The ultimate travelers guide to Australian food

What to eat in Australia, in 9 quintessential meals

(Illustrations by Jessica Cruickshank for The Washington Post)

Mention “Australian food” to a foreign visitor, and they will probably imagine bronzed beachgoers snacking on avocado toast and downing coffee like it’s water. While that’s an accurate description for some, the culinary identity on an island of 26 million people is so much broader.

Waves of immigration, a rich Indigenous food culture and a bounty of Pacific produce all influence an exceptionally diverse diet defined by cross-cultural exchange.

“I think that lack of perimeters of regional cuisine allowed Australian food to flourish and to take a bit from here and a bit from there,” says Ross Dobson, the chef who wrote “Australia: The Cookbook.” “Things are twisted and changed a bit to suit our climate and what we grow. And sometimes it makes delicious sense.”

First Nations Australians have long cultivated a deep connection to land and sea, rooted in shared knowledge and resourcefulness. The First Fleet left Portsmouth, England, in 1787, launching 200 years of foreign influence. Chinatowns and Little Italies were followed by precincts known for Lebanese food or Korean groceries. The distance between a Vietnamese bakery and a Portuguese deli is now a matter of storefronts.

At markets, papayas, mangoes and lychees compete for space with custard-apples and finger limes. Our lamb is globally renowned. Thanks to our warm climate, we are able to enjoy meals by the water, in the sunshine. Australian fine dining is world-class, with our restaurants regularly making it onto lists of the world’s best, but accessibility is a staple, as is community — Australians eat together, curiously and broadly.

“Our ‘classics’ are the dishes regular people like to eat,” says Bill Granger, the chef and cookbook author behind Bills, a chain of Australian cafes. “Our style of eating has developed from the ordinary people up.”

To taste the best Australia has to offer, one must explore widely, deeply and with an empty stomach. Now that the country is open to international travel once more, here are the quintessential foods visitors should seek out — and the ones I always miss when I’m away.

A local’s guide to Sydney


Avocado toast with a flat white

What is it? A thick slab of local sourdough with smashed avocado on top, dressed with a sprinkle of salt and pepper (or chili flakes) and a squeeze of citrus. Marinated feta, a poached egg and additional toppings are optional. Paired with a flat white, this dish epitomizes Australia’s national pastime: breakfast. Australia’s internationally recognized coffee culture owes a great deal to Italian migrants, who brought espresso machines in the mid-1900s.

Why it matters: Its origins may be contended, but avocado on toast as it is served here has become an international phenomenon. Plenty of local bakeries here produce standout sourdough, and Australian avocados are plump and buttery. Eating a slice by the beach, no matter the season, makes the experience authentically Aussie. “It’s just a perfect little meal, isn’t it?” says Granger, who is widely credited as being the “father” of the dish. One must ensure the avocado is sliced or smashed to order — freshness sets our avocado toast apart.

Australians take their coffee extremely seriously; it’s recognized as an art form. Go for a flat white, with a thin velvet crema instead of a foamy head, or a long black for a concentrated, milk-free coffee.

Where to find it: You can get avocado on toast at most traditional breakfast cafes. In Sydney, have a slice at Bills, in Darlinghurst or Bondi Beach. In Brisbane’s New Farm neighborhood, Joedy’s serves its avo toast with yuzu gel and heirloom tomatoes. Flinders Street Project, in Adelaide, serves a version with charred edamame and arugula.


Market oysters and prawns

What is it? Raw, chilled oysters that market vendors shuck every morning and typically display on blue or black trays for purchase — and a bag of prawns. While you’re browsing the selection, consider some Balmain bugs or mud crabs as well; both are endemic to Australian waters. Enjoy your oysters at the markets for a snack, or take some home to shuck for an evening appetizer. They need nothing more than a sliver of lemon.

Why it matters: Oysters are grown and harvested in estuaries around Australia, and you won’t often see $1 happy hours. Locals make their way to the fish markets and snag a couple of trays of the three varieties of oyster grown in Australia: Pacific, Sydney Rock and Angasi. (Tropical rock oysters are also grown in Queensland, but on a small scale.) Buttery, fat Pacifics tend to be a bit less intense and zinc-y than Sydney Rocks, which boast a strong oceanic taste. And don’t forget plump, juicy prawns: Go king or tiger.

Where to find it: Seek out your seafood fix at Sydney Fish Market in Pyrmont; the seafood section of the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne; down on the water at Constitution Dock in Hobart, Tasmania; and at Adelaide Central Market in South Australia (SA). Oyster-wise, try Sydney Rocks from the Clyde River in NSW and Pacifics from Coffin Bay, SA.


Homemade dumplings at yum cha

What is it? Yum cha (or dim sum) is not an Australian invention, but Australian produce pairs swimmingly with steamed and fried delights. Whether you’re seeking Cantonese-style king prawn har gow over yum cha, shepherd’s purse wontons at a city food court or homemade, pan-fried dumplings at a street market, you can’t go wrong.

