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Parmigiana - an Australian love story

"don’t get too hung up on tradition here. The parma has undergone so much bastardisation it’s realistically an Australian dish rather than an Italian one." Australia travel questions

This is a picture of the Chicken parma that David had on Tuesday - well as you can imagine, he didn't finish it. I think he ate about half.

We were having lunch with friends in the Grand Hotel in Yarra Glen an iconic Australian dish in an iconic Australian pub. I do have a feeling that I have covered this topic before - a feeling I got when I was doing my 'research', however, at the risk of repeating myself I will persist, because it's weirdly interesting.

A 'parma' is not, I repeat not, an Italian dish. You will not find it in an Italian recipe book or in an Italian restaurant in Italy. There a 'parmigiana' is made with eggplant - and I will come to that too. A 'parma' is not even American, although it came to us via there. In America it seems to have first started appearing in the 1940s. The basic concept of fried chicken breasts, sometimes breaded, sometimes not, topped with tomato sauce and cheese and grilled is the same, but not how it is served. In America it is generally served with spaghetti: on the left is a typical America serve and on the right the 'gourmet' version achieved after a long testing process from Bon Appétit. Interestingly the so-called typical American version does not seem to have any cheese on top.

Nobody is quite sure when the Australian version arrived here - they think the 80s, preceded by a Veal version in the 70s which tended to be served in restaurants with a side of pasta and salad. The website Australian Food Timeline gives a rather more detailed and knowledgeable version of the history. Who knows why the chips and the salad became absolutely essential, and they still argue over whether the chips should be served at the side or underneath. I think the Grand Hotel had a bet both ways with some of the chips underneath and some at the side. Be that as it may, I doubt there is a pub in Australia that does not have 'parma' on the menu.

“I challenge anyone to fly to any major Italian city, avoid the tourist hotspots and, instead, walk into a traditional trattoria and try to order a chicken or veal schnitzel smothered in tomato sauce, layered with a slice of ham and finished with cheese. The Italians simply never get drunk enough to invent something so calorific” - Shannon Bennett.

And that from a top haute cuisine chef. There is even a website - Parma Daze dedicated to finding the best 'parma' - or 'parmy' as it is also sometimes called, in Melbourne. When their favourite pub burnt down a group of the regulars set up the website to engage the help of Melburnians in finding the best examples.

Each year there are awards. I suspect that COVID has stymied their efforts somewhat, because the latest award seems to be for the 2019 year - and it went to the Birmingham Hotel on Smith St. in Fitzroy for the fourth year running. Here it is. Apparently some got really annoyed and said that it really should not be served on a wooden board.

And here I'm going to digress a little and talk about the size of the portions. I mean just look at the size of that chicken breast. It's obscene really. And incidentally have you noticed that the chicken breasts that you buy are getting larger all the time? - all down to breeding and probably worth a post some time. Anyway when you make a parmigiana you first flatten your breast by pounding it with something heavy, so that it is thin enough to cook through - hence it becomes even bigger. It seems to me that there are two really bad potential outcomes here. One - they must surely get a lot of leftovers which surely can only be thrown in the bin. What can you do with leftover chicken parma? Sure some people take the leftovers home in a doggy bag, but probably mostly not. So it just has to go in the bin. Two - the customer eats the lot. And if they do that all the time that is really, really unhealthy. Unfortunately the kind of people who generally eat in pubs are probably the relatively badly off economically and relatively uneducated in how to eat healthily, I know that's an élitist thing to say but I suspect it's true.

It's not just the 'parma' though. Here is my plate of fish and chips. I never eat fish and chips so this was a treat. Fish and chips are probably my guiltiest pleasure. It would be over a year since I have eaten them. I adore fish and chips and these were very, good - the batter was light and crispy and the flathead tails juicy and moist. But such a huge portion. I actually almost managed to eat it all, but couldn't quite, and I really shouldn't have eaten as much as I did because I felt somewhat poorly afterwards. I think my ploughing on was partly due to my upbringing - eat everything on the plate - starving children in Africa and all that - and partly sheer greed. There's no other word for it really. Actually to be fair to this particular pub they had a Seniors menu - which I think was a bit like a Kids menu in that the portions were smaller. We did not deign to use this, thinking that the portions would be kids' size. But we should have. They ought to rename it or just have two portion sizes on offer.

