What is or was Mod Oz? A love-song to our mongrel selves


images-4It turned up like a surprise guest at a dinner party. It was analysed and codified and even taught. And then, bam, it was dumped. But it refuses to die. Type Modern Australian Cuisine into your favourite search engine, and you’ll get around 1.25 million results.

So what is this strange animal that everyone knows but no one can define? Is it just something that we love to argue about? Food historian Ken Albala writes in Food Cultures of the World: ‘…the slippery nature of food and eating in Australia and the debate itself, probably is the essence of Australian food culture.’ But it’s more than an argument. Its trajectory can be tracked. And for that we’re going to need to look at a little Australian food history.

Incidentally, in this piece, I’m not going to talk about Australian native produce. Needless to say, we virtually ignored it for over 230 years. If you want to read that story, read my book The Oldest foods on Earth.

Until the end of the Second World War, what we ate, with a few exceptions, was Anglo- Celtic food. And then between 1950 and 1970 one and a half million ‘New Australians’ landed, bringing with them their recipes their ingredients and their food cultures. At first we grumbled about them and ignored their food. (For a history of that process read my book Wogfood)


But it was what happened next that changed what we put on our plates. Between June 1960 and June 1970, we got richer. Our disposable income rose by 700 per cent. That coincided with the arrival of the Boeing 747-238B ­– the Jumbo Jet – in 1971. Everybody who could afford to, and in 1974 that was around 770,000 of us (a figure that shot up to 1.4 million in 1984) took off to see and taste the world.

When we came home, we’d eaten something more than steak and eggs, and washed down our meals with wine instead of beer. Now we understood what our new neighbours had been eating and drinking. And we wanted some.



This hunger for new kinds of food spawned a restaurant boom. In September 1970, The Sydney Morning Herald published a story by Margaret Jones, ‘The Dining Out Boom.’ It is, Jones ‘probably the biggest thing which has happened to Australia recently outside uranium shares.’ So we began eating out at the new restaurants that were springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. And if we needed help in choosing, it arrived in 1974 with the first edition of Leo Schofield’s Eating Out in Sydney and then in 1980 with The Age Good Food Guide, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald version – edited by Schofield – in 1984.


If Australians took off to see the world in the 1970s by the 1980s they wanted to conquer it. It was the decade that our much admired egalitarianism gave way to nationalism. We elected the Silver Bodgie – Bob Hawke – as prime minister in 1982, and in 1983 we won the America’s Cup. Our business entrepreneurs, including Cup winner Alan Bond along with others like Christopher Skase soared like eagles before plummeting like Icarus. But while they soared, our national pride knew no bounds. We had to have it all. And that included a national cuisine.


At the time, a young Neil Perry was at Bluewater Grill.The 1988 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide called his food ‘a more modern kind of food, somewhat Californian in style, involving lots of grilling and a slew of oriental influences.’

imgresThis is a close description of the cuisine was busy being born. And its birthplace was in the newly minted food guides. Although the phrase first appeared in the 1985/86 edition, the style wasn’t officially christened until 1994, in the last edition of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide to be edited by Leo Schofield and Michael Dowe when it was given a category of its own in the index. Melbourne had to wait until 2003. So there it was. Whatever it was.

In 1994 it was codified and then taught at TAFE colleges around NSW under the name of ‘Australian Contemporary Cuisine’. Just six years later, a victim of politics, it was dumped from the curriculum. It got worse. In 2006 it disappeared as a category from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide because, according to Simon Thomsen, editor at the time, “Modern Australian didn’t seem to me, I recall, to mean that much in the sense that it was being used in the Guide for so many different cooking styles.” The following year it was dumped equally unceremoniously from The Age Good Food Guide.

So what is or was Mod Oz. Australian academic and writer Ghassan Hage wrote:

‘For let there be no mistake. Australia’s future culture will be plural. And there is no other way forward but to think about how all of us can learn to embrace its plurality.’


