The price of soy

by | Jan 26, 2012 | food, income

What’s the difference between egg noodles topped with a tomato based sauce and those swimming in soy?  In Melbourne: about $8.

In the world of comparative food pricing, geographical heritage is possibly the the leading variable.

After finding my new favourite cheap Italian in Melbourne, Macaronni Tratoria, I wondered why there is a lack of Italian or European cuisine in general, available for under $15 in a city where one can easily chow down about 12 dumplings for $7, deliciously filling pho for $8, or a tasty stir fry for under $10.

Acknowledging that all cuisines are well represented in the higher end of the price spectrum, it is the lower end where the regional focus narrows.

The link does not appear to be based on the wealth of the country where the food originates.  East Asia cuisine is widely available cheaply, regardless of the wealth of the country of origin.  Both Singapore and Japan enjoy higher GDPs per capita than France, not to mention Italy or Spain, which are more in line with Hong Kong, yet donburis and some Singaporean dishes are widely available in single digits.

Some African cuisine appears to follow the East Asia formula, especially the delicious Ethiopian places setting up shop in Footscray.  These aren’t quite as cheap as their Asian counterparts, but certainly lean towards the same end of the spectrum. Latin Americans on the other hand appear to ignore this unspoken pricing initiative.  Even prior to the current wave of Mayan idolisation with Mamasita’s, the Newmarket Hotel and even Movida’s Paco’s Tacos all trying to make a few pesos, Mexican food wasn’t as cheap as I would have expected.  A cheesy Mexican night out with a Burrito and an Enchilada (or any other combination of rice, beans and finely chopped meat you can make up) will cost you the equivalent of sponsoring a child in Guatemala for a month.  Argentinian restaurants are true to their over-inflated sense of wealth, priced equivalently to the average European restaurant, if not higher (though the sample size is relatively tiny to draw any real conclusions).

So what is impacting these menus?

Presumably the Melbourne City Council is not subsidising restaurants’ rent according to their cultural heritage.  Produce is available in the open market and doesn’t include tariffs depending on the purchaser; and industrial relations laws, much like justice, is allegedly blind (at least until proven otherwise).  These three variables (rent, staff and produce) take care of the largest percentages of a restaurant’s outgoings, so why the large discrepancy when it comes to costs?

Why is one empanada worth three samosas, one ravioli = two gyoza, and one croquette = four fufu?!

(Ok, the empanadas I completely understand: they’re the reason tastebuds evolved.)

Eating out in Australia is relatively expensive. This is probably in part due to our equitable standards of living, with minimum wage being set much higher than in most other similarly wealthy countries, at $15.50 per hour.  In fact, I couldn’t find any country with a higher legislated minimum wage, with Luxembourg probably coming the closest ($13.20), while most other countries being a distance behind*.  These, in combination with the current high rental prices, probably prop up our dining costs, but somehow East Asian cuisine manages to break the mold.

It’ll be interesting to see how this changes as Australia’s demographics change, and what impact it has on our eating habits, but for now, I’m happy to enjoy what is on offer.

Ita daki mas!!

* For wealth and culturally similar comparisons: Canada’s minimum wage is around $9.30 /hour (depending on province); UK’s $8.95; USA $6.80…  (all in AU$)