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Australian food and drink

Australia has a rich variety of foods and drinks, adopted and adapted since colonisation and developed as part of a multi-cultural society.  What was once new and foreign has been transformed with new ingredients and styles into distinctly Australian food.

Scratchleys on the Wharf, Newcastle Harbour, NSW, courtesy of NSW Explorer.

In the early colonial days, there was much ingenuity, originality and innovation in cooking. Menus included seafood, native game and vegetables, as well as native fruits and nuts. Native fruits, such as lilly pillies, quandongs, rosellas or hibiscus, wild raspberries and native currants, were harvested for profit as well as for domestic use continuously until the 1930s.

Stores of rum and beer, as well as the makings for them, grapevine cuttings for wine, coffee plants and beans, and ginger were unloaded in 1788 with the First Fleet arriving in the Colony of New South Wales.  Ginger beer, cordial and lemonade factories sprang up as the colonies developed.

The influx of migrants from Europe and America during the gold rushes of the 1850s spurred the drinking of coffee and the expansion of street vendors with pies and Cornish pasties.  The new arrivals also developed a taste for Chinese food with fresh green vegetables, available in China towns, and especially in the port cities from the 1860s and throughout the 1870s.

Prawns in saffron and lime, no source

At the time of Federation in 1901, a change in eating and cooking styles reflected new values. Outdoor picnics were enthusiastically adopted, establishing the tradition of the barbecue. There were new staple foods for main meals: mutton, meat pies, colonial curries and lamb chops.

From the 1880s, grand ornate coffee palaces offered coffee drinking and dining as alternatives to the alcohol fuelled atmosphere of the pubs. Coffee lounges became part of the modern jazz culture of the 1920s and 30s and expanded with the influx of American servicemen and European migrants in the 1940s.

Smokey barbecue, no source

Innovations based on new ingredients created new recipes.  New deserts, cakes and biscuits, such as pavlova, lamingtons and ginger biscuits went down well with a cup of tea, a near universal drink. Phrases like a 'billy of tea', and later additions such as Anzac biscuits and vegemite were added to the vocabulary. Vegemite spread was invented in 1923 by Melbourne scientist Dr Cyril Callister as a way to exploit the yeast left over from beer production.

At the end of the Second World War (1939–45), there was another influx of migrants, which bought new ingredients and new flavours. This willingness to experiment and discover new taste experiences transformed Australian cooking. Australian food began to be defined by the changes brought about by new styles of cooking, especially Mediterranean, Asian, Indian, and African.

Today, many contemporary Australian chefs display these qualities of innovation and bold experimentation in their expression of originality, and are recognised worldwide for their skill and imagination.

Early European tastings – kale, kangaroo, turtle and oysters

In 1770, the botanist Joseph Banks thought the coastal soil north of Botany Bay barren but tasted what he called Indian Kale or spinach, parsley, fruits including figs, and seeds, and nuts from cabbage and other palms. On the Great Barrier Reef, Banks observed there were 'plenty of turtle and so large that a single turtle always served the ship'.

Joseph Lycett, Aborigines spearing fish, others diving for crayfish, a party seated beside a fire cooking fish, watercolour, courtesy of National Library of Australia nla.pic-an2962715-s17

Settlers arriving in the colony after 1788 owed their survival to the example of Aboriginal people who always found a good source of water and who traded in kangaroo and other game, and fish. Fish caught by Aborigines towards the heads of the harbour were 'disposed of to the retailers, who hawk them about the town'.

Dr Cunningham observed that two fish baskets, brought by some sailors from Brazil, lowered over the sides of a boat in Sydney Harbour supplied not only the cabin but the whole crew with a daily abundance of fish.

King-fish, mullet, mackerel, rock-cod, whiting, snappers, bream, flat-heads, and various other descriptions of fishes, are all too found plentifully about… Cray-fish, lobsters, and prawns, are also commonly found … myriads of crabs during their breeding season
Dr Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales,1827 p. 68-9.

John Lewin, Fish Catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour, 1817, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of South Australia, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

Oysters

Mud oysters are brought over from Botany Bay, where they are abundant; and by fitting yourself out with a few slices of bread and butter, and other requisites, and taking a pleasant stroll around any of the romantic shores of our beautiful harbour, you may quickly secure a cheap and most delicious lunch from the sweet and finely flavoured rock oysters … which are collected by poor individuals and sold shelled at a shilling a quart.
Dr Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales,1827 p. 68-9.

Sweet and finely flavoured Sydney rock oysters could be found on any of the shores of Sydney Harbour, with oyster knives available for sale from 1804.  Such was the appetite for oysters that by 1834, Sydney had special oyster rooms or salons, with every major capital having them by 1860.

