We usually avoid most food festivals, especially where they feel staged to resemble 'hawker markets' (they never ever feel that way) or are manufactured to sell food from nearby restaurants at inflated prices for the plastic plate service.
The only food festival we have ever really enjoyed is the Canberra Multicultural Festival. First of all, it isn't even advertised as a food festival. Second, the food there is usually provided by local community cooks who prepare dishes from home straight from the heart. Third, because you don't have to buy a ticket just to get in. Fourth, because you can walk around with a drink in your hand from a distant land, even one you bought at the bottle shop yourself or BYO'd and no one harasses you. And lastly, because there are absolutely no celebrity wannabe chefs or chefs boosting their personal brand in sight.
Canberra is a gentle place. The civic powers that be kindly direct you to the nearest Drinking Fountain if you get thirsty, even if the sign is a little bent.
The rest of the thirsty Canberra punters descend on to Garema Place during the annual Multicultural Festival. Each February the streets in Civic are blocked off and stalls are set up in front of the regular stores to promote cultures across the globe. As the home of embassies and consulates, it's only natural that Canberra can boast such a breadth of communities.
We start off with some Sri Lankan appetisers and a couple of Lion beers. We've got a mission to try as many new flavours as possible and revisit a few we love, with a few stalls lined up that we missed out on last year.
From the Sri Lankan stall, two roti topped with a ladle of minced chicken and potato curry, spicy and a little sweet and a bargain $5.
The Bhutanese stall was tempting, but dumplings seemed too risky as too filling when there was a night of eating ahead.
Flavours of Peru was next for us, their anticuchos we had seen at the festival the year before.
Anticuchos are grilled beef hearts, served with salty real potato crisps and a splodge of chilli sauce. The hearts are tender and oh so tasty, the grilling bringing out the flavours of this 'eeeew' enducing but full of goodness muscle.
Young Henry's beer on sale - cheaper than you can buy it in Newtown.
The Iranian food stall looked tempting as well, but we felt we can tap that need when it hits by heading out to Fairfield or Merrylands.
Some stalls give insane value for money. Some are just insane. Our pick for crappiest stand of the festival was the pizza stall. Six bucks gets you a small lukewarm slice of pizza that looks like it was flown in direct from a crappy late night kebab joint on George Street.
Not even the pretty people could sell crappy six buck pizza slices.
Meanwhile the Abyssinian Cuisine joint next door was pumping, we joined the gang.
The choice here was simple, either a couple of vegetarian stews or a mix of meat and lentils. $15 for a meat combo.
The combo is served on an injera, the yeasty flat bread common to Ethiopian cuisine that serves as both plate and spoon. The three different flavours, stewed lentils, slow cooked beef and a creamy pumpkin, worked their magic together. The flavours soak into the bread leaving you with a delicious soggy pancake.
Filed under 'Next Time': Food from Mauritius, a French creole fusion from the Indian ocean.
Also filed under the next visit list, a German currywurst. We are itching to get to Berlin to try the street food there, but we fear it might be another trip to Canberra before we ever get there.
As we start to plan future travels around food inspiration, we knock back a quick shot of Macedonian mastika, similar to ouzo.
The sun starts to set over the festival, time to find some more food.
Last festival we loved the food finds from the Pacific, our noses were itching for some pork.
While this was exactly what we wanted, they were sold out with a 20 minute wait. We spied the new piggies going on the rotisserie BBQ out the back, and just knew that was a very island time 20 minutes and decided to come back the next day. They weren't cooking them when we came back, a lesson learnt in patience perhaps.
The Pacifika stalls had a much larger area this year, complete with kava tent. Not all stalls are set up and ready on the Friday night but there was still plenty of food to find.
We were intrigued by this Samoan dish of sapasui, a mix of marinated meat, vermicelli noodles and a few vegetables fried together and well seasoned with soy sauce. Chop suey, Pacific style.
There is a significant Chinese influence in some of the food of the Pacific region, especially a love of soy sauce and fried noodles. Chinese indentured labourers were across the islands from New Caledonia to Fiji and all points between, setting up market gardens and restaurants and influencing the culinary offerings wherever they went. We've seen this influence in the snacks (cafes) in Noumea and there's often soy or Maggi seasoning available on cafe tables and fast food counters.
This year there was a large Malaysian sponsored row of stalls, we worked hard to resist these tops aunties and the food they offered. It's so hard to not just eat all your favourite foods when you know you need to save precious stomach room for something new.
Outside Smiths bookshop, trying to influence more than just the stomachs of passing punters.
Back for more the next day, our food tasting starts off with the ever growing in popularity Canadian poutine from Le Montreal Shack.
What looks like just chips in this dish is actually rectangles of cheese curds, hidden under hunks of roast pork and thick gravy. At $18 this was probably the most expensive plate of hot chips we've ever had, but it sure was fine and tasty, just like the Canadian Prime Minister.
Meanwhile across the festival there were wafts of BBQ floating above the throng, calling us to the Greek stall. This is arguably the most popular stall of the whole festival, there's a huge queue at most times of the day. We are lucky enough to be hungry at the odd hour of 3pm when there is only a smidgeon of a queue.
Here, have a sample!
While the men do all the bbq-ing the ladies handle the sweets the other side of the stall.
Glorious loukoumathes, syrupy balls of dough well worth the $5 sweet pleasure. We saw a LOT of people walking around with plates of these looking very happy, certainly a must-try dish of the festival.
After dessert, we had our lunch, an Olympian platter filled with slices of roast lamb, salad, tzatziki and a flat disk of the thicker, doughier Greek pita bread. The lamb pieces had small bursts of intense flavour where the outside edge had been exposed to the coals.
The heat rises, the crowds increase, the beer flows.
Winner of best sign. We're glad they cleared up any confusion about the Eagle Burgers.
The full range of food requirements from the South American stalls: Chorizo roll with fried onions and chilli sauce, beef empanadas and an alfajor filled with caramel.
The chirizo roll was surprisingly, eye-poppingly good. Next year we will be focussing our stomachs on the endless varieties of sausage-in-a-bun at the festival.
Just when we thought that was it for the day, this Liberian stall caught our eye. This was real home cooking on sale here, not even the sign was fancy. We even had to think for a moment where Liberia was, knowing only it was somewhere in the vast African continent.
Chicken legs stewed in tomato on a bed of steamed rice, only $5. This turned out to be one of our favourites of everything we ate, the rice was mixed with cooked green leaves, similar to cassava leaves or mustard greens, giving it a slightly bitter tang, working with the chicken stew for balance. Goodness.
Oh, and Liberia is on the West coast of Africa, between Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire and is home to over 4 million people. See, food blogging is educational, isn't that right boys and girls.
Finally, just on the last turn before heading home, the Hungarian langos stall was still serving.
We waddled off back to our hotel (the delightfully retro ANU House) munching on deep fried bread coated with garlic sauce, cheese and sour cream. As Alison's dad would say, we were full as a goog.
It took us until the end of the second festival to realise we can grab a bunch of dishes to take away and eat later on. Next time we're taking a cool bag to bring back a bunch of curries etc to try during the week.
After a day of feasting and films (we snuck in two movies in between meals, mainly to beat the heat) we ended up watching The Necks at The Street Theatre. What a weekend in Canberra.
The Canberra Multicultural Festival is held mid February each year.