Exploring diversity: Thang Ngo’s Sydney food crawl

A favourite pastime for Thang Ngo when he was still living in Vietnam was eating, whether it was pho, pork rolls, sticky rice, or bun bo hue*.

“Food was everywhere and anytime,” he said.

He also learnt very quickly at a young age his tastebuds were not accustomed to the bitterness of  bittermelon stuffed with pork mince, vermicelli, and mushroom, but since then, with his palette more matured, he has grown to liken the dish.

Today, Ngo’s fascination and interest in food is explored through his blog, Noodlies, which has grown popular for recommending eats in parts of Sydney that are not commonly written about.

He said Noodlies is unlike other food blogs out there that often write pieces about “hipster joints, latest fads, or of course, record experiences at high-end fine dining”.

“I felt the ma and pa stores always had more variety, and were more interesting and exciting. Plus it didn’t have to cost an arm and a leg,” he said.

“The best examples can be found in the west [of Sydney], but most blogs stop at Ashfield. So I guess, Noodlies was my homage to the hardworking migrant families that don’t get the mainstream media or food blog coverage.

“In my eyes, these little eateries are future, exciting stars, and I wanted to showcase them.”

Noodlies also became a personal catalogue for Ngo, who admitted does not know how to cook, and therefore is always driven to find good food that is cheap, fresh, and of course, tasty.

“I found we could get great, cheap, fresh food in ethnic hubs like Ashfield and Marrickville, which are close to the city, and of course, Bankstown and Cabramatta for great Viet.

“I always thought food from different cultures were amazing, but the mainstream tend to go for watered-down, upmarket versions, when a great experience could be had at a ma and pa restaurant in Cabramatta,” he said.

The site’s popularity has grown so much that it has now reached rival readership levels of a midsize magazine, evidence that there is an audience of Australian – if not at least Sydney readers – in search for the same kind of food.

“Diners tire of the usual inner city food, and they don’t think fine dining are stacked up in terms of value.

“Many have travelled to Asia, got hooked on great, cheap food, and when they come back to Australia, they search for that same authentic experience. That’s how they’ve found Noodlies and have been so loyal over the years,” he said.

While creating Noodlies has come from passion, Ngo said there are frustrating moments when brainstorming for ideas on what to write about next, but won’t stop writing until he stops loving what he’s doing.

“When that stops, I’ll stop or sell the site,” he said.

Ngo, who migrated to Australia as a refugee in 1977, first stepped into the public eye as a councillor of Sydney’s Fairfield City Council in 1999. At the time, he was the first Vietnamese-speaking councillor to join. However, Ngo admitted he had no interest in politics, and only signed up when the adjoining council at the time wanted to close down a local Buddhist temple in Bankstown, Sydney as punishment for holding a service at midnight on Lunar New Year’s eve.

“The temple was going to lose because they didn’t know how to put their case forward. I realised the community would always lose until we learn to stand up for what we believe is right. To argue our point, after all, that’s why we risked our lives on the seas – for freedom,” Ngo explained.

“Fighting back is our expression of freedom. We were really fortunate to win but I realised the community needed a vocal advocate. And off the back of that, the community supported me to get into council.”

The situation marked the start of Ngo’s eight-year long career in politics. During the time, Ngo played a vital role in helping turn Sydney’s Cabramatta from a suburb that was once overrun by Asian gangs and drug dealers into a vibrant community. He joined in the push for the launch of the parliamentary inquiry into policing in Cabramatta.

But Ngo has long since retired from politics, and runs Etcom, Australia’s largest multicultural advertising company that was setup by Ogilvy Australia and the STW Group, when he’s not working on Noodlies, or contributing to various publications.

“[It] is what really pays the bills, and I love it. Noodlies is my balance, an intense interest that forces me not to get too obsessive about the day job,” Ngo said.

“At the same time, I don’t ever want to let down the amazing culturally diverse restaurants in the west; I still want make to sure they aren’t forgotten.”

*Bun bo hue (pronounced boon-bo-hwei) is the cousin dish to pho. Originating from Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, bun bo hue is a vermicelli beef noodle soup where the broth mainly consists of lemongrass and fermented shrimp sauce.

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