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Eating Australian: Cuisine blends international styles with native supplies
More than barbecue
SYDNEY (CNN) -- Far from the wild bush of the Outback, sleek, modern restaurants in Australia offer world class dining and decor. What's most interesting is their passion to create a cuisine that's internationally diverse, yet uniquely Australian.
Throwing some shrimp on the barbie may be the popular stereotype of cooking down under, but inventive chefs have been busy creating a new definition of Australian cuisine.
"I think what sort of knocks people out is the kind of vibrance and freshness and the ease at which we put stuff together," says Neil Perry, owner of Sydney's Rockpool, a restaurant where the menu is as sleek as the surroundings.
Asian noodle salad with Australian abalone is flavored with truffle oil, ginger and scallion. Omelets are seasoned with Thai fish sauce and fried crispy in a hot wok.
A nation of palates yearning for flavors beyond their British roots found inspiration when Asian immigrants brought their cultures and cuisines to the continent.
"We eat their food all the time and we're inspired by them and we're inspired by their food and hopefully we do them justice," said executive chef Kahn Danis of Rockpool.
At Sailors Thai in Sydney, the menu salutes the flavors of Thailand, a tasty testament that Australian food has come a long way.
"Apart from a few good country cooks, and a few rare exceptions, [Australia] was, in fact, a culinary wasteland," says chef David Thompson.
Thompson is such an authority on traditional Thai cooking that the Thai government has asked him to help teach chefs in Bangkok. Dishes such as jasmine tea smoked perch with a green mango chili salad reflect his passion for the food.
"There's been excitement and discovery -- almost a gawkish enthusiasm -- as one discovers new ingredients and how to tinker, toy and technique with them," Thompson says.
"Australian cooking generally has strong roots in French technique, a little bit of a nod to our British heritage now and then with a bit of steak or kidney pie, but generally, it is a mixture of the Asian, the Greek, the Italian and other influences," says writer Helen Greenwood of the Sydney Morning Herald.
While chefs in Australian are serious about their cuisine, they also have a refreshing sense of humor. At MG Garage, one of the top restaurants in Sydney, the dining room is decorated with MG sports cars -- and they're for sale.
This unique pairing of precision performance is a partnership between an MG dealership and Greek-born chef Janni Kyritsis. This former electrician marries international flavors: Australian beef with Mediterranean olives is wrapped in an English-style dumpling, served with stir fried spinach and topped with a French Madeira sauce.
Looking locally for ingredients
The real recipe secret, chefs say, is the great fresh produce and abundant, unusual seafood available in Australia. Balmain bugs, similar to lobster, show up on menus.
Specialty items, such as shark lips, are found in local markets. Chef Cheong Liew of the Adelaide Hilton steams them and serves them with scallops and braised vegetables."I can't even take it off the menu because everybody comes in and asks, 'I'll have the shark lips,'" he says.
In Adelaide, a vibrant city on the country's southern coast, the Red Ochre Grill offers unique local flavors -- crisp fried baby Baramundi fresh from the coastal waters or kangaroo served with a sauce made from quandong, a wild fruit also called "the desert peach."
Far from endangered, kangaroos are culled from the wild to help control overpopulation.
"There are millions of them out there and it is very healthy to eat," says chef Andrew Fielke. "It is a little like slightly stronger beef flavor. It is a light to medium game meat depending on the species, how old it is, and how it is aged."
Fielke uses native plants gathered from the wild including super-tart blood limes and herbs such as pepper leaf and lemon myrtle leaf -- herbs that were used for centuries in Aboriginal cooking, but had almost been forgotten.
"When the settlers came to Australia, many of them died lying next to edible foods," he says.
Now bush tomatoes flavor soups and Fielke even markets a quandong conserve.
Because of its creative chefs and proximity to South Australia's wine country, Adelaide is becoming a notable place to eat. The bustling Adelaide Central Market, open since 1869, showcases the bounty of the nearby land and sea.
Among the 250 booths, find blue swimmer crabs, unique to Australia, or yabbies, described as fresh water lobsters.
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