Carli Ratcliff, named Best New Food Writer 2010, looks at the origins of the nation’s most recognisable foods, some served in celebration.
January 26 marks the beginning of British settlement in Australia. Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, sailed into Sydney Cove on this day in 1788. Over time, the day has become a wider celebration of Australia’s spirit and diversity, recognising the country’s indigenous owners and the multicultural population.
Meat pies, Vegemite, roast lamb, pavlova, lamingtons. As nearly all of Australia’s iconic foods are adopted, or no longer Australian owned, is there a food that can be classified as Australia’s national dish?
Considered quintessentially Australian, the lamb roast and meat pie arrived with the earliest immigrants. The lamington and the pavlova have ‘shared’ histories with New Zealand, and Vegemite was only Australian-owned for thirteen years. Even damper (a camp oven bread) is believed to have originated in Canada. The Australian version, developed by hungry swagmen who mixed flour, water, and occasionally salt together to create a loaf of bread that could be cooked in the glowing coals of a campfire.
Like damper, lamingtons were borne of necessity. A prudent cook in the service of the Governor of Queensland — Lord Lamington, took a stale cake, cut it into squares and dipped it in chocolate icing before rolling it in desiccated coconut, so folklore tells us.
Lamingtons and tea are served following citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, and are also sold in bakeries across the country. New Zealanders also consider the lamington a cake of national significance.
Originally called ‘soldiers biscuits’ made from oats, flour and golden syrup, these biscuits were designed to stay crisp as they were transported to Australian troops in WWI. Following the battle at Gallipoli they were re-named Anzac biscuits, and like lamingtons, New Zealanders reckon they invented them.
Pavlova also has a shared history with New Zealand. A recipe first published in 1927 in Wellington for a ‘meringue cake’, was filled with whipped cream and cherries or strawberries. It wasn’t until 1935, when Australian chef Herbert Sachse of the Esplanade Hotel in Perth, Western Australia created a version of the dessert, which his bosses declared, “as light as Pavlova” (in reference to celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova) that the name pavlova began circulating. The first recorded recipe of a ‘meringue cake’ in Australia was not published until 1935.
Developed in Melbourne in 1922, the nation’s favourite spread was originally made from brewery waste. Served on toast, sandwiches and crackers, Vegemite is a thick, dark paste with intense umami.
Marketed as a vitamin rich vegetable paste, Vegemite’s popularity increased over the years with the endorsement of the British Medical Association. Baby care nurses also recommended it as an essential food for children. Despite its status as Australia’s most recognisable food, Vegemite has been owned by an American company since 1935.
An adaptation of the British beef pie, the Australian meat pie (beef and gravy encased in shortcrust pastry) became popular in Melbourne during the late 1800’s. Street vendors in the city’s Bourke Street sold these inexpensive, filling and portable snacks – which, at approximately 15 centimetres in diameter, could be held in one hand.
Variations soon began to appear. In Adelaide, the ‘pie floater’, an upturned meat pie was topped with tomato sauce and served swimming in a dish of hot pea soup. Adelaide’s first registered pie cart appeared in 1871. Legend has it that the cart also sold soup and the ‘floater’ was a popular combination of the two dishes on offer.
Michael Hannah has owned Australia’s most famous pie outlet, Harry’s Cafe de Wheels, at Woolloomooloo in Sydney, since Australia Day 1988. Hannah’s history with the pie shop stretches back to his childhood. Michael often ate at Harry’s with his father, “my Dad was a cab driver, and he’d take me to Harry’s for a pie,” he says, “when I came back from duty in Vietnam the first thing I ate when I got off the ship was a pie at Harry’s, they have been a part of life for as long as I can remember.”
Like the meat pie, lamb has played an important part in the culinary history of Australia. 44 sheep travelled with the first fleet, those that survived the journey grazed at Farm Cove.
The Sunday lamb roast became a family tradition between WWI and WWII. Still popular today, butchers report surges in the sale of lamb around Australia Day. Colin Holt of Hudson’s butchers in Cammeray and Surry Hills, Sydney says; “anything to barbeque is popular in Australia Day week, from lamb cutlets to racks for roasting on the Weber.”
Adelaide-based food historian Michael Symons, in his book, One Continuous Picnic: A gastronomic history of Australia, laments our lack of national cuisine, “we have almost no coherent style, except perhaps a proud preponderance of beef and lamb,” he says. “The only even modestly famous dish has been the pavlova, an invention we adopted from New Zealand. Otherwise it’s lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and lamentably little else”.
The BBQ – A Nation’s Way of Celebrating
In the absence of a national cuisine, Australian’s have embraced the barbeque (‘the barbie’) as a key part of our outdoor lifestyle. From family dinners to fundraising sausage sizzles, the barbeque has established itself as Australia’s universal and most revered mode of cooking.
Food historian and Head of the University of Adelaide’s Le Cordon Bleu Graduate Program in Gastronomy, Professor Barbara Santich says, “the sausage sizzle is infinitely adaptable, sliced white bread and tomato sauce or sourdough and homemade spicy relish, ordinary sausages or Italian pure pork, appropriate for the surf club or a Liberal party fundraiser.”
This week Australians across the country will celebrate Australia Day with a barbeque, many will raise much needed funds for flood relief in Queensland, the barbeque will also be central to official celebrations. In Sydney, a barbeque will take place in Hyde Park to celebrate candidates of the Lord Mayor’s Citizenship Ceremony.
Egalitarian by its very nature – inexpensive to fuel, portable, a hub for male conversation and with the ability to produce a variety of cuisines reflecting our multicultural history – from English roast beef to spicy Latino chorizo to Iranian chicken kebabs. The barbeque is an important part of Australia’s social fabric and a national way of eating.
AUSTRALIA’S ICONIC FOODS
Lamingtons – origin Brisbane, Queensland 1895 – 1901
- Pavlova – origin Wellington, New Zealand 1927, named ‘pavlova,’ 1935 Perth, Western Australia
- Anzac Biscuits – origin 1914. First recipes appear 1925
- Roast lamb – origin Britain, sheep arrived on first fleet
- Farmer’s Union Iced Coffee – origin Adelaide, South Australia 1977
- Vegemite – origin Melbourne, Victoria 1922
- Chiko roll – origin Wagga Wagga, NSW 1951. Invented by Victorian Frank McEncroe
More reading about the history of Australian cuisine:
Michael Symons, One Continuous Picnic: A gastronomic history of Australia. Melbourne University Press, 2007.
Barbara Santich (ed.), In the land of the magic pudding: a gastronomic miscellany. Wakefield Press, 2000.
More about Australia’s National Cuisine, including thoughts from Rene Redezepi
This article originally appeared on SBS Food.