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Posts tagged ‘Perth’

Aussie Rules?

A month ago I had the pleasing experience of packing for Perth. In South African slang, ‘packing for Perth’ means immigrating to Australia. In the decade that followed the transition to democracy, around 800,000 mainly white South Africans left – some for New Zealand, Britain, and the United States, but the bulk went to Australia.

Australia’s appeal to these South Africans was based on its political and economic stability, its relatively low crime rate, and also on its familiarity. Its landscape and cities feel similar to some parts of South Africa, and white, middle-class South Africans seemed have little difficulty assimilating into life in white, middle-class Australia.

Shortly after beginning university, my best friend’s family moved to Tasmania; and we knew of others who settled in Perth, where the majority of South Africans seeking permanent residence were directed. At the time, I was mystified about this enthusiasm for a country about which I knew relatively little. Neighbours and Home and Away having passed me by, when I thought of Australia I imagined the worlds of Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career – and also of The Castle and Strictly Ballroom. It was a rather confusing picture.

Then more recently, I became aware of Australia as a country with an enthusiasm for good food: in television series like My Restaurant Rules and MasterChef, and in the recipes books and magazines of people like Maggie Beer, Stephanie Alexander, Bill Granger, and Donna Hay. Particularly on MasterChef, Australian cooks and chefs speak often – and approvingly – of something called ‘modern Australian cooking’. I went to Australia in the hope of identifying this new cuisine. But I returned none the wiser.

I ate extremely well in Australia. I am very lucky to have friends who not only let me stay with them, but who are also amazingly good cooks. The meals I had at cafes and restaurants were excellent, and even the conference food was the best I have ever eaten. (There were spring rolls for lunch and lamingtons for tea. Enough said.)

Yet in all this, I struggled to find something that was uniquely, and particularly ‘modern Australian’ about the food I ate. I did go out of my way to consume those delicacies and dishes which either originated there or have come to be associated with the country: lamingtons and Anzac biscuits (a revelation), friands (I ate my weight’s worth in them), burgers with beetroot (up to a point), and litres and litres of flat whites, especially in Melbourne. Fruit bread is a fantastic invention. I tried Vegemite in London and decided that once was enough. And, alas, I forgot to eat a pavlova, but given the amount I did manage to consume, it was probably just as well.

A flat white in Fremantle.

I also ate an incredible omelette at a Vietnamese restaurant in Marrickville in Sydney, and a pleasingly thin-crusted pizza at an Italian joint in Melbourne’s Yarraville. Australian food is also immigrant food: it’s comprised of the cuisines of the Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Chinese, and others who settled in the country over the past century or so.

But ‘modern Australian’? I’m not sure that I ate that – possibly it’s only to be found in high-end restaurants, none of which I could afford. One culinary tradition which I did not see – at restaurants or in the cookery sections of bookshops – was Aboriginal cooking. Although Colin Bannerman identifies a small resurgence of interest in ‘bush tucker’, it’s telling that this cuisine is not included in mainstream Australian recipe books or cookery programmes. It isn’t modern Australian.

I don’t want to draw the obvious – glib – conclusion that this is suggestive of how Aboriginals have been ostracised from Australian society. Aboriginals are socially and economically marginalised, and suffer disproportionately from appallingly high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, and other social problems, but I don’t think that Australian cooks and chefs ignore their cuisine out of a desire to exclude them further (unless I’m being stunningly naïve).

I think that this unwillingness to explore Aboriginal cooking stems from ignorance and a wariness of the complicated politics of engaging with a different society’s culinary traditions. More importantly, it’s also the product of how a twenty-first century Australianness is being constructed in relation to food and cooking. It’s for this reason that I’m interested in this idea of modern Australian cuisine.

Australian cooking queen Maggie Beer is fulsome in her praise of Australia. In her recipe books, which tend to focus on her farm in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, she argues that fresh Australian produce is key to the success of not only her recipes, but also her restaurant and food business. Her understanding of an Australian culinary tradition does not include Aboriginal cuisine, but is, rather, rooted in an appreciation for the country’s landscape and agriculture.

Organic potatoes in Melbourne’s Victoria Market.

Although she may use ingredients which are unique to Australia – like yabbies – or which grow there in abundance – such as quinces – her cooking is overwhelmingly European in nature: it draws its inspiration from the culinary traditions of France and Italy. Adrian Peace sums up this rethinking of an Australian food heritage particularly well in an article about the Slow Food Movement’s popularity in the Barossa Valley:

Both ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’ became intrinsic to Barossa Slow’s discourse: ‘The Barossa is the heart of Australian wine and home to the country’s oldest and richest food traditions. The combination of this rich European heritage and the fresh vitality of Australia is embodied in its lifestyle and landscape.’ Aboriginal settlement and indigenous food were thus instantly erased in favour of a historical perspective in which nothing of cultural consequence preceded the arrival of Europeans and their imported foodstuffs. With this historical baseline in place, an avalanche of terms and phrases could be unleashed to drive home the idea of a historically encompassing regional culture in which food had played a prominent part. ‘Oldest food traditions,’ ‘rich in food traditions,’ ‘the heritage of food,’ ‘rich European heritage,’ and (of particular note) ‘the preservation of culinary authenticity’ were some of the phrases that entered into circulation.

