From the land of the wizards of Oz
You have to hand it over to the Australians … their ancestors may have been sentenced to a criminal settlement for the crime Les MisÃ©rables of stealing a loaf of bread, but they have moved on in terms of culinary advancement, while the British There are still firecrackers, mash and poorly made curry. Australians know a lot about food, they understand flavors and being naturally adventurous, they are not afraid to eat the world. Lebanese, Basque, Japanese, Mexican or Hungarian; they’re like, bring it on, mate. In conversation, they are very succinct, instead of boring you to death with their blood sugar levels. In stark contrast to our samoussa-Goody people, Australians eat healthy and they eat well and it is not seen because they are slavishly devoted to sports and sweating. Here’s an interesting fact: 95% of adult Australians can swim, which is why even their sharks eat well.
As people of the outdoors, they are happiest escaping in a Hobie catamaran with the wind in their sails and the breeze in their hair. It’s no surprise that barbecue is the most popular religion with over a million followers. It probably has something to do with Aboriginal cooked dishes that feature roasted iguanas, seasoned with bush herbs. I signed up for the experience that started with tay, an infamous concoction brewed in a billycan, sweet as sin and dark as the soul of a slave trader. This was served with crackers and Vegemite, a kind of yeast extract with the smell and consistency of bat droppings.
For those suffering from baking withdrawal symptoms, a good option is the Lamington: a blackish, elastic cake covered in jam and toasted coconut, especially because everything tastes good after Vegemite. For lunch we had the iguana with fire ants for dessert or maybe it was the other way around.
The scariest thing I ingested on my trip wasn’t an iguana or a crocodile, but a Bluto puppy. Think of a Frankfurt sausage, flamingo pink in color, coated in industrial-grade rubber: you chew it and it chews right away. Among other indignities the sausage must undergo before it is deemed fit for human consumption is the insertion of a bamboo skewer at one end before it is dipped in batter and fried. It is a kind of pork ice cream, served with ketchup or chili sauce. But I would do the Wizards of Oz an injustice if I didn’t care about the murky offerings served in cafes and restaurants. Serious Australian cuisine, especially at independent restaurants, is world class. Instead of fish and chips, consider seared swordfish on a bed of Bulgur pilaf, served with hot tomatoes and saffron Grout.
Or blue swimmer crab, smoked salmon and red pepper salad, with avocado and sumac vinaigrette, ripper mate. Lamb chops, marinated in garlic, rosemary and red wine, grilled to a smoky intensity and served with a delicious Chimichurri in Iceberg, Sydney. The restaurant takes its name from the adjacent swimming pool where blocks of ice are dropped into the big tub in winter and a few brave souls, known as polar bears, swim in the freezing depths. The scallops and braised duck at Spice Bar in Queensland are incredibly good, as is the yellowfin tuna sashimi and miso black cod at Nobu’s.
Muse Restaurant in Pokolbin, NSW, with Chef Troy Rhoades Brown, features local, seasonal produce sourced primarily from the Hunter Valley. Featured Spring Tasting Menu Bonito, cooked over a wood fire with crispy marinated rye and onions, served with Lamborn peas, followed by roasted Jerusalem artichoke, grilled hay cream, blue cheese with buffalo milk, malt and sunflower. Next dish was Little Hill Farm chicken, served with polenta, roasted sweet corn, black garlic and Togarashi. On the finish: Upper Hunter Wagyu beef over a wood fire, Koshihikari brown rice, shitake, brown kelp and a crisp daikon salad with the sharpness of radish offering the perfect counterpoint to the intense richness of the beef. They offer an optional Heidi cheese course with Gruyere cream, crispy and glazed, served with apple slices and toasted almonds. It’s inspired cuisine: sublime local ingredients, cooked with Japanese sensibility and Australian swagger, think of a happy swagman armed with a samurai. Sushi and sashimi have been so deeply ingrained in national consciousness that several fishmongers in Sydney’s wet market offer delicately sliced ââbluefin tuna
with wasabi, the tang of Japanese horseradish and tiny fish-shaped bottles of Kikkoman soy sauce. It brings a new meaning to the term: “fresh from the sea”.
The culinary highlight of my visit to Sydney was my meal at Cadmus, where the set features two Picassos and a Miro. Owned by Lebanese expat Habib Farah, the restaurant is split over two levels at the highest point of Circular Quay with the main dining area offering magnificent views of Darling Harbor and the Sydney Opera House. Chef Elli El Saddi selects from the finest fruits, meats, vegetables and seafood to create a sensual and sybaritic feast. Kibbeh Nayeh: Ground raw lamb, flavored with an eclectic selection of spices, garnished with dried pomegranate, followed by Shanklish, vine leaves stuffed with spicy goat cheese and Loubieh, the freshest of green beans, lightly steamed and mixed with olive oil flavored with garlic with sea salt. The lamb sambousek served here is a flaky and wonderful delight, a light batter coating perfectly seasoned chunks of ground lamb. You will never eat a samoussa again without wincing.
The roasted quail with chestnuts is sublime as are the grilled Moreton Bay bugs: think baby lobster, grilled in lemon butter. Next time you fancy a waltz with Mathilde and an al fresco meal, take a trip to Australia.
(The author is an old Bengalurian and impresario of comedies and musical performances who feels lucky to have made his passions – writing and acting – into a profession.)