A Story of Food in Australia

Thirty yards from my home, just a few steps away, is this corner shop. It is billed as a deli but does not fool anyone. It offers a depressing variety of fruits and vegetables and a variety of snacks, both salty and sweet, and expensive canned goods and frozen meals. The hum of its fridges and on its dusty shelves are several signs of privileges for the east suburbs -premium diet yogurts, Camembert, hummus, and French jams.

The store is a rival, distinct from the primary by a shoe repair place. It’s similar, but the owners cook freshly cooked pork rolls and also sell kumquats grown in their gardens. The store also sells imports of Italian pasta sauce and lean Cuisines along with Brie.

Just a few steps down the street is an Italian cafe that I frequently stop at in the early hours of 7 am to get coffee and toast with raisins before heading to the bus. Two Italian sisters offer fresh sandwiches and salads along with pasta and meat dishes that are prepared daily by their grandmother. Next to this cafe is a popular-with-the-locals Vietnamese restaurant. It’s a fun and lively place, and my companion and I can enjoy a delicious meal for less than $20.

My neighborhood is filled with restaurants. There’s a huge café that serves breakfast cassoulet to keep you full until dinner time; there is a Hungarian café serving a satisfying five-dollar salad and Schnitzel roll and two chicken stores, with one of them claiming that all of its chickens are hormone and cruelty-free. This pizzeria restaurant is open all hours from 10 a.m. until 1 a.m. Another Deli Cafe serves roast dinners on weeknights at a cost of twelve dollars, including kids’ meals for half price; a Vietnamese restaurant and a Thai restaurant serve excellent beef salad and cake stores as well as a chocolate store as a vegetable and fruit store; two stylish cafes that serve breakfast and lunch between Monday and Saturday; a vegan, organic restaurant; a health food shop that serves lunches and a deli that offers cheeses, small items such as organic meats, fresh bread, and gelato; a bar and a leagues’ club, both of which provide counter-service meals as well as six-dollar steaks.

In the neighborhood I live in, the variety and accessibility of healthy foods are so plentiful that making healthy food choices takes very minimal effort from me.

A new way of eating

After a train ride of 30 minutes westward to a suburb, you enter an entirely different dining experience. When I stepped off and left the station, in my path was the most iconic Aussie takeaway restaurant. The tiniest roast chickens sparkled under the spotlights, sitting on top of Kransky sausages, a plethora of chips (French fries) pie, sausage rolls, and something that is not often seen in my region: Chiko Rolls. The fridge was filled with chocolate bars along with flavored milk and soft drinks that were a haven from the scorching heat. The store had shelves of sliced white bread (not an entire grain to be located) and eggs in trays at three dollars per egg.

The next door, a shabby Chinese takeaway was closed with phone books and mail that were not answered were waiting tables at the shop’s front. I walked across the street and came across another Chinese takeaway; the one I saw was normally open, but it was closed while I visited. It served the usual sweet and sour along with fried rice. A few meters away, I stumbled across a hot-bread store offering sausage rolls, doughnuts, and pies, as well as rolls and bread loaves (a handful of them that were made with wholegrain).

There was a shining spot in the neighborhood because of the presence of a mosque. I went into the Lebanese food store and purchased an assortment of freshly baked dates and pistachio biscuits. The owner of the store was watching me as I looked through the shelves filled with cans of tahini and okra and olives, jars of olives and Fava beans and bottles of pomegranate molasses and rosewater, as well as bags of nuts and other herbs. It was a pleasure to talk with me about the things I can make using these unusual ingredients. Here, I could buy the cheese pizza, using flat bread as the basis, which costs $3.50.

In addition to a convenience store that had plenty of fruit and vegetables, that was all the suburb could offer me during lunchtime on a workday. When I returned to my train with my biscuits for a date in hand, I drove past the takeaway. A mother was shopping for hot dogs for her preschool son. She decided to draw the line on the Kransky. “You won’t eat it,” she said to him. As I crossed the street, an older woman wearing a dark pink hijab was going in the other direction. A car slowed as it drew closer to her. I could hear a male shout, “Hi! “Welcome to Australia!”

The comparison between my neighborhood and the other cluster of shops in the west could be unfair and even misleading, considering that there are a lot of suburban areas within western Sydney with more than one decent food outlet. However, this comparison, this merely thirty-minute train journey from the bright to the dark, raises the question of what is the fairness of the food culture of Australia.

Food obsession

In the last decade, we have seen an exploding appetite for food media in all forms. Australians have displayed an unending demand for magazines, cookbooks, and novels that focus on cooking and food. Food magazines such as Good Taste, Delicious, and Gourmet Traveller surpass the most popular men’s and women’s magazines and have a readership of more than half one million.

Cookbooks are a regular feature on these lists of bestsellers. In 2006, there were eight cookbooks listed in the top 100 books sold during the year. We also have seen a rise in food TV that is available on free-to-air as well as cable, with cooking and food programming “enjoying unprecedented popularity amongst diverse audiences, occupying prime-time slots in broadcasting scheduling, and becoming winners in the ratings game.”

The most evident manifestation of this fascination with food is the emergence of the “celebrity chef. Alongside the British’s Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Gordon Ramsey, Australia can boast a growing number of local celebrity chefs like Bill Granger, Kylie Kwong, Donna Hay, and Neil Perry, to mention just some. We can see them on midday, morning, and evening television as well as on the radio and in newspapers, on stage, and, more recently, on sauce jars and casserole dishes.

