23 April 2024

From bolognese to bunny chow: How the Illawarra has expanded this Happy Little Vegemite’s culinary world

| Kellie O'Brien
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Vegemite on Weet-Bix

A staple of growing up was Vegemite and butter on Weet-Bix after school. Photo: Kellie O’Brien.

For someone who grew up on a farm eating meat and three veg, each week has now become a global gastronomic delight with the ability to take a culinary journey around the world all within a few kilometres of home.

My two teenage daughters’ foodie education means they know the difference between chicken karaage from Japan and chicken shawarma from the Middle East.

I blame the Illawarra.

But I’ve often wondered if this region quite understands the feast it has on its doorstep – and this isn’t a reference to your latest DoorDash delivery.

You see, what’s surprised me most about the Illawarra since moving here 10 years ago is its deep-rooted love affair with good food and multicultural array of restaurants that allow your tastebuds to travel the globe, without ever needing to board a plane.

I come from a region anchored in bistros and pub fare, with the odd Italian restaurant thrown in, despite being regarded as one of Australia’s great food bowls.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I tasted spaghetti bolognese and I was into my 30s before I tried sushi.

Yet now in my 40s my tastebuds tingle from traversing a tapestry of tantalising treats.

When did we become so spoiled for choice with the worldwide selection of cuisine on offer within our own suburbs?

Growing up on a farm meant we produced our own meat and vegetables and cooked directly from the CWA cookbook.

Quite often we’d see the chook numbers start to dwindle as the freezer expanded, and I’ll never quite get over the year Doris went missing, only to discover she was a pork chop on my plate.

And when I talk spuds, I mean real potatoes. There was no such thing as white and red potatoes, or even brushed and washed.

It was Nicola, Kennebec, Russel Burbank, King Edward and Dutch Creams.

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The most exotic thing we had was apricot chicken casserole, with the apricots straight from a can.

Which was pretty much where most of our food came from when we weren’t producing enough in the garden.

We did shop at the supermarket, but that was a once a fortnight event – on a Friday night after school, always ending with fish and chips wrapped in newspaper as a treat.

We also had a shack at a lake where we fished for rainbow trout and brown trout, which was as fancy as our fish eating got.

My Illawarra friend group is a reflection of the multicultural nature of the region, with a Portuguese, Irishwoman and South African. And no, that’s not the start of a joke.

While the Irish friend and I might have some similarities in loving a good beef and Guinness pie or shepherd’s pie, I’ve noticed my tastes are often different to the rest of the group.

We used to have a thick layer of butter and Vegemite on a dry Weet-Bix as an afternoon snack while we watched Roger Ramjet and Inspector Gadget on the telly.

As a kid, Vegemite was a staple.

In fact, once emptied, the small glass Vegemite jars became our best drinking glasses brought out for all the best entertaining occasions.

There might have been a fancy jam jar thrown in there too.

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Dessert was either jam and runny cream on white bread (but only if the bread was super fresh) or tinned fruit with cream and Cornflakes on top.

Are you getting a cereal theme here?

If we were entertaining, we might be lucky to get a trifle, Golden Syrup dumplings, brandy snaps, chocolate self-saucing pudding or, on birthdays, a cake from The Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book.

I think most of my school friends had a green jelly swimming pool at some stage, complete with chocolate finger biscuits around the edges.

While our nightly meals were mostly chops, stew, rissoles, casserole or curried sausages, entertaining others meant the excitement of seeing devilled eggs, pigs in blankets, or corn relish dip.

So what do my friends eat? Something called a prego, which is essentially a Portuguese steak sandwich but sounds more like what happens after rompy pompy with your husband.

A bunny chow, which the South African assures me no bunnies were harmed in the making of.

And sputnik, which is a Russian sausage, like a kransky, covered in mashed potato and deep fried. Possibly requires a gym membership afterwards.

Bring back a tuna casserole, I say.

While my tastes may have shifted over the years, thanks to the incredible dishes from friends and restaurants in this region, when it all boils down to it, Mum’s Sunday night roast (and not a date with Tom Cruise) will always be the winner.

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