Food in Australia
Places to eat
- Australians often eat out in restaurants, and even in small towns you can usually find one or two options to eat out, with more choice in larger cities.
- BYO restaurants, BYO stands for Bring Your Own (alcohol). In many urban communities in Australia you will find small, cheap restaurants that are not allowed to serve alcohol, but allow customers to bring their own bottle of wine bought elsewhere. This is often much cheaper than ordering a bottle of wine from a restaurant. Some BYO restaurants allow beer to be brought in, while others only allow wine. Expect to pay a corkage fee, which can range from $2 to $15 or is charged per head. In restaurants licensed to sell alcohol, BYO is generally not allowed.
- Pubs, lunch at the bar is the term for a lunch served in a pub bar. Traditionally it is only served in the lounge at lunchtime. Today, most pubs offer lunch and dinner and many have a separate bistro or restaurant. Steak, chicken parmigiana, nachos are common.
- Clubs, such as bowling clubs, leagues, RSLs, are found in many cities. They are more common in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. Most of them welcome visitors and sometimes offer cheap meals. Some offer attractive locations, such as the water view of the twin towns of Tweed Heads.
- Cafés, most towns and suburbs have a café or coffee shop that serves breakfast and light meals and cakes all day. It is not unusual for them to close before dinner.
- Bakeries, usually a good place to buy rolls, cakes or sausage sandwiches. Some, like the bakery in Beechworth or the bakery in the historic district of Gundagai, also offer an experience.
- Fast food, McDonalds, Subway and KFC are widely available. Burger King is known as Hungry Jack’s. Red Rooster is an Australian chain that offers grilled chicken and other chicken products.
- Milk bars or take-out shops usually sell pies, grilled (fried) chicken, hamburgers, fried fish, gyros and kebabs. Ubiquitous in all cities and suburbs.
- Most shopping centres have food courts, even in country towns.
- For picnicking, the Australian climate is generally great for eating as much as possible and heading to the nearest park, river, lake or beach.
- Barbecuing is a popular pastime in Australia and many Australian parks offer free barbecues for public use. Contrary to the stereotype, Australians rarely throw a prawn on the barbie (in Australia, a prawn is more commonly referred to as a shrimp). Steaks, chops, sausages, chicken fillets, fish and skewers are popular on the barbecue.
Local food in Australia
It can be disappointing to find that local food is not really offered in Australian restaurants and Australians themselves rarely consider it. They are available in supermarkets and in some remote parts of the country.
- Kangaroo, if you fancy it, is available in most supermarkets and butchers. Go to the nearest park and grill it until it is perfectly cooked. It is best not to overcook it as it can become very tough. It tastes like beef. It is sometimes on restaurant menus, especially in tourist areas. Kangaroos are not threatened with extinction, and kangaroo grazing causes much less damage to the fragile Australian environment than ungulates, as well as much less carbon emissions. If you’re not ready to become a vegetarian, kangaroos are the best environmental statement you can make at a barbecue.
- Crocodile meat, sourced from farms in the Northern Territory and Queensland, is available upmarket and sometimes elsewhere. In Rockhampton, the capital of Australian beef, you can see the ancient reptile on a farm while eating a crocodile.
- Emu, yes, you can eat the emblem of Australia. Emu is low in fat and is available in some specialised butcher shops. Try the emblem in a pie in Maleny or on a pizza in The Rocks.
- On many tours you will have the opportunity to sample the Bush Tucker, the berries, nuts, roots, ants and worms of the native Australian bush. Macadamia nuts are the only plant native to Australia that is grown commercially for food. Try other bush foods and you’ll find out why.
Vegemite, a spread made from salted yeast that is best spread in a thin layer on toast. If you’re not prepared to buy a tin, Vegemite on toast is available in every coffee at breakfast time. It may not even be on the menu, but the Vegemite will be at the very back of the jar next to the jam. If you buy a jar, the secret is to spread it very thinly and don’t forget the butter. The taste is similar to marmalade in the UK or Cenovis in Switzerland. Australians are used to this taste and can spread Vegemite very thickly, but this is not recommended for beginners.
