Thursday, November 24, 2022

Cooking the Australian Chinese Way

The first collections of recipes for Chinese dishes, written for an Australian audience, were not published until immediately after the Second World War.  50 Recipes for Famous Chinese Dishes, by Mrs Sie was published in Melbourne in 1946. Little is known about Mrs Sie. Her offering is a slim pamphlet, of which there was only one edition as far as is known, published by the Australia-China Association. This was quickly followed by perhaps the best known early Australian-Chinese cookbook, Roy Geechoun’s Cooking the Chinese Way, published in 1948.[1] Roy Geechoun was born in Bendigo in 1905, and, by the time he published his cook book, was a well-known Melbourne business-man as well as a prominent and active member of the Australia-China Association. Cooking the Chinese Way was expanded and reprinted and was still in print the late 1950s. Both Mrs Sie and Geechoun dedicated their books to the furtherance of Australia China friendship. 

The timing of these publications was no accident. The period immediately after WW2 was a difficult time for Australian-born Chinese, naturally concerned about their status and their future in the community given that they were still restricted by the White Australia policy and now anxious about regime change in mainland China. Their Australian neighbours were also increasingly uncomfortable with the political machinations in mainland China. Gastro-diplomacy was one way of fostering better understanding.

Chinese Recipes for Home Cooking by Yep Yung Hee, published in 1951, also carried an endorsement from the Chinese Consul-General proffering hope that this book might foster ‘both an appreciation of Chinese cookery and of the ancient traditions of China’.[2] “Yep Yung Hee” was the nom- de-plume of Alwyn Darley Tet Ting Quoy, born in Sydney 1916, and a member of the well- known Quoy merchant family.[3] His compilation ran to several editions and remained in print until the late 1960s.

The last of the early publications was Chinese Culinary in Plain English, by William Sou San.[4] Sou San was born in Cairns 1901, the eldest of a large family. At the time he published his first book he was a merchant at 253 Wickham Street, Brisbane selling a variety of imported products including all the requisites for cooking – ingredients, kitchen tools and crockery. Probably self-published and intended largely a promotion for his business, Chinese Culinary was sold at his shop and through those businesses he supplied. There is evidence that first edition was available in 1950, and a second translation was published in 1965. [5] Of the four authors Sou San is perhaps the least well known but his books are particularly interesting.

        What can these books tell us about Chinese food in Australia? And more importantly what they can tell us about Chinese food in Australia at a significant time in our culinary history - when Chinese cooks have already been active here for the best part of 100 years, but our food culture is yet to encounter other Asian cuisines or indeed Chinese food other than that brought here by the people from the Pearl River delta. Chinese restaurants are just about to really explode in the suburbs and eating out in general is becoming more popular. These books are important both because of their place in the history of English language Chinese cookbooks and because they give the best glimpse of how Chinese immigrants had adapted their foodways to take account of local conditions and produce an Australian version of Chinese cuisine.

        Perhaps the first and most obvious point to make is that these recipes are Australianised simply by being written down. What is generally recognised as the first English language Chinese recipe book was published in Detroit in 1911[6]but English language books devoted to Chinese recipes were still few and far between in the late 1940s, possibly less than 100 and these available mainly in the United States, which makes these early Australian publications all the more important.[7] The main barrier to publication was the difficulty of translating Chinese cooking for non-Chinese cooks.

Traditionally Chinese cooks did not have written recipes with directions that stipulated cooking temperatures, times, and quantities of ingredients. As one writer put it ‘[r]ecipes descended like heirlooms from one generation of cooks to another’.[8] Chinese cooks, whether professionally trained or self-taught, learnt by watching, listening, tasting, and smelling.[9] Apart from the obvious language barrier, there was no common culinary vocabulary. Early English language recipe compilations did not follow any standard transcription of the names for ingredients or dishes – sweet and sour pork could be called sweet and pungent pork, or simply fried pork with pineapple sauce, pineapple chicken was also common in contemporaneous recipe books and may or may not have included vinegar. The term ‘stir-fry’, to describe the process of quick frying cut up material with wet seasoning, over high heat with minimal oil and constant stirring, was not coined until 1945 (in Buwei Yang Chao, How to cook and eat in Chinese, New York: John Day). 

