How Food Shaped Multicultural Australia
In 1942 after Australia had just been bombed by Japan, I don’t think any Australian citizens expected sushi to become one of the most popular dishes in the country within a few decades. Historically, Australia was known for having very little acceptance for other cultures. Due to their long, bloody history with Aboriginal tribes as well as geographic isolation and limited travel, Australia was actually known for its violence and rejection of other cultures.
Before and during World War II, there were very few Australian immigrants, and they were all primarily English and Irish. However, after the war, immigration to Australia really started to pick up. People began immigrating from all around the world, and Australian culture was hard for them to adapt to at first. However, along with the immigrants, the cuisines of their native countries were introduced to Australia too.
There are very few dishes which can be considered “traditionally Australian,” but most of the food people ate in Australia mid-twentieth century was traditionally British. As Australians adopted the cuisine introduced to their country by European and Asian immigrants, the culture shock of immigrants was relieved by creating an environment in which immigrants felt accepted.
After World War II, the Australian government made their first major change to their immigration policy, requesting new citizens to fulfill Australia’s military defense requirements as well as job positions. Between 1950 and 1975, 3.1 million people moved to Australia, and by 1975, one-third of Australian residents were immigrants.
Australia had become a hub of different cultures because such a large quantity of immigrants all arrived during the same period. Australian residents felt that the multitude of immigrants was leading to a greater variety of food, music, and dance but was also creating immigrant-concentrated suburbs as most ethnic groups were still separated from one another.
At first, many migrant families felt alone in Australia because their cultures were so distant from the culture of local Australians. There was a lot of tension within families because they felt isolated from local Australians. Immigrants from Hong Kong often cited being uncomfortable speaking English and the layout of Australian cities as reasons they felt out of place in Australia. Australian cities were much different than Asian cities because they spanned a greater area, so people had their own houses and had to drive cars. These new experiences made the immigrants’ new life in Australia uncomfortable and difficult.
Native Australians made an effort to respect the native cultures of immigrants, unlike its multicultural counterpart, the United States. While the United States is usually thought of as being the epitome of cultural acceptance, most immigrants living in America have lost their old language and traditions. Australians actually had the goal of preserving people’s native traditions with schools teaching migrant children their native language and government support of movements like the Good Neighbor Council working toward integrating people into Australian society while retaining their cultural needs.
The adoption of immigrant cuisines, however, was the true key to ending the isolation of these immigrants. Through food, immigrants became more comfortable in Australia for three primary reasons. First, being surrounded by grocery stores that stock foods from your country and restaurants that make your favorite dish provides an environment similar to what immigrants were accustomed to back home. Similarly, when immigrants had this little piece of home to hold onto, it helped them to preserve their identity. In the beginning, immigrants tried to assimilate into the Australian way of life because they did not want to distinguish themselves from the Anglo-Saxon Australians, but they ended up feeling lost. But maintaining a connection with their food from home helped immigrants to strengthen the connection with their place of origin. Finally, when Australians themselves eat and enjoy from other cultures, the immigrants from the countries from which these foods originate are able to feel accepted by the people around them. While most cultures do not easily pick up changes in their food habits, Australians created a special environment for immigrants through the acceptance of their food.
Whether a person was visiting a shop or restaurant, reading a cookbook, or talking to a new neighbor, the Australians’ awareness knowledge of, not only the food, but also of the culture of a different ethnicity itself, increased. Once someone becomes aware of something, they have the option to alter their lifestyle or food habits, and that is what the Australian population did.
Many people moving to Australia were from wealthy families, so they were able to impact the economy due to their socioeconomic status. Additionally, because there were many immigrants, store owners saw an increasing consumer demand for certain types of food. Many Australians found that their diets changed over time simply because they had greater access to a variety of foods.
Restaurants opened by foreigners both increased Australians’ awareness knowledge of overseas cuisine and also strengthened the connection of immigrants to others in the community. Many immigrants went into food-related fields, so as immigration in Australia increased, the number of foreign restaurants and shops increased too. In Australian cities in particular, there became an abundance of these restaurants, as cities were a center for different cultures.
Restaurants serving ethnic food became cultural melting pots as immigrants would invite colleagues out to their favorite restaurant for lunch. Tables of mixed ethnic groups at restaurants in downtown cities were a common sight. This allowed immigrants to form connections with Australian people while they were comfortable in their environment, and it also got Australian locals tasting ethnic food.
Eventually, Australian natives began to open up ethnic food restaurants themselves too. For example, in Sydney in the ‘80s, a Cantonese immigrant recalls seeing a vegetarian Chinese restaurant which had a chalkboard out front, but chalkboard signs were used by Australian-owned restaurants in Sydney, while plastic signs were popular with Chinese restaurants.
