This is a paper I delivered to the 11th Australian Symposium on Gastronomy, 1999
How familiar does this sound – butter chicken, sickeningly sweeter than caramel sauce made from a slow heated can of condensed milk; garlic naan leathery as roohide; aloo mattar with frozen peas and dry potatoes in a gravy oily and brown as the waters of the Yarra under Princess Bridge; and onion pakoras that could as easily pass for cow pats and are generally as combustible. Go to any Indian take away/restaurants in any suburb of any city in Australia and you’ll find this depressingly uniform regurgitation of someone’s idea of Indian food dished up by platoons of cooks all claiming to be graduates of the Taj Hotel cooking school.
In Newtown, Sydney, there’s an exception to this sub continental revenge on the stomachs of their colonial masters, a small restaurant, regrettably named the Tandoori Hut. Order from the menu here and you’ll end up with the usual bain marie coagulated pap, albeit done with more care. But wave away the menu and ask for the night’s specials and you are somewhere entirely different. You will find nihari, paya, haleem, Pakistani dishes that would convince even the Americans that lamb is a superior meat to beef (or even that goat – bakra – is superior to lamb); and a fresh mint and green chilli (chatni) uncompromised by the usual lashings of yoghurt.. You will have crossed the line from curry-in-a-hurry to cuisine. That’s what draws the regular contingent of Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan taxi drivers, their friends and relatives here every night. That and the $10 standard fee he charges them for what he sees as home food that he hesitates to offer to his Anglo-Australian clientele.
I think it’s interesting and damning that Raphael, the Pakistani Christian owner/chef, calls his restaurant the Tandoori Hut. Sure, tandoori is a part of Pakistani cuisine, at least at the Punjabi end. But I wondered why he hadn’t seen value in differentiating what he offers from what’s available everywhere else. When I asked him, he said, he felt he had to offer his Anglo-Australian customers what they expect from an Indian restaurant – kormas, vindaloos and tandoori everything – if he was to make a go of his business. I’ve had the same comments made to me by other chefs from the sub-continent, who would love to introduce a wider variety of regional dishes if they could see it as good for business. Where did Raphael learn that the way to an Anglo-Australian’s wallet was through the slush of brown dhal of a consistency and flavour of monsoonal mud? Why can I only get crunchy, pungent, Thai fried fish with a dipping sauce of thick blachan, tamarind and force-10 chillies as a takeaway from Pontip’s hole-in-the-wall grocery at the fag end of Pitt St, Sydney? Why is burek, that marvellous Macedonian coil of spinach, cheese or meat-filled flaky pastry produced virtually only to order from the hygienically challenging eponymous Newtown Pastry Hot Burek Shop?
I think the answer lies in a kind of White Australia Policy practiced in Australian cuisine, the regulation of the ingredients of an Australian palate to the innocuous sultana that may sweeten our increasingly indigestible colonial damper, but will sit firmly on any robust, uncontrollable Magic Pudding that threatens to run along the road to a truly multicultural future.
If as Brillat Savarin says ‘the destiny of nations depends on how they eat’ how do we eat, that is construct, the cuisines of our immigrant and indigenous peoples and what does that say for our hopes in a future Australian multicultural republic.
Multiculturalism as a construct is acknowledged, if not centralised, in the proposed preamble to the Australian Constitution, but what is meant by it is not explicit. How do we as a society construct multiculturalism? I would hazard that the majority Australian view of multiculturalism is something like this:
“We have developed an Australian way of doing things. We have been able to retain the good bits that have been contributed to Australian society by the various cultural tributaries and reject the bad bits”.
These are in fact the words of the Prime Minister, John Howard, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald 6th May 1999. This statement was seen at the time as a significant turnaround for Howard, but it is not. It only recasts in the guise of tolerance and inclusiveness, the view echoed in debates around immigration and Aboriginal land rights. These debates are redolent with ideas of the good and the bad migrant and Aboriginal. Good Serbs/Bosnians/Kurds are those who don’t bring their national conflicts to our shores. Bad Serbs/Bosnians/Kurds burn NATO flags outside US embassies. Good Chinese become heart surgeons. Bad Chinese belong to triads. Good Vietnamese don’t come here on leaky fishing boats that sneak up on our coastline at night. Good Aboriginals refuse to take government handouts.
