Indigenous Australian food goes far beyond damper and a few insects. Which makes sense when you consider that Aboriginal people have been surviving and thriving in Australia for at least 60,000 years – they may have the oldest continuous culture on the planet. And who can go that long without something good to eat? The surprisingly diverse array of food is there – it just doesn’t look like anything you see on supermarket shelves. It’s why newly arrived Europeans slowly starved to death eating their mouldering hard tack, while Indigenous Australians thrived close by.
This food – an array of exceptionally interesting ingredients – could be the key to giving indigenous cultures more mainstream visibility and acceptance, while also establishing a real Australian cuisine (one that goes beyond Vegemite and pav). Eating our way to a good deed? That’s what we call a win/win.
Adding bush tucker to your menu could be the edge you’re looking for – it’s something new which jaded local palates are crying out for. And it also gives the tourists something to email home about. Who knows? Bunya could be to Australia what pizza is to Italy.
Locally-sourced food also means low environmental impact – no food miles, and since the plants and animals have adapted to the harsh conditions, there’s far less need for farming interventions.
What is ‘Aboriginal food’ anyway?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Australia is quite big. So, it’s not really surprising that indigenous diets varied from region to region. Coastal groups ate a lot of seafood, while people in the desert went after insects and reptiles.
Traditionally, men hunted for the land and sea animals, while women sourced and foraged for nuts, fruit, vegetables, spices, small animals and insects.
Meat – bugs and beyond
Animal proteins were found in a variety of sources. Familiar fish, eels, mud crabs, barramundi, water birds and scrub fowl were staples. But almost anything that moved was fair game — the lemony ants, bone-marrow-mushroomy grubs, nutty roasted moths, beetles, even cassowary were part of the diet. The goanna, which tastes like oily chicken, was treasured for the rich yellow fat – super moisturising on dry skin.
Kangaroos and emus were commonly eaten, as were crocodiles, carpet snakes, rats, turtles and echidnas.
Every Aussie knows the nutty-tasting witchetty grub, which you can roast or eat raw. But the insect diet extended beyond that – from caterpillars (which can taste like anything from bacon to meaty vegetables) to asparagus-y cicadas and rich creamy grubs. Green ants and their white larvae can be ground into a drink that tastes of lemons and gives Panadol a run for its money.
Fruits, vegetables and nuts
While some plants are easily understood as food, like bush tomatoes, wild limes, sea celery and bush potatoes, there is a raft of unfamiliar (and therefore exciting) flavours and textures: chocolate-y, coffee-ish wattle seeds, the sour quandong, tart rosella flowers, the chestnut-like bunya nuts, sweet piney Illawarra plums, warrigal greens with complex spinach bitterness, spiced-apple muntries, and the sweet-sour gooseberry-like Kakadu plums. Lemon myrtle, native basil, ginger and pepper made for extra deliciousness, and were also used medicinally.
Preparation and cooking techniques
Some native Australian foods can be highly toxic unless they’re prepped properly. For instance, cycad fruit needs to be soaked, then cooked, to be anything but deadly.
The peanut-y-tasting seeds from kurrajong were collected, ground finely and then cooked to make bush bread, now colloquially referred to as damper. Meat was prepared and then cooked in pits. Fish could be wrapped in paperbark and cooked on hot coals. Tree gums were dissolved in water, mixed with honey, and turned into sweets.
And the famous witchetty grub? Eat it raw for an almond-flavoured liquid centre or cook it on a BBQ for a chicken-like crispy skin with a chewy interior.
Bush tucker on the menu
There’s an increasing nod towards local foods in the hospo scene. Kangaroo grass, native millets and murrnong are being grown for commercial use, but some Australian chefs are doing more to bring these fascinating ingredients into the mainstream.
In Melbourne, Attica is about sustainability and locally-sourced ingredients. A range of local fare includes crabs, wattle, and bunya, turned into delicious and surprising cuisine. Black-ant lamingtons, anyone?
The chefs at Ochre combine modern cooking techniques with the food wisdom imparted from the indigenous people and culture of the region: Tempura Gulf bugs with sweet chilli lemon myrtle, char-grilled kangaroo with quandong chilli glaze, and wattle-seed pavlova with Davidson plum sorbet and macadamia biscotti.
The Orana Foundation and Orana restaurant
Chef Jock Zonfrillo has been working to bring more Indigenous Australian food to the table (quite literally). And that’s gone beyond building menus around indigenous ingredients at his restaurant, Orana. We’d be satisfied with just getting to eat the food (crocodile soup, Marron, Geraldton wax and green tree ants, and set buffalo milk with eucalyptus), but he isn’t.
His goal is bigger than that – to revolutionise the country’s food culture, while also preserving and celebrating indigenous knowledge. At its heart, the Orana Foundation is dedicated to supporting and promoting indigenous communities, with projects that inherently involve and benefit them.
The Native Australian Foods Database is an ongoing project that records ingredients, where they’re found, and their properties and uses (in food, medicine and culture).
Australian Food Culture Enterprise, their R&D arm, is focussed on finding more contemporary uses for traditional ingredients, and the Innovation and Enterprise hub promotes the use of native Australian ingredients in a range of commercial opportunities. The financial benefits from these go back into Indigenous Australian enterprises and communities.
The hope is that more education and understanding from the mainstream won’t just change the way Australians eat, but also how they see and involve indigenous communities.
How can you ride the Aussie foods bandwagon?
Welcome aboard. Incorporating local ingredients into your menu doesn’t have to be huge and revolutionary. Start with accessible flavours like lemon myrtle and kangaroo – and go from there. You’ll give your diners and your kitchen team a chance to build up to the experience, as you add more interesting cooking techniques and ingredients.
It’s not easy being an early adopter, especially if there’s historical reticence, or race issues. But it’s well worth it. You’ll be celebrating Australia, contributing to the position of Indigenous Australians in mainstream society, and part of creating a truly unique cuisine. Do it right and your diners will also thank you for an experience outside of the lamb and pav Aussie mainstays.
A bit of kurrajong flour here, some murnong there and you’re connecting to the newest Aussie food trend, that also happens to be 60,000 years old.