In the cold room of Christie’s Seafood at the Sydney fish market, Wayne Hulme shows Kylie Kwong his boxes of marrons (small, live lobsters), calamari and pink snapper fish. “You can tell that these are line-caught and killed with a spike to the brain,” he says, picking up a snapper and turning it to display the shimmering pink of its scales. “The net-caught fish tend to be knocked around a bit so they don’t look as good. And of course with line fishing, you aren’t damaging the environment as you are with trawling. It’s as close as you can get to catching them yourself.”
Kwong, a fourth-generation Australian-Chinese and a well-known chef, shops at Christie’s because of the company’s commitment to top-quality, sustainable produce. It’s not a concern often associated with Chinese restaurants but Billy Kwong, Kylie’s informal eatery, has been a pioneer in marrying Chinese cooking techniques and an emphasis on ethical sourcing that is more common in European-influenced cuisines.
The menu at Billy Kwong (www.kyliekwong.org) offers diver-caught scallop wontons with wrappers made from biodynamic flour, and white-cooked, free-range chicken. All vegetables and seasonings are organic. Kwong, who is known for her Buddhist philosophy and advocacy of environmental sustainability, was invited to cook for the Dalai Lama during his visit to Sydney in December last year.
For anyone wanting to make Asian food with sensibly sourced ingredients, Sydney is the place to do it. Since the 1990s, the city has been renowned for its dynamic restaurant scene and its fine fresh produce, often cooked with an Asian twist. According to Peter Gilmore, executive chef of the acclaimed Quay restaurant (www.quay.com.au) in Sydney Harbour, “Customers want to know where their meat is from, even what breed it is. And they enjoy the back story, whether it’s about the provenance of an ingredient or the creative evolution of a dish.”
Aside from Gilmore, who weaves some East Asian influences into his menu, Sydney boasts a whole generation of western chefs who have been inspired by Asia. These include David Thompson, international restaurateur and author of Thai Food; Christine Mansfield of the Universal restaurant (www.universalrestaurant.com); and Neil Perry, whose Rockpool (www.rockpool.com.au) was one of the earliest proponents of high-end, Asian-influenced cooking.
“In the mid-1980s, when we were all starting out,” says Perry, “it was so hard to source ingredients. I was raised in a home with a vegetable patch where we kept chickens and grew our own tomatoes and so on, and in the holidays we caught crabs by the coast. That is what fresh meant to me.” By the early 1990s, he and David Thompson were persuading Queensland farmers to grow ingredients such as ginger, lemongrass, galangal and kaffir limes, and encouraging producers to move away from factory-farming in rearing their animals and birds.
In 2009 Perry opened Spice Temple, a glamorous basement restaurant with a Chinese menu inspired by his travels through the chilli-loving regions of Sichuan, Hunan and Jiangxi. While London’s Asian restaurateurs rely mainly on imported seafood and vegetables, Perry is able to source most of his in Australia, including the bamboo shoots, stir-fried with bamboo pith fungus, which are grown in Queensland. “About 30 per cent of our vegetables are organic,” he says. “And all our pork and chickens come from free-range, sustainable farms. All of our seafood is sustainable.”
At Paddy’s Market in Sydney’s Chinatown, shoppers queue up at stalls piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables. A couple of stalls specialise in Chinese produce. Stephen Chou, manning one of them, says: “Many of our vegetables are grown here in New South Wales: Asian radishes, water spinach, spring onions, Chinese broccoli, stem lettuce and mustard greens.” Ginger, bitter melon and lotus stems come from tropical Queensland. Imports from China are in the minority.
The quality of the fresh produce available means that Sydneysiders don’t have to choose between seasonal, local, ethically sound ingredients and Asian food. The efforts of chefs such as Kylie Kwong and Neil Perry, who work in a kind of middle ground between the authentic Chinese eateries run by recent immigrants and the more western mainstream, are leading to a reappraisal of Asian food.
“We’ve worked hard for nine years,” says Kwong, “to raise the profile of Chinese cuisine, to show that it’s not just about MSG-laden sauces but about the beautiful art of poaching chicken, of steaming a whole fish. People are beginning to see that Chinese food can be healthy, accessible and affordable.”
One of the driving forces in the growing visibility of Asian produce has been the increasing number of immigrants from Asia, in particular China and India. The Chinese are now the second-largest overseas-born group after the English, numbering more than 200,000. If you include immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the figure is closer to 300,000.
This influx and the relative proximity of Australia to Asia means that its cultures and foods are starting to seem a natural part of multicultural Sydney. Many Sydney chefs credit the journalist Joanna Savill with having raised the profile of Asian food, through her trendsetting articles and a TV series featuring little-known heroes of the Australian-Asian food scene.
These days, says Kwong, there is a plethora of Asian cookbooks on the market, and an Asian section in every food magazine. “Everyone is familiar with Asian food,” she says. “It’s not just a niche, it’s part of our everyday life.” So-called “fusion food”, often frowned on in London as being inauthentic, has become a natural expression of Sydney’s geography and ethnic make-up.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book, ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China’ recently won the Jane Grigson Award in the US, and the Kate Whiteman Award for work on food and travel in the UK