Sharon Kwan is affable and chatty, so it’s not surprising that decades before she opened her Malaysian eatery in Sydney's Petersham, she was formally trained in delivering good service.
“I studied hospitality in Switzerland at Les Roches, and when I first came to Australia in 1989, I was working at The Regent, which is now the Four Seasons,” Kwan tells SBS Food.
“I never thought I’d end up running a Malaysian place.”
Kwan has come full circle in her career, returning to cooking the food she grew up eating in Petaling Jaya, a town 20 kilometres outside Kuala Lumpur.
“My mum and dad were pork butchers with a stall in one of the wet markets in Petaling Jaya. We had a double-door freezer full of meat, and when we were kids, we’d say if there was a war coming, we’d never starve,” she says and laughs.
Kwan’s grandparents had a market noodle shop where Kwan worked on weekends from when she was six years old. “At that time, I was too young to cook, so I’d wash dishes, collect bowls when people were finished eating. Gradually, I moved up to making noodles.”
“My mum and dad were pork butchers with a stall in one of the wet markets in Petaling Jaya. We had a double-door freezer full of meat, and when we were kids, we’d say if there was a war coming, we’d never starve."
At home, Kwan and her four younger siblings helped their mum make meals like nasi lemak, a quintessential Malaysian dish of fragrant pandan and coconut-infused rice, served with sambal and various toppings such as boiled egg, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts and fresh cucumber.
“In those days, there was no such thing as a blender; everything had to be hand-pounded in a mortar. It was something us kids didn’t enjoy doing because it was very tiring, but the end result was fantastic.”
Although she identified strongly with her Chinese-Malay background, as a young woman, Kwan craved travel. After studying in Switzerland and America, she joined a wave of skilled migrants that was welcomed to Australia in 1989.
“I always wanted to leave Malaysia. I’m more Westernised; I like the freedom. My friend convinced me to apply to Australia. She got rejected and I got in.”
In 2000, Kwan and a business partner opened a cafe in Bondi, it started off selling burgers and fish and chips. They realised that, at night, the locals wanted something different.
“A lot of Malaysian restaurants weren’t showcasing home-style cooking, the dishes we Malaysians love to eat. I believe they thought Australians didn’t know how to eat Asian food.
“But chatting to my customers, I realised that Australians know their food well. I tested a lot of local home-cooked food on my customers in Bondi and it turned out everyone loved it. It gave me the confidence to try more dishes.”
When Kwan opened Sharon Kwan Kitchen in Petersham in 2019, she started off featuring char-grilled chicken, done Asian style.
“I thought to myself, every suburb has a chicken shop that can do that dish well. Why can’t I do flame-grilled Asian chicken?”
Marinated in galangal, dried chilli, coconut milk, tamarind and fried curry powder, her Malaysian flame-grilled chicken is roasted for 52 minutes, a cooking time that results in the best balance of crisp skin and juicy meat. Served with a dollop of spicy house-made sambal, it’s delicious, but Kwan has realised that once again customers are craving her home-style Malaysian food.
A coconut milk chicken curry cut with tamarind and fragrant with curry leaves is a menu mainstay, as is her classic, wok-smoked char kway teow noodles, but Kwan is constantly experimenting. One week, she’ll make a fishy, tamarind-heavy assam laksa, and another she’ll feature a Nyonya-style braised pork belly infused with star anise and cinnamon.
The Hakka yong tau foo she serves is a variation of her mum’s recipe. “It’s a mixture of minced pork, fresh fish and salted fish made into a paste and stuffed into vegies or tofu and braised in sauce. It’s a very rustic home-style dish.
“The one I grew up eating only had fish. My mum used Spanish mackerel. She pounded it in a mortar until it became gooey, and added corn starch. Then she’d cut the middle of tofu, okra, chilli or eggplant, stuff in the fish paste and pan fry. A salted bean sauce went on top.”
The yong tau foo she serves is Hakka Chinese, and it’s just one example of how Kwan’s menu reflects the diversity of Malaysia.
“In Malaysia, you can hardly find one restaurant that specialises in one type of cuisine. Instead, you’ll find Indian, Chinese, Nyonya, Malay food together. It’s unified. It’s how we grew up with all these different cuisines that became a part of our culture.
“It is Malaysian to bring together all the food we love.”
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Sharon Kwan’s Hakka yong tau foo
Makes 45 pieces
- 1 kg minced pork (or minced chicken)
- 100 g fish paste
- 40 g salted fish paste
- 40 g French shallots
- 40 g spring onion
- 15 g cornflour
- 40 g oyster sauce
- 15 g soy sauce
- 15 g five-spice powder
- 45 pieces of any of the following: fried tofu puffs, firm tofu, Chinese eggplant, capsicum, shiitake mushrooms, bitter gourd, okra, long red or green chillies
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 100 g sliced French shallot
- 20 g sliced garlic
- 1 litre chicken stock
- 15 g oyster sauce
- 5 g soy sauce or to taste
- 5 g cornstarch for thickening (mixed with water)
1. Combine the stuffing mixture in a bowl (except for the 45 tofu pieces or vegetables you'll be stuffing).
2. Cut a slit or hole in each vegetable or piece of tofu to create a pocket for stuffing. If using bitter gourd, remove the core and slice the gourd into 5cm thick rounds. If using chillies, slice lengthwise and remove seeds, taking care not to slice all the way through. If using Chinese eggplant, slice into 5cm-thick rounds and cut almost in half, taking care not to slice all the way through. Use a spoon to insert stuffing into pockets.
3. Lightly pan-fry stuffed vegetables or tofu until golden. Drain on paper towel.
4. After cooking the stuffed vegetables and tofu, prepare the sauce. Heat the vegetable oil in a pan and fry the sliced French shallot and garlic on medium heat until lightly brown. Add chicken stock, oyster and soy sauces and bring the liquid to a boil. Once it's boiling, add stuffed vegetables in batches and poach for approximately 5-8 minutes then remove from the sauce.
5. If the sauce starts to run out, add a bit of water and bring the liquid to a boil again, then thicken the sauce with cornstarch mixture for a creamy consistency.
6. Once all vegies and tofu have been braised, pour the remaining sauce over cooked vegetables and eat as is or with steamed rice.
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