Sunday, August 8, 2010

Australian Food: A Primer

Australian food. It's not a topic that really comes up often in the annals of culinary research. I suspect that most non-Australians think Aussie food is some combination of British and American glurgh with a small infusion of interesting "bush" meats - kangaroo meat pies, sandwiches made with emu, so on and so forth. This is at least partially accurate. But I've been pleasantly surprised by the variety, freshness, and flavor of the food I've sampled in Australia. Perhaps the old meat pie and shrimp on the barbie mythos is unfounded and specious after all. Let's take a closer look at Australian food.

But first, some history.

Prior to the arrival of Captain Cook and his merry (hah) band, the Aborigines subsisted primarily on food they hunted and gathered. Australia's warm climate supported a prolific and tasty native flora and fauna, and as a result, the Aboriginal people rarely practiced substinence agriculture as we know it. As the Aborigines have resided in Australia for upwards of 40,000 years, their knowledge of local foods or "bush tucker" remains unsurpassed. Bush tucker has experienced a mild upswing in popularity among outdoorsy Australians, and guides can be purchased at most tourist bookstore. "Bush tucker" can include a startling variety of foods, from Macademia nuts and native fruits to goanna monitor lizard and bacony witchetty grubs. Coastal aborigines subsisted primarily on seafood and fish and lived a stationary lifestyle, whereas inland groups followed the goods from place to place as the seasons changed.

Aborigines also enjoyed feasting on honey ants, whose swollen and enormous rear-ends apparantly make for good eating.

This was, of course, entirely too idyllic and simple to last. In 1788, the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay from England, carrying 751 and 252 marines with them. These British settlers were unused to native Australian foods and had a hard time of it at first, as most steadfastly refused to take note of Aboriginal hunting and gathering technique. Indeed, according to Aussie, the original British settlers brought with them "familiar dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Irish stew and steamed pudding were, for most of the year, totally unsuitable for the harsh climate and conditions." Settlers attempted to transplant English foods onto Australian soil with substantial success - and the introduction of a large number of ecologically disastrous species in the process, from bunny rabbits to deer. They also brought with them rum, which was valuable enough to serve as a currency in Australia's earliest days. (This holds true into the modern era on college campuses)

Some report that food in Australia is incredibly expensive. This is also accurate. Standard issue salads are 15 Aussie dollars, and entrees at "nice" restaurants can get into the mid thirties and forties. Eurgh.

Since the olden days, Australia has undergone a considerable renaissance in terms of fresh and organic ingredients, and its considerable immigrant population has brought a number of new recipes, techniques, and flavors to the table. Downtown Perth's selection of ethnic foods is roughly equivalent to that of California's. There's just about everything on offer, from Korean to German to Portuguese to Chinese. Emphasis on the Chinese restaurants, of which there are roughly a zillion. Local celebrity chefs incorporate native Australian ingredients and preparation methods into their high-end cuisine, producing distinctive and uniquely Australian flavors.

There is considerable overlap in American and Australian tastes. It's not hard to see why. Both are new countries formed from former British colonies, overlayed onto an existing and ancient local food culture. Both Americans and Aussies are incorporating old foodways and new into a harmonious and delicious expression of distinctive local flavor. Both nations, most importantly, have an incredible affinity for french fries (chips) and drive-through fast food joints. (The fast food drive-throughs are on the other side here. This is both mind-blowing and comically obvious when you first notice it)

Incredible looking tiger prawns at the Fremantle fish market.

Grocery stores here have been another pleasant surprise. They overwhelmingly feature attractive, fresh, and seasonal produce. Meats and seafoods are varied, ultra fresh, and appealing, in both appearance and flavor. Specialized butchers, fishmongers, and bakers abound and have set up shop in standard consumer shopping malls, meaning that shoppers can get food prepared and selected by experts, rather then resorting to the catch-all of the supermarket - though they have those, too. Ethnic grocery stores are everywhere and are usually well stocked with all manner of esoteric ingredients. Everything, I reiterate, is extremely expensive. Groceries are at least cheaper then those of any of the countries under the Euro regime at least, which is a small consolation.

