COOKBOOK REVIEW: Flavors from Down Under

"Australia: The Cookbook" by Ross Dobson (Phaidon, $49.95)
"Australia: The Cookbook" by Ross Dobson (Phaidon, $49.95)

“Australia: The Cookbook” by Ross Dobson (Phaidon, $49.95)

When my copy of “Australia: The Cookbook” (Phaidon, $49.95) arrived, my first instinct was to check out the recipes for kangaroo — the only distinctively Australian ingredient I could think of off the top of my head. I was surprised to find only one: a riff on a classic Thai papaya salad, embellished with slices of grilled kangaroo tenderloin marinated in fish sauce and sesame oil.

Despite its wide availability, Sydney-based chef and food writer Ross Dobson notes, the kangaroo is “part of our collective psyche,” appearing on the Australian dollar coin and as “Skippy” on a popular children’s TV show. And many locals are reluctant to eat it.

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Roast lamb, fish and chips dusted with “chicken salt,” and spaghetti tossed in a “marina mix” of local seafood more closely represent today’s Aussie table. Indian curries and Asian flavors of all kinds are also well-integrated into the food culture, as are American-style conveniences such as French onion dip (sour cream plus dry soup mix) with “savoury biscuits” for scooping. And thanks to a growing Turkish community, a meal on the run might be toasted flatbread spread with butter and Vegemite.

An enlightening history interspersed with gorgeous shots capturing its wildly varied terrain introduces us to the continent’s eclectic foodways, beginning with the First Peoples who were trapping fish and farming macadamia nuts thousands of years ago. An Ularai Barkandji woman explains bushfood such as lemon myrtle and wattleseed, and a handful of cutting-edge chefs share how they incorporate those ancient flavors into their menus.

The bulk of the recipes, however, are far simpler, reflecting the diversity that came after British ships filled with convicts arrived in 1788 to establish a penal colony. Steak and kidney pie and Christmas trifle still appear on Aussie tables, along with dishes inspired with each new wave of immigrants. Aussie Chinese Barbecue Pork could be served alongside Tabbouleh, with Passion Fruit Panna Cotta for dessert.

“This is what Australians tend to expect from any meal of the day: a bit from here and a bit from there,” explains Dobson. “It makes delicious sense.”

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