In the mid-19th century, there was a new wave of immigrants coming to Australia. Many of them – some 600,000 – came to work in the gold fields of Victoria, and many were Chinese. Wherever there was gold, makeshift camps followed. Chinese immigrants set up food businesses to serve the food needs in the camps, and that would become the blueprint for the Chinatowns that are now established in most Australian capital cities. These were the early days of a hybrid Australian Chinese cuisine.
The success of these businesses was due in part to the decision of the immigrant owners to put their traditional cuisines aside and offer food with mass appeal. These entrepreneurs sold food that had nothing to do with what they ate at home. And ironically, it is the food that they cooked in their home kitchens that is so sought-after by Australian cooks today.
In 1901, the very same year that Australia became a federation, the White Australia policy was legislated. It was specifically designed to prevent non-British and non-European people from coming to Australia.
At the time this was enacted, Australia already had a large number of Chinese immigrants, who had come to work in the gold rush of the 1850s. But when the gold rush ended, and with the onset of the White Australia policy, Chinese workers, who had contributed so much, were faced with hostility and racism.
The Chinese immigrants were reduced to menial jobs, and cooking was one job they were permitted to do, because it was a job many were already doing. Most of the cooks in the mining camps had been Chinese, and many grew their own ingredients. By the 1890s it is estimated that one-third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese. One of the early Chinese market gardens still exists today, in La Perouse, Sydney, under the flight path of Sydney airport. Despite these racist policies, Chinese culture flourished.
Melbourne has one of the oldest Chinatowns in Australia and the oldest continuous Chinatown outside of Asia. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every Australian town has a Chinese restaurant serving classic Australian Chinese dishes like prawn cutlets and Mongolian lamb. Today, these classics are served in Australian Chinese restaurants alongside more modern dishes, such as salt and pepper squid and pippies in XO Sauce.
The food of Canton, or Guangzhou, is the predominant style of Chinese food in Australia. Lamb is not an ingredient associated with this region of China but given the abundance and popularity of lamb in Australia I would dare to say there would be enough demand to have it on the menu. I wonder if this set of unique circumstances led to the invention of this dish. In this recipe, lamb is cooked with onion or leek in a sticky sweet sauce.
It is almost entirely unique to Australia, although American Chinese restaurants do a similar version in the guise of Mongolian beef. In some restaurants, this is called sizzling Mongolian lamb because it is served on a piping-hot cast-iron plate at the table.
Active prep 20 mins
Rest 2–6 hours marinating
Cook 10 mins
500g leg lamb steaks, sliced as finely as possible
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3cm piece fresh root ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 small leek, finely sliced
1 spring onions, cut into 2–3cm lengths
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp hoisin sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp granulated sugar
Steamed rice, to serve
For the marinade
1 tsp cornflour
1 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp Chinese rice wine
Pinch of salt
Combine all the marinade ingredients together in a large non-metallic bowl, then add the lamb and stir to combine. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 2–6 hours.
Remove the lamb from the fridge 30 minutes before cooking. Drain the lamb, reserving the marinade.
Heat one tablespoon of the oil in a wok over a high heat. Swirl the wok around to coat it in the oil. Add half the lamb slices to the hot oil and leave, without stirring, for two minutes, so the lamb develops a golden crust.
Shake the wok and stir-fry the lamb for one minute. Use the wok to tip all the lamb on to a plate. Return the wok to the heat. Add the remaining oil and repeat the process until the rest of the lamb is cooked, removing it from the wok.
Allow the wok to reheat, then, once hot, add the garlic, ginger, leek and spring onion and stir-fry for two to three minutes until softened and fragrant. Return the lamb to the wok. Stir through the oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, sugar, the reserved marinade and 250ml (1 cup) water. Stir-fry for two minutes, until well combined and the sauce has thickened. Serve hot with steamed rice.
San choy bow
Recipes for these meat-filled lettuce parcels have appeared in the pages of high-end Australian food magazines using pigeon and duck in place of the traditional pork. Yet san choy bow has humble beginnings in suburban Chinese restaurants.
I guess its enduring popularity is due to its versatility. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free versions can easily be made. The basic recipe is gluten-free. Just watch the soy and oyster sauces as they can contain wheat-based stabilisers, but gluten-free tamari is a good substitute.
Prep 25 mins
Cook 10 mins
1 head iceberg lettuce
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3cm piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 spring onions, white and green parts separated, and finely sliced on the angle
500g minced pork
1 small carrot, coarsely grated
100g water chestnuts, coarsely chopped
½ tsp caster sugar
2 tbsp Chinese rice wine
60 ml (4 tbsp) oyster sauce
Use your hands to tear out the core of the lettuce, trying not to break up any leaves. Put the whole head of lettuce into a bowl of cold water for 15 minutes. This will loosen individual leaves, enabling them to be separated in one piece. Gently separate the leaves and put them on a tray lined with paper towels or a clean dish towel. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Heat the oil in a wok or large non-stick frying pan or skillet over a high heat. Add the garlic, ginger and spring onion whites and stir-fry for just a few seconds. Add the pork and stir-fry for four to five minutes, breaking up any large pieces, until brown. Add the carrot and stir-fry for two minutes. Stir in the water chestnuts, sugar, rice wine and oyster sauce and cook for another two minutes, until the sauce thickly coats the meat.