Younger, city-based food writers like Donna Hay and Bill Granger place as much emphasis on buying local Australian produce, even if their recipes draw inspiration from more recent immigrant cuisines, primarily those of southeast Asia – Melbourne and Sydney have substantial Chinatowns – and the southern Mediterranean.

All of these writers claim that their cooking, which is drawn from the cuisines of the immigrants who’ve settled in Australia, is ‘authentically’ Australian partly because they use local produce and advocate seasonal eating.

Australian garlic at Victoria Market.

Ironically, if this is modern Australian cooking, then it is very similar to the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century, during a period in which Australia was formulating a new, united identity after federation in 1901. The Anzac biscuit – a delicious combination of oats, golden syrup, butter, and desiccated coconut – can be seen as symbolic of this early Australian identity. Baked by the wives, sisters, and mothers of the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the first world war, the biscuits became closely associated with the disaster at Gallipoli in 1915, when 8,141 Australian troops were killed in what was, in retrospect, a pointless battle. Sian Supski explains:

The biscuits have come to represent the courage of the soldiers at Gallipoli and to signify the importance of the role women played on the homefront. However, within this narrative is also a sleight of hand: Anzac biscuits link Australians to a time past, to a time that is regarded as ‘the birth of our nation’. In this sense, Anzac biscuits link Australians powerfully and instantly to a time and place that is regarded as the heart of Australian national identity. In the words of Graham Seal, ‘Anzac resonates of those things that most Australians have continued to hold dear about their communal sense of self.’

Anzac biscuits are a kind of culinary symbol of Australia – a foodstuff connected to the forging of the Australian nation. But for all their Australianness, they are also strongly suggestive of Australia’s immigrant roots and global connections: there is some evidence to suggest that they were based on Scottish recipes, and they were sent to soldiers fighting what was, in many ways, an imperial conflict.

Australian cooking during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries emphasized the country’s position within the Empire: the country cooking described in early recipe books was British cuisine adapted, to some extent, for Australian circumstances. Publications like Mina Rawson’s Queensland Cookery and Poultry Book (1878) did acknowledge the quality of local produce, and even included recipes for jams made from indigenous berries. Although, like elites all over the world, the Australian upper middle-classes aspired to eat a rarefied French cuisine, everyone else cooked an approximation of what they ate at ‘home’ (or ‘Home’). The Sunday roast remained the highlight of the week’s eating; heavy puddings featured even in summer; and teatime was a significant moment in the day.

At the same time, Australia’s economy was becoming increasingly dependent on the export of food: innovations in refrigeration meant that fresh produce could be shipped around the world. Australia sent meat, fruit, and vegetables to Britain. The posters of the Empire Marketing Board – which was established in 1926 to promote trade within the British Empire – portrayed Australia as a land of abundance. The British children sent to Australia between the second world war and 1967 were told that they were going to a land of ‘oranges and sunshine’.

So this earlier Australian culinary tradition also mingled Australian produce with a foreign – this time British – culinary tradition in the name of producing something ‘authentically’ Australian.

In Sydney’s Chinatown.

For all its attempts to associate a modern Australianness with a cosmopolitan and sophisticated liking for, and knowledge of, the cooking of southeast Asia and other regions, modern Australian cooking is very similar to that of the Australian cuisine of the early twentieth century – of an Australia anxious to assert its position within the Empire and to prove its status as a ‘civilised’ nation through ‘civilised’ eating.

Both of these traditions ground themselves in an appreciation for an empty landscape: one that is devoid of human – particularly Aboriginal – life, but that is bursting with good quality fresh produce, most of which was, ironically, introduced from abroad.

Further Reading

I am very grateful to Alex Robinson who recommends two particularly good histories of food and cooking in Australia:

Barbara Santich, Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage (Adelaide: Wakefield Press 2012).

Michael Symons, One Continuous Picnic: A Gastronomic History of Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007).

Sources cited here:

Colin Bannerman, ‘Indigenous Food and Cookery Books: Redefining Aboriginal Cuisine,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 19-36.

Adrian Peace, ‘Barossa Slow: The Representation and Rhetoric of Slow Food’s Regional Cooking,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 51-59.

Barbara Santich, ‘The High and the Low: Australian Cuisine in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 37-49.

