When originally dividing each country in the world into a total of 80 culinary regions, I faced many difficult choices. In retrospect, I wish I’d had more time to explore some of the places that I grouped together, while others that I separated ended up being a little thin on unique cuisines. However, no choice was more agonising than what to do with Australia. Having grown up and lived in Australia all my life, I feel like this is the only place in whose culinary scene I can truly have some semblance of authority. However, I’ve always felt that this “scene” is at times a bit of a joke, and at worse, shameful. Let me explain, Australia was settled/invaded by British colonists in 1788, after which the indigenous Australians, who arrived on the continent more than 50,000 years ago, were systematically slaughtered by violence, displacement, diet or disease. This resulted in the complete extinction of Tasmanian Aborigines, and a tiny representation of 3.3% of the population in modern times, only being granted the right to vote as recently as 1965. These particularly horrific statistics are always in my mind when thinking about Australian cuisine, because the culture and traditions of the Indigenous people were predominantly not shared or integrated into modern colonial customs, as they were (to some extent) in the USA (e.g. Thanksgiving) or various parts of South America. There is also the fact that the British settlement of Australia was so recent, and begun predominantly with convicts, that there perhaps hasn’t been the time, or the original expertise, to develop much of a distinct cuisine. Australia is therefore arguably unique in its dearth of original culinary tradition, and has therefore taken on a position of thief-extraordinaire. This is spurred by the increasing multicultural composition of the Australian populace, with a recent census showing that under half of Australians have both parents born in Australia. Visitors from all over the world quickly comment that modern Australia has an incredible diversity of international cuisines, from local restaurants (there are Persian, Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Greek, American BBQ, Mexican and Mongolian varieties within 10 minutes of my house, to name a few), to home cooks, who are usually keen to experiment with recipes from any continent on any given weeknight. Indeed, I don’t know any Australian who can’t proficiently use chopsticks, which might give you an idea of how integrated we have become with Asian culinary practices. Despite the tragic beginnings of modern society, I love this aspect of modern Australia, as well as how it reflects on the growing multicultural population, and I think it probably contributed to my deep passion for international food, and hunger for culinary variety. However, I can’t just cook a mix of foods clearly recently stolen from other cultures and brand it Australian, can I? I need to display some of the unique original meals that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. For this reason, and because I feel like I can speak with some authority about Australia, I’ve divided the two weeks dedicated to Australia into, first, the scattering of unique foods developed post-white invasion (part 1), and then a foray into the indigenous ingredients of the country, hopefully with an appreciation of some of the culinary culture and practices of the Aboriginal Australians (part 2).
Mango, prawn and avo salad
Australia, and my family especially, are big salad eaters, especially during the summer months when the idea of using heat to prepare meals is more than anyone can bear. This salad is a representative of a diverse suite of salads Aussies gobble in the summer months, often with a South-East Asian-inspired twist, such as the inclusion of tropical fruits that are in season and grown prolifically in tropical Australia, like mango. There is often meat or seafood included in the salads, and the combination of mango, prawn and avocado is a particular classic. Indeed, this salad is particularly Australian to me because it typifies the type of food that my (Australian) Mum loves most and is famous for cooking, and so when I think of typically Australian food of my childhood, it appears at the forefront of my memories. Indeed, my Mum is quietly famous among our friends and family for her mango salad dressing, which she makes in huge vats in the summer months from fresh ripe mangoes, also including oil, lemon juice, sweet chilli sauce and lots of dill in the food-processed concoction. The resulting thick liquid is ideal with salads and cold seafood, which forms the basis of most meals for us during the long hot Brisbane summer. This dressing is one of the most reliable staples at my family’s Christmas Day spread, accompanying the cold meats, seafood and salads that typically feed the overheated celebrating contingent. I’m aware that other families still rigidly adhere to the old British traditions of roast meats and other heavier food for Christmas, but Aussies are increasingly forging their own, more suitable, Christmas traditions, which haven’t yet fully emerged as typical national customs. Give us a few years and we’ll try to present this amazing salad to the world as an alternative Christmas tradition for the marginalised Christmas celebrants in the southern hemisphere!
