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Melbourne Is Doing Insane Things to Rice Pudding

Yeah, you read that correctly: rice pudding. Some of Melbourne's best chefs have fled restaurant kitchens in favor of casual cafés, where they ditch standard breakfast menus and turn out elaborate puddings topped with puffed rice and "lime air."
Photos by Luke Pyenson.

When I was a baby and not yet eating solid food, one of my standard breakfasts was a thing called "rice cereal." I'm still not totally sure what that is, but from what I gather, it's sort of like a rice-based cream of wheat, served warm. In family lore, I used to like it so much, and shovel it into my mouth with such gusto, that my dad would sometimes have to actually manually dig it out of my throat.


Given this history, one would think I'd have been crazy about rice pudding from a young age, but that wasn't the case. It took me a while to come around, but now that I've been exposed to cardamom-scented Indian kheer, Greek-style cinnamon-flecked rizogalo, and the Levantine crushed pistachio-topped ruz bi haleeb, I cherish the richness and depth of the genre. And on a recent trip to Melbourne, I was once again eating the stuff for breakfast.

Melbourne has become well-known for its flourishing flat white-powered café culture, equally notable for its mastery of espresso drinks as for its remarkable elevation of the breakfast game. Chefs in this enviably clean, safe, and attractive Australian city make breakfasts that chefs in other cities can only dream about. Sure, you find internationally popular items like shakshuka or some sort of egg dish with chorizo, but Melbourne has a few unique recurring breakfast dishes that pop up in different iterations around the city: ricotta hotcakes, the "avocado toast" (crushed avocado on toast with salt, pepper, olive oil, and other potential adornments), and, yes, rice pudding. It is the anti-snap, crackle, and pop.


Bluebird Espresso's rice pudding with mango, strawberry, lime syrup, and black sesame seeds.

My first encounter with breakfast rice pudding was at Bluebird Espresso, a charming little café in Collingwood, a neighborhood bordering the hip Carlton and Fitzroy areas. Their coconut and lemongrass-flavored iteration was served chilled in a large glass jar, topped with fresh mango, strawberry, lime syrup, and black sesame seeds. It was delicious, but far too rich to finish, and if I tried stuffing it down my gullet like when I was a toddler, who knows if anybody would've been there to dig it back out with his or her bare hands.


Next, I headed to Prospect Espresso, in Camberwell, for what they call "warm coconut rice" served with kiwifruit (just "kiwi" in this part of the world means either a small, flightless bird or a person from New Zealand), lychee, lime air, puffed rice, and microherbs.

You see what I mean? Melbourne really doesn't fuck around. I mean, honestly, have you ever seen something like that on a breakfast menu outside of Australia? It reads like a dessert at Eleven Madison Park, not breakfast at an espresso bar.

You'll have to excuse some shameless, breathless foodie-isms here, but I don't know how else to describe it: The rice was warm like a much-needed hug, its coconut flavor offset by the sweet tang of the sliced kiwifruit and lychee. The light lime air resembled the soft peaks of unbaked meringue, while the puffed rice restored some of the snap-crackle-pop missing from most rice puddings. I try not to use too many superlatives, but this has to have been one of the best rice puddings I've ever eaten, and without a doubt the most interesting.

I asked Prospect Espresso's co-owner, Mitch Haworth, why I'd been seeing such involved breakfasts all over town. He explained that there was an "exodus" of chefs from Melbourne's restaurant industry who left their restaurant jobs to work in cafés and began developing more complex breakfast and lunch menus. Besides, he added, "You kinda get sick of eggs, you know?"

I know. But I still couldn't get to the bottom of what was fueling this affinity for breakfast rice pudding.

There were a couple other versions I wanted to try—the "black sticky rice pudding, coconut cream, banana, toasted coconut, pear, sesame snap" at Twenty & Six Espresso, for example, or the "chilled piña colada rice pudding with vanilla, coconut, crushed amaretti, pineapple, and fresh berries" at Three Bags Full—but I just couldn't keep at it.

Besides, there were other desserts to eat for breakfast in this city. "We had a panna cotta on the breakfast menu up until about three weeks ago," Haworth told me. "That was a big seller."