Advancing Australian fare

There are many traditional ‘Aussie' foods that we romantically think of as defining us as Australians

As we approach another Australia Day, it's a good time to reflect on our Australian food heritage. We have many iconic food items that we view as "typical" Aussie fare such as Anzac biscuits, lamingtons, Vegemite, pavlova, damper, billy tea and barbequed goodies like snags with caramelised onions (and tomato sauce, of course!). But could any of these food items truly be considered a contender for our national dish?

I remember many years ago when one of my students asked what was the Australian National Dish. I replied with "salted beef, dry bread and a ‘swig' of creek water".

After a look of total confusion I explained that we started out as a colony of the British Empire which is where our culinary roots lie.

Let's look back

When the first fleet came to Australia in 1788, they arrived with supplies they thought would sustain the small population. Things like seeds and livestock were brought so that farms could be established. Unfortunately this proved quite a challenge as the climate was harsh, rainfall was minimal and arable land was hard to find. Starvation suddenly became a real possibility. Meanwhile, the native Australians looked fit and well nourished. They knew the secrets of hunting, gathering and land management, eating native plants, nuts and berries.

Soon the new settlers began to supplement their diets with the same types of food that the natives ate. Driven by curiosity and necessity, they tried emu, kangaroo, lizards, snakes and seafood. The meats were boiled up and stewed until dry and stringy, or just thrown onto the open fires (which may have been the beginning of our love affair with the barbeque).

Mostly however, the early settlers raised European herds and crops. As there was no refrigeration, salting and drying the meats was common to help with the preservation process.

And there was always flour, tea and sugar. These items were brought over on the supply vessels, so damper became a local favourite, especially when washed down with billy tea.

As migration to the young colony increased, so too did its diet, evolving to include many different types of food from around the world.

The gold rush

The gold rush of the 1850's brought many migrants seeking their fortune. For the Chinese in particular, ‘gold fever' was a huge motivation to come to our shores. So the first Chinese foods started to appear in the gold fields around Bendigo and Ballarat, then spread to other regions such as Bathurst, Sofala and Hill End. This is why any regional town or city in Australia has a Chinese restaurant.


Around the same time as the Chinese migration in the 1850s, immigrants from Germany were settling in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. The Germans brought with them the sausages and various other small goods that comprised their diet. Our love of the humble ‘snag' may have taken shape from this development.

A national dish?

A blog post of this size can't even touch on the many cultures and varieties of foods that modern Australia can cite as influences. There just isn't enough space. So what could be considered our national dish?

In my opinion, there are many traditional ‘Aussie' foods that we romantically think of as defining us as Australians. Adding to the above list I now include the following:

  • barbequed meats (especially lamb chops and sausages)
  • meat pies
  • roast leg of lamb with the English-inspired roasted vegetable and gravy
  • What would you add to this list? What do you think of as being ‘traditional' Aussie fare?