Does “Australian Cuisine” Actually Exist?
Picture the scene: I’m at a party, on a boat, on the Seine. The lights are sparkling on the water, I’m surrounded by good-looking Parisians chattering away in French, and feeling ever-so-slightly out of my depth. The topic of discussion, naturally, is food. They are discussing the merits of Lyonnaise versus Savoyarde cuisine, and I’m just about keeping up with things, when in one terrifying instant everyone’s eyes are on me. A very handsome man whose name I’ve forgotten (but is probably Antoine – they all seem to be called Antoine) is asking me a question. I have been drawn into the conversation. I take a deep breath, preparing to dazzle them with a fascinating and exotic answer.
“So, Gilly-anne, tell us: what is “Australian cuisine”? What are your specialties?”
I do not have a sexy answer for this question. “Er… well, there’s pavlova, but we kind of stole that from the Kiwis. And there are lamingtons? And we really like… sausages? Basically anything you can put on a barbecue.”
They were less than impressed.
It’s a hard question though, right?? And I get asked it a lot – French people talk about food the same way British people talk about the weather. Australia is full of great food. But it’s great Italian food. Great Vietnamese, great Chinese, great Mexican, great Moroccan, great Korean, heck, we’ve even got great French food. But Australian food? I have vague memories of being taught about “bush tucker” on school camp in about grade 5 – we made damper (it was horrible) and the guide spent a long time telling us about which plants and insects we could eat, much to our horror.
I asked a few friends what “Australian cuisine” meant to them – the only common theme apart from lamingtons, pav and BBQs was, of course, Vegemite. I actually bought a small jar of Vegemite from a specialty store when I first got here (for €8.50! What was I thinking?!). I showed it to my lovely French host family and I’m pretty sure they thought it was some kind of practical joke. The children have not quite forgiven me, and look at me darkly whenever I spread it on my morning baguette (ok, even I admit that’s not quite cricket).
But then I had a chat to my grandpa, who pointed out that there are quite a few delicious and unusual things we eat in Australia that you can’t in other parts of the world. Kangaroo, wallaby, moreton bay bugs/crayfish, abalone, crocodile (although I have not tried that last one). I once worked at a restaurant that made the most delicious wallaby burgers, and ate a fabulous kangaroo steak at a very fancy winery. We also grow plenty of delicious veggies, and native seeds and spices. So while it may not be as defined or varied as the French, I think it can be argued the Australian cuisine definitely does exist. Plus, we have Tim-Tams.
Back to the boat in Paris. I wish I could tell you the conversation went uphill from there – that I eloquently spoke about our native delicacies, or Asian fusion cooking, or the modern Australian café culture that can be traced back to Italian immigration, but no. For some terrible reason, I found myself trying to explain to a group of sophisticated young French people, in my far-less-than-perfect-French, the concept of a sausage sizzle. It went something like this:
“Basically, there are a LOT of sausages. Like, a lot. And you can buy one for a dollar – unless it’s on election day, they’re free – and you get it with bread, you know, sliced bread, and tomato sauce, and the money goes to charity. They’re often found outside, what’s the word, house-shops. No. Furniture-markets. Nope… hardware stores. Yes, that’s it. We have one called Bunnings. Everyone loves it. It’s quite an important part of our culture, really.”
The French people looked at me with a mixture of amusement, confusion, slight disgust, and sympathy. Probably-Antoine said kindly “It’s ok. I think you got confused. You just told us Australians eat sausages whenever you vote or buy paint.”
I gave up then. Some cultural barriers were never meant to be crossed, and I think this might be one of them.
So, recipe time! I’ve been banging on about lamingtons and pavlova – so let’s MAKE them. Both of these recipes owe a lot to my hero/queen Nigella Lawson.
I’ve only made lamingtons a couple of times in my life, ‘cause to tell you the truth, I don’t really rate them. Sponge cake is not my jam (pun fully intended) and coconut doesn’t really do it for me. Also, they’re kind of a pain in the ass. Unless you get the consistency exactly right, they will guaranteed fall to bits when you cut the cake up/dip it in the chocolate. So when I got asked to make lamingtons with 75 nine-year-old students as part of an English lesson, you can imagine my apprehension. I was most worried about the cutting up part – so I decided to do away with it all together. Instead of a big square cake, we made cupcakes! And then dipped them in the chocolate and coconut! Cheating? Yes. Delicious? Yes!