And that is why it is futile to search for an Australian cuisine, or Modern Australian cuisine. As our best chefs are showing us daily, we have a multiplicity of cuisines, just as we have a multiplicity of cultures. To search for a defining Australian culture or a definition of Australian culture amongst the clamour of competing tongues, ways of life, ways of worshipping, eating, living and seeing in an increasingly globalised world is regressive. To be Australian is to be multicultural and multiculinary.

In an essay in The Monthly called ‘Does Writing Matter?’, Richard Flanagan comes to the same conclusion for literature.

‘There isn’t and there doesn’t have to be a single united national project linking Benjamin Law to Tim Winton, that seeks resonances between Helen Garner and Omar Musa, that demands continuities between John Coetzee and Alexis Wright.’

French food historian Jean-Francoise Revel makes the same argument: ‘there are no national cuisines…The basic unit in gastronomy is the region, not the nation.’

But if I have to define Australian cuisine, the common element that links all our great chefs, from Peter Gilmore to David Thompson, from Kylie Kwong to Tony Bilson, I’ll quote another writer. In Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie writes of his book, Satanic Verses that it:

‘…rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and that, is how newness enters the worldchange-by-fusion, change-by-co-joining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves…Perhaps we are all, black, brown and white, leaking into one another, as a character of mine once said, like flavours when you cook [my italics].’

This is a fine definition of what the best Australian chefs are doing. Australian food is, as Rushdie writes of his book, ‘a love-song to our mongrel selves’, flavours, ingredients and origins leaking into one another.


Stands to reasons. We are mongrels and therefore so is our cuisine. Or so are our cuisines.

Finally, a definition that raises more questions than it answers. In his foreword to Australian food: in celebration of the new Australian cuisine, philosopher gastronome the late Alan Saunders wrote ‘The flavour of Australia is the flavour of change, adaptation and – in the very best sense of the word – compromise.’

Compromise? Between what and what? Between 200 years of sticking to a boring Anglo-Celtic diet, and the late flowering, cultured culinary imagination of a generation of chefs set free to roam the world of techniques and ingredients and plunder mercilessly, like gastronomic pirates. Between the two, the shadow of truly modern Australian cuisine (no capitals), set free from all the restrictions of the past.

So what is modern Australian cuisine? Simple. Anything we bloody say it is. You got a problem with that?



A list of ingredients culled from dishes on the restaurant menus of thirteen of Australia’s most adventurous chefs: organic Korean green rice, silken tofu, garam masala, aerated passion fruit, paper bark, foie gras, red cabbage granita, sangria jelly, Camargue organic red rice, mojama, kim chi, wallaby, Pedro Ximénez prunes and forbidden rice.

Bear in mind this eclectic list, which includes some indigenous ingredients, is used by chefs in a country that, until even thirty years ago, was suspicious of the use of garlic.


 The relevant modules in the curriculum of the now defunct Australian Contemporary Cuisine Course devised by an industry panel (disclosure: I was a member of that panel)



Malay, Nonya & Indonesian Skills

Japanese Skills in Australian Cookery

Native Australian Cookery

Indian Skills in Australian Cookery

Guangdong Skills in Australian Cookery

Thai Skills in Australian Cookery

Italian Skills in Australian cookery

French Skills in Australian Cookery

Middle Eastern Skills in Australian Cookery


There are many more skill modules than that. But those are the cuisines that the panel  agreed t the time were at the core of modern Australian restaurant food. I must admit I do like the term Australian Cookery.


















A short festival on Spain



This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”


Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.


Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.


But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.





Goodbye Gus, the guardian of the semen.



This is from a talk I gave in 2005, when I opened an exhibition of Gus’s work in Balmain. With additions.

“My curves are not mad” wrote Henri Matisse in the notes that accompanied Jazz, twenty decoupage compositions he had done for the publisher Teriade.

I quote it firstly because old Henri is one of Gus’ heroes, secondly, because neither are Gus’ curves and lines mad – I brought my 12 year old into see these drawings yesterday and she fell in love with them, saying to me “the more you look at them Dad the more you see.” And thirdly because I reckon the only thing that’s missing from these beautiful notebooks of his are some words. Gus is a damn fine teacher – and a few wry observations on the drawings would not go astray – and maybe make the whole package more marketable.

