When it comes to choosing a dish that represents Australia as a nation, us Australians have always been divided on this. There are so many foods we associate with our country. A few months ago, the Asian Cup 2015 tournament hosted by Australia chose the meat pie as Australia’s favourite food. But a few years ago, 8,000 Australians voted roast lamb as our national dish, with the meat pie coming in second.
As a kid, I never ate meat pie. In fact, the first time I had a meat pie was about five years ago. One afternoon while walking around a shopping centre, I was hungry and on a whim bought a snack-sized beef pie from Michel’s Pattiserie, a rather fancy, pricey bakery. The pie was piping hot and as my teeth sunk into the semi-crispy brown crust, and a savoury taste filled my mouth. Couldn’t decide if the meat tasted like beef. I chewed.
What should Australia’s national dish be? A dish we all eat today or have eaten at some point, or at least heard of? Certainly most of us (in Australia) know what a pie is. We see meat pies everywhere. We can get our hands on it almost everywhere here – at the supermarket, 7-11, food court, offered as side dishes in restaurants.
A dish we eat on special occasions or on public holidays? When we’re in celebratory mood, we like throwing barbeques and cooking sausages on the grill, and then eating the sausages with white bread. Sausage rolls, chiko rolls and yes, the meat pie are also typical foods Australians like to eat during festive times – easy to prepare (microwave, ready-to-eat), leaving more time for merry-making.
Should our national dish be traditional, something we loved eating when we were young and still like eating today? Food that has sentimental value? When I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of fairy bread and BBQ Shapes biscuits, and so did my classmates. Mention these foods to a random Aussie on the street and chances are they’ll go on a trip down memory lane in their minds.
Should a national dish be one that originated in Oz, made in Australia? Like Tim Tams. Kangaroo meat. Vegemite on toast. After all, Australian made, Australian owned, proudly Australian. Proudly ours.
Or can it be a dish we borrowed from another culture and put an “Aussie” spin to it (which isn’t a crime but simply cultural appropriation)? Australia was colonised by the British in the 1700s and at one point relied on food from England for survival. I suppose that’s where we started having a strong liking for fish and chips, pavlovas, lamingtons, chicken parmas and spaghetti Bolognese and see them on countless menus in restaurants today. And for generations.
These days many Australians identify with a diverse nation and a fair go, albeit a few broad Aussie stereotypes. Can our “Australianess” and diversity really be reflected in one single dish? Maybe in the dim sim, which is inspired by a dumpling and usually fried to suit the Western palate? Or in salt and pepper squid as Chinese Australian chef Poh Ling Yeow says is perfect for eating by the beach with its strong ethnic-like flavours? Maybe.
But more so maybe not. Australia is a nation of migrants. A multicultural nation where everyone has different gastronomic palates, food preferences and diets. On the back of different cultural communities comes different cultural cuisines. It’s no surprise many non-Western dishes or Asian/Indian/Italian/Greek inspired dishes like the dim sim and salt and pepper squid are popular, part of the Australian diet alongside the meat pie.
And it’s hard to choose one single dish that we’ll all actually eat. If you’re vegetarian or a Buddhist who doesn’t eat meat, then the meat pie might not be your cup of tea. Sometimes picking a national dish can lead to so-called fights over food, perpetuating the “Us and Them” dichotomy. Last year there was a petition pledging a dim sim statue be built in the city of Melbourne to honour it as a national food icon but it seemed no one took it too seriously.
Culture evolves over time, and so does food. So do our tastebuds as we try traditional foods we’ve never tried and newer hybrid, fusion cuisine. Sadly, sometimes we forget where our food is from; we forget cultures. For instance, many Australians barely have a clue what bush tucker food is.
Did I like eating the meat pie at the food court? Yes, I liked it and finished the whole thing with the tomato sauce that came with it. But it’s not something I’d eat again unless I have to.
I grew up eating other kinds of “Australian” foods at home. My Chinese Malaysian mum would make spaghetti without cheese and top it with half a bottle of tomato sauce on occasions. Fish and chips without mayonaise was also on our dinner menu back then. But I still ate these dishes anyway, alongside my migrant mum and Australian-born brother who really liked them.
Sometimes we love certain kinds of food, and sometimes we don’t. At the end of the day, it’s how we share food and appreciate food that brings us all together.
What foods do you associate with Australia? What’s your country’s iconic dish?