Parmageddon: Adam Liaw writes in defence of the Aussie chicken parma

Adam Liaw
Served with chips (never fries) and a piquant salad, a good 'parmi' is a thing of beauty.
Served with chips (never fries) and a piquant salad, a good 'parmi' is a thing of beauty.  Photo: Eddie Jim

COMMENT

Like many Australians, I was both shocked and dismayed to read Callan Boys' unprovoked attack on that icon of our cuisine, the chicken parmigiana.

I am usually a fan of Boys' writing, so it is hard to understand how one of our nation's most influential food writers could get this so very tragically wrong.

A good 'parmi' is a thing of beauty. 

A skirt of crisp-crumbed chicken covered with rich tomato sauce – the sauce seasoning the crumb as it might in a Japanese katsukare (crumbed pork cutlet served with curry sauce and rice). Glistening, burnished cheese draped over it like an elegant chiffon stole. Chips (not fries) retaining their texture and remaining unsteamed by placing the parmi next to them instead of on top. Chicken salt? Why not? And don't forget the simple but piquant salad nestled to one side, cleansing the palate between bites as pickled ginger might at a Michelin-starred sushi counter.

Boys turns up his nose at all this while singing the praises of Campania's parmigiana di melanzane, rather thirstily calling it a "vital and vivacious dish that speaks of its region".

A modern take on eggplant parmigiana aka parmigiana di melanzane (recipe below).
A modern take on eggplant parmigiana aka parmigiana di melanzane (recipe below). Photo: Christopher Pearce

It hasn't spoken of its region for very long. When tomatoes reached Italy from the New World around the 16th century, both they and eggplant were considered by many to be poisonous and even a cause of insanity (the Italian for eggplant, melanzane, translates to "mad apple"). 

Through the 17th century the original recipe for parmigiana di melanzane contained no tomatoes at all. Slices of eggplant were baked in a northern Italian-style cream and cheese sauce, which led to the dish being named for the northern Italian city of Parma. 

Parmigiana di melanzane is a dish that was born from displacement and change, and in Australia that spirit has continued. If the contemporary Italian version with its tomatoes can be said to speak of Campania, it's hard to imagine a dish that speaks more of post-war and multicultural Australia than Our Parmi. 

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Appearing as a fine-dining dish on Adelaide restaurant tables in the early 1950s, the introduction of meat birds to replace the dual-purpose egg and meat varieties in the late 1950s meant that the price of chicken dropped dramatically. 

This pushed the parmi into more affordable territory and by the 1980s it had found its way into our British-influenced pubs on every suburban corner. That it remains fiercely popular today is testament to its broad and enduring appeal. 

Chicken parmigiana exists in many forms around the word as a product of post-war migration from southern Italy, but our version is unique. 

Instead of being layered and baked like American "chicken parm", our parmigiana's perfect partner was the German-style schnitzel already popular here through South Australia's long history of German migration. This heritage also influenced the use of ham in some versions – the smallgood noticeably absent from the dish's American and Italian cousins. 

Most galling of Boys' critique is his description of its "tomato sauce more acrid than Easy-Off Bam" (I don't know what that is) and "coagulated dishcloth disguised as cheese".

These are the words of a man who has never had a good parmi. 

To be fair, a good one can be hard to find these days, but this less due to a flaw in the parmi's design and more to the economics of the commoditisation of pub menus. Australia never truly embraced the gastro-pub movement that reinvigorated the interest in British menus in England, but perhaps it is coming.

If anything, the greatest threat to the quality of our national pub staple may be that of which Boys' piece is most guilty – a lack of respect. And that's on us.

I have a dream where our pub "parmy and a pint" (or "parma and pot" if you're from The Cold Place) is celebrated as France celebrates its bistros and steak frites, Italy its trattoria and pasta, and Japan its izakaya and karaage.

If we cannot respect our own cuisine, its decline can be the fault of nobody but ourselves.