Crispy-skin duck in pancakes with spring onions, cucumber and plum sauce from Simon's Peking Duck Chinese Restaurant in Melbourne's Box Hill South. Photo: Bonnie Savage
I remember the prawn crackers. That snap and crunch, that indeterminate savoury flavour set against an oily finish. I think there might have been red lanterns. I think it might have been called the Cathy or Cathay Cafe. I think it was my first restaurant experience.
In Toowoomba in the early ’70s there weren’t too many other choices. As in provincial towns across the country, sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken were dazzlingly exotic; alarmingly orange-and-yellow-hued matches for my mother’s kaftans and the big-collared paisley shirts she sewed for my father.
Sometimes, we’d eat in at the Cathy/Cathay and I remember those nights were a thrill for my little brother and me, although the memory has only the vaguest, fuzziest outline. (I seem to recall a goldfish tank, but I could be wrong.) In later years, as other sit-down restaurant options opened in town, Chinese became the go-to takeaway option and the family’s allegiances moved from the Cathy/Cathay in Ruthven Street to another Chinese in Hume Street. I don’t remember its name but I remember the linoleum was hideous, the bags of prawn crackers gargantuan and the special fried rice greasy.
Pork and chive dumplings from Chinese Noodle House in Sydney. Photo: Jennifer Soo
And then I got all cosmopolitan, didn’t I ... visits to big-city Chinatown spots, three-and-half years living in Hong Kong, trips to China. Chinese food came to mean something else altogether — har gau dumplings, steamed fish with ginger and green onions and a flash of hot oil, crisp roast pork, red cooked pork belly, braised eggplant, mapo dofu, Peking duck ... My sneer for sweet and sour was as ugly as a country Chinese restaurant’s bad linoleum. When I discovered in Shanghai that sweet and sour, especially sweet and sour fish, was actually a thing, I felt betrayed, I had to tone down my sneer.
But even if I’d not been so haughty about the matter (and I’m surely not the only one with that fault, am I?), it’s hard to patronise your local Chinese restaurant when there isn’t one. That’s the lay of the food landscape when you’re of the inner-city and your local takeaway options include Turkish, Thai, pizza, roast chicken, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese and Mexican but not a Chinese in sight.
In fact, according to a major new survey into the Australian takeaway food market, sweet and sour pork and its sticky siblings are facing extinction. OK, so the “major new survey” was conducted via Twitter. OK, so it was my own informal survey into Australians’ takeaway food habits. And true, the survey sample size was possibly too small to draw statistically accurate conclusions.
But still, what you told me should set alarm bells ringing at wok stations around the country and prompt a deep national soul search about the passing of a national tradition that started when a Mr John Alloo opened his Chinese restaurant for business in the Ballarat goldfields in the middle of the 19th century. (Mr Aloo was clearly the original inventor of pragmatic Australian-Chinese food. According to Banquet, Annette Shun Wah and Greg Aitkin’s 1999 book on the Chinese contribution to Australian food, Mr Aloo’s eatery served “Plum Puddings, Jam Tarts, Roast and Boiled Joints, all kinds of vegetables and, in short, every other nameable necessary and delicacy the season affords.”)
What you told me about your takeaway habits backs up Euromonitor International’s 2012 report into fast food in Australia, which revealed a major trend towards Latin American fast food chains and “dude-food” junk food (think tacos, burritos, burgers and fried chicken) and nowhere included the word “Chinese”.
“Japanese, felafel, Mexican,” tweeted @AllOnBlack13. “Thai, Viet, Guzman y Gomez,” added @CavelesBian. “A proper works burger with chips,” said @Luvursistermore. “Pizza and Thai,” from @kylegriffin1. Only 15% of respondents (OK, that was three of you) mentioned Chinese takeaway as a preferred option and I’m going to turn that into 10%, because one of you went all posh and told me you picked up Chinese barbecued pork and roast duck with pancakes from Chinese holes-in-the-wall in Eastwood, a northern Sydney suburb with a large Chinese community. You’re eliminated. You know who you are.
So what set me thinking about Australian-Chinese food, that genre of food that’s thick, sticky, dessert-sweet and deeply unauthentic? I left the city, that’s what. First there was a road trip with an American friend who found the presence of Chinese restaurants in main streets from Parkes to Cowra and beyond a matter of some interest. Then I had two weeks in Toowoomba on family business — packing up the family home.
Most nights, we cooked. There was one meal out at a local restaurant and the less said about it, the better, although it is the only restaurant I’ve ever been to that has a sign on the gate at the exit saying “please pay your bill before you depart”. (That might well say as much about the restaurant as the local clientele.) Memories of an earlier lousy meal at the Spotted Cow — touted over the years as the best local pub — kept us away from the town’s watering holes.
But towards the end of my stay as a fog of exhaustion descended, takeaway loomed as the only option. I could have stopped by the local roast chook shop. I could have thrown caution to the wind and tried the local Thai or Indian. For some reason though, Chinese seemed the thing.
Perhaps it was the memory of driving by the Wing Wah in Orange and the Hong Loch in Parkes and the Yu Sing in Cowra. Perhaps it was some crazy, orange-hued, vintage flashback to family meals at the Cathy/Cathay. Whatever, on my last night in town I found myself sitting in the waiting area of the Qi’lin in Hume Street, studying a shelf of bagged-up prawn crackers and waiting for my order of sweet and sour pork, honey prawns and Mongolian lamb.
We’d come upon a fine range of kaftans in my mother’s wardrobe during the day. But back at the house, sitting in front of the nightly news and eating sticky-sweet battered prawns and orange-hued sweet and sour pork, I decided that a Toowoomba Chinese restaurant meal was about all the vintage I could take for now. And perhaps it is as it should be — that everything, even pragmatic Australian-Chinese food, has its day.