Foreign foods in Australia: The dishes we’ve adopted

Australia has given the food world many, many things: some good, some… not so good. Most notably, we have gifted the world the culture of brunch, smashed avo on toast, poached eggs with things, blends of international cuisines served in relaxed surrounds sometime between 9am and about 2pm. It makes your heart sing when you see it happening overseas.

We’ve also given the world the flat white (pipe down New Zealand). We have bequeathed it the glory of the chicken parma. We have bestowed upon it the outrageous deliciousness of the Tim Tam.

And in return, the world has given us much too, some of which we have cherished and respected in its original form, some of which we’ve possibly even improved upon – and, of course, some of which we’ve totally stuffed up. To all of the other countries on the planet, we humbly apologise for the following gastronomic mishaps, the foreign foodstuffs and traditions we have imported to Australia and got a bit wrong.

High tea, UK

Somehow these simple words – “high tea” – got lost in translation, because the meal we think of as a fancy snack taken by the upper class in the afternoon is actually not that at all. High tea in the UK, where it originated, is a hearty and filling meal taken by the working class at the end of a hard day’s labour. It’s basically just early dinner. The thing with bone-china cups and towers of mini-cakes and cucumber sandwiches is actually rightly called “afternoon tea”.

Tapas, Spain

Tapas and pinchos in a tapas bar in Spain iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. Tapas and pinchos in a tapas bar in Spain

Tapas and pinchos as they should be served. Photo: iStock

We have butchered tapas, and it kills me. Of course, to do this style of eating right you need venues. Not one or two tapas bars in a suburb, but more like 15 or 20. You need to be able to eat a single dish at one establishment and then move to another. You should also be standing up the whole time, to make it a social occasion, to allow you to move around and chat. And you’re not trying to fill yourself up here, but rather enjoy a few snacks with a glass of wine or beer. The Australian version of tapas – sit down at a single venue, order multiple plates of way-too-expensive food that all arrive together and are intended to be your entire evening meal – misses the point entirely.

Sushi, Japan

Salmon sushi on conveyor at a restaurant iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

It’s bizarre the first time you go to Japan and look around and think, um, where are all the sushi trains? This style of eating does exist in Japan – it’s called “kaiten-zushi” – but it’s nowhere near the ubiquitous monster that you see in the rest of the world, and not even close to being representative of everyday Japanese food. Plus, we have stuff like cream cheese and mayonnaise and an obsession with salmon, which must confuse a lot of Japanese visitors.

Cheese, France

This may be an unpopular statement, but if you eat your cheese at the start of your meal, you’re doing it wrong. The French, surely undisputed masters of the art of dining, as well as creators of the world’s finest dairy products, would tell you that the appropriate time to eat cheese is after the main meal, but before dessert. And pretty much all of Europe would agree. Cheese is very rich in flavour and heavy on calories – it’s not the kind of thing you want to be eating before you’ve even sighted an entrée.

Schnitzel, Austria

“A schnitzel is a thin slice of breaded meat.” Oh yeah Wikipedia? Clearly you haven’t been to Australia, where a schnitzel is a basically an entire, unflattened chicken breast covered in chunky breadcrumbs. Of course, there’s something to be said for a thick-cut schnitzel – see the art of katsu in Japan – but it’s also a serious deviation from the central European original.

Paella, Spain

Another Spanish entry, mostly because Spanish cuisine is hugely misunderstood in Australia (don’t even get me started on tinned seafood, which deserves far more respect). To begin with: in the same way sushi is not representative of Japanese cuisine, so paella is to Spanish cuisine. It’s a thing, yes, but it’s not eaten across the country, and most restaurants don’t serve it. Plus it never has chorizo in it – unless you’re Jamie Oliver – and rather than a soggy mess, it should be thin and crisp to the point of being burnt on the bottom. Most Australians seem to think paella is pretty average because it’s true, here in Australia paella is pretty average.

Mortadella, Italy

sliced mortadella on cutting board in kitchen with rustic table. Italian food iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted.

Photo: iStock

This has changed – or is changing – and you can get real Italian-style mortadella at most specialty delis these days. However, even though I absolutely love mortadella, it’s still difficult for this Australian to shake the association with our version of mortadella: that is, devon. Or polony. Or whatever it was called wherever you grew up. This, for me, was what a large, heavily processed and thinly sliced sausage looked like, and it was not good. It took me a while to realise it could actually be a delicacy.

Barbecue, US

We’re a proud nation of barbecue legends who have somehow managed to get it all wrong. What’s with this obsession with gas barbecues? In the lands where outdoor grilling has been popularised in the modern age – the US, Argentina, Spain, many parts of the Middle East – meat is always cooked over hot coals, either from charcoal or wood. The smoke imparts flavour. It makes everything better. And yet our nation’s backyards and patios are strewn with gas bottles and flavourless grills.

“Chinese food”, China

ejz990518.003.002   Epicure   pic by Eddie Jim
 Pic shows the sweet and sour pork from Phase 2 restaurant.

Sweet and sour pork, a staple of Chinese restaurant menus in Australia. Photo: Eddie Jim

This is not the fault of the Chinese migrant communities who came to Australia looking to make their way in the world; nor is it unique to Australia (check out Chinese restaurants in the US, which serve “General Tso’s Chicken”, a dish that’s about as authentically Chinese as I am). But somewhere along the line the complex and diverse and delicious dishes of China were moulded into the ubiquitous “Chinese” menus we find around regional Australia now, featuring the classic sweet-and-sour-pork, beef-and-black-bean staples we’ve come to know and… love? You would think a nation of more than a billion people only cooked five or six dishes. Fortunately, regionally-specific Chinese cuisine is now becoming a thing. But it took its sweet time.

Have you noticed any food cultures or traditions that we’ve got wrong in Australia? Or are there some that we do better?

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