Asian Cuisine in Sydney, Australia
Published: August 2010
Where should you go to experience the flavors of the Far East ?Down Under. <em>Peter Jon Lindberg</em> puts his palate to work at raucous dim sum palaces, hushed sushi temples, a Thai restaurant that rivals any in Bangkok, and more.
Only jerks don’t like Sydney.
Still, it’s easy to feel a tinge of resentment toward the place—so astonishingly blessed is it by climate and geography (that harbor! those beaches!). It is the homecoming queen of travel destinations, topping Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Cities poll for eight of the past 11 years. So when I say that Sydney also happens to have, dish for dish, the finest Asian food on the planet, I realize I’m adding to a long litany of hyperbole. But it’s true. No Asian city—not Hong Kong, not Bangkok, not even Singapore—offers such assured cooking across the board, or such a wide range of cuisines: Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, Sichuan, Taiwanese, Lao, Filipino, Cambodian, Burmese.
Why?Immigrants from East and Southeast Asia have formed a major demographic in Australia for more than a century. Because of this extensive shared history, even non-Asians here have an easy familiarity with Asian cooking: Australians under 35 probably grew up not just on Vegemite sandwiches but also on curries and pad kee mao. "My kids’ school cafeteria actually serves sushi and Vietnamese rice-paper wraps. And even in suburban kitchens, the wok is as indispensable as the barbie," says Joanna Savill, a Sydney-based food writer and host of the TV series The Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia. She compares the role of Asian cuisine here to that of Indian food in the U.K. or Mexican in the western United States; Tex-Mex and Anglo-Indian cooking, however, are blandified approximations, while Australia’s Asian food is usually the real deal.
Furthermore, the ingredients are superb. Sydney’s cooks have access to fabulously fresh, often organic, produce. Australian beef, lamb, and Bangalow pork are deservedly renowned, which is why the best kitchens in Asia import their meat from here. So too is the fish and seafood selection, the bulk of it sold through the Sydney Fish Market—the world’s second-largest, after Tokyo’s.
For travelers leery of experimenting at Bangkok street stalls or Singapore hawker centers (too bad, since in Asia the down-and-dirty joints serve the tastiest food), Sydney’s eateries present a welcoming environment without the customary trade-off in authenticity. English-speaking waitstaff are an added bonus. A good portion of my adult life has been spent eating my way around the East, yet I’ve never found ayam goreng (Balinese fried chicken) or cha gio (Vietnamese spring rolls) to compare with those I discovered in Sydney.
Actually, that’s not true. My Aussie friend Michael, a former Sydneysider now living in New York, prepares both dishes just as well. He also makes a fabulous Malaysian laksa and knockout soup dumplings. Unlike every other resident of Manhattan, Michael has never once ordered Chinese or Thai takeout—he knows he can do a far better job himself. Besides, Sydney spoiled him for Asian food. Michael, then, becomes a natural companion for my Sydney culinary adventure, during which he serves as my guide and occasional translator. (Did I mention he speaks a bit of Cantonese, Japanese, and Thai?)
We arrive in the final, glowing burst of Australian spring, just as the jacarandas are dropping their petals to form bright pools of lavender on the streets. For the next 14 days, we will eat Asian food for every meal—high-end, casual, and everything in between.
Thai Me Upscale, Thai Me Downscale
Our first stop is a Thai canteen in Surry Hills with a name out of Dr. Seuss: Spice I Am. This tiny 20-seater has no proper chairs (only drum-shaped stools), no liquor license, not even a front wall: the dining room opens on to the sidewalk, which is daintily rimmed with potted heliconia. The Thai staff—most of them related—are warm and friendly. But they could staff the place with ogres and trolls and Spice I Am would still be the best Thai restaurant in town. Som tam (green-papaya salad), which lesser kitchens pass off as a dull and starchy garnish, is here returned to its proper, brilliant self. The strips of unripe papaya and long beans are snappy and bright, the lime juice and zest ring loud and clear, and the chiles are alarmingly fiery. Pla tod ka min is a deep-fried whiting, powerful with fish flavor and nuanced with turmeric, coriander, salt, pepper, and garlic. Spice I Am even serves the southern Thai specialty hoy tod, a savory crêpe filled with luscious briny mussels that I’ve never before found outside of Thailand. Michael and his friends stumbled upon Spice I Am by chance, back when few farang had heard of the place. After years under the radar, the secret’s out.
