What Does Australian Food Mean to You?
I was killing time surfing the net recently, and I inevitably ended up on Twitter. As I was catching up with the day’s goings on I discovered a Tweet wanting to find Australia’s Top Food Blogger. Rick Stein is touring Australia with his live show and as part of the tour is looking for the top food blogger from each state, asking people to blog about ‘Australia’s ultimate dish’ . Never one to pass up a challenge I just had to give it a go.
So what does Australian cuisine mean to me? For those of you who have read any of my blog posts before you will probably have gathered by now that I’m not yet a ‘true, blue Aussie’ I relocated from Manchester, England to Sydney, Australia nearly five years ago, and this is actually a question I asked my myself as I walked around the supermarkets in those first few weeks trying to work out all the new brands and how ingredients differed.
I didn’t come up with a definitive answer. When I asked my colleagues at work they came up with all the cliches: lamb, meat pies, Vegemite, Lamingtons or maybe a Pavlova. Being a Pom I feel like lamb and meat pies are just as much British as they are Australian. The only thing my mum has EVER cooked, for as long as I can remember is Pavlova, religiously following the Delia Smith recipe, so this also doesn’t qualify in my mind. You can now buy Vegemite in British supermarkets so I was eating it for many years before moving over here (dare I admit to preferring it to it’s British counterpart?) But Vegemite on toast is not really worthy of a blog post.
So after a lot of thought, I decided this is what Australian cuisine means to me, it’s not about one dish in particular, but all of the following combined:
Seasonality: What I did realise quite quickly following the move, is that Australian food is definitely driven by the seasons. It took me a while to get used to not being able to buy what I wanted when I wanted (the UK supermarkets import fruit and veg from all over the world, so there are very few items that are genuinely seasonal anymore). I was a little frustrated by this at first but once I’d worked out that seasonal food tastes how food should, it actually broadened my palette, all of a sudden I could eat tomatoes because they actually had flavour. It also meant that I could look forward to the months that I can buy cauliflowers or Brussel sprouts, and they become a special treat.
Seafood: Shamefully, we didn’t eat much seafood in the UK. I blame my mother-in-law. My husband refused to eat fish for many years due to the mackerel sandwiches he was given for his school lunch. The cost of foods such as prawns in the UK was also quite prohibitive, so only bought on special occasions.
The turning point for seafood was Sashimi. After our first visit to the Sydney Fish Market we were hooked, and with that I was gradually able to introduce fish into our diet. I’ve even managed to sneak in some whole fish on the BBQ, (which leads me nicely onto to the next point…) Although before I get onto BBQing I almost forgot to mention our other great seafood discovery – scampi. For many years I had firmly believed that Scampi is a dish served in a basket, in a pub. I was never quite sure what was under the breaded exterior, and every person I asked couldn’t tell me, so I assumed it was some kind of reformed, unnamed fish. How wrong was I and the real Scampi has now become the BBQ staple we serve up every time we have overseas visitors, it also satisfies their desire to ‘chuck a shrimp on the barbie’.
BBQing: BBQ’s were perhaps a twice a year event in Manchester. We would try and arrange one in the (so called) Summer, but it would inevitably get rained off, so that lunch was eaten in the house while Graham cooked as little as possible, as fast as possible, under an umbrella. The second would be a disposable BBQ affair, on a beach – charcoal served with a liberal sprinkling of sand.
We were the proud owners of a 4 burner gas BBQ within a week of arriving in Sydney, with a second added to the family when we moved to a larger house (one for the balcony, the perfect size for dinner for two, and one for the deck for entertaining). Being a two BBQ family was the only way of solving my dilemma of cooking “proper dinners” as my husband calls them (AKA not a salad) in the summer heat but without having to put the oven on. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that BBQ’s really are just a way of life now, a practicality for cooking, rather than an event, and I’ve learnt to use a BBQ as you would an oven, I even managed to produce roast lamb, when I was craving a roast over summer but was too hot to put the oven on.
