Roast duck on the bone. Photo: Owen Chua
Roast duck on the bone. Photo: Owen Chua

Owen Chua lives by the notion that mother, most definitely, knows best – and well he might. Chua’s success as a restaurateur in no small way boils down to the fact that he learned from the woman herself as he watched his mother Anne working away in the family kitchen while growing up at home in Perth, Australia.

“Food has always been a cornerstone of our family life,” says Chua. “With mom’s food we stick exactly to the recipe that has been passed down through the generations.”

The Australian-born Chinese self-taught cook has foodies and hipsters alike flocking to Dainty Dowager, situated in the Perth suburb of Mount Lawley. The menu here reads like a culinary tour of Southeast Asia with the piece de resistance of roasted meats a nod to Chua’s heritage. With an impressive wine selection and innovative cocktails, the restaurant is a unique hybrid Chinese roasting house, trendy bar and modern Asian snack joint, all in one.

Crowd favorites include the crispy skin roast duck buns – succulent and sweet – and the beef flank ho fun egg sauce noodles. With its unique char-grilled flavor, this dish has reached cult status.

Owen’s parents emigrated to Australia from the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, in Malacca. They are baba nyonya: Chinese people of mixed descent who migrated to Malaysia. Chua has mixed memories of his childhood.

“While Australia has always been a multicultural country it’s come a long way in being more accepting of people of different races,” he says. “Having said that, I do feel that being born here and growing up from the 1970s, I had the opportunity to forge a unique view point and experience as a ‘first generation’.”

Chua talks to Asia Times about how the cooking habits and dining preferences of West Australians have been shaped by traditional Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine and ingredients.

Owen Chua in the aprons his mum made for the restaurant. Photo: Owen Chua
Owen Chua in the aprons his mom made for the restaurant. Photo: Owen Chua

Dainty Dowager is a catchy name. What inspired it?

Thanks! It’s tongue-in-cheek, catchy and representative of the cuisine we serve. It is also the name of the Dowager Empress Cixi who controlled China circa 1850: she ruled from behind “the silk curtain” through her young son, the Emperor, and led China from its feudal roots into the modern day.

How many of your mother’s and grandmother’s secret recipes are on the menu?

Our family’s food is always represented on the menu including the pong teh [braised chicken & potato] and mee hoon kueh [a hand-torn noodle soup]. Both my mum and my grandma’s cooking has helped me to develop my own palate and understand the importance of the balance of flavors that makes a good dish.

Karaage Popcorn Chicken with Mama's sweet sambal sauce. Photo: Owen Chua
Karaage popcorn chicken with mama’s sweet sambal sauce. Photo: Owen Chua

Does your mom act as quality controller at the restaurant when it comes to her recipes?

Is water wet? Initially, she was dining at the restaurant multiple times a week, popping into the kitchen to give the chefs feedback. When we first featured her kari ayam (Malaysian yellow chicken curry) she was amazed at how many people were wanting to eat, what she felt, was a simple home-cooked curry.

Lucky Red Chinese New Year cocktail. Photo: Owen Chua
Lucky Red Lunar New Year cocktail.       Photo: Owen Chua

What was your favorite Chinese-Malaysian dish growing up?

That’s very tough to choose. My grandma’s beef rendang [a spicy meat dish] would be right up there. Mom’s pong teh, a braised chicken and potato dish somewhat like a stew, and mee hoon kueh, which is a hand-torn soup noodle dish with a stock made from chicken or pork bones and ikan bilis, dried anchovies that are popular in Malaysia.

Apart from sharing her recipes, is your mom involved in other aspects of the business?

Yes, we traveled to Guangzhou in southern China, together to source the interiors for the restaurant and mom negotiated with the local suppliers. My ability to speak Putonghua is very poor. Some of her favorite moments were when locals asked, “Is your son a mute?” She’d have a good laugh. It was fun to watch her in her element as she laughed, joked and cajoled for the best possible price.

Dainty Dowager
564 Beaufort St, Mount Lawley, Perth, Western Australia
Tel: +61 8 9328 9728
Hours: 2pm-10.30pm

Kecap Manis (sweet soy) ice cream, salted caramel popcorn & deep fried bao. Photo: Owen Chua
Kecap manis (sweet soy) ice cream, salted caramel popcorn and deep-fried bao.   Photo: Owen Chua