The Tim-Tam is a chocolate sandwich filled with two chocolate biscuits, all dipped in chocolate. You can buy a packet (or two) at any supermarket or convenience store. The Tim-Tams are needed to perform the Tim-Tam slamming manoeuvre. This involves biting both ends of the Tim-Tam and then using it as a straw to drink your favourite hot drink, usually coffee. The hot drink melts the caramel in the centre, creating an experience that is difficult to describe. It takes finesse to suck the entire biscuit into your mouth in the microseconds between complete satiation and dissolution. Tim-Tams are sold in packs of 11. So be sure to agree on the split before buying a pack with your travel partner, otherwise travel arrangements may be disrupted. In summer, Tim-Tams are often stored in the freezer and eaten cold.
Lamington is a sponge cake cube covered in chocolate icing and dipped in desiccated coconut. It is named after Lord Lamington, who was Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. You can find this homemade cake at a local market on Saturday mornings or, if you’re desperate, you can buy one at a bakery. Be sure to avoid the plastic-wrapped varieties sold in supermarkets.
Pavlova is a meringue cake with a cream filling, usually decorated with fresh fruit. It is served on special occasions or after a barbecue at lunchtime. There is often a dispute with New Zealand about the original origin of the recipe.
ANZAC biscuits are a mixture of coconut, oats, flour, sugar and golden syrup. They are thought to have been sent in care packages to World War I soldiers by wives and care organisations, but the story is probably apocryphal. They are available in bakeries, cafés and supermarkets and are very popular as ANZAC Day (25 April) approaches.
Damper is a traditional soda bread baked by drovers and shepherds. It contains basic ingredients (flour, water and possibly salt) and is usually baked in the embers of a fire. It is not available in bakeries and is usually only served to tourists on organised tours. It is best eaten with butter and jam or golden syrup, as it is dry and bland.
A pastry is a South Australian dish available around Adelaide. It is a pie turned over in a bowl of thick, frothy pea soup. Variations of similar pies are sometimes available in other regions.
A chiko roll is a deep-fried snack inspired by the egg roll or spring roll. Despite its name, it does not contain chicken. Its filling is boneless mutton, vegetables, rice, barley and spices. Its shell is thicker than that of an egg roll to withstand handling at football matches. Available wherever you can buy fish and chips.
The Australian meat pie is considered by many to be the national dish.
Common cuisines in Australia, often prepared by members of the culture concerned, are
- Australia’s British colonial heritage is perhaps best represented by the ubiquity of ‘fish and chips’, and virtually every neighbourhood and small town in a coastal area will have a local fish shop. Common types of fish used in Australia include flake (various types of small shark), bullhead fish, barramundi and King George whiting. British and Irish style pubs are common in all populated areas of Australia, although they serve Australian staples such as chicken parmesan, schnitzel and pasta.
- Chinese, synonymous in earlier generations with the term “takeaway”. Many Chinese restaurants still offer takeaway food, mainly of the Australian Chinese variety, but in the major cities there are small “Chinatowns” or suburbs with large numbers of ethnic Chinese residents that have excellent restaurants serving authentic Chinese food. Dim sum in Cantonese is available in speciality restaurants in most major shopping centres.
- The number of Thai restaurants has exploded in the last decade. Sydney in particular is known as one of the world’s best destinations for Thai cuisine.
- The Italian community is one of the largest ethnic communities of non-Anglo-Saxon origin in Australia and has contributed much to the coffee culture that has developed in major cities in recent decades. Restaurants serve either Italian cuisine tailored to Australian tastes or authentic regional Italian cuisine, the latter tending to be more expensive and upscale. If you’re a fan, head to Lygon Street in Melbourne or Leichhardt in Sydney.
- Greek, as above.
- Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East, including Sydney.
- Indian, mainly North Indian.
- Japanese, including takeaway bento shops, udon restaurants and sushi trains. They are often run by Koreans, whose own cuisine is also well represented in the big cities.
- The Vietnamese, Pho and Cha Gio (spring rolls) are easy to find in the big cities.
- Asian fusion, generally refers to Asian-inspired dishes.
Vegetarian food is quite common in Australia and many restaurants offer at least one or two vegetarian dishes. Some have a whole vegetarian menu section. Vegans may have more difficulty, but any restaurant with a large vegetarian menu should offer some flexibility. You will find a number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the larger towns, as well as in the walker-friendly coastal towns along the east coast. The town of Kuranda or the coastal towns of Byron Bay are a vegetarian paradise. In other areas, vegetarians are often poorly served, but most towns have a Chinese restaurant serving rice and steamed vegetables. Sydney and Melbourne in particular welcome vegans and vegetarians with a large number of vegetarian-only restaurants, vegan clothing shops and vegan supermarkets.
