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. ◊
Great cuisines yet to try bt looking delicious
Yup, the food in Sydney is hard to beat.
I’ve been living a healthy vegan lifestyle since 1982, but when I read your culinary adventures, I feel like I’m sitting there sharing the same food you are describing, and I’m tasting meat dishes I will never eat because of your descriptions. I was a meat eater up to age 37 so I enjoy your blog posts because I can eat meat without eating it. LOL
Lloyd, that has got to be the most memorable comment I’ve seen on the blog in a while. Reading it made for a great start to a Monday morning. I have a lot of admiration for vegans who have been maintaining that lifestyle for decades – though I’m doubtful I will ever make the switch considering how much I love eating meat and dairy!
You might be surprised to discover the wide variety of vegan food that exists out there. Since I converted, the choices have dramatically expanded. When I was teaching, my students asked what I ate and I wrote two numbers on the board. Vegans have about 1,500 different foods they can eat. Meat eaters in the U.S. focus on less than ten foods and the main ones are meet, potatoes, cheese, milk, sugar and white flower.
The variety of foods for vegans is growing fast.
meat not meet
flour not flower
Sorry about that
No worries! I was blown away by the vegan food I tried at a jungle eco-lodge in Bali a few years ago. Coconut milk is a wonderful substitute for dairy and the raw cacao mousse they served there was simply divine. That experience even inspired my travel buddy to go meatless one day a week.
Everything looks terrific. I loved the photos of the skewers, the wallaby tail and that last one of the sobrebarriga.
Thanks! I was lucky to have natural lighting for all those shots except for the wallaby tail – that one needed some post-processing because it had a yellowish tint.
Sounds like you may have put on a kilo or two.
I probably did, Mallee… though it helped that we spent much of our time exploring Sydney on foot!
I had at least three food revelations in Sydney. First, apparently not only do I love raw fish, but also raw beef. Second, that wallaby tail was among the best tail dishes I’ve ever had. Third, the beef in sobrebarriga tasted familiar; the spices used for that dish might not be that different from those added to some Indonesian dishes. Reading this post really made me want to go back to Sydney! If only the food was a lot cheaper, though.
Absolutely, Bama – it could have been the places we picked in Sydney but the food in Melbourne’s restaurants was much more affordable! One day you’ll have to try steak tartare the way it is served in Europe. As for the sobrebarriga and other Colombian dishes we had, I guess a big part of the familiarity is down to the shared ingredients brought over from the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese.
Everything looks so delicious! Great post!
Thanks for reading, Cecilia!
The pie cart! Is that pie topped with mashed potatoes, mushy peas and gravy? What an inventive way of serving it! Everything looks delicious. Great post, James!
It is indeed, Kelly, and I love how those pies gives us a taste of what Australians ate back in the 1940s. I am very much a bread and pie person (I have my mother to blame for that!) so it made for a uniquely satisfying breakfast.
Yum yum yum. Food in Oz now is sooooo different from when I was young (1950’s 60’s) – then it was very plain British fare though I was lucky my mum was an excellent and adventurous cook. Gradually during the 80’s, 90’s, 00’s the food scene evolved until it is now one of the best in the world. However I see you also discovered how breathtakingly expensive Oz can be 🙂
Wonderful post James. Makes me want to go home 🙂
Alison, it’s so good to hear about your experiences from the inside – did you say you grew up in Canberra, or was that somewhere else? I guess the evolution of the food scene more or less mirrors what happened in the UK and Canada, though my guess is that neither of those countries have the immense range of top-quality produce found in Australia! As for the shockingly high prices, it turns out we went 50% over budget during those eight days in Sydney and Melbourne. I have no regrets about that, but we’ll have to be a bit more careful and frugal the next time we’re in Oz. 🙂
I was born in Melbourne and lived there ’til I was 11 when my family moved to Canberra. Canberra is definitely my Aussie hometown though over the years I’ve lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, and a couple of other places.
Beautiful and colorful food photography in this post!
Thank you, Katherine!
