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Food and drink

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Australia is almost two separate nations when it comes to food. In the cities – especially Melbourne and Sydney – there’s a range of cosmopolitan and inexpensive restaurants and cafés featuring almost every imaginable cuisine. Here, there’s an exceptionally high ratio of eating places to people, and they survive because people eat out so much – three times a week is not unusual. Remote country areas are the antithesis of this: often the only options other than meat pies and microwaveable fast food is the straightforward counter food served at the local hotel, or a slightly more upmarket bistro or basic Chinese restaurant.

Traditionally, Australian food has its roots in the English meat-and-two-veg vein. Two things have rescued the country from culinary destitution: immigration and the range of superb, locally produced fresh ingredients. In addition to introducing their own cuisine, immigrants have had a profound effect on mainstream Australian food. “Modern Australian” cuisine (or mod Oz) is an exciting blend of tastes and influences from around the world – particularly Asia and the Mediterranean – and many not specifically “ethnic” restaurants will have a menu that includes good curries, dolmades and fettuccine alongside steak and prawns. This healthy, eclectic – and above all, fresh – cuisine has a lot in common with Californian cooking styles, and both go under the banner of “East meets West” or fusion cuisine.

Food

Meat is plentiful, cheap and excellent: steak forms the mainstay of the pub-counter meal and of the ubiquitous barbie, as Australian an institution as you could hope to find: free or coin-operated barbecues are in car parks, campsites and beauty spots all over the country. As well as the usual beef, chicken, lamb and pork, wallaby, emu, buffalo and camel may be served, especially in more upmarket restaurants, but the most common “unusual” meats are kangaroo (or wallaby) – a rich, tender and virtually fat-free meat – and crocodile, which tastes like a mix of chicken and pork and is at its best when grilled. On the coast, there’s tremendous seafood – prawns and oysters, mud crabs, Moreton Bay bugs (small crustaceans) and yabbies (sea- and freshwater crayfish), lobsters – and a wide variety of fresh- and seawater fish. Barramundi has a reputation as one of the finest, but is easily beaten by sweetlips or coral trout.

Fruit is good, too, from Tasmanian cherries and pears to tropical bananas, pawpaw (papaya), mangoes, avocados, citrus fruits, custard apples, lychees, pineapples, passion fruit, star fruit and coconuts – few of them native, but delicious nonetheless. Vegetables are also fresh, cheap and good, and include everything from pumpkin, European cauliflowers and potatoes to Chinese bok choy and Indian bitter gourds. Note that aubergine is known as eggplant, courgettes as zucchini and red or green peppers as capsicums.

Vegetarians are better served than you’d expect of meat-centred Australia, in the cities at least, where veggie cafés have cultivated a wholesome, trendy image that suits Australians’ health-conscious nature. In the country, things are more tricky, but most restaurants will have one vegetarian option at least.

Finally, a word on eskies – insulated food containers varying from handy “six-pack” sizes to sixty-litre trunks able to swallow a weekend’s worth of food or beer. Either way, no barbie or camping trip is complete without a couple.

Ethnic food

Since World War II, wave after wave of immigrants have brought a huge variety of ethnic cuisines to Australia: first North European, then Mediterranean and most recently Asian.

An array of Asian cuisines – especially Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai, Japanese and Indian – can be found throughout Australia. European cuisines have also made their mark, with Italian food an enormous influence, and Greek, Turkish and Lebanese also popular.

Eating out

Restaurants are no longer such fabulous value compared with Britain and North America. Prices are now roughly comparable, although the availability of BYO can reduce the cost of eating out: a good two-course meal in a BYO restaurant can be had for Aus$35 or less, though a main course at a moderate restaurant is around Aus$18–26.

Cafés are one of the great joys of modern Australian life. First imported by southern European immigrants and particularly strong in the cities, café culture is excellent, with most places acting as places to hang out with the papers as well as venues for generally healthy food throughout the day – a good bet for a modern bistro-style meal.

The hotel (ie pub) counter meal is another Aussie mainstay, and in places may be all that’s available: if it is, make sure you get there in time – meals in pubs are generally served from noon to 2.30pm and from 6pm to 9pm, and sometimes not at all on Sunday evening. The food is often simple but substantial; typically around Aus$16 or less for steak, salad and chips. In more upmarket areas and cities you’ll find more gastropub fare, with dishes such as pan-fried fish and mash, porterhouse steak, and lamb and rosemary sausages featuring alongside club sandwiches and home-made burgers.

In cities and bigger resorts, you’ll find excellent fast food in food courts, often in the basements of office buildings or in shopping malls, where dozens of small stalls compete to offer Thai, Chinese, Japanese or Italian food as well as burgers, steaks and sandwiches. On the road, you may be limited to what’s available at the roadhouse, usually the lowest common denominator of reheated meat pies and microwaved ready-meals.