Language barriers led to misunderstandings and Australianisms. Sou San explains that the terms Long Soup, for soup with noodles, and Short Soup, for soup with dumplings, arose because Chinese restaurateurs struggled with how to interpret their names for these dishes to their customers, and of course vice versa:

In many cases the illiteracy of the proprietor prevented him from interpreting his menu, hence the birth of Long and Short Soup. The former is egg noodles, and the latter is minced pork and prawns wrapped in pastry, boiled and served in chicken soup.  [10]

Similarly, Yep Yung Hee explains that what passes for dim sims in Australia are called shiu mie by the Chinese and that dim sim is not the correct name for any particular type of pastry, although he admits that Australian born Chinese, including himself, refer to shiu mie as Dim Sims.[11]

Australian born, Geechoun, Sou San and Quoy had, in the main, learnt about what constituted Chinese food from watching, listening, tasting, and smelling in Australian kitchens.[12] Their experience of Chinese food was largely Australian Chinese food, so that their own tastes and the food they prepared for themselves were already ‘Australianized’. None of these authors were trained cooks. Alwyn Quoy is the only one who admits to having spent any length of time in China studying food preparation, although many of the observations in Sou San’s books suggest that he had a thorough knowledge of methods and ingredients and probably some experience of cooking.

While we might assume that the main aim of these books was to introduce non-Chinese cooks to the mysteries of Chinese cooking, William Sou San was also concerned that many Australian born Chinese had neither learnt to speak the language of their parents nor taken much interest in cooking their own food. He intended his work would assist those ‘who had a yearn for the food they had so long ago tasted, now almost forgotten’.[13] He was also no doubt aware that many of the Chinese ‘cooks’ who were sponsored to come to Australia and exempted from the dictation test, on the basis of being non-competitive labour, were in reality family members and other young men who had little or no kitchen experience. By the 1950s, the majority of cooks in Chinese restaurants, whether Australian-born or not, had likely learnt to cook from their elders in Australia, who in turn were reconstructing the food they remembered from home using what was available to them here.[14] Sou San’s book is significant in that it gives us a unique glimpse of not just the flavours that Australian Chinese yearned for, but also a record of what Chinese restaurants may have served to both their Chinese and non-Chinese customers. 

                    Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 11 September 1952, p. 18

All the authors admit that some substitution or compromise when it comes to ingredients is inevitable but insist that the end result is no less ‘Chinese’. The use of sherry or brandy instead of Chinese rice wine for example is common (which suggests that it may not have been available here). Others, such as the suggestion silver beet is a substitute for Chinese cabbage, or essence of anchovies might be an alternative to oyster sauce are not so much concessions to Australian tastes as acknowledging the availability of specific ingredients outside the shops in Chinatown.

Sou San claims that Chinese noodles were unknown in Australia before WW1 and spaghetti was sometimes suggested as an alternative until manufactured noodles became available in Chinese stores. Yep Yung Hee provides a compromise recipe for Pork with Broccoli and spaghetti – stir fried pork and broccoli in a sauce flavoured with soy sauce, ginger and garlic, served over lightly fried cooked spaghetti which is a fully Australianised version of chow mein.[15]

Perhaps the most adventurous use of available vegetables is Sou San’s Veal and Brussel Sprouts of which he says: ‘Brussel sprouts are sensitive vegetable’ and cautions never cook more than time specified, otherwise outcome 'disagreeable flavour’.[16] Similarly he warns never to overcook cauliflower or ‘a sloppy taste occurs’.[17] Sou San also hints at other issues Chinese cooks faced in making dishes the way they might have preferred when he notes that ‘Spare-ribs in Australia the butchers as a rule do not sell as it goes with pork-chops’ but ribs could be obtained through a direct approach to the butcher.[18]

Recipes for dishes using beef or lamb are more obvious examples of Australian-Chinese developing new tastes. Sou San claims that his beef dishes were not know in China when his forefathers came to Australia and so they developed them here, echoed by Yep Yung Hee who claims that beef was not normally eaten because the taste and odour are too strong.[19] Both comments point to the Cantonese ancestry of most Australian Chinese at this time and perhaps also to the state of Chinese agriculture when the gold rush Chinese migrated here.

