"In Australia we like to take the best aspects of other cultures and make them our own," says a staff member welcoming our group to Melbourne's Immigration Museum. "We love festivals, but food is the most important thing."
If you'll excuse the expression, he took the words right out of my mouth. In my own travels overseas, I'm always keen to explore the local culture via its cuisine. But here in Australia, we have the food cultures of every nation on Earth to choose from, thanks to our history of immigration.
That's the key to the Melbourne Foodie Culture walking tour, hosted by Foodie Trails. In the past the tour company has focused on specific cuisines in Melbourne's suburbs, offering walks and cooking classes including African, Indian, Vietnamese and Mexican options.
This new tour through the CBD unites that diversity, and it begins with a visit to the Immigration Museum. Housed in the grand former Customs House set back from the Yarra River, it highlights the stories of those who've made Australia their home.
Himanshi, our tour guide and herself of Indian heritage, leads us through the exhibits. Profiles of current-day migrants are succeeded by a complex timeline which describes the high and low points of immigration to Victoria, including the influx of settlers during the 1850s gold rush and the later restrictions of the White Australia policy.
On the second floor is an exhibition that examines how first impressions – sparked by names, language, and food – play a role in the acceptance of people from different cultures, and how successful immigration requires mutual empathy.
Context established, we hit the streets, and head to Block Arcade. Within this magnificent shopping space is Gewurzhaus, a spice shop founded by German sisters. Spices made from Australian native ingredients sit alongside hundreds of others from around the world, with a local note struck by the Melbourne Coffee and Charcoal Rub, intended for use at barbecues.
From Collins Street we pass through the glamorous new CBD premises of Brunetti, a family-owned Italian cafe, and are refreshed with coffee and salami or eggplant-filled calzone.
In Melbourne's Chinatown, one of the oldest in the Western world, Himanshi relates the Chinese legend about a general who pretended to sacrifice 50 of his soldiers by throwing meat-filled balls of dough (imitating severed heads) into a river. This macabre ploy apparently led to the idea of the steamed bun, which we enjoy at China Red along with prawn dumplings.
We duck into an Asian grocery store which extends way back from Little Bourke Street. Crocodile jerky, kangaroo jerky and wasabi macadamias sit alongside more traditional foodstuffs, evidence of a cultural fusion discussed at the Immigration Museum.
On busy Swanston Street we sit outside Vietnamese restaurant Rice Paper, and jump forward in immigration history: from the Chinese gold rush migrants of the 19th century, to late-20th century arrivals from south-east Asia.
As our guide talks about that era, we consume tasty rice paper rolls packed with chicken or prawns, and served with peanut sauce.
We're starting to fill up, but there are more stops to go. Finally at the end of the walk, we reach Flora, a dowdy-looking Indian eatery on Flinders Street. Though I live in Melbourne, I've never been in here, so what comes next is a revelation. Seated at a long table, we receive serves of idli sambar, a spiced red lentil dahl containing a steamed rice cake and for dessert ras malai, made from milk solids, syrup and nuts.
They're both delicious, and I would never have encountered them without joining this tour. My taste buds appreciate this happy meeting of cultures.
Tim Richards was a guest of Foodie Trails.
Qantas flies to Melbourne from across Australia. See qantas.com.au
The Savoy Hotel, which serves a sumptuous afternoon tea, has rooms from $149 a night. See savoyhotelmelbourne.com
The Melbourne Foodie Culture tour costs $125. See foodietrails.com.au