WThey all love a comeback in the kitchen. Think of the return of meatloaf, or when, inexplicably, the shrimp cocktail got its groove back. Chefs are adept at delving into the depths of nostalgia, from the “I learned to cook this dish on my grandmother’s knee” trope, to mining collective food memories.
“I’ve always gone back and read a lot of old cookbooks,” said chef Blaze Young, head of the kitchen at New Ruin wine bar in Fremantle. “I kind of like old-school, 1950s granny food and old Australiana.”
Young is not married to her own grandmother’s cooking style; she also likes to interpret the food memories of others. One such endeavor, a fish confit “under a fur coat,” has become her signature dish. The childhood memories of the owner of Nieuw Ruin, Dimitri Rtshiladze, were the inspiration for this twist on “herring under a fur coat”. Rtshiladze, who is of Georgian descent, told Young about the Eastern European classic.
“Traditionally, it’s made with canned preserved herring, and then it’s layered with cold vegetables,” she says. “To make the herring a bit tastier, I think.” Young uses monkfish from Scott Reef off the northwest coast of Western Australia. It’s a by-catch, which she says has a “wonderful vegetable flavor” reminiscent of leeks when candied slowly.
A bottom layer of blanched potatoes is dressed sparingly with pickled shallot, followed by the monkfish confit, fresh dill, then blanched carrot, roasted beetroot spiked with a little horseradish, with a final layer of egg salad made with a quality olive oil mayonnaise. The six layers are prepared “incredibly easily,” Young says, making them “really clean examples of that ingredient” when eaten separately, but “really complex and interesting” when eaten together. The finishing touch is salty, smoked Yarra Valley caviar—an element of decadence for a traditionally humble dish.
In Sydney, food writer Jill Dupleix’s dreams of comeback cuisine were brought to life at relative newcomer, Ursula’s in Paddington. “My grandma always did the best flummery ever,” she says. “It would float off the table, and there it is with Ursula.”
Phil Wood, chef owner at Ursula’s, says: “It used to be known and in those guides to home cooking for the Australian housewife, such as the CWA books, The Golden Wattle Cookery Book. [But] a lot of it just kind of fell to the side… It’s amazing how quickly things can disappear within a generation.”
While flummery’s English cousin is centuries old, the Australian version of flummery was born out of a post-war necessity, Wood says. The original recipe combines carton of fruit jelly and evaporated milk. The evaporated milk should be “made very cold, and if you whisk it will save as fake cream”. The fruit jelly is kept in the refrigerator until it is almost set. Then “you fold those two things together and you get this flavored mousse”.
While Wood is known for his impeccable technique, his iteration of the dish is easy to make. He uses pressed strawberries for a more natural taste, but still contains the all-important coffee creamer. His is a bit lighter than traditional flummery, which can be “a little on the spongy side rather than aerated”. The dish is currently not on the menu, but will be making another comeback when light spring fruit is in season again.
Melbourne-based chef Victor Liong of Lee Ho Fook has also mined the occasional nostalgia. “A few years ago [at Chinese New Year] we cooked from the Australian Women’s Weekly Chinese Cookbook. It was a lot of fun and was very well received,” he says. “But I didn’t want to go down that road” [every day]†
This is because, for those who did not grow up with the many faces of Chinese cuisine, we are still in a period of discovery when it comes to Chinese cuisine. “It hasn’t quite worked out for people to say, ‘I really want that nostalgic honey shrimp,'” he says. There are exceptions. “Queen Chow in Sydney does that really well, but of course Dan Hong does it with some pretty serious dim sum offerings too. It’s highbrow, lowbrow, I guess.”
The Australian Women’s Weekly cookbook experiment was valuable to Liong as it helped discover stories about the Australian Chinese experience. “There’s a recipe in it [that book] called, I think, Billy Kee’s Pork Ribs.’ He says the dish was “basically a sweet soy pork rib-type dish”. But it was “named after this guy who had a Chinese restaurant and had a really, really interesting life… It’s cool to dig into that a bit more and link that to what it looks like on our menu.”
For Young, who also has a popular riff on pie floats and stuffed livers, the joy of reviving a retro recipe undermines expectations. “I like the idea of taking things that are no longer relevant, and that seem really bizarre and clumsy, that don’t seem appetizing at all, and then make them really approachable and really delicious.”