Canberra has a secret – and it has nothing to do with back room deals, faceless men or potentially overthrowing a prime minister. The secret is fun, social and all-inclusive. It is related to fresh food, exotic drinks, voracious dancing, subtle learning and generally having a damn good time. It is the National Multicultural Festival, a three day extravaganza that graces the nation’s capital in February each year.
I am a born and bred Sydneysider. However, I am no Multicultural Festival virgin. 2011 marked my third attendance at this feast of the senses that only gets bigger and better each time I go.
Walking into Garema Place in Civic (the “city” centre) on a sunny, warm Saturday morning (yes, it can be sunny AND warm in Canberra), the difference was palpable. The area, which is usually almost deserted on the weekends as Canberra’s transient population returns back to their hometowns or ventures to the coast during the summer months, was packed with revellers enjoying the festival’s second day. I became a little giddy like a teenager at a beer pong tournament at this sight – Buzz! Activity! New Friends! I couldn’t wait to get involved.
I quickly realised that the first congregation of hungry bodies was eagerly gathered around one particular stall. It was not a stall that I immediately identified with a single country of origin, although its core ingredient comes from the home of Guinness and leprechauns. The stall, aptly called ‘Chips on a Stick’, served potato that is swirled around a mandolin (for the thin, chip look), rolled in flavoured salt (there are nine types) and thread onto a skewer. This slinky-resembling treat was a hit for young and old. I was definitely curious about the wonders of ‘Chips on a Stick’ (which I have since learned has satisfied the salt-craving crowds at both the Easter Show and the Rocks Market)… but I ventured on.
As I wandered around the stalls I could not help but notice the proud volunteers lovingly cooking their native fare for all to see – from Greek souvlaki on open coals and Turkish gozleme on a hot pan built for the masses, to a giant pot of Mexican chilli con carne and a variety of Thai satay sticks on an flaming barbeque. But, it was Bhutanese momos that enticed me to make my first stop. The pair of little steamed dumplings, one beef and the other vegetarian, were served with a spicy chilli paste and drizzled with soy sauce. While the beef was full of flavour, the vegetarian was the highlight. The simple-sounding combination of cabbage, onion, ginger and coriander encompassed by a smooth and slightly doughy wrapper (a texture that is typical of dumplings found in Northern Asia), was a fresh, light and flavoursome way to start my foodie taste adventure.
With a little fire in my belly I set my sights on my next destination – Chile, where among the empanadas and sopaipillas (pumpkin fritters) the green machine of South American street food, the completo, was on offer. Similar to an American hotdog (and often twice the size!), my decision to purchase a completo did not fit with my tried and tested Multicultural Festival strategy of eating little, often. However, the completo looked like it would be a party in my mouth. And it was. The tomatoes, onions, coriander, mayonnaise, pebre (a Chilean condiment made of coriander, chopped onion, olive oil, garlic and ground or pureed spicy peppers) and copious amount of avocado definitely had something to do with it. But it was the basic elements – the spicy sausage and the amazingly soft, fresh bread roll – that impressed me the most. I did not expect to consume such quality when ordering a glorified hot dog… surely that justified the fact that I bought a second one during my return visit to the festival the next day? (But that visit, my friends, is not the subject of this review).
The South African stall is my traditional favourite. I love to chat with the proud stallholders as they carefully cook the huge spiralling catharine wheel sausages, which are eventually cut into sections and placed into bread rolls to make borewors. But that is not the main reason why the South African stall is my favourite. It is my favourite because they serve ice cold, dry and oh-so refreshing Savannah ciders. Despite the cider craze that has swept Australia over the last few years, Savannahs are not widely available in this country. Only a few boutique importers enable them to grace our shores. And that makes Savannahs all the more enticing. At the festival, it quickly became apparent that I was not the only one with this view, as they sold out before nightfall.
Seafood was the self-imposed mandate for my next eating experience, so I followed my taste buds to the Peruvian stall. What initially attracted me to this stall was the Peruvian man in the back corner who was concentrating intently on slicing a large, white fleshed fish into perfect cubes and adding it to a large bowl full of prawns, corn, chilli, garlic, red onion, lemon juice, and lime juice. The citrus juices, together with a pinch of salt, permeate the flesh of the fish and act as a raw cooking method. At $15, the ceviche was not the cheapest meal on offer, but the generous portion that was served alongside a piece of sweet potato and corn on the cob, was my pick of the day.
I could not write about the Multicultural Festival without mentioning Togan Kava. This ceremonial drink, which is made from the root of the Kava plant, was a topic of controversy before the event as authorities reportedly attempted to prohibit stallholders from serving it due to its sedative and anesthetic qualities. Although Kava tastes similar to what I imagine as dirty bath water, this would have been a great shame, as a special part of the day was sitting in a circle with a group of Tongan elders and other curious others, drinking the Kava at “full tide” (filled to the rim) from wooden cups that are dipped into the communal bowl. Luckily, the authorities allowed service of it to proceed, meaning that I was able to experience a slight tingle in my lips once my cup was at “full tide” no longer.
Two other dining experiences rounded out my day. The first was a Sri Lankan Hopper, a fermented batter made out of rice flour and coconut milk which is shaped into a hemispherical dish, filled with an egg and served with chicken curry and chilli sambal on the side. The highlight of this meal was the interactive way in which you could eat it. I enjoyed pulling the hopper apart and dipping it into the egg yolk, or wrapping it around the chicken curry and dipping it (lightly) in the chilli sambal. The second was a savoury man’s dessert, Samoan Lu’au. This is the worst-looking, best-tasting meal on show, consisting of corned beef, taro plant leaves, coconut cream and onion baked in a whole taro leaf and wrapped in alfoil to keep its shape. The beef is so tender that it really does melt in your mouth and the coconut cream adds to the smooth, but not sweet, experience. It was the perfect way to end my day – well the eating part at least… there may have been some German beers, Russian vodkas, Spanish sangrias and salsa dancing that followed.
[The 2012 National Multicultural Festival has since been officially hailed the biggest and best on record, with more than 260,000 attendees and thousands of stallholders, performers, community organisations and volunteers showing their overwhelming support for Canberra’s dynamic cultural diversity. If you get the chance in 2013, join in the fun.]