Defining dinkum

Former <i>MasterChef</i> winner Adam Liaw nominates salt-and-pepper squid as a national dish.
Former MasterChef winner Adam Liaw nominates salt-and-pepper squid as a national dish. Photo: Danielle Smith

One of the world's top restaurant critics sums up Australian food with a single word: more. ''As in more flavours, maximally heightened,'' Los Angeles Times reviewer Jonathan Gold says.

Like most visitors, he's struck by Australians' ease with Asia. ''Chinese techniques seem as essential as French ones,'' he says, ''especially in the best restaurants, which I'm pretty sure is unique in the non-Asian world.''

If pressed to pick a typically Australian dish, Gold might nominate mud crabs in XO sauce. ''I saw [that dish] four times in the week [I was in Sydney]. I never did run across a meat pie or a pavlova,'' says Gold, who visited for last year's Crave Sydney International Food Festival.

Melbourne chef Paul Wilson describes Australian cuisine as ''global, produce-driven and free-spirited''. And he should know.

Across seven restaurants - including Melbourne's Circa, the Newmarket, Middle Park and Albert Park hotels - Wilson serves up everything from British-Australian gastropub and Cal-Mex to luxe Latin and Pac Rim. And all this from a Brit. ''I wouldn't have attempted to explore [these kinds of] gastronomy if the typical produce of those continents wasn't grown here. And certainly not if I was still working in London,'' says Wilson, who, at 27, was executive chef of Quaglino's in London.

''Australia is just such a young country in an age of travel and sharing information,'' says New Yorker (and part-time Sydney chef) David Chang, of Momofuku. ''And what's great is that it acts like a sponge. There are pockets of amazing food here. Ethnic food is really good. And if any country can get away from asking, 'What's our tradition?' and say, 'Let's just eat good food,' it's definitely Australia.''

SBS television presenter (and MasterChef winner) Adam Liaw reckons it's our proximity to south-east Asia that sets us apart from similar, ''melting pot'' cuisines in North America. Which is probably why his choice of a national dish is salt-and-pepper squid. ''Almost every pub, Chinese restaurant, Thai takeaway or Italian cafe in Australia will have some variation of it on the menu,'' he says. ''And you don't really find it too often outside Australia. If that's not Australian cuisine, I don't know what is!''

Whether it's muddies, squid or a pie'n'sauce, defining a national dish is a longtime national obsession. Three years

ago in these pages, Jill Dupleix's article on the subject prompted reader votes for meat pies, sausage sandwiches, roast lamb, spaghetti bolognaise, chicken parma and of course, the much trans-Tasman-tussled pavlova.


We've given the world the Tim Tam and the flat white coffee (now found everywhere from New York to Paris). Our supposed fondness for lamb chops, Chiko rolls and damper has proven less exportable, but the sweet stuff has its fascination. Visiting Australia last year, Christina Tosi, the New York baking queen from Chang's Momofuku Milk Bar, enjoyed such delicacies as Minties, Anzac biscuits and red frogs. She was particularly taken with the Violet Crumble and was last seen planning a new dessert around it.

Australian expat and baking expert, London-based Dan Lepard (who'll be here for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March) always has a lamington on visits home and, he sighs, ''A perfectly made vanilla slice is a thing of joy.''

Fellow Aussie Brett Graham of London's Ledbury confesses to nostalgia for the taste of our sweet corn, avocados and fresh king prawns. ''Australian cuisine is very hard to distinguish on a plate,'' he says. ''There are so many different styles and influences. I tend to identify it by ingredients like marron, jewfish, pearl meat, wagyu, native berries and great mangoes. And some of the best truffles I've ever tasted come from Western Australia.''

And there, perhaps, lies the answer to the riddle, food historian Barbara Santich, of the University of Adelaide, says. ''What you do [to define Australian cuisine] is showcase some really good ingredient - Sydney rocks, fine fish, good piece of lamb - and say 'This is ours.'''

Wilson says we should shout about our seafood. Lepard says Australian sourdough is the best in the world, due to the quality of our grain and flour. Keen hunter Graham is a fan of kangaroo, wild deer, hare and rabbit. ''And not just in restaurants,'' he says.

Adopted Aussie Chang agrees. ''We should be working more towards what's unique to us. Mud crabs, marron, yabbies. Unbelievable! Quandongs, muntries, saltbush … One of the best dishes I had all year was wallaby. It was delicious.''