The wizards of Oz: Try the robust and trendy flavours of Australian food
You have to hand it to the Aussies; their forefathers may have been packed off to a penal settlement for the Les Miserables crime of stealing a loaf of bread, but they have since become an evolved nation in terms of culinary advancement, while the UK wallows in bangers and mash, or bad curry.
They know a lot about food, they understand flavour and being of a naturally adventurous disposition, they are unafraid about eating the world. Lebanese, Basque, Japanese, Mexican or even Hungarian: the Australians spread out a big welcome mat and cheerfully assimilate a plethora of robust flavours and dishes into their daily menu.
Eat healthy, eat well
Most Australians believe in leading a life devoted to good health
When they talk about global issues, they summarise global warming succinctly, instead of boring you to death with their blood sugar levels. They are supremely fit, while here we have a bunch of people scarfing down samosas, even as they google bariatric surgery options.
Australians eat healthy and they eat well and it doesn’t show because they are slavishly devoted to sport and sweating. Here’s an interesting fact: 95% adult Australians know how to swim, which is why even their sharks eat well.
Cookouts and desserts
Aussies are an outdoor people and are happiest when they are scudding away in a Hobie catamaran, the wind in their sails and the breeze in their hair. It’s no surprise that barbecue is the most popular religion with over a million devotees. This probably has something to do with Aboriginal cookouts which feature roasted iguana, seasoned with bush herbs.
I attempted the camping experience which starts off with “tay”, a vile concoction brewed in a billycan, sweet as sin and dark as a slave dealer’s soul. Tea is served with crackers and Vegemite, some sort of yeast extract with the odour and consistency of bat droppings.
For those suffering from Danish pastry withdrawal symptoms, a good option is the Lamington: a blackish, springy cake layered with jam and toasted coconut, especially because anything tastes good after Vegemite. For lunch, we had the iguana with fire ants for dessert or it may have been the other way around.
The scariest thing I ingested during my trip down under wasn’t iguana or crocodile, but a Bluto pup. This consists of a frankfurter, flamingo pink in colour and encased in industrial strength rubber: you chew on it and it chews right back.
Among the other indignities the sausage is required to undergo before being deemed fit for human consumption is the insertion of a bamboo skewer up one end before it is dipped in batter and deep fried. It’s sort of a pork ice cream, served with ketchup or chilli sauce.
World class cooking
Serious Australian cooking, especially at stand-alone restaurants, is world class. Think pan-seared swordfish on a bed of bulghur wheat pilaf, served with warm tomato and saffron coulis.
Or blue swimmer crab, smoked salmon and red pepper salad, with an avocado and sumac dressing, ripper mate. Lamb cutlets, marinated in garlic, rosemary and red wine, grilled to a smoky intensity and served with a delightful chimmichuri at Iceberg, Sydney.
Pan seared fish with rice
The restaurant takes its name from the adjacent pool where blocks of ice are dropped in the deep end in winter and a few brave souls, known as the Polar Bears, swim in the freezing depths. The scallops and braised duck at the Spice Bar in Queensland are insanely good, as is the Yellowfin tuna sashimi and the black cod with miso at Nobu’s.
The Muse Restaurant in Pokolbin, NSW, run by Troy Rhoades Brown features seasonal local produce sourced principally from the Hunter Valley.
The typical Spring tasting menu features Bonito, woodfired, pickled and mousse, rye crisp, onions, served with Lamborn speckled peas, followed by Roasted Jerusalem artichoke, toasted hay cream, buffalo milk blue cheese, malt and sunflower.
The next course features a Little Hill Farm chicken, served with home grown polenta, charred sweet corn, black garlic and togarashi.
Roasted Jerusalem artichokes
Onto the grand finale: Wood Fired Upper Hunter Wagyu beef, koshihkari brown rice, shitake, brown kelp and daikon. They offer an Optional Cheese Course Heidi with gruyere cream, crisp and frozen, served with slivers of apple and roasted almonds. This is inspired cooking: sublime local ingredients, cooked with Japanese sensibility and Australian swagger, think of a jolly swagman armed with a samurai.
A toast to Japan
Blue fin tuna with wasabi
Sushi and sashimi have been so deeply ingrained in the national consciousness that most fishmongers at the Sydney wet market offer delicately sliced Bluefin tuna with wasabi, the pungent Japanese horseradish and tiny fish-shaped bottles of Kikkoman soy sauce. It brings a new meaning to the term: “fresh from the sea.”
A feast for the gods
The culinary apogee of my Sydney visit was the meal I had at Cadmus, where the décor features two original Picassos and one Miro. Owned by the Lebanese expat, Habib Farah, the restaurant is spread over two levels at the highest point of Circular Quay with the main dining room offering magnificent views of Darling Harbour and the Sydney Opera House. Master Chef Elli El Saddi picks and chooses from the finest fruit, meat, vegetables and sea food to create a sensual, sybaritic feast.
Kibbeh Nayeh: raw, ground lamb, flavoured with an eclectic selection of spices, embellished with dried pomegranate, followed by Shanklish, vine leaves stuffed with spiced goat cheese and Loubieh, the freshest of green beans, lightly steamed and tossed in garlic flavoured olive oil with sea salt.
The lamb sambousek served here is a flaky, wondrous delight, light pastry encasing morsels of perfectly seasoned minced lamb. You will never eat a samosa again without wincing.
The roast quail with chestnuts is sublime as are the grilled Moreton Bay bugs: think baby lobster, grilled with lemon butter. The next time you fancy a waltz with Matilda and a slap-up meal, take a trip Down Under.
Here's one of my favourite recipes from Australia...
Grilled Cauliflower, Broccoli, Eggs & Cheese
Grilled Cauliflower, Broccoli, Eggs and Cheese
1 medium-sized cauliflower and 1 small broccoli
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
300 g full-fat fresh cream, lightly beaten.
1 tbsp Dijon mustard, ½ tsp finely minced garlic lightly cooked in 1tbsp butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
100 g hard cheese, Cheddar grated
Oven toasted dried breadcrumbs
2 tbs chopped parsley
1. Preheat the oven to 200C.
2. Cut off and discard any tough outer leafy stalks from the cauliflower but reserve the tender inner ones.
3. Cut into smaller florets and cut central core into bite-sized chunks. Cook the cauliflower, broccoli, core chunks and reserved leaf stalks in boiling salted water for 3 minutes until just tender. Drain and refresh in cold water. Spread out on kitchen towel to drain further. Arrange in a shallow oven-proof dish.
4. To make the sauce, mix together the fresh cream and Dijon mustard, followed by the eggs, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Reserve a little of the cheese for the topping and stir the rest into the sauce.
5. Spoon the garlic and sauce over the cauliflower making sure the top layer is completely coated. Scatter with the reserved cheese and the breadcrumbs. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling. Garnish with the fresh parsley and serve.