Australian food culture is about much more than just throwing a shrimp on the barbie and cracking a cold one while the AFL plays in the background, you know? Yep, this country has a surprisingly rich culinary heritage that draws on myriad influences and styles, from indigenous Aboriginal cooking to all sorts of European cooking.
This guide will run through seven of the most iconic Aussie dishes out there. It hops from the crispy meringue of pavlova (a dessert that the New Zealanders claim as theirs) to the lean meats of the hopping kangaroo, all to help you get a feel for what’s going to be on the menu in this corner of the Southern Hemisphere.
We’ll also try to answer some generic questions about Australian food culture, outlining what sort of cooking the country is known for (*cough* BBQ *cough*) and why firing up the grill and smoking the steaks is nothing short of a rite of passage for any budding Aussie cook. Hungry? Let’s go…
Chicken parmigiana – the most important dish in Australian food culture!
It might have an Italian name, but chicken parmigiana is just about as Aussie as it gets. Yep, walk into any tavern in any city, from Sydney to Melbourne to Perth, and you’re likely to see this one sitting plum at the top of the menu. It’s a very popular accompaniment to big game days when the AFL is on the telly, or when the Wallabies are taking to the rugby turf. That said, a chicken parma – as it’s often known for short – can be eaten pretty much whenever you fancy. No worries.
The whole thing is a layered oven bake. First, you gotta’ make breaded chicken in the same style as Austrian schnitzel. Then, that’s smothered in a rich tomato sauce and finished with a hefty dollop of cheese – both mozzarella and parmesan. The whole thing is blasted in the oven for about 10-15 minutes to melt the dairy and then served with a side of salad and chips.
The argument about where’s best to eat chicken parmigiana has been raging for years. Melbourne locals often claim it’s their very own Mrs Parma’s, a vintage Victorian microbrewery on Little Bourke Street that offers homemade parmas and craft beer. In Sydney, be sure to check out the old Art Deco Unicorn Hotel, which folk say has the best version in the capital of NSW.
No trip Down Under could possibly be complete without a BBQ or 10. Yep, this is the quintessential Aussie way of eating. It’s nothing short of a national pastime, so don’t be surprised when the grill and the coals are the first thing that the folk from Oz reach for once work’s out for the weekend and there’s even a hint of sunshine (as there usually is!).
Known affectionately as just ‘barbie’, barbecue meals in Australia take many forms. They can be an ad hoc beach affair with a sausage on a skewer on the glistening beachfronts of New South Wales. Or they can be a full-blown family party with all the cousins, oodles of beer (compulsory), and – sorry, veggies – usually stacks of meat.
In fact, there’s really no rules about what you can cook on an Australian BBQ. Everything from marinated lamb chops to chopped eggplant to Turkish-style spiced kebabs to Greek cheeses are fair game. It’s a sort of culinary testimony to the cultural diversity of the country. However, the most famous options are prawns and steaks, which are often dipped in oil and smothered in salt and pepper before being cooked on an open flame.
Yep – you read that right: Kangaroo! The hopping wallabies that make Australia so famous around the globe are also a national foodstuff. It’s not always been the case, as roo’ meat wasn’t even legal until 1980, and then only became available in some states. Still, it’s now devoured by an estimated 15% of the population on a regular basis and is seen as a bit of an adventurous dish for those traveling Down Under.
It comes in all shapes and sizes. Head into a local Aussie supermarket and you’ll see kangaroo steaks, kangaroo filets, kangaroo minced meat – the list goes on. There’s even a brand of kangaroo sausages with made by K-Roo known as the Kanga Bangas, said to be spot on for BBQ grilling.
Kangaroo is a very lean meat with an extremely low fat content – around 1-2% is normal for most cuts. That means it’s tricky to cook as you would a normal steak, in a pan with oil and butter. It’s much more suited to slow cooking in stews and casseroles, or marinated and thrown straight on the barbie for long, slow sessions under the stars.
Vegemite on toast
Simple and easy to rustle up for a hurried morning touring the great sights of the Sydney CBD, Vegemite on toast is one of the go-to meals for Aussies when time’s a-ticking. It’s all about the spread on top. That’s a concoction that’s similar to the Marmite that’s sold in the UK (in fact, they’re almost identical, but neither country would ever admit that). Made from left-over brewer’s yeast, it’s a pungent, potent hit of salty umami flavors that sort of mimics a thick meat stock.
