Today is Australia Day, a national holiday commemorating the 1787 arrival of the first fleet of British settlers, including a few boatloads of convicts, in Sydney. (Technically, because of the time difference, it's already the day after Australia Day over there.)
I recently returned from visiting family and friends in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively. (Apparently, I just missed another American visitor over there named something like Opera or Opie who made quite a splash). Australia isn't famous for having its own distinct cuisine—most of what's popular to eat on the continent down under originated elsewhere, either in Britain or in the home countries of its many immigrants. And while this wasn't the gastronomic journey of a lifetime, like Italy or Japan might be, I did eat a few interesting Aussie foods worth noting:
Vegemite—Any discussion of Australian food would be incomplete without mention of the ubiquitous sludge in the yellow and red package. Every Australian I met while traveling through Europe in my 20s carried a jar of this gooey yeast extract in his or her backpack, so it wasn't new to me. It looks like the crude oil that washed up on Gulf Coast beaches last summer, and its pungent yeasty flavor is not for delicate palates. But spread thinly on buttered toast, I think it tastes a little like the tang of really sharp cheddar cheese. In other words, good.
Meat pie—Everyone told me this was the one Australian dish I had to try before I left. I finally got my chance at an award-winning cafe called Pie in the Sky in Olinda, a cute mountain town in the Dandenongs, near Melbourne. Single-serve meat pies are a British import, but the Australians (and neighboring New Zealanders, I hear) have taken a special shine to them and spun off some interesting variations. My husband went for the classic ground beef filling, I chose tandoori chicken, and our friend had pumpkin pie—pumpkin is a popular vegetable there and this savory pie was an entirely different creature from the traditional American Thanksgiving dessert. All were delicious, with flaky crusts and flavorful fillings that bore no resemblance to the cardboardy frozen pot pies we have here. None of us were brave (or hungry) enough to try the "floater," a pie floating in a bowl of pea soup.
Lamingtons or Lemmingtons—You know how we have whole blogs in the United States devoted to cupcakes? The Australian equivalent is the Lamington (sometimes spelled Lemmington, which is closer to how I heard it pronounced), a small cube of sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and dried coconut and occasionally dolled up with cream or jam. Most stories attribute the name (if not the recipe itself) to Lord Lamington, governor of the state of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. As beloved as these tea cakes are to Australians, Lamington himself was no fan, supposedly; according to an anecdote on What's Cooking in America?, he referred to them as "those bloody poofy woolly biscuits." I have no idea whether that's true, but I couldn't resist the colorful (and, having tasted them, not entirely inaccurate) description.
Pavlovas—I wrote about this meringue dessert a few weeks ago, before I actually got to try it. After going the whole trip without encountering one to taste, my friend's mother very kindly whipped one up, topped with passionfruit, on my last night in Melbourne. Delicious, though I could have used a bite of sour pickle afterward to counteract the sweet overload.
Slice—Australians have a knack for naming things in the simplest, most obvious way. Hence the class of desserts called slices, which are pretty much anything baked (or sometimes just mixed and chilled) in a shallow pan and—you guessed it— sliced. Not quite brownies and not quite fudge, the varieties have cute names like Hedgehogs and White Christmas. They're the kind of homey treats that grandmas make, and the ones I tasted were addictive. The person who baked them generously passed along some recipes, but they included ingredients like Marie biscuits and copha (a hydrogenated coconut oil shortening) that we don't have here and which would take some research to figure out substitutes.
And, finally, one iconic Australian food I didn't eat...
Kangaroo meat—One of my favorite activities when I travel is wandering the aisles of a supermarket. Although I didn't actually see anyone eat kangaroo in Australia, there was a whole section in the butcher department devoted to marsupial meat. The guide for a walking tour we took in Sydney remarked that Australia is the only country that eats its national animal. I don't know if that's true, but it's hard to imagine Americans eating bald eagles. Then again, if Ben Franklin had had his way the turkey would be our national bird.