Most Sydneysiders have a story about Chinatown. For chef Kylie Kwong, her earliest memories are grocery shop-hopping with her mother in preparation for the family's lavish Saturday dinner parties. Her mother's providore of choice was Kai Yuen on Campbell Street, where the smells of five spice and char siu mingled in the air. "When I was seven, my job was to reach into the large vat of delicious mixed pickles with my hand inside a plastic bag in order to retrieve about 500 grams' worth," says Kwong.
The chef is part of Secret Snacks, an online and street campaign by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art to get more diners onto the streets of Chinatown, and eat their way around the historic precinct.
A clutch of local Asian-Australians have nominated their favourite "secret snacks": writer Benjamin Law has chosen Boon Cafe's crab congee, while artist James Jirat Patradoon has singled out Gumshara's tonkotsu ramen with pork spare rib. Outside these restaurants, psychedelic illustrations of the dishes by design collective More of Something Good (MSG) mark the spot; posters promoting Secret Snacks will also do the rounds in inner Sydney until March 12.
Luisa Brimble sings the praises of the gyoza from Nakano Darling. The James Beard-nominated food photographer encountered the dish last year at a Christmas party at the izakaya, and quickly realised why her colleagues were fighting for the pan-fried dumplings. "Now whenever I meet a friend at Nakano Darling I usually buy a kilo or two of the frozen gyozas to take home," she says.
Kwong, meanwhile, has nominated Chat Thai's som dtum as her go-to Chinatown dish. Her first taste of the restaurant's green papaya salad was prepared by owner Amy Chanta, and Chanta's daughter Palisa Anderson, with produce grown on the family's farm. "[What] made their som dtum particularly special was the pure heart, care and generosity in which these two extraordinary people grew, cultivated, made and offered this dish."
As with all campaigns, it's about timing. Lunar New Year, as celebrated by many east and south-east Asian communities, is just around the corner. Last year's celebrations were overshadowed by the first detected case of COVID-19 in Australia; and in the early months of the pandemic, many pointed to misplaced fear and xenophobia towards the Chinese community, and Chinese-owned businesses, as the cause of visitors deserting the precinct.
"We all know with this pandemic that Chinatown and Asian eateries were the hardest hit right from the get-go," says Brimble. "It's important more than ever to go out there and support these venues."
MSG was formed in March 2020 in response to the sudden business downturn in Chinatown, with designers Muriel-Ann Ricafrente and Mike Souvanthalisith creating an online gallery of illustrations and artwork dedicated to favourite dishes from migrant- and Asian-owned restaurants. Souvanthalisith describes each illustrated dish as a "perfectly seasoned autobiography". "Through Secret Snacks we're celebrating stories, memories and flavours so deeply rooted in our identity," he said in a statement.
For Kwong, the campaign is a timely reminder of how Asian communities have shaped Sydney's food scene. "I cannot begin to imagine our daily lives here in Sydney without access to the delicious, aromatic, healthy, vibrant, diverse, multi-layered cuisines of China, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines and so on." Asian food culture is deeply embedded in our way of life, she says, and it's a privilege worth experiencing and celebrating. "[And] Chinatown for me, is the best place to do this."