The Great Australian Cookbook just about sums the who’s who of Australian cuisine, and guess who tops the contents page? That’s right, none other than Abla! And that’s even though her chapter actually appears on page 116. It’s one of the charming quirks of this book that contributors are not listed numerically but alphabetically, and by first name rather than surname. You can’t do better than ‘AB’ to head this star-studded list of Australian chefs, bakers and assorted providores. (Unless of course your first name happens to start with the unfortunate ‘AA’ —apologies to award-winning chef Aaron Turner of Geelong’s Hot Chicken Project.)
The contents page goes to show just how much the Australian food scene has infused our hearts let alone our kitchens, and to the extent that we’re on first-name basis with many of our celebrated chefs.
Now what’s great about The Great Australian Cookbook is that its table is spread far and wide and doesn’t waste time trying to pin down what is quintessentially Australian about our food. That would be impossible anyway, all thanks to the diverse cultural backgrounds of its contributors — Australian of course, but also Lebanese, Greek, Malaysian, Indian, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, along with another half-dozen or so nationalities.
You can open this book more or less at random and what you’re given is a colourful snapshot of who and what has made Australian food the envy of the world, from the blindingly obvious (Max Emery’s damper, lets say) through to the utterly decadent (see chapter on Anna Polyviou and The Shangri-La Hotel), and everything else in between.
But what’s also to love about this cookbook is that it’s more than a book of recipes. It’s a collection of relaxed yet deeply absorbing narratives of Australian cooking, eating and living. What drives this cookbook isn’t anything voguish, but a straightforward question, “What do you cook for the people you love?” And for Abla to be asked that question is a compliment, for, as we’ve long known, the food she sends out from her restaurant kitchen is the same food she loves to cook for family and friends.