By Jeremy Rochow
Last updated on: February 12, 2020 at 12:44 pm
South Australia has come a long way since pie floaters and Sunday roasts were staples, evolving into a state which prides itself on exceptional produce and some of the finest chefs in Australia.
Until the 1950s, Australian cuisine was heavily influenced by its English heritage, with our fondness for meat and 3 veg, hearty puddings, tea and beer coming from our Anglo-Celtic forebears.
But, influenced by multiculturalism and guided by local personalities like Don Dunstan, Cheong Liew and Maggie Beer, our reputation as a food and wine destination has grown exponentially in recent decades.
SA’s world-class food
Adelaide chef Simon Bryant has helped shape the state’s food culture and promote it to the world. He honed his craft in several restaurants over a 30-year career, and starred in the ABC’s Cook and the Chef alongside food icon Maggie Beer.
He’s also the Festival Director of Tasting Australia presented by RAA Travel – an event which brings visitors to South Australia’s food and wine table, showcasing the best produce from across the state.
Bryant says the world-class food produced by South Australia’s regions has helped put the state on the culinary map.
“In other cities, chefs go down to the loading dock and just sign a form when a delivery arrives, but in Adelaide the regions are so close that most chefs worth their coin have a good connection with producers, regions and suppliers,” he says.
We have accessible food bowls of real merit, with diverse growing conditions at proximity which has a real influence on our food.
Our food-producing regions
You don’t have to go far to see what South Australia’s food and wine producing regions have to offer.
No matter where you travel in SA, you’ll find world-class food or wine. Hunting for honey? Cruise over to Kangaroo Island.
Shuck your own oysters on the Eyre Peninsula, sip some spirits at the 23rd Street Distillery in the Riverland or devour a locally grown wagyu steak at the Limestone Coast’s Mayura Station.
Closer to Adelaide, you can tuck into 3D printed food in a giant Rubik’s cube on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Along Clare Valley’s Riesling Trail, there are plenty of 5-star wineries to explore.
This is the sort of produce featured at Tasting Australia presented by RAA Travel, which Bryant feels privileged to be part of.
“Tasting Australia can inspire people to go into our regions, by using food and drink to show people the bounty and emotions of our regions,” he says.
“It could be a great cellar door, vineyard, legendary chef, or an amazing producer inspiring you to get to a region.
“Our job is to get everything teed up so visitors leave saying (South Australia) is the Garden of Eden.”
The culinary history of SA
It’s easy to take our Garden of Eden for granted. You grab your morning coffee from a local Italian café and a banh mi from a Vietnamese bakery for lunch. There are plenty of options for dinner.
Slurp some laksa, twirl your fork around a bowl of spaghetti puttanesca accompanied by a bottle of McLaren Vale Merlot, or get garlicky with a late-night yiros.
But South Australia’s food and wine culture wasn’t created overnight – in fact, it’s taken the best part of 200 years.
The pie floater, an iconic South Australian delicacy, is believed to be inspired by the English ‘floater’, a meal that mixed pea soup with dumplings, eels and saveloy (a hot dog–type sausage traditionally made of brains).
The pie and pea soup combo was sold by hawkers on Adelaide streets for decades, topped with a generous splattering of tomato sauce.
An influx of German immigrants to the Barossa and Adelaide Hills in the 1830s and 1840s brought recipes for smallgoods and sausages like mettwurst, leberwurst and blutwurst.
German streuselkuchen – a yeast-style cake topped with crumble – is still found in South Australian bakeries.
They also influenced our wine regions, establishing the first settlements in the Barossa – now one of the world’s most well-known wine regions.
Post World War II
The end of World War II sparked a migration revolution and forever altered our dining habits.
The 30,000 Italians who arrived in the 1950s brought with them a coffee culture South Australia hadn’t experienced before.
Without them we might not have seen Rundle and O’Connell streets thrive with alfresco dining.
Garlic might still be largely unknown and olive oil only available at the chemist in a small green bottle.
They weren’t the only foods of which South Australians had limited knowledge.
Chinese migrants arrived in SA during the gold rush, but until the 1950s, people’s understanding of Asian food extended as far as fried rice, lemon chicken and sweet and sour pork.
Following the Vietnam War, Australia accepted Vietnamese refugees fleeing Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon at the time.
As a result, South Australian food has benefited from dishes like pho, banh mi and Gỏi cuốn (cold rolls).
South Australia’s taste for Asian cuisine
In an attempt to expand the state’s knowledge of Malay and Asian food, several ‘eastern’ food festivals were held in the 50s and early 60s.
Asian students at the University of Adelaide held an Asian Festival in 1962, serving char kway teow (fried rice noodles) and nasi kurma.
An Eastern Food Fair was also held at the Town Hall, with 40,000 people attending over two days – demonstrating South Australians’ thirst for diverse cuisines.
Bryant says the appetite for exotic foods has continued to grow over the past 30 years.
“South Australia had a basic idea of these cuisines, but they’ve become more refined and about the regions,” Bryant says. “Chinese (cuisine) went through that.
At first it was just lock, stock and two smoking barrels, but if you look at it now, people understand the difference between Cantonese, Szechuan and northern Chinese.
In the 70s and 80s, South Australia saw chefs like Cheong Liew, Ann Oliver and Phillip Searle rise to prominence.
Liew became the most well-known, both in Australia and overseas. Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Liew moved to Adelaide in the 70s where he worked in a Greek restaurant, before learning about French cooking.
Liew changed Adelaide’s restaurant scene with his ability to blend different cuisines with his Malaysian heritage, which made chefs and diners sit up and take notice.
So, where to now for South Australia’s food landscape? Bryant believes chefs and food producers are more focussed on adapting to environmental challenges.
“We realise the problems we’ve got with our river system, our oceans, our soils, and there are a lot of farmers that are custodians and doing good things,” he says.
The late SA Premier Don Dunstan was well-known for loosening laws around liquor licencing and supporting the building of the Festival Theatre, but South Australians can also thank him for his influence on the state’s food, wine and
During the 1970s, while in power, Dunstan introduced several food and drink initiatives that the state still benefits from today.
He established the Regency Hotel School, encouraged alfresco dining and Asian food festivals.
In fact, in 1997 Dunstan enjoyed a stint as a food judge during the inaugural Tasting Australia festival.