An Introduction to Australian and New Zealand Food

Rack of Lamb in Sydney
Nerida McMurray Photography/Getty Images

The face of Australian food is ever-changing. It is diverse and innovative. It incorporates native produce and produce introduced by the many cultures living in Australia today.

Fusion Cooking

Australian food borrows flavors from Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, French, German, Lebanese, Vietnamese and Mediterranean cuisine, amongst others. These influences have permeated into all levels of eating, from first-class dining establishments to the local fish and chip shops where serving Thai sweet chili sauce with everything is now the norm.

With an abundance of incomparable fresh produce, Australian chefs are pushing the culinary boundaries and offering diners unique flavors infused with cultural diversity.

Modern Australia is a culinary force to be reckoned with. However, it has not always been so. Until relatively recently, Australian food was neither this diverse nor this glamorous. In fact, it has only been in the last twenty years that chefs have started fusing flavors to produce what is known as Modern Australian or “Mod-Oz” cuisine.

Meat

While beef, chicken, and pork are widely consumed, the popularity of native meats such as Kangaroo is increasing. Kangaroo is a dark, gamey meat that is high in iron and low in fat and cholesterol. It is roughly comparable to venison.

Lamb is a favorite amongst Australians. Lamb chops, cutlets, racks and roasts are widely consumed.

Seafood

As an island nation, Australia boasts an abundance of seafood such as oysters, abalone, lobster, prawns, and crayfish.

Marine fisheries are helped by the rich cold currents from Antarctica. Having coastlines on both the Indian and Pacific oceans, as well as inland river systems and wetlands, Australia boasts a broad range of native fish species.

Some of the most famous freshwater species include Barramundi, Murray Cod and a wide variety of Perch.

The Oceans meanwhile yield Yellowtail, Kingfish, Bream, Snapper, Red Emperor and Orange Roughy.

British Beginnings

Traditional Australian fare naturally took its roots from the more modest and hearty English diet. British immigrants moved to the Colonies and brought their recipes with them. These comprised of roasted or stewed meats, breads, puddings and pies.

Up until about the 1970s, Australian families ate a “meat and three veg” diet which typically consisted of lamb, beef or chicken, and root vegetables.

The European Influx

In the 1940s, '50s and '60s Australia saw a new wave of immigration from Europe and the Mediterranean. The face Australian cuisine would never be the same. These immigrants brought with them strange and wonderful things… like garlic!

With the Italian, Greek and German migration, came pasta, espresso, olives and spicy, cured meats. New methods of baking breads were introduced along with cheese and winemaking for which Australia is now famous.

The Asian Contribution

Since the 1980s, Asian Immigration has been far more prevalent, now making up almost 6% of the population. Australians’ appetite for Asian food has grown too. Australian chefs have been incorporating spices, coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass from India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

Back to the Future: Dreamtime fusion

Australia has come a long way, in quick time, on its culinary journey. Australian Chefs have traveled the world to develop their skills and have come home only to find inspiration in their own back yard.

This inspiration is coming from the rediscovery of the eons-old cuisine of the indigenous Australians. For thousands of years, Aboriginal people survived and flourished on the fruits of the land.

Meats included kangaroo, small marsupials, emus, crocodiles, dugongs (a large marine mammal closely related to the sea cow) and turtles. Fish and shellfish were available to tribes living mainly around the coastal areas. There were native fruits, some of which are making their way into restaurants for the first time, such as "Quandongs," also known as a "wild peach" or "dessert peach" and the "Riberry," a tart-cranberry-like fruit.

New Zealand Food is similar to Australian food: both their roots are in British and Irish foods. There are differences, however. Maoris (indigenous New Zealanders) and immigrants from other Pacific Islands make up a significant proportion of the population. Consequently, there is a strong Polynesian influence in New Zealand cuisine. Ancient staples like Kumara” (a sweet potato), play a large role in the Kiwi Recently, other international flavors, especially from South East Asia, have been fused with more traditional New Zealand recipes.

Produce

With an abundance of fresh seafood, meats, dairy and vegetables, New Zealanders put a large emphasis on using local and seasonal produce.

Kiwifruit

New Zealand is also well known for Kiwifruit. Although kiwifruit is not native to New Zealand, it is a very popular fruit crop. Kiwifruit, also known simply as “kiwi”, came from China and, for a time, were known as “Chinese gooseberries.” Kiwifruit was adopted as the new name for the fruit when New Zealand began to export them in the 1950’s.

Tamarillo

The “Tamarillo,” or “Tree Tomato” is a red or yellow subtropical fruit that is highly popular among Kiwis. Tamarillos, interestingly, are both sweet and tart. They are used in chutneys, eaten with ice cream, and blended with mayonnaise (their uses are almost endless).

Meat

Chicken is the most widely-consumed meat in New Zealand. However, it’s not for its chicken that New Zealand is known. New Zealand lamb is world-famous. Much of the country is ideal for raising sheep and cattle with an abundance of pastoral land. New Zealanders also have a taste for venison.

Lamb plays a large role in the Kiwi diet where the Sunday lamb roast is a family institution. The lamb that is eaten today, however, is much leaner than the lamb that was consumed by earlier generations. The taste for hogget and mutton, both with higher fat contents than lamb, has been replaced with the taste for a sweeter, milder meat.

Seafood

As an Island nation, it should not be surprising that the New Zealand diet is rich in seafood.

“Pipis” are a type of small clam. Other native shellfish include “Paua” (abalone), the famous “Bluff oysters,” also known as “Flat Oysters” or “Mud Oysters,” and New Zealand’s Green-lipped mussels. The “Koura,” a native freshwater Crayfish, is prized for its delicate, sweet flesh.

New Zealand’s lakes and streams also brim with trout (Rainbow, Brown and Brook) in both the North and South Islands. New Zealand Whitebait are also common and very popular -- they are smaller and sweeter than their English and Chinese counterparts.

Marine fisheries include Yellowtail Kingfish, Snapper, Blue Maomao, Marlin, Swordfish, John Dory, Trevally, Kahawai (Australian Salmon), Grey Mullet, Blue Cod and Bass. There are also several Tuna fisheries including Albacore, Skipjack, Bigeye, Yellowfin and Southern Bluefin.

British Beginnings

Like Australia, New Zealand’s traditional food finds its roots in the humble country cooking of the British Isles. Settlers brought with them recipes like mutton pie, scones, potted meats and rock cakes.

Polynesian Influence

Before the arrival of settlers from the British Isles, Maoris prepared food using methods such as steaming, smoking, roasting or drying.

Despite limited cooking resources, they were adept at preparing “Hakari”, huge banquets, where feasts would be cooked for hours on hot stones using the traditional "Hangi.”

Maoris were highly skilled at hunting, fishing and grew crops of potatoes and “Kumara,” also known as the sweet potato.

Upon the arrival of the settlers, Maoris were quick to adapt new methods of cooking and explore the uses of foreign flavors.