Today, I read an article on the SMH online that was basically a clarion call for anyone and everyone to come up with a dish to represent Australia, since the aptly named Australia Day is like 2 days away. Asking for various chefs to proffer submissions have produced ideas like kangaroo Wellington or variations on Pavlova, peach Melba, the humble meat pie and all kinds of Asian stuff like dumplings or marron with a Thai style mango salad.

This of course raises the question, just what is Australian food? I’ve asked myself this like several times ever since I first set foot here in my culinary quest. My answer was undoubtedly, you just can’t define it. Unlike the great cuisines of the world, French, Chinese, Italian, Japanese etc… You can actually tell what their food is. Put a plate of Som Tom and most people would think it Thai. See a ceviche and you think Peru, maybe South American. See a burrito, Mexico/Tex-Mex. See a meat pie and you go, well it could be English? Oh great, stuck to the motherland again.

If you talk about Australian Food or New Zealand food even. You can’t define it. Pie! Pavlova! They both claim. Ok, who gets dibs on which and also, whoever gets the pie, how does that differentiate from an English pie? If you stuff roo and macadamias and wattleseed and lemon myrtle in it, it doesn’t make it Australian. It makes it Aussie ingredients stuffed into an English pastry concept. One of the problems with defining Aus/NZ food is their colonial heritage, their ties to the mothership drinking her tea.

And when you talk about food, you can’t not talk about national identity. Food is what truly separates cultures and nationalities the most. It’s the flavor profiles you grow up with that define your taste and hence your expectations for existence. You basil/tomato or your wasabi/soy or your mustard/sauerkraut, that’s the flavors you yearn for because it’s kept you alive. Australia just can’t shrug off her heritage from the Brits, who have only just recently come out of the food doldrums. I mean, it used to be so bad in the UK, that it was worth Asterix parodying it. Still, shit as some things might be, Yorkshire pudding, beef Wellington and English Breakfast tea are just a few iconic English dishes so at least they’ve got something.

So what to do when your country, established for a long time by now and yet, still with ties to your colonial past, is yearning to establish its own identity in the world of food? You struggle. I mean, the suggestions I mentioned before are just stupid. Of course, all of them are simply answering the question what they’re going to cook this Australia Day rather than what should Australia’s national dish be. But still, in my mind, suggesting dumplings or a Thai salad completely ignore the fact that you’re referencing other countries. If it’s to be a national dish, there has to be national pride not national other country’s food appreciation time.

Going back to my search for “Australian” food, I had a two pronged attack, indigenous and colonial. I wanted to try Aboriginal food but there is none, not in any major city anyway. If you want to see how Aboriginals used to eat, yea you can do the campfire dreamtime thingamajig at Uluru with the insects devouring you first. I don’t see that as being Australian food because nobody eats that except wide eyed tourists. The other issue is of course, the state of the Aboriginal in Australia but that’s a massive can of worms not worth digging into right now. I’m interested in the food and looked into cooking methodology and stuff. They used these ground ovens called Kup-Murri and a whole host of local ingredients that are hardly ever seen on Australian restaurants. Actually, I think in the 90s there was this absurd trend of stuffing local menus with kangaroo and wattleseed and local ingredients but they always have this tacky touristy association to it all. Mostly because nobody eats that stuff with regularity just for kitsch.

That hints at the problem though. Why are Australians not eating kangaroo, their own indigenous meat? Is it because it’s gamey and extra lean? Yes in part but also because most (white) Australians with a British heritage can’t forget their roots and still see the jumping jack as an oversized rat. Nobody is farming them like say how the Japanese farm cows. Nobody is fattening them up to marble the flesh. Also, there are shitloads of local ingredients you can’t find anywhere else. Nobody is growing any of this stuff at all. It took a foreigner, Rene Redzepi to come in and bring in this idea of locality when it comes to cooking and again, I don’t mean the kitschy shit. The problem is that everything’s just dumped until the title “BUSH TUCKER”. Don’t make it kitsch. Make it good and make lots of it and more things, not just the usual suspects. Let’s see some indigenous ingredients for real like more finger limes not for $45 a kilo. Pepperberries, bush tomatoes, warrigal greens and quandongs are a few of the more well known ingredients that are usable but never turn up in grocers.

I also checked out colonial food. I asked around which restaurant I could go to check out Aussie food in Sydney and most of the answers came back as Harry Cafe de Wheels’ Tiger Pie. I still haven’t had it. I just thought pies just aren’t unique enough. Also mushy peas and mash on a pie… Nobody eats that except piss drunk and broke teenagers. Sydneysiders would much rather have Thai or Japanese in this city or fluffed up “mod oz”. Incidentally, it’s actually really easy to define mod oz. It’s basically two or more things from cultures that have nothing to do with each other thrown together on a plate. Like sour cream and sweet chilli sauce. Real “Aussie” food? Maybe the backyard BBQ, which I have been able to enjoy but a really shit beer and bad sausages and bad sauces aren’t really all that great. I mean, the Yanks have turned BBQ into a sport. You can eat really good BBQ stuff like robatayaki in Japan as well. The humble backyard BBQ produces a cooking method that also happens to be universal and no specific individual dishes. That’s another problem with defining Australia’s food, their colonial heritage weighing things down but also increasing influence from Asia especially bringing in another dimension to appreciate before they can actually make it their own.

So what am I suggesting? Warrigal Greens tossed with nahm jim? No. Kangaroos massaged with beer and fed specialized diets and then stuffed into a pie? Well, that might work actually but no. I’m suggesting that it will take time for Australia to really define a real Australian food and at the same time, her own identity as well. There have been other countries with a colonial heritage and cultural influences from mainly immigrant populations that have gone onto creating their own cuisines. The Americans go about it in a rather brutish fashion but hotdogs, burgers and BBQ have made it at last, even in France. Singapore (represent) has it’s own culinary tradition, ok shared with Malaysia but we’re pretty much the same and we’ve got chicken rice, chilli crab etc etc etc. People go to Singapore just for a gastrotour. There are countries not entirely unlike Australia in her culinary situation which have broken out of their colonial clasps. In the case of Singapore, it was easy since most of the population actually don’t happen to be the colonial overlords. In the States, it was the massive influx of migrants from both Europe and Africa that have also changed things. Australia is still mostly actually tied by lineage to Her Majesty but she can still break out of the chains!

A local cuisine comes about when there’s local ingredients available that are good and cheap and tasty as all hell. But it also needs a mindset, a mentality of individuality that’s unique to the rest of the world. Australia is no longer a dumping ground for the Brits. It’s come a long way from that by this time. If you ask the question of what race is the average Australian, it’s getting less and less white. The street food culture is slowly growing and turning into something resembling a possibility. Change is afoot and maybe finally, Australia will look under her nose and see the bounty at her doorstep rather than constantly pandering to all things European or all things Asian.

This is my call for Australia Day.

  • Farmers of Australia. Show some real pride and grow things that grew on the same soil, not just things transplanted from other places. Make them tasty and make them good.
  • Someone please please please make some marbled Kangaroo/Emu that can maybe come close to just grade 5 wagyu?
  • More sustainable shellfish please. There’s so much that’s really only available here and no where else on Earth. Even David Chang thinks the same.
  • Chefs, grow some balls. Don’t just imitate the masters. This goes for myself too.
  • People of Australia. Eat local. Local food, local produce.
  • Woolworths and Coles: Profit should be a sustainable ideal.
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