Those who know me well are probably wondering why I’ve said so little about Australia’s food to this point. (Well, I do talk about it in the book, but haven’t said much on the blog yet.) Actually, I have written a lot, it has just been other places. For example, I did the piece below for Hungry Magazine, for whom I do some travel writing, a few reviews, an occasional photo essay, and a lot of food history. This won’t be the only Oz-centric food writing I’ll be doing here, but it will give you a good overview of why dining in Australia is not a hardship.
If Americans think about the food of Australia at all, it probably doesn’t go much beyond Paul Hogan’s famous, “We’ll throw another shrimp on the barbie.” Well, they certainly have plenty of shrimp (or prawns as they are more likely to say down there) and even more barbies, but the country and its cuisine go far beyond that. Of course, there are the fabulous people, the fascinating scenery, the weird and wonderful wildlife, the glorious beaches and sophisticated cities—and those are all great reasons to go to Australia. However, I hope to convince you that Australia is also a great dining destination.
First of all, it’s an island, with 80 percent of the population living within an hour of the ocean, so fresh seafood is abundant. Dine on barramundi from Queensland to Darwin, John Dory in Sydney, or whiting in the south. Sample Sydney’s splendid oysters. Indulge in succulent scallops in Perth or Adelaide. Check out the “bugs”—Balmain bugs or Moreton Bay bugs—sweet, flavorful, indigenous crustaceans that taste like a cross between crab and lobster. Look for crayfish on the menu—these are what we call rock lobsters, and they are particularly abundant in the southern states. (Crayfish are not crawfish. The Aussie crustacean most like a crawfish, or crawdaddy, is the yabbie, a freshwater creature that is larger than its American counterpart—and is also worth trying.) Prawns are varied and succulent, and some are massive, particularly in Queensland. And don’t forget the crabs. If you only get to Sydney, Doyle’s on the Beach is the place to go to sample the widest possible selection of seafood.
Second, much of Australia is in the tropics, so there is a wide array of gloriously exotic fruit available, from mangoes to custard apples to pawpaws. The macadamia nut, also known as the Queensland nut, is indigenous, so they’re not nearly as expensive as they are here in the states. The farmers’ markets are a delight—and if you get to Melbourne, check out the Queen Victoria Market, a 100-year-old outdoor market that covers 16 acres. And Adelaide’s Central Market is a treat, too. In fact, all the major cities have markets that will delight you.
Third, Australia is a world-class wine-producing country. There are numerous dinky-di Aussie wineries, many of them international award winners, but most of the world’s top outfits have vineyards here, as well. The Chandon vineyard outside Melbourne, for example, is a delightful spot to stop for a bit of bubbly and to enjoy the view of vineyards and bordering mountains. However, if you can only visit one wine region, the Hunter Valley outside Sydney is recommended. If you can take in more than one, South Australia has a number of wineries worth a visit, as well. And then there’s the rum and the beer—you can check out the importance of rum by reading the rum history I did a while back, and as for the beer, every state has at least a few brands, and brewery tours are often available. (Me, I prefer cider to beer, and Australia is where I got hooked on Strongbow.)
On top of that, you have a substantial immigrant population. There was a huge influx from Europe after World War II. (Huge enough that, for example, Melbourne has the third largest Greek-speaking community in the world, after Athens and Thessalonica.) And Australia is in Asia’s backyard. Even 20 years ago, you could get octopus or hot goat curry from food vendors in shopping malls. It’s where I had my first Vietnamese food and Cambodian food, and while I’d first sampled Indonesian food in Amsterdam, I became truly familiar with it in Australia.
Throw in a few ambitious, imaginative, cutting-edge chefs, and you have the makings of a diners’ paradise.
There are a few things that might strike you as strange. Pumpkin is served as a vegetable at many meals. (I love squash, so I was in heaven.) Pub grub often offers roast lamb at lunch, which is not usual for Yanks but is certainly not a bad thing. The candy bars are almost all different from ours. For ice cream, you go to a “milk bar.” And you can get champagne and orange juice in pop-top cans—again, not a bad thing. But that just adds a touch of the joy of exploration to the trip. (You don’t want it to all be familiar, do you?)
I’ve been to Australia four times now. The first time was for six months, and I covered almost 20,000 miles. The return trips were for one month each. But don’t worry, even if you can’t get away long term, it’s still a worthwhile destination (though the flight over means you don’t want to consider it for a long weekend).
If you wonder what I did during that first six-month sojourn, you’re in luck. As you may have noticed, I like to write, and I’ve produced a book about that initial adventure— Waltzing Australia. Yes, I’d also like to suggest that you visit Australia, but even if you don’t think you’ll ever go, I’d love to have you buy my book and read about my adventures during a trip that ranged from swimming with the crocodiles and riding horseback across the mountains to prowling through museums and searching out great food.