Even the Australians used to make fun of their notoriously poor, rough-and-ready cooking. But these days, while the Americans are still debating the relative virtues of mesquite and hickory for their barbecue fire, Australians have moved beyond the obvious and are inventing imaginative salads to serve with their grilled meats.

Taking some bamboo shoots from the Chinese, some fennel from the Italians, some braised leeks from the French and some bulghur wheat from the Middle East, they are tossing together sometimes unlikely salad fellows to create something new--and almost always worthy of a second helping.

Things have changed in Australia in the last two decades and nowhere are those changes more evident than in the back yard, where every Anglo, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese and Fijian who now calls himself Australian entertains by orchestrating a barbecue. And, in the early '60s, life-long Australians started to travel in significant numbers, bringing home with them a taste for a wide variety of foods.

Now, Australians take their barbecues very seriously and the affectionate, oh-so-casual locution with which they call them "barbies" belies the sophisticated nature of the event.

Like any Australian, the guest at a barbie tends to take for granted the fine, tender lamb and the memorably fresh grilled fish. Add to that the astonishing array of colorful salads--often as numerous as the guests themselves--and the beguiling variety of fine Australian wines, and a visitor from the northern hemisphere is quite likely to conclude that things are looking up Down Under.

As for the main course, many Australians still simply slap a steak or some sausage on the grill and let the fine quality, reared-in-the-outback meat speak for itself. But more and more barbie cooks, like Americans, are trying their hand at interesting marinades. For example, they will marinate a leg of lamb (or chops) in a curried apricot-vinegar pure'e. Beef fillets may be soaked in worcestershire and soy sauce, flavored with dry mustard, fresh garlic and ginger. Succulent, fresh fish kebabs will spend an hour or so in a mixture of white wine, lemon juice and crushed garlic, and then be brushed with parsley-butter as they are seared on the hot grill.

Here are some recipes for the kinds of salads you might encounter at an Aussie barbecue. Most have been adapted from the summer chapter of "A Taste For All Seasons," by Beverly Sutherland Smith, one of Australia's most popular cookbook writers. As part of a medley, each salad will serve eight. RICE SALAD WITH PINEAPPLE AND WATER CHESTNUTS (8 servings) 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup long-grain rice 2 tablespoons butter 1 medium (about 8 ounces) onion, chopped 1 teaspoon curry powder 1/4 cup raisins 1/4 cup diced water chestnuts 1 large green pepper, seeded and finely chopped 1 pineapple, peeled, cored and diced 6 tablespoons peanut oil 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar Pinch dry mustard Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a heavy pot with a lid, combine 1 3/4 cups water with the salt and bring to the boil. Stir in the rice, cover, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, just until rice is cooked throughout but still chewy. Drain off any excess water. Set aside to cool.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter and saute' the onion over medium heat until it is quite soft but not brown. Stir in the curry powder, raisins, water chestnuts and green pepper. Remove to a large bowl and add the pineapple and cooled rice.

In a food processor or blender, prepare a vinaigrette dressing by combining the remaining ingredients. Just before serving the salad, add just enough dressing to lightly coat the rice. Adjust for salt and pepper before serving. CAULIFLOWER SALAD WITH TUNA SAUCE (8 servings) 1 large cauliflower, cut into small florets 7-ounce can of tuna, drained 4 anchovy fillets 1 small onion, chopped 2 tablespoons capers 2 tablespoons minced parsley 2 hard-cooked eggs 1 clove garlic 3/4 cup light vegetable oil 3 to 4 tablespoons vinegar Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Blanch the cauliflower in boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water. Drain and set aside in a large bowl.

In a processor or blender, combine the tuna, anchovies, onion, capers, parsley, eggs and garlic and process until well minced. Combine the oil and vinegar and slowly add these to the mixture while processing until you have a thick, smooth sauce. Taste for salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower and refrigerate until needed.

Note: There will seem to be too much sauce, but we advise that you use it all and see how quickly it disappears. WALNUT-FENNEL SALAD (8 servings)

This unusual and delicious salad was described to me by Julie Gorrick, food editor of Australia's Family Circle magazine. 3 bulbs fennel 3 large oranges 2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts 6 tablespoons walnut oil 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar Juice of 1/2 lemon Salt to taste, if desired

Remove the stringy stalks of the fennel and discard. Cut each of the bulbs in half and then thinly slice the halves. Separate the slices into sections and place into a large salad bowl.

Peel the oranges and remove the white pith. On a plate, thinly slice the oranges, removing any pits. Add the orange slices plus any juice remaining on the plate to the fennel. Stir in the walnuts.

To prepare the dressing, combine the oil and vinegar in a jar and shake vigorously. Pour over the salad and sprinkle on the lemon juice. Toss the salad, taste, and add salt if desired.