This social and sustainability sentinel believes that the future of Australian cuisine is understanding that bush foods are Indigenous to Country.
Bron Maxabella

1 Jul 2021 - 2:32 PM  UPDATED 7 Jul 2021 - 11:47 AM

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 Week website


Talking with Minyunbal woman Arabella Douglas - founder of Currie Country, lawyer, advisor, consