But what exactly is Australian food? It’s a tough question to answer. I’ve been to the country three times and eaten extensively across different levels of dining, from informal cafes to high-end fine dining restaurants, and it seems the more you eat in Australia, the more places you try, the harder it becomes to answer that question. I can tell you what it’s not. It’s definitely not snags (sausages) on the Barbie, or Vegemite or Pavlova or Lamingtons. None of which comes even close to touching on the rich diversity on offer across Australia’s food scene.
Of course, in relative terms, the country is young and culturally mixed and its food scene reflects this. Contemporary Australian cuisine comes from a unique form of fusion rooted in Australia’s multicultural heritage, global flavours and techniques, and beautiful home-grown produce. So how did this all come about? Australia’s immigration history is long and complex, marked after British colonisation by successive waves of immigrants from China, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and Asia.
After a number of failed attempts by the Portuguese and Dutch to settle Australia, the British succeeded in occupying Australia in 1788. The first fleet of ships to arrive included an Italian convict and a French winemaker and merchant. The first major wave of immigrants were Chinese, some 50,000 Cantonese in 1851 for the Gold Rush. Many served as cooks at the mines and after the boom resettled all over Australia. These days nearly every small country town has a Chinese restaurant.
Lebanese and Syrians escaping the Ottoman Empire settled in Australia in the 1880-90s. Russians started arriving after the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and then again after World War II. The Lebanese continued to arrive in Australia until the 1950s, then there were second and third waves of Lebanese after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and 1975 Lebanese civil war. Egyptians started arriving in the 1940s and 1950s after the Suez Crisis.
Greeks, Italians, French, and Eastern Europeans settled in large numbers after World War II. Maltese arrived under the first assisted passage scheme in 1948 while the Turkish settled from 1967 onwards under another assisted passage scheme. More French landed in the 1960s and 1970s following independence of French colonies in Asia and Africa. Latin Americans, from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and El Salvador fled military rule for Australia in the 1960s and 1970s; Asians, including Vietnamese and Cambodians did the same throughout the 1970s; and beginning in the 1980s, Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis fled war and poverty for Australia. That’s quite a mix of cultures and cuisines!
Contemporary Australian cuisine’s roots lie largely in European technique, especially French, Spanish and Italian. Yet it’s commonplace to see an array of exotic ingredients from Australia’s Asian neighbours on the same plate – ingredients often grown on Australian soil – not forgetting the cuisines of the Middle East and Latin America which have also had an influence. Unlike countries such as Italy and France, Australia doesn’t have a solid basis for what is distinctly theirs – and this is the most exciting thing about the country’s food. A meal can easily touch on 10 different countries through a tasting menu. Well-known chef Peter Gilmore (Quay Restaurant) says it best:
Australian cuisine reflects our unique land where you can grow just about any product. It’s a modern society drawing on multicultural influences. We’re able to interpret with freedom and an open mind.
Gilmore’s cooking focuses on fresh, seasonal, local produce that highlights nature’s diversity, and epitomises the newer style of contemporary Australian cuisine that has developed over the last three decades in the country’s finest restaurant kitchens. This wonderful mix of cuisines can be seen in the restaurants, markets and food-shops.
But that’s not all as we’ve not even touched on the country’s extensive wine scene or its coffee shops selling some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink. That’s worth another post at least!