However, it’s totally vegetarian, not to mention halal and kosher to boot. The thing is, it’s an extremely divisive taste. Some locals can’t stand the stuff. Others will add it to almost anything, from chili stews to soups. The most popular way to chow down on Vegemite is as we’ve just described, though – a crispy bit of fresh toast slathered in butter and you’re good to go.
There’s a long-running battle going on between Aussie foodies and the Kiwis as to who owns the right to call pavlova their own. Whoever you believe, there’s no doubt that this iconic dessert originated from the land Down Under. In fact, it’s said that it was first created to honor the namesake Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova after she toured the Southern Hemisphere, sometime in the early 1900s.
Sweet-toothed readers can get excited now. The pavlova is one mass of meringue, made by beating egg whites and mixing in caster sugar (lots of it). Then, the whole thing is infused with vanilla and cooked in the oven over a low heat for a long time. The best chefs leave it to cool and set overnight, and then move in with the decoration, which is usually a cacophony of fresh fruits like kiwi, strawberry, or – a personal fav – passionfruit.
Pavlova is routinely served for special occasions. Some folk think of it as a Christmas dish, but it’s also on offer at all sorts of events, from birthday parties to wedding shindigs. Much to the Aussie ire, the largest pavlova ever made was actually over in New Zealand – it measured a whopping 50 square meters and was intended to celebrate the All Blacks’s rugby victory over the Wallabies themselves in the Bledisloe Cup. Burn!
Calling all seafood lovers: Barramundi is the main fish dish in Australia. Its name comes from an old aboriginal word that refers to a freshwater fish with large silver scales. That’s actually a pretty good description of the thing itself, which is an elongated swimmer that can hit lengths of up to 1.8 meters from nose to fin and spends parts of its lifecycle migrating up the riverways of eastern and northern Australia to pre-determined mating grounds.
Often sold wrapped in newspaper and dolloped in fried batter from local fish and chip shops across the country, it’s a staple fast food. But there are other recipes that use barramundi in a more fine-dining sort of way, with a zest of lime and chili in the Thai style, perhaps, or doused in semolina and spices like they do in Bengal.
Also known as Asian sea bass, barramundi stocks have oscillated considerably in recent years. Big rainy seasons in 2018 meant that there was a massive oversupply and fishermen couldn’t offload all they had. At other times, barramundi has been super hard to get hold of and you could find yourself paying through the nose for a simple battered fish in the local bar.
Lamingtons are something like Australia’s answer to America’s Twinkies or Britain’s scone. A sweet cake of fluffy, foamy sponge, they come infused with layers of sweet fruit jam or preserve and another top layer of fresh cream. The piece de resistance that adds that tropical zing is the dusting of desiccated coconut that goes right on top, always best 10% fresh from the husk of one that’s just been picked from the palm tree!
Lamingtons are usually served with a hot mug of tea. That’s the perfect accompaniment, as it helps the flavors mingle together and form a sort of mishmash of jam and coconut, backed up by the turgid block of sponge beneath.
They aren’t anything new, mind you. Lamingtons are thought to have been named in honor of Lord Lamington, the onetime governor of the state of Queensland way back in the late 19th century. Most people attribute the first cake to the luminary’s private chef, a Frenchman who is thought to have come up with a new use for leftover sponge one mundane day in the kitchens.
What is the national dish of Australia?
Chicken parmigiana is the closest thing that Australia has to a national dish. A mix of breaded chicken schnitzels covered in rich tomato sauces and cheese, it’s served pretty much all over the country, from Melbourne in the south to Darwin up north. There are lots of different versions, though, including Tex-Mex and Asian-style renditions.
What makes Australian food culture unique?
Australian food culture is all about social eating. The food itself is actually pretty simple, drawing on a diverse range of influences, from Italian cooking to indigenous Aboriginal cooking. However, what Aussies do best is turn dining into a real event, with open-air barbecues all summer long and big parties to eat chicken parmigiana with the AFL finals.
What food is Australia famous for?
Australia is considered the home of the barbecue. And it’s true – everyone and their dog grills in these parts, making it the most iconic aspect of Australian food culture. Why not? The weather is fine and there’s an abundance of fresh meat on offer, from Kiwi lamb to homegrown kangaroo steaks. Fire it up!