Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • ‘My Middle-Eastern heritage has played a big part in the dishes that I have created. The memory from my childhood of running through bazaars and spice markets with my parents was remarkable! The flavours of those markets were never far from my plate’, muses Chef Saleh. Chefs tend to be influenced by their personal experiences when cooking, and they are often connected to their childhood memories of food experiences, such as shared family meals. This can imprint a unique interpretation in their style of cooking.

  • The supply of fresh fruit and vegetables predominately harvested by Chinese immigrants from 1850s; the widespread distribution of manufactured foods from 1870s; and the railways opening our hinterland to agriculture from the 1880s created a huge impact on the food chain in Australia. According to Chef Saleh, ‘Australia’s food history has instead been dynamic, urban, industrial, science-based and capitalist-driven.’

  • Saleh points out that: ‘at the beginning of the 21st century, Australian cuisine shows the influence of globalisation. Unlike other societies with a dominant history, we have inherited no cuisine in the traditional sense.’ The contemporary Australian cuisine can be defined as a globalised commercial cooking style and use of imported ingredients, recipes and cooking methods from abroad according to the current cooking trends, such as molecular cuisine, foraging and nose to tail.

  • Concerned about the environmental implications of the use of off-season and imported produce, Chef Saleh prefers to use seasonal and fresh foods whenever possible, as ‘the production and consumption of food in Australia, and globally, is closely linked to the environment at every turn, from on-farm production, food processing and packaging, distribution, storage and consumption. The processes within the food system not only produce food, but also other outputs such as greenhouse gases, waste water, packaging and food waste. Each of these contributes to environmental degradation. At the same time, environmental degradation and climate change is altering the Australian food system, with implications for yield, quality and affordability.’

  • Chef Saleh believes that regional cuisine has developed its own sense of sophistication and identity, and its foundations have a substantial influence on Modern Australian cuisine. ‘There are ingredients you can’t find anywhere else in the world. The bush tucker of Indigenous Australia, the foods of a 60,000 year old culture, are being rediscovered and used by committed and innovative chefs, alongside other ingredients, such as cheese, butter, truffles, mushrooms, honey, seafood, livestock; the list goes on and on. Each ingredient has its own origin, and I’m sure there are lots of stories behind all of them’, says Chef Saleh.

Head Chef Ashraf Saleh from Coya Restaurant in Sydney chats with Dane Richards of Aussie Cuisine.

General

Aussie Cuisine, basically, is the cuisine of our Nation. For 40,000 to 60,000 years, Indigenous Australians have occupied Australia, and during that time, they developed a unique hunter-gatherer diet, known as “bush tucker”. From 1788 to 1900, Australia was a collection of British colonies; culinary tastes were mainly influenced by the British and Irish migrants. Beef, sheep and wheat became staples of the Australian diet.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Australian cuisine shows the influence of globalisation. Organic and biodynamic foods become widely available. Meat is the core component of both the Australian cuisine and diet. To barbecue meat is considered traditional in Australia.

Today, Australian meals are more diverse than ever, influenced by aisles of inexpensive ingredients, a platter of cultures, and a resurgent interest in food. Unlike other societies with a dominant history, we have inherited no cuisine in the traditional sense. Australia’s food history has instead been dynamic, urban, industrial, science-based, and capitalist-driven.

My Middle-Eastern heritage has played a big part of the dishes that I have created. The memory of running through the bazaars and spice markets with my parents from my childhood was remarkable! The flavours of those markets were never far from my plate. I travelled extensively in my twenties through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, making new friends, and of course discovering a host of exciting dishes, and cooking methods.

Produce

It’s vital that I use the spices that I have full knowledge of, and am fully confident in using them in different ways in my dishes. The Middle Easterner’s love their meats, particularly goat and lamb, which is why I have included them in my menus. As for vegetables; eggplant, cauliflower, potatoes, chickpeas, and okra, are a few of the main ingredients that I use regularly.

The production and consumption of food in Australia, and globally, is closely linked to the environment at every turn, from on-farm production, food processing and packaging, distribution, storage and consumption. The processes within the food system not only produce food, but also other outputs such as greenhouse gases, waste water, packaging and food waste. Each of these contributes to environmental degradation. At the same time, environmental degradation and climate change is altering the Australian food system, with implications for yield, quality and affordability. I choose to use seasonal produce, as well as all-rounders.

