The history of Mediterranean food in Australia

Starting from chemist-bought olive oils and smuggled spices, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food in Australia has evolved to become commonplace.
Mediterranean food in Australia - fish and greek salad

Photo: Chris Court

Ask almost any older Italian or Greek immigrant about cooking the food of their homelands in Australia in the mid-20th century and you’ll likely hear anecdotes about ingenuity and improvisation.

“My father told me a story that back in the ’50s, when the family started importing olive oil from Italy, the cost of a gallon was about the equivalent of a worker’s weekly wage,” says Australian Olive Oil Association president David Valmorbida. In those times you’d also be hard pressed to find fresh basil or good-quality tomatoes for sale and to use in Mediterranean food, leading many people to exclusively grow their own.

Through the decades, all immigrants who moved to Australia from Mediterranean countries shared a determination to keep enjoying the Mediterranean food their families had loved for centuries, whatever the challenges. In some cases, women would buy olive oil from pharmacies, where it was sold in small quantities as a supposed cure for earaches and indigestion but was perfectly edible as well (though its freshness almost certainly would have been questionable).

As early as the 1920s, when Australia experienced a moderate spike in Greek immigration following the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, Greek markets and Mediterranean food stores began appearing in Sydney, selling imported ouzo, Greek sweets and Greek cheese.

The so-called Afghan Cameleers – who in fact represented many nations including Pakistan, Persia and Egypt – first arrived in Australia in the mid-1800s, and even back then found ways to bring their culinary practices to their new homeland. They butchered meat using halal practices and found ways to grow the herbs and spices that they loved in the countries they’d left behind.

Today, there is an enormous variety of Mediterranean food available all over Australia that originated with people whose roots tie back to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries – Europeans from Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Malta and Spain, and Middle Eastern immigrants from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Israel, among others. Pasta, moussaka, kibbeh, ful medames, shakshuka and paella can be found in every city and many regional areas of Australia, and have all been instrumental in shaping the spectrum of Australia’s cuisine. It’s now entirely unremarkable that you can buy skordalia and spanakopita right on Henley Beach at South Australia’s iconic Greek restaurant Estia. Or mloukhieh and ward el sham pastries from Zaytoune Lebanese Sweets in Melbourne.

Exterior of Sydney Italian institution, Bill and Toni’s in Darlinghurst.

One quality prevalent in these migrant groups was a strong sense of family, and that conviviality often extended into the restaurants that they opened. Claudio ‘Claude’ Tropea, who owns one of Sydney’s great Italian institutions, Bill and Toni’s, grew up in Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s, and ate Italian food at home seven days a week. “It was all about family and getting together and having tasty meals as a group,” he remembers of his childhood in an Italian-Australian family. “You could always smell the sauce being made fresh at home on a Sunday morning.”

The Italian restaurants that he started going to with friends when he was in his teens and early 20s – including Bill and Toni’s which opened in Darlinghurst in 1965 (known then as the San Siro Coffee Lounge) – shared a lot of the same values: flavour and family. “The best way to describe them back then was that they were sort of simple and authentic,” he says of the Italian restaurants from that time. “They didn’t have large menus but there was always pasta, pizza, meat dishes and gelato.” Everyone would be there, from students to families, enjoying meals with the same sense of community as they did at home.

Today, Bill and Toni’s doesn’t look exactly the same as it did back then. The menu, which originally only featured six dishes, has expanded, and now includes pizza, more meat dishes and pasta with almost every classic sauce imaginable, from Bolognese to boscaiola. But that sense of family hasn’t waned. “We have regulars who come in once or twice a week, and have been doing so for 30 or 40 years,” he says. “We even had an experience recently where we had five generations of the same family eating with us at the same time.”

One thing that has changed for the better for many Australian restaurateurs of Mediterranean descent is the provenance of the produce. While some specialty ingredients are still imported from various European and Middle Eastern countries, Australia is now much better at growing and manufacturing high-quality local ingredients used in Mediterranean food. “We now have quality ingredients on our doorstep. For example, I source my olive oil from an Italian grower out near Griffith,” Tropea says. “The way Italians cook is all about ‘local’. Why get Italian canned tomatoes when we have the same ones – or even better – here?” The pharmacy olive oil has definitely had its day.

Discover more Mediterranean food and Middle Eastern food via Uber Eats.

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