Kangaroo

Across the colonies, native kangaroo was preferable to salted meat and was one of the main sources of meat. In Adelaide in 1845, high demand for kangaroo from the new settlers pushed the price to an 'extraordinary' nine pence per pound'. In 1864, a recipe for kangaroo steamer involved small diced meat, briefly cooked with a tablespoon of milk, onion, salt and pepper then enriched with salt pork or bacon, plus a spoonful of ketchup.

Edward Abbott's The English and Australian Cookery Book (1864) was the first attempt to codify a specific Australian cuisine. Abbott collected recipes that combined native and exotic ingredients.

Brewed and bottled drinks: rum, beer, wine, ginger beer and lemonade

The settlers brought rum and beer with them to the Colony of New South Wales (NSW), and soon developed the capacity to produce it themselves. Rum was such a valued commodity that it became the key currency in the early years of settlement.

Colonial drink and other bottles, no source

Breweries in Australia still in production include the Cascade Brewery in Tasmania, established in 1824, and the only remaining family brewery, Coopers in South Australia, established in 1862. The Emu Brewery in Perth was established in 1837 and the Swan Brewery in 1857. In Melbourne, Carlton was established in 1864, and Fosters in 1867.

A wide variety of non-alcoholic drinks were also available.  Cordials were made and bottled at The Rocks in early Sydney, along with widespread lemonade factories, ginger beer and cider facilities.  A cordial factory at Parramatta is also recorded. These early takeaway drinks had innovative bottles designed to keep the drinks fresh, including curved elongated glass bottles and ones with glass marbles inside the neck, and included a variety of stoppers.

Harrup Brothers ginger beer bottle, Rockhampton

From the 1820s ginger beer was bottled in stoneware for convicts as well as for public consumption, and potteries could not keep with the demand for sales of the drink in their manufacture of the bottles. Ginger beer remained popular until the 1940s and there were ginger beer breweries from Bundaberg to Broome. (Harrup Brothers in Rockhampton)

The consumption of beer as Australia's most popular alcoholic drink was later overtaken by wine in the 1970s. Wines have a long history in Australia with vines planted to yield grapes for wine in 1791, and exports of Australian wine beginning in 1822.  Over 100 years later, there was a thriving wine industry, boosted again by European migrants post 1945, which established a world-class reputation.

Coffee

Coffee plants and beans were unloaded in 1788 with the First Fleet but the climate was found to be unsuitable so, coffee was imported on a regular basis. Coffee stalls in The Rocks were accompanied by the arrival of pie and other food vendors.

Coffee drinking was spurred by the influx of migrants from Europe and America during the gold rushes of the 1850s. Coffee stalls sprung up in the port cities from the 1860s and throughout the 1870s.

Tea

The adoption of tea by Australians as their universal drink was made possible by the high volume of merchant shipping out of Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns from the 1840s trading with China. Merchants traded South Sea sandalwood for incense into China, and imported tea, silks and spices.

From a colonial oven – native game, fowl, parrots, berries and fruit tarts 

In Tasmania, in addition to the kangaroo and emus killed; quail, pigeons, duck, stuffed wombat and fried echidna were on the menu.  Native fowl, especially bush turkey, was relished by Lady Franklin, wife of the Governor of Tasmania.  Across the colonies, bush turkey was favoured as a relief from mutton, including by Katherine Kirkland in Western Victoria and Mrs Maclurcan of the Criterion Hotel in Townsville (1898). (Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012)

Tea and Damper by A.M. Ebsworth, c1851-3, courtesy of State Library of Victoria

Parrots, despite being loved for their plumage, were also appreciated at the dinner table. In the 1820s they were sold at the Sydney markets, after being caught in traps, for sixpence each or a shilling a dozen for a pie.  According to an 1898 recipe 'only the breast and thigh meat went into the pie and had to be simmered until perfectly tender'.  Parrot pie remained popular for many decades 'filled with a luscious brown gravy'.

Mrs Beeton's recipe laid the 'paraqueets' on slices of bacon and filled 'up the spaces with the egg cut in slices and scatter over the seasoning' before pouring 'in stock or water to nearly fill the dish, cover with puff-paste and bake for one hour' (The Old Foodie).

Innovation in adapting new ingredients led colonial cooks to develop and evolve delicious foods much savoured:

the rich brown kangaroo tail-soup … the fish stews that were as delicious as the famous Bouillabaisse of Marseilles… Black pheasants and wild pigeons, bustard or wild turkey and wild duck all yielded their dark delicious flesh to the baking pan.  Green native currants were culled and made into a beautiful jam [as well as] quandong jam…

Australian cookery books … never telling you that wild duck should not be stuffed and that bacon cooked with wild turkey makes it tender.
Lyn, 'From a colonial oven', National Cooking in Australia, West Australian, 26 June 1936 in Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012 p. 20.

