Australia is almost two separate nations when it comes to food. In the cities – especially Melbourne and Sydney – and more populated regions there’s a range of cosmopolitan restaurants and cafés featuring a global span of cuisines. Here, there’s an exceptionally high ratio of eating places to people, and they survive because people eat out so much – three times a week is not unusual. Remote country areas are the antithesis of this: often the only options other than meat pies and microwaveable fast food is the straightforward counter-food served at the local hotel, or a slightly more upmarket bistro or basic Chinese restaurant.
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Traditionally, Australian food has its roots in the English meat-and-two-veg vein. But immigration and the range of superb, locally produced fresh ingredients have had a profound effect on mainstream Australian food. A decade or so ago, it led to the emergence of “Modern Australian” cuisine (or mod Oz), a fusion of tastes from around the world – particularly Asia and the Mediterranean. It still forms the central taste of Aussie menus, so even the average pub bistro is likely to serve good curries, dolmades and fish with Asian salad alongside steak and prawns, even if more high-end places follow global culinary trends. At its best the result has a lot in common with Californian cooking styles where the watchwords are healthy, eclectic and, above all, fresh.
Meat is plentiful, cheap and generally excellent: steak forms the mainstay of the pub-counter meal and of the ubiquitous barbie, as Australian an institution as you could hope to find: free or coin-operated barbecues are in car parks, campsites and beauty spots all over the country. As well as the usual beef, chicken, lamb and pork, wallaby, emu and buffalo may be served, but the most common “unusual” meats are kangaroo (or wallaby) – a rich, tender and virtually fat-free meat – and occasionally crocodile, which tastes, inevitably, like a mix of chicken and pork and is at its best when grilled. On the coast, there’s tremendous seafood – prawns and oysters, squid, mud crabs, lobster and yabbies (sea- and freshwater crayfish) – and a wide variety of fresh- and seawater fish. Flathead is a mainstay, flake is gummy shark, trumpeter and blue-eye is good and barramundi has a reputation as one of the finest, but is easily beaten by sweetlips or coral trout.
Fruit is good, too, from Tasmanian cherries and pears to tropical bananas, pawpaw (papaya), mangoes, avocados, citrus fruits, custard apples, lychees, pineapples, passion fruit, star fruit and coconuts – few of them native, but delicious nonetheless. Vegetables are fresh, cheap and good, and include everything from pumpkin, European cauliflowers and potatoes to Chinese bok choy and Indian bitter gourds. Note that aubergine is known as eggplant, courgettes as zucchini and red or green peppers as capsicums.
Vegetarians are better served than you’d expect of meat-centred Australia, in the cities at least, where veggie cafés have cultivated a wholesome image that suits Australians’ health-conscious nature. Similarly, you’ll find organic products and gluten-free breads are almost standard. In the country, things are trickier, but most restaurants will have one vegetarian option at least.
A word on eskies – insulated food containers varying from handy “six-pack” sizes to sixty-litre trunks able to swallow a weekend’s worth of food or beer. No barbie or camping trip is complete without one.
Since World War II, wave after wave of immigrants have brought a huge variety of ethnic cuisines to Australia: first North European, then Mediterranean and most recently Asian.
An array of Asian cuisines – especially Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai, Japanese and Indian – can be found throughout Australia. European cuisines have also made their mark, with Italian food an enormous influence, and Greek, Turkish and Lebanese also popular.
Restaurants are no longer such fabulous value compared with Britain and North America. Inflated by a solid economy and the strong dollar, prices for visitors now look on the steep side: a main course in a pub is likely to cost between Aus$22 and $26, while $26 to $38 is the norm in a moderate restaurant.
Cafés are one of the great joys of modern Australian life. Imported by southern European immigrants in the fifties, café culture in cities and resort towns is excellent, with most places acting as places to hang out with the morning papers as much as venues for healthy food throughout the day – a good bet for a modern bistro-style meal.
The hotel (ie pub) counter meal is another Aussie mainstay, and in places may be all that’s available: if it is, make sure you get there in time – meals in pubs are generally served from noon to 2.30pm and from 6pm to 8pm, and sometimes not at all on Sunday evening. The food is often simple but substantial; typically steak, salad and chips, fish and chips, perhaps a daily pie or curry and a pasta dish. In more upmarket areas and cities you’ll find more gastropub fare, with dishes such as pan-fried fish and mash, porterhouse steak, and lamb and rosemary sausages featuring alongside club sandwiches and home-made burgers.
In cities and bigger resorts, food courts, where dozens of small stalls compete to offer Thai, Chinese, Japanese or Italian food as well as burgers, steaks and sandwiches, often in the basements of office buildings or in shopping malls, are a good bet for a meal on the go. On the road, you may be limited to what’s available at the roadhouse, usually the lowest common denominator of reheated meat pies and microwaved ready-meals.
