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