Advance Australia Fare

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Asia, Australia, Oceania

Harry’s Café de Wheels, A Sydney Institution Since 1945

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.

AUSTRALIAN

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.

Harry’s Tiger, A Signature Beef Pie with Mashed Potato and Mushy Peas, Sydney

Seafood Pie which I Preferred

It’s Not Complete without Fries

Melbourne’s Hardware Lane

Succulent Kangaroo Steak

GREEK

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.

A Portion of Gyro at Tsindos, Melbourne

Tsindos’ Fried Calamari was A Revelation

Saganaki as an Appetizer

All Sorts of Greek Dipping Sauces

Greek Coffee to Cleanse the Palate

ETHIOPIAN

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.

Hearty and Delicious Ethiopian Dishes Served with Injera

Coffee, Popcorn and Smoking Frankincense

Coffee from Ethiopia

COLOMBIAN

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.

Arepa at Colombia Organik, Sydney

Sobrebarriga with Rice, Tomato, Avocado, Spinach Leaves and Corn

Tamales, the Long-Lost Cousin of Indonesian Pepes

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).

Filipino Chicken Skewers with Java Rice and Atchara

FUSION

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.

Chicken Katsu Mini Banh Mi and Cheeseburger Spring Rolls at Ms. G’s, Sydney

Kingfish Sashimi with Kombu and Chives in Ponzu Dressing

A Vietnamese Twist on Steak Tartare

Burrata with Spinach, Peanuts, Sesame Seeds and Chili Oil

Thai Tom Yum Fried Rice

Red-Braised Wallaby Tail at Billy Kwong, Sydney

Brunswick Street, Melbourne

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

50 thoughts on “Advance Australia Fare”

  1. I was amazed to learn that Melbourne is the second largest Greek city outside of Greece. Thank you too for those outstanding photos, Bama!

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    • The Greek food certainly was one of the highlights of my trip to Melbourne. Since 2004 — thanks to that beautiful and spectacular opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics — I have become more and more fascinated by Greece, although I haven’t got the chance to visit the country. So to be able to sample some of their best dishes was a real treat. Really appreciate your encouraging words, Peter!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a comprehensive account of the Australian food scene along with fabulous photos. You and James sure know how to eat. I think you’re both real foodies, unlike Don and I who like good food but it’s not the most important thing for us as long as our tummies are full. The entire food scene in Oz has changed enormously since I was a child there and kiwi fruit were known as Chinese gooseberries. Fusion didn’t exist though Harry’s did. Your account reminded me of the meat pies I would buy for lunch from the school canteen – truly the best meat pies ever. The filling was mostly gravy and burger, but it was flavourful, and the pastry was wonderful French-style flaky pastry. Of course I’d have it smothered in ketchup. I’ve never come across pies like the ones we got at school anywhere else.
    Alison

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    • Before I started traveling with James, trying local food was not much of a priority for me, although I did sample a few local dishes whenever I visited a new place. Thanks to him now I know how much I had missed when I went to Cambodia and the Philippines more than six years ago. I think I read somewhere that Australian food scene decades ago was a lot more simple, just like what you said. Aren’t you glad that Australia embraced multiculturalism? Its culinary scene today is a testament to that.

      I also lament the fact that I can no longer find some really great dishes I grew up eating. Maybe the ingredients are harder to find, or maybe my palate has changed, so food I enjoyed eating in the past may not necessarily offer the same pleasure today.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. The post is a gastronomic gallery! Your exquisite photographs tantamount to art. I was waiting for Indian dishes with bated breath but it was not to be. Perhaps next instalment will feature samosa, chhola bhatura, masala dosa, onion bhajia, jalebis too!

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    • That’s very kind of you, Umashankar. Actually my friend and I went to Australia with Lebanese and Greek dishes in mind, since both are quite hard to find in Jakarta where we currently live. Of course, we couldn’t leave the country without trying their traditional dishes, like meat pie. So Asian food wasn’t really what we were looking for. A surprisingly delightful ‘discovery’ was Ethiopian food; the ambiance at the restaurant, the music, the scent, and obviously the food, they all transported my mind to a country I’ve been longing to visit.

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  4. Food in Australia is wonderful! As much as I like the food in Italy, where I am right now, I miss the excellent variety we get at home. I’m pleased you enjoyed your eating tour.

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    • Australia is among the very few countries that I’ve been to where nothing I ate was disappointing. Now I’m really intrigued with the food scenes in other cities, like Brisbane, Perth and Darwin. Probably five or six years ago a friend raved about the food she had in Sydney, and my own experience proved that she was right.

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      • We have great food in Brisbane too and we loved what we ate in WA last year. I hope you get to try other places.

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      • So it is true that food with good quality can be found all over the country. I wish I could fly there now!

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  5. Shouldn’t be seeing this on Sunday morning before I have breakfast!!

