You have to travel to get the good stuff when it comes to food. Well, usually.
If you want delicious French bread, you really have to go to France. If you want mind-blowing Hainanese chicken rice, you have to go to Singapore. If you want paella that's even halfway decent, you have to go to Valencia or Barcelona.
However, this general rule has its exceptions. Sometimes, the food we can access in Australia is just as good as the version in a dish's country of origin. Sometimes it's even better.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the foreign dishes that Australia has taken on and totally stuffed up. This week, we have the opposite: the foreign dishes served up here that are just as good as in their homeland. If you want to travel without leaving our borders right now, this is the food you want to be eating.
I'm going to say this quietly, lest I end up on Italians Mad at Food, but pizza in Australia is as good as pizza in Italy. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely terrible pizza in Australia – anything with chicken on it, or corn chips, or BBQ sauce, or with "lovers" in the name – but there's bad pizza in Italy, too.
What I'm saying is that generally, the standard of pizza in Australia, in our major cities at least, is as good as the general standard of pizza in Italy. And our absolute best pizza – lean in close so I can whisper this – is up there with Italy's best.
Beef pho at Lady Chu, Potts Point, Sydney. Photo: Wolter Peeters
After first visiting Vietnam in the early 2000s, I came back to Australia and went down something of a pho rabbit hole, tasting noodle soup across Sydney and Melbourne, heading to Cabramatta, to Bankstown, to Footscray, to Richmond and beyond. And I loved it, so much so that I thought, damn, if this is how good pho is in Australia, it's going to be mind-blowing next time I go back to Vietnam.
And then I did go back to Vietnam, and discovered – and I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing – that the pho I'd been eating in Australia was definitely up there, in terms of taste and quality, with what I could get in its homeland.
Salt and Pepper Squid, China
We Australians should be pretty damned good at making salt and pepper squid by now, given how much practice we've had. Salt and pepper squid is ubiquitous on Australian menus, found everywhere from fine-diners to RSLs, from Cantonese eateries to Italian trattorias. We love it. And you would have to say we've pretty much mastered it.
I've eaten salt and pepper squid in Hong Kong, and across China, and it would be hard to argue that it's a lot better than the versions you can find in Australia.
I've said Italy here because it's the Italian version of coffee that we in Australia have taken on and made our own. There's coffee from around the world – Ethiopian coffee, Vietnamese coffee, Turkish coffee etcetera etcetera – that are all completely different in style, and yet it's the espresso-style coffee, usually with milk, that's most popular here. And… we do it well. Really well.
There is definitely better coffee in Italy than there is in Australia. But again, like pizza, if we're talking about the overall standard, Australia can hold its own.
Chicken Tikka Masala, UK
This is similar to the pho entry: I'd been eating chicken tikka masala in Australia for a fair while – having broken out of central Queensland as late teenager, it was about the most adventurous meal I could think of – and I was pumped to try the real thing in the UK.
If it's delicious here in Brisbane, I thought, imagine how good it will be in London and Birmingham and Glasgow. The answer? Not much better. Delicious and all, but not measurably better than our own Australian attempts.
Brunching at Panama House, Bondi Beach. Photo: Wolter Peeters
The practice of eating brunch began in England, was popularised in the US, and was mastered in Australia. We've really made brunch our own. It's not a meal, but a whole culture. A passion. We get out on weekends in the mid-morning and we get stuck in.
You can dine on almost any food imaginable for brunch here, from basic egg-and-bacon rolls, to Cantonese-style dim sum, to Middle Eastern falafel platters to various South-East Asian noodle soups to fusions that are entirely of our own making. Find me somewhere else with that sort of variety at 10am.
Sourdough bread, Europe
It's hard to say exactly where sourdough bread came from: maybe Egypt, though it was popularised in Northern Europe, and later spread into North America.
Anyway, wherever you choose to eat it in the northern hemisphere, there's a fair argument for the idea that Australian sourdough is now up there with the best. (Maybe not the stuff we all tinkered with during lockdown, but the professional product for sure.) There's better bread, in general, in Germany. Better bread in France of course. But for standard sourdough, Australia does a great job.
Laksa Lemak, Singapore/Malaysia
Prawn and chicken laksa Singapura from Temasek, Parramatta, Sydney. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Also known as curry laksa, or curry mee, this fiery-but-creamy noodle soup arose from Peranakan and Malay culture, and is still hugely popular in Singapore and Malaysia, as well Indonesia.
Some of the laksa variations are nowhere near as good in Australia as they are in their place of origin – sour Assam laksa, fishy Banjar laksa – however, the laksa lemak you can get in Australia is top-notch. Up there with its origin for sure.
What do you think are the foreign dishes that Australia does well? Which foods can you access here that's as good as in their country of origin? And more importantly – where do you get them?