Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine
Oysters are one of Australia’s national dishes. It has been a popular food for over 30.000 years as they were a staple Aboriginal food along shorelines and coastal waterways of New South Wales.
Its culinary use occurred as a by-product of the construction industry in the colonial period and they were transported “au naturel” on ice by train and ships to other areas of Australia.
Oysters are an ideal dish for the modern Australian culture as they are a reflection of our casual outdoors lifestyle.
By the AussieCuisine team
Oysters have a particular significance to Australian history, important not just as food but with a more lasting legacy in material culture, due to both Aboriginal peoples and early colonists’ use of this extraordinary resource.
The famous Sydney rock oyster (which grows from Queensland to Victoria), Saccostrea glomerate, could be prised from rocky outcrops in the harbor and was as highly valued in colonial times as it is today.
The lesser known Ostrea angasi, ‘mud’ or ‘flat’ oysters were found in riverbeds and in mudflats in coves and inlets, they were often of a very large size. Angasi oysters are now enjoying something of a revival, and are back on local menus thanks to oyster farmers looking for diversity in their harvests.
The popular Pacific Oyster, crassostrea gigas was introduced from Japan in the 1940 and the most is now the most common in Australia. It is grown in southern Australian waters of South Australia and Tasmania, and in some New South Wales estuaries.
Pacific oysters tend to have a sweet and creamy taste
Ancient middens made from oyster and other mollusc shell along the shores and coastal waterways of NSW attest the importance of oysters in Aboriginal culture. Evidence suggests that rather than eating them raw, Aboriginal people cooked their oysters over a fire or in hot coals, probably to avoid gastric problems.
As well as oysters being an important food source for coastal Aboriginal people, their shells were used to manufacture spearheads, fishing hooks and cutting tools.
While something of a luxury food today, oysters were enjoyed by the well-to-do and the poor alike. They were familiar food for Europeans and easy to access in Sydney’s waterways, even for convicts seeking a tasty supplement to their rations. For those not inclined to harvest them themselves, oysters were incredibly cheap to buy, especially in the first half of the 19th century.
“Oysters of a delicious flavour cover the rocks about here, as well as those in every part of Port Jackson….”
‘Oysters were sold cheaply in colonial times because their shells were more highly sought after than the meat inside; they were a by-product of another, more important industry: construction. The rapidly expanding colony struggled to keep up with demand for the lime required to make good mortar.‘
Convicts working in ‘shell gangs’ in the 1800s dug oyster shells out of Sydney’s riverbeds. Excessive oyster harvesting meant that natural stocks around Sydney became severely depleted so government regulation were imposed in the 1860s. Oyster farming began in New South Wales in the 1870s.
If properly stored, unopened oysters keep in their shelfs for quite some time, so the appetite for fresh oysters was not limited to Sydney’s coastal dwellers. Oysters were sent to Melbourne by ship in the 1840s and to inland towns such as Orange and Wagga Wagga by rail in the 1870s. Oyster bars and saloons soon popped up, rivalling pubs in popularity. Devotees of oysters served in their natural state might be horrified to think of them stewed, ‘ragoo’d’ (ragout), curried, made into soups, patties and pies, marinated in vinegar (pickled) or used to make a sauce to serve with fish, beef steaks or poultry. But these are only some of the recipes in colonial and early-20th– century cookbooks. Other people might delight in memories of the once iconic but now rarely mentioned carpetbag steak (beef fillet stuffed with oysters).
Also popular were oysters crumbed or battered and fried; ‘devilled’ with mustard, curry powder or cayenne pepper and Worcestershire sauce; or rolled in bacon and grilled as ‘angels on horseback’.
Today’s growers produce more than 100 million oysters a year, barley meeting demand from avid consumers.
Oysters Australia. (n.d). The Oyster.
Retrieved from http://www.osyteraustralia.org.au/the-oyster
Newling, J. (2016) Oysters. Eat Your History – Stories & Recipes from Australian Kitchens. Sydney Living Museum. Sydney, NSW:University of New South Wales Press.