How to order outside your culinary comfort zone in Melbourne

Rou jia mo, a type of Chinese hamburger, from EJ Fine Food (aka Xi'an Famous).
Rou jia mo, a type of Chinese hamburger, from EJ Fine Food (aka Xi'an Famous). Photo: Eddie Jim

It's been scientifically proven that we prefer what we know. If you studied high school psychology, you'll recognise this phenomenon as the Familiarity Principle or Mere-Exposure Effect. It has implications for food preferences, too. Australian cuisine is defined by multiculturalism. We are lucky to be exposed to a variety of cuisines and dishes and for decades we have embraced so many of these cuisines. At least in part.

But it is time to be even more adventurous in our eating.

There are so many dishes specific to the cuisines we already love that we have not even heard of. I'm not claiming to be an expert on Asian cuisines. I'm of Eastern European decent and Jewish heritage, and have an insatiable curiosity, a healthy appetite, a research addiction and a passion to try different things.

When we think of Vietnamese cuisine most of us will think of pho, the deliciously addictive signature noodle soup. But did you know there is another equally divine noodle soup called bun bo hue? This is a call for us all to step outside our culinary comfort zones.

I hope you will join me on my quest to #EatCuriously. Because I know there's no better way to learn about another culture and place – or ourselves – than by eating something new.

Like bao? Try rou jia mo

Fifteen years ago, David Chang introduced a modern, high-end take on the Chinese steamed pork buns to New York City at Momofuku. Many similar bao concepts followed, including in Australia. Rou jia mo, a common street food in north-west China's Shaanxi province, is traditional bao's lesser-known and arguably more delicious cousin, sometimes called a Chinese hamburger. Slightly fermented, the bun has a pleasing chew that balances the juicy, slow-cooked pork, lamb or beef. The best are heavily seasoned with cumin and chilli. At EJ Fine Food in the city (confusingly also called Xi'an Famous) these delights cost $6 each and have "G'DAY MATE" printed on their paper pockets, just screaming to go viral.

Where to try it:

EJ Fine Food, 260 Russell Street, Melbourne


Shaanxi-Style Restaurant, 943-945 Whitehorse Road, Box Hill

Zha jiang mian, a Chinese version of spag bol.

Zha jiang mian, a Chinese version of spag bol. Photo: Sofia Levin

Like spaghetti bolognese? Try zha jiang mian​ or jajangmyeon

In northern China you will eat a dish similar to what we know and love as spag bol. Zha jiang mian is a dish of fat Shanghai wheat noodles, piled with finely minced pork that's been simmered in fermented soybean paste until it's a deep mahogany colour. Invasion, communism and internal disputes led to many Chinese families resettling in South Korea before World War I, and they brought zha jiang mian with them. There it has morphed over the past 100 years to become jajangmyeon, taken from the phonetic pronunciation of the Chinese dish. You'll notice the difference immediately: it's the colour of wet mud due to liberal use of black beans that forms a runnier sauce. The noodles are often slimmer, too, and the Korean predilection for sugar means it's sweeter. Both are great dishes worthy of your attention.

Where to try it:

Zha jiang mian at EJ Fine Food, 260 Russell Street, Melbourne

Jajangmyeon at Korchi City, 441-443 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, also shop 2, 299 Clayton Road, Clayton

The bun served at Hem 27 in Flemington, Melbourne.

The bun bo hue served at Hem 27 in Flemington. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Like pho? Try bun bo hue

If you only ever order pho, you're missing an entire country's worth of fragrant and comforting noodle soups. The north of Vietnam tends towards lighter, fresher flavours versus heavier use of spices and a shrimpy pungency the further south you venture towards the Mekong Delta. Start somewhere in the middle with bun bo hue, a spicy beef soup originating in central Vietnam, which is on most Vietnamese menus. It's admired for layered flavours that are more complex and funkier than pho, with shrimp paste, lemongrass and pork blood producing a flavour-bomb threesome. Dig into the slices of pork and beef, slurp the vermicelli noodles and think of congealed blood cubes as carnivorous tofu.

Where to try it:

Pho Tam, shop 1, 7-9 Leeds Street, Footscray

Hem 27, shop 27, 320-380 Epsom Road, Flemington

Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven-Uyghur Chinese restaurant in Melbourne. Uyghur pastry.

