In Sydney, A Food Scene Emerges

The city's chefs combine local produce with Asian influences to create a new, unique cooking culture.


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.

At Spice Temple, local hero Neil Perry is serving more authentic treatments of Sichuan and Hunan food than I thought possible in a western format. There were hits and some subtle misses in my meal there--dishes were missing the vibrato sting of Sichuan peppercorns, for instance--but the food was true to its origins and very spicy. The room, dimly-lit with red lanterns, overflowed with people. "I feel like we could be in London," a woman whispered to her husband, as they sat down beside me. But my kou shui ji (called "hot and numbing white cut chicken") felt like it could be in Chongqing, if just for another pinch of hua jiao.

On another night I wandered by a queue that stretched down the street. Following it inside, I found feathery roti and a rich curry scented with clove and cinnamon with lean chunks of Australian lamb. There were big plates of chicken satay, tender and smoky, and a wok-fried morning glory dripping with sambal belacan. The food at that restaurant, called Mamak, is worth waiting for.

Another dish that stuck with me for its honesty was the grilled marinated chicken with red curry at Sailor's Thai Canteen. It was smoky and juicy like gai yang should be, and cloaked in an uncharacteristic (yet delicious) curry. It seemed like an improvement on the original.

At Red Lantern, a Vietnamese restaurant in Surrey Hills, I picked my way through a young jackfruit salad and a mellow goat curry--things you might not expect to eat outside of Vietnam, let alone with a good Gewurtztraminer. Owner Luke Nguyen's cozy restaurant has now birthed two very big cookbooks, and his television show debuts in Australia this week.

And throughout all these meals, something stood out. The dishes that worked best were ones that brought great Australian produce--the likes of which you can't get in local restaurants in Asia--into an authentic, spice-driven fold. Like the tender Wagyu brisket cooked with eggplant and fresh chilies at Spice Temple, or the line-caught snapper that was shallow-fried and fish-sauced at Red Lantern, or the Australian lamb in Mamak's curry.

And so it's not all that surprising that my most memorable Sydney meal came at Universal--Christine Manfield's inspired global restaurant in Darlinghurst. Here, she does what Sydney does best--taking world flavors and global techniques and making them her own.

I ate three things at her restaurant: crisp rolls of nori-wrapped, fried kingfish stuffed with sweet, barely-cooked uni; the chef's riff on Vol-au-vent, in this case with tender threads of braised pork, a smoked anchovy cream and a globe artichoke that crumbled into something wonderful; and finally, a dish of wok-fried, turmeric-spiced eggplant.

The eggplant's flesh had been scooped out and married with a heady blend of Indian spices, then neatly returned to a cylinder of purple, perfectly-cooked skin. That was topped with a slaw of crisp-fried curry leaves, beetroot, green mango, and clippings of dill. It was sour, spicy, bitter, and gutsy. It made me wonder how it happened. And in doing so it took me to South India and Northeast Thailand at once.

But if I ever eat something like that again, my mind will likely turn to somewhere down under.

For a list of six Australian foods worth trying, click here.