Have you ever wondered why you can go pretty much anywhere in Australia and find Italian food, Chinese food, and probably Thai and Indian as well? Yet if you were looking for Filipino food, Serbian food or Tanzanian food you would have a hard time of it, even in one of the major cities.
If you were looking for a simple answer to this question, you might just say that that the cream rises to the top, as it were. In other words, Filipino or Serbian cuisine is not particularly good, while Italian and Chinese cuisine is clearly very good. Now, not having eaten a great deal of Filipino or Serbian food, I will refrain from commenting. But perhaps that is too simple.
For example, the popularity of Thai cuisine has gone through the roof over the last few decades, not just here but worldwide. But go back to 1980 and we might just be asking why Chinese food is popular but Thai food is not. “Because it’s better” would probably not be a satisfactory answer.
And why, as a nation addicted to barbecuing, have we not fallen head over heels in love with Korean barbecue?
Why, despite Indonesia being right next door and with so many Australians having holidayed in Bali at one time or another, is Indonesian food not more beloved?
Let’s look at the current hierarchy of Asian food in Australia, in terms of popularity. (Feel free to quibble with the order as much as you like, and obviously we could talk about regional and ethnic variants within each country, such as the strong north/south differences in Chinese and Indian cuisine.)
- Sri Lankan
Certainly within that list, the top 4 are really in a league of their own. You could certainly make the case that those four cuisines are better than those below them, and they certainly have their own individual characteristics that make us love them so. Yet one could also argue that we only perceive them as “better” because we have become so familiar with them. We have acquired a taste for sashimi but not for kimchi, even though both are very unusual foods to the traditional Australian palate.
I won’t lie; I believe some cuisines ARE better than others, even if that is a completely subjective judgement. But there’s more to it than that, surely. So what factors make a cuisine popular?
Is it just a matter of math? If particular kinds of Asian people are numerous, that population builds the popularity of its cuisine by opening restaurants, eating out at these restaurants, and making others more conscious of the cuisine via their presence. Chinese and Indians are the two biggest Asian groups in Australia, so that could be part of the reason why they are the most popular Asian cuisines. Indonesian food may not be popular here, yet in the Netherlands it is so popular it has actually become part of the national cuisine, due to a long colonial relationship and well over a million Dutch people with Indonesian heritage.
The presence of a sizable ethnic community is important as a base for the cuisine to grow from and start to garner interest amongst the wider population. This is especially so for communities like the Vietnamese who were founded in the refugee experience; arriving with little money, little English, and few connections, the easiest way to start a restaurant is to serve familiar food to one’s own community. Gradually, non-Vietnamese started journeying to Richmond and Cabramatta to check out what Vietnamese food was all about. As the buzz increased, and the younger generation of locally-raised Vietnamese-Australians looked to build on the hard work of their elders, the cuisine began to move further into the mainstream. Yet while Vietnamese food is huge in Melbourne and Sydney with their large Vietnamese communities, if you journey outside the capitals Vietnamese restaurants are rare. It is a cuisine still very much wedded to its home community.
Yet there is obviously more to it than numbers. There are plenty of Filipinos in Australia, and many more in the US, but Filipino restaurants are far from numerous in either country. And the popularity of Thai and Japanese cuisines is far greater than the numbers of Thais and Japanese in Australia would suggest. How did that happen? Partly it’s because you can have the cuisine without the people. Countless Japanese restaurants in Australia are staffed completely by Chinese people, while it is common to see Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants in small-town Australia with totally Anglo staff, apart from perhaps the chef.
Australia’s culinary tastes do not occur in a vacuum. The tastemakers in LA, New York, London, Paris, Madrid and elsewhere hold a lot of sway over what gets eaten in Australia. The trendiness of Moroccan flavours in lots of top-level Australian restaurants has little to do with the Moroccan-Australian population, for example. The global success of the Mexican cuisine has everything to do with its close proximity to the US and the two countries’ intertwined relationship.
