‘Old-school, 1950s grandma food’: Australian chefs on reviving retro recipes | Australian food and drink

We all love a kitchen comeback. Think the return of meatloaf, or when, inexplicably, prawn cocktail got its groove back. Chefs are skilled at trawling the depths of nostalgia, from the trope of “I learned to cook this dish at my nana’s knee”, to mining collective food memories.

“I’ve always gone back and done a lot of reading of old cookbooks,” says chef Blaze Young, who heads up the kitchen at Fremantle wine bar Nieuw Ruin. “I kind of love old-school, 1950s grandma food, and old Australiana.”

Young isn’t wed to her own grandmother’s style of cooking; she also enjoys interpreting the food memories of others. One such effort, a confit fish “under a fur coat”, has become her signature dish. The childhood memories of Nieuw Ruin’s owner Dimitri Rtshiladze were the inspiration for this spin on “herring under a fur coat”. Rtshiladze, who is of Georgian descent, told Young about the eastern European classic.

“Traditionally it’s made with tinned, preserved herring, and then it’s layered with cold vegetables,” she says. “I guess to make the herring a little bit more appetising.” Young uses monkfish from Scott Reef off the north-west coast of Western Australia. It is a by-catch, which she says has a “beautiful vegetal flavour” reminiscent of leeks when slowly confited.

A bottom layer of blanched potatoes is dressed sparingly with pickled shallot, followed by the confit monkfish, fresh dill, then blanched carrot, roast beetroot spiked with a little bit of horseradish, with a final layer of egg salad made with a quality olive oil mayonnaise. The six layers are prepared “incredibly simply”, says Young, making them “really clean examples of that ingredient” when eaten individually but “really complex and interesting” when eaten together. The final 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 dishes were brought to life at relative newcomer, Ursula’s in Paddington. “My gran used to do the best flummery ever,” she says. “It would float off the table, and there it is at Ursula’s.”

Flummery from Ursula’s in Sydney.
Flummery from Ursula’s in Sydney. Photograph: Nikki To

Phil Wood, chef-owner at Ursula’s, says “It used to be well known, featured in those guides to home cooking for the Australian housewife, like the CWA books, The Golden Wattle Cookery Book. [But] a lot of it has just kind of fallen by the wayside a little bit … It’s remarkable 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 post-war necessity, says Wood. The original recipe combines packet fruit jelly and evaporated milk. The evaporated milk must be “made really cold, and when you whip, it whips up like fake cream”. The fruit jelly is left in the fridge until almost set. Then you “fold those two things together, ending up with this flavoured mousse”.

While Wood is known for flawless technique, his iteration of the dish is easy to make. He uses juiced strawberries for a more natural flavouring, but it still contains the all-important evaporated milk. His is a little lighter than traditional flummery, which can be “a bit on the spongy side rather than aerated”. The dish is currently off the menu, but is due another comeback when light spring fruit is back in season.

Melbourne-based chef Victor Liong of Lee Ho Fook has also mined nostalgia on occasion. “A couple of years ago [at Chinese New Year] we cooked from the Australian Women’s Weekly Chinese Cookbook. It was good fun and really well received,” he says. “But I didn’t want to go down that route [every day].”

This is because, for those who didn’t grow up around the many faces of Chinese cuisine, we are still in a period of discovery when it comes to Chinese cooking. “It hasn’t quite got around for people to be like, ‘I really want that nostalgic honey prawn’,” he says. There are exceptions. “Queen Chow in Sydney does a really good job doing that, but Dan Hong is obviously doing it with a pretty serious dim sum offering as well. It’s highbrow, lowbrow, I guess.”

The Australian Women’s Weekly cookbook experiment had value for Liong because it helped explore stories of the Australian Chinese experience. “There’s a recipe in [that book] called I think, Billy Kee’s pork ribs.” He says the dish was “basically a sweet soy pork ribs-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 delve into that a little bit more, and try and tie that into what it looks like on our menu.”

For Young, who also has a popular riff on pie floaters and devilled livers, the joy of reviving a retro recipe is subverting expectations. “I love the idea of taking things that have fallen out of relevance, and seem really bizarre and bunky, that wouldn’t seem appetising at all and then making them really approachable and really delicious.”

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