Greenvale pork loin, milk braised belly, caramelized apple and ramen. Snapper sashimi with miso crumble and wasabi dressing. Crispy duck with pumpkin daikon salad and five spice caramel.
It’s my first night in Australia and I’m reading the menu at Taxi Dining Room in Melbourne. While everything sounds delicious, I’m the type of traveler who likes to dive into local culture right away, and that includes with food.
“I love Asian food, but maybe tomorrow night we can go someplace more Australian for dinner,” I suggest to my local friend, Jennifer.
She looks confused. “What do you mean?”
“You know, someplace where I can order typical Australian cuisine, like…” I stop, realizing I can’t actually name a traditional Australian dish. “What’s a typical Australian meal?”
She replies. “Asian. Italian. BBQ. African. French. Actually, Mexican is really popular in Melbourne right now.”
Now I’m confused. How can Mexican or Italian be quintessential Australian cuisine? When Jennifer is unable to name a single dish aside for “coffee” and “Maybe meat pies? But that’s actually English,” my inner epicure becomes extremely curious. And that’s when my mission is born. During my two weeks traveling through Australia, I vow to find the country’s quintessential dish, no matter what it takes.
If we trace the history of Australia’s culinary roots, we start with the Aboriginals. These are the indigenous people of Australia, who lived off the land as hunters and gatherers. There was a deep respect for the land, and these people used its resources wisely to create nutritious meals without depleting the native foods. While the exact cuisine was dependent on the region where the Aboriginal clan lived, typical animals hunted by men were kangaroo, wallaby, echidna, turtle, snake, frog or bird, while women gathered plants like figs, Lemon Aspen, eucalyptus, quandong and wattle. Certain insects like grubs also provided necessary fat.
The Aboriginal way of life changed in the 18th century when the Europeans colonized Australia. When settlers came with Captain James Cook in the 1770s they did not understand the native diet. While they enjoyed certain birds, animals like sheep, rabbit, deer and cow as well as crops like flour and drinks like rum were introduced to create a diet that was more familiar to them. While the Europeans used Australia at first as a place to send convicts, in 1793 free settlers also began making their way to live in Australia. These introductions completely changed the way of life, as well as the diet, that had been previously established in the country.
European Evacuation After WWII
Unfortunately, wars displace people. However, the interesting thing when this happens is people bring with them their unique cultures, art, music and of course, food. While the migration of Europeans after WWII ended in 1945, often the people who were displaced were very poor, so they became self sufficient when they arrived.
“The planted their own fruit and vegetables. Australia has plenty of land and ‘new’ Australians had large blocks of land around their houses,” explains John Baldwin of Barossa Daimler Tours. “Often they brought out to Australia, seeds, or root stock and they planted grape vines for not only table and wine but also as shade and shelter from the hot sun.”
The Vietnam War
John helps me flesh out the country’s history a bit more to find clues. While the Chinese and Japanese began moving to Australia for work and various gold rushes in the 1800s, the major Asian migration occurred after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 in the form of Vietnamese, Laos and Cambodian political refugees. Although they were now in a different country, they were able to savor a little piece of home by introducing ingredients they grew up with, particularly lemon grass, palm sugar, chili and coriander. This was the beginning of what started an Asian influence in Australia, whose population holds about 2.4 million Asian ancestral citizens.
More Wars, More Migration
The culinary influence on Australia from cultures all over the world continued due to war. While the end of the Gulf War and Desert Storm brought cumin, saffron, almonds, honey, yogurt and spices from displaced Kuwaitis, African conflicts and famine in between 1988 and 2000, as well as lack of opportunities brought natives of Mogadishu, Sedan, Ethiopia and South Africa. These people brought with them epicurious offerings like goat, slow cooked braises and one pot specials. And most recently, displaced Afghanis after the U.S. War On Terror left for Pakistan and then continued Australia, bringing with them cumin, tumeric, garam masala, slow cooked braises and curries.
Slowly over time, these foreign ingredients and cooking methods have become almost native.
Maybe It’s A Quintessential Drink?
While looking back on the historical influences of Australian cuisine was interesting, it still wasn’t giving me the answer I was looking for. Instead of giving up, I decided to take a new approach and look toward Australia’s liquid offerings.
In the late 1700s winemakers began planting grapes. Today, we can find the world’s oldest vines in South Australia’s Barossa Valley from the mid-1800s. Because the area was never hit by disease the way Europe was, these old vines never died, while other countries were forced to start over. Moreover, because of Australia’s large size they are able to plant every major variety of wine in a range of styles.
