The 10 best foods in Sydney
I recently had an argument with a colleague about the validity of the, widely accepted, concept of western cooking having its basis in French cuisine. He argued that Australia owed far more to Asian countries than any Gallic influences – he was of course wrong and his argument held no water, after all Asian countries by their very name are not western.
But it did start me thinking about the food that Sydney – the bit of Australia on my doorstep – chooses to embrace. Not in a fusion, crazy food inventions kind of way, but in the food that tempts you as you go about your daily business.
Most of these foods are not hybrids in any way but foods that have jumped cultural boundaries thanks to the lack of distance and immigrant communities.
So what better way to celebrate Sydney’s finest than a top ten.
I’m not given to praise easily, especially of Australian things but when it comes to the drinker’s friend I’m afraid the Antipodeans have the drop on all things mystery meat. The Lebanese bread, the sauce (barbeque and chilli, thank you for asking), the meat, the tabouli, lettuce, tomato and onion. All rolled up, stuck in a press and then crammed into a foil bag, designed to catch the juices at the bottom, making consuming that last mouthful without spillage as skillful as any Olympic event.
As with portrayals of violence, pornography and political scandal, we have become desensitised and numb to what chicken really is. No longer will we accept meat with flavour, or colours other than Hollywood teeth white. If only there was a simple dish which would showcase chicken for what it really is.
Chicken Schnitzel is not that dish! Squashed bleached meat, deep fried in orange breadcrumbs and stuffed into a bread roll. Add some retro shredded iceberg, a shimmy of mayonnaise and you have a fine balance of hot & cold and grease & carbs.
Every garage shop, every 7Eleven convenience store and seemingly every transport hub sells pies. Not poncy gourmet fare but a delicious dubiously named ‘meat pie’.
What meat? The consensus is beef but no one really knows – but by keeping it at just above blood temperature, in badly maintained pie warmers, bacteria can flourish making all meats taste the same. Of pie.
The rumbling trolleys heaving with dumplings, the resolutely grumpy women pushing them, the endless plates of steaming parcels, the bottomless pots of tea and the state of the tablecloth after you’re finished. There is a chaotic poetry in the experience of Yum Cha, with no two visits ever quite the same. It’s a heady mix of luck (of where you’re seated), skill (in attracting attention), timing (when trolleys come round) and dishes that you have no idea what they actually are.
Calamari & chips
Deep frying is the nearest thing to alchemy, turning base foodstuffs into culinary gold. Take the humble lead-like potato – give it a brief oil-based bath and you have something sublime, the chip.
This snack with gravitas is often wrongly teamed with fish. Its ideal counterpart is not the insipid, pallid, ichthyic protein but the brilliant white, creamy textured cephalopod. Squid to be precise. Not only does a decent calamari have the required bite to stand up to the snack with gravitas, it also benefits from a very short, very hot cooking – the ideal method being deep frying.
You can’t buy synergy like that!
Vietnamese pork roll
The punch of chili, pungency of fresh coriander, soft yielding bread, smooth umami-rich paté, creaminess of mayonnaise and the unctuous richness of pork fat – all encased in a feather-light crunch of crust. Every conceivable texture and taste seems to be wrapped up in this Vietnamese street food. It really is one of the most perfect sandwich creations ever to grace a paper bag. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank the culmination of events and happenstance that enabled the ‘Báhn mi’ to gain passage to a wider world.
Bakeries seem to have thrived despite the rise of the plastic loaf. The ubiquitous Baker’s Delight lurks in every Sydney suburb offering fresh bread and associated baked goods, amongst them the Cheesymite scroll. Constructed along the lines of a savoury Chelsea bun with vegemite instead of raisins and cheese instead of sugar. Variations such as sweet chili, or bacon and cheese are often offered along side this salt laden snack but somehow they never quite hit the spot.
I have a confession. I hate soup. I honestly think it’s a waste of a meal, nothing more than a hot drink in a bowl! Caveat aside; there is one liquid-based luncheon that in theory is my favourite. The Laksa. A quick trawl of Wiki shows that there are myriad varieties of this south east Asian dish but let us not concern ourselves with soup semantics – what we are talking about is the plastic bowl shod fare available in every food hall across Sydney. The refinements may vary but the basics are the same – coconut milk, rice noodles, chili, beansprouts, tofu puffs and usually prawns. It’s an extravert of a soup, demanding attention and rightly stealing the limelight from its dishwater-like, weakling cousin, Pho.
I know what you’re thinking – ‘Shut up! Sushi is everywhere!’ Well of course it’s everywhere, I read somewhere that it’s even in Japan. It’s not about its exclusivity but it’s acceptance into the lunchtime canon. With the proximity of the Sydney fish markets the quality of the good stuff is fantastic. As with all sushi it’s ridiculously overpriced, which can only endear it to the hearts of Sydneysiders even more!
If you want a large selection of very cheap ‘buns’ then a Chinese bakery is the place for you. If you want a large selection of very cheap ‘buns’ that taste exactly the same, then a Chinese Bakery is still the place for you!
Made even more exciting by having to extract each variant from Perspex cases – each of these fluffy pillows may have a different topping and/or filling they all seemingly made from the same dough. Although that’s no bad thing.