About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007
I'll Have The Australian Dish, Please.
Since I published a photo of a whole kangaroo being cooked on a campfire as aborigines have been doing for many thousands of years, the vexed question of Australian cuisine has been crossing my mind. When you see a kangaroo being cooked like that, there is no doubt about the provenance of the meal, it is pure outback Australia. But can anyone think of a dish that screams loudly and proudly, Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi?

More than a few would suggest lamb is a national dish, but really, what do we do with lamb that makes it particularly Australian? Roast it, barbeque it, grill it, you could be in any country in the world. Just because we eat a lot of it doesn't make it a national dish. Our bakers have tried to do us proud, lamingtons are identifiably Australian, some would also suggest pavlova, but our near neighbour New Zealand probably has a stronger claim to it. When you look at New Zealand cuisine they seemed to have embraced their native foodstuffs in a way we never have. Sure some of us have eaten witchetty grubs (have you?), but where would you go to buy them, not in a supermarket that's for sure.

Over there, the Kiwis are eating native ferns and making whitebait fritters, things that would almost have you doing a Haka if you were from Aotearoa (The Land of the Long White Cloud), but here in Australia we are almost in denial over native produce and have been ever since Europeans first set foot here. There is a rising tide of interest in some native foods, mainly herbs and spices, but these exotics are only sought by those wanting to try something different and in one major food specialist store that stocks them there is only one little cupboard with half a dozen items. But think of plentiful produce like kangaroo, emu and crocodile and how many of us can say that these are regular features on our tables? Dogs probably eat more kangaroo than humans and what about the markets for wild boar and buffalo. Even though they're not native, it seems we aren't all that keen on them and send the majority overseas.

But even if we haven't taken our native produce to heart, what really sticks out is that there doesn't seem to be a dish or series of dishes that is distinctly Australian, say in the way gumbo is American or more particularly Louisianan. Wherever you go and encounter food in Australia, what you find is a style. In Queensland for instance every other dish is Asian style and as you move down to the southern states you have Mediterranean styles encompassing Greek, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines, followed by European styles including French and Spanish. Now even though a lot of the dishes being thought up are almost Australian in the sense that they are very often fused in some way to other ingredients and techniques that wouldn't be done in the country that inspired the dish, they really aren't Australian at all in that a person from another country would think, "Ah, I must be in Australia."

Cheong Liew is probably the foremost chef cooking Australian dishes in the country, but if you look closely, a lot of his food is clearly made using techniques from other lands. His signature dish, Four dancer's of the sea, is a combination of Malay, Japanese, Australian-Asian and Greek influences. As sophisticated as it is, does it make the dish Australian just because it was thought of and conceived here? To my mind it's the sort of dish that could have been thought up anywhere on the Pacific rim and would be just as much at home on the west coast of America as it is here.

Before a dish can be considered indigenous, it has to speak unequivocally of its country of birth, in a way that connects you to that place. Think of the Spanish tortilla and even though potatoes are not native to Spain, they have come up with a dish made primarily from them that in no way reminds one of any other country that loves potatoes, it is totally unique. In Australia, even though the larder is full to overflowing with just about every conceivable food stuff, including items that are found nowhere else, it should be possible to create a culinary icon, which sadly, has so far failed to materialise.

Sure we have our superstar chefs in the likes of Neil Perry, Kylie Kwong, Stephanie Alexander et al, but have they done anything uniquely Australian or have they just madly borrowed their influences from overseas, producing nothing that is heart and soul Australian? I wonder when Cherry Ripe wrote her book, Goodbye Culinary Cringe showing we were more relaxed and at ease with food, did she realize that it wasn't really Australian food that everyone was oohing and aahing over?

Why is it in a country that has as many good cooks and chefs as we do, there is no dinki-di dish? And no, I'm not talking meat pie.


  posted at 12:14 pm

At 3:52 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I hope while you're gone this week you find the Aussie dish you're looking for.

At 4:00 pm, Blogger Cindy said...

Perhaps we should look towards the sea for inspiration? Such a large proportion of us Aussies live in proximity to the coast.

At 4:59 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Australia's a young country. We haven't had the time to form a truly self defining dish - with a really multicultural population I doubt one particular dish of national appeal will ever emerge. So what makes the Australian culinary experience unique? I think it's the simple fact that we have few fixed ways of doing things. It's not a particular style, a particular spice or a particular dish that defines us it's the lack of them that does.

At 8:07 pm, Blogger thanh7580 said...

Initially I was going to say the meat pie is the signature Australian dish, but then I read your last sentence. :-)

Australia is comprised of so many cultures that the food inevitably reflects the cultures and is a blend of different styles. Also like Anonymous says, we are a very young country and haven't had time for things to be fully defined yet. When you think about it, Australia was first started by the convicts, who are English by origin. So even the "Australian" style of old would be based on English food anwyway.

Why can't the signature Australian dish be a dim sim, fish and chips and a potatoe cake?

At 11:54 pm, Blogger Jeanne said...

Very interesting post Neil. And as some of the commenters have said, maybe the youth of Australia as a nation is part of the problem. Also interesting to look at parallels in South Africa, where we definitely have some dishes that scream South Africa (biltong and boerewors being the obvious ones!). A lot of our heritage foods are adaptations of European recipes made with local ingredients, but there is increasing interest in indigenous foods like marogo (wild spinach) and unmgqusho (samp and beans) - in fact they are increasingly appearing on restaurant menus.

Happy Easter, btw :)

At 4:00 am, Blogger Brilynn said...

I think the same thing about Canada sometimes.

Is wattleseed from Australia? That's something I've never seen here. And Tim Tam's are classic Aussie... but I guess they're not really a meal. Well, they could be...

At 5:32 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, well, we'll be in the country, maybe something is hiding away there, if it is, I will find it.

Hi cindy, we probably could if we weren't so busy selling off the best stuff to the overseas markets, but I wholeheartedly agree with you.

Hi anon, I hear what you're saying about being a young country, but we have had two hundred years - that's a whole lot of cooking for nothing to have poked its head up yet, but I guess with more and more people now opting for convenience foods maybe it's too late. That's a nihilistic view of Aussie tucker you hold, I'm not sure we serve food without style of some sort, both in presentation and provenance.

Hi thanh7580, there is no doubt that Anglo-Saxon sentiment dominated this country up until the 1960's or so. I can still remember the first Chinese restaurants in the 60's advertising Australian & Chinese meals, most of our culinary awakening has been in the last forty-five years. I have no problem with our cuisine being based on somewhere else, we had to start somewhere, but I guess what I'm saying is I'd like to see us take that next step and bring about a distinctive cuisine that speaks to the world of us.

Hi jeanne, long live marogo, unmgqusho & koeksusters! When I was young I couldn't wait to grow up, maybe having a distinctive cuisine is a sign of being all grown up. But as Brilynn notes about Canada too, maybe our collective relative youth is working against us.

Hi brilynn, wattleseed is indeed Australian. I think Tim Tams are the complete meal, they contain all the fats you can think of, lol.


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