Travelling around here in Europe, where every country has hundreds and even thousands of years of firm history and identity under their belts, I find it very odd when someone asks me what food is Australian food. I never can put my finger on one particular dish that is just Australian.
Living in France especially has been a huge lesson to me when it comes to identifying yourself, on a national scale, via food. They have their croissants, their baguettes, their foie gras and their cheese of course. And those foods are a cornerstone of French identity.
In Germany I saw a currywurst (sausage with curry powder on top) shop every three metres, interspersed with beer sellers and pretzel vendors.
In Sweden you can’t walk down a street without seeing something made of marzipan, everything is amazingly spicy (cardamom spicy, not chilli spicy), and I was thrilled to have reindeer for dinner on my first night here, while my travelling buddy S had some perfectly cooked fish.
Belgium has its waffles, hot chips and chocolates.
But what foods are Australian?
I love some kangaroo myself, but even though it comes from Australia, your typical Australian doesn’t eat kangaroo regularly, despite its health and environmental benefits. Nor crocodile, nor emu.
The same sort of thing goes for traditional Aboriginal fare. I love wattle seed, and I’m always keen to try Aboriginal food from various regions – I would even love one day to keep a hive or two of native bees and get my own sugarbag honey. But such things are sadly tremendously hard to come by because your average Australian is not interested.
Lamingtons or Pavlova? Lamingtons are named for a man who once, while being entertained by a group of conservationists, reportedly, “ordered his carriage to stop: he had spotted a koala asleep high in a roadside tree. Then he reached for his rifle, let loose one shot and it fell to earth dead…”, and the New Zealanders have something to say about Pavlova. Plus, if I never saw another lamington or Pavlova ever again I wouldn’t feel any less Australian. Maybe a bit less fat.
Anzac biscuits? They’ve even got New Zealand in the name!
Well what about meat pies? The “humble meat pie” generally “with sauce”, is what a decent proportion of Australian society will tell you is our national dish. And it certainly is a strong contender. But according to Wikipedia not only are they ‘Australian and New Zealand meat pies’, but the kiwis actually eat 3 more per capita per year than we do!
When it comes down to Australian food, I think that I can’t really point to s single dish, or selection of dishes. I think that, just like how we like to see ourselves, one of the largest factors typifying Australian food is the mix of cultures. Pretty much every Australian family, to a greater or lesser extent, has some Italian dish in their repertoire. Be it some form of spaghetti bolognaise (a good friend of mine always had “spaghetti bowl” because you put the spaghetti in a bowl) or pasta bake, or be it a comprehensive understanding of Italian cuisine for those people with an actual Italian heritage. You can find a Thai restaurant in almost any town, and the same goes for Chinese, although both with varying levels of authenticity.
Like our perceptions of ourselves however, I think that that multiculturalism is not quite as deep as we’d like to think. Good luck finding authentic Mexican and not “tex-mexican” as J likes to call it. I wasn’t even aware there was a difference between the two until a friend who spent a year in Mexico explained how much he missed the food there and how hard it is to find it in Australia. I’d never tried any sort of African food until a tiny ‘African-markets’ in Newcastle one day and I would have no idea how to find it again. The ‘French bread sticks’ you can buy in a bakery in Australia have nothing on a baguette, and the well-known strategy of many a food enthusiast is to not tell someone what something is or where it’s from until they’ve already eaten it, lest it be dismissed out of hand.
So there you have it, Australian cuisine – even in our mixedness we’re a bit of a mix.