Central Market in Adelaide, Australia, sells typical Aussie fare, such… (Chris Hardy )
Adelaide, Australia — Here's what everybody kept telling us, "For great food in Australia, go to Adelaide."
Admittedly, all of these people are from South Australia, Adelaide's home state. Still, a lot of people are raving about the food. Deciding that we should check this out for ourselves, my boyfriend, Chris, and I ask our Adelaide hotel concierge where to go for dinner. Because it's only 5 p.m., and we stand a chance of getting in — one of the advantages of a travel-addled internal clock — our concierge suggests Ying Chow.
Chris and I aren't expecting the bare-bones, brightly illuminated storefront restaurant. And we definitely aren't expecting stir-fried crocodile with snow peas. Unless the jet lag has addled my taste buds, the croc is crisply delicious, as are the gingery local scallops, steamed in their shells, and the salt-and-pepper flounder. But Australian crocodile by way of Shanghai? Surely this isn't true Adelaide cuisine.
The next night, we decide to seek another restaurant recommendation. This time we ask the women working at Haigh's Chocolates shop, an Adelaide institution. Every one of them agrees. "The Brasserie at the Hilton. It's fabulous."
"Seriously?" we say. "A fabulous restaurant inside a hotel?"
But the Brasserie's chef, Dennis Leslie, is a local food star, and the menu is stringently Aussie, so off we go.
The Brasserie doesn't look like a hotel restaurant with its sage-green walls and open stainless-steel kitchen. And its menu takes the notion of knowing where your food comes from to new heights — there's a full bio on every provisioner printed next to every item. Because I'm in search of truly authentic Adelaide cuisine, I order the Outback Pride, which is kangaroo saddle served with warrigal greens and muntrie salad grown from native plants by Mike and Gayle Quamby at Reedy Creek Nursery. Chris goes for the Coorong Black Angus, which has been fed a 120-day grain diet and butchered by the Hilton's own Mark Dixon, who has 34 years of industry experience.
This is my first kangaroo, and no, it doesn't taste like chicken. It doesn't taste like anything else I've eaten, although it is similar to other game, and marries well with the native plant salad. Chris gives a thumbs-up to the 120-day grain diet and Dixon's expert butchering.
"If you really want to know about eating in Adelaide, you've got to visit the Central Market," our waiter tells us. And in fact, the Brasserie's kitchen has a door that leads directly into the market in case Leslie runs out of something. So the following day, we book a tour of the Central Market with Mark Gleeson of Central Market Tours. Not that we couldn't have wandered around this covered market, home to nearly 100 food stalls, on our own, but it's nice to have a little guidance.
Part of what makes Adelaide a mecca for food-loving locavores is that it's surrounded by nine growing regions that produce everything from apples and cherries to wine and olives. You can see evidence of this in the market stalls that overflow with produce all year long. But the Central Market also features 11 butchers, as well as diverse outlets such as a Cambodian grocery (run by a family who fled to Australia to escape Pol Pot) and Lucia's Fine Foods, an Italian grocery already well known for its homemade spaghetti sauce when the Central Market opened in 1862.
There's also a Korean-owned sushi stand, a Croatian deli and a Russian pirogi shop, as well as shops selling homemade cheeses and breads, and potatoes from Tasmania. It's overwhelming, and when the tour is over, I'm impressed but not any closer to discovering the definition of Adelaide cuisine.
Lunch at Chianti Classico — another recommendation — doesn't clear anything up. This Aussie-elegant restaurant — rough stone walls covered by floating slabs of marble — is Italian cooking based on local Australian ingredients.
The classic Florentine bistecca uses local Coorong Angus cattle. The Tuscan-style oven-cooked rabbit is prepared with hare from the Adelaide plains. And the spaghetti is served with banana prawns and bug tails, which are a local slipper lobster.
Deciding that we're looking too far from the source, we meet Haydyn Bromley from Bookabee Tours at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens for a "bush tucker" tour. ("Bush tucker" is the name for the truly locavore food eaten for centuries by Australia's aboriginal population.) Bromley explains how one tree could be a family's entire grocery store, providing nectar and resins, as well as witchetty grubs, which are said to be high in protein.
At the end of our tour, he brings out a sampling of relishes and jellies made from bush tomatoes and muntrie, or emu apples, which are really berries, and wild limes that we spread on crackers.
"Is this true Adelaide cuisine?" I ask him.
"It's true Australian cuisine," he tells me, "if you're aboriginal."
Which is, and isn't, an answer.