Mongolian lamb or honey prawns? We rank the old-school Chinese favourites

Karen Hardy
February 7 2024 - 5:30am

While Australia is blessed with a myriad of Asian restaurants, there's something quite nostalgic about old-school Chinese dishes.

In most towns across the country, it's now possible to find Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Singaporean, Indonesian, or Malaysian restaurants.

Celebrations begin for the Lunar New Year on Saturday, February 10, 2024. It is the Year of the Dragon according to Chinese zodiacs but the celebrations vary across multiple countries.

But for many of us, a Chinese restaurant was our first taste of something other than meat and three veg.

Sure, the menu was probably some homogenised version of Cantonese food - we knew little of the diversity of regional Chinese cuisine - but here were flavours we'd never tasted.

Get the lazy susan spinning and don't feel embarrassed to ask for a fork. Picture Shutterstock
Get the lazy susan spinning and don't feel embarrassed to ask for a fork. Picture Shutterstock

Many of us were most likely seduced by other Asian cuisines as the years went on, the freshness of Vietnamese, the complexity of Thai.

But who doesn't crave eating honey prawns with their fingers, or get excited when a plate of sizzling Mongolian lamb is on its way to the table.

Get the lazy Susan spinning and don't feel embarrassed to ask for a fork. We've picked our top 10 old-school dishes off the menu.

What's on your menu?

10. Combination chow mein

Combination chow mein is high on the nostalgia chart. Picture Shutterstock
Combination chow mein is high on the nostalgia chart. Picture Shutterstock

This one's only here because my late dad ordered it every time we had Chinese, from the same restaurant where the woman taking orders knew his name. I seem to remember a lot of cabbage, but traditionally it's a dish made with noodles covered in slippery sauce made of soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil and a little cornstarch to thicken it all up. There were always chunks of chicken and whatever leftover vegetables the kitchen needed to get rid of. High on the nostalgia factor, low on the menu.

9. Chicken and sweet corn soup

It was always fun to use those little blue and white ladles. Picture Shutterstock
It was always fun to use those little blue and white ladles. Picture Shutterstock

Soup was always a bonus but there's something quite comforting about chicken and sweet corn in a salty broth. We've all tried to replicate this at home, it's the only reason you'd ever buy cans of creamed corn. It was always fun to use those little blue and white ladles too. Slurp, slurp.

8. Fried banana fritter

Deep fried banana shouldn't be so delicious. Picture Shutterstock
Deep fried banana shouldn't be so delicious. Picture Shutterstock

These were a right treat every time we ate in. No one orders dessert if you're doing takeaway. There's definitely a trick to these, the right ratio of batter to fruit, a batter that is cooked right through and golden and sweet. Pop in a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, maybe a splash of chocolate topping. The only competitor for dessert was the pineapple fritter but they were just OTT.

7. Fried rice

Fried rice is a meal in its own right. Picture Shutterstock
Fried rice is a meal in its own right. Picture Shutterstock

When is a side dish a meal in its own right? When it's fried rice full of tiny prawns, peas, spicy sausage, eggs, carrot and some unidentifiable bits. It always reheated well and for as many times as you tried to replicate it at home with some leftover rice, you could never quite find the magical ingredients.

6. Sweet and sour pork

The more vibrant the colour the better sweet and sour pork tasted. Picture Shutterstock
The more vibrant the colour the better sweet and sour pork tasted. Picture Shutterstock

The more vibrant orange the better. And how exotic was real pineapple. Surely it was never made with the tinned stuff? The only way to serve big chunks of capsicum I reckon. I can't remember this dish ever being sour. There was just something so sickly sweet about it, I can taste it still.

5. Mongolian lamb

There was always something theatrical about sizzling Mongolian lamb. Picture Shutterstock
There was always something theatrical about sizzling Mongolian lamb. Picture Shutterstock

Our lamb dish was almost a satay but there was always something theatrical about this dish, brought out on a sizzling cast-iron platter and plonked in the middle of the table as not to spit hot oil over people. And the only vegetables in sight were a few green beans or some sliced spring onion.

4. Lemon chicken

There's nothing sour about lemon chicken. Picture Shutterstock
There's nothing sour about lemon chicken. Picture Shutterstock

Apparently lemons aren't used a lot in Chinese cooking but who didn't love this dish? Crispy golden batter around tender bits of chicken, all drowning in a sticky sauce that somehow managed to turn sour lemons into sweet, sweet love. Was even better if it was on the bone and no one minded if you ate it with your fingers.

3. Spring roll

Spring rolls are like a whole meal in a mouthful. Picture Shutterstock
Spring rolls are like a whole meal in a mouthful. Picture Shutterstock

A little perfect mouthful wrapped in crispy golden pastry. What's not to like? Just don't overdo the cabbage. I prefer ones with a little meaty filling. It's like a whole meal in a bite. San choy bow was also a popular starter, as were crumbed prawn cutlets.

2. Beef and black bean

Tender beef and some of those black beans. Picture Shutterstock
Tender beef and some of those black beans. Picture Shutterstock

Beans can be black? What was the magical ingredient in this dish that was unctuous and rich, but full of tender strips of beef. I love this so much I've begun cooking it at home on a regular basis. The trick is to coat the beef in a little bicarb soda, then rinse, before you cook it. Not sure if that's how it was done in 1977.

1. Honey prawns

Honey prawns are our number one choice. Picture Shutterstock
Honey prawns are our number one choice. Picture Shutterstock

I'm sure this will be a controversial decision but prawns were a rare treat growing up hours from the coast and there was no better way to eat them than coated in crispy batter and slathered in a sweet and sticky honey sauce. Simple sesame seeds tarted them up and you were good to go. The best ones stayed crisp, but soggy ones were okay, too. Make sure you get sticky fingers and the taste lingers for days.

Karen Hardy

Karen Hardy

Canberra Times lifestyle reporter

I've covered a few things here at The Canberra Times over the years, from sport to education. But now I get to write about the fun stuff - where to eat, what to do, places to go, people to see. Let me know about your favourite things. Email: karen.hardy@canberratimes.com.au