When worlds collide: Aussie chefs get creative with Asian fusion
Australian chefs are redefining the Asian cuisine by breaking cultural boundaries and serving dishes that really pack a punch. Danielle Bowling reports.
"I think the rules have gone out the window. I think people are becoming more enthusiastic about trying new things and over the years, people's palates have evolved."
Leigh Power is head chef at Melbourne's Gingerboy restaurant, which opened in October 2006 and serves a modern Australian adaptation of Asian hawker-style street food. The main influences are flavours from Chinese, Malaysian and Vietnamese cuisines, and while Power agrees that Asian fusion is growing in popularity, he says the style of cooking isn't new.
"Fusion is the blending of different cuisines to create a balance of classic and new world dishes, and bringing that together into the one dining experience. But it's been happening for decades, and throughout history. The French influence on Vietnamese food; the Indian and Chinese and to some extent Portuguese influences on Malaysian food – fusion has been around for a long time," he says.
While the concept of fusion might not be new to chefs, it is new to some diners, who have traditionally favoured the safe yet often tired and predictable menus at their local Thai, Chinese or Indian hangout.
But with the proliferation of food media and a surge in the number of restaurants offering fusion-based menus, diners are more than happy to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.
At Sydney's Sugarcane restaurant, owner Milan Strbac (pictured below) is surprised by just how experimental Australian diners have become.
"When I started seven years ago, people were a bit standoffish, but in the last three or four years, [fusion] has become so common," he says. "And people's knowledge of Asian food is a lot better; they're not just coming in for pad thai. Before, it was always pad thai, pad thai, pad thai. Now they're getting a lot more experimental. They're a lot more comfortable ordering things that are out of the ordinary. Sometimes I put on something that's really Asian, like our sour orange curry or a fermented fish, which I love and which used to scare people off and they wouldn't have the guts to order it, but now it's surprising to see how many people order it."
While Sugarcane's menu is a collaboration of his favourite south-east Asian flavours, including Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian, Strbac says there's a concurrent trend occurring in the industry at the moment, where operators are honing in on one particular region or province.
"You used to go to a Chinese restaurant and it would just be a Chinese restaurant. Now you've got your Schezuan cuisine, your Hianese cuisine, and all these restaurants doing provincial-style food.
You've also got Easarn style, which is north east style near the Loatian border, and other restaurants doing southern flavours because it's just so different. So they're specialising in that style rather than doing the whole country's cuisine."
At Darlings Supper Club in Northbridge, Western Australia, the owners have made it very clear that authentic Asian food is not on offer. After all, its website boasts the tagline 'Born from necessity, Darlings Supper Club serves up a steaming late night rock and roll Asian fusion for everyone to enjoy.'
"I think it's pretty tough being white guys trying to pretend to do Asian food. That's something we knew from the start but we knew we liked the flavours and knew we couldn't compete with the Asian cuisine here in Northbridge which has been really [established] for years and years," says co-director Sam Astbury.
"There's a huge student population here from Malaysia, Singapore and China so you can't really compete with the places offering dead-set Asian cuisine. So we thought 'Let's not try to be something we're not', so we just do what we do best. We use all local produce, all Australian seafood, West Australian beef and pork. Everything is done to a high standard."
Darlings Supper Club really pushes the boundaries when it comes to the fusion offering, with the chefs looking beyond Asia when seeking inspiration. Examples of its international approach include the venue's hugely popular kangaroo, fig and black pepper house-made dumplings, and its five spice falafel with pickled mushrooms, radish, sesame oil and asparagus. (pictured below).
But the dessert menu is where the real fun is had, and where the fusion concept is perhaps best represented. One of Darlings' most popular dessert items is its dessert dumpling, which Astbury describes as "like an Asian Snickers" – chocolate, peanuts and salted caramel in a wonton wrapper that's fried and dusted with icing sugar. There's also the coconut crme brle with pineapple gel and a palm sugar crumb.
Gingerboy's Leigh Power agrees that desserts are a great vehicle for the fusion of flavours and cuisines.
"Our desserts are the closest things to major fusions, where we fuse modern Australian with Asian flavours, rather than having classics like a sago pudding or steamed pumpkin custard," he says.
Gingerboy's sweet treats include a dark chocolate tofu cheesecake with orange sherbet sorbet; steamed banana pudding with coconut butterscotch and palm sugar icing; and passionfruit, watermelon, mandarin and black sticky rice ice cream.
Don't push your luck
As much as Australian diners are loving the fusion concept, and chefs are loving experimenting with it, you still need to offer a menu that has some familiarity to it, says Sugarcane's Milan Strbac.
Half of the menu at Sugarcane changes regularly, allowing chefs and diners to try new things, while the other half remains fairly constant, allowing regulars and those less adventurous to enjoy some of the Asian favourites.
"We've got our standard stuff like our rendang curry which is a big hit and is sort of Malaysian/Indonesian, and we've got a crispy chicken with plum sauce which is a take on a Chinese dish. And yes, the pad thai is always a hit. To be honest, I've tried to take it off and I couldn't. It's on there because everyone loves it; they know what it's like and it's a comfort thing.
"But our pad thai is a classic and traditional one – I don't like to stroke my own ego but our pad thai is one of the best in Sydney. There are places in Chinatown that put tomato paste in it, sometimes MSG, sometimes they boil the noodles rather than steaming them. We fry the noodles, use heaps of tofu, fry off the onion beforehand and season with fish sauce and tamrind the way you're meant to. A lot of places buy the seasoning ready to go, pre-mixed in a jar and they just add it in, but we add our salt, sourness and sugar to order. Every pad thai is seasoned to order."
At Gingerboy, Power believes that no matter how far you want to run with the fusion concept, chefs need to hold on to the four fundamental pillars of Asian food: hot, sour, salty and sweet.
"[In that regard] you have to stay as traditional as possible," he says. "So I think you have to have that balance all through the menu. You have to have that salt, sour, hot, sweet combo first and then, say, you can ramp up with the chillies.
"So we've got a crying tiger dressing on a pepper beef salad, so it's already got the pepper from the beef but in the crying tiger traditional Thai dressing there's fresh and dried chillies with fish sauce and lime juice, and the history behind it is that it's meant to be hot enough to make a tiger cry."
Astbury agrees that diners often crave familiar foods and flavours, and so he ties his fusion menu together with the inclusion of fresh herbs, salads and chillies. These, he says, are classic textural and flavoursome elements of the Asian food offering that people love.
"As long as you give [the cuisines] enough of a respectful nod, and not take the Mickey too much, it's all good. So we used to do a normal char kway teow which is like a rice noodle lunch that's quite famous in Malaysia, and if you try to do an authentic one you'll get slammed, but if you try to mix it up and create your own take on it, they'll be OK with it," he says.
"And our biggest selling dish is a nasi goreng, which is strange being so close to Bali, but we do a roast duck nasi goreng which is a little bit different. Roast duck is another one, if you put it in anything people will love it.
"At the end of the day, we try not to be judged as an Asian restaurant. We try to think of ourselves as white guys who like Asian flavours."
So while there can be a fine line between experimenting with traditional cuisines and culinary blasphemy, it seems the key to creating a winning Asian fusion offering is taking the bright colours, fresh produce and unique flavours that we all know and love, and having some fun with them.