Monsterella with Iris and Dan

What does it mean to find a goo pizzeria? Entire civilisations have been built on less than that. Whole worlds come from dough, tomato, cheese; and the advantages of basil, sausage, chilli are unsurpassed by the miracles of humanity from the wheel to the combustion engine to the internet. One can live without those three inventions, but to live without pizza is to live half a life at best.

I have often thought Australian pizza culture has become as good as anywhere in the world. I say this fully aware that what counts as pizza for many people here is to be found in the American fast food chains that dot the suburbs. I myself put too many hours into creating BBQ Chicken Meatlovers in my franchise chain days. They are hours I will not get back, but it does not mean I will eat the pizzas that no one came to pick up. The reason I think Australian pizza culture is excellent though is simply for choice – there is the fast food style as I just mentioned, which sometimes hits the spot after a night of heavy drinking, when you only have $5 in your pocket. Then there are the family run places that make a kind of Australian pizza from the 1990s, a thickish crust with Hawaiian occupying pride of place, but they get the job done and are reliable sources of nostalgia for me. I look at them fondly and every now and then indulge in this type of pizza with a romantic glee. And then, bursting onto the scene lately are the Italian woodfired kind that have brought the original style from the motherland down under where we can feast on San Marzano tomatoes, fior de latte, pecorino, prosciutto crudo. They were a long time coming to Australia, but now they are here, you have to embrace them wholeheartedly. When I lived in Melbourne it was a habit to go to DOC, 400 Gradi, Ladro. It became a kind of indulgence that was also a prayer, a giving thanks to the pizza gods for having blessed my area with their sublime gifts to humanity.

I am lucky, and happy, to be back in Western Australia and when I am up in Perth, I have an excellent place around the corner from where I grew up and usually stay. It is opposite my primary school on a non-descript street in a quiet suburb, but it is revolutionary. It is Monstrella. I went there tonight with friends of me. They are pizza tragics or connoisseurs or aficionados, and I wanted to take them to my neighbourhood place. The branding is excellent and the atmosphere convivial. Would they appreciate the food?

We start with lamb skewers – tender morsel that are salty and doused in lemon, straight from the wood oven with a char on the outside. And then, it becomes pizza o’clock. What to choose? So many and yet there are so few of us? We get one each with the plan of sharing them all – a Miliano, a Frankie, a Ronaldo. The Miliano has sausage, caramelised onions, pecorino and it fuses into a rich, flavoursome, umami bomb of deliciousness. The Frankie has cherry tomatoes, fior de latte and prosciutto, and it is over too soon, a balanced pizza with a good crust to boot. And the Ronaldo comes with salami, chilli, rocket. It is hot, just the way I like it.


Pizza like this is a gift to the world, a kind of generous offering from the gods that we cannot ignore, even if we are in a suburb that no one has heard of. People travel for Monsterella and my father tells me this includes those from ‘south of the river’. That is at least a thirty-minute drive. It goes to show you how  much good pizza matters to people. My friends and I are satisfied. This is a good life.

EMPIRE OF AMERICANA

Although they do not have colonies proper, there can be no doubt that America is an empire. Food is part of that, and our palates in Australia reflect the soft power reaches of the Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Kansas City tastemakers.  One need only look at the lure of In-N-Out Burger, whose pop-ups here have drawn adoring crowds in a spectacle of salivating desire.

But America is a colony too, has a colonial history before it exported its Coca Cola, its Big Mac, its Kentucky Fried Chicken. When it comes to food, France has been the biggest influence on American cooking. You might point out the melting pot in the south-west with the former lands of Mexico now mingling with America. But I am talking about empire and the palate as it is constituted in big cities, especially on the East Coast. Both America and France seem to be a rejection of Britain, and even those New England Boston Brahmins have clam chowder and not only boiled vegetables and bone broth. If the French have exerted an inestimable influence on America from Alexis du Toqueville to Marquis de Lafayette to the Louisiana Purchase to the Statue of Liberty to French fries, it lives on now in dishes, restaurants and bourgeois holidays to Paris in August.

