Feed a bloke a decent piece of red meat, slap some mashed potato on the side, follow up with a steamed pud, and he's yours for life. Are we really that easy? Well, yes. Men are complicated creatures who just happen to like simple food.
Forget the old men are from Mars, women are from Venus thing. The real difference between men and women is what they eat. Men are from Meatland, women are from Planet Chocolate.
According to David Katz, a nutrition authority from America's Yale University, gender preferential eating habits have been driven by evolution. He claims that men need more protein than women to build muscle mass and, as hunters, view meat as a reward.
Melbourne serial restaurateur, Andrew McConnell is inclined to confirm the findings. "I generally like to eat a good-quality steak at the start of the week," he says. "A good hit of protein will give me a head start, and get me through the week unscathed."
Women, on the other hand, do seem to have a sweeter tooth. A study carried out in Britain in 2010 showed that about one in three women dream about chocolate during the day, compared with only one in 10 men. Blame it on the dopamine release or the salted caramel on the inside, but the foil wrappings do tend to gather on Her side of the bed.
Surveys can only tell you so much, however. The real information has to come from the front line; from men themselves. Kim Terakes, author of The Great Aussie Bloke's Cookbook, has been running his Boys Can Cook cooking classes in Sydney for the past nine years. While steak and chips would probably sum up the food preferences of the average bloke, he says that the biggest hits of his classes have been pies. "We have a vote at the end of each class as to which of the four dishes I demonstrated was their favourite," he says.
"One day, I made a near-perfect stracciatella, but the unanimous vote was for a nice, ordinary chicken pie with a frozen puff pastry top." Not far behind pies, according to Terakes, are Thai curries, closely followed by braised beef and roast pork belly.
Asked to define men's food, Mike McEnearney of Sydney's wood fire-driven Kitchen by Mike cites burgers, pies, pizza, hot dogs, tacos. "Anything eaten in the hands," he says. "Men like to use their hands."
Melbourne food writer and cookbook author Richard Cornish claims his own food preferences were formed at childhood when his nanna would cook him lamb shanks. "She was a widow and it gave her pleasure to look after someone," he says. "To see her smile was rare… probably because she also had bad teeth."
Nose-to-tail chef Colin Fassnidge confirms that men generally crave the comfort food they were fed when they were kids. "Unless you were unlucky enough to have a mum that fed you couscous."
Even that last bastion of men-are-men-and-there's-nothing-you-women-can-do-about-it, Esquire magazine, has launched a food blog titled Eat Like a Man.
"Even if you're not a man or you don't eat like one, we welcome you," it states. "It's just that there are foods that men love and there are ways that men eat that are just different, and we celebrate that."
Terakes says that men both need to cook, and want to cook. "Men are marrying later, divorce rates are high, and more people are living alone," he says. "As well, food awareness is up, we're eating out more, and older blokes who have never cooked before are developing a real interest in it." You'd think that in the era of the metrosexual and the stay-at-home dad, gender-based gastronomic stereotypes would no longer exist. Then you ask a selection of males fresh from reviewing for the Good Food Guides of Melbourne and Sydney about their favourite foods.
Fairfax social media editor Angus Holland cites mashed potato, baked beans, and Conimex sambal oelek on everything. "Slow-cooked beans with big chunks of chorizo and a thick tomato base," says food reviewer and Black Island lead singer Callan Boys. "Tending to beans in a cast iron pot hits that wannabe-cowboy side that all men possess."
"Offal, calves' liver, and pig's trotters stuffed with sweetbreads," says writer Bob Hart of Melbourne's Australian Barbecue Academy. "And properly hung game meats, and golden syrup dumplings swimming in runny cream." For Anthony Huckstep, a hospitality trade magazine editor, it's "Indian curry, roast chicken, smoked mussels, and cheese, cheese, cheese", and for film director Les Luxford, it's "thick-cut sirloin, wonton noodle soup, and a great sausage". Fairfax national travel editor Anthony Dennis likes a bowl of great chips, "otherwise known as man salad", he says. Former chef John Cross goes for "beef cheeks and gremoulata, wild rabbit terrine with crusty bread, and real field mushrooms, stewed with butter, on toast".
