SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA / / I went to the Sydney Fish Market to see what strange creatures I had been eating: barramundi and Balmain bugs.
I found them amid an astonishing variety of seafood at one of the world's largest fish markets. Mounded on ice were more than two-dozen types of whole fish, steaks and fillets. There was smoked eel, sea urchin roe and several varieties of oysters, already shucked and displayed on the half-shell. There were tubs of calamari rings and squid tubes. And a lovely rose-colored octopus, its arms twisted to show off rows of perfect tentacles next to a sign that proclaimed "Sashimi quality."
For a foodie like me, one of the main attractions of a trip to Australia was sampling its cuisine. The diet Down Under, once a heavy meat-and-potatoes cuisine, has evolved into lighter fare with a strong Asian influence. Local seafood plays a major role.
We had stopped in Los Angeles for a few days on our way to Australia, and family and friends had fed us meal after meal of beef. On the flight to Sydney, I told my husband, "I'm not going to eat any more beef on this trip." He rolled his eyes with a look that said, "Oh great, more food adventures."
Australians love beef. They eat more beef than anyone except Americans and even have their own version of Kobe beef called Wagyu -- super expensive and super marbled.
But it wasn't difficult to find alternatives in a country where crocodiles and emu are farm-raised for their meat and it's OK to eat the national symbol -- kangaroo. Lamb is more popular here than it is in the United States, and I found venison on several menus.
Then there's the amazing array of seafood. Among the staples are shrimp, often served with the head on, Asian-style; yabbies, an Australian crawfish; and barramundi, a mild, white-fleshed game fish as ubiquitous in eastern Australia as mahi mahi or grouper is in South Florida and just as versatile. I ate it roasted with herbed butter sauce, in fish and chips, and in a Thai curry.
The Sydney Fish Market is so big that it's promoted as a tourist attraction, but on the Saturday I visited, the aisles were crowded with locals on family outings. They shopped for fish they would cook for dinner and stood in line for a lunch of sushi or chowder or fish and chips that they carried out to eat at tables along the waterfront.
I bought a skewer of shrimp-filled dumplings at a take-out stand and nibbled on them as I wandered from one fish counter to the next, ogling unfamiliar creatures until I found what I was looking for.
Balmain bugs could star in their own horror movie. They look like mutant lobsters -- flatter and broad-shouldered. Fortunately, they taste better than they look: sweet like lobster, but more delicate.
I expected barramundi to be ugly too. Its skin is so tough that you can buy wallets and drink coasters made of barramundi "leather." But at the fish market, it looked downright attractive compared with snapper and garfish.
The day after my trip to the fish market, I went to a wildlife refuge to see other Australian cuisine on the hoof: kangaroo and emu. I had not encountered either on a menu, and I did not tell the couple who care for injured or orphaned animals on their private refuge that I was contemplating eating their pets.
You can still find traces of Australia's British heritage on menus: meat pies, broiled tomatoes for breakfast, afternoon tea. But much like the United States, another land of immigrants, Australia has its own culinary identity, a fusion of local ingredients and traditions with those of Asia and the Mediterranean.
On the night we saw La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House, we got a table for the pre-theater seating at Aria, just a block away and with a lovely view of the harbor and Opera House. We started with an ocean trout and salmon terrine with dill sauce, and Kurobuta pork belly with caramelized apple and balsamic, then moved on to rack of lamb and sirloin with red wine butter (only one of us ever gets tired of beef).
At Sailors Thai in The Rocks district, we sampled a sort of Thai fusion. I had sour orange curry of barramundi. My husband, being uncharacteristically adventurous with food, had a concoction of salted duck eggs, minced prawns and pork simmered in coconut cream and tamarind. He was still being very tentative with each forkful when an order arrived at the next table: A spiky whole fish, deep-fried and served with the head still on.
He was so traumatized by the sight of that ugly fish eyeballing him and his salted duck eggs that he fell back on the familiar and ordered garlic prawns the next three nights.
He'd had enough of food adventures, so if I wanted to do any further investigating of Asian influence on Sydney's cuisine, I'd have to make my trip to Chinatown solo.
The bus driver dropped me off in front of a McDonald's, and I walked past it to a row of windows filled with tanks of live fish for diners to choose from.