Vegemite stirs up debate - this time in the form of a Tom & Serg milkshake
If there is one foodstuff that can divide people, it’s Vegemite – the Australian creation revered Down Under, but reviled by much of the rest of the planet.
The salty and malty dark-brown paste made from brewer’s-yeast extract has copped some notable flak over the years. The US president Barack Obama reportedly dubbed it “horrible”. One Direction’s Niall Horan spat his sample out on live TV. And just last week, baffled Manchester City football captain Vincent Kompany asked “do I rub it into my skin?” when presented with a jar.
However, Vegemite remains a source of national pride to Australians. A study last year found that 45 per cent of them consumed the lumpy paste in the course of an average week – normally smearing it on bread for breakfast.
That’s a whopping 6.5 million people – or 85 per cent of all global Vegemite buyers.
But even those dedicated fans would agree that the idea of mixing the bitter, salty concoction into a milkshake is, if not plain revolting, more than a little weird.
Yet this is what chef Tom Arnel, the Australian co-founder of trendy Dubai cafe Tom & Serg, has invented. And he believes it’s a world-first. “Vegemite is part of Australian folklore,” says Arnel, when I stopped by to try the shake on a recent weekday morning. “I would say 70 to 80 per cent of Australians eat it every day for breakfast.”
Rich in umami, Vegemite also forms the base of many savoury sauces for Aussies – from gravy with a roast dinner to bolognese sauce. All the more reason why it makes a controversial addition to a milkshake.
“But why?” snaps Arnel. “When I was a kid I would only eat Vegemite every morning for breakfast – and I would only eat a chocolate milkshake in the afternoon. Now I’ve come so far and worked out it’s possible to mix them together.”
Arnel got the idea after an Aussie colleague returned home with a new blend of Vegemite-flavoured Cadbury’s chocolate, launched last month. “I thought it was a joke,” admits the chef, “but I was totally intrigued. We all tried it together”.
After I ask nicely, Arnel shows me how the shake is made. The bittersweet shake is based on a syrup-like sauce made from a mix of Vegemite and milk chocolate, and then frothed up with milk and vanilla ice cream – like any milkshake.
He compares the resulting mix to a salted-caramel shake – and the taste is certainly not all that dissimilar. Yet there remains a heavier, heartier aftertaste that may still stoke continental divides.The 29-year-old entrepreneur’s faith in his national pastime is unwavering. Arnel estimates the Al Quoz venue has sold 200 jars of the brew since it was introduced just two weeks ago. He also lets slip plans for a Vegemite sundae and shares aspirations to try a Vegemite brownie and soufflé. “People have been freaking out – and not just Australians, it’s everybody,” he adds. “When you do something no one expects they go crazy – people may say ‘what are you doing?’ – but then they all want to try it.”
Really? I put Arnel to the test by ambushing some unsuspecting punters with the Dh24 speciality. “It tastes like a chocolate milkshake with a Vegemite twist,” says Mila Hyman, initially confounded. A second sip wins the South African photographer over. “It’s very subtle – smart, Tom, very smart – salted caramel is so yesterday.”
Caz Vojdani, a British expat on holiday in Dubai, says she had been converted to Vegemite after spending the past two years living in Sydney.
“I have Vegemite every morning on toast,” says the 29-year-old. “I tried Vegemite chocolate the other day and it just tasted wrong – I didn’t like it at all. But I like this.”
Her husband Yasha, also from the United Kingdom and living in Sydney, has been less quick to adapt to the Antipodean palate.
“I avoid Vegemite and buy Marmite – even though it costs four times as much,” says the 30-year-old transport consultant of the thinner rival spread from Britain. “I’ve never seen anything like this, even in Australia. It’s pretty special.
“I was expecting a savoury taste. The fact it didn’t have chocolate in the name made me really nervous – but I think they could pack more of a punch.
“I think you could get a bit more Vegemite in the recipe.”
I’m with you, Yasha – time to turn up the volume, Arnel.
Tom & Serg is at Al Joud Centre, Al Quoz, Dubai (near Ace Hardware). Visit www.tomandserg.com or call 056 474 6812
Updated: July 27, 2015 04:00 AM