Restaurants give people the opportunity to taste a new type of food before deciding to try to cook it at home. Some restaurants even began to feature fusion dishes which helped to blend cultures together, both in taste and socially. Chefs could create these dishes by mixing together the flavors of ethnic food and British cuisine. A common way chefs would create fusion dishes was to mix foreign flavors with local ingredients. This has made a lasting impact on Australia as even today, the overall style of Australian chefs is characterized by a willingness to experiment and a cross-cultural infusion of tastes and techniques.
Food awareness of Australians could also be increased by connecting with people who had moved from another country. When a local Australian becomes friends with an immigrant, the migrant family may invite them over for dinner, and the Australian family will probably have the opportunity to taste new foods. Having a guest over for dinner is a great way to spread food taste and also forms a connection with neighbors.
After testing a new dish from a restaurant or a neighbor, many Australians began to welcome the idea of trying to cook this type of food in their own home. Magazines often provided Australians with alternate ways to create the recipes to fit the Australian lifestyle, so dishes could be adapted to accommodate Australian tastes and ingredients because Australian natives were more likely to try to cook with the foods they were most familiar with first. They usually started with Italian food, which served as a bridge to other, more exotic cuisines. Beyond learning specific recipes, Australians wanted to learn how to specifically cook particular types of cuisine, so they could create their own dishes.
Even if someone had never tried any ethnic food before, magazines were always suggesting recipes from different cultures. While cookbooks represent the recipes that people are already cooking while magazines suggest what people should be cooking based on current food, economic, and cultural trends.
The Australian Women’s Weekly magazine, which was one of the most popular women’s magazines at the time, was suggesting recipes for dishes from all over the world. Throughout the recipes the magazine provides, the author often explains new or uncommon ingredients, or suggests ways for readers to fit the dishes into their Australian lives. Oftentimes, they suggest serving dishes at parties, which would cause these flavors to spread.
Until 1950, there were mostly only small local food shops, but once grocery stores started to open they became very popular and had a high diversity in food selection, especially in urban areas where there were more immigrants.
Through immigrant-owned stores in particular, Australians were able to learn more about new foods. Immigrant owned businesses have three important functions: they create general knowledge among shoppers about certain foods, they supply foods to people who are interested in trying them, and they also serve as a way to reach the community through talking with customers about recipes or cooking advice.
Often younger people started purchasing ingredients that were not traditionally Australian. People under 35 were the ones who had been associating with immigrant families, which would indicate that Australian food shopping preferences were being swayed toward the preferences of immigrants.
Pre-prepared ethnic dishes started to become some of the most commonly purchased items in grocery stores. It did not matter whether the grocery store had Australian or non-Australian management, these premade versions of overseas cuisines started to pop up in the majority of stores around Australia.
Testing recipes and tasting new dishes have made Australians more comfortable with foreign foods and have made a lasting impact on their cooking styles. A popular magazine at the time surveyed women from Australian cities, and found that many women now felt confident about serving foreign dishes to family and friends.
Oftentimes, ethnic foods began to become replacements for other dishes frequently cooked in Australian households. For example, Chinese fish ball soup has become a replacement to other chowders for some people. And by the late twentieth century, rice was often suggested as a side dish while it was once considered too foreign for many Australians. Additionally, prawns prepared with curry, a traditionally South Asian ingredient, have become one of the most popular dishes in the country. As ethnic dishes and recipes became increasingly popular, the food tastes of Australians began to shift that way.
Immigrants were able to feel accepted by the dominant culture because their native cuisine was present in Australian society. Eating the foods of another culture is seen by the immigrants of that culture as an act of acceptance of that culture into Australian life. Even Australians who were not typically in favor of foreigners in their country were able to express acceptance, consciously or otherwise, for other cultures by eating the food of these cultures.
Immigration had effects on the food habits of some immigrants as well, showing that immigrants are beginning to accept Australian cultures too. Although a smaller proportion of immigrants had to adapt their diet, overall, their diets shifted towards those of Australians.
Australia’s Office of Multicultural Affairs decided how well integrated a person has become in a country can be measured by their “commitment” to the country, which can be determined by their citizenship. They found that 77% of people who were not born in English speaking countries and moved to Australia have citizenship, and new arrivals who are not yet eligible to apply for citizenship said that they would like to become one at some point.
So here we are, decades later, and not only is sushi one of the most popular dishes in Australia, Australia is one of the most multicultural countries on the globe. The story of immigrants in Australia shows that food truly is the way to someone’s heart. Food allowed immigrants and Australians to connect in a new way that reduced isolation and increased acceptance. Eventually, most immigrants were happy to be living in Australia, and all of the different cultures began to live together harmoniously.