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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. 

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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!

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!