Those who follow kosher or halal cuisine can easily find specialised butchers in the main cities and will also find a number of restaurants with appropriate menus and cooking styles. Outside the main cities, it will be much more difficult to find food prepared in a strictly religious way.
Every capital city and many regional towns in Australia have a “farmers’ market”, which is usually held weekly at a specific location on Saturdays or Sundays. These markets mainly sell fresh fruit and vegetables, as Australian hygiene standards prohibit the sale of meat directly from market stalls. Butchers who set up shop at a farmers’ market usually exchange their wares from a display case in their boot. The attraction of the markets is the lower prices and the freshness of the produce. The attraction for the traveller is the cheap and excellent range of fruit – depending on the region and season. In the regions, the market usually takes place outside the city itself, in an empty paddock or sports field. Markets in the main towns are easier to get to, but prices are usually closer to those in supermarkets. For more details, see the destination guides.
Drinks in Australia
The consumption of beer is rooted in Australian culture. Although Fosters is advertised abroad as Australian beer, it is rarely consumed by Australians in Australia and is almost impossible to find. Beers are very regional and each state has its own breweries: Coopers and West End in South Australia, Carlton and VB in Victoria, Tooheys in NSW, XXXX (pronounced “fourex”) in Queensland, Boags and Cascade in Tasmania and Swan in Western Australia. There is also a selection of local microbreweries that may be harder to find, but are often worth seeking out. A selection of bottled beers imported from Europe and America is available in all but the most basic pubs.
Light beer (Lite) refers to beer with a low alcohol content, not a low calorie content. It contains about half the alcohol of full beer and is taxed at a lower rate, which means it is also cheaper than full beer. Low-calorie beer is sold as low-carbohydrate beer.
Australians like to keep their beer cold when drinking, so draft beer glasses come in a variety of sizes so you can drink a whole glass before it gets warm in the summer heat. Beer glass names vary from state to state, often in confusing ways: a schooner is 425 ml everywhere except South Australia, where it’s only 285 ml, a size known elsewhere as a middy or pott, except in Darwin, where it’s a handful, but in Adelaide a “pott” means a whole pint of 570 ml, and a pint means what is a schooner elsewhere, and…. You get the idea. Local beers and local descriptions are covered in detail in the country guides.
Bottle designation is a little simpler: standard sizes in Australia are the 375 ml stubby and the 750 ml long neck, or tallie. Beer cans are called tins and 24 of them form a plate, case, box or crate.
Australia produces quality wine on a truly industrial scale, with major multinational brands supplying Australian bottlers and exporting around the world. There are also a large number of boutique wineries and small suppliers. Very good red and white wines can be bought in Australia at very low prices, often under $10 a bottle, and even the smallest shop can expect to have a selection of 50 or more varieties.
The Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley and Margaret River areas are particularly well known for their vineyards and cellar door tasting opportunities, but there’s also plenty of variety in northern Victoria and Mudgee. Throughout South Australia, you are never too far from a wine route.
Taste local wines wherever you can find them and ask for local recommendations. Don’t be fooled by the label or the price. The best wine is rarely the one with the best design or the highest price. However, it is probably advisable to avoid homemade wine if it comes straight from a barrel (4 litre container). Wines at the cellar door are almost invariably sold at a premium of about 20% over the same wine in the city’s shops.
If you still prefer wines from overseas, New Zealand’s Marlborough region is generally well represented on wine lists and in bottle shops in Australia.
Bundaberg (Bundy) Rum is an Australian black rum that is particularly popular in Queensland and many Queenslanders won’t touch any other brand of rum. It is probably Australia’s best-known alcohol, mass-produced in Bundaberg and available everywhere.
You’ll have to look much further to find other Australian distilled spirits, mainly from niche suppliers, but there are distilleries in all Australian states if you look hard enough. Visit the Lark Distillery, located in Hobart’s picturesque waterfront. Grab a bottle of 151 East Vodka in Wollongong, or after a few days in Kununurra, you’ll definitely need an Ord River Rum.
