From cooking classes, to backstreet breweries, food writer Fiona Donnelly shares the culinary and mixology diversities of Tropical North Queensland
This article was produced in partnership with News Corp Australia.
Bamboo shoots as big as a baby elephant’s foot, fat tamarind pods and every shape, size and colour of chilli imaginable. The mad abundance at Cairns’ Rusty’s Market casts an instant spell – I’m transfixed eyeing off young ginger roots with stems still attached, weighing up coarse-skinned cassavas and bright green coconuts, mentally sorting through towering bundles of spray-free herbs, so fresh and vibrant you can smell them from the street outside.
It’s impossible to visit and not feel inspired to cook up a tropical storm.
It’s the diversity of the produce that thrives here which grabs my attention – everything from coffee, cocoa, tea and vanilla, to jackfruit, papayas and plantains, as well as sweeter treats like rambutans, mangosteens and rollinias.
To experience the region’s magnificent produce at its finest, there’s Nu Nu at Palm Cove. Here co-owner and chef Nick Holloway has morphed into a de facto food ambassador for his adopted home, since quitting inner-city Melbourne in the early 2000s.
Holloway’s dishes are vibrant and discriminatingly local. You might find sweet filaments of locally caught mud crab tucked into an Asian-style omelette with greens and a white pepper broth at breakfast, and salads dialled up with pickled prawns, local coconut and heart of palm from Innisfail, or reef-fish teamed with briny buttered surf clams.
Sipping an icy sundowner, a salty bowl of crisp cassava chips at your elbow, a gentle breeze wafting in off the Pacific – with dreamy views of the palm-lined beach front and centre – is an essential Tropical North Queensland experience.
Or you could try preparing a selection of the produce yourself at Oaks Kitchen Garden – a southeast Asian cooking school, garden and dining destination run by chef Ben Wallace and wife, Rachel Boon, a self-taught gardener and artist.
In 2017, this couple traded inner-city Melbourne for a patch of rainforest paradise 15 minutes’ outside Port Douglas. They’ve transformed an overgrown block into a verdant holding bursting with plantings – from makrut lime and Malaysian passionfruit to lemongrass, turmeric, Thai eggplant and more.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Wallace built an onsite charcoal cooking pit and the two swivelled from weekend chefs’ table lunches and garden tours to debut a Saturday night curry takeaway menu. Plans to now spark up a restaurant of their own in either Port Douglas or Palm Cove are underway.
In fact, the region’s food scene as a whole is gathering momentum, in part fueled by a recent $500 million investment by the Crystalbrook Collection and its three Cairns hotels, Riley, Bailey and Flynn. The trio has added a swag of eateries and bars, including the swish Rocco at Riley, the city’s first rooftop watering hole.
The Cairns’ small bar scene already packs considerable punch, kicking off back in 2016 with the arrival of pint-sized speakeasy-style hit, Three Wolves. Its savvy owners now also have the rum-fueled Flamingo’s Tiki Bar in a basement on the Esplanade.
Last year they opened micro distillery Wolf Lane, whose newly minted Navy Strength Gin scooped honours as the world’s best in The Gin Guide Awards 2020. Mt Uncle Distillery, tucked inland amongst the banana plantations of Walkamin, is another award-winning local gin maker.
Prefer a beer? Sink a Tropical Ale overlooking the water at Hemingway’s on Cairns’ Wharf, it’s a sibling to marina-side Hemingway’s at Port Douglas. Or support turtle rehabilitation with a visit to Barrier Reef Brewing’s low-key Two Turtles tap room.
Need perking up? You’ll still need to stray off the beaten track to find some of the region’s best specialty coffee, like roaster White Whale’s Cairns Espresso Bar, The Chamber Room and Blackbird Laneway. Quirky Tattooed Sailor, a small batch roaster with café attached, sits not far from White Whale in the gritty suburb of Bungalow, the work of co-owners Ian Chill and Oliver James.
James has form. He opened the city’s first hipster alleyway joint, Caffiend in 2009. Caffiend now has new owners and a new location, but it’s still pouring strong – and James is still pushing quality coffee. In January he and Chill opened a café called Guyala (white bellied sea eagle in local language), which boasts water-view digs on Cairns’ Esplanade.
Key to these local operators’ success is a focus on pleasing locals, rather than trying to second guess a sometimes fickle tourist market. You’ll find a unique taste of the tropics at unpretentious Noa in Edge Hill and the Italian-leaning Hopscotch at Earlville. In Port Douglas, visit no-fuss Little Larder and onsite bakery-café Grant Street Kitchen.
Whatever tempts your taste buds, from artisan coffee to a gourmet dinner, you are sure to find it in Tropical North Queensland. And chances are, it has a very nice view to match.