From Wombat To Witchetty Grubs

An exhibition of historic Australian cookbooks reveals the tastes of the country’s pioneers, including recipes for bandicoot, kangaroo brains and black swans, and demonstrates how the nation’s cuisine has developed markedly over a short period of time.

‘The first known Australian cookbook broke away from the traditional English fare with a mix of some wonderful localized dishes with ingredients like black swan, emu and wombat,’ says Pat Turner, curator of the Australian Cookbooks exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

Australia’s first known recipe book, The English and Australian Cook Book, published in 1864, includes Slippery Bob, a dish of kangaroo brains mixed with flour and water, while a stew made from a dozen parrots can be found thirty years later in The Antipodean Cookery Book.

The authors provide a glimpse of the society for which they were writing, and are more than a century ahead of there time in extolling the virtues of ‘bush tucker’ – the native flora and fauna eaten by Aborigines – a matter that modern Australian chefs have only recently begun to explore.

‘I am beholden to the blacks for nearly all my knowledge of the edible ground game,’ wrote author Mrs Lance Rawson, going on to praise the taste of witchetty grubs. ‘There is nothing nasty or disgusting in these soft white morsels, any more so than an oyster.’

The early cookbooks contain many traditional British meals as well as some recipes for curries, reflecting the influence of Indian cooking on the British Empire, but show none of the multi-ethnic diversity available in Australia today.

Turner said the books also revealed that the celebrity chef is not a modern phenomenon. ‘These people who wrote early cookbooks became quite renowned and attracted a large following, their books went into many editions,’ she said.

In the 1920s and 1930s many cookbooks urged Australians to eat less meat and more local produce. The first Chinese recipes appeared in the 1940s, while the first Australian barbecue cookbook appears in 1958, and the 1970s saw the emergence of microwave cooking guides and the advent of recipe books reflecting Australia’s immigrant diversity.


Bess Mucke
[email protected]

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