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Asian Cuisine in Sydney, Australia

Hugh Stewart

Photo: Hugh Stewart

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.

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