Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Have I Mentioned the Food?

With all the advance reading I did, I never did think much about the general category of "the food in Australia". I think that's because many others, and guidebooks in particular, aren't looking at the sorts of things I'm looking at. Guidebooks tell you about good restaurants, and while that's of some interest to me it isn't really my biggest area of interest; there are good restaurants everywhere.

In fact, you can get good food and bad food pretty much everywhere, so generalizations about whether the food is "good" or "bad" in any particular country fall apart pretty quickly. Except: What I'm finding myself thinking is that there is a difference between saying "You can certainly find good food in the US" and "You can certainly find bad food in Australia". That's the nature of my generalizations.

Just on the most basic level I'm finding that the ingredients here are closer to farmer's market intensity of flavor than supermarket intensity of flavor in the US. In other words, things taste good here, at the level of first principles. I went to the Victoria Market and saw counter after counter of the most luscious meats and shining fresh fish, things you can certainly find in the US but not nearly in this quantity or this easily. At the simplest cafes (which are more what I would call "bistros" in the US) I look behind the counters and see things like beautiful squash and shining eggplants being prepped for that day's dinners. At cafe after cafe I see display racks of glorious desserts -- layered cakes and cheesecakes and brownies and custard-filled pastries. As I say, I can certainly find this in the US, but not in twenty or thirty places along a three block stretch.

Yes, I'm in a city, but that doesn't begin to account for this. In Perth I was pretty far outside the city, and yet the small pub and pizza place right across the street had pizza that ranks with the finest brick-oven gourmet pizzas in the US. The pizza here tends to have many unusual ingredients (although you can always get the basic), which I usually don't go for in the US, but I've been risky and it's been great. At the place across from my hotel outside Perth, for about $7.50 American, I had a "Sizzling Prawn Pizza" with garlic prawns, sun-dried tomatoes, basil pesto, and lemon aioli; it was superb. Remember, this wasn't anything like a "gourmet" restaurant, it was a simple common pizza place. (Pizza by the slice in the airport was as bad as pizza by the slice in the US airports I should note -- except the mushrooms tasted better.)

Oh, and the simple pizza place near Perth had an excellent small selection of wines by the glass, focusing on the red wines of Western Australia.

I guess that's my point: I'm finding simple common places here to be the equivalent of upscale places in the US, except, as I note, the ingredients in general are more flavorful. At a pub place in a suburb of Melbourne on Wednesday I tried the basic hamburger -- which came with bacon and cheese and tomato chutney, as a matter of course, and was delicious. The basic hamburger itself had a flavor I have rarely tasted in the US. Which is why I usually don't eat hamburger in the US.

And the coffee. It is absolutely true that coffee in the US sucks compared to coffee in Europe and here. Again, you can get wonderful coffee in the US, but here the folks behind the counter are trained as well as their Italian counterparts, and the coffee is all based on some form of espresso (the closest to regular US coffee is called "long black" and that's espresso with hot water, very strong and full-flavored). You can also get mediocre muffins at the cafes with great coffee, I should point out, so it's not entirely foodie nirvana.

Last night I went with some folks to a Vietnamese restaurant. The Vietnamese restaurants in Minneapolis are great, for the most part. But last night I saw many dishes on the menu I'd never encountered (goat curry, sweet potato and prawn fritters, pork belly hotpot). It was what I would consider upscale gourmet level cooking at one of the basic restaurants along King Street in Newtown.

And the Coke -- I gave up Coke many years ago when it started to taste funny to me, something I later learned coincided with the replacement of cane sugar with corn syrup. Here the Coke is made with cane sugar. I'm drinking Coke again, although in small quantities because you can't drink cane-sugar drinks in the quantities you can drink corn-syrup drinks. I still remain baffled that others didn't find the sweetener-switch in the US to be unpalatable.

My friends in Melbourne are foodies to some degree, and they told me that a lot of what I'm seeing is the result of what they pronounce as a "Re-NAY-saunce" in food in Australia over the last 10 or 15 years. I mentioned that my friend slyvermont found the sandwiches skimpy here when she visited with her family 15 years ago, and the group I was talking with agreed that yes, 15 years ago that was probably true. Since I heard this I've been looking at sandwiches and I see fully packed sandwiches, so that may be not just a change but a reflection of where the culture here is heading.

At the Victoria Market I bought a "custard apple" and, astonishingly, it really does taste like custard.

My goal tomorrow is to find a place I can order Balmain Bugs (or Moreton Bay Bugs, as they are sometimes called) -- a lobster/crab sort of thing. But whereever I've gone and whatever I've eaten it's been a delight for my taste buds here.
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