Australians have a reputation for enjoying a drink, and the local hotel, pub, tavern, inn or bar has as central a place in Aussie culture as it does in British. Traditionally, public bars were male enclaves, the place where mates met after work on their way home, with the emphasis more on the beer and banter than the surroundings. Nowadays, many city hotels are comfortable, relaxed bars for all, but a lot of Outback pubs remain pretty basic and daunting for strangers of either sex, though you’ll find the barriers come down if you’re prepared to join in the conversation.
Friday and Saturday are the party nights, when there’s likely to be a band and – in the case of some Outback establishments – everybody for 100km around jammed into the building. Opening hours vary from state to state; they’re usually 11am to 11pm, but are often much later, with early closing on Sunday. Some places are also “early openers”, with hours from 6am to 6pm.
Off-licences or liquor stores are known as bottle shops. These are usually in a separate section attached to a pub or supermarket – in many states, you can’t buy alcohol from supermarkets or grocery stores. There are also drive-in bottle shops, sometimes attached to pubs, where you can load bulk purchases directly into your car. If you plan to visit Aboriginal communities in the Outback, bear in mind that some are “dry”. Respect their regulations and don’t take any alcohol with you, even if members of the communities ask you for “grog”.
As any Aussie will tell you, the only way to drink beer in a hot country is cold and fast. Tubular foam or polystyrene coolers are often supplied for tinnies (cans) or stubbies (short-necked bottles) to make sure they stay icy. Glasses are always on the small side and, confusingly, have different names state by state. The standard ten-ounce (half-pint) serving is known as a pot in Victoria and Queensland, and a middie in New South Wales and Western Australia, where the situation is further complicated by the presence of fifteen-ounce schooners. A carton or slab is a box of 24–30 tinnies or stubbies, bought in bulk from a bottle shop. A “Darwin stubby”, with typically Territorian eccentricity, is two litres of beer in an oversized bottle.
Traditionally Australian beers are lager- or pilsner-style, and even the big mass-produced ones are pretty good – at least once you’ve worked up a thirst. They’re considerably stronger than their US equivalents, equivalent to the average British lager at just under five percent alcohol. Each state has its own label and there are fierce local loyalties, even though most are sold nationwide.
However, in recent years, Australians have discovered there’s more to slake a thirst than icy lager. A number of smaller breweries now produce hoppy ales with less fizz and arguably more taste. As in Britain and the US, Australia has caught onto the appeal of pale ales, porters and more hoppy lagers. A number of smaller breweries and specialist beermakers now manufacture craft-beers, and many now find their way on draught. Similarly, some pubs stock imported beers, but outside cities (where Irish pubs serve surprisingly good Guinness) it’s rare that you’ll find anything foreign on tap. Incidentally, Fosters is treated as a joke in Australia, fit only for export.
Wines and spirits
As the fourth largest exporter of wine in the world – around 750 million litres a year, sixty per cent of total domestic production, go to the international market – the Aussie wine industry is known worldwide. The likes of Jacob’s Creek and Oxford Landing, Yalumba, Lindemans, Wolf Blass, Penfolds and Hardys are fixtures in most European supermarkets. And even if Australia is still stereotyped as a nation of beer-drinkers, Australian viticulture has a long pedigree – vine cuttings from the Cape of Good Hope were shipped with the First Fleet.
Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sémillon and Riesling are the principal grape varieties, and winemakers in recent years have moved on away from a weakness for big, powerful wines which packed a punch in terms of fruit and jams as much as alcohol levels. Aussie wines today tend to be more subtle affairs: spicy or silky, mouth-filling or aromatic reds; fresh crisp whites packed with citrus or tropical fruits that are tailormade for quaffing with the barbie; and vibrant summery rosés. Nor are they particularly pricey: even an inexpensive bottle (around Aus$12) will be better than just drinkable, while pricier varieties can produce something really special.
Most states in the southern half of the country have wine-growing regions and, as in America, most vineyards welcome guests. You can easily lose a few happy days pottering around vineyards, sampling wines and chatting to makers. The most celebrated wine-producing regions are the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Barossa Valley in South Australia, but you’ll find other superb vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, and the Clare Valley, South Australia. More recently, Margaret River in southwest Western Australia has emerged as a gourmet hotspot of world-class wineries and restaurants. If you buy at the wineries themselves, you’ll be able to sample in advance. That said, most bottle shops have a good range of reasonably priced options from around the country, and at some specialist bottle shops staff can advise on varieties to suit your palette.
The Australian wine industry also makes port and brandy as a sideline and there are two (in)famous dark rums from Queensland’s sugar belt that are well worth tasting: the sweet, smoky Bundaberg and the more conventionally flavoured Beenleigh. They’re of average strength, normally 33 percent alcohol, but beware of “overproof” variations, which will floor you if you try to drink them like ordinary spirits. Finally, a word about whisky. Scots will dispute the malts as second rate, but the Australian whisky industry is winning plaudits from connoisseurs. Tasmania, the most Scottish of Aussie states, with similar peaty streams and pure environment, is the centre of production, with fine single malts produced by distilleries such as Lark, Hellyer, Nant and Sullivans Cove.