There are two extreme, prevailing perceptions when it comes to culinary offerings in Sydney. The city is either lauded as the rising star on the international fine dining circuit thanks to Chef's Hat triumphs like Tetsuya's, Quay and Marque, or it's roped into the oversimplified yet vague idea of "Aussie fare" that is Vegemite and "shrimps on the bah-bie."
But Sydney's offerings extend far beyond fancy white-tablecloth dining and Vegemite sammies. I grew up in Sydney, and although I've been living abroad for years, with each visit back home I'm pleased to witness an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan foodscape that celebrates authentic, global cuisine on an everyman budget. Or maybe it's always been that way and I've only begun to appreciate it now.
Regardless, I can confidently say that Australia's harbor city is home to some of the finest hole-in-the wall Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Middle Eastern fare around. Thanks to the city's exceptionally diverse ethnic makeup, our farmer's markets, fish markets and inner-city suburb backstreets are home some of the most dumbfoundingly delicious multicultural fare in the world. And don't even get me started on that street food.
Now about that street food. Ironically, despite Australia's year-round agreeable climate, street food is about the last thing people would dream of enjoying while down under. Which is unfortunate, as you'll find more locals chowing down on authentic, Vietnamese-style street meat than at stuffy, sit-down restaurants, particularly in the warmest months.
Case in point, the perenially-packed Billy Kwong stall at the Eveleigh Market. Each Saturday at this charming farmer's market, you can feast on the juiciest, most gingery steamed pork dumplings you will ever know. Running the stall is chef Kylie Kwong herself, frenetically stuffing steamed, savory pancakes with perfectly fluffy eggs, shredded carrots, sprouts, cilantro and mint -- heavenly little parcels alive with both earthy and piquant flavors. And then there's those eat-with-your-hands Cantonese pork buns, intense with the richness of tamari and and spicy sichuan pepper.
Though Cantonese cuisine is popular in Sydney (like San Francisco, Sydney has a deep integration with Chinese culture), Vietnamese food is really the shining star when it comes to Asian food in the city. From banh mi to pho to rice paper rolls, Vietnamese fare is about as ubiquitous as pizza, particularly in the south-western suburbs of Sydney.
One of my greatest memories growing up is stumbling down John Street in "Cabra" every Saturday morning in the wee hours following a bender, to Viet Hoa Hot Bread. Though it looks like every other beat-up, nondescript bakery on the street, you'll recognize this one due to the luminous halo glow that surrounds it (I swear it's there). Open 24 hours, this bakery will serve unbeatably flavorsome banh mi (we called them "pork rolls"). Freshly-baked, crusty white bread rolls stuffed with meaty, tender, fatty pork, chili, pickled carrots, daikon, liver pate and mayo, all garnished with sprigs of cilantro. We'd sit there on the curb, shoes off, happily devouring these superbly filling yet somehow light chunks of crusty, meaty perfection. (If you can't make it to Cabramatta for your Vietnamese fix, I also recommend Pho Pasteur in Sydney's central business district, which is decidedly grimy-looking but has the best pho broth on this earth).
Head further west and you'll find yourself in Blacktown, where hearty Filipino food (and big-hearted Filipinos) reign. It's packed to the gills with eat-and-run "Pinoy" joints but my favorite is the terrifically no-frills Fiesta Filipino (also patronized by two of my favorite Sydney food bloggers, Alison and Shawn of Street Food). Here you'll find some of the city's best and cheapest pork adobo (pork cooked in a tangy, soy-vinegar sauce) and laing (pork cooked in a creamy, coconut sauce with taro leaves). Topped off with longganisa (sweet, garlicky sausages), and sticky white rice, and you're golden! Eat this on the street from a styrofoam tray with a plastic fork, juggling a can of Fanta in the crook of your arm. This is the Australia that I know and love.
If kimchi and hot pots are more your thing, no sweat. Though the south-western suburb of Campsie is the obvious go-to for down-home Korean cooking, Sydney city herself is replete with stellar Korean joints, the best of them tucked away in the gritty laneways off the traffic-congested main drag that is George Street. Kozy Korean Barbecue is a good pick for light-as-air kimchi pancakes, intensely spicy seafood hotpots and tofu kimchi, as is Madang for its succulent beef bulgogi at the right price.
Middle Eastern Influences
When I first got my driver's permit, the first place I drove to was Habib's in Sydney's south-western suburb of Bankstown. It's a small Lebanese "take-away chicken shop" that's about as bare bones as you can get: stiff red plastic tablecloths topped with homebrand tissue boxes ("minimalist decor" would be a massive understatement). Not that it matters. You're quickly distracted by the gloriously heady aroma of cooking poultry over charcoals, and the surprisingly soothing hiss of fat hitting the coals.
And then there's the chicken itself. Here at Habib's you'll find the smokiest, most tender-breasted, crispy-skinned chicken you'll ever get your claws on. Each mouthful is a fusion of perfectly blackened, crunchy, fatty skin and juicy, flavorful white meat. The only way to eat this bird is dirty caveman-style, ripping into it with your fingers. With a whole $20 bird they'll even throw in Lebanese bread, pickled veggies, and a saucer of toum (garlic sauce) gratis.
For equally good Middle Eastern nosh, I am partial to the spectacular Turkish establishment that is The Sultan's Table in Enmore. Crowded on any given day, the popular local spot offers subtly smoky babaganoush that's perfect paired with their zucchini fritters -- crispy-fried on the outside, and tender and creamy on the inside. Also recommended is their iskender kebab, pita bread piled high with finely shredded meat, hot tomato sauce and buttery yogurt. For dessert, I'd head even further west to the Buket Cake Shop in Auburn for consistently amazing, melt-in-your-mouth flavored shortbreads. Though, quite honestly, you can't go wrong with any Turkish bakery in Auburn.
"True Blue" Aussie Cuisine
For those staying in Sydney longer-term, I'd strongly suggest taking a trip to the chaotic but awesome Sydney Fish Markets and picking up some of the freshest, finest seafood you'll find in the world. A nice cut of freshly caught barramundi slapped, yes, "on the bah-bie" with a squeeze of lemon could easily be the best meal you'll have down under. If that's still too much effort, the experts at Peter's Fish Market, a favorite of my good friend and Aussie food blogger Belinda, will cook the fish for you. A seafood platter for two will get you a colossal platter of marinated octopus, battered fish fillets, crumbed calamari, oyster mornay, mussels and other supreme crustaceans.
"The two-person seafood platter is deceiving," says Bel. "I can't recall a time where only two hungry patrons have successfully polished off one of these bad boys!"
In the States, people ask me all the time what "Australian food" is. This would probably be the closest thing to my idea of authentic or "true blue" Aussie cuisine: fresh, perfect seafood cooked simply and without pretention.
I don't know one kid who grew up in Australia and didn't spend a handful of summer afternoons on the beach, enjoying beer-battered fish and chips wrapped in butcher's paper, doused liberally with lemon and chicken salt. Still... that culinary experience is easily as "Australian" to me as enjoying a Turkish pide in Auburn, or a banh mi in Cabramatta, or a bowl of adobo in Blacktown. Or -- and I say this nostalgically, and a little sheepishly -- a good old grilled Vegemite sammy.