What a wonderful realisation it is that, regardless of age, geography and passport stamps collected, there remain flavours that have yet to grace our tastebuds. What’s even more exciting is that these same ingredients are grown on none other than home soil, are quietly weaving their way onto restaurant menus, and are lovingly cultivated by a South Australian couple with uncharacteristically big hearts.
Once the last thing to be found on an artfully plated dish in a high-end restaurant, bush foods are now being enthusiastically sautéed, stuffed, fried and served to white-clothed tables at some of Australia’s best known eateries.
Helping to graft indigenous ingredients onto the menu are Gayle and Mike Quarmby of Outback Pride, who, from their expanding Reedy Creek Nursery in South Australia and far-flung Indigenous communities, supply our top chefs with tonnes of salt bush leaves, tangy warrigal greens and other native produce each year.
Cashing in their superannuation in 2001, Mike, a commercial horticulturalist, and his wife, Gayle, travelled the lonesome roads deep into the outback to find the frontier of native bush foods. They were embarking on what became an enormous philanthropic project. Their vision, to give Aboriginal communities the means and education by which to sustain themselves economically from Indigenous foods, was a journey of real altruism that blossomed from a need to create something positive from the passing of their adult son.
Arriving dusty and undaunted in desert towns, the Quarmbys sought out the knowledge of the traditional caretakers of bush foods. Aboriginal elders guided Mike and Gayle in finding and cultivating the species, many of which were barely clutching to life in the arid earth after decades of decimation by feral and grazing animals. The Quarmbys’ unique travelling horticultural band spent the following five years rattling along desert roads from town to town, nurturing species back to vigour and developing growing systems to help communities tend and harvest the plants.
More than a decade later, Indigenous communities interested in taking part in Outback Pride are given plants from Reedy Creek Nursery to tend on small plots. The harvests are then bought by the Quarmbys and made into sauces, cordials and herb mixtures under the Outback Pride label. In order for Indigenous people to have free and exclusive use of the Reedy Creek Nursery varieties, the plants are protected by DNA fingerprinting, ensuring they won’t be patented by non-Indigenous growers. 'We get a continuous barrage of people wanting to buy bush food plants from us, but that would defeat the purpose of what we spent so much time and money on: to give Indigenous people a leg up and an advantage in an area where they rightfully should be the masters," explains Mike.
The communities are able to feast on the produce as much they like. In some towns, the school bus collects kids from the bush food plots, their pockets bulging with nutritional fruits to sustain them through the day. In this sense, Outback Pride is much more than an enterprising endeavour, it also connects communities to their ancestral roots and enriches often poor diets with some of nature's most effective super foods.
Scattering nutritional facts through conversations as though he’s planting seeds, Mike is eager to pass on the rich health benefits of the known 2,500 native species. One of Outback Pride’s harvests from the plots is the pea-size kutjera. Extolling its virtues in one breath, Mike says, 'It holds 10 times the vitamin C of an orange and four times the antioxidants of blueberries." He pauses briefly before continuing with next item on his list of nourishing plants, "Salt bush has 21 per cent protein and is full of magnesium and calcium. It’s much better than rocket!"
With our modern hunger for natural super foods, it’s a wonder we haven’t all been clambering to stuff as many of these desert-dwelling gems into our diets as we can. But Quarmby believes there’s still a level of cultural squeamishness that’s left bush foods languishing in the footnotes of outback survival guides. 'There was the idea that Australian native food was something you ate when you were starving in the bush and it tasted terrible, and that wasn’t very helpful," he says.
It’s been a gradual evolution to see bush foods emerge from their somewhat unglamorous pupal stage. But that’s changing faster than the Quarmbys can sow their in-demand salt bush leaves. Fine-dining menus around the country are budding with new native-inspired dishes.
Numbering among the apostles of the bush food movement is Sydney chef Kylie Kwong, who daubs her Chinese-style dishes with native flavours at her ethically aware restaurant, Billy Kwong. 'In the beginning, I was using only two native ingredients, now I have about eight to nine on the menu at any one time. I can’t get enough of them," says Kwong, who, among her Indigenous-inspired offerings, serves such delights as crispy organic salt bush cakes and red-braised caramelised wallaby tail with fresh quandongs.
