As a relatively young nation, it’s fair to say that Australian food isn’t tied to tradition in quite the same way that many other cuisines are; there’s no single dish that sums us up, nor is there a singular style of cooking that can be called quintessentially Australian. As a country, we’re always changing, and the same goes for Australian food. Our population continues to transform with the influx of different migrant groups, all bringing elements of their food culture to our shores, layering it upon what’s already here and threading complexity and diversity into the way we eat and cook.
Aussie food truly reflects the multicultural nature of our society and we’re all the better for it. No longer do we eat meat and three veg every day, which was the way I grew up. We’re just as likely to have sushi for lunch as we are to have a Vegemite sandwich; more likely to tuck into an excellent curry for dinner as have the grilled sausages and chops that were such a part of my childhood.
We like to call ourselves the lucky country, and when it comes to local produce, those words couldn’t be more true. It’s almost become clichéd in Australia to say so, but our food has become hugely produce-centred. From the fanciest city restaurants to the most remote outback pub or your neighbour’s kitchen, this is a shift that’s happened within a generation. Think about this concept for a minute. How many other world cuisines can truly claim such a focus on produce? A handful only.
Our varied climates support diverse crops within the one country, and in our home kitchens we’ve been trying out this new produce, loving it and expecting and getting more from our farmers. When I started cooking in commercial kitchens 30 years ago, there was one variety of tomato – maybe two. Now, there are any number of heirloom varieties, and a simple tomato salad is a far more exciting dish.
The same goes for our other fruit and vegetables, our dairy products and even our pulses and grains. There’s now so much great produce available, so much variety. No longer does lettuce equal iceberg only – we all have access to at least a dozen different kinds of salad greens. Some of this broadening is because of our cultural diversity, while some is due to a more widely travelled population – people saw what was available overseas and questioned why it wasn’t available here. As consumers, we have more power than we realise and have the ability to drive what is available.
Aussie produce continues to go from strength to strength. We produce Wagyu beef that’s so great we export it to the very discerning Japanese market, while our relatively new truffle industry has been so successful we sell truffles back to the French. No longer is pork dry and flavourless, as it was back when I started out – instead there’s a focus on rare breeds reared for flavour and succulence.
Our natural resources are amazing too – our vast coastline means we have access to some of the best seafood in the world, not to mention the fact that with a range of water temperatures, we’re able to enjoy cold-water fish such as salmon, ocean trout and King George whiting, as well as tropical reef fish – think coral trout, red emperor and our famous barramundi. The variety is mind-boggling and it’s hard to believe that back in the day (and that’s only a couple of decades ago), most seafood and fish was sold frozen. Compare that to our fish markets, which boast the freshest of fish, crustaceans and shellfish, and it’s easy to see that we’ve come a long way.
We’re also becoming increasingly interested in provenance – the why's and how’s of food production. We’re asking where our food comes from, how it’s been reared and whether it has been ethically produced. These are all important questions, which push producers to do better.
All of this contributes towards making Australian food into what I believe is some of the best in the world. It’s a big call, I know, but I unashamedly stake the claim. We are now the envy of the world and a food-lover’s destination. We should be proud of how far we’ve come, and continue to expand our cooking horizons.
Ultimately, the definition of Australian food is very personal. Someone who lives in rural Australia will have a different definition to a coastal city-dweller. As an eighth-generation Australian, my definition is likely to be different to that of someone who has a parent or grandparent from another country.
My take on Australian food is deeply influenced by my upbringing, my career path, by travelling and by the amazing produce I am lucky enough to come across everyday in my restaurant kitchens. It’s the blending of these different experiences that forms the heart of my cooking, and I believe it’s also indicative of the way Australian food in general has evolved. We’re making our own traditions, taking bits and pieces of all the cultural influences that are at play, putting our spin on them – it’s exciting stuff.