Sydney trains are better than Tokyo trains.
There I said it.
Tokyo trains are optimised to fit as many standing people as possible.
So everyone dashes in to grab the seats and pretends to sleep and not see the people around them.
You're underground most of the time, and you are not allowed to speak. Your phones are forbidden to ring.
On my Sydney train rides, each person gets a whole couch to themselves, a whole couch! And you get to choose if you want upstairs, and downstairs. Don't forget the sweepy-swipy thing with the backrest. If facing north is against your fengshui, face south! Forge your own destiny.
Most importantly, everyone talks on Sydney trains. Arabic FaceTime, business zoom calls, Cantonese real estate negotiation. There's really a strong IDGAF attitude amongst the riders on Sydney public transport.
You get views of the sky, the landscape, the maps are easier to deal with, it’s great.
This time, my 12th time in Sydney, I've eaten nothing but Asian food.
Specifically Malaysian and Cantonese food. Because the people I met, my family and friends, are Malaysian and Cantonese. In fact, this report is almost like a guide to Sydney if you hate white people
I've said it many times but I'm happy to say it again - your travel experience is determined by your social circle and geography.
Before the internet, the travel magazines, the macarons, the hats, the ranking, this was how people travel.
Word of mouth.
And sure Sydney trains are fun, but still, Sydney itself is a giant pain in the anus to navigate.
There are two kinds of friends in Sydney - the ‘too far’ friends and the ‘not too far’ friends. The ‘not too far’ friends will come and pick you up. The ‘too far’ friends, well, maybe you’ll see them at your kids’ university graduation.
Kowloon Cafe, Burwood
My first meal after touching down, my high school best friend Leng took me to Burwood. (I took a train from the airport to Panania first, then we drove to Burwood.)
The last time I was in Sydney, Kowloon Cafe was still renovating on Sussex Street.
There’s a Good Food review of this cha chaan teng and it’s very obvious that the writer went in, considered what is a good introduction for the gwailous, and went yea, french toast, curry and rice, and XO fried instant noodles. That should be safe enough.
There’s a severe lack of cha chaan teng in Melbourne (maybe not, maybe I just didn’t bother to venture to our Burwood), so anytime I see one I would always order 焗飯 (baked rice). Grilled pork (chicken for me) chop on a bed of fried rice, topped with cream (or tomato) sauce and cheese in the broiler. If you’re making me pay $20 for a dish, I want to see some gas going. I want it fresh.
Thick-cut French toast is for tourists who never found enough love from their parents. Locals go for boloyao - crispy butter pineapple bun. Yinyong (coffee and tea) is overrated, those who really flex will order Horlick. Do they still serve maltose with Horlick, those that stick to the spoon? I’ll cry if they do.
Spam. If you didn’t order spam in a cha caan teng, did you even go to a cha caan teng? Spam in noodle soup, spam in fried rice.
We had spam and egg in sandwich.
Ambi’s Chai, Pennant Hills.
“Don’t you talk shit about Tokyo, because you’ve been there so many times. I so want to go to Tokyo.” Said Lu when I was giving her my Sydney vs Tokyo train rant. (See first paragraph.)
Lu has been nominated for a James Beard award, is regularly on TV with Adam Liaw, shoots for Woman Weekly, invited to Melbourne Food and Wine Festival to promote Filipino food.
I was lucky that she was a ‘not too far’ friend as she became my fixer on a Thursday night. My only new friend on the trip. If I were her, I wouldn’t have bothered to take me out.
We started with Malaysian nearby - despite me surprising her with a butter oatmeal-coated fried chicken dish, the spotlight of the day was chai.
I was never a big fan of chai.
I call it perfume tea, or liquid curry. Or the drink made for Karens who dislike coffee but are too proud to order water in a cafe.
But Ambi’s Chai, I wish I could pack Ambi’s Chai in my pocket and return to Melbourne.
Look at the menu.
There are over 15 types of chai here.
The sign says ‘20 minute wait time’. That’s because every time you place an order, they make your chai from scratch, heating the spices in a pot. No premix masala chai bullshit.
Look at the menu again.
What a diplomatic synonym for ‘pussies stop here’.
Look at the menu once again.
Ambi used to coach hockey, so each drink is dedicated to someone on the team. The guy’s Indian and local, that’s why everyone loves him.
It’s really an ‘out of Sydney’ experience.
The chai here punches hard. Think chili chocolate, but with spices.
Lu got the turmeric with oat milk.
You should too.
Eastwood Seafood Restaurant, Eastwood
“I don’t know man, I haven’t been since COVID. They’ve renovated and started selling hotpot. So I’m not sure if the food is still any good.” Gina replied when I asked for a place for good Cantonese food.
But who cares? $158.88 for lobster noodles with two side dishes, rice, and dessert included. In Melbourne, the lobster itself would cost us $150. Let’s gooooo.
I visited Eastwood on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, for different reasons.
I found koshihikari rice from Niigata, I bought herbal medicine for my wife, I bought 2kg lychees for the niece and nephew, I saw a shop specialising in cheungfun with the giant steam trays that New Yorkers go ohlala over, we took away frozen dimsum, there’s a shop with Malaysian ikan bakar with monster ray fish, hell, I bought Musang King durian for my parents.
