MELBOURNE –- In the 1980s there was a show called Bush Tucker Man, featuring an Aussie outback adventurer called Les Hiddins (a MacGyver meets Bear Grylls character) who impressed us with his passionate knowledge of Indigenous foods. While it was compelling to watch Hiddins survive off the land, for most Australians (city dwellers especially), this was a remote and exotic concept.
Today, the reality of eating from the land is much more palatable, especially with the recent spate of respectable magazines touting foraging as a big food trend. At this year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, foraging (along with fermentation) was a hot topic. Chef Ben Shewry, a quiet trailblazer in the Melbourne food scene, spoke in length about finding edible wild plants and foods.
But just how edible are these native foods?
In Australia, we colloquially refer to our native foods as “bush tucker.” Australia’s Aboriginal inhabitants have been eating off the land for centuries. As an environment that sustains them, they treat the land as a fundamental part of their wellbeing. Australians today have much to learn from their traditional practices.
But if you think bush tucker is about witchetty grubs, you’d better not tell that to Julie Weatherhead, an Indigenous food expert and environmental scientist. She rolls her eyes every time the edible insects are mentioned. She’s somewhat frustrated with how little Australians know about their native foods.
On the Melbourne food scene, bush tucker has enjoyed something of a niche market, with lemon myrtle and warrigal greens the most well known of Indigenous foods. Lilli pilli jam and native pepper are two more, but more likely to be found in boutique shops and high-end restaurants.
“Chefs don’t really learn about it in their hospitality courses,” Weatherhead says. “They put a bit of lemon myrtle into something and call it Indigenous food. Some aren’t game enough to put it in their dishes, so the flavours are really mild and you’re not sure what you’re eating.”
Weatherhead points out the misconception that Australian native foods are primitive. She says that the Aborigines have been living long, healthy lives for centuries, due to their incredible connection, understanding and respect for the land.
Of course, there are native animals that are edible too (such as kangaroos, crocodiles and emus), but Weatherhead prefers to educate us on the wonders of Australia’s native flora world.
Julie and her husband, Anthony Hooper, live and work on their eight hectare Peppermint Ridge Farm in West Gippsland, (about an hour’s drive out of Melbourne). They’ve been running food tours, and land and sustainability courses since 1996.
An ecologist with a degree in environmental science and education, Weatherhead dedicates an area of the farm as her “Living Classroom”, to educate people on the multiple uses of bush tucker.
“The joy of bush foods is that they don’t taste like anything you’ve ever tasted before,” she says.
A few examples include the aniseed myrtle, which tastes a little like liquorice tea (when combined with hot water); strawberry gum, a mix of passionfruit and strawberry flavours; and warrigal greens, a sort of mash-up between spinach and basil.
However, there’s a lot more to these natives than just surprising flavours.
Weatherhead explains that the leaves from the unusual fruit “kangaroo apple” contain the same chemical composition as the female hormone progesterone. The fruit itself has the same chemical as oestrogen.
“We know that the Aborigines used the leaves as a sort of Morning After pill to prevent pregnancy, but we are not sure whether they used the fruit for contraception purposes or to alleviate menopause symptoms,” she says.
One of the other commonly known native foods in Australia is warrigal greens, a spinach-like plant eaten by European pioneers, when they first arrived in Australia in 1770. Captain Cook encouraged his men to eat the vegetable to prevent scurvy.
However, not all Indigenous plants are safe. For example, some wattle seed varieties (there are many) are actually poisonous when eaten raw, as they contain high amounts of arsenic.
When it comes to health benefits, Australian native plants come up on top.
Dr Izabela Konczak, a food scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is researching the composition of major phytochemicals (chemical produced by plants) from native fruits, spices and herbs.
“Native Australian plants have developed in unique climatic conditions,” she explains. “They were exposed to an Antarctic climate and then later to drought. These extreme conditions have led to the accumulation of compounds that have helped plants to survive, and research has already shown that these compounds possess health-promoting properties too.”
Dr Konczak and her team found very rich sources of antioxidants in many of the native plants and fruits, including the kakadu plum, which has six times the antioxidants to that of a single blueberry.
“Kakadu plum appears as a fruit with clearly identified anti-inflammatory properties,” Dr Konczak reports.
“We also found that extracts of many fruits and herbs inhibits the activities of enzymes responsible for the digestion of sugars and fats. Therefore, potentially, if we drink herbal infusions made of these fruits/herbs, it can slow down the digestion of sugars and fats, which subsequently will reduce their uptake into bloodstreams,” she says.
Though the results are positive so far, Dr Konczak is careful to point out that these studies are still at in-vitro level. With further research, she hopes to fully reveal the remarkable potential of these Australian native superfoods.