Inauthentic Yet Delicious: Why I Love Australian Chinese Food
The Chinese food served in Australian restaurants is rarely authentic. I secretly love it anyway.
The first time I visited China, I was disappointed with the food. I loved eating “Chinese” food in my home country of Australia, but the meals served in the real China were totally different.
I thought I knew what Chinese food was, but everything seemed unfamiliar in Beijing. What on earth were these Sichuan peppercorns (a.k.a. numbing balls), I wondered? And where’s the prawn toast, special fried rice and fortune cookies?
I soon realised that the food served in Australian Chinese restaurants was not really “authentic” at all, even though it often says so on the menu. The cuisine I thought I knew and loved was a lie!
I enjoy trying new international cuisines and quickly came to like the local Chinese food.
But after returning to Australia, I couldn’t quite look at Australian-Chinese food in the same way. I couldn’t help thinking that it was fake and started to resent it. I started going out of my way to find restaurants that served “real” Chinese food. Living in Sydney, this thankfully wasn’t too difficult.
Australian Chinese food is adapted for local tastes
The menus at Chinese restaurants in Australian country towns are almost identical. For most dishes, you’ll invariably have a choice of various different types of meat, veggies or seafood — or a combination — served with a choice of pre-made sauces.
I think there must be one or two sauce manufacturers that supply half of Australia’s Chinese restaurants, as they always seem to be the same: satay, black bean, sweet & sour, chilli, Szechuan and “Mongolian” sauce, for example. (I’m quite sure that you wouldn’t find Mongolian lamb, an Aussie classic, in Mongolia!) These sauces often taste the same, too, even at different restaurants.
Most of these dishes are at least cooked in an Asian style, but they’ve been adapted to Australian tastes and expectations. They’re often served with a knife & fork and I’m met with a surprised look if I ask for chopsticks instead. Some Aussie Chinese restaurants even have fish & chips or hamburgers on the menu, and one of my local Chinese restaurants serves some of its rice dishes with tomato sauce.
Very occasionally, the chef is even an Aussie bloke called Wayne, Steve or Malcolm.
And don’t get me started on those Asian fusion restaurants that sell 20 different cuisines, but cook none of them well…
Perhaps the most bizzare Australian Chinese restaurant menu I’ve come across was in Cobar, NSW. For a supposedly Chinese restaurant, the menu was a fusion confusion featuring Turkish garlic bread, Hawaiian chicken parmigiana, Aussie steak and even a few Thai dishes for good measure!
In Australia’s big cities, if you know the right places, it’s not too difficult to find genuinely authentic, delicious Chinese food. But the further you travel into the countryside, the less authentic the food becomes.
It’s not authentic, but deep down I still love Australian Chinese food
For a while, after returning from that fateful trip to China, it really bothered me that Australian Chinese food was not authentic. But deep down, I still love it for what it is. It’s delicious!
Those sauces may be pre-made in a factory somewhere, and they’re probably packed with MSG. But they sure are tasty! At the end of the day, a dish like honey chicken (similar to the equally inauthentic General Tso’s chicken in the United States) is really just deep-fried chicken in a sweet sauce. Other than dieticians, who could dislike sugary fried chicken?!
When visiting Australian country towns, “Chinese” takeaway has once again become a guilty pleasure of mine. The tacky decor at many rural Chinese restaurants — where you can never have enough dragons or red lanterns — just adds to the experience. (The Golden Sea Dragon restaurant in Coonabarabran, NSW has possibly the most tacky yet impressive restaurant decor I’ve seen so far.)
Deep down, I still secretly love Australian Chinese food. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying it for what it is. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re actually eating authentic Chinese cuisine!