News and Feature articles

Hot, sweet and spicy in Darwin's markets

Monday, May 07, 2018

A bundle of the freshest rhizomes I've ever seen is carelessly thrown on the counter of a Parap market stall. The Thai stallholder swiftly skin, de-seeds and slices brilliant orange paw paw before tossing the chunks into a plastic container and squeezing them with fresh lime. I'm struggling to identify some of the roots and point to one.

"Turmeric," she says briefly, barely lifting her gaze from the task at hand.

"No, not that one," I say, pointing to the thin orange stems next to the one I indicated, "This thick white one here, what's that?"

"White turmeric," she snaps, obviously labelling me a rube, but she's right - I've never seen raw white turmeric before.

As I exclaim over the freshness of the turmeric, ginger and galangal all laid out on the counter, the stallholder flashes a brief smile and asks me if I want to move to Darwin and help her "dig them out of the mud". While the turmeric is tempting, the thought of grubbing it up in the 33C heat is less so.

Visitors to the Northern Territory aren't always there for the food, but that's changing. The Taste of Kakadu festival in May is encouraging visitors to experience local indigenous food and any foodie worth their pink Himalayan salt will be combining their trip with some time in Darwin, where the local markets are a must-visit.

Parap kicks off at 8am every Saturday and its laksas are a central feature of the local food experience, accompanied by cool lassi, shakes and juices.

While there are also fashions, lotions and souvenirs to be bought, these markets centre around the food. People meet and graze, stroll and brunch, all in a relaxed atmosphere surrounded by fabulous smells, chattering voices and of course, the relentless heat.

There are plenty of seats to rest in the shade and consume the delicious purchases.

Asian cuisine is everywhere, with Korean fried chicken, dumplings, savoury crepes, roti wraps and green paw paw salad in pick-your-own degrees of hotness all on offer.

But there are also health foods, jams and Nutella pancakes (available in buckwheat for those avoiding gluten) to tempt your palate.

My tip is to go with a friend (or two or three) so you can share your selections and also to ensure you scout all the stalls beforehand, as going solo meant I could only gaze at some of the delicious offerings, including the glutinous and brightly-coloured Thai sweets with coconut sugar.

If you've overdone it on Friday night at one of Darwin's watering holes you could do worse than to start with a Detox Drink (watermelon, ginger, lime and ice blended together) or for those who need a caffeine kick to start the day, there is a coffee stall in the market and Campos coffee available nearby at Laneway Specialty Coffee.

A warning for coffee snobs - Darwin's baristas can be a bit hit or miss. Do your research.

For those keen to reduce their ecological footprint, most of the stallholders are happy to fill your own containers, and there are also loaner forks and knives at no charge from Parap Plastic Free.
Another market worth visiting, especially for those who've chosen to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel, is at Rapid Creek on Sundays. Here the stalls are all about the fruit and vegetables, although there are still plenty of food stalls to tempt your palate.

While there are plenty of selections just about anyone would recognise, I'm stumped by the June Plums, green-skinned ovals bigger than olives but much smaller than the stone fruit they're named for.

The stallholder encourages me to bite in, and the tart white flesh is tangy and fresh, but a little bland. A quick check with Google reveals these are the unripe fruit, which when golden-yellow in colour have a pineapple-mango flavour.

I'm scouring the stalls at Rapid Creek for a beer snack I've promised to bring home, and while the combination of fried anchovy and peanuts is nauseating to me, my husband was drooling when a friend mentioned it. After a quick text exchange with her, I locate it alongside my own snack, curly shards of fried pork rind seasoned with salt and chilli. Not that my husband will leave me much, so I buy a second bag.

It's pushing time for me to head to the nearby airport so I struggle out of the crowds and fall into a blessedly air conditioned taxi, whose driver tells me I should also have taken in the Nightcliff markets today.

Oh well, more markets to discover the next time I'm in Darwin.

The writer travelled to Darwin with assistance from Tourism NT, Kakadu Tourism and Parks Australia.