Covid-related travel restrictions mean many immigrants won’t see their families anytime soon, which is a real homesickness trigger for some. That’s definitely the case for me.
On the really rough days, I turn to comfort food. Dishes I grew up with become portals back home, to good memories filled with family, friends and food.
I’m not Malaysian or Singaporean, but I get that same feeling from the Hainanese chicken rice at new North Melbourne diner Gai Wong – maybe because that’s exactly what Malaysian owners Philip Leong and Shirley Chow set out to achieve.
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“Our main focus is pretty much this nostalgic feel,” says Leong, who lived in Brunei and Malaysia before moving to Australia. “You take a bit of everything on your plate … and think, ‘Whoa, this is just like being back home, like having a quick lunch with mum and dad’.”
Gai Wong means “chicken king” in Chinese, so it’s appropriate that the chicken rice reigns supreme here. The dish was popularised by immigrants from the island province of Hainan in China’s south, but today it’s associated with Malaysian and Singaporean cuisines.
To make Gai Wong’s version, Leong uses free-range, grain-fed chicken from Bendigo, which he cooks for four hours. The result is soft, springy chicken that has a thick layer of rich collagen, and a flavour-loaded chicken stock that’s used in almost every dish on the menu.
You can also swap the chicken for two kinds of pork: roasted with crisp crackling, or barbequed in sticky char siu sauce. All come with rice cooked in stock and either the signature chilli-garlic sauce or a spring onion and ginger number.
Inspired by the hawker centres he visited as a child, Leong says, “To me, it’s the perfect dish – you’ve got rice, you’ve got a protein, and then you’ve got all the sides … that give robust flavour and heat to the dish.”
There’s also gai see hor fun – a steaming noodle soup with an umami-rich chicken broth and aromatic prawn-head oil – which Chow describes as “almost like the Malaysian version of pho”. It comes with flat-rice noodles, shredded chicken, prawns and spring onion.
Rita Wang of local architecture firm Ai Republic helped design the space. There are deep timbers, marbled tabletops, and textured rattan reminiscent of a kopitiam (a traditional Malaysian breakfast and coffee shop), but the design is kept fresh with arched windows, hexagonal tiles and pendant lighting.
Owning a chicken-rice shop has been Leong’s goal for the last 16 years, but his background leans more towards fine dining. He’s been a chef de partie for Crown Towers and head chef at the now-closed Pan Asian in Prahran.
“The experience that I’ve gotten from fine dining is consistency, down to the very gram. It’s no longer the aga aga [“up to you”] from back home, where grandma uses ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’,” he says. “When someone eats here today, tomorrow or next year, it’s still the same.”
When I leave – takeaway containers of chicken rice and kon loh mee (dry egg noodles with char siu) tucked away – I take out my phone and call my family. Talking to Leong and Chow has made me miss home just that little bit more.
Shop 1, 5-17 Flemington Road, North Melbourne
0415 358 801
Mon to Sat 11.30am–8pm