Asian Food In Australia: Not Authentic But Still Delicious

Asian cuisine is aplenty around the city of Melbourne today. But after eating this cuisine quite a bit here I must say that Asian food in Australia differs considerably from the exact same gastronomic fare in Asia.

A large proportion of Asian food and the Asian eating experience in Australia is arguably unhealthy and often customised to suit Caucasian palates so as to appeal to the Anglo-Saxon population.

Salmon sushi (handroll) is all over Melbourne's CBD, extremely popular with many. But there are other kinds of Japanese food out there too. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Salmon sushi (handroll) is all over Melbourne’s CBD, extremely popular with many. But there are other kinds of Japanese food out there too. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese and Indonesian cuisines are a few such cuisines constantly served up here. Some are more popular than others Down Under, but most of them usually do not taste or are presented akin to dishes in the Asian region.

Amidst today’s Asian Century, many migrants from Asia are establishing Asian restaurants in Australia. Anglo-Saxon Australians are warming towards eating Asian cuisine. So it is not surprising many Asian restaurateurs aim to cater to their Caucasian patrons’ taste buds to encourage culinary diversity within society. And they get to reap more financial profits doing so.

Large Portions

Food portions in Australia are typically much bigger than those in Asia. It is common to order dishes such as chicken rice and pad thai and if you have eaten in Singapore and Thailand, you will see that they are almost twice the size compared to these same dishes in these countries.

Eating a big Asian meal – more rice, more noodles – means consuming a stack load of calories and kilojoules.

Sharing food is caring

Having one whole dish to oneself is quite often preferred during meals for some Caucasians. Many Asian eateries in Australia often cater towards this, frequently putting many “individual dishes” (duck rice, Maggi goreng, chicken karage with rice) on menus and few dishes to share (tofu hot pot, kung pao chicken, spicy pipies, chicken curry), “sharing dishes” or main dishes, with rice.

Many Asian “individual meals/dishes” are part-and-parcel of Asia’s foodie scene – they appeal considerably to the younger generation in Asian cities today – but equally so are “sharing meals/dishes” among this generation and the elderly.

At times, I have seen people in Australia eating “sharing dishes” by themselves.

The emphasis on “individual eating” puts a slight damper on the authentic Asian eating experience in that there is little or no sharing of food. Eating is a communal activity in Asian cultures and “sharing meals” is about sharing, warmly passing dishes to one another, building camaraderie among one other.

Although people do chat and laugh while having “individual meals” together, there is just something that makes us feel fuzzy inside and towards our companions when we share food.

Limited Asian menus

Many Asian dishes are on the healthy side. Steamed dumplings and fish, boiled chicken bone soups and stir-fried leafy vegetables with little oil are some examples.

Although there is a wide variety of Asian cuisine in Australia, greasy, deep-fried, MSG laden, saucy Asian culinary items are always everywhere, eclipsing the healthier options. Sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken cutlets and okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) with extra okonomiyaki sauce are some of them.

The prominence of these “junk” Asian dishes today can be partially attributed to the commercialisation of Asian foods in Australian food courts. Food courts are expected to dish up food almost instantly and are frequented by hoardes of people. Fried, processed and pre-packaged Asian foods are readily available, easily accessible and easy to prepare, so it is apt to serve such food here to ravenous people after a quick feed.

Such battered, saucy Asian dishes undoubtedly thrill Anglo-Saxon palates. After all, popular Aussie foods are artery-clogging and bathed in sauces: meat pies with tomato sauce, burgers with barbeque sauce and fish and chips with tartar sauce.

Many Asian restaurants offer 'Asian-styled dishes' that aren't really authentic and are just a mish-mash of noodles/rice and sauce. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Many Asian restaurants offer ‘Asian-styled dishes’ that aren’t really authentic and are just a mish-mash of noodles/rice and sauce. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Confusing Asian cuisine

Different variations of Asian foods are served in Australia, but whether these modern Asian culinary items deserve to be called Asian cuisine is questionable. The dim sim or “dimmy” is a popular “Chinese-inspired” dumpling in Australia developed by Chinese chef William Wing Young around 1945 in Melbourne. It is a dumpling with thick (crispy) skin filled with meat and is usually fried – closely looking like family of any piece of fried Western food.

