JEFF CORBETT: How our tastes evolved past devon

IT'S a receipt from a Greek delicatessen in outer Sydney, and it occurred to me as I looked through it that it is also an account of how Australia has changed in half a lifetime. My wife and I had arrived at the deli to buy a particular type of Turkish delight as gifts and while we were there we spent $103.42 picking up a few essentials.

First items on the receipt are olives, black with chilli flakes and marinated green, and the olive must be one of the leading influences in the huge change in the Australian diet. I remember popping the first olive into my mouth, a pitted green olive skewered on a toothpick, at a function at the Newcastle Cultural Centre 48 years ago, and I couldn't get it out of my mouth fast enough.

It may have been my reaction that alerted the functionaries that my mates and I were intruders, although as teenagers who'd climbed the stairs from the downstairs library where we were supposed to be studying I'd have thought we were glaringly obvious gatecrashers.

These days olives are essential to our salads, pizzas and pasta sauces, although it has been a very long time since I've seen an olive skewered on a toothpick. And while olive oil was around in the 1960s, it was as some sort of remedy rather than a food. Life today without olive oil would be reduced!

Come to think of it, many of our salad ingredients were not generally available in Australia then. Lettuce other than the tightly headed iceberg, capsicum, fetta cheese, caper berries, Lebanese cucumbers, smoked salmon, cherry tomatoes, balsamic or red wine vinegar, and, of course, bulk olives and olive oil.

Pizza! How did we endure the 1950s and 1960s without pizza? And while spaghetti was occasionally on the table of many families the variety of pasta and sauces we have today was a long way off. If we had to identify a food that has produced the biggest change in the Australian diet, pizza and pasta would be at the top of the list.

Interestingly, Australia's passion for pizza seems to have been the result of American influence, not Italian, and it's probably the only good food that has arrived from that super-sized relationship.

As you know pasta and so many of our new foods arrived with Italians in the years immediately after World War II, although it seems to have been a couple of decades before they and their food were accepted as worthy by the extraordinarily conservative and insular Australians. The Chinese and the Greeks who arrived in number in the century before the war seemed to have had a much more limited impact on Australia's meat-and-three-veg cuisine, apart from the ubiquitous Chinese eateries and Greek cafes.

Imagine our diet today if the Greeks and Italians had not ventured so far south. It is hard to envisage an Australian kitchen without chilli, salami, pasta, Parmesan cheese, garlic, zucchini, eggplant, capsicum, fetta! And the Italians' cappuccino, and other cafe coffees, must be very close to usurping beer as the national beverage.

Somewhere along the line chicken moved from a weekly or special occasion dinner to a cheap, everyday meat. Pork belly and lamb shanks moved from poverty to posh, we fell out of love with devon and camp pie, and bread went from textured and palatable to disturbingly cheap unpalatable pap to expensive artisan sourdough.

The Italians arrived at the right time for change. Until a decade ago I'd have nominated spaghetti bolognese as Australia's national dish but it has been overtaken in that decade, I think, by a dish of Asian origin, perhaps a stir fry or noodles.

Migrants from Asia have stocked our pantry with soy sauce and oyster sauce that in most cases has relegated the unfinished bottle of Worcestershire sauce to the bin, Asian vegetables that couldn't be more different from the veg of Europe, coriander leaf rather than Europe's coriander seed, tofu (known by some as bean curd), five spice powder, lemongrass, sesame oil, fish sauce.

And rice! While we had rice in 1960s Australia it was used almost exclusively at home for a sweet milk pudding, and migrants from Asia introduced new varieties and new ways to use rice. In a great many Australian homes rice is now a staple and rarely a sweet. Rice, of course, is integral to one of the very new Australian foods, sushi.

Somewhere along the line chicken moved from a weekly or special occasion Australian dinner to a cheap, everyday meat that as pieces or chopped is probably in more dishes than red meat. Pork belly and lamb shanks moved from poverty to posh, we fell out of love with devon and camp pie, squid used only as fishing bait became calamari rings, and bread went from textured and palatable to disturbingly cheap unpalatable pap to expensive artisan sourdough.

We gained yoghurt, teabags, kebabs, hummus, tahini, real cheese rather than processed stuff, avocado, pistachios and wine that's not meant to be drunk from a bottle in a paper bag. And, for reasons I don't understand, bottled water.

The Australian diet has changed so much since I was a teenager that I don't think I ever have a meal now, apart from breakfast toast, that resembles the meals of that sepia-toned Australia. And as suggested by the long list of our purchases from the Greek deli, it may be that the greatest change is bigger than even variety. Flavour.

jeffcorb@gmail.com

letters@theherald.com.au

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