Rusty’s Market is the sprawling outdoor produce market in downtown Cairns. On weekends it hums like a hive of bees under under the high roof as people jostle through the narrow aisles, stepping on each others toes to pick through pile of mangoes or stop to grab a sample of dragonfruit. It’s got all the charm and chaos of any wet market in Asia, but without the intensity of odors and possibility of stepping in something squishy.
The strongest odor you’ll whiff is probably some hippie B.O. and, here and there, the
entrancing aromatic funk that announces a durian.
Rusty’s is unique in a lot of ways. You can find over 100 types of fruit if you search through the labyrinthine walkways, snooping through piles of abius, star apples, jackfruits, or mamey sapotes. As a fruit hunter, it’s an exciting place. But you have to go early – there’s competition here. Fruit fanatics typically hit the market around 6 AM, snatching up the rollinias, cempedaks, jackfruits, and other exotic odds and ends. The quickest to go is durian. By 8 AM, the pile of durian is decimated and mostly rejects are left over.
You only have to be an early bird if you’re after durian. There’s still plenty to ogle later on. Waxy and phallic tropical flowers mix with bizarre roots, supersized yams and weird Asian vegetables. There’s a huge variety among the 200 or so vendors. Some sell clothing, or jewelry, or health foods. You can grab a locally grown coffee, take a shot of kombucha, or just walk around and sneak extra samples of the six types of mangoes (when in season). That’s what I do.
It’s like a hybrid of a traditional Asian wet market and a hippie-dippie back-to-the-soil farmers market, which makes sense considering the market’s origins.
Before Rusty’s officially opened in 1975, the market area was an old Chinese trading and produce center. Once upon a time, Rusty’s Market was smack dab in the middle of the largest Chinatown in Queensland, replete with temples, shops, an opium den, and a sleazy red light district on
what is now Grafton Street. When the market was renovated in 2003, excavators found over 4000
Chinese relics from the 1800’s.
Walking the streets of Cairns today, you’d never know there ever was a Chinatown.
Rusty himself was not Chinese. He was a champion racer at the Cairns Speedway who sold vehicles for a living. As Chinatown declined, Rusty bought several of the buildings and moved his business there. In 1974 he was approached by a group of hippies who wanted to lease out one of his buildings to start a weekend fruit and vegetable market. He said yes. The market was born out of peace, love, locally grown fruit, and probably copious amounts of other plants.
That part wasn’t mentioned in this interview with Rusty’s son about the beginnings of the market. I’m just guessing.
When the hippie group dissolved the next year, Rusty decided to keep the market going. He saw that a local produce market solved a serious problem for farmers in the area, many of whom were his customers. Fruit farmers in particular had nowhere to sell their seconds – the fruit that was pockmarked or misshapen but still perfectly good to eat. They couldn’t sell it to wholesalers, so tons of fruit was simply dumped.
The market was the perfect solution. Farmers could sell their leftover fruit for cheap and make a profit, and people could buy cheap fruit and enjoy it.
That tradition continues today. For the most part, if it’s being sold at Rusty’s it’s either because the fruit doesn’t look perfect or because the farmer doesn’t grow enough of it to make it worth dealing with the wholesaler. Prices are less than half of what the supermarket around the corner offers, and drop even further on Sundays when everything goes on sale. Sunday afternoon is my shopping day – but not for durian. By Sunday the durian is long gone.
For durian head to Rusty’s on a Friday morning between December and April. It can usually be found in the far back corner, behind all the Asian vegetable stalls with the other Asian specialties like pomelo, breadfruit, and green bananas. Durian is expensive ($12.50/kilo), and the quality is really hit or miss. Most of it is a few days old, having been kept in a refrigerator during the week. That said, when it’s good, it’s good.
If you strike out there, try Alf and Bee’s fruit stall in the front, two stalls behind the coconut stand on Sheridan Street. Their durian is slightly cheaper ($9.99 per kilo as of writing), and better quality. But it’s usually in very high demand and short supply, so get there early. Or Rob and I will beat you to it.