Interview with Ross Dobson | Australia: The Cookbook
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors
Ross Dobson: I’m Ross Dobson and my latest book is out in Australia: The Cookbook.
Suzy Chase: In order to understand Australian cuisine I think we need to understand and know about Australian first peoples who have been there for at least 50,000 years, the longest continuous civilization during this time, Aboriginal Australians were creating and inventing dishes that boggle the mind. I’m curious to hear about a few of those dishes. And might I add you noted that many Australians are unaware of these dishes?
Ross Dobson: This fascinated me when I started to research the book and look into it more. I think many Australians are not really aware of the contribution that the first peoples made prior to colonization, and they’re finding more and more evidence to indicate that the First Peoples weren’t just hunters and gatherers, they farmed fish, they grew seeds to make a flatbread of sorts and they certainly were eating a lot of the abundancy food that we have here, unique species, like our own lobster, Moreton Bay bugs and the Barramundi fish and there was a great recipe, which isn’t in the book. A friend of mine who’s an Aboriginal elder was talking about his tribe made what was like kind of a blood pudding of sorts using all parts of the kangaroo very similar to the blood puddings we see in parts of Europe and his tribe, that was their special dish. There’s so many things like this fascinated me and we simply didn’t learn about them, but working on the book really opened my eyes. And then we were lucky enough to have Jody Orcher who wrote a short essay in the book extolling the virtues of indigenous ingredients. So it’s been a wonderful learning process.
Suzy Chase: Yeah. I definitely want to hear about Jody Orcher, but first, can you describe the three main periods of Australian food?
Ross Dobson: Writing the recipes for the book in a way was the easy part. I felt like the introduction was a real challenge to try and encapsulate what Australian food was about. And I was playing around with clumsy metaphors and wasn’t really sure and I had one of those light bulb moments where I’ve sat up in bed one night and thought, well, let’s history dictate what Australian food is all about and it’s a timeline. The first people have been here for tens of thousands of years. So I divided the food of Australia in two, three epochs or periods and the first period is the tens of thousands of years. The first people who’ve been here, the colonists from Britain came over who mostly are the English military class or Irish convicts. They brought with them their food from 1788 onwards. And I must say a lot of that food for 150 years or so was quite repetitive and blend. That’s not to say there aren’t diamonds in the rough, there’s amazing delicious recipes in there. But then the third period of Australian food comes in the 1950s when Australia opens its doors to immigrants, particularly from Southern Europe, Greece, and Italy, and they bring in coffee, coffee machines, Parmesan, basil, a whole range of ingredients. And the most important one was probably garlic because the Australians like the English loathed garlic, and they rarely cooked with it. And then moving forward a bit more into the 70s. We have a huge influx of mostly political asylum seekers coming to Australia in the early 70s. Mostly Vietnamese bringing their incredible fresh take on food. But I must note, during all this time, the Chinese had been here from the gold rush in the 1800s hundreds, and they were setting up camps, selling food in the gold rush camps and then cooking in the early 1900s. It’s estimated that one third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese because this was the only job they could do legally. So we have this amazing rich culture of food that, although there are three periods, we now see a lot more of this overlapping appreciating First People’s food. And of course we love the flavors of the Mediterranean Italy, Greece, and also Asian food. Australians are crazy for Asian ingredients.
Suzy Chase: The First Peoples, the immigrants to Australia were so instrumental in setting up the food that you have today. Can you describe the hybrid Chinese/Australian cuisine that popped up in the mid 19th century?
