Cheap Eats - The Foodie Times

                                                                                     A Long and Winding Culinary Road 

The term "Modern Australian" is being used to describe the food that Australian chefs are currently cooking. But what does it mean?
And where did it come from?
Food writer
David Dale attempts to explain this sometimes confusing term. 

Australia really does not have a cuisine of its own, I'm sorry, nut roast lamb, frozen peas, pavlova and vegemite do not constitute a culinary identity. There is one big consolation, however: we are the nation that perfected International Cuisine, under a wide variety of names. In past years it was called 'Continental', then 'eclectic', then 'Contemporary' and then 'MediterrAsian". It's a unique and constantly evolving blend of the cooking of the immigrant groups who settled here, plus what our chefs perceive to be the hottest trends overseas. These days, the fashionable term for it is 'Modern Australian'. 

In fact, we are doubly-blessed, because we now possess not one but two forms of International Cuisine - what we might call the Traditional and the Experimental. Throughout the suburbs and country towns of this land, Traditional International flourishes in RSL Club dining rooms, hotels, reception centres and restaurants wherever the priority is catering rather than cooking. That's where fried calamari sits happily with beef stroganoff, rack of lamb meets sweet and sour pork, Vienna schnitzel smiles at spring rolls, and cream caramel cuddles up to cassata and apple pie. With herb bread and pappadams on the side, of course. 

The openness of mind that gave us Traditional International from the 1950s onwards has now let us develop Experimental International, which is to be found in the bistros and brasseries of the inner city. here, the main inspirations seem to be Thailand, Italy, French nouvelle cuisine, California and, most recently, the Outback. Chargrilled tuna lies on a bed of baba ganouj; poached chicken breast nestles into couscous and chilli jam; barbecued octopus is wrapped in radicchio and scattered with handfuls of coriander; baby pizzas are decorated with smoked salmon and lemongrass; and no menu is complete without steak tartare, fish and chips, mushroom risotto, chicken curry, taco chips, stewed lamb shanks and sticky toffee pudding with double cream. The restaurants which do this tend to call their style 'Modern Australian', but that hasn't stopped them lately from incorporating some of the most ancient Australian ingredients: kangaroo, emu, crocodile, lemon aspen, lillipillies, wattleseeds, and native peppers. What used to be called Bush Tucker is now mingling in the pot with the creations of Europe, Asia and the Americas. 

How did we become so proficient at this World Food? It's reasonable to say that the English and the Irish almost left us with the world's worst eating habits, but that we were saved by the Chinese, the Italians, the Vietnamese and the Thais. 

When the English colonised Australia, they ignored the locally available resources and lived on imported rations, gradually supplemented by British crops and animals that could be cultivated here. For the first century of White Australia, the standard diet was known as "ten, ten, two and a quarter". This referred to the weekly rations of the rural workforce, handed out on Saturday nights (with rum, if they were lucky): ten pounds of flour, ten pounds of mutton, two pounds of sugar, a quarter pound of tea and salt. That was 'Modern Australian' food, circa 1830. And so was formed the assumption about eating that dominated our thinking until well into the twentieth century - food was not to be consumed for pleasure, it was to provide energy for work. When you weren't working, you got drunk. 

The Chinese arrived with the gold rushes of the mid-19th century. When the gold ran out, some of them turned to market gardening and cooking. A few of the more openminded Anglo settlers began to try Chinese food as a novelty, just for special occasions, and by the 1930s many a country town and city suburb had a Chinese cafe, serving the standard 'exotic' dishes: sweet and sour pork; chicken and almond, and beef with black bean sauce. It was not until mass migration from Europe in the 1950s that real changes began. Italian immigrants, brought in as factory fodder, realised they had landed in a culinary wasteland and set about opening restaurants. Standard fare for a night out became spaghetti bolognese, veal scaloppine with mushrooms, and lemon gelato. 

In the 1960s the Italian invasion was followed by the French revolution. French cafes started to appear on every suburban corner, often run by European arrivals who had never worked in a commercial kitchen before, or by Australian amateurs working from airmailed copies of the latest French cookery books. The formula restaurant meal became quiche Lorraine; duck a l'orange, and creme caramel. By the late '70s, Australia's urban foodies had passionately embraced nouvelle cuisine and our chefs found that nothing succeeded like excess. Kiwi fruit and tamarillo decorated every plate. Game birds were stuffed with shrimp mousse, seated on beds of cream and cucumber and covered with passionfruit sauce. That period of unrestrained experimentation produced many failures, but from it emerged a small group of scholar chefs who came to dominate avant-grade cuisine in the 1980s - in particular Gay Bilson of 'Berowra Waters Inn' and Philip Searle of 'Oasis Seros'. The trouble was their food was massively expensive. The late 1970s had also seen the influx of Vietnamese refugees who introduced Australians to a new range of delicate taste sensations at bargain prices. The Vietnamese fad was soon replaced by Thai, with its jolts of salt, chilli and sugar, and throughout the 1980s small Thai restaurants materialised in the suburbs as rapidly as French restaurants did in the early 1970s. The spag-scaloppine-gelato formula that described adventurous Australian restaurant food in the 1960s and became quiche-duck-caramel in the 1970s, turned into fishcakes, chilli pork and satay in the 1980s. 

So here we are in the '90s, when all the formulas have merged into 'Modern Australian'. While plenty of restaurants have kept an individual ethnic identity, chefs who want to be superstars have to get into blending. The differences are matters of emphasis - some places go heavier on the Asian ingredients and techniques; others favour the Middle East, others lean to the Italian. And mercifully, the chef superstars can no longer get away with the ridiculous prices that made adventurous eating a strictly elitist experience a decade ago. The world is at the tip of our tongues. And that's far better than a national cuisine.