• Dampers cooked in the coals at Warradjan Cultural Centre in the Northern Territory. (Sara's Australia Unveiled)Source: Sara's Australia Unveiled
Indigenous Australians have a rich history of baking, making the most of geography and the seasons.
Kylie Walker

20 Mar 2019 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 26 Mar 2019 - 4:40 PM

For many of us, baking doesn’t depend on the seasons. Winter, spring, summer or autumn, if you want to whip up an easy melt and mix chocolate cake or a glam five-layer celebration cake, you can whip off to the supermarket and gather everything you need.

But for Indigenous Australians, baking has, for thousands of years, been a seasonal affair. With cakes and breads, both damper-like and fermented, made from hundreds of different seeds, grains and tubers, baking was often a matter of making the most of what was in season.

Take lily pad seed bread, one of many different baked goods traditionally made by the Indigenous people from the Kakadu area.  Senior Djungkayi Murumbur clan country woman Mandy Muir, a company director at Kakadu Billabong Safari Camp, explains that the little seeds were – and still are – used to make small cake-like breads.

“They were ground down into little dampers and were cooked in little paper bark parcels,” she explains. This was mostly done during Wurrgeng and Gunrrun, two of the six seasons recognised by local Indigenous groups.

“We get a lot of different types of nymphaea, the water lily, but it's a certain type, madjakalang, which is the best one, and the one we really love.

“These things take preparation, you know, it’s not like you walk into the shop. You have to go out on the edge of the plain, you have to go and pick the water lily root, in croc-infested waters, and then you get your grinding rock, grind it and get the string so you can tie a parcel, flavour that parcel and put it in, and then cook it.”

What are initially collected, she explains, are lily bulbs, which are often the size of golf balls, but can be larger or smaller. The outer layers are peeled off, and the seeds separated out and ground down to form a kind of paste. “It’s like an oily seed and that’s what holds it together,” Muir explains.

What was used for baking across Australia varied considerably not only by season but by location.

“There'd be a range of grains or nuts or seeds… or roots systems, that were used all over the place,” explains Sydney-based bush foods expert Jody Orcher, a Ularai/Barkandji woman. 

“I come from a dry, desert, arid area, so we've got kangaroo grass galore, and kangaroo grass is used for baking bread … but if I lived on the coast, for instance, I would be using black bean nut, and I would be using different grains that come from the area, as well as other tubers.

“Where I come from, out of Birrawanna, at Cuddie Springs... they found a grinding stone that had been used to grind down these seeds to make bread. There are about nine different tribes within that area, so we couldn't exactly say specifically which tribe it was, but that was probably the first original, traditional resource found that was used to make bread.”

As award-winning writer Bruce Pascoe explains in his book Dark Emu and across other writing, the discovery of those grinding stones in western New South Wales dating back around 30,000 years and the 25-year-old grinding stone from in the Nothern Territory, suggest that Indigenous Australians were likely the world’s first bakers.

Were Indigenous Australians the world's first bakers?
The Gurandgi Munjie group is revitalising native crops once cultivated by Aboriginal Australians, baking new breads with forgotten flours.

Pascoe has also been involved in projects around growing and baking with native grains and seeds. It’s a re-exploration of a rich history.

“We are trying to study every reference to food use and preparation and cooking. This has never been done because the colony of Australia refused to look upon anything of Aboriginal provenance as having any intellectual value,” Pascoe tells SBS, when we spoke to him for this article.

For the past six years, Pascoe has been baking with different native flours and trialling different recipes, and has also been involved in projects growing and harvesting different tubers and grains.

And while lily pad seed bread is not leavened, Pascoe explains many of the breads made by Indigenous Australians were, and are. “We are collecting a huge range of ferments from local communities.”

In Dark Emu, Pascoe explains that Indigenous Australian also had a strong history of grain cultivation, and we recommend a read of the book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of seed propagation, irrigation, harvesting, storage and trade – and a few tantalising glimpses of traditional baking too.  For example, explorer Major Thomas Mitchell, who Pascoe notes wrote about seeing what resembled hay-fields, with grass pulled into hay-ricks, also wrote that the seeds were made into “a kind of paste and bread”.  

Many of the foods used to make breads or cakes required careful preparation. Kangaroo grass, for example, is a tiny, tiny seed. “It’s not even as big as a sesame seed, so you could imagine the vast quantity you would have to harvest to bake anything,” Orcher says. Special techniques need to be used to winnow the grains, so the seeds don’t fly away, she explains, and then they would be carefully ground down to produce something with a texture a little like nut meal. “It’s not like [wheat] flour…. It’s more like using almond flour.” The meal would then be used to make small buns.

Other ingredients needed days or weeks of preparation to make them safe to eat.

“The black bean nut that a lot of coastal people used has to be soaked in running water for days and days and days. There's all those preparation things that you'd need to do to be able to use things, and so that knowledge and those traditional methods came down from generation after generation,” Orcher says.

Cooking methods varied too.

“Many Aboriginal groups used an earth oven with stones at the bottom and foods wrapped in paperbark and vegetable leaves. The ovens were swept clean every morning and this material helped build up middens or as we say kitchens,” Pascoe says.

Other cakes and breads were cooked in coals. “Where I come from we use a lot of rocks and what's called a hearth oven,” Orcher says. “And on the south coast, the Yuin people around there, they used to use dormant termite mounds, which of course is a perfect replica for a pizza oven.”

Mandy Muir and other local women share their knowledge of local food - and a delicious meal, including dampers cooked in coals - with Finnish-American food lover Sara La Fountain, who visits the Warradjan Cultural Centre in Kakadu National Park as part of her new show, Sara's Australia Unveiled.  Patsy Raglar bakes dampers, which they also refer to as johhnycakes, which are different to anything La Fountain has tried before. "This is excellent ... it has that charcoal flavour, it's so moist, fluffy, this is so good!" La Fountain says.

As Muir explains in the show, these are made with wheat flour. "Damper, I mean the European damper with flour, you can pretty much eat it all year round, but the one where we use water lilies, we'll only make when the water lilies are out, which is after the wet season." 

See more great food in Sara's Australia Unveiled, with Finnish-American food lover Sara La Fountain, starting Monday March 25 on SBS Food (Channel 33), with double episodes every Monday at 8.30pm and then available at SBS On Demand.  

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