Just What Is Australia’s National Dish? There Isn’t Really One

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.

No matter which way you turn this plate of avocado on toast, it looks the same | Weekly Photo Challenge: Symmetry.

No matter which way you turn this plate of avocado on toast, it looks the same | Weekly Photo Challenge: Symmetry.

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.

Meat pie. A popular breakfast and lunch option with Aussies.

Meat pie. A popular breakfast and lunch option with Aussies.

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?

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180 thoughts on “Just What Is Australia’s National Dish? There Isn’t Really One

    • Thanks for link to the post, Maamej. Read it and left a comment there, and it was a very interesting read. Sausage sizzles are quite uniquely Australia, come to think of it now…we do have them at the voting areas in the inner and outer suburbs, but not at voting centres in the city, like the Melbourne Town Hall as I’ve noticed in the past.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m confused why there should be a single national food? That’s strange. And wrong from the core, so your “discovery” is just a truism. Btw, did you notice “represent us as a nation” and “it’s dividing us” irony? I’m starting to think that you’re trying to create one-mold-Australia artificially and then “see, it’s not like that, it should be…”. Strange from a person focused on “multiculturalism”. I don’t associate any food with Australia. actually, I don’t have any stereotype about Australia (I do have some knowledge about Australia), but I’m starting to think that reading things like sport-unAustrialness etc. will just paint a bad/not true image when I rather think well of Australia. But maybe you really mean that Australians fight/hate each other and break bonds over a trifle like “meat pie”. Sounds like emo. Which supports my opinion that it’s giving a bad image.
    And to think that this post could be more positive… Like “2 most popular Australian dishes” (voted by Australians) or “regional/popular dishes” or any other way where you could positively show a richness of Australian cuisine and various tastes (also for those not eating meat) or food-related activities. Btw, nation-wide bbqs or campfires sausages season start in Poland in May. We usually eat those sausages with white bread too…

    There is no single national dish in Poland. Lately, there is a trend for eating regional food. We’re in the centre of Europe, had many influences in the past, had the country divided into 3 (for over 120 years) among neighbouring countries… And so, it’s impossible to choose just one dish. Keep in my that Poland is a relatively small country.
    My favourite dishes are with mushrooms (we have a lot of forests). I wrote about it already on blog, tho it wasn’t the most popular topic.

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    • Oh no, I’m so sorry. You might have misunderstood. There is a common perception in Australia that we have one national dish (judging by the many national dish food polls we have in the media claiming there should be one national dish). Of course one single dish can’t represent all that is Australia – or any other country for that matter. This post was written to address this stereotype and talk about a few of the hundreds of Australian dishes, and hopefully we can appreciate the various cuisines around us. And in the second half of the post I do convey the sentiment that Australia cannot be described by a single dish.

      Through my posts and writing I always make it a point to talk about two sides of the coin. There are positives and negatives to every situation, just as there are positives and negatives about each country (and we all have different opinions). This is a fact of life. It is a fact that Australia has some of the best beef in the world, just as it is a fact that racism exists in Australia. Good to know the positives so that we can appreciate the beauty about them, and good to know the negatives so we can be wary of certain situations and think of how things can be improved.

      I didn’t know Poland were big on BBQs and sausages on bread too! Cooking food around a campfire is always fun as it can be a challenge to not burn your food, especially when the flames are blowing all over the place.

      Poland sounds like it has very delicious food and I hope to try some Polish dishes one day. Since Poland is at the centre of Europe, I won’t be surprised if many dishes have passed through Poland over the years and have been popular with the locals there.

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  2. Pingback: Symmetry: The Making Of | My Atheist Blog

  3. I feel like you have slighted desserts…are desserts eligible for the National Food Contest?

    My Australian colleagues would ship me Tim Tams. Another Aussie would bring Haigh’s to conventions. I would bring See’s Candies from California and we’d have a big taste-testing session. (We were quite popular.)

    So if desserts are eligible, I’d like to see Tim Tams and Haigh’s get some love.

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    • Very, very good pick-up. I was thinking about desserts during this post, and then I thought carefully about the world “dish” – which could be any kind of food really but I suppose one would want a dish that fills them up. Not sure if desserts are eligible for the National Food Contest…but to me, desserts are always in a league of their own 😉

      I’m honestly not a fan of Haigh’s. Twice I’ve bought their chocolate and it left a flour-like taste in my mouth. But I love, love Tim Tams.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I hear you on Haigh’s — sorry, Australia, but American chocolates like Lake Champlain or See’s Candies are hard to beat.

        But not Hershey’s. Do not judge our chocolate by Hershey’s. <>

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  4. As much as Australia has multicultural cities in Melbourne & Sydney. Everywhere else in Australia has limited cultures and are more English Anglosaxon. You say it yourself there is not a place anywhere in Australia where you cannot buy a meat pie, so I think the answer is there itself. However the pie you have displayed is overly cooked and from what I am reading and seeing is your not liking the meat pie and are just one of those who want to change to suit your likeness. Well toughen up because your yuppie avacardo on toast has almost the same calories as a meat pie and real Aussies prefer the pie as like the yanks with their hotdog. Suck it up!

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    • Inevitably, some cultures will dominate certain places and other cultures other places. True that the pie served was overcooked, but it was hot on the inside. And it didn’t actually taste too bad at all. I don’t think much of calories when it comes to food. If I want it, like it, I’d eat it.

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