I still remember my first Chinese meal – which was, as was the case for so many Australians, my first takeaway meal from an Aussie suburban Chinese restaurant.
In particular, I still remember my first bite of lemon chicken, in all its deep-fried, luminous, MSG basted, glory. It might have borne very little resemblance to actual Chinese food from China, but I still thought it was one of the yummiest things I’d ever tasted.
My family was staying at a holiday house in the sleepy Blue Mountains town of Leura, otherwise known as that little place full of antique shops just before Katoomba. My grandparents were there, and a few miscellaneous aunts and uncles too. Some genius, most likely my grandmother, decided that instead of cooking, we would order Chinese takeaway.
It’s no exaggeration to say that my first taste of lemon chicken changed my life. Before those plastic tubs filled with already semi-congealed gluggy sauce were plonked down in front of me, the only ‘foreign’ food I’d tried was Italian. It blew my mind.
I still remember what we ordered, because we ordered all the stuff that everyone ordered from suburban Chinese restaurants back then. Lemon chicken, sweet-and-sour pork, beef with black bean sauce, Mongolian lamb, fried rice and spring rolls – all the key food groups.
What's not to love about classic fried rice!
And while I didn’t have the pleasure of going to pick up the order, if you lived in Australia in the mid-1980s, I’m sure we can guess exactly what that suburban Chinese restaurant would have looked like.
There would have been chipboard and Laminex tables with a polyester tablecloth on top, with a Lazy Susan perched triumphantly above, just waiting for an eight-year-old like me to spin it excessively fast, sending the food flying.
The wallpaper would have been silvery foil featuring pictures of ferns, and hung atop them would have been fading prints of buildings featuring red and green roofs of sloping tile. Beneath them, silk robe-clad villagers would have been sitting cross-legged as they contemplated craggy mountain peaks off in the distance. And in one corner of the restaurant, there would have been a shrine, with cut-up slices of orange, smoky sticks of incense and a red light globe. And the overall effect would have been awesome.
Later in my suburban Chinese career, my primary school bestie and I were regulars at the Sydney suburb of Crows Nest’s finest Chinese eatery, Chopsticks – which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is the perfect name for a suburban Chinese joint.
It’s apparently no longer with us, although if Google Street View is to be believed, the unique round windows are still there on the Pacific Highway, ready for a new owner to resurrect (hint, hint). I so looked forward to eating there – and since most of what we ordered featured a great deal of batter, sugar and luminous colouring, it’s no wonder we loved it.
Nowadays I understand that what we thought of as generic Chinese was Cantonese, and although I still love eating the cuisine of what we now call Guangdong province, I order differently. From steamed fish to salt and pepper squid to a huge array of hotpots, Australia is enormously fortunate to have so many excellent Cantonese restaurants, many of which are the equal of what you find in Hong Kong. In some cases, our produce is probably even better.
But there are times when I still have a hankering for those original suburban Chinese classics. My friends and I once ordered an entire meal of Canto clichés at Sydney’s most famous southern-style restaurant, Golden Century. I highly recommend the experience – in the hands of acclaimed chefs, our childhood favourites tasted more delicious than ever before. The lemon chicken was particularly memorable – whereas the suburban version resembled KFC dipped in French tarte au citron, the Golden Century version actually had some subtlety to it.
When travelling in regional NSW, I’ve often come across vintage suburban Chinese eateries that surely haven’t been touched since the first waves of migration from Hong Kong in the 1970s and 80s. I remember one particularly delicious and retro meal in Coffs Harbour, at a restaurant whose shagpile carpet, if I recall correctly, bravely mixed purple with beige.
These memories came flooding back when I read Benjamin Law’s hilarious, touching book The Family Law, and it was great fun seeing a suburban Chinese restaurant brought to life on SBS’s TV adaptation – especially in that scene where the real Law family have cameos at an adjoining table. (Good news for fans of the show - season two starts Thursday 15 June at 8.30pm.)
For me, yum cha with my own Chinese relatives is always a madcap and memorable experience. I’m assured by those who know that Australia’s Chinese restaurants are now extremely authentic, and there’s a huge variety of dishes to enjoy.
But sometimes I have hankering for the Chinese food I grew up with, served in those traditionally daggy surrounds. So I can only hope that local councils across Australia are doing the right thing, and placing heritage orders on the uniquely Australian experience that is the suburban Chinese restaurant. They’re part of our cultural heritage, and also proof that sometimes, authenticity isn’t everything when it comes to enjoying multicultural food.
Because I firmly believe that when life hands you lemons, one of the best things you can do is go and eat lemon chicken, ideally with fried rice and some spring rolls on the side.
Tune into SBS for the brand new second series of The Family Law starting Thursday 15th June at 8.30pm.
Chicken in black bean sauce is a perennial favourite at Chinese restaurants around the world. This recipe is inspired by the Shunde region, in Guangdong province. So much fun to be had with these cookies: "The fortune you seek is in the next cookie", "A good way to keep healthy is to eat more Chinese food" and our favourite, "Only a fool seeks wisdom in a cookie". "Dumplings are the definitive Chinese peasant food but no matter where your cultural heritage lies, there's no denying these little parcels are the ultimate comfort food. The sensation of chomping into one of these plump parcels and its juices squirting down your chin is unbeatable. And before you start thinking it's all too hard, remember many hands make light work – this is a great recipe for a communal effort." Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co.
Chicken in black bean sauce is a perennial favourite at Chinese restaurants around the world. This recipe is inspired by the Shunde region, in Guangdong province.
So much fun to be had with these cookies: "The fortune you seek is in the next cookie", "A good way to keep healthy is to eat more Chinese food" and our favourite, "Only a fool seeks wisdom in a cookie".
"Dumplings are the definitive Chinese peasant food but no matter where your cultural heritage lies, there's no denying these little parcels are the ultimate comfort food. The sensation of chomping into one of these plump parcels and its juices squirting down your chin is unbeatable. And before you start thinking it's all too hard, remember many hands make light work – this is a great recipe for a communal effort." Poh Ling Yeow, Poh & Co.