Australia is called Down Under for an obvious reason: it is relatively remote on the world map. Its biggest cities – Sydney and Melbourne – are located on the other side of globe from many of the world’s major cities in Europe and North America, and the nearest global economic and business hubs in Asia are thousands of kilometers away. There’s nothing between Tasmania and the Antarctic but cold waters, and the next substantial land mass to the west of Perth is Africa on the other side of the vast Indian Ocean. Yet when it comes to food, the whole world seems to collide in Australia, now home to a diverse, exciting and well-established culinary scene that makes the rest of the planet envious.
Thanks to Australia’s history of immigration – first as a British penal colony and subsequently among the most preferred countries for those fleeing persecution or economic hardship at home to seek new lives – the country is now, although still predominantly white, a land where a multitude of communities with different cultural backgrounds thrive. One thing a person can’t live without, especially when he or she is far from home, is food, and my own experience is a testament to this. In the summer of 2007, I went to Europe for a month to attend a cousin’s wedding and explore the continent as much as I could. Having to be content with whatever food was available, my palate had to adjust with lots of bread and cheese, which at times felt rather monotonous. During the second week, my relatives and I were in Brussels where we stayed for three nights at the house of an Indonesian family who had been living in the city for quite some time. At our first dinner there, we were served a range of Indonesian cuisine, including my childhood favorite telur balado, boiled chicken egg smothered in spicy chili sauce. The moment I bit into the egg, a riot of bold and rich flavors exploded in my mouth, something I had not experienced for two weeks. If I could have at that time, I really wanted to say out loud, “Oh! How much I miss this!”
The first Greek, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Thai immigrants to Australia must have felt the same longing – if not more – for the food they ate at home when they arrived in this new land, far away from everything. Imagine their struggle to find ingredients to cook moussaka, baba ghannouj, injera, pho, and massaman curry, among a wealth of other heirloom dishes they once made in their kitchens before leaving their homelands for good. But slowly and surely, as immigrant communities persevere and thrive, more and more of their traditional dishes are also being appreciated by those from other communities in Australia. On my trip to Sydney and Melbourne last October, I was lucky to be able to sample some of those dishes, authentically made by generations of home cooks whose initial intention was purely to satiate their longing for the lands where they were born and raised.
First let’s talk about some emblematic Aussie dishes, among them Australian meat pie, which is probably the most famous. Regarded by a former New South Wales Premier in 2003 as the country’s national dish, the meat pie is simple yet hearty. At Harry’s Café de Wheels, a beloved local institution in Sydney, the pies came in various toppings and fillings: Harry’s Tiger – the house specialty – was stuffed with beef and had a generous topping of mashed potato and peas drizzled with gravy, while the seafood pie – whose filling comprised white fish, shrimp, scallops, and salmon in a creamy sauce – was sprinkled with dill.
In Melbourne, James and I tried kangaroo steak for the first time at Grill Steak Seafood on Hardware Lane, one of the laneways the city is famous for. Grilled to the right texture, the steak was surprisingly not as gamey as I expected it to be. Paired with a glass of white wine, it was the perfect lunch in an al fresco setting.
Dubbed the second-largest Greek-speaking city in the world, and with the largest Greek community outside of Greece, Melbourne boasts a plethora of authentic Greek restaurants. We opted for Tsindos, a decades-old restaurant tucked in the middle of Melbourne’s Greek Precinct, to try both familiar dishes and some that were new to both of us. Prior to this, my experience with Greek or Greek-inspired food was limited to the grilled octopus I had at a food fair in Vienna, the moussaka I tried in Pokhara, Nepal, and the spanakopita I tasted at a Greek-Indonesian restaurant in Jakarta.
Saganaki, fried cheese using Kefalograviera (Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk), was one of the appetizers. Then came pitta bread with a selection of Greek dipping sauces, from tzatziki (salted yogurt with cucumbers, garlic, and olive oil), taramasalata (cured roe with olive oil, lemon juice, and potatoes among other ingredients), to melitzanosalata (the Greek version of baba ghanoush). For the mains we had chicken and lamb gyro, and the most succulent fried calamari both of us have ever tried. My mother loves to make fried calamari, and she’s quite proud of it. But the one I had at Tsindos was a revelation. “Don’t tell your mom!” Alex, a disarmingly friendly staff member, said that with a big grin.
We loved the fried calamari so much we ended up having three portions on two visits to the restaurant. We also ordered a small bottle of ouzo, which proved to be more potent than what I anticipated, to wash down the feast. But Alex taught me that mixing the anise-flavored liquor with water instantly turned the clear liquid a milky white – and made it less strong.
On our third day in Melbourne when the skies were cloudy and gloomy, we ventured out to Brunswick Street, the main artery of a fascinating neighborhood where independent shops and fashion boutiques, as well as unusual and quirky restaurants and cafés lined both sides of the avenue. We went to this part of Melbourne to have lunch at Saba’s, a small yet cozy restaurant run by a young Ethiopian-Australian where meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans can savor traditional dishes from Africa’s oldest country.
