In a culinary context, the past few decades have seen merely an ongoing flirtation with native Australian produce, with few serious attempts at truly integrating them with European technique other than a small handful of chefs including Jean-Paul Bruneteau at his restaurant Rowntrees in the mid-80s and Philip Searle at Oasis Seros not long after*. And so it begs the question of whether mainstream use of native Australian foods will ever be more than a garnish of lemon myrtle or a handful of deep-fried saltbush leaves.
So what obstacles are in the way of a more seamless integration, and can they be overcome? Professor John Carty, who is Head of Anthropology at the Museum of South Australia, reckons so (don’t let the title fool you, he can down a pint as fast as any Adelaide local at The Exeter).
“People felt the way about Aboriginal art that we do now about our native food," says Carty, who has a background in Aboriginal history, culture and art. "And in one generation, that perception has shifted so dramatically. We now consider it as being the most significant art movement Australia has ever given the world. Why not ... that mainstream shift, with food?”
Well, cultural sensitivity, for one, suggests Sydney chef Claire van Vuuren, who is culinary curator of the Sunset20°N program of food events at Sydney’s Barangaroo this February. “As a chef with no background in Indigenous foods, there’s a feeling of being a little fraudulent in using ingredients you don’t fully grasp. I guess it’s about finding a comfort level of respect as well as playing around and building an understanding of the ingredient’s capabilities.”
“People felt the way about Aboriginal art that we do now about our native food. And in one generation, that perception has shifted so dramatically."
While van Vuuren might not be putting Witchetty grub tacos on the menu anytime soon, others prefer to dive right in and use familiar cuisines as a vehicle to familiarise diners with less familiar ingredients. “Chinese people have and, I think, will always adopt ingredients from where they’ve ended up and cook it in a context that suits the meal. I don’t see it as a stretch to use Warrigal greens instead of choi sum,” says Lee Ho Fook’s chef/co-owner Victor Liong. “And that’s why Kylie [Kwong]’s food [at her modern Chinese eatery Billy Kwong, which integrates native Australian ingredients like saltbush, Warrigal greens and Indigenous seafood], for example, is in a way truly Chinese Australian,” Carty adds, “I think the most culturally disrespectful thing would be to ignore native foods altogether.”
The other major obstacle is supply, as many wild ingredients are traditionally foraged rather than cultivated. That seems set for change, as native Australian food enterprises work with producers to cultivate and farm produce. “It’s a really good time for native foods, we’re at the start of the next wave,” says Indigenous Australian chef Clayton Donovan. “Commercialisation is creating supply chains, which means that more ingredients will be made more available and at a better quality. The next decade is going to be really exciting.” He is mindful, though, to engage with producers who put back into the communities they work with, and who “…save some for the animals”.
"As a chef with no background in Indigenous foods, there’s a feeling of being a little fraudulent in using ingredients you don’t fully grasp."
That might be good news for chefs like Peter Gunn from Melbourne’s Ides, who notes a lack of steady supply and quality of what lands at his door as one reason he doesn’t choose to use more native produce. “[A lot of native produce] tends to be frozen and herbs dried. For me, I like pure, fresh flavours and have little interest in working with produce that needs a lot of work to give them flavours I’m looking for.”
That commercialisation, Carty points out, starts in many ways from the top, with chefs driving demand and awareness. “Chefs lead the way. Yes, there are obstacles like supply and cultural sensitivity, but I feel these are far from insurmountable. We’ll get there with confidence. We have a generation of chefs who are starting to say: 'Well, we’re great at cooking, but what are we offering the world? What does Australian food taste like?' We have a cuisine based out of the world’s great cuisines, except our own. The missing link is what’s right in front of us and beneath our feet.”
"Chefs lead the way. Yes, there are obstacles like supply and cultural sensitivity, but I feel these are far from insurmountable."
Identifying Kylie Kwong, Africola’s Duncan Welgemoed, Icebergs Dining Room & Bar's Monty Koludrovic, and Orana’s Jock Zonfrillo as chefs who have all championed native ingredients publicly, he believes that leadership, popularisation and discussion will drive Australian food forward. “The question is ‘will Australians ever eat this stuff?' The answer is f--k yes! But for us to evolve, we need to not be passive recipients of what food comes from elsewhere, but integrate that global influence with an intimate engagement of what it is to be Australian. Then we become a part of a culture worth creating for our kids and grandkids.”
And isn’t that a delicious thought.
*John Newton’s The Oldest Foods On Earth: A history of Australian Native Foods with Recipes is a wonderful book on this subject and more, and he says it with more elegance than I can muster. Do read it!