Sian Supski, ‘Anzac Biscuits – A Culinary Memorial,’ Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 30, no. 87 (2006), pp. 51-59.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Gourmet Traveller

One of the perks of academia is being able to travel for research, study, and conferences. The odd side-effect of this is that academics become unwitting experts in the quality of travel food – by which I mean the meals available in airports and railway stations and on planes and trains.

I’ve never really understood the griping about airline meals: they’re certainly not the most inspired dinners and, particularly, breakfasts I’ve ever eaten – and I’ve probably drunk the worst coffee in the world while on long-haul flights between Cape Town and London – but I haven’t ever had anything that was actively offensive.

In fact, I rather liked the lamb biryani with cashew nuts and caramelised bits of onion I ate on a flight from Qatar to Joburg, and the macadamia and honey ice cream I had while flying from Perth to Melbourne. I’ve had considerably worse food on trains. On a nine-hour journey between Montrose in northern Scotland and London, the dining car was closed because the tea urn was broken. Which, although an interesting commentary on the centrality of tea to the British diet, was nevertheless unpleasant. A woman can subsist on crisps for only so long.

I wonder why there’s so much complaining about airline food. I think it has something to do with the overall unpleasantness of economy-class flying – the cramped seats, the mucky loos, and the dismaying misfortune of being stuck beside fellow passengers with strange personal habits – but it’s also connected, to some extent, with the ways in which we understand travel.

I’ve just returned from a month in Australia – it was amazing – and became particularly aware of how much I spend on food when I travel because it’s probably the most expensive country I’ve ever visited. But I still went out of my way to eat friands and Anzac cookies and to drink fantastic coffee to try to understand the cities I visited in Australia.

There are few non-fiction genres which blur so easily into each other as food and travel writing – as attested by the continuing popularity of magazines like the Australian Gourmet Traveller, and the legion of food-and-travel cookery books and blogs. The best food writing is a kind of inadvertent travel writing. Claudia Roden’s writing on the Middle East and North Africa, Fuchsia Dunlop on China, Madhur Jaffrey on India, and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth David’s writing on France, are as much introductions to these countries and regions at particular moments in time, as they are recipe books.

And it’s striking how much travel writing focusses on food. One of the most memorable sections of Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (1937) – by far my favourite travel narrative ever – features a blue porcelain bowl of chicken mayonnaise.

It was in Isfahan I decided sandwiches were insupportable, and bought a blue bowl, which Ali Asgar used to fill with chicken mayonnaise before starting on a journey. Today there had been treachery in the Gastrell’s kitchen, and it was filled with mutton. Worse than that, we have run out of wine.

Later, stranded in the middle of the night and in the freezing cold on the road between Herat and Murghab, Byron and his travelling companions take refuge in a makeshift tent after their car breaks down:

Quilts and sheep-skins replaced our mud-soaked clothes. The hurricane lantern, suspended from a strut in the hood, cast an appropriate glow on our dinner of cold lamb and tomato ketchup out of the blue bowl, eggs, bread, cake, and hot tea. Afterwards we settled into our corners with two Charlie Chan detective stories.

Byron uses food to suggest his and his companions’ feelings at particular moments of the journey. Relieved to have reached Maimana – now on the Afghan border with Turkmenistan – he and Christopher Sykes are treated to a feast:

The Governor of Maimena was away at Andkhoi, but his deputy, after refreshing us with tea, Russian sweets, pistachios, and almonds, led us to a caravanserai off the main bazaar, a Tuscan-looking old place surrounded by wooden arches, where we have a room each, as many carpets as we want, copper basins to wash in, and a bearded factotum in high-heeled top-boots who laid down his rifle to help with the cooking.

It will be a special dinner. A sense of well-being has come over us in this land of plenty. Basins of milk, pilau with raisins, skewered kabob well salted and peppered, plum jam, and some new bread have already arrived from the bazaar; to which we have added treats of our own, patent soup, tomato ketchup, prunes in gin, chocolate, and Ovaltine. The whisky is lasting out well.

Byron is less interested in what the people around him are eating, than in how food reflects his experiences of his journey through the Middle East and Central Asia. Writing in 1980, in an essay included in the collection What am I doing here, Bruce Chatwin uses food to emphasise his sense of what was lost – culturally, socially – during the communist revolution in Afghanistan:

And we shall lose the tastes – the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms; the grapes we cooled in the snow-melt; and the nuts and dried mulberries we munched for altitude sickness.

His elegy for Afghanistan is problematic on so many levels – his deliberate misunderstanding of Afghan politics, his romanticising of pre-1960s Afghanistan, and Chatwin’s own dubious reputation for factual accuracy – but it’s an evocative piece of writing which conjures up what feels like a realistic and layered portrayal of the regions of Afghanistan which Chatwin visited.