Why do the pubs do this? Why do they feel the need to serve such large portions? It surely can't be economically good sense for them because they can't charge too much. This is a pub, generally frequented by the less wealthy in the community, or at least not expecting to have to pay a lot. Unless it's a 'gourmet' pub. They even have special 'parma and pot' nights when you get a beer thrown in for free - or at a much reduced price anyway. Maybe it's because none of them dare serve small sizes for fear of losing out to some other pub. They should all get together and decrease the size.

Back to the actual Australian Parmigiana though. There are of course endless variations ranging from the everyday to the haute cuisine, and even the healthy, vegan, gluten free ... has over 100 versions and delicious had 14 parmigiana that are just as good as the pub's, although the list did include variations on the Italian original - on which more in a moment. Here are a few examples from the net - beginning with Parmageddon, which delicious, which devised it, described thus:

"When the ice caps have melted, the carbon credits have been spent and meteors are falling from the sky, this is the schnitzel we’ll be eating. The parmigiana to end all parmigianas: chicken, ham, cheese, sauce and sobrasada colliding together, ending all hope of getting that belt back on when you’re done." delicious

What is sobrasada? Then there's Shannon Bennet's version of Chicken parma, Phoebe Wood's Chicken parmigiana soup?! and Donna Hay's Quinoa chicken parmigiana with kale pesto - so typical of modern magazine kind of food I think.

I see I have waffled on for ages about something that many would find sacrilegious, even repulsive so I'll just finish briefly with a bit about the original Parmigiana di melanzane. The version shown here is Bon Appétit's Best eggplant parmigiana. It's a kind of aubergine/eggplant gratin.

The origins are disputed between Parma - not very effectively apparently because they may have the cheese, but they don't traditionally have the eggplants or the tomatoes, and mostly cudos for the original goes to either Sicily or Naples - well Campania. The most appealing origin story is that the name is derived from the word for shutters - 'palmigiana' - specifically shutters with slats.

"One day, as someone somewhere in Sicily arranged slices of fried aubergine, corners overlapping corners, they were reminded of wooden shutters and their overlapping slats. However, as Sicilians struggle to pronounce the letter “l”, their creation became parmigiana di melanzane instead. This could of course be one of the many gastronomic tales that are passed around like Chinese whispers, but, true or not, the idea of shutters is a useful one in terms of construction, reminding us how the fried slices should be arranged." Rachel Roddy

Felicity Cloake of course gives us a good summary of the various versions, although interestingly there is no picture of her ultimate perfect version. She does have a rather lovely phrase for the dish though:

"that rare and glorious thing: Mediterranean stodge."

Fundamentally the dish consists of fried eggplant slices, layered with tomato sauce and cheese and baked in the oven. Sometimes there are breadcrumbs in the mix although where and when you use them is a disputed matter. These days the eggplant is often grilled or baked to be a bit healthier, but fundamentally the process is always the same - and somewhat time-consuming, including the idea, that I had not heard of before, that ideally you should allow it to rest for several hours, or overnight, before finishing off by grilling it. Because:

"when served straight from the oven, it will be a soft and sloppy affair, the considerable heat blinding the flavour. Resting will not only develop the flavour, it will also allow the melted mozzarella and parmesan to settle and firm up into a coherent whole. ... When it’s time to eat, I give the parmigiana another 10 minutes in the oven and a few more under the grill, until the top bubbles madly" Rachel Roddy

Here are a few examples I found - some classic - some not - witness Ottolenghi's Aubergine dumplings alla parmigiana and Claudio's aubergine parmigiana which you can find on Jamie Oliver's website, and which I think is actually a recipe from chef Oliver Glowig. Rachel Roddy has two versions: Parmigiana di melanzane and Light parmigiana with aubergine and Melbourne's own Guy Grossi offers up his traditional version of Eggplant parmigiana. There is also a version from The Silver Spoon which Felicity Cloake tested, but for which I have no recipe. I have to say Claudio's looks the most tempting - those are shreds of fried eggplant skin on top.

Eggplants are not in season at the moment so we can't all rush out and make one, but we could have a go at an Aussie 'parma'. Maybe I should try it in my next Zoom cooking class, although David probably wouldn't appreciate having that so soon again. It may take him a while to forget the feeling of having overeaten.


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