Food and Culture in Australia
On the largest island and the smallest continent in the world more than 18 million people make their home among unusual flora and fauna and some of the most unique animals in the world: the kangaroo, the dingo (a howling, doglike night hunter), the koala bear, and the platypus. One of the driest and most sparsely populated continents, Australia is mostly tropical in the north (Queensland) and temperate in the south (Victoria, New South Wales). More than half of the population live in cities and these are located in the irrigated and fertile coastal regions of the east, south-east, and southwest. For the most part, the vast interior of plateaus and eroded mountains – the out-back – is all but uninhabited, with many areas remaining untouched and primitive.
Who are the Australians? It is believed that Australian Aborigines were the first settlers, arriving more than 40,000 years ago from Southeast Asia and evolving their culture in comparative isolation. By the early 1600s, seafaring Europeans arrived. Because of the gradual decline in Aboriginal population due to disease, loss of land, and faltering fertility, the colonials assumed they would soon disappear. On the contrary, the descendants of the early Aborigines are very much a vital, though small, part of the present Australian population.
Many of the great seafaring nations were probably aware of this great land mass in the South Seas, but it remained for Captain Arthur Philip, of the Royal British Navy, to unfurl the British flag at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788. To this day, this is celebrated as Australia Day. By the 1800s, almost 5,000 white male prisoners and their guards formed a colony at Sydney, joining the first 700 convicts who had been unloaded from Captain Philip’s ship on that fateful day. They may have been the first “citizens” of the “land down under,” but it is estimated that more than 35,000 years ago, the ancestors of the present Melanesians and Australian Aborigines had already been living there in their own neo–Stone Age society. In the ensuing years, with allegiance to Britain, Australia’s own parliament attempted to unite the population, but it took the First World War to weld the fiercely individual and independent population into a nation.
Unification finally occurred because of the strong link to Great Britain but also because the pressures of war caused shortages of essential goods. Self-sufficiency became an urgent necessity. Improvements in agriculture, mining production, and the development of new industries not only helped on the home front but set up Australia as an exporter to world markets. Iron ore, coal, and wool, as well as meats, wheat, and sugar became vital economic commodities.
Since the First World War increasingly diversified ethnic immigration add vitality to Australian lifestyles and generated heated debate in the country over the future of its preponderantly Caucasian population. Pride in “Aboriginality” enhanced growth in the indigenous population, Asian-born Australians increased their presence, and refugees and displaced persons from many lands all added to the population by the late 1980s.
Up to the Second World War, Australia’s population was more than 99 percent of British origin. Following the war, many of the displaced and war-weary of Europe migrated to Australia. These people included Italians, Dutch, Poles, Germans, Yugoslavians, Greeks, Ukrainians, and Latvians. These, then, are the Australians. Given this diversity, it is not surprising to find that one of the largest Australian cookbooks, Australian and New Zealand Complete Book of Cookery, should turn out to be a study of international cookery. Many writers then claimed that Australia lacked a distinctive cuisine, regional cooking styles, or even any great national dishes. Nonetheless, the combination of a wealth of seafood, good inexpensive lamb, delicious fruits, and the inspiration and ingenuity of immigrants long immersed in their own traditional cuisines, has now been recognized as a distinctive evolving Australian cuisine.
In fact, a current report on Australian food customs states: “Australians have thrown off the British yoke of pub grub and have embraced the great bounty from their own seas along with home-grown fruit and vegetables and the spices of Asia.” The nostril-tweaking scents of Asian spices, the hot delight of chilies, the surprising pleasure of finger foods and dipping sauces are to be found not just in restaurants but on Australian tables everywhere. The palate-tantalizing flavors of Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and Vietnam, brought to Australia by travelers and immigrants, have found a new home and are creating a new tradition of fusion cuisine that is startlingly original, memorable and delicious.
Australian wines have long been making their presence appreciated in world markets, but more recently, visitors to the land down under are bringing back delicious accounts of bush tucker. The basic wilderness foods of the Aboriginals are gaining in popularity and sophisticated preparation. These include herbs like mountain pepper, watercress oil, and wattleseed (with a “coffee-hazelnut flavor”) as well as rabbit, kangaroo, wallaby, crocodile, emu, and bunya nuts. Many fruits and vegetables unknown to most of the world await discovery. Examples of these include: greens called warrigal, lemon aspin that looks like a little pumpkin and tastes like citrus fruit, munthari berries with their apple-like taste, and tiny kakadu plums, their size belying their prodigious vitamin C content.