When I was teaching English in Japan, I would often get asked to name some traditional Australian foods. I was always stumped. Are there typical Australian dishes?
Meat pie and tomato sauce? Not as classy as sashimi (though, when you say 'raw fish' it helps).
What about a lamb roast? Cooking one of those in a Japanese oven was near impossible.
Pavlova? A Tim Tam? Lamington?
How about vegemite on toast?
What is the most popular food in Australia? And is it Australian?
These questions are harder than they should be, so let's see if we can find some answers.
What Does a Typical Australian Dinner Look Like? (And Taste Like?)
The typical Australian dinner back when I was a kid was some sort of meat (lamb, beef, chicken, sausage) and three veg — often drowning in gravy or some sort of sauce. We had fish on Friday and a roast of some sort (lamb or chicken, usually) for Sunday lunch.
For a treat, we'd have a homemade burger — bread roll with beef patty, tomato, cheese, lettuce and beetroot — and chips. If Mum didn't feel like cooking, we'd get fried fish and chips, or Chinese, from a local takeaway.
And barbecues — lots of barbecues. Beef steak, lamb chops or sausage, sometimes chicken, always onions and a salad, with tomato, lettuce and cucumber, on the side. And tomato sauce.
Most people I knew had something similar, except my friends who were from Vietnam.
Looking back at it now — a lot of our food was pretty plain. There wasn't a lot of variety. 'Good traditional Australian cooking' was what my mother called it.
These days, of course, there's a lot more variety. A wider range of ingredients and less conservative attitudes towards trying new foods. 'Lots of barbecues' is the only thing that hasn't changed (although again, we are more adventurous with ingredients).
Flick through the telly and you'll see the various types of recipes attempted by Aussie cooks, incorporating this fusion.
What has driven this change?
There are a number of factors behind the changes to what we typically eat in Australia.
We are not limited to one plastic-seated Chinese takeaway or restaurant anymore; now we have restaurants specialising in every cuisine you can think of — Nepali, Japanese, Chinese, French, Hungarian— not to mention the cookbooks that line our shelves, cooking shows on TV and cooking lessons on offer every night of the week.
Increased migration into Australia from almost every country in the world has seen the Australian taste profile change and while the typical Australian dinner still revolves around 'meat and three veg', the ingredients we use are more diverse and our cooking style has adapted for both variety and convenience.
Health and price
A combination of nutrition awareness and budget has also had an impact on what we eat. Australians eat more chicken than lamb or beef now, compared to fifty years ago. Sushi is becoming the convenience lunch of choice over the meat pie and, although Australians buy takeaway or eat out in restaurants more than 7 times a month, on average the majority of meals we eat are homecooked.
Have a look at some of the best Australian cooks, to get an idea of how to spice things up in the kitchen.
Try This ... You Might be [Pleasantly] Surprised
While Australians have gradually become more adventurous with what they eat, there are still some iconic and typical Australian 'dishes' that make the rest of the world say, 'What? You eat that?' So, in the interest of people trying food they might normally baulk at, here's a couple of Aussie foods you shouldn't knock until you try.
Beetroot ... on a burger
This is an 'only in Australia' thing. Your standard burger contains a beef patty, tomato, cheese and lettuce, to which you can add an egg and some bacon to make it a 'burger with the lot'. But a truly Aussie burger comes standard with beetroot. Try it. The beetroot adds a tart acidity that works really well with the other flavours.
If you want to be seen as a true Aussie, ask for grilled pineapple on your burger as well.
One of the most well-known and typical Australian dishes, everyone knows what a meat pie is. Most people know that the average meat pie is best eaten in the hand ... except if you've ordered a 'pie floater'.
First created in the 1890s and still very popular in Adelaide (and found throughout Australia), the pie floater is a meat pie, served 'floating' in a bowl of thick green pea soup. And yes, tomato sauce is essential.
This is a generic term for any food eaten by Australia's indigenous, First Nations, people. White Australians are only just starting to realise the nutrition value in bush tucker.
The 'witchetty grub' is the most well-known — a large white moth larva, which tastes like chicken but has more protein than a large beef steak. However, there is so much more to bush tucker than grubs; think lemon myrtle, bush tomato, wattleseed, saltbush, lily pilly — just a few of the bush tucker ingredients that add enormous flavour to your food. If you want protein, try crocodile, goanna or snake.
Yes, Australians eat their faunal emblem. (I've also eaten emu — the partner of the kangaroo on our coat of arms — it's gamey and tastes of chicken.) Another bush tucker food, kangaroo is a fairly recent addition to our restaurant menus, although it has been eaten for decades. It's not commonly found in the supermarket meat aisles but if you know where to look, you can find it. Cooking kangaroo well is a bit of an art — best served rare otherwise it's as tough as leather.
I can't move on without mentioning what, to many, is the most popular food in Australia — the iconic spread, Vegemite. A staple in kids' lunchboxes (a vegemite and cheese sandwich on white bread), the best way to eat vegemite is with lots of butter on thick toast. Or, a favourite when I was a kid, vegemite spread thickly on a weetbix.
Have a Go at Cooking Some 'Typical Australian' Dishes
When it comes to typical Australian dishes, what is the most popular food in Australia? As mentioned, with the variety available today, it's hard to say but here are a couple of typical Australian dishes — one savoury, one sweet — that just keep on keeping on.
This dish, 'chicken parmy' (or just 'parma') is a pub classic — it has been on every menu in every pub in Australia ... forever!
The original was eggplant-based (and you can still do this if you're vegetarian), however, most pubs only offer the chicken version. If you want to try cooking it, find the following ingredients:
- chicken schnitzel (you can buy these pre-crumbed, or crumb it yourself)
- tomato sauce (made from onion, garlic, tomato passata and basil)
- ham (optional)
Fry the chicken schnitzel until it's golden. Put half the tomato sauce in a baking dish, top with the chicken schnitzel and ham then add the rest of the sauce. Top with cheese (sliced cheese, or grated) and grill or bake until the cheese has melted, the tomato sauce is bubbling and the chicken is cooked through.
Definitely a pub favourite and worth the praise (and awards!) when done right.
When I was asked 'What is the most popular food in Australia when it comes to sweets or cake?' the answer was easy — lamingtons. These cakes are hand-sized cubes of sponge cake, dipped in chocolate and coated with desiccated coconut. My grandmother used to make the best lamingtons — she hated making them because they were fiddly and messy, but she still did it 'for the grandkids'.
The easiest way to make a pile of lamingtons is to buy a nice rectangular sponge cake — but you can make your own — and get some good quality dark chocolate and desiccated coconut.
Cut the sponge cake into cubes (the size is up to you, but something that can be held in the hand is best). Melt your chocolate, then submerge the sponge cake cubes in the chocolate so it soaks in and coats all surfaces. Roll the chocolate covered sponge cake cube in the coconut, again so it coats all sides. Messy but delicious!
The Australian food experience was possibly best summed up by Australian actor, Hugh Jackman (best known for his character of Wolverine in the X-Men film franchise) when he said:
I love food, all types of food. I love Korean food, Japanese, Italian, French. In Australia, we don't have a distinctive Australian food, so we have food from everywhere all around the world. We're very multicultural, so we grew up with lots of different types of food.
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