January 28, 2003
Food Glorious Food
The department store shelf display included Jiff peanut butter, Honey Smacks cereal, Dream Whip topping, Jiffy corn bread mix, and cans of Spagettios. The sign read "American Food." Walking past the display, I couldn't help but laugh at what the Australians considered to be the staples of the American diet.
In truth, the American and Australian diets are not shockingly different. Both are young, English-founded nations with a large population of immigrants, and the food is a reflection of the diversity. From Italian to Greek, from Chinese to Indian, from Thai to the ubiquitous American institution that is McDonalds, they have it all. You certainly won't go hungry in Australia, even if you are the pickiest of eaters.
Admittedly, my exposure to Australian "cuisine" has been limited at best. On a backpacker budget, I don't exactly have a regular table at any of the respectable establishments in Melbourne. However, I have been exposed to some interesting Aussie edibles and offer you the highlights. Disclaimer: Since I have only been in Australia for two months, and most all of that time has been in the two largest and most multicultural cities, lets consider this to be part one in a two part instalment. Part two will come once I've spent some time in the Outback and the bush. :)
Coffee. Nearly all coffee is espresso. When I first arrived, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. A "regular" coffee for Aussies is a latte, a cappuccino, a flat white (a cappuccino without the foam), or any other espresso-based drink. I asked around about regular coffee and was frequently given blank stares until I learned they called it "filter coffee" here. As far as I can tell, the only places in Melbourne you can get filter coffee is Starbucks (yes, they are here too) and at the Opera during intermission.
Lamb. After a couple of confused experiences with "beef" burgers in restaurants, I am now convinced the Australian government has been poaching sheep from New Zealand and passing it off as ground beef for so many years that no Australian knows the difference. My American friend Lindsay and I have yet to eat an "all beef patty" that doesn't taste like lamb. Its not that I don't like lamb - I do, but not when I ordered beef. :)
Kangaroo. Though initially it seems equivalent to eating the American bald eagle, kangaroo is actually a very environmentally friendly choice with respect to meat. Unlike beef and pork, kangaroos are native to the land and therefore less damaging to it - not to mention they are everywhere. In addition, the meat is very healthy and low in fat. My first experience with Roo was over Christmas, and I must admit to being a fan. And no, it does not taste like chicken.
Meat pies. They are as plentiful here as hot dogs are in the US and the quality is about the same (that is, it varies greatly). Coated with ketchup, I've seen many a late night clubber kid munching on one as a snack from the local convenience store. My one experience with a meat pie was rather memorable, but I'll save that for another story.
Desserts. Two Australian desserts have gained international recognition and both were named after famous performers in the arts. The first, Peach Melba, was named after Helen Porter Mitchell, a famous 19th century opera singer whose stage name was derived from her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The second, the Pavlova, was created in Perth in 1935 by Chef Bert Sachse. It was named in honor of ballerina Anna Pavlova (some say because it was as light in texture as she was in on her feet). According to the Research Center for the History of Food and Drink at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, the Pavlova is widely considered to be the "national dish of Australia." (Oh how I love Google!)
Tim Tams. Another in the dessert category, but deserving of its own paragraph. The formula consists of a chocolate creme filling sandwiched between two rectangular chocolate wafers and covered in chocolate. Since my first bite I have become a total convert. You see, Tim Tams are meant to be eaten a certain way, and that way combines two of my loves - chocolate and coffee. First, bit both ends off the Tim Tam. Second, dip one end in a cup of coffee. Third, put your lips around the other end and suck until the coffee comes through (kind of like a wide, chocolate straw). Once you can feel the coffee, pop the Tim Tam in your mouth and feel it disintegrate within seconds. Yummy!
Finally, we'll end with the most Australian of Australian foods - Vegemite! No column about food would be complete without commentary on the incredibly popularity of this salty, sticky, black substance that has been part of the Australian diet since 1923. Vegemite, made from yeast extract, is as Australian as it gets (though, interestingly enough it is made by Kraft Foods). Similar to the American cult following for Oscar Mayer Weiners, though without a Vegemitemobile, Vegemite has its own song ("Happy Little Vegemites") and more than one fan site. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the offical web site is great and worth visiting:
Click on Sing-A-Long and you two can print out the sheet music to "Happy Little Vegemite!" It is times like this that I just LOVE Australia. :) My own experiences with Vegemite have lead me to agree with Felicity Robinson, a Pom (English person living in Australia), who wrote an article on Vegemite in Sunday's paper. She ends the article by saying: "I'd argue it's a triumph of marketing over taste..."
Makes sense to me. Otherwise, how can you explain America's love of bologna?