The enthusiasm for cooking and food in Australians is a bit of a surprise. As the food writer Michael Symons notes, “nobody has ever been terribly complimentary about Australian cuisine.”

Bush tucker (or bush food) aside, the country was awash in the food culture, the worst aspects of British cooking. But, thanks to the subsequent wave of immigration from healthy countries and the abundance of our own country, Australians have morphed from a gastronomic backwater into a culinary paradise. From the year 1976 the in the year 1976, South Australian premier Don Dunstan was extolling the country’s “tremendous food resources” in his self-titled cookbook. He also declared Australia ” the most fortunate country in the world for food.”

In the early nineties, food writer and food journalist Cherry Ripe stated the fact that “the food we are producing here… is currently some of the best in the world”. In the writings about food that we write today, there’s a distinct belief the Australian culinary culture will soon “come of age,” and it is also getting international praise. In 2008, two Sydney establishments, Tetsuya’s and Rockpool, were named among the top 50 restaurants around all of the globe (ninth and forty-ninth, respectively) in the Restaurantmagazine’s S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Top Food and Drinks list. It is not difficult to see the achievements of Australian chefs, restaurateurs, suppliers, and industry leaders need to be celebrated.

Inconvenient truths

However, I am curious about how content Australians are when we look at some of the unavoidable facts about food and dining in Australia. First, even though the majority of us are avid consumers of food and drink media, there’s evidence Australians cook more frequently than ever before. Additionally, some claim that we’ve seen an overall decrease in culinary skills that is blamed on the rise of ready-to-eat meals, the advent of modern technologies, and the ever-increasing number of our lives at the workplace and home.

The other unavoidable fact is the one that has gotten much media attention, the public’s concern, and political commentary and concern — the increasing prevalence of Obesity in Australia, both children and adults. Politicians and policymakers are concerned about the alarming increase in obesity rates since the price of obesity for both the public and the private sector is huge.

In October of 2006, Access Economics prepared a report on the economic burden of obesity, especially obesity-related ailments like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, osteoarthritis, and a variety of cancers. The report determined that the total direct economic impact associated with obesity is AU $3.767 billion. This includes productivity expenses that totaled $1.7 billion, health system costs of $873 million, and carer expenses of 804 million. There was also the aptly dubbed ‘dead weight loss’ resulting from items as tax revenue snubbed in welfare, welfare, and other state payments of 358 million and additional indirect costs estimated to be $40m. The total cost of losing health was calculated at $17.2 billion, which brought the total cost of obesity to $21.0 billion.

Obesity is a problem that affects the entire world and one to which is a problem to which the World Health Organisation (WHO) is paying greater attention. The WHO declares on its web that obesity is one of the most prominently visible but largely ignored health issues for the public. While undernutrition is a common occurrence, an ever-growing global epidemic of excess weight and weight gain — also known as ‘globesity” — is spreading across many parts of the globe.”

In 2005, The WHO estimated that 1.6 billion people were overweight, and at least 400 million of them were fat. This was twice the amount of obese people that the WHO estimated in the previous decade. Childhood obesity is an issue across the globe. In 2005, the WHO estimated that at least 20 million youngsters were overweight.

I’m sure that overweight Australians, as well as their counterparts from the developed and developing world, aren’t getting obese through eating Degustation Menus like Tetsuya’s or eating at the types of Italian cafes or Vietnamese restaurants that are in my area. According to the WHO, the issue is due to “a global shift in diet towards increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.” This diet shift is to the disadvantage of everyone when combined with the ever-physically demanding lifestyle of the workforce, the changing ways of transport, and growing urbanization.

Food that is good and great for a few

In Australia, a stark contrast is evident. On the one hand, there is the amazing food prepared by famous chefs, which is showcased in glossy food publications as well as entertaining television programs. But then there’s the reality of Australia’s overweight statistics, the dependence of ever-busier people on packaged and prepared food items, and the fact that Australians are more interested in watching people cook than they cook their own.

All of this raises the question of the extent to which food media celebrities, famous chefs, and globally acclaimed restaurants have changed the ways Australians consume food on a regular basis. However, although it’s easy for people to view cooking TV as food-related entertainment and ‘gastro-porn,’ they can be a source of education for viewers. Writer Marian Halligan argues that, at a minimum, fans watching these cookery shows can be “looking at, even if they aren’t eating, interesting food.”

It’s an initial step and one day; the interest may be the catalyst for action. However, what is evident is that watching endless cooking shows won’t be able to aid you in the kitchen if your life and the economic and social conditions that define it don’t provide you with the time, money, or access to high-quality ingredients.

Not all Australians are fortunate to live in an eating nation. The top-quality food that is a favorite to critics isn’t necessarily what most Australians have the money, time, or opportunity to indulge in. AC Nielsen’s list containing the top 100 most bought items on the shelves of Australian supermarkets is a good reflection of the findings of these surveys. Based on this report, Australians enjoy Coca-Cola, Tip Top bread, Cadbury’s chocolates, coffee, Yoplait yogurt, Peter’s ice-cream, frozen veggies, Bega cheese, crisps (potato chips), canned fish, Arnott’s biscuits.

There isn’t a pesto, baguette made of sourdough, or laksa noodles paste to locate. This isn’t my neighborhood that has vegan sushi and eggs Florentine, which we have to explore to understand the eating habits of Australia better. It’s the second suburban area with white bread and hot chips, as well as convenience stores and cafes that are closed. To a certain extent, the racism in the SUV was correct. This is Australia.

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