What a fabulous post James! Have heard so much about Sydney’s culinary scene, your account justifies the hype. Drooling over that burrata, and even the raw meats for a change! I remember watching every one of Kylie’s food shows on TV (pre-blogging days when I had all the time in the world, or so it seems nowadays!) A visit to her restaurant would indeed be a pilgrimage. This makes me want to check fares to Sydney 🙂
Funny thing is, I have never watched any of Kylie’s TV shows, though I did hear about her from time to time. When I told a friend here in Jakarta that we secured seats at her restaurant just by walking in, he was practically green with envy. He once tried to book a table for dinner there but it was completely full! I know you would love it Madhu, and if you’re lucky you might even see Kylie herself working in the open kitchen. 🙂
By the end, I wanted to count all the meals and places and try to fit them into the number of days you said you were there! Like your commenter Lloyd, I don’t eat meat and yet those cheeseburger spring rolls sounded like something I would have loved years ago. The burrata I could and would eat; I’ve never seen that with an Asian spin. We were in Sydney many years ago, but one of our best memories was food-related as well. Our local friends wanted us to take a boat ride around the harbor, but we ran out of time for dinner, so we all (10 of us) grabbed enormous, overflowing gyros from a food cart and carried them onto the boat. A terrible mess ensued, and we did not endear ourselves to our fellow passengers!
That is hilarious, Lex! I think I would be more amused than annoyed being on that boat… and possibly even a bit envious at the sight of all those delicious gyros. We ended up having a form of gyro in Melbourne, which may well have the best Greek food outside of Greece itself (a country I almost went to until 9/11 abruptly cancelled those plans).
Your food photography is absolutely delicious. I must admit, I got stuck near the the top staring at the kingfish sashimi…my favourite.
Much appreciated, Caroline! The kingfish was new for me – I don’t think I’d ever had it in sashimi form until Sydney.
I might be getting my fish mixed up, but I think Kingfish is also called Yellowtail (a type of tuna)? Whatever it is, the sashimi version looks amazing.
your food photo is very good, like it..how about street food
Glad you like them – there is some street food in here too, like the pies and Filipino skewers with rice.
Yum is right… I guess this would be hard to look at on an empty stomach! 🙂
My husband is from just outside Sydney, we’re heading back there with the kids in January! This article made me hungry, and wishing I had a fast forward button! =)
Lucky you! I would love to see what it’s like during the Southern summer… it will be the perfect time to hit those beautiful beaches.
Yes, indeed, though some of it was breathtakingly expensive!
Great read, and the pics are making me hungry 🙂 I’m dying to get to Sydney, I was recently in Perth, Cairns and Brisbane, didn’t have time to get to Syd and Melbourne.. they’re next!!
I would love to visit some of Australia’s other cities – which one of those three did you like best? 🙂
Thanks for your mouth-watering descriptions and photos! I’m not vegan nor vegetarian, just not a big fan of most meat, but everything on your post looked delicious to try! Being partial to Latino foods, the arepas look especially tasty. At this moment I am in Oaxaca enjoying fresh tamales for breakfast…
I agree with your comments about the expense, which I thought was true about most things Australian. During a recent visit to Brisbane to see my son, we only ate in restaurants when traveling. OK, but nothing memorable.
Once in Oaxaca I met a couple from Australia who were on their way to the US to buy clothing because it is too costly in Australia!
If your friends, who are in the US to buy clothing, stop by San Francisco, they might want to try Pena Pachamama. This is a long-time organic vegan restaurant. Robin Willimas even said it was a wildly rhythmic nightspot. This place has a long and interesting history.
You’re welcome, Marilyn… great to hear you are now in Oaxaca feasting on Mexican cuisine! I never had a bad meal in Sydney or Melbourne, though prices in the latter were a lot more reasonable even in the restaurants downtown.
This is a great guide! We’re going home (well, we’re from Melbourne, but Sydney will be in our travel plans as well) in January so I’m adding all these places to our list!
Thank you, Rebecca! Hope you get to try out Billy Kwong at the very least when you’re there. 🙂
Great post! I am new to travel blogs, but am looking for places to visit once I finish school. Australia has always been a place I’ve wanted to visit. The wallaby tail looks like something I would order two of. Weird how you can find great cuisine in places you wouldn’t expect to find it.
Thanks! I never had a bad meal in the eight or nine days I was in Australia – the country is blessed with a great climate and its incredible culinary scene is practically worth the visit alone. Fingers crossed you’ll get there soon!