Pumpkins, picnics and pavlova – a unique part of Australian life

At the same time as savouring native game and fruits, the early settlers set their hand to farming to produce European crops and raise European herd animals. Within five years of the life of the Colony of NSW, there were vines of every sort flourishing; melons, cucumbers, and pumpkins.

Pumpkins

Pumpkin with scones, image by Rob Palmer, 2012, courtesy of Perth Now

Pumpkin seeds arrived with the First Fleet and were intended to feed pigs, but pumpkins became one of the success stories of the early colonies.  They were substituted for apples in a pie, tempered by lemons and sugar, cooked as fritters and later, turned into American tarts.  In the 1920s and 30s, the women's pages of newspapers were filled with recipes for pumpkin soups, pancakes, scones and cakes. (Gail Williams, Why we're pumpkin crazy, Perth Now, 18 May, 2012)

In the 1960s and 70s, pumpkin soup was one of the most commonly served soups in cafes and restaurants.  At pumpkin festivals, recipes include those for pumpkin bread, puddings and soufflés.  By 1993, pumpkin scones were an Australian icon. (Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012, pp 76–80)

The picnic

Picnic party in the bush, c 1900, glass negative, Reg 029390 donation from Mrs N Fleming, courtesy of Museum Victoria

Whilst the picnic is not unique to Australia, it has been transformed into an escape from domestic life where social barriers are broken down, thus contributing to a spirit of egalitarianism.  At first, the lack of inns meant that picnics were a necessity but they soon became important social events, ranking with dinners and balls.

The popularity of picnics in the bush and on the beach led to the establishment of bush and recreation reserves from early on.  The seriousness of the picnic is demonstrated in 1880 when it was announced that Picnic Point at Melbourne's Brighton Beach could cater for 1000 picnickers with the railway line extended to Sandringham, and a station servicing Picnic Point opened in 1887.

Picnic at Brighton Beach, Victoria, anonymous, courtesy of Up from Australia

Scores of colonial women wrote of their picnics: picnic parties on boats in the harbour (Elizabeth Macarthur, 1791); picnics that lasted a week accompanied by camping (Annie Baxter, Tasmania, 1835); great numbers of picnics in the shades of trees, enjoying not only cold meats but also delicious fruits (Hobart Courier, 1841); and picnic parties described as rural banquets over summer at several pretty spots (Louisa Meredith, 1842).  (Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012)

The pavlova – honouring the dance

Pavlova, no source

While Australians have long claimed the pavlova as a dish of their own invention, created by Herbert Sachsse at Perth's Hotel Esplanade, recent research suggests that similar dishes were created at the same time in New Zealand, honouring the widely popular visit to Australia and New Zealand by Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova in 1926. Sachsse presented this 'new' cake, which he named Pavlova, 'because it was as light as Pavlova'. (Oxford Dictionary debate reported in 'Pavlova – Kiwi')

While the dish began as a fairly standard meringue, it has been gradually refined to include cornflour and vinegar in the beating of the egg whites, giving it a soft centre and then covered in cream and fruit, such as passionfruit, peaches, or kiwi fruit.

The barbecue or BBQ – from a chop picnic to a shrimp

Centenary Air Race ended at Laverton, 23 October 1934, to be celebrated with a barbecue, courtesy of Royal Australian Air Force

The barbecue has been familiar to Australians since the 1920s, when it probably grew out of the 'chop picnic'. The term came from the West Indies and was associated with a large outdoor event, sometimes a political campaign, where a carcass was roasted.  This was the term used, in the West Australian in 1928, to describe roasting an animal out of doors for a public event and, typically in the 1930s, barbecues followed this model.

One of the biggest barbecues at this time was at the RAAF Base Laverton in 1934, celebrating both the centenary of John Batman's treaty or deed of purchase of the lands of Melbourne, and the finish of the Centenary Air Race from London to Laverton, just outside of Melbourne.  The RAAF hosted an air display at Laverton on 10 November 1934 to celebrate the end of the race and planned to roast 20 bullocks over open fires.

As interest in the event increased, a further seven bullocks were donated and roasted but this was not enough to sate the appetites of the 200,000 people who turned up, doubly disappointed with the onset of rain.
Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012, p. 122–25.

