Sweet and not-so-sour: How Chinese food becomes staple in Sydney

Chinatown is a buzzing district in Sydney. Source: Shutterstock/TonyNg

IT’S Sunday morning and clattering trolleys snake around the heaving top floor of Sydney’s Marigold Restaurant, teasing soon-to-be diners with glimpses of steaming dumplings and sticky chicken feet.

In a maze of nearby streets, students wait in line watching lucky early birds hunker over bowls of ramen, noodles and hot pots.

Chinatown is bulging at the seams with a cornucopia of regional cuisine, but 40 years ago, gloopy battered pork or bland beef in black bean would have been all the rage.

The rise of Chinese food in Sydney is a window into Australia’s success on the world food stage. Of course, Chinese food was around long before the soggy sauces of the ’70s. It first came to Australia with the indentured laborers who worked on outback stations in the mid-19th century and proliferated when an influx of migrants later rushed to the nascent gold fields.

Traditional dishes were tempered to accommodate anglophile tastes and the sweet-and-sour century began. However, things changed in the ’20s when the White Australia Policy strangled immigration. As people felt the pinch of racism, this – ironically and fortuitously – led to the forming of the ethnic enclave which is modern Chinatown.

Attitudes adjusted, foreign food spread to the suburbs and the ’60s and ’70s were the heydays of ubiquitous Chinese diners churning out fried rice and bringing people to terms with tofu. But an influx of immigration and the realization of its proximity to the rest of Asia towards the end of the century meant Australia’s tastes expanded. And so did Chinatown. Big time.

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Take a tour today and you’ll be dazzled with choices. A heaving student population and a torrent of tourists from Asia-wide have undoubtedly given Chinese dining both depth and breadth, but recent years have seen Aussie-Asian cuisine attract accolades around the globe.

So what prompted this taste trajectory? Former MasterChef finalist and presenter of Malaysia Kitchen Alvin Quah told Travel Wire Asia:

“With the travel and cooking show boom, Australians are more adventurous now with their food and have more sophisticated palates.”

“They will go beyond Pad Thai and pork and plum sauce to explore more exotic Asian dishes such as kari kapitan and tea leaf pork. Food is a way people connect with other cultures and Australians’ innate desire to travel means they are more open to trying new cuisines.”

As the borders of Chinatown billow into the surrounding city, each week seems to see restaurant openings that vary from slick Cantonese fine dining restaurants to hole-in-the-wall joints catering to the city’s seemingly unquenchable desire for noodle soup in all its guises. What’s next then for this suburb?

“Regional Chinese cuisine,” Quah said. “Sydney-siders are venturing into Szechuan, Yunan, Hakka and Malaysian. People are getting more curious about pickling, handmade noodles and palate-numbing dishes.”

With such a dynamic dining scene, there could even be a retro return to sweet-and-sour pork in all its fluorescent splendor.

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