The Little-Known History of Chinese Restaurants in Australia

Posted on 03 March 2016

The Little-Known History of Chinese Restaurants in Australia

Australians have been obsessed with Chinese food ever since we can remember.

But what do we actually know about the history of Chinese food culture in Australia?

Digging into the past, we know that Victoria’s gold rush in 1850’s attracted hopefuls or diggers overseas, including China.  The Chinese came to this land down under searching for prosperous goldfields and more lucrative jobs and trades, unintentionally spreading their cuisine.

Barbara Nichol, a historian who specialised in Chinese cuisine history in Australia, has recently presented a lecture about the complex and colorful history of Chinese cuisine in the country.

Nichol said that the Chinese immigrants first came to Australia to work in the outback and countryside. Most of them found a job in pubs and cooking stations.

Soon after, Australia has continued to see more Chinese migrants arrive on its shore, lured by the goldmines. These Chinese miners missed their food back home so Chinese cookhouses found plenty of hungry customers. The white Australians joined them sometimes.

Chinese Restaurants: An Immigration Vehicle

Back in 1890, about one third of chefs in Australia came from China.

They were, in fact, among the type of Chinese migrants most welcome in the country despite the inception of the White Australia policy in 1901 – an era when the anti-Chinese sentiment was ubiquitous throughout the country.  

Although the Australians’ resentment towards the Chinese Diggers was strong, resistance to their food was impossible.

Australia strictly monitored all immigrants except for Chinese chefs who found special favour during visa application. Many Chinese cooks were granted visas to work in Chinese diners and restaurants.

These migrant cooks eventually brought in their relatives without disclosing their connections (as this was not permitted). The relatives were not necessarily trained chefs or cooks  when they arrived in the country, meaning, they acquired the skills of cooking Chinese dishes on the job.

How many Chinese restaurants in Australia are Authentic

Steven's Asian Kitchen and their dishes

Steven’s Asian Kitchen in Newcastle, Australia

Before the indentured labourers from China came, Australians avoided tofu like a plague.

Now, the Chinese restaurants around the country have steadily increased. Not only are these Chinese eateries, bistros and restaurants a ubiquitous sight, the Chinese food ingredients have become a common appearance in the supermarket.

However popular, the Chinese chefs have not completely changed the Australians’ appetites. They have made adjustments, too. For instance, they had to put more meat options on their menu to meet the demands of local diners.

Very few Chinese restaurants here copy the exact cooking styles and recipes in China, which makes these dishes palatable to the average Australian foodie.

Chinese cuisine keeps evolving in Australia, especially in Newcastle. Steven’s Asian Kitchen is relatively a newcomer to the Chinese food scene but it is gaining ground quickly. Better see it for yourself.


Want to Know More?  See Takeaway Treasures to Love from Chinese Newcastle NSW