Food for thought


Have you ever wondered why kangaroo burgers don’t feature widely on British menus? The answer is that just as countries’ economies have developed differently, so have their national cuisines

Dear Linda,

Greetings from Sydney. I am sitting in a waterfront restaurant with stunning views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Perusing the menu, I am puzzled by the fish.

It is twenty years since I first came to Australia. Its cuisine was then desperate and dull The trademarks of the Australian kitchen were the meat pie and the oversized, overcooked steak.

Immigration from Southern Europe and Asia has changed all that. Sydney and Melbourne are now amongst the most interesting cities in which to eat. Yet there is still one curious feature of an Australian menu. The European visitor will find the same meats – beef, lamb, pork and chicken – as at home. And the fish are as good as anything you will encounter in a French or English restaurant. But they are quite different fish. The highlights of this menu are barramundi, blue eye and King George whiting. In the suburbs of Australian cities there are fish and chip shops just like those you find in England- except that you’ll find shark inside the batter, not cod.

It is easier to keep track of animals than fish. When European immigrants arrived in Australia, they brought familiar and useful animals – cows and sheep for food, horses for transport, cats and dogs as domestic pets. They didn’t bring cod or sole because these creatures would have swum off into the Pacific Ocean.

Migrants did, however, bring trout and carp (but not many people like carp, and today they are a pest). They tried to introduce salmon. The fish is useful because it returns to its river of origin. But they did not realise that Atlantic salmon take to sea in search of Greenland fishing grounds; transported salmon were unable to find Greenland. Only when fish farming was developed did Tasmanian production allow salmon to make a regular appearance on Australian menus.

That explains the fish. But what of the meats? Why were they exported from Europe to Australia, but not from Australia to Europe? Australian farmers graze sheep and cows, but no European farmers breed kangaroos. This is what the anthropologist Jared Diamond described as ‘Yali’s question’ when a New Guinean posed it for him – “why did you bring cargo us, not us to you?” – and Diamond devoted a brilliant book to unravelling the answer.**

The simplest explanation is that Europeans imposed their culture on Australia but Australians did not impose theirs on Europe, except in London’s Earl’s Court. But that does not seem to be enough. Australians of English origin learned to drink their beer cold when they understood that was what the climate required. And even if they pined for lemon sole and battered cod, they quickly learnt to enjoy barramundi. Europeans were very ready to bring useful species from Australia. The mimosa which brightens southern France in February was imported because it is beautiful and grows even better on the Tanneron massif than its native soil.

So why were there many more plants and animals in Europe that had economic value in Australia than plants and animals in Australia which had economic value in Europe? Europeans may simply have been luckier than Australians in the range of plants and animals available to them. You really don’t want to be a kangaroo farmer Kangaroos are hard to keep penned in and their meat is not all that pleasant anyway.

But the docile cow which helpfully saunters to the milking parlour and sports succulent steaks at its rear end is not an animal which was ever found in the wild. Nor – whatever opponents of genetically modified crops may believe – is the wheat which goes into our organic bread a natural product. These strains are the product of thousands of years of domestication. The contented cow is the descendant of an animal every bit as unruly as the kangaroo. And its bovine ancestors probably could not match the flavour of a Charolais or Aberdeen Angus. Our human ancestors bred for flavour as well as convenience.

Modern agriculture was invented in Mesopotamia, in response to population pressures which made nomadic existence increasingly difficult. Knowledge of agriculture was transmitted to Europe along land corridors. Aboriginal Australians were cut off by sea from Europe and Asia. They lived in a vast country. So they neither discovered nor learnt of agriculture until the arrival of Captain Cook. And Cook’s migrant successors brought animals and crops designed for economic efficiency – species that are cheap to rear and good to eat.

It might seem from this history that economic development is largely a matter of change. And certainly chance has had large effects. The differences in the habits of cows and cod, the accident that certain grasses were found on the banks of the Euphrates but not the Murray River, the topography that placed a sea between China and Australia but not between Mesopotamia and Europe. have all strongly influenced economic history.

Yet the larger lesson is that economic development is the product of the co-evolution of technology, the physical and social environment, and economic institutions. Historic differences in these interactions are the main source of the economic differences we observe today. That is why there is, and can be, no universal development model.

It is surprising how much you can learn while waiting for your host to arrive in a Sydney restaurant. Wish you were here – or he was.


** Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Vintage, May 1998


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