Australian Gastronomy Part 2 - A Modern Australia Emerges

In Part 1, I discussed the arrival of British convicts in New South Wales and the subsequent immigration of European settlers and their spread across the continent. I explained how, although they brought their own cuisine with them, they were unable either to source their familiar food products or to accustom themselves to the indigenous foods and cooking methods. On the other hand, the Aboriginal population, who had long since mastered the art of hunter-gathering and seasonal food sourcing, were at best being ignored and at worst being exterminated.


The events that took place during the European colonisation were the cause of much racial and political tension in later years and which to some extent is still evident in today’s society. An example of this is Australian-Aboriginal Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman, better known to most of us as Cathy Freeman, 400m Olympic gold medallist. She stirred up a great deal of controversy at the 1994 Commonwealth Games by waving the Aboriginal flag as well as the Australian National flag during her victory lap of the arena. It is a sign of the progress that has been achieved in recent years that there was no such controversy when she did the same after winning her gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, even though the use of non-national flags at the Olympics is officially forbidden.

One problem that arose from the separation between the Aboriginal people and the “white man” is that this created ignorance amongst the forthcoming generations of settlers, who would grow up without any understanding of Aboriginal culture. This meant that Australian gastronomy was developing without any knowledge of the Aboriginal cuisine previously practised in the country for millennia. Through no fault of their own, young and constantly modernising Australians were quite oblivious to this and looked elsewhere to draw their influence.


After World War II ended, Australia was to undergo a culinary explosion. This was mainly due to the influx of Asian and European immigrants who dramatically expanded the Australian palate. Greek, Italian, German and Lebanese immigrants, to name a few, brought with them their native recipes and influences. Using this newly acquired sense of culinary diversity to their advantage, Australians would turn to Asia in search of inspiration, where they found a variety of ancient yet diverse cuisines. The importation and use of ingredients such as chilli, ginger, soy bean and citrus fruits such as lime was a new phenomenon to the white people of Australia, who until then had little to show for in the way of their own fare.

The adoption of these newly discovered ingredients and cookery methods was quick to catch on, and soon restaurants were springing up everywhere offering what they thought at the time was the “authentic” flavour of the Orient. Never having shown much respect for traditions, Australians were soon corrupting recipes that had been considered perfect for centuries. To quote once more from “they tested the boundaries of Japanese politeness by using sun-dried tomatoes and brie to make sushi”.


It wasn’t until very recently – the past two or three decades - that Australian cuisine stepped back and took a good look at itself. The reality was at last to dawn upon Australians that the inspiration they had been seeking was actually there all along, but they had been unable to see it. The land that the white man had now occupied for over 200 years had always been plentiful of natural and diverse produce and the Australian people were finally beginning to realise that fact and to do something about it. The limes that were imported by the South-East Asian immigrants after WWII were initially regarded as a completely novel and foreign product. But now Australians are starting to take interest in and make use of a variety of native limes, such as the finger lime and desert lime. The sharp and fragrant astringency of Thai lemongrass that Australians were so enamoured of is also the characteristic bouquet of lemon aspen, a tiny sour fruit native to the coastal regions of Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

The modern-day recognition of native foods can be traced back to the publication in the 1970s of “Wildfoods In Australia” by the botanist couple Cribb & Cribb and “Wild Food Plants of Australia” by Tim Low. TV also played a pivotal role, with Malcolm Douglas was one of the first presenters to show how to live off the land in the Australian Outback. But it was the series “Bush Tucker Man” in the late 1980s presented by Les Hiddins which finally popularised the idea of bush tucker. Interestingly, Hiddins was a survivalist, rather than an anthropologist or a food expert, who visited the Outback to demonstrate his skills in combat survival by locating native foodstuffs in Northern Australia.

I say interestingly, because in Britain today one of the most fascinating food programmes on TV is “Wild Food” presented by Ray Mears – also someone who has come to an appreciation of indigenous peoples and foodstuffs from that same survivalist starting point.

Before long, Australia found itself in a revolution of culinary self-discovery. Non-indigenous Australians were beginning not only to appreciate the multiplicity of native produce at their fingertips, but actively to promote it. One example is Sibylla Hess-Buschmann, founding Secretary and later President of the Australian Rainforest Bushfood Industry Association. Also Managing Director of Australian Rainforest Products Pty Ltd., a company specialising in growing, processing and marketing of native Australian foods, herbs, spices, fruits and essential oils, Sibylla has been actively involved in the selection and commercial promotion of native produce for two decades and is recognised across Australia as a leading expert in indigenous produce.


In the mid-1980s, the first restaurants serving indigenous Australian food started to appear. The earliest were Rowntrees, Riberries and Edna’s Table in Sydney, followed by The Red Ochre Grill in Adelaide a few years later. Now there is a plethora of such establishments across the country, although none has managed to achieve the highest levels of gastronomic recognition as yet. I discovered this when, as part of my research, I posted an article about this gastronomy project on my food blog last November and invited readers to nominate some top restaurants in Australia. An Australian food blogger responded to my request promptly, with the message: “I'd suggest looking through cookbooks from current day Australian chefs - people like Luke Mangan, Matt Moran, Shannon Bennett, Neil Perry, Guy Grossi and Damien Pignolet to name a few. These chefs are all very successful at what they do and each presents a facet of “Australian cuisine”.

But I was most surprised when I took up her suggestion and researched the highly-awarded restaurants associated with these leading Australian chefs, and, in particular, the menus of those restaurants. Although some, if not all, of the menus showed a clear understanding and use of indigenous Australian produce, they could all in my opinion be characterised as essentially offering Modern European cuisine.

