A Sydney Food Crawl
When my friends and coworkers learned that I was going to Sydney, those who had been all agreed on one thing: the cuisine was a major highlight. “The Asian food there is so good!” quipped one. “If you’re a seafood person, make sure to eat lots of it,” said another. “It’s the best!”
They weren’t wrong. In the four and a half days we spent exploring Australia’s biggest city, we never once came across a bad (or even mediocre) meal. Our first stop after checking into the hotel and taking a much-needed shower (I had gone straight to the airport after work to catch the six-hour red-eye flight, and Bama had spent three hours inside a cab stuck in Jakarta’s horrendous traffic) was Ms. G’s for small plates of mod-Asian fusion cuisine. The name is a play on the ingredient MSG, though diners can rest assured that it’s not something used in their dishes.
Ms. G’s, it turned out, was a delicious – if eye-wateringly expensive – introduction to Sydney’s buzzing restaurant scene. The cheeseburger spring rolls were an absolute guilty pleasure, and Bama and I both loved the kingfish sashimi with aged ponzu sauce, kombu flakes, and chives. We polished off the Vietnamese-inspired steak tartare served with prawn crackers, and also the unconventional burrata, a melt-in-your-mouth combination of mozzarella and cream dressed with peanuts, spinach, spring onion, sesame seeds, and flavorsome chili oil. This was followed by an aromatic tom yum fried rice that featured shreds of snow crab and kaffir lime leaf. On the whole, we both enjoyed Ms. G’s; the only underwhelming dish was the chicken katsu “mini bánh mì” sliders, which possessed neither the sublime flavors of Japan nor the balance of tastes and textures found in Vietnamese cuisine (the bun itself had no resemblance to a bánh mì). But given our recent trips to both Vietnam and Japan, I might be holding it to an impossibly high standard.
A more wallet-friendly option was Harry’s Café de Wheels, a nearby pie cart beside historic Finger Wharf on Woolloomooloo Bay. The no-frills food cart made its first appearance in 1938, and eventually became a beloved local institution after its founder Harry ‘Tiger’ Edwards reopened it in 1945. For breakfast we opted for house specialty Harry’s Tiger, comprising a chunky lean beef pie topped with mashed potato, mushy peas, and a pool of gravy. Bama and I both preferred the dill-sprinkled seafood pie, which yielded a filling of white fish, shrimp, scallops, and salmon, all cooked in a creamy sauce with cheese.
Late one afternoon while walking around Darling Harbour, we stumbled across the Sydney World Rice Festival at Tumbalong Park, where stalls showcasing food from Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Japan, and farther afield ringed a perfectly manicured lawn. For an early dinner I chose Filipino pork belly skewers glazed in a sweet sauce served over popular (but confusingly named) Java rice – garlicky and stir-fried with annatto powder for a beautiful reddish-orange color – alongside strands of pickled green papaya known as atchara.
You might have heard of Kylie Kwong, an instantly likable Sydney-born celebrity chef who has been putting a creative spin on Chinese fare with uniquely Australian ingredients. A brief look online at the menu of her restaurant Billy Kwong was enough to convince me to make the pilgrimage. Better yet, it was just a few minutes’ stroll from our hotel in the leafy neighborhood of Potts Point. Bama and I headed there for dinner and ended up ordering a 10-course banquet (or tasting) menu. The level of service was just as impressive as the food: our waitress proactively swapped out the snapper for wallaby after learning that we were from out of town and wanted to try their signature dish.
An unexpected standout was the deep-fried saltbush cakes, centered on bush food native to eastern Australia (the first saltbush specimen collected by Europeans was found in Sydney when it was a fledgling colonial outpost). The thick pastry on the outside made an ideal counterpart for the crunchy texture and buttery taste of saltbush within. Even the steamed meat buns had an element of local flair – we were told the tangy fillings were marinated in local honey produced in rooftop hives at a community center just across the street. Fruit from an Australian rainforest tree known as Davidson’s plum made an appearance in the toothsome crispy-skin duck, cooked alongside blood orange, star anise, and a stick of cinnamon. But the star dish was the red-braised wallaby tail with black bean and chili. Well-seasoned and reminiscent of rabbit, the caramelized, gelatinous meat was easily sucked off the bone. Bama and I simply couldn’t get enough. And for a sweet finish, we dug into two scoops each of the best macadamia gelato that had ever passed our lips.
Of course, Sydney wasn’t just about having different kinds of Asian food. We also stopped for lunch at Colombia Organik, a no-nonsense pavement café serving up generous portions of Colombian food near the central railway station. Bama and I shared a sobrebarriga, or slow-cooked flank steak in a tomato and chili sauce with rice, avocado, fresh tomato and corn salad, along with an arepa corn cake that yielded layers of shredded beef and chicken avocado beneath a topping of melted cheese. My favorite was the hearty Colombian tamales, made up of meat and vegetables in a thick cornmeal casing and, much like pepes in Indonesia, steamed inside a parcel of banana leaf. It was a reminder of Sydney’s rich multicultural tapestry and the universal appeal of its food. ◊