“Everybody loves dumplings over here.”
— Tony Tan

Why it matters: The influence of Chinese cuisine goes back to the very early days of British settlement in Australia, well before the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 hampered the entry of non-Europeans through racist testing and entry restrictions. During and after the gold rush, Chinese settlers established market gardens and contributed to the food history of rural and regional towns. Some opened their own restaurants and stalls, including John Alloo, who established the first documented example on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854.

“There were already people that settled over here, and so much so that a lot of the country towns would have a Chinese restaurant,” says chef and restaurateur Tony Tan, who owns a cooking school in Trentham, Victoria. “We have had some kind of impact since the 1800s.”

These days, a variety of Asian cuisines are celebrated Down Under, from regional Chinese (Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong) influences to Malaysian, Singaporean, Korean and Japanese.

“Everybody loves dumplings over here,” Tan says.

Where to find it: In the small town of Rylstone, New South Wales, 29 Nine 99 serves up daily dumplings and tea in a heritage sandstone cottage. Tan hosts classes (including dumpling-making) at his cooking school in Trentham, which is just over an hour from downtown Melbourne. In downtown Sydney, go to Zilver or any of the Chinatown Noodle Restaurant venues; in Melbourne, David’s yum cha is a lovely lunch.


An all-purpose meat pie

What is it? A mix of meat and/or vegetables — think lamb and rosemary; beef and mushroom; curried potato and peas — shaped into a convenient, handheld flaky pastry. Eat one anytime, anywhere.

Why it matters: There are not many dishes quite as universal or adaptable as the humble meat pie. In Australia, it is the great equalizer, available in upmarket urban bakeries and cafes, as well as small country towns and petrol stations. Pie shops are a regular feature of the regional landscape, often sitting at the entry to many a small town.

“It’s such a part of our culture,” says Dobson, who wrote the cookbook “Australian Food” — replete with no fewer than nine pages of meat-pie recipes. “They’re still going strong.”

Where to find it: Pinjarra Bakery, which has four locations in Western Australia (WA), was crowned the home of the best beef meat pie in last year’s Great Aussie Pie Competition. Great alternatives include the lamb and rosemary pie at Barnetts Bakery in Crescent Head, NSW, or the red-curry crocodile pie at the Paradise Bakehouse in Moore Park Beach, Queensland (QLD). For a fail-safe, order the “Tiger” at Harry’s Cafe de Wheels in Sydney: it comes stacked high with mashed potatoes, mashed peas and gravy.


Bush tucker

What is it? Products native to Australia, also known as “bush foods” or “bush tucker,” including (but not limited to) the following: fruits such as Kakadu plums, finger limes and quandongs; vegetables such as bush tomatoes, Warrigal greens, saltbushes and samphires; seasonings and nuts such as wattleseed, lemon myrtle and macadamia; and proteins such as kangaroo, wallaby, pipis, emu, crocodile, barramundi and yabbies.

Why it matters: First Nations Australians have a roughly 50,000-year relationship with this land, and they have an unparalleled knowledge of the flora and fauna that grows within it. The mainstream Australian food scene now acknowledges the nutritional benefits — and sheer volume of possibilities — found in native produce. Yuin man Dwayne Bannon-Harrison, an Indigenous culture educator and co-owner of Mirritya Mundya, which means “hungry blackfish” in the Ngarrigu language group of southeastern Australia, says there’s still a long way to go.

“The most important thing to remember, for us, is that people need to feel and see and understand our culture before they can eat our food,” he says.

These days, you might see native ingredients on restaurant menus — lemon myrtle dukkah, wattleseed cakes, kangaroo stir-fries and finger-lime panna cotta, say — but to fully understand and appreciate the extent of native cuisine, seek out a cultural experience on Country run by First Nations Australians.

Where to find it: Walkabout Cultural Adventures, owned and run by Kuku Yalanji man Juan Walker, offers tours in the Port Douglas and Daintree region. The Wukalina Walk, founded by Elder Clyde Mansell, is a four-day experience in the Bay of Fires in Tasmania that includes dishes such as wallaby lasagna. Dale Tilbrook, a Wardandi Bibbulmun woman, hosts bush tucker experiences in the Swan Valley, WA. Ngemba Weilwan woman Sharon Winsor hosts the Warakirri Dining Experience in Mudgee, NSW. Bannon-Harrison’s Mirritya Mundya hosts food journeys and pop-up dinners in southern NSW.

Restaurant-wise, head to Ben Shewry’s Attica in Melbourne and Ochre in Cairns for a fine-dining celebration of native produce, or The Tin Humpy in Redfern for cafe fare.


