When I arrived in Australia I realised there were some foods here that weren’t commonly eaten anywhere else in the world. Naturally, I was curious and stuffed my face with all of them.
I’m a huge fan of sampling the local food when you travel – as cuisine is one of the most important aspects of a culture and you can understand a country better when you taste its traditional dishes. So, when you visit Australia make sure to check out the following foods. You might love them or hate them, but you should certainly give them a try!
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Vegemite is like Baz Luhrmann films, either eliciting strong love or equally potent hate. And a lot of people hate it. I’m in the “love” camp with vegemite. I think it’s delicious. However, a lot of people are horrified by it.
If you’re not familiar with it, it is a dark brown paste that is made from leftover brewer’s yeast extract with various spice and vegetable additives.
“Vegemite is awful” moaned a British girl we met at a kangaroo sanctuary in Agnes Water. “When I was on the boat trip on the Whitsundays and if anyone forgot to sign in after scuba diving they had to eat a spoonful of vegemite as punishment.”
Well that’s your first mistake. Vegemite is not meant to be eaten in large dollops with a spoon. Too much at once can be overpowering. It is meant to be lightly scraped over buttered toast – a thin coating is enough to get just the right amount of salty, savoury flavour.
“When I first tried vegemite I thought it was similar to a caramel spread that we have in the Netherlands,” added a Dutch girl. “I slathered it on toast and when I took a bite I was expecting it to be sweet. I got a nasty surprise.”
Yup, I can imagine that if you were anticipating sweetness your tastebuds would be very confused with vegemite. It’s quite salty, has an almost “burnt” taste and is a little bitter and malty. It fits into the flavour category of “umami” which is a meaty, savoury flavour concept detected by additional taste receptors on the tongue discovered by Japanese scientists in 1908.
These full and complex flavours are created by amino acids and the byproducts of fermentation in meat and mushrooms. Here’s a great post written by an American foodie who learns to appreciate the flavours of vegemite.
Will you love it or hate it? You won’t know until you try. Give it a chance and don’t just try a spoonful of it. Make some toast, butter it generously then simply add a thin scraping of vegemite overtop of the butter. If you like it, try adding a tiny bit more until you find the level of thickness you prefer. You may just fall in love with it and make it part of your morning routine.
PS. If you are as much of a fan of the salty, yeasty flavor as I am, you will be delighted to know that Cadbury makes a chocolate with vegemite. I think it’s absolutely glorious… let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Tim Tams are a beautiful chocolate coated biscuit with a crunchy wafer in the middle. They were invented by Sir Timothy Tam in 1908. Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t think someone named Timothy Tam exists, but I wish he did.
Either way, Tim Tams are so wonderful. They come in a range of flavours from white chocolate to caramel, but the classic chocolate ones are the most popular. If you are travelling in the warm parts of Australia, keep your tim tams in the fridge so that the chocolate coating doesn’t melt all over your fingers when you pick them up.
The Tim Tam Slam
The absolute best way to experience a Tim Tam is to partake in the legendary “Tim Tam Slam.” It’s quite simple, here’s how to do it.
- Make a hot drink such as a cup of tea or coffee. Let it cool slightly to a safe drinking temperature.
- Take a Tim Tam and gently bite off the opposite corners.
- You are going to use the Tim Tam as a straw to drink your hot beverage.
- Dip one bitten-off end in the hot drink while the other end is in your mouth.
- Suck on the Tim Tam, drawing the hot drink up through the chocolate wafer like a straw.
- After a few seconds of sucking, the hot tea or coffee will start to melt the Tim Tam.
- Shove the entire warm, gooey mess into your mouth.
- Let your eyes roll back in your head as you moan with melty, chocolatey pleasure.
Trust me, it’s life changing.
A parma (or a parmy as I’ve noticed it is sometimes called up in Queensland) is a breaded chicken breast that is served with melted mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce and a slice of ham or bacon. It is based on an Italian dish, but it has become a distinctly Australian treat served in pubs all over the country. At most pubs it will be quite reasonably priced, a big filling meal for only around $15. It often comes with chips and salad, with the chips usually tucked underneath the chicken – although whether or not this is okay is a matter of contention.
