The Slow Emergence of Epiphanies

gld rush

Admittedly as I started my investigation (see previous post “A Foodie’s Attempt at Tech”) I was not quite sure of which direction it would take. Though I knew that the bulk of the research would be personal. It’s through this that I have exhibited my first epiphanies, in varying forms. My first epiphany came in my research of how the cuisine was actually introduced into Australian life with how early it was actually accepted into Australian life. While I was aware that many of the Chinese immigrants who initially moved to Australia came because of the gold rush in the mid 1800’s, I had always presumed that they had primarily held labouring roles. However, it seems that many of the immigrants did not take up these roles and instead opened what were called “cookshops”, which sold traditional foods at cheap prices. These foods were often looked at positively by many of the workers as the high carb levels in the rice and noodle dishes gave them a cheap meal which would sustain them during the day (Stacker, J., Wong, D. and Nichol, B).

 

I was also surprised when researching, particularly through Barbara Nichol PhD, about how common Chinese food had actually become in Australia by the turn of the century, especially in gold rush regions like Victoria. It was around this time that I found my first example of merging styles (which I admittedly found surprisingly exciting) when Nichol’s noted in a 2012 paper “Chinese restaurant families recall that the American servicemen ate off the normal menu of Chinese dishes modified for the Western palate such as chop sueys and chow meins” when writing of the service men based in Australia in WWII. This, to me at least, signified the true start of what I consider to be the Australian suburban Chinese food that is ubiquitous with Australian suburbs today.

My second epiphany focusses around something which, realistically, should have been obvious to me from the start. That Chinese cuisine in Australia is a mixture of multiple of the major cuisines in China. However, this is extremely important. From interviews with multiple participants both from China and with a Chinese background, I found out that the Chinese are obsessed with food. The Chinese embraced the concept of a ‘foodie’ far before modern Westerners turned it into a hipster-central, blog-making, Instagram-obsessed idea. Though while this pride surrounding food is strong and is a defining part of Chinese culture, it could also affect how migrants eat when moving to countries like Australia.

When chatting to Pinki, an Indo-Chinese woman who immigrated to Australia in the mid-1960s, it created the realisation in me about how different Chinese cuisines could be and how someone could live their whole lives in China and never try a dish that is common place in Australia. She noted how when she was taken to a Chinese restaurant upon her arrival in Australia she recognised nothing from the menu and had to let her Anglo-Australian friends order for her as they were more accustomed to the menu. At the time nearly all of Chinese food was from the Canton (Cantonese) region in the north, whereas her family was from the south. This led me to question her as to whether she’s seen any food from her region appear in Australia. The fact that, eventually, she had seen various dishes from southern China appear on menus facilitated my epiphany on this topic. Would people from China even understand the construction of many Australian/Chinese menu’s?

Even when going to traditional Chinese restaurants the diner will often find a mix of dishes from Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangdong and various other Chinese regions. This is the amalgamation of the modern Chinese/Australian population sharing their dishes, allowing the more generic term of “Chinese food” to become far more common in restaurants than restaurants housing the dishes of specific regions. This is possibly because many Chinese citizens identify as Chinese as a nationality rather than focusing on specific regions, especially as more and more people are born on Australian shores. There is also the aspect of cuisines changing to appeal more Western tastes. When speaking of the differences they’ve found with traditional Chinese and the suburban Chinese found in Australia, with all people I talk to it comes down to how the ingredients are used. It was commonly mentioned how in many Chinese dishes meat was used as a garnish to the vegetables, often the opposite in Australian Chinese food. There is also significantly less focus on meats used in China, such as pork and duck, and more focus on beef and chicken (we even use a different type of chicken FYI).

So, with the slow increase in more Australian ingredients being used and the move away from more traditional flavours, could some of the more festive Chinese dishes, such as shark fin soup and sea cucumber, be under threat of becoming an outdated novelty. While none of my participants could speculate at the future of the cuisine they did note that their children often prefer Western style Chinese over traditional much of the time. Even after further investigation I may still not have a valid answer but hopefully I will be able to make a more accurate speculation.

4 comments

  1. I must say that your second epiphany really resonated with me. I (shamefully) have the tendency to think of Chinese culture as one large community and forget the nuances that any country has making it’s population and in this instance cuisine, different. I think you have developed your narrative well by going into specifics about the differences between authentic and anglo-chinese food. I would be curious to know if the “cookshops” of the 19th century had to change the way they cooked to suit the need for long term sustenance of the time and then it has followed from there…

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    1. As far as I’m aware in most circumstances there wasn’t much changing to the dishes themselves in the cookshops, however they did occasionally add things like bread to the dishes (possibly due to availability). I feel the first real augmentation of cuisine styles began in the early to mid 1900’s

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  2. Wow! This was so interesting. I feel like I’ve also had many epiphanies while reading your analysis. I hadn’t given much thought into how different ‘Chinese food’ is in Australia vs where it originated. Reading this had me reflecting on when I went to Germany and found it near impossible to find the foods I had grown to love from German beer halls in Australia. Your conversation with Pinki was very intriguing- she must have been so confused when she went to a restaurant she thought she’d be familiar with.

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  3. The history of food is truly my favourite kind of history! I’m quite surprised that Chinese food was such a big deal during the Goldrush – I never would’ve guessed that! I definitely understand how confronting it can be realising that Chinese food in Australia is quite different to food in China – after all, to them it’s just food. I can understand all your epiphanies but definitely resonate in the fact that I’m completely oblivious that China is such a large country with a huge population that we begin to forget there are different places and styles in the country. With me, I can understand that a little better due to my Italian background and the understanding of the different dialects all over Italy. It would be quite interesting to note whether Chinese food has changed over time in order to become a successful market in Australia (I study marketing and somehow things like this are always at the back of my mind!). All in all, I believe you had very convincing and an insightful reflection. Well done!

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