Australia and the U.S. have a lot in common. Both were inhabited by native peoples before the Europeans arrived. Both were English colonies (Australia still falls under the monarchy). And both have had immigrants come from all over the place, bringing their food with them. So defining Australian cuisine is much like defining American — it comprises many different elements mixed together. You can find an authentic taste of the land Down Under at Flinders Lane (162 Avenue A; 212-228-6900) in the East Village.
For nearly 100 years after the English first settled in Botany Bay (now known as Sydney), the continent of Australia served as a penal colony. Convicts from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were sent across the world in lieu of receiving the death penalty for crimes ranging from debt and stealing to bigamy and cutting down orchard trees. The typical British (and Irish) meat, potato, carrots, and onions came with them. For a long time, Australians followed that dietary system.
Meat pies have always been hugely popular in Australia. Same goes for fish ‘n’ chips. Sausage rolls, encased by puff pastry, are a favorite. With a large agricultural industry specializing in cattle and sheep (wool was a big export early on), beef and lamb have always been a staple here, too. Both are used in the traditional and persistent Sunday roast. “Where I grew up, we ate lamb,” says Flinders Lane partner Chris McPherson. “Mum would roast a leg of lamb with mushy green peas and roast potatoes and carrots. Then we’d make toasted sandwiches out of it. It’s our equivalent of Thanksgiving turkey.”
Barbecued meats have long been a standard, too. Lamb chops and seafood are commonly used, but Australian food now goes far beyond the meat and starch. Over the past 30 years or so, Australians have started to embrace immigrant culture — more specifically, the food. Greek fare is all over the place; in fact, Melbourne has the largest Greek population of any city outside of Greece. Italian is nearly as popular. Middle Eastern fare is found in many forms. Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian styles and ingredients have melded into the fresh locally grown protein and produce, creating lighter, bolder dishes similar to what you’d find in modern American cuisine. It’s not overworked with heavy sauces; instead, cooks use a wide range of spices, and herbs are used to season dishes. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are ubiquitous. “Lamb, meat pie, shrimp on the barbie: We’re still getting over the stigma of that generalization,” says McPherson. “No, it’s quite involved compared to that.”
Flinders Lane showcases the kind of food you’ll find in Aussie restaurants today. It does serve lamb, but with a multicultural twist. Grilled rump ($29) is set atop Middle Eastern harissa and Mediterranean-inspired cucumber salad. Greek minted yogurt and wattle seed, a native spice traditionally used by the Aborigines, finishes it off. Coconut curry laksa ($19) is chef/partner Chris Rendell’s rendition of what has become a popular Australian hangover cure. Barbecued shrimp swim with rice noodles and tofu in a rich coconut-milk broth. Bean sprouts, basil, and hot sauce are offered on the side. A staple in Peranakan cuisine, which blends Chinese and Malaysian influences, laksa comes in hundreds of variations found throughout Southeast Asia. “Before ramen had its heyday in Australia, you’d go out and have a laksa,” says McPherson. “If you have a big night, a laksa will put you back on your feet.”
Although Flinders Lane focuses on modern Australian cuisine, it does feature the classics, too. On weekends, you’ll find meat pies and sausage rolls on the special board. Similar to pigs-in-a-blanket, sausage rolls generally come served with ketchup or HP sauce. Both are offered here, but your roll also comes with a house-made aioli. Those sausage rolls have become favorites of the many regular Australian expats who frequent the restaurant. “It’s like taking a trip down memory lane to remind you of your childhood,” says McPherson. “It’s really powerful. That’s kind of what it’s all about.”
And if you’re looking to get a taste of some kangaroo, the restaurant has it — the marsupial’s meat is considered exotic even in its homeland. In Australia, you’ll find kangaroo in pubs and possibly outback barbecues, but you can’t just walk into a specialty store to pick it up.
As in so many parts of the world, globalization has been a positive influence on Australian food and culture. With so many people immigrating from all over the world, many Aussies have come around to a more inclusive way of life that shatters the Crocodile Dundee stereotype. “Australia, over time, has accepted a new identity of being multicultural,” says McPherson. “We still accept the monarchy — there were a lot of protests when it came up for vote — but after the terrorist attack in Sydney, there was the #walkwithyou [and #illridewithyou] campaign supporting Muslims living in Australia — 60 years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. It’s really embraced multiculturalism as a strength.”
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.