The Asian Influence: Curry and a Chinese take out was my previous experience of Asian cuisine. We happened to live a stones throw from the ‘Curry Mile’ in Manchester, so it certainly wasn’t a bad experience. But Australian food has opened up a whole new part of Asian cuisine to me and is definitely heavily influenced by South East Asia. Our new take-out staple is now Thai and Yum Cha and Shanghai dumplings are our new favourite cheap eat out. I have even learnt to make some of our favourite dishes with the help of a friend. I can do fresh spring rolls, steamed dumplings and the odd Thai curry with kaffir lime leaves fresh from the garden. Apart from the dedicated cuisine, I also find when eating in ‘Modern Australia’ restaurants you find many dishes have an Asian influence, so this could be the closest you get to Australian cuisine, but I’m not finished here.
Trying New Ingredients: This is the biggest influence of Australian cuisine for me. With the seasonal vegetables I was forced to try new ingredients when my staples weren’t in season. The most notable of these is pumpkin. Prior to living in Australia, my only experience of pumpkin was as a child, when every October we would scoop out the inside and turn the shell into a Halloween lantern. Of course these days I would turn the flesh into soup, but I’m pretty sure it used to end up in the bin. There have been other vegetables that I eat regularly now that I never did before, but the other noteworthy ingredient is kangaroo meat. Some may consider this a bit of a gimmick or cliche, and friends didn’t quite believe that I could buy it in the supermarket, but I genuinely have developed a taste for kangaroo. It started with lasagne, and progressed to prosciutto and has more recently been evolved into sausages. Kangaroo meat satisfies my love of game meats, as a strong flavoured meat, and it’s much more readily available and more affordable than other favourite game meats such as venison.
So I can’t really define Australian cuisine in a nutshell, but for me the dish that follows sums up my Australian food journey of exploring new ingredients this this country has to offer.
1kg Kangaroo loin
350g pork back fat, chilled
120ml red wine, chilled
15g thyme leave picked
20 juniper berries, ground in a spice grinder
natural or synthetic sausage casings
Chop the kangaroo meat and back fat into appropriate sized chunks for your mincer and grind on the medium plate. Add the dry ingredients to the minced meat and fat and mix using a food mixer for at least 5 minutes until the meat starts to turn sticky.
Continue to mix the meat mixture and gradually add the wine until it is well combined.
Stuff the mixture into the sausage casings and twist sausages into desired length. Leave to stand in the fridge over night for the flavours to develop before cooking or freezing.
Kangaroo Sausage Served with Pumpkin Mash and Onion Gravy
4 kangaroo sausages
2 cloves garlic whole, unpeeled and lightly squashed
small handful of sage leaves
knob of butter
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
1/2 red onion
120ml red wine
120ml chicken/beef stock
salt and pepper to taste
small knob of butter
1 teaspoon of plain flour
Preheat BBQ to 200 degrees Celsius. If you don’t have a BBQ with a hood and temperature gauge you can also use the oven. Heat for indirect cooking, turning off central burners during cooking.
Peel and roughly chop the squash into cubes. Place in a large baking tray and season with salt, pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Tuck the garlic and whole sage leaves around the squash. Roast in the BBQ using indirect heat with the lid down for 20 minutes until soft but not brown.
Whilst the pumpkin is cooking start the onion gravy. Slice the onions and fry gently in some olive oil until soft but not browned. Increase the heat, add the red wine and reduce by half. Add the stock and simmer gently for a couple of minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Combine the flour with the butter and mix to a paste. Whilst the gravy is boiling stir in the flour/butter paste to thicken to the consistency you like. You made need to add a little hot water if it becomes to thick. Keep warm until needed.
Once the pumpkin is cooked, removed from the BBQ and keep warm whilst you brown the sausages over the direct heat. Once the sausages are browned continue to cook over indirect heat with the lid down on the BBQ. This should take 8-10 minutes.
While the sausages are cooking, finish the mash. Put the pumpkin and sage in a pan and squeeze the garlic from its skin. Blend the pumpkin, sage, garlic and a knob of butter using a stick blender until it is the consistency of mash. Mix in the mustard and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Check the temperature, it may need reheating slightly.
Serve the mash with the sausages and onion gravy.