My Wanton Journey by Max Lane

I lived the first twenty years of my life in Fairfield in the western suburbs of Sydney. It was a working class suburb. The population was mainly Anglo in the period – 1950-65, although the next ring of suburbs west was attracting an Italian migrant population. My parents owned a successful Ladies Hairdressers Salon business and we lived on the most prosperous street in the suburb, although just at the end of the prosperous stretch. From where we were located onwards along the street, the houses went from brick to fibro or weatherboard.

I remember the Fairfield shopping centre as typical for the times. And one feature was a Chinese Restaurant, the Ginger Jar.  I remember we ate there on birthdays or other special occasions and also regularly ordered take away, which my mother or father would pick-up in the car. The Ginger Jar was only 5 minutes or so away in the car.  I think the food we ordered was also a typical order by Australian eaters of Chinese food in that period: Sweet and Sour Pork and Chicken and Almonds with Fried Rice. Maybe we ordered other dishes occasionally, but I can’t remember any. We never ordered plain steamed rice. In fact, my parents thought that fried rice was the only form of actually cooked rice. In hindsight, it seems strange that they thought that white rice was ‘uncooked’ as rice pudding was common in our home.


And I think, when at the restaurant, we may have also ordered “short soup” – wanton soup – although maybe not.

I became a regular visitor to Chinatown while I was at high school. I was taken there by a school friend, Norman Wang. In the 1960s, Malaysian students in Australian high schools were still rare. We became friends when I started to learn Malay/Indonesian as a subject at school. Chinatown in the 60s, for a young teenager from Fairfield was an adventure. Chinatown was still primarily servicing the Chinese community rather than tourists. Chinese delicatessens and grocery shops sold every kind of weird and wonderful cooked food, no doubt dropped off by home chefs.  90% or more of customers in cafes and restaurants were Chinese.  Initially with Norman and them increasingly by myself, I would be the only white person sitting in a café, and certainly the only one in a maroon school blazer.

Norman’s favourite restaurant was The Malaya, a restaurant about which I will write separately. I was introduced to cha siu (sweet bbqed pork) and Malayan curries and sambols. 50 years later, today, I am still addicted to The Malaya’s sambol. Did I also have ‘short soup’ back then? I suspect I did, but I can’t remember exactly. Certainly, later in the 70s I had wanton soup at The Malaya, as I often do today. It is one of the best wanton soups I have found in Australia.

So, I think my earliest memory of enjoying wanton soup was in Bali in 1969. The memory is vivid and very sensory even today. In Indonesia, it is not called short soup or wanton soup, but “pangsit kuah”. Pangsit is the name of the dumplings and ‘kuah’ refers to the liquid or soup.

My visit to Bali in 1969 was my first visit to Indonesia. I flew in from Kupang, West Timor, having entered Indonesia from Bacau in Portuguese East Timor.  I was staying with a Balinese family. One night, I wandered by myself to the main night market in Denpasar called Pasar Senggol. In 1969, there was still no mass tourism in Bali. The night market serviced local people only.

Wandering in the market that night, I turned and entered a wide lane. It was exactly like a young westerner would have imagined the atmosphere in an exotic Eastern night market. Although during 1969 I had been studying “Indonesian and Malayan Studies” at the University of Sydney, it had been Hollywood movies as well as Somerset Maughan and the like that had formed my ideas of an exotic East. The lane was lit by lanterns and torches. The noise combined that blasting furnace sound from the kerosene stoves and lamps and the clang of eating utensils and tin ladles on the sides of pots and tin drums. There, of course, was also the music of human chatter, mostly in Balinese and occasionally in Indonesian.

There was only one thing on sale: pangsit kuah. Almost all the stalls were staffed by women. Many were cooking the pangsit in huge pots and some, I remember, in what looked like big drums. In the dark night, the lights and sounds and chatter and, of course, the tantalising aromas were amazing. As I said, even 52 years later I can still picture it. I was 18 years old at the time.

Probably what has helped solder this memory into my memory is the final factor: the soups were delicious. The pangsit dumpling were delicious: juicy and tasty – I think pork meat, but maybe chicken.  The soup – a clear consommé – was also delicious, savoury but fresh and not oily. You sat on a wooden bench at a longtable to eat, ordering seconds if not sufficiently satiated. There was freshly made chilli sambal on the table if you neededto spice it up. During my few weeks in Bali on that visit, and on a return visits a month or so later and then on every visit, I was a regular in the pangsit lane.

This was probably my first serious experience of ‘Asian street food’, both in terms of taste and atmospherics.

After Denpasar, I was on the alert on my travels through Java, Singapore and Malaya over that December-February backpacking study holiday for anywhere that sold “pangsit”. Only one place compared favourable with Pasar Senggol, although it was as much a contrast as a comparison. This was the chicken pangsit kuah restaurant in Gondangdia Lama Street in Jakarta. Everybody I met in Jakarta recommended it. It was also delicious, and the café also had an enjoyable street food atmosphere. It was a different style than that of Denpasar. It was much more ‘chickeny’ – so maybe the pangsit in Bali was from pork. In Bali that meat is much more common. The Gondangdia resto was Chinese owned but in Jakarta selling pork pangsit would have had a smaller customer base.

