Gold rush fare: tea and damperGold was discovered in New South Wales in 1851, initiating Australia’s first gold rush. Subsequent discoveries in Victoria attracted immigrants from all over the world, including many from China. Food on the gold fields was largely mutton and damper, but Chinese cookshops also played a role.

The gold rush had a significant impact on food supplies in Australia. Many rural labourers deserted their jobs on farms to go searching for gold. This affected the production of locally grown food. In addition, the population swelled, creating higher demand. Sheep were driven to the gold fields, so mutton remained relatively cheap. However, most other foodstuffs needed to be imported.

Initially, food on the gold fields was heavily based on meat and flour, although these were later supplemented with some canned goods and pickles.  Shop-keepers operated out of tents or hawked their wares around the diggings, and many have commented that these merchants often made more money than the miners.

At first, miners were not supposed to grow vegetables as they did not have tenure over the land they mined. However, as early as 1853, a report to the Victorian government recommended that miners be permitted to cultivate a vegetable plot.

Many Chinese immigrants, originally lured by gold, became market gardeners or opened cookshops on the goldfields. One of the earliest Chinese restaurants was opened by John Alloo at Ballarat in 1854. Most offered English-style as well as Chinese food. Chinese hawkers sold vegetables door to door and played an important role in feeding Australians.