For a long time, “Chinese food” in Australia didn’t venture far beyond shiny fried noodles, sticky char siu pork and dumplings, dumplings, dumplings. Delicious as they are, reducing the wildly varyied cuisine eaten by 1.3 billion people from 56 ethnicities to a few usual suspects was selling us all short.
Fortunately, lately we've seen an exponential boom in the depth and diversity of what’s available, with myriad options for both cheap eats and sprawling banquet feasts now on the table. Cumin-dusted lamb skewers from Xinjiang, dazzlingly spicy hot pots from Sichuan, and steamy breakfast baos from Tianjin – here's how you can eat your way around China (and neighbouring Taiwan) with nothing but a loaded Opal card.
The best regional Chinese food in Sydney
Did you know that above Chinatown’s dingy-but-dependable food court, Eating World, is one of the hottest dining tickets in Haymarket? Spicy Joint, a wildly popular Sichuan chain in China, has expanded south – bringing peppercorn-littered braises, fiery hotpots and nightly queues to Dixon Street. Here, lines are so regular they’ve been automated. Take a ticket and wait for your number to flash on screen like a supermarket deli. And no, that’s not a glossy fashion magazine being handed to you – it’s the menu, a hefty tome where every single item is accompanied by a big stylised image of what you’re signing up for.
In Xi’an, they like their noodles thick. Really thick. This northwestern Chinese city in Shaanxi Province is the home of biang biang – fresh handmade noodles three fingers wide and as long as your arm. When tossed in oil mixed with roasted chilli, they make a fast, warm and filling bowl of cheap street food. The name is thought to come from the sound the noodles make as they are pulled out and loudly slapped on a flour dusted counter to stretch them further. Bang! Bang!
Uyghurs are an ethnic minority making up 0.7 per cent of China’s population, which means 12 million living, breathing people with a rich culture and cuisine to match. Hailing from the far northwestern province of Xinjiang, this Turkic, primarily Muslim group makes food unlike the Chinese you know. There’s little soy sauce, even less rice, and definitely no pork. What you’ll find instead alludes to their proximity to the Middle East – think dishes with lots of lamb and dry spices like cumin, pepper and anise accompanying fluffy flatbread and stretchy noodles.
What it is that Sichuan food enthusiasts can’t get enough of is the unmistakable flavour imparted by Sichuan peppercorns. Dishes spiked with the stuff impart a prickly, numbing sensation at the tail end of each bite. Get your fix thanks to Dainty Sichuan, an efficiently buzzy noodle house in World Square that has opened as a fast-casual edition of the beloved Melbourne restaurant of the same name. Here they specialise in Chongqing (a neighbouring city to Sichuan) spicy noodles, the foundation of which is a dark, aromatic chicken-based broth topped with an unapologetically thick layer of chilli oil.
At Jin Weigu in Campsie they’re doing powerhouse breakfasts, northern Chinese-style. Here, as in Beijing or Tianjin, the only way to start the day is with a meal that’s hot, hearty, thick, and filling. The menu board and heat-lamped display offer an overwhelming variety of AM staples from the mainland, comprising everything from crunchy crullers (deep-fried cakes) dipped into freshly ground soy milk and paper-plain millet porridge, to robust lamb bone stews, and buns filled with sweet red bean. Mostly however, you’ll find endless bready delights – turned, twisted and folded into enough shapes to make a Play School presenter sweat.
For devotedly authentic Hunanese restaurant with blazing exotic peppers and unfamiliar preparations seek out Pappa’s Stew in Newtown. Aware of the steep learning curve faced by many diners, they took a leaf out of Japan’s lavish replica-food displays, setting up a full spread of their best dishes by the counter for maximum visual assistance. In lieu of staring quizzically at a sparingly translated menu, newcomers can simply point and pick. A worthy primer on the more-is-more approach of southern China’s Hunanese cuisine is the eponymous Pappa’s stew, a bracingly spicy and sour hot pot whose heat is signalled by atraffic light confetti of floating chillies.
Spring Yunnan’s signature dish is ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’. Resembling a one-person mini hotpot, the dish arrives deconstructed. There’s a stone bowl of still-boiling pork and chicken broth, accompanied by an array of dainty plates bearing carefully chopped portions of pork, fish, chicken, prosciutto, coriander, shallots, garlic chives, bean sprouts, beancurd skin — even a tiny quail egg. It’s all rather delightful. The emblematic Yunnanese dish is so named for its origin myth, in which a devoted wife delivers her scholar husband, hard at work studying for the imperial exam, his daily lunch in such a manner so his soup wouldn’t get cold, nor his noodles soggy.
Separated physically and politically from the mainland, Taiwan has developed its own distinct food culture, at the heart of which lies xiao chi, or “small eats”. Heartier than a mere snack, but harbouring no intentions of being a main, xiao chi are served throughout the island’s many open air night markets. Peppy little diners like Bao Dao, on Chatswood’s main strip, do their bit to bring the spirit of street food – and its prices – indoors.
What does fiery noodle soup and a reality dating show have in common? If you’re dining at Mr Meng’s, the common ground is host Meng Fei, from Chinese TV show If You Are The One. Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet is situated in the 1909 Dining Precinct on the upper levels of Market City. Though spicy, the rich hit of piquant pepper served in Mr Meng’s signature dish, Chongqing noodles, is what lingers. Firm, slippery noodles come wading in a rich deep red broth, with a few pieces of slow cooked beef.
If your idea of a crab dinner is the-elbows-in-sauce, shell-in-your-hair, two wet towels and a pile of napkins to clean up the aftermath variety, then you need to order the deeply savoury kombu butter version, spiked with lemongrass. Next time though, we’ll be trying the typhoon shelter crab, a style famously made at the Under Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. They deep-fry the crab with garlic, chilli and black bean and then add the fried pulp from house-made soy milk for crunch.
When your food gets served with disposable gloves, you know that things are getting serious. Relax. There’s nothing kinky here. Each diner gets one when they order the boiled pork bones ($13.80), a mountain of assorted pork pieces simmered in aromatics. Abandon any notion of cutlery and get straight into it with your hands. It’s a treasure hunt to get to the meat as you nibble, chew and suck your way through, but your plastic glove will help you maintain some dignity by the time you’ve finished. Maybe.