Monday, October 28, 2013

Talking Big West over lunch at Sapa Hills

When I left school, I loved food as much as I do now, but I hadn't considered trying to get into food writing.  In fact, my first career aspiration was to be an art critic.  I was very into semiotics, postmodernism, and wearing lots of black.  I ended up dropping out after a year (I realised I looked much better in red) but I've still always enjoyed art.  There are lots of different experiences you can have observing it, but my favourite is the comparatively rare moment when, browsing a gallery or watching a performance - BAM!  Something hits you, like a key in a lock, and you can't look away.  It's fantastic.

This is why it is very exciting to tell you that I am the 2013 Big West Festival's official blogger.  The Big West Festival is a biennial arts festival held in the west, showcasing western suburbs artists, and celebrating what makes the west the eclectic, gritty and gutsy place it is.  I'll be blogging over at the site throughout the Festival, but as an intro, come and meet Marcia Ferguson, the Festival's director, over some delicious treats from one of my favourite Footscray restaurants.


Plan A had been some lovely soup at Sen, but with it surprisingly shut that day, we strolled to Sapa Hills.  Quite a few people seem to think its slightly swish decor means that it's some kind of gweilo tourist trap, but its Hanoi-style specialties and confident renditions of Vietnamese staples make it one of my favourite spots in Footscray.

Bun nem ran, $12

For instance, spring rolls at Sapa Hills don't just mean the typical tiny tubes with a hunk of iceberg lettuce you get elsewhere.  These are Hanoi-style spring rolls, wrapped in rice paper (instead of wheat) and fried so that they are delicately crisp and crackly all over.  The filling is a delicious mix of pork, vermicelli noodles and black mushroom.  Make a little salad with spring rolls, rice noodles, greens and refreshing dressing for a big whack of yum.


Just about all the artists in this year's Big West Festival are from the western suburbs.  Marcia and I spoke about what makes this part of Melbourne have such a strong and defined identity.  She said she thinks of the west as a "mini Philadelphia".  "Philadelphia loves Philadelphia, and you can feel it on the street," she says.

To her, Big West is about bringing out and presenting to the public the west that is already here.  It's about celebrating what Marcia describes as our "gorgeous mix of immense cultural tradition".  One really exciting event that does just this is Dance Republic, a kind of cross-cultural dance-off between groups like the South Sudanese Dombai Dancers, dancers from the Chin community and students from local high schools.  It's on Sunday 1 December at Little Saigon Market - read more here.

Wonton soup, $5

Just a little wonton soup to whet your appetite.  This is a bargain at five bucks and boasts lovely restorative soup and fat wontons with whole prawns inside.  (I find these soups are great for kids - just enough and not too many tricky noodles to try to scoop up.)

Big West is about inclusiveness and community engagement, but it also offers opportunities for artists to present their work, even if that work is "high end" or highly conceptual.  "Labour" is a "part video installation, part participatory event" by local artist Hoang Nguyen.  His inspiration is his childhood experience of the Vietnamese show tunes that played while his mother made clothes at home.  Through this work he aims to "[explore] notions of work through open karaoke participation".  If that's not a world first, I don't know what is.

Vietnamese coleslaw with prawns and pork, $18

The coleslaws at Sapa Hills are another must-have.  We loved this prawn and pork number - sometimes the pork in soups and salads can be a bit grey and chewy, but here it was really tasty and tender.  I could live off this stuff - so much crunchy cucumber, fresh herbs and sweet pickled carrots.  Scoop it onto the prawn crackers for a Vietnamese tostada.  Yum!

"Massive" perform at the Big West launch

You can read the whole Big West program here.  As mentioned, the rest of my Big West posts will be on the Big West site itself, so stay tuned there for artist interviews and reflections on works during the Festival itself.


  1. Mmm... the food looks great!!

    1. It is really good, Neeno! It's funny, the whole decor thing. Everyone loved Laksa King when it was in the old and grotty arcade but the minute it moved into its snazzy new premises, there were a remarkable amount of negative reviews. I think it's a bit tall poppy.

    2. I think there's some truth to that, Lauren. However, Laksa King no longer feels like a place we can just drop into for a quick in-and-out eat. It seems like more of a destination, with queues and all that. And good luck to them. For a more casual meal, often by myself, we prefer the Grand Tofu!

    3. Kenny, that is also a very valid point. Must blog the Grand Tofu - great spot.

    4. I still need to visit Grand Tofu!!!!
      What are your thoughts on GREEN TEA in Flemington, in the arcade? I've been there twice cos non-foody/non-Asian friends dragged me there and I didn't like it.

      Am I just a fussy butt?

    5. Grand Tofu is amaze! Their wat tan hor is wat tan wow.

      Never been to Green Tea - never heard very good things. So much other fantastic Malaysian within spitting distance!


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