The search for a national flavour


Joanna Savill


One of the world's top restaurant critics sums up Australian food with a single word: more. ''As in more flavours, maximally heightened,'' Los Angeles Times reviewer Jonathan Gold says.

Like most visitors, he's struck by Australians' ease with Asia. ''Chinese techniques seem as essential as French ones,'' he says, ''especially in the best restaurants, which I'm pretty sure is unique in the non-Asian world.''

If pressed to pick a typically Australian dish, Gold might nominate mud crabs in XO sauce. ''I saw [that dish] four times in the week [I was in Sydney]. I never did run across a meat pie or a pavlova,'' says Gold, who visited for the 2012 Crave Sydney International Food Festival.

Melbourne chef Paul Wilson describes Australian cuisine as ''global, produce-driven and free-spirited''. And he should know.


Across seven restaurants, including Melbourne's Circa, the Newmarket, Middle Park and Albert Park hotels, Wilson serves up everything from British-Australian gastropub and Cal-Mex to luxe Latin and Pacific Rim.

And all this from a Brit.

''I wouldn't have attempted to explore [these kinds of] gastronomy if the typical produce of those continents wasn't grown here, and certainly not if I was still working in London,'' says Wilson, who, at 27, was executive chef of Quaglino's in London.

''Australia is just such a young country in an age of travel and sharing information,'' says New Yorker (and part-time Sydney chef) David Chang, of Momofuku. ''And what's great is that it acts like a sponge. There are pockets of amazing food here. Ethnic food is really good. And if any country can get away from asking, 'What's our tradition?' and say, 'Let's just eat good food,' it's definitely Australia.''

SBS TV presenter (and MasterChef winner) Adam Liaw reckons it's our proximity to south-east Asia that sets us apart from similar ''melting pot'' cuisines in North America, which is probably why his choice of a national dish is salt-and-pepper squid. ''Almost every pub, Chinese restaurant, Thai takeaway or Italian cafe in Australia will have some variation of it on the menu,'' he says. ''And you don't really find it too often outside Australia. If that's not Australian cuisine, I don't know what is.''

We've given the world the Tim Tam and the flat white coffee (now found everywhere from New York to Paris).

Visiting Australia last year, Christina Tosi, the New York baking queen from Chang's Momofuku Milk Bar, enjoyed such delicacies as Minties, Anzac biscuits and red frogs. She was particularly taken with the Violet Crumble and was last seen planning a new dessert around it.

An Australian expat and baking expert, London-based Dan Lepard (who will be here for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March) always has a lamington on visits home. ''And a perfectly made vanilla slice is a thing of joy,'' he says.

Fellow Aussie Brett Graham of London's Ledbury confesses to nostalgia for the taste of our sweetcorn, avocados and fresh king prawns. ''Australian cuisine is very hard to distinguish on a plate,'' he says. ''There are so many different styles and influences. I tend to identify it by ingredients like marron, jewfish, pearl meat, wagyu, native berries and great mangoes.''

And there, perhaps, lies the answer to the riddle, says food historian Barbara Santich, of the University of Adelaide.

''What you do [to define Australian cuisine] is showcase some really good ingredient - Sydney rocks, fine fish, good piece of lamb - and say, 'This is ours.'''

Wilson says we should shout about our seafood. Lepard says Australian sourdough is the best in the world, due to the quality of our grain and flour. Keen hunter Graham is a fan of kangaroo, wild deer, hare and rabbit.

Adopted Aussie Chang agrees. ''We should be working more towards what's unique to us,'' he says. ''Mud crabs, marron, yabbies. Unbelievable! Quandongs, muntries, saltbush … One of the best dishes I had all year was wallaby. It was delicious.''

Australia's favourite dishes

A REQUEST TO READERS TO NOMINATE favourite Australian dishes shows we're still hooked on classics. Pavlova, pumpkin scones, lamb and damper all rate mentions. The barbecue is the favourite cooking device, whether for grilling prawns, burgers or something more exotic, and Vegemite is used to flavour scrolls, risotto and more. Here are some of the responses, via Twitter and online:

@thehosp_widow can't go past a BBQ'd snag on a piece of white bread with tomato sauce #trueAustralian
@ac_brite grilled prawns and squid on the barbie - olive oil pepper salt chilli grated lemon rind
@ItsMelShoe You're forgetting Chocolate Ripple Cake
@NotFrasier Vanilla Slice! Aka Snot Blocks.
@miss_vg89 Milo or Vegemite macarons? Scones? Anzac biscuits?
@alisonsbread love the ''romance'' of Damper. Accessible 2 isolated settlers, miners, drovers. Coals+bedouri = fresh damper. Yum
@KelBracegirdle can't ever go past a coffee scroll!!! Add the 'cheesymite' & u have a balanced meal!
@meedeejay how about that '70's classic Aust dish#chickeninabasket
@esurientes My Italian dad invented a Vegemite risotto. We grew up LOVING IT. Rice, butter, Vegemite, butter, Parmesan, butter … YUM.
@MsZoeO Flo's pumpkin scones, bush biscuits and the always highly contested country vanilla slice
@welldone99 The glorious meat pie
@TrentRCarpenter you need to make sure the good old sausage sanga is on the list. I'll block you if it doesn't make it HAHAHAHA
@BertiesButcher great day for a lamb salad!!
@lizeganchef gotta be the barbie doesn't it? All our glorious multicultural influences, modified and cooked on our beloved barbies
m21 Freshly baked damper dipped into olive oil then ''Bush Dust'' (macadamia nuts, native Tasmanian pepper, bush tomatoes, herbs and spices)
Hollow Legs Australia Day for me means bbqed whatever with salads - green, coleslaw, anything as long as it goes with meat and sauce. Origins of the charred meat and cold vegetable dishes should be a delightful combination of ethnicities to reflect one's community. A gorgeous tropical fruit salad of pawpaw, banana, pineapple, mango and passionfruit served with runny cream and in great quantity will always be my archetypal Aussie dessert.
Festy I grew up spending Australia Day in Queensland. Some of the family used to go mud crabbing before the day to get the required haul. I still have fond memories of cooking the crabs in the morning, everyone fighting to help pick the meat (and sample it at the same time) and then a festival of mud crab from salad to sandwiches after a day on the beach. For me it still is the ultimate Oz Day feed.
thaipeter Pavlova all the way. I just wish I could make it here in this mostly 365 days of humidity … but to date I havent found a way :)
Rosetta123 Chilli crab followed by Peach Melba
Peter Roast shoulder of lamb - slow-roasted so that the sweet juicy meat falls off the bone. Crispy roast spuds and proper mint sauce - not that sweet muck from a bottle
rogeroger A 50-year lunch tradition since childhood: well-salted extra large school prawns fresh from the Evans Head Co-op (where prawn trawling began in Australia), crusty white baguette with real butter and, these days, a chilled Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon. I'll also reluctantly concede a smear of fresh wasabi mayonnaise.