Just as revealing are the responses to what men don't want to eat. "Philadelphia cream cheese," Boys says. "Strawberries, juiced vegetables, especially kale, anything chicken-flavoured that isn't an actual chicken, muesli bars, rosewater, nasturtiums, macarons." Hart cites salads, souffles and quinoa. "But things are changing," he says. "Caesar salads are fine because, properly made, they are high in both flavour and fat; oyster souffles are great; and even quinoa is probably OK once you have learned to pronounce it."
Things are indeed changing, it seems. Holland says he would be surprised if there were many reasonably open-minded men who still ate only ''man food''. "Not that they don't love it, but they're exposed to all sorts of things these days and would give most things a go."
Cross suggests that modern men have moved on from the ''monotony'' of mash, chips and pud ("each mouthful is the same as the last", he says), to appreciate a simple piece of fish with just lemon, or a whole grilled and butterflied spatchcock.
Besides, Boys says real men eat vegetables. "There's enough information out there about the detrimental effects of an all meat and potato diet that the manly thing to do is listen to your doctor and set a good example for your kids," he says. "Have some muesli and fruit for breakfast and chuck some seeds on top." It's OK, he says, to be "a little bit girly". Besides, "a bacon roll every morning will kill you".
Note: No women were approached for information, advice or recipes in the making of this article. TD
Red lamb shank curry
A sneaky combination of two of man's favourite food groups: lamb shanks and curry.
3 tbsp vegetable oil
4 lamb shanks
2 to 3 tbsp Thai red curry paste
1 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
400ml coconut milk
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
3 tomatoes, cut into quarters
4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
2 tbsp coriander
1 red chilli, finely shredded
Heat the oven to 160 degrees. Heat one tablespoon oil in a heavy oven-proof casserole and brown the lamb shanks really well on all sides. Remove the shanks, clean out the pan and add remaining oil.
Fry the curry paste for five minutes over low heat until fragrant. Add the sugar and fish sauce and cook for one minute. Add the coconut milk gradually, stirring, then add the stock and water.
Return the lamb to the pot, add the tomatoes and kaffir lime leaves, and bring to just under the boil. Cover and cook in the oven for 2½ hours, turning the shanks over once or twice. Remove the lamb, scoop off any excess oil, and bring to the boil. Boil for five minutes until thickened, then return the lamb and gently reheat. Serve in shallow bowls and scatter with coriander, extra (finely shredded) kaffir lime leaf, and chilli, with jasmine rice on the side.
Cotechino with lentils
Cotechino is a large, fatty pork sausage from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, traditionally slow-poached and served with lentils and salsa verde. Men love sausages, and will put up with lentils in order to eat a large, fatty pork sausage.
1 cotechino sausage
2 tbsp olive oil
100g thickly sliced pancetta, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 bay leaves
250g puy lentils, rinsed
2 tbsp tomato paste
750ml chicken stock
Sea salt and cracked pepper
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
Place the cotechino in a large pot of cold water. Bring to just under the boil, cover, then reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for two hours.
In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan, and fry the pancetta for five minutes. Add the onion and cook for five minutes, then add the garlic, carrot and celery and bay leaves for 10 minutes. Add the lentils, tomato paste and chicken stock and simmer gently for 40 minutes or until tender, adding more stock or water if they get dry. Add sea salt, pepper and parsley, stirring well. Drain the cotechino and thickly slice, arrange on top of the lentils and serve.
Pappardelle with duck ragu
Mmmm … rich duck ragu, silky pasta, a bottle of red. It's good to be a bloke.
1 tbsp olive oil
4 whole duck legs (marylands)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 celery stalks, finely sliced
300ml red wine
400g canned tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato paste
300ml chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp chopped thyme
Sea salt and pepper
300g dried pappardelle egg pasta
2 tbsp parsley leaves, roughly chopped
Parmigiano for grating
Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan and fry the duck over medium heat until browned, about 10 minutes, draining off the excess fat into a bowl. Remove the duck. Return two tablespoons of the duck fat to the pan and fry the onion, carrot, garlic and celery, tossing well, for 10 minutes. Add the red wine, tomatoes, tomato paste and chicken stock, and bring to the boil, stirring.
Add the duck legs, bay leaves and thyme, cover and simmer gently for 1½ hours. Remove the duck legs and shred the meat off the bones, discarding the bones. Return the meat to the pan, season well, and simmer for 30 minutes until nice and thick (add a little extra stock or water if it gets too dry.)
Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain well, then combine with the ragu and parsley in a pan over low heat, tossing well to coat. Divide between four plates, scatter with grated parmigiano and serve.