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Sunday, 29 August 2010

Cairns: the Rusty’s Ritual

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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.

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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.

p8280285 Rusty’s Market today

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.

p8280269 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’s

I 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.

p8280277 I’ve been buying Samosas from the Hare Krishnas for decades

p8290297They’re baked not fried!

radhakrsna-h The Hare Krishnas once had a much higher profile at Rusty’s

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.

p8280287 My ritual Rusty’s breakfast; Filipino Sio Pao

p8280271Filipino corner at Rusty’s

p8290294A slab of crispy Lechon Kawali

4479_87439251117_522021117_1826572_8382250_n The Filipino national fruit, Calamansi goes best with Russian Vodka….in my humble opinion……

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.

p8280276 Billy’s Coffee is a recent Rusty’s ritual addition for many locals 

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.

p8280280 Pre packaged bags of Betel Nut and Betel Pepper inflorescences

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!

Untitled-TrueColor-01 And in the Thai corner it’s pickled pork and coconut sago dessert……..

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 Tunes

So 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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  1. Thanks Jus, a nice reminder of growing up! I used to go to the markets with Tarquin and his Mum each week - Rusty's was Saturday and Kuranda was Sunday - at least from 1982 through to 1985!!

  2. hahah Thanks Mick, I couldn't remember 'cause I was thinking Friday and Saturday and wondered why the memories weren't flowing - because it was Saturday and Sunday! Might edit that in later!

  3. Just looking at the photos of the mustard,makes me want to chew betelnut. I live in New Zealand now, but would like to know if it is possible to import betelnut, lime and mustard from Cairns to here.

    Well very nice pictures of Rusty's market as well. One of my favorite 2 attractions in Cairns. The Rusty's and Night market on the esplanade


  4. Hey Sunamist, thanks for dropping by. I'm not sure about importing to NZ. You won'y have any issue with the lime that's for sure, but for the buai and the daka you'd need to check with MAF over there regarding their import rules. The thing with Cairns is we are far enough north to grow it here so don't need to import. I suspect you could import dried nut to NZ, but green nut and daka is most likely a no go.


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