What brought France and America together was not only a rejection of the British, but a shared revolutionary heritage. However, their revolutions are something distinct, with France perceiving itself to have a tradition to uphold; an empirical reality that means good taste is to be found in the palate of every citizen while America regards itself as exceptional and wholly new. However unenlightened the average Frenchman gets, he will always know how to dress a salad. The same cannot be said in America, notwithstanding that, at the top end, they are able to do it with the very best. Rather than excelling at delicate croissants, it is the processed donut that becomes the apotheosis of common taste in the US.

What all revolutions share however is a desire for the new, a reset button that marks a year zero and allows the people to re-boot. This is there in Paris to which one only needs to cite Adeline Grattard’s restaurant yamT’cha that fuses French and Cantonese into something wholly original. In the American case, this has meant the proliferation of new dishes and the re-working of flavours into distinct combinations. This comes about is in fusion food such as the celebrated Korean-Mexican.

And yet, French and American is the dominant fusion, at least when it comes to the meeting of cultures (rather than chefs and New World ingredients). It is there most explicitly in the dishes from New Orleans, but you can find it in other places and not only as Creole. If French has influenced American cuisine, what does something similar look like in Australia given that our reference point and our era is somewhat different? To think about this is not to highlight individual flavours that differ between Americans and us – how they like cinnamon gum, how we like vegemite, how they have squash, corn, pumpkin and we have kangaroo, emu, crocodile, how they like their pies sweet and we like them savoury. I do not think you can get to the essence of a thing by pointing out the particularities. What matters is the root of the cuisine, and while both places have Indigenous heritage that continues to matter, for the national palate we need to parse the difference between Puritans and Convicts.

Where one is righteous, the other is irreverent; where one is moral, the other is questionable; where one seeks religious freedom, the other seeks material liberation; where one is driven, the other seems relaxed. But by looking at these ideal types, these caricatures, the question of national character won’t be solved. What matters is how we have inflected American cuisine and made it our own, how we have innovated just like they did with French Dip.

So, consider the burger. David Chang is simply wrong about Australians having the worst hamburgers in the world. He makes this claim on very little evidence. To prove his point he cites of the use of tinned beetroot, canned pineapple, grated carrot. These might be typical ingredients, even vernacular, but they are not the only options you get here, not since brioche arrived in a big way. Australian burgers are not stuck in the 1950s at a roadside servo somewhere between Darwin and Dubbo. Today’s Australian burger is superior to America’s precisely because we get all options – you cannot even find that beetroot in America. This means we have more choice, something that Americans pride themselves on, to which you will need to know what kind of salad dressing you like before you order because they will give you a list as long as you like.

Between choice and tolerance, you get a fair idea of what counts as liberalism in America. These are values I imagine Chang subscribes to given he is a New Yorker and the other side of politics means voting for Donald Trump. Plus, Australians are now doing American style burgers as good as anyone on the coasts of the United States, maybe not as good as people in the heartland. But choice and mimesis is a start, and I have no doubt that our colonial desire to overturn the master can propel us beyond the horizon established so far.

The problem as I see it with burgers here is not specific ingredients despite the fact that Australia needs a better pickle game. It is that Australians tend to make junk food taste bourgeois. This does not mean it tastes worse, but there is a problem of gentrification. It never gets as dirty as in America – think chilli on a hot dog, cheese whizz in a can, the average all you can eat buffet in Las Vegas. Those things do not exist in Australia, which means you cannot reach the same pit of self-loathing and despair in quite the same way. That might be a good thing, but it also means we miss out on happy hour buffalo wings.

Gentrification, and with it, cultural appropriation, are major concerns for the middle class diner in America and Australia. That is where the concerns of empire find their internal motor. What happens to all the grit, the appeal, the ‘culture’ when aspirational hipsters take over working class, minority dominated enclaves? What happens to the food?