Who, in all of this, are the ‘we’ that ‘develops the Australian way’? On what basis have they chosen the ‘good bits’ and the ‘bad bits’? Howard’s is not a multicultural voice but a culturally specific voice – the voice of the colonial ancestors of the majority of white Australia. It is not my voice, nor that of my Malayala ancestors and my Australian-born children, nor the voice of the generations of other non-white immigrants and their Australian-born children.
It is this voice, however, that regulates how the ‘various cultural tributaries’ of our indigenous and immigrant past and present can contribute to the making of an Australian society. In doing so, it also determines the nature of that society.
Advance Australia Fare
The Macquarie Dictionary defines culture as ‘the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is transmitted from one generation to another’. What a society eats and the rules around the preparation and consumption of food are part of a society’s ways of living and so fall within this definition of culture. How have we shaped food within the Australian culture?
Max Lake, writing in Food on the Plate. Wine in the Glass makes this statement:
‘Sixty years ago….food was fresh but plain, wine avoided as too ‘strong’, or ‘foreign’. On the rare night out, one encountered limited menus at a few pseudo-French restaurants, in Australia run mainly by Italians. Ethnic Chinese, Italian and Greek ‘greasy spoons’ were a big deal. The average Australian home had little cultural tradition to influence flavour preferences or cooking styles. With hindsight this may have been a virtue in that we had nothing much to unlearn’.
I want to take issue on this view of our culinary advance in Australia. I don’t think the Australian home has as yet developed the ‘cultural tradition’ Lake sees as a necessary precondition for the development of an Australian cuisine. I think the reason for this is in the position Lake appears to take in the second part of the quote above. He seems to see Australian cuisine as a tabula rasa until some unspecified but clearly recent time, positing that Australia was in the happy position of having nothing to unlearn in the development of a truly Australian cuisine. I don’t agree. I think that it is precisely that we have so much to unlearn that holds us back.
The flavour preference and cooking styles of the Australian home remain by and large those of Empire. When it adopts non Anglo-Celtic cuisines, it does so within the framework of that colonial history, employing on cuisines the full range of colonising practices that have been employed in appropriating or demonising the dress, art, music etc. its conquered peoples.
Some cuisines are dumbed down in the process. When I first came to Australia 37 years ago, the only curry powder on the shelves was a yellow dust that was little more than powdered turmeric and bore the brand name of the man mostly singly responsible for the establishment of the British Empire in India, Robert Clive. The first curries I had not of my father’s making were served up to me by a well-meaning friend, bright yellow and lumpy with sultanas and apples. The recipe, she said, was from her Scottish mother. And little has changed over the years. The Taree West Cookbook of 1997 has a recipe for curried chicken built on a base of a packet of Continental Dutch Curry soup. I recently travelled in South Eastern Queensland and Central Australia and I’m not sure that it’s an advance in Lake’s terms to find there laksas consisting of a watery broth in which carrots, celery and capsicum swam unfettered by either coconut milk or lime.
Alan Saunders, writing in The Australian Magazine, July 3-4, 1999 describes the phenomenon thus:
“… whole cuisines get turned over and stripped of their valuables, like unsuspecting foreign tourists who’ve wandered into the wrong part of town…..The result is that, say, tempura, that fascinating Japanese take on deep frying, is no longer a special treat to be enjoyed in the specific cultural context of a Japanese meal. Then again, perhaps it is; I encounter the word ‘tempura’ on menus far more frequently that I encounter genuine tempura on my plate.”