    I love how everything seemed of such great quality, sometimes it feels to me that ‘ethnic’ food – whichever ethnicity it hails from – has a tendency to be cheap and, let’s say it, a bit nasty. Not at all in this case!

    I lament, however, the fate of that poor burrata drenched in chili oil. Burrata has such a delicate taste that it’s easy to drown it with other, richer, ones; should’ve been left alone, poor thing… 😦

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    • Sorry for the inconvenience caused. 🙂

      In Indonesia, for many years authentic food could only be found at street side stalls or some very basic restaurants. Anything fancy was considered as merely to satisfy foreigners’ taste buds. However, that seems to be gradually changing as pretty and chic restaurants are becoming more and more common especially in big cities, serving nothing but real Indonesian food.

      I knew nothing about burrata until I had that dish in Sydney, which was good as none of the ingredients was too overpowering. However, your sentiment reminds me of the way Napoletano react when they see pineapples on their pizza. And that makes me wonder what the Japanese think of California roll. I’m not one to judge.

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  6. Wow. You and James sure did at VERY well while you were in Melbourne, trying a range of cuisines all round. It is true that the food scene here in Australia these days is very diverse. Migrants are not shy to share their food and culture from back home these days here. You certainly picked the notable spots to eat – not just the popular locations but also where the heart of passionate cooking is in Melbourne. I have yet to try Colombian cuisine in Melbourne. Being a cheese fan, the Arepa sure caught my attention. Looks like it would make a good snack.

    I can’t remember when I last had a meat pie. Those things are yum. In the grocery shops in Australia, there is the snack version of meat pies – mini sized and they are called party pies and usually taste great if you want some fast food at home or at an office party or gathering.

    So interesting to hear you and James tried fusion food at Billy Kwong and had the wallaby tail. You would think Australians would shy away from eating such an iconic local animal…but no 😀 Lovely to hear it is a dish that makes you want to come back here 🙂 Fusion food seems to be a way of getting different Australians from all backgrounds to get to know other cultures. Some might argue that fusion food makes us forget traditional kinds of cuisines and that traditional cooking methods and tastes get lost in the process. The world is a changing place and things rarely stay the same anymore, and all of us have different tastes. At the end of the day, traditional, authentic cuisine is still somewhere out there.

    Reading your comment, this caught my eye: ‘food I enjoyed eating in the past may not necessarily offer the same pleasure today.’ I feel that way a lot. I often shop at Asian groceries here in Melbourne, and my most bought item would be Malaysian-made chicken flavoured Maggi noodles. I cook this instant noodle exactly the same way as I did when I lived in Malaysia…just plain noodles and boiling water and somehow, it just doesn’t taste the same. Maybe it is the weather lol 🙂

    Amazing food photos all round like a food photographer.

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    • That arepa was actually quite filling; see if you can find one that is smaller in Melbourne.

      I mentioned in a previous post that a friend of mine once told me how much she loved Sydney, especially the food. However, I only began paying attention to the food scene in Australia after watching MasterChef Australia which, by the way, is a lot better than the US version — sometimes I just can’t stand all the yelling and drama of the latter. I learned about saltbush from the program, as well as the great variety of Australian produce. At one point I started cooking more often on the weekends and I challenged myself to cook with ingredients I never had before. Most times I failed, but when I did successfully make a dish that not only was edible, but also tasted good, I made sure to take some photos so I’ll always remember which dishes I did right. Visiting Sydney and Melbourne to sample those dishes I mentioned in this post felt like being at the center of such a great culinary scene which Australia is now known for.

      Your experience with Maggi noodles sounds similar with what I feel about Indomie — the most popular instant noodle brand in Indonesia. I grew up eating Indomie and until a few years ago I was a big fan of it for its wide variety of flavors. It’s still decent though, but now I prefer other brands.

      Thank you for reading and for sharing your interesting thoughts with us, Mabel!

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      • I used to watch Masterchef Australia, the first two seasons in particular. Aside from the drama, it was amazing to see how some everyday Australians are so passionate about cooking. So lovely to hear that you are cooking more. Maybe cook even more and in future all of your dishes will most certainly be edible 🙂

        The food scene in both Melbourne and Sydney has grown so much over the last decade, and continues to keep growing. Food night markets seem to be catching on here, which I remember reading on either yours or James blog that you visited something similar while in Sydney.

        The first time I tried Indomie was when I was around 17, 18 years old. It tasted so flavourful but the red spicy sambal sauce was a bit too much for me. So whenever I do make Indomie these days I put only a little bit. I like the original flavour and brand 🙂

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      • My mantra for cooking is just add it if you think it’s right. I often add a mix of spices — pepper, coriander seed, nutmeg, pretty much anything I can find in the kitchen — to everything I make. 🙂

        I’ve always loved eating, but I only began to appreciate food from outside Indonesia more after I started traveling with James. He’s such a foodie and he’s always curious about how dishes from different countries taste. Now food has become among the things we look forward to having the most whenever we travel.

