How The Malaya Changed Australian Cuisine

Wong See

When you think of The Malaya, what might come to mind is the mouthwatering, fragrant dishes, or the welcoming atmosphere. You might think about great experiences you’ve had there with friends, family or other loved ones, or your plans to go if you haven’t already. (Which, incidentally: you should.)

What you probably don’t think about is its history, which is as rich and interesting as the dishes that come out hot from the kitchen. Because when it opened, The Malaya was not only an enormous shock to the still-conservative Australian palette of the 1960s – it also helped to change cuisine in Australia for good.

The Malaya’s founder, Wong Tai See, arrived in Darwin in 1941 as war raged around the world. A Chinese merchant sailor, World War II left Wong stranded in Australia, and after peace reigned again, he was granted Australian citizenship.

After moving to Sydney, he operated a small food cart in Balmain throughout the ‘50s, before opening The Malaya in its first location, 787 George St, in 1963. With his passion for Southeast Asian cuisine, Wong introduced a range of flavours, spices and exotic ingredients to a city that had never before laid eyes – or tastebuds – on anything like it. The original restaurant was simple, with the focus on the food.

And what a focus it was. The Malaya’s early customers was a melting pot of university students, journalists, police officers and musicians – quite different walks of life, all coming together in the one place for this incredible food that was like no other. By 1970 it had to expand into the space next door, doubling in size to accommodate everyone as word spread around not just the city, but Australia-wide.

Today, The Malaya is at home at King Street Wharf, where it has been thrilling diners for 16 years. When Wong Tai See passed away in 1994, he did so with the knowledge that he had made a difference, and helped to foster the beautiful, multicultural society that we live in today.

The Malaya
39 Lime St
King Street Wharf
(02) 9279 1170