If you love food, there’s a thrill in eating out wherever you go. But it’s always a lot more exciting when you’re not super familiar with the cuisine. It’s hardwired into our brains to seek novelty, and while living in a multicultural city like Melbourne affords many of us the privilege of exploring all corners of the globe through taste, there are inevitably pockets we overlook.
Vola Foods specialises in Cameroonian cuisine, a melting pot of flavours from the north, west and centre of Africa, with a dash of Arabic and European influence. How many other Cameroonian joints are there in Melbourne? Not many that I’ve found, if any. So my partner and I are, in a word, pumped. This is going to be a new West African food experience.
Vola sprung up in June 2021, smack-bang in the midst of one of our harshest lockdowns. Popular for takeaways, it metamorphosed over time into the buzzy yet secret gem it is today. Google Maps leads the way, but our ears also help us navigate, picking up on boppy Nigerian Afrobeats tunes floating out from the speakers in a nearby parking lot. It’s here that head chef and owner Ashley Vola’s team sling her coveted jollof rice, puff puff (fried African dough balls) and mouth-watering barbecued meats from a bright orange shipping container.
You may remember Vola from the short-lived reality show Plate of Origin, which aired in 2020, when she teamed up with her sister Kelly to showcase African food in an internationally-inspired cooking contest. When she pulls up into the parking lot, her dazzling warmth towards her staff is infectious and there’s a real family feel to the whole operation.
To the side, another woman grills on an open barbecue and the vibes are hip, very Brunswick. The dining space straddles that relaxed outdoor/indoor feel under a set of sturdy marquees. It’s almost like we’ve teleported to a festival food truck, and though I imagine the energy would be pumping hard on hot summer days when the sun floods the space and crowds pack in, on a crisp mid-August day it’s chilled out.
Couples and families are dotted around the tables, those lucky enough to know this place exists. There’s a map of Cameroon on the back of our table number card, and the laidback cashier takes our order and hands me a carton of coconut water. The staff aren’t fawny but nor are they unfriendly. Here, it’s all about the feed.
We start with akara, fried black-eyed bean fritters seasoned with garlic, onion and pepper. The cooked legume flour is fluffy and crisp, making for a satisfying chewy bite when dipped into Vola’s spicy housemade chunky chilli sauce on the side. And what a sauce! It’s a golden red-brown hue made shiny from a slick of oil, and the rich smoky complexity suggests a secret recipe that any home cook would be honoured to know.
We’ve only ordered two of the akara at $4 each and they’re moreish – but there’s heaps to come.
Namely, a plate of “jollof with the lot”, and the lot is substantial; a rich tomatoey stew, barbecued suya lamb (suya is skewered marinated meat), a whole chicken leg, salad, fried plantains and cassava chips. The jollof rice is perfectly al dente, grains properly separated and spiced, and topped with a piquant red sauce. The latter is almost like an Italian Napoli-style sugo, the tomato is so tart and present.
But it’s the fried plantains I’m most excited to try, golden bites that flood my mouth with a gooey jam of cooked tropical fruit when I bite into them – snackable tickets to paradise. Palates cleansed with a slosh of electrolytes, we’re ready to dig into carnivorous delights. The roast chicken is impossibly nutty and tender, cooked just right, and the lamb has a strong fire-licked edge. Stirred through with the jollof rice, the gamey stew bursts with unexpected savoury and sweet juices. This is barbecue like we’ve never tasted.
The pair of fried cassava tubes on our plate hold a similar appeal to just-out-of-the-oven potato gems, but these are more delicate, more wholesome somehow in their unabashed starchiness. I’d have loved a slightly larger portion of salad, which is sparse – a simply dressed mix of shredded carrot and leafy greens. But credit to Vola’s secret suya spice blend, the feast is overall a soul-warming and flavour-packed success.
We conclude our meal with a bowl of Vola’s famous puff puff treats, doughy fried spheres with a small bowl of thick and creamy caramel sauce. It’s the sort of innocent treat that appeals to both kids and kids at heart alike, but we’re content with just three – you can order up to 26 of these things. Though they’re not too sweet at all, it can be a rich note to finish on after the other fried items.
There’s a whole lot more you can dig into here if you’d like to get better acquainted with native Cameroonian spices, like the charcoal-grilled fish (bones and all) and hot and sweet chicken wings, but after our epic jollof plate the two of us are full – and we’ve barely broken the $50 mark!
There aren’t many boxes Vola Foods doesn’t tick; there’s value, there’s authenticity and there’s plenty of heart… all clear reasons why it’s going to take a lot more than a bitter Melbourne winter to keep hungry diners from knocking at Vola’s door.