As a Sydney-based wanker, I had always felt that our food scene was elite. Like I could walk outside into our sprawling metropolis and fulfil any delicious desire that I had.
Italian that could rival my nonnas? Check.
Phô so delicious and nourishing it could heal a cold? Check.
Saag paneer in the perfect shade of dark green? Check.
And that’s not even skimming the surface.
But while I am blessed for choice here in Sydney, I recently had the pleasure of heading to Darwin for a four-day trip with NT Tourism, and boy, the food scene there really put me in my place.
You see, I was too busy focusing on the fact that in Darwin, the weather sits at a glorious 30 degrees with minimal humidity. I couldn’t wait to shed my puffer jacket and warm myself like a lizard.
As it turns out, there’s way more to Darwin than sunning yourself. But today, I’m going to focus on the burgeoning food culture that took me by surprise.
Why is the food scene so bloody good?
The city of Darwin is pretty damn unique. It’s a melting pot of different cultures and flavours, in a gorgeously warm climate that allows a bunch of tasty ingredients to thrive.
But it’s certainly not a city I’d be able to wholeheartedly understand just from four days of traipsing around. So I had a chat to Darwin local and former MasterChef contestant Minoli De Silva, about the vibrant food scene in the city.
“The produce in Darwin is exceptional and we are located in such close proximity to Asia,” Minoli, who owns her own Sri Lankan restaurant in the city, explains.
“It’s multicultural and it’s small so the influences from different nations are a bit more prominent here than in other states. It’s such a small town, there’s only about 100-250,000 people here but there are so many different festivals for different nations.
“It just shows that there’s such a strong identity for every single nation and everything just gets punched into one small area, which is very different to how I grew up in Melbounre.”
For decades, generations of migrants have called the Top End home. With them, they’ve brought flavours from their home countries and contributed to the passionate food culture that underpins the city. In fact, Minoli says that many of these cultures celebrate their own annual food festivals.
“It just shows that there’s such a strong identity for every single nation and everything just gets punched into one small area, which is very different to how I grew up in Melbourne,” she says.
But of course, it would be remiss not to mention the huge contribution the rightful owners of the land, the Larrakia People, have made to the food scene too. From market stalls to little cafés to fine dining restaurants, native ingredients are embraced by chefs and cooks alike.
To give some of these flavours a taste, we headed to Aboriginal Bush Traders in Darwin’s Smith Street Mall. Aboriginal Bush Traders is a retail space and cafe which sells everything from artworks to bush-food pantry items, bush medicines, beauty products and fashion. They also have a café which sells bushfood with a modern twist.
To try as much as I could possibly fit in my gob, I ordered the tasting plate which included a bacon and egg bush spiced pie, native fruit-infused granola with yoghurt and a protein ball with lemon myrtle.
Laksa reigns supreme
In Darwin, the creamy, spicy, tangy soup is a way of life. From breakfast, lunch or dinner, you can always find a piping hot bowl of laksa to soothe your soul.
If you chat with the locals, the best laksa is a very contentious topic. But the most popular laksa can be found at Mary’s, a little stall at Parap Village Market. It’s owned by Mary (Guo Yang Lei) who has been serving hungry customers for more than 20 years.
But when I went to the markets for breakfast on Saturday, I was far too distracted by the multitude of snacks I’d never tried before to slurp on a Laksa. Instead, I opted for Banh It Tran (Vietnamese rice dumplings) and Bánh xèo (Vietnamese rice pancakes), and a cheeky Vietnamese iced coffee.
If you’re thinking “wow, that’s a strange choice for breakfast” – you can grow up. I’ve never abided by the outdated breakfast rules of our society and apparently, neither do people in Darwin. My people.
“Everyone in Darwin lives outside of the box,” Minoli says.
“There’s literally no box that contains anyone and if you’ve been to Darwin, you’ll know it’s kind of like the Wild West of Australia. Being original and authentic is so common place in Darwin. It’s a place that isn’t governed by rules when it comes to whether you’re living your authentic life. And that totally applies to food.
“If you want to have laksa for breakfast, have laska for breakfast because everything is normalised in Darwin.”
Later that night, when the serious laksa FOMO had well and truly hit, we found ourselves at the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets where I got my stubby little mits on my first slurp of a Darwin duck laksa. I ordered from Darwin Laksa and it may have not been Mary’s but, good lord, I’ll never be the same.
But the best bit? This is only the tip of the laksa iceberg. If you rock up to Darwin in October, you’ll be there for the Darwin International Laksa Festival.
The festival, which runs from October 1 to October 29, celebrates the mix of delicious flavours within the complex soup and pushes the boundaries about how the dish can be reimagined. One local even told me about laksa-flavored ice cream.
Say what you will, but that sounds pretty damn good.
The restaurants are pretty fkn lit too
While I could exclusively eat at the various markets in Darwin for the rest of my life and be a very happy gal, the finer dining experiences have certainly not been forgotten.
The first restaurant stop, of course, was Minoli’s restaurant, Ella By Minoli.
Ella By Minoli combines the rich Sri Lankan flavours Minoli grew up cooking with her family, through a modern, slightly elevated lens. They also use local produce to bring it all together, with a menu that changes with the seasons.
For Minoli, the immaculate produce was the deciding factor that saw her open her restaurant in Darwin, instead of Melbourne where she grew up.
“I realised that I just absolutely loved the food scene in Darwin. It’s more intimate. I had more connection with the growers and I felt more connected to what I was doing. I wanted to maintain that in a commercial sense and give back to a town that gave me so much more with my love of food,” she told me.
Sitting in the dimly lit dining room, we decided to order the kiwifruit curry with a side of crispy pappadum and rice with a tamarin margarita to wash it all down. The kiwi curry balanced sweet and sour flavours perfectly in a way I never thought could work.
We finished up by sharing a pannacotta and a choccie cheesecake.
Wanna get fancy?
If you’re craving an incredibly special getaway, I’ve got you. But be warned, this isn’t just a ‘date night’ stopover. This is proposal-level fancy.
Finniss River Lodge is an experiential and environmentally sustainable luxury lodge that sits on the edge of a floodplain in Litchfield National Park. Not only does it scream luxury from the moment you enter the building, but there are legit activities too from having champagne and canapés with a bunch of cows at sunset to a scenic helicopter flight or even seeing crocodiles in the wild.
I didn’t stay here overnight, but I did pop in for lunch. The staff were incredibly attentive. Our host, Corey, even overheard me talking about a green-butted ant I tried during a Saltwater Cultural Tour (it tasted like lime!) and the next thing I knew, he’d whipped up a gorgeous gin cocktail filled with the little buggers.
Then, we were treated to locally caught barramundi with zucchini cooked in a bunch of different ways. I wish I asked more questions, I really do, but I was too busy digging in.
I’ll admit, I felt incredibly well cared for, and incredibly well-fed during my time in the NT.
But while I was blessed to have some pretty fkn luxe experiences, my favourite foodie destination was the markets. Fresh, vibrant and packed with options, the markets in Darwin put Sydney to shame. And, as Minoli says, it’s a vibe that you have to see in the flesh to really soak it all up.
“People just need to get up here and see for themselves because just like me, until you come to Darwin and see it for yourself and experience it in real life, you won’t get it. It’s a town that you will never forget,” she said.
And with that, I’m willing to admit defeat.