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Recipe for welcome


Greek waiters usually serve some complimentary sweet at the end of a meal. Often it is the cloying halva, or walnut cake dripping with honey.  But last week, it was hedgehog! My English friends could not understand my nostalgic glee, so all I could do was try to explain that the chocolaty biscuit-studded slices took me straight back to childhood, even though they were not quite as good as the ones my Mum used to make: the biscuits could not have been Marie ones, for example. But these details didn’t matter.

Later those same details set off a train of thought about the food that I still miss, and the people who had made that food: of course I miss them more than I can say. Mum’s apple pies and her chocolate steamed puddings. The shepherd’s pie: it was my job to mince the leftover cold lamb in the little machine that screwed on to the edge of the kitchen table. Granny’s apple turnovers and her almond bars. Nana’s nut loaf and gingerbread.

Much later, when the woman who became my newly-widowed father’s second wife presented him with a jar of chutney, which was also one of Granny’s specialties, I was taught a lesson. Cook for a man the food he ate before the age of ten, said my worldly-wise friend Primrose, and you’ve caught him. I know a man, a mature English expat, who still literally walks for miles in order to sample another expat friend’s cauliflower cheese: the power of nursery food. He has never been caught, though.

When I return to Melbourne (all too seldom) I engage in a ritual. On the first day I make sure I eat fish and chips. A little later I buy at least one Cherry Ripe bar and a Violet Crumble. (I mourn the loss of the Polly Waffle, and so does Phillip Adams, who wrote a long-ago lament about its demise.) I’m proud of the fact that my Greek daughters-in-law are converts of years standing to these still extant and unique treats, but I admit to failure when it comes to the iconic Vegemite. My sons, having been heavily indoctrinated from an early age, quite like it, but all daughters-in-law say a firm OXI (NO.)

My Greek husband and my Austrian brother-in-law also gave a long-ago thumbs down to Vegemite, and to other mainstays of Australian cuisine as well. George could not believe the texture and the blandness of mashed potato, not to mention the lack of olive oil, and Karl was definitely anti-pumpkin. ‘At home,’ he intoned sternly, ‘we feed that stuff to the pigs.’ He was, naturally, never served pumpkin again. Of course when potato and pumpkin were mashed together, they emitted a stereophonic gasp of sheer horror. I realise now that they were helping us make a cultural transition: George cooked lamb stuffed with garlic, and Karl introduced us to sauerkraut and apple strudel.

The young must find it hard to grasp what things were like way back then, when Australia was largely populated by monocultural, monoglot carnivores. As far as I can remember the word lifestyle, if it existed, was rarely used. People didn’t know what the word meant or if they were in possession of such a thing. Exotic eating, a rare occurrence, meant a parcel of chicken with cashews from the local Chinese takeaway: I seem to remember you could bring your own saucepan. Although you could also ring your grocery order through to the relevant shop and await delivery, there was no possibility of ready meals appearing in the same way. The twin blights of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken had yet to descend upon the land. Vegetarians were few and far between, and were thought quite odd.


'Members of Sikh Volunteers Australia have become famous for feeding people in need, particularly during times of bushfire and Covid lockdown. At one stage they were providing 1800 vegetarian meals a day: many Sikhs involved regard this effort as part of their spiritual practice.'


How times have changed. Now, in multicultural Australia, different ethnic groups have altered both Australian eating habits in particular and society in general. And have done a great deal of good along the way. Members of Sikh Volunteers Australia, for example, have become famous for feeding people in need, particularly during times of bushfire and Covid lockdown. At one stage they were providing 1800 vegetarian meals a day: many Sikhs involved regard this effort as part of their spiritual practice.

A cookbook published by Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) captures this changed culinary landscape and the fusion of welcome, service and generosity the best meals inspire. The book’s title is Philoxenia, which translates as hospitality, or more literally friend to the stranger. Given members of at least six different nationalities at ASRC cook a variety of food daily, it points to that generous reception of guests and strangers, a practice of which Greeks are very proud.