250g self-raising flour
250g butter (softened)
250g caster sugar
4 x large eggs
2 x tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup whole milk
500g icing sugar
100g cocoa powder
100g butter (melted)
250ml boiling water
4 cups desiccated coconut
- Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC. Grease two 12-cupcakes tins. If you have silicone ones, excellent. If not, I suggest cutting discs of paper and lining the bottom of the tins (but if you grease them really well, this is probably not necessary).
- There are two ways of making these cupcakes. Nigella-style: put everything in the food processor except the milk, then add the milk little at a time until a nice, thick, liquid consistency is achieved. Skip to step 6. For the food-processor-less among you, read on.
- Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, either with electric beaters (easy) or a wooden spoon (not so easy).
- Add the eggs and vanilla, mix well.
- Spoonful by spoonful and alternating between the two, add the flour and milk.
- When you have a lovely, soft, smooth, lickable mixture, spoon it equally into the waiting cases. Cook for about 15 minutes, or until risen and golden.
- LET THE CUPCAKES GET COLD. Seriously. Pop them on a cooling rack. Do an online yoga class or take the dog for a walk. Do not try and dip warm cupcakes into icing. It will be messy and unsuccessful. You will be cross. I will be cross. Just don’t do it.
- In a bowl, sieve the icing sugar and cocoa, and mix in the melted butter, boiling water and milk. It should be very runny, not like a normal icing.
- Set yourself up a little dipping station: cupcakes on the left, then bowl of chocolate icing, then bowl of coconut, then a rack for the finished lamingtons (pop some paper or a tray under this one. There will be dripping). Using a fork, cover each lamington in chocolate, then roll in the coconut. You may need to use your hands for the coconut – but be gentle, they’re delicate little things.
And crikey, mate! You’ve done it! Not so hard, was it? If you want an extra challenge, add a classroom full of children who don’t speak your native language and think “coconut wars” is a fun game to play.
I have literally never met anybody who doesn’t enjoy a good pav. Even the French got around it when I made on on Australia Day this year (it was the middle of winter, so a bit weird, but tasty nonetheless). There are endless variations you can try with pavlova toppings – all red fruit, all berries, lemon curd, tropical fruits – but I personally just like there to be as much colour as possible. Kiwi fruit, passionfruit, raspberries, blueberries, mango, strawberries and my personal favourite – pomegranate. The pomegranate idea came from ultimate bae Nigella. She has several pavlova recipes in her books including a cappuccino pavlova, I thoroughly recommend checking them out.
8 x egg whites
500g caster sugar
2 tsp white vinegar
4 tsp cornflour
1 tsp vanilla extract
600ml thickened cream
your fruits of choice – don’t be stingy!
- Preheat the oven to 180ºc. First things first: separate your eggs. A delicate art. Save the yolks: I suggest making a custard, or vanilla cake, or some insanely delicious scrambled eggs.
- You need to whip those egg whites ’til they’re stiff (teehee). It’s one hundred times easier with electric beaters, but doable with a normal whisk if you don’t mind a little wrist action (these inappropriate jokes just write themselves, I swear). When the egg whites hold their shape, they’re done.
- Gently, gently, fold in the sugar a little at a time, with a metal spoon. You want the eggs to retain as much air as possible.
- When you have a silky, glossy meringue mixture, fold in the cornflour, vinegar and vanilla. I feel I should mention it’s possible to do this without the vinegar or cornflour, but it won’t hold its shape nearly as well (eg: the picture at the very top of this page).
- On a sheet of baking paper, trace around a dinner plate. Pile the mixture onto the paper (which, being the clever cookie you are, you will have put onto an oven tray), trying to stay within the circle.
- Pop the meringue in the oven and immediately turn down to 120ºc. The way my mum explains it, you’re not so much cooking a meringue as you are drying it out. Cook for one hour, then turn the oven off, open the door slightly and let the meringue go completely cold.
- When the meringue is ready, turn it upside down (carefully!!) onto a serving dish and peel off the paper. Whip the cream, chop the fruit, and pile it all on in a glorious display of colour and deliciousness. Add the pomegranate last – it’s literally the jewel on top.
Prepare yourself for oohs and aahs and a whole lot of praise – unless you’ve waited too long on Australia Day to serve this, and everyone is 12 beers deep and loudly singing Down Under. ‘Straya.