Roast lamb, veggies and Vegemite damper
Lamb is a hugely important meat in Australia, and indeed a 2017 report showed that Australians are the largest consumers of lamb in the world, with 8.5 kg per capita per year. We are also the second largest producers of sheep meat in the world, perhaps contributing to the status of a roast leg of lamb as a contender for Australian national dish. The popularity of lamb has also been driven by famous TV ads for the meat, usually advocated by renowned celebrity “lambassador” Sam Kekovich, whose less famous roles include ex-football player and sports commentator. I cooked my lamb via a family technique of poking garlic and rosemary into holes in the raw lamb leg, covering it in salt, pepper, olive oil and some lemon juice, then placing the whole thing in a sealed oven bag and roasting until tender. The oven bag may not sound very glamorous, but it renders the meat incredibly tender and juicy, and conveniently collects all of the juices for gravy. I served my roast lamb with assorted typical roasted or steamed vegetables, which generally accompany roast meats in the adopted British custom of “meat and three veg”, although, truth be told, I’ve always been more of a seven veg kind of gal… I also made mini dampers flavoured with rosemary and Vegemite. Damper is a traditional Australian camp fire bread, prepared by swagmen/drovers/stockmen travelling and working the harsh Australian land and sleeping outdoors in a “swag” (camp bed roll) and cooking over an open fire or camp oven. Damper has simple ingredients of flour, water and milk, and sometimes baking soda for a little leavening. Traditionally the bread was eaten with meat/stew or golden syrup (a sweet syrup made with cane sugar), but I made my damper with the less traditional flavourings of rosemary and Vegemite, simply to have an excuse to talk at length about the eternally divisive theme of Vegemite. Vegemite is a thick black Australian spread that you might put on bread/toast or crackers and which is made from yeast extract. Vegemite’s taste was famously described by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as “like licking a cat’s arse”, however, a less… emotive description would be a very salty and umami flavour, reminiscent of the strong flavours of mushrooms or soy sauce. As a true blue Aussie, do I like Vegemite? Yes, I do, but I actually grew up eating more Promite, which is a less famous Australian spread that is very similar to Vegemite, but with a slightly milder and sweeter flavour that I prefer to this day (although I’ll happily dig into Vegemite if Promite isn’t on offer). Indeed, whenever I’m sick, my primary go-to comfort food to soothe my upset tummy is Promite on toast. So, if you are a non-Australian reading this who has tried Vegemite in the past, you may now be asking how the hell I and other Australians could possibly eat this stuff, let alone be comforted by it? The secret is that nobody actually enjoys eating Vegemite alone, by the spoonful, as nasty Aussies often trick foreigners into doing. The way to sample and enjoy these foods is by spreading them VERY thinly on a piece of toast, with a ratio of butter-to-Vegemite of at least 2:1, with only the mere ghost of Vegemite spread across the surface. Think of it as a competition for how thinly you can spread the Vegemite while still colouring the surface of the bread a little and you might be reaching the right level. Then, over time, if you enjoy this preparation, you can slowly and cautiously increase the amount of Vegemite to meet the 1:1 ratio that might be more commonly enjoyed by the locals. Once you’ve sampled Vegemite in this way, you’ll understand that it’s just a vehicle for salt that enhances the taste of carbs – not sounding too bad anymore – right?
Meat pie floater
I know, I know, a meal title that includes the word “floater” is not off to a great start, but hear me out to the end… Meat pies are iconic in Australia, having been suggested as the national dish by important figures such as a former New South Wales premier in the past. Aussies consume an average of one meat pie per month, and they are available from specialist shops, bakeries, petrol stations and commonly associated with sporting matches, when they are sold from stadium canteens. So beloved is the dish that annual national contests have been held for more than 25 years for the best commercially produced meat pie in Australia, and it has even been integrated into American fast food chains, most memorably resulting in a Pizza Hut pizza with mini meat pies embedded in the crust. Très chic(!). The importance of the institution of pies in Australia was writ large for me when I began talking to my Australian parents about them prior to this week. Without skipping a beat, they launched into reminiscences of pies related to significant events of their lives, taking turns to tell these well-practiced stories in the elegant way that only couples of over 30 years can, like songbirds chirping counterbalanced harmonies back and forward. These stories included the (purportedly) “best pies ever” from a truck that had a wood oven in the back where the pastries would be baked in my Dad’s home town of Rockhampton, which he would enjoy immensely in his childhood and was eager for Mum to try on one of her first visits there years later to meet his family. This was closely followed by the tale of a pie shop in northern New South Wales that sold my parents some memorable lentil pies for lunch on their first date. Next came the infamous and oft-told story of my Mother’s conversion from 20 years of vegetarianism upon becoming pregnant with me, into a ravenous meat pie addict, consuming up to six pies a day and surely somehow affecting my embryogenesis in the process. Finally, they told the more recent tale of a pit stop at the nationally-renowned Yatala pie shop on the way back from a mission for materials to fuel one of their many shared DIY projects, and which they were shocked to learn is actually now a drive-through pie shop. I love that pies have punctuated so many significant and seemingly insignificant aspects of their lives, marking sweet shared moments of culinary enjoyment, as all great and iconic meals should. So, perhaps because of growing up with these romantic tales from my parents, or perhaps because the pie overdose of my foetal development shaped my appetites, I have always adored a good meat pie. One of my most reliable favourites is steak and pepper, although steak and mushroom, chicken and vegetable, cottage pie (topped with potato) and even curry pie are close contenders. Of course, consumption of these pies necessitates lashings of tomato sauce (which the USA calls ketchup), and it is simply unAustralian to claim otherwise. Fact. Additional acceptable (but less obligatory) accompaniments include mashed potato, mushy peas, and gravy, which can all be served either on the side of the pie or underneath the detached pie lid. The mushy pea combination is also extended in the concept of pie floaters, which are prominent in the state of South Australia, but less so in the other states, involving a meat pie floating in a bowl of thick or thin pea soup. It sounds strange, but is purportedly beloved by high-profile international visitors such as Anthony Bourdain and Joe Cocker, although was gently mocked in a Terry Pratchett novel. For my meat pie-based meal I chose to make a pie floater with thick pea soup (to avoid soggy pastry as much as possible), because I’ve not spent much time in South Australia and so have never tried it. Of course, it was delicious, but I think I would prefer to have the two served separately and so have control over the ratios of combination.
