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Tropical market daze

Some of the best food to be had in Darwin is at its many markets, where cross-cultural influences and abundant tropical produce are everywhere. Bonus: the sunsets are free.

At Rapid Creek Markets, the growers have been arriving in their vans and station wagons since around 2am. They've unpacked their wares: golden turmeric, pink-tipped galangal, and Asian greens and chillies of every description.

By the time the dawn becomes a bright, hot morning, the markets are pulsing with colour, noise and action. The stallholders and the early-bird shoppers swap chirpy greetings: sawadee ka, selamat pagi. You would swear you were somewhere in south-east Asia, if it weren't for the presence of Greek matriarchs laden with kilos of fat eggplants to stuff or layer into moussaka.

Nearby, African women inspect the okra and the chillies, cheek by jowl with fifth-generation ABCs (Australian-born Chinese), Filipinas, Indonesians, Thais, East Timorese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans and Papua New Guineans, all provisioning for the week's meals, getting a quick massage or tucking into breakfasts of noodle soup, fresh fruit smoothies or made-to-order paw paw salad.

The scene is typical of Darwin, a city that's closer to Asia than it is to the rest of Australia, both geographically and in spirit - and likes it that way. The northern capital is home to people representing over 100 cultures (including indigenous Australians), each somehow managing to retain its essence. It's more a melange than a melting pot.

Darwin's many markets, up to seven a week in the busy dry season from April to October, are a visible expression of the city's diversity. You could actually experience them all with a four-day market crawl starting at Mindil Beach Sunset Markets on a Thursday night, followed by Palmerston Markets the next night. Saturday morning you'd drive south for about half an hour to visit the rural Coolalinga Markets before heading back to the city for the Parap Village Markets. Sunday's a big day. Set the alarm clock early to see the best of the Rapid Creek Markets, head over to Nightcliff Markets late morning and then have a bit of a rest before the Sunday afternoon markets back at Mindil Beach.

Each market has its own distinct personality. Rapid Creek, Darwin's oldest markets, are the place to go year-round for produce and plants on Sunday mornings. The surrounds, a suburban shopping centre and bituminised car park, are less than glamorous, but regulars know these markets have the zingiest mint, the zippiest betel leaves and the springiest fresh rice noodles. The advice on how to cook with them comes free of charge - don't dawdle, though, because the best stuff sells fast.

No one knows this better than the well-travelled Sri Lankan-born Jimmy Shu, owner of the Hanuman restaurants in Darwin, Alice Springs and now Cairns, who comes to Rapid Creek whenever he's back in his hometown. He's there before sunrise to start stocking up on kangkung, or water spinach, lemongrass, basil, kaffir lime and pandan leaves.

"When I'm in town you'll see me at the markets at 5.30am," he says. "Darwin has the perfect climate for this tropical produce - it's all on our doorstep. It's very fresh. What I like about the markets is that you can touch all the produce. You tap the basil and then smell your fingers and you can tell how fresh it is."

One suburb along, at Nightcliff Markets, the vibe is a bit more let's-hang-around-a-while. Good food and coffee, live music and large shade trees create a backdrop that suits the contemplation of purchases at Darwin's newest all-year markets, established in 1996.
 
At Nightcliff, you can breakfast on fresh Vietnamese rice paper rolls, a Cambodian larb salad, or a Malaysian roti wrap of flaky flatbread encasing tender spiced beef, peanut sauce and crisp shredded cucumber and carrot. Then have your tarot cards read or pick up a quirky local gift to take home: maybe a packet of dried mango from Ed's Dried Fruits, a cotton skirt hand-printed with dragonflies, pretty earrings made from folded wrapping paper, or the not-so-pretty Emo Barbie, a snip at $25. The markets also have some produce, including fresh fruit and, out-of-season, handy packs of frozen mango cheeks.

Nightcliff's coordinator is Ross Dudgeon, who has also been in charge of Mindil Beach Sunset Markets and Parap Village Markets. "One of the things I love about the markets is that they bring people together," he says, "and you know that the food is freshly cooked. The stalls are like an open kitchen."

Over in slightly flasher Parap, where food and craft markets are held year-round on Saturday mornings, the unofficial uniform for women is pearls and Havaianas, while for men it's boardies and smart-arse T-shirts. For some locals it's akin to a religious rite: come to Parap for breakfast or brunch, choose the ingredients for Saturday night's dinner party - a platter of Thai sweets makes the quickest dessert ever - and buy an armful of heliconias and ornamental gingers from Henning Hintze's long-standing flower stall to tizz up the dining room.

Parap Village Markets are something of a social hub, with plenty of hand-shaking, back-slapping and cheek-kissing.

Right in the thick of it is the perennially smiling Bobby Wibisono, also known as 'Bobby Saté'. His Saté Lontong Jakarta stall, now being run by his niece Patimah Core, has been serving incomparable lamb and beef satay, compressed rice known as lontong, and gado gado for well over 20 years. The quality of his satay, cooked over imported charcoal on a stainless steel stove he designed himself, keeps his regulars coming back - including customers from Sydney and Melbourne who order 50 or 60 satay sticks at a time to take home after a Darwin sojourn.

