Being an Aussie expat that has lived in the U.S. and Asia, I sometimes get questions about Australian foods. In this post, I will make my recommendations for travellers heading Downunder and the deliciously unique Australian foods I think are worth sampling while you are visiting our Great Southern Land.
Let’s clear the elephant from the room and address Vegemite straight up. The savoury spread is made from brewer’s yeast extract and is the Aussie answer to Britain’s Marmite. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t grow up on the stuff, who has taken to it as an adult – even when it’s served correctly. Save yourself the trouble and just don’t go there. There are plenty of other fabulous Australian foods to try.
But if you insist, here are my tasting notes on how to do Vegemite the right way (or jump to the next Australian food on our list). Vegemite is savoury, salty and a little bitter. First, I recommend starting with a base that is slightly crunchy in texture like toast, cracker or crispbread. Spread the Vegemite super thin, you really don’t need a lot. Pair it with something creamy: butter or cream cheese are most commonly spread underneath the Vegemite, while some layer slices of avocado over the top. Any way you do it, ensure you have creaminess to balance the tart, saltiness of the spread.
Alternatively, go down to the nearest bakery and ask them for a Cheesymite Scroll (or their equivalent), which is going to come in a ready-to-eat package, without the fuss. A Cheesymite Scroll is a savoury pastry with a thin layer of Vegemite and a generous amount of cheese cooked in, so you don’t have to wonder if you’re doing it right.
Graze on some local game – kangaroo
Kangaroo is lean, red meat that can be most closely compared to venison. It isn’t a regular part of most Australian’s diets, though you will notice it in the meat case of larger supermarkets. The meat is slowly gaining popularity as more chefs incorporate it on restaurant menus, usually in burgers.
If you are going to prepare the kangaroo yourself, I suggest starting with minced meat and substituting it for beef or pork in Spaghetti Bolognese or as JP calls it Spaghetti Bolo-Roo! Be prepared for quite a gamey cooking odour, but once served up you will hardly notice the difference. If you are feeling more adventurous, try a steak. As mentioned previously, the meat is low in fat and therefore is quickly overcooked. Only attempt it if you are prepared to eat it medium-rare to rare.
Snack on a sausage sizzle
Think of a sausage sizzle as the Australian hot dog. A snag (slang for sausage), straight off the barbie, placed across a diagonally folded slice of soft bread, topped with grilled onions and tomato sauce (what we call ketchup), then eaten with the hands. Sausage sizzles have traditionally been held as low-cost fundraisers for schools and community groups or as part of backyard barbeques. If you want to try this delicious snack, your best bet is standing outside a Bunnings (big box hardware store chain) on a Saturday morning where community fundraisers take place most weekends.
Try our meat pies
There is a disconnection that happens when you try to tell an American that pies are savoury, or try to convince an Australian that pumpkin pie makes a good dessert. Somehow through history Australians retained the British origins of the dish and terminology, while Americans changed it up. So to be clear, when speaking to an Aussie:
“Pie” refers to the pastry filled with minced meat and gravy or alternative savoury filling.
“Tart” is the term used for the equivalent sweet dish.
While meat pies are not an Australian invention, we took to them like ducks to water. Some might even call it our national dish. Australians eat meat pies at sporting matches like Americans consume hotdogs. So ask your nearest Aussie where the best meat pies in town are and they will likely have a recommendation for you.
Slam some Tim Tams
Made by Arnott’s (once an Australian brand which is now owned by America’s Campbell Soup Company), Tim Tam’s are a popular chocolate biscuit. The sweet biscuit consists of light chocolate cream sandwiched between two rectangular malted biscuits and coated in a thin layer of chocolate. I have found Tim Tams sold in other parts of the world, but the recipe has generally been tinkered with to appeal to local tastes. So even if you’ve tried them before, make sure you do so again on their home soil.
BONUS: A “Tim Tam Slam” refers to biting the short ends off a Tim Tam and using it as a straw to drink your coffee. The trick becomes letting the liquid soften the chocolate biscuit but not so much that it completely crumbles. Go on, have a go!
Honour the fallen with ANZAC Biscuits
ANZAC biscuits date back to WWI when they were made to sell or serve at fundraising events for the war effort. Since then, they have been eaten around ANZAC Day, 25th April, which is the anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) landing at Gallipoli in Turkey. The day is a public holiday in Australia and New Zealand, to honour those who died in conflict. These buttery biscuits have evolved over time and Aussies have distinct preferences of crunchy versus chewy-style cookies, but they are generally accepted to contain the key ingredients: oats, flour, sugar, golden syrup, coconut and butter. Homemade or fresh bakery ANZAC biscuits are best. The pre-packaged store-bought ones are just not the same.
Sample a Lord’s Lamingtons
There are a range of stories on how the first Lamington came to be. Most involve Lord Lamington, Governor of Queensland from 1896-1901, and a fateful piece of sponge cake dropped in melted chocolate. Whether you believe it was the idea of the maid, the French chef Armand Galland, or Lord Lamington himself, to then roll that chocolate-covered sponge in desiccated coconut, is of little consequence now. All you need to know is that Australian’s love the treats enough to have designated July 21st National Lamington Day. Unlike Lord Lamington, who may or may not have referred to them as “those bloody, poofy, woolly biscuits” – what would he know anyway? He was British.
