Australian Gastronomy Part 1 - Convicts And Aboriginals


When I drew Australia for my gastronomy project my initial reaction was, to be frank, a sense of disappointment. I had been secretly hoping that I would be allocated Portugal, a country I’d visited many times and one with whose national cuisine I was already reasonably familiar. I was not exactly thrilled with the prospect of investigating the gastronomy of Australia. It was, after all, a country that didn’t actually have a true national cuisine worth speaking of. Or so I had been led to believe.

I knew, of course, that what was spoken of as “Australian cuisine” took its primary influences from the country’s early British settlements. I also knew that, like my own nation, Australia had taken the majority of its influences in more modern times from its neighbouring countries. In the case of Britain, the regional influence draws principally on France, Italy and Spain. These are the nations which set the trends of what we now consider to be “Modern European cuisine”, the eclectic style synonymous with modern up-market dining in this country. But was something similar true of Australia? I was fairly certain that modern Australian cooking drew heavily on the Asian culinary cultures of Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand and I assumed that it also drew to some extent on the traditions of Australasia’s bordering Pacific island regions. But I still had little confidence in the existence of a genuine Australian cuisine, never mind whether an eclectic “Modern Oceanian cuisine” was emerging.

My sense of disappointment at being assigned Australia was soon to change dramatically, as an important realisation came to me. Had I been allocated Portugal, Italy or Scotland for my gastronomy project, I would have found myself facing a relatively simple and straightforward challenge. But that would have defeated the object of the exercise. The reason why students are given this assignment is to encourage us to expand our knowledge of world cuisines. I’d being given the opportunity to explore the gastronomic history of Australia, which for me meant starting with a very large and relatively blank canvas. And it was as I realised this that I began to appreciate the extent of the privilege bestowed upon me. After spending countless hours of research and slowly piecing together a menu drawing inspiration from a voyage of fascinating discoveries, I have come to the conclusion that Australian cuisine is one of the most interesting subjects I have ever had the pleasure of studying. So without further ado, I will fill you in on what I’ve learnt about Australian food.



The first British settlement in Australia was something I only recently learnt about, independent from my gastronomy assignment, but it is a story that now interests me greatly. In 1786, the area of New South Wales in the South-East of Australia was proclaimed by the reigning British monarch, King George III.

The following year, on the 23rd of January, the British parliament was informed that the Australian Secretary of State for the Home Department, Lord Sydney, had agreed to have British convicts sent to the newly acquired territory of New South Wales. Transportation was an integral part of the English and Irish penal systems at the time and was seen as a way to deal with the “over-population” resulting from increasing poverty in London and Dublin. I should clarify, however, that transportation was used as a penalty for petty crimes such as larceny; grave offences such as treason or murder were punished by hanging. Four months after the announcement, on the 13th of May 1787, eleven ships of the “First Fleet” left Portsmouth under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. Varying reports suggest that there were at least one thousand, three hundred and fifty souls on board; roughly fifty eight percent were convicts, of which around twenty percent were women.

In January 1788, eight months after leaving Blighty, the first fleets arrived at Sydney Harbour, Port Jackson, and settled at nearby Sydney Cove where a Union Jack was erected. From 1788 onwards, the Colony of New South Wales was officially a penal colony, comprised mainly of convicts and marines. During the following few years, additional fleets left England heading directly for other locations, creating the first real cities in Australia. From Sydney, the inhabitation spread North to Moreton Bay on the Brisbane coast, East for Norfolk Island, a halfway point before New Zealand, and Port Macquarie, where the inevitability of trading would supply the colonies with food and various wares.


The convicts brought with them the traditional English recipes, often handwritten, which would be passed down through the coming generations. They were simple prescriptions, not requiring complicated ingredients and not costing much money, a style of cookery that reflected the modest means of the time as well as the morbidly blunt British palate. A witty quotation from the website, penned by an acrimonious Aussie describing his thoughts on what we Brits did to his native cuisine, sums up the situation brilliantly: “It is tempting to blame the English for the blandness. After all, they transported criminals who were able steal bread, but lacked the imagination to steal the condiments to give the bread some flavour”.

The recipes brought by the first settlers consisted mainly of simple pies, roasted cuts of meat, dumplings, stewed or grilled chops and steaks, chicken and other forms of meat generally accompanied by vegetables (the combination known colloquially as “meat and two veg”). Sweet recipes also played a major role in British cuisine at this time, with the need for fats and sugars high on the agenda. Among others, recipes included many varieties of steamed puddings, often using suet, jams and dried fruits such as currants. Many of these desserts still hold their place in the home cooking of modern times, including spotted dick, bread and butter pudding and the ever-famous Christmas pudding. All of these recipes would soon create and form the national cuisine of Australia.