Serve hot in the chilled lettuce leaves, with the spring onion greens sprinkled over the top.
Sweet and sour pork
Australians were always going to take to this most colourful, classic and addictive of Cantonese dishes. This perennial favourite does, after all, include that ubiquitous, locally produced ingredient: canned pineapple. This is really more about sweet and less about sour and typifies the Chinese food that came to Australia, mostly from Hong Kong.
Active prep 30 mins
Rest 3 hours
Cook 20 mins
400g pork scotch fillet, finely sliced
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
Steamed rice, to serve
For the batter
1 tbsp dry sherry or Chinese rice wine
1 tbsp light soy sauce
3 tbsp cornflour
For the sauce
300g canned pineapple pieces, in juice
60ml (4 tbsp) white wine or rice vinegar
60ml (4 tbsp) tomato sauce
80g granulated sugar
1 firm tomato, chopped
1 green capsicum, seeded and chopped
1 carrot, cut into thin sticks
1 tbsp cornflour
To make the batter, place all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix until smooth. Add the pork, stirring around until the pieces are coated in the batter. Cover with clingfilm and set aside for 30 minutes, or place in the fridge for 2–3 hours.
To make the sauce, combine the pineapple pieces and juice, the vinegar, tomato sauce, sugar, tomato, capsicum, carrot and 250m (1 cup) water in a saucepan and bring to the boil over a high heat. Boil for 4–5 minutes until the vegetables are just tender.
Place the cornflour in a small bowl, add two tablespoons water and stir to make a smooth paste. Stir the paste through the boiling sauce and cook for a couple of minutes or until thickened. Remove from the heat. Set aside.
Line a plate with paper towels. Half-fill a large deep saucepan with enough oil for deep-frying or pour in enough oil to come one-third up the side of a wok and heat over a medium-high heat. The oil is ready when the surface is shimmering or when a cube of bread dropped in sizzles and turns golden in 10–15 seconds. Alternatively, use a thermometer and heat to 220C.
Working in batches, and using tongs, remove the pork, allowing excess batter to drip back into the bowl. Carefully lower into the hot oil. Deep fry for 3–4 minutes, turning the pork around in the oil, until golden. Use a metal slotted spoon to transfer the cooked pork to the prepared plate. Repeat the process to cook the remaining pork.
Serve the pork with steamed rice and the sweet-and-sour sauce in a bowl on the side.
Salt and pepper squid
There are two Australian chefs in particular who have forged success in the international food scene with their fusion of Asia and Australia. Neil Perry and Kylie Kwong aren’t the only Aussies to have done this, but they stand out for their passion for Asian cookery and advocacy of premium Australian produce.
This dish seemed to spring out of that fertile era, and Perry and Kwong have helped to popularise it. You would be hard pressed to find a pub restaurant now that didn’t have salt-and-pepper squid or chilli salt squid on the menu.
Prep 30 mins
Cook 10 mins
Serves 4 as an entree
400g squid hood
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
1 large red chilli, finely sliced
1 spring onion, finely sliced
Lemon wedges, to serve
For the spiced salt
1 tbsp fine sea salt
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp ground white pepper
½ tsp Chinese five-spice powder
For the batter
250ml soda water, chilled
To prepare the squid, cut the squid hood down the centre on a chopping board and open it flat. Use a small knife to scrape off the membrane on the inside of the hood, then cut the hood lengthwise into 1cm-wide strips. Pat the squid pieces dry with paper towels and transfer to a bowl.
For the spiced salt, combine the salt, sugar, white pepper and five-spice in a small bowl, then set aside.
To make the batter, put the cornflour into a bowl and stir through the soda water to make a smooth mixture, then set aside.
To prepare the squid, first line a plate with paper towels, then put the cornflour into a bowl.
Half-fill a saucepan with enough oil for deep frying and heat over a high heat. The oil is ready when a cube of bread dropped in sizzles on contact and turns golden in 10–15 seconds. Alternatively, use a thermometer and heat to 220C.
Working in batches and using your hands, add about one-third of the squid to the bowl of cornflour. Toss the squid around to lightly coat in the cornflour then toss in the batter. Allow excess batter to drip back into the bowl.
Carefully add the squid to the oil and cook for two to three minutes, until light golden. Use a slotted spoon or metal tongs to transfer the squid to the lined plate. Repeat to cook the remaining squid in batches.
Carefully add the chilli and spring onion to the hot oil and deep-fry for one or two minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl with the squid. Sprinkle over one to two teaspoons of the salt mixture and tumble the squid on to a serving plate.
Serve the squid with lemon wedges on the side and the remaining salt mixture in a small bowl to add to taste.