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During all the lockdowns in London, the idea of ever getting back to Australia seemed painfully remote. I yearned to go back, and feared a future when that would never be possible. I spent the time at home on my own, writing my latest book Cook Eat Repeat.
It was great company and gave structure to my day, but by the end of it, I really felt the well was dry. I needed new input, new things; I needed to eat different food and have new conversations. So I was overjoyed when I found myself back in Australia for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in March and, again, for My Kitchen Rules in May.
It was wonderful to be back in Melbourne, which I have loved since my first visit in 2011, and which suffered more than most in the past two years. It felt like a beautiful creature coming back to life.
I like eating in Australia because it seems to have found such a bold personality of its own. And although it’s very good at cuisines from different cultures, there is always a certain Australianness in there, which is unpretentious and direct. And the produce is so good.
Like the Brits, Australians are not reverential. That buys an awful lot of freedom. And the sense of humour is so similar to that of the British; sarcastic, slightly mocking, and with a lot of wit in how you look at things, and how you digest life.
That is reflected in the cooking, of course; I’m thinking of the buttermilk roti with Vegemite curry at Sunda in Melbourne. It’s witty, but it’s exquisite. The chef, Khanh Nguyen, is extraordinary in his bold mix of nostalgic and new at his original Sunda and his newer Aru; the way he pairs a refined palate with a laid-back vibe.
For Australians, tradition is just “there”, it’s not the main point of it. There’s a real sense that you can do anything to a recipe, as long as it tastes good. There is also a more welcoming sense of hospitality. The minute you step into a restaurant, you can feel whether it’s like that or not.
The people who work in the restaurants I love the most all seem to have a great sense of teamwork. Somewhere like Fratelli Paradiso, for instance, which is my home away from home in Sydney. I feel happy the minute I walk through the door.
Nobody is made to feel rushed, or that they want the table back. They just want you to enjoy the food. You’re not pushed to order more; if you want a small bill, that’s fine. That’s quite old-school – these are Melbourne Italians, after all, who moved to Sydney – but it’s done in a welcoming, generous, relaxed way, with its own personality.
Pasi Petanen’s Cafe Paci in Sydney’s Newtown has some of that going on as well. It reminds me of dining at 192, chef Alistair Little’s restaurant in Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill, in the 1980s – not in terms of the food, but the atmosphere. The cooking brings a breath of fresh air to the restaurant experience, and everyone is treated as if they are a regular.
That happened to me in Adelaide, too, at Parwana Afghan Kitchen in Torrensville. I had been longing to go there since I read Durkhanai Ayubi’s wonderful book Parwana, which is such a celebration of how food can give a vital sense of belonging.
Meeting the Ayubi family was lovely, and I covered the table with mantu dumplings, fried chicken, beautiful bowlfuls of sabzi (spinach with chilli, onion and garlic), dhal and Kabuli palaw, Afghan rice with caramelised carrots, sultanas, almonds and pistachios.
Fugazzi, also in Adelaide, has banquettes and booths, which always make me happy. I had a pasta dish there with chickpeas and sea urchin that you wouldn’t find in Italy, another example of the freedom chefs have in Australia.
I don’t actually drink much wine at home, but I feel as if it is a duty to drink a lot of Australian wine in Australia. In England, wine is seen as a sort of posh thing, whereas in Australia it’s so much more connected to the region and the locality.
The other thing I do a lot of in Australia is order fish. At home, I will cook it myself, but Australian fish is quite fascinating because it’s so different. I love what Josh Niland is doing in Sydney at his restaurant Saint Peter, but particularly at Charcoal Fish in Rose Bay. His role in changing how people think of fish, and in helping take the fear out of cooking it, is so important.
Nigella’s favourite eating spots in Oz
- Lucky Kwong, Eveleigh “When I’m in Sydney, I have to have lunch here on a weekly basis: the food is transporting and the all-round nourishment essential.”
- Charcoal Fish, Rose Bay “Josh Niland’s fish and chips are sensational, especially the batter, which is so light and crisp it is as if there are thousands of layers.”
- Napier Quarter, Fitzroy “The anchovy toast with egg and salsa verde is a slice of heaven.”
- Fratelli Paradiso, Potts Point “It’s my home away from home, for deep-fried stuffed olives and pork cutlet Milanese.”
- Hero ACMI, Melbourne “Karen Martini’s cooking is just pitch-perfect.”
- Nomad, Melbourne “Their golden raisin and caper salsa has to be a part of my life from this day on.”
- Parwana, Torrensville “Eating the Ayubi family’s food is a true delight. I long to return.”
- Sunda, Melbourne “For the buttermilk roti with Vegemite curry.”
- Ragazzi, Sydney “The Jerusalem artichoke ravioli with burnt honey is utterly compelling.”
- Gerard’s Bistro, Brisbane “The fire-scorched bagel-shaped breads from the charcoal oven have the lightest, fluffiest interiors.”
- Aru, Melbourne “I adore its integrity, its perfect Melbourne vibe and its utter deliciousness. And I dream of the spanner crab fried rice.”
- Fugazzi, Adelaide “The steak with anchovy bearnaise is every bit as sensational as I wanted it to be.”
- Cafe Paci, Newtown “Pasi Petanen is such an interesting chef, I want to eat whatever he makes.”
Even though Kylie Kwong just has a little canteen now at Eveleigh (Lucky Kwong), it feels like a really creative space for her deeply delicious, joyful, Chinese-Australian cooking. I admire the way she has decided what she needs in her life – which is not to be working every night and every weekend, so Lucky Kwong is open for lunch on weekdays only.
Dining out often inspires my own cooking. I never try to recreate a dish from Australia at home, but wait to see how I could do something that brings together those elements that I have enjoyed.
For example, I had ravioli at Ragazzi, a pasta and wine bar in Sydney, that were stuffed with soft Jerusalem artichoke and showered with lots of thin slices of deep-fried artichoke crisps and burnt honey. One day I’ll do something like it, in my own way.
Eating good food is such a privilege and enduring joy. Sometimes I think about everything I ate in Australia, and I just scroll through my Instagram and eat everything again, in blessed memory.
I do regret not going to Serai, the new Filipino restaurant in Melbourne, and I am longing to go to Leigh Street Wine Room in Adelaide for its crisp-fried potatoes with blue cheese cream.
Next time. I feel consoled by the thought that there will be a next time.
As told to Jill Dupleix
- MKR, Sunday to Tuesday on Channel Seven and 7plus
The spring issue of Fin Magazine is out on Friday, August 19 inside The Australian Financial Review.
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