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What is Australian cuisine? It’s a tough question to answer. I’ve been to the country twice and eaten extensively across different levels of dining, from informal cafes to high-end fine dining temples, and it seems the more you eat in Australia, the more places you try, the harder it becomes to answer the question of what Australian cuisine actually is.
I can tell you what it’s not. It’s definitely not shrimps on the barbie - a backfired marketing campaign that doesn’t come close to touching on the rich diversity on offer across Australia’s food scene, let alone it’s rich BBQ culture. It’s also not - as many journalists put it - the food served by Rene Redzepi at his now famous Noma pop-up held in Sydney back in 2016. Redzepi spent months unearthing and refining the indigenous ingredients of Australia: kakadu plums, pigface, finger limes. But to say this is Australian cuisine, even if it was made with ingredients sourced directly from the country, is a cop-out.
The country is young and culturally mixed and its food scene reflects this. Australian cuisine is as much XO sauce with Pippies as it is meat pie with gravy. As much Greek as it is Chinese (Melbourne hosts one of the largest Greek population of any city in the World outside of Greece). There’s English, Japanese, Lebanese, Indian, Indigenous, French; from technique to taste, and it’s all wrapped in a uniquely unpretentious form.
XOXO: The Sauce of Sydney.
Nowhere is this unpretentious approach more evident than in the country’s wine scene - where choices are easy and guests all seem to have knowledge of what it is they like to drink. Australia has some of the best coffee you’ve ever tasted, some of the sharpest sourdough around, and some of the best BBQ going - BBQ that rustles up some pretty unique flavours with Kangaroo, Emu and Wallaby all making their way onto Aussie menus. Then there’s the seafood, wonderfully rich, delicious, lush and diverse seafood that punctuates menus across the country.
Unlike places such as Italy, France and, in more recent years, the likes of Peru - Australia doesn’t have a solid basis for what is distinctly theirs - and this is the most exciting thing about the country’s food. A meal can easily touch on 10 countries through a tasting menu and, for me, taking all this influence - without prejudice - and combining it in a delicious, surprising and clever way, is what I think of when I think ‘Australian cuisine’.
But what do the country’s chefs think? I asked some of Sydney and Melbourne’s best known chefs to weigh in and answer the most difficult culinary question in the country: What is Australian cuisine?
Dan Hunter - Brae Restaurant
“It’s not BBQ, that’s for sure. I think it’s still being defined, at the moment people are looking at Australia for a definitive cuisine and they’re looking at restaurants for the answer to that. But restaurant food is always a different concept, different ideas of what people want to serve. Our cuisine at the moment will always be based on the people who are here and it’s probably the most multicultural country in the world, bar the US.
“It’s typical for a city based Australian person to eat five different cuisines in a week and in their own pantry or dry store, reaching for something to cook with, have Korean soy sauce, Italian passata, greek olives - all this stuff. I think there is a freedom, we loosely play with a wide range of ingredients that no one else really does. In Europe it’s all about tradition... Australia is cuisine in evolution without the history.”
Martin Benn - Sepia Restaurant
“We adapt it for ourselves in this country. We are a country of immigrants that has evolved over 200 years and the food is of a good standard, I think, for such a young country.
“What is Australian cuisine is the biggest question I’m ever asked. I think it’s this influence of everyone around us, especially in the way we cook. I think we are all immigrants in this country at some stage or another. People have brought their skills, but Australian cuisine for me is being individual, using what we have in this country."
Daniel Puskas - Six Penny Restaurant
“Australia is such a young country and for that we draw influences from everywhere. I would say that salt and pepper squid is one of our National dishes - Dan Hong also says this. A lot of people will tell you that the best Thai outside of Thailand is in Sydney… it’s such a hard question to answer.”
Mitch Orr - Acme Restaurant
“We have this massive amount of multiculturalism: Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Thai - we are part of Asia but then there’s Italians, Greeks, Turkish, Lebanese - we’ve got everything. There’s all these little pockets and I guarantee that you can eat better cuisine from any part of the world in Sydney than any other city in the world. You go North of the Equator, any Western country has no idea about Asian food. You come here and you can eat a 10 dollar bowl of noodles or a four hundred dollar meal and anywhere in the spectrum it’s pretty amazing.
“When I create a dish I don’t think about this as being fusion or whatever - but when I actually sit down and think where did this idea come from, I think, right, I grew up with Filipinos, I ate a certain ingredient for the first time in New York, or I love carbonara, and I love to eat XO Sauce in ChinaTown. Picking from all these different things and combining them, using what is around, that is what Australian cuisine is. There is no one defining cuisine, we do everything and that’s amazing… It’s this mash and combination of everything that’s here and you can’t compare it to other places. People say BBQ, but what about the Vietnamese grill or Japanese Grill? That’s all here, you can have amazing Yakitori or amazing Vietnamese BBQ, you can come to my house and we could be grlling sausages or Cambodian beef skewers - it’s all Australian. Australian cuisine is constantly evolving and I don’t think it’s definable, I don’t think we should be trying to define it - just be happy with how lucky we are.”
Lennox Hastie - Firedoor Restaurant
"Australian cuisine presents an opportunity to create something unique based on a bounty of native ingredients, dedicated producers and multicultural influences."
Thi Le - Anchovy Restaurant
“It’s a mix mash of everything, I grew up in the Western Suburbs of Sydney where it’s really diverse, a high Asian, Middle Eastern, Kiwi mix - and we grew up sharing food together. Our national dish is salt and pepper calamari and you know, for me, that’s Australian today... Once upon a time Australia was connected to Indonesia and Indonesia was connected to Asia. You go up towards places like Darwin and you get all the exotic fruits you also find in South East Asia - we have the Australian native stuff, the herbs of Vietnam, this great mix of high quality ingredients.”
Dave Verheul - Town Mouse
“For a long time Australian chefs looked overseas for everything - we are so influenced by all these outside forces but recently people have started to look inwards. People are so open minded here, we have amazing produce and people eat out a lot. I think it’s an exciting scene.”
Peter Gilmore - Quay Restaurant
“Australian cuisine reflects our unique land where you can grow just about any product. It's a modern society drawing on multicultural influences. We're able to interpret with freedom and an open mind.”
Victor Liong - Lee Ho Fook Restaurant
“Whoever is a part of this country can contribute to the identity of its cuisine, it’s still being formed. When I first started cooking it was all French cuisine and that wasn’t that long ago, maybe 12 years, once we passed all that we were like, ‘ok - what’s next?’. Everyone here has their own story to tell, mine is about Chinese food because that’s what I grew up eating. All the young chefs here are drawing from all these different backgrounds, it’s fun, it’s cool, delicious. There isn’t any rules here and I think that’s what’s cool about Australian cuisine - as long as it’s good then people shine towards it.”