Describing food is absolutely integral to this: unlike foreign religious ceremonies or social customs, we can all sample – or imagine sampling – the cuisines of other societies. Food allows us some purchase on ways of living which are unfamiliar to us: we can use food to try to understand a different society, and also to judge it.

In her account of a journey through parts of West Africa in the mid-1890s, Mary Kingsley used food – this time cannibalism – to explain the what she perceived to be the ‘backwardness’ of Fang society:

It is always highly interesting to observe the germ of any of our own institutions existing in the culture of a lower race.  Nevertheless it is trying to be hauled out of one’s sleep in the middle of the night, and plunged into this study.  Evidently this was a trace of an early form of the Bankruptcy Court; the court which clears a man of his debt, being here represented by the knife and the cooking pot; the whitewashing, as I believe it is termed with us, also shows, only it is not the debtor who is whitewashed, but the creditors doing themselves over with white clay to celebrate the removal of their enemy from his sphere of meretricious activity.  This inversion may arise from the fact that whitewashing a creditor who was about to be cooked would be unwise, as the stuff would boil off the bits and spoil the gravy.  There is always some fragment of sound sense underlying African institutions.

Uncivilised – in this case, taboo-breaking – food and eating habits suggest an uncivilised society.

When I was in Perth, I dropped into the fantastic New Edition bookshop in William Street. Having taken photographs of the incredible mural which covers the shop’s back wall, I was afflicted with guilt – and also the same desperate desire that I feel in most independent bookshops for it to survive and flourish (which makes visiting independent bookshops needlessly stressful) – so I bought a book: a small, light collection of Italo Calvino’s essays, Under the Jaguar Sun (1983).

The three essays which comprise the collection are the germ of a longer book which Calvino had planned to write on the five senses. He completed only these three before his death, and the titular essay, happily, focuses on the sensation of taste. It’s about a couple who visit Oaxaca in Mexico. Their interest in the country’s cuisine becomes, gradually, the purpose of the holiday itself:

From one locality to the next the gastronomic lexicon varied, always offering new terms to be recorded and new sensations to be defined. …we found guacamole, to be scooped up with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream (the fat softness of the aguacate – the Mexican national fruit, known to the rest of the world under the distorted name of ‘avocado’ – is accompanied and underlined by the angular dryness of the tortilla, which, for its part, can have many flavours, pretending to have none); then guajote con mole pablano – that is, turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce, one of the noblest among the many moles, and most laborious (the preparation never takes less than two days), and most complicated, because it requires several different varieties of chile, as well as garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame, almonds, raisins, and peanuts, with a touch of chocolate; and finally quesadillas (another kind of tortilla, really, for which cheese is incorporated in the dough, garnished with ground meat and refried beans).

This obsession with the country’s food coincides, unexpectedly, with their shared enthusiasm for Mexico’s Pre-Columbian past. After a visit to a ‘complex of ruins’ in Monte Albán, where their guide implies that the losers of a ballgame played at one of the ruined temples were not only ritually slaughtered, but also eaten by the temple’s priests and the victorious team, Olivia, the narrator’s partner, becomes preoccupied with discovering how these human remains were prepared. The story implies that her desire to eat ever-more exotic Mexican dishes stems from her belief – never articulated – that some remnant of these cannibalistic feasts must exist within contemporary Mexican cooking.

The narrator reflects:

the true journey, as the introjection of an ‘outside’ different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country – its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot) – making it pass between the lips and down the oesophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays, when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.

For Olivia, eating becomes a way, literally, to imbibe the culture, politics, and history of Mexico. If she can’t be Mexican, then she can, physically, become closer to Mexico – its land and people – itself.

I don’t, obviously, advocate cannibalism as part of the average tourist itinerary – it’s illegal in most countries, for one thing – but I think that this idea of ‘eating’ a country is a useful way of exploring how we use food to construct national identities.

In some ways, food stands in for a society: we eat piles of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup in the United States as a way of engaging with what many believe to be an excessive, consumerist society. Travellers who think of themselves as being in pursuit of the ‘real’ – unpredictable, utterly unfamiliar, occasionally dangerous – India eat the delicious, yet potentially diarrhoea-inducing, street food of country: eating the more familiar offerings at hotels signifies a failure to leave the tourist bubble. Since the 1940s and 1950s, France has promoted its cuisine as a symbol of its national culture. (Something which Charles de Gaulle may have been thinking about when he wondered how he would govern nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese.) French food is sophisticated, so French society is sophisticated.

There are grains of truth in all these stereotypes, but they remain that – simplified and often clichéd understandings of complex societies. They are also, largely, not a real reflection of how most people eat: they exclude the ingredients bought at supermarkets, and the meals eaten at fast food joints. So if we want, truly, to understand countries and societies through their food, we have to be willing to eat that which is, potentially, less interesting and, perhaps, less enticing, than the exotic meals described in travel books.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.