Chinese gets its groove back

A band of new and reinvented eateries around Melbourne have helped rebrand Chinese food.
A band of new and reinvented eateries around Melbourne have helped rebrand Chinese food. Photo: William Meppem

SO THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN old-school Chinese loosens its tie. It's the time of year usually afflicted by the post-Christmas lull, but rowdy diners at an off-Chapel Street warehouse are eating cold slices of beef tongue washed by a sweet vinegar dressing, flash-fried prawns in a sweet sticky soy (popped down the gullet in one crunchy go), and steamed duck wings, texturally challenging but sweet with cinnamon and soy. And plate after plate of the bao, white steamed pockets of spongy bread filled with braised pork belly and crushed peanut.

We are about to enter the year of the snake, and David's has shed its skin.

Even pioneers have to keep up with the times. When David Zhou opened his eponymous Prahran restaurant 24 years ago, specialising in the dishes of his native Shanghai, it was a challenge to Melbourne's Cantonese hegemony. In 2012, the tea importer-turned-restaurateur sniffed the wind and reinvented his flagship. The fitout is courtesy of smart-set darling Hecker Guthrie, the waiters are the cheerful opposites of the phlegmatic staff of old. But it's the new menu of lesser-known, authentically Shanghainese dishes to which people have responded most enthusiastically. Patronage has doubled. Zhou is a happy man.

''It was always Cantonese, always the same story,'' Zhou says of his early days in Melbourne. ''I got sick of looking at the same menu over and over again. Chinese food in general lost a bit of sexy. It became a staple but now with all of the regional interest it's well and truly back.''

As befitting a nation of 1.3 billion people, Chinese food is a big subject. Any understanding begins with banishing the notion that there is such a thing as ''Chinese'' food. Think of it more as eight distinct regions with vastly divergent cuisine traditions.

Chinatowns the world over are bastions of Cantonese food and its produce-driven elegance (or, alternatively, its dumbed-down approximations for a Western audience). But anyone not living off the grid will have noticed the recent flowering of strikingly different regional food customs. Restaurants specialising in Sichuan are nothing new to Melbourne, but its subculture of thrill-seekers is growing into a small army of people attracted to the spice and hallucinogenic kick of its namesake pepper.

Collingwood newcomer Shu glams it up for a modern, savvy audience; South Yarra stalwart Dainty Sichuan (blessed with David Chang's royal assent)recently opened a shiny outpost in the city centre. Mr Huang Jin at the Rialto is one of many Taiwanese specialists popping up thanks to a healthy international student population - the food typically cherry-picks the best of mainland China, with a special fondness reserved for street dishes such as oyster omelet, beef balls and rice noodles.

Casual lunchtime spots Wonderbao and Bao Now have queues out the door for the popular hawker snack cresting an unprecedented wave of popularity. The Dessert Story franchise chain (''Taiwanese and Hong Kong dessert secrets'', goes their slogan) is spreading across the suburbs with its taro, glutinous rice, snow ice and tofu sweets. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Head to Box Hill, another epicentre of Chinese immigration, for a dizzying array of eateries, many of them specialists, including Crystal Jade Xiao Long Bao and Old Tong Beef Noodles at the Food Republik's mock-up of a Taiwanese food court.


''Box Hill is definitely the new nexus for Chinese street food,'' says Chinese food authority Tony Tan. ''I just follow my Sinodar and sniff them out.''

The affinity with dining fashions is obvious. Sharing, still enough of a novelty that it's explained in annoying preambles at ''contemporary'' restaurants, goes without saying in Sino culture. Nose-to-tail, high-voltage street food: the kids can't get enough. It's this excitement of new spices and flavours, presented by a new wave of younger restaurateurs able to exploit their understanding of the market's pleasure spots (pop culture-drenched ambience, energetic staff), that makes the old-fashioned Canto barn seem positively ho-hum.

''When I came to Australia 15 years ago, Chinese food meant sweet and sour pork,'' says Jeff Xu, the owner of the two HuTong dumpling restaurants as well as student haunts Red China and Spicy Fish, and the more glamorous, recently opened Man Tong at Crown casino. ''Xiao long bao [the Shanghai pork soup dumplings] were known on menus only as pork dumplings. Now everyone can speak xiao long bao.''

As we head further into the Asian century, the adoption of Chinese cuisine by Anglo-Saxon chefs is inevitable. Andrew McConnell and Neil Perry are the most prominent of the local crew who have put their spin on Chinese tradition at Golden Fields and Spice Temple, respectively. The outcome is food that is as Chinese as it is modern, something that might once have seemed a contradiction.

''I always held off using those flavours for fear of being branded a fusion chef,'' says McConnell, who spent several years cooking in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

''I did worry about being the white boy cooking Chinese food. But then it came to me that it was more my interpretation of my favourite styles of Chinese dishes.''

It's premature to get nostalgic for the days when going ''for Chinese'' meant prawn toast and lemon chicken in fluorescent sauce. Most suburbs still boast their own contribution to the oeuvre, and as Tan says, ''We're still a long way from the full gamut of regional styles in Melbourne''.

''As for Chiu Chow, Hakka, Hokkien [Fujian] Hunan, Hangzhou and Dongbei, I can't even think of one. But we have come a long way from the bad old days of No.20 with black bean sauce.''

Go forth. Be brave. As author and Chinese-food expert Fuchsia Dunlop writes in the latest edition of David Chang's food magazine Lucky Peach, ''Some aspects of real Chinese cuisine are inherently challenging to outsiders … Until Westerners learn to love eating gristle, cartilage and gelatinous sea creatures, they will inevitably be repulsed or bemused by some prized Chinese dishes.'' And remember the advice of Jeff Xu: ''This is 5000 years of history. You can't do it all in one menu.''

The new wave

■ Ayiguli 323 Fast Food, 323 Swanston Street, city, phone 9939 1632.
Tiny, no-frills caff specialising in the food of the north-western Xinjiang province.
Look no further than:
the lamb skewers.

■ Chinese Jin Dumpling House, 162 High Street, Kew, phone 9853 8301.
Displays the northern Chinese bias towards lamb.
the pan-fried lamb and coriander dumplings.

■ Dainty Sichuan, 176 Toorak Road, South Yarra, phone 9078 1686;
Level 2, 206 Bourke Street, city, phone 9650 2188.
The mightiest Sichuan of them all, now with a new city restaurant.
Don't go past:
Boiling Fish in Golden Basin is a one-pot lesson in the might and power of Sichuan cuisine.

■ Golden Fields, 2/157 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, phone 9525 4488.
Andrew McConnell's time in Shanghai and Hong Kong becomes an elegant, individual style of modern Asian cookery.
the pork dumplings with Shanghai chilli vinegar.

■ Mr Huang Jin, ground floor, Rialto, 525 Collins Street, city, phone 9077 7937.
Taiwanese dumpling specialist, with mod-Asian flourishes such as the laksa xiao long bao.
the traditional route with beef noodle soup.

■ Shu, 147 Johnston Street, Collingwood, phone 9090 7878.
Modern Sichuan in a nightclub setting. One for the youngsters.
Go-to dish: braised pork belly in Pixian paste is nicely subtle.

■ Spice Temple, Crown complex, Southbank, phone 8679 1888.
Neil Perry takes Sichuan and lesser-known regional Chinese to a new level.
Don't miss:
the mouth-watering chicken and hot and numbing wagyu beef, which register high on the spicy Richter scale.

■ Wonderbao, shop 4, 19-37 A'Beckett Street, city, phone 9654 7887.
A student favourite with crowds to match.
your way through the menu of steamed bread pockets in one sitting. It's possible and affordable.