A lamb pastry at Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven. Photo: Joe Armao

Like meat pies? Try the Uyghur version

Unlike the pies ubiquitous at the footy, the Uyghur version hails from China's Xinjiang province, which linked Asia and the Middle East on the Silk Road, resulting in spice-heavy dishes. Somewhere between a classic minced meat pie and a borek, but served sliced like a quesadilla, the Uyghur meat pie contains lamb mince (most Uyghurs eat halal), onion and is heavily seasoned with pepper and cumin. The flaky, chewy pastry is shallow fried and more similar to a spring onion pancake than a Four'n Twenty.

Where to try it:

Dolan Uyghur Food Heaven, 706 Station Street, Box Hill also at 166 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

Kaynam Xinjiang Restaurant, 101 Koornang Road, Carnegie

Jhol momo, momo dumplings in spicy soup.

Jhol momo, momo dumplings in spicy soup. Photo: Sofia Levin

Like soup dumplings? Try jhol momo

The delicate wrappers and hot soup of xiao long bao are warming, comforting and fun to eat. So too is the lesser-known jhol momo. Momo dumplings are common in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and northern India, but jhol momo, dumplings in spicy soup, are trickier to find here. Soup bubbles away in huge pots, a simple mix of tomato, lemon, coriander, salt, and a touch of Sichuan pepper – sometimes with chicken stock. There's usually a vegetable option.

Where to try it:

Samba's Jhol Momo, 528a Sydney Road, Brunswick

Momo Station, Tivoli Arcade, 235-251 Bourke Street, Melbourne

Banh cuon (pork and prawn filled steamed rice paper rolls) at Xuan Banh Cuon in Sunshine. Photo: Mal Fairclough

Like rice paper rolls? Try banh cuon

The best way to never have a dry rice paper roll again is to order northern Vietnam's banh cuon instead. Advanced chopstick skills are required to grip banh cuon's glistening, folded rice paper. These steamed and fermented rice batter sheets contain seasoned pork mince, prawn and bouncy chopped wood ear mushroom. They usually come with sliced luncheon meat, sprouts, Vietnamese herbs and nuoc cham fish sauce.

Where to try it:

Xuan Banh Cuon, 232 Hampshire Road, Sunshine

Thanh Ha 2, 120 Victoria Street, Richmond

Like nasi lemak? Try nasi padang

Named for its city of origin in West Sumatra, nasi padang is steamed rice served with various choices of pre-cooked dishes that are cooked early in the morning and stacked in the window of Padang joints in Indonesia. Customers point to the dishes they fancy and eat them with nasi (steamed rice). Dishes might include beef rendang, fried chicken, jackfruit curry, boiled cassava leaves, tempeh, fried fish, offal and my personal favourite, fried cow lung (it's somewhere between beef jerky and a Pringle).

Where to try it:

Salero Kito, Tivoli Arcade, 235-251 Bourke Street, Melbourne

Garam Kitchen, shop 4, 51 Buckley Street, Noble Park

Like samosas? Try medu vada or masala vada

"Vada" is a term that describes an assortment of savoury fried bites popular on the streets of India, served as a snack or for breakfast. If you enjoy a good samosa, this is almost a guaranteed win. Try masala vada, a chubby flying saucer of whole lentils freckled with curry leaf that has a crunchy outside and spongy middle, or medu vada, a doughnut-shaped spiced lentil fritter. Both hail from south India and are vegetarian-friendly.

Where to try it:

MKS Spice'n Things, stores in Ashwood, Dandenong, Epping, Preston and St Albans

Like hot fried chicken? Try deep-fried giblets

Nose-to-tail dining and minimal-waste cooking continues to be a trend, but many are still squeamish when it comes to organs, odds and ends. Deep-fried chicken giblets – the bits of a bird in between the leg, breast, wing and thigh – are a great place to start. Anything is delicious when deep-fried, and chicken offal is no exception. The biggest challenge for the uninitiated is the texture and crunch, which to others is more interesting than the predictable flesh of common cuts. Best taken with Cass or Hite beer (as pictured, right).

Where to try it:

Pelicana Chicken, shop G5, 163 Franklin Street, Melbourne

Ohsso, 28 Hardware Lane, Melbourne

Like laksa? Try khao soi

All the best parts of laksa are replicated in khao soi, a traditional coconut curry noodle soup from Chiang Mai, also common in Laos and Myanmar. Both are creamy, perfumed by spice, oily in a good way and satisfyingly filling. Khao soi has another level of umami from fish sauce and pickled cabbage or mustard greens hidden among springy egg noodles. Spiked with palm sugar and turmeric, the best bowls are so thick the soup behaves more like sauce than broth. Brittle dried noodles are served as a garnish, alongside lemon to cut through the unctuousness. It usually comes with chicken, but beef and tofu are also widespread.

