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Off the Menu - In Australia

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in Australia and New Zealand

Summer Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(2) page(s): 5 and 20

Australia's first organized group of Chinese immigrants, consisting of one hundred twenty males from around Canton, arrived in New South Wales in 1840. Lured by the promise of instant wealth in the goldfield, forty-two thousand Chinese had gone 'Back O' Bourke' by 1858, panning for their fortunes in Australia's legendary outback. As naturally follows these emigrations, the Chinese opened restaurants with traditional dishes for themselves and permutated fare for the locals. By 1891, it was estimated that one-third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese.

While marsupials and other local animals have always been an abundant food source for the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, I have never seen any Chinese menu entries along the lines of Kung Pao Koala, Roo Goo Gai Pan, or sizzling Emu E-Fu. This is puzzling because Aboriginal foodways are not altogether unlike those of the Chinese. Both practice sophisticated, kin-based food sharing systems, and both have built a thorough knowledge of their ecologies, enabling full use of local plants, nuts, gums, roots, and animals. Yes, American readers, 'Skippy' is more than peanut butter--there exist today no less than three kangaroo butchers in Melbourne's dazzling Queen Victoria market. Emu is also sold there, but perhaps one must place advance restaurant orders for Chinese preparations of Australian specialty meats.

Today's Chinese-Australian restaurants are every bit as ubiquitous as their Chinese-American cousins. Westerners tend to prefer their Chinese food deep-fried, and this holds true in Australia, where the most popular Chinese dish is a sugary 'sweet and sour.' One of the only discernible differences between Chinese cuisine in Australia and in America is the more prevalent use of lamb in Australia. Menu terminology also differs. 'Long Soup,' for example, means noodle soup and 'Short Soup' means wonton soup. 'Chiko Rolls' are a brand of egg-roll-like snacks that come in a wide variety of fillings, including chicken and corn. These greasy rolls are sold nationwide in Chinese and non-Chinese fast food restaurants, as are the equally fatty deep-fried meat dumplings called 'dim sum.'

Bad Chinese food notwithstanding, Flavor and Fortune readers need not worry because Australia's major cities feature booming Chinatowns as great as in Hong Kong or the Pacific Northwest. How does ultra-fresh Gippsland lamb grab you? How about a mango-sized kiwi fruit bursting with subtle juice? Or pumpkin-sized crabs? 'No worries mate,' goes the common Aussie expression, Chinese food in Australia can be delicious, inexpensive, and wholly satisfying.

The Chinese predilection for seafood is well accommodated by Australia's vast number of species. These include abalone, Northern and Southern rock lobsters, prawns, tuna, scallops, and urchins. Lesser-known shelled morsels include Yabbies, a crayfish with spade-like claws, and Balmain Bugs, which look like a positively prehistoric cross between a lobster and a beetle. The Marron, a fat-tailed crayfish native to the crystal clear waters near Perth, is regarded by many international chefs and gourmets as the finest tasting crustacean. Unique varieties of crabs include dark-black Mangroves, Blue Swimmers, and Spanners, named for their square, wrench-shaped claws. Buttery Tasmanians and luscious Sydney Rocks are known to oyster connoisseurs the world over, and the list of oceanic edibles pulled from the waters surrounding Australia goes on and on. So hasten 'down under,' Flavor and Fortune readers, to where the South Pacific meets the Indian Ocean, because the paragraph you've just read barely breaks the surface.

Reminiscent of San Francisco, Melbourne's Victorian buildings spread around vast waterways like a giant gingerbread village. The Shark Fin Inn and dozens of other eateries large and small, cluster on the main drag of Melbourne's Chinatown, Little Bourke Street. The best of the lot, Jan Bo, is an awesome place to try live rock lobster with cellophane noodles. When the lid of the clay casserole is lifted, a huge puff of steam rises and dissipates, revealing buxom hunks of lobster in shells as pretty as Florentine lace. Australian rock lobster is worth the price (forty American dollars for a two-pounder) because it has a firmer and more deeply flavored flesh than Maine lobsters. The friendly Jan Bo staff serves daily dim sum with funky slabs of tripe, bouncy scallop dumplings, and intensely saucy and super-browned chicken feet.

