Let’s do a quick rundown of what we would call Australian Cuisine…
Ok, so there’s bush tucker, weet-bix for the morning, a meat pie or sausage roll with some rich red tomato sauce to buy at your local takeaway shop; you’ll likely find some fairy bread or a lamington (thanks New Zealand) at a kid’s 9th birthday party, and let’s never forget our longtime favourite, vegemite on toast! (Though this is probably now rivalled by maybe the most popular Australian dish at the moment, the famous avo on toast.)
We’ve definitely got some clichés when it comes to Australian eating, and it’s not uncommon to hear the term modern Australian Cuisine thrown around. But what does that mean in the real world of the current Australian restaurant and bar scene? Do we actually have a cuisine we can call our own?
A little bit of history
If anything can be said of Australian cuisine, it’s that it’s always changing, and has done so for a long time. The more cultures that have migrated their way to the land down under, the more influence this has had on the way we eat. And thank goodness for that! We’re not sure how many nights in a row anyone should be subject to a diet of flavourless meat and three veg!
For thousands of years Australian Aboriginals lived off the land. While it’s not clear exactly what the diet of these longstanding people was, Bruce Pascoe has been a strong voice to reveal that there was sophisticated agricultural systems and proof that they may have even been one of the first people ever to discover the wonder of bread! Mix in with that a diet full of variety from the plentiful bush tucker that they so skillfully figured out how to harvest, and the original cuisine is something to be admired.
The Chinese influence
After the English inspired diet of milk, bread and meat lasted for a while, the first real infusion of flavour came around the 1900’s thanks to the Chinese. The Gold Rush that brought so many different kinds of people to Australia, brought with them a big influx of Chinese prospectors.
From this Chinese restaurants emerged as a serious commercial enterprise – the desire for gold may not have come true for many, but as a result, modern Australia had their first influx of flavour of what could be considered the first modern Australian Cuisine.
The Italian influence
Not far behind the Chinese were the Italians, and they’ve had one of the most lasting influences on Australian eating imaginable. Thanks to the Italians, Australia’s fruit and vegetable life dramatically improved. The Italian’s take pride in their backyard veggie gardens, and they brought this directly to the market.
It’s hard to believe that veggies such as eggplant and zucchini were virtually unknown to the Australian public in the early 1900’s. Now it’s practically impossible to find a grocery store without them!
Soon the Italian influence on the market moved to the restaurant scene. Particularly in Victoria, the introduction of Italian food and wine began to slowly change the eating scene. The general public was initially a little slow to adopt current staples such as garlic and olive oil, but when they did, we were changed forever.
The Greek influence.
The Greek’s natural predilection for seafood matched perfectly with the abundance of ocean life we had in Australia. This, paired with such common delicacies such as souvlaki, loukoumades, moussaka, spanakopita and taramasalata, impacted Australian cuisine with a loud bang. Like the Italians, however, it took us a little while to warm up to these strange new dishes.
Though Greek immigration was at its peak in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that stand-alone Greek restaurants were a sight to behold.
The Thai and Vietnamese influence
It was like a tidal wave. Suddenly everywhere you looked there was a Thai restaurant on every corner, always with some kind of clever play on words. Take a walk through Terrigal on the Central Coast and you realise just how common it is now.
Though Thai restaurants have been here from the 1970’s, in 2014, The City of Sydney officially recognised that they had a “Thai Town” of their own. It’s conceived that a quarter of restaurants in greater Sydney are Thai.
Closely related, but definitely different, has been the recent influx of Vietnamese restaurants. Though not as influential as the Thai’s, this fresh south-east Asian cuisine is making its mark throughout Australia.
Australian Cuisine today
So where does that leave us? After all that, from Indigenous Australia to the influx of the Vietnamese, ( and we could’ve mentioned much more such as Japanese, Mexican, Indian and now Egyptian… but where do we stop?) what can we consider modern Australian Cuisine?
In honesty, if you’re inventive and daring enough, it could mean a mix of everything that has influenced the Australian diet, such as we’ve just mentioned. At The Joker and The Thief, we’re proud to have taken a lot of influence from the Mediterranean diet, but if there’s one thing to be sure of, it’s that in 10 years time “Australian Cuisine” will mean something different again!