OPINION

Why the schnitzel should be Australia's national dish

When Aussies are asked to pick our national dish, it's always lamb, sausages in bread or meat pies that top the polls.

But compatriots, you have it wrong. Our national dish is none of these things. It is the schnitzel.

"What!?," you shout, spraying lamington all over your screen.

"Schnitzel!? That's Austrian, not Australian du flammende gallah!"

Yes, yes of course it is. But since when has appropriating another nation's cuisine stopped it reaching national dish status?

Look at the Americans and pizza. Or the Brits, who celebrate chicken tikka masala as a national food icon.

So Australians, relax. Our national dish does not have to be a hills hoist or a goon bag, magical inventions we can claim as our own. A nation started by thieves can nick a dish...and given the whole Austria/Australia thing we can also claim mistaken identity. And, by the way, do we really think we're the first people to chuck a leg of lamb in an oven?

A German beer but a very Australian view. The schnitzel in its true natural environment, a plate at a distillery in the Snowy Mountains. Picture: Edwina Pickles

A German beer but a very Australian view. The schnitzel in its true natural environment, a plate at a distillery in the Snowy Mountains. Picture: Edwina Pickles

But the question is what makes a national dish if not the quality of uniqueness to a place. Well, of course it should be a meal that we know and love. It should be a meal that is ubiquitous, affordable and also one that tells you something about who we are.

Now, before I leap too far into making the case for the schnitzel, let's quickly deal with the other contenders.

Lamb? Yes, of course it warrants its place in any true blue list, but for nostalgic reasons more than anything. Some of us grew up at a time when a dozen or so crumbed cutlets was an affordable family feed to sit down to during It's a Knockout.

Now, while it may not have reached Barnaby Joyce's $100 roast prediction, lamb is well and truly out of range for dinner in front of the telly. It's fancy, special occasion fare. Why else do they have to market it so hard around Australia Day.

Let's not dwell long on sauso sandwiches and meat pies either. These are snacks, to be consumed on trips to hardware stores or at the stadium. A national dish should, no must, be dinner and at best these are light lunch options. If you're sitting down to a gourmet pie at dinner with knife and fork in hand and a napkin tucked into your shirt, you're missing the point.

Having swept these pretenders aside, schnitzel is allowed a clear run to the throne of Australian cuisine.

Now just look at it. It's literally wide and brown. Sometimes it's a thing of beauty, other times of terror. Yes, that's the dish for me.

It meets the needs of this nation. Unlike fish, you don't need to concern yourself about eating it 800kms inland. While fresh is indeed best (and colleagues who can be bothered to DIY say thigh is the choice cut of chicken), the schnitty is easily frozen and trucked to Woop-Woop, coming to life in the pub kitchen with addition of hot oil, sweat and gravy. It also allows for spectacular menu misspelling, another charm of the Aussie bistro.

Of course, where the schnitzel makes its claim in many people's top lists is in its cunning disguise as a chicken parmigiana. We won't get into the parma/parmy/parmi debate here, but the tomato-and-cheese topped schnitzel is, if not a national dish on its own, certainly a state dish in Victoria. They're mad for their parmas in "Malban" (how Melbourne cousins speak).

My old favourite used to be the Dickson Tradies. Back in the day where most of your seating was in an old tram, a team of d-grade indoor cricketers could protein-and-carb load on wonders such as the Hunter, Gypsie, Chasseur, Sweet and Sour, Curry or, most memorably, the Swiss. This creation was covered in a lake of melted cheese. Even in our younger days of semi-competitive eating, this was the Matterhorn of schnitzels.

Canberra soccer players of yesteryear combine a love of schnitzel with the thrill of competitive eating. Picture: Chris Dutton

Canberra soccer players of yesteryear combine a love of schnitzel with the thrill of competitive eating. Picture: Chris Dutton

They lost their way at the Tradies at some point and started serving up small, unspectacular mini-schnitzels you'd barely accept at the school canteen, and would certainly feel the need to upsize with bread.

We moved on at that point, only to be lured back some months later when, apparently chastened by customers, they revived the mega schnitzel. They even stretched the concept, putting a Tandoori-chicken chicken schnitzel on the menu. Yes that's two types of chicken on one plate. Too much chef, too much. This was also about the time the government knocked over our indoor cricket centre (vale the NICC) and so we moved on.

Right now, I'm in a temporary schnitzel hiatus. A recent road trip to Queensland is to blame. Its everywhere nature meant on one day I ate schnitzel for lunch and dinner. The four kilos put on during that particular week stuck mostly behind the wheel has forced me to step away from the schnitty. But I'll be back.

And maybe when I am it'll be time to revisit the Tradies. A look at their menu tells me they've simplified a bit. Schnitzel and a range of sauces, which to be honest is all you need. The one nod to the past seems to be their sizing. You have two options, regular and "legendary".

Legendary. Now that's a fitting way to describe Australia's dish.

This story Lamb and pies step aside, this is Australia's national dish first appeared on The Canberra Times.