MELBOURNE -- There's more to Australian native foods than witchetty grubs and kangaroo meat.
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.
[caption id="attachment_7063" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Some Acacia wattle seeds contain toxins and should not be eaten."]
Warrigal Greens (tetragonia tetragonoides)
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.
“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.
Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University.
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Lieu does not have financial holdings that would influence how or what she covers.
She writes for SmartPlanet and is not an employee of CBS.
Thanks for bringing attention to Australian Native Bush Food. So many yet to be regularly available food sources in this great land. I've been cooking with bush food for the past 4 years and still there is plenty waiting to be discovered.
Thanks for your comments. I am keen to encourage people to grow their own bush foods rather than harvest from bushland. There could be good opportunities for aboriginal people to set up cooperatives.
Finger limes are subtropical and need more water in summer and protection from hot and cold winds. It can be difficult grow plants away from their native lands.
I welcome any other questions.
Plants like the kakadu plum may have extraordinary nutritional or medical properties, but this knowledge puts them at risk of overexploitation. Aborigines and to some extent everyone living out "in the bush" depend on foraging for these kinds of native vegetation. Unregulated commercial exploitation, or even competition from city folk, can significantly harm folk for whom these are a critical part of their subsistence.
Overexploitation needs to be assessed in ecological terms also. Can the plant community withstand increased exploitation? What is a sustainable harvest level?
Domestication is the best route, whereby this kind of plant resource can be made much more widely available without adversely impacting the wild population or those who depend on it. But as Sarah noted, that isn't always easy to pull off. Finding the right variations to establish viable cultivars and discovering suitable cultivation techniques may take more effort than it is worth.
I live in Texas, and anything drought resistant is a good here, since global warming is killing everything else. I once grew some Ceder Bay Cherry from seed only to find it tasted just like cheap barbaque sauce; so anyone exporting bush food plants please go for the good cultivars. I have a finger lime, but it is techy and hard to please here.