Imagine you were an Australian soldier in the 1940s, fighting the often brutal Japanese forces in World War 2. If you were able to look into a crystal ball at Australia in 2011, you’d no doubt be shocked to see the rate at which our office workers scoff sushi rolls on their lunch break. You’d probably think the Japanese won the war.
The diet of the average Australian has changed considerably since the pre-war era. Let’s put aside for a moment what “ethnic” Australians eat, which obviously is very different to those times; the average white Australian of Anglo-Celtic heritage is eating very differently than 60 years ago.
To be sure, the old staples are still there and going strong, to varying degrees. Meat-and-two-veg, or for variety, meat-and-three-veg, still dominate a great many households. The “foreign” influences that are most noticeable come from Southern Europe, primarily Italy. Pasta is now a mainstay of the Australian diet, even if the two most ubiquitous variations – “spag bol” (spaghetti Bolognese) and macaroni and cheese – would hardly considered authentic by someone in Italy. Likewise, pizza has become far and away the most common take-away food – no doubt in part due to the home delivery aspect – although what most Aussies think of pizza is considerably different to what people in Italy conceive it to be.
Asian food has not made quite the same inroads into the average Australian household diet, but the signs are there. The stir-fry might be on its way to joining spag bol as a fixture in households across the country. Its popularity has much to do with its ease of preparation, but also owes something to the small but significant role Chinese restauranteurs have played in Australian life. For most of Australian history, the Chinese were not numerous, but every country town bigger than a few thousand residents seems to have a Chinese restaurant. So the taste of Chinese food became familiar to Australians long ago, and from there it’s not a huge leap to people trying to make it at home.
Of course it helps that the Australian understanding of what Chinese food is fairly unchallenging. Sweet and sour pork, beef in black bean sauce, or lemon chicken are much safer versions of Cantonese cuisine than some of the things one might find in an eatery in China. Chicken’s feet, century eggs, and Chongqing chilli chicken are just some examples of Chinese dishes that have never caught on in Australia beyond a niche market. Witness the general befuddlement and suspicion that greeted Poh Ling Yeow when she prepared a dish featuring century eggs on Masterchef, for example.
Of course, just as the ubiquitous Australian spaghetti Bolognese has changed a lot from the original tagliatelle con ragu from Bologna, the stir-fries cooked by the average non-Chinese person in Australia tend to be slightly different to what Chinese people actually cook. But overall, the relative simplicity of Chinese food – or perhaps more correctly, the ease with which some Chinese food can be simplified for mass consumption – has been a key factor in Australians’ adoption of this cuisine at home. By contrast, Japanese, Thai and Indian food are all wildly popular as options for eating out, but are less popular as choices for home cooking due to their complexity and need for specialist ingredients. When they are prepared at home, particularly in the case of Indian and Thai foods, it almost always involves the use of bottled curry pastes and sauces. While a great many people have made Thai green curry at home using something out of a jar, very few non-Thais seem to ever make it from scratch. Go to any suburban supermarket and you’ll find the ingredients you need to make some pretty authentic Italian or Greek food, and probably Chinese as well. But you probably won’t find the galangal or kaffir lime leaves needed to make Thai or Indonesian food, unless you go to a specialist Asian grocer. Likewise, the same supermarket will probably stock plenty of jars of curry pastes for tandoori chicken or butter chicken; but until you can buy atta (wheat flour for chapatis) and kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves) at the supermarket, perhaps Indian food won’t have truly arrived.
It’s frequently been said that despite the way many Australians laud the benefits of multiculturalism, this embrace of other cultures often doesn’t go any further than our eating habits. While someone may love the way a diverse society gives them a ready supply of felafels, fried rice and pho, they don’t necessarily interface at any deeper level with the cultures those foods came from. And while I agree that this is largely true, it is nonetheless a good start. Surely the broadening of the Australian palate has had some kind of positive effect on the broadening of our national psyche. I’m not sure how you would measure such a thing, but surely the bogan douchebags who yell out “curry muncher” at passing Indians would be less likely to do so if they could only spend more time munching curry themselves. It’s harder to keep seeing Afghanistan simply as a barbarous wasteland once you’ve discovered the frankly amazing things Afghanis can do with rice and kebabs. So perhaps the dudes slaving away in their shops making shawarma, som tum and futomaki are the ones who are really at the vanguard of combating racism in this country.
Perhaps the future direction of Asian food’s influences on the Australian palate can be illustrated by two examples. On one hand, we have the humble dim sim, a snack that within the span of 70 years has become truly Australian, yet is almost unrecognisable as something that was originally Chinese. It’s an example of the dish itself changing to suit Australian tastes. On the other hand, we have sushi; a prime example of how a country has reshaped its tastes to the point where a Japanese dish made with seaweed (!), raw fish (!!) and wasabi (!!!) has become a common and accepted food item sold in suburban food courts everywhere – seemingly unthinkable half a century ago. The sushi roll is unlikely to ever become as ubiquitous as the dim sim – it’s still regarded with suspicion by many – and it does show some signs of being westernised. But it remains a signpost for how far Australia has come.