Others are exoticised. For them is reserved the allure of danger, sexual risk, primeval power. Read any article promoting chillies in recent Australian magazines and you will inevitably be told that chillies fire the sexual appetite. Frankly, I can think of few things less sexy than putting my tongue down the throat of someone who’s just downed a force-10 Jalapeno. Terry Durack recently in the Sydney Morning Herald ascribed a ‘dense jungle-undergrowth sort of flavour’ to the pineapple curry served at Sailors’ Thai. I don’t know whether to be pleased or surprised that Durack is in the habit of tasting undergrowth. The last time I had a bite of jungle undergrowth, it wasn’t by choice. I was face down on the ground after tripping over a massive root while stumbling down a track in the Dorrigo rainforest, and it tasted exactly like munching on dank, rotting wood. Here’s Mietta O’Donnell talking about the Melbourne restaurant Bortolotto in the Weekend Australian Review – May 15-16. ‘Bortolotto’s had a distinct style that suited its position very well – it embodied a lot of what St Kilda was.’ Okay, O’Donnell may have meant something quite innocent, but to someone who has only the mythology of St Kilda within which to contextualise the statement, how could it be understood? Perhaps that it embodied some stereotyping of European Jewishness, loud, brash, emotionally charged. If cuisines were migrants these foods and flavours would stand in the position against which we could flagellate ourselves as we measured our conspicuous staidness, our ordinariness.
And then there are cuisines or aspects of cuisines which we reject outright. Mary Douglas in her groundbreaking study Purity and Danger, links dietary laws and food preparation practices to the practices communities develop to defend themselves from moral pollution by other communities pollution that has the capacity to destroy communities. To ingest food which is identified with the polluting agent is to risk ingesting the pollution. At least some part of an abhorrence of halal meat is a projection into its preparation of a rejection of the perceived pollution of our Christian morality by the morality of Islam, a morality we have demonised for a good thousand years or so. The barrier to full engagement with bush foods is in part a lingering identification of them as primitive, uncultivated, or fit only for survival when there is no other food at hand. To eat them is to allow the possibility of reversion to tribalism. These are the cuisine equivalents of the illegal migrants from the mythic North, landing in their leaky boats on our undefended shores, melting into the rainforests to begin their erosion of our economy and the bulwarks of our cultural mores.
On the other hand, we sometimes actively seek out foods from cultures to which we can ascribe an Arcadian wholesomeness. Eat the peasant food of Tuscany and we ingest honesty, simplicity, rustic health, and a ‘natural’ sexual response. That may be true, I suppose, as long as we have access to the high quality of medical care and the wide pharmacopeia that your average peasant doesn’t, and don’t spend our life in bone-wearying manual labour. And from my experience no amount of olives and garlic have made Latin’s any less lousy as lovers.
Either way, the endpoint is the positioning of food and its preparation as a tool of racism. Lake’s ‘greasy spoons’ are not just nostalgia but a part of the overt operation of racism at a particular time in our history. A joke from my school days – how did all those Italians know how to get to Australia?; easy, the first one came over with a map and the others just followed his oil slick over the water. But let’s not congratulate ourselves on the abolition of this form of racism. It’s not an accident that the term ‘sticky rice’ is used as a pejorative term in Australia for people of Asian origin whose sexual and affectual preferences are for others of Asian origin. The ascribed primitiveness of the source, the gathering and the preparation of bush foods conflates into a continuing ascription of primitiveness to all Aboriginal people.
Armchair cuisine tourism
I want now to look at a recent example of the processes I am concerned about. The May 1999 issue of Vogue Living carried a promotion for the day trips Carol Selva Rajah conducts in Cabramatta. The aim of these day trips is laudable , that of introducing people to Asian foods and method of food preparation through visiting the markets and restaurants in Cabramatta. But I want to show how the language in the promotion exoticises the experience in ways that can enhance prejudices about the subjects of the trip, the Asian population of Cabramatta, and their foods, and continues to keep Asian immigrants outside of a definition of Australian citizens.
