Every seventies and eighties Aussie kid with migrant parents tells the same “embarrassing lunch box story”. How the focaccia or bahn mi or matzo singled them out in the playground. How the other kids turned their noses up and insisted that their dumplings, sushi or baba ganoush made them smell. How all they ever wanted was a jam sandwich like the other kids, but ima/mama/ammi thought that was like eating cake for lunch.
Australia has come a long way in the past thirty or so years. Lunch boxes are now as varied as the food we eat at home. From Vietnamese to Korean to Polish to Chinese, Italian, Creole and on and on, most Australian tastebuds travel far and wide in any given week. Even the smallest shopping mall has a food court that offers more than one “international cuisine”, with Indian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese being perennially popular.
The Chinese started the love story
The Australian food scene has been evolving in pattern with migration since Chinese gold rush prospectors began sharing food in the 1900s. “Chinese restaurants emerged as a commercial enterprise on the Victorian goldfields,” says Barbara Nichol in her paper Sweet and Sour History: Melbourne’s early Chinese history.
“In the first half of the 20th century the Chinese restaurant was one of the most visible symbols of cultural diversity in Sydney.”
By 1890, one third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese, operating “cookshops” to serve Chinese diggers a hot meal from the back rooms of other businesses. The majority of Chinese settlers came from Southern China’s Guangdong Province, so Cantonese food was on the menu. Little wonder then that the cooks were soon serving people from all nationalities, not just the Chinese.
Even when the White Australia Policy abruptly drew a halt to Chinese immigration in 1901, special visa favours were made for Chinese chefs. By the 1930s cookshops had evolved into stand-alone restaurants (18 were listed in the trade directories in 1820) and Nichol notes that they were frequented by “city workers, students, recently arrived refugees from Europe, and Melbourne’s bohemian community of artists and writers.”
The same was happening in Chinatown in Sydney, as Nichol said during a National Library of Australia presentation: “In the first half of the 20th century the Chinese restaurant was one of the most visible symbols of cultural diversity in Sydney.”
Enter the Italians
The Italians were not far behind. Italians have been in Australia since James Matra and Antonio Ponto landed with the First Fleet, it wasn’t until the influx of migration following WWII that they began making their culinary mark. Italian market-gardeners and green-grocers took over fruit and vegetable markets from the Chinese (whose numbers were dwindling due to the White Australia Policy).
“It is hard to believe that vegetables that we now take for granted, such as eggplants and zucchini, were virtually unknown to the Australian public,” Vicki Swinbank writes in A brief history of the development of Italian Cuisine in Australia. “It must have been a real culture shock for Italians coming to Australian in the early days and being confronted with the typical Australian way of eating at the time. A diet consisting largely of meat, often three times a day, a very limited range of vegetables, all washed down with gallons of tea.”
“It is hard to believe that vegetables that we now take for granted, such as eggplants and zucchini, were virtually unknown to the Australian public.”
Italians started growing the vegetables they needed to create traditional dishes and it was only a matter of time before their food moved from market to retail to restaurant. King & Godfree in Carlton began specialising in Italian food and wine in the 1950s and the Valmorbida family went on to open Frank Agostino and Coy grocery stores across Melbourne. One of the first stores they opened is now Lygon Foodstore, which still sells high-quality Italian produce and supplies.
While the Italian migrant population were swooning with delight to be able to buy garlic and olive oil, the rest of Australia took some time to warm up Italian cuisine. Discrimination and prejudice meant that Italian eating didn’t catch on in the general population until the late 70s, (hence all those sad focaccia lunch box stories), but the pulling power of a ragu Bolognese proved irresistible. These days, it’s fair to say that many Australians eat Italian food at home or in restaurants weekly.
Greek milk bars brought the glam
The Greeks had a similar experience when arriving in Australia, although rather than the produce markets, it was in milk bars and cafés where they found their groove. The traditional Greek café began with Kytherian Athanasios Comino, who arrived in Sydney in 1877 and opened a fish and chip shop on Oxford Street in 1879. Working with fish seemed a natural fit for island-born Greeks and plenty of fellow Kytherians quickly followed suit. The Australian seafood industry was heavy with wholesale entrepreneurs of Greek decent and Comino, Manettas, Poulos, Racovolis and Kallis are just some of the Greek families who continue to be highly-regarded operators.
Souvlaki, loukoumades, moussaka, spanakopita and taramasalata were soon introduced and many Greek dishes remain a staple of milk bar culture across Australia.
The fish and chip shops morphed into milk bars in the 1930s and Katoomba’s National Trust-listed Paragon Café, opened in 1916 by Zacharia Simos and closed in May 2018, stood for years as an early example of glamorous, “modern” Greek milk bar culture. The Paragon Café was probably the first to start selling traditional Greek food when it offered baklava and katafi in the 1930s, Tess Malouf writes inThe 200 years History of Australian Cooking. Souvlaki, loukoumades, moussaka, spanakopita and taramasalata were soon introduced and many Greek dishes remain a staple of milk bar culture across Australia.