I did not speak an ounce of English in Eastwood.
It’s eight minutes away from my sister’s place, and really, I wonder why Sydneysiders even bother going to Singapore.
Did you know the hottest product in Eastwood is 鸭屎香?
Translated as ‘duck shit fragrance’. Laugh at the name first, then at your own ignorance when you check out the price. It is a prized Dancong class of oolong tea originating from Teochew. The origin of the name shares a long line of Chinese whispers - the shape of the tea leaves after brewing, the soil which contained duck feces when the emperor found it… you know the drill.
The point is, the shit in duck shit fragrance stands for hot shit.
Good shit. Expensive shit.
Today you learned. Get on it Lee Tran.
Back to Eastwood Seafood Restaurant.
They will try to sell you their Peking duck, but the name is Eastwood ‘seafood’ restaurant; not Eastwood ‘duck’ restaurant. In fact, the other side of the sign is Eastwood ‘hotpot’ restaurant. You’re on your own.
In the end, we went for the crab and vermicelli in claypot combo (lobster is so 2018), with stir-fried tofu, and snow crab as the two side dishes.
Three adults, and we had to take away the tofu and rice.
The waiter said they had to pivot to hotpot during COVID because they were short-staffed. It’s the same restaurant, he insisted. Gina and Wilson let out a sigh of relief. But I think even without the waiter, all the uncle aunties filling up the restaurant was a sign of assurance.
The main takeaway here: hot pot restaurants are a low-cost business operation. I knew there’s a reason why I never liked hot pot.
Mamu Penang Coffee Stall
My brother-in-law didn’t say it, but it was all over his face as we walked in.
It all started with the motorbike parked out front, then a group of Malays sitting outside, a snooker table, then the charcoal smoke from the satay stall, the giant Malaysian flag, the state of Penang flag, and the Australian flag, in that order.
Do we order upfront? Do we sit down?
No, you go up to the individual stalls and place your order.
They write your name and order down, you pay cash or mobile ID, and pray they remember you.
Like a warung makan, like a pasar malam.
I don’t know which stage of Simulacra and Simulation it was, but Leonardo Di Caprio and his team did a really good job of making me doubt reality.
Unlike seeing an Indian in a Tokyo convenience store, feeling unsure to speak English or Japanese (I spoke Japanese), my high school-level Malay just blurted out.
Dua puluh satay, cik.
Terima kasih, cik.
Because the air, the condition, and the lady with the hijab, were all signals that I should speak Malay.
The char kuey teow guy and his wife feeding their baby next to the wok, the roti canai guy not opening because he’s in the Sunday evening snooker tournament, cements this hyperreality.
Not only did they import the look, but they also imported the work ethics.
Chris waited forty minutes for his twenty satays, went home to his family and I joined Leng and his wife.
We ordered some turmeric rice with chicken, a fried chicken nasi lemak, a char kuey teow, and pisang goreng (fried banana). They also took away a nasi goreng kampung for lunch the next day.
What shocked us was the sauce that came with the banana.
So spicy, I had to ask the guy what was it.
“Ini sambal … kecap.” (Translation: this mofo is soy sauce sambal yo.)
“Ya, satu pek cili padi, satu pek bawang putih, sebotol ABC kecap manis, masuk blender.”
(Translation: 1 pack of bird’s eye chili, 1 pack of garlic, a full bottle of ABC kecap manis, in the blender, peace out.)
You learn something every day.
I was hoping the roti canai guy would lose in the tournament and start to make some roti canai, but that did not happen.
The dying question from all Sydneysiders: is this better than Hojiak?
All Malaysians know Hojiak is a fake Malaysian restaurant, a Papparich 2.0 if you may, a Madam Kwan 3.0 if you may. Similar to Kowloon Cafe, a very cosmetic (and expensive) way to introduce nostalgia.
For some reason, I think the guy making Char Kuey Teow with his baby, the owner of the roti canai stall … are happier than the 19-20-year-olds behind the kitchen of Hojiaks around the city.
And just like in Malaysia, people who go to Hojiak will not go to Mamu.
Because it’s in a rough neighborhood. Because it’s outdoors. Because it has no air conditioning. Because no service. Because a lot of flies. Because safety concerns.
Because because because.
For those who grew up in my part of Malaysia, those are the exact reasons the food is so good.
Eventually, someone is going to report this place and it will get shut down for all the boring reasons.
You’ve been warned.
This was supposed to be a Tokyo report.
But I had a window of opportunity to visit my family while my wife and daughter went away for scout camp. There’s no job, no protectors, no lanterns, no Kryptonians stopping me from enjoying a few days without dad duty. So I used my frequent flyer points and booked a $40 return ticket with Qantas
Do you really need a footnote to explain you don’t really hate white people, Harvard? Yes, Harvard, I think I do.
I don’t only hack recipes, I also hack finance. Move over Queenie Tan.
Probably the most fun and edgy write up of Sydney food I’ve read since ever 🤣😂 glad you travelled outside of the city centre too!
Wow! I wish I could travel with you!☺️