“We have little government restrictions, unlike Europe, so the winemaking fraternity could experiment,” explains Baldwin. “New techniques resulted from those trials, now being used all around the world.”
One good example of this is controlling the ferment, which gives off a by-product of heat and carbon dioxide. Too much heat is not a good thing, therefore a slow cool ferment is essential. While this is something well worth exploring in terms of Australia’s epicurious innovation, it is important to note the country does not have any native grape varieties suitable for winemaking, and therefore have had their grapes imported from Europe.
Shrimp On The Barbie?
While I had so far focused on facts, there are certain foods foreigners associate with Australia that just aren’t true. For example, the iconic expression portraying an Aussie meal is, “Throw some shrimp on the barbie.” Say that to any local in Australia and you’ll get laughed at.
“What’s shrimp on the barbie?” is the common reply I receive when asking about this phrase. In reality, Australians don’t use the word “shrimp,” but instead call these shellfish delicacies “prawns.” The misconception comes from a TV commercial starring Paul Hogan that ran in the late 80’s and was sponsored by the Australian Tourism Commission. The actual quote was “I’ll slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you,” with the word “shrimp” only being used so U.S. viewers would understand what was being said.
Crossing shrimp on the barbie off my list of possible quintessential foods, I continue my quest.
I begin my quest in Melbourne. Even after the evening at Taxi Dining Room, it is evident this city features a melting pot of cuisines. Some locals note the city’s up-and-coming Mex Mex scene, a popping up of traditional Mexican restaurants without an Texan influences. Others, however, speak of the city’s unmatched coffee.
Then, there are those I meet along my journey who bring up the Italian influence over Australian cuisine, like Murray Johnson of Real Melbourne Bike Tours. According to Johnson, Nino Borsari, a gold medal cyclist who arrived in Melbourne in 1939, is often thought of as the founder of Little Italy in the city. Once he started his Italian restaurant, others began popping up all over Lygon Street, then all over the city and beyond.
“The influence is all over Australia,” explains Johnson. “Even non-Italian restaurants often have Italian dishes like lasagnas, pastas and veal parmigiano. Philosophically there’s a move toward organic or home-grown vegetables, another Italian influence.”
By this point, I am getting the feeling Australia doesn’t really have a native dish, but instead is a melting pot of cultures. Along with the heavy Italian influence, celebrity chef Rick Stein has made tapas and Spanish food popular in the country. Moreover, the close location of Australia to Asia has kept the influence of Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Thai strong. And if you look to Australian top chefs for your answer, you’ll often notice a classic-French trained style.
When I arrive in South Australia I meet Jason Miller of the wine and food tour company Rich + Lingering, who agrees the influences over Australian cuisine stem from everywhere from northern Africa to Poland to Germany to Asia. However, he believes that instead of looking to a quintessential type of food, you need to look at the approach.
“We have borrowed from everyone – ingredients, which are now grown locally, methods of cooking, and styles. Then amalgamated them into our own with no rules to constrain us, and they are enjoyed in a very relaxed way with friends and family, and typically outdoors,” explains Miller.
This I know is true. The “Aussie BBQ” is iconic of the country and culture, serving up Italian sausages, Asian-marinated prawns – NOT shrimp on the barbie – and salads from all over the globe. It’s a very local idea with an international twist.
At the end of my trip I find myself sitting at Vintners Bar & Grill in the Barossa Valley, picking at hummus & herb yogurt spring rolls, tuna sashimi with wasabi mayo and a plate of house made potato gnocchi with pecorino and artichoke. Looking over my notes again in frustration, I think about how I’m eating a blend of Italian, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine; however, all the ingredients are locally-sourced. Maybe that’s the key?
Just when I’m about to write down “meat pies” and call it a day, the intercontinental meal in front of me gives me the answer. The blend of cuisines being true to themselves is a mirror of Australian history, with each ethnicity working to preserve its own culture in Australia.
As John Baldwin clarifies, “Modern Australian cuisine, often called ‘modoz,’ refers to the melting pot and East-meets-West philosophy. Australians are open minded about incorporating new cuisines.”
Original, regional foods are authentically Australian. The focus is high quality food in a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere. While there may not be a quintessential Australian dish, there certainly is a definitive food philosophy that reflects the country’s dynamic roots.
I slap my notes face down on the table, flabbergasted. “So basically I’ve been eating quintessential Australian cuisine the entire time, as I was trying so hard to find it?”
John smiles. “Basically.”
In essence, the quintessential Australian dish is every dish.
Featured image via CMSeter