What Is Australian Food? On SBS Food

In an age where famous chefs occupy household conversation as much as sporting heroes, does that mean we’re any more confident to answer this decades-old question?

If I were to ask you ‘what is Australian cuisine’, what would you say? Meat pies? Sausage rolls? Fish and chips? ...Each suggestion ending in a question mark as if to further highlight doubt (the upwards inflection is still Aussie, so there’s always that). Surely we’re past that, right? 

Having been sent packing by publisher Blackwell & Ruth to co-edit and produce The Great Australian Cookbook, we set about charting a course around the country, asking great producers, chefs and cooks “What do you cook for those you love?” The experience gifted a rather beautiful snapshot of where the heart (and stomach) of the nation currently lives.

Like the Old-World cultures of the globe who have had hundreds and thousands of years to cultivate a distinct cuisine profile, so to have our Indigenous people. But in the context of ‘settled Australia’, we have no such fairy bread fortune. Instead, the waves of immigration that have shaped our country since white settlement and their subsequent interaction have offered us something entirely different.

The cookbook runs the gamut from very English sponge with strawberries and cream by Margaret Fulton to beef rendang and char kway teow by one of our greatest early south-east Asian influences, Cheong Liew, and a quick flip through the rest reveals Italian grilled sardines, bush tomato damper, coq au vin, a legit Darwinese laksa and one helluva pineapple fish curry. This is a snapshot of the soul food of our nation. What makes us happy and what we’re happy to share with our loved ones.

With that in mind, it’s clear that the contribution each person has brought from somewhere else has coloured, and more importantly flavoured our culinary palate. And whether we hail from here or elsewhere, those influences have continued to flow through our most influential chefs and cooks.

Christine ‘The Spice Queen’ Manfield notes travel to be one of her greatest passions and creative influences. “We have a fascination with what is not normal from how we’re brought up. I have always loved exploring other options that are perceived as foreign or different from what I knew before”, she says. “It’s about falling in love with flavours and discovering food in the context of culture.”

Closer to home, Neil Perry offers the slightly more approachable notion of discovering the nuances of our cultural cuisine in our own backyard. “I don’t think you necessarily need to travel the world. You get a great sense and feeling for authenticity and ethnicity right here in Australia and for that, along with our produce we’re lucky. I think Australians embrace food from other cultures well, so there’s a reasonable preservation of true flavours and textures. You might miss some of the nuances when you lose the context of food in its original place, but in general, we have a great array of the world’s food right here,” he says.

“I’ve always said that I think Australian food is defined by the many ethnic communities that have migrated to Australia and the way we have as a collective, embraced their cooking techniques, ingredients and style”, Merivale executive chef Dan Hong adds.

But what about the ‘F’ word? The one that makes anyone who worked in food in the 90’s cringe, the ugly baby of ill-considered cultural appropriation: fusion.

“I don’t think fusion needs to be a dirty word,” says Icebergs executive chef Monty Koludrovic. “We do Italian here, but we like to say, ‘we cook food that Nonna would recognise, but never cook herself. For instance, we use Japanese sashimi techniques and philosophy in the way we approach our crudo menu, and we enjoy the freedom of using both Italian and non-Italian techniques and flavours without having to put a moniker of confinement on it,” he says.

“We’re Italian hearted, because the greatest Italian cooks have always cooked with the philosophy of relying on what’s around them. Rather than trying to emulate the food cooked exactly somewhere else, we use what we have that’s great and that makes it exciting.”

And that includes native ingredients, which until the past decade or so, were not often included on menus. “I think it’s really exciting to see Indigenous ingredients being integrated into menus in restaurants,” says Hong. “I think we’re just starting to understand their qualities as legitimate ingredients and what they’re capable of.”

“The notion of blending Australian Italian with that very Indigenous sense of place and home is getting me fired up,” says Koludrovic after an inspiring visit with the Museum of South Australia’s head of Anthropology, John Carty. “It ties in with a conscious approach to food and sustainability, and if we want to have that conversation, that will mean things like using kangaroo in Bolognese.” So does that mean we’ll be seeing our first Indigenous meets Italian restaurant anytime soon? “No”, laughs Koludrovic,”…but as hard as that idea is for people to realise, it is the future.”

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Feeling nostalgic? We want you! For the month of November, SBS Food are asking food lovers far and wide to get creative by putting a multicultural twist or your creative spin on an Australian classic... Welcome to #BringBackTheClassics - enter now!