David Thompson is a white Australian who happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on Thai cuisine; his encyclopedic, 697-page cookbook Thai Food is widely considered tops in the field. Thompson is now based in London, where his six-year-old Nahm was the first Thai restaurant ever to be awarded a Michelin star. But he rose to fame in Sydney at Sailors Thai, still going strong in the touristy Rocks district. The austere modern space is softened by lovely yellow, pink, and green silk wall coverings and vases of fragrant lilies. Our dinner includes several standouts from Thompson’s cookbook, which Michael has all but memorized. Back in New York he once made me the same braised beef ribs, with great success—yet these are a whole other thing. The grass-fed beef is richer than any I’ve tasted back home, and complemented by sharp, piquant notes of lime juice, coriander, and a sprinkling of shredded kaffir-lime leaf. A northern-Thai pork sausage dissolves on the tongue like foie gras, before giving way to the thrilling burn of ginger and chiles. Like Spice I Am, this is no-holds-barred Thai cooking, a medley of intense yet discrete flavors—from bitter to tangy, never too sweet—that play broader and deeper than what we’re accustomed to in the States. Each plate is a lush and colorful still-life that makes you wonder: Can I ever go back to pad thai?
Progressive Lunch in Chinatown: Duck, Duck, Goose
In a country where culinary borders exist only to be crossed, it’s perhaps not surprising that a Singapore-born, Sydney-bred Chinese woman could become a master of classical French cooking. Chui Lee Luk moved to Australia at the age of seven. As a teenager she won a copy of Waverley Root’s The Food of France in a drawing contest and read it front to back. Three decades later, Chui runs the kitchen at Claude’s, one of Sydney’s most acclaimed restaurants. But by day she finds her joy in the crowded alleyways and steam-filled dumpling joints of Chinatown. "My parents took me here every weekend back in the seventies, when Chinatown was just a single block," she recalls as we stroll past shops selling deer-antler extract and bull’s testicles. "At that time, Cantonese was the only option. Now it has just exploded, and there’s all sorts of regional cooking as well." Case in point: Chinese Noodle Restaurant, which specializes in the hearty, wintry dishes of the north. Owner Qan Xiao Tang was a concert violinist back home in Beijing; arriving in Sydney in 1991, he found no orchestra work, so he opened this restaurant.
Through the kitchen window you can watch Qan making his famous wheat noodles, unfurling and then beating out great long strands of dough. The noodles and braised dumplings—earthy, rich, filled with pork or spicy lamb—are the stars here, but there are also delectable fried calamari, a great jellyfish salad (remarkably crunchy, and far better than you’d expect, tossed with cabbage and julienned cucumbers), and a shredded-chicken salad that puts Wolfgang Puck’s version to shame.
Right next door is Cho Dumpling King, where we fill up on what could be called Taiwanese tapas: small, cold, chile- and scallion-laced salads, built around seaweed or fried tofu or tiny dried fish. Michael, whose attraction to odd animal parts makes Anthony Bourdain’s seem finicky by comparison, convinces me to try a serving of his beloved pig’s ears—pale translucent strips that I mistook for sliced onions. They become my new obsession: we’ll return three times this week for more. For the finale we head up the street to Tai Wong, a decade-old barbecue shop with a windowful of lacquered ducks, geese, and what Michael calls dancing quails, lined up like Rockettes on skewers. I’m entranced by the burgundy-hued, crackly skin on the char siu—the Hong Kong–style pork that is to a Chinese barbecue joint what roast chicken is to a French bistro; if they can’t do that well, they probably can’t do much else. Tai Wong’s char siu is extraordinary, with a brittle exterior—drizzled in duck fat, if you really want to know—giving way to juicy and tender meat.