In my youth, I participated in that wave. I lived in West Philadelphia, being part of the frontier that moved into a black community from the centre that was the University of Pennsylvania. I could justify it by the rent I was paying, but in reflection, it seems possible to find cheap places to live that do not encourage encroachment (think of this as retrofitting the middle class with the bohemian). However, in West Philadelphia the lines were easily seen in the bar culture, of which there were three kinds– young, white, hipster; working class, middle aged African Americans; and Ethiopian and Eritrean men. I think I was too young to really make sense of what was going on, and I felt Australian, which gave me license to go and order Fosters in any establishment. Plus, I had been surrounded by dark skin since I was a child and it did not feel that different. In retrospect, that seems naïve, earnestly innocent and I have come to know my place a little better.

What often goes unsaid in conversations around gentrification (and appropriation), is how they reinforce the structural position of marginalised people and the power-privilege relationships we are used to. Minorities are routinely expected perform their dislike as though they were representatives for the group in question rather than as individuals who happen to be broadly similar. It can be a heavy burden for your only ethnic mate to speak on every matter about our borders. What that means is person X is simply ‘the Indian community member’ who will be framed as outraged at neighbourhood changes from the restaurants to the bars to the property prices. It then becomes an expectation that I will defend Indians from attacks, or police the boundaries of my culture in such a way that a special few can feel permitted to enter given my standing in the community and my authority in the wider world. But, it is about having the knowledge, empathy and imagination to respect what is good taste and to know that every problem can be answered with creativity.

Diners want to feel comfortable and be accepted in a world that is diverse. For me, cultures and cuisine benefit from being open rather than closed, from simply having a conversation, and we know as much because they thrive when people engage and interact. Restaurants close if you do not go to them. To my mind, it is a good thing if you want to come over for a chicken curry and then try to make it at home afterwards. It is innocent enough to want to understand different people and places, but we must respect rules of engagement and contribute to a future where everyone is truly welcomed. The future that we are making in Australia is one I am optimistic about, precisely because I think we can make burgers that are delicious, because we can make fried chicken without performing a kind of ‘blackface palate’, because we can transform Puritanical revolutionaries into activist communities that like the taste of wattleseed, desert lime and wallaby.

I see that here more in donut culture than I do in burgers, fried chicken or Southern barbeque. Donuts have a greater license for creativity, maybe because we are getting used to them as a new paradigm of innovation. At the crest of this wave is a range of flavours that are made for Australian taste in such a way that they speak back to the empire of Modern Americana. Donuts suit our collective lifestyle, and not only because they are not fast food in the same way burgers are, but because the bakery is an institution that matters in the history of Australia.

Donuts that I have seen recently include – jasmine, green tea, matcha; mocha, Tim Tam, s’more; hazelnut, walnut, maple; pumpkin, pineapple, crème brulee; blueberry, blackberry, mulberry, raspberry, strawberry, lingonberry, passionfruit, vanilla; trifle, honeycake, jaffa; white choc, peppermint, birthday, sprinkles, orange, lemon, mandarin, cinnamon. I have also seen lemon myrtle, russellberry and Gerladton wax, all of which are Indigenous flavours to this place. I could go on, but you get the idea. Quite simply, the entire world is here, in our donuts.

What should not be forgotten is that donuts are not only American, and, if anything, their empire only returns us to the world at large rather than isolating us further. Think here of churros, criollo, bomboloni, let alone the salty egg fried dumplings you get at yum cha. The burger might have our attention for now, but it is the donut where we might begin to re-discover something about ourselves and our place in the world that is a welcome return to what is possible.


DREAMING OF THE AISLES

As a child, every Saturday we did the shopping, or as mum liked to call it ‘supermarketing’. This was after teeball or minky or netball or soccer or basketball or tennis. We would head to Roe Street in Northbridge where there was a fishmonger, greengrocer, continental dry goods store. I would poke the eyes of fresh fish, eat grapes, and shake boxes of pasta just like any other kid. We knew the people who ran it and they squeezed our cheeks and told us to study hard. My mum was shopping there until they retired a couple of years ago.

Other times, we would head to the markets at Subiaco where there were people yelling and a crowd jostling. We liked that place because there was a food court in the middle and my parents would treat us to roti paratha, prawn crackers or ice cream while we waited patiently for them to get supplies for the week.