Once Greek immigration took off in the 1950s, so did demand for Greek food. Fib pastry delicacies were soon supplied to restaurants across the cities and industries for Greek yoghurts, feta, haloumi and kefalotyri soon followed. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that restaurants serving exclusively Greek food began opening. Before that, traditional Greek food was mainly served ‘after hours’ at the milk bars to the Greek community, historian Leonard Janiszewski reports in Greek Cafés & Milk Bars of Australia.
By the 1990s, Greek tavernas had become sought-after, serving klefitiko, keftedes and dolmades to grateful masses across Australia.
Then we all fell in love with Thai
Just as Italian and Greek food was growing vast acceptance, another new kid on the block was jockeying into “weird lunch box” territory. “Thai Town”, along Campbell Street in Sydney, was officially recognised by the City of Sydney in 2013, but Thai grocers and retailers have been operating along the strip since the seventies. In 1976 Bahn Thai, Australia’s first Thai restaurant, opened on St Kilda Road and Siam in Sydney quickly followed. It’s fair to say we haven’t stopped opening them since.
In their 2014 paper Thailand in Australia, Tamerlaine Beasley, Philip Hirsch and Soimart Rungmanee estimated that more than a quarter of all restaurants in Greater Sydney are Thai, the majority originally opened to serve a growing Thai student population but quickly finding favour with locals from every ethnicity.
“Thai Town”, along Campbell Street in Sydney, was officially recognised in 2013, but Thai grocers and retailers have been operating along the strip since the seventies.
It was a non-Thai who put Australian-style Thai food on the world map. David Thompson’s Darley Street Thai and Sailor’s Thai (both closed) modernised Thai food in Australia in the 1990s. Thompson went on to open Nahm in London, the first Thai restaurant to earn a Michelin star, and later opened Nahm in Bangkok where he has cooked ever since. Thompson then opened Long Chim in Perth in 2015, Sydney in 2016 and Melbourne in 2017; a celebration of Thai street food and the kind of Thai cooking popping up more and more across Australia.
“The streets of Bangkok are the part of Thai food culture I love the most. You’ll find most Thais prefer to eat in the markets on the streets – and its where you’ll find me too,” says Thompson.
Street food Vietnamese-style
Vietnamese refugees fleeing from the devastation of the Vietnam war also brought a little street food magic with them: phở. By this time, Australia was well-into Cantonese food, with a Chinese restaurant mandatory in every town, but lemon chicken and sweet and sour pork did not quite prepare the population for the fragrant broth that would eventually become a national obsession.
The Vietnamese community began opening family-run restaurants to feed their own in working class suburbs like Melbourne’s Richmond and Footscray and Sydney’s Cabramatta and Canley Vale. For many, cooking started as a way to make some money while attending English classes.
"Most cooks were amateurs who turned to cooking to earn a modest income," Tess Do, a lecturer at Melbourne University's School of Languages and Linguistics, told Vice. "The whole family, including young children, would join in to help."
Up the road in John Street, Luke and Pauline Nguyen’s parents opened up Pho Cay Du, inspiring a new generation of Australian foodies.
Pho Tau Bay, Cabramatta’s first Vietnamese restaurant, opened in 1980 on Park Street but it had operated out of a garage for years before that. Up the road in John Street, Luke and Pauline Nguyen’s parents, Lap Nguyen and Cue Phuong Nguyen, soon opened up Pho Cay Du (now Café Cay Du), inspiring a new generation of Australian foodies. Luke and Pauline went on to open Red Lantern in Sydney’s Surry Hills in 2002, and their innovative cooking was instrumental in introducing Vietnamese food to a wide audience across Australia.
Who knows what happens next
Since the grunt work has been done by Chinese, Italian, Greek, Thai and Vietnamese cooks and growers, Australian cuisine has gone on to embrace dishes and techniques from every country, including Korean, Indian, Polish, Mexican, Russian, Japanese, Danish, Samoan… there’s simply no room to list them all. From kefir and kakas to katsu and kimchi, what was once “foreign food” is now just the way we eat around here. No doubt we’ll continue to blend and mash and merge dishes to forge the next evolution of Australian food. Lucky lunch boxes.
Not sure what to do with your leftover XO sauce? Try this classic rice noodle stir-fry.
Pork belly and kimchi are the stars of this one-pot ultimate Korean comfort bowl.
Forget custard powder. Packing a beautiful vibrant green, this Thai dessert is so easy.
This crunchy, crispy pancake bánh xèo is a crowd-pleaser that deserves to share the Vietnamese food spotlight with pho.
This is my modern interpretation of moussaka. I take meltingly tender slow-braised lamb neck and use it to fill hollowed-out eggplants. Instead of the classic creamy bechamel sauce, I add a silky smoked eggplant cream and top it all with baked ricotta. The whole eggplants are then braised in the oven.