 

#BringBackTheClassics with SBS Food!

Musk sticks, milkshakes, burgers with beetroot and Icy Poles, what it is about milkbars that will always have a place in our hearts? Read on for my very first feature story for SBS Food! 

By Melissa Leong

Before the days of branded strip malls and hyper accessible fast food, were simpler times. Times when we didn’t think about quitting sugar and where anything (well, almost anything) could come battered and fried.

Whether your childhood roots lie in the city, the country or possibly more crucially in the neighbourhood suburbs of this wide brown land, a trip to the milkbar with your friends has long been a beloved rite of passage when it comes to growing up in Australia.

For many of us, milkbars gave us our first taste of the concept of saving and spending, treats and indulgence. From blowing your hard earned pocket money on a bag of red frogs or musk sticks, discovering the joys of biting into a sloppy hamburger with the lot, egg yolk and beetroot juice running down your arms, or riding your bike with your mates in the searing summer heat in pursuit of an icy treat – then having to ride all the way home again - almost everyone who spent some part of their childhood growing up in Australia can recount a fond milkbar memory.

Milkbars were the cornerstones of our communities. A multi-purpose, family-friendly (and often family-run) local establishment, where people would get the down low on local gossip, meet up with friends or make new ones. It meant sweet treats for kids, a night off cooking (and a lazy indulgence) for parents, it was also the purveyor of the paper, the milk and the occasional cheeky packet of cigarettes. Over time, these establishments may have faded from memory and become superseded by economic reality, but there’s no question of their contribution in the decades when they were king. Milkbars were not only a crucial part of Australian food culture for nearly half a century, but also influenced the way many of us connected with neighbours.

The first business named a ‘milk bar’ was opened in Bangalore, India by a Brit named James Meadow Charles in 1930, but closer to home, it was Mick Adams - also known by his OG (original Greek) name of Joachim Tavlaridis - who is said to have opened Australia’s first milkbar, in Martin Place, Sydney, not too long after.

Wanting to provide an alternative style of hospitality establishment to the hard drinking Australian pub culture that continues today, he created a more family-friendly option, modeled on American-style drugstores, which served up sundaes and milkshakes and wholesome good times. In her book Milkbar Memories (Murdoch Books RRP $39.99), author Jane Lawson goes on to note that over the next 5 years, nearly 4,000 more milkbars like Mick’s were opened, mainly run by Greek families following the groundswell of European immigration, around Australia. Throughout the next decades, every neighbourhood, country town and city corner became home to the institution of the milkbar.

For the young, and those newly introduced to Australia, milkbars represented an opportunity to dip a toe in the water when it came to discovering Australian food culture at a grass roots level. Favourites might include chest freezers full of chilly treats, from Icy Poles to Golden Gaytimes and Cornettos, or frothy milkshakes in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry or caramel and where the only thing green in a drink was lime flavouring.

And then there’s the Aussie milkbar burger. Not to be mistaken for an imitation of its American cousin, a proper Australian milkbar burger doesn’t come on a steamed bun, but one made of denser, more substantial stuff. You need that structural integrity after all, to hold in the hefty layers of juicy beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, cheese, beetroot, bacon, egg and… if you’re feeling tropical, a pineapple ring. Regionally, there are Dagwood dogs, potato scallops, battered fish, meat pies, sausage rolls, dim sims, Chiko rolls and everywhere, everyone fought over the extra crunchy chips.

Our fondness for these foods are not, of course, was never for their nutritional value, but for their nostalgic one; an association with youth, family and a feeling of community connectedness that we yearn most for in the face of increasingly globalised, commercialised and homogenised existence. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @fooderati Facebook fooderati, Instagram @fooderati

Feeling nostalgic? We want you! For the month of November, SBS Food are asking food lovers far and wide to get creative by putting a multicultural twist or your creative spin on an Australian classic... Welcome to #BringBackTheClassics - enter now!

Margaret River Gourmet Escape 2017

Margaret River Gourmet Escape 2017

I am thrilled to be MCing a couple of amazing events this year at Margaret River Gourmet Escape, which has to be one of Australia's most beautiful food festival destinations. 

It's my first year headed over to WA for the festival and it's a huge honour to be hosting and interviewing culinary heroes Rick Stein and Alex Atala, as well as one of Australia's most exciting chefs Momofuku Seiobo's Paul Carmichael.

