Australian Food and Drink History


Australia has a rich variety of foods and drinks, adopted and adapted since colonisation and developed as part of a multi-cultural society. What was once new and foreign has been transformed with new ingredients and styles into distinctly Australian food.

In the early colonial days, there was much ingenuity, originality and innovation in cooking. Menus included seafood, native game and vegetables, as well as native fruits and nuts. Native fruits, such as lilly pillies, quandongs, rosellas or hibiscus, wild raspberries and native currants, were harvested for profit as well as for domestic use continuously until the 1930s.

aussiemeal The picture features Kangaroo and Mash with peas.
Stores of rum and beer, as well as the makings for them, grapevine cuttings for wine, coffee plants and beans, and ginger were unloaded in 1788 with the First Fleet arriving in the Colony of New South Wales. Ginger beer, cordial and lemonade factories sprang up as the colonies developed.

The influx of migrants from Europe and America during the gold rushes of the 1850s spurred the drinking of coffee and the expansion of street vendors with pies and Cornish pasties. The new arrivals also developed a taste for Chinese food with fresh green vegetables, available in China towns, and especially in the port cities from the 1860s and throughout the 1870s.

At the time of Federation in 1901, a change in eating and cooking styles reflected new values. Outdoor picnics were enthusiastically adopted, establishing the tradition of the barbecue. There were new staple foods for main meals: mutton, meat pies, colonial curries and lamb chops.

From the 1880s, grand ornate coffee palaces offered coffee drinking and dining as alternatives to the alcohol fuelled atmosphere of the pubs. Coffee lounges became part of the modern jazz culture of the 1920s and 30s and expanded with the influx of American servicemen and European migrants in the 1940s.

Innovations based on new ingredients created new recipes. New desserts, cakes and biscuits, such as pavlova, lamingtons and ginger biscuits went down well with a cup of tea, a near universal drink. Phrases like a ‘billy of tea’, and later additions such as Anzac biscuits and vegemite were added to the vocabulary. Vegemite spread was invented in 1923 by Melbourne scientist Dr Cyril Callister as a way to exploit the yeast left over from beer production.

At the end of the Second World War (1939–45), there was another influx of migrants, which bought new ingredients and new flavours. This willingness to experiment and discover new taste experiences transformed Australian cooking. Australian food began to be defined by the changes brought about by new styles of cooking, especially Mediterranean, Asian, Indian, and African.  BBQs are very popular for family and friends gatherings or public events.
Today, many contemporary Australian chefs display these qualities of innovation and bold experimentation in their expression of originality, and are recognised worldwide for their skill and imagination.

There is now a plethora of Asian foods offered and integrated into mainstream life.  Chinese, Indian and  Thai restaurants proliferate and their foods have made their mark.  And of course American fast food outlets can be seen widely in the cities.

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