For the most part the recipes provided by these authors are quite simple – they use a minimum number of ingredients and rely on subtle flavours, and of course the technique of stir frying. The purpose of these books was to demystify Chinese cooking and overcome suspicions and prejudices, not just about cooking in the home but eating in Chinese restaurants. This meant a balance between maintaining the mystique of the exotic and recipes that were approachable. For example, there are recipes for bird’s nest soup but not for chicken feet, nor much mention of offal which was fast disappearing from Australian kitchens. Before these books were published recipes for Chinese dishes had appeared sporadically in Australian newspapers, magazines and in other cookbooks and so ideas of what constituted both typical Chinese dishes and those that Westerners might be interested in – like chicken with almonds, fried rice, chop suey, eggs foo yung, and sweet and sour pork - were already well established.

The use of supposedly ‘non-Chinese ingredients’, such as tomato sauce and tinned pineapple in sweet and sour, are often conjured as examples of concessions to western sensibilities. Pineapple however was an established commercial crop in the east by the end of the nineteenth century and Jessie Norton’s Chop Suey cookbook from 1911 included a recipe for chop suey specifying a can of imported Chinese pineapple, which she described as ‘very fine in flavor’.[20] The adoption of tomato sauce and Worcestershire sauce is perhaps not so surprising since these products are themselves based on borrowings from the east. To imagine that Chinese food was somehow unchanging is to deny the fact that Chinese dishes had evolved over centuries through contact with non-Chinese sources absorbing both ingredients and methods of cooking. And of course it wasn’t just Chinese food that adapted to Australian conditions but pretty soon Australian food became ‘Chinesified’, to the extent that the Australian Women’s Weekly sanctioned the inclusion of soy sauce in the great Australian meat pie.

Chinese restaurant food has been much maligned as a bastardised version contrived to suit western tastes and bearing little relation to the food Chinese eat themselves. These books give us a glimpse of how Chinese Australians were able to sustain their food culture and adapt to their circumstances by shaping their own tastes. William Sou San believed that ‘half the interest of experimenting with Chinese cooking lies in adapting to your own judgement and its needs and taste’.[21] Roy Geechoun assured his readers that while the Chinese abroad may not always have all the ingredients he is used to, he still ‘manages to stick pretty closely to his national dishes’. Through adapting, he claimed ‘very tasty dishes can still be prepared with whatever foods are available, cooked in the Chinese way’ and overtime ‘these adaptations will be looked upon as true Chinese dishes’.[22]



[1] Roy Geechoun (1948), Cooking the Chinese Way, Melbourne: W. D. Joynt.

[2] Yep Yung Hee (1951), Chinese Recipes for Home Cooking, Sydney: Associated General Publications. Revised and enlarged (from 95 to 144 pages) in 1953 to include introduction covering Chinese customs, table etiquette, table setting, food service, conduct of banquets, role of food in celebrations, tools used in Chinese kitchen; Yep Yung Hee (1953), Chinese Recipes for Home Cooking, 2nd ed., Sydney: Horwitz. Reprinted annually from 1955 until 1963, then 1965, 1967 and ‘deluxe edition’ 1968

[3] See entry for Yip No Hung in Australian Dictionary of Biography Quoy served in the Airforce in World War II and received the OAM in 1997 for services to the community as foundation president of the Kittyhawk Squadron branch of the Royal Australian Airforce Association for over 40 years, and president of the 77 Squadron Association.

[4] William Sou San (1952), Chinese Culinary in Plain English, Brisbane: W. R. Smith and Patterson; William Sou San (1965), Chinese Culinary in Plain English, 2nd trans., Brisbane.

[5] First advertised Courier Mail (Brisbane), 13 October 1950, p. 4. Revised and enlarged (104 pages) 1952, ‘second translation’ (216 pages, completely rewritten). Details of Chinese ingredients, glossary with Chinese names, advice on utensils and how to eat. Richard Beckett (1984), Convicted Tastes: Food in Australia, Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, p. 164, ‘This engaging work sold as far as I know only in Chinatowns in various cities’

[6] Jessie Louise Norton (of the Chicago Inter-Ocean) (1911), Chinese cookery in the home kitchen, being recipes for the preparation of the most popular Chinese dishes at home, Detroit, Mich.; Chino-American Publishing Company.

[7] See Jacqueline M. Newman collection

[8] Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna (1914) Chinese and Japanese cook book, Chicago: Rand McNally and Company.

[9] Anne Mendelson (2016), Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey, New York, Columbia University Press, pp. 104-5.

