Fine in Dandy
The story of Dandenong is the story of greater Melbourne – ancient and modern. Its influences are worldwide, making it an outer-suburban world of its own.
Now this might be apocryphal, but I have been told there’s a health worker in Dandenong who can say ‘Push!’ in 20 languages. Seems she specialises in maternity matters.
Actually, our birthing professional would need to lift her game to cover all bases – there are people from around 150 nations here, speaking up to 200 languages and dialects. That’s why you have to concede Dandenong is one of the most culturally diverse places in Victoria. Make that Australia. Make that the world.
Over the years many waves of migrants have gravitated towards Dandenong. Sixty years back the post-war intake saw Germans, Britons, Dutch, Italians, Russians and others come, seeking work and freedom in a land of promise. A couple of decades later and there was an influx of Vietnamese, Chinese and people from the Indian subcontinent.
Now East Africans, Afghans and many others call the area home. It’s as if Dandenong is the entire world encapsulated in its own world.
Dandenong was established shortly after European settlement in Victoria, in the 1830s. The indigenous people of the Kulin Nation were pushed aside until whitefella realised he needed them to help capture outlaw/hero Ned Kelly. Trackers were stationed and trained at Police Paddocks, now a 499ha park (enter from Brady Rd), but ultimately Ned didn’t need much tracking – he made his presence clear and loud at the Glenrowan pub.
The town grew steadily as the staging post for the hazardous journey into the unknown vastness of Gippsland and its goldfields, and it spurted ahead after WW2 when massive factories including Heinz, General Motors-Holden and International offered work for thousands.
A railway station was built to serve the factories, but everything went sour when Heinz and GM-H closed the facilities and the region went into Struggletown mode.
Affordable housing stock meant the city and its suburbs didn’t become ghost towns, and recent local, state and federal initiatives have put a smile back on Dandenong’s face, with some striking new streetscapes and buildings.
The Dandenong Market goes back almost 150 years and has recently benefited from a $26m facelift. The wide main drag – Lonsdale St – now channels a seaside promenade almost, with cobblestones, pavers, benches and trees.
More money has been spent on civic endeavours, including the excellent Drum Theatre (226 Lonsdale St) which blends the old town hall at the front with a Dubai-type addition at the back. And the Civic Square also does some channelling, with a Federation Square-style big screen overlooking a wide piazza.
Many locals agree the turnaround in the city’s fortunes is based on food. Rob Boyle, of Rob’s British Butchers, is an enthusiastic advocate of the bewildering variety of restaurants, delis, grocery stores revealing the district’s ethnic composition.
“When I came here more than 20 years ago, the town centre had a bit of a seedy reputation. Drunks and drug addicts were commonplace, fights were not unknown and you’d think twice about going down a side street after dark. But things have changed, and we rarely see any kind of trouble here these days – certainly no more than any other part of Melbourne.”
One of Australia’s acknowledged sausage kings, Rob also does a tasty line in haggis, gammon, pork pies and English faggots, which are a mix of pigs’ heart, liver and fatty belly meat wrapped in abdomen membrane. It’s true – Google it.
“I know it sounds extraordinary, but some people adore it,” the genial butcher says. “And there are many even more exotic foods around here. If you can’t find it in Dandenong, it probably doesn’t exist.”
I’m inclined to believe him, although I haven’t found much evidence of Inuit cuisine here. But there’s just about everything else, from the 20-odd shops centred on the Afghan bazaar in Thomas St to Little India in Foster St where you’ll find 30 or so stores and restaurants. Scattered in between are Ethiopian, Turkish, Uyghur, Lebanese, Chinese, Polish, Vietnamese, South American, Japanese, Balkan, Mauritian ... I think Rob’s right.
I haven’t tried them all, because I keep going back to these:
Rye Crust Polish Bakery (101 Foster St); Rob’s British Butcher (177 Lonsdale St); Gibe African Restaurant (108 Foster St); Afghan Rahimi Restaurant (23-29 Walker St); A1 Bakery (201 Lonsdale St); Galle Road Sri Lankan Restaurant (15 Pultney St); MKS Spices (23/25 Pultney St).
They also do great festivals in Greater Dandenong, which now houses 145,000 people. The Vietnamese quarter of Springvale seems to be one big festival, with a fascinating concentration of events on 15 February – the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Goat. The first day of March brings the world on a plate to the Dandenong market, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and Little India occupies the rail station for a food fair in February and March.
The Greater Dandenong Council website has links to all sorts of places and happenings. Go to greaterdandenong.com and follow the Play link, for events, food tours and places, arts venues and all that.