For the record, Bobby's favourite market food is a chocolate and fresh strawberry crêpe from Ken's Crêpes - and Ken comes to Bobby regularly to fuel up with lamb satay and gado gado.

Another stall that inspires fierce loyalty is Yati's Laksa, formerly Jackie's Laksa. Yati's recipe, passed on to her by the original stallholder, Jackie, is an authentic Malaysian one: it's thick with coconut milk and spices, poured over two kinds of noodles and topped with fried tofu, chilli sambal, fresh sliced chilli and coriander.

For many travellers the first taste, literally, of Darwin comes with a visit to Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, which run from April to October. Locals are fond of pooh-poohing Mindil as being 'touristy', and it is true that the markets feature heavily in campaigns promoting Darwin as a holiday destination. It's also true that there's a veritable stampede to the beach just before sunset every Thursday as visitors scramble to photograph the setting sun (a tip: it sets in the same place Friday to Wednesday as well).

But Mindil is great fun all the same. Unless you're vegetarian, you've got to love the Roadkill Café, whose motto is 'you kill it, we grill it'. Try the crocodile (yes, it does taste a bit like chicken) or the camel (nothing like chicken, but quite a lot like beef). The other food stalls will take your tastebuds around the world: Indonesia, Japan, Greece, Italy, Laos and Vietnam all feature. Even better, you can BYO table, chairs and drinks. The scores of craft stalls - clothing, jewellery, leather goods and so on - are a good way to work up a bigger appetite. A smaller, less frenetic Mindil Markets operates every Sunday afternoon in the dry season. The Top End's dry season also brings with it the Palmerston Markets, held on Friday nights in Goyder Square. Now in their 23rd year, the markets have a family feel, with food and produce stalls, entertainment and children's rides.

Down 'the track', as Territorians call the Stuart Highway, the Coolalinga Markets have been offering a less citified market experience Saturdays for the past 20 years. Live chickens, anyone? Coolalinga has around 30 fresh produce and food stalls, including Aussie Grub, which sells 'cow dung' cookies (fat sultana-studded rock cakes) and sausage rolls it confidently bills as the world's best.

The grande dames of Darwin's market scene are Yib Kohler, 71, and 'Lucky' George, 69, who have side-by-side stalls at Rapid Creek Markets, just as they did over 30 years ago when the market began with a handful of growers selling produce from the back of their utes.

Yib rises at 3am to set up her stall, piled with vegetables including pumpkin vine tips, kangkung and other greens - "things I eat myself" - and she's more than  happy to advise on how to use the produce she sells. "I'd like to write a book to show people how to cook it," she says and smiles. By comparison, 'Lucky' drags the chain, arriving just after 5am to set out great bundles of plump chillies and Asian greens, or whatever produce her friends have grown and want her to sell for them.

By the time you've done the rounds of Darwin's markets, you'll more than likely have a case of what Kylie Kwong calls 'itchy fingers' - the overwhelming desire, when inspired by fresh produce, to start cooking right now. Best book a self-catering apartment.


THE FINE PRINT

Parap Village Markets
Sat 8am-2pm, year-round. Parap Shopping Village, Parap Pl, Parap, NT, (08) 8942 0805.

Rapid Creek Markets
Sun 6am-1pm, year-round. Rapid Creek Business Village, Trower Rd, Rapid Creek, NT, (08) 8948 4866.

Nightcliff Markets
Sun 8am-2pm, year-round. Nightcliff Shopping Centre, Pavonia Pl, Nightcliff, NT, 0414 368 773.

Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
Thu 5pm-10pm and Sun 4pm-9pm, from last Thu in Apr to last Thu in Oct. Maria Liveris Dr, Darwin, NT, (08) 8981 3454.

Palmerston Markets
Fri 5pm-9pm, from last Fri in Apr to last Fri in Oct. Goyder Sq, Palmerston, NT, (08) 8988 4124.

Coolalinga Rural Market
Sat 8am-2pm, year-round. Coolalinga Shopping Centre, Stuart Hwy, Coolalinga, NT, 0410 836 880.

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THE FINE PRINT

Parap Village Markets
Sat 8am-2pm, year-round. Parap Shopping Village, Parap Pl, Parap, NT, (08) 8942 0805.

Rapid Creek Markets
Sun 6am-1pm, year-round. Rapid Creek Business Village, Trower Rd, Rapid Creek, NT, (08) 8948 4866.

Nightcliff Markets
Sun 8am-2pm, year-round. Nightcliff Shopping Centre, Pavonia Pl, Nightcliff, NT, 0414 368 773.

Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
Thu 5pm-10pm and Sun 4pm-9pm, from last Thu in Apr to last Thu in Oct. Maria Liveris Dr, Darwin, NT, (08) 8981 3454.

Palmerston Markets
Fri 5pm-9pm, from last Fri in Apr to last Fri in Oct. Goyder Sq, Palmerston, NT, (08) 8988 4124.

Coolalinga Rural Market
Sat 8am-2pm, year-round. Coolalinga Shopping Centre, Stuart Hwy, Coolalinga, NT, 0410 836 880.

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