Why Yum Cha in Australia Is So (Bleeping) Good
Our insatiable reporter Matt Rodbard recently ate his way through Australia and brought back some stories about Asian food encounters he had while down under. This is the first of a series of glimpses of the Australian food scene. Why Australia? Well, let's just say that David Chang decided to open up his latest restaurant in Sydney.
Good yum cha (often called dim sum in the U.S.) and earth-shatteringly exquisite, book-your-ticket-for-the-next-four-weekends yum cha comes down to the seafood, really. Exceptionally fresh seafood. A weekend yum cha feast consisting of rounds and rounds of small plates washed down with bottomless pots of tea typically hits some familiar notes: char siew, pan-fried taro cakes and xiao long bao (soup dumplings) mixed in with steamed greens and the occasional sweet. But, depending on your location, seafood courses can be a complete tossup—and in New York City, oftentimes a fail. But in Australia, as I found on a January visit, there is no such debate.
You see, seafood is the main reason to head down to Sussex St. in Sydney to shake off that hangover. It is there that I found East Ocean (421-429 Sussex St, Haymarket NSW 2000) after a Cantonese cab driver had suggested the place after picking me up at 4:45 that morning. (Long story.) The place is enormous—two rooms packed with 300-plus Australians and Chinese, equal parts. After ordering, the dishes hit like buckshot: steamed shrimp and chive dumplings, deep-fried prawns, steamed flour rolls with scallop and calamari dipped in shrimp paste. The sweetness of the shellfish reminded me of spring trips to Florida and summers in Maine. The definitive day-boat experience. And this was yum cha?
Since the end of the 19th Century, Chinese immigrants have flowed into Australia, but it wasn’t until the repeal of a unilaterally racist White Australia Policy in 1973 that the door was fully opened. Since then, Chinese culture—along with Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai—has rapidly grown in Australia’s larger cities, particularly Sydney, which is by far the country’s most Asian-influenced domain. This certainly doesn’t hurt the restaurant scene.
On Australia’s island state of Tasmania, I had a similar experience at Me Wah (16 Magnet Court Sandy Bay Road, Hobart Tas 7005) in the harbor capitol of Hobart. Run by excellent front-of-house man Stephen Tso since 2007, the Hong Kong-style restaurant—featuring nametags and crisscrossing trolleys—served one of the single best dishes I had on the entire trip, a trio of perfectly golden-fried giant prawns dipped in a sweet, slightly fiery chili sauce. This went along with steamed scallop dumplings and fragrant Peking duck. But that prawn alone was worth the 10,000 miles and near Ambien overdose.