For its first 150 years, the Australian cuisine fluctuated in flavor somewhere between salty lard and shoe leather spiced with charcoal. Without a doubt, it was the most boring food in the world. It is tempting to blame the English for the blandness. After all, they transported criminals who were able to steal bread but lacked the imagination to steal the condiments to give the bread some flavor. They also transported the Irish whose experience with exquisite meals amounted to little more than adding some grass clippings to potatoes.
Sadly, as unpalatable as it may be to let the Poms off the hook, the more probable explanation is that the harshness of the Australian environment offered little material to work with when creating recipes. Because the poor soils were unsuited to agriculture, it was only basic vegetables that could be grown with any reliability. Furthermore, chefs had to rely upon a limited range of domesticated European animals because, unlike native animals, they could be contained. Kangaroos won’t herd nicely towards an abattoir and jump most fences. Likewise, Wombats are individualistic creatures that if fenced in, tunnel their way to freedom. Possums and Koalas just climb over the top of fencers.
Aside from being shackled with a narrow range of meats, the lack of refrigeration forced Australian chefs to burn, salt or coat the meat in fat in order to reduce the risk of food poisoning. Perhaps some flavour could have been achieved by making sausages or salamis like many Mediterranean nations. Unfortunately, the menace of blowflies posed a significant risk of infusing a maggot flavour.
Unless the colonists decided to live an Aboriginal style nomadic existence, the colonists had to rely upon unproductive foreign animals and plants that struggled in Australian conditions. Even then, the menace of droughts, fires, bushrangers, dingos and kangaroos made this produce unreliable. For the colony’s first few decades, starvation was as common in Australia as it had been in Europe.
With ingredients scarce, it was left to the ladies from charity organisations like the Salvation Army to save Australia’s culinary soul. As part of their fund-raising drives, the ladies utilised two ingredients that were in abundance, wheat and eggs. They subsequently made pumpkin and mango scones; pavolvas; Anzac cookies, lamingtons and the humble slice . Till this day, the charitable recipes of Australia’s culinary soldiers remain of the few that are recognised as Australian in origin and style.
After World War II, Australia underwent a culinary explosion. It is generally accepted that this explosion was due to the influx of Asian and European immigrants who subsequently expanded the Australian pallet. However, this explanation seems flawed as Australia also received massive migration from China, Germany, Italy, and France during the gold rushes of the 1850’s yet the basic burnt meat and boiled potatoes prevailed. The only lingering change was the addition of the dim sim to the fish and chip shop. The more logical explanation for the culinary explosion is that the Snowy Mountains Scheme increased the productivity of the land. Furthermore, improvements in transportation and refrigeration allowed food to be transported over vast distances. As refrigeration expanded the size of the farmer’s market, the more they could grow niche products with confidence that they could be sold. As the range of produce in Australia increased, immigrants were able to access the ingredients necessary to continue their culinary traditions. Over time, they introduced Australian chefs to the great meals of the world.
Of course, Australians have never showed much respect to traditions and were soon corrupting recipes that have been considered perfect for centuries. They tested the boundaries of Japanese politeness by using sun-dried tomatoes and brie to make sushi. They bemused the French by marinating escargot in beer and throwing them on the barbie. They have even provoked knife sharpening amongst hot headed Italians by using tandoori paste and yoghurt to make pizza bases. The name given to this style of food is ” Modern Australian. “
Until “modern Australian” attains a common style, the grand old ladies of the Salvation Army will continue to be recognised as the finest exponents of Australia’s culinary heritage. Not only are their recipes unique to Australia, they are replicated across regions so that refinement can occur. Whereas it is impossible in Australia to be a connoisseur of a recently invented recipe, it is very easy, and very enjoyable, to be a connoisseur of lamingtons. Furthermore, just as experimentation shows creativity, refinement shows taste.
Recognised Australian recipes
• Chicken, mango or pumpkin scones
• ANZAC biscuits
• Vegemite sandwich
• Kangaroo tail soup
• Coffee sucked through a Tim Tam
Evolving Australian recipes
• Barbeque Prawns – Prawns marinated in chili and coriander and thrown on the barbie
• Char-grilled baby octopus – Baby octopus marinated in soy-based marinade and char-grilled on the barbie