Here’s the introductory paragraph:
‘Walking through Cabramatta’s shopping centre, deep in the western suburbs of Sydney, you’d swear you were in the backstreets of some Asian town. Little old ladies in conical straw hats cluster around wooden bench seats, fussing over their bunches of home-grown herbs and exotic vegetables (lemon grass, pumpkin flowers, sawtooth herb, snake beans and the like). They sell these to passers-by for next to nothing.’
Here you have all the elements for exoticising and distancing the everyday lives of a growing population of Australians, South East Asian migrants and their, by now, second and third generation of children. The description of the location – ‘deep in the western suburbs’ – already conjures up possibility of danger. Sydney’s west, home to the bulk of its population, is a no-go zone for much of the rest of Sydney, having been demonised consistently in the press as the centre of the illegal drug trade, rife with street gangs and junkies, where street shootings are an everyday event. So already we are being invited ‘deep’ into somewhere alien and threatening. We are being prepared to experience the people who live there as different from other Australians.
Then comes the comparison of the streets of a perfectly average Sydney suburb, with its pavements, its malls, its Reditellers, to ‘the backstreets of some Asian town’. Again, the notion of ‘backstreets’ builds the sense of danger. Backstreets are where crimes occur, where the disreputable hang out. The people on backstreets may not be as innocent as they seem. For Anglo Australians still familiar with propagandist images of Vietnam or with the more recent images of sex tourism and Asian drug cultures, the distancing of the residents of Cabramatta grows stronger.
So, who will we see when we get there – ‘little old ladies in conical straw hats’, another step into stereotyping. We are being invited to disregard to the normalcy of the bulk of those we will in fact see, the young, the families, all in Western dress, with lifestyles and aspirations shared by Anglo-Australians. The point is underscored later in relation to food when ‘the local takeaway of choice’ is identified as ‘a bulging lotus leaf package filled with sticky rice and faintly sweet, braised pork mince’. Never mind that in my experience you are as likely to find chicken as a filling as pork. I do wonder, however, what has become of the Asian resident masses chowing down on their takeaways of choice like hamburgers, chips, battered deep-fried fish and white bread sandwiches. They are somehow removed from any connection to what the day-trip will reveal. They become inauthentic migrants, inauthentic Australian citizens, and we are invited not to see them. Stereotypes are bolstered at the expense of coming to grips with cultures in change.
Then comes the focus on the ‘exotic vegetables (lemon grass, pumpkin flowers, pennywort, sawtooth herb, snake beans and the like)’ and later the fish shops that ‘display unfamiliar (to us) sea creatures such as sea pomfret and milkfish’. Again, let’s leave aside the dubious notion that lemon grass is a vegetable. We do have to ask how long it takes for an ingredient of any kind stop being exotic and start being part of the way we eat. I’d think lemon grass was pretty well ubiquitous and not exotic these days. You can certainly get it at a Woolies/Big Fresh, or plant it yourself after a visit to the herb section of the majority of suburban garden centres. As for pennywort, its exoticism will come as a surprise to Western herbalists and naturopaths. And then there’s poor old pomfret, suddenly now an unfamiliar sea creature rather than the pretty obvious fish it is, and one, I may add, that’s fairly extensively eaten along any coast of the Indian Ocean it inhabits.
The give-away here to what’s going on is the parenthesised ‘to us’. The reader is assumed to be very narrowly conceived Anglo-Australians who has never been inside a South East Asian restaurant and/or visited South East Asia, both I’d argue vanishing like the giant wombats of Gondwana. And of course, the reader can never be someone like me, nor an Australian of second, third or fourth Asian extraction who’ve grown up on snake beans, lemon grass, pomfret and the rest of the exotica on display on our day trip.
I could go on. It will comes as a shock to the proud householders of the early 60’s in Australia that formica tables are part of this Asian experience, as it will shock many the Aussie truckstop proprietor and many an Inner City cafe. Oh, I see, the point here is to link us into our memories of cheap holidays in Asian fleshpots, as is the reference to those little old ladies flogging their home grown greens for ‘next-to-nothing’. Nothing like a good Asian bargain to brag about back home.