The Other Kylie
You might know Kylie Kwong from her TV series on the Discovery network. Billy Kwong, her chic storefront space in Surry Hills, is one of Sydney’s most popular restaurants—on a Monday night we wait two hours for a table. ("Billy" is former co-owner Bill Granger, another Sydney superchef.) Dressed up in glossy black lacquerwork, with Chinese screens and antique armoires, Billy Kwong could not be further from Chinatown’s rough-and-tumble milieu, and it draws a stylish crowd, equal parts Asian and gwei lo (Caucasians). Chef Kwong specializes in Chinese comfort food, going all out for maximum richness while favoring organic and sensitively raised ingredients. This is perhaps the only Chinese restaurant on earth that makes a point of serving biodynamic eggs, which are twice-fried in wok oil to create flaky tendrils of white and velvety-soft yolks. Scattered with chiles and scallions, seasoned with powerful XO sauce, they’re incredibly satisfying. So too is Kwong’s smoky, crisp-skinned duck, flavored with cinnamon sticks and mandarin-orange slices; and her take on the classic Cantonese sung choi bao: tender morsels of Bangalow pork fried with strong ginger and earthy wild mushrooms, folded into crunchy leaves of lettuce. "Wish I had a hangover," Michael says, sipping a spicy Tasmanian Pinot Noir. "This meal would be the perfect cure."
You Say Dim Sum, They Say Yum Cha
In Australia, Sunday-morning outings for dim sum—here called by its other name, yum cha—are as routine as eggs Benedict brunches in America. It’s usually eaten at aircraft hangar–size palaces such as Marigold Citymark, in Chinatown, which accommodates about 800 diners on multiple floors (inside tip: the fifth floor has better service and a broader selection). Waiters in tuxedos pour jasmine tea with great flourish while dour-faced ladies circulate with steam trolleys, trailing wisps of fragrant vapor. Many in the crowd are Australian-born Chinese (ABC’s) celebrating weddings or anniversaries. CONGRATULATIONS GLADYS & PHILIP CHEN! says a banner over the next table.
We’ve come with Michael’s parents, spirited octogenarians with voracious appetites; they polish off the fung giau (chicken feet) with a few deft strokes of their chopsticks. My attention is fixed on the caramelized grilled squid brushed with chile sauce, and on the lo mai gai, moist parcels of sticky rice, eggs, chicken, and pork wrapped in lotus leaves. This is nothing like what we’re used to back home. "Dim sum in Sydney is generally more savory than sweet, and instead of a cluster bomb of tastes, each ingredient comes through," Michael explains. He’s right: I can parse out the garlic chives, bamboo shoots, and even pork fat in the delectable seafood dumplings.
Marigold is hard to top for quality of food, but the spin of lazy Susans and the crush by the door can be overwhelming. So the following Sunday we get our yum cha fix at Manly Phoenix, in the coastal suburb of Manly. The restaurant sits right beside the ferry pier, and the light-flooded room is a welcome departure from the windowless fortresses of Chinatown. Sunlight?In a dim sum place?But yes: it reflects off the water outside, the glossy blond-wood paneling, and the shiny glaze of the pork buns. Here, we’re smitten by juicy fried pork ribs, translucent shu mai dumplings, and cheong fan (steamed rice-noodle rolls filled with prawns and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds). But the real shock at Manly Phoenix is the excellent cappuccino. Try finding that in your local dim sum joint.
