Our national dish? It’s green, it’s smashed and it comes on toast
Ask any non-Italian to name that country’s national dish and you’ll get some combination of pizza-pasta-gelato. Ask someone who isn’t Japanese about Japan, and they’ll most likely say ramen, sushi, tempura. Vietnam? Pho (however you like to pronounce it). America? Hamburgers and hot dogs. And so it would go through all the countries you can name.
Of course, none of these answers reflects the depth and variety of these places’ cuisines or the way people eat day-to-day. Our ideas about other people’s food are often inaccurate, cartoonish cliches, cultural shorthand that tells us about as much as a 1960s primary school geography textbook: climate, population, main export, national dish.
Last week Good Food writer David Dale set out to uncover what Australia’s national dish might be ahead of Australia Day 2020.
As part of the story, Dale asked chefs around the country to nominate a national dish, and the answers say as much about the chefs’ cultural heritage and kitchen experience as they do about us: salt and pepper squid (Luke Nguyen and Adam Liaw); slow-roasted lamb (Janni Kyritsis); chargrilled octopus or spaghetti alle vongole (Lucio Galletto); and pad thai (Joe Kitsana).
They are all fine dishes that we love to eat, and dishes that you’ll find on menus across the continent, dishes that reflect the range of influences on Australian food today. Together they are all part of the narrative of Australia’s cultural diversity in the early 21st century, apparent nowhere as much as in food.
But none stands up as a national dish. Not one would be nominated by a non-Australian as this country’s national dish. Not one of them is a meme.
Only one dish is entangled in so many cultural narratives about Australia today: our love of casual beachside brunches; our passion for coffee; the cafe culture that we have exported to the world; the high price of real estate in our big cities; the cultural panics when the main ingredient goes out of season and the epidemics of amateur kitchen knife injuries.
Only one dish is on the menu of every “Australian-style” cafe from London to Los Angeles.
Only one dish will get a waitperson to say, “Aussie, huh?” when you order it in a North American eatery: and it’s not a Vegemite sandwich.
It’s smashed, it’s green and it comes on toasted sourdough. You can dust it with dukkah or spritz it with lime and cracked pepper. You can serve it solo or with marinated feta or hummus or whatever. You can get it in any cafe, and you can make it easily at home (as long as you’re careful with the knife). I don’t even have to tell you. You know what it is.
So on Sunday, January 26, rise late, saunter down to join the brunch queue at your local cafe (if they are real Australians they’ll be paying their staff penalty rates), order a coffee and celebrate our national day with a forkful of our national dish. It might not be much, cuisine-wise, but it’s ours: and the whole world knows it.
Matt Holden is a Melbourne writer.