--- Watch Aaron Fa'Aoso in Strait to the Plate at 7.30pm Thursdays from April 22 on SBS Food and at 8pm on NITV, or stream it free on SBS On Demand ---
Strait to the Plate is about connection.
Yes, it’s about food and wonderful cooks. Yes, it’s about a beautiful corner of Australia (and we’re not joking when we say the Torres Strait Islands should ready themselves for an influx of visitors who appreciate fresh air and endless seas and rich, ancient history).
But it’s so much more than a food and travel show. It’s about wonderful, vibrant, living connections to the sea and the earth and the seasons, to family and traditions. And it’s a joy to watch.
In this new five-part series, actor and producer Aaron Fa’Aoso takes us home to the Torres Strait, sharing the rich and varied food, people, history and culture of the islands, and the Torres Strait Islander communities on the mainland, where he grew up.
“It has given us a platform and opportunity to showcase the wonderful region and the beautiful culture that I am connected to and I come from. I'm just so proud of it, you know, I'm a proud Torres Strait Islander, and I want to share this beautiful and wonderful culture that we have. We have much to offer and have given so much, also, to the development and the creation of this country,” says Fa'Aoso, when we catch him for a chat ahead of the start of the show on NITV and SBS Food.
Fa'Aoso says he learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, and from watching the great cooks among the men, too. For him, food is a true taste of home, and Strait to the Plate is a chance to share that with Australia, from seafood dishes cooked with fish straight from the sea to his grandmother’s cassava damper.
It was a dual homecoming too – not only a visit to where he grew up but a return to the SBS family. One of Fa'Aoso's early roles on screen was in the series RAN on SBS “I have a soft spot for SBS, it was kind of where my career was launched into the film and television industry so it's almost like a homecoming, you know, just in a different space, because I've predominantly played in the drama space. So it's interesting coming into this space and reuniting with the SBS network through NITV.”
Fa’Aoso, who's been telling Indigenous stories for more than a decade, is involved in Strait to the Plate as both presenter and producer.
It’s a show made from the heart, and there’s more than one occasion where Fa'Aoso has a tear in his eyes, or a catch in his voice. Watching the series is a chance for viewers to understand some of the challenges that Torres Strait Islanders have faced in the past, and are facing now, such as the unequal wages paid to the many islanders who worked in the pearl fishing industry, the effect of western food on the health of many locals, and the danger to some homes of rising sea levels. Some of the islands face the very real threat of being totally engulfed by the sea in the near future.
But the series is full of joy, celebrations, and an abundance of good food too.
There are cooking lessons with good cooks from across the communities he visits; hunting, fishing and gathering trips; small meals and big feasts; and the sharing of many stories.
Is there one dish that always reminds you of your family and culture, we asked?
“I’ve been asked that a lot. It has to be my grandmother's cassava damper, which actually features in the series when I'm cooking it up with my Aunty Gladys, on my grandmother's porch. That just brings back memories because, whenever I returned home, when I would go back to visit my grandmother, without a doubt, I knew what was waiting for me, either in the fridge, or just being pulled out of the oven. I'd have a tray of cassava damper tray all to myself!”
Cassava appears a lot in Torres Strait cooking. “Cassava is an important garden food in our culture. As well as being a staple source of carbohydrates, it’s also packed within Vitamin C and other nutrients,” Fa’Aoso explains in the show, while cooking with his Aunty Gladys. “Like a lot of Torres Strait dishes, this dish is extremely labour-intensive. Our mothers’ hands are really strong because of all the scraping [to grate the cassava], and the digging in the ground for cassava.”
In a fine display of the interconnectedness of life, I mention to Fa’Aoso that I had seen a bisi damper (aka cassava damper) recipe on an item sold by a Torres Strait Island gallery, a teatowel by local artist Fiona Elisala. Fiona Elisala, it turns out, is Fa’Aoso’s cousin Fiona, whose wedding – and the joyous preparations, including preparation of enough food for around 300 guests – features in the series. (The tea towel is one of a series featuring Torres Strait Islander recipes and art, sold by Moa Arts, an Indigenous-owned and operated art centre on Moa Island.)
The close ties between culture and food are clear in Strait to the Plate.
Food, Fa‘Aoso says, is the end result of the practice of culture. “It’s intrinsically connected to the knowledge of seasonal patterns, knowledge of the elements, knowing when and where to hunt, what you are gathering, and the process of extracting what you need out of certain food plants or sea life… food and cooking is the end result of that. It’s connected to language, to ceremonies, your way of life, and the connectedness of coming together of family, and also in preserving and maintaining that in the 21st century."
And, he says, “you only take what you need. And then it’s about sharing as well... it's what our way of life is all about, you know, working in harmony and working in cooperation with one another.”
Fa’Aoso says he has been thinking about making this series for years, after he realised there were no TV shows about Torres Strait Island food. But it’s about all those things that connect to food, too.
The show starts with a visit to Badu, one of the larger islands, where Fa’Aoso meets a local artist whose work documents the seasons and traditional food knowledge, and who cooks up three dishes to give him a taste of local cuisine; reflects on the role many islanders played in the pearling industry; shares the first of several experiences that show the key importance of turtles to Torres Strait Islander communities, and how hunting has always been governed by strict cultural rules and sustainable practices; and is invited to a family feast.