Because that’s the main attraction of this, after all, you get to go home again at the end and never have to come into contact with the reality of the lives of the South East Asian communities deep in the West of Sydney.
Let’s turn now to fusion cuisine. There was a time, I suppose, when fusion was an honest attempt to investigate new ways to blend Asian ingredients with standard Oz fare. In these combinations, the purpose was never to assimilate the flavours, but to form flavour contrasts and matches while allowing the individual ingredients their individuality. But the dangers of unthinking fusion are everywhere these days. In Darwin, the Crustaceans at the Wharf restaurant on Stokeshill Wharf flashes its membership of the fusion club like Al Grassby used to wear ties. What are we to make of Thai Green Bouillabaisse that on closer inspection turns out to be no more than a very ordinary green curry. They also offer a Smoked Salmon Tortilla in which the list of ingredients is given as smoked salmon, horseradish cream, capers and gherkins, which leaves one wondering where the tortilla comes in to it and more critically what kind of a mess are they serving up?
In Penrith recently I had the misfortune to sit and watch a friend eat a Tandoori pizza. Now, I was prepared to pretend that tandoori accompanied by crisp naan may just be flexible enough to move to tandoori on a thin crisp pizza crust sans tomato paste. What came was frightening – a wedge of thick pizza base on which a sludge of tomato paste and melted cheese (I doubt it was mozzarella) had been welded to form a sort of pliable gut into which had been inserted shreds of chicken (they may or may not have been tandoori, you couldn’t; tell through the cheese) topped with parsley, olives and capers. In Short Black, Tuesday 17th August, 1999, a Japanese pizza was spied in Randwick. ‘Not only was the topping swamped with enough wasabi to launch a Godzilla sequel’, says our culinary familiar, ‘but the pastry was thick and soft – by our calculations managing to insult two culinary cultures on one plate’. And finally there is this delight from Sydney Markets Ltd. – a ‘Thai style chicken burger’ compromising chicken mince, onion, lime juice, coriander (so far so good), mixed with breadcrumbs and egg (moving blithely West now) to be formed into a 2cm thick patty which is fired and then served on a bed of snow pea sprouts sitting on (wait for it) pitta bread.
A comparison with fusion styles in music is apposite. Here’s the view of David Walker writing in the Newsletter of the Australian Institute of Eastern Music (Vol5. No 4, August 1999):
‘Fusion music is a problem. It often takes the least interesting aspects of the various music forms it employs and mixes them together into something even less than interesting. And that is often the kindest thing you can say about it. Fusion music is often self indulgent, produced by second rate musicians with a superficial understanding of the music they are appropriating. It damages the reputation of the music it borrows from and of the collaborative music movement itself’.
Substitute ‘food’ for ‘music’ in the quote and you have as good a summation of the problem. In a mindless rush to be innovative or faddist cafes and restaurants around the country are having a terrific time insulting the cuisines of the over 140 different nationalities now resident in Australia.
Selling the exotic to the natives
The final expression of this colonisation of cuisines is a form of internalised oppression. Northern Indians in India serve food in major hotels that are kissing cousins to the bain marie abominations of the Indian Diners in AustraliaIn Kovalum, Southern India, I watched mortified the distress of Rajiv, a beachside village café owner faced with two French tourists dumbfounded and on the verge of a major hissy fit that he did not know what a samosa was. The tourists were insistent that it was a well-known Indian snack. Well, perhaps, but Southern India isn’t Northern India, and the Malayalee are not Punjabi. The dosa and the idli oust the samosa at about the line passed which the Moghul’s couldn’t be bothered going. On this occasion, my travelling companion ducked into the kitchen and showed Rajiv what was being asked for. On reflection, I wish she hadn’t.. I hope there is not now a small beachside village café offering samosas.
Back home, I despair of ever finding in my neighbourhood South East Asian restaurants anything like the diversity of leaf greens and tubers that home gardeners bring to market in Cabramatta or Dixon Street.(Tandoori Hut excepted.) In India, again, stay at a guest house or hotel that caters to the Angol trade, and you’ll miss out on the okra. brinjal, snake beans and the like that you will find everywhere in the markets.