Native American activist Winona LaDuke points out that food has culture, history, story and relationships. How right she is.




Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Cuisine, Welcome, Hospitality



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Existing comments

I am not the adventurous type with regard to food. You could say that the traditional, tempting, tried-and-true recipes of the CWA ladies are my go-to book of life. And any visitor to the Royal Easter Show in Sydney can attest to the deliciousness of the scones, jam and cream produced by the CWA. Having said that, our multicultural food landscape is now well-established and thriving. Thankful for that as horizons (and tummies) have been broadened.

Pam | 12 April 2023  

Last night reminiscing along similar lines to this essay - while enjoying a Korean meal in the home of a Sydney friend. So home this evening for baked beans on toast! And a poor man's version of bruschetta - sliced cherry tomatoes on buttered toast - no garlic, no olive oil. Back then during my childhood - crumbed lamb's brains or tripe in a white sauce - and occasionally a rabbit stew! But those were also the time when a favourite snack while listening to evening radio (before TV arrived) was a large Granny Smith apple - peeled, cored and sliced/diced into small "squares"I It could last a full half-hour program! Or maybe it was going black-berrying (Bendemeer was a favourite spot to do so) the pickings turned into a pie by my mother - or else into jam. How things were - how things are. Evoking times past - places and people! I remember when I was 13 spending time on a farm one summer holiday - where all the food was produced on the farm - vegetables grown and harvested - and cows milked by hand - then put through the separator - for the cream - some of which was then churned into butter - the bread baked and fresh - or else twice-cooked zweibeck (spelling?) - nothing ever since has tasted better than what I had during that memorable farm-stay with Mr & Mrs Burdett! (Maybe it was the hard work of the daylight hours -driving the tractor and baling the lucerne hay or saddling up the horse and rounding up a herd of cattle or digging up the potatoes - or whatever the task - and all of it an adventure - that gave me the appetite then sated by the generous servings of wholesome food - breakfast, lunch and dinner.) And in that high country around a thousand metres above sea level - cool nights and deep sleep!

Jim Kable | 12 April 2023  

A lovely and evocative piece, Gillian. My parents arrived in Australia from Europe in 1940 and had partly recovered from the shock of the local cuisine. They would both tolerate Vegemite, but nothing reconciled them to coffee essence added to boiling milk. Their delight as the Greek and Italian migrants brought their fruit and vegetables to Australian greengrocers and sausages to the delicatessens.
Thanks for reminding me.

Juliet | 13 April 2023  

Thank you Gillian for this culinary walk down memory lane. I agree with you about Halva and Walnut cake but i think maybe i never had a sweet tooth.however I do remember the steamed pudding (syrup in our case) served with runny custard and the apple pie and clouttie dumpling are fond memories.
I knew I had moved on when my son reported at school that he had never had pudding!
Scottish cuisine was never known for its exciting tastes : plain but nourishing mince and tattles and fried fish, which I can easily recreate but i notice how a bay leaf and a touch of tomato purée can improve things!
So it is the people we miss as you say and the memory of things being better then. Nostalgia is apt but our changing tastes do point to our education by different cultural inputs, both the good and the bad.

Maggie | 13 April 2023  

Dear Gillian - Oh what a wonderful burst of nostalgia you gave to this former Australian ! I'd forgotten about hedgehog cake but friends in Australia still send to me in England cherry ripes and violet crumbles. But these are just minor details --the important thing is the ancient tradition anywhere in the world of sharing a meal and good talk with relatives and friends.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 13 April 2023  

Thanks for the memories of an Australia now long gone. I remember the meat grinder and using it to grind up left over roast meat along with mum's warnings to be very careful that my fingers didn't get caught in the works. Lamb is not as affordable now as it was then but the variety of food we have now is just amazing. Names such as 'Guest's', 'Swallow & Ariell's' and 'Brockhoff's' are no longer around but at least many of their biscuits are still made by the companies that took them over.

Stephen | 16 April 2023  

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