[10] Sou San (1965), p. 157. See also Julia Robinson, suggests misunderstanding on part of customers.

[11] Yep Yung Hee suggests the term originates from the Cantonese dimsum which refers to an assortment of pies, buns and snacks served at the ‘Heart of the hour’. (1951, p.  40; 1953, pp. 73–74).

[12] Geechoun on the other hand worked with a chef to put together the recipes for his book and ensure that quantities of ingredients and cooking times were accurate. Geechoun (1948), p. 2).

[13] Sou San (1952), p. 11.

[14] Barbara Nicol (2012) ‘The Breath of the Wok: Melbourne’s Early Chinese Restaurants’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, p. 263.

[15] Yep Yung Hee (1953), p. 98.

[16] Yep Yung Hee (1952), p. 67.

[17] Yep Yung Hee (1952), p. 22.

[18] Sou San (1952), p. 43.

[19] Sou San (1952), p. 37; Yep Yung Hee (1951), p. 68; (1953), pp. 112.,113; Geechoun (1954), pp. 35, 37, 38, 43, 45.

[20] See also Mendelson p. 121, re. canned pineapple.

[21] Sou San (1965), p. 12.

[22] Geechoun (1954), pp. 5,6. 


Thursday, October 20, 2022

The story of the choko (Sechium edule) in Australia


The choko (Sechium edule) is a member of the same plant family as cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squashes. It is a pear shaped fruit with a deeply furrowed surface. It can be covered in prickles, and these become more pronounced as the fruit ages. The firm, crisp flesh is cream coloured, and contains a single seed.Every part of the plant is edible from the underground tuber to the leaves and the young tendrils.Today the choko, which goes by a number of different names (chocho, chuen, christophine, chow chow, mirliton), is widely cultivated in warm temperate climates, in Mexico where it is thought to have originated, throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, south-east Asia and China, India and Africa.The choko made its way to Australia in 1890 thanks to the Queensland Acclimatisation Society.


The nineteenth century has been described as a century of acclimatisation, a period when an intense scientific interest in the natural world, and in particular the natural environment of distant lands, fused with imperial zeal to foster a desire ‘to correct the unequal distribution of the earth’s natural productions’ and finish the work which nature appeared to have left incomplete.[1] The idea that plants and animals from other countries could thrive and be of benefit in other environments was certainly not new. In a general sense, as part of the network of empire, acclimatisation societies served to formalise an already established world-wide exchange of animals and plants.[2]


The first acclimatisation society was established in Paris in 1854 and thereafter similar groups were formed throughout the world - in London in 1860, in other European cities, and in the colonies such as India, Ceylon and Algeria.[3] The first in Australia was the Victorian Acclimatisation Society founded in 1861 and other states (New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia) quickly followed suit.[4]


The operations of individual acclimatisation societies depended in large part on the personal interests and inclinations of the membership and incidentally on their stance regarding the newly articulated and hotly debated theories of evolution. Scientifically acclimatisation in the nineteenth century meant the gradual adaptation of plants and animals to conditions which differed from their original habitat but the term was often used interchangeably with domestication, adapting wild plants and animals for human use, and naturalisation.[5] In Australia acclimatisation was generally understood as the practical science of naturalisation, that is the introduction of foreign animals and plants from climates and environments similar to those found here, and their subsequent successful rearing and propagation.[6]


Thanks to the influence of Edward Wilson, proprietor of the Melbourne Argus, ardent enthusiast for acclimatisation and the first president of the Victorian Society, all the local bodies adopted roughly the same rules and objectives, principally the collection, breeding, propagation and distribution of innoxious animals and plants, both foreign and indigenous, and the dissemination of the knowledge gained.[7]


Acclimatisation societies in general have borne the brunt of much criticism. In Australia the acclimatisation movement has been accused of a desire to reshape the land for ‘aesthetics and recreation’, for undervaluing the Australian environment and trying to make it into something more interesting or more familiar, and of course for their errors of judgement such as the introduction of mynar birds and sparrows. [8]


