asian food on a dinner table

Your ultimate guide to the history of Asian food in Australia

Australia has a multicultural palette – there’s no doubt about it. 

Walk down the main shopping or dining strip of any town or city in Australia and you’ll find a huge range of cuisines from all over the world, from Greek to Italian, Ethiopian to Mexican, and of course a wide range of Asian cuisines. 

Asian food is popular all over Australia, allowing us to expand our palettes, taste new spices, textures and flavours, and have a dining experience 100% different to the classic Aussie meat and three veg.

But where did Australia’s love of Asian food come from? Where did it all start? 

That’s where we come in. We’ve put together a guide to the history of Asian food in Australia, so you can develop a better understanding and deeper knowledge of the food on your plate. Read on!

1850s & the Gold Rush

Australian and Chinese on the gold fields

Image: Welcome to China

Asian food became popular in Australia in the 1850s when the gold rush began. 

In 1851, a prospector named Edward Hargraves discovered gold in Orange, New South Wales – before long, diggers were coming from all over Australia and the world to get their hands on a gold nugget or two!

There was a huge influx of Chinese immigrants who turned convict colonies into more progressive cities. Lots of Chinese migrants would work in cookhouses on the gold fields, transforming the palettes of Australian’s forever – since there was such a wide range of nationalities and diggers, the Chinese cooks had to cater to both European and Chinese diets.

Trouble with the White Australia Policy

Chinese migrants continued to flow into Australia until 1901 when Prime Minister Edmund Barton introduced the White Australia Policy. 

The policy was designed to stop people from non-European ethnicities from entering Australia. It was targeted at Asian people and Pacific Islanders. The goal was to eliminate competition and conflict between Chinese and British diggers on the goldfields. 

There was also some contention in Australia around low-wage Chinese immigrants taking jobs on Queensland’s sugar plantations, leaving fewer jobs for Europeans.

The policy made it more difficult for Chinese people to migrate to Australia,” said Jan O’Connell, the author of A Timeline of Australian Food.

The whole Chinese culture – including restaurants – went through a bit of a slump [for a few years].”

However, Aussies were already in love with Asian cuisine, and the limitations of the White Australia Policy lead to a boom in Chinese restaurants. Many people saw Chinese and Cantonese food as “bohemian” and it was popular with city workers, doctors and nurses who worked late shifts, and local Chinese business owners.

Asian restaurants stayed open late and offered takeaway meals which were super popular with workers. Cities like Sydney and Melbourne loved Chinese restaurants, and Chinese chefs and restaurant owners loved the overwhelming acceptance.

The end of the White Australia Policy… here comes Asian Cuisine!

bowl of Vietnamese pho

Image: Unsplash

The government disbanded the White Australia Policy between 1946 and 1973. 

By the time we reached the 1970s, different varieties of Chinese cooking started to arrive in Australia and the more upmarket Chinese restaurants started to attract non-Chinese diners,” Ms O’Connell said.

Now that immigration from Asian countries was being encouraged, more and more Asian cuisines landed in Australia and became popular almost immediately. 

In 1975, the collapse of the South Vietnam regime lead to an influx of Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese communities popped up in the Melbourne suburbs of Richmond, Footscray, and Springvale, plus the Sydney suburbs of Cabramatta, Canley Vale, and Canley Heights.

In 1980, the first-ever Vietnamese restaurant opened up in Cabramatta after serving customers out of a garage for several years. Aussie palettes were expanded with the likes of bánh mì, phở, and gỏi cuốn, which are all still popular.

Thai and Japanese food also became popular in the 1980s. 

While the first Japanese restaurants opened in the 1950s and 1960s and mainly served businessmen, Japanese food wasn’t embraced fully until the 1970s and 1980s. The first ever Australian Teppanyaki House opened in Melbourne in 1975 and offered a full menu, including sushi and sashimi – a difficult dish to achieve in those days.

By the 1980s and 1990s, using chopsticks was considered an important social skill in the multicultural dining scene!

Asian cuisine has transformed how we experience food in Australia

Asian cuisine has changed the restaurant and dining scene in Australia for the better. Our palettes are wonderful and multicultural – now, wherever you go, you can find an Asian restaurant with a wide range of flavourful dishes to choose from. 

Whether you’re looking for Cantonese, Vietnamese, Thai or Japanese, there are so many international options to experience right here at home.

At Dee Why RSL, we love Asian cuisine, which is why we opened our very own Asian restaurant simply called “The Asian”. Our chefs implement authentic Asian recipes and techniques and serve dishes from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, so you can experience a wide range of flavours in one place. 

Want to bring the fam in for lunch or dinner? 

Check out our menu online now and drop into The Asian today to appreciate the rich history of Asian food in Australia.

Image: Unsplash