Yes, barbie, as in “barbecue”, as in “throw another shrimp on the …”. It’s an iconic part of modern Australian life, perhaps because of the mostly-clement weather that encourages year-round outdoor entertainment, centred on the barbecue. International visitors are often shocked to find that there are many free public electric barbecues in local parks and beaches, with shaded seating, running water and amenities usually situated close by. This means that if you do not possess a barbecue or even a space in which to barbecue, you still have the opportunity and right to undertake a barbie of your own in Australia. Having actually experienced many true Aussie barbies, I am acutely aware of how much bigger the custom is than simply the typical cuisine. For instance, when I think about Aussie barbecues, I recall not just the taste of the food, but the hot and humid feeling of the infinite summers, the smell of salt or chlorine as it crystallises on your skin from a recent dip into water to relieve the heat, the ever-present aroma of sunscreen and insect repellent (tropical strength), the tinny sound of slightly out of date tunes piping from a small radio wherever someone could find an electrical outlet, sweaty beers nestled in their “stubby holders”, and the rhythmic anthem of everyone sporadically saying “jeez how hot is it mate?”, or variations thereof. So complex and sensorily encompassing is this experience that I could not even begin to properly describe it to you, and this realisation makes me a little sad that I am missing so much of the food rituals of other countries from my cooking adventures. More excuse to go travelling and witness the real deal, I suppose. The “throw another shrimp on the barbie” line from Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan in a memorable ad for Australian tourism is factually incorrect in that we never say shrimp, always prawns (which are a bigger variety of shrimp). However, it’s true that we are known to include prawns in a barbecue, so that part is right. I put my prawns on skewers along with veggies, which is a popular option, sometimes with chicken, lamb, beef, or tofu for the vegetarian attendees. Sausages are a staple of the Aussie barbie, and when guests come to your barbecue, the most standard contribution is a pack of sausages. I have here presented my sausage (called a “snag” in Aussie slang) in a very typical way, which, depending on the locale and time of year, might be called a “Bunnings Snag”, “Democracy Sausage”, or simply “Sausage Sizzle. Let me explain. This is the typical presentation of a sausage-based snack from a stall that is raising money (e.g. for a school or community group). The most reliable location that you might find these stalls it outside the most common hardware store (Bunnings) on a weekend. However, they are also everywhere during political elections, where voting occurs in halls/schools/churches, and you have the opportunity to buy your “Democracy Sausage” from stalls raising money for community groups after casting your (mandatory) vote. All of these sausage sizzles exhibit a strange and universally-agreed upon phenomena, where trying to upgrade the quality of any of the ingredients completely ruins the experience. The sausages need to be home-brand plain beef, the bread cheap white pre-sliced squares, the onions a little bit burned and the sauces (basic brands of mustard, tomato and barbecue) free and plentiful. Please believe me when I tell you that this combination is so much greater than the sum of its parts, and that if you try to substitute fancy organic sausages or artisanal bread (or, heaven forbid, a hotdog bun), you will definitely ruin it. The burger I made is a classic Aussie burger, unique internationally by its inclusion of a slice of beetroot and pineapple in addition to the standard beef patty, lettuce, tomato etc of burgers worldwide. International folk I’ve met have sometimes turned their noses up at the thought of beetroot and pineapple on a burger, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; the addition of vinegar from the tinned beetroot and the sweet acidity of the pineapple is incredible. I also cooked a steak, which is internationally associated with Australia via the restaurant chain “Outback Steak House”, which the internet informs me exists in Australia, but which I’ve never seen. There’s no doubt, however, that we produce and eat a lot of beef, and it’s delicious, so I have no complaints about including it in my typical Aussie barbie.