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How One Cafe Offers A Genuine Slice Of Colombia In Melbourne

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By Allison Yates

From the gray, concrete outside, it appears to be just another understated Melbourne café.

Located in the Central Business District (CBD) just a few blocks from the graffiti-filled Hosier Lane, Cento Mani Café gives customers more than a great cuppa.

This cafe is truly one of Melbourne’s hidden gems.

While customers can still order bagels with traditional vegemite or muesli, the café caters to a different food palate: Colombian. The menu lists “Macondo” sandwiches (a reference to Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude), pandebono (Colombian cheese balls) and an infinite list of arepa (Colombian corn cakes) varieties.

There’s ajiaco soup, made of potatoes, chicken and corn; bandeja paisa, the Antoquia region’s most iconic platter of rice, beans, beef, chorizo, avocado, fried plantain and egg; and sancocho, a savory soup of beef, corn, cassava and vegetables, among other traditional dishes.

Cento mani cafe
Cento Mani Cafe. Photo courtesy of Cento Mani Cafe.

The Cheapest Ticket To Colombia

Cento Mani Café offers everything great about Melbourne’s café scene while serving the city’s most authentic and traditional Colombian food. It’s nothing fancy admits manager and part owner Diego Reyes, but it serves what Colombians eat on a daily basis. The café’s cuisine and atmosphere is what Reyes calls the “the cheapest ticket to Colombia.”

Reyes came to Melbourne four years ago with his wife to study English. Those early times were not easy. There was homesickness and barriers like language and culture, but as Reyes explains, those challenges make you resourceful. Reyes remembered his early years helping his grandfather on a coffee farm which led to the idea of a business offering Colombian food, just like he grew up with. In 2014, he joined forces with two other people to open the eatery. “We saw a great opportunity to be ourselves in a country that was not ours, and we took it,” says Reyes.

Because this café was born out of a love and appreciation for Colombian culture, its mission is tied to those values. The two main purposes of the café, explains Reyes, are to celebrate Colombian cuisine and teach locals about Colombian culture. Unfortunately, many only think of the violence of the 1980s when they think of Colombia, and shows like Netflix’s Narcos don’t help.

Check out how this #cafe is celebrating Colombian cuisine in #Melbourne, #Australia! Share on X
pulled pork arepa at Cento mani cafe
Pulled pork arepa. Photo courtesy of Cento Mani Cafe.

Luckily, in a city as multicultural as Melbourne, there’s demand for flavors from all parts of the globe and a chance to break down stereotypes. To Reyes, Australians are curious people who are always looking for new dishes to try, so it’s not difficult to see why Cento Mani Café has gained traction in the city. But, there are more than just Australian customers.

A Taste From Home

Most people don’t realize Melbourne has a burgeoning Colombian community — a large floating population of temporary migrants and students, and an ever-increasing permanent population.

Food is a powerful tool to evoke memories. So for this community, far from everything familiar, Cento Mani Café offers them a taste of home — maybe even a ticket back to Colombia for the day.

As John S. Allen, the author of The Omnivorous Mind explains in a Harvard University Press blog, “The taste, smell and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. Food is an effective trigger of deep memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body.”

arepa Cento mani cafe
Arepa. Photo via Pixabay

Diana Franco, a Colombian student living in Melbourne, arrived over a year ago. Around the time she had just reached seven months living in the country, and felt an overwhelming homesickness unlike ever before. Christmas was coming, and while during that time Colombia’s atmosphere is festive and warm, she found it difficult to be in Melbourne’s chilly climate — not just referring to weather. Everything in Melbourne was different and she had huge cravings for Colombian food.

At that point, Franco set off to satisfy her longing for something familiar. For her, food is an important part of their culture. They share meals with friends, family, even neighbors, she says. She tried some “Colombian” food in the city, but was disappointed.

That is, until she came across Cento Mani Café. “When I finally found it, I went to have lunch three times in the same week. It was amazing; not just for the food but also for the service. All of a sudden, I felt like I was in Colombia again. From then on, any time she feels homesick she goes to Cento Mani Café.

Check out how this #cafe is bringing a sense of community to the Colombian #immigrant population in #Melbourne, #Australia. Share on X
Arepa at Cento mani cafe
Arepa. Photo courtesy of Cento Mani Cafe.

Bringing The Community Together

When I tasted Cento Mani Café’s jugo de lulo, a juice made from the tropical fruit lulo, I became nostalgic for the time I visited Colombia. I sipped the juice and was transported back to a 10th story apartment in Cali, Colombia. I felt the same breeze that floated through the window and even tasted the salty cheese-filled arepa I had eaten that day.

Reyes admits that many of the food items mean something special for him. Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) reminds him of family gatherings and ajiaco reminds him of his mom.

The café brings together Colombians and non-Colombians alike, exhibiting a growing understanding of the newly arrived Colombian community. Inside the café, the space is a modest mixture of elements of Melbournian cafés with Colombian and Latin American twists. The two levels of seating are decorated with Spanish phrases and Colombian mementos on the black walls.

“This place represents Colombia in the down under…[it] shows that our culture is strong and growing every day in Australia,” said Andrea Riaño, a Colombian journalist living in Melbourne.

Sitting at a table overlooking Flinders Lane, you’ll slurp your sancocho as you hear a soundtrack of cumbia, reggaeton and salsa. People will pop in for a Colombian coffee and alfajor, a popular cookie from South America. You’ll notice others spend hours lingering over an arepa, catching up with friends or reliving childhood memories.

At Cento Mani Café, you’re truly getting a taste of Colombia.

Get a true taste of #Colombia at this #cafe in #Melbourne Share on X
Read more stories by Allison Yates on Contently here.



Allison Yates

Allison writes about travel, women and society in the U.S. Midwest, Ibiza and Latin America.

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