But this fault finding fails to recognise the societies also had an interest in indigenous flora and fauna and an underlying practical motivation. The naturalist, Dr George Bennett, who had a keen interest in understanding and protecting Australian fauna and had a long association with the Australian Museum, was an advocate of acclimatisation.[9] He saw it as a means of increasing the resources of the colony, expanding commerce, providing employment, and adding to the food choices available. Whilst we might take exception to his reasoning, he did recognise that native animals both needed to be protected and could be useful. While Bennett proposed the introduction of antelope as a source of meat, he also recommended indigenous sources such as kangaroo, wombat, bandicoot, wonga pigeon, and brush turkey as worthy of investigation with a view to commercialisation.[10] As Pete Minard has made clear in his study of the Victorian Society, acclimatisation in Australia focused on ‘engineering the local ecology for human benefit’ and this is particularly evident in the activities of the Queensland Acclimatisation Society.[11]


        The Queensland Society was established in 1862 at the instigation of the then Governor of Queensland Sir George Ferguson Bowen. It was granted land in Brisbane on which to conduct its investigations, which the Society imaginatively named Bowen Park. Given that Queensland had only recently become a self-governing colony it is hardly surprising that the society focused on making practical contributions to Queensland’s agricultural industry. Arguments in support of the society’s formation stressed its potential to aid in the development of the material resources of the colony and assist in establishing its prosperity.[12]


The gentleman of the Queensland Acclimatisation society did not completely disregard the introduction of animal species, but with a limited budget and small acreage at their disposal they soon concentrated their attention on economic botany.[13] Their principle aims became obtaining seeds, trees and plants with some intrinsic value and protecting and propagating the more valuable indigenous flora and distributing it both within the colony and to other countries.[14] The Queensland Acclimatisation society remained the principal government advisory body on agriculture until a Department of Agriculture was established in 1887. Although in decline both in membership and influence from then on, the Queensland society continued its activities until 1956, long after the enthusiasm for acclimatisation had waned and other Australian societies had been subsumed into zoological societies and the like.[15]


The mainstay of the Queensland Society was Lewis Adolphus Bernays (1831–1908).[16] Bernays was an enthusiastic amateur in as much as his day job was clerk of the Queensland Legislative Assembly from 1859 until his death in 1908. He served the acclimatisation society for thirty odd years as the first honorary secretary (1862–1868) and subsequently vice-president (1868–1881) and president (1890–1895). He was a prominent member of Brisbane society, a trustee of both the museum and the botanic gardens, and above all totally committed to the application of science in the interest of colonial progress. It was Bernays who grounded the objectives of the society in practical botany, his guiding principle being to confine the objects of the society to those of a ‘strictly utilitarian character’.[17]


In 1888 the then governor of Queensland, Sir Anthony Musgrave recommended the choko to Bernays and suggested he obtain samples from the director of the public gardens in Jamaica, where Musgrave had previously been governor. Bernays did so and a box of specimens was duly obtained, of which only two had survived the journey. In the care of the manager of Bowen Park these two ‘were nurtured into vigorous growth’ and, given that it had shown admirable adaption to the local climate, Bernays felt the ‘chocho’ was likely to become a useful addition to the local food plants as feed for both humans and animals.[18] As was the society’s usual practise samples were then sent far and wide to gardeners in Queensland and beyond, for them to experiment and determine the plant’s suitability for and adaptability to local conditions. But, as Bernays well knew the mere introduction and distribution of useful plants was not sufficient to ensure their successful commercial application.[19]


News of the choko and samples of the fruit appear to have spread almost as vigorously as the plant itself and in no time chokos were being exhibited at meetings of gardeners and beekeepers, and at agricultural shows, and were available to purchase at markets.[20] The choko quickly developed a reputation as hardy and prolific, a great attractor of bees when in flower, and all the more valuable because it could be ‘utilised on all lands to cover unsightly fences and buildings’.[21] By 1894 Mr Valder of Leichhardt, a Sydney suburb, who also happened to be the principal of Hawkesbury Agricultural College, reported that his one plant had covered 50 foot (that is around 15 metres) of fence and had yielded 3 to 4 dozen fruit every week from February through to June, some of which he had distributed to his neighbours, at least 20 of whom now had flourishing specimens of their own.[22]

Fred Turner, 'New Commercial Crops', Australian Town and Country Journal, 30 June 1894, p. 22


Initially this phenomenal plant was of more interest to horticulturalists than to cooks. But it was clear that it was unlikely to be a commercial success. A significant problem was that, to be at their best, chokos needed to be eaten when small and young, and ideally freshly picked. They did not store well, quickly shooting and toughening and becoming unpalatable as they get older.[23] Many of the specimens available in shops were old and stale so that ‘many housekeepers, tried them once or twice, and concluded they were no good’.[24] Its potential as a food for pigs does not appear to have been extensively explored and the suggestion that there might be export potential in pickled chokos seems to have been a flight of fancy.[25]


