Asian grocery stores are wonderful places to get lost in. There are myriad ingredients from overseas, of course, but there's also a wide range of homegrown products made right here in Sydney: any type of fresh noodle you can think of, dumpling wrappers, tofu and fermented deliciousness in the form of kimchi, just to name a few.
Family-owned and passed down to the next generation, these producers are using decades' worth of artisanal skills to produce the essential products for home cooking.
Ho's Dim Sim Kitchen is one of many artisanal producers in Sydney who are passionate about their craft. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Byulmi means "extraordinary taste" in Korean, and it's this philosophy that the Park family has been sticking to for more than 30 years to produce handmade kimchi from their factory in Belmore in Sydney's south-west.
Alex Park works with his parents making hundreds of kilograms of kimchi every day in the business his uncle started in the early 1990s.
Park's father and uncle learned how to make kimchi from their mother (his grandmother), as is the case in many Korean families. The kimchi produced by Byulmi today is an ode to her, but is a milder taste in comparison, with less emphasis placed on the fishier ingredients such as fish sauce and salted shrimp.
We always use our hands. We don't use machines at all.Alex Park, Byulmi Kimchi
Koreans love to cook with their hands, and that's the name of the game at Byulmi, with handmade kimchi made every single day.
"We always use our hands. We don't use machines at all," says Park.
Up to 800 wombok (Chinese cabbages) arrive at the family's factory each morning, which are then painstakingly cut by hand and salted before resting for a day. The Park family then wash the salt off the wombok before mixing it together with a sauce consisting of garlic, gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes), fish sauce and more. It all marinates together for one more day before the kimchi is ready to be distributed across the country.
The Parks are adamant about using Australian produce wherever possible for their kimchi.
The fairly short fermentation period of Byulmi's kimchi presents a purer and less sour taste when it's first shipped off to grocery stores. The Parks don't use any preservatives in their kimchi, which gives them a fresher edge compared to the kimchi imported from Korea.
"Some people prefer this taste, but personally I like it when it's a bit more sour. You can let it rest for a few weeks in the fridge before opening," says Park. "After that, you can leave it for a long, long time in the fridge, even over one year."
Byulmi (Park's) kimchi is available from Thai Kee IGA Supermarket in Haymarket and most Asian grocery stores.
Evergreen's Kerry Zhang and dad David at their Bankstown factory. Photo: James Brickwood
When Evergreen's Bankstown tofu factory burned down in 2006, owner David Zhang was determined to keep on all of his staff for the 15 months it took to rebuild the business. Evergreen is now widely regarded among Asian Australians as one of the top Australian-made tofu brands on the market.
Evergreen, under parent company Unigreen Foods, began life as Ming Foods back in 1993 (David's Chinese name is Zhang Ming), but this was changed in 1995 to reflect the healthy lifestyle that he wanted to promote. He also saw a huge opportunity in the tofu market, given the growing Asian population in Australia.
"When I arrived in Australia, the tofu market was still quite limited and there wasn't much variety," said Zhang, who originates from Shanghai, China.
Evergreen's products include silken tofu and gyoza wrappers. Photo: James Brickwood
Zhang created and patented his own tofu-making machine in Singapore before moving to Australia.
"My background is in engineering, so I was involved in a lot of consultant work in China and Singapore [from people who are experts in traditional tofu]," he says.
"A lot of our machines are custom-made by my dad," says Zhang's son, Kerry, who also works at the business. "He was one of the top engineers in China, managing over 10,000 employees. He has a lot of experience in machinery and design, that's what separates our products from others."
With their Bankstown factory now producing more than 30 tonnes of tofu every day, it's their commitment to quality control and the lack of preservatives in their products that has garnered a loyal following for their super soft silken tofu, regular tofu, beancurd, fried beancurd and fried tofu puffs (popular in laksa). The Zhangs have big plans for the future, with many plant-based products in development.
"Our tofu has a stronger soy taste than other tofu products and we are able to make it taste more natural and fresh," says Kerry Zhang.
Keep the tofu submerged in water in a sealed container after opening, he advises. Change the water every few days to keep it fresh and it should last up to one week.
Jason Yu moved to Australia in 1991 before acquiring the Ho's Dim Sim Kitchen business in 2003. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Ho's Dim Sim Kitchen
Jason Yu has been hand-making dim sum for more than 30 years, honing his skills in dim sum houses in his native Guangzhou, in China's southern Guangdong province just north of Hong Kong.
Yu moved to Australia in 1991 before acquiring the Ho's Dim Sim Kitchen business in 2003. Staff at his Marrickville factory now make more than 1000 har gau (prawn dumplings) by hand every day.
As well as supplying to restaurants all over Australia, Yu has a loyal customer base in Sydney that buys his frozen dim sum to steam at home.
Har gau from Ho's Dim Sim Kitchen. Photo: Christopher Pearce
"Our most popular products are the har gau (prawn dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings) and char siu bao (barbecue pork buns)," he says. "But my favourite is the char siu bao."
