What's in The Great Australian Cookbook compiled by Helen Greenwood and Melissa Leong? »
A selection of modern Australian recipes to browse and enjoy
By Robyn Lewis
What makes modern Australian cuisine? Is it our high quality, fresh produce? The mix of ingredients from around the world (many of which are now grown here, from kaffir limes to truffles)? The amazingly varied cultural heritages of our chefs, home cooks, deli and foodstore owners and restaurateurs?
This question has been the subject of recent debate, fuelled by Chefs Neil Perry, Peter Gilmore and Ben Shewry at Tourism Australia’s mega bash “invite the World to Dinner” held at MONA in Hobart late in 2014.
One element everyone seems to agree on is multiculturalism. The other ingredients I’d add are informality, and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries, into fusion cuisine and beyond.
We’re now a multi-gastronomic nation. Drop into a friend’s place for dinner and you’re as likely to get a tagine as a casserole, or green chicken curry instead of a roast. Sous vide is on the rise. Indigenous ingredients are taking off. Thanks to our great produce and millions of proficient cooks around the country, plus a big seasoning of TV food shows, the internet, travel and Instagram, we’ve finally thrown off the cultural culinary cringe that hung round for decades after the post-war era of British immigration.
Washed down with some great Australian wine and beer, food has become a national obsession, a new sport in which nearly all can participate, every day. And we love it!
But where to find the real food that Australians are cooking right now? Some inspiration for the barbecue or dinner next weekend? A taste to give to international visitors?
Sure, the CWA cookbooks bring us old-style Australian country baking still found in many country shows: lamb, scones and more. Then there’s a huge number of ‘celebrity chef’ recipe books showing us what their family loves and what’s hot in their city cafés, restaurants and branded cakeshops, but – for visitors especially, and those wanting a taste of what’s hot without spending a fortune dining out – where do you turn for a real taste of Australia today?
Well, look no more. Not one but two books on Australian cooking have hit the bookstores and internet: The Great Australian Cookbook, featuring “the food we love from 100 of our finest cooks, chefs, bakers and local heroes”, compiled by Sydney food journalist Helen Greenwood and ‘freelance foodie’ Melissa Leong, followed by Australia Cooks, “recipes inspired by the best of Australia’s regional produce, from the people who live there”, edited by Kelli Brett, comprising the best recipes sent in by ABC Local Radio listeners around the country.
Both continue on the “people, place and produce” theme that was key at the Tourism Australia extravaganza. (Which, when you think about it, is hardly unique – every country in the world has all three). But these books attempt to tease out what IS different about Australia’s people, our environment and food-producing lands and coasts, and our produce, which we tend to take for granted but which is amongst the freshest and least polluted in the world.
And varied! Wow!! Stroll into any super- or farmers’ market and the sheer range of produce on offer, most of which is still grown in Australia (sadly, a trend that is declining, with a rise of cheaper imports), is wonderful. OK we don’t have 47 varieties of potato chips (aka crisps) that you might find in the USA or UK, or 101 donuts, but we do have lots of beautiful fruit and veg, seafood that’s attracting more Asian tourists to our shores every year, and meat that is the envy of non-vegetarians almost everywhere. (And if it’s grown or caught in Australia, your conscience can be reasonably assured that it’s safe and has met environmental standards, too.)
Leafing through the first published title, The Great Australian Cookbook is as multicultural and chaotic as a stroll through Sydney’s CBD. You won’t find any apparent order, but a real melange of celeb, chef and great home cook recipes from coast to coast.
The book is quirky, illustrated with Reg Mombassa calligraphy and naïve art on the covers, inside and out, and at first glance might appear to one for the kids, or something for the shack bookcase. Inside however, there are lots of location, family and food photos, and a bunch of eclectic recipes – if you can find them.
They kick off with an adapted Aboriginal recipe for Bush Tomato Damper by Max Emery of Desert Garden Produce, and 165 recipes from 81 locations later, end with Gilbert Lau’s Family Roast Chicken and Vegetarian Fried Rice. In between there’s everything from Salad of Ocean Trout, Banana Fritters, Pork Schnitzel with Potato Rosti, and Fennel Slaw and Roasted Garlic Aioli, all jumbled up like a giant paella vying for a Guinness World Record.
If there is order, I can't find it, other than that the recipes were provided by aforementioned chefs and food identities, and each contributor’s offerings are grouped together. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this makes The Great Australian Cookbook difficult to use in the kitchen – mine is now covered with so many sticky tabs I can hardly locate anything.
However the index is dual purpose, grouping recipes firstly by names and ingredients, then (tucked away on p 433) by categories, listed alphabetically:
Condiments, Sauces and Dressings
Entrées (which includes some soups)
I wish I’d found that before I used up all my sticky tabs! [Note to editors: for next time, this might be better at the front.]
What is upfront though is the list of contributors, who are listed on the first two pages in alphabetical order (of first names – many of these people are household names now, such is our ‘familiarity’), covering all states and ranging from Abla Amad of Abla’s Lebanese Kitchen in Carlton, Adriano Zumbo, Alla Wolf-Tasker of Lake House, Christine Manfield, Dan Hong, Daniel Wilson of Huxtable, Diane Holuigue of The French Kitchen, George Calombaris, Jill Dupleix, Jimmy Shu of Hanuman in the NT, Kylie Kwong, Lyndey Milan, Maggie Beer, Margaret Fulton, Matts Moran and Wilkinson, Neil Perry, Nikki and Doug Govan of Star of Greece in SA, Richard Ousby of Stokehouse Brisbane, Stephanie Alexander through to Victor and Evelyn Loing of Lee Ho Fook in Collingwood.
