A Five Course Degustation for the Changing “Australian” Palette

Instant Noodle Soup with Rice and Spam

To this day, I love fried Spam and eggs.

The crunchy and salty slice of processed mystery meat dipped in just cooked egg yolk is one of my favourite breakfasts. After all, it was the breakfast that I grew up eating on Sunday mornings when we’d all sit around the table and mum would hand out these small rectangles of fried salty goodness. I loved those breakfasts, my brother and I chugging down our Milo (a popular Australian drink made out of malted barley)  much too quickly and our father scolding us for not offering to serve food first.

I didn’t think it was that strange till I had a conversation with some of my friends who furrowed their little brows in disapproval, “ew, Spam is gross, it’s like dog food”. I quickly learned that my beloved Spam breakfasts were not as commonplace as they seemed, but rather they were an oddity. In a world of bacon and egg rolls with hash browns, my beloved family breakfasts of Spam and rice were distinctly different. 

Another oddity that I came across was my father’s love of instant noodles. Any packet of instant noodles really. On the nights that my mother was unable to make food, my father would hungrily stare at a slowly hydrating pack of noodles at the dinner table. 

Now, a love of instant noodles isn’t overly strange. One of my personal guilty indulgences is 2 packets of Indomie Mi Goreng noodles with a fried egg on top. What made it strange to me was my father’s insistence of saving the very salty soup and adding plain cooked rice to it. Essentially, doubling his intake of carbohydrates for the meal.

Born Out of Necessity

It was not until years later that I asked my parents about both of these very strange foods that they loved so dearly. 

“The first real food I ate after arriving in Australia was fried Spam and a small bowl of rice,” replied my mother. 

“Back in those days, all I could afford to eat was instant noodles. They had big boxes of them at the local Asian shop and we always had plain rice in the house, so why waste it?” replied my father. 

A fried, salty block of meat meant more than just sustenance to my mother. An extra helping of cold rice in some lukewarm instant noodle soup was a symbol. They were signifiers that they had survived a journey that more than 200,000-400,000 other Vietnamese refugees or “boat people” unfortunately did not. It meant that they somehow had found a place of safety and security. For my father, extra rice meant he didn’t need to go hungry anymore to save food for his little brother. He was able to feel full after working at the factory. A luxury that many of us, myself included, take for granted. 

More Than Sustenance 

Food represents more than sustenance. It’s not the simple act of just putting nutrients in your body. 

Food represents a culture that they were forcibly dislocated from, a different time and a different place. I always know when a pho noodle soup is good when a strange look comes over my dad’s face, as he wistfully recollects with us the same story we have heard for the past 20 years, about the pho cart that used to sling hot bowls of soup and noodles in front of his high school. 

However, food also represents a brave new world for my parents. A world of meat and three veg, of potato scallops (fritters) and meat pies. My father remembers the initial culture shock of being offered lamb chops so often and my uncle having his first taste of Vegemite. My cousin can fondly remember the first time they were offered a quite pungent hard cheese.  It was a world of black tea with milk and morning teas at work. These experiences represent a world in which my parents, aunties and uncles had been thrust unceremoniously into.

The “New World”

More than 40 years have passed since my parents settled here in Australia and things have certainly changed in those 40 years. 

Vietnamese Banh Mi or Saigon pork rolls are now a lunch time staple for many Australians.

The Halal Snack Pack or HSP has garnered an almost sacramental status in Australian nightlife culture.   

The “Indian Kebab” from Indian Home Diner has become a hallmark of a successful night out in Sydney.

These dishes represent an Australian palette that has changed. They represent Australia as a beautiful amalgamation of different flavours, different people, and most importantly different experiences. How did this happen? How did Australia’s palette change? How does any country’s palette change?

The Palette Cleanser 

The answers to these questions are complicated, and far smarter people than myself have tried to answer them. At risk of turning this into a history lecture, the changing palette can come from the preservation of distinct cultural identities, further learning and exposure to different cultural food practices and increased representation of different food cultures in the media. 

Suffice to say for now, how the palettes changed was through exposure to the strange. The strange, that was somehow familiar to them. 

A slice of grilled meat is a slice of grilled meat, whether or not cooked on a barbie (colloquial term for a barbeque) or a Japanese Hibachi grill. Not everyone can speak the same language or dance to the same music, but if you put something delicious in front of them, I guarantee they will try to at least understand part of what you are saying to them. 

But that’s not how the world works. 

I want to believe that a bowl of pho could change someone’s mind. I want to believe in the Ratatouille moment, where a single bite of food evokes such a powerful emotional response that they abandon every semblance of their old life and their prejudices. 

But the truth is, there were probably a whole host of things that needed to happen for the Australian palette and consciousness to come as far as it has now. And, there probably needs to be a whole lot more that needs to change for the Australian palette and consciousness to evolve further. For example, the representation I mentioned earlier now needs to adapt and change to acknowledge that culturally diverse people are the “other” and that we often categorise ourselves as the “other”. This “self-othering” leads us down a slippery slope of overemphasising our differences and potentially, unintentional racism.

But that’s a story for another time.  

For now I choose to believe in the worldview and encourage you to take the advice of the late and great Anthony Bourdain when he says 

“You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”

Further reading

  • Eddie Huang visits London Part  ⅓  was one of the key inspirations for this piece of writing: 
  • One of the videos that inspired this piece. For me it showed the diversity of food and palettes that can be accommodated in Australia: 

[Image of the Indomie instant noodles is by Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

[Image of the rice with Spam is by _Wiedz, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr]

[Image of the Vietnamese restaurant menu in 3 languages is by Alfred Lee, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr]

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