If you're looking at heading down, check out the festival program and give me a high five if you see me out and about and if you have any burning questions for any of these amazing culinary heroes, leave a comment below! 

Studio 10 Guest Host...ME!

Last week I had the pleasure of guest hosting Network 10's Studio 10 panel talk show, talking about all things food, current affairs and cooking up my mum's foolproof pork and prawn wontons.

Among the many topics of conversation, it was awesome to have the opportunity to talk about eating the whole beast - that is, if you choose to eat meat then it's my opinion that we should dignify the animal's life by eating as much of it as you can. Offal and secondary cuts aren't a novelty on restaurant menus, but a way of eating that many of us have grown up with...and if you haven't, then I would encourage you to try it. You don't need to dive into something too unfamiliar; perhaps dip a toe in the water by choosing a non prime cut of beef such as skirt steak, shin (a great braising cut), buy a bag of chicken livers and make your own pâté, or you know what? Ox tongue, braised and then chargrilled on the barbecue is pretty goddamn delicious. 

Click here to hear what I had to say about.

Click the video above to view the segment!

"...Getting to know youuuuu..."

Fresh off the film set and ready to hop a plane, Melissa Leong talks about eating fearlessly, food writing as a career, and why Australia’s culinary scene could do with a dose of glamour. Siobhan Hegarty - 16 March 2017, SBS Food. Original piece here. 

Fresh off the film set and ready to hop a plane, Melissa Leong talks about eating fearlessly, food writing as a career, and why Australia’s culinary scene could do with a dose of glamour.

Siobhan Hegarty - 16 March 2017, SBS Food. Original piece here

A few months ago, the lovely Siobhan Hegarty from SBS Food interviewed me while waiting to jump on a plane to LA, a day after finishing up on the set of The Chef's Line. Call it fatigue, but I was brutally honest about a few things relating to the restaurant industry here in Australia and she was lovely enough to let those thoughts go to print intact. So if you want to know a bit about me...keep reading! 


Long before food bloggers were a café constant and snap-happy diners ’grammed every dish, there existed a breed of witty, well-fed writers who took our imaginations – and taste buds – on delicious journeys. These were the food writers of yesteryear: the M.F.K. Fishers and Jeffrey Steingartens of the world; the ones who paired journalistic integrity with gastronomic know-how, eating for all of us via their pithy prose.

Things have changed considerably since those arguably golden days. The democratisation of dining means that many of us, at least in the West, can eat at establishments once reserved for the rich and the restaurant critics. Not only that, we can write about our eating experiences, too: tell our pals on Facebook; make others envious on Instagram; and publish ‘musings’ on our sharply designed blog because, like, everybody needs a web presence.

Thankfully, the situation’s not thatbleak. Beneath the filters, facades and curious grammar choices lies an assembly of real-deal food writers.

One of them is Melissa Leong.

If you don’t know her name, that’s because this lady lives behind the pen. She co-writes and edits cookbooks with Aussie chefs (Dan Hong included), contributes regularly to magazines, and consults with food businesses, taking them from good to great. In a time where quality journalists are over-worked and under-paid, Melissa has created her own opportunities and a unique niche. But just because she’s a ‘slashie’ doesn’t mean she’ll do a second-rate job ­– quite the opposite. Melissa dives head first into eating, writing and travelling.

Shortly before heading on her honeymoon with newlywed husband – and Time Out’s 2017 Bartender of the Year – Joe Jones, we chatted to The Chefs’ Line judge about filming the series, freelancing in food, and eating with abandon. Here’s what she had to say:  

On The Chefs’ Line:
I had an amazing time shooting the series. It was a brand new experience for me but what I loved about it was that both the home cooks and the chefs brought so much passion for the cuisine they cooked. And that kind of enthusiasm is so infectious!

On the other judges:
I’ve known Dan for number of years, we even wrote a book together. I enjoy his tremendous work ethic and family values. He honours what he’s learnt from his mother and generations of Vietnamese heritage and applies that in a technical capacity. Dan has a lot of fun with everything, but he also has extreme determination – young chefs can learn a lot from him.

Where Mark is concerned, I have such admiration for how he operates as a human being. He’s very kind and nurturing to the people around him. To me, in an industry that’s sensationalised for having people who champion an ego-driven approach, here are two chefs who are all about working hard and making sure they lead by example.

