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Seven Highly Entertaining Stories Behind Some of Australia's Most Loved Dishes and Drinks

Explore the history of everything from the much-loved Four'n Twenty pie to the dark colonialist past of bahn mi.
By Ben Hansen
July 22, 2021
By Ben Hansen
July 22, 2021

If you've ever found yourself wondering how certain foods and recipes are made, you're not alone. After all, the great Australia vs New Zealand pavlova debate fails to answer the question of who in their right mind thought whipping egg whites was a good idea.

Most foods go through several iterations to come to the form we know them in today. Maybe it's because we have too much time on our hands with nearly 12 million of us locked down right now, but we decided to delve into the weird and wonderful history of some of Australia's most-loved food and drinks.

From dinner party favourites to footy game snacks, here are a few brief backstories that took these foods to where they are today.



Prawn cocktails reigned supreme at dinner parties in the decades leading up to the turn of the century, but the legend of this dinner party delight harkens back to the 19th century. Folklore has it that a worker came to a bar in California and ordered a plate of oysters and a whiskey after a day in the mines. After downing the whiskey, the prospector emptied the oysters into the glass and combined them with ketchup, horseradish, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.  When asked what he was doing, the worker replied that he had created an 'oyster cocktail'. Somehow the bar owner thought this was a winning idea and begun selling oyster cocktails, launching the seafood cocktail.

The dish popped up in Australia around the 1930s. In 1936, Adelaide's The Mail newspaper published a recipe for the seafood cocktail under the title 'Drinks For The Beach'. The recipe featured grilled shellfish in a small glass of sherry with "two dashes Tabasco sauce, a teaspoon lemon juice, two tablespoons tomato sauce or catsup, a teaspoon Worcester sauce, half teaspoon chopped chives" which would be mixed well, served over ice and with brown bread.




The Vietnamese banh mi's history is tied closely to European colonialism. The French invasion in the 1800s and subsequent global trade brought France's bread and European ingredients including cold cuts into Vietnam. This would eventually lead to the banh mi's crispy bread roll, reminiscent of a French baguette. The first banh mi was a simple sandwich featuring butter, cold cuts and paté. More traditional Vietnamese fillings became popular later, but the butter and paté stayed. The sandwich was most popular in the southern warmer parts of Vietnam as an alternative to Vietnamese staples like pho. Banh mi begun to spread far and wide in the 1960s and 70s following the Vietnam War, arriving in places like Australia where the warm climate mirrored that of south Vietnam.




In March 2020 the Four'n Twenty pie became the Official Pie of the AFL. The crowning of this humble Australian pie brand had been a long time coming, but it was a long road to get there. The Four'n Twenty was created in Bendigo in 1947 by Les McClure, a dairy farmer who opened the Dad & Dave cafe. The pies were originally named after McClure's cafe before they were, apparently, renamed as a nod to the nursery rhyme 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' and its "four and twenty blackbirds backed in a pie". The pie's ability to be eaten with one hand while you hold a beer in the other no doubt contributed to its popularity as a stadium food, with the Four'n Twenty a frequent supplier to AFL food stands after its purchase by Peters Ice Cream in 1960. The thing that really solidified this particular brand of pies in the minds of footy fans was iconic ads that ran through the 1980s and 90s featuring catchy jingles and AFL stars.




While some drinks have been around for centuries, the fun-lovin' espresso martini is fairly new to the bar scene. First created by revolutionary London bartender Dick Bradsell back in the early 80s, the cocktail's birth is attributed to a supermodel asking for a booze-fuelled drink that would simultaneously wake her up. As vodka back then was the spirit a la mode, Bradsell threw a generous shot of it in with a shot of coffee pulled from the barside espresso machine, plus some coffee liqueur (our money's on Kahlúa) and sugar syrup, then shook away before pouring it into a martini glass. It's rumoured that Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell could be the model behind the birth of the espresso martini. Initially, the drink was simply called a vodka espresso, before being known as the Pharmaceutical Stimulant in the late 90s and then the espresso martini.




The bombe Alaska, or baked Alaska as it's known in its country of origin, has a storied past featuring former presidents and the sale of Russian land. Reports date dishes similar to the baked Alaska back to 1800s USA where President Thomas Jefferson dined on ice cream encased in a dried crust at the White House. It was apparently US inventor Sir Benjamin Thompson, the inventor of the kitchen range and a British loyalist in the American Revolutionary War, that was the first to discover meringue could be used as an insulator. The dessert's name comes from Parisian-American chef Charles Ranhofer who created a banana ice cream and walnut spiced cake version of the meal Jefferson had eaten and labeled it the Florida-Alaska.




The Smithsonian Magazine claims doughnuts have been around in some form or another for thousands of years, with archaeologists discovering fossils of doughnut-like cakes in prehistoric settlements. References to the doughnut can be found in publications as far back as 1808. A recipe from 1896 combines flour, salt, soda, cream tartar, nutmeg, cinnamon, butter, sugar, egg and sour milk to create its doughnuts. There seem to be two stories surrounding how doughnuts got their famous shape. The first is simply that the dough wouldn't cook all the way through to the middle when they were first being made so they were hollowed out. The second is a much more interesting story, involving adventures of the high seas. A New England ship captain had been given cakes from his mother to eat on a journey across the sea in order to ward off scurvy. When the captain needed to hold the wheel with both hands, he speared one of his mother's cakes onto the wheel, gifting the world the hollowed-out shape of the doughnut.




The story of mango pancakes is one of mystery more than certainty. The bright yellow desserts are such a staple of Australian yum cha, some locals may be surprised to find out they are, for the most part, a uniquely Australian thing. The only other place across the globe that seems to have the same level of deep adoration for these creamy mango delights is Hong Kong. The dish is the signature dessert of Honeymoon Dessert, who have a strong claim to starting the craze in Hong Kong, however Honeymoon was established in 1995 and reports of Mango Pancakes online date back to the early 90s in Australia. This is all anecdotal of course, but, if there are any pancake detectives on the case, reach out as the mystery remains unsolved.

Illustrations by asu_ad

Published on July 22, 2021 by Ben Hansen
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