Where to try it:

Oneyada, 239 Victoria Street, Abbotsford

Farang Farang, 10-12 Riddell Parade, Elsternwick

Make it: Cheat's khao soi recipe

Like fried rice? Try bak chang

Swap standard fried rice for bak chang (pictured right), glutinous sticky rice stuffed with any number of ingredients wrapped in a flat leaf (also called bak zhang, lo mai gai or zongzi depending on where you're from, the leaf used and the shape of your rice). Regardless of which version you eat, pork filling is common, as is dried shrimp, mushroom and salted egg yolk. Lo mai gai is a popular yum cha dish, so order one among friends while you have sesame prawn toast as a back-up.

Where to try it:

Colonial Coffee, inside Colonial Fresh, Westfield Doncaster, 619 Doncaster Road, Doncaster

Penang Flavours, 694 Doncaster Road, Doncaster

Like curry? Try bunny chow

Bunny chow doesn't involve munching on rabbit. It's curry served in half a hollowed-out white bread loaf, particular to South Africa. Bunny comes from the word Banya, which refers to the Indian population that migrated to Durban to work the sugar cane plantations. The filling can be any kind of curry, but lamb and mutton is customary, made with hand-ground spices such as cardamom, chilli, cinnamon and coriander seeds.

Where to try it:

Ostrich and the Egg, 6 Inkerman Street, St Kilda

Taste of Africa Cafe and Deli, 105 Main Street, Croydon

Like pork belly? Try jokbal

The best pork belly has fatty layers that dissolve and don't have to be chewed for five minutes. Jokbal, a Korean dish of pig's trotters, has similarities to pork belly. It's braised for hours in soy with sugar, spring onion, ginger and garlic, then deboned and sliced. The result is succulent, tender meat with gelatinous bits of skin that soak up flavour and melt away when eaten. There's also a spicy version cooked in a sweet red chilli sauce made from gochujang, sugar, vinegar and fermented soybeans. Jokbal might not have pork belly's crisp skin, but it comes with lettuce for wrapping and saamjang for dipping.

Where to try it:

Chicken and Jokbal, 467 Riversdale Road, Hawthorn East

Dosirock, shop 1, 280 King Street, Melbourne

Like crepes and omelettes? Try jian bing

Jian bing is one of the most popular street food brekkies in China. In Taiwan a similar version is called dan bing. Vendors cook an oversized, paper-thin crepe by ladling batter onto a circular griddle and spreading it outwards in a circular motion. An egg or two is cracked over the top and any number of ingredients will be scattered on before it's folded up and handed over: hoisin and chilli sauce, youtaio (Chinese doughnut) or fried wonton skin for crunch, spring onion and coriander for freshness and sometimes pickled mustard greens for bite.

Where to try it:

Sunny Cafe, 6 Balmoral Avenue, Springvale

Pancake Village, Box Hill Central, 1 Main Street, Box Hill

Like bibimbap? Try sundae

There's more to Korean food than barbecue, bibimbap and kimchi. Branch out and order sundae (also soondae; pictured right), also served with rice. Don't skip to the next paragraph when I mention it's a type of blood sausage; it's the mildest you'll taste and a fantastic introduction to the genre, much subtler than black pudding, more noodle than offal. Rice vermicelli is packed into the casing and interspersed with pork blood, onion, garlic and ginger. Instead of tasting metallic and bitter, there's a mellow sweetness, almost dark chocolaty notes. It's common in soups and stews but best appreciated by itself.

Where to try it:

Mr Lee's Foods, 5 Old Lilydale Road, Ringwood East

Mook Ji Bar, 406 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

Like spring rolls? Try popiah

Spring rolls have been around since the Jin Dynasty, more than 1500 years ago. It's time to explore a little, and popiah are a hell of a lot less greasy. They're popular in south-east China and across the Taiwan Strait in Taiwan, as well as in Malaysia and Singapore. Bigger than spring rolls but smaller than burritos, a paper-thin pancake is rolled around shredded vegetables and meat. Its wrapper can be made from flour or mixed with egg, the latter richer and more filling. Biting into one might reveal crunchy peanut sauce and chilli, disguised beneath a browned edge that's been crisped in a pan.

Where to try it:

Teh Tarik Corner, 443 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

Straits Cafe, 241 Stud Road, Wantirna (weekends only)

Stepping outside your culinary comfort zone? Share your experience with the hashtag #EatCuriously on Instagram