Australia has some of the world’s best food, but I am drawn to the memory of Irish meals

Irishman Fergus Porter on the cornucopia of Aussie food, and missing Christmas dinner

Fergus Porter enjoys a pint of plain in Melbourne

Fergus Porter enjoys a pint of plain in Melbourne

 

Fergus Porter is from Finglas in Dublin. He left Ireland in 1988 and arrived in Australia in 1993. He lives in Melbourne and works in engineering

Growing up in Ireland in the 1970 and 1980s, the selection of good food amounted to meat and two vegetables with a side of six types of potatoes. The introduction of “Chinese” food in the 1980s and then some other “foreign food” varied the average diet in Ireland, but I was never adventurous enough or perhaps I was satisfied by a food scene that didn’t extend beyond the basics.

Leaving Ireland in the 1980s introduced me to the hard truth - food cooked by somebody else always tasted better as you don’t have to clean up afterwards. Nonetheless, through necessity, I began to cook my own food and my tastes became more worldly and refined as I travelled.

Arriving in Australia in 1993, my first impressions were of the wonder of the barbeque - endless recipes for preparing and cooking meat, poultry, fish, vegetables and of course the old favourite, potatoes!

I was in a wonderland of weekly cooking experiences, learning how to select proteins, marinate and prepare them and imbibing the intricacies of cooking - searing, smoking, and grilling everything from prawns (not a shrimp in sight) to lamb, beef and copious types of fish, whose names I had never heard of let alone tasted. Australia does truly “abound in nature’s gifts”, as the national anthem puts it, and there is no shortage of fresh produce, meat and seafood to gorge upon or experiment with when the occasion presents itself. The vastness of the country and the variety of climates allows for all year-round availability of all types of fresh food. Plus it is all relatively cheap compared to the “auld sod”.

All kinds of everything: Tim Tam chocolate biscuits - a gift to the world from Australia
All kinds of everything: Tim Tam chocolate biscuits - a gift to the world from Australia

The joy of food in Australia is not simply based on home cooking, but on eating out. Coupled with the ability to bring your own (BYO) wine and beer to restaurants, this has made for a relative cheap and cheerful alternative. The variety is impressive and the choice of great wines has made everything taste even better.

The dining out experience in Melbourne is practically endless. New hip and cool restaurants open continuously, whilst yesterday’s hip and cool places to eat quietly fade away

Early Australian cuisine was relatively familiar to the Irish - bland meat, vegetables and potatoes - but with the influx of non-British and Irish people, particularly after the second World War, the diet and variety of food had become more varied and exotic. Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Lebanese, Malaysians and countless others brought their own flavours and recipes with them and, whilst initially catering to their own communities, quickly found favour with the other locals. Each city in Australia is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines that provide huge varieties of mouth-watering options.

Since the 1990s Australia’s palette has refined even further and whilst meat pies are sold by the thousands at the footy (Australian rules football) at the weekends, chiko rolls, another Australian invention based on a Chinese spring roll, which strangely contains no chicken, are voraciously consumed. During lunch-hours, there is no shortage of food from practically any culture and country.

Living in Melbourne, widely regarded as the gastronomic and café capital of Australia, the choice of food ranges from that on offer in global chains to the highly sought-after haute cuisine of some of the world’s best chefs. The dining out experience in Melbourne is practically endless. New hip and cool restaurants open continuously, whilst yesterday’s hip and cool places to eat quietly fade away.

The dining-out food scene has outpaced the weekly barbeques and home-entertaining with the experience of new choices preferred over the cheap and cheerful backyard. The cheap eats of the 1990s are now a memory and the term “foodie” appears to be a hashtag for those who consider it important to get in first and review the newest restaurants. Foodies are the people who want to check out latest fads and the coolest joints to drink expensive cocktails before a delicious, but minuscule, main course with a hefty price tag. Melbourne is not short of a few places to drop a week’s salary on a meal that may require topping up at a late-night Maccas (as McDonalds is known in the antipodes) on the way home. Nonetheless, there are some amazing restaurants, many of them great value, that have stood the test of time and which continue to deliver some of the best food that you can sample anywhere in the world.

Pre-covid, I had travelled a lot, for work and pleasure and sampled the best of Asia, Europe, and North America, but the variety and quality of food offered in Australia, makes it a standout for me. The pandemic has also probably shaped a lot of people’s eating habits over the past year or so, with many restaurants surviving through home delivery. This has been a symbiotic relationship for restaurateurs and consumers alike, the former eking out a living and the latter seeking variety of diet as a distraction from months of lockdowns.

Some of the greats did not make it, whilst some newcomers have created a reputation for good food despite the challenges. Now that Australia has reopened there is not a seat to be found in many restaurants without booking weeks in advance.

With Christmas almost upon us again, I am always drawn to the memory of Irish food, the roasts, the buffet of potatoes - yes, still a favourite after all these years. I miss the smells and tastes that accompany that feast. There are many Irish brands that make their way to Australia now and as I grow older, I have become more nostalgic for simple things, the brown bread, the sausages and a good cup of tea. Being spoilt for choice doesn’t always mean having what you want when you want it.

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