Monday, May 19, 2008

More ramblings on Australian food

As so often happens, a comment from Lexcen on What would you serve as Australian food? started a new train of thought. Lexcen wrote:

Traditional cuisine develops and evolves over hundreds of years. The introduction of tomatoes occurred in the 16th Century and potatoes around 1700. Chocolate was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus. I think it's too early to attempt to define Australian cuisine because our culture is relatively new compared to the rest of the world. And don't forget that Greek cuisine is in fact merely variations of Turkish and middle eastern dishes, probably a result of the Ottoman occupation

Now there is a fair bit of sense in this, but it got me thinking.

Part of my response to Lexcen was that Australian cuisine was simply what we ate, the ingredients used, how it was prepared. Now in this sense there has to be an Australian cuisine unless, and I do not think anybody would argue this, what we eat is so varied across Australia that no pattern exists. So we can, I think, talk about an Australian cuisine.

Now the second thing in Lexcen's comment is that cuisine varies with time. As a further example, where would South East Asian cooking be without chillis? Yet the chilli is a European import introduced from the Americas.

We can see this in Australia. Olive trees came here with early European settlers, yet for much of the historical period olive oil was thought of in medicinal terms. The ubiquitous presence of olive oil in Australian kitchens is very recent.

We know this, and attribute many of the changes in Australian cuisine to the post Second World War mass migration period. This is true, but it ignores another fact: Australian cuisine has changed many times in our short history. It has never been static.

This links to another problem, the attachment of labels. We all like to classify and categorise things. This is a human trait. Yet the labels we attach can conceal the truth about things, or even create new truths.

Two examples to illustrate my point.

In a post on another blog I used the term bush tucker to describe native Australian foods. This led to a very swift correction. Bush tucker, I was told, was a shorthand term for food collected and prepared by our indigenous peoples. Australian native foods referred to all the indigenous ingredients native to the continent regardless of the way in which the food was cultivated or prepared.

As another example, what do we mean by Italian food? Italy itself is a very recent national creation. There are huge regional variations in food within Italy, as there are in history and dialect.

I do not want to make this a long post. I would argue that we should look more at what we do eat, ingredients and preparation, worry less about national distinctiveness. The second conceals the first.


Hard to believe that I have now written 679 posts on this blog. I mention this only because I cannot always remember past posts, but come across them again when searching on particular topics.

Back in March in Sunday Morning Snippets - Thai food, Cedric Emmanuel, Tibet Train Pastiche and Statistics, I mentioned the Australian chef David Thompson who had gone to Bangkok to open a Thai new food centre. Part of Mr Thompson's mission was to try to preserve traditional Thai food in the face of the fusionist on-slought:

The opportunity came after David had attended and spoken very vocally at a food conference in Bangkok in mid-1999. He was "shocked and appalled" by the damage fusion cooking was doing to Thai cuisine. He was confronted by some awful mixtures, such as mango risotto with olive oil, garlic, coconut cream, curry paste and lemongrass stock. He said that the Thais must stop, and try to preserve traditional teaching methods. He blamed European executive chefs in Thai hotels who read food magazines and believe they have to copy to keep up.

I think that Mr Thompson is correct to suggest, as he did, that traditional Thai food centres on home cooking. The same is true in Australia. What we eat at home forms the core of Australian cuisine.

I find it interesting that even in Australia with its relatively short history, we now have what is called modern Australian as compared to traditional Australian. Modern Australian centres on restaurants and is often to my mind a fusionist mess. Traditional Australian can be found in the growing volume of web sites dedicated to preserving and providing past recipes.

The desire for traditional Australian can be seen in the revival of the Anzac biscuit and is a sub-set of a growing nostalgia for Australia's past that sits, sometimes uncomfortably, with attacks on elements of that past. Nostalgia is also linked to a growing Australian nationalism, especially among the young.

While I have written about this before, some elements make me very uncomfortable, I should at some point do as I am trying to do with food, simply describe what I see.


Koren said...

urgh, mango risotto sounds horrid!

When I was an exchange student in Germany for a year I was often asked to prepare a 'typical australian meal'.

They'd get vegemite on toast or perhaps a bbq. Even those seemed like a cop-out though, being borrowed from other cultures.

Jim Belshaw said...

Now that is exactly my point, BC. If I was going to give them a typical Australian meal one option would be a roast followed by fresh fruit, cream and icecream. Another option would be steak and salad.

Now much cooking is borrowed. It's just the time horizon in the borrowing.

Other options would be a thick caserole. You have inspired a follow up post!