A whole fish with all the trimmings

What is it? A whole fish — typically one swimming Australian waters, such as the snapper or barramundi — available in myriad Far East and Southeast Asian preparations. Some are fried and doused with punchy and bright Thai sauces. Others are steamed in parchment, Chinese-style.

Why it matters: Geographically, Asia is a hop away, and that influence is felt keenly in our eating habits. Waves of migration in the 1970s brought immigrants from throughout Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam and Thailand.

Flavors from those cultures make stellar use of Australian seafood: a whole fish steamed and decorated with slabs of ginger and chili or flash-fried and coated in a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce is a must-try. Using native ingredients, such as finger limes or myrtles, makes for a decidedly Australian dish.

“We are so multicultural that we are able to swap ideas effortlessly, without feeling as though we are impinging on someone else’s ingredients or cooking style,” Tan says.

Where to find it: Both Long Chim in Perth and Hanuman in Darwin, Northern Territory, serve up a Thai-inspired crispy whole fish served with a hot sweet-and-sour sauce. In the Sydney suburb of Manly, the Herring Room offers a fried baby snapper with a chili, ginger and soy glaze.


A “roast chook” dinner

What is it? Chicken, typically grilled on a rotisserie or in a flat basket, cooked over coals to produce moist meat and sticky, crunchy skin. It’s the main attraction at suburban chicken shops and a go-to at a handful of spots in Granville, an area outside Sydney well known for its main street bursting with Lebanese restaurants.

Why it matters: For a simple meal to eat in a park or take home on a weeknight, there isn’t much better than “chicken and chips.” At El Jannah in Granville, the chicken comes served with a decadent toum, a whipped garlic dip. But you can’t go wrong with grilled or roasted meat from almost any place advertising “roast chook.” These days, most chicken shops sell huge salads and tabbouleh, too.

PSA: If you’re ordering from a beachside chook shop and plan to eat on the sand, make sure all of your trash ends up in the bin.

Where to find it: Chicken shops are in almost every suburban town. El Jannah is a go-to for Lebanese flair, but Granville is full of great restaurants with their own take on the rotisserie approach. If the line is too long at one, seek out another. In Melbourne, Sunshine Social serves rotisserie chook that you can enjoy with a cold beer in the garden outside. In Canberra, Terra sells half and whole birds, fancy-like.


A burger with “the Lot”

What is it? Australia’s quirky approach to an American classic. A burger, typically with a beef patty, is stacked on a flat bun with slices of tinned beetroot, a ring of canned pineapple, a fried egg, lettuce, tomato and raw onion. You can choose between BBQ or tomato sauce (our less-sweet alternative to ketchup).

Why it matters: Adorning a burger with “the Lot” has its origins in Australian resourcefulness. I consider beetroot, pineapple and a fried egg to be a holy trinity of toppings, and I’ve converted friends in the United States by cooking it for them. At tuck shops (casual takeaway joints), you can buy an accessible dish that speaks to national peculiarities, produce and creativity, all for under $15.

“Our take on the hamburger is uniquely Australian,” Dobson says.

Where to find it: Most tuck shops or milk bars (the Australian terms for corner stores or canteens) serve a version of the burger with “the Lot.” Ask around. Enjoy it with thick-cut hot chips (fries) and a “fizzy drink” (soda). Paul’s Famous Hamburgers in Sylvania, in south Sydney, has been flipping them out since 1957. If you’re in town for a bit, grab all the ingredients and head to one of the many public barbecues dotted in our parks. Grab a few mates and try the trifecta out for yourself.


Lamingtons and a cuppa

What is it? A cube of white sponge cake dipped in cocoa and rolled in flaked or desiccated coconut. Whether you prefer your lamingtons with a layer of jam is up to you; purists will tell you lamingtons should not have jam in them, but who doesn’t love a little bit of extra sweetness? It’s usually enjoyed during “afternoon tea,” an unofficial break to counter 3 p.m.-itis.

Why it matters: Australian pastries and sweets are typically modest in design and execution. The lamington, which is believed to have been named after a British colonial couple, embodies this completely. It has long been a staple of bake sales and community fundraisers.

“A couple of generations of schoolchildren may — or may not — fondly remember lamingtons,” Australian culinary historian Alison Vincent says. The nostalgic snack is appreciated in the afternoon thanks to its mild sweetness, unlike a slice of cake after dinner or a breakfast muffin.

“I think it’s just a mixture of sentimental attachment and the presumption that it is an Australian original,” Vincent says. “It is a pretty humble confection, but well made, it can be more than just the sum of its parts.”

How tea became part of Australia’s travel culture

Where to find it: Almost every Australian town with a main street has a bakery, and almost every single one of these sells lamingtons. In fact, they are often best from the local bakery wherever you are. In Sydney, Flour and Stone’s lamington is renowned. In Hobart, snag one at Jackman and McRoss. In Darwin, enjoy one in the courtyard at Ray’s Patisserie and Cafe.