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Does Australia have a national cuisine?

1 June 2019

Sofia Levin talks to roasters, writers and chefs in an attempt to define the country best known for its barbecue

Google “What is Australian food?” and the results return a glut of clichés, from Vegemite and meat pies to Chiko Rolls and lamingtons. The familiar phrase “shrimp on the barbie” was actually manufactured by the Australian Tourism Commission in the 1980s for an ad series starring Paul Hogan, better known as Crocodile Dundee. Although Australia is now recognised as a major player on the culinary world stage, these platitudes are enough to make anyone with a kangaroo and emu on their passport roll their eyes. And yes, we eat our coat of arms, too.

History plays a crucial role in understanding our cuisine. For 230 years this island continent has been subject to invasion and immigration, but to begin Australia’s story with the arrival of the First Fleet would be ignorant when Indigenous Australians have lived here for at least 65,000 years. Ask Bruce Pascoe – award-winning writer, teacher and anthologist from the Bunurong clan of the Kulin nation – to define Australian food, and he won’t. “I don’t think we’ve had an Australian cuisine yet. I think we’re about to have one,” he says. “We’ve been searching for a national identity and cuisine is part of that.”

As highlighted in his book, Dark Emu, Indigenous Australian communities were the first to bake bread, using native grains, tens of thousands of years before the Egyptians. Pascoe is currently harvesting kangaroo grass and native millet on his property on the Wallagaraugh River in Victoria to do the same. He plans to make it available to others when his website, Black Duck Foods, goes live. “I think people are going to be stunned by the flavour of this bread,” he says. “It’s so aromatic. If you imagine being in an Australian grassland around about dusk, that’s what it smells like.”

Dark Emu revisits the journals of the first European settlers and makes a strong case that Aboriginal Australians were not hunter-gatherers, but rather farmed, harvested and processed native seeds, grains, fruit, vegetables and animals. Pascoe re-teaches Indigenous communities the ways of their ancestors, but he also believes restaurants play a huge part in educating the public about traditional grains. “Initially it’s going to be in the trendy, boutique bakeries and restaurants, that’s where it will start, but inevitably it spills out into the mainstream,” he says.

Ironically, the chef who is perhaps most recognised for telling Australia’s story through food is New Zealand migrant Ben Shewry of Attica, the highest ranking Australian restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Shewry is influenced by a contemporary Australia, as seen in dishes like Happy Little Vegemite, a take on a common bakery item fused with a Chinese-style steamed bun. “There are really profound influences of Chinese cuisine on Australian food,” he says. “Chinese people have been here almost as long as the waves of European settlers that came to Victoria, so they are some of the great unsung heroes of Australia’s evolution of cooking.” For Shewry, Australian food is a reflection of an individual’s heritage, as well as the responsibility to continuously study native ingredients and their uses. “Before colonisation, before culture was destroyed, I’m certain that there were regional specialties – that had to have been the case. We probably will never know, to be honest, which is sad,” he says.

Dan Hunter, chef and owner of Brae, the only other Australian entry on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, believes regionality is also part of the modern dialogue surrounding the definition of Australian food. “There’s a very fine understanding within countries about what cuisine is. If you’re Japanese you don’t say ‘that’s Japanese food’, you say ‘that’s very representative of something from Tokyo’”, he explains. Australian food is generally categorised as a single, national cuisine that’s heavily influenced by multiculturalism. Most households stock soy sauce and Dijon mustard in the pantry alongside ‘dead horse’ (that’s Australian slang for tomato sauce).

According to Hunter, the key to cooking Australian food lies in using ingredients from different cultures without the resulting meal being pigeonholed into an existing cuisine, as well as incorporating native produce you can’t find elsewhere. Brae serves a prawn tartare dish that Hunter associates with Australia’s uniqueness. “I’ve noticed that if a person with a European blood line seasons it, it always ends up tasting like spaghetti marinara, and if someone seasons it and their family is from Southeast Asia, it tastes like a fish larp,” he says. “That for me really sums up Australian cuisine, because what it tastes like depends on who prepares it.”

Like Pascoe, Hunter hopes to see native ingredients in supermarkets, propelled by restaurants introducing them to the dining public. Traditional dishes tend to only be cross-culturally celebrated when re-interpreted in high-end restaurants. As Aboriginal lore is traditionally passed down orally, many recipes have been lost. Restaurants – whether intentional or not – teach diners how to use and appreciate native ingredients. “Hopefully in 10 years from now you see Anglo grandmothers buying finger limes and squeezing them over prawns on the barbie,” says Dan. But if Torres Strait Island-born Nornie Bero gets her way, it will be sooner.

A chef in Melbourne for 20 years, Bero opened Mabu Mabu, an indigenous deli, at the end of 2018 in South Melbourne Market. Her aim is for native ingredients to become home cooking staples instead of trickling down from top restaurants. “I want people to have these ingredients as part of normal, everyday life,” she says. Bero’s customers include everyone from young people buying dragon fruit and lemon myrtle ricotta through to seniors who baked with wattleseed growing up and are thrilled to find it again. Since opening at the market – which has Greek, Polish, Spanish, Turkish and Chinese delis and shops – Mabu Mabu has paradoxically been referred to as the “ethnic store”. “I almost feel like we are the new settlers who have come into this marketplace,” says Bero. “Our business is more about education than it is about the shop.”

From an overseas lens, Australia is internationally renowned for two things: beef and brunch. David Blackmore is highly regarded for the former. Part of a sixth generation farming family and responsible for bringing wagyu to Australia, he says that farmed Australian produce is the world’s best. “It’s a more natural product than anywhere else in the world... Australian farmers care about the land and they care about animal welfare,” he says. Backed by scientific research, strict regulations and innovation, he also believes that Australia undersells its beef, which Blackmore asserts is marketed mostly on price.

The Australian coffee scene is also making waves in the States. Take Nick Stone, founder of Bluestone Lane, for example. After moving to New York in 2010 to work in banking, he spotted a gap in the market and replicated the Australian café experience, introducing the Big Apple to flat whites and smashed avocado. At the time of writing he has 40 stores in America, with another opening this month in Canada. “In a lot of the top gateway cities in the world people talk about Australian cafés,” says Stone. “Authentic Australian brunch culture is the combination of premium coffee and tea and healthy, sophisticated food that is still accessible, wrapped with carefully considered design, aesthetic and curation… the most iconic thing about the Australian café scene is that commitment to having locals, not customers.”

Australian fare is the ultimate fusion cuisine, a complex amalgamation of both regretful and progressive histories, countless waves of immigration, bountiful produce and the diverse stories of the people who eat, cook and share it. Our national identity is constantly evolving, and food is the simplest way to understand each other’s differences. Ben Shewry answers the question, “what is Australian food?” better than Google ever will: “it means a different thing to every single person living here.”

Words: Sofia Levin Images:Colin Page

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