Photo credit: Unsplash
We all miss travelling.
At least that’s what foodie and Melbourne author Sam van Zweden told me as I sat down to chat with her over Zoom.
“We’ll definitely appreciate it more when we're back to being able to go overseas again. It just feels like such a remote possibility to me,” she said.
Living our lives as pixels and being homebound for the better part of 18 months has left many fantasising about travelling. While overseas travel remains a remote possibility to Sam, she has continued seeking cultural experiences right here in Melbourne, through food.
Eating different cuisines can take us on countless international adventures.
Order Uber Eats from Thai Town and walk the streets of Bangkok. Let DoorDash deliver food from Il Gusto and slurp pasta on the Amalfi Coast. Hold a Deliveroo Mexican fiesta for one, eating nachos from Amigos and dreaming of beaches in Cancún. For Sam, food can act as a cultural gateway.
“Australians deal with multiculturalism usually by focusing on the food. Food is the thing that's most accessible for everyone. We all have to eat. So it's an easy way in,” she said.
While a cuisine does not capture a culture in its entirety, it invites people to explore more and bond through shared experiences.
According to Sam, during lockdown takeaway food allowed her to connect with loved ones beyond the virtual means of a Zoom call.
Unable to visit her dad for Father’s Day, Sam gifted him a Middle Eastern takeaway feast from Oasis Bakery in Fairfield. She ordered herself the same and ate with him over Facetime, successfully breaking through lockdown’s ability to disconnect food, culture, and family.
“A benefit of living in a metropolitan area with such good delivery apps is that we can share food even though we're not together,” she said.
From home cooks to restaurant owners, Melbourne’s diversity is embodied in the city’s food landscape. But aside from the food itself, expressions of culture through food often come through the personal interactions made during the dining experience.
“It's hard to get that context when it arrives in a box,” Sam noted.
During the pandemic, the hospitality industry was left trying to replicate cultural intimacy through takeaway.
North Melbourne’s Warung Agus is one restaurant that attempted to bridge this gap.
For the multi-generational Balinese family restaurant, the dine-in experience and personal connections have always been a pillar of the business.
But with COVID restrictions limiting in-person dining, that promise was hard to deliver on, so Suci got creative and turned her attention to social media, and a new menu.
The restaurant’s Instagram page, @warungagus, has grown from under 1000 followers to almost 5000 followers throughout the course of Melbourne’s lockdowns.
Posting a colourful variety of family pictures, memes, and, of course, food, engagement on the Instagram page has been so successful that 95 per cent of takeaway orders are now managed through direct messages to the account, according to Suci.
But social media wasn’t the only ingredient for Warung Agus’ success.
A brand-new menu, including Suci’s acclaimed ‘lockdown boxes’, helped reimagine expressions of culture in lockdown.
“The takeaway is good, but I want people to feel excited. I want people to be able to experience the restaurant at home,” Suci said.
And it seemed to be working. Suci laughed as she told me about a customer who picked up a delivery order wearing board shorts and a singlet – in the middle of winter.
“No, it's a theme,” he reassured her.
“So we've set up the whole apartment, we've turned up the heat and we just want to feel like we're on holiday.”
This man and his family echo the many Melburnians who have been tagging Warung Agus in photos featuring the restaurant's renowned ‘lockdown boxes’.
“Food has definitely become the new travel,” Suci said.
As a customer, Sam relates to this sentiment.
“Food memories are always a pretty reliable place to go,” she said.
“I think we're lucky to have access to people that are patient and that want to share food with us. It's not like Melbourne is a thing and people are coming in from international places to give us their food - they are Melbourne. We're all in the soup.”
As Melbourne breaks away from lockdown restrictions, many of us are beginning to welcome the dine-in experience once again. But whether you choose to eat out, or eat in, take this as permission to eat takeout every night this week in pyjamas without shame. Experience a wealth of cultures and cuisines, and support local businesses from the comfort of your couch.