I play a game when eating at Asian restaurants – guessing what people next to me will order.
I hope that they will try some of the complex flavours and textures from menus of the eight different culinary cuisines from China, or try something with the freshness and zing of Vietnamese regional dishes, but I am unsurprised as people order the same classic Australian-Chinese stalwarts instead of opting for something unknown.
The best thing about eating in an Asian restaurant is the array of dishes to try with friends, and I want to encourage you to expand your palate and take a punt on a new dish. Here are my top five ‘swaps’ instead of your regular orders at your local Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant.
Sweet and Sour Pork
I love the balance of sweet, sour, fat, salt and umami that is a good serve of sweet and sour pork. I make it at home with pork belly rashers, but I don’t enjoy the thick batter coating served in restaurants. Try the caramelised pork (with prawn if you like) from Pho Phu Quoc in Dickson, the pork chops in rock salt from Tak Kee (also in Dickson), or the Sala Ribs Flambe from Ruby. (IMHO, Dickson has the best range of Asian cuisine in Canberra.)
This is another classic of Australian-Chinese menus across the country and, with chicken being the most popular meat consumed in Australia, there’s no wonder it’s so popular.
Shantung Chicken is often seen on menus here in the nation’s capital, but less so across the rest of the country.
An aromatic roasted and steamed dish topped with cucumber slices, a touch of chilli, garlic and Sichuan peppercorns, Shantung Chicken is a perfect (and healthier) swap at almost all Chinese restaurants in Canberra. If you’re feeling more adventurous and you’re keen for some spice in your life, Kung Po chicken from CDB Dumpling House is excellent. Or you can search out the Deep Fried Chicken Dices with Hot Dry Chilli for a spicy Sichuan peppercorn coated bite with a mountain of dried chillies and crispy peanuts from Red Chilli Sichuan in Civic.
Honey King Prawn
We love seafood in Australia, and we have some of the freshest available here in Canberra direct from the Sydney Fish Markets every day. So why do we insist on eating subpar deep-fried imported prawns drenched in syrup?! Anything seafood with chilli and salt is excellent, as is the combo of prawns with mushroom from Jimmy’s Place, or seared and served Thai style atop Som Tum from Kinn Thai in Civic. For the love of everything that is holy, I implore you to try your prawns a different way if you make no other changes to your order!
No one eats this dish in Mongolia, I promise you. The people of Mongolia eat steamed or roasted mutton, dumplings, and boiled meats in stews. But if you love the sweet and salty combo that is ‘Beef and Black Bean’ or ‘Mongolian Lamb’, let me suggest you try the Dry Garlic Beef from Dickson Dumplings or any version of Cumin Lamb – ribs, fried, stir-fried, shanks or braised. You won’t be disappointed.
Special Fried Rice
“We better get fried rice,” I hear you say. Why? It is comfort food at its finest yet, at its worst, it is a pile of frozen veg with overcooked rice and burnt bits. And why is it full of processed ham!? However, a Chinese meal is always better with my favourite carb, so if you love fried rice, why not head just outside your comfort zone and go for the Fried Rice with Mustard Seeds from Chic Gourmet, Salt fish fried rice from Ginseng in Woden, or the Kimchi Fried rice from Lazy Su in Braddon.
There are many marvellous dishes on our local menus that we miss out on by only ordering what we know. I encourage you to try new things, throw down the forks – embrace the chopsticks! You’ll enjoy new textures, flavours and aromas. Your tastebuds will thank you for it.
What other dishes do you recommend as the unsung heroes of your local Asian eatery? Let us know in the comments.