How to order outside your culinary comfort zone in Sydney

Spice up your boring breakfast: Egg hoppers at Lankan Filling Station.
Spice up your boring breakfast: Egg hoppers at Lankan Filling Station. Photo: Christopher Pearce

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.

When we think of Vietnamese cuisine must 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. There's no better way to learn about another culture and place – or ourselves – than by eating something new.

Dainty Sichuan's mouth-numbing noodles.

Dainty Sichuan's mouth-numbing noodles. Photo: Supplied

Like spaghetti bolognese? Try Chongqing noodles

There a few combinations more comforting than minced meat and noodles, and while the majority of Chongqing noodle options you'll find in Sydney are swimming in hot soup (and totally worth eating bowl after bowl of), it's the drier variety that you should seek out first and foremost. Dainty Sichuan's most popular dish is a mix of chewy wheat noodles, minced pork and yellow split peas with enough sichuan pepper and chilli oil to make you see through time.

Where to try it:

Dainty Sichuan, 10/19b, 644 George Street, Sydney

ChongQing Street Noodle, 31 Belmore Street, Burwood

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Like pancakes? Try hoppers

Spice up your boring breakfast order by going a few rounds of this Sri Lankan snack. Hoppers are a bowl you can eat – made from a batter of coconut milk and fermented rice flour, either served plain or, best of all, with a soft cooked egg in the centre. You can risk spilling egg all over yourself by eating it like a crumpet or you can tear it into pieces and dip it into a selection of spicy sambols. XDream Takeaway, in Toongabbie's "Little Sri Lanka'', also offers a coconut cream soaked dessert version.

Where to try it:

Lankan Filling Station, 58 Riley Street, East Sydney

XDream Takeaway, 14-16 Aurelia Street, Toongabbie

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, that's 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:

Dong Ba, 5/117 John Street, Cabramatta

Gia Hoi, 299 Chapel Road, Bankstown

Pulled pork-stuffed flaky pastry 'burger'.

Pulled pork-stuffed flaky pastry 'burger' from Biang Biang in Haymarket. Photo: James Alcock

Like bao? Try rou jia mo

Taiwanese bao joints are a dime a dozen these days but rou jia mo, a common street food in north-west China's Shaanxi province, is bao's lesser-known and possibly more delicious cousin, sometimes called a Chinese hamburger. Slightly fermented, the bun has a pleasant chew that balances the joyously fatty, slow-cooked pork, lamb or beef – and the best are heavily seasoned with cumin and chilli.

Where to try it:

Biang Biang, Shop 39/1 Dixon Street, Haymarket

X'ian Eatery, 183D Burwood Road, Burwood

Like bibimbap? Try sundae

There's more to Korean food than barbecue, bibimbap and kimchi. Branch out and order sundae (also soondae), 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:

Mira's Korean Street Food, 16 Railway Parade, Eastwood

The Basak, 10a The Boulevarde, Strathfield

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:

THY Vietnamese Eatery, 1/324 Chapel Road, Bankstown

VN Street Foods, 294 Illawarra Road, Marrickville

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 26:  Nasi Padang at Medan Ciak Surry Hills on April 26, 2017 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Christopher Pearce/Fairfax Media)

Nasi padang at Medan Ciak in Surry Hills. Photo: Christopher Pearce

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 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 rending, 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:

Pondok Buyung, 140 Anzac Parade, Kensington

Warung Ita, 168 Haldon Street, Lakemba

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:

Chatkazz, 4/14-20 Station Street E, Harris Park

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:

Cafe Talk Nepalese Restaurant, 126 Railway Parade, Kogarah

Everest Momo, Shop 23, 67/55 George Street, Parramatta

Like fried rice? Try bak chang

Swap standard fried rice for bak chang, 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.

Albee's Kitchen, 279 Beamish Street, Campsie

Khao Soi ($12.00) from Chat Thai, Haymarket. GOOD LIVING photo by Marco Del Grande on February 22, 2012

Khao soi from Chat Thai, Haymarket. Photo: Marco Del Grande

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:

Chat Thai, 20 Campbell Street, Haymarket@Bangkok, 730-742 George Street, Haymarket

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:

Pu Ji Mi, 50 Rowe Street, Eastwood

Danjee Korean Barbecue, 1-7 Albion Place, Sydney

Like meat pies? Try the Uyghur version

Unlike the gristly 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 borek, but served sliced like a quesadilla, the Uyghur meat pie contains lamb mince (most Uyghurs are 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:

Tarim Uyghur Cuisine, 105 Rawson Street, Auburn

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 top 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:

Griddle King, 20 City Road, Chippendale

Huang Tai Ji, Shop 16a, Regent Place Arcade, 501 George Street, Sydney

The Malaya Restaurant in Sydney.
3 of a kind: Popiah.
3rd June 2012.
Photo: Steven Siewert

Popiah from The Malaya. Photo: Steven Siewert

Like spring rolls? Try popiah

Spring rolls were invented during the Jin Dynasty, more than 1500 years ago. It's high time to explore a little, and popiah are a hell of a lot less greasy. A fresh spring roll, 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, the 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. The closures of Hawker and Jackie M Malaysian Cuisine have made finding popiah in Sydney a mission, but they're on the menu at the Malaya in the CBD.

Where to try it:

The Malaya, 39 Lime Street, Sydney

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