Yu recommends steaming the har gau for eight minutes. "That's perfect for them to eat – just like at yum cha."
Frozen handmade dim sum can be ordered online and either collected from the Marrickville factory or delivered free Sydney-wide (minimum spend of $100).
MC Yee (dumpling wrappers)
Eric Liu has been making noodles and dumpling wrappers since he was 10 years old, after his parents bought a small noodle-making business in 1990.
The Liu family arrived in Australia by boat in 1979 as refugees from war-torn Vietnam, with Eric's father jumping into the restaurant industry as a cook, despite being a qualified engineer. He was working at a Chinese restaurant in North Sydney called Happy Chef when their noodle supplier approached him to buy the noodle business.
"He initially purchased the business as an extracurricular thing for my mum," Liu says.
It took at least 12 months of painstaking research and development by Liu's father to perfect his egg noodle and wonton wrapper recipes.
"It meant we were eating noodles and wonton pastry for a year."
As was the case for many refugee families that arrived in Australia from Vietnam, everyone had to pitch in to help, no matter their age.
"Everything was manual and we had no employees. It was just mum and dad. We come from a big family of seven kids, so it was all of us chipping in from the beginning. We were basically the employees – in there cracking eggs, cutting noodles after school," says Liu.
"We went to school in Parramatta and our factory was in Five Dock. After school we'd go to the factory to work, and on the weekends. I remember we were outside George Street cinemas, handing out samples. Then word of mouth spread."
After pursuing their own professional careers in accounting and project management, Eric and his brother Thai came back to take over the business, but their father, now 71, is still involved.
MC Yee has come a long way in the past 30 years. Its noodles and dumpling wrappers are manufactured in Padstow (now with machines) and supply restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets all over Australia.
"Everyone knows the crispy chicken at Tan Viet restaurant [in Cabramatta and Darling Square], but they also mention the egg noodles, and we're proud to supply the egg noodles for them," Liu says.
His biggest tip is to use the wonton and dumpling wrappers immediately once the pack is open.
"Don't open it, use half and put it back in the fridge. It becomes too brittle and doesn't hold its texture," Liu says.
MC Yee wonton and dumpling wrappers are available at Woolworths and most Asian grocery stores.
Egg noodles from Harry Hee. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Harry Hee Noodles
Harry Hee egg noodles, synonymous with Australian-Chinese classics such as chow mein and long soup, haven't changed for almost 60 years, and they're not about to.
"My father Harry Hee started the business with my mother in 1963 – it was basically a cottage industry in which they made noodles and dumpling wrappers at home," says Harry Hee's son David, who now runs the business with his siblings.
"They ran a restaurant – Len Hong in Sylvania – for many years. They initially started making it for themselves and grew to supply restaurants near where they lived in Beverly Hills."
Originally from Hong Kong, Harry Hee was a merchant sailor before World War II broke out and he became stranded in Australia during the war. His wife later came out to Australia in the 1950s, when they started working in the restaurant industry.
"They had $2 in their pocket when they arrived. They had to make a go of it," says David Hee.
"Noodles are very basic. It's basically flour, salt and water and maybe egg. There was a lot of experimentation. Because he was in the restaurant business, he could get the right texture and consistency. It was like a hobby."
The business has branched out into ramen and gyoza wrappers, but their egg noodles remain the most popular product.
"The recipe has never changed. My brother and I are the only ones that know the recipe – we're very strict and that's what we've maintained. You just don't fiddle with the recipe."
Harry Hee's fresh noodles are available at Seasons Fruit Market, Dong Nam A at 215A Thomas Street, Haymarket, and other Asian groceries.
Wong's Fine Food (lap cheong)
In Hong Kong, bundles of lap cheong (Cantonese dried sausage) can be seen hanging in every neighbourhood and local market, where scores of barbecue restaurants sell them, along with roast duck and char siu.
Gary Wong operated a barbecue restaurant in Hong Kong, and arrived in Australia in the early 1970s armed with the expertise to make both barbecue meat and lap cheong. He opened a Chinese barbecue shop on Campbell Street in Chinatown in 1980. But it's the sausage business, Wong's Fine Food, that has remained in Chinatown ever since.
As many home cooks know, adding lap cheong to the rice cooker releases the beautiful aroma of the sausage as the rice cooks. Wong's also sells duck liver sausages, dried pork belly and dried salted duck, which are popular with Hongkongers and Asian-Australians.
"It's a lot easier now – we've got big mincers and sausage fillers. My dad used to do it by hand and now it's machines, so it's a lot quicker," says Jackson Wong, who has taken over the business with his brother Frank.
"Our sausages are a Hong Kong style, while others in the market are tailored to the Vietnamese market. They are usually sweeter and a lot fattier. Our sausages are more lean – it's what our customers like," he says.
"Chinese people usually steam it and eat it with rice. Fried rice is probably easiest because it really brings the flavour out. Just stir-fry it with your fried rice," says Wong.
Wong's Fine Food lap cheong is available from New Yen Yen grocery stores in Chatswood, Hurstville and Eastwood, or online at wongsfinefood.com.au