Inala,Little Vietnam in Brisbane
There is a hidden nook, a slice of Asia in Brisbane’s west that is the city’s own answer to Melbourne’s vastly Vietnamese-populated Richmond. My favourite hideout for the best beef pho tai (Vietnamese rice noodles with beef slices) followed by my weekly pantry top-up of Asian groceries if I wasn’t in Sunnybank (yawn) and the occasional indulgence of exotic tropical fruits such as mangosteen, rambutans and jackfruit—it’s like a south asian migrant’s last laugh since the first ever import and sighting of Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce and durians into Woolworth’s supermarket!
So who could blame the easily excited (especially when it concerns anything edible) foodie in me who was initially in disbelief on discovering that my favourite haunt had a dark past: for there was a time when you couldn’t mention the place INALA without getting a fair bit of protest concerning visiting this ‘unsafe neighbourhood’ and shudders stemming from its notoriety due to its prevalent crime-ridden past. Quite ironically the name ‘INALA’ is an aboriginal word meaning ‘place of peace’. There is a certain ‘forgotten’ quality emanating from the charm of this ‘Little Vietnam’, like a disjointed and discarded world that while it resembled yet neither fully belonged in old Asia nor a comparably ‘upscale’ western country like Australia.
You won’t at first notice the hidden gem I’m speaking of from driving up front the Inala Plaza (the ‘Civic Centre’) located on the corner of Kittyhawk and Inala Avenues. You won’t even sense that you’re about to be transported, quite magically without an air ticket, to the old Saigon as you cruise around the busy car park scouring for a rare empty lot. And quite right that you’ll have to be incredibly patient to spot one since this is the largest precinct in Inala.
You can’t miss it. This has got to be the only place in Brisbane where it’s perfectly acceptable to peel open and sink your teeth into a juicy mandarin orange picked from many of the corrugated boxes spread out on the ground outside a fruit stall, all in the name of ‘try before you buy’. No one even bats an eyelid even when the Asian woman next to me spits out her fruit seeds on the ground and tosses the mandarin peel right next to where I was standing, near a styrofoam box of Nashi pears and bunches of wrinkly snake beans. Such is the charm of Inala!
It’s also the place to eyeball multicultural forces at work. Serving an ethnically diverse community of Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders, Africans and Vietnamese, amongst many other minority migrant groups, Inala is also home to a large number of government-funded community organisations, programs and services such as the Inala Youth Service. Child Safety Service, Probation and Parole Regional Office, just to name a few. Perhaps these are dead giveaways to its once dark past?
Well dark or not, all I notice is its vibrance and colour, and certainly I’m hooked on the variety of edible Asian knick knacks and cheap prices you don’t find anywhere else in Brisbane.
As I clutch my Lady Finger bananas for $1.99 a bunch and my trolley is heavy trodden with a month’s supply of colourful fruits and the week’s Asian groceries, I spot a girl holding a plastic takeaway container of sweetened soy beancurd, or ‘Tow Huey’ (Hokkien dialect for soybean curd dessert) as known in Singapore. To try this at the many yum cha restaurants in Australia, just ask for ‘Tau Fu Fa’ (Cantonese dialect for the exact same thing).
I just had a huge bowl of pho for lunch but surely who could resist good ol’ Tow Huey for dessert?! Suddenly I feel transported home again. Thank you, Inala. See you next week.