After all, as another one of Gus’ mentors, Pablo Picasso once said, the only thing an artist should talk about is money.

I’ve known Gus Cohen – tangentially – for a very long time during all of his career phases. I wrote for Pol around about the time Gus was art director there, but never knew him there. I worked in advertising in some of the same places as Gus but never while he was there. I wrote for Billy Blue when Gus was doing covers for them, but he never did a cover for one of my stories.

But I can’t remember not knowing him. There always seems to have been corner of my life full of Gus. Talk about painting and books and drawing and playing pool and – long ago – drinking lots of piss in The Clock before it became a poncy pub for dotcommies. When the bikies had the basement and you’d play pool with Maori boys and girls the size of barns. Which was funny because Gus was always the size of a pool cue.

When De and I and Laura came back to Sydney from Spain in 1991, we ran into Gus and went to his last Sydney show at Access in Balmain in 92. We bought a Glasshouse Mountain triptych that still hangs in my office at home.

And some time after he moved to Melbourne, Gus began sending me stuff. Soon I had so much stuff I began what he and I call The Gus Book. You can actually trace a trajectory of his life through the book.


He wasn’t a very happy Gusso when he went to Melbourne. I visited him with his Mum in Heidelberg. She died soon after.

But gradually, things began to pick up. The settlement (of the will from his mother) came through and he bought the little house in Castlemaine. And then, he met Annie. I saw less of him, less envelopes for the Gus book arrived, but it didn’t matter. Because Gus was on top of it again.

But through all of his ups and downs, Gus had one true friend. Drawing. And painting. And later, sculpture. And he never stopped working, right up to the end.

Gus Cohen is not a big, flashy pushy artist. He doesn’t sit on art gallery committees or go to openings. He works. And he lives. And he knows, from life, as John Berger wrote in Permanent Red that “For the artist, drawing is discovery.”

I’ve got Gus paintings and drawings all over. There’s one beauty of Moore Park in my office and another in the little house we (used to) own in Spain. A couple of years ago, I let that house to a painter. She took down everything in the house – except the Gus Cohen Moore Park. It came home.


One more story, and I’ll finish. I was doing some research for my last novel, The Man Who Painted Women – which Gus didn’t like much and had the decency to tell me, which writers really like by the way – and I was reading a totally insane book called The Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro, who had been on the team preparing the Dead Sea Scrolls for publication when he went mad and decided that Christianity was a mushroom cult and wrote this book.

Any way, on page 58, I found this fascinating piece of information:

“The most common Hebrew word for ‘priest’, ‘kohen’ familiar as the well-known Jewish surname, comes from a Sumerian title GU-EN-NA, literally, “guardian of the semen….. He had charge of the god’s house….pouring the god’s semen over the heads of these dignitaries was intended to represent them as ‘gods’, replicas of the divine penis in heaven.”

And for all of you who buy a drawing or a construction tonight, remember, it was created by the guardian of the semen. No wonder he’s a such a spunk.

Post Gus.

Gus rang me out of the blue somewhere in the week beginning September 11 this year. He said “I was just going through my Teledex and your name was there so I’m ringing you!” I told him he was perhaps the only person in the world still using a Teledex. He proudly told he he’d bought a computer but hadn’t used it yet. He reminded me I’d promised to send him my latest book, and I hadn’t. I said I would do it next week. He said “ and I’ll send you a little self-portrait. I’ve been drawing like mad the last few weeks.” We said goodbye. I felt good. I always felt good after talking with Gus.

Then on the 20th I heard from his daughter Samantha. Gus had died over the weekend. Probably heart. I hadn’t seen him for a while but he was a constant presence in my house, and in warm corner of my mind. Gus, wherever you’re going, I hope they give you paints and crayons

At the end of the talk that I took the body of this post from, I had written ‘I declare the show well and truly open.’

Sadly, I now declare the show well and truly closed.