After Jakarta, I spent 8 weeks or so in Singapore and Malaya but strangely I have no memory of wanton soup, although 18 years later I very much did have such experiences. During that 1969-70 journey in those countries, the memories are of fried noodles, satays, and the famous Chicken Rice.

Returning to Australia in early 1970, and having had experienced the pleasures of pangsit kuah, I was ready to try available versions in Sydney. I found two different and very pleasant wanton experiences. The first was at The Malaya, where I had it as an entre. It was, and still is, delicious. A clear, clean consome with a touch of shallot flavour with wanton in soft, tasty wrappings and fresh tasting minced meat filling – chicken, I think. It remains a favourite today, although it is quite expensive in The Malaya’s new ambience.

The second wanton soup experience was one that I think was a common experience for a certain cohort of Sydney university students in the 1960 and 70s. We were always on the look out for the cheapest best value meal. This was found in a few of the older Chinese cafes or restaurants in Chinatown. I can’t remember their names now. They were very simple, plain restaurants with laminex top tables and very basic chairs, sometimes benches similar to 1950s milk bars. Easily the best value dish was Combination Short and Long Soup. This came in a huge bowl and contained a generous number of wanton dumplings, some noodles as well as prawns, chicken and sliced BBQ pork and also Chinese vegetables. There was soya sauce, pepper and chilli on the table if you wished to spice it up. Chinese tea was provided free of charge.

These restaurants were not only a place for a lone, big, cheap, satisfying lunch but also ideal for a late night group eat-out. In the 70s, Chinatown was still not yet converted to a tourist zone and these kinds of restaurants were able to persist through to the end of that decade. I don’t really know the history of food production in Australia in real detail, but the quality of the prawns, chicken and meat in these soups was very good, given the price. I can’t really remember the prices any more, except that we used to marvel at the value for money even then.

And as we entered the 1980s, I was addicted to pangsit/wanton soup – among a number of other so-called ‘foodie’ addictions.

There were no new wanton experiences until 1987. In 1987, I held a position in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. I was writing a short book on politics in the Philippines. And, of course, I was on the look out for wanton soup. I tried a few and discovered that there were quite a variety available in Singapore. There was variety in the soup consomme itself. Some had more ginger than others; some had some kind of herbal infusion and some had that clear, fresh consomne that I had experienced in Bali and Sydney.

There were dumplings with minced chicken,  with pork or prawn as well as pork and prawn minced together.  I eventually came across a restaurant that became my regular during those several months in Singapore. It was situated on a fantastically strategic location on Orchard Road. That location today is occupied by Shaw House, that includes the Lido Cinema complex. In 1987, it was a single story row of shops, which included this rather big restaurant that specialised in dumplings, including dumpling soups. Again, I can’t remember its name. The consomme was of the clear, fresh kind but with just a nice, slight extra taste of ginger. The dumplings were of a new kind for me, but I discovered over the future years, also not uncommon. The dumplings contained prawns, but not minced. They were fresh, delicious prawns, not quite whole, but there was still a generous amount. You could also order a soup that contained a variety of different dumplings.

I think it was only a year later when that shop disappeared. No doubt rents on the increasingly famous (or infamously consumerist) Orchard Road became too high for a dumpling restaurant. Such restaurants retreated to the food courts in the basements or top floors of the big Orchard Road malls or into hidden shops in some of the malls’ inner arcades. As the more ruthless laws of business have deepened, I also think factory mass produced spices and dumplings have multiplied. The hand-made dumpling has become within the province of the almost fine dining Chinese restaurant, such as Ding Fai Tung, or the work of the dedicated, hard-working, and probably impoverished food stall family in an out-of-the way food court somewhere.

But the whole prawn wanton in a slightly gingerish chicken consommé has become a favourite of mine as well.

I still keep my eye out for any wanton or pangsit soup testing. If I am in Sydney and can get to The Malaya and I am more than usually hungry, I will order their Wanton Soup as an entre before getting my hit of Prawn Sambol. There are still one or two of the most long established restaurants in Chinatown where a Combination Short Soup is on the menu, but it has disappeared from most menus. No doubt there is not enough profit in the dish.  A “combination’ dish where the restaurant can fill you up with rice or fried noodles is one thing. Combination Short Soup, despite the noodles for the dumplings, relies on the chicken, pork and prawn to fill you up.

Perhaps Chinese dumpling soup has also been overtaken in the culinary favourites race by Yum Cha/Dim Sum cuisine. Dumpling Soup is available at all these. And there are so many varieties of steamed and fried dumplings available in a good Yum Cha restaurant.  But that is in Australia. In Indonesia and Singapore, it will remain a popular dish and I will remain alert for any new testing.

But nothing can replace the experience of the pre-tourism Denpasar night market for the western, Hollywood based ‘orientalist’ educated 18 year old of 1969. Was it my ‘orientalist’ education  and expectation of exotic adventure that made the experience so vivid or the contrast with Sydney suburban flatness (for which the strange ‘exoticness’ of the Australian beach was the only escape)? Or a bit of both.

You are so delicious, my friend the Pangsit and the Wanton.

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