Drink

Australians have a reputation for enjoying a drink, and hotels (also sometimes called pubs, taverns, inns and bars) are where the drinking mostly takes place. Traditionally, public bars are male enclaves, the place where mates meet after work on their way home, with the emphasis more on the beer and banter than the surroundings. Nowadays, many city hotels are comfortable, relaxed bars for all, but a lot of Outback pubs remain pretty Spartan and daunting for strangers of either sex, though you’ll find the barriers come down if you’re prepared to join in the conversation.

Friday and Saturday are the party nights, when there’s likely to be a band and – in the case of some Outback establishments – everybody for 100km around jammed into the building. Opening hours vary from state to state; they’re usually 11am to 11pm, but are often much later, with early closing on Sunday. Some places are also “early openers”, with hours from 6am to 6pm.

Off-licences or liquor stores are known as bottle shops. These are usually in a separate section attached to a pub or supermarket – in some states, you can’t buy alcohol from supermarkets or grocery stores. There are also drive-in bottle shops, sometimes attached to pubs, where you can load bulk purchases directly into the boot of your car. If you plan to visit Aboriginal communities in the Outback, bear in mind that some are “dry”. Respect their regulations and don’t take any alcohol with you, even if members of the communities ask you for “grog”.

Beer

As any Aussie will tell you, the only way to drink beer in a hot country is ice-cold (the English can expect to be constantly berated for other preferences) and fast, from a small container so it doesn’t heat up before you can down the contents. Tubular foam or polystyrene coolers are often supplied for tinnies (cans) or stubbies (short-necked bottles) to make sure they stay icy. Glasses are always on the small side, and are given confusingly different names state by state. The standard ten-ounce (half-pint) serving is known as a pot in Victoria and Queensland, and a middie in New South Wales and Western Australia, where the situation is further complicated by the presence of fifteen-ounce schooners. A carton or slab is a box of 24–30 tinnies or stubbies, bought in bulk from a bottle shop and always cheaper when not chilled (a “Darwin stubby”, with typically Territorian eccentricity, is two litres of beer in an oversized bottle).

Traditionally Australian beers are lager- or pilsner-style, and even the big mass-produced ones are pretty good – at least once you’ve worked up a thirst. They’re considerably stronger than their US equivalents, equivalent to the average British lager at just under five percent alcohol. Each state has its own label and there are fierce local loyalties, even though most are sold nationwide: Fourex (XXXX) and Powers in Queensland; Swan in Western Australia; Coopers in South Australia; VB in Victoria; Tooheys in New South Wales; and Boag’s in Tasmania. Almost all of these companies produce more than one beer – usually a light low-alcohol version and a premium “gold” or bitter brew. There are also a number of smaller breweries and specialist beermakers: Tasmania’s Cascade, WA’s Redback or Matilda Bay, Queensland’s Cairns’ Draught and Eumundi. Incidentally, Fosters is treated as a joke in Australia, fit only for export.

In recent years, Australians have discovered there’s more to slake a thirst than icy lager. A number of smaller breweries now produce hoppy ales with less fizz and arguably more taste. Beers of Coopers Brewery are widely available on draught, but most ales are bottle-only; James Squires brewery, Australia’s oldest after it was founded by a convict in 1794, produces several. Similarly, larger bottle shops stock imported beers, but outside cities (where Irish pubs serve surprisingly good Guinness) it’s rare that you’ll find anything foreign on tap.

Wines and spirits

Australian wines have long been appreciated at home, and it’s not hard to see why; even an inexpensive bottle (around Aus$12) will be better than just drinkable, while pricier varieties compare favourably with fine French wines – though some critics complain that Australian reds have become a bit too “woody” in recent years. The likes of Yalumba, Lindemans and Wolf Blass are widely available in Europe and will give satisfaction, but be adventurous: you’re unlikely to be disappointed. Even the “chateau cardboard” four-litre bladders or wine casks that prevail at parties and barbecues are perfectly palatable. Whatever the colour, a mid-range bottle of wine will set you back about Aus$16.

The biggest wine-producing regions are the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Barossa Valley in South Australia, but you’ll find smaller commercial vineyards from Kingaroy in Queensland to Margaret River in southwest Western Australia. If you buy at these places, you’ll be able to sample in advance. Most bottle shops have a good range of reasonably priced options from around the country.

The Australian wine industry also makes port and brandy as a sideline, though these are not up to international standards. Two excellent dark rums from Queensland’s sugar belt are well worth tasting, however: the sweet, smoky Bundaberg and the more conventionally flavoured Beenleigh. They’re of average strength, normally 33 percent alcohol, but beware of “overproof” variations, which will floor you if you try to drink them like ordinary spirits.

Coffee

Australia can thank its Italian immigrants for elevating coffee to a pastime rather than just a hot drink. Nowadays, every suburban café has an espresso machine, and it’s not just used to make cappuccino. Other styles of coffee have adopted uniquely Australian names: a “flat white” is a smooth white coffee made with espresso and lightly foamed milk, a “long black” is a regular cup of black coffee, and a “short black” is an espresso – transformed by a splash of milk into a macchiato. (“Espresso” is also a brand of instant coffee, so ask for a short black if you’re after the genuine article.)

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