You’ll also find native foods peppered on the menus of Sydney’s Quay and Neil Perry’s Spice Temple, Rockpool and Rockpool Bar and Grill. And at Marque, next door to Billy Kwong, chef Mark Best is a convert: 'Mark ordered my stir-fried yabbies with chilli caramel, lemon aspen sauce and then the next day, he contacted Gayle and Mike," says Kwong.
In Melbourne, diners at chef Ben Shewry’s acclaimed restaurant, Attica, can enjoy native fruits of Australia. While at hot, new Sydney establishment, Mr Wong’s, chef Dan Hong tosses a few warrigal greens in the wok to serve alongside traditional Chinese fare.
With such wholehearted adoption of our native fruits and vegetables in some of the country’s best kitchens, the bulging Reedy Creek Nursery has been forced to commandeer a neighbouring paddock to keep up with our growing appetite. The Quarmbys no longer take to the road visiting outback communities; after driving more than 750,000 kilometres and planting around half-a-million bush food plants, they’ve parked the car and, instead, pick up the phone when their advice is needed. 'We’ve proved the model works incredibly well but, without government funding, there’s only so much two people can do. In the meantime, we’re plodding along and doing our best," says Quarmby.
There’s still a way to go before we all start piling natives onto our plates. Not everyone knows what to do with all those peculiar-sounding ingredients or how to fold them into usual repertoires. But, with each bush food added to restaurant menus, new palates are awakened by their enlivening flavours. 'From a simple cook’s perspective, these ingredients are incredibly delicious, each with its own outstanding, unique and individual flavour," says Kwong.
For Mike Quarmby, though, you get the sense he’d be just as happy chomping into a bush banana, plucked fresh from an outback plot and popping with snow pea flavour, as he would dining on salt bush at a trendy eatery.
Bush tucker glossary
Don’t know your Kakadu plums from your kutjera? A bush banana that tastes like snow peas, and passion berries that taste like caramel? Check out our bush tucker glossary.
Burdekin plums are closely related to mangoes.
Uses Eat this plum raw, added to salads or even use to make wine and liqueurs.
Where to find Tropical Queensland and Papua New Guinea.
Brush cherries have a pink blush and a crisp, refreshing texture.
Uses Eat them fresh or serve in a fruit salad or use to make jams.
Where to find Sub-tropical Queensland and New South Wales.
Bush cucumber is a vine-bearing small, green fruit. It was enjoyed by Aboriginal people for its great flavour and also because it keeps well once picked.
Uses Delicious in salads, relishes and pickles.
Where to find Western Queensland and south-east Northern Territory.
Cedar Bay cherries have a delicious soft, sweet flesh and range in size from cherry pips to cumquats.
Uses These cherries are tasty eaten as they are, but can also be added to sweets.
Where to find These abound in tropical Queensland and Papua New Guinea.
Davidson’s plums grow on palm-shaped trees and have a sharp, sour flavour.
Uses This plum is great in sauces, jams and marinades and can also be used to make liqueurs.
Where to find Sub-tropical New South Wales and north-east Queensland.
Desert lime is a true citrus and has a slightly sour taste and juicy flesh. It looks like a small lemon, with pock-marked rind.
Uses Its tartness makes it perfect in jams and marmalades, in marinades for seafood and it is also delicious as a sorbet.
Where to find South-western Queensland and western New South Wales, with a small pocket of habitat in the southern Flinders Ranges in South Australia.
Finger limes (red and yellow) are so-called due to their elongated shape. They have a lovely lime flavour and are full of caviar-like jewels of juice.
Uses Make a dressing for seafood, particularly oysters, and add to cocktails.
Where to find South-east Queensland and northern New South Wales.
Illawarra plum (also known as Daalgaal and Gidneywallum) has bright purple fruit and a plum wine flavour.
Uses Add the plums to desserts, such as tarts or cakes, or use to make jams.
Where to find Sub-tropical eastern New South Wales and Queensland.
Kakadu plums have been identified as the richest source of vitamin C on the planet. That’s 50 times the concentration found in oranges!
Uses In jams, syrups and sauces.
Where to find Kakadu Wetlands in the Northern Territory.
