If you’d like to discover just how amazingly well native Australian ingredients fit into Asian cooking, here’s an easy first step: make like Kylie Kwong and the next time you’re thinking of stir-frying some greens, go for Warrigal greens instead of bok choy.
Whether you’re cooking Cantonese-style dishes, like those on the menu at Kwong’s Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong, or tossing together a beautifully fresh Vietnamese salad, Australian bush food has a delicious synergy with Asian flavours, and it’s a match Kwong would love to see more Australians enjoying at home.
Indigenous ingredients – from tart, chewy Davidson plums to salty sea herbs – are “completely and utterly sympatico” with Asian recipes, Kwong says.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment with these ingredients.
“Davidson plums just work so beautifully with the [Billy Kwong] duck dish and the lovely bitter, citrusy sour taste to the lemon aspen, for example, works beautifully with red-braised pork belly. Salt bush is amazing when it’s stir-fried,” she says. And she’d love to see more of us discovering these flavours – because the more demand there is, the more the industry will grow.
After having a “lightbulb moment” eight years ago, when listening to a talk by René Redzepi, Kwong has become deeply passionate about Australian native ingredients. It’s partly a deep appreciation for the cultural significance and stories of the ingredients, but also sheer enthusiasm for how they taste.
“For me, it’s about acknowledging and supporting our original Australians. It’s something I feel very passionate and emotional about and it’s something I think that we should be doing, as chefs and restaurateurs and food people, who can influence the community in a positive way. Secondly, they are absolutely delicious in terms of flavour and texture, that’s obviously incredibly important and critical to … Billy Kwong using these ingredients – there’s no point in using them just for the political aspect, they’ve also got to work from a delicious aspect, too.”
So what is her top tip for using them more at home?
“The first thing to do is trial and error – experiment with it. What I actually did when I first discovered Australian native ingredients was experiment intensely in the kitchen. For example, let’s talk about Warrigal greens. I ate it raw, I put it in salads, I stir-fried it, I steamed it, I blanched it, I tried all different kind of ways of preparing it and cooking it to get a feel for it and at the same time I would do my research – Outback Pride’s website for example, where I get a lot of my natives from. I would research the traditional uses of Warrigal greens, I would come across other recipes that people have used … so combining all of that research and trial and error, that’s how I got my own sense of it. And once I applied that philosophy to all the different ingredients - whether it was Warrigal greens, the saltbush, the Davidson plums, the lemon aspen, etcetera, I was then able to work out how I would use them in the Chinese kitchen, or the Asian kitchen.
“Davidson plum, for example, they look very much like a European beautiful blood plum, however they are a lot more tart and acidic. I knew they’d go really well with my duck dishes at the restaurant, but I just needed to adjust the seasoning to manage that sour, acidic flavour they have - and that’s the thing with a lot of those ingredients. The flavours and textures are intense, and you need to play with them a bit so you can work out how to handle them.”
Take, for example, those Warrigal greens, a leafy native plant that’s becoming increasingly available at markets and some greengrocers and specialist supermarkets.
“Warrigal greens to me behave a lot like Asian spinach, so I started to apply the Warrigal greens to recipes or ideas that I would traditionally use spinach in. That’s how I came up with our steamed vegetable and Warrigal greens dumplings. Traditionally in Chinese vegetable dumplings (which Kwong eats plenty of in My China, 8.30pm Fridays on Food Network starting May 4), there’s always English spinach… I thought, well, instead of using English spinach, why can’t I substitute this beautiful Australian spinach, which is basically what Warrigal greens are. So I applied the same technique – blanching the Warrigal greens, refreshing, chopping it up – and that’s how we arrived at the vegetable and Warrigal greens dumpling – the same concept as has been in China for thousands of years, simply using Australian native spinach.
Saltbush, with its salty, herby flavour, is another that’s a perfect match for Asian dishes, including the Billy Kwong salt bush cakes.
“That was inspired by the famous beautiful northern Chinese street food dish the shallot pancake that we all love. … instead of using shallots or scallions, I thought why don’t I use saltbush, it’s got that lovely natural saltiness and a creaminess.”
Another classic getting an Australian twist is mapu dofu.
“I’ve been to Sichuan province several times, which I love – you can almost smell the spice markets before you get off the plane!” Kwong says. (You can see one of those visits in My China, when Kwong eats both the spicy food the Sichuan area is famous for, and more mellow fare.)
“I love using Sichuan peppercorns in my cooking. And of course I love tofu, being Chinese. I love silken tofu especially. I love the texture and I love the way it soaks up all the flavour of the surrounding sauces. And one of the classic Sichuanese dishes of course is mapu dofu, which is the braised tofu in Sichuan pepper and salt and fermented chilli paste and pork mince. Well, we do a version of that at the restaurant using wallaby tail meat. I love wallaby! Why aren’t we using more wallaby? It’s sustainable and it’s so delicious. And again it works really with Asian-style food.”
Kwong’s other tips include:
- Think of quandongs in recipes where you would use stonefruit, or tamarillos. “Quandong a beautiful colour, they look like a tamarillo, and they are fleshy and chewy and tart and that’s why I love them. They work really well with duck, and would be great in curries… I would also do slow-roasted lamb shoulder with quandong, or a quandong tart, or quandong jam.”
- Use Davidson’s plums to make jams and marmalades – experiment, keeping in mind the bolder flavours.
- “Geraldton wax is the most incredible plant. It’s like the Australian native keffir lime. Throw pieces into a stir-fry.”
- Use salt bush in stir fries (read more about saltbush, plus links to recipe using it, here).
- Think of native ingredients the next time you make an Asian salad. “A beautiful Thai-style or Vietnamese fresh salad, a lot of the Indigenous native ingredients would work beautifully in that.” Her suggestions include bower spinach, karkalla and crystal ice plant.
- A lot of fresh native ingredients have short seasons, so shop (or you could do some sustainable foraging) for native ingredients, then decide what to do with what you’ve found.
“I’m taking direct inspiration from traditional Chinese dishes that have been around for thousands of years and simply substituting, if it works, if it’s appropriate, with Australian native ingredients, ” Kwong says.
And she always still learning. “I love being able to spend time with Uncle Max and Aunty Beryl and my friends Mike and Gayle Quarmby of Outback Pride. Uncle Max Harrison is a wonderful Yuin elder and he spoke at our recent MAD Monday at Carriageworks and Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo is a wonderful Aboriginal elder who I’ve known for a number of years and she and I have done a few collaborations together, and she was at my MAD Monday recently as well. Just both great mentors.”
Kwong is the Australian ambassador for acclaimed Danish chef René Redzepi’s MAD Monday program, curating talks in Sydney for chefs, sommeliers, bakers and others on the role restaurants play in taking care of the environment (last month’s was about Indigenous foodways). She also works with the Wayside Chapel, and next month, her team will be part of the second Cook for Syria dinner progam.
“One of the best ways we can take care of ourselves is to be connected to communities and engage with people. Whether it’s the Wayside Chapel, or Carriageworks or MAD Mondays or whatever, you know, I’m always into it, I’m always doing something,” Kwong says. Including ongoing experimenting with native ingredients.
“Uncle Max was speaking at my MAD Mondays yammer night and it was just so inspiring. He was talking about the sacredness and ancientness of the Australian bush and how much we need to take care of mother earth, so I view these plants, these ingredients, as very, very special. We should be very proud of them and that we have access to them in this country. They are precious jewels.”
Watch Kylie Kwong: My China 8.30pm Fridays on Food Network from May 4, then on SBS On Demand.