A pie and sauce, a prawn on the barbie, or a good old steak and snags cooked on the coals – it’s food like this that we often hear represents Australian cuisine.
Meat pies, prawns .. what is true Australian food?
Think of countries such as Japan with its sushi and sashimi, India with its curries, Morrocco with its tagines, Italy with its pasta, Indonesia with its satays, Scandinavia with its herring or Germany with its sauerkraut and bratwurst.
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What could and should Australia be hanging its culinary hat on when it comes to a national cuisine?
Is a meat pie or barbecue prawns really the best we can do?
It’s something that WA’s celebrated foraging chef, Paul Iskov, is thoughtful of and he hopes his pop-up catering business, Fervor, is playing a part in developing a cuisine that is genuinely Australian.
Iskov believes Australian culinary tastes are evolving and chefs are starting to use ingredients that reflect Australian cooking.
“Every little restaurant you go to has kangaroo on the menu and there are people using native ingredients, it’s great to see people using local produce and looking in their own backyard,” he says.
“I really hope it’s here to stay and that it’s not just a fad or a trend, because there are such amazing ingredients. They are delicious, but they are also healthy for us, so it’s fantastic seeing more people using them.”
Iskov’s affection for native and local ingredients has been influenced by working at some of the world’s best restaurants, including Vue De Monde in Melbourne, Restaurant Amuse in Perth, D.O.M in Brazil, Coi in San Francisco, Pujol in Mexico City and Noma in Copenhagen.
“At Noma, they were just working so hard at creating new dishes and finding new flavours, really researching different ingredients, which for me, I hadn’t seen anywhere else so that’s something we really try and do with ingredients we come across,” he says.
Perhaps it’s too long a bow to draw to suggest that Australia will become known for its raw scallops and green ants, or even for the grub that lives inside the bush banana, which Iskov may serve at his pop-up restaurants.
But the discovery of new Australian flavours is something Iskov is excited about, and he thinks could influence a national cooking style with its own identity.
“It might be when we are out on a cultural tour and one of the ladies gives us a new berry that we taste, and we can’t compare that flavor to anything else we’ve tasted.
“It’s just exciting as we develop different techniques to play with that ingredient,” he says.
The emergence of commercially produced ingredients like wattle seed, lemon myrtle, bush tomato and pepper berry are lending genuinely Australian ingredients to our menus.
Iskov says there are now even Noongar-owned land and farms starting to grow produce like youlk, which is a bit like a native carrot, and kulyu, which is similar to the sweet potato.
“It needs to be done in a respectful way, using Aboriginal knowledge with Western science and knowledge, but I wouldn’t like to see it go as far as clearing a whole heap of land to put a certain crop in, but there is great potential to have small crops of different ingredients.”
A lucky few will have an opportunity to sample Fervor’s pop-up approach in WA this year
As part of the Karijini Experience in April, he’ll be travelling to the beautiful Pilbara for two Fervor Degustations on April 18 and 21, and a Culinary Experience on Friday, April 20 in the surrounds of the stunning national park.
For the Fervor Degustations, guests will meet at the Karijini Airstrip before being taken to a secret destination. Once there, they will be treated to a 10-course degustation built around fresh, locally sourced produce and sustainably foraged native ingredients, with tickets selling for $210. The events are BYO.
The Culinary Experience will be a three-course, fine dining experience focusing on the taste and excitement of the region’s ingredients, which includes refreshment and entertainment in the ticket price of $170.
At the other end of the state as part of Taste Great Southern on March 17, Fervor will be using very different ingredients for a long-table dinner at Middleton Beach in Albany, in collaboration with Three Anchors.
Diners will be treated to ingredients such as marron, green ants, crab, youlk, wattleseed, seaweed, wallaby, muntrie berries and many other exciting uniquely Australian ingredients. It's a highly interactive evening where guests are encouraged to get up and view the cooking and plating throughout the night. The dinner includes matched drinks, snacks, a five-course meal and petit fours in the $190 ticket.
On March 24 in Katanning, Iskov will again be featuring local produce to create a degustation dining experience during a Twilight Dinner at Piesse Winery, to help celebrate Harmony Week as part of Taste Great Southern.
Iskov, who is committed to finding the best local ingredients for his pop-up meals, will be faced with very different challenges in Albany and Katanning than he will in Karijini, in the heart of the Pilbara.
He said both inland and coastal environments offered good opportunities for his style of foraging feasts, which were based as much as possible around locally sourced ingredients.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in the Great Southern so we know the ingredients quite well and we have a lot of people, suppliers and traditional owners who we can spend time with to collect things, but it is quite seafood based for Taste Great Southern.
“We have beautiful snow crab, and the Albany oysters and mussels down there. And then when we are up in Karijini, we have a lot of the grasses like spinifex and the native lemon grass, and you have your kangaroos and if you are lucky, maybe a bush turkey or two.
“There are things we are fairly confident we can get, like the spinifex for making breads and the native lemon grass should always be there, although we always take some with us as backup, but bush turkey might be a little bonus.
“There are things we know should be in season and we design the menu around that. We try and have some contact with the traditional owners before we come up to see what has been fruiting.”
Iskov says that in the Great Southern he loves to work with the seafood -- the oysters, mussels and the snow crab, which he says is an amazing ingredient, renowned worldwide.
“Even the marron and the yabbies’ down there, we’re so lucky to have marron, which people from around the world want to try.
“Then there’s meen, or blood root, that we talk to the traditional owners about and they will collect the bulbs for us which have a beautiful bright red colour and spicy, chilli like flavor which is really interesting to work with.
“When we are looking at the Pilbara it is totally different in that it’s more land based.
“We have things like the bush banana and while we use ingredients from the ocean its more things that we might collect with local man Clinton Walker and we’ll go foraging in the mangroves for mangrove snails or we might get some cockles or maybe a mud crab.
“Also up there we’ll find the native lemongrass, which is just so pungent there are so many things you can do with it.
“We pretty much always have kangaroo on the menu, but there is a range of land animals we can also use, including emu.”
Iskov believes Australians are becoming more adventurous in their tastes. He says that in the early days, there were sometimes people reluctant to try anything unusual.
“We talk about Mukinbudin a lot, out in the Wheatbelt, at one of our first dinners. A mate of mine told me not to be surprised if some of the guests don’t eat the raw scallops with green tree ants, because they were used to meat and three vegetables.
“But they had a go, even though they were pretty wary of the ingredients, then at the end of the evening came up and said they didn’t think we would ever get them to eat raw scallops and green tree ants, but it had been delicious.
“And over time more people who come to our dinners expect there are going to be some ingredients they haven’t tried before, but everybody seems willing to have a shot and most of the time, they are pleasantly surprised.
“In the Pilbara, we used the bush coconut and when you crack that open it has a white, coconut-type flesh, but inside that is actually a live grub, a little yellowy grub that has quite a sweet taste to it. It’s interesting that it’s a fruit, but also had a live animal inside it, which makes it quite an unusual ingredient.”
Australian tastes might not be quite ready for that as an everyday ingredient, but we’re certainly prepared to move out of our meat-and-three-veg comfort zone.