When we were children, Chinese food sold in restaurants was a very Australianised version of Cantonese cuisine. Fried rice, beef with black bean sauce, lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork (the dish with pineapple). All of them were modified for the Western palate. I mean, chilli in your dish—I can’t even think of a dish that contained it. As for non-Chinese Asian cuisine, we didn’t even know it existed.
The area where we live is sandwiched between a TAFE (Technical and Further Education) college and a large shopping centre (shopping mall).
Back when we first moved here our little main street shopping strip had a newsagent, a post office, a fruit shop, a liquor shop, an Italian restaurant, a bakery, a mini-market and Chinese take-away. Across the road the big suburban pub (and I mean one of those monster ones you could practically land a plane in) served modern Australian cuisine. Think steaks, schnitzels, fish and chips.
When we moved here, the shopping centre was taking away all the business from the fruit shop, the mini-mart and the liquor store.
They closed. So did the Italian restaurant. The newsagent and the post office amalgamated.
At the same time we were in the middle of an international education boom. Universities and TAFEs were actively recruiting overseas students, because of the money they brought in.
As the shops closed, little restaurants started to open in their place. They were aimed at the students. Eel congees (in fact, congees in any shape or form), more soups, less stir fry.
You could tell the nationalities going through the TAFE by the shops that opened. Indonesian first. Then Korean. We learned to love es teler, then bibimbap.
Some cuisines passed us by altogether. Other suburbs were learning to love pho, rice paper rolls, green curry and pad thai. For us it was kim chi and Hainese chicken rice.
Some years ago the government changed the laws regarding TAFEs. They now had to compete directly with universities, whereas prior to this they had mostly acted as an entry-level to the universities, where the students would come and do a two-year diploma, while improving their English, and then move on to the universities.
The students started moving out.
At the same time, Melbourne (and the rest of Australia) were in the middle of a massive housing boom. As the more exclusive suburbs were priced out of most people’s affordability range, suburbs like ours started to become popular with young families looking to buy their first home.
The restaurants changed to suit.
Chinese restaurants are opening now, but it’s not Cantonese cuisine this time, it’s Szechuan (or Sichuan if you spell it that way). Try dry-fried green beans with its mouth-puckering Szechuan pepper. Or Szechuan chicken. (Love the beans by the way, used to eat them all the time. I thought they were healthy. I mean, fresh green beans. Turns out they’re deep fried most of the time.)
There you have it. The lifecycle of a suburb over twenty years, by the changing restaurant scene.