It 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.’
This 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 world…change-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?
SOME OF THE INGREDIENTS
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.