David Thompson, from Darley St Thai, has observed a similar situation in the adoption of fusion cooking in Thai hotels. On a recent visit there, Thompson was faced with spaghetti stir-fried with basil, and mango risotto with olive oil, garlic and coconut cream, curry paste, and lemon grass stock. The experience, he said, ‘was like looking at a train crash’ (Short Black, Good Living, Sydney Morning Herald, July 6, 1999). Thompson is very concerned at the prospect of Thai cuisine and traditional teaching methods being lost as a result.
Having the tables turned
In the light of the above, I find the recent reaction to the introduction of beetroot to McDonald’s hamburgers in Australia more than a little amusing. Here, the tables have apparently been turned on us by the neo-colonial United States.
Here’s how one letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald put it:
‘McDonald’s has finally added beetroot to its burgers in Australia with the McOz, leading the marketing director, Joe Talcott, an American, to state that it would be a ‘very strange and foreign thing’ to find in a burger in the US.
Well, we Aussies have put up with very strange and foreign things in our McDonald burgers for decades – pickles.’
J Archer, St Ives, NSW August 31, 1999
And here’s how another expatriate correspondent put it from the wilds of Ontario, Canada:
‘No, beetroot would never go down in America, because they don’t know what beetroot is. The dreadful dill pickle reigns supreme there, along with raw onions, unbuttered, untoasted buns, no ‘tomayto’ as a rule.
It will be wonderful to get back to Australia and be able to have a real Aussie hamburger, a meat pie, or, especially, our wonderful potato scallops and fish (unobtainable in any country I have visited).
Beverley Paget, August 31, 1999
Most of all I love the positioning of these letters within our continuing uncomfortable relationship with the United States. We resent the loss of our Australian identity under the flooding tide of US culture. It galls us even more because we, a fellow Western society, allies in war, Goddammit , are put in the place of an inferior culture in this process. We recognise the impact of the colonisation of culture when it is enacted on us and resent it, fulminate against it, but cannot see our colonisation of other cultures.
The television commercial for the new McOz caps the whole process off and beautifully demonstrates my thesis in this paper. Each of them features a tourist couple – two New York smart home-boys, a honeymooning Japanese couple, an older working class English couple – eating a McOz. As the scene begins each couple are engaged in a conversation in language that is constructed to embed the visual stereotypes created by the couples clothing and the setting in which they are eating. The two home boys, for example, do a mock gangsta rap on a pier at night with a background of bright city lights.
At some point, one of the pair looks at their burger and asks the other what this red thing is that’s slapped in the middle of their traditional burger. The other one says it’s beetroot, the ingredient that makes the burger a true Australian burger. The questioner takes a bite of the burger and immediately turns to their partner and in broad strine declares the taste terrific.
And there you have it. Eat a true Australian ingredient like beetroot, and you will instantly be an Australian. Someone should tell the government. It’s a cheaper option than all those subversive language classes. I suppose I should be glad. Before I have expounded it, my thesis has entered popular culture. I look forward to thick True Blue Aussie Asian Taste Cafs where my pho comes as a rich carnelian broth in which thick slices of disintegrating beetroot lazily circle.
Bring on the multicultural republic
So where should we be heading? Let’s begin with an alternative definition for multiculturalism than that of John Howard and his ilk. Turning to the Macquarie Dictionary again, we find multiculturalism defined as ‘the theory that it is beneficial to a society to maintain more than one culture within its structure’.
There is nothing here about good bits and bad bits, no tributaries down which little cultural fishies swim to be caught or to pass through the net of an Australian culture. No, this is an inclusive articulation that sees benefit in diversity. And that’s what I want to see for the future development of an Australian cuisine, an embracing of diversity in all its messiness and its contradictions.