A family and friends enjoy a barbecue at Healesville, 1968, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia, NAA 30633692

By the 1940s, the barbecue had become a domestic event with sausages and chops sizzled over an open fire.  By the 1950s, although barbecues had begun to be installed in public parks and picnic areas, these were largely used for private family affairs.

In the 1950s and 60s the barbecue became the essential feature of every Australian home — whether permanent or temporary structures — and the total lack of formality of people standing up or sitting on rustic benches was reminiscent of bush cooking.

In the 1970s the range of barbecue ingredients ranged from chops and sausages, to prawns and scallops, chicken and quail, with the meat sometimes marinated and cooked on skewers.  New expressions emerged as part of the barbecue culture, such as 'throw a shrimp on the barbie'.

Staples: mutton, pies, pasties – with tomato sauce

Meat pies, pasties and coffee stalls – the first take-away food

Three men eating meat pies in Kyneton, Victoria, 1948. They are Col Willis, Ron Rogers and Cyril Henshaw (donor). MV 161478, courtesy of Museum Victoria.

Meat pies were popular as the first take-away food in the early days of the Colony of NSW.  They proliferated throughout the 1800s when they were sold day and night by street vendors from pie-carts along with other street foods and cries of 'hot rolls, all hot … right early in the morning'. (Dr Peter Cunningham, Two Years in New South Wales,1827 p. 68)

The pie carts were sometimes accompanied by coffee stalls and often attracted colourful customers.  Pies went on to become popular in hotels, cafes, restaurants and dining rooms.

By 1838 Australians were enjoying American tomato sauce or ketchup with their pies and within 30 years were buying Australian manufactured tomato sauce from Mrs Chance of Parkside, Adelaide, from plants established in the 1830s.  Originally considered street food, meat pies remain at the top of the list for Australia's most popular dish.

In Adelaide and other areas, pie carts also served Cornish pasties, usually associated with home cooking.  Pasties took on a particular identity as the portable midday meal of miners and farm workers, reflecting the direct migration of Cornish miners to quarry and mining towns in Australia, such as Moonta and Wallaroo in South Australia and Chillagoe and Normanton in Queensland.  In the 1880s, in Adelaide, a Cornish immigrant was said to have introduced the pie floater 'a mince-pie floating in a soup-plate of thick, dark-green pease gravy'. (Advertiser, June 1934)

The meat pies and pasties had their connection to what was considered the staple foods of the 1800s:
  • beef, pork or mutton (the meat of adult sheep)
  • flour, usually made into bread or damper, a dense, thick bread, and
  • tea, considered a necessity, even when other items were scarce

Colonel Harland David Sanders eating his pie outside Harry's Café de Wheels, Sydney, 1972

Australia's pie carts gained popularity during the Depression years of the early 1930s when there were very few affordable options for eating out. They reached their trading peak in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. The night-time city population (shift workers, after-dance groups and such) could rely on pie carts for quick and cheap hot food. (Neill, Bell and Hemmington, A Pie Cart Story, The Australasian-Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies, Number 2, 2012)

A surviving pie cart in Sydney, Harry's Café de Wheels still operates near the front gates of the Woolloomooloo naval dockyard. It was operated in the 1930s by Harry Edwards until 1938 and was very popular with 'sailors, soldiers, cabbies and starlets'. It was reopened in 1945 when Edwards returned from war service and has operated continuously since then.

Stews, grills and rabbit – with damper

Irish and wallaby stews

Roast leg of lamb, no source

In the mid-1800s, large numbers of Irish people came to Australia, to escape both the Potato Famine and religious persecution. They brought recipes for Irish stew with them which depended upon gentle stewing, rather than boiling of the mutton or kangaroo meat.  The meat was cooked with potatoes and a few other vegetables.  It was widely adopted as it could be cooked in an ironware pot hanging from a tripod over an open fire and could feed a large family and armies of farm workers.  Wallaby stew was immortalised in an Australian folk song. (Australian Cooking)

Until 1900, the most commonly slaughtered sheep meat was mutton, although beef was consumed in ever greater quantities throughout the 1800s. In the 1920s, new improved pastures enabled lamb to become readily available and 'by the 1930s, lamb was well and truly ensconced as an Australian favourite'. (Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012, p. 177)

Grill rooms

Grill, Perth, no source

In the 1920s and 1930s, grill rooms were popular places for enjoying competently cooked and succulent meals:

filled with smoke and splutter of mutton chops and T-bone steaks, sizzling over red-hot charcoal which now and then burst into flames as the fat fell down.

