A bowl of chicken laksa

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Roti telur, or roti with egg, and incredible sauces.

Roti telur, or roti with egg, and incredible sauces.

Despite its beef pie history, Sydney is truly a Pacific city. Like Vancouver, or San Francisco, it wears its Asianness pretty nonchalantly.

Great Vietnamese food isn’t trapped in some hard-to-reach ethnic neighborhood; you can find it right in Darlinghurst at Phamish, which is as spiffy and cute as its Vietnamized spelling implies.

Fish Face, with its incredible seafood, serves up a menu that lists fish and chips side by side with nigiri without any self-consciousness. Why should it be self-conscious, when Australian kingfish on rice melts like butter in your mouth?

Mamak, a new Malaysian darling in Chinatown, is a long, skinny space with a short, sweet menu, heavy on rotis.  It’s as cheap as a first-generation restaurant, but so obviously with the assuredness of a second-generation one. Also, there is a guy swinging roti dough in the front, more thrilling than any pizza throwing I’ve ever seen.

Of course, there’s also Japanese, Thai, even Nepalese, and Korean. (I would try the Korean food except I’m pretty sure of what I would find, good-enough food to satisfy the hungry Korean students, and not much more.)

Food court chicken laksa!

Food court chicken laksa!

But I think the moment I was most impressed by Sydney’s Asian food was when I had this bowl of chicken laksa at a food court. I’d been working on my day job at the Customs House, it was damp and rainy, and all I wanted was an easy, cheap lunch before I went back to work.  I chose the food court of a random office building; I’m not even sure I could find it again. There weren’t any recognizable franchises, just clearly marked sections for “sandwiches,” “coffee,” and “Asian.”

“Asian” in American food courts usually means something called Panda Wok or Great Wall, and it always serves very sweet orange chicken, sometimes with some steamed broccoli if you are lucky. At this food court, there was Hainanese chicken, dim sum, barbecued pork, and Singapore noodles. The dim sum looked like plastic in the display case, and to me, pan-Asian normally means nothing in particular is very good.

But the woman next to me was ordering a bowl of laksa, and it looked incredible. The menu said it was “a spicy, coconut milk broth,” and it looked as rich and oily as all good coconut broths do. When I sat down with my chicken laksa, I initially just stirred the soup, amazed at what was in it. The red-specked soup kept shifting color as I stirred, turning up big chunks of dark chicken meat and such a bounty of skinny egg noodles. The noodles tasted as good as they looked. My nose was so congested but I could still smell it!

It cost AUS$9, about US$7. A good value anywhere, but especially so in Sydney, which feels expensive to this New Yorker. And in a food court! I’ve had Asian food this good in food courts, but in places like Seoul and Richmond just outside Vancouver, which is almost as Chinese as Hong Kong. To me, the quality of food in a food court says more to me about a country’s culinary values than the food at a five-star restaurant. And to have chicken laksa this good in a non-Asian city…Sydney should be proud.

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5 Responses to “A bowl of chicken laksa”

  1. lina Says:

    You’re working at the Customs House??

  2. Diane Says:

    Yes, same thing Lina asked.

  3. Sharon Says:

    I like laksa, too. But I have the same question as above–you have a day job?

  4. Grace Says:

    Oops, sorry, the Customs House is a historical building that’s now a public library. It’s beautiful! Thank God, I am not a customs official. I have the good luck of being able to work more or less anywhere in the world.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I can’t stop looking at your photo of the laksa. Must be hungry!

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