David Thompson believes we are capable of such an approach to non Anglo-Australian cuisines, one which maintains the integrity of the cuisine. In a conversation with me occasioned by his observations on the Thai hotel fusion fiasco, he identified four factors that can work in favour of this outcome:
* He believes we have only begun to develop a complex food culture in the last 20 years, so it is still open to alternative approaches to its development. (This is not quite the same position taken by Max Lake in the earlier quotation.)
* Australians travel a great deal. We have tried foods in their home contexts and are eager to have more of the same quality back here. This is a comment made by the owner/chef of Angkor Wat in Darlinghurst. In an interview I conducted with him he said he was noticing an increasing willingness of Anglo-Australians to try ingredients outside of their immediate zone of comfort – though he was not sure that Sydney was ready for cannabis broth.
* Our land mass has enough environmental variation to allow us to grow the raw materials for a wide range of cuisines, so we should not need to substitute or go without. I recently visited Humpty Doo where Asian produce has escaped the market garden and is now grown on 60 and 100 hectare farms and shipped to agents in the major cities. I have a poster produced by the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries which identifies over 50 different varieties of Asian and equatorial fruits and vegetables being grown there. How long do these herbaceous immigrants have to be here and in what numbers before we think of them as Australian produce?
* Finally, and most tellingly for the substance of this paper, he believes that until recently we have not tried openly to homogenise ethnic cultures. I’d argue with him on this one. I think there was a period in the early 1970’s when we looked poised to embrace some larger societal project, one in line with the notion of multiculturalism being a valuing of difference. So what I see happening at the level of political policy in this country is a turning away from that experiment back to the homogenisation we have practised for most of the period of colonisation of Australia.
I am not arguing for some ahistoric and romanticised notion of the purity of cuisines. I am arguing for an approach to the meeting of cuisines, of individual ingredients, of styles of cooking, unmediated by the baggage of ways of seeing, tasting, smelling that are redolent of values that we ostensibly want to disavow.
If I can step away from the table for a minute, I can describe something of what I mean by way of describing a concert I recently attended. It was sponsored by the Australian Institute of Eastern Music. One half of the program was an extended duet between Ashok Roy, an Indian sarod player, and Sabahattin Akdagcik, playing the Turkish yaili tanbur, both stringed instruments – the sarod fat bellied, multi-stringed, and plucked, the yaili tanbur, like a very long-necked banjo played with a bow. What gladdened me in their musical encounter, apart from the exquisiteness of what they produced, was the process of its production. Here were two musical cultures meeting within the structure of an Indian raga, but with both willing to investigate as equals the possibilities of improvisational collaboration. As they played, the musical form moved easily between an Indian mode and a Turkish mode, exploring melody and rhythm in a successful search for a true fusion where something new was made without a loss to either of its antecedents.
As an example from cuisines, I point to an experience of mine in a different approach to the valuing of the foods of Aboriginal peoples. In August this year I holidayed in Central Australia and I’m heartened by the way bush food is talked about there. Its use is ‘normalised’, placed within the context of a continuing culture which is different to the prevailing Anglo-Australian culture but is equally valued. There is no attempt to exoticise or distance the tourist from the experience of the culture. In the menu of the Kuniya restaurant bush ingredients (pepper grass, bush plums, bush potato) mix with staples (rocket, scallops, pears) with no accompanying text mystifying or romanticising the combinations. In the cultural centre in Kakadu, plants are described using their Aboriginal names, the common English names being mentioned only in passing.
To finish, here’s Gay Bilson in a letter to the Weekend Australian in May 1999.
‘A cuisine is the collective aroma of everyday domestic food. …Until we show ourselves to be more interested in the fair and equitable distribution of the whole, huge idea of what all Australians eat, then our celebration of ‘Australian Food’ will remain a cult for the affluent.’ Amen to that say I. On or about the 18th of August 1999, the Australian population reached 19 million. Of those, 2.5 million do not speak English at home. It will be a great day when that latter 10% find mealy grubs nudging tinned oysters and octopus on supermarket shelves, when crisp fried grasshoppers are served at the bar as a snack during happy hour.
Copyright (C) 2001 Paul van Reyk