From low and slow-cooked bush-flavoured barbecue to wallaby burgers with native coleslaw, the next time you wander the food trucks and stalls serving up good eats at a festival or market, you might find dishes with a bush food focus singing out for your attention.
“People are very interested and genuinely intrigued,” says Dwayne Bannon-Harrison, co-owner of Mirritya Mundya, a NSW South Coast-based food truck and catering business. He’s the one serving up the Texas-style barbecue with an Aussie twist – think smoked beef with Davidson plum sauce, spicy lilly pilly chicken ‘lollipops’ or lemon myrtle pulled pork – alongside other Indigenous-twist dishes.
It may yet be a small niche, but Mirritya Mundya is in good company. From a food trailer serving up salt and pepper crocodile in Queensland to a trailblazing business with a focus on sustainability in Tasmania, here are four Indigenous food trucks doing good things.
Corey Grech keeps things simple – three pies and two drinks. “Short and simple,” the Gamilaraay / Wanaruah man says cheerfully when SBS Food chats to him about his roving food van. Grech is based on the Central Coast but does quite a few events in Sydney.
Food truck visitors can pick from kangaroo and chilli, lemon myrtle chicken or curry on the pie front, and wash it down with lemon myrtle ginger beer or a native flavours orange juice. The only thing on the menu that doesn’t showcase native ingredients is the beef curry pie, but that one carries its own heritage.
“My Nan, lives in Coonabarabran,” he explains, and there have been many trips over the years to visit. “Every time we got to Coona, no matter what time it was, whether it was 8 o'clock in the morning or 12 o'clock at night, she’d have a pot of curry on. We'd all have some of Nan's curry mince on toast. Nan's recipe is a little bit spicy, you think ‘I don't know if I can eat this, it's too hot’, and then it sort of just calms on you. That's the sort of effect Nan’s curry had on you.”
Grech, who started cooking a decade ago, helping his sister, who owned a café in Sydney, says tastes have changed. Back then, it was hard to interest people in bush food ingredients such as kangaroo. “We had [something] similar to a Vietnamese roll, but instead of pork, we had kangaroo fillets, marinated. And it was the best sort of meal you could get, dead set, but trying to get people to eat it at that time was impossible.
“But that’s totally gone… times have changed. The public's taste buds have definitely changed as well.”
The chicken and curry pies do offer an option for those who don’t eat kangaroo for cultural reasons. “If it's your totem, you can't eat it. And there are quite a few mobs who have a kangaroo as their totem, so we had to have other products,” he explains.
When the business launched in June 2016, Grech was running it on his own. “Now my daughter, nephews, brother-in-law and sisters are always on hand anytime I need it,” he says.
Last year, as part of Indigenous Business Month, he was involved in a youth project. While rugby players and artists are high-profile role models, “we try and show the kids that you can own a business too and it can support your life just as well. It’s important for us to have other outlets; 1 per cent of kids make it in grade rugby league and they reckon less than 1 per cent can sell their art professionally on the market so there's 98 per cent of us left, you know?”
Crickets are probably not the first thing that springs to mind when most of us think of Indigenous Australian food, but palawa kipli’s cricket and saltbush guacamole bush tuck-os (a play on tucker and tacos) makes perfect sense when you talk to co-owner Tim Sculthorpe. The Hobart business started by Sculthorpe and his partner, Mariana de la Rosa, is serving up a modern take on ancient foods. Through their venture there is also a strong focus on sustainability – a reflection, Sculthorpe explains, of the way Indigenous custodians looked after the land for thousands of years.
“With my (previous) work, I had to travel around the world, and I've been to maybe, 30 different countries and 60 different cities. And whenever I went to those cities, I wanted to eat the foods of that area, whatever the native foods were in that area. I could do that in Mexico, you could have tacos and burritos and things like that. But then people would ask me, ‘what's Australian food?’
“I would say Vegemite or lamingtons or pavlova, which were all British invader foods, which is very sad coming from an Aboriginal man. I wanted to reclaim ‘what is Australian food’ as ‘what is Aboriginal food’. I also wanted to draw a line about sustainability, and for people to understand that Aboriginal practices were sustainable.
