What is Australian food?

Guest Post, John Newton: One of Sydney’s best known food critics, author and editor of food guides, John Newton guest posts.  The man has opinions (you better believe it). He shares his thoughts and issues a challenge to noodlies readers, is there such a thing as Australian cuisine?  Read on…

Advance Australian Fare?
By John Newton

It’s black. It’s sticky. It’s salty. It’s an industrial product, originally made from waste from the brewing industry and if you eat it, it’s a sure sign you’re Australian.

vegemiteWe can say without fear of contradiction that Vegemite, made by an American multinational corporation, is Australian food. What else is either Australian or regional Australian?

Not the Pavlova, whose provenance is hotly contested; the Anzac Biscuit, first made and named by the Arnott Biscuit Company; not Peach Melba which, although named after an Australian, is not Australian. None of these justly celebrated desserts/cakes – with the possible exception of the lamington – came from Australian domestic kitchens. And none are associated with one place.

For the same reasons, I can’t offer Cocky’s joy, a flour dumpling swimming in golden syrup, or damper, the flat bread baked over the campfire, examples of dishes developed in extreme circumstances and using limited ingredients, they are neither regional nor universally Australian. Nor did I nominate the roast leg of lamb, steak and eggs, and especially not the ubiquitous ‘spag bol’ – again, none, with the exception of the last, is associated with any particular place or region – except the last and bologna doesn’t count.

There is one regional Australian food. The Adelaide pie floater: a meat pie island in a pea soup sea, served in only two or three locations in the country, all pie carts, and all in Adelaide: one at Norwood, the other outside the Casino and the third, occasionally, near Hindmarsh Square. There are many places that serve pie n’ peas, with the peas atop the pie. But only in Adelaide does the pie float in the mushy peas. Two questions before I throw to you, noodlies readers.

pie floaterFirst, when was the last time you ate anything that grew here before 1788 – before the European invasion?

And secondly, if you were to open an Australian restaurant in, say, Frankfurt or Seoul or San Francisco, what dishes would you serve that are quintessentially Australian? As Australian as moussaka is Greek, as pho is Vietnamese, as Yorkshire pudding is English, as paella is Spanish.

Here we are, after 225 years on this bloody great big island, and what have we to show for it gastronomically?

Vegemite which, incidentally, was a copy of Marmite (at one stage the makers were thinking of calling it Parwill); a pie floating on a sea of mushy peas; And the lamington, a sponge cake covered with chocolate and coconut which first appeared in Queensland in 1902 and by 1910 had spread around the country.

I’ve been researching this now for almost twenty years, and am now doing a master’s thesis by research at UTS on the topic of Australian food culture – or rather the lack of it.

And I want to, once again, as I did some years ago when I was the Short Black columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald’s food supplement, throw a question to you, the readers.

Send me your nominations for Australian national or regional dishes – they must be well known – at least where they come from – be fairly widely spread – that is cooked in a number of homes or restaurant kitchens – but above all unique to Australia or a part of Australia.

So get into it. Prove me wrong. Break my day.

john newton

About John Newton

A Sydney food icon, John has reviewed just about every place over the past few decades, mainly for Fairfax, including SMH, Good Living and more.  He’s an author of a decent collection of books.  But no one describes the man better than the man himself…

“I’m a writer – I write for money – not enough and for fun – not often enough. I’ve written two novels,  a lot of books and journalism about food and two books about other things – one a book about plants another on the history of whaling in the Pacific and Southern Oceans.”

Read his blog John Newton Writes or follow him on twitter @xdomingo

There are 7 comments

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  1. SL

    Great thoughts. There’s no such thing as Aussie food, the popular restaurants are all from other cultures and we love that. I wouldn’t be claiming pies as our own.

  2. Tim

    You can argue that food is derivative, hainam chicken, roti, crosses borders and boundaries. Maybe that’s the same for Aussie food, we can merge them and claim as our own.

  3. Eva

    Well, it’s true that we can’t really define what consists of Australian food but at least we have native Indigenous produce becoming better known in the restaurant industry and hopefully one day, in Australian homes. Mark Olive makes me proud to live in this country as he’s devoted a significant amount of time and energy into native food awareness. As you know, products such as bush tomato, warrigal greens, lemon myrtle, wattleseed, kangaroo, emu and so on are becoming more common (very slowly, but still!). Although it has taken two centuries for this to happen, I reckon one day Australia will be known for these native ‘bush’ foods which hopefully create a sense of sophistication, away from the bogan-ness of meat pies and potato mash.

  4. YaYa

    I reckon Eva’s got a point. One year we had a roasted baby emu for Christmas (okay it was stuffed with cranberries and other stuff) which was delicious, like duck only not as fatty. Bet you wouldn’t find that anywhere else in the world! Must admit only the primary ingredient was Aussie, not the flavouring or the method in which it was cooked.

  5. Wicked Foods

    Yaya and Eva make a solid point. It’s all about working local bush ‘foods’ into our menus. I was reading an article on Aussie food trends and there’s been an increase in the number of restaurants and catering companies introducing native food inspired dishes- awesome!

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