Our Australian Cuisine

What defines the Australian cuisine? Perhaps some might see it constituting the native Australian flora and fauna that sustained indigenous Australians for thousands and thousands of years. More often, we're exposed to a dominantly western diet and influenced by a great diversity of cultures.

The American professor and author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan, argued that America, as a relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each with its own culture of food, has never had a single strong, stable culinary tradition (Pollan 2006, 5). This statement also rings true for Australia, if not more so. 

For the first arrival of white Australians, Australia’s indigenous foods were unfamiliar and considered inferior by colonists. In 1889, native Australian fruits, roots, leaves, and stems were documented as “nothing to boast of as eatables” and “never to be employed as food except in the direst necessity (Maiden 1889, 1)”. This view, combined with the existence of international trade, perhaps lead to our fragmented disconnect between food consumption and what the native Australian environment offers. American scientist and author of Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond, argued that, 

“White English colonists did not create a literate, food-producing, industrial democracy in Australia. Instead, they imported all of the elements from outside Australia; the livestock, all of the crops (except macadamia nuts), the metallurgical knowledge, the steam engines, the guns, the alphabet, the political institutions, even the germs. All of these were the end products of 10,000 years of development in Eurasian environments. By an accident of geography, the colonists who landed in Sydney in 1788 [had already] inherited those elements (Diamond 1997, 321)”

So you could say the white Australian cuisine began occurring through imported elements, despite the perennial existence of the Aboriginal Australian’s cuisine which boasted of flora and fauna native to the land prior. In America, also a relatively new nation state, a very similar pattern occurred between the white 'settlers' and Native American’s.

“The white man,” writes Pollan, “brought his own ‘associate species’ with him to the New World–cattle and apples, pigs and wheat, not to mention his accustomed weeds and microbes–and wherever possible helped them to displace the native plants and animals allied with the Indian. More even than the rifle, it was this biotic army that did the most to defeat the Indians (Pollan 2006, 24).”

Many cultural cuisines, not exclusively belonging to the world’s indigenous peoples, are closely linked to cultural identity and heritage. In many cases, cuisines developed from the flora and fauna that naturally flourished in the surrounding environment, or from what was economically and socially accessible. Yet as the world’s population becomes more and more unsettled, migrating into densely urbanised environments, rural spaces become representative of ‘the good old days’ and seen as places to find compensation for lost identity.

Article 31 of The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states, indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop, among other things, the manifestation of their sciences including seeds, medicines and the knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora. Below this it states, “In conjunction with indigenous peoples, States shall take effective measures to recognize and protect the exercise of these rights.” This statement, formally supported by the Australian government as of the 3rd April, 2009, politically recognises the potentiality of losing knowledge and traditions belonging to the world’s indigenous peoples.

The phenomenon of reimposing indigenous traditions is reflected in gastronomy which has seen chefs and restaurateurs explore indigenous foods in order to preserve cultural identities and traditions, (and to combat an ever increasingly industrialised food culture.) Food journalist John Lethlean wrote that before famed Danish chef, René Redzepi, came to Australia to open his Noma Australia pop up restaurant he asked himself, “What if the Europeans and the indigenous people of this land had lived in complete harmony from the very beginning? What would a restaurant look like today?” 

Australian chefs and hospitality professionals are fortunate to live in a world of endless culinary options, influences and trends, yet here lies an opportunity for the promotion of indigenous Australian foods and food practices. As a culturally and politically redirective food practice, culinary professionals posess the potential to form stronger connections with Australia’s indigenous cuisine, and with Australia’s custodians.

Image credit: CSIRO Darwin

Image credit: CSIRO Darwin


See John Lethlean's article on René Redzepi and Noma Australia here

Pollan, Michael. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. US: The Penguin Press.

Maiden. J. H. 1889. The Useful Native Plants of Australia (Including Tasmania). The Technological Museum of New South Wales, Sydney. Viewed 18th April, 2016. https://ia600209.us.archive.org/20/items/usefulnativeplan1889maid/usefulnativeplan1889maid.pdf

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel. UK: Jonathan Cape

Paula Hardie