The death of the neighbourhood Chinese restaurant

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.

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.

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.

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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.

34 comments

  • Deep fried ice cream :)

    And as pronounced by my grandfather 'Chicken Chow Maine'.

    Commenter
    lolplates
    Date and time
    April 29, 2013, 9:50AM
    • Our local Chinese joint closed - it was awesome. Sure it wasnt fancy but it was done the right Aussie / Chinese way. The next closest (1km away) is terrible, you wouldn't feed it to Eric Abetz (well maybe). Why didnt the local Spanish close? The food is terrible and the prices worse

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 29, 2013, 12:23PM
  • AH the local chinese! My inlaws live in Newcastle and only really know or eat the Australian-Chinese dishes. Bless Them.

    There are alot of these sort of places outside of Sydney and the difference between local chinese in regional cities and the local Chinese in Sydney (okay from king st, newtown) is stark! But if thats what people like, thats cool.

    Honey Chicken anyone?

    Commenter
    Mondayitis
    Date and time
    April 29, 2013, 10:10AM
    • The funny thing is, the more fashionable cheapish restaurants generally serve food that has already been watered down into the tex-mex Shanghai format before it comes to Australia; still too much sugar, not enough spice. Australian-via-Shanghai Sichuanese is especially egregious. The sad thing is, in a few years, New York or San Francisco with have an slightly gormandised, ironised American-Chinese fad, and Australia will follow duly down the same path (although I'm not sure we're ready for non-shareable plates piled high with that goop - better put it in a fajita or po' boy).

      Commenter
      bbb
      Date and time
      April 29, 2013, 10:34AM
      • I used to really despise Australian/American/Non-Chinese origin Chinese food or other cultural foods for that matter. I used to reall scoff at people who came to me telling me how much they "love" authentic "insert Asian cuisine of choice" thinking they seriously need to get out more - being somewhat of a food purist - but later as I matured a little as a foodie I came to understand and appreciate that food - all/most food, of all cultures, never had an 'origin' per se, but evolved and developed in time and place as people added, adapted and took away from it - thats what makes food such a wonderful thing.
        Almost all migrant food in Australia, especially Chinese food, has been altered beyond its original ethic form from whence they came. But its not a bad thing.

        You can learn so much from a culture, its people and history based on how it has taken and adapted something and made it their own.
        So part of enjoying a country's food is yes, even venturing out and trying their versions and takes on the migrant origin foods they love - sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, "dim sims", etc.

        So, yeah, it is a little sad that it does seem like those dodgy hole in the wall or gawdy stereotype Chinese restaurant in suburbia or region town areas are slowly disappearing as people eschew one adapted food for another adapted food (the newer 'authentic' cafes/restaurants) which a little more gourmet style/street style.
        But no worries, you still see many Aussies coming into Chinese places asking for 'sweet and sour' pork and the like so it isn't going away that soon.

        Commenter
        Green Tea
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        April 29, 2013, 10:36AM
        • I remember as a little bloke in the late 60s that my mum used to take pots and pans from our own kitchen in order to receive takeaway from our local Chinese restaurant (Revesby, NSW). It was a very rare, and very exotic, occurrence.
          Short soup?

          Commenter
          suburban dad
          Date and time
          April 29, 2013, 10:42AM
          • Ooohhhhhh we did that too! This was in the 70's and the Chinese restaurant was in Mount Waverley. I would traipse in to the foyer with my Dad (in my pyjamas and slippers of course!). They took the order and our saucepans with it. We used to have the cooking pots with the different coloured metal lids, but the same little black handle, and they would fill them up with all sorts of goodies. No plastic, no paper and no paying extra for little sauce containers, it all went in to our utensils. So glad someone else recalls this, those were the days!

            Commenter
            Melbourne Memories
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            April 29, 2013, 11:16AM
          • I too grew up in Revesby. We had Chinese take away as a rare treat growing up. Usually sweet and sour pork and fried rice. Miss those days,

            Commenter
            Alldara
            Date and time
            April 29, 2013, 1:35PM
          • Suburban Dad, you made me nostalgic! I grew up in Revesby and as a child I'd get to choose a birthday meal - always Chinese. We'd drive up to the Chinese reataurant at Bankstown and take our saucepans to save the five cents or so they charged for the take-away containers. Fond memories when I look back, thanks.

            Commenter
            ex_Revesby boy
            Location
            Far South Coast
            Date and time
            April 29, 2013, 1:36PM
          • haha! Yeah, I also remember playing rugby league for Revesby (same jersey as the Balmain Tigers) on Belmore Sports Ground, at half time of one of the Berries' games.
            I was 5 and in N Grade!!!
            (Apologies for being off-topic!)

            Commenter
            suburban dad
            Date and time
            April 29, 2013, 1:59PM

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