Adelaide, Australia — Here’s what everybody kept telling us, “For great food in Australia, go to Adelaide.”
Admittedly, all of these people are from South Australia, Adelaide’s home state. Still, a lot of people are raving about the food. Deciding that we should check this out for ourselves, my boyfriend, Chris, and I ask our Adelaide hotel concierge where to go for dinner. Because it’s only 5 p.m., and we stand a chance of getting in — one of the advantages of a travel-addled internal clock — our concierge suggests Ying Chow.
Chris and I aren’t expecting the bare-bones, brightly illuminated storefront restaurant. And we definitely aren’t expecting stir-fried crocodile with snow peas. Unless the jet lag has addled my taste buds, the croc is crisply delicious, as are the gingery local scallops, steamed in their shells, and the salt-and-pepper flounder. But Australian crocodile by way of Shanghai? Surely this isn’t true Adelaide cuisine.
The next night, we decide to seek another restaurant recommendation. This time we ask the women working at Haigh’s Chocolates shop, an Adelaide institution. Every one of them agrees. “The Brasserie at the Hilton. It’s fabulous.”
“Seriously?” we say. “A fabulous restaurant inside a hotel?”
But the Brasserie’s chef, Dennis Leslie, is a local food star, and the menu is stringently Aussie, so off we go.
The Brasserie doesn’t look like a hotel restaurant with its sage-green walls and open stainless-steel kitchen. And its menu takes the notion of knowing where your food comes from to new heights — there’s a full bio on every provisioner printed next to every item. Because I’m in search of truly authentic Adelaide cuisine, I order the Outback Pride, which is kangaroo saddle served with warrigal greens and muntrie salad grown from native plants by Mike and Gayle Quamby at Reedy Creek Nursery. Chris goes for the Coorong Black Angus, which has been fed a 120-day grain diet and butchered by the Hilton’s own Mark Dixon, who has 34 years of industry experience.
This is my first kangaroo, and no, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It doesn’t taste like anything else I’ve eaten, although it is similar to other game, and marries well with the native plant salad. Chris gives a thumbs-up to the 120-day grain diet and Dixon’s expert butchering.
“If you really want to know about eating in Adelaide, you’ve got to visit the Central Market,” our waiter tells us. And in fact, the Brasserie’s kitchen has a door that leads directly into the market in case Leslie runs out of something. So the following day, we book a tour of the Central Market with Mark Gleeson of Central Market Tours. Not that we couldn’t have wandered around this covered market, home to nearly 100 food stalls, on our own, but it’s nice to have a little guidance.
Part of what makes Adelaide a mecca for food-loving locavores is that it’s surrounded by nine growing regions that produce everything from apples and cherries to wine and olives. You can see evidence of this in the market stalls that overflow with produce all year long. But the Central Market also features 11 butchers, as well as diverse outlets such as a Cambodian grocery (run by a family who fled to Australia to escape Pol Pot) and Lucia’s Fine Foods, an Italian grocery already well known for its homemade spaghetti sauce when the Central Market opened in 1862.
There’s also a Korean-owned sushi stand, a Croatian deli and a Russian pirogi shop, as well as shops selling homemade cheeses and breads, and potatoes from Tasmania. It’s overwhelming, and when the tour is over, I’m impressed but not any closer to discovering the definition of Adelaide cuisine.
Lunch at Chianti Classico — another recommendation — doesn’t clear anything up. This Aussie-elegant restaurant — rough stone walls covered by floating slabs of marble — is Italian cooking based on local Australian ingredients.
The classic Florentine bistecca uses local Coorong Angus cattle. The Tuscan-style oven-cooked rabbit is prepared with hare from the Adelaide plains. And the spaghetti is served with banana prawns and bug tails, which are a local slipper lobster.
Deciding that we’re looking too far from the source, we meet Haydyn Bromley from Bookabee Tours at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens for a “bush tucker” tour. (“Bush tucker” is the name for the truly locavore food eaten for centuries by Australia’s aboriginal population.) Bromley explains how one tree could be a family’s entire grocery store, providing nectar and resins, as well as witchetty grubs, which are said to be high in protein.
At the end of our tour, he brings out a sampling of relishes and jellies made from bush tomatoes and muntrie, or emu apples, which are really berries, and wild limes that we spread on crackers.
“Is this true Adelaide cuisine?” I ask him.
“It’s true Australian cuisine,” he tells me, “if you’re aboriginal.”
Which is, and isn’t, an answer.
It’s more or less the same answer I get that night at Jasmin Indian Restaurant, another of those places everybody in Adelaide recommends. The place is cozy and warm, and a cricket bat collection, signed by some of the English and Indian teams that have eaten at Jasmin, hangs on the wall.
The spices used in Jasmin’s North Indian dishes are imported and blended by the 80-year-old matriarch of the restaurant’s family, and our waitress describes some items on the menu, such as the chicken tindaloo, as “alarmingly hot.” They are also alarmingly delicious. But authentically Adelaide? Well, according to the awards on the wall, Jasmin consistently wins for best Indian restaurant in South Australia, so perhaps that counts.
Perhaps it counts too that the classes at Sticky Rice Cooking School in the Adelaide Hills were selected as one of the top six best food experiences in Australia. Which is interesting, because these classes are almost entirely focused on Asian cooking.
The décor at Sticky Rice makes me imagine that I’ve arrived for a massage — saffron and crimson walls, scented candles, a larger-than-life Buddha outside. We gather around the long table in the state-of-the-art kitchen, where chef Katrina Ryan is busy whacking a fresh coconut with the side of butcher knife.
We’re here to learn how to make prawn and ginger fritters and seared salmon with turmeric and lemon grass. We begin by practicing our knife skills on old string beans while Ryan circles the table, checking to see that we don’t chop off a finger.
There’s plenty of local South Australian wine and breaks to sample those fritters, and by the time we sit down to eat the lunch we’ve made, I realize this is better than a massage. But is it true Adelaide cuisine?
Or is true Adelaide cuisine what they’re serving down the road at the Locavore, a glass-walled restaurant that we try for dinner the next day? The Locavore is committed to a 100-mile diet — in Australia that means a 160-kilometer diet — that is, most of the items on the menu are sourced within a 160-kilometer radius.
I order the deer shank, and Chris gets a Wagyu Loca-burger. And while we’re eating our Adelaide-centric meal, I begin to realize that nothing I’m putting in my mouth at the moment is any more authentically Adelaide than the prawn fritters at Sticky Rice, Haydyn Bromley’s muntrie jelly or Ying Chow’s stir-fried crocodile. Because true Adelaide cuisine is just one big ethnically diverse stewpot.