Sunday, May 18, 2008

What would you serve as Australian food?

Photo: Farmers' Market, Orange

Last night I went to the international food fair at Sydney University's International House. This was the fourth time I had been to this annual function. As always, I enjoyed the food, but it did raise a real issue in my mind.

Just to set the scene, I sampled all stalls. With four exceptions, all the stall gave samples of their standard national cuisine. The exceptions were the US, Canada, South Africa and Australia where people focused on what they saw as unique elements in the cuisine. So in the Australian case we had things such as Anzac biscuits and pavlova.

Now I have noticed this before, and I wonder why it is so. Ask a Singaporean to illustrate the food that they eat and you will get standard Singaporean dishes. Ask an Australian and you will get vegemite!

I have noticed the same thing in other areas. Ask an Australian to talk about Australian culture and he or she will struggle to talk about distinct features. Ask an Indian and he or she will talk about Indian culture or cultures. The issue of distinctive does not arise.

So if you were asked to describe or even serve Australian food as food what would you say or do?

I think that the first point I would make is that the raw materials - meat, fruit, vegetables, spices etc - are relatively cheap and plentiful in Australia. So this aids variety in diet. The second point would be that the various ethnic groups in Australia maintain their own cuisines, adding further to variety.

Beyond this, and focusing just on main meals prepared at home, I think that I would argue that most Australian meals fall into seven main groups.

Group one is salads, served with meat or as a main course. If served as a main course, salad is often eaten for lunch, less often in the evening. There is great variety in such salads.

If served as a side dish with meat, lettuce, cucumber, onions, tomatoes and capsicum still dominate, usually with olive oil and vinegar as a dressing. If served as a main meal, both the main ingredients and dressings become much more varied.

Group two is meat - lamb, beef, chicken or pork - grilled, cooked in a pan or on a BBQ. If barbecued, meat is usually served with a salad. Otherwise, there are steamed vegetables, usually potatoes and greens such as beans, peas or broccoli.

Group three is roasts, again lamb, beef, chicken or pork. These are served with with baked vegetables (potatoes, sweet potato, pumpkin), greens and gravy.

Group four is pasta of various types, sometimes served with a side salad.

Group five is caseroles or stews of various types, served on their own or with rice or vegetables.

Group six is Asian stir fries, usually sliced meat and greens cooked together or in separate woks with things such as sesame oil and fish sauce.

Group seven is a wide variety of curries, usually served with rice and side-dishes.

These main groups are affected by many influences.

In many areas fish is an important part of the diet. I won't comment here because I rarely cook fish, so do not claim any expertise.

Then there are the Mediteranean influences.

Oven cooked Greek vegetables may be substituted for conventional baked vegetables or even, with meat such as chicken added, served as the main meals. Italian pot roasts may be substituted for the more conventional oven roast. Kebabs may be served.

Asian influences are also very powerful. In addition to stir fries and curries, most Australian larders now contain various Asian condiments that get used in broader meal preparation, such as the addition of chillies and fish oil to salads.

Modern Australia's time poverty has affected our diet.

One main course has replaced the two or three courses of the past. The varied soups and deserts of the past have suffered, as has the wonderful home baking and preserving that Australia used to know. The anti pastos and cheeses we now have are not, to my mind, an effective substitute.

Breakfast is a much diminished meal. Our diet used to consist of a major breakfast, a very slim lunch, a major evening meal. The big breakfasts of the past have gone except in cafes where people gorge on a Sunday morning. I say gorge because those cafe big breakfasts are in fact far bigger than the home variety used to be.

Take-away (take out in many parts of the world) food is also a feature of the modern Australian cuisine. Here Australia is, I think, well served by global standards in terms of variety and standard. Noticeably, many people seem to buy food that they do not serve at home as a regular feature, adding further variety to the food mix.

I fear that I have only scratched the surface in talking about Australian cuisine. So what Australian food would you serve?


Anonymous said...

M is very fond of Vegemite, which he took to as a kind of solidified Soy Sauce. The Oz Food he found somewhat revolting was lamb; couldn't stand the smell, in fact claimed Aussies tended to smell like sheep...

I meanwhile have really become a regular eater of that excellent meat kangaroo...

Lexcen said...

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.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, doesn't your comment illustrate what I have been saying but in a different way?

Greek cuisine is derivative, yet we still talk about Greek cuisine without worrying about the "original" elements in it. The same is true of Malayasia.

Your examples illustrate the way cuisine changes. Another classic is the chili - this was introduced to Asia by the Europeans to become a feature of various forms of Asian cooking. So what was food like before then?

The food Australians eat - content and preparation - has already changed a number of times since 1788. Geoffrey Blainey's Black Kettle and Full Moon (Penguin Books, 2004) shows this very clearly. Subtitled "Daily life in a vanished Australia", the book is an exploration of daily life up to the First World War including what we ate and how we prepared it.

So I would argue that Australia does and always has had a cuisine defined as what we eat and the way we prepare it. Why, then,do we ask not what is, but what's different?

Neil, M's comment re sheep meat is interesting. We used to eat a huge amount of mutton, less so lamb, because we had a hell of a lot of sheep. Beef was relatively more expensive, as was chicken. Growing up, I would never order lamb or mutton if eating out because we had it so much at home.

Cassandra said...

I have no answer to give this complicated question but I think you hit the nail on the head when you said -

we eat out what we cannot cook for ourselves.

I absolutely love asian food - it's a little spicy and very fresh. My parents are european (born in England and the Netherlands) but I grew up on mid week stir fries - usually heavy on the sweet chilli sauce and cooked with chicken.

I also love pasta. Other than a variety of general cookbooks the only topic specific cookbook I refer to is a giant Pasta book (it's so big that when I looked up a simple macaroni cheese receipe I found 3 version and about 5 variants with different veges and meats added in).

But when I eat out I go for Indian or even better, Japanese. These are two cuisines that I adore, that I can't cook (too hard!) and readily available all around where I live - in the suburbs and in the city.