Some pubs like to get creative with their parmas, spicing them up with different ingredients such as gravy, or feta cheese and olives, or spicy sausage. The best parmas have a lot of cheese and sauce and a very moist and juicy chicken breast, plus plenty of thick-cut chips.
It’s quite a big meal, especially with all of the chips – I usually feel like taking a nap after I have eaten an entire parma to myself. A pub in Melbourne caused controversy for adding a “Lady Parma” to its menu which was smaller than the original. Women felt condescended to – after all who says that a woman can’t scarf a full parma just as well as a man can? Often I have a bigger appetite than Lee!
If you are in Australia, chances are that a pub nearby you has a parma special night – so go ahead and give it a try. To give you some ideas of where you should go to try this classic dish, Parma.com.au is a website that contains parma reviews and can help you find the best parma in your state.
Here’s another wonderful Australian food item that you absolutely must try on your explorations Down Under. It is a Chinese inspired meat and vegetable dumpling, consisting of minced meat (usually lamb, chicken or pork), seasoning and cabbage. They don’t have to have meat – you can also get vegetarian dim sim with mushroom and vegetable filling. They are usually steamed or deep fried and served dipping in soy sauce. It is also possible to barbecue them by slicing them in half down the long side. These yummy treats are sold in fish and chip shops and Chinese takeaways all over Australia.
So what’s the difference between a dim sum and a traditional Chinese dumpling? Well, they are pretty similar but the dim sim is larger and has a thicker coating of dough. Chinese people see dim sims as a Westernised version of dumplings, while Australian diners perceive the food to be Asian. The inventor of the Dim Sim was Chinese chef William Wing Young, who came up with them at his restaurant in Melbourne in 1945.
Want to give them a try? Melbourne is a great city for dim sim eating, so here are some of the best places to find the most delicious dim sims.
Burger Rings are a crunchy and savoury snack, shaped like a ring and flavoured like a burger. Well, not really. I mean, it’s pretty impossible to make a little crunchy ring taste exactly like a burger.
I think they are made of corn and rice and they are a pretty tasty snack. Their shape is also pretty fun, because you can slide the rings over your fingers and pretend you have a lot of bling. Crunchy, burger-flavoured bling.
Lee once jokingly proposed to me with a Burger Ring. He said that he was following the old tradition that a man should spend the equivalent of three months salary on the engagement ring. What a charmer. 😉
Also, the classic burger ring commercials from the 1980s are pretty sweet.
Ok, so this isn’t a specific food – more of a way of preparing food. Either way, the Aussies love to barbeque and they have perfected it to an art form. A typical Australian barbeque will feature burgers, sausages, seafood, steak as well as bread and tomato and barbeque sauce. They will also include some salad and side dishes, but really the focus is on the meat and fish. Of course, you can’t forget the cold beers!
Barbecuing is such a thing here that the local councils will provide public barbeques that are free for anyone to use, located in the scenic parks and beaches around the country. So, you can stock up on sausages and beer, head down to the beach and cook up a feast with your buddies. It’s a pretty awesome way to spend a sunny afternoon.
Avocado (for breakfast?)
Aussies love their avocado – especially on breakfast dishes with egg. In fact, I’ve never seen an Australian eat an avocado for any other meal besides breakfast. In a hipster cafe in Melbourne you will pay $22 for what is essentially avocado on toast with a poached egg. Although this seems a little bit ridiculous, it will be the fanciest avocado on toast you have ever had and the place will be packed with bearded and tattooed people shoveling avocado into their faces.
Maybe they are onto something… avocado is really quite good for you. It contains vitamin K, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B5 and potassium (even more than bananas). Also, the nutritious fats in them can help you to absorb nutrients from other plant foods. So, join the healthy hipsters and pick up some avocados next time you are at the supermarket.