Another issue which none of the horticulturalists mentioned was what was referred to as ‘the juice of the choko’.[26] Everyone who handled chokos, would have been aware that peeling them left the hands covered in what was variously described as ‘a sticky fluid’ or ‘a disagreeable film’, which was difficult to remove.[27] William Souter, onetime overseer of Bowen Park and confederate of Bernays, lamented that the choko was not fully appreciated by the general public’ but stale, tough and slimy, it is little wonder that it was slow to gain popularity. [28]


While the plant naturalised happily in the garden its naturalisation in the kitchen took time. To be acceptable means had to be found of domesticating the choko, incorporating it into the diet in familiar ways which belied its foreign origins. Fortunately, the choko was sufficiently bland in flavour to be readily disguised. From the beginning the choko was recommended as an alternative to more familiar fare – it could be treated in the same way as marrow and could be made to substitute for pears or apples.[29] Mrs Hannah Maclurcan was an early adopter of the choko. The first edition of her eponymous cookbook, published in Queensland in 1898 (while she was resident in Townsville), included a recipe for chokos peeled, boiled in salted water until tender, sliced, dipped in egg, coated in breadcrumbs and fried.[30] But chokos were slow to make their way into recipe books. They do not rate a mention in either Mrs Foster Rutledge’s The Goulburn Cookery Book (1905) or Home Cookery in Australia (1904), compiled from recipes contributed by housekeepers. There are no uses for chokos in The Schauer Cookery Book published in 1909 by the Misses Schauer, who were teachers of cookery and domestic arts in Brisbane at the time. However, The Worker Cook Book, another complied collection published in 1914, did provide a recipe for Choko Pickles.[31]


Recipe exchanges in the women’s pages of the newspapers gradually established the principal ways of using chokos – fried à la Maclurcan; boiled and served plain with butter or with some sort of sauce, usually flavoured with parsley or cheese; stuffed with either a meat or vegetable stuffing; or used as a fruit extender or substitute – in apple pies in particular, or in preserves, either jam, chutney or pickles.[32] Pickled chokos for example were considered equal to pickled cucumbers. It was not the choko itself but what it could be made to represent that became its greatest attribute. 


Chokos finally came into their own from the 1920s and were common on tables throughout the depression and war years. Abundant and generally cheap if not freely available, they were particularly prized when other vegetables or fruit were expensive or in short supply. Cook Maggie Beer recollects that after WWII chokos were not necessarily available in shops but because so many people grew them, there was a glut every autumn and, since thrifty households did not waste anything, they were ‘a staple’.[33] In particular ‘Mock Apple Pie’ (involving stewed chokos, sweetened with sugar and flavoured with lemon juice) became familiar to many families. 


If one of the advantages of chokos was that they had 'no distinctive flavour of their own' finding imaginative savoury uses for them remained something of a challenge. [34] In 1937 Ruth Furst, the cookery expert for the Australian Women’s Weekly had few original ideas to suggest, but she did propose Choko Salad (cooked and mixed with mayonnaise or French dressing; or used as an alternative to potato in potato salad), Curried Choko and Choko Souffle.[35] As time went on however even the choko adapted to more sophisticated tastes and changing ideas of what families should be eating at home. 


By 1954 boiled chokos were served with Hollandaise sauce; chokos dressed with white sauce was now Choko Mornay; Stuffed Chokos had been transformed into Choko Farci, and last but not least there was Choko and Tuna Newburg (cooked choko halves topped with a white sauce flavoured with sherry to which was added a tin of tuna, served with fingers of hot buttered toast).[36] The Leila Howard test kitchen’s ‘20 Best Choko Recipes’ published in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1971[37] included, along with the more traditional ideas, exotica like Creamy Minted Choko Soup, Chokoes à la Polonaise, Choko and Zucchini Salad, and Chokoes with Pineapple. 