The tables were large and solid, the chairs leather-studded, the napkins snow-white and folded into intricate frills, and in the centre of each table there was a circular mahogany cruet-stand which spun when you revolved it, presenting a merry-go-round of Worcester sauce, anchovy sauce, mushroom sauce and other pungencies.
Kenneth Slessor, Bread and Wine, 1970 in Barbara Santich, In the Land of the Magic Pudding. A gastronomic miscellany, Wakefield Press, 2000, p. 109.

Damper bread

Murray Island women preparing dough for cooking, Torres Strait Islands, 1958, image by Wilhelm Lorenz Rechnitz, courtesy of the State Library of Queensland

Damper was unleavened but made with a raising agent, such as soda. Yeast breads were too complex in their requirements for cool storage, long rising times and an oven.  Quickly mixed and kneaded, the damper was baked in the ashes with no need for an oven, cooks often leaving the damper to cook in the underground ashes overnight.  Sometimes for variety, bush currants or sultanas could be added. (Sovereign Hill, Recipes of the Bush – Damper and Mutton)

Rabbit – poor man's mutton and gourmet game

During the tough economic times of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rabbit became a welcome commodity as the skins could be sold for money and the meat was often the only option available to poor families. In the 1980s and 90s, after years of being shunned as 'underground mutton', rabbit overcame much of its depression-time reputation as the poor person's last resort. It has been reintroduced as a respected and even fashionable gourmet meat, with a 'light jelly of rabbit' served at Tansy's in North Carlton in 1984.

Multicultural influences on Australian cuisine – ginger, chilli and lime

Chinese hawker, Victoria, 1873, wood engraving by Samson Horace, courtesy of the National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an10267995

Immigration to Australia  has had a major multicultural impact upon Australian culture, and in particular upon what Australians eat and drink.

Following the gold, tin mining and pearling rushes of the mid-1800s; Chinatowns sprung up across Australia. There were restaurants, noodle houses and butchers in the Chinese quarters. The Chinese supplied much valued fresh fruit and vegetables in areas where water was scarce and later, establishing Chinese restaurants in many country towns across Australia.

Networks of tea rooms

The large amounts of imported tea could be seen not only in the private consumption but also in the many Chinese tea rooms across Australian towns and cities. Some of these, such as one in Adelaide, were large establishments and catered for hundreds of people in one sitting. In Sydney, Mei QuongTart, a leading merchant and importer from China, had a network of tea rooms.

Afternoon Tea Room and stairway to balcony of Banquet Hall at Café Australia, Melbourne, c. 1917, designed by Marion Mahoney and Walter Burley Griffin 1916 (now demolished), Collection of The New-York Historical Society 78495d.

The demand for tea, ginger and other spices, as well as silk by Australians equalled the demand in China for sandalwood for incense, trepang, seal skins and coconut oil.  These goods were supplied by the shipping trade out of Townsville and Cairns to New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands and the New Hebrides, established by Robert Towns (1794–1873), in the 1840s and with Robert Philp, as the latter Townsville partner in Burns Philp from 1874.

The Burns Philp mercantile company established warehouses and stores across the Pacific, supplying groceries and many other products in a run along Australia's east coast. (See Dorothy Shineberg, They came for the sandalwood: a study of the sandalwood trade in the south-west Pacific 1830-1865, 1967)

Ginger – transforms cakes, tarts, jams, breads, biscuits and pudding

Bagging ginger on J. Templeton's farm, Eumundi, 1967, Sunshine Coast Libraries M754269

From the 1790s, large quantities of dried and preserved ginger were imported and ginger was grown in the first European garden in Sydney. Chinese settlers also grew ginger independently. Ginger was used widely in a variety of cakes and puddings, jams and preserves, condiments and curries. (Leonie Anne Ryder, Ginger in Australia, 1988-1950, 2010)

Ginger and other spices were available in Townsville and other areas from the mid-1800s. Sold in sealed stoneware ginger jars, ginger transformed the cooking of cakes, tarts and jams, and supported the manufacture of ginger beer. Raw ginger grew in the rich volcanic soil, the high rainfall and humidity of north Queensland. When the Second World War cut ginger supply from China, the Buderim Ginger Company was formed and today, is the largest of Australia's ginger producers and produces some of the world's finest ginger.

New Australian recipes for loaf cakes with ginger combined with dates reflect the planting of date palms by the Afghan cameleers. The making of ginger bread, biscuits and puddings were included in the NSW Cookery Book 1948.  In acknowledging the essential place of ginger in Australian cooking, 'orange and ginger salad' was on the menu in 1984 at The Wharf restaurant in Sydney.

