The letter from Australia is a weekly newsletter from our Australian office. Register now to get it by e-mail.
What is Australian food? Is there even such a thing? These are questions that have been asked so many times, and I admit finding them incredibly frustrating. It doesn’t help that the answers aren’t straightforward.
This week in the US, Phaidon posted a 432-page response in the form of “Australia: The Cookbook” ($ 49.95, AU $ 65) by chef and cookbook author Ross Dobson. The book was released in Australia on March 30, and it goes a long way in clarifying the definition of Australian food, both for international audiences and for Australians themselves.
Indeed, if (or, more certainly, when) I am asked this question again, I can direct the interlocutor to the first two chapters of the book, the first titled “ A Brief Introduction to Australian Cuisine ”, and the second is an essay on native food by Jody H. Orcher, a Ularai Barkandji woman and director of Wariku Bushfood Infusions.
In the first chapter, Dobson goes into detail by recounting the three main periods of Australian food: the tens of thousands of years before colonization; the 150 years or so that Anglo colonists cooked primarily to satisfy a thirst for food from England; and the period since the 1950s when immigration dramatically changed the way Australians eat.
In the second chapter, Orcher describes the history and cultural knowledge of First Nations cuisine and gives a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the ingredients of Australian origin.
The recipes in the book reflect this history of Anglo-Saxon domination but also multiculturalism, and dishes like beef Wellington with lamb and the Greek-influenced spanikopita garnish (rather than the traditional beef, pâté and duxelles) me. make me wonder if the rejection of Australian cuisine as true developing cuisine stems from the food world’s posh rejection of “fusion”.
Almost all Australian food that can be specifically identified as such merges traditions from different cultures. This is also true of most American foods, of course, but the length of America’s colonized history makes it easier for us to forget this fact.
On Thursday, Phaidon, the Australian Embassy and Tourism Australia hosted a live web panel – moderated by Travel & Leisure editor-in-chief Sarah Bruning – with Dobson and O Tama Carey (a chef who contributed to the recipes for the book , and whose restaurant in Sydney, Lankan Filling Station, I reviewed in 2019).
The conversation, which you can still watch online, touched on many questions that I have grappled with for years, in particular: What is the meaning of the term ‘authenticity’ in a country like Australia? Carey, whose mother is Sri Lankan, spoke about Sri Lankan cuisine at her current restaurant. Although this is the first time in her career, she feels her food is authentic to her own life and experience, it is also the first time that she has come under criticism for the so-called authenticity (or his absence) of his food.
Dobson spoke about reducing the number of recipes from over 700 to 350, and explained why things like banana bread and lasagna might end up in a book dedicated to Australian cooking.
He also happily said that many Australian desserts are ‘almost camp’, a notion I had never considered before but is certainly true – all that pink food coloring, all that coconut. There is something about traditional Australian desserts that are so fantastic, like all of our childhood fantasies of sugar and parties turned into baked goods.
If this book had come out during my years living in the United States as an Australian expat, it would have been like a warm hug. There are so many recipes that I didn’t even think of as Australian, but haven’t seen since I left either. Zucchini slice! Rissoles! Fondant cookies!
Is there a recipe that you consider particularly Australian? Maybe the rest of the world doesn’t think that way? Let us know at email@example.com.
Now let’s move on to this week’s stories:
Do you appreciate the shipments from our offices in Australia?Let us know what you think at NYTAustralia@nytimes.com.
Do you like this email?Send it to your friends (they might use a new perspective, right?) And let them know they can sign up here.