Channel your kid at heart with fairy bread
A children’s birthday party classic since the 1920s, fairy bread is a slice of moist white bread, spread with butter or margarine and covered with coloured sprinkles. This simple delight of Aussie childhood is usually served sliced into triangles, although some parents may use cookie cutters to create other fancier shapes. There is only one restaurant in Australia known to serve Fairy Bread, so best be getting yourself invited to a local child’s birthday party, or be prepared to make it yourself.
Provoke some Kiwis with pavlova
There is a long rivalry between Australia and New Zealand as to who made the first Pavlova. The delicious, fluffy cloud of meringue could be compared to a ballerina’s tutu, and it was. Russian dancer, Anna Pavlova, inspired the desert during her 1920’s tour Downunder. Pavlova has a crisp outer shell and a soft, airy centre. It is usually served topped with fresh cream and fruit. You’ll often hear the dessert’s name shortened to “pav” – Aussies are lazy and shorten EVERYTHING!
Pavlova is a popular summertime dessert because of the light texture of the meringue in hot weather and availability of seasonal fruit as topping. This means it’s an Australian Christmas favourite.
Become an Aussie coffee snob
Two Aussies walk into a coffee shop on Caye Caulker, Belize and order lattes (no this isn’t a joke, this actually happened) and the lady at the counter hears our accents, smiles and says “we put flat whites on the menu just for you Aussies!” Apparently, tourism from Australia to Belize is such that we are impacting coffee shop menus now!
Starbucks went broke in Australia, closing 61 of 87 stores across the country in 2008. Why? Because Aussie’s know coffee and Starbucks ain’t it. After WWII, flocks of Italian immigrants brought espresso to Melbourne, Australia’s coffee capital, and the rest is history. As a kid, I can always remember my parents ordering a cappuccino at the end of a dinner out. Every cafe and restaurant had an espresso machine and a trained barista on hand. We were horrified when we moved to Ohio and couldn’t order a latte with our brunch. Say what!? We have to go to a separate, specialist coffee shop to get that!? That’s when we realised Aussie coffee culture was not universal.
Back to the flat white. If you want to try a uniquely Aussie coffee, a flat white is our own creation and sits midway on the spectrum between a straight espresso and a latte. Compared to a classic cappuccino which has distinct layers of espresso, steamed milk, and froth, a flat white is an espresso shot with steamed milk poured into the coffee.
Australian food culture and vocabulary
One of the biggest tripping points with Australian foods is the nuances of culture and vocabulary. We use many of the same words in British/Australian English as in American English but with reference to completely different things. Here are a few to look out for:
Lemonade – In Australia (as in Britain), lemonade is a generic term used to describe soft drinks with lemon or citrus flavours such as Sprite and SevenUp, while in the US, ordering a “lemonade” will get you the old fashioned style drink made with lemon, water and sugar.
Coffee/tea – Most Australian’s drink their coffee and tea with milk – an ode to our British roots. If you want it black, you’ll have to specify. This goes for iced coffee as well, in which scoops of vanilla ice cream are often substituted for milk. You won’t find sweet tea or iced tea on many Aussie menus. If you order tea, we will assume you want it hot.
Chips – In Australia, “chips” refer to crisps AND fries. We generally know contextually as to which people are referring, but for visitors, it can be tricky. If you want fries, use the term “hot chips”. Also, note that if a meal comes with chips it’s almost guaranteed to be fries. Crisp style chips are considered a snack on their own, not a side dish.
Barbeque (bbq) – In Australian food terms, barbeque is anything cooked outdoors over a flame provided by gas or coals. Aussie barbeque is what American’s refer to as “grilling”—it’s more of a general cooking technique or device. Furthermore, the term “grill” in Australia refers to the element in the top half of your oven, which is referred to as a “broiler” in the US. Confused you yet?!
Tomato and bbq sauce – Ketchup is called “tomato sauce” in Australia, but it’s essentially the same thing. Aussie bbq sauce has an unmistakable flavour, though it contains similar ingredients to many American style bbq sauces such as sugar, vinegar, tomato paste, malt vinegar, salt and paprika.
French dressing – French dressing in Australia means a vinegarette usually made of oil, vinegar and mustard. The creamy French dressing served in the US is more akin to what we call seafood sauce/ cocktail sauce / Thousand Island dressing, usually served with… fresh seafood. Australian “seafood sauce” is a variation on the British Marie Rose sauce.
Zucchini and aubergine – This is where Aussies take sides with America and use the Italian term “zucchini” instead of the French/British “courgette”, and “eggplant” instead of “aubergine”.
Pumpkin – In Australia, we incorrectly refer to almost all squash as “pumpkins” e.g butternut pumpkin. We only use the term “squash” for what American’s call pattypan squash. We generally prepare and serve pumpkin/squash as savoury foods, like vegetables instead of the fruit that they are. As I mentioned before, Australian’s lose their mind a little over the idea of pumpkin being made into a dessert like pumpkin pie. We think of it as a side dish to our Sunday roast!
Capsicum and chillies – I’m yet to figure out why Australia, India and Singapore (all British colonies) use the term “capsicum” for bell pepper, while Britain itself uses “pepper”?! The word “chilli” is a generic term for hot peppers in Australia, not the shortened reference to chili con carne, as it is often used in the USA.
Lettuce – Downunder, romaine is called cos lettuce (pronounced coz) and arugula is called rocket (also spelled roquette). Americans, don’t even think about ordering a “wedge salad” – we have no idea what that is.