Food and Migration

Posted on June 22, 2014

Australia is a migrant nation.  Like many countries, its agriculture depends largely on migrant workers.  Uniquely, many have resettled in Australia, forging communities that brought with them culture, tradition and unique cuisine.

Nothing follows the Australian story in quite the same way as our food history.  That began with the British colony that established fledgling farmlets inside three months.  Ultimately though, it was ex-convicts (like James Ruse) and British settlers who would forge a tradition that continues today.

Early 19th century Australian migrants originated largely from England, Scotland and Ireland.  To sustain itself, the colony was in dire need of food producers.  At first, crop failures were common but grain production soon became a mainstay and market gardens popped up to grow and supply the ingredients for Anglo-Celtic dishes.

Most gardens were owned and operated by British settlers until the 1850s.  By the time gold was discovered in 1851, Chinese people had begun to make their mark.  Over the gold rush period, as the Europeans moved on to try their luck, it was often migrants from China who supplied the diggings with fresh leafy vegetables and sometimes locally grown fruit.

With it, the gold rush brought another migration wave, including the Germans who would establish Australia’s famous wine growing region in Barossa Valley.  They would also bring a culinary tradition of smoked meats, dried fruit, fermented and pickled vegetables, farmhouse cheeses.

Pre-depression, the Australian government encouraged British migration but it was the people of southern Europe who arrived with new culture and flavours.  Skilled Italians were in demand across the nation and with them, came a food culture that endures to this day.  Greek settlers opened cafes and coffee houses in towns and cities alike.  The 1920s and 30s saw grand coffee palaces play an important part in Australia’s jazz culture, as well as providing an alternative to smoke-filled public bars.

At the end of World War II, millions were displaced across Europe.  Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles and Ukrainians, along with Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians and Yugoslavians were crowded into refugee camps.  Around 170,000 would make a new home in Australia.

At a time when Australian agriculture was expanding to embrace new crops and cuisines, like rice and pineapple, Slavic migrants brought innovative food production methods.  Sprinklers and regulated watering saw foods, including root vegetables and nut varieties enter the Australian diet.

A great many Greeks and Italians also resettled in Australia as post-war migrants.  Their cuisine heritage took root in market gardens, often transformed from residential blocks.  At a time when dining out was only beginning to gain popularity, from city to town Australians embraced cafes and restaurants of Mediterranean fare.

Some 20 years on and, the fall of Saigon saw a steady influx of refugees from Vietnam begin.  Like their fellow migrants, many established market gardens.  Previously unavailable fresh Asian herbs and greens also began appearing in local green-grocers.  Soon Australians began to explore the delicious new flavours of Vietnamese cookery too.

A familiar pattern was repeated when people fleeing war in Lebanon began to arrive in the 1970s.  Then something important happened.  The White Australia Policy, in place since Federation, was no more.

Today’s new migrants are often embraced on the basis of their cuisine.  Restaurants are quick to adapt exotic influences in distinctive fusions with conventional dishes and specialist grocers abound with ingredients from every corner of the globe.  Australia is renowned for its multicultural cuisine and no one group has contributed more to its diverse, global fare than migrants.

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