Limes, kumquats, lychees and guavas – Magnetic Island and Townsville fare

Chinese Kumquat, no source

A ready supply of ginger was accompanied by the availability of limes, kumquats, lychees, guavas and other fruits.  Ginger biscuits, lime tarts and puddings, and cumquat and lime marmalades were served at the Magnetic Island Hotel by Annie Whybrow Rowse from the early 1900s until she was evacuated in the 1940s.

Today, all these ingredients feature in the drinks and dishes served at cafes in Townsville representing Australia's tropical food. In 1984, The Regent Hotel was serving Guava Mouse, created by Serge Dansereau. (Joan Campbell, compiler, The Fresh Young Chefs of Australia, Vogue Wine and Food Cookbook, 1986)

Chinese cooking and 'colonial curries'

Jim Wong in Jim Wong Chinese Restaurant, 1998, image by Ian Kenins, courtesy of National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an20023397

Hot Szechuan food from south western China and Cantonese food from Kwangtung Province in southern China were sold through Chinese commercial food enterprises on the Victorian goldfields in the mid-1800s.  Cantonese cooking is a style based on fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, poultry and pork.  Later Chinese food was sold in eateries, sometimes known as 'cook shops' in every major regional centre across Australia.

Chinese cooking influenced the creation of 'colonial curries'. These were so named because of their adaptation by colonialists who wanted to create a curry that made best use of the plethora of native game. Chinese food offered a nutritious base for a variety of food combinations, with herbs and spices, and was served with rice that was plentiful.

Curries, both inspired by Szechuan food as well as Indian and Thai curries shifted to mainstream Australian restaurant menus. In 1984 Andre Blake's 'curried prawns with saffron sauce' was seen as epitomising fresh young Australian cooking. Thai chicken green curry was listed as number four out of the 10 most popular dishes in 2010. (In a survey of readers by Sydney Morning Herald food writer Jill Dupleix in 2010.)

'Craze for coconut' – lamingtons and Anzac biscuits

Lamingtons, no source

The large scale supply of dessicated coconut, first from Sri Lanka in 1880 and then from the Fiji Islands in 1885 in large 28-pound tins, transformed popular domestic cookery. Delicacies made included coconut macaroons, balls, ice, caramels, rocks, cakes, and puddings.  Coconut also defined the lamington and latter day Anzac biscuits.

Lamington cakes — sponge cubes dipped in a melted chocolate mix and covered in grated coconut — originated in Queensland. The first published recipe was in 1903, with lamingtons featuring in cookery competitions by 1906.  Its origins are linked to the chef, the cook or the maid for Lord Lamington, Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Lord Lamington, on tasting the new dish, was advised that it was being named after him. By the 1930s, the lamington was a fixture at country shows across Australia. (Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012, pp 201–3)

Anzac biscuits, no source

The Anzac biscuits that were popularised after the First World War (1914–18) did not bear any resemblance to the biscuits that the Anzac soldiers received in the trenches.  The trench biscuits were 'like a ships biscuit, tough, hard and almost indestructible'. 

It was highly probable that biscuits like the Anzac biscuits were sent after the Gallipoli Landing, placing Australian women in the Anzac tradition. (Sian Supski, Anzac Biscuits – A Culinary Memorial)

However, it was in the welcome parties and social events for the returning soldiers after the war that Anzac biscuits were created with rolled oats, flour, butter, honey, sugar and baking soda. This recipe combined recipes from the War Chest Cookery Book in 1917 with a John Bull oats recipe in 1920. An equal amount of coconut was demonstrated in the recipe in 1925 at the All-Australian exhibition. (Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012, pp. 204–7)

Coffee palaces and coffee culture

Café Français 283-5 George Street, 1864, Sydney Punch September 1864, p116, Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

'Pure and fresh roasted and ground' coffee was offered for sale by Waterloo Stores in Paramatta, New South Wales in 1850, meeting a high demand for coffee in the colonies.  French café culture in Sydney in 1864 was parodied in Sydney Punch (3 September 1864) at Cafe Francais, 283-5 George Street.

From the 1870s, coffee stalls were established in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Fremantle. Whilst they proved popular, correspondents in Adelaide and Fremantle in the 1890s were angry at the setting up of coffee stalls in the mornings and early afternoons.  This led to the regulation of coffee stalls by the relevant town councils, in order to 'avoid offending churchgoers'.

A ratepayer in Adelaide objected to his family not being able to enjoy a coffee in the evening at 6pm with their cornish pastie as the vendors were not allowed to sell coffee until 9pm.  He felt they had as much right as ice cream or fruit vendors to sell their wares at that time. (Adelaide Advertiser, 11 February, 1890).

