Food for Thought: The History of Chinese Cuisine in Australia

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The experience of working on this project has made me fall even deeper in love with history – the feeling leaves me swindled and woozy and happy and proud. I feel the heroism that a historian earns from playing a part in preserving and sharing stories. I’ve finally made a mark by delivering a somewhat historic permanence to the stories I’ve shared, keeping them from being lost to the oblivion of fading memory. It’s impossible to articulate the emotions, but it is the feeling of having achieved one’s purpose.


The key argument underlying the project’s development and presentation is the idea that there is value in small, localised histories, as these stories are highly demonstrative of the wider narrative attributed to immigrants adapting to their new, foreign contexts over time. The stories and histories of these individuals, despite their worth, are unfortunately often forgotten, fading away from memory – as such, the project is an attempt to preserve a part of these histories in the stories attached to each of the featured community-submitted recipes. The essence of the project is also its ability to dispel the illusion that dishes adapted to westernised palates are not a part of our culture. I wanted to ensure that these dishes are viewed rather as a testament to the history of those who have moved to a foreign country and adapted to their circumstances. The dishes of Chinese-Australian cuisine do not represent a singular entity, as its adaptations over time now make it a beautifully intertwined mixture of two distinctly different cultures.


The project, as it highlights different personal experiences with the recipes, allowed me to shift my focus significantly towards oral histories as my primary sources. The oral histories were collected in the form of short interviews – either through face-to-face or online meetings. I had planned to reach out to members of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia – however it was difficult for this to come to fruition in such a short time span. I had to discover alternatives to find members of the community that were willing to participate in the project. I found some success with posting on social media, asking friends and co-workers, and visiting the 89 Billiards Club, a mah-jong and pool hall that my grandfather frequents, which in retrospect could have been a great organisation to explore the history of.


The highlighted personal histories of each of the dishes that I found from my participants was also supplemented with information from secondary sources, such as websites, articles, and book chapters that focused on contextualising the origins of these foods in China, and their change in taste and popularity in Australia. The secondary sources with the most benefit to the project had to be Nichol’s article written about ‘cookshops’ present in the early gold-rush era, which inspired the addition of a page dedicated to this early food history. I also found Tong’s discussion of the adaptation of different dishes to suit westernised palates to be extremely useful in arguing against the ‘inauthenticity’ of the recipes that were provided, arguing that these dishes are rather a testament to the adaptability of our culture and the effects of living in a different society. I was also able to use personal culinary knowledge as a source to draw from to describe the dishes in comparisons to highlight the changes derived from existing in a different geographical context with a much different palate.


The idea for this project was to make the histories of the community more accessible to all, rather than with a journal article or essay that limits the audience significantly. The dishes and recipes featured on the website, as food is a universal language, can be a gateway into exposure to the interesting and personal nature of family and community histories. I am estimating for the cookbook, once published on the organisation’s website, to have an audience consisting predominantly of older members of the community, as this is the current demographic for interest in the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia. I would like to promote the website further through social media platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook to ensure that the cookbook receives the traffic it deserves from younger audiences as well. I feel that the project will be a way to express and highlight the value of preserving the smaller histories generally forgotten with time, demonstrating that these histories hold individual significance while simultaneously constructing the wider narrative of immigration, life in a foreign country, and the inevitable cultural change that comes as a result.


The project that had been envisioned was one that was accessible for all members of society, in both the context of audience, as well as geographical location. The history of the community that we are sharing is unfortunately not explored enough, as in both primary and high schools, the country’s history is shown as dichotomised and polarised, with only two sides – the subjugated native peoples and their colonial oppressors. I am passionate about the project as I do believe that it is a significant contributor to demonstrating the value in Chinese-Australian histories, and I hope it inspires others similarly. I believe that the project will grow the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, as it draws in more individuals that will grow to understand the significance of preserving stories from family and community histories.

Food for Thought: An Investigation into Food as a Historical Device

“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.”

Chinese Proverb

I believe that for many, there exists an innate human desire to know our own histories. It is not only where we come from, but more interestingly, the question of who we come from. The ancestors we have are much like us – we share inseparable hereditary links to them through our blood, DNA, and very existence.

But who were they as people? What were their personalities like? Would life in such a distant time within history have shaped them to hold vastly different values to ours? Would we have liked them if we had met them? Would we have enjoyed their company? The questions presented here are difficult to find answers to, and some are almost impossible to answer, especially without submitting oneself to a deep historical inquiry of someone’s entire lifetime. These questions have always compelled me to find answers, though the comparisons I can make between myself and my distant historical relatives only extends to our blood. This is of course, except for the food.

The Revelation that Food is History

A tin of fried dace.

My dad found tins of ‘fried dace’ – a small fish preserved in oil and salted black beans – when he was shopping for dinner. The origin story begins in the late 1800s where there was widespread immigration for new opportunities in foreign lands. As the differences in food were a significant culture shock to the newly arrived immigrants, it was difficult to become accustomed to the food of their new countries. The dace from Guangzhou, China, were fried, preserved in salted black beans and oil, and taken to foreign countries for immigrants, such as the U.S. and Australia. It was a popular food for early gold rush settlers for its affordability and how its strong flavour allowed it to become a meal when combined with plain white rice. My dad described how it was a food that had been eaten for generations in our family and how the ingredients had not changed throughout time. For this seemingly mundane meal to the outside eye, it allowed me the opportunity for a profound experience running parallel to those of my distant historical relatives. It is through the oral histories and experiences told by my dad, from my grandfather, and from his father, and so on, that I found myself feeling my experiences were more intertwined with my ancestors than ever before.

Project Cookbook

The revelation that food is a fantastic way to have myself and others engaging with history and our immigrant ancestors, only came through while I was in talks with the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia (CHAA), a fantastic organisation that delves mostly into oral histories to tell the stories of the Chinese community in Australia. The search for a major project idea led to talks about making changes for the CHAA’s website. This helped us envision a general update (modernisation and revitalisation) to the website as well as the inclusion of a new webpage, featuring an interactive, digitised cookbook made in tandem with the community, that includes recipes of dishes and snacks that have either cultural and historical significance to Chinese-Australians.

A potential redesign for the upcoming revitalised CHAA website.