Dinner in a billy can – no plastic required

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Peter Leith is 90 and has seen a lot of the world and its wasteful ways. But when he was a lad, takeaway cafe owners could hold their heads high.


On occasional Friday evenings, mum would send us down to a Chinese cafe near the Como Jetty in Perth to get some food. We would set off on our bikes, each with an empty billy can slung over the upturned handlebars.

The cafe was, to say the least, ‘unpretentious’. There were four or five battered Laminex-topped tables in a small shopfront, a small counter and, through an archway, a simple kitchen.

A shapeless but smiling Chinese man of indeterminate age would great us with a, “Yes plizz.” In our still immaculate British accents, courtesy of an upbringing in India and not yet corrupted by the dinkum-Aussie dialect, we would order. “One serve each of fried rice and hun yin gai, please.”

The man would take our billy cans and shout something unintelligible through the open kitchen door, take our 10 shilling note and give us the change.

Jack and I would sit at one of the vintage tables and glance through the literature in antique magazines … and wait. But never for very long.

In due course, our billy cans would emerge from the kitchen and be handed over. I don’t think we ever remounted our bicycles without first lifting the lids to inhale the fragrances of the food before riding back home.

Do you have a story or an observation for Peter? Send it to [email protected] and put ‘Sunday’ in the subject line.

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Total Comments: 6
  1. 0

    I remember in the late 70’s in outer Melbourne taking a container down to the local Chinese. Maybe today it’s too much trouble or wouldn’t want to be seen or known to be getting take away in our own containers????

  2. 0

    Nowadays there’s far too much packaging that simply becomes waste. It’s ridiculous!

  3. 0

    The only takeaway we ever knew about was fish and chips in newspaper when we went to the beach or a pie or pasty from the local deli.

  4. 0

    We lived in the Chinatown area of Rabaul on New Britain in the early to mid 1960’s and as kids we to took our saucepans to our local Chinese cafe. The food was so nice and a real treat. The above article has brought back some happy family memories.

  5. 0

    Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, on the outskirts of Melbourne, my family lived about 10 kilometres from the nearest fish and chip shop, and even further from any Chinese shop. But fish and chips, and Chinese dishes were usually nighttime take-away. (I do not remember our family eating in a cafe or restaurant until I was about 18.) Take-away (f&c or C) was a rare treat for my family.
    During the day, local milk bars sold hot pies, pasties and sausage rolls, and occasionally Chicko Rolls, or made sandwiches or rolls to order, plus milkshakes and spiders (a scoop of ice-cream in a long glass of soft drink).
    My father kept an aluminium billy or two in the boot of his car. On those rare occasions that he brought home Chinese it would be one serve of sweet & sour *stir-fried pork and vegetables with chunks of pineapple and a splash of Chinese vinegar, and one serve of fried rice, and a bag of steamed dim sims, sodden and sticky with soy sauce — to feed seven! It was relatively easy to reheat the food in the billies, making sure they were stirred to prevent the food sticking on the bottom of the billy and burning.
    Encouraged by his hungry family, my father experimented with ingredients and utensils, and eventually managed to make a palatable home-cooked sweet and sour, without a wok (who knew about woks, apart from those behind the counter and curtain in a Chinese cafe?), or special Chinese ingredients (although we did have a bottle of soy sauce), or a recipe book (Charmain Solomon’s big book of Asian Cookery came much later!). (Clever man, my father!)
    Later, as a young adult, living about 5 minutes from a local inner suburban Chinese cafe, but not owning a billy, my girlfriend (soon to be my wife) and I took saucepans with lids to the cafe. It was easy to reheat the food after we walked the saucepans home. Saucepans were less prone to catching and burning, but we still had to be careful. (No microwave ovens for reheating, then!)
    On the general topic of “China”, my step-grandmother always warned us not to put money — coins — in our mouth. “Money,” she said, cryptically, “has been in Chinamen’s ears.” She made it clear she was not racist. She declared that she had known some very nice Chinese people. When I first traveled overseas with my young family, we had a stop-over in Hong Kong. To our astonishment, we saw an old Chinese man queuing for a trolley-car, and in his ear was a small coin! Different cultures do things very differently sometimes. It was obvious that money — at least one coin, once, as we observed — has been in Chinamen’s ears, and should not be put in your mouth. Grandmother had been right!
    But Chinese food — in my youth, and onwards, predominantly the few popular classic take-away dishes in billies and saucepans, and now the greatly expanded menu options in ubiquitous and environmentally calamitous plastic containers — is one of the great delights to be enjoyed by the world! We should all be grateful to China for their cuisine!
    Do people still have billies? I know they are great for boiling water and making tea, and for heating canned food, and soup, and boiling eggs. When I was a Boy Scout, billies used to cook rice and stews, tended to stick on the bottom and burn. But billies were, and in the future should be, brilliant for take-away. They are, I believe, in a slightly different form, standard equipment for traditional Indian tiffin dishes. But maybe that is another story, …



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