AUSTRALIAN CUISINE
Anyone who visited Australia more than twenty or thirty years ago may have been left with something of a bitter taste in their mouth if they came with expectations of a wonderful Australian cuisine. It's true, and we're not too proud to admit it; Australia doesn't have the long established culinary culture that many other countries, particularly European countries are blessed with. But does this mean you'll be left eating tough steak and soggy veges every night? Well, if that's what you think, you couldn't be further from the truth...
Although Australia did take some time to establish its own cuisine, we guarantee you that the food will be one of the highlights of your Down Under experience. Modern Australian cuisine has been praised by critics worldwide for its diversity, superb quality, and inventiveness. Emphasis is on the use of top quality fresh produce, and the trend is towards low-salt, low-fat healthy cuisine incorporating lean meat and lightly cooked vegetables.

HISTORY

For the first 100 - or even 150 years - after European settlement, living conditions in much of Australia were harsh. The early settlers were mostly of British or Irish descent, and had difficulty growing vegetables or raising livestock in the unfamiliar rugged Australian landscape. The lack of refrigeration forced chefs to burn or salt meats - or coat the meat in fat - in order to reduce the risk of food poisoning. The vast distances between settled areas made the transportation of fresh produce near impossible.

In the pioneering days, meals were generally simple and bland. The stereotypical English 'meat and three veg' was the order of the day. But the wave of immigration to Australia after WWII led to the mixing and blending of many different ethnic traditions, and this unique flavour eventually found its way into our restaurant kitchens. As highways were built, transportation improved, and refrigeration expanded the size of the farmer's market. This gave farmers confidence to grow a wider range of products, which in turn meant that European and Asian immigrants were able to access the ingredients they longed for.

Every major city witnessed a host of new restaurants within the genre of 'Modern Australian' cuisine, with inventive chefs making their own rules, and curious diners lapping up the new flavours. This was our country's culinary awakening.

Perhaps because we are such a 'new' country, we didn't feel bounded by age old cooking traditions. In short, when Australian cuisine started to blossom in the 1980's, there were no rules. Australian chefs weren't trying to create a common style, but rather pushing the boundaries and developing their own creations.

Potent Asian flavors have been blended into many traditional European dishes, and our Asian cusine has been adapted to make use of some of our wonderful local ingedients. For example, using barramundi in a Thai green curry, or marinated buffalo fillet in a Tandoori with curried spinach, beetroot relish, a roasted pear and saffron polenta.

Australia has long been famed for the quality of its fresh ingredients such as seafood, local fruits and vegetables, beef and lamb, as well as its world class cheeses. Each region has its own specialties, and because our country is so vast and our landscape so varied, it seems there is almost nothing we can't produce locally. And now, with creativity and inventiveness being welcomed by the dining public, the range of food available in Australian restaurants is second to none.

TROPICAL NORTH QUEENSLAND

It won't take you long to realize that we in Tropical North Queensland are blessed with some of the country's finest fresh produce. The Atherton Tablelands, just inland from Cairns, are the foodbowl of the Far North. With rich volcanic soil and a relatively cool climate, this agricultural area provides a great range of our fruit and vegetables, including tropical fruits that can't be grown in the southern states. Farmers on the Tablelands also produce high quality tea and coffee, and superb dairy products. The rich farmlands south of Townsville - from Bowen to the Burdekin region - produce much of the state's supply of vegetables, from tomatoes and capsicums to eggplants and zucchinis, as well as fruits such as mangoes and melons. The sprawling Northern Outback is home to massive sheep and cattle properties, meaning that we never have to settle for second best when it comes to prime cuts of fresh meat. And our coastal location means an endless supply of delicious seafood, from lobster, BUGS and prawns to exotic reef fish and our own Tropical North Queensland favourite, the barramundi. In fact, over 90% of the seafood on the restaurant plates of Tropical North Queensland comes from our own backyard!

Restaurants throughout the region - especially in the major tourist centres such as Cairns and Port Douglas - have embraced the local produce and developed a wide range of unique ways of preparing and serving our local delicacies. Whether it's Tempura Gulf Bugs or Thai Kangaroo Salad at Cairns' famous Red Ochre Grill, or just a simple barramundi and chips wrapped in paper from Captain Cook Diner, you'll know you're in a foodie's heaven from the first bite!

AUSSIE BUSH TUCKER

But of course, Aborigines had survived on Australia's natural food resources for over 40,000 years; and more than just survived, they knew of many nutritious edible plants that early Europeans had no clue of, and used a number of fruits, berries and leaves which are recognized to have medicinal qualities. Kangaroo meat, which for decades was largely shunned by white Australians (Cue the 1981 beef scandal "WHO PUT THE ROO IN THE STEW?") is now regarded as a delicacy, savoured for its strong flavour, low fat content and high iron content.

