• Is it any wonder that our island nation is the place to be for sensational shellfish and seafood? (Bondi Harvest)
After a few Sydney rock oysters or wild-caught abalone from WA, and you might think Australia is a mecca for fresh seafood.
By
Lucy Rennick

2 Oct 2018 - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 3 Oct 2018 - 12:36 PM

You might think Australia is a mecca for fresh seafood - and you wouldn't be wrong.

As an island continent, Australia is uniquely poised to support a wide range of marine life beyond its coastline of more than 36,000 kilometres. Our waters provide a home for all kinds of crayfish and lobsters, molluscs and crustaceans, and sustainable fishing practices have allowed these populations to thrive; the amount of seafood produced annually sits at around 230,000 tonnes. It’s why shellfish forms such a big part of Australia’s culinary culture (yes, we will put another shrimp on the barbie, thank you), and why chefs from a range of culinary backgrounds are immediately drawn to the bounty of the sea to devise their menus.

Oysters, crab, lobster, bugs and prawns... You name it and Australian seas can deliver it.

Here, SBS dives deep into the waters surrounding Australia to see what lies beneath, and how a few of the country’s most notable chefs are using it all.

The tropical north

The warm waters running along the top of the country and around to Queensland are home to the greatest diversity of marine species in the country. Balmain and Moreton Bay bugs, spanner and blue swimmer crabs abound in far north Queensland, while the Great Barrier Reef is a crustacean haven – some species haven’t been officially discovered yet.

At Saké Brisbane, head chef Chi Daisuke Sakai takes juicy Sunshine Coast prawns and marries them with a light tempura batter. “Queensland seafood is among the best I have worked with,” Sakai tells Visit Brisbane.   

Darwin Fish Market boasts small mountains of locally-sourced mussels and mud crabs. Indigenous chef Zach Green uses these and other types of shellfish at his Darwin pop-up restaurant, Elijah’s Kitchen, to tell stories about his Indigenous heritage and his connection to the land. 

“My cousin and I will catch the mud crabs by hand,” Green tells SBS. “We’re lucky in the Northern Territory to have a massive bounty – Australian chefs are still finding new produce to eat all the time. We’re blessed with diversity and abundance.”

The temperate south

Cooler temperatures, unpredictable weather and relative inaccessibility work together to create an ideal growing environment for vongole (little clams), squid, mussels, pippies and scallops. Shellfish in Australia’s south is difficult to plunder by the many, which means production and consumption are tightly held in a sustainable holding pattern.

“In biological and geological terms, South Australian waters are like deserts,” Paulie Polacco, a South Australian-based diver and scallop fisherman tells SBS. “Our seafood isn’t abundant on a global scale, in comparison to regions like the North Pacific or Japan. There is abundance there, but you have to know how to find and harness it.”

Polacco works closely with chefs like Jock Zonfrillo (Orana, Adelaide), who regularly showcases South Australian oysters, prawns and Port Lincoln squid in produce-led dishes.

Tasmania

The further south you travel, the higher the water nutrient level soars – that’s how we end up with Bruny Island oysters and world-renowned abalone. “Tasmania gets more rainfall and more storms, and it’s more exposed to the Southern Ocean,” says Polacco. “There’s more abundance of seafood, and aquaculture is easier to get up and running.” 

Whenever Zach Green is in Tasmania, he’ll head straight to the northern waters in pursuit of crayfish. “Catching and cooking freshwater crayfish are processes that hold a lot of significance to the mob down there,” he tells SBS.

At upmarket Chinese restaurant Me Wah in Hobart, executive chef Gordon Tso braises Tasmanian blacklip abalone from Perkins Bay for 12 hours with flower-top shiitake mushrooms, steamed seasonal vegetables and ormer reduction – an ode to the region’s sublime aquatic produce.

New South Wales

Ask Greg Finn, an NSW-based commercial abalone and sea urchin fisherman, what shellfish best epitomises Australia’s eastern waters, and he’ll be quick to answer.

“It has to be oysters,” he says. “Sydney rock oysters are sweeter than other states’, and they’re really high quality. It’s a massive and iconic industry for NSW.”

Shellfish living off the coast of NSW are faced with a unique set of challenges, Finn explains. “We have a long coastline in NSW, but high population density along that coastline means more sedimentation from urban runoff, which affects overall water quality,” he tells SBS. “Fresh water from the rivers in northern NSW affects the salinity levels and brings oxygen levels down.” Shellfish, like abalone and turban shells, grow faster in cooler, more oxygen-and-nutrient rich waters on the south coast.

Sydney chef Dan Hong sees NSW waters as a Goldilocks zone – at least as far as eastern rock lobsters are concerned. “The water temperature here is in between Queensland and South Australia, so our lobsters have a good sweetness to them and have a totally different texture,” he tells SBS. “The cooler the water, the sweeter the lobster.”

At Hong’s restaurant Mr Wong, Eastern rock lobsters are deep-fried and doused in a salt and pepper spice mix, wok fried with different sauces, or steamed with white soy, ginger and shallots.

Western Australia

Australia’s west coast comprises warm tropical waters near Broome (according to Finn, the water reaches a maximum of 31 degrees in the summer), cooler southern temperatures and everything in between. It’s a veritable shellfish hub, recognised by not only the rest of the country but the entire world.

“The Australian snow crab from Western Australia is the best in the world,” Dan Hong tells SBS. “Why wouldn’t I use it?”

Order ‘Ahtapot’ at Sydney’s famed Turkish restaurant Anason (headed by chef Somer Sivrioglu), and you’ll be enjoying the best octopus Western Australia has to offer in true Turkish style, with broad bean fava, pickled onion, sumac and lemon.

“The octopus we use comes from all over Western Australia,” Andrea Galdo from Anason tells SBS. “We don’t stick to one place – we go wherever the best produce is.”

Maeve O'Meara is back in Food Safari Water 8pm, Wednesdays on SBS, or catch-up on all episodes via SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more. 

Make it at home
Crab with chilli

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The New England lobster roll

Behold the lobster roll! Perhaps the king of all sandwiches. Whoever came up with the idea of shoving freshly cooked lobster into a hot buttered roll was onto a very good thing.

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Baked polenta, shallow-fried until golden is the making of a beautiful seafood friendship. Lucky Sotto Sopra has a caramelised prawn, mustard green and a black garlic salad to keep it company. Texture, colour, flavour - it's all there. The Chefs' Line

Wakame and octopus salad

Most of the octopus you buy from fish suppliers has already been tenderised, but if you need to do it yourself, place the octopus in a large bowl with a good pinch of salt and massage well until it starts to go whiter and foamy. Food Safari Water

Abalone and Asian mushroom omelette

The humble omelette gets a luxury upgrade from chef Frank Shek. Food Safari Water