While crickets are popular within Mexican cuisine, Sculthorpe explains "they are also eaten by Aboriginal people in Australia." He also admits that “the challenge is to get Australian people to think that insects are delicious.” But, he says, a lot of people are willing to give it a go and are then pleasantly surprised by the taste.
If crickets aren’t your thing, palawa kipli has plenty of other bush food flavours. The menu changes depending on the size of the event they’re at, and the seasons. You could spot anything from palawa spice pie (apple pie with kunzea, a native berry) to slow-cooked wallaby buns with native coleslaw.
Since launching in 2018, the business has been evolving. Earlier this year, they launched waranta krakani, a cultural dining experience. “Waranta krakani means 'we sit together' and sitting together was very important in Aboriginal culture,” Sculthorpe explains. The event, which began with a welcome to country, gathered guests around a fire to talk and cooking bush bread, took them on a walk to gather herbs and spices, then served up multiple courses showcasing ancestral flavours, including muttonbird with saltbush, and pepperberry ice-cream with caramelised crickets.
“That was probably one of the most rewarding days since we started palawa kipli, knowing that after these people sat down and had this three-hour experience and seven courses and nice wine, they really got a feeling for Aboriginal culture, and they were sitting down and having those conversations.”
It’s been a whirlwind 18 months for Dwayne and Amelia Bannon-Harrison, with their “Indigenous twist” food striking a resounding chord with people along the NSW south coast and in Sydney.
It all started with blackfish. “We got a start with Kylie Kwong… we had a mutual contact and Kylie knew my grandfather, Uncle Max [Harrison], as well. She’d seen we were pretty handy with food, so I went along to the Carriageworks Summer Night Market [Kwong curates the line-up at the food markets] and did a demo. I cooked blackfish in paperbark and that’s where this started,” Dwayne says.
“We have always done in-house catering in our tours,” he says – Bannon-Harrison is the founder and managing director of Ngaren Ngaren Cultural Awareness, an award-winning business established in 2011 that, among other things, shares Koori culture through tours, workshops and performances. After the night at Carriageworks, that interest in food blossomed into the birth of Mirritya Mundya last year.
“Mirritya mundya means hungry blackfish in my Grandmother’s Grandfather’s tongue … I follow my maternal grandmother’s line for my language, but I learn a lot of my culture through my grandfather’s. It’s spoken in what we call the Ngarrugu language, which is otherwise known as Ngarigo, the Fresh Water language of the Yuin Nation.”
The food Dwayne and Amelia serve at markets and events is a melding of Indigenous ingredients with influences from multiple other cuisines. “We’re a partnership of a non-Indigenous background and, obviously, myself, and that’s one of the core essences of what we do. It’s a great team. I’m an ideas man and she’s basically known as the executor. We have very different personalities, as most husbands and wives do, but we’re pretty good at aligning on food.”
Between them, the pair serve up everything from bush food barbecue (Dwayne’s passion) and home-made bread to native-flavoured protein balls (Amelia’s inventions) and wattleseed brownies.
The US-style low and slow barbecue clearly has a stronghold on Dwayne’s heart. “I think I’ve nailed where I’m meant to be,” he says. “I don’t know many Indigenous people who are doing low and slow barbecue, but I’m one. (You can check out #kooripitmaster on Instagram to see his latest barbecue exploits).
“I don’t call this bush tucker, it’s ‘Indigenous twist’,” he says of the combination of Texan barbecue and Indigenous foodways. And, he muses, it’s not that odd a pairing: “Traditionally, when you look at fire cooking, it’s so connected to us culturally.”
Sustainability is also a passion. “For us as Indigenous people, and for Mother Earth and all the elements, we should be leading that space.” And that’s why he has been using less kangaroo lately – he wants to be sure that if he does, he’s getting it from a responsible source.
