Brimming with exciting flavours, exotic ingredients and age-old recipes, Chinese food in Australia owes its legacy to the early pioneers, waves of immigrants and modern-day food innovators.
And with that, let us take you on a brief journey through the rich history of Chinese cuisine in our fair country!
Chinese food was introduced to Australia in the 1850s, when Chinese workers were first lured to our shores in search of gold rush prosperity. Between the back-breaking work, sweat and the ‘eureka’ moments, tantalising aromas would waft through the campfire billy tea and damper. Soon enough, Chinese immigrants were opening cookhouses. These small food shops were naturally popular among Chinese goldmine workers and soon began drawing in Aussie diggers. Some of the immigrants even found work cooking in country pubs and on outback stations.
In 1854 — three years into the gold rush — Australia’s first ever Chinese restaurant opened its doors in Ballarat, Victoria. The Australian appetite for Chinese grew so much that by 1890, one third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese! It was also around this time that Melbourne’s Chinatown precinct was established, and in the years following, other Chinatowns popped up in most capital cities across the country. Still popular today, these colourful districts are touted as the place to go for an authentic dining experience.
While Chinese food continued to gain popularity throughout the country, a government policy introduced in 1901 threatened to virtually end Chinese immigration. Plot twist alert — there was a loophole! Chefs were exempt from the new policy, meaning local Chinese traders could still bring cooks into the country. But (and this is a big caveat), they couldn’t be family members. Here’s where, um, creative thinking pays off…many entrepreneurs changed the names of their family members and claimed they were cooks, when in fact they had no cooking experience whatsoever. So these hard workers had to learn on the job, effectively building the foundation for Chinese food in Australia, as we know it today.
Fast forward to the 1970s, and Chinese restaurants had popped up all over Australia, including in small country towns. Since that time, dishes have evolved with food trends and the changing Australian palate. For example, while popular dishes in the 80s included sweet and sour pork, beef and black bean, and lemon chicken, nowadays steamed dumplings and dim sum are the dishes du jour.
And today, Chinese food retains its place atop Australia’s culinary throne as our most popular international cuisine. A mighty feat, when you consider our multinational population and diverse foodie scene. Now, will it be dim sum, wonton soup, or chow mein for dinner?