This week I am thinking about

a dinner at Flower Drum restaurant, marking four decades of dishes. http://www.flower-drum.com The dinner was held at the end of May, the menu printed on the yellow and red sheets of paper that were used at the restaurant when it was still in Little Bourke Street, before it moved to Market Lane sometime in the 1980s.

There are few restaurants that could present such a dinner. Even fewer, I think, able to present a dinner that is a history of a cuisine. For me, the dishes showed how Chinese food has changed in Melbourne, and it was an account of a restaurant that has led the way. There’s a continuity that is wonderful. Gilbert Lau is no longer the owner, but chef Anthony Lui has been in the kitchens since 1981 and is one of the owners. Anthony’s son Jason is the manager.

The dishes served spanned the decades. We began in 2012 with a seafood dumpling that for me represented how Chinese food can change. Most dumplings are small, filled with chopped ingredients. This was a big soft pillow, filled with a whole scallop and chunks of prawn, mud crab, mushroom and bamboo shoots, served in a very superior broth.

A dish from the first year of the Flower Drum followed: a fried prawn cutlet filled with minced seafood, served with lemon juice and spicy salt. That was a Korean Prawn, and I was struck by the ways in which Chinese cooking likes to disguise food. Looks like a prawn, and yet it’s not exactly…. That was true of the dishes that followed, the barramundi noodles (2005) in which barramundi is transformed into noodle-like strands and served with things you would expect to find with noodles – garlic shoots, shiitake mushrooms, bean shoots, capsicum strips, diced Chinese sausage.

The baked crab shell (1986 or so) was another example of disguise: a crab shell filled with crab, onion, garlic, and a turmeric sauce. I remembered that dish, as I remembered the potato pear (1987), a pear-shaped croquette filled with finely diced chicken, quail, asparagus, duck sausages, mushrooms and water chestnuts. Versions of them were both award-winning dishes in the Chinatown Food Festival that started a couple of years later. I was one of the judges in that festival, where restaurants offered special menus and judges awarded prizes for the best dishes.

Peking Duck (another early dish) followed, and then we leapt forward to 2004 for a northern dish of stir-fried lamb with leek and spring onion, served with a sweet bread pocket. It was as if northern cooks had been shown a picture of a souvlaki, and left to experiment. Then we went back to 1981 for mandarin beef in bird’s nest. Not a real bird’s nest, one made of potato, and the beef was fried with a sweet and sour sauce. And then a flurry of desserts on a tasting plate.

How is Chinese food different in Melbourne? Beef features on the menu because beef is plentiful here. Other ingredients are different, too. There used to be arguments about authenticity – as if making adaptations to a cuisine renders it inauthentic. Sometimes that’s true: it’s often true in substitution cooking (“if X is unavailable, substitute Y”) where the dish ends up unrecognisable.

But this dinner seemed to me to be very much an expression of Melbourne Chinese as a valid style. Cooking is a bit like language, it evolves. It’s been evolving for centuries, and has often been severely threatened – by famine and war. We ought to remember that in the 1960s and early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese cooking existed only in exile, and if there had not been Chinese cooking in Hong Kong and other cities, the cuisine might have been relegated to a kind of museum status.

By the 1980s, Melbourne was regarded as one of the three centres of excellence for Chinese cooking (along with Hong Kong and Toronto). The Flower Drum played a major part in that.

So what makes Melbourne Chinese as a style? Melbourne Chinese usually works up to beef as a final course, because it is the strongest flavour. Chinese banquets usually end with fish because it is auspicious. There are other differences, but the similarities are more powerful. The similarities include the skills involved in cooking, the variation in cooking techniques throughout a banquet, a respect for steaming, and a playfulness in presentation (pear-shaped croquette, barramundi as noodles) that we also encounter in Heston Blumenthal’s cooking.

The banquet was a triumph, one of the many for Flower Drum. For me, over the decades, there has never been a less than excellent meal, never been a meal where I have not discovered something new about flavours, ideas, and the pleasures of eating. I can only wish the restaurant more happy years.

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