During the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival earlier this year, visiting US chef David Chang was taken to Dainty Sichuan in South Yarra; he enjoyed it so much that he went back, taking other visiting American chefs with him. They all claimed they knew of nowhere in the United States that produced such authentic Sichuan food.
As the inquisitive Melbourne palate continues to search out and support authenticity in the production and execution of dishes it seems to be creating a culture where the opportunity to enjoy real Chinese food – rather than a plate of sugared-up sweet ‘n’ sour pork – is becoming a reality. But where can you find that reality in Melbourne? Talking to food writer, teacher and consultant Tony Tan is the logical place to start. After all, he sent David Chang to Dainty Sichuan in the first place.
At the beginning of his cooking class on a cool Monday night, Tan is defiant when he says “don’t ask too many questions or we’ll be here all night – China is huge!” He is giving a class on the cuisine of Hunan, an inland region of west China, and watching him with a wok is like watching Jackson Pollock with a paintbrush: swift of hand and strong with intention, refined after years of experience. His knowledge of China and its cuisines is vast but he knows that the country is so huge he will probably never understand all of it. What he is sure about is the places around our town that are serving good Chinese food.
“Look at China as four major regions,” says Tan. “North, south, east and west, and then we go from there.” He explains that to the north is Beijing; the south includes the Guangdong province and is all about Cantonese cooking; east you meet Shanghai and surrounding provinces; and the west is Sichuan, including Hunan. “Then there are the minority region cuisines including Xinjiang (or Uighur) cooking and the localised Muslim schools.” Yep, China’s huge.
The fuss about Dainty Sichuan began well before David Chang; it’s there in the name, a telltale nod to the juxtaposition of fiery flavours on the plate. Sichuan food is all about chillis, Sichuan peppers, garlic, onions and vinegars. The Sichuan pepper is native to the region (while the chilli is an introduced ingredient) and has a numbing effect on the mouth – and given the heat of the dishes the numbness can come in handy.
Tony Tan’s Hunan class focusses on these feisty flavours. He added unexpected spice by crushing cumin into Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilli flakes then rubbing the mixture into lamb cutlets (commonly eaten by the Muslim Chinese), and strewing perilla leaves (usually associated with Vietnamese dishes) through dry-braised fish with chilli-bean paste and spring onions. There’s not a lot of Hunan restaurants in Melbourne but Post-Mao in the city is worth a look if these strong flavours appeal.
Cantonese cooking, from the south, is what Melburnians are more familiar with; think restaurants like The Flower Drum, Red Emperor and Lau’s Family Kitchen. “We Cantonese like refined, simpler flavours,” says Tan. “We often say the Sichuan food is too sour, too strong.” So Cantonese flavours may suit western palates, but other regional Chinese restaurants are gaining good followings.
The popularity of Hu Tong in the CBD saw a second one open not long after in Prahran. This is good Shanghainese cuisine from eastern China. Dishes are traditionally small but perfect for sharing; they do a great drunken chicken, and the Shao Long Bao dumplings - filled with meat and broth - is a classic Shanghai dish. Following Tan’s advice, good Nanjing duck (a salted duck dish also from the eastern school) is worth trying at Dumpling King, Box Hill.
The northern school isn’t as prevalent here but Uighuri’s in Dandenong is reported to be a good example of Xinjiang cooking. The colder climate of the north has seen a cuisine evolve around mutton, beef, noodles, soups made of lamb or chicken, lamb or beef kebabs and some rice dishes.
We’ve asked a few Melbourne food professionals to give us their favourite places to go when they go out for Chinese:
John Lethlean, co-editor Food + Wine, The Weekend Australian Magazine “For dumplings, it’s hard to go past the original Hu Tong in the city, [which has] been around for ages but I really like Supper Inn for their salt-and-chilli quail, their flounder and the congee.”
Michael Harden, freelance food writer and author “The Flower Drum because it’s the Flower Drum. It’s the pinnacle of good Cantonese food. Dainty Sichuan for great hot pots on weekends, Old Kingdom for duck, Hu Tong for their dumplings and fish with chilli oil.”
Salvatore Malatesta, owner St Ali, Outpost, Sensory Lab “Lau’s Family Kitchen and the Supper Inn would be the ones we go to most. For a bit of nostalgia from uni days, Dumpling House in the city, but I reckon Melbourne is rich with our Chinese community and you’re hard-pressed not to find a good duck in a number of venues. The brave will be rewarded.”
Ben Shewry, head chef, Attica restaurant “Well, I’m a bit of a fried-rice aficionado and I like to go to Shanghai Village on Little Bourke Street. The rice is cooked fresh that day – it has to be – and I like minimal ingredients; this rice has got some egg and spring onion, that’s all. Also, Xiao-Ting Box on the daggy side of Victoria Street do a great fried rice cake.” Shewry wouldn’t share where he gets his favourite pork buns; he says they sell out too fast already.
Kate Calder, co-owner Coda Restaurant “Flower Drum is my absolute favourite; I think it’s world-class. And Lau’s Family Kitchen is just so delicious. Although, at 2am, Supper Inn is the ultimate way to finish a double shift.”