One of the pleasures of travel is to experience the pleasures of a different cuisine .However, American travelers to Australia and New Zealand will be somewhat disappointed since the cuisine Down Under is not all that different from what they are accustomed to at home . Both countries were settled by the British and their cuisine strongly reflects its British heritage . In fact , the British influence is all the stronger because both countries are islands , immigration was more tightly controlled and, not having contiguous neighbors ( unlike America ) , their food has been less subject to foreign influences .
Because of the pastoral nature of the two countries , particularly New Zealand , the food Down Under is predictably ” meat-o-centric” and the beef and lamb are of excellent quality. New Zealand lamb is the best I’ve eaten and , properly cooked , has none of the strong taste that we associate with it. The seafood too is plentiful and barramundi , salmon, shrimp and trout frequently figure on menus .
All the hotels we stayed at included the full breakfast option which was a boon . Excursions were generally scheduled early in the morning and having breakfast at the hotel enabled us to get an early start on the day. The breakfast buffet was similar to those in American hotels but it had some typically British offerings . In addition to sausages , ham , bacon , scrambled eggs and hash browns , there were also grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms and English style beans in tomato sauce ( great with a dash of tabasco) . After the first few days , I got a little tired of these and of the cold meats , cheese and bread and found myself sticking to cereal , fruits and toast with my morning coffee. In Cairns and other cities that cater to Asian tourists , the buffet also included options such as miso soup , congee with multiple fixings and Oriental salads which provided a welcome change.
After such a heavy breakfast , lunch was usually a light affair taken at a coffee shop , food court or pub. I am happy to say that we never once ate at McDonalds , Burger King , Subway or at any other fast food joint during our entire stay . Instead , lunch often consisted of a meat pie or sausage roll washed down with coffee or a soft drink . The meat pies cost about $ 5 apiece and came with a variety of fillings ( chicken -vegetable , steak and kidney , steak , chicken-egg,bacon and egg, tandoori chicken , curried lamb , mincemeat, kangaroo and crocodile to name only a few). The quality varied widely . Sometimes they were leaden and doughy ; at other times they were light and flaky with a properly savory filling . My favorites were the mince and the steak and kidney pies . I also tried the kangaroo and crocodile versions but when meat is cut up and baked in a pie it is difficult to taste the differences . Kangaroo was leaner and slightly gamy but the crocodile could have been anything ; I am unable to say whether it tastes like a cross between chicken and pork as some have stated.
Most of these pie shops also had a dessert section that carried an assortment of biscuits ( cookies to you ) and other sweets. I loved these little treats and had them either there or at one of the numerous confectionaries. They were quite different from what we get in the U.S and included lemon curd tartlets , ginger crunch , chocolate ginger squares , jam slices , mango- passion fruit cheesecake and Yo-Yo biscuits. That last consisted of hard lemon-flavored biscuits sandwiching a smaller disk of lemoncream , hence the name Yo-Yo. Scrumptious , all of them .
I also tried the three iconic desserts from Down Under : pavlovas , lamingtons and TimTams. Pavlovas are meringues topped with cream and fresh fruit( often kiwi fruit, passion fruit or strawberries) The outer shell is crisp and crunchy while the inside is soft and moist . The dessert is named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova who toured Australia and New Zealand in the nineteen twenties and enthralled audiences with the style and grace of her dancing. For years afterwards , chefs Down Under honored her by creating light , airy desserts , the best known of which is the pavlova . Incidentally , both countries claim the pavlova as their own. The lamington on the other hand definitely originated in Australia and is named for one of its early Governor Generals, Lord Lamington . Legend has it that his cook accidentally dropped a sponge cake in some melted chocolate. Not wanting to waste it , he rolled thoroughly to coat it and then sprinkled it with shredded coconut .The concoction met with the great man’s approval and was named for him. I liked the pavlova but I was less than thrilled with the lamington . The third specialty , TimTams , are chocolate coated chocolate biscuits and quickly became a favorite . Wish we could get some here !!
In the evenings we sat down to more elaborate meals . One of the best was at Prime Waterfront Restaurant & Bar in Queenstown, N.Z where we enjoyed the lake view as we dined on delicacies such as Pepper, Parsley and Cashewnut encrusted Lamb Rack with Garlic Mash , Green Beans , Rosemary Red Wine Jus ( ( NZ $ 38), Crisp skinned Pork Belly with Manuka honey Applesauce , Balsamic Glazed Baby Beetroots and Buttered Mash ( NZ $ 29.50) and New Zealand Green Lipped Mussels with Chili, Garlic and Coriander Cream Sauce served with Warm Bread ( NZ$ 25.50). I don’t usually like mussels but these were different . Much larger with lighter- colored elongated shells, they were much milder than their American cousins and had a green fringe thus giving them their name . Whether at Prime or elsewhere, they are definitely worth trying.