Good Eating, Vietnam
Sydney’s suburbs are often dominated by one or two ethnic groups: Chinese in Chatswood, Koreans in Campsie, Indonesians in Randwick. The vibrant southwestern suburb of Cabramatta is an uncanny simulacrum of Saigon. The sidewalks are lined with potted mandarin trees, silk shops, and herbal apothecaries. Children wear the blue and white school uniforms common in Indochina. One local butcher even offers homesick customers gia cay—imitation dog meat. (It’s actually pork seasoned to taste like dog, a delicacy in Vietnam’s rural north.)
It’s maddeningly hard to find respectable Vietnamese food in New York. So I’m sold on Thanh Binh from the moment I step in and see wicker baskets overflowing with greens and aromatic herbs. Unlike most other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese cooking focuses on fresh, clear, vibrant flavors and textures, with minimal use of oil and fat. The herbs are key in Thanh Binh’s goi cuon (summer rolls), which we assemble ourselves, moistening a sheaf of rice paper, topping it with shrimp, bean sprouts, and a tangle of rice vermicelli, then layering on sprigs of spearmint, purple shiso, holy basil, cilantro, and lemon balm. It’s then rolled up, burrito-style, and dunked in a pungent blend of hoisin and nuoc mam (fish sauce). Thanh Binh’s menu lists no fewer than 251 dishes, so Michael and I embark on an all-afternoon feast, highlighted by an extraordinary pho (beef noodle soup) whose stock—infused with marrow and spiced with star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves—has been simmering for 26 hours. After our umpteenth course we’re joined by the owner, Angie Hong, a vivacious woman with short-cropped hair, an Hermès belt, and a massive Gucci gold bracelet. Hong left Saigon for Sydney in 1971 and opened the first Thanh Binh in 1993; there are now three locations. With its Scandinavian bentwood chairs and gallery lighting, this branch on Arthur Street is the most upscale. Still, it’s authentic enough to have a sign posted in the bathroom reading PLEASE DO NOT STAND ON TOILET SEAT.
Malaysian Goes Modern
Ask Sydneysiders of a certain age where they first tasted chiles, galangal, or lemongrass and you’ll likely get a two-word answer: the Malaya. Established in 1963, this is the granddaddy of Sydney’s Asian restaurants, and its evolution—from a modest storefront on George Street to a gleaming, ultramodern stage-set overlooking Darling Harbour—parallels the rise of Asian cuisine in Australia. One thing that hasn’t changed is the laksa, that magnificently hearty Malaysian soup, which might be even better than Michael’s. The broth is at once creamy and piquant; the bean sprouts are crisp, the king prawns plump and firm and briny. "Then again," Michael says in his own defense, "this isn’t authentic laksa. I mean, they make it with cow’s milk." Back in the sixties, coconut milk was nearly impossible to source in Australia, so, yes, the Malaya’s cooks substituted cow’s milk. Blasphemous or brilliant, your pick—the recipe endures to this day, and it works.
What’s Japanese for ’No, No— Thank You!’?
If the Malaya was Sydney’s first great Asian restaurant, Tetsuya’s is certainly its most famous. Japanese-born chef Tetsuya Wakuda is Australia’s answer to Alain Ducasse, and on a good night his food might be worth the challenge of scoring a reservation and the eye-popping tab. Unfortunately, our dinner is fussy and overwrought, and the service feels rote. For my money, a more memorable meal can be had at Yoshii, a five-year-old Japanese gem in the Rocks. Though few tourists have heard of the place, Yoshii might be the finest restaurant in all of Australia.
Ryuichi Yoshii—a boyish 45-year-old Nagasaki native who moved to Sydney a decade ago—is the culinary equivalent of an art-house director, trading in quiet, probing, experimental drama. Taking seats at the tiny sushi bar, we surrender to a mesmerizing 17-course omakase adventure. "Thank you," Yoshii says as he passes us our first course: an eggshell, perched in a silver cup, containing silky egg custard, a chiffonaded snow pea, bonito broth, and astoundingly rich sea urchin (diver-harvested the previous day in Tasmania), ornamented with gold leaf. By the fifth spoonful we’re humming from the protein buzz and are inclined to stop right there.
