There are a few questions that seem to come up regularly when you’re an Australian away from our island’s shores. “Why would you ever leave Australia?” is one that is asked quite a lot, particularly in the UK, and even more so if it is raining. And while I have never been asked the famous, “Do you ride kangaroos?”, questions about our wildlife are extremely common.
These questions are all pretty easy to answer. I leave Australia to get new experiences, and, while our unique fauna isn’t often found in the city, I have seen plenty of kangaroos and koalas in my life. However, there is one question that I have been asked a lot, given my interests, which I found less simple.
“What is Australian food?”
The existence of a particular Australian cuisine is often debated, with many people seeing our food culture as not having a specific identity, rather simply stealing from the rest of the world. I have always rejected this, though.
My answer to this question has always been a little long and muddled, but it has been an instinctive defense of an Australian culinary identity based on my experiences.
The first thing that most Aussies seem to do when asked this question is reel off a list of specific items, foods that we claim as our own, even if there may be issues with this sense of ownership. There are dishes that were created elsewhere but are an integral part of growing up in Australia, such as meat pies, roast lamb or sausage sizzles, where the Australian versions are often unique but in a way that may not be apparent to the rest of the world. Then you have sweets and cakes like Pavlova, lamingtons and ANZAC biscuits, all of which have a shared heritage with our friends in New Zealand, a trans-Tasman culinary rivalry that makes it difficult to argue for a distinct Australian identity. You have things that were created here, like Vegemite. You also have Aussie variations on international favourites, such as the addition of beetroot to burgers.
All of these are important touch-points, and they paint part of the picture, but a list of common foods doesn’t go to answering the deeper question. A cuisine is more than a catalogue of individual foods. It is a philosophical concept, an underlining idea as to what defines the food of a region.
Take a look at some of the great cuisines of the world. Italian food is typified by a reverence of beautiful ingredients, using superb produce to create dishes with only a few key flavours, based on a long history of home cooking. Fresh, simple food made by Nonna. Thai food, on the other hand, is again about freshness, but is focused on the intricate balance between hot, sweet, salty and sour. Indian cuisine is all about complex blending of spices to create something coherent and full of flavour.
They all have distinct identities, and if you were to come across a dish from one of these cuisines that you had never seen before, you would likely have some idea of origin. To me, that’s the real idea of a regional or national cuisine.
To see whether Australia has a coherent idea like this, you need to look at both what we cook at home and eat at restaurants. You also need to examine two fundamental characteristics that influence any cuisine: what ingredients are available, and where the ideas have come from.
Our native ingredients are certainly a part of the conversation, even if, for a lot of the past 200 years, all but a few have been largely ignored. Outside of our outstanding seafood even our most iconic indigenous produce, such as kangaroo meat, is still not that widely eaten. A greater influence on our food culture has been the produce that thrived here when Europeans arrived.
Pumpkin, for example, is a hugely significant part of Australian cuisines, simply because it was one of the easiest things to grow when settlers arrived. That is why pumpkin is more common as a savoury in Australia than almost anywhere in the world, and why pumpkin scones have a good argument as being a uniquely Australian dish. Equally, the importance of sheep as an Australian industry created the ubiquity of lamb in our cultural identity.
When it comes to the origin of our culinary history, we are an immigrant nation. Rightly or wrongly, Australian cuisine today has little if any relationship to the food of indigenous Australians. We are starting to have chefs look back as a source of inspiration, but it is a very recent development. Instead, our food history is based in that of British settlement, influenced by the various waves of immigration.
For the decades from Federation to the post war Mediterranean influx, the White Australia policy meant that there was not a lot of outside ideas coming in to our food. Even the Chinese families that were here had been here for generations by that point, leading to the Australian form of Chinese food that was found in every town across the map. In general, though, our plates were not that different to what was found in the UK, even if the heat made them less appropriate.
The arrival of Italian and Greek migrants after the war began to change this, bringing in new vegetables and herbs and flavours. Just as you can’t look at food in the US without at least mentioning pizza, the influence that these communities had on our food culture is unquestionable. Things like Melbourne’s coffee culture, the wide availability of every type of pasta, and the use of olive oil as our main cooking fat are directly related to these new Australians.
The end of White Australia in the 1970s led to more changes. As Asian immigrants came, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants started to pop up, and new ingredients started appearing in supermarkets. Middle eastern flavours started appearing, and we started looking to other parts of the world for inspiration.
It is this access to new flavours by home cooks that is most important to explore. Even before the Masterchef effect meant everyone with a pan tried to do something exotic, every household that cooked regularly probably had, at least, a pasta dish, a stir-fry, and a Thai green curry on regular rotation alongside the more traditional roasts. They are not likely to be exactly authentic, but that is somewhat the point.
Australian cuisine at home is an adaptive cuisine, not bound by tradition. We take inspiration from everywhere, and alter it to fit our tastes and the ingredients that are available. Whether that means bringing down the spice of a Thai curry, or throwing extra ingredients into a Bolognaise sauce that would horrify some Italians, we end up with food that is ours.
In restaurants I believe the idea of a specific Australian cuisine is even more distinct. During the 90s and 2000s, restaurant guidebooks would use the horrible term “Mod-Oz” (these days it has been replaced by “contemporary”). It referred to a style of food that didn’t clearly fit into any existing national cuisine, and, while it covered a wide range of food, there were some common threads.
We would use classic European technique, but the food would be lighter than most French or English dishes. Ingredients would range widely, basically anything that would grow here. This included Asian vegetables alongside European ones, Middle Eastern flavours and South American chillies. Lastly, we cooked with a sensibility influenced largely by the Mediterranean cuisines, where freshness and simplicity of flavour were forefront.
That, to me, is what Australian cuisine is. I’ve always referred to it in shorthand as French technique, Asian ingredients and a Mediterranean sensibility, a natural entwining of all those influences.
This, more or less, has always been my answer to the question of Australian food. It is rambling and inexact, and possibly a little hard for people to understand without experiencing it, but it is heartfelt.
Though I feel it can be expanded on and refined. Now that I am back in Australia, and a blog about the experience of an Australian travelling the world makes little sense, I am going to change the direction of the Raw Prawn to explore this question. By looking at individual products, restaurant and recipe trends, and talking to people with different experiences of our culinary landscape I will use this blog to delve deeper into what makes Australian food Australian.
I am not going to promise a definitive answer, but I am sure it will be an interesting journey.