Ross Dobson: Again, fascinating stuff because the Chinese had been here working very hard, kind of in the background on mining camps, in the gold rush period. And then interesting period, one that we’re not particularly proud of it. In 1901 the Australian government implemented the White Australia Policy where it meant only white people could come and live here and then all the Chinese people that have been living here were completely ignored and weren’t allowed on property or have jobs. So one of the only jobs that could do was cook and they set up restaurants in, you could almost say literally every Australian town in Australia, from the cities to the Outback towns and here they put aside their own personal tastes like a lot of the Italians and Greeks in the beginning when starting businesses here, they put us on their own personal tastes, that is what they cooked at home and they cooked what they, what made money and what sold to the locals. So we have a lot of land dishes, which is very unusual and unique because most of the Chinese food cooked in Australia was Cantonese and lamb wasn’t really big on the menus in that region of China. So we have a dish called Mongolian lamb. I know there’s a Mongolian beef in other countries, but Mongolian Lamb has very little to do with Mongolia and a lot more to do with what Australians like to eat. And we have prawn toasts, beautiful prawn cutlets, salt and pepper squid. So the Aussie Chinese ingredient recipes start to use Chinese methods and techniques with the local produce and then in the 50s and 60s, we have a lot of these stable of Chinese are the ingredients like a take on a pork spare rib and we use a different cut of spare rib in Australia, which is very different to America and other places. And then moving into the 80’s, when Australians become a little bit more adventurous with their food, we have a salt and pepper squid that is almost on every pub menu in Australia. Now with fish and chips and the hamburger moving further into the eighties, we have even more exciting to like pipis in XO sauce, there’s a recipe for that in the book as well. And I felt like I couldn’t write a cookbook without indulging that more because there are recipes like ham and chicken roll. Like I’ve never seen that anywhere else. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s chicken breasts, fill it with a slice of ham. You roll it up. Then you roll that in spring, roll wrapper and flash fry it and slice it. It’s really delicious. So we have this fascinating unique take on Chinese food in Australia. It’s really good.
Suzy Chase: What are pippis?
Ross Dobson: Okay. Pippis, clams. Um, yes, uh, surf clams, tiny little surf clams that, uh, still mostly caught by a traditional method called raking. They’re mostly in south Australia on the wild coastline there. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the technique where you walk in the sand, there’s little bubbles and they literally would get a rake and then break with the bubbles, come up and use their fate. And they’re not particularly cheap, but the clam in the XO sauce is so delicious and XO is a Chinese sauce and it’s called XO because it comes after the Brandy XO brand, which meant something extra special and it came from Hong Kong and the heady days of the eighties, where everything was looked at with opulence and it had lots of seafood in it. And you just need a teaspoon of this in your stir fry.
Suzy Chase: You wrote in the book that the industrial revolution was one factor in preventing Australia from developing its own regional cuisines. I found that so interesting.
Ross Dobson: So did I, because when I started researching on the book and even prior to that we’d have these discussions, why doesn’t Australia have its own regional food? Of course, First People had regional cuisines based on the produce available to them, but certainly for 150 years. And even up until now, most people really started to, uh, come from overseas that weren’t convicts. The convict stopped in about 1850. So we had free settlers coming here from that 1850 onwards. And they were educated that were literate they could read and write. And Australian publishing also really took off at this time because Australia is such a big country, people isolated, and they were getting the newspapers. And these were national state newspapers that shared the same news. And lo and behold, they shared the same recipes, which are found fascinating when I started researching serviceably for a cake published in the early 1900s. If it was good enough, it might’ve been published in a newspaper in say Hobart. And because the print was syndicated, if it was a good recipe, it would be today’s equivalent of going viral. So the recipe would go over to Perth or Darwin or Brisbane, and these recipes would be shared. So I think there are two factors in, um, the thing about the industrial revolution. It was communication. And I think we have to think also where we have these countries that have a strong history in regional cuisine. I’m thinking Europe, you might have a village in Italy where someone might put ricotta in their pasta and down the road, it would be heresy to do so because these villages were very isolated often. And I often had their own dialects as well, but in Australia, because we were really populated after the industrial revolution, there was this national communication, if you will. And also production food production comes into play as well as refrigerated food canning of food is very important so ingredients could be shared across the country. So it didn’t just limit it to one region. And I hope that explains it a bit further for you, Suzy.
Suzy Chase: How did you determine if a recipe was worthy of inclusion in this cookbook?
