Many years ago, my great-uncle who passed away, left me a small amount of money. This uncle early recognized my restless nature, and would warn my family “that I was divlja (wild).” and “had the unruly nature of a Tzigane (gypsy), and that there would be trouble.” Although he said this half jokingly, he still made it a point not to let me inherit the money until I was in my mid twenties. When it was finally mine, and determined to prove him wrong, I decided to use it for a home deposit. At the same time, the new job that I had been head hunted for had quickly turned out to be a bore, and to top it all off, the dead-beat on and off again boyfriend had brought me back one too many Days of Our Lives scenarios. Following that, and true to my late uncle’s predictions, I ditched the house plans, packed a few suitcases, faxed in my “sorry, but I am just not into you” resignation and booked a one-way ticket from Adelaide to Cairns, Far North Queensland, leaving the dead beat scratching his head when he returned to my empty flat. The only things I knew about Cairns was that a) it was hot and humid and b) my Swedish born cousin called it the “most beautiful place on earth.” After a back packing trip, he had returned home to Sweden, secured a study grant and moved there, with no apparent intention of ever leaving again.
The first few weeks were a haze, the environment completely different to anything I had seen. Unbeknown to me it was the monsoon season, so most afternoons I would return from afternoon walks around town completely drenched. Cairns is a relatively small city, yet the frontier to two of the world’s great heritage sites – the Great Barrier Reef, and then the Daintree Rainforest. Yet I found even the local surrounds a visual masterpiece; ancient trees grew tall as small buildings, rainforest mountains encircled the city, coconut and avocado grew in backyards. Instead of just the beach, there were nearby crystalline waterfalls, serpentine coloured water holes and mountain top lakes to swim in. Large lizards would stop by whilst I sun-baked. The song of the cicada would sing us to sleep.
Asides from my cousin, and a few of his friends, I didn’t know many people at first, so would spend most of my time exploring the city and nearby surrounds. One day, I stumbled across a semi open space, which from the outside appeared to be a large, unused factory. It was the music that first drew me in – a local Indigenous band was playing some drums and the didgeridoo. Walking in deeper, I discovered the most exquisite looking market space I had ever seen – the produce, much like Cairns itself, was exotic, vivid in color, sumptuous. There were tables and tables of tropical fruit and vegetables: prickly pears, luminous star fruit, pungent durian, and then bunches of aromatics and fresh spice: lemon grass, turmeric, Thai basil, different mints.
Tropical flowers sold for cheap, and bare-chested hippies sliced open fresh coconuts, others whizzed up cold pineapple crush. A Turkish immigrant set up shop selling labneh, burek, and falafel. Due to the proximity to the Torres Strait, Indonesia, and even South East Asia, meant that people’s from these places had also set up stall – so it was here that I tried my first ever Laotian food, Indonesian randang, and it was also here at Rusty’s Market that I developed my enduring crush for coconut milk.
Back then, Rusty’s was a simple set up – the stalls were set up on old tables and benches, in no apparent order, and by the end of the afternoon it could also get quite sticky and hot in there. At the same time, Rusty’s was always environmentally friendly, with plenty of cardboard boxes made available to shoppers to carry their bounty home. Initially opened by local man, Emrys “Rusty” Rees, the place has grown to be an important fixture for both locals and tourists. These days, having been taken over by Gilligan’s, a backpackers resort, Rusty’s has had a make over, which I heard from local’s, makes life a lot easier for the people that work there. The 180 something stall holders are mostly farmers who grow their produce regionally. Asides from fruit and vegetables, there are also baked goods, seafood, cheeses, nuts, coffee and locally grown teas and more .
I ended up living in Cairns for three and a half years, and even returned to get married there. Last week, I went back to visit my cousin, who like me, now has a young family. After a meeting up with a friend for breakfast on Friday, we crossed the road to Rusty’s, where I assembled a picnic lunch including Turkish spinach, pumpkin and feta filled flat breads, rambutan, freshly baked focaccia, dips and even some chacuterie. Asides from feeling like you have walked in to a Gauguin panting, the truly great thing about Rusty’s is it’s accessibility.
Unlike many farmers markets in the developed world, which are sadly becoming more of a bourgeoisie spectator event, a place to be seen at rather than a central and affordable place for farmers to trade and locals to buy fresh groceries; Rusty’s Market is for everybody. Later that afternoon, I returned with my cousin-in-law to do her weekly grocery shopping. She stopped by a stall whose owner knew her and my nephew by name. “That guy,” she said after we walked away, “probably knows more about my life, than many of my friends.” Rusty’s is a true reflection of this vibrant and welcoming place called Cairns, prices remain low, it holds no pretense, and will probably remain my favorite market until next time I visit. For further information about Rusty’s market, visit the market website here: http://www.rustysmarkets.com.au/
Banana leaf fish with coconut milk
Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to live in the tropics, yet banana leaf can be found in the freezer section of most Asian or Latin American grocery stores for cheap. If you don’t want to use the banana leaf, parchment paper works just as well. This dish, which is baked in an aromatic coconut sauce can use any firm white fish. The same sauce used for baking the fish, I then used to make coconut rice. Let me know if you try it out.
Total Prep and Cook Time: 35 minutes
For 3 people.
2-3 fillets of whiting, cod, or other, harder white fish.
3 banana leaves (thaw if frozen, then wipe down any residue with a paper towel) or, alternatively 3 sheets parchment paper
2 stalks of lemon grass
juice of one lime
1 thumb-size piece galangal (or ginger), sliced
2 tsp. mint
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 can coconut milk
2 kaffir lime leaves,
1 small red chilli (optional) salt, pepper to taste
- Place sauce ingredients in a small saucepan and gently cook to let the aromatics infuse the coconut milk (about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and then blend in a food processor (or blender) (If you don’t have a processor, chop the ingredients up and stir together.)
- Arrange a large enough size of banana leaf on a flat surface and place the fish on top. (I also added some vegetables to my recipe by slicing up some green beans and capsicum and placing these on the banana leaf under the fish). Cover both sides of the leaf over the fish.
- Fold both the ends in to make a packet. Turn the folded side down to ensure the sauce does not seep out.
- Place in a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes. at 350 degrees, or until the fish is done.
- Serve with coconut rice and an avocado and mango salsa.
Coconut Rice. Taking one cup of the coconut sauce (which has yet to be blended) and half a cup of pineapple juice (or water if you prefer). Bring rice to rapid boil, stirring continuously (otherwise the coconut will stick and become gooey). Turn down the heat and cook for another 15 minutes until rice is done. Do not open the saucepan whilst cooking.