This week, I reviewed Outback Steakhouse, and one of the main takeaways of the piece is that the food served at Outback is in no way Australian. This prompted an email from Jason Kessler (the same Jason Kessler who writes the Nitpicker column for Bon Appetit that prompted our recent post on touchy-feely servers), questioning whether there is any such thing as Australian cuisine:
I'm totally with you on Outback. In fact, I'm probably one of a very small handful of food writers that proudly proclaims my love of chain restaurants. I, too, take issue with the fact that they call their food Australian, but for a totally different reason: I don't think Australian food exists. Perhaps you're the person to convince me otherwise.
I've now been down under twice — once to South Australia and once to Western Australia. On both occasions, I tried to learn what authentic Australian food was. Not a single person could accurately tell me. The closest I came was tasting a lamb floater in the South Australian outback and a lamington on Kangaroo Island. I even asked major Australian chefs like Peter Gilmore how he defined Australian food and he gave me the same answer as everyone else: fresh ingredients, Asian fusion, simple preparation. To me, none of those categories serve to define anything.
I know that America and Australia have different populations by a factor of ten and our cultures have grown up roughly a hundred years apart so we're not comparing apples and quandongs here. That said, I'm absolutely baffled as to how American regional food is so vast and varied that you can have very different barbeque styles in Texas, Alabama, and Kansas City, while there seem to be no regional specialties in Australia at all.
This is all to say that I would love to know what you think of as Australian food. I'm seriously just fascinated by the topic and would love to discuss it more.
There's a whole lot at play here.
The first thing I'll say is that there is very little regional American food, at least in the sense of whole distinct cuisines. The South is the obvious exception, and there are a few New England dishes and Midwestern dishes, and the South's different barbecues etc. But much of the U.S. is without defined cuisine of its own. What is the food of New York? The food of New York is the food of New York's immigrants — Italian, Eastern European Jews, etc.
And like New York, the story of Australia's immigration factors into what you might consider Australian food a lot. For instance: Australia has its own, distinct, unique café culture due to the fact that most Italian immigration to Australia happened after the invention of the espresso machine, whereas most Italians came to the U.S. prior to that development and so didn't bring espresso with them in the same way. The café culture extends into actual coffee drinks: the flat white, the long black, etc. These are totally distinct from Italian or Americanized espresso drinks.
Australia had something called the “White Australia Policy” in place until the '70s, a policy that basically existed to limit (or outright ban) Asian immigration. Once that policy was reversed, there was a flood of Asian immigration, and that has hugely influenced Australian food, but only in the last 40 years.
More than 50% of Australia's population is concentrated in the three big cities on the East Coast (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane). The rest of the country is not only incredibly sparsely populated by American standards, it's also only become as populated as it has in the last 100 years. So that's a very short history to be expecting a distinct regional cuisine to emerge from.
In Melbourne and Sydney, there is the café culture. There is Greek and Italian food that has grown up separately and distinctly from Greece and Italy, and can claim “Australian” as its foundation just as much as New York can claim pizza or bagels. Australians have been eating the fresh, European-influenced foods now popular in New American cafés for far, far longer than Americans have been eating that way. And there are a ton of food items unique to Australia, most of them spin-offs of British and Irish foods and food traditions seeing as that's where the majority of white, non-Greek and Italian Australians' families were a few generations back: the meat pie, the pavlova, the lamington, a whole host of pastries, the Australian hamburger (the Australian hamburger generally has a fried egg, pineapple, and canned beets on it), etc.
What is Canadian cuisine, outside of poutine? Aren't the casseroles of the Midwest just a morphing of Anglo and German roots? Couldn't you say the same for the Australian Sunday roast: usually lamb, usually cooked far, far better (and often with some Greek influence, like lemon and garlic) than the Brits ever did a roast?
As with most things regarding Australia, I just don't think you can look at it and compare it to the U.S., because it has developed totally differently. There is a cuisine, there are plenty of foods unique to Australia, but they don't fit into the American or European mold for how culture develops. You can't just say, “yes, but do they have what we have?” because the answer is no. They have what they have — weird meringue pies and a whole lot of drunk food. That doesn't make it any less valid, culturally.
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