Ingredients from Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand shine in West Coast cuisine
To most Americans, Australian cuisine consists of Fosters beer and shrimp on the barbie. However, chefs across the country focusing on cuisine and ingredients from Oceania are slowly teaching diners about the region’s rich history of British, Asian and native influences and ingredients, with flavors unparalleled in the U.S.
Vegemite and lamingtons: Defining Oceanic cuisine
Prior to Western colonization, the continent of Australia and New Zealand was inhabited by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who focused on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They lived off the land, hunting animals like kangaroo and camel and foraging native ingredients like the bush tomato, riberries, lemon myrtle and wattle seeds.
In 1788, Britain decided to use the continent as a prison colony, and they sent approximately 160,000 men and women, many of them convicts, over an 80-year period. With these new settlers came British culinary traditions, which were adapted based on their new location and ingredient availability. Modern Australian cuisine is a blend of British, indigenous and various Asian cultures.
Many popular Australian foods originated from British cuisine, like meat pies, sausage rolls, fish and chips and scones. Some popular foods started off British, but evolved to become a distinctly Australian dish, like Vegemite (a yeast-based sandwich spread based from the British spread Marmite) and lamingtons. Lamingtons started off as a simple British sponge cake and evolved to become a sandwich sponge cake layered with jam, dipped in chocolate and rolled in dried coconut. It was created as a cake for tea
service, and today is as Australian as kangaroos.
When it comes to proteins, Australians and New Zealanders love chicken, grass-fed lamb and beef, pork sausages, and more recently, kangaroo, which was legalized for human consumption on a national level in 1993, but not nearly as common as lamb.
There are several health benefits to eating Australian meat; first and foremost, since Australia is a quarantined country, their meat is free of any major livestock diseases. According to Stephen Edwards, representative for Australian Lamb and Beef, their grass-fed beef and lamb is lean and has a rich source of protein, B-vitamins, iron, zinc and Omega-3. Additionally, both countries are surrounded by water, making their location prime spots
for high quality seafood and fish, particularly scallops, oysters and mussels.
From prawns to barramundi: chefs utilizing Oceanic ingredients
Many chefs around the country, especially in the West, turn to Australia and New Zealand for their meat, fish and seafood needs. For Chef Zov Karamardian of Zov’s Bistro & Catering in Newport Beach, California, buying New Zealand green lipped mussels from Santa Monica Seafood, her favorite purveyor, means “getting a product you just can’t find in the U.S.” These specific mussels are caught by rope, making them almost entirely free of sand and grit, a common problem in traditionally harvested mussels. The meat in these mussels is large and tender, so Chef Zov keeps her preparation simple to let the mussel flavor shine: she cooks them in a combination of court bouillon, olive oil, shallots, garlic, white wine and cream, reduces the broth and emulsifies it with a bit of butter before serving with crispy shoestring potatoes.
Chef Gaston Alfaro of Half Moon Bay Brewing Company uses Australian abalone for his cold abalone salad with julienned vegetables and honey-lime vinaigrette not only because they taste delicious, but also because they are wild caught, sustainable and a part of the Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, a consumer’s guide to sustainable seafood. Many of our oceans, especially around Australia and New Zealand, are in danger of being over-farmed, so purchasing your seafood from a sustainable purveyor ensures that your business will help promote a healthy ocean, and you are serving the highest quality product you can.
The Australian barramundi is a very versatile fish, similar to perch, and one that chef Tony Esnault of Patina restaurant in Los Angeles likes to serve with baby beets, hearts of palm brushed with lemon and a clear golden beet jus. As Chef Esnault notes, the Australian barramundi has a “moist, meaty flavor with a beautiful flaky texture that only a fresh water fish provides, and the golden beet jus cleanses the palate allowing the rich taste of the fish to continue with each bite.” Similar to Chef Alfaro, Chef Esnault appreciates that he can source an Australian barramundi that is “a properly farm-raised, freshwater fish in consideration of our Oceans.”
Meat pies a-plenty: Australian and New Zealand chefs on the West Coast
It is not just Oceanic ingredients that are becoming popular in U.S. restaurants, chefs from Australia and New Zealand have started cooking their favorite traditional recipes for an American crowd to rave reviews on the West Coast. The menu at The New Zealander Restaurant & Pub in Alameda, California, is described as New Zealand-style food with a blend of Pacific Rim fusion and a bit of Maori (the indigenous tribe of people who live in New Zealand prior to Western colonization) influence, developed by Chef Clive Hitchens, a native New Zealander, and Chef John McDermott, a Bay-Area native. As Chef Clive explains, “New Zealand food is naturally thought of as a clean, organic, natural way to eat” and the menu reflects that idea. It features meat pies made with New Zealand lamb, fish and chips made from New Zealand blue grouper and dipped in a special beer batter made with a blend
of light and dark beer, all served with organic salads
Native New Zealander and current Bay-area chef, Alka Patel, takes the savory meat pie concept a step further with her company, The Pie Press. Patel makes only savory meat and vegetarian pies at La Cocina in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, an incubator kitchen that cultivates low-income food entrepreneurs, especially women of color. The pies are flavored with popular New Zealand combinations like lamb curry, Indian butter chicken, and bacon, egg and leek, sold at Stonestown Farmers Market in San Francisco’s Lakeside neighborhood. All pies are made with a puff pastry base, which she buys from Orange Bakery in Orange County, but certain ingredients, like the lamb in her lamb curry pie and the gorgonzola in her sweet potato, gorgonzola and onion marmalade pie, are sourced from New Zealand and Australia. Patel feels that New Zealand lamb tastes less gamey than American lamb, and the Roaring 40s Blue Cheese from Kings Island in Australia has a complex flavor that pairs wells with her sweet potato and onion marmalade pie a flavor she hasn’t been able to find in other blue cheeses.
The sweet side of Australia
When it comes to Australian desserts, look no further than Bakesale Betty in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. The shop was started by native Australian Alison Barakat, who has worked as a chef in Sydney, Melbourne and at Chez Panisse, and features Australian dessert specialties like their seasonal sticky date pudding and her lamingtons, which are made upon special order. Barakat’s decadent lamingtons start with vanilla sponge cake that is layered with strawberry jam, dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut; a treat that is worth the wait of ordering in advance to satisfy your Australian sweet tooth.
Giving a go at Oceanic cuisine and ingredients
For chefs interested in exploring Australian
ingredients such as meat, fish and seafood, Chef Zov recommends “Learning about the ingredients you want to use and go from there.” She also suggests applying your own style of cooking to the ingredients you like. Chef Alfaro echoes that sentiment by explaining that the best route with Australian ingredients is to be creative. He likes to use New Zealand mussels with some Thai green curry paste to make his own twist on paella. For the sugary side of things, Barakat recommends experimenting with the versatile Australian baked pavlova, topped with fresh, Bay-area fruit.
Chefs across the country are testing out Australian and New Zealand ingredients like lamb and mussels, while native Australian and New Zealand chefs are also introducing Americans to their favorite recipes. From their sustainable seafood to their killer lamington cakes, this cuisine is definitely worth a closer look and fortunately for West Coast diners, a taste of Oceania is just around the corner.