Chokos at last achieved culinary stardom, more than 100 years after first imported to Queensland, when Stephanie Alexander devoted a chapter to them in the second edition of her kitchen bible, The Cook’s Companion.[38] Alexander’s recipes for  Chinese-style Pickled Choko (with ginger and chilli), Mexican Choko Salad (cooked choko mixed with tomato and onion, dressed with lime juice, extra virgin olive oil and coriander), and Choko Sautéed Mauritian-style (with chilli, garlic and oregano) recognised the versatility of the choko while acknowledging its foreign origins and international acclimatisation. Perhaps most significantly Mock Apple Pie finally shook off its derisory title to revel in the name Choko Tart from Jamaica, although Alexander did note that prepared in this way, that is cooked with cloves and favoured with the juice and zest of limes, the choko was said to be indistinguishable from apple. Maggie Beer also challenged the stereotype of the now ‘delicate’ rather than tasteless choko with recipes for sautéed chokos in olive oil with fresh thyme and garlic, and raw choko salad–with crab and a dressing of coconut milk and lemon juice or with witlof, bacon, croutons and a vinaigrette flavoured with chervil. [39]


Although these new recipes dragged the choko into the twenty first century it was, sadly, too late. Not yet rediscovered as fashionable, the choko is now only rarely available to buy at the greengrocer or farmer’s market. Many people can still remember chokos growing rampant in the back yard but today choko vines have all but disappeared from suburban gardens for a number of reasons not least the greater choice of vegetables and fruit available in the marketplace, and the gentrification of the garden along with the disappearance of the outhouse over which the vine was proverbially grown. Not everyone remembers the choko fondly, partly because it was such a regular feature of mealtimes and remains a reminder of days of scarcity and hardship. 


The choko may not have fulfilled the hopes of the Queensland acclimatisation society but it has been absorbed into Australian culture in ways Bernays and his colleagues could not have anticipated. Since the choko’s reputation is forever tarnished by the association with ersatz food, in particular, mock pears and mock apple pies, two of the more persistent Australian urban myths are that canned pears are really sweetened chokos and that McDonalds use choko in their hot apple pies. And the choko vine’s vigour and ability to naturalise in the Australian back yard has given us this wonderful metaphor for someone or something totally hopeless or incompetent:

Original tea towel from Mount Vic and Me


[1] Warren Anderson, ‘Climates of opinion: acclimatization in nineteenth century France and England’, Victorian Studies, 32 (2), 1992, pp. 135-57, p. 135. Quote from Linden Gillbank, ‘A tale of two animals – Alpaca and Camel. Zoological shaping of Mueller’s botanic gardens’, Victorian Historical Journal, 67 (1), 1996, pp. 83-102, p. 85.

[2] Anderson, 136. Pete Minard, All things harmless, useful and ornamental: environmental transformation through species acclimatization, from colonial Australia to the world (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), p. 1.

[3] Acclimatisation societies were subsequently set up in Berlin, London (Society dated from 1860), Amsterdam, Brussels and Moscow and acclimatisation was an active interest of most zoological or botanical societies and institutes. Anderson, p 146.

[4] Tasmania 1862; South Australia 1864; Queensland 1862; NSW 1861.

[5] George William Francis, The acclimatisation of harmless, useful and interesting animals and plants: being a paper read before the Philosophical Society, Adelaide, South Australia on May 13th 1862 ‘The correct meaning of the word acclimatisation is evidently the process of rendering a plant or animal adapted to a climate different to that natural to it. If brought from a similar climate it may be introducing, domesticating, naturalising but not strictly acclimatisation.’ p. 5.

[6] Helen Clements, ‘Science and colonial culture: scientific interests and colonial institutions in Brisbane 1859–1900’ PhD thesis, Griffith University, 2019, pp. 97–98, quoted Dr George Bennett, 1872, Sydney naturalist.


[8] Thomas R. Dunlap, 'Remaking the land: the acclimatisation movement and Anglo ideas of nature', Journal of World History, 8 (2), 1997, pp. 303–319, p. 303. Peter Osborne, ‘The Queensland Acclimatisation Society: challenging the stereotype’, Queensland Historical Journal, 20 (8), 2008, pp. 337–50.


[10] Dr. George Bennett, Acclimatisation: Its eminent adaptation to Australiaa lecture delivered in Sydney by Dr. George Bennett, W. M. Goodenough & Co., Melbourne 1862 ‘p. 5. See also Minard, p. 23.

[11] Minard, p. 10.