Meat pies weren’t really a big leap for me, as I have spent lots of time in the North of England where meat pies are revered. However, I remember years ago when my North American mind was blown by the concept. “Pies contain apples and cherries and lemon meringue… not steak and kidney or minced meat and potato!”
However, it didn’t take me long to convert. There’s nothing like a warm steak and kidney pie slathered in ketchup, shoveled into your mouth on a freezing wet terrace while watching an Accrington Stanley match. The meat pies in Australia are slightly different, but they essentially give the same warm, comforting and hearty sensation.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a meat pie, it is essentially a pastry that is filled with minced meat and gravy and sometimes mushrooms, cheese or onion. According to the Wikipedia page, the brand Four N Twenty produces 50,000 pies per hour – Australians eat a lot of pies. (Don’t read too far down on that Wikipedia article though – you don’t really want to know too much about how the pies are made or how loose the definition of “minced meat” can be.)
The typical setting in which you will eat a meat pie is while watching an Australian Rules Football or Rugby League game – which is another quintessential Australian experience that you should have. It is one of the most popular snacks to enjoy while watching a game and it will come with little packs of ketchup that you can squeeze onto your pie, as well as little plastic spoons. Although they are not in any way healthy or good for you, the soft flaky pastry and warm meaty filling makes for quite a satisfying snack.
The Sausage Sizzle is another key element of Australian culture that you must experience while you are there. A Sausage Sizzle will usually take place during the summer in a car park of a supermarket or a big store – for example the hardware store Bunnings often hosts them. They are also common on election days or as a fundraiser for organisations or clubs.
For a buck or two, you can get yourself a freshly cooked sausage (aka. a snag) with a soft piece of white bread folded around it and ketchup (tomato sauce) or barbeque sauce drizzled over it. If you like, you’ll also have the option to add some fried onion. Why do they use one folded piece of white bread rather than a hot dog bun? Why don’t they use mustard? These are questions that only an Aussie knows.
The Sausage Sizzle is not without controversy. In 1989 Peter Dowding, the Premier of Western Australia, denied accusations that the Labor Party was bribing voters with free sausages before the election.
We had only been in Australia for a week or two when we noticed a sign on a local pub: “Roo and Wine, only $11.99.” Lured by the prospect of such a cheap dinner out, we were curious enough to give it a try. After eating snake in Laos, Guinea pig in Peru and maggots in the Amazon jungle, I’m no longer scared to try strange foods at least once.
We enjoyed a kangaroo steak, perfectly cooked, with mashed potatoes, vegetables and a glass of red wine. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved it! It has a stronger and more gamey flavour than beef and it somewhat reminds me of venison.
Kangaroo meat is actually quite healthy. It is very lean and high in protein – because the kangaroos lead an active life their meat doesn’t have fat marbled through it like cows. For this reason, many bodybuilders eat a lot of kangaroo because it offers them lots of protein without packing on the fat.
There was a discussion within the kangaroo meat industry about introducing a “culinary name” for kangaroo meat. Pig meat is referred to as pork, cow meat is beef, deer meat is venison, etc. The idea was that if we had another word to call it when we were talking about it in the context of food, it would avoid adverse reactions from people who are squeamish about eating something so cute.
A competition was run in 2005 and the winner was australus. However, I have never heard this word used by anyone or written on any menu, so it’s safe to say that it has not been adopted officially.
The thought of eating something so cute and bouncy might turn you off, but lambs are cute too and you probably eat them without a second thought. Kangaroo meat is definitely worth a try while you are in Australia. It can be difficult to prepare on your own though, because if it is cooked for too long it will become chewy.
I would recommend having it prepared by someone who knows what they are doing first, so that you know what it is supposed to taste like. Then, you can pick up some kangaroo meat at the supermarket and try cooking it on your own. Lee and I made a curry with some kangaroo meat once and we called it… (drumroll please)… Vindaroo!
What other Australian foods would you recommend?
These are just a few of the Australian foods that I have tried so far after 6 months in Australia – but this is not a comprehensive list. There are so many other dishes and snacks that can only be found Down Under. If I have missed your favourite Australian food, please let me know in the comments below!