As the days of January tick along, we again close in on that enjoyable but somewhat meaningless holiday, Australia Day. And, as always, this brings the people who need to fill column inches to start talking about what is the Australian national dish.
It is an interesting question, if essentially unable to be answered. Food can define a culture to an extent, but you have to look at the cuisine as a whole to understand it. There are only very rare examples of a dish that can really be seen as representative of a nation, and they will have special circumstances around them. Take, for example, Pad Thai, which was renamed in the 1940s when it was pushed by the then Prime Minister of Thailand as a way to promote nationalism and reduce rice consumption.
Australia doesn’t have that, a moment in history where any particular food has been pushed. We have a medley of dishes from hundreds of cultures, brought by waves of immigration and then adapted to fit what we have here. When people do list these things, we’re defined by a mishmash of baked goods, seafood, and things you’d eat at the football.
Then there’s the barbeque. From Paul Hogan’s calling to throw another shrimp on one to the local sausage sizzle being the best thing about every election day, the humble barbie is, for many, the essential Aussie experience.
And yet, if you were to look around the world at all the people who do something similar, in many ways we’re really not very good at it. A few cheap sausages, rissoles and some pieces of steak are the extent of most BBQs in backyards around the country. Maybe we’d go so far as some marinated chicken wings, or a few prawns, but not much further. It’s often not that much different from cooking on a stove, except that we do it outside with a beer in hand, then smother it with tomato sauce.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love a snag with onions and sauce on a piece of cheap white bread as much as the next person. But compared to the barbeques of the world, it’s just a little unexciting. Most nations have put real thought into how to cook outside. They think about the wood they’re using, and the spices. Think about the slow fired meat of the Argentinian asado, the fiery spice of Jamaican jerked meat, or the surprising variety that can come from a chicken with Japanese yakitori. Our burnt snags really don’t live up.
Talk to an American and they don’t even consider what we do barbequing. To them, we just grill. BBQ to a Yank means fire, smoke, and big chunks of meat cooked long and slow. And really, there’s just something special about the smokey fat of a chunk of pork that has spent 8 hours over hickory.
Since October last year, hordes of Canberrans seem to have deduced this for themselves, judging by the constant lines snaking out the door of Smoque.
Chef Grant Kells and manager Ash Fanning have seemingly hit the jackpot with this Southern-inspired joint with a badly spelled name, so much so that he was forced to install a second imported smoker to handle the demand. Hundreds of kilos of meat fly out the door each week, and with good reason.
The first visit to Smoque should always be for one of the platters, just to get the lay of the ground. It allows you to get a little taste of a number of things, and as price goes up a few more items from the menu are added.
It starts with some small tubs of pulled meat, one of pork and one of beef brisket. These do a reasonable job at giving an idea what this is about, but they’re far from perfect. The pork is far to sweet when eaten alone, to the point of being cloying. And the beef, a touch dry, lacking the succulence that comes from getting the right balance of lean and fatty ends of the brisket. Both of them are great in the inventive list of sandwiches on the menu, but lack a bit alone.
While those are slight disappointments, they are more than made up for by the other core pillar of BBQ.
On any animal these cuts, full of fat and bone, make up for their lack of meat with an abundance of flavour. Here beef short ribs are cooked to with an inch of structural failure, the connecting tissue melting into a glorious mess of juicy fat. But the real star is the pork ribs, sold by the rack and covered in the charred, sticky sweetness of a Memphis-style sauce. This is a dish where you suck the bones clean, then wish to do the same with your sauce-covered fingers.
Barbequed chicken is a surprise hit, with the slow cooked flesh sucking in the smoke better than the other meats. At times the breast can be a little overdone, but silken dark meat is a pleasure. For those who like extreme heat, the Buffalo wings are worth a try, though the sauce was a little too much for me in both heat and texture.
This is happy making food, the kind that you tear apart with your hands and devour like a joyful jackal. It’s a primal way of eating, and it makes a mess. Though it might not be the place for a first date.
While meat is the main game, there are plenty of other points of interest on the menu. Some different but well constructed salads satisfy lighter tastes, though I hope they change through the year to keep seasonal. And though there are a good selection of sides, it’s hard to go past the crisp fries with house seasonings.
The most difficult decision at Smoque comes at dessert. Do you go for one of the house made sweet pies, or try something from the exciting selection of Mr Frugii ice creams? On one hand, pumpkin pie provides a massive sugar hit, pecan pie a nutty gooeyness, or there’s the smooth richness of New York baked cheesecake, or the warming cliche of apple pie. On the other, ice cream flavours like peanut butter and bacon, chocolate brownie, and panettone make a compelling argument. Whatever you choose, you can’t really go wrong. But if you have the salted butter caramel ice cream with a glass of really good rum on the side, it’ll be a revelation.
It can be hard to find room, especially on a weekend, but the service manages to survive despite the occasional chaos. Depending on when you visit and what you order it can be some of the fastest food in town. More than once I have been in and out in less than 20 minutes.
Smoque begins to show Canberra the potential of barbeque, particularly what it can do to pork ribs. To Americans, barbequing is an art form. For us it is something different.
The Aussie barbie may not be the greatest of cuisines in the world, but it is a great social event, an apt celebration of our weather and a nation that has always longed for the backyard. So on Saturday, when I am in a backyard eating sausages and sauce, I will be loving it. Not because of the food, but because of the context.
And that is worth celebrating.
Address: 2, 131 London Circuit, Canberra City, ACT, 2600
Ph: 02 6162 3350
Owners: Grant Kells and Ash Fanning
Hours: Monday to Saturday, Lunch from 12, Dinner from 5.