If you want good Vietnamese food, you go to Cabramatta. For Indonesian, it’s Kingsford. For Thai, the CBD. But where do you go for good Malaysian food?
A lot of Sydney’s Malaysian population lives in and around either Campsie, in Sydney’s southwest, or in the northwest suburb of Cherrybrook. The former is decently serviced with Albee’s Kitchen, Penang Hawker and Golden Crown Yummy Express, but around the Cherrybrook area there’s only one serious option: Hawker Street.
“I live here, so when I wanted good Malaysian food I would go to Alice's Makan in Thornleigh, which is now closed. The second choice is Parramatta for Temasek,” says Nelson Chin, Hawker Street’s owner and chef. “I really felt like this area needed some good Malaysian food.”
He was right. And his food-court stall was swamped from week one. “We couldn’t handle it. It was a mess,” Chin says.
Hidden in Castle Mall, the stall specialises in Malaysian street food. Unlike the other restaurants from the Southeast Asian country we’ve covered in this column, it only covers a small selection. Hawker Street’s repertoire is short and sharp, with just the headliners: laksa, chicken rice, rendang, roti and char kway teow. “When your menu is quite limited – we only have about 10 dishes – it's easy to do everything well,” says Chin.
Chin’s signature is the char kway teow, a shrimp-y, soy-doused stir-fired flat noodle dish famed for being as inexpensive as it is unhealthy. Recent efforts to improve its nutritional reputation has seen the vegetable oil replace pork lard as a key ingredient, but Chin is one of the few local chefs to cook the smoky noodles how they were intended. “Traditionally, lard is one of the key ingredients, it makes it delicious. The smell is very different,” he says.
Chin has the same philosophy with everything he makes. His har mee (a rich but thin prawn-based noodle soup) is made from frying a bucket-load of prawn heads over extreme heat) and his char hor fun (wide rice noodles mixed in a thick egg-y gravy) is bravely gluggy – a texture that doesn’t seem to garner much positive feedback outside of Asia – for a restaurant that serves 30–40 per cent non-Malaysians.
His courage, or stubbornness, in keeping it traditional can be explained by his family history. Both Chin’s parents were hawker stall owners and most of his non-school days were spent on the streets surrounded by the same food he makes now.
That life ended when the family left for Australia about 30 years ago. Chin was educated in Australia and ended up in finance, but returned to his culinary roots in 2007 when he and his brother-in-law bought To’s Malaysian in North Sydney. The laksa had a loyal following, but the restaurant closed in 2015 due to developments in the area. In To’s early days Chin just handled the accounts but slowly rekindled his love of cooking. “I gained a lot of confidence,” he says. Enough, it seems, for him to start his own joint: Hawker Street in Castle Mall.
Level 1 Food Court, Castle Mall, 4–16 Terminus Street, Castle Hill
0411 648 340
Mon to Wed 10am–5pm
Fri to Sat 10am–5pm
This is another edition of Broadsheet's Local Knowledge weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney's different cultural communities. Read more here.
For the city’s latest, subscribe to the Broadsheet newsletter.