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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Tastes Like Home: Melbourne's Chinatown

Written by Jacqui Menard
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We had driven twenty-one hours, endured the elements, one another’s company, McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in preparation for the culinary delights of Melbourne’s Chinatown.

If there’s one thing I miss when I’m at school in Australia it would have to be the food at home: the savory rice, the chilies, the fresh green vegetables and juicy ripe fruits. My pathetic attempts at cooking anything similar often ends in watered down curries, crunchy rice and charred pots and pans.

Maybe the taste of food has to do with where you eat it and the people you share it with. As a Canadian, living in Malacca, Malaysia, I couldn’t agree more. To me, food always tasted better when it was eaten with family and served hot by a waitress, as opposed to slopping it on a paper plate amidst the busy atmosphere of some shopping mall in the suburbs.

Melbourne’s Chinatown is full of life, color and food. It spans a few blocks and one can expect tasty meals inspired by mainland China and South East Asia.

Tastes Like Home: Melbourne’s Chinatown, Shark Fin House, travel melbourneOn our first day, the mission was to find Shark Fin House, a much talked about restaurant in Chinatown. My friend Leng had heard about it from her relatives in Adelaide. We traversed city blocks, asked strangers, talked to shop keepers who all enthusiastically pointed us in the right direction.

We finally spotted it and stepped inside. The inside looked elegant; waiters and waitresses were dressed in freshly pressed clothes and an impressive fish tank alive with exotic seafood greeted customers at the entrance. Leng scans the grounds before she’s approached by a pleasant looking employee. She makes a reservation for yum cha the next morning at 11. As we’re leaving a frenzy of hungry locals and tourists pile in and the lunch rush begins. A Chinese tour guide with bright orange lip stick, a head set and an impressive looking clip board motions her crew forward.

Tastes Like Home: Melbourne’s Chinatown, Shark Fin House, travel melbourneThe next morning people are crammed around tables, waitresses shout orders from across the dining room, silver yum cha trolleys quickly empty, and the staff already look warn and overworked: they’ve been open for less then an hour. We are given a center table, right in the heart of the restaurant. I leave the ordering up to my friends, and pretend I know what they are saying as they converse with the waitresses in Mandarin, each party speaking a mile a minute.

Suddenly, I feel as though I’ve been transported back in time, a guest at a royal banquet. Pork buns, porridge, and prawn dumplings in bamboo baskets quickly fill the table as my eyes grow wide and my stomach growls in delight.


I reach across the table and attack a dumpling with my plastic chop sticks, dunk it in chili sauce and pop it in my mouth. I savor every bite; noting each ingredient I swallow: prawn, rice paper, carrot. I put down my chop sticks, wipe my mouth on my napkin, relish in the fragrance of my cup of tea and think, “Man, this tastes just like home.”

We make small talk, take pictures and just as I think the food frenzy is about to end, expensive items wrapped in banana leaves, or baked in oyster shells take the place of empty dishes. I haven’t eaten this good since I was last in Malaysia, I think to myself as I force myself to try a spoonful of everything. I lean back in my chair, and take another sip of tea in hopes that it will dissolve the over flow of food.

“Egg tart?” Leng presents me with a plate of steaming yellow tarts.

I smile. Should I? Aah what the hell! I grab one, bite into the warm yellow filling and golden crusty base, and suddenly I was ok with not going home for another four months.

© Jacqui Menard

Photos © Junie Leong


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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