Modern Australian cuisine has been embraced in Australia as we search for a unique food culture to call our own, yet unashamedly, takes its inspiration from countries all over the world. Native Australian bush tucker sustained Aboriginals for thousands of years.

British traditions such as the Sunday roast, meat pies and “meat and three veg” still played an important part in the overall development of Modern Australian Cuisine. We’ve seen a deconstruction of everything, and so many fusion cuisines have become available!

In my opinion, menus that include seafood, native game, vegetables, as well as native fruits and nuts, represent Australia on a plate. Native fruits include lilly pillies, quandongs, rosellas or hibiscus, wild raspberries and naive currants.

Since the 1980’s, the evolution of tastes and styles have helped to define a distinctly innovative Australian gastronomy in our restaurants that is now seen as part of the world’s premier cuisine. This capacity to adapt and adopt, is now also being extended to the commercial production of native foods, or bush tucker. Kangaroo, emu and crocodile are available, alongside camel and rabbit meat in gourmet game shops, and macadamia nuts have widespread distribution both in Australia, as well as overseas.

It is very important for the untapped potential of Indigenous influence on Australian Cuisine to be fully realised. Mainstream chefs are embracing native ingredients, which were used by Aboriginal people for thousands of years before white settlement. And it’s not before time, according to indigenous chef Mark Olive, who has experienced years of frustration at seeing Australians warmly welcome Thai, Indian and Japanese cuisine ahead of the highly nutritious ingredients found in their own backyard!

“Indigenous food” is food that’s grown in Australia, comes from Australia and that Aboriginal people ate and utilised during their time on the land. When people start using these foods with these flavours, they’re blown away. Chefs around the world are embracing it, and are so curious about it.

Government organisation such as National Indigenous Culinary Institute aims to make a difference to the lives of young indigenous Australians by offering an opportunity to excel within the culinary industry. With the aid of its corporate sponsors, and some government support, aspiring indigenous chefs can apply for a place on this practical program, and be supported through an apprenticeship with on the job training in three top restaurants over three years. During this time they will have exposure to the best the food industry has to offer, becoming highly skilled professionals, and receiving an industry designed qualification, as well as ongoing employment offered on completion.

Bush tucker, also called bushfood, is any food native to Australia and used as sustenance by the original inhabitants, the Aboriginal Australians, but it can also describe any native fauna or flora used for culinary, and/or medicinal purposes, regardless of the continent or culture. Examples of Australian native animal foods include kangaroo, emu, and crocodile. Other animals, for example; goanna and witchetty grubs, were eaten by Aboriginal Australians. Fish and shellfish are culinary features of Australian coastal communities.

Regional

The food we eat in Australia has been heavily influenced by, initially our British convict beginnings, the local climate, what was, and is, available locally in terms of game, naturally grown produce, and by the various waves of immigration after World War 2.

When European settlement began in this country, most of the food ideas were obviously derived from the British traditions brought here by those immigrant settlers. There are many stories of the initial difficulties experienced by the early pioneers, adjusting to the native fauna and harsh climate. Gradually however they began to acclimatise, but they still hung onto their traditional fare.

My fondest memory of an iconic regional Australian dish was from Shoalhaven where we spent our family holiday. The hot pumpkin dampers served with seafood stew was unforgettable!

The foundations of regional cuisine, has influenced Modern Australian in many ways. Regional cuisine is based upon produce availability and trade, varying climates, cooking traditions and practices, and cultural differences. Regional food preparation traditions, customs and ingredients, often combine to create dishes unique to a particular region.

Regional cuisines are often named after the geographic areas or regions that they originate from. Australian regional cuisine has definitely developed its own sense of sophistication and identity. There are ingredients you can’t find anywhere else in the world. The “bush tucker” of Indigenous Australia, the foods of a 60,000 year old culture, are being rediscovered and used by committed and innovative chefs, alongside other ingredients, such as cheese, butter, truffles, mushrooms, honey, seafood, livestock; the list goes on and on. Each ingredient has its own origin, and I’m sure there are lots of stories behind all of them.