Ten years ago Sydney was firmly under the sway of Mod Oz cuisine, a somewhat naïve attempt to forge a national food identity from the cultural melting pot that is Australia.
Asian fusion, its successor, seems an altogether more convincing foodie movement. What could be better than mixing Asian and European cuisines – or more natural than adapting traditional cooking techniques to suit Australian conditions and ingredients?
Early exponents of the technique, such as Neil Perry and David Thompson, created stunning dishes showcasing fresh, locally sourced ingredients but underpinned by the time-honoured culinary techniques of China and South-East Asia.
But fusion cooking, like melding musical styles, is fraught with hidden danger. Too many dishes were created for novelty (or shock) value alone. Into this category should be consigned the infamous Tandoori chicken pizza and the equally despicable “Asian-style risotto”, with wasabi, and poached tofu.
At the other end of the spectrum Sydney’s maestro Tetsuya Wakuda has managed to create a distinct culinary style by fusing Japanese and French cooking traditions – in the process creating highly original dishes, most famously his confit of ocean trout.
Indeed, many foreign-born chefs find the experience of cooking in Australia totally liberating – allowing them to break out from a rigid culinary straitjacket, experiment with new ingredients and letting their imaginations run wild in the process
This was definitely the experience of Kumar Mahadevan – at present Strathfield’s only hatted chef – when he opened Abhi’s in North Strathfield in 1990. Although he had been formally trained as a chef in India, he quickly realised he needed a different approach to win over Sydneysiders’ then-conservative palettes.
“From day one, the Abhi’s menu was very different from the normal run-of-the-mill Indian restaurant,” Mahadevan says. “It was recognised as being revolutionary in the sense that it was so unlike the kind of Indian food around at the time – we had no samosas or the heavy kinds of dishes usually associated with Indian restaurants.”
Two decades later and Abhi’s has a loyal band of supporters who travel from all over Sydney (and the Blue Mountains) to enjoy dishes such as palak patta chat and Madras prawn vendaki – a creation Mahadevan was invited to cook for the masterclass segment of MasterChef.
“I think this is why Abhi’s was so popular – people began to see Indian food like they had never seen it before,” he says.
But Mahadevan classifies his food as “contemporary Indian fine dining” rather than Asian fusion – despite the fact he is keen to use distinctly Australian produce, such as local barramundi, scallops, squid and even lamb cutlets. His inspiration comes largely from field trips back to India, picking up new ideas.
“I am always trying to innovate and create modern dishes, bringing together Indian traditions with the most up-to-date contemporary techniques,” he says.
“I travel back to India regularly so that I know what is going on with the cuisine over there. And now there is so much more fresh produce and spices available to me, so I try to maximise the use of these as much as possible.”
While Mahadevan has carved a niche for himself as the godfather of contemporary Indian cuisine in Australia, Korean chef Kim Young Ju is determined to steer Strathfield’s SQ Restaurant firmly back to its traditional Korean roots.
“We serve traditional Korean food using both Korean and local ingredients,” he says. “Cooking has been my passion and I have vast experience in cooking traditional Korean dishes from different regions in Korea.”
Young is so determined to maintain the authenticity of his dishes that he imports almost all of his ingredients, including his noodles, spices, vinegars and soy sauces, directly from South Korea. Even the fish used in SQ’s popular spicy monkfish dish is snap frozen and flown in .
“Koreans living in Australia have nostalgia about food from their homeland and this is why we try our best to import a lot of main ingredients from Korea,” he says.
Not surprisingly, Young rejects the term Asian fusion to describe his culinary orientation. “No. We just serve traditional Korean food,” he says.
But Young’s commitment to culinary authenticity is not widely emulated. The new crop of Sydney celebrity chefs seems to move effortlessly between European and Asian cooking traditions, often drawing inspiration from a several disciplines – from Spanish tapas to hawker food and classical French cuisine.
Epping-raised Dan Hong, head chef at Lotus in Potts Point, has made genre-hopping part of his personal foodie signature, sliding effortlessly between Asian, European and Tex-Mex styles. At his newest venture, Ms G, he blends Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean and Chinese cuisines.
“I don’t have a problem with the label Asian fusion,” he says. “You can call me whatever you want as long as you like what I do in the kitchen.
“Having said that, I believe there are some dishes that are just perfect they way they are and shouldn’t be changed.”
Having cut his teeth at high-end restaurants such as Longrain, Pello, Marque, Bentley Restaurant & Bar and Tetsuya’s, Hong, 28, is well versed in a number of cooking styles – and has recently been flirting with Tex-Mex flavours at El Loco at the Excelsior Hotel in Surry Hills.
Hong’s next venture will be a cutting-edge Cantonese restaurant below the Establishment on George Street. “It’s actually Asian food that I’m most passionate about,” he says.