Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Sugar around the world: Australia
As one of the top ten sugar producers in the world, and one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, Australia uses sugar widely in its cuisine. Many of its great recipes are borrowed from the waves of Asian and European immigrants who brought their cultures with them. In this blog, we tackle some great foods that are uniquely Australian.
Australia has a modern, productive sugar industry
Sugarcane is an Australian success story. Brought to the continent’s shores in 1788 on the same ships that transported the first European and African settlers, sugar is now Australia’s second largest export crop after wheat. Australia produces 5.15 million tonnes of cane sugar and exports 3.5 million tonnes, mainly to the Asian market.
Sugar beet has a different story. A few people farmed sugar beet from 1865, in what would become the state of Victoria. A drought in 1899 put an end to that, until 1910 when the crop flourished during the inter-war years, but farmers made better money from dairying and the industry died out.
Today, all Australia’s sugar production is from sugarcane grown in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Australian factories refine mostly crystalline sugars for industry, but liquid sugars for bulk supply are also produced. Treacle and golden syrup are made in Australia and go into many traditional puddings and desserts.
A melting pot of cuisines and cultures
There’s a lot more to Australian cuisine than shrimps on the barbeque. Australia is proud home to one of the most diverse populations on the planet. According to the latest census, 26% of the population were born overseas and a further 20% had at least one parent born in another country.
While Indigenous Australian peoples only make up approximately 2.5% of the population, Australia’s many migrant communities have brought their cultures and cuisines, making modern Australian gastronomy a real mish-mash of flavours, preparation techniques and cooking methods.
Chefs often borrow traditional ingredients from one culture and incorporate them into dishes from another: It’s not uncommon to find Thai ingredients in a traditional Italian meal, for example. One restaurant in Melbourne – appropriately called ‘Lemongrass’ – is famed for its lemongrass ravioli!
Pavlova – not Russian, but named for a Russian
When it comes to sweet treats, Australia packs a puddingy punch. The national dessert – not without contest – is the humble yet impressive pavlova. Affectionately called ‘pav’ by Australian aficionados, cased in a delicate meringue, crisp on the outside and marshmallow-soft on the inside, topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit, it may sound as Russian as vodka, but pavlova is 100% Aussie.
Created and named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova during an Australian tour in the 1920s, the fruit used in pavlova varies, but the most popular choices are berries, kiwi fruit, passionfruit and, more recently, mango. The main ingredient by far is caster sugar, with over a quarter of a kilo in each meringue!
Lamington desserts, an eccentric sweet treat with disputed ownership
Another Australian classic sweet treat is the lamington. Or of New Zealand origin, depending on which source you choose to believe. Virtually unheard of outside the Antipodes, this light sponge cake dipped in melted chocolate and rolled in coconut harks back to the turn of the twentieth century.
Nobody knows exactly how or why, but it’s generally believed the lamington was born when Lord and Lady Lamington governed the state of Queensland and demanded their French chef whip up a sweet yet simple dish at short notice for their guests. Another theory claims one of the Lamingtons’ maids accidentally dropped a sponge cake in a bowl of chocolate.
Whatever its origins, making enough lamingtons to feed nine people takes lots of sugar. The sponge is typically made with 250g of golden caster sugar. This is less refined than white crystalline caster sugar, so introduces a more caramel flavour. Demerara sugar is commonly substituted as an alternative, which beings a smokier flavour and crunchier texture to the sponge as a result of the larger sugar crystals retaining their shape. Icing sugar, which is powdered ground crystalline white sugar, is used for the icing.
While crystallised sugar undoubtedly takes the top spot when it comes to Australian sugars, it’s not the only player. The country also produces over 500,000 tonnes of sweet, dark, viscous molasses every year. Ever heard the American idiom ‘slow as molasses’? If you’ve ever poured molasses, you’ll understand where it comes from. The brown liquid is what remains after sugar crystals have been removed from the cane or beet juice. From the Latin word for honey – ‘mel’ – Australian molasses is used mostly to produce ethanol and animal feed, but it also can be a substitute for maple syrup, or to sweeten up marinades or barbecue sauces.
Throwing some unrefined molasses and brown sugar on the barbie
Aussies do love a barbecue, and when it comes to big joints of meat, it’s all about the sauce. One of the most ‘bonza’ barbecue sauce recipes combines molasses with bourbon for a rich and sticky alfresco eating experience. The family chef usually prepares a molasses and bourbon sauce a few days before the event, to let the flavours combine and intensify.
To do that, they’ll mix onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, dark soft brown sugar, bourbon, vinegar and spices with the all-important molasses, bring it to the boil and let it simmer until it drips slowly off the spoon. When it’s cooled, molasses and bourbon sauce can be used as an accompaniment or a marinade, or these days, even put into the slow cooker to make fall-apart, sweet pulled pork.
Molasses provides the richer flavouring and dark colour, plus adding sweetness and body to the liquid as it cools. The dark soft brown sugar adds the stickiness found in BBQ sauces, complementing the molasses with its dark colour and richer flavour.
Replacing eggs with golden syrup as a functional binding ingredient
Golden syrup – another lesser-known Australian sugar – plays the lead role in the eponymous Anzac biscuit. Culinary historian Allison Reynolds says Australia and New Zealand have fought over ownership of this crunchy golden treat since 1915 in her book Anzac Biscuits: The Power and Sprit of an Everyday National Icon, but whoever invented it, the Anzac biscuit’s cultural significance is more important now than ever.
It’s one of very few war foods that people still make and enjoy today, and the core ingredients of an Anzac biscuit are just the same as they were over 100 years ago: butter, rolled oats (not quick oats), sugar and perhaps most importantly, golden syrup. Anzacs also include flour, bicarbonate of soda, water and coconut.
The Anzac recipe doesn’t contain eggs, which may not have been readily available back when they were invented, because soldiers’ wives sent them in care packages to their husbands during WW1, which was a time of scarcity in many communities. The home front-bakers used golden syrup, which was invented by the founder of Ragus, Charles Eastick, to bind the ingredients instead.
Anzacs were a popular with soldiers’ wives because most of them already had the ingredients in the store cupboard. They’re also quick to make and bake, and much cheaper to post than a fruit cake.
Reynolds herself says: “For good Anzacs you need to use golden syrup. I’m a honey lover, but I don’t think that it cuts. It might upset the honey lovers, but for me golden syrup binds it, and the flavour and the smell are divine,” she says.
As every baker and food and beverage manufacturer knows, for the perfect product, the right type of sugar is crucial. For Anzacs, you can’t beat golden syrup.