Saba, the owner after whom the restaurant was named, is an energetic woman running what is probably one of the most intriguing places to eat in the city. When our lunch was ready, she brought a traditional basket-like container to our table, then as she lifted up the conical lid, hot steam immediately rose from the food. The theatrical show didn’t stop there. Gently she put down the round container on the table, which had injera flatbread made of fermented teff as its centerpiece, and poured out six side dishes including dinish (potatoes, cabbage and carrot cooked with turmeric and other spices), biray kulwa (diced beef cooked with spices and berbere spice mix), tel sebhi (diced goat cooked with berbere), and bamya (Sudanese diced okra dish cooked with lamb). Just like what Ethiopians do, we devoured the injera and all the dishes by hand, which is not that different from the way many Indonesians eat traditional food.
Not long afterward, just as we finished our meal and ended up with stuffed and happy tummies, Saba came over again to give us a jug of Ethiopian coffee, popcorn, and a burner with a small, smoking log that looked like charcoal, except that it didn’t smell like charcoal at all. “It’s frankincense,” she explained. “In Ethiopia we like to drink coffee with the smell of frankincense in the air,” she added. This visit to Saba’s has single-handedly put Ethiopia near the top of my ever-growing wish list.
Other than Europe and Africa, immigrants to Australia also come from the far side of the Pacific: South America. In Sydney, we sampled some Colombian dishes which were all new to me but surprisingly cooked and presented in a similar way with some dishes I grew up eating in Indonesia. At Colombia Organik, a small café that spills out onto the pavement near Central Railway Station, we tried sobrebarriga (slow-cooked meat in a tomato and chili sauce, served with rice, avocado, tomato and corn salad) and arepa (flat corn cake topped with layers of shredded beef, avocado and melted cheese).
However, I was most amused by tamales, made from meat and vegetables in cornmeal which is wrapped in banana leaf and then steamed. From the outside, the dish looked very similar to Indonesian pepes, a wide array of banana leaf-wrapped steamed dishes filled with anything from fish to chicken and mushrooms. From the list of fresh juices made from fruits native to the Americas, we both had lulada, a juice of lulo (Solanum quitoense), which, unlike its counterparts soursop and passion fruit, is not well-known and widely consumed in Indonesia.
ASIAN & MIDDLE EASTERN
Due to its proximity to Asia, Australia unsurprisingly hosts a large number of Asian immigrant communities. When I went to the country, Asian food was obviously not what I was looking for as I can easily find it back home in Jakarta or in other cities around Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, we ended up having Vietnamese pho in Sydney and a Thai dinner in Melbourne out of convenience since they were in close proximity to places we went to. Our encounter with a Filipino food stall, however, was pure coincidence. One afternoon as we were strolling around Darling Harbour, we stumbled across the Sydney World Rice Festival at Tumbalong Park. Stalls showcasing food from Indonesia, China, Japan, the Philippines and even Argentina ringed a lawn where on one side a stage was set for music performances. We decided to go Filipino with me ordering skewered chicken grilled to a succulent texture and served with flavored rice and pickled green papaya known as atchara.
Food from the far west side of Asia – the Middle East – could also be easily found in Australia. In Melbourne we went to Abla’s, named after Abla Amad, a Lebanese immigrant who came to Australia in 1954. With her daughters now running the restaurant, it has become another beloved local institution where patrons can try a variety of Lebanese and Levantine dishes. We went for an early dinner and opted for fattoush (a salad made with radish, tomato, cucumber, capsicum, mint and baked bread), kibbee nayeh (raw lamb blended with burghul cereal and olive oil, served with mint), and my favorite, rice pilaff (made with minced lamb, chicken, almond and pine nuts).
While traditional food from many parts of world is widely available in Australia, especially in its big cities, a growing number of adventurous chefs and entrepreneurs are combining those dishes and traditions to create exciting contemporary dishes that are neither Japanese, Vietnamese, Italian, nor Thai. Sydney’s Ms. G’s is a perfect example of such a venture where the classic flavors of a cheeseburger can be found inside fried spring rolls, or a playful twist on burrata results in a delectable combination of the cheese with peanuts, spinach, sesame seeds and chili oil.
At Billy Kwong, also in Sydney, we were lucky to get a table without making a reservation in advance. Owned by celebrity chef Kylie Kwong, known for her creative take on Chinese food using quintessentially Australian ingredients, the restaurant was conveniently located just a short walk from our hotel. Knowing that it would probably be our only visit to the restaurant, we decided to order a 10-course banquet menu with one particular dish in mind: the red-braised wallaby tail. However, as we were carefully perusing the hand-written menu, it clearly wasn’t on the list. A waitress proactively swapped out the advertised snapper for the dish we wanted after James told her that we were from out of town and hoped to try their signature dish.
Apart from the superb wallaby tail, another memorable dish we had at Billy Kwong was saltbush cakes, made from the eastern Australia native bush which I only learned about a few years ago from one episode of Masterchef Australia, the only food program that has inspired me to cook more – at least when I was still watching it. The crunchy texture of saltbush somehow reminded me of katuk (Sauropus androgynus), a shrub my mother occasionally cooked in the past which is apparently good for breastfeeding!
Not only was the service impressive, all the dishes did really live up to the restaurant’s reputation. We were explained about where certain ingredients were procured and how we were supposed to eat the wallaby tail. It certainly wasn’t the cheapest place to eat, but it was really worth the price we paid. The food, it seems, is reason enough for me to go back to Australia one day.