In 1803, the nearby island of Van Diemen’s Land was densely settled, and was established in its own right in 1825. Its name was officially changed to Tasmania in 1856. Soon, more British colonies were developing and spreading across Australia, heading West to the vast Adelaide plains where they began to take up agricultural land for farming, albeit unsuccessfully. The harshness of the Australian environment offered little material to work with when creating new recipes. Because the poor soils were unsuited to agriculture, only basic vegetables could be grown with any degree of reliability. Furthermore, the settlers had to rely upon a limited range of domesticated European animals such as sheep, chickens and cattle, brought from Britain by the graziers and farmers amongst the immigrants.


The first British settlers were, understandably, unfamiliar with the native animals of Australia. There were some recognisable animals including wild swans, ducks, geese and pigeons that were similar to their European cousins. On the other hand, the settlers had never come across kangaroos, possums or wombats before and had great difficulty containing them. Naturally, their inexperience in farming these “exotic creatures” meant the settlers had to stick with what they knew.

The settler community continued to progress and develop as a society, travelling across the country to establish the Swan River colony which would later become Western Australia. Over the course of the next few decades, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland (both named in the honour of reigning monarch Queen Victoria) and the Northern Territory respectively, were all proclaimed and settled. However, despite extensive travelling and settlements across the immense land mass of Australia, the cuisine was not yet to develop into one of any sophistication or integrity. Unless the colonists decided to live an Aboriginal style nomadic existence, which they had no experience or knowledge of yet, they had to rely upon unproductive foreign animals and plants that struggled to survive in Australian conditions. Perhaps most importantly of all, there was a serious lack of any practical form of refrigeration. And the constant menace of droughts and wildfires threatened even what little produce the settlers had, making even this unreliable. Over the next hundred years, these continuing factors contributed to Australia having little worthwhile to show for itself in the way of a cuisine.


It may be stating the obvious, but it seems quite clear to me that the main reason why the settlers did not thrive on this land was because they had absolutely no knowledge of how to survive in an unknown territory. This is fully understandable of course. I’m sure had Aborigines been transported to Britain they would have been equally incapable and perhaps more so, despite the fact that the Aboriginal peoples were certainly highly dexterous, capable and efficient within their own civilisation. This takes me on neatly to that other group of Australians – the ones whose country had just been settled and occupied by European penal colonists.

The literal translation of the word Aborigine is: “the people who were here from the beginning”. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans first arrived in Australia between sixty and sixty-five thousand years ago during the second ice age, but there is evidence showing that Aboriginal peoples may have existed at the Lake George Basin area of New South Wales up to one hundred and twenty thousand years ago. It is thought that Northern Australia, somewhere between Kimberley and Cape York Peninsula, is the most likely place for people to have first arrived on the continent from South-East Asia, having crossed land bridges and sailed across ocean gaps.

The first immigrants would have stayed around the coastal area, where food supplies would have been similar to that of their side of the Pacific, with an abundance of sea life, edible vegetation and herbivores. However the great climate changes that occurred during the second ice age forced the Aboriginal people to spread out from coastal regions to most areas of Australia. There they have not just survived, but thrived as a race for thousands of years, with their lifestyle and cultural practices remaining virtually unchanged until the time of the first European settlements.


The Aboriginal people lived a nomadic “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle in every sense of the phrase. Their economy was based on a stable, considered management of the environment and an effective organisation of labour, where males and females made different but equal and complementary economic contributions.

The men would have taken the male children out with them to hunt for wild animals on land and sea, while the female children would have gone with the women to gather various fruits, plants, seeds and nuts growing widely on the land.

This practice was and still is very much bound into Aboriginal culture, with the elders proudly passing down essential life skills to the young through example and with ritual and ceremonial rites of passage symbolising the progression of youth into adulthood. These mechanisms were what ensured that Aboriginal people could guarantee the continuity of their way of life and their religious traditions from generation to generation.

On the land, the male hunters would have come across an assortment of native mammals and birds. These included kangaroos, wallabies and emus, which they regularly hunted, using spears fashioned from stone that was shaped into a point and attached to bamboo with resin and string. At the water they often found turtles, fish, crabs, and dugong, a relative of the manatee known in the Malay language as “lady of the sea”. The Aboriginal males would catch these creatures from the oceans and rivers using hooks, small spears and fish traps.

