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What is Australian Food? Is there such a thing at all? These are questions I’ve been asked so many times, and I admit that I find them incredibly frustrating. It doesn’t help that the answers aren’t easy.
This week, Phaidon posted a 432-page response in the US in the form of “Australia: The Cookbook” (US $ 49.95, AU $ 65) by chef and cookbook author Ross Dobson. The book was published in Australia on March 30th and goes a long way towards clarifying the definition of Australian food, both for an international audience and for Australians themselves.
Indeed, if (or certainly when) I am asked this question again, I can refer the questioner to the first two chapters of the book, the first entitled “A Brief Introduction to Australian Cooking” and the second entitled “A Brief Introduction to Australian Cuisine” Essay on Indigenous Food by Jody H. Orcher, an Ularai Barkandji woman and director of Wariku Bushfood Infusions.
In the first chapter, Dobson goes into great detail about the three main periods of Australian food: the tens of thousands of years before colonization; the 150 or so years in which Anglo-colonists cooked mainly to satisfy the craving for the food of England; and the time since the 1950s, when immigration has profoundly changed the way Australians eat.
In the second chapter, Orcher describes the history and cultural knowledge of First Nations cuisine and gives a fairly comprehensive breakdown of Australian ingredients.
The recipes in the book reflect the history of Anglo domination but also multiculturalism, and dishes like Wellington beef with lamb and Greek-influenced spanikopita stuffing (instead of the traditional beef, pate, and duxelles) make me wonder if the rejection of Australian cuisine as a real, evolving cuisine stems from the snobbish rejection of “fusion” by the food world.
Almost all Australian foods that can be specifically identified as such combine traditions from different cultures. This is true of most American foods, of course, but the length of America’s colonized history allows us to more easily forget this fact.
On Thursday, Phaidon, the Australian Embassy and Tourism Australia hosted a live web panel – hosted by Sarah Bruning, Senior Editor of Travel & Leisure – with Dobson and O Tama Carey (a chef who contributed recipes for the book and whose restaurant is in Sydney). Gas station in Lanka which I checked in 2019).
The conversation, which you can still follow online, included many questions that I have grappled with for years, in particular: What does the term “authenticity” mean in a country like Australia? Carey, whose mother is Sri Lanka, spoke about cooking Sri Lankan food at her current restaurant. While it is the first time in her career that her food is authentic to her own life and experience, it was also the first time she was criticized for the so-called authenticity (or lack of it) of her food.
Dobson talked about cutting the number of recipes from over 700 to 350 and explained why things like banana bread and lasagna could end up in a book on Australian cuisine.
He also happily explained that a lot of Australian desserts are “almost camp”, a notion I’d never even considered, but it’s certainly true – all that pink food coloring, all that coconut. There’s something about traditional Australian desserts that is as amazing as all of our childhood fantasies of sugar and parties turned into baked goods.
If this book had been published in the years I lived in the US as an Australian expat, it would have felt like a big hug. There are so many recipes that I didn’t even consider Australian that I haven’t seen since I left. Zucchini slice! Meatballs! Melting Moments Cookies!
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