When I was a kid, Sunday nights were special. That was the night my parents would take my sister and I to the Lean Sun Lowrestaurant in Dixon Street in Sydney’s Chinatown.
They’d arrange to meet friends there and we kids would sit at a separate table, well away from the grown-ups, and have a ball.
- Sweet and sour pork
According to Annette Shun Wah and Greg Aitkin in their fascinating book, Banquet – Ten Courses to Harmony, Lean Sun Low was in fact the first Chinese restaurant to open in Dixon Street, operating from the 1920s on the site where the Eastern August Moon is now located.
These were among our first dining out experiences and I recall that the staff were very friendly. As Shun Wah points out, Westerners rarely ventured into Chinatown in those days and the Chinese community there was close-knit.
I’ve often wondered if it was my mother’s Chinese inheritance that unconsciously lured her there. Her grandfather, Ah Way, had come to Australia from Canton – or Guangzhou – in the 1860s to take part in the Queensland gold rush (Guangzhou is the birthplace of Cantonese cooking). She’d also take us shopping for fruit and vegies on Saturday mornings to Paddy’s Markets, right in the centre of Chinatwon.
The menu at the Lean Sun Low was typically Cantonese – in those days in Sydney, we didn’t know that other regional cuisines existed. As we grew older and became more adventurous, we’d try different dishes such as the delicious won ton soup.
Years later, we’d often gather at the New Tai Yuen where I always ordered the combination omelette. The New Tai Yuen was a favourite Labor hangout and we’d often spot former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam or Tom Uren or Neville Wran.
Today, we are truly spoilt for choice.
You can find lip-smacking green onion or pork pancakes at Mother Chu’s Taiwanese (for $2.50 – $3 each); sweet boat noodle soup thickened with chicken blood at Chat Thai; garlicky Russian salad and Uygur-style BBQ lamb skewers at Kiroran; and deep-fried lamb cutlets topped with roasted garlic, chillies, black beans and shallots at East Ocean. Here, the menu has been overhauled to include dishes from other regions of China including Shanghai, Sichuan and Beijing. Fusion dishes such as the West Australian snow crab stir-fried with goose liver pate and served with a glass of pinot noir will make you re-think your assumptions of traditional Cantonese cuisine, as will the wasabi prawns, an inspired dish of plump, crispy deep-fried prawns, coated with vivid green wasabi mayonnaise flecked with black sesame seeds.
You’ll find plenty of theatre in Chinatown too: you can watch hand-pulled noodles from Xinjiang being made at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant, sweet conical ‘roti tisu’ being shaped at Mamak and tiny warm cream puffs being moulded and filled at Emperor’s Garden Bakery (one of Sydney’s best bargains at 4 for $1).
Sydney’s Chinatwon today is a banquet with choices as far ranging and wide as Asia itself, stretching from Turkey in the west to Japan in the far east.