Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
For a list of six Australian foods worth trying, click here.
"Sydney has no real food culture. People here don't understand food. It's bullshit."
My driver, who was ferrying me from airport to hotel, smiled in the rearview as his odious claim hung in the air. "Of course there is steak," he continued, as if eating beef was heresy. "And there is Asian food. A lot of it, in fact, which I do not care for."
But the man behind the wheel was no ordinary chauffeur. He was a former restaurant owner, and his restaurant, the ill-fated Coco Roco, was at the center of a defamation case he eventually won in 2007. I had just stepped off a plane to attend the Sydney International Food Festival--a week of chef demonstrations, wine dinners, and market tours. And it was all beginning rather deliciously.
Throughout all these meals, something stood out. The dishes that worked best were ones that brought great Australian produce into an authentic, spice-driven fold.
First I'll get this out of the way: my driver was a very nice guy, and I appreciate his candor. But I also feel bad for him, because he doesn't know what he's missing. After a week spent eating in Sydney, I'm convinced that the city has an uncommon and rewarding sort of cooking culture.
The foodscape is anchored by a youthful cooking scene that borrows at least as much from east as west. Chefs weave western notions of artisan produce--grain-fed Wagyu beef rump, organic micro-greens, line-caught ocean fish--with eastern techniques and tastes. Then they write cookbooks or make television shows about it, and people pay attention. Asian food is Sydney's muse, and for locals that's something to celebrate.
Here, ingredients like lemongrass, star anise, and lime leaves creep their way onto more menus than they probably should. But that's because fusion is regarded with less skepticism there than anywhere else I've eaten recently. Sydney's great local chefs--people like Neil Perry, David Thompson, and Christine Manfield--have forged careers by writing books and opening restaurants that train at least one eye on the east.
"The city is proud of its new food culture," explained Thompson, "because it never had one. There was only food cooked in the Anglo tradition--not just roasts but boiled roasts," he said, with a sigh. "But then came the Mediterranean immigrants, and after that people arrived from Asia. Their foods became our own. It is a recent and welcome development."
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Last weekend at the Food Festival's Chef Showcase, a weekend of cooking demonstrations and food talk, a cook from Chengdu dazzled the crowd. Yu Bo, who presented his dishes with the help of author Fuchsia Dunlop and his wife Dai Shuang, was perhaps a bigger star in Sydney than he is in Sichuan. Their presentation was so packed I had to squeeze in the back of the room to watch.
And that's what makes eating in Sydney unique and pleasing. Non-Asian diners don't seem intimidated by Asian cooking. It's stripped of exoticism. People don't turn up their noses at fish fried on the bone or fermented bean paste or fish sauce. Instead, they embrace them.
Last Tuesday I walked through the annual Night Noodle Markets and was amazed--not by the food, which was pretty ordinary--but by the following. What looked like a few thousand people were crowded into Hyde Park North to eat Malaysian, Thai, and Chinese street food.