Occasionally I actually make it home to Cairns. Yes, even I find it hard to believe I have a home, but for the last week or so I have been home. And if I am home over a weekend there’s always one thing I want to try and do, and that’s make it to Rusty’s Markets. So yesterday I fired up the beast and drove into town to do the Rusty’s Ritual.
Driving to Rusty’s
Ever since 1974 ~ 75 when a local speedway racer known as “Rusty” gathered together an ad-hoc group of hippies selling their wares from tents from various locations around town and popped them into a basically empty lot between Grafton and Sheridan Street, Rusty’s Markets has thrived and become an iconic part of the history of Cairns City. Ironically the site chosen was part of Cairns’ original Chinatown and operated as market through the 1800’s. In fact during the redevelopment of the Rusty’s site a few years back over 4000 Chinese artefacts were discovered during the digging of the foundations. The Cairns and District Chinese Association has a private collection of artefacts from the site that can be viewed through private arrangements.
Part of the private collection of Chinese artefacts from Cairns’ 1800’s Chinatown, the site now occupied by Rusty’s Markets
Rusty’s has changed a lot over the years, it used to be a one day a week taking turns with the original Kuranda Markets nearby, Rusty's was Saturday, Kuranda was Sunday. Basically there was not the population nor the market vendors to support two markets at once, so one day it was Kuranda, the next day it was Rusty’s. Nowadays Rusty’s runs over Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Rusty’s is officially about fresh fruit and vegetables, but it’s more than that, it’s the people, it’s the experience, it’s the ritual shared by hundreds every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning in Cairns.
For me the peak period in Rusty’s history was the late 80’s early 90’s. In 2003 the markets were completely redeveloped and “enveloped” by the massive Gilligan’s backpackers resort who are the current owners of the markets. Prior to that they were essentially outdoor markets, and that late 80’s – early 90’s period was, at least to me, the peak time. In that period the market was filled with characters. There was still the left over from the Hippie period and a big influx of younger Ferals and Greenies. The pub on the corner, originally the Commercial Hotel built in 1926, had become Rusty’s Pub and the back opened up onto the markets with live bands playing through the afternoon. Radicals, drop outs, drunken louts mixed with business people and Mr & Mrs Earlville as they did their shopping or just hung out. The value of real estate proved to great and as mentioned above by 2003 the land was snapped up and turned into a resort, but through a huge amount of local outpourings and vocal support, Rusty’s was included in the new development and lives on today.
Rusty’s is known for it’s range of exotic fruits and vegetables. Here Black Sapote, known as Chocolate Pudding fruit due to the soft creamy brown interior of the fruit. Unfortunately it tastes nothing like chocolate and personally I find them fairly average as far as exotic fruits go
Spending so much time in the Asia-Pacific as I do, where markets are the lifeblood of the communities that house them, Rusty’s is just an extension of that. In the early days a large percentage of fruit and vegetable vendors were European in origin, the stereotypical Greek and Italian green grocers. Today there is a much bigger Asian influence, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Filipino all bringing with them their particular mix of foods from their countries, making Rusty’s a great multicultural shopping experience.
‘round Rusty’sI have a few regular habits when I do make it there. For decades I have been visiting the Hare Krishnas at Rusty’s and buying their vegetable samosas. I always buy half a dozen or more take them home and freeze them for quick meals when I need one. Far from the deep fried things most people associate with samosas, these seem to be baked with a great soft pastry covering and perfect curry vegetable contents.
The Filipino “sector” is always on my list and where for breakfast I always grab some Filipino style sio pao. Steam Buns are found through out Asia and the Filipino ones are generally filled with a sweet pork mix. This visit I also grabbed a “slab” of lechon kawali. Lechon is the classic Filipino roasted suckling pig, and the “kawali” part is where the lechon ( the pork belly usually) is fried, after being roasted, to a crispy state. The other Filipino product that I must grab at the markets is a few bags of Calamansi, the Filipino national fruit. This tiny citrus fruit is absolutely delicious.
Something that has become a recent Rusty’s ritual for many has been the introduction of an ad-hoc coffee shop mid markets. “Billy’s Coffee” is always packed, with chairs squeezed in the narrow spaces between other stalls, there’s always a line up and now you even see people wearing “Billy’s Coffee” t-shirts around town.
There’s a big Pacific Islander presence as well and Rusty’s would be the number one place in Australia for the trade Betel Nut. A mild stimulant, the nut of the Areca catechu palm is chewed throughout the Asia Pacific, no where in the world seems to be hooked on Betel Nut as much as the Papua New Guineans are and there’s always a decent crowd from our nearby neighbour making their purchases, not getting far before the succumb to the urge and start chewing the nut. The nut is chewed with the long green inflorescence of the Betel Pepper plant to add flavour and usually powdered calcium hydroxide “lime” to increase the stimulant effect of the active ingredients in the nut.
Papua New Guineans selling Betel Nuts, Betel Peppers and woven “Bilum” bags
A botanical plate description of the Areca Catechu palm, bearer of Betel Nuts!
Samoans, here selling Taro, make up part of the large Pacific Islander presence
I also have to visit the Thai corner for my favourite Thai Pickled Pork, strips of pork, pickled with hot Thai chillies. There’s usually some great desserts to be found here as well. This time I got a tub of sago and taro in creamed coconut. Just like being in Thailand!
There’s even a small Japanese section which this time around was selling burdock, daikon radish, Japanese cucumbers and the locally renowned Yamagishi Happy Eggs. Regularly reviewed as some of the best eggs in the world, the chickens are treated like kings and the eggs are the just rewards of such treatment. The Yamagishi movement is a network of egalitarian intentional communities which originated in Japan. People in these communities live without money and with minimal personal possessions, but their needs are provided for by the community.
There was an interesting busker outside Rusty’s, a man from the Torres Strait, playing traditional Torres Strait music on a ukelele with a traditional rattle on his foot for his version of a one man band.
Torres Strait TunesSo for me, if I am in Cairns, I need my feel of Asian wet markets in Cairns, my mix of cultures, smells and flavours, that is the Rusty’s Ritual
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