Speaker 2: Well, you know, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to work on the project. And the first thing I thought was I just have to put my ego aside. I mean, I’ve had several food businesses where I’ve certainly cooked a whole bunch of different, I think things that are really interested in tasty, but that didn’t belong in the book because they didn’t have a place in our history or our culture or our social structure. So I think that there were really important aspects that a recipe had to belong to all of us. It wasn’t just something that a friend told me that they cooked, or I thought that was tasty. And I think this was really important to see it as a collective project. And one of the ways of doing this was, um, doing a lot of research, fascinating Australian government initiative, it’s called Trove, it’s a national library where they are systematically scanning and putting up documents of literally every printed newspaper that in Australia. So I could Google, for example, banana bread and all banana cake and I might find this recipe first published in 1928, for example and then as I looked further, I thought, well, this really is part of us. This is what we eat. And so really it was about the research and its worthiness was based on, do we have a connection with it? And I really wanted people when they look at the book and I felt like I’ve got this reaction so far where people go, oh my God, I forgot that existed. I’m so glad it’s in the book. So that makes me very happy.
Suzy Chase: Like their grandmother used to make it and they forgot about it. What do they mean when they said they forgot it existed?
Ross Dobson: Well it’s like you know, when I first started looking at the book and you know, I was researching and talking to a whole bunch of people that obvious Australian recipes where pavlova Lamington make pie, but then as I delved a bit further, people might ring me a few days later, France and go, my auntie Joan made a cake, it was called ginger fluff. And I said, I’ve never heard of that. So I then go to the research and look at the history. And lo and behold, there is a whole bunch of recipes for something called ginger fluff. Another really good example is a cake called peach blossom cake. This was really popular from about 1900 to 1950 or 60. And it wasn’t until maybe eight years ago. And I’m sure, you know, you’re familiar with the cooking competitions and celebrity chef, et cetera, that now are on television. It wasn’t until they had a guest chef from an amazing institution called the CWA, which is a Country Women’s Association. And they’ve been making scones and cakes for a hundred years or so. And a woman went on to the show and made a peach blossom cake and it went viral. People were like, where’s this been? And they loved it. It’s a very easy cake. It’s beautiful to look at. There are other recipes like cream buns and finger buns and match sticks. And a finger bun is like a really soft yeasted bun. It’s oval shape, not very big. And it’s got some currants and some sultanas in there, and it’s generally has a really soft pink icing with a sprinkling of desiccated coconut. And when I put that in the book and people were saying, oh my God, we ate that in the seventies and eighties, but then it’s had a huge resurgence. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the term hipsters. We do have them here to Suzy, which fascinates me. They’ve got bakeries popping up all over the city and the hipsters have now discovered the finger bun and they’re making it their own. And I actually just the other week was in one of the local newspapers talking about my classic recipe and they had a few young dudes cooking finger buns and re-inventing them, which is fabulous. So we’re really holding on to our food history and it’s incredible that people have just taken so warmly to these recipes that have reignited an interest in baking as well. It’s really lovely.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of history, the essay on indigenous food written by Jody Orcher at the beginning of the book sheds light on the fascinating and ancient culinary techniques that went largely ignored for years and years. Can you talk a little bit about Jody and her tips for demonstrating respect for the cultural integrity of Australian Aboriginal people?
Ross Dobson: I first started working on the book. We thought it was imperative to engage an Aboriginal Australian, to write and contribute to the book Jody Orcher is fascinating and genuine and generous, and she sheds light and a knowledge on, on the ingredients is so worthy. Uh, and I must say my scope of knowledge of the First Peoples food. I would say like many of my generation was really went on ignored or, you know, I think it went to go a bit deeper into the whole psyche of when Australia was colonized the British assume that, you know, it had never been colonized before and it was theirs. So I was very much part of that generation and my grandparents, my parents and grandparents weren’t enlightened. And I think it’s time to open our eyes. And certainly Jody helps us do that with a beautiful essay and a glossary of some of the fascinating ingredients, uh, that showcase the wonderful cuisine of indigenous indigenous people.