We don’t. The next 16 dishes come at us like a fireworks display—white asparagus sprinkled with smoked mullet roe; roasted Wagyu beef paired with fried lotus root; mirin-marinated black cod with diced bacon and kumquat; masala-dusted red snapper dotted with splashes of puréed mango, chile, and spring onion. And for the finale, eight varieties of sushi, served one by one on tiny, whimsical ceramic plates. Hypnotized by the swirl of Yoshii’s knife, we delve into saffron-orange ocean trout, glistening toro, buttery smoked eel, raw mantis prawns from Perth. Even the palate cleanser—an icy shot of mango-lemongrass granita—is exquisite. By the time we stumble onto the street, giddy from sake and Yoshii’s endless stream of "thank you’s," four hours have passed, but we’re surprisingly not full—instead, we feel entirely energized. An hour later, we’re at Spice I Am for a nightcap of papaya salad. ✚
Peter Jon Lindberg is a T+L special correspondent.
When to Go
Sydney is mild year-round, but late spring (October-November) and early fall (March-April) have temperatures around 75 degrees and scarcely any rain.
Qantas, United, and Air New Zealand all fly direct from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport.
Where to Stay
The 33 rooms here may not offer harbor views, but they’re sleek and sexy in all the right ways. 5 Bridge Lane; 61-2/9240-3100; luxehotels.com; doubles from $230.
This hotel, on the other hand, sits smack on the waterfront, right across from Sydney’s famous Opera House. 7 Hickson Rd., the Rocks; 61-2/9241-1234; sydney.park.hyatt.com; doubles from $480.
Where to Eat
355 Crown St., Shop 3, Surry Hills; 61-2/9332-3300; dinner for two $25.
Chinese Noodle Restaurant
8 Quay St. (entrance off Thomas St.), Haymarket/Chinatown; 61-2/9281-9051; lunch for two $15.
Cho Dumpling King
8 Quay St., Shop 6, Haymarket/Chinatown; 61-2/9281-2760; snacks for two $13.
10 Oxford St., Woollahra; 61-2/ 9331-2325; dinner for two $280.
Terrific ramen joint in a tony shopping mall catering to Japanese. Try the tantanmen ramen, laden with minced pork, fiery scallions, and a soft-boiled egg. Galeries Victoria, Level 2, 500 George St.; 61-2/9262-7677; ramen for two $10.
Family-run, home-style Indonesian restaurant with top-notch ayam goreng (chicken marinated in coconut milk and palm sugar, pressure-cooked, then finished in a deep fryer). 129 Avoca St., Randwick; 61-2/9398-8555; dinner for two $50.
39 Lime St., King St. Wharf, Darling Harbour; 61-2/9279-1170; dinner for two $70.
22-23 Manly Wharf (East Esplanade), Manly; 61-2/9977-2988; dim sum for two $42.
Levels 4 and 5, 683—689 George St., Haymarket/Chinatown; 61-2/ 9281-3388; dim sum for two $50.
106 George St., the Rocks; 61-2/ 9251-2466; dinner for two $80.
Spice I Am
90 Wentworth Ave., Surry Hills; 61-2/9280-0928; lunch for two $35.
12 Campbell St., Surry Hills/Chinatown; 61-2/9212-1481; dinner for two $30.
529 Kent St.; 61-2/9267-2900; dinner for two $230.
33 Arthur St., Cabramatta; 61-2/9724-9633; lunch for two $35.
115 Harrington St., the Rocks; 61-2/9247-2566; dinner for two $200.
You can eat fantastically well at the Sydney Fish Market (Bank St., Pyrmont; 61-2/9004-1100; sydneyfishmarket.com.au). Dozens of stalls sell oysters, emerald-and-sapphire-colored swimmer crabs, seaweed salads, chile-spiced octopus, and sashimi sliced right off the tuna. Wear rubber-soled, nondressy shoes.