Some comments have been edited for length.

Beef and Aussie stout pies by Kate Gibbs

It's boldly un-Australian, but in adult memory I don't think I've ever bought a meat pie. But that doesn't mean I haven't eaten my fair share of this iconic morsel. My grandmother, Margaret Fulton, passed on to me her skills with pastry, as well as a love of a well-made Aussie pie. To me, it's the summer holidays in the palm of your hand, a thing for making in great quantities and sharing. A good Aussie stout and a spoonful of Vegemite lifts the flavour to even greater patriotic heights.

1kg beef chuck steak, cut into 2cm cubes

½ cup plain flour

1 tsp paprika

3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra

2 onions, chopped

1 leek, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 large portobello mushrooms, chopped

2 cups beef or vegetable stock

2 cups (500ml) Australian stout

2 tsp Vegemite

3 large tomatoes, chopped

2 sheets good-quality puff pastry

1 egg

2 tbsp milk

Shortcrust pastry

1 cup plain flour

Pinch salt

60g butter, frozen

1 egg yolk

2 tbsp iced water

1. First, make the shortcrust pastry. Sift flour and salt into a food processor bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and add to the flour. Process for 15-20 seconds, pulsing, until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and water. Process for 20 seconds, or until pastry clings together and forms a ball. Add another teaspoon of cold water if needed to form a dough. Remove, wrap in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 190C. Grease two 12-hole muffin tins. Roll out pastry to a three-millimetre thickness, then cut out 16 10-centimetre rounds and use these to line the tins. Press the pastry in so it comes a little higher than the edge (it will shrink). Chill in fridge for 30 minutes. Prick the bottom of each case with a fork a few times. Line each pastry case with tissue paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake in oven for 10 minutes, then remove paper and weights and bake for another five to 10 minutes, until golden. Remove and allow to cool. Reduce oven to 180C.

3. Meanwhile, dust the beef in flour and paprika to lightly coat. Heat olive oil in a large casserole pan over medium-high heat and sear beef, until golden but still raw in the middle. Sear meat in about three batches, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Remove from pan and set aside. Add a little more oil to the same pan, if needed. Fry onions, leek and garlic until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until soft, about five minutes, then return beef to pan. Add stock and stout, stir in Vegemite and tomatoes. Place lid on pot and cook over medium-low heat for one hour. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

4. To make pies, fill pastry cases with beef mixture to the top. Cut circles from the puff pastry, about seven centimetres in diameter, to fit pie tops. Crimp the edges with a fork. Combine egg and milk in a small bowl and brush over pies. Bake pies in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until pastry is golden and cooked through.

Makes 16

Stuffed curried eggs by Diana Lampe

Stuffed curried eggs are old favourites that I think are perfect to share with friends and family as part of an Australia Day picnic. Be sure to make plenty of both because they will be popular and disappear quickly. The eggs should not be too fresh because fresh eggs are difficult to peel when boiled. I have allowed an extra egg, just in case they don't all turn out well, and to use for tasting.

7 free-range eggs, room temperature

3/4 to 1 tsp curry powder to taste

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/2 tsp sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp sweet mango chutney or other fruit chutney, chopped

1 bunch of chives, finely chopped

2 tbsp mayonnaise, or as needed

1 generous pinch sweet paprika

Lettuce leaves for serving

1. Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover well with cold water. Place on medium heat and bring to the boil. Stir the eggs carefully and occasionally while the water comes to the boil to help keep the yolks centred. Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes depending on the size of the eggs and how well you like them cooked. Be sure to put a timer on.

2. Drain the eggs. Immediately run under cold water and leave them in the water. To peel, tap all over with a teaspoon or on the bench to break the shell. Peel from the broad end, slipping a teaspoon under the skin. Rinse as necessary. Return the eggs to fresh water to cool.

3.Take a sharp knife, dip the blade in water and halve eggs lengthways. Ease out the yolks with a teaspoon into a dish. Keep whites in the water. Mash the yolks with a fork, add the curry powder (I used one teaspoon), salt, sugar and pepper. Add the chutney, chives and as much mayonnaise as you need to make a mixture of piping consistency. Fill a less-than-perfect white for tasting and adjust seasoning as you like. Add cayenne for hotter stuffing.

4. Stuff the curried yolk mixture into the whites using a piping bag or with a teaspoon. Finish the eggs with a sprinkling of paprika and chives and arrange on lettuce leaves or shredded lettuce. Serve cold.

Serves 6

Diana Lampe is a Canberra writer,