If Americans think of Australia at all, they probably conjure up images of Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin fighting massive reptiles, or maybe they picture the broad, dry land they’ve seen in such films as Australia: The Movie or Quigley Down Under. However, these images, while not untrue, are hardly complete.
Australia is a land of sublime wilderness, but it is also the most urbanized country in the world, with 85 percent of the population living in cities. It is a land of parched landscapes and dry riverbeds, but it also has fabulous rainforests, astonishing wetlands, and forests of towering Karri trees the rival the Redwoods of California. Plus most of the population lives within an hour of an ocean beach. It is known as the land of the parrot, but it is also home to huge colonies of penguins along the southern coast. Australia is the flattest country, yet it has the second longest mountain range in the world. It is famed for its heat, yet has some of the world’s most extensive snowfields.
Among the surprising aspects of the land Down Under, perhaps none is more surprising than the wonder of the country’s dining scene, because Australia is most definitely a great place for foodies.
Australia is an island, so naturally fresh seafood is abundant almost everywhere you’re likely to go. Dine on barramundi from Queensland to Darwin, John Dory in Sydney, or whiting in the south. Be sure to sample Sydney’s splendid oysters, and indulge on succulent scallops in Perth or Adelaide. Don’t be alarmed by the “bugs”—Balmain bugs or Moreton Bay bugs that is—the sweet, flavorful, indigenous crustaceans that are related to the creatures Europeans call “slipper lobsters. “ Look for crayfish on the menu—these are what Americans know as rock lobsters, and they are particularly abundant in the southern states. These Crayfish are unrelated to crawfish. The Aussie crustacean most like a crawfish is the yabbie, a freshwater creature that is larger than its American counterpart, and also worth trying. Prawns are varied and succulent, and some massive, particularly in Queensland. Don’t forget the crabs!
If you only get to Sydney, Doyle’s on the Beach is the place to go to sample the widest possible selection of seafood. However, every town is going to have local specialties, and it’s wonderful to explore what’s in season wherever you are.
Much of Australia is in the tropics, so there is a wide array of gloriously exotic fruit available, from mangoes to custard apples to papayas. The macadamia nut, also known as the Queensland nut, is indigenous, making them not nearly as expensive as they are in the states. The farmers’ markets are a delight. If you get to Melbourne, check out the Queen Victoria Market , a 100-year-old outdoor market that covers 16 acres. And Adelaide’s Central Market is a treat, too. In fact, all the major cities have markets that will delight you.
Australia is a world-class wine-producing country as well. There are numerous dinky-di Aussie wineries, many of them international award winners, but most of the world’s top outfits have vineyards here also. The Domaine Chandon vineyard outside Melbourne, for example, is a delightful spot to stop for a bit of bubbly and to enjoy the view of vineyards and bordering mountains. However, if you can only visit one wine region, the Hunter Valley outside Sydney is recommended. If you can take in more than one, South Australia has a number of wineries well worth a visit. And then there’s the rum and the beer. Rum played a key part in Australian history (check out my blog  to learn more about the story of the Rum Rebellion.) As for the beer, every state has at least a few brands, and brewery tours are often available. Me, I prefer cider to beer, and Australia is where I got hooked on Strongbow.
On top of that, you have a substantial immigrant population. There was a huge influx from Europe after World War II. Huge enough that, for example, Melbourne has the third largest Greek-speaking community in the world, after Athens and Thessalonica. Plus, Australia is in Asia’s backyard. Even twenty years ago, you could get octopus or hot goat curry from food vendors in shopping malls. It’s where I had my first Vietnamese and Cambodian food, and while I’d first sampled Indonesian food in Amsterdam, I became truly familiar with it in Australia.
Australia is also becoming a top-notch olive oil-producing country, has some of the most productive rice paddies in the world, has splendid tea plantations and huge orchards of fruit and nuts, so good ingredients are not hard to come by. Throw in a few ambitious, imaginative, cutting-edge chefs, and you have the makings of a diners’ paradise.
Of course, it also has its homey specialties. The national food stuff—the item that holds the place in the food hierarchy comparable to hotdogs and hamburgers—is the meat pie. Chopped meat and onions are baked inside a flaky pastry crust, and a good meat pie is a thing of beauty. It is traditionally served with tomato sauce (ketchup). Generally eaten out of hand, meat pies appear in all the places hotdogs and burgers appear, including sporting events.
There are a few things that might strike the visitor as unusual. Pumpkin is served as a vegetable. Pub grub often offers roast lamb at lunch, which is not usual for Yanks, but is certainly not a bad thing. The candy bars are almost all different from ours—though many will be familiar to those who have traveled in England (there is, in fact, a Cadbury’s factory in Australia). And you can get champagne and orange juice in pop-top cans. But differences just add a touch of the joy of exploration to the trip. You don’t want it to all be familiar, do you?
So if you visit Australia, prepare to be surprised—and delighted. It is a country of dramatic differences, friendly people—and great food.
Originally published on TangoDiva.com