Suzy Chase: Bushfoods were often considered to be inferior by colonists. Is that changing? Are they making a comeback and restaurants are the hipsters onto it?
Ross Dobson: I would say on the most part of getting much more adventurous about Aboriginal indigenous ingredients and many of these now can be bought online because a lot of, a lot of the ingredients like the lemon myrtle and the peppers can be bought because they dry very well. And a few people from overseas have asked me if they can get the ingredients. And I certainly know there’s a lot of websites where you can get them and have them shipped to you. But the other thing too, um, with the book was, you know, I think when we think of Australian Aboriginal food, um, in terms of protein, we automatically go straight to the kangaroo, which is very high in protein and you can buy that in the supermarket, but the other meats still very much a niche. It’s very difficult to get them. But in looking at this, I realized that we often overlook the native seafood that we eat. Muscles, I mentioned Balmain bugs before Moreton Bay bugs and pippis of course, clams and puppis. And we have our lobsters here, which aren’t really lobsters or they’re called a spiny lobster. They don’t have the claw on the front. They just got a spine spiny thing. And we have yabbies, I think he’s a really delicious, they’re a freshwater crayfish. All these ingredients are available at the fish market and even the supermarket. And, um, there’s a bit of a stereotype that Aussies eat emu koala and kangaroo. And you know, that simply isn’t the case. And I hope this book something to throw off the shackles of those stereotypes.
Suzy Chase: I hope so too, because I was on an interview on the BBC last week and he said, what’s your next cookbook coming up? And I said, I’m interviewing Ross Dobson, who has Australia the cookbook. And he’s like, are you going to talk about kangaroo? And I said, oh my God, Maybe, maybe not.
Ross Dobson: Well you can talk about it because it makes sense. Like there’s a recipe in the book for a Thai kangaroo salad which makes sense because you know, the whole thing about usually use a lean cut of beef in the salad and kangaroo makes perfect sense. So I think it’s fun to talk about these things, but as you’ve looked at the book Suzy and other people, I’ve really heard, they’ve gone, oh my God, there’s such a wide range of interesting ingredients from all over the place that have come together to make our food truly unique.
Suzy Chase: I’m curious to hear about the section at the end of the cookbook on guest chefs.
Ross Dobson: At the end of the book, we have these wonderful, um, additions from some incredibly talented, enthusiastic chefs that have contributed recipes that you would say people at the other end of the cooking spectrum with a high degree of knowledge and skill would attempt at home. But what it, what they’re there to do is to showcase, I think the talent of chefs in Australia and also their talent in using local and indigenous ingredients and really showcasing Australian food on the world stage, you know, Mark Olive has got this great recipe for it’s simple, it’s a real fusion. Mark is indigenous Australian and he’s using chicken thigh with Spanish Sherry and a native pepper. So that’s a really good example of kind of, if you will, high-end Aussie cuisine.
Suzy Chase: The other day I made Damper, which is apparently super trendy these days, it’s on page 242. Can you describe this?
Ross Dobson: That probably came from the influence of the Irish convicts, where soda bread had always been, you know, I loved simple throw together bread. And then in Australia we have a lot of itinerant workers, jackaroos going from farm to farm finding work and they’d have a backpack or a swag bag and carried few things as they could, and they’d have to make food and they would have Billy tea which was a can over a fire. They’d sweeten it with golden syrup, which is also called cockies joy causes swagmen also known as cockies. So it was their sweetener, and this was also used on damper, which was pretty much just two or three ingredients self rising flour, baking powder and some water, or maybe some milk, so it was very, very simple and it too would be cooked in a Dutch oven and just put on the fire with a lid on it. It’s lovely, fresh. It’s a bread that’s meant to be eaten fresh. You know, it’s not a yeasted, so it doesn’t toast that well the next day, but it’s delicious, fresh, and I make it in the cafe and serve it with soups. It’s really yummy.
Suzy Chase: I read in the book that Aboriginal Australians make a similar style from seeds. Have you ever tried that?
