With Tasting Australia upon us, we can once again consider that ongoing and highly contentious debate: does Australia have a national dish? In her history of Australia’s gastronomic heritage, Bold Palates, Barbara Santich makes a case for the barbecue, more specifically the humble sausage sizzle. Howzat for gourmet?
The sausage sizzle is a uniquely Australian variant of the barbecue and almost by definition a public event—no one would ever invite friends to a sausage sizzle at home, even if identical food were cooked and eaten. It can be set up anywhere, from the beach to the supermarket car park, to feed large numbers of people cheaply, free from the annoyance of smoke. The ingredients and equipment are absolutely basic: a large hotplate, typically gas heated, plus a vast supply of sausages, sliced onions, sliced white bread and unlimited tomato sauce. Offering mustard, barbecue sauce and other nods to gastronomic fashion is considered to lift the status, but only by a notch. Although this style of barbecue—sausages cooked on a hotplate, wrapped in bread and doused in sauce—was familiar in earlier years, the particular term seems to have come to prominence around 1980, and in the past three decades sausage sizzles have proliferated like rabbits.
Keith Barlow, Princess Alexandra at a barbecue. Australian Women’s Weekly , 30 September 1959
On any weekend, all around Australia, tens of thousands of sausages will be sizzling and spitting for hundreds of worthy causes, as well as celebrating community camaraderie. To choose a day at random . . . let’s say Sunday, 2 August 2009, which also happens to have been National Tree Day, an ideal occasion to reward volunteers all over the country, in cities and suburbs and small country towns, with a free lunch. At the same time church and school groups and a miscellany of sporting fraternities are raising money for their own needs. The sausage sizzle is the simple, egalitarian communion that all know and share.
The sausage sizzle might be seen as catering to mass tastes at the lowest common level, but this collective appeal is in fact its forte— casual passers-by finding the seductive scent of sausages and fried onions irresistible. And like any simple culinary classic, it lends itself to countless variations—even soy sausages fit the standard formula. At the 2010 Writers’ Week in Adelaide, the refreshment tent offered a sophisticated and more expensive version with kranskys plus the usual onions and selection of sauces on a slice of wholemeal bread and, though they didn’t displace Vietnamese cold rolls in the popularity stakes, the kranskys proved their worth over six days of readings, debates and tall tales.
Mark Thomas/CIA , Advertisement for Australia Day, January 2010
The barbecue similarly has universal appeal, its versatility for all occasions matched only by its adaptability to all cultures and cuisines. Grilled meats—or fish, or poultry—are a feature of most cuisines, often as street food: Malaysian satays and Indonesian satés, Japanese yakitori, Turkish and Afghani kebabs, Greek souvlaki, Italian grigliata mista, Lebanese meshwi. The barbecue spreads its arms and welcomes them all on its multicultural table. Perhaps this is the single most important reason for the Australian barbecue to be regarded as a national symbol.
But there is more to Australian cuisine than barbecues. Find out here.