Cedar Lewisohn’s recent work trip/holiday to Sydney was filled with new taste experiences. From curry pies to wallaby tails, he definitely got to the bottom of the local cuisine, washing it all down with Tasmanian whisky and wine, and wine-ot?
After a hellish 23-hour flight from Heathrow, the first thing that welcomed me to Australia was a vast, sublime, panoramic sky-scape. The clouds looked different than those in Europe – bigger and differently shaped… I did indeed feel as if I was in a new world, If anything could bring me back down to earth, it was an Ibis hotel breakfast.
The Australian dollar is currently worth about 50p, so 22 dollars for a slightly generic all-you-can-eat hotel breakfast did not feel as expensive as it might have done if the exchange rate were less favourable. That said, I was so zoned out from the flight, and 11-hour time difference, that I would have happily paid in my own blood for some basic sustenance, particularly after the slop I’d been provided by British Airways. One day I’ll write a guide to airline food, but not today.
I had flown to Sydney for an artist book fair, at Art Space Gallery. Art Space is in the Woolloomooloo district of Sydney, opposite a picturesque waterfront, with yachts and neat-looking buildings making up the harbour vista. In the middle of this charming, but slightly twee scene, I made my first great Aussie food discovery: Harry’s Cafe de Wheels. Harry’s is actually a tourist attraction in its own right. It was just pure luck that I happened to be doing an art project near by. As the name suggests, Harry’s is a food truck; they specialise in pies, mash and mushy peas, although other dishes are available. What first caught my attention about Harry’s was its slightly disconcerting visual aesthetic, with some truly weird and slightly spooky realist paintings, photographs of previous patrons and hand-painted sign-writing advertising dishes such as ‘curry pie with cheese sauce’. I had to get involved. Harry’s has a long history, originally opening in 1938, with many famous visitors over the years. I would describe the wagon itself as typical American retro, or maybe that should be classic early 20th century Australian. The innovative way the pies are served, with mashed potato on top and a well for gravy, also appealed to me on a functional level. I saw a lot of art on my visit to Australia, but, in retrospect, Harry’s Cafe de Wheels was probably one of the strangest, most beautiful objects of the entire trip – a living, functioning work of art. And the pies, mash and gravy were pretty good to boot.
At one point during my trip I found myself at an opening of a gallery called The Commercial. The show was of work by the artist Archie Moore. Archie is of Aboriginal descent and the works on display where comments on our perception of people in relation to the subtle tone differences of their skin. I had a chat with Archie. We quickly compared notes on brutal European genocide, before moving on to a discussion about Aboriginal food or ‘bush tucker’, as it is locally known. Archie told me there are only a couple of restaurants that sell Aboriginal food in the whole country, and none in Sydney. In terms of indigenous ingredients the first thing he mentioned was the bush tomato. “It’s actually nothing like a tomato at all”, he advised me, laughing. More like a large berry than the familiar red fruit, the bush tomato apparently contains three times more vitamin C than an orange. There are also many other roots and herbs used by the Aboriginal people, many of them with healing and medicinal properties. Another well-known Aboriginal dish is witchetty grub paste, which is meant to taste like hummus. I was slightly gutted not to have had a chance to eat an Aboriginal meal while in Australia. What I did manage to eat, however, was a lot of sushi. Sydney is bursting with fantastic sushi restaurants, my favourite being Sushi on Stanley, in Darlinghurst – basically a tiny little canteen-style diner. The place only seats around 20 people, and it’s a bit of a squash, with a few tables spilling onto the pavement outside. I particularly liked the wooden decor, which had real ‘lived in’ charm and the whole place was fun, the food was of a decent quality while also being pretty cheap. Sushi on Stanley is a BYOB restaurant, and one of the people I was with had brought a bottle of Tasmanian wine. I was immediately intrigued. It turns out that Tasmanian wine is actually very good. There is also a boom in Tassie whisky. I picked up a bottle of Hellyers Road single malt at the airport, and it’s fantastic: fruity and smoky – and a what a novelty!
Another hot trend in Sydney is the ‘extreme milkshake’. Yes, really… The shakes usually come in a mason jar of some sort and can be topped with anything from doughnuts to ice cream cones and, basically, anything else you can imagine, the taller the better, and always with lots and lots of whipped cream.
During my stay, I repeatedly asked the locals where I should eat. The restaurant that was most often mentioned was Billy Kwong – the recommendation usually followed by the caveat, “if you can get a table”. Kylie Kwong, an Australian celebrity chef, owns the high-end Chinese Restaurant. I managed to blag a table, and it was definitely worthwhile. We ate Goong Goong’s Chinese Pickles; steamed Pacific oysters with ginger and shallots; red-braised, caramelised wallaby tail; tartare of Mark Eather’s ocean trout; Cantonese-style fried rice; crispy-skinned duck with organic mandarin and Davidson’s plum; crispy salt bush cakes with chilli sauce and stir-fried Australian native greens with ginger and Shiro-shoyu. Quite a feast – and it was all good! The mixture of classic, fresh Cantonese-style cuisine mixed with a few native Australian ingredients gave the food a genuine uniqueness and consistent lightness. Particular highlights were the super-tasty salty bush cakes, which reminded me of Jamaican fried dumplings, filled with indigenous greens. We could not resist ordering the Wallaby Tail, and though I felt a tad guilty about coming to Australia and eating up their cute little critters, we were reassured that wallabies are extremely prevalent and an environmentally sound alternative to other meats. Their tails are something similar to mini Oxtails. The entire meal was fantastic and added a much-needed level of glamour to my otherwise budget-style Australian culinary experience.
My antipodean food adventure was almost done. My last breakfast before heading to the airport was a healthy snack of Vegemite on toast. I couldn’t travel 9,420 miles without sampling at least one serving of the world’s second most famous yeast-based spread.