Kutjera is also known as the desert raisin or bush tomato and is part of the tomato family. Of the 100 varieties of wild tomatoes in Australia, only six are edible. Kutjera are full of vitamin C and are a rich source of potassium.
Uses Kutjera can be made into sauces and relishes, and dried and added to herb mixtures.
Where to find Central desert areas, from Northern Territory to South Australia.
Lemon myrtle is a versatile herb with a fresh, lemon-lime flavour. It can be ground and dried or used fresh.
Uses It’s perfect for adding to sauces and marinades for a fragrant lift and also works well with sweets, such as cakes and sorbets.
Where to find Sub-tropical coastal areas of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.
Marsdenia (also known as the bush banana, kurgula, langkwe or myakka) has many edible parts, from the avocado-shaped fruit that tastes similar to snow peas to the stem, young leaves and even the sap.
Uses The young leaves are great in salads while the fruit is delicious boiled and tossed with butter, pepper and herbs.
Where to find In arid areas from Kalgoorlie to the far east coast.
Molucca raspberries look very much like European varieties and have a soft, sweet flesh.
Uses As you would regular raspberries, in jams and sweets.
Where to find Sub-tropical areas of Australia.
Mountain pepper (also called Tasmanian pepper) is much like regular pepper, however both the pepperberries and the leaves are edible.
Uses You can use mountain pepper as you would any other pepper. The dark berries can infuse sauces with a rich, plum colour.
Where to find Mountain pepper likes the cool high country of Southern New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
Muntries, also referred to as muntharis, have an apple-like flavour and Aboriginal tribes often ground them into a paste to make into fruit bars.
Uses Muntries work well with both sweet and savoury flavours – add them to fruit salads or marinades.
Where to find South-east South Australia.
Native thyme can easily be grown in the home garden and can be used as you would regular thyme; however, a little does go a long way, so use sparingly.
Uses Add to marinades, spice rubs and to flavour sauces.
Where to find South-east New South Wales, eastern Victoria and Tasmania.
Passion berries are part of the native tomato family but have a sweeter, fruitier flavour than the kutjera. Yellow in colour, the berries taste like a medley of banana, caramel and vanilla.
Uses Add to fruit salads or use to make sweet syrups and jams.
Where to find Central desert regions.
Quandongs are highly nutritious, bursting with twice the vitamin C of an orange.
Uses These fruits are delicious in everything from sweet pies to savoury sauces for meats.
Where to find The APY lands and Flinders Ranges.
Riberry, often called lilli pilli, are small reddish-pink fruits, with a sweetly tart flavour, that are bursting with essential minerals.
Uses Add to ice-creams and chocolate treats. Also great in savoury dishes.
Where to find Sub-tropical and tropical Queensland and New South Wales.
River mint has a flavour that’s similar to spearmint and was happily embraced by early settlers for its familiar taste.
Uses Add to roast lamb or use to make a jelly for roasts.
Where to find As its name suggests, this herb is most at home around waterways and forest floors across south-eastern Australia.
Salt bush has become incredibly popular in the high-end restaurants of Australia.
Uses This nutritional bush has many uses, from salads to stir-fries, and can also be added to pasta dishes.
Where to find Salt bush thrives in the dry, inland areas of the country.
Sea parsley (often called sea celery) is a close relation to European parsley and looks incredibly similar. Thriving in composted seaweed and often submerged by salt water, this native parsley has a distinctive sea-fresh flavour.
Uses In spice mixtures, dressings and marinades for seafood.
Where to find Along Australia’s southern coastline.
Tanami apple is another member of the bush tomato, which produces large, golf ball-sized fruit with a melon-flavoured flesh and bitter black seeds.
Uses Scoop out the seeds and fill the fruit with cheese and spices before barbecuing.
Where to find This plant, with its bright purple flowers, can be found in the central and western deserts.
Wattleseed (acacia) Wattle is familiar to most Australians, and not all the seeds are edible, but those that are have a range of uses in the kitchen.
Uses These protein-rich seeds can be cooked into breads and cakes, added to spice mixtures and rubs, and can even be roasted and added to desserts.
Where to find All over Australia.
Photography by Danielle Quarmby.