In the bush, the women would pick fruits and berries such as quandong, muntries, desert lime, wild plums such as Illawara, and bush tomato varieties such as akudjura. There was also an abundance of edible nuts and leaves to choose from. Examples of these include the bunya nut (similar to the pine nut), various myrtle leaves possessing lemon and aniseed aromas and perhaps the most widely known of all Australian native plant foods, the macadamia nut.

The collection and preparation of this wide variety of bush food required the development of an efficient, multifunctional technology and extensive practical skills. Many native berries, together with roots such as the cheeky yam and the taro (the root of the plant that produces calaloo leaf), required complex preparation techniques in order to neutralise toxins and to make them palatable and nutritious. Learning and teaching these techniques was vital for survival amongst the Aboriginal tribes and the ability to identify what might be poisonous and what is perfectly safe to eat was a valuable and crucial skill.

When it came to the cooking, animals were often thrown straight onto the fire, but the Aboriginals also practised a wide variety of other cookery methods. Larger animals such as kangaroos, wallabies and wild rabbits were often roasted on hot coals. This process involved removal of the fur by fire, extraction of the innards and the placing of the body on the subsided coals of the fire. This method wouldn’t fully cook the flesh right through, and usually resulted in very rare meat. However the running blood was considered a delicacy as well as a symbolic token and was drunk, or rubbed on weapons with the belief it would give greater efficacy to their hunting.

Another iconic Aboriginal cookery method is “baking in the ashes”. This method is used for nuts, seeds and root vegetables such as sweet potato. A special and very traditional bread known as “damper” is also conventionally cooked in hot ash.

Damper bread has been a staple of the Aboriginal diet for eons. In fact the oldest flour millstones discovered in modern times have proven to be as much as fifty thousand years old. Damper bread is made by collecting various seeds such as native millet and wattleseed (the edible seed from some members of the genus Acacia). The seeds are firstly winnowed (separating the seed from husk and any foreign bodies) and then ground into a flour using a millstone. The flour is then mixed with water to create a bread dough and placed in the ashes to bake.


There is strong evidence that early Aboriginals were also very conscious of seasonality. This of course can’t be compared to how we perceive the use of seasonal produce, because for the native tribes it was about survival, not preference. Aboriginal groups would often travel from season to season; moving to where they knew various food sources would be available, ripe for consumption and plentiful. An excellent example of this is the Bogong moth migrations to New South Wales. During the British and European settlements, the Wiradjuri were the main tribe in the NSW area. Many different Aboriginal tribes would come to the territory’s mountains each year in late spring to gather and feast on the protein-rich Bogong moths of the noctuidae genus.

Although a key part of the progression of Australian history, the European settlements and colonisation of Australia imposed major negative changes on the native Aboriginal people. The tribes who lived in areas that were being settled by the Europeans were forced off their land, as towns and farms were developed. This disrupted their culture and way of life, which until this time had been relatively peaceful and serene.

The sort of changes that took place usually commenced with explorers entering the area of a tribe and being challenged by the people for trespassing on their land. The Europeans would often respond by shooting at the protesting tribes, and many natives were killed in this way. When the settlers began felling trees and building farms, they restricted the ability of the Aborigines to move freely around their own land. Much of the traditional food sources were also destroyed.

The settlers had arrived in the country to build a new life for themselves and their families and had no time for the Aboriginal culture or traditions. At best, settlers were disinterested in the effect that colonisation was having on the Aborigines. At worst, the Aboriginal people were considered to be a pest and a nuisance and, over the years, entire tribes were wiped out to “create space”.

The settlers were often contemptuous of the Aborigines and separated them from their communities, which resulted in the Aboriginal people being cast out and becoming the fringe dwellers of society. Others were removed from their families and placed into institutions. From the late 1830s, the remnants of the tribes in the settled areas were moved onto “reserves and missions” where they were “managed” by the white man and were forbidden from teaching their children their language and customs. During the 1900s, separation was an official Australian government policy which lasted for many decades as a result of which many Aboriginal people today do not know their own origins.

Following World War II, Australia started to reach out beyond its borders and identify itself culturally as part of Asia. But only in recent times has Australia re-examined itself and begun to understand its own cultural history. As a result of this re-evaluation, a truly modern Australia is emerging and a key part of that development is a unique and exciting national cuisine. Read more in Part 2...