The worst experience was at Coast Restaurant in Darling Harbor, Sydney where we dined on dishes such as Grilled Whole Barramundi , tomato , olive and Basil ( AUS$ 38) , Seared Yellowfin Tuna , Braised Fennel , Chili , Lemon and Orange ( AUS $ 37) and Coast Fish & Chips (AUS $ 29). The food was good and the fish perfectly cooked but the experience was spoiled by the snootiness of the waiters and the slowness of the service . Even though the restaurant was practically empty , it took them almost two hours to serve a meal that was consumed in less than 15 minutes. Not my idea of fine dining.
We much preferred dining at Alehouses where the menu was simpler but the service was quick and friendly. Usually the food they served consisted of staples like Fish and Chips , Steak Sandwiches , Lamb Shanks ,Burgers , and one or two surprises such as Lamb Roghan Josh . At the end of a long day of travel , the convivial atmosphere at these places and the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere were most welcome .
In Ayers Rock we were supposed to have an outdoor barbecue featuring exotic meats such as emu , kangaroo, ostrich and crocodile but it was canceled at the last-minute because of scheduling problems . No big loss there as I don’t think these fancy meats are all that different.
Australia and New Zealand are not the homogenous societies that one might imagine . After WW II , large numbers of Italians and Greeks emigrated to Australia and in the last thirty years there has been a sizeable influx of Asians. As a result the larger cities have a wide variety of ethnic restaurants serving Greek , Italian, Thai, Japanese , Chinese, Korean and Indian food .
The Chinese were the first of these to emigrate , lured by the prospect of riches in the Ballarat and other gold fields in the 1850’s. The gold soon played out and they settled down in the cities . As a result there are Chinatowns, most often in the CBD ( Central Business District ) of the larger cities.We tried the Shark Fin Restaurant in Melbourne’s CBD and found the yum cha ( = dimsun in America) undistinguished , though the main dishes were superior. The Red Chili Sichuan restaurant in the Haymarket in Sydney’s CBD was very good . Our favorites were the Salt and Pepper Calamari , the Kung Pao Chicken with Peanuts , an Eggplant dish and the cold noodles. Two other dishes ( one of them the Beef HotPot) were spoiled by a too-liberal use of Sichuan peppercorns , those little berries with their distinctive bite .Perhaps it’s not a bad thing they have banned in the U.S !! The next night we went to another Chinese restaurant , round the corner from Red Chili Sichuan but it was a bust. On the whole , I’d say the Chinese restaurants in Australia and New Zealand were of the same quality as those in the U.S , though perhaps the menus were more authentic.
Of the other Asian restaurants we visited , two stand out — the Cho Gao in Cairns which serves an eclectic mix of Thai , Indonesian and Malaysian food and the Coriander in Christchurch, NZ which serves unexpectedly good , authentic North Indian food. Both highly recommended.
For beer drinkers like me , Australia and New Zealand offer some interesting choices . Be aware that Fosters , the best known ‘Australian’ beer in America , is something of a joke in Australia , considered good enough only for foreigners who don’t know any better. Don’t make the mistake of asking for it . You have several other perfectly good choices. Australia makes over a thousand different brews and New Zealand over 500 as each region seems to have its own favorites.If I had to drink only one beer it would be the James Squire Golden Ale , a hoppy English-style summer brew . Other Australian beers I enjoyed were the VB (Victoria Bitter) , XXXX Gold ( pronounced Fourex Gold ) and Carlton Draught . I didn’t care for Toohey’s or for the Cascade Blonde Lager. In New Zealand , I liked Speights ( both the Gold Medal Ale as well as the Summer Lager) and the Export Gold . Foolishly , I stayed away from the Steinlager thinking it was a German import . It’s actually brewed in Auckland and one of New Zealand’s biggest sellers. Ah well !
One of the things we enjoyed Down Under was going to farm stands . The fruits were of excellent quality and made for an interesting quick meal or after dinner snack . Particularly noteworthy were the cherries ( expensive at $ 15 / kg ), the many different types of plums ( the best of which lived up to their name of Yum Yum plums) and picherinos ( a cross between peaches and nectarines) .
Two other points before I sign off …
Food Prices Down Under are much higher than in America . I know that we have been spoiled by low prices here but still it was a surprise to find that they were so much higher there , roughly double for some items. Bottled water , for instance , was $ 3.50 for a single pint size bottle. Almost any food item seemed to cost AUS $ 4.50 or more and entrees even in the pubs and alehouses were in the $ 20 range .
Speaking of entree , be advised that it means something else entirely Down Under. In the U.S , entrée means the Main Course. Over there it means a starter or appetizer and is followed by the Main.
Bon Apetit and happy travelling !!