It will come as no surprise then, with memories like these, that I love a market. I love shopping for produce, imagining what you will cook by finding something that looks good and fresh, planning a meal on the spur of the moment, making calls to friends to see what they are doing that evening. There have been times where this is hard to find. When I drove around Australia, I was appalled at what was on offer in many remote communities – it was all but impossible to find fruit and vegetables. The most similar experience for many Australians is the servo, where hot chips are as fresh as it gets. When you couple this with the breakdown in bush food chains, it is hard to get good fresh food. There are people who are working to better this including dedicated community members, native ingredients suppliers, and groups like the Eon Foundation, who only go where they are invited, planting gardens with children and elders so that people have access to produce.

Further afield, I have been to some wonderful markets. At Barcelona, I went a little crazy on fish, prawns, cuttlefish, octopus, crab; my eyes bigger at the stomach stocking up to cook in our rental apartment, and, at the plates of tapas we sat down to eat in between.

There was a time I visited Banjarmasing, the capital of Kalimantan and what they call the ‘Venice of Indonesia’. They have a system of interconnected floating markets where hawkers paddle up with coffee and sweets and bananas and meat. My friend and I had breakfast there, treated ourselves to an extra sugar in our tea, eating fritters of sweet potato and cakes with layer upon layer. That week, we headed for a walk in the jungle and had an epic overnight trip out of the mountains to get back to town – we rafted through rapids for a few hours, then caught a truck through passes, then arrived too late for the last boat out of a village, camping instead on the local imam’s floor eating fish curry with packet noodles, before we took two boats back to Banjarmasing. For lunch on the second day, we stopped at a port making friends wherever we went, sitting down to a glorious lunch with kankun and sambal. Eating on the road never felt so pleasant.

I have been in Krakow in summer, hunting down spices in a market with bras, hats, socks, jocks and sausages, all in the hope of making a curry for people I just met. What I made was not quite traditional, but it proved to be a hit if only because it was so different to Eastern European.

When I have lived for extended stretches, I often seek out a market that I can rely on. Some of these have been farmers’ markets, and I have also participated in getting fresh produce delivered straight from the orchard or the field to the door. When I lived in Philadelphia, I used to do my shopping at a place called Clark Park, where Amish people would come in to sell their wares – beautiful potatoes and carrots, wonderful squash and lettuce, and their baked treats that were regionally specific. These included whoopee pie, which is two cake-like chocolate biscuits with cream in the middle, or shoefly pie, which is a butter caramel in a pastry crust. The band would play during those days and people would mill around drinking apple cider.

In New York, I used to stock up at the Thursday market on Broadway at 116th Street, just on Columbia University’s doorstep. At this market, they have boutique soda with old school flavours like maple cream and apple cinnamon; cheese from goat to blue to brie and back again past cheddar and gouda and everything in between; baked treats like focaccia with olives and tomatoes, small tarts with custard and fruit. With all that produce right there, I would ask myself so many questions: should I make herb barley soup with roasted heirloom carrots be they white, orange or purple? Should I make pasta with julienned zucchini, slivers of eggplant, a glug of olive oil? Should I splash out and break the tradition of not eating meat at home, buying a shoulder of pork to baste and roast with a love so tender that the mouth begins to water simply thinking of it? This is to say nothing of what happens when one starts to talk to the people here. You say that the pak choi today is particularly good? Maybe I can make a stir-fir with a sticky garlic sauce. The spaghetti squash has just been picked this morning? Maybe I can roast tomatoes and toss it with basil on top. And you think that this arugula is peppery and fresh, the last harvest before the snow? Well, maybe I can dress it with walnuts, balsamic vinegar and honey.

I found one particularly dedicated supplier of Jerusalem artichokes at Columbia, who alone brought me so much pleasure. Every Thursday, I would roast them in high heat and sprinkle them with salt. The outer skin is golden, crisp and chewy, a kind of earthy caramel, and the inside is soft, moist and fluffy, a kind of wet chestnut. We ate them almost without fail and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why they are not the most popular vegetable in the world.

