Australia should not be insecure about the disparate influences that have informed both the food that we eat, and the national identity that we share.
Language, religion and historical experience are often defining features of a nation’s identity. Each has been used to wed disparate groups to a shared national experience. In modern times, however, identity can be expressed through more subtle avenues such as lifestyle, architecture or cuisine. Vietnamese identity has developed in opposition to, and in emulation of, China. Vietnam was part of China from 111 BC until the 10th century and has been invaded by its northern neighbour on 17 occasions. Vietnam has maintained both its independence and cultural uniqueness, and food plays a central role in the celebrations and rituals that are at the heart of daily life. It is an avenue through which distinctive regional identities are expressed. The Vietnamese have long proclaimed a distinctive culinary tradition. As early as the 14th century, Buddhist Monk Tue Tinh completed a comprehensive study of foods used in Vietnam for medicinal purposes. Four centuries later, Hai Thuong Lan Ong completed another comprehensive treatise on nutrition. Both described their subject apophatically, in contrast to China. What role does food play in the construction of Australia’s national identity? When the national dishes of each of the 16 competing nations were nominated on the Official AFC Asian Cup Facebook page, the meat pie was selected as Australia’s national dish. The choice attracted considerable internet attention. Some disagreed with the choice, whilst others saw it as evidence of cultural poverty. It is difficult to define Australian cuisine, as it is difficult to define distinctively Australian approaches to other creative pursuits, such as architecture. Is this proof of our cultural ambivalence, or cultural confidence? When it comes to a national identity, definition can be limiting. All cultures are dynamic, and Australia remains at a relatively early stage of its national consciousness. Why get lost in a forest of symbols? Our culinary culture reflects our history as a cultural melting pot. The Australian meat pie reflects our capacity to accept a range of diverse cultural influences but add a distinctly local flavour. Salt and pepper squid, souvlaki and spaghetti bolognaise (‘spag bol’) are other examples of this process of appropriation. We will continue to reinterpret popular dishes that arrive on our shores on successive waves of migration. It is only a matter of time before pad thai or baklava adopt an Australian accent. A culinary culture is defined not by a national dish, but by a common approach to food that is produced and consumed. You cannot describe French cuisine by identifying a particular national dish. If it were simply a matter of identifying a dish that is unique to France, such as escargot, then Australia could similarly point to kangaroo as an exotic speciality dish. Even the most ancient, proud cultures are susceptible to external influence. French cultural influence lingers in Vietnam, over six decades since France relinquished its territorial ambitions in South East Asia. It can be seen in the architecture of Hanoi, and tasted in the restaurants of Hoi An. French cuisine reflects a commitment to quality – an attitude intrinsic to its national character. Meals are to savour, rather than to merely sustain. Australia’s culinary culture, by contrast, has historically been influenced by an attitude common to English-speaking countries, which placed a premium on volume, rather than quality. But all cultures are susceptible to change and this is particularly so of a dynamic culture like ours. A thriving restaurant culture in Australia has helped refine our national palate. The value of a meal is now judged as much by its quality, as its price. In South Australia, the quality of the state’s premium food and wine is consciously emphasised. A taste for quality has become a part of the South Australian ‘brand’. It is an approach that the rest of the nation could well emulate. In the midst of an obesity epidemic, any popular shift that addresses the quality of our diet would be in the national interest. Obesity is a first world problem that is difficult to solve, as it often requires cultural change in the face of vested interests. Finding the source of the problem and encouraging its alternative is an attractive path to such change. Unlike Vietnam, Australia has not been continuously confronted by the need to unify its people around a distinctive national identity in order to survive. Australia should not be insecure about the disparate influences that have informed both the food that we eat, and the national identity that we share. Strong cultures form around common ideas and shared approaches, in the kitchen as in society. @AndrewHunter Image: Ichitaro Dining, photo by Jonathan Van Der Knapp