Translating, for example, “roasted fillet of sea bass with braised fennel, wild mushrooms and a celeriac velouté” into “roasted fillet of barramundi with braised fennel, wild mushrooms and a celeriac velouté” does not make a dish Australian.

Another good example of individuals exploiting Australia’s native produce is the Australian bushfood supplier and latter-day chef Vic Cherikoff. Vic has been promoting and encouraging the use of native “bush tucker” in Australia for twenty-five years and is now famous across Australasia and beyond. Having posted an article about this gastronomy project on my food blog last November and expressed some opinions on modern Australian cuisine, I was amazed to sit down one day and discover from my emails that Vic Cherikoff had personally visited my website and left me a long and heartfelt congratulatory email.

Vic’s sincere compliments inspired me, along with his generosity in sending me a copy of his latest book “Dining Downunder” and samples of the indigenous Australian herb and spice mixes that he promotes worldwide. His attitude and efforts towards aiding the social and culinary evolution of Australia are a lesson to us all, and his global philosophy has been a huge inspiration to me and a key to the acceptance and celebration of Aboriginal cuisine and culture.

I have subsequently been able to use some of these products he sent me in home cooking and have learnt a great deal from this.


Today’s Australia is a fountain of gastronomic diversity. If you happened to be wandering a Sydney street or perusing the avenues of Adelaide and suddenly felt the urge for a steaming bowl of Thai tom yum gai or a fiery Sri Lankan coconut sambol, you would not have to look far. But dining in Australia these days isn’t just about sampling the multicultural profusion of foreign cuisines, but adopting a uniquely Australian vision of how to incorporate a plethora of knowledge and an abundance of curiosity into one inimitable cuisine. That eclectic use of major influences taken from Australia’s European, African and Asian ties, combined with the copious use of native produce, is now referred to as “Modern Australian Cuisine” and is increasingly reflected in the menus of urban eateries.

Take Deep Blue Bistro in Sydney for example, where the chef has created an incredibly contemporary twist by using native Australian ingredients combined with a modern style of preparation and presentation synonymous with the best European cuisine. In one entrée, a carpaccio of crocodile is cured with native lemon aspen and caper berries are used in combination with a bush tomato relish for garnish. I really admire this approach to cooking, because it’s simple but incredibly innovative. Yet for some reason, this concept seems to be misunderstood by the majority of people, whose lack of vision won’t let them see past the names of unfamiliar ingredients.

Another well-known Australian chef called Benjamin Christie (who presents the Dining Downunder television series with Vic Cherikoff) enthusiastically promotes the use of kangaroo fillet, which he claims is irresistible when crusted with yakajirri and grilled rare. The unbelievably avant-garde approach of chefs like Benjamin Christie and Vic Cherikoff was of great inspiration to me when writing my menu, and so I tried to incorporate everything I’ve learnt from them into my own ideas.


The Australian gastronomic breakthrough in recent times has been widely represented in the local media as a huge step forward towards the idea of creating a “global cuisine”. Along with parallel advances in New Zealand’s national cuisine, this has spawned an entirely new and now internationally recognised cuisine, based on the fascination of antipodeans with creating innovative and pioneering flavour combinations. In global circles, the new direction is referred to as “fusion” cuisine, but most Aussies simply know it as “Modern Australian”. Although proving very popular in some parts of the world, the idea of fusion has often been panned in Britain, being labelled naïve and farfetched.

Personally I totally disagree with this narrow-minded viewpoint. I feel that in this day and age, with the infinity of opportunities and possibilities at our fingertips, no idea should be considered too outlandish to catch on. The thought process behind fusion basically involves abandoning traditional constraints and looking at food ingredients through an open-minded and essentially altogether different perspective. The defining aspect that differentiates fusion from other cuisines is that it has no nationality and therefore sees no confines. A menu’s inspiration is reflected entirely by the chef’s experiences and travels, so it encapsulates the produce and cookery methods of a wealth of cuisines, often incorporating unusual ingredients, but fundamentally, utilising the best of everything available in an increasingly accessible modern world.

One of the patrons of fusion cuisine, and one of the most inspirational chefs I’ve had the pleasure of working for, is a New Zealander by the name of Peter Gordon (appropriately nicknamed “The Father of Fusion”). His enthusiasm for and great knowledge of global cuisine is reflected in his menus at “The Providores and Tapa Room”, where I was lucky enough to be accepted for a short but enormously valuable work experience early in the summer. While I was there, I was astonished to see dishes like quinoa and plantain dolmades with sesame tofu purée and pomegranate seeds, alongside a crab, black cardamom and galangal laksa with lime leaf marinated squid, a fried crab dumpling, crab tomalley, green tea noodles, crispy shallots and coriander. When you glimpse such amazingly inventive menus as Peter Gordon’s and then witness the cooking itself first hand, you can’t help but gape in admiration of a man who has not only a global philosophy but also the honesty and integrity to put it into practice. From that point on, I knew that fusion cooking was what I wanted to do myself.

A quote from his book “A World in My Kitchen” reads: “There are many chefs cooking beautiful, authentic regional food... I love to eat it but I don’t want to cook it... The world as a whole excites me more than a region defined by political boundaries”. For me, these words summarise everything I believe in and I can honestly say that my experience at The Providores was unquestionably the turning point in my development as a trainee chef. I constantly find myself using The Providores as my yardstick of comparison for anything to do with food and cooking and I’ve tried to integrate as much as possible of the knowledge I gained from training there into my Australian gastronomy menu.

After a great deal of research, it was time for me to draw together all the strands and become (albeit temporarily) a modern Australian chef. I now had to develop my Modern Australian Gastronomy restaurant menu. To discover how I brought together the tastes, smells and cooking techniques of Australia, read more in Part 3...