Forget about Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It's Australian cuisine that requires an entirely new vocabulary to be acquired. After all, any drongo knows dinkum Aussie tucker means an arvo of slapping some chook and snags on the barbie, splashing them with dead horse, followed by a pav, lamington and bikkies. For many of the 25,000 Australian expats in the UAE, that sentence is likely to invoke Pavlovian salivating rather than befuddlement. And particularly today, the 222nd anniversary of the fleet of English prison ships landing in Sydney to colonise the continent.
For a legion of foreign chefs working here, this week will also be the toughest test of how well they have adapted to the unique tastes of a nation that counts Vegemite as one of its greatest delicacies. One of those is the Filipino chef Jeffrey Cruz, who in just a few years has gone from tyro to teacher on the subject of Australian food. When he arrived at the Fairmont Hotel in Dubai, the executive chef and sous chef there were both expat Aussies. They decided to educate their enthusiastic new colleague in the ways of their homeland.
Cruz still remembers when he was introduced to one of the staples of the antipodean diet: the meat pie. "The first time I saw one, I just went, 'Uh' and wondered what was inside. "Then I opened it, and when I ate it, it was amazing. It's crispy on top and then you go deep to the heat and the smoke. Then you go to the base and it's crispy pastry. "I said: 'It's perfect.'" Other aspects of Australian cooking he was shown were far more perplexing, such as the habit of using purple-hued tinned beetroot as a topping on burgers.
"I asked one of the chefs to show me a classic Aussie burger and he said a typical Aussie burger had to have beetroot on it," he recalls. "I said: 'Gosh, beetroot on a burger?'" That education has stood Cruz in good stead. He moved on to become the head chef at the Abu Dhabi outlet of the Australian gourmet victuallers Jones the Grocer. If his education began in that Dubai hotel, the final exam will be held today when he will oversee Jones the Grocer's inaugural three-course set menu created for Australia Day, which will include meat pies and beetroot-augmented burgers.
Across town at Le Royal Meridien, the French-trained chef Yann Formey is already well-versed with the unique palates of the Australian contingent. As food and beverage manager at the hotel last year, he helped create a feast for a couple of hundred mostly Australian families who attended the Australia Day barbecue organised by Aussies Abroad, an expat group based in Abu Dhabi. The hotel has an Australian assistant manager and has also done themed functions for the Australian Business Group Abu Dhabi and for events such as the Melbourne Cup, Australia's most famous horse race.
Ahead of this year's Australia Day gathering at noon on Friday, he and his catering staff brought in some Aussies as taste testers earlier this week to make sure their intended menu will pass muster. Formey says the meat pies are seen as one of the crucial tests for the mastery of Australian cuisine. "Last year we had a few tastings beforehand to make sure they met the proper taste," he says. "These mince pies were one of the main points of tasting. It was not good the first time, but by the second and third time it was.
"Basically, the changes were the way the meat was minced. One was a little bit too dry, another was a little soggy. It was about getting the right consistency and taste. "I think the mince pies should be again at the tasting because it's more tricky than the barbecue." One aspect of Aussie culture he quickly picked up on is that Australia Day celebrations are as much about lifestyle as they are about food.
"It'll be a laid-back, relaxed afternoon," he added. "We'll have a live band that's partly Australian and they'll be singing Australian songs." In a world of increasingly international cuisine, Formey says the barbecue was one of the ways that Australian cooking stood out. "We have so much international food influenced by so many countries. Australia has some extreme meats like kangaroo around, but for things like pavlova, you can find similar - not the same but a little bit similar - in other countries also.
"For me, one of the points of difference with Australian cooking is that the meat on the barbecue is quite good quality." Pete Chadwick, of the organisers Aussies Abroad, says such was the primacy of the barbecue in celebrating Australia Day at home, where it falls in midsummer, that they negotiated for three barbecue stations to be in operation as part of the Dh170 entry price for adults. The dessert selection includes equally classic Australian dishes such as lamingtons and pavlovas, but otherwise the food on offer is an international selection including pizza, quiche, tandoori, skewers, crepes and waffles.
Pavlovas are a key component of any meal that aspires to be traditionally Australian, even though after decades of bitter arguments with New Zealand about the origin of the meringue desert created for the ballerina Anna Pavlova, the balance of evidence is now firmly in favour of Kiwi provenance. But like Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Derryn Hinch and Russell Crowe, this is a Kiwi import that Australia has adopted as one of its own.
At Jones the Grocer, a fruit-topped pavlova will anchor the dessert course of its set menu. Creating them falls squarely on the shoulders of the Sri Lankan pastry chef Chanaka De Silva. He, too, gained an education in the peculiarities of Australian cuisine by encountering expat Aussie chefs. He was introduced to pavlovas 10 years ago and found himself including them in his repertoire while working in Dubai.
Since joining Jones the Grocer in Abu Dhabi, he has been sent to Australia to train with the company's head chef and is confident he will be able deliver the goods today since the dish is not that foreign to what he has prepared before. "Only the time is longer because it's slow baking - it's more than four hours," he says. "We can make 40 at a time in our ovens." Jones the Grocer expects to serve up to 75 today, topped with De Silva's special blend of cream and fruit. It will also be dishing out lamingtons, created for Lord Lamington, the last governor of Queensland before the Australian colonies federated in 1901.
Another level of quality control comes in the form of Monica Fleming, an Australian who was the manager of Jones the Grocer's Melbourne store before she came to the UAE for three weeks. That was three months ago and she has just signed on to stay for two years as the manager of the Abu Dhabi outlet at Al Mamoura, below the Urban Planning Council headquarters and near Muroor Road and 15th Street. The Dh85 set menu she and Cruz have created includes mini meat pies, sausages and burgers all made with Wagyu beef imported from Australia by the company. Salads traditionally found on any Australian barbecue table - potato, green and coleslaw - will also be offered, washed down with cordial, another Aussie mainstay.
"With all the Aussie expats here, it'll be really good," she said. Cruz is looking forward to both meeting homesick Australians' expectations and also introducing others to the cuisine. "This is my first time making [Australia Day food] and I'm excited," he adds. "I just really want to see it." If there's a snag in his planning so far, it's that tinned beetroot has proven to be difficult to acquire in the UAE. But he vows that when the Wagyu burgers emerge from Jones the Grocer's kitchen, they will be decked in the familiar purple-hued vegetable.
In the long term, Cruz and De Silva hope to return to their homelands and open their own restaurants. Both vow to include some of their new-found Australian dishes on the menu. "Of course I'll introduce it to the Philippines when I open my own restaurant," Cruz adds. "It will have pies."