In her book Bold Palates, Barbara Santich writes that Kangaroo Steamer was first described by naval officer and author Charles Jeffreys who, in 1820, published Geographical and Descriptive Delineations of the Island of Van Diemen’s Land . The dish was very popular in colonial Australia and was comprised of kangaroo meat with pork or bacon and various spices, packed into a tightly sealed jar and steamed in a cooking pot. The fatty bacon or pork compensated for the rather dry texture of the lean kangaroo meat.
As several food historians have pointed out, in early colonial days white settlers were quite prepared to take advantage of local game to supplement their diets. Kangaroo tail soup was among the dishes regularly prepared, with one account suggesting that if a lady were present at a kangaroo hunt, the tail of the beast should be presented to her for soup-making.
The recipes for kangaroo were based on traditional English cookery. Kangaroo-tail soup was akin to ox-tail soup, while kangaroo steamer was based on jugged hare. Santich quotes Jeffreys, who described a meal which “consisted of the hind quarters of a kangaroo cut into mince-meat, stewed in its own gravy, with a few rashers of salt pork, this dish is commonly called a steamer.”
In 1837, the wife of the governor of Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) described a dinner she attended at which a steamer was served:
Excellent dinner [at the Commandant, Captain Booth’s cottage], kangaroo soup ? [questionable], but steamer excellent. Is made by layer of pork then layer of thin bits of kangaroo, sprinkled with fine pot herbs, or what is better with nutmeg and so on, made into a round, like a small fillet of veal, no water, but steamed by its own gravy – was very good.
In this case, it appears the steamer was rolled up rather than being presented as minced, potted meat.
It seems the steamer was particularly popular in Tasmania, but it was mentioned in accounts of New South Wales as early as 1827. Edward Abbott, the author of Australia’s first home-grown cookery book published in 1864, gave three recipes for kangaroo steamer.