[12] Queensland was self-governing from 1859. Osborne, p. 340; Brisbane Courier, 15 August 1862, p. 341; 7 April 1863, p. 2.

[13] Brisbane Courier, 4 February 1868 p. 3; Brisbane Courier, 31 August 1869, p. 3; Brisbane Courier, 17 January 1871, p. 2. 

[14] Clements, p. 105 


[17] Brisbane Courier, 4 February 1868, p. 3.

[18] See Telegraph (Brisbane) 11 February 1889, p. 3 ‘Acclimatisation Society’, for receipt of ‘box of seeds’; Brisbane Courier, 12 October 1889, p. 6 ‘Queensland Acclimatisation Society’ ‘the choko introduced last year from Jamaica has again commenced to grow vigorously’; Brisbane Courier, 14 June 1890, p. 6.

[19] Louis Bernays, Cultural Industries for Queensland, Brisbane: J. C Beal, 1888, preface.

[20] Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 May 1893, p. 3 (Field Naturalist’s Society), Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 29 July 1893, p. 4 (The Beekeepers Association); Macleay Argus, 7 March 1984, p. 5 (the Port Macquarie Agricultural Show); available to purchase The Cumberland Mercury, 28 July 1894, p. 1; Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 26 May 1894, p. 3; Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Advertiser, 12 May 1894, p. 6.

[21] Dungog Chronicle, 27 November 1894, p. 3.

[22] Australian Town and Country Journal, 30 June 1894, p. 22. 

[23] Wm Souter, Brisbane Courier, 25 February 1904, p. 2.

[24] Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May 1918, p. 7.

[25] Australian Town and Country Journal, 3 November 1894, p. 22.

[26] Queenslander, 26 October 1918, p. 30. 

[27] The Propeller (Hurstville), 26 October 1923, p. 7; Sunday Times (Sydney), 16 May 1926, p. 22. Suggested ways of overcoming the problem involved either peeling under water, smearing the hands with dripping before peeling, or cutting off the stem end of the fruit and allowing it to sit and ‘bleed’ before peeling. 

[28] See Australian Town and Country Journal, 3 November 1894, p. 22 suggesting pickling whole small fruit in brine and vinegar and the potential for this as an export product and Australian Town and Country Journal 23 November 1985, p. 25 suggesting consuming the young leaves of the choko.  William Souter to the editor Brisbane Courier, 25 February 1904, p. 2 re correspondence on ‘a phenomenal plant’.

[29] The Week (Brisbane), 27 May 1892, p. 3.

[30] Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery Book: A collection of practical recipes specially suitable for Australia, Hannah Maclurcan, Townsville, 1898. Recipe number 393.

[31] Mrs Foster Rutledge, The Goulburn cookery book, Sydney, 1905; Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union of Victoria, Home cookery for Australia, Melbourne: Arbuckle, Waddell & Fawckner, 1904; Miss A. and Miss M. Schauer, The Schauer cookery book, Brisbane: Edwards, Dunlop & Co., 1909; Mary Gilmore, The Worker cook book, Sydney: The Worker Trustees, 1915.

[32] See for example recipes supplied by Miss Amie Munro, lecturer in charge of the Domestic Science Department of Sydney Technical College, Sunday Times (Sydney), 16 May 1915, p. 6. ‘Delphia’ who wrote the Woman’s Corner for the Brisbane Courier advised readers that the usual fault with chokos was that they were not cooked for long enough and arrived at the table ‘hard and indigestible’. She recommended boiling for about an hour and serving with melted butter, or with parsley sauce. Brisbane Courier, 18 May 1901, p. 13. Recipes for Choko Pickles appeared in The Worker on 5 June 1913, p. 21 and 24 July 1913, p. 11.

[33] Maggie Beer, Maggie’s Harvest, Melbourne: Penguin, 2007, p. 66.

[34] The Queenslander, 27 October 1906, p. 4.

[35] AWW, 1 May 1937, p. 39 ‘New food values found in chokos’.

[36] The Farmer and the Settler, 30 April 1954, p. 22.

[37] Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 November 1971, pp. 79–81. ‘Chokoes’ is the preferred spelling in AWW.

[38] Stephanie Alexander, The Cook’s Companion. The complete book of ingredients and recipes for the Australian kitchen, Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 321–325.

[39] Maggie Beer, Maggie’s Harvest, Melbourne: Penguin, 2007, pp. 66–68.