Coffee palaces

Temperance Hall Coffee, Pitt Street, November 1870, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

In Sydney, a number of coffee palaces were established from 1870.  In November 1870, the Temperance Hall, Pitt Street advertised coffee and itself as a 'private dining room for ladies'. The No 2 Coffee Palace opened in Pitt Street in 1880, with a conservatory and marble-topped tables. In the next few decades, coffee palaces, ranging from small establishments to lavish buildings, appeared all around Sydney. There was the Grand Central Coffee Palace, on Clarence Street the Haymarket Coffee Palace, (1889-1919) and 12 others in the city as well as palaces in Redfern and North Sydney.

In Melbourne, the Victoria Coffee Palace, opened its doors for business on 1 November, 1880. It was founded by a Temperance League as an alternative to the rowdy, bawdy pub accommodation on offer during the late 1800s.  Essentially,

it was a dry hotel – no alcohol! Instead, patrons imbibed Beef Tea, mineral waters and, of course, coffee.

In 1956, accommodation was provided for 61 guests and the basement was let as an oyster room.

Federal Hotel, former Federal Coffee Palace, Melbourne 1950s, postcard

The Federal Coffee Palace in Melbourne was the largest and tallest building in the city when it was built in 1888 and part of a slew of coffee palaces in Melbourne.  The opening of the two most extravagant temperance hotels – the Grand in Spring Street (now the Windsor Hotel) and the Federal on the corner of Collins and King Streets – coincided with the 1888 Exhibition.

In Adelaide, one of the best known coffee establishments was West's Coffee Palace at 110 Hindley Street, leased in 1919. It can still be seen today. Another surviving Coffee Palace is at 80 Esplanade Semaphore, an impressive and grand building. In many cases the buildings were unprofitable for the Temperance Movement in the long run and became hotels.

There were coffee palaces throughout country South Australia: Renmark, Tallem Bend, Beachport, Mount Gambier, Victor Harbour, Peterborough, Terowie, Port Pirie and Kardina.  Many were still operating decades later.  The Grand Coffee Palace at Waikerie, a two-storey stone building, was operating in 1935.

Coffee Palace, Geelong, 1890, courtesy of Museum Victoria, 160069

In Victoria, the Mildura Coffee Palace was still operating in 1915 as was the Ouyen Coffee Palace in 1916 and the Ozone Coffee Palace, in Warrnambool, Victoria, was open for business in 1925.

Coffee customs and culture

Coffee was such an accepted Australia custom by 1914 that Australian troops in Heliopolis in Egypt during the First World War (1914-18) set up their own coffee (and tea) shop. It was advertised in bold letters as 'SYDNEY, tea and coffee, first class'.

Coffee culture was part of the modernism of the 1930s which saw the advent of cinemas, new theatres, and watering holes for the smart set, as well as jazz venues, such as the glamorous new palais de dance, the Trocadero. Coffee-selling venues offered a little sophistication at a reasonable price.  The Australian custom of coffee drinking has been to sit back and spend hours drinking coffee in cafés - making them a place for leisure and business gathering.

Ivan Repin started the practice of roasting coffee at the entrance to his coffee shop, so that the enticing aroma would attract passers-by. During the Depression, employers no longer able to afford renting premises met at Repin's café in Pitt Street and it became an important part of the commercial fabric of the city.

American servicemen visiting Sydney during the Second World War (1939-45) gave a further stimulus to coffee consumption and patronised Repin's café with 'heavy high dark wooden panels separating each table'.  After the war, Repin's café was patronised by

refugees from Hitler's Europe in long overcoats and carrying briefcases, champion chess players, artists with canvasses and paints … authors with manuscripts.

The Lincoln café, Rowe St, Sydney, 1948-5, image by Brian Bird

The Lincoln coffee lounge (1948-51) was said to be the birthplace of the Sydney Push movement.  The café attracted artists and writers, as well as a mixture of university students, lecturers, bohemians and libertarians.

The lifting of government controls on the import of coffee in the 1950s coincided with the arrival of hordes of coffee-loving immigrants.  By the early 1960s coffee 'lounges' were appearing in Sydney's suburbs. While in 1901, Australia's government statistician estimated that coffee consumption was only one-tenth that of tea, by 1914, coffee was popular and a part of Sydney's culture. By 2013, coffee consumption was about twice that of tea although most, six out of seven cups, are now drunk at home.

Mediterranean foods – an assault of colour, smell and taste

Antipasto platter, courtesy of All Recipes

Australian's food senses were assaulted with a new range of smells, tastes and types of food at the end of the Second World War in 1945. A large influx of Europeans migrated to Australia, especially from the Mediterranean – Italy, Greece, Turkey and Lebanon – as well as from the Baltic states and Russia.  Barrows of fresh eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes, olives, capsicums and garlic were sold on the streets of Sydney and entered the wholesale food markets. These foods were seen by many Sydney-siders for the first time.