Mixed drinks are also available, especially blends of vodka, scotch, bourbon and other whiskies. Spirits are also available in pre-mixed bottles and cans, but are subject to higher taxation in this form, so it is cheaper to mix them yourself. Spirits are served in all pubs and bars, but not in all restaurants. A simple spirit and mixer (e.g. vodka and orange juice) costs about $7 in a bar or nightclub, but can range from $5 to $12.
The legal drinking age throughout Australia is 18. It is illegal to either buy alcohol for yourself if you are under 18, or to buy alcohol on behalf of someone under 18. The only legally acceptable proof of age is an Australian driver’s licence, government-issued proof of age or passport, and it is advisable to carry one if you wish to purchase alcohol or tobacco and are under 25. It is illegal to enter a pub or club where gambling is taking place if you are under 18.
Often a pub or club will have a lounge, restaurant or bistro where minors are allowed, as long as they are accompanied by a responsible adult over the age of 18 and are not at the bar or out for a walk. Some city pubs even have video games and play areas for children. Some country pubs have large open areas in the back where children can run and play.
Generally, you can take alcohol (e.g. a bottle of wine or beer) to drink in a park or on the beach. In some public places, drinking alcohol is prohibited under the term “street drinking”. These are often marked with signs, especially in parks and on footpaths where public drunkenness is a problem. However, if you are out as a family with your picnic basket and stock up on a bottle of wine at lunchtime, you are unlikely to have any problems.
Alcohol can only be purchased for consumption in licensed places: pubs, clubs and many restaurants. You can buy alcohol for private consumption in bottle shops, which are separate shops that sell alcohol in bottles. In some states, but not all, you can buy alcohol in supermarkets. In states where this is not possible, bottle shops and large supermarkets are often very close to each other. Although laws and opening hours vary from state to state, and shops have different opening hours, alcohol is generally available for takeaway in towns and cities from 8am to 11pm seven days a week in bottle shops, supermarkets, convenience stores/milk bars and licensed pubs. Outside these hours, however, it is almost impossible to buy takeaway alcohol; unless you are in the middle of Sydney or Melbourne. So if you’re planning to party at home, it’s a good idea to stock up and check local opening hours so you don’t run out of booze at 12.30am with no way to top up. Alcohol is not available at petrol stations and 24-hour shops across Australia.
Public drunkenness is more or less acceptable. You will certainly find a lot of it around pubs and clubs at night, but much less during the day. Public drunkenness is a criminal offence, but you only risk being arrested by the police if you cause a nuisance. You can spend the night in a remand cell to sober up or be charged.
In Australia, drink driving is both stigmatised and controlled by police patrols conducting random breath tests, and is inherently dangerous. Drink driving is a very serious offence in Australia, punishable by a number of mechanisms, including loss of licence. The maximum permissible blood alcohol concentration is 0.05% in all states, often lower or prohibited for drivers of heavy vehicles and young or inexperienced drivers. Police officers are also authorised to randomly test drivers for recent use of prohibited drugs. Driving a motor vehicle under the influence of prohibited drugs or alcohol always results in an arrest and a mandatory court appearance several weeks after the date of arrest and can completely disrupt travel plans. Random breath tests are common early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and many people are arrested the next morning.
In Australia, as in many parts of the world, it is customary to buy a round of drinks. It is generally expected that when you arrive at a pub and do your first pub crawl, you will offer to buy a drink for the people you are drinking with. Similarly, it is likely that you will do this when someone else joins the group. This is called a ‘shout’ and involves a commitment to return the favour on a subsequent tour and to maintain the same drinking rhythm as your colleagues on the tour throughout the evening. If someone on the same tour as you has an empty glass of the drinks you bought in front of them, you must explain that this is your shout and go to the bar. If someone offers to buy you a drink but does not offer for the person who has already bought you a drink, you must say that you are already shouting and refuse. If this person offers you a drink and the people who are with you, they have joined the conversation. It is not usually polite to move from one offer to another during an evening. If you shout and refuse a drink, you will still have to pay for a drink in the round when it is your turn. If you wish to skip a round, it is advisable to do so while shouting. It is generally frowned upon to buy a round and then refuse a drink when it is bought for you. Often the drink is simply bought for you without you asking for it. Don’t be surprised if someone who offered you a drink earlier in the night tells you later that it’s your turn. In some groups it can be embarrassing not to join a call. It is best to say you are driving and get your own drinks. This is also an acceptable way to give up after a round if the score is tied.