Gone are the days of the quickly put together bangers and mash for dinner and the humble sponge cake for dessert. Now, more than ever before, Australians are discovering the gastronomic pleasures of fine food – we’re ‘Masterchefing’ our meals, following epicurean philosophies (‘slow food over fast food’, ‘good wine to complement a good meal’) and indulging in gourmet experiences at high-end restaurants.
Television shows, cooking blogs and food magazines are testament to the ever-improving skills of the domestic cook (who is certainly no ordinary cook anymore) as well as the growing foodie culture that is leaving our tastebuds craving another spoonful of decadence.
In addition to leaving our stomachs satisfied, these new eating patterns could be making us healthier, too. Various food movements, culinary spins on basic dishes, improved food awareness as well as increased variety on our plates are just a few of the benefits of this food-loving trend.
A nutritional high
Clinical nutritionist Mark Surdut says our eating habits are changing rapidly and Australians, particularly the younger generations, are more willing to experiment with different tastes, flavours and influences from international cuisines like never before.
Television shows such as MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules have played a significant role in increasing the number of gastronomes across the country and have also been credited with promoting healthier eating patterns by bringing us back to the basics of traditional home cooking.
A renewed appreciation for home cooking provides many nutritional benefits, says Surdut.
“It helps with managing a healthy diet – if you’re cooking your own food, you have control over what you’re cooking and subsequently eating, and you’re more likely to watch what you’re putting in your food,” he says.
This is the message that shows such as MasterChef are trying to get across – to be more passionate about what you’re eating and to embark on culinary quests in your own kitchen, which, according to the foodie philosophy, is the heart of the home.
Former MasterChef contestant and food blogger Alvin Quah says these food-dedicated television programs are showing us that the domestic cook can learn how to cook fine food at home and also how to cook with few ingredients.
“It increases awareness about food and cooking and also teaches us to be brave in the kitchen – whether that be with using kitchen appliances or using exotic ingredients, people are becoming more aware of cooking and the food they’re eating,” Quah says.
Chef and director of the Unlimited Cuisine Company Tony Tan says wellbeing and good food go hand in hand.
“There are a lot of exciting developments happening in Australia’s food culture right now – people are becoming more and more health conscious and aware of what they put inside their bodies and at the same time, people have become enlightened about the various types of cuisines we have in Australia,” he says.
Tan runs cooking classes that see foodies from all over Australia book a spot in his Melbourne boutique cooking school to listen to his teachings about food history, culture, recipes and rituals from around the world. He says our taste for multicultural flavours means we’re more likely to cook health food staples such as green vegetables using more diverse and flavour-aware methods.
This means we can meet our nutritional requirements in tastier ways, encouraging us to boost our intake of vegetables and other nutritional basics, which include low-fat, high-fibre and antioxidant-rich foods.
However, according to Surdut, there are still some who are reluctant to indulge in the authentic and unfamiliar flavours of around-the-world cuisine.
“Those who stick to the food they know, many of whom are part of the older Australian generations, could reap benefits from embracing the new flavours and different cuisines,” he says.
“This broadens the variety in our diets, encouraging us to experiment with new ingredients that offer different nutrients.”
Educating the masses
The various food movements are also educating us about the health benefits of the different ways food is cooked and the type of ingredients we’re consuming.
As an example, Tan says many of us are beginning to learn about the importance of sustainable ingredients that keep our food miles low.
“That’s important because it means we’re being educated about different issues through our eating habits,” he says.
We are also able to be more educated about food.
“People have been learning about all aspects of food – sustainability, nutrition, how to make simple food look and taste good,” Quah says.
“We learn about how to not be wasteful of food, about the importance of fresh ingredients and how to retain vitamins and nutrients of particular ingredients, how over-cooking can be bad and how under-cooking in some instances is better for our bodies. We learn not only about how to cook wonderful dishes, but also to understand them as well.”
Love your food
Quah’s food blog, Cinnamon Pig (www.cinnamonpig.com.au) chronicles his food journey of eating and cooking and is one of many food blogs online.
“Thanks to social media, people can write and blog about their experiences with food unlike before – restaurants even host dinners for food bloggers and it’s an interesting phenomena because restaurateurs rely on food bloggers to reach out to the public these days,” he says.
Food blogs are also becoming a Mecca for food lovers to share not only their dining experiences, but also their cooking experiences – how they’ve experimented with new ingredients or different flavours; whether their dishes were enjoyed and how culinary challenges were dealt with.
“You can see that food becomes a universal language – it always makes for a talking point and brings people together,” Quah says.
Surdut says this new food culture makes us more interested in the food we’re consuming, which alone has significant health benefits.
“The obstacle that many dietitians come across when helping patients improve and optimise their diets is that they have very little interest in food, and it’s very difficult to change the eating habits of those who don’t embrace or appreciate food and diet,” he says.
“A strong interest in food can trigger a desire for healthy food, allowing us to optimise our intake of micronutrients, antioxidants and vitamins.
“When we start embracing food, we develop an interest and potentially a passion, which means we’re more aware of what we’re eating and more receptive to making healthier changes and decisions when it comes to diet.”
This passion for food can also help us make better decisions in everyday life, according to Quah.
“You can’t make any good decisions on an empty stomach,” he says.
Watch your plate
Surdut warns, however, that in this current food safari climate we should approach our culinary choices with caution.
“It’s questionable as to whether these new eating habits are in line with healthy eating guidelines,” he says.
“Dishes that are full of flavour and rich tasting incorporate ingredients with high saturated fat or large amounts of oil and that’s a risk that comes with many different cuisines.”
The foodie culture is also encouraging us to eat out more often, which is particularly concerning for nutritionists.
“Eating out makes it hard for us to control what we’re eating – we tend to overeat when we’re out and we also combine our meals with other things such as alcohol and soft drink, which are not beneficial nutritionally,” Surdut says.
For many of us, frequent fine dining does not allow us to stick to a viable eating plan.
“We can’t eat fine cuisine every night – it’s rich in flavour and in ingredients, not to mention expensive,” Quah says.
The amount of oil, cream and butter used in rich tasting meals also mean many restaurant dishes can potentially have a high-calorie count.
However, these high-fat issues can be resolved if you embark on your own culinary challenges at home and eat out only occasionally, keeping a watch on your intake of these particular ingredients.
“You don’t need many ingredients to create a great dish – flavours from different and healthy ingredients can be combined and you’ll be surprised with what you come up with,” Quah says.
Consequently, it’s important for us to achieve a balance between healthiness and indulgence. But don’t forget food should be enjoyed – and if we believe the words of the late chef and author Julia Child, food is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life. Here’s to the love of food!