New Melburnian visitor and its impact on the food scene

A guide for the Australian industry on embracing the cultural and culinary diversity of our nearest neighbours.

By Tony Tan

The importance of Asian visitors to our economy

When I launched my book called Hong Kong Food City last year at the Langham, Hong Kong, l spoke to some key drivers of the hospitality sector. They mentioned that my book has contributed immensely to the city’s food scene because it not only illustrated the variety of the regional cuisines, but it also demonstrated a depth not often seen in other books.

This set me thinking about how I can contribute particularly from an Asian context to the Australian food world.

Travel and tourism are an important part of Australia’s economy.  According to the Bureau of Statistics, this sector contributes some 3 per cent to the GDP and is set to rise exponentially in the following decade.

It employs some six million people and will continue to grow as more Asians, in particular, Chinese tourists, head to Australia as the preferred destination.

Currently, there are some 1.4 million tourists from China and more than 300 thousand travellers from India. It is projected that by 2020 the tourism sector will contribute at least some $9 billion to Australia’s economy.

Images from Hong Kong Food City TonyTan. Photography by Greg Elms. Murdoch Books, RRP $49.99

A diversity and heritage beyond Australian comprehension

In terms of the food and wine industry, although Melbourne and beyond have indeed come a long way from the 1980s, there is still plenty of room to enhance the pleasure of our Asian visitors.

For instance, we do not fully understand the cultural differences of our near neighbours. We also do not comprehend the enormous cuisine styles that are in Asia. While it is expected that tourists from Asia will engage in and enjoy Australian cuisine, wouldn’t it be beneficial for us to appreciate theirs as well?

In the south of China, although Cantonese cooking rules, there are Hokkien (Fujian), Chiu Chow and Hakka styles. In the north, Shanghainese and Beijing styles dominate though there are other regional cooking styles from Hebei and Shandong provinces.  All these cuisines have different flavour profiles due to the terrain and thousands of years of evolution.

For instance, most southern Chinese people prefer lighter foods in the form of congee for breakfast and dim sum for lunch. In the north, wheat dishes in the form of steamed buns and flatbreads are often eaten at most meals instead of rice. Lamb or mutton, generally considered too gamey by southern Chinese, is enjoyed in hot pots and stir-fried with cumin.

In India, regional variations are equally as diverse as China’s. Heavily influenced by religious and cultural practises, India’s cooking styles are distinct and mind-boggling. As almost a third of the population is vegetarian and what with meat eaters abstaining from beef and pork for religious reasons, it is pertinent that operators in the hospitality industry here should take these considerations seriously.

Generally, northern Indian cooking tends to be more cream and yoghurt based in sauces which reflects a strong Moghul influence while cooks in southern India rely more on coconut milk and coconut oil in sauces. Legumes and rice dishes feature extensively in all regional styles though flatbreads like naan cooked in the tandoor oven are distinctly northern Indian.

As visitors from Southeast Asian countries, especially Singaporeans, continue to grow, it pays to cater to their particular culinary preferences. While there are Thai and Malaysian restaurants and food courts that offer generic spicy foods ranging from Indonesian beef rendang to Filipino pancit and lumpia, there is plenty of room for improvement. I mean how many of us know what is an Indonesian balado or a Filipino inasal or a Malaysian nasi lemak.

I should know because when I first came to Australia in the late 70s, there were very few restaurants from that part of the world.

Connection through cooking

Since then, I have been writing about Asian food in magazines and food columns in newspapers to bring awareness to the wider Australian community.

I have also taught Asian cookery at William Angliss Institute of TAFE, and I will be re-establishing my cooking school in Trentham in 2019. It will focus on the foods of Asia as well as contemporary styles. There will also be an emphasis on how we could match our wines with Asian food.

Our understanding and appreciation of the foods of Asia have developed substantially since the 1980s. Asian condiments and spices are now readily sold in supermarket shelves. In some ways, we are far more sophisticated than our European and American counterparts. But we must not rest on our laurels as there is still a great deal for us to explore the food ways of our Asia neighbours.

Action should be taken to encourage stakeholders to discover and celebrate the Asian food world. After all, good food is the common ground for us to connect. This in itself is not only beneficial to Australia as a whole but also lends great pleasure for our Asian visitors.

Tony Tan was born on the east coast of Malaysia into a family of culinary experts specialising in Chinese cuisine and he formally trained as a chef in Australia and France.

A wonderful teacher, a brilliant chef and an avid storyteller, Tony Tan’s expertise on Chinese and Malaysian cuisines – actually most Asian cuisines – is second-to-none.

He headed up the team at Tatler’s in Sydney for many years, followed by a move to Melbourne where he shifted his focus to run a popular cooking school. He now spends time consulting, writing and organising food tours through his native Malaysia.

Photography credit: Greg Elms