In the second episode, he heads to Cape York and the Northern Peninsula Area (NPA), home to five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It’s also where Fa’Aoso grew up. The first stop is the community of Seisa, where he meets up with Uncle Eddie Newman, the Mayor of the NPA and, says Fa’Aoso ”one hell of a cook”. One of the dishes is an Asian-influenced recipe made with a sea turtle, and it’s a chance for Fa’Aoso to explain both how important the turtle is in Torres Strait Islander culture, and the many influences that have contributed to local cooking. “The Torres Strait Islands have always been a multicultural melting pot, with chillies and spices coming from South East Asia, ingredients and techniques from the Pacific and people from all over the world.” Next, he heads to the Aboriginal community of Injinoo, to meet with Uncle Kausu, who makes a traditional dish called boorum cookum, and Aunty Gina, who shows him how to make two kinds of camp bread: Johnnycake and sand damper (which gets its name from the way it is cooked, in hot sand). Later, another Uncle cooks up a dish that brings back a lot of memories: tinned meat and fried scones. It’s a dish that highlights one of the challenges facing those who live on the islands and in the NPA: processed foods such as tinned meat have become more common, but are hurting the health of Torres Strait Islanders. Finally, an invitation to a family feast shows the importance of food to family ties and traditions.
Next, episode three heads to the central islands, in the heart of the Torres Strait, and a visit to Poruma, a low-lying coral cay. There’s a trip to sea to free-diving for a special clam found only in these waters: “The clams you get on this reef are not like the ones you get in your local supermarket. These are horse-hoof clams, part of the giant clam family, and they grow up to over half a metre long… Horse-hoof clams are a protected species, but as traditional owners of this sea country, the Porumalgal are entitled to harvest the clams in a traditional way, as a food source. The local people have been taking clams from this reef for hundreds of years, but always in a sustainable way,” Fa’Aoso explains. Later, he goes foraging for another popular local ingredient, gassi, a tuber also known as Polynesian arrowroot. It’s a key ingredient in a dish called pakalolo. Learning to make that with Aunty Alice, a local famous for her pakalolo, was a special learning opportunity in the show, Fa’Aoso says.
“I was always a big fan of pakalolo, but didn't know how the dish was made or cooked. So it was great. I wasn't aware of the gassi, I’d heard of it but didn’t know it was arrowroot. I was like ‘Arrowroot, man! Arrowroot! Like, you find that in the Straits? Shit yeah, I'm learning something today!'. Pakalolo is a signature dish from Poruma, so I was really blessed and humbled that we were able to capture that.” (Get the recipe here.)
The gassi gathering expedition also highlights a huge challenge facing the Torres Strait. Climate change is affecting the seasons – gassi used to be harvested in April, but now the digging is done in August. It’s affecting the turtle populations in the Strait, too. The temperature of the sand in which eggs mature affects the sex of the hatchlings and rising temperatures are shifting the balance of male and female. And there’s a more immediate threat: the sea level is rising and Poruma is slowly being swallowed by the sea (you can see more about how the tiny island is being affected in the documentary Every King Tide, another Fa’Aoso was involved in).
The visit to Poruma ends with another feast, with families bringing dishes to share, all using ingredients from across the island and the sea.
In episode four, Fa’Aoso heads back home to the NPA, where he learns a turtle dish from his Uncle Jeffrey and cooks that cassava damper with his Aunty Gladys. He visits a dance group preparing for the singing, dancing and drumming that will be part of a significant ceremony commemorating the lives of several members of a local family who have passed away, and some of the cooks preparing for the huge feast that will be part of the day-long event. More than a thousand people are coming from the NPA and some of the islands too, so there’s a lot of cooking to be done, including a special marinated pork dish cooked in an underground pit heaped with hot stones, a magpie goose and dumplings dish, and mountains of seafood and vegetables.
And in the final episode, there’s a visit to the island of Mawa to discover more about local plants and traditions. We meet an especially enchanting member of Fa’Aoso’s family, his Aka Lena, who shows him her recipe for scrass banana. And there’s also Fiona’s wedding and the singing, dancing and feasting that follow, a fitting end to a fantastic trip through the Torres Strait.
Making Strait to the Plate was about food, and so much more, Fa’Aoso says. “Part of it is exposing and giving light to a very much little known part of Australia, which is also the second First Nations culture in Australian First Nations culture.”
There’s a lot packed into five episodes, but the good news is that there’s more to come. Alongside several other projects, including a live action children’s series, a period drama and several documentary series, all anchored in the Torres Strait, he’s already thinking about the second series of Strait to the Plate. “I’m really excited about it. There’s just not enough Torres Strait content out there, and food is a perfect step into it for a lot of people. I’m looking forward to saddling up for more fun and enjoyable experiences.”
The smoky flavour will be carried by the rich coconut base. This dish is usually served as part of a kai-kai, a quintessential Torres Strait Islander shared meal.
This sticky, baked pumpkin and coconut dessert is thickened with manihot (or cassava) root, and on Poruma in the Torres Strait it’s harvested and treated to make a flour.
In the series, Aaron and Mati enjoy this dish sitting on the beach, eaten with their hands. Use the sweet potato rounds to make a little taco for the flaked fish.
This simple and comforting braised fish dish has medicinal purposes in Badu Island where Mati cooks it for Aaron Fa’Aoso.