Australians love Vegemite. Vegemite tastes like condensed evil and can probably be used to ward off vampires. I can't explain it. It is made from dark yeast extract and its continuing popularity is totally unexplainable by modern science. This is a nation that possess jam, marmalade, and cream. WHY?

Wine is super popular in Australia, and for good reason. Australian wines are often seriously good. Western Australia and the Perth Hills have a number of superb wineries, and most of them offer tasting rooms, high-end restaurants, and special events. (See the truffle dinner I experienced last week at Darlington Estate). The wine region looks eerily similar to Napa. Go figure.

Restaurants are everywhere and are heavily patronized. Australians, like Americans, are fascinated by food, food TV shows, and food journalism, but do very little actual cooking. Fast food is enormously popular, and chains include standard burger n' fries joints such as McDonalds and Hungry Jacks (Burger King) to chicken shillers (KFC, Red Rooster, Nandos) to sandwich shops (Subway). There's also a profusion of cheap and snappy ethnic places - think quicky Chinese food, Turkish bread (pita) sandwiches, and plenty of German sausages.

Cafes and sit down restaurants adhere to surprisingly high standards of freshness and taste. On the downside, almost every non-ethnic restaurant seems to have the exact same menu. There will always be a Caesar salad, prepared with a weirdly sweet mayonnaise dressing and plenty of lean Aussie bacon. There will always be a big bowl of chili mussels, prepared with a spicy tomato sauce. There will always be fish and chips, served with a side of sweet chili sauce and sour cream. There will always be fried salt and pepper squid with herbed aioli, and there will always be some variation on the burger, made with chicken, beef, or whatever the chef feels like at any given time. There will almost always be a pumpkin soup, some sort of berry cheesecake, and an in-house cappuccino bar. The list goes on.

Italian style coffee is extremely popular, especially in the Perth areas "cappuccino" belts. Many Italian and European refugees settled in the region after WWII and bought their food and love of caffeine with them. This historical incident means that excellent coffee and tea is available just about everywhere, often in scenic coastal spots.

Ethnic restaurants, as previously mentioned, are all pervasive and have just about every cuisine you can think of on offer. They're a great option if the tasty yet exceedingly derivative offerings of the continental joints are beginning to get to you. They are also (usually) the more economical choice, although it pays to look at the menu first.

Farmer's markets are common and feature a healthy variety of seasonal produce. In other words, they are exactly the same as farmer's markets everywhere else. The farmer's market near Applecross in Perth is excellent: fresh fish, locally raised meats, organic fruits and vegetables, and a profusion of coffee stands. And the Best Croissant Ever.

A final quirk of the Australian restaurant experience relates to service. In other words, there is not much of it. A healthy majority of restaurants, even the high-end types, require you to order and pay up front. Sometimes you take a number and the food is delivered to your table, and sometimes, you go up and get it yourself. This all becomes a lot more pleasant and understandable when you remember that no one expects you to tip, or at least not tip more then a buck or two. Australian servers are, after all, paid a living wage.

As far as expense goes, I can offer no recourse to those horrified and disgusted by the sheer expense of Australian food. Prices are driven up primarily by geography. Australia is an isolated nation with a relatively small population and not a lot of land suitable for agriculture or ranching. Perhaps an Australian visit is a good time for a budget motivated diet regime. Just an idea.

Next post will feature some common Australian food products. Shockingly enough, kangaroo is not among them.


  1. My uncle lives in Australia and consistently gripes about the lack of decent Mexican food. It's interesting to learn what is commonly eaten there.

  2. ha ha, I once lost like 10 lbs in a week in Paris after my wallet got stolen. I stretched the hotel breakfast into a baguette and cheese sandwich for lunch so that I only had to pay for one meal a day. As I recall, I mostly ate in a noodle shop since I couldn't afford French restaurants. Good thing wine is cheap in France! And about the chili mussels - YUK! IMHO, mussels are SOOOO good it is a desecration bury their flavor in a domineering sauce.