What’s to eat? The 5 most popular dishes in 1800s Australia

Family History
5 April 2016
by Ancestry

These days Australians are likely to be sitting down to eat spaghetti bolognese or pad thai, thanks to our multicultural heritage. But what did your average Australian colonist dine on? Jacqui Newling, resident gastronomer at Sydney Living Museums and author of Eat Your History, explains what was on the menu for your average 19th century family dinner.


    The kangaroo steamer is first mentioned in the 1820s and various versions appear in cookbooks until the late 1800s. Finely diced fresh kangaroo meat and salt-pork or bacon were packed into a clay pot and ‘steamed’ in its own juices as it boiled on the stove. Although it seems ‘uniquely’ Australian, the steamer is a colonial adaptation of the English jugged hare, and a prime example of colonists’ adapting native ingredients to traditional British recipes.

    [Images courtesy: Eat Your History by Jacqui Newling]

    2. CURRY

    Curry is synonymous with the evolution of taste in the C19th. Curries were being served on elite colonial tables as early as 1810 and regarded as highly exotic. Within a generation or two curry was so ‘normalised’ in the Australian culinary repertoire that it was the ‘go to’ dish for meat leftovers, and curry powders were used to make mulligatawny soup and rice kedgeree.

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    [Images courtesy: Eat Your History by Jacqui Newling]


    A cheaper and more accessible alternative to genuine turtle soup, Mock turtle was fashionable throughout the Victorian period and into the 20th-century. It was made by boiling a calf’s head (or more economically here in Australia, sheep’s heads), which produced a gelatinous quality that was characteristic of true turtle meat.


    We are often told that Australian settlers ignored or rejected native food sources, however, many species of fauna and flora were enjoyed on colonial tables. The native wonga wonga pigeon was a revered game meat on colonial menus from at least the 1840s. Often served with a traditional English-style bread sauce, the bird’s proportionately large and plump white-fleshed breast was likened to pheasant when roasted.


    While we think of plum pudding as a Christmas-time dish, it was served at other times, especially in winter. The convicts at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, for example, were given plum pudding at their inaugural dinner in June 1819, to celebrate the opening of the barracks. In Victorian times, despite our hot summers, plum pudding took pride of place on the Christmas table and has remained there ever since.

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    [Images courtesy: Eat Your History by Jacqui Newling]
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