When I cannot find a good market, I am happy enough to settle for specialty stores from butchers to fishmonger to aficionados of fresh pasta. But then, I am happy to be swayed by an excellent supermarket too. I was thinking of what this is after a recent trip overseas. I am sure many readers will be familiar with Whole Foods, either from experience or because of reputation. And Whole Foods is wonderful. I fondly recall how I used to buy a cut of lamb from New Zealand there, almost like a full backstrap. During that time I would cook dinner on Wednesdays with a colleague of mine and we dreamed of opening a little restaurant called ‘Simple Things, Done Well’. So very often, we would buy that lamb, and eat it with good bottles of wine followed by shots of the very best ice-cold vodka he had bought on a recent research trip to Latvia.

At home though, we have a wonderful place to do our shopping, halfway between Perth and Redgate. It is structured like an IKEA and you have to make your way through every section to reach the end. It is not only a brilliant tactic to get you to buy that extra fine looking cheesecake, but it also is convenient and easy to navigate. We are often seduced by the produce on show, by how it is displayed with a certain attractiveness, a kind of come hither look with beads of moisture on its skin, peel, packaging. It makes you want to cook with it all if not bring it home to meet the parents and settle down once and for all.

But for all this, for all the markets in all the world, for the victories you have when the squash you love comes into season, when the supermarket you love is open late enough on the way home to stop in and get something easy, for all this, nothing compares to produce fresh from the garden.

I am not a ‘bookish type’ by any stretch of the imagination, but I am not a natural gardener. I need direction. I can brick-pave and I can use a shovel. I watch lectures on permaculture. When it comes to gardening, my wife is the one I look to for inspiration. She is very good at planning, planting, tending, pruning, looking after and during our time away, my extended family enjoyed the fruits of her labour with potatoes, leafy greens and chillies fresh for many days of summer. The thing I like most though, the thing that tastes especially good when it is fresh, is the humble tomato. My nephew, who is all of two, has become very adept at selecting the very best ones to eat when he comes over to my parents place, happily heading out to the backyard to check the tomato plants for ripe, red, fruit.

You might be thinking, I too have many tomatoes and I too have lots of chillies. But, my problem is that they have all come on at once. I have too many tomatoes to know what to do with, no matter if my cute nephew thinks we can just eat them all right now. Tomatoes have to be one of the most versatile and common ingredients we use today. They are there in so many different cuisines. They are there fresh, cooked, chutneyed. But what does one do when you have them coming out your wazoo fresh from the backyard?

The answer to that has to be ‘sauce day’. There are several different ways to define sauce. Sauce can be the passata of Italians, the chutney of the English, the sambal of the Singaporeans. In any case, what they share, at least for us, right now and right here, is their foundation in tomatoes that you do not know what to do with. Fresh produce is always a blessing, and I get you might be tired of tomatoes – you have had enough salad with burrata; enough pico de gallo; enough tomato based main courses from stuffed cabbage leaves to burritos to gazpacho. I get all that, which is why you need to make something you can store for winter. You need to bottle up this glorious piece of summer to keep you warm when the days are short and the nights are cooler. You need sauce like it is a hot lover.

There are many ways to make sauce. I have boiled tomatoes by the boxful in big vats of hot water, churned them by hand to remove their seeds and skins, and poured what remained into old beer bottles. And I love the simplicity of that, but I also like to get creative with my tomato sauce. My uncle makes a very good one to go with his excellent home made sausage rolls, bulking and sweetening it with apple.

I like to make chutney that is quite thin, a sauce that is somewhere between the sweetness of the fresh tomato to go with heat of the chillies that are also in season. Forget sultanas (or don’t because in other circumstances it is quite acceptable). Forget cloves, cinnamon, orange peel. I like a hot chutney with tomatoes, chilli, brown sugar, vinegar, and, if pushed, a squeeze of lime and some mustard seeds that have been fried in oil.

This sauce works with curry, it works as a dip for chips, it works as a condiment in sandwiches. Mix it with yoghurt or hummus or even ‘yummus’  (what I call a mixture of those two blessed ingredients). Use it on shellfish, meat, poultry. Eat it hot or cold, use it like the best sauce in the world because you made it yourself and you cannot find it in any market or supermarket aisle. And that, surely, is a blessing when the garden has produced so much that we cannot eat it all before the birds do.