Combined with the anchovies and salted wurst, homemade sausages and smoked meats already fashioned by Italian and German families in the Barossa Valley, South Australia and elsewhere across Australia, these ingredients, as antipasto and the making of pasta and pizza, transformed Australia's gastronomic heritage.  In the 1970s, domestic cooks across Australia prepared the popular Chicken Kiev. In 2010, spaghetti bolognaise was the fifth most popular dish. (In a survey of readers by Sydney Morning Herald food writer Jill Dupleix)

The café

Ozone Café, Watsons Bay c. 1950s, courtesy of Walkabout magazine#6 and the State Library of New South Wales.

By the 1950s, there were Italian and/or Greek cafés in nearly every country town in Australia, serving Mediterranean food, coffee instead of tea, sorbets, and ice creams.  This established the experience of the café in Australia.

The café was preceded by the Hungarian, Russian and Polish cake and pastry shops in Ackland St, St Kilda, Melbourne, which were established before the war by Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution.  Melbourne became the epitome of the diverse food available in Australia with extensive neighbourhoods and restaurants building on different waves of migration from different countries.

New ways for traditional oysters: bisque, supremo, à là Bretonne …

A new way of looking at food led to new ways of preparing traditional foods such as oysters. Instead of strolling around with a few slices of bread and butter ready to buy fresh rock oysters for lunch from a street vendor in the 1830s or patronising an oyster bar in a coffee palace in the 1950s, food lovers today can choose from a smorgasbord of different ways to eat oysters:
  • Oyster bisque
  • Oysters in herb butter with curry (Franz Blank)
  • Oyster Calvados (Dawn Davies – Oyster Bed Restaurant, Fremantle)
  • Oysters with fresh mushrooms and cream (French born Alain Kuhl – Hilite 33)
  • Fried Oysters (Kim Chilcott – Tweed Heads)
  • Oysters Supremo poached in sauterne topped with bacon and cheese (Mark Atkins – Mangrove Hotel, Broome)
  • Oysters with seafood, lightly grilled with wine (Astrit Verzivoli – Gardi's, Perth)
  • Oysters à là Bretonne (Peter Economou – La Bouillabaisse, Glen Iris, Victoria)
  • Oysters Czarina with black caviar (Pat Bolin, Fisheries, Hobart)
    (Lesley Morrissy, Cooking Australian Shellfish, 1980, pp 63–76).

A bold new century – Australian gastronomy, a premier cuisine

By the year 2000, Australians were regularly enjoying Italian, Greek, Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese cuisines cooked in restaurants and in their homes.  In the new century, immigrants from the Middle East and Africa are influencing the taste and style of foods we eat in our homes, cafés and restaurants.  This has coincided with a growing awareness of cultural and religious food requirements, such as Halal and Kosher practices, and vegetarianism.

Chili Prawns with bush tomato and macadamia nuts, image by Jill Richardson, courtesy of Bush Foods Sensation

Since the 1980s, the evolution of tastes and styles have helped to define a distinctly innovative Australian gastronomy in Australian restaurants that is seen as part of the worlds' premier cuisine.

This capacity to adapt and adopt is now also being extended to the commercial production of native foods or bush tucker. Kangaroo, emu and crocodile are available alongside camel and rabbit meat in gourmet game shops, and macadamia nuts have widespread distribution in Australia and overseas.

What was necessary experimentation is now reflected in new products.  Domestic cooks can now buy 'Wild lime chilli ginger sauce', a Thai inspired chilli sauce, made from the Australian Native Desert Lime. It is designed to be served with seafood, in particular barbequed prawns, scallops and Morton Bay bugs.

Bon appetite…

Useful links

Oysters mornay, Kilpatrick and natural, Perth, 1980, image by Malcolm Wells

Look, listen and play

Look at coffee culture

Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney - photographs by Brian Bird

Coffee palaces - photographs

Luigi Coluzzi, Sydney coffee culture 1964 -, Sydney City Council, 2009, audio

Educational resources

Native and bush foods

Brewed and bottled drinks

The colonial oven

Meat pies and cornish pasties

Coffee

Inventiveness and character

Chinese food and colonial curries

References used in preparing this story

Acknowledgements

Wakefield Press is acknowledged in providing materials and resources which assisted in the writing of this story, especially Barbara Santich, Bold Palates, Wakefield Press, 2012 and Barbara Santich, In the Land of the Magic Pudding. A gastronomic miscellany, 2000

Last updated: 23 October 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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