Ross Dobson: No, I haven’t. And this all came about about three years ago, Bruce Pascoe wrote a book called Dark Emu starting to explore the notion that, and the evidence is there to support it that aboriginals were making a flatbread. I haven’t tried it. I would love to. So, um, maybe that could be my project. Try and find a shop that supplies the seeds or the flour and make a flatbread with it. And I’ll let you know how it goes if I do, but I’m very keen to do that.
Suzy Chase: Tomorrow I’m making a classic Lamington, which I had never heard of. Um, it’s on page 310. Can you describe this and talk a little bit about how it got its name?
Speaker 2: There is a story that there was a Lord Lamington from England, like a lot of early colonists and he was in Brisbane and the story goes, he had some chefs that had made a cake they dropped the cake by accident into a bowl of chocolate icing and they didn’t want to waste it. So they then took the bits of cake out and rolled them in coconut. Not sure if this is true, but it’s such a unique cake it could probably only be invented by accident. So there’s so many different recipes for a Lamington. I found that, and it’s a good tip for you Suzy, If you make the sponge a day before this can just cover it and let it sit overnight, it’s much better to have a Lamington that is not fresh. And you dip it into chocolate icing and rolling in coconut. Uh, so good. And I’ve been making them here at my cafe mini versions. So they’re only about an inch square and I’ll tell you what, they’re delicious as well, but they’re a bit fiddly to make. So if you starting it for the first time, I’d probably do the bigger ones.
Suzy Chase: So Australians have a way with words like brekkie breakfast, you celebrate chrissy, you shorten more words than any other English speakers. What are your go-to words?
Ross Dobson: Well, um, I liked occasionally I’d have a beer and we drink it out of a glass here called a schooner. So I call it a schooey. It sounds absolutely ridiculous doesn’t it?
Suzy Chase: But they know what you’re talking about?
Ross Dobson: People would, I would say I have two schooeys of New is brand of beer to be exact, it sounds like another language, but we’re funny even you know, the unique Australian coffee flat white people would call it a flatty. It’s a very old language. Australians are known for shortening more words, but then if it’s too short, that will make, make it longer. It doesn’t make any sense. Please. Don’t ask me to explain it.
Suzy Chase: We’re going to move on to my segment called Last Night’s Dinner where I ask you what had last night for dinner.
Ross Dobson: I very discovered the American version of this book America: The Cookbook and I’ve been making some great chilies, like as in you call them chili, you know, chili con carne and things like that. But last night I made beef stroganoff and that’s what I had for dinner. It’s not Australian. I’m sorry to disappoint.
Suzy Chase: No I love that though but it’s cold where you are, right?
Ross Dobson: Yes, it is. And I would never eat that stuff. It’s just too hot here. And it’s getting down to like three or four degrees at night, which isn’t cold by your standards. But I mean, making in America: The Cookbook there’s two versions of stroganoff there’s the American stroganoff, which uses ground beef. Personally. I thought this sounded a bit odd, the flavors and textures, but I then went for the other one in the book, which uses a Chuck steak or blade steak. And you slow cook that. And so that we thought had noodles, oh my God, it it’s very good. And let’s face it. Anything with sour cream. I mean,
Suzy Chase: You’ll have to make that a fad in Australia and you can call it strogey it’s my recipe for strogey.
Ross Dobson: It’ll confuse it even more if we call it stroggy. Isn’t that terrible it turns into something very unappetizing.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Ross Dobson: Instagram- @RossDobsonFood and I also have a great little cafe Cafe Royce, R O Y C E. And you see so many lovely food pics and mood picks of the cafe. And if you go to my Ross Dobson food Insta when I was working on the book three years ago and testing, I took so many food pictures. I’m very pleased that I did because it was a good memory thing and the food does look really good, so I’m very pleased with that. So do check it out.
Suzy Chase: It is Aboriginal lore to only take what you need and leave some for others words. We should all be living by. Thank you, Ross for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Ross Dobson: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.
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