The Sandwich Century: #2 – The Australian Steak Sandwich

In the Sandwich Century’s first clash with the authenticity problem, I found myself approaching this one — a south-of-the-equator version of the standard steak sammy — at something of a loss.  Australian food culture, with its Thirst-flavored Life Savers and its Vegemite, has always struck me as something like a white people’s Japan:  that is to say, completely insane.  But, unfortunately, I am not personally acquainted with any native Australians, and posting on message boards was more work than I was willing to do for this half-assed project.  Not wanting to rely entirely on Wikipedia, I took the risk of consulting a friend of mine with the advantage of proximity:  a New Zealander who attended college in Australia and spent a few more years there before decanting to England.  So, if you have any problems with the exactitude of this stikey bestid, please address them to him; he can be reached via e-mail at nunya dot biz.

My friend instructed me that in Australia, macho meat-centered culture that it is, the steak sandwich is considered a sort of emergency back-up to the hamburger, and is sometimes even served on a hamburger bun.  I picked and chose somewhat at random from the options he presented for dressing the thing, but in the end, with a few exceptions, it turned out to not be particularly exotic.  We’ll be diving into the lower depths of Australian sandwichry later on in this project, but our first encounter with the cuisine of Down Under proved to be less alienating than expected.  (My friend, being a Kiwi, responded with amusement rather than offense to my inquiry as to whether the Australian national sandwich was a Criminal Special, featuring a file stuffed into a baguette.)

THE SANDWICH: Something like a white-trashier version of a steak sub, the Australian steak sandwich does, indeed, resemble a hamburger for which cheap steak has been mysteriously inserted in place of ground beef.  It eschews the normal savory dressings of an American-style steak sandwich for the standard, bland toppings of a generic cold cut preparation or an unimaginative burger — with one major exception, which we will address below..

THE INGREDIENTS: I was presented with two bread options for the A.S.S.:  a hamburger bun (which would make it, I was assured, a ‘steak burger’, a claim I found insulting to the good people of Steak ‘n’ Shake) or two slices of white bread, grilled on one side.  I opted for the latter both to distance the resemblance to a burger and to try out my brand-new toaster oven, purchased (on unemployment wages — let it never be said I don’t sacrifice for you people) specifically for this project.  To honor the ruff ‘n’ tumble nature of Australia, I opted for grilled, thin-sliced strip steak instead of pre-packaged ‘minute steak’; I grilled in in a skillet along with some sliced onions and flavored both with seasoned salt, so as not to get too exotic with the spices. (As an aside, onions grilled in the same pan as a steak are one of the most delicious things a human can eat.)  Toppings consisted of a few leaves of Romaine lettuce, two slices of salad tomato, and…

Well, here’s where it gets a little ugly.  The recommended sauce is barbecue, but Wikipedia informs me that in Australia, “barbecue sauce” is often interpreted to mean “tomato sauce with Worcestershire sauce mixed in”.  This is insulting to me as a Texan and downright offensive to me as a lover of barbecue, but my Kiwi friend insisted it was true, and went on to insult the intelligence of Australians using colorful language.  So I mixed up a small batch of this unsatisfying condiment, apologized to the cow whose noble sacrifice I was about to defile, and on it went.  The final topping was even worse:  apparently, Australians are very fond of using what they call “tinned beetroot” — yes, that’s right:  canned beets — as a sandwich dressing.  Now, I love beets — especially pickled beets — but the kind of sliced beets that come in a can bear as much resemblance to an actual beet as a fish stick bears to an actual piece of fish.  Which is to say, essentially none at all.

Wikipedia further suggested that some establishments served their sandwiches with cheese, fried egg, bacon and/or grilled pineapple, but I’m already worried about getting through this project alive, so I eschewed any further decoration of the thing.

THE TASTE TEST: The Australian steak sandwich, despite its uninviting initials, proved to be generally inoffensive.  The toppings didn’t much add to the flavor of the steak, but they didn’t detract too much either, and it was a decent cut of meat.  The quasi-BBQ sauce did nothing but intellectually offend me, and my worries about the presence of beets proved ill-founded:  my dread of what a vinegary beetroot might do to the flavor of a steak sandwich was nullified by the utterly flavorless non-beetiness of the canned product.  All told, it was much like eating a plain steak on toast while being slightly distracted by, say, a television news broadcast or the playful antics of a toddler.  In the end, you forget both.

4 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. roseyv
    02/15/2011 at 1:43 PM

    “We’ll be diving into the lower depths of Australian sandwichry later on in this project”

    Oh my God, he’s gonna eat Vegemite.

  2. AussieGal
    02/16/2011 at 4:55 AM

    Hi, newbie commentor here, but as an Aussie and a former chef whose job did sometimes entail throwing together the occasional steak sandwich, I feel compelled after reading your thoroughly entertaining piece (and I mean that sincerely. I laughed. I gagged a little, but I laughed), to throw in my two cents worth of opinion.

    Wikipedia sent you waaaaay down the garden path with their description of BBQ sauce as it is experienced here in Australia. I am happy to admit our version leaves a lot to be desired when compared with the many and varied US versions I’ve been exposed to. However, in all my 42 years, I’ve never, ever, not even once, heard of tomato sauce being mixed with worcestershire sauce. I fear this is much like your discovery that the citizens of Europe have been attributing cream cheese and jam on crustless bread to your fellow Americans. It simply ain’t true. And it sounds disgusting. I’m not surprised you didn’t enjoy it!

    The version of the steak sanger you consumed is probably not the one most Aussies these days would be familiar with. Sure, if you went to the local fisho, that’s what you might get (egg, bacon and pineapple optional for an additional cost). But most people consume the sandwich as a pub meal these days and as with most places, commercial forces have caused the average pub to go “up-market”, dragging the Steak Sandwich with it. If you visited these fine shores you’d most likely be offered a variation on the following, which is the version we offered at the hotel I worked in most recently here in Brisbane.

    Two slices of inch thick bread, toasted. Spread with butter and aioli. Rocket (arugula), tomato and grilled or caramelised onion. Two slices of bacon, avocado. Quickly grilled thin sliced rump steak. No beetroot, I fear. Cut in half and arranged artfully on the plate, stabbed with one of those wanky cellophane topped toothpicks and served with chips.

    Finally, Vegemite is freaking awesome and the finest food a hungover girl could ever hope for!

    • LP
      02/16/2011 at 12:52 PM

      Hi, and welcome! It’s good to hear from you, especially as you’re telling me that some of the subpar sandwich qualities I’ve encountered are bogus. Damned internet!

      What in Sam Hill is a “fisho”?

      And, not to tell stories out of school, but as you will find out towards the conclusion of this project, I am actually a big fan of Vegemite.

      • AussieGal
        02/16/2011 at 7:57 PM

        A fisho, short for fish and chip shop, is the local take-away joint, which serves not only the expected fish and chips, but also battered savs (sort of like what I expect a corndog would be, but without the stick), potato scallops, the abovementioned steak sandwiches and the traditional aussie burger, which you so admirably described.

        Of course, a typical Australian is far more likely to eat a Big Mac than a good old burger with the works these days.

        What in the Sam Hill is a Sam Hill?

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