More cosmopolitan than Melbournites, Sydney's three million residents enjoy an international dining scene that centers around Oxford Street, a big strip of small kitchens serving every Asian cuisine, from China to its neighbors including Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Japan, Sri Lanka, you name it. Sydney residents from Wooloomooloo to The Rocks, from Paddington to Woollahra, can all enjoy Asian food delivered in minutes.

Typical of Chinese restaurants outside of Chinatown, Fu-Manchu in trendy Darlinghurst is a well-lacquered hot spot with a thirty-one-item menu plus daily specials. The food is decent, but surely too tame for the mustachioed war lord himself. The best item is the Sang Choy Bao (mixed vegetable bun) which, by the way, appears along with satay and dim sum on a majority of Chinese menus in Australia. The filling was fine, the bread remarkable: fresh, soft, white, light, and airy. It was easily the daintiest of Chinese buns.

Those wanting a full range of authentic dishes, however, must pass under the ornate gates of Sydney's Chinatown which are inscribed with the optimistic proclamation, 'Within the Four Seas, All Men are Brothers.' The best of Australia's catch comes through these gates procured nearby at Sydney's high-tech and world-renowned fish market.

As is usually the case in large Chinatowns, there is a dim sum restaurant of the moment. Marigold at 683 George Street is the epitome of yum cha. Crowds fill two floors, feasting on braised octopus legs and shrimp-mango fritters amidst carts laden with inventive and bounteous cuisine. Succulent tripe dumplings; fresh squid in a naturally pink sauce; big rice bowls (the pork one had a chicken foot on top and the chicken one had a tiny pork sausage on top); and red bean cakes with walnut topping are enough to reinvigorate even the most jaded dim sum practitioner.

East Ocean Dim Sum at 421 Sussex Street is far more plebeian than Marigold but they offer a genuine selection. Fat chicken feet are perked up with sesame and bits of candied tangerine peel, and hot peanut butter is available on the dried shrimp noodle and taro-cake fry cart. Cold octopus, duck web, pork intestine, cuttle fish, abalone, and aromatic beef are bedded on jellyfish. The food is salty, cheap, and filling; the staff is sullen. An unmistakably Guangzhou feeling permeates the air.

On the other side of the glamour scale, the high-end Golden Century Seafood Restaurant feels like Mr. Chow's 57th Street celebrity haunt. Their solid reputation is bolstered by word of mouth as well as a photographic business card depicting two rock lobsters fighting over a huge Banana Prawn. Shimmering, silver Barramundi from the Great Barrier Reef is the fish for Chinese-Australians and Golden Century stocks tanks full of them. Steamed to perfection, the strong flavor of the suede-smooth Barramundi flesh is tamed with a beefy bouillon of soft black beans. An unlikely mix of sea cucumber and duck web is brought to similar gastronomic heights with a glaze of high-quality oyster sauce in a bubbling clay pot loaded with beautifully braised lettuce. Complimentary desserts of fresh coconut and peanut wrapped in triangles of wonton skin far outshines the fortune cookies given to those who had placed less adventurous orders.

Chinese food has insinuated itself into the mainstream culture of Australia, just as it has done in dozens of countries worldwide. Homogenized Chinese cuisine translated for non-Chinese tastes is here to stay. Wherever Chinese people settle, however, they always preserve some traditional recipes for those willing to go the extra mile for extra special food. So don't despair the sub-par sub gum dear readers, because Flavor & Fortune will continue to guide you to the most savory and healthful offerings in the vast and disparate world of Chinese cuisine.
Harley Spiller is a long time contributing writer for Flavor and Fortune.

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