I have heard Australians use the term “dim sim” interchangeably with “dim sum” (more specifically, referring to the siew mai), thinking all dim sums are dim sims and vice-versa.

The dim sim is essentially an Australian culinary creation inspired by Chinese culinary and created by a Chinese person while dim sum is Chinese bite-sized food traditionally served in bamboo steamer baskets, originating with the Cantonese in China. And the dim sim is something most (Chinese) people in Asia have never heard of.

Then there are Asian styled dishes such as “Singapore Noodles”, “Combination Fried Noodles” and “Indo/Malaysian/Hong Kong styled” noodles/dish/clay pot that attempt to replicate the non-existent single, distinct national culinary style of an Asian country. The naïve might assume all dishes are traditional Asian cuisine.

For each Asian country, there is no one outstanding national dish or culinary style but a multitude of unique dishes that each country calls their own. It is impossible to recreate or squeeze all authentic flavour(s) and cooking styles of each country in a single meal, let alone for us to learn about the significance of Asian cooking and eating from one meal.

We can enjoy “Asian food”

This is not to say that Asian food in Australia is not appetising and “eating Asian” cannot be an enjoyable experience. It is common to see Asians and non-Asians alike happily wolfing down Asian food whipped up in both food courts and fine dining establishments around Australia.

It is not unusual to find long queues outside South-East Asian food franchises such as Malaysia’s PappaRich and Indonesia’s Es Teller 77 that serve mostly “individual dishes” for a table at noon or in the evening in Melbourne – Asians and non-Asians eating together.

At the end of the day, the presence of Asian food – be it some shabby recreation of an authentic Asian dish or an authentic traditional one – signifies that Australia is one step closer to wholly embracing and understanding Asian cultures.

So perhaps we should not complain too much about the variety and quality of Asian food in Australia, and just stuff our faces with locally-prepared Asian culinary delights if they whet our appetite.

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6 thoughts on “Asian Food In Australia: Not Authentic But Still Delicious

  1. The same is true with Asian food in the States. I can’t say that all Asian food in Asia is healthy, though, either. At least in Taiwan and Hong Kong they really like to overcook their vegetable and cook them in lots of oil! Great post!

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    • So true. Many accessible places like to serve oily Asian food. It takes a lot of time to walk around and find a place that takes the effort and trouble but more importantly heart to cook a healthy, authentic Asian dish.

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  2. My dad told me that back when he first came to Australia 25 years ago, people would happily eat the stir fried carrots and steamed cabbage served in Chinese restaurants, having not had sufficient experience of culinary diversity to know better.

    I once worked in a Chinese restaurant on the Sunshine Coast where the chef had just recently come from China and had a few excellent specialty dishes. Yet, in all my time there, no one ordered them, preferring instead the traditional Australian-Chinese fare of sweet and sour pork or lemon chicken. My impression is that once a restaurant serving a particular cuisine gains a foothold here, its menu becomes the standard by which we think of that cuisine. Any future restaurants of the same cuisine (excepting high end ones) that do not meet this standard will leave too many confused and disappointed customers to be financially successful. In that light, it’s a relief that sweet and sour pork rather than steamed cabbage became the standard for Chinese food.

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    • Very interesting anecdote and observation of yours. It does make sense for small Asian establishments to serve the standard ‘sweet and sour pork’ fare in Australia to financially survive; if they do go all out and serve some other lesser known Asian food, Caucasians here might not step foot into their stores. I guess we should be glad that there Chinese restaurants around serving the standard, repetitive Chinese fare are common – this is better than none and DOES add diversity Down Under.

      I like steamed cabbage a lot, perhaps a little more than sweet and sour pork. I’m just saying 😀

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    • Haha, Cindy! I too never thought Australia was a foodie paradise until I started looking at all the restaurants more carefully in Melbourne’s CBD. Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Turkish….. Sushi, pho, pizza, tacos, coffee…. This is where all the good food is 🙂

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