One item he’s been very happy to add to the menu are Sobah beers. “They are an Aboriginal-owned non-alcoholic beverage company, which has been a perfect fit for us. We’re on-selling that and using it on our menu."
“I was mucking around [in the kitchen] the other day and I did the blackfish with a twist. Instead of the standard gluten-free myrtle coating [about three-quarters of the menu is gluten-free] I did it with their lemon aspen [a pilsner] and gluten-free flour and the batter was actually pretty good. Just trialling things, as you do!”
Mirritya Mundya does also does catering and pop-up events – and all of this while Dwayne is still busy with Ngaren Ngaren and Amelia has a four-day-a-week job.
“We’re keen to develop our pop-up dinner nights, and those can easily be a nature-based experience. In the other business, we purchased a few bell tents, and we’re offering high-end camping experiences, so we’re eventually going to be including that in our food business as well. So, people can come and, for instance, do an overnight experience where they not only have the dining experience but also learn about the cultural essence of what we do. I can sing some songs, show them some local foraging, show them how to do some traditional methods. That’s actually where it all started: me cooking with a traditional technique that was passed down to me by my old people.”
It's a heritage that is gaining a lot of interest. “It’s generally very positive, intrigued, wanting to know more,” he says of customers' responses at the food truck.
“Native food is getting pretty sexy … I’m very green in the culinary space, but I’d like to see Aboriginal people be recognised, and be engaged and consulted and hopefully being a part of the movement.”
As the name suggests, the majority Indigenous-owned business Game Enough has a focus on Australian game meat.
The food trailer is part of a wider business, a consultancy called Murawin, explains managing director Greg McKenzie.
“We started Game Enough in Brisbane, three and a half years ago. We originally started going to markets, marquees, and we found that it was tough going. Back then people weren’t really that interested, and so we went out with our pasties, our yapa we call them, kangaroo or emu, we went out with a 100 and went home with 90. It was pretty challenging at the beginning, but things have moved on since then.”
Fast forward to 2019, and the yapa now generate a lot more interest, and the company does catering and wholesale as well.
“About four months ago, we decided to jump back into catering, and that’s taken off, but at the same time, our food trailer sort of took off. And then wholesale also took off. So, everything took off after a couple of years of plodding along. Everything wanted to go, so we’ve just been mad for the past four months.”
Alongside salt and pepper crocodile, the yapa – Game Enough’s take on an empanada – are a staple on the food trailer menu. The pastie-shaped pies are usually filled with kangaroo or emu; or “for those not game enough”, as the website says, they can also do beef, chicken or black bean and feta.
“We wanted something that was a little different to a pie. Most people who’ve had empanadas love empanadas, but we wanted to distinguish it, give it an Indigenous twist, so we use game meats in them, as well as changing the name to yapa, which in my partner’s Dunghutti language means ‘to roll’.”
“Carol Vale is the Indigenous side of the business,” he explains. “She’s my business partner and life partner. Although she’ll come out in the food trailer and she’ll come into the kitchen, she does a lot of the higher-order running of the business – meetings, looking for business opportunities, planning, whereas I run the floor and staffing. Although she does a lot of taste testing!”
The business also provides employment opportunities for Indigenous staff. “We’re really trying to use this as a vehicle for Indigenous employment, both family and not family. We have about eight casuals now, who work in the business as we need them, and they’re all Indigenous.”
Like the other business owners we talked to, McKenzie has seen more interest in native flavours. “Things do seem to be changing, and we’re happy to be a part of that, contributing to that change.”
October is Indigenous Business Month.
An all-round show-stopper, this one. Impress your mates with your bread-making skills, with little skill at all! Try playing around with any bush spice until you find your favourite. This is best cooked in a fire but an oven will do just as well.
Trifle is pretty Australian and always (if done well) a show-stopper. This recipe can be made in one large centrepiece dish or in small individual glasses.
This is my spin on the classic Chinese salt and pepper squid. I've used native Australian ingredients dried saltbush flakes for their herbaceous saltiness, mountain pepper for its punch and dried lemon myrtle for its zing.