From the land of the wizards of Oz

From the land of the wizards of Oz

Australians know a lot about food and being of a naturally adventurous disposition, they are unafraid about eating the world, writes Ajit Saldanha

You have to hand it to the Aussies... their forefathers may have been packed off to a penal settlement for the Les Miserables crime of stealing a loaf of bread, but they have evolved in terms of culinary advancement, while the Brits subsist on bangers, mash and badly made curry. Australians know a lot about food, they understand flavours and being of a naturally adventurous disposition, they are unafraid about eating the world. Lebanese, Basque, Japanese, Mexican or even Hungarian; they’re like, bring it on, mate. In conversation, they are crisply succinct, instead of boring you to death with their blood sugar levels. In sharp contrast to our samosa-guzzling population, Aussies eat healthily and they eat well and it doesn’t show because they are slavishly devoted to sport and sweating. Here’s an interesting fact: 95% of adult Australians know how to swim, which is why even their sharks eat well.

As outdoor people, they are happiest scudding away in a Hobie catamaran, the wind in their sails and the breeze in their hair. It’s no surprise that barbecue is the most popular religion with over a million devotees. This probably has something to do with Aboriginal cookouts which feature roasted iguana, seasoned with bush herbs. I signed up for the experience which started off with tay, a vile concoction brewed in a billycan, sweet as sin and dark as a slave dealer’s soul. This was served with crackers and Vegemite, some sort of yeast extract with the odour and consistency of bat droppings.

For those suffering from pastry withdrawal symptoms, a good option is the Lamington: a blackish, springy cake layered with jam and toasted coconut, especially because anything tastes good after Vegemite. For lunch, we had the iguana with fire ants for dessert or it may have been the other way around.

The scariest thing I ingested during my trip down under wasn’t iguana or crocodile, but a Bluto pup. Think of a frankfurter, flamingo pink in colour, encased in industrial-strength rubber: you chew on it and it chews right back. Among the other indignities, the sausage is required to undergo before being deemed fit for human consumption is the insertion of a bamboo skewer up one end before it is dipped in batter and deep-fried. It’s sort of pork ice cream, served with ketchup or chilli sauce. But I would be doing the Wizards of Oz an injustice if I poked fun at the murky offerings served at cafes and diners. Serious Australian cooking, especially at stand-alone restaurants, is world-class. Instead of fish and chips, think pan-seared swordfish on a bed of Bulgur pilaf, served with warm tomato and saffron coulis.

Or blue swimmer crab, smoked salmon and red pepper salad, with an avocado and sumac dressing, ripper mate. Lamb cutlets, marinated in garlic, rosemary and red wine, grilled to a smoky intensity and served with a delightful chimichurri at Iceberg, Sydney. The restaurant takes its name from the adjacent pool where blocks of ice are dropped in the deep end in winter and a few brave souls, known as the Polar Bears, swim in the freezing depths. The scallops and braised duck at the Spice Bar in Queensland are insanely good, as is the yellowfin tuna sashimi and the black cod with miso at Nobu’s. 

The Muse Restaurant in Pokolbin, NSW, featuring Chef Troy Rhoades Brown features seasonal local produce sourced principally from the Hunter Valley. The Spring tasting menu featured Bonito, cooked on a wood fire with pickled rye crisp and onions, served with Lamborn speckled peas, followed by roasted Jerusalem artichoke, toasted hay cream, buffalo milk blue cheese, malt and sunflower. The next course was a Little Hill Farm chicken, served with homegrown polenta, charred sweet corn, black garlic and Togarashi. Onto the grand finale: wood-fired Upper Hunter Wagyu beef, Koshihikari brown rice, shitake, brown kelp and a crisp daikon salad with the sharpness of the radish providing the perfect counterpoint to the intense richness of the beef. They offer an optional Cheese Course Heidi with Gruyere cream, crisp and frozen, served with slivers of apple and roasted almonds. This is inspired cooking: sublime local ingredients, cooked with Japanese sensibility and Australian swagger, think of a jolly swagman armed with a samurai. Sushi and sashimi have been so deeply ingrained in the national consciousness that several fishmongers at the Sydney wet market offer delicately sliced bluefin tuna
with wasabi, the pungent Japanese horseradish and tiny fish-shaped bottles of Kikkoman soy sauce. It brings a new meaning to the term: “fresh from the sea.”

The culinary apogee of my Sydney visit was the meal I had at Cadmus, where the décor features two Picassos and a Miro. Owned by the Lebanese expat, Habib Farah, the restaurant is spread over two levels at the highest point of Circular Quay with the main dining room offering magnificent views of Darling Harbour and the Sydney Opera House. Master Chef Elli El Saddi picks and chooses from the finest fruit, meat, vegetables and seafood to create a sensual, sybaritic feast. Kibbeh Nayeh: raw, ground lamb, flavoured with an eclectic selection of spices, embellished with dried pomegranate, followed by Shanklish, vine leaves stuffed with spiced goat cheese and Loubieh, the freshest of green beans, lightly steamed and tossed in garlic flavoured olive oil with sea salt. The lamb sambousek served here is a flaky, wondrous delight, light pastry encasing morsels of perfectly seasoned minced lamb. You will never eat a samosa again without wincing.

The roast quail with chestnuts is sublime as are the grilled Moreton Bay bugs: think baby lobster, grilled with lemon butter. The next time you fancy a waltz with Matilda and a slap-up meal, take a trip Down Under.

(The author is an old Bengalurean and impresario of comedy and musical shows who considers himself fortunate to have turned his passions — writing and theatre — into a profession.)