So it could be argued that the primary reason why Indonesian food is not especially popular in Australia is that it is not especially popular in the US. One reason I think Korean food will be the one to watch in Australia in the future is because of the growing influence of the large Korean community in the US, and Korea’s emergence as a regional powerhouse in economic and pop-cultural terms.
If you think the greatness of Chinese food is self-evident, try eating in China. You’ll eat some magnificent stuff, to be sure, but you’ll also come across food that might scare the pants off you. Century eggs, frog jelly, meat from animal parts you didn’t know were meant to be eaten, and meat from animals you didn’t know were meant to be eaten. So for Chinese food to take over the world, it needed to be modified substantially into a format that was tolerable for locals. Thus we have classic Australian Chinese food, a safe bastardized version of Cantonese food which bears only a passing resemblance to what you would eat in China. Yet it allowed Chinese cuisine to grow on us gradually, to the point where plenty of Australians can get served chicken feet at yum cha and not run away in terror. A similar thing happened in India, where enterprising Chinese created a spiced-up version of their cuisine designed to appeal to Indians. The resulting fare is extremely popular in India, yet someone from China would barely recognise it as being Chinese at all.
The development of Indian cuisine into a world-conquering juggernaut was surely helped by the UK’s large South Asian population, who assembled a mainstream-friendly formula of North Indian favourites that became what we think of as “Indian food”, despite it being only one facet of that country’s diverse cuisine. It is interesting to note that ethnic Bengalis make up a huge part of the Indian food scene in the UK, but for the most part they are making Punjabi and Mughal food rather than Bengali food. Likewise, the large population of Japanese-Americans has played an important role in selling Japanese food to the world, evidenced by the name of one of our favourite Japanese dishes – the California roll.
It’s also possible that some cuisines are harder to export beyond their original homes due to their reliance on certain ingredients. Chinese and Indian restaurateurs found it relatively easy to reproduce their cookery using the ingredients that were available locally, and it helped when specialty ingredients were easily transported in jars, tins, sacks or in frozen form. Perhaps it is more difficult for Southeast Asian cuisines that rely more on fresh herbs and other tropical ingredients not easily available in Australia. Vietnamese cuisine in particular requires a ready supply of certain fresh ingredients that might not be obtainable without a sizable Indochinese community nearby to grow them.
The two most popular Asian cuisines, Chinese and Indian, have had many more years to work their charms on Western audiences than most others. There has been a Chinese presence in the US and Australia for over 150 years, while the British gradually gained a taste for Indian food through the colonial experience, which was then speeded up by large-scale subcontinental immigration. The same cannot be said for many of the other cuisines (at least in Australia; the Indonesian influence in the Netherlands has many parallels to rise of Indian cuisine in the UK). Only after the relaxation of the White Australia Policy and the influx of Asian immigration in the 1970s were we gradually able to discover Asian food beyond the old Chinese favourites. So other cuisines have not had the same amount of time to catch up.
Yet it is also testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of certain ethnic groups who spread themselves around the globe and discovered they could carve out a successful niche in the restaurant business. Worldwide, few groups have done this as successfully as the Chinese, Italians, Indians and Lebanese. So it’s hard to talk about the success of the food itself without looking at the culture that produces it. The most successful culinary exports come from cultures that not only celebrate their own food (Italians being the best example of this), but also have a strong drive towards small business ownership.
Malaysian cuisine is a similar case in point. One of the most successful of all Asian immigrant groups to Australia, those Malaysians who end up here are mostly ethnic Chinese and Indians seeking better employment or educational opportunities than are open to them back home, and who tend to be reasonably well-off and speak good English. Thus they have an advantage when it comes to settling here and going into business. As well, most restaurants here that sell Malaysian food have been Malaysian-Chinese, giving some safer Chinese options to diners who might not be ready for the spicier Malay-influenced dishes.
But whatever business savvy they might come with, Malaysian food is a singular obsession to Malaysian people, and when they are not eating it, they are talking about it and trying to tell you how good it is. I don’t think we can quite say the same for Filipinos or Serbians or Chileans; however much they might enjoy their own cuisine, some groups just don’t feel the need for everyone else to eat it as well.