It’s tangy and tasty and absolutely packed with nutrients, but until recently, your chances enjoying this native star were slim unless you lived in Australia’s northern coastal fringe.
But these days, gubinge – also commonly known as Kakadu Plum – is increasingly in demand for cooking and pharmaceutical uses. It’s still rare to see it fresh outside the growing regions, but it’s easy to buy it made into jam, or as gubinge powder – good for smoothies, baking and bliss balls - at specialist retailers or online, and a small number of companies sell the puree and fruit frozen (mostly wholesale at this stage). You can even find specialist products such as gubinge wafers. And we’re likely to see more of the fruit after the announcement in August of a three-year, $2.7 million project to support the growth of the gubinge industry in northern Australia.
“My people have been eating the gubinge for many thousands of years as a staple during the wet season,” says Lenny O'Meara, a Bardi/Kija man who grew up around the Kimberley region, where he and his partner, Jacinta Monck, run Kimberley Wild Gubinge, a business that harvests and sells the fruit.
“Fruit was eaten fresh or sun dried and was also used for skin ailments such as fungal and bacterial infections. The tree is also considered medicinal with the sap - gimm - sucked on like a lolly and the bark was also used after soaking in water for skin conditions.
“The hard woody seed, about the size of an olive pit, was often prised open to reveal the small nutty-tasting kernel inside which is also eaten.”
“This knowledge is still being passed on today and our business encourages this social and cultural practise through the harvesting cycle - families going out on country, connecting to places, sharing food knowledge about plants and trees as well as health benefits of people still eating the fruit fresh during harvest time.”
So what does the fruit taste like?
“The flavour is tangy and tart with plum and pear notes. Our dried products are like a fruit sherbet but not so sweet,” Jacinta Monck says.
The nutritional and medical benefits of the fruit, and its potential as a preservative, have attracted an increasing amount of interest from researchers, with studies showing it to be one of the world’s richest naturally occurring sources of Vitamin C.
“The Kakadu plum is only the size of an olive but is packed with Vitamin C, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties,” says food scientist Associate Professor Yasmina Sultanbawa, a principal research fellow with the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland, who has been researching the properties of the fruit since 2010. Associate Professor Sultanbawa and her team won an award last year for their work with indigenous communities and the kaka du plum industry to develop an extract from the fruit that can be used to extend the shelf life of foods.
Her interest in this nutritional powerhouse isn’t confined to the lab – she says her favourite ways to eat gubinge are by baking the powder in wattleseed yeast bread, and using powder or puree to make drinks.
In the new season of food and travel show Born to Cook, Monck and O’Meara take chef Jack Stein out to the bush bush to see gubinge growing wild. “Amazing, it's like a very very, quite tart but soft apple,” says Stein, eating fruit plucked straight from a tree. Later in the show, he makes gubinge jam to serve with scones (get the recipe here).
Jam is a popular use for the fruit, and there are a few companies selling it commercially. It’s great on toast, or you can follow the lead of Destination Flavour host Adam Liaw, who uses it to create a new ice-cream flavour.
“Gubinge is very versatile and can be used in sweet or savoury dishes,” says Jacinta Monk. “We suggest using the dried products in cool foods and drinks, such as smoothies, juices, sprinkled on yoghurt or granola, raw protein balls and slices, or added to salads and dressings. As Vitamin C is heat sensitive, cool use is recommended to get the most nutritional benefits.” (Give it a go in KWG’s gubinge health shake recipe).
For something special, Maggie Beer uses gubinge powder in her recipe for chocolate fruit and nut bark – a great gift idea.
Harvesting these small green fruit isn’t easy.
“The Gubinge is still a rare and wild harvested fruit that takes a big logistical effort to collect in the height of the hot and humid wet season,” O’Meara explains. Kimberley Wild Guginge’s fruit is all harvested and processed on country.
The fruit only grows in coastal tropical areas of northern Australia, roughly from Broom to the Gulf of Carpentaria. About 20 tonnes of the fruit are harvested each year, but Sultanbawa says demand is expected to grow by about 10 per cent annually, driven by niche industries using the fruit for functional foods, beverages and skincare.
And, we suspect, chef and cooks, making the most of this fibre-rich, vitamin-packed intriguingly flavoured little fruit. Pass the gubinge jam, would you?
Lead image by Kimberley Wild Gubinge.