Dan Hong

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!

 

"...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.