More Australian Eats
Snapshots from Melbourne Behind the Coffee Drink: The Flat White The Serious Lamb Burger from McDonald's in Australia
When my boyfriend was offered a short-term job in Australia and asked if I wanted to come along, I knew the opportunity was in the 'once in a lifetime' category. So I sold my car, scrimped and saved, and braved the epically long flight from Boston down to Sydney.
I've been working in food for the last eight years and was incredibly excited about discovering the food scene in Oz, but nailing down the definition of Australian cuisine turned out to be a task almost as enormous as the country itself. I've been eating like an Aussie down in Sydney for about five months now, and I still can't tell you in a word. Australian cuisine is truly an intersection of influences, drawing from indigenous, European, and Asian flavors.
Here's a look at the different kinds of ingredients, dishes, and drinks you might find on a typical day in the Lucky Country.
To start: coffee. One of the most pleasant surprises I found when I first arrived was how great the quality of brew is down here. I could be in the heart of the city or a small town in the bush, and finding good espresso is (almost) easy as finding the nearest cafe.
Two coffee drinks that I can't get enough of are the long black and the flat white. The long black can be called the distant cousin of the Americano, but it's no weak sauce. The defining feature of the long black is the perfectly preserved crema on top. In terms of flavor, the few ounces of hot water that is added tempers the harshness, but doesn't dilute the taste. What I love the most about a long black is its staying power: it has almost the same amount of richness and intensity as an espresso, but I get to draw it out over a dozen or so sips.
The flat white is more sophisticated and harder to get right than the cafe au lait, and I recommend it for those that can't decide between intense coffee and creamy dairy, because this has a bit of both.
Australia is home to the oldest living culture on earth, the Aboriginal Australians. Being around for 50,000 years (give or take), you could say they know a thing or two about living off the land, which is why it would be a disgrace to not mention bush tucker. Any food that is native to Australia is considered bush tucker, and now more than ever you can find chefs adding their spin on these indigenous plants, seeds, and berries.
Take wattleseed, for instance. Wattleseed comes from the Acacia species of plant, and while it can be eaten raw, it is mostly purchased already ground and roasted. I tasted it in pancakes at The Gardeners Lodge, a cafe in Sydney that specializes in bush tucker fusion cuisine. The seed tastes like a combination of cocoa nibs, coffee beans, and hazelnuts, and it imparted a complexity to the pancakes that only something like toasted nut flour could rival.
We have the Australian burger covered, so I won't go into too much detail on that front, but I will discuss another sandwich that the Australians have embraced as their own: banh mis, or, as they're known to locals, the Pork Roll.
The pork roll is just one of many examples of the heavy Asian influence in Australian cuisine. It's gone through so many channels of interpretation that some cafes have no idea what I'm talking about when I order a "banh mi." Sydney has pork rolls both low and high, including a coconut-braised pork rendition topped with watercress and toasted pepitas at Great Aunty Three, and pig-skin stuffed version at the appropriately-named Mr. Crackles.
Another hand-held meal worth a mention is the meat pie. I look at the meat pie like Australia's answer to the English pastie and the American pot pie, but I am sure that purists will say it got its start in England, as did many old-school Australian dishes. Inside the flaky, tender crust is a saucy stew that fills the belly of many hard working Australians during break time. Beef Burgundy and chicken and mushroom are the two most popular pies on offer, but my favorite so far has been kangaroo and stout pie.
Kangaroo meat is a byproduct of population control; the 'roo are culled in the wild by skilled hunters, so they don't come with the kind of environmental consequences that feedlot animals do. Australians don't typically eat a lot of kangaroo, probably because they prefer fattier meats like beef and pork, though 'roo consumption does vary regionally. When I was in the Outback, I saw a lot more 'roo on the menu than I did in Sydney, where I had to seek it out at the more touristy areas of the city.
Speaking of touristy, here's the 'Coat of Arms' pizza with kangaroo and emu, basically in this post to show that Australian's will put pretty much anything on a pie. While I can't name another country that consumes both of the animals that appear on their coat of arms, I can tell you that emu is incredibly high in protein and has virtually no fat, so it is considered a healthy alternative. I prefer it in a sausage, because you get to reap all of the benefits of game meat (berries, grassiness) with some added fat to balance out the more potent flavors of 'eau de emu.' And no, it doesn't taste like chicken, it's more like really lean beef.
To wash all this pie and pizza down, I skip the Fosters and order up some of Australia's craft beers, an industry that is starting to thrive in Australia. My go-to is the pale ale from Little Creatures, a brewery based in Western Australia.
The darling of Modern Australian cuisine (with a nod towards Asia) is salt and pepper squid. In terms of coating, salt and pepper squid is practically naked when compared to the heavily breaded and deep fried calamari I was used to getting in the States. The squid comes to the table after being lightly coated in flour and then wok-fried. The result is salty squid with crispy edges and a satisfying chew. At a Vietnamese restaurant, the dish can come adorned with hot chilis and sweet chili sauce on the side. But at a modern Australian cafe, salt and pepper squid can could be served with a lemon myrtle aioli for dipping, and a simple arugula salad on the side.
Now that we're on the subject, Aussies happen to love their seafood, including native fish like barramundi. Barramundi is an aboriginal word for 'large scaled river fish', and it has a mild taste and flaky texture. This fish has gotten so popular in Australia that fisheries are struggling to keep up with demand, and are turning to Asia to help bear some of the load. The Balmain bug is a species of slippery lobster. It has a strong flavor and firm texture, like a more concentrated lobster. The first time I saw one I wasn't sure what I was looking at, since their heads resemble tails.
A nice finish to a meal (and an article) is something sweet. I'm not crazy about processed foods, but I know I'll get skewered by my Australian friends if I don't give their favorite cookie a mention, the Tim Tam. I gave it a try and I can see why they stock the shelves with the lot. It has every (good) texture you could want in a candy bar: flaky, creamy, and crunchy, without tasting too sweet, either.
I won't pretend I've covered everything in this one article; from Anzac biscuits to quondong, there is still so much food to be discovered and enjoyed. But with my time in Sydney nearly over, I am already wistful for the flat whites, endless barbecues, and the Aussie lifestyle that makes everyone who lives down here so darn lucky.