Plenty of big names, there, and not all are chefs. A smattering are producers (Jon Healey of Tasmania’s Pyengana Dairy Company; Ross O’Meara of Bruny Island Food), others run cooking schools (Katrina Ryan of The Golden Pig Food & Wine School; Rodney Dunn of The Agrarian Kitchen). There’s the Monday Morning Cooking Club in Vaucluse, Sydney, who offer recipes for Sara’s Pickled Brisket and Gina’s Hair Raising Honey Cake and a few other left-field inclusions to keep it interesting.
However our national obsession with celebrity is obvious, although they are here by merit, not unearned stardom. As I’ve said before, modern Australian food is growing up, and our restaurants are starting to punch above their weight on the world stage. One gets the impression that it’s the same in many modern homes, too, with men now nearly just as likely to be cooking as women, and creations worthy of MasterChef appearing at home and shared on the internet.
As perhaps expected given the lineup of contributors, many of the recipes are more cheffy than the casual cover design suggests, but there are easy ones too. Some that I tagged to try (in order as they appear in the book) include:
Pineapple and Coconut Crumble, by Spencer Patrick, Harrisons, Port Douglas, Qld
Contents of Fridge and Garden Pasta, by Kim Currie, The Zin House, Mudgee, NSW
Wood-grilled Calamari Salad, by David Moyle, Franklin, Hobart, Tas
Yati’s Chicken Laksa, by Christiana Monostori, Parap Village Markets, Darwin, NT
Vanilla and Lime Barbecued Chicken Skewers, by Josette and George Gonthier, Daintree Vanilla and Spice, Qld
Charcoal Chicken and Chilled Broccoli Sala with Miso Vinaigrette, by Emma McKaskill and Scott Huggins, Penfold’s Magill Estate, Adelaide, SA
Oysters with Finger Lime, Carrot Foam and Avocado Cream, by Clayton Donovan, Nambucca Heads, NSW
Steamed Lamb Shoulder with Apricot and Cinnamon, by Pierre Khodja, Mornington Peninsula, Vic
Lamb, Beetroots, Potatoes and Peas with Eucalyptus Oil, by Jock Zonfrillo, Orana, Adelaide, SA
The Best French Toast Ever, by Michael Klausen, Brasserie Bread, North Bondi, NSW
Venison Casserole, by Michael Manners, Molong, NSW
Banana Tarte Tatin with Run and Raisin Ice Cream, by Philip Johnson, Ecco Bistro, Brisbane, Qld
Glazed Dick with Star Anise, Ginger and Orange, by Mark Gleeson, Adelaide Central Markets, SA
Cherry Crumble Cake, by Brigitte Hafner, Gertrude St Enoteca, Melbourne, Vic
There are plenty more to suit most people’s tastes and levels of culinary expertise, although this is not a beginner’s book.
While all states are covered (WA with two) there’s a fair leaning towards the eastern seaboard, plus SA, with a few from Tas and NT. A map or at least a description of where all these people are from would have helped a lot – not everyone has the time or inclination to Google them. It’s assumed we know.
Ironically, what The Great Australian Cookbook lacks for me is a real sense of place, of connecting the recipe creators to their local environment and regional produce. Each contributor has given a quote, but there’s no backstory, and nothing to tell you what inspired their choice, or what it means to them.
The photos are good, but (deliberately) dark toned. They don't speak of the Australia I know and love, that visitors come here to enjoy: full of sunshine, the outdoors and sparkling light on water. Even the photo of Alla Wolf-Tasker sitting on a jetty in her lake looks like a mid-winter scene (when it obviously isn’t). This is not Norway, book designers! However there are plenty of shots of producers, chefs, their families, people enjoying their food creations, and most of the recipes have photos too, although these are sometimes three or four per page and a little crammed for my design taste.
Overlaid on the producer/chef/family shots are outline maps of Australia with crossed knife and fork to indicate their location – often printed in white on a busy or lightish-toned corner of the photo, making them very easy to overlook. Ditto the quotes, in handwriting – not all are easy to read.
Overall, this is a book for browsing for ideas. Pour yourself a glass of Australian wine (or craft beer or cider), leaf through and look at the pictures, find something inspiring, then cook it. Just don’t approach The Great Australian Cookbook with a “what will I cook for dinner tonight?” type question or you might be there for hours.
It’s a good snapshot of where ‘modern Australian’ cuisine is at right now, packaged in a cute, casual exterior that suits our casual lifestyle, and containing plenty of recipes to try out at home, wherever you live, from the tropics to the cool climate zone.
Coming soon: Read Part 2 on Australia Cooks edited by Kelli Brett of the ABC, to see if that's more your style – or if you want both!
The Great Australian Cookbook edited by Helen Greenwood and Melissa Leong is published by PQ Blackwell (Auckland, NZ, Sept 2015, 432pp) and is distributed by Five Mile Press. It is available where all good books are sold. RRP A$49.95.
A percentage of the sale price supports OzHarvest, a charity which distributes food to those in need in Australia.
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- Sydney (NSW)
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