On choosing a ‘favourite’ cuisine:
We are such a multicultural nation, and I’ve grown up with parents who love food from all parts of the world so to pick a favourite is like asking what your favourite band is. I love all of them. I love Middle Eastern, I love Mediterranean and I love Asian. To even say that is difficult because there’s so much diversity, nuance and specificity in each country.

"The casualisation of fine dining has allowed everyone to feel comfortable, but at the same time you do sacrifice a sense of occasion."

On eating out in Australia:
Fast casual is a wonderful way to eat. The casualisation of fine dining has allowed everyone to feel comfortable, but at the same time you do sacrifice a sense of occasion. I’d like to see a return to old-school values, classic service and the old-world glamour of what dining – going out – is supposed to be. I think we miss that a little bit, but it will be changed over the next little while with restaurants like Hubert opening up in Sydney and Melbourne.

"Just because you have a stomach and a laptop doesn’t make you a writer, publisher or editor.

On food writing as a career:
First and foremost, if you want to be a good writer, you need to be a good eater. You need to be fearless when it comes to eating, you can’t show predilections or bias. You need to understand that your palate is the palate that communicates to an audience who have different tastes from you. You need to eat voraciously and sometimes that can be to the detriment of your health.

Second of all, you need to earn your place in this very competitive industry. Just because you have a stomach and a laptop doesn’t make you a writer, publisher or editor. What makes you those things is hard work, and a relationship with publications that will nurture and shape you. I think in an age where we do things all by ourselves, it’s very easy to claim status that isn’t earned. There are a lot of people out there who think that because they’ve done a season of a reality show, that makes them an editor, or because they have a blog that makes them a publisher. It’s a wonderful start, but in order to really be a writer you need to pull that thread and you need to earn it.

" ...if you want to be a good writer, you need to be a good eater."

On social media quandaries:
I think ethics are really important, especially where social media is concerned. There’s a really muddy area – it’s often unclear as to whether things are sponsored or given. For me, [it’s about] going back to old-school journalistic ethics and clarity, hard work and attention to detail, fact-checking and grammar – god forbid grammar. These things sound really basic, but they’re sorely lacking in this industry sometimes.

On America’s fast-paced food scene:
I have spent a lot of time in L.A. It’s sort of like my third home – Sydney, rural Tasmania and then L.A. I love the cultural diversity of the place. There’s such a strong Mexican theme. I’m always excited to see what I’ve missed in 12 months of not being there. It’s the same with New York. My friend [ex- Ms. G’s chef] Paul Donnelly recently opened Chinese Tuxedo, which just had its first NYT review, so I’m really excited to go there and support him.

VOGUE Australia: RUNAWAY BRIDE!

I'll admit, my inner fashion girl may have exploded from happiness when Vogue Australia decided to cover my elopement to the California desert to the love of my life, and one of the most talented people I know, Joe Jones. Read all about what it takes to run away for your big day (spoiler alert: I highly recommend it), HERE

The Chefs' Line: ON AIR NOW ON SBS!

"Lights...cameras...just do your best, darling." 

The Chef's Line starts Monday 3 April on SBS. For all the latest, CLICK HERE.

52 television episodes shot over 26 days, in just 5 1/2 weeks...now THAT'S the definition of a pressure cooker! Earlier this year, inside a converted iron foundry - turned studio, I found out exactly what it takes to make a 5 day a week television show. The Chefs' Line is my first major TV gig, but as they say, go big or go home, right?

The premise of the show is simple: celebrating the incredible diversity of food culture we have in Australia, week by week, in the (now) very familiar format of a cooking competition show. Four home cooks adept in a specific cuisine, battle their way up the kitchen hierarchy of a restaurant specialising in the same food, as we ask the question: "Can home cook passion beat restaurant professionalism?". But don't take my word for it, check out SBS for the down low on the show, the players and plenty of recipes and links to episode catch ups, so you can binge watch in your own time, should you be so inclined.

On a more serious note, I'm excited and honoured to have been involved in this brand new show for SBS: being part of a prime time show where the key anchors are two first generation Australians of Asian descent and an Indigenous Australian. It makes me feel proud to see how far we have come as a nation and to challenge whose faces programmers think we want to see on the screen. SBS is a network built on the tenants of what makes our country great - celebrating our diversity and sharing the skills, knowledge and love from our original homes, to enrich this one...and I couldn't be happier to be part of showcasing the real face of this amazing country we call Australia. I hope you enjoy the show!