniently located in Adelaide’s thriving little Chinatown, also known as Gouger Street. It’s lined with cheap and upscale Asian eats, most of which have sidewalk seating. I adore Wah Hing; besides consistently excellent, deceptively simple Chinese dishes, it’s a sleek, lively place with a great regional wine list.
And that describes Adelaide in a nutshell: locals may refer to it as “just a big country town,” but that doesn’t do justice to this city of astonishing diversity and quality ethnic cuisine. The Central Market is a national treasure, and Adelaideans love of convivial, adventurous dining and their pride in regional products make it a must-visit on ever food-lover’s itinerary.
For a more in-depth South Australian food experience, put Tasting Australia on your 2012 calendar. One of Australia’s largest food and wine festivals, it’s a week-long orgy of eating and drinking. It’s held in Adelaide every other year.
The following recipe is about as simple as it gets, and is very reflective of the region. Haloumi, a mild, salty, fresh sheep’s cheese traditionally from Cyprus, is artisanally produced on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Fried haloumi is a beloved regional treat. Serve as an appetizer, as part of a salad, or as a dessert course, drizzled with honey.
recipe courtesy of The Market- Stories, History & Recipes from the Adelaide Central Market, by Catherine Murphy
Dust some slices of good-quality haloumi with flour. Fry quickly in olive oil until golden on both sides. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon and freshly ground black pepper.