With the awakening of Australia's kitchens, a vast untapped reserve of native flora has started turning up on menus: deliciously tangy fruits from the rainforests including riberries, wild rosellas, Kakadu plums, and lilipili; aromatic herbs from our woodlands, spicy bush tomatoes from the desert, and lean rich game meats from kangaroo and emus. The list of new ingredients also includes baby eels and freshwater crayfish (yabbies), and not to forget our tasty friend, the crocodile.

KANGAROO
Kangaroos are not farmed. Anyone who has seen one JUMP will understand why. Kangaroo meat comes entirely from professional culling operations. Although kangaroo meat is becoming hugely popular with the export market, there is a perception amongst some forgeigners that kangaroos are either 'too cute' to eat (as opposed to fluffy white lambs??) or that it's CRUEL to kill kangaroos, or that kangaroo meat is not fit for human consumption. Well, in fact kangaroo meat is one the the healthiest red meats, high in protein, low in fat (about 2%, and about 40% of that fat is long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, which is considered healthy). Kangaroo meat is stronger in flavour than the meat from farmed animals, is very tender if cooked properly, and will keep for longer than other types of meat due to the low fat content.

And kangaroos are certainly in plentiful supply. There are far more kangaroos in Australia today than there were when European settlers arrived two hundred years ago. Estimates put the current kangaroo population at around 50 million. The development of irrigation, improvement of pastures, and the eradication of predators have provided a veritable paradise for our high jumping friends. In 2002 the number of kangaroos allowed to be shot by commercial hunters was increased from 5.5 million to 7 million per year.

Kangaroo meat is best cooked a little rare. Preparation is essential, otherwise the meat can become dry and quite tough in texture, mostly due to the low fat content.

EMU
Emu meat is higher in protein, vitamin C, and iron - and lower in cholesterol - than beef, chicken, or turkey. It is very dark meat with little or no marbling, and since emu can be raised naturally, the meat generally contains no chemical additives.

Like kangaroo, emu meat needs to be cooked according to its low fat content to maintain tenderness. Care needs to be used to not overcook it, and it should be served while still pink in the middle.

CROCODILE
Crocodile meat is a white meat with a tender, juicy texture somwhere between that of fish and chicken, and it has a subtle flavour that is usually complemented by the use of marinades. Its nutritional composition compares favourably with that of more traditional meats. Choice cuts of meat include backstrap and tail fillet.

BUFFALO
Buffalo is similar to beef but with a richer, stronger flavour. It is very nutritious and is relatively low in cholesterol.

NATIVE HERBS, SPICES, FRUITS AND NUTS
The meats mentioned above are often flavoured with the fruits, nuts and leaves from selection of native Tropical North Queensland plants.

LEMON MYRTLE: The leaves and stems of this rainforest tree add a wonderful citrus flavour and aroma.
MOUNTAIN PEPPER: ground leaf or berries of the mountain pepper tree.
NATIVE SPINACH: Warrigul greens, a native spinach growing in coastal areas, was used by Captain Cook in the 1770's as a spinach substitute to allay scurvy.
BUSH TOMATOES: small tomato-like fruits, also called desert raisins.
MACADAMIA NUTS: a nut, native of Australia, with an extremely hard shell and a deliciously creamy kernel.
WATTLE SEED: A small, oval, black variety of the Acacia seed. Dry roasted and ground to enhance its natural nutty, coffee-like flavour, wattle seed is used in many foods including rice dishes, soups, meat rubs and baked goods.

WHAT THE HECK IS 'B.Y.O'?

BYO is another Aussie institution that confuses a lot of foreigners, especially Europeans. Of course, it stands for 'Bring Your Own', applying to bringing your own alcohol to a restaurant. The liquor industry in Australia is highly regulated, and a licence to sell alcohol is quite expensive. Many restaurants, particularly more casual places in the medium price range, opt instead to pay for a much more affordable BYO permit. This allows their diners to bring their own alcohol (sometimes wine only) for consumption on the restaurant premises. The restaurant then charges a a 'corkage fee' - usually a few dollars per person.

Our BYO tradition is cherished by budget conscious Aussies who resent having to pay the sometimes astronomical markup up on wines from the restaurant cellar. For example, a $20 bottle of wine from the liquor store (we call it a 'bottle shop') could set you back between $50 and $60 at your favourite licenced restaurant. But BYO and you'll probably just pay a few dollars each for corkage. BYO means you can splash out on a very nice bottle without worrying about emptying your bank account.