        On the contrary, I find Indomie’s sambal quite mild; they did have this skipjack tuna flavor a few years ago, which was quite spicy, but for some reason they discontinued the product. Today Samyang’s hot chicken ramen is my new favorite. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sambal rica-rica, sambal matah, iga penyet, and sambal ijo are among my favorite flavors of Indomie now.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Fantastic photos, especially like the look of the chicken skewers and the cheeseburger spring rolls. Starving hungry now. Great post.

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    • Thanks Jon! Choosing the photos for this post really made me want to go back to Australia. What a great country for foodies!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Forgot all about the good old Auzie pie; must at least have one while I’m here. Yesterday, opposite the South Melbourne markets, I ate a fabulous Japanese dish, but opposite was an Indonesian restaurant I’ll have to entice my daughter into.

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    • Do you remember the name of that Indonesian restaurant? I’m always curious with places that serve Indonesian dishes abroad since they can be hard to find, unlike Thai or Vietnamese restaurants. Speaking of meat pie, it really is comfort food. I can imagine eating it when it’s raining outside, or when I’m watching TV at home. Pure bliss.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow I really enjoyed reading this blog post and devouring the photos hehe! I didn’t know that Melbourne had the largest Greek-speaking population outside of a Greek city. I sure do love Greece and Greek food. It’s amazing how one can enjoy best cuisines from around the world in Australia. That is something I truly miss here in Lodz, Poland where I live – there are few restaurants serving ethnic cuisine here and there but you almost always find local (Polish) chefs, which is not necessarily bad. Seems like you made the most of your time in Australia sampling so many good foods!

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    • Visiting Tsindos twice, one for lunch and another for dinner, really brought my mind to Greece. An old Greek movie was played while patrons enjoying the fantastic dishes. There was Greek music too playing in the background. I don’t think I’ve ever tried Polish food, although I’ve heard about pierogi. Thanks for reading, Pooja. Hopefully the food scene in Lodz will gradually become more diverse.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Of course you’re intrigued with the mini banh mi, although personally I preferred the Vietnamese-inspired steak tartare.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Not sure if I should admit this, but seeing that pea pie brought a little tear to my eye. Haha. It was my favourite food as a kid!
    I grew up in country Qld where you wouldn’t see any of this. But the variety of food (and cultures) is definitely one thing I miss about living in Melbourne. 🙂

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    • I can see why it’s such a favorite pie for many Australian kids. However, I’m surprised that you can’t find it in Queensland — another reason for me to go to the Sunshine State to experience its food scene today.

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  11. Bama you have provided a very in-depth account of the Australian food scene. We were a bit surprised by the variety of choice during our time down under.

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    • For its relative isolation, Australia really is such a fascinating and colorful place to eat. We were thinking of trying Afghan food as well when we were in Sydney, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time as the restaurant we wanted to go to was out of the city center.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. You are very adventuresome with food! I used to be quite picky, then I went through several decades of willingness to try anything and everything, and now I seem to be returning to pickiness. Much of what you show here looks good, some looks try-able, and some … well, I might not be able to do it! I enjoy the world culinarily through you!

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    • Both James and I eat everything, except endangered animals, so we rarely say no to any food served to us when we travel. But when it comes to flavor, I prefer hot and spicy dishes, while he loves those that are sweet, rich and creamy.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Bama, reading this post – and looking at all those mouth-watering photos – has me itching to go back to Australia. The quality of the fresh produce there, the immense variety of cuisines in both Sydney and Melbourne, and the top-notch service at those restaurants we visited was quite the change from what I usually have here in Jakarta! You are too kind when you say that you only became a serious foodie after we started doing joint trips… I did learn to take better food shots from you and I also became much more well-versed in Indonesian cuisine because of your influence, so it was really a two-way exchange. 🙂

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    • We definitely should go back to Australia one day! Darwin is among the cities I’m most interested in going due to its proximity to Indonesia. I wonder how the culinary scene is like there. I remember when I went to Cambodia almost seven years ago I only tried one local dish — although the fact that a lot of restaurants in Siem Reap back then only served pasta, pizza or burger didn’t help. I’m glad now I’m a different person when it comes to food. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi, your site is amazing. 😊 I wonder how long you spent in Australia to summarise such a comprehensive post? You are quite a foodie! I must say that having recently returned from a trip in Europe I did miss the diversity of food available here Down Under. It’s such a potpourri of cultures that there is always a taste to suit everyone. Thanks for taking us on the culinary adventure.

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    • Thanks Jolene! Actually my friend and I tried all those dishes in just a week. Yes, we’re such foodies, and trying local dishes as well as those we can’t or rarely find at home has been among our top priorities when we travel. Australia is definitely among the best places to eat!

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