Taste of Aus on the Menu

Taste of Aus on the Menu

It could be the public's insatiable appetite for new and exciting flavours. It could be our chefs' desire to stand out from the crowd and have a point of difference with their food.  Or perhaps it's our growing respect for produce-focused chefs like the king of wild and foraged foods Rene Redzepi or our own Ben Shewry and Kylie Kwong.

Taste of Australia on the menu

We might not be sure why, but native Australian ingredients are increasingly finding their way onto our plates these days.

Chefs are steadily realising there's a wide range of versatile and flavoursome ingredients native to Australia and in increasing numbers, they're embracing them on their menus.

One such chef is Hamish Ingham from Sydney's Bar H and also now the creative mind behind the menus at the Four Season hotel's new Grain Bar, and soon to open The Woods restaurant.

Ingham says there's now more of a selection of native ingredients available to foodservice and more chefs are willing to give them a go after seeing the successes of various high profile chefs.

"One of the biggest selling items [on the Grain menu] is the Fried Old Man's Saltbush (pictured below), which is pretty much the whole branch of the saltbush which has a really light tempura batter and is deep-fried," Ingham says.

"It looks really cool and it's  been really popular. We also use sea parsley which goes on my kingfish tartare at Grain Bar. I really love it. It's juicy and has that parsley flavour, but it's a bit more delicate. And I have a Roquefort cheese dish with muntrie jam. Muntries are like little blueberries but with the crunch and acidity of an apple. Amazing."

Ingham also uses native Australian thyme, pepperberries and Warrigal greens  that he harvests from a plant growing right out the front of Bar H. While he believes Australian chefs could do with some more training on how to source and handle native Australian ingredients, he says simple trial and error can work well.

"If you're a chef you should try things. It's all about trying things and having a play with things, seeing what you can do," Ingham says. "I think it's really important to get as much different produce as you can.

"That's what we do for a living so you might as well get new things in and see what happens when you cook them or deep fry them. It's a matter of trying."

Ingham believes the best way to raise the profile of native Australian cuisine is not to create an entirely separate and unique set of flavours independent to what's already on offer, but simply integrate them in to what people are already familiar with.

"I definitely think that's the way to go," he says. "Australia is still finding its identity I think. We are only young and our cooking is very much influenced by other cuisines.

"'Australian' food is internationally flavoured food because we have so many different cultures influencing us on how to cook - Asian foods, Mediterranean.

"Everyone asks 'what's Australian food?' and I really think it's using those native ingredients and pairing them with Asian flavours and Mediterranean flavours. That's who we are, isn't it?"

At Brisbane's Tukka restaurant, diners are faced with a plethora of native ingredients on the menu, many of which are grown on the premises. Head chef and owner Bryant Wells is doing more than just serving up the native ingredients we've all seen before, plating up ingredients like emu and possum for diners at the West End restaurant.

Wells says while many chefs may be  unsure how to cook native meats, it's not as difficult as some might think.

"To be honest, possum is very much like rabbit," he says. "The difference between possum and rabbit is very much like that between duck and chicken. "Possum is like duck in that it's slightly darker, slightly stronger, slightly more oily, but if you prepare it correctly it comes out beautifully.

"Our main possum dish is a confit possum, we confit it in duck fat. It doesn't really do well with pan-frying or things like that, so slow cooking is the way to cook your possum. It goes really well with your acidic and fruity flavours, things like Davidson plums which are also native ingredients, berries, raspberries, things like that. They really break down that gamey, fatty flavour."

"Kangaroo and emu have a very small fat content so they're different to cook. If you're cooking it as a steak you won't be able to cook kangaroo past medium and emu you can't really cook past medium rare before it goes really dry and that gamey flavour comes out."

Native ingredients go beyond meats at Tukka, which has a dessert menu that incudes lilly pilly savarin served with a mixed berry salad and vanilla cream,  and lemon myrtle white chocolate sorbet with raspberry dust and a macadamia sable.

Wells agrees with Ingham that native ingredients need to be experimented and played with to have their real potential realised, but insists more training is needed in the early days of chefs' cooking careers.

"I think training in native Australian ingredients, especially in the official curriculum, is extremely minimal and very lacking," he says.

"People that are teaching and people that are creating the curriculums don't have that regular, everyday cooking knowledge of how to use these ingredients. They're starting to push classes and little bits of teaching but there aren't many people out there that know how to use it as a general ingredient, so they're only being used as niche ingredients every now and then."

The InterContinental Hotel in Adelaide is addressing this training issue head-on with executive chef Tony Hart enlisting native foods producers Mike and Gayle Quarmby from South Australia's Outback Pride to help train his staff.

"Gail and Mike come in and they set up in the staff cafeteria and show the staff the local product in its raw form, and then train the chefs on what to do," he says. "We're pretty lucky."

Training in how to handle these flavours is crucial, Hart says, because they have the potential to damage a dish if used inappropriately. "Quite often the flavours are a lot more pungent," he warns.

"They can be overpowering, so if you don't really know what you're doing or if you get carried away then they can totally overpower your dish. A number of the [ingredients] have eucalypt undertones and things like that so if you are at all heavy-handed with them, like if you're doing a basic lemon tart and you put lemon aspen in it you can really go way too far with the flavour. Without it being subtle and uplifting it can be insulting almost."

Native Australian flavours on the InterContinental's menu include rosella flower danishes, lemon myrtle danishes, wattleseed scones, lemon aspen tarts and oysters with a finger lime dressing. "The flavours are fairly unique and I also think it's a great selling point," says Wells.

"At the hotel we're very involved in featuring local South Australian produce and partnering with our suppliers to make sure we celebrate great products. We're lucky because there's a lot of fantastic artisan suppliers in South Australia. [These ingredients] really suit the climate and the style that we do here. There's value in what we're doing, it's not just a novelty factor."

To view the original article at Hospitality Magazine, click here