• Justine Lawson is connecting to her Palawa culture through her business IndigiBites which sells handcrafted Tasmanian bush food. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Justine Lawson would've never dreamed of owning her own business, IndigiBites, which celebrates native Tasmanian food and here she is celebrating her Indigenous heritage by doing so.
By
Melissa Woodley

6 Jul 2021 - 10:44 AM  UPDATED 7 Jul 2021 - 1:14 PM

National NAIDOC Week (4 – 11 July 2021) celebrates the history, cultures and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Join SBS and NITV for a full slate of NAIDOC Week programming and content, and follow NITV on Facebook and Instagram to be part of the conversation. For more information about NAIDOC Week or this year’s theme, head to the official NAIDOC website

 

Despite only finding out about her Indigenous heritage at 15, proud Palawa woman Justine Lawson, who hails from Tasmania, has always felt a connection to land.

Now she's on a mission to share her passion for native bush food and continue learning more about her Indigenous heritage.

Justine had a nourishing childhood in Fern Tree in the south of Tasmania, with days spent bushwalking on Kunanyi (Mount Wellington) on the southeast coast and going on fishing trips off Bruny Island.

"We used to just pick mussels off the rocks, put them in a billy, make a little campfire and eat the fresh mussels," Justine says. "We made a lot of damper as well. Just wrap it around a stick, shove it in coal, dust it off and fill it with butter."

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After her father passed away, Justine and her mother relocated to the Huon Valley in the state's south, where food remained a big part of her life.  

"All my family and friends, including my mother, are chefs so I've always had this passion for food," she says.

Life continued as normal until the year she turned 15. Justine's mother was applying for a passport when she discovered not only that she'd been adopted but that her biological mother was a Palawa woman. The Palawa peoples are the Indigenous peoples of Tasmania.

Justine was delighted with this discovery and felt an immediate connection to her Indigenous roots. However, her mum did not want to identify as Indigenous or engage with Palawa culture, so it was something they never discussed much further.

"I was very proud of it and told everyone," Justine says. "But mum just sort of shunned it."

"I love being surrounded by all sorts of interesting people from all walks of life — learning about their food, their culture, my culture." 

When Justine was 25 years old, she left her Huon Valley and went abroad. She had been working at various cafes and restaurants since the age of 18 and wanted to see where her food journey could take her.

After 10 years in London, Justine decided to move back Downunder and settled in Sydney. This was a difficult transition and she found herself homeless with a 4-year-old daughter and struggling with deep depression.

Over time, Justine was put in touch with the Women and Girl's Emergency Centre who supported her to find employment with the street newspaper The Big Issue under its Women's Subscription Enterprise.

"It was a safe environment for us to work in and get our confidence up and some money," Justine reflects.

She worked with The Big Issue for eight wonderful years, but jumped when an opportunity arose for her to get back into the kitchen. In 2017, Justine joined the Work Work training program at Two Good Co., which facilitates pathways to permanent employment. It felt like home being back in the kitchen and she always looked forward to sharing stories with her cohort over team lunches. Justine also valued the incredible network of mentors she met, such as chef Kylie Kwong and Aunty Beryl, who were so open in sharing their wisdom.

"I love being surrounded by all sorts of interesting people from all walks of life," Justine says. "Learning about their food, their culture, my culture."

Justine was a proud participant of the first cohort to graduate from Two Good Co. in 2017. Following that, she worked as a chef for two and a half years, but quickly became fed up with the hierarchy and politics in the kitchen.

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Still looking to pursue her passion for food, Justine applied for a food business incubator called FoodLab Sydney. This initiative's vision is to nurture a new generation of food entrepreneurs who want to create a fairer, more local and more sustainable food system in Sydney. In particular, it equips participants with skills, tools, networks and resources to start their own food business and for Justine, this is where her business, IndigiBites, began.

At first, swapping her chef's whites for textbooks was daunting for Justine. She didn't have a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve. However, once she found a business idea, her food journey with Australian natives took off.

"I was in week three or four of the theory side, and I was watching some cooking show, and it just came to me," Justine recalls. "It's like go back to your roots, go back to Tasmania."

IndigiBites celebrates handmade, Indigenous bush food with a focus on Tasmanian natives, such as Tasmanian pepperberry, kunzea salt, pepper leaf and leatherwood honey.

Justine's mission is to introduce more people to bush food through her products, but also to continue experimenting with new recipes and learning about the nutritional properties of native ingredients.

"It's just really important to get the message out, to eat from our Country, from our lands."

"Australian food is First Nations food…it's finally out there and people are learning," Justine says. "It's just really important to get the message out, to eat from our Country, from our lands."

"I'm going to have a small market store every third Saturday at Glebe Markets," she explains. "I've spoken to them about that and they're all very excited because there's no Indigenous food there."

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At the markets, Justine hopes to sell her vegan bush balls in flavours such as Davidson plum, vegan brownies served with macadamia cream, and lemon myrtle tea made using the leaves from her garden. There are also a few cafes, such as the Mindful Baker in Glebe that are interested in selling her balls and bites.

IndigiBites is much more than a business for Justine. It's a personal journey of finding a connection to her heritage and learning about her Palawa roots. She hopes to continue growing and sharing her knowledge with others and celebrating Indigenous food with the Australian community.

"At this time of the year for me and with NAIDOC around the corner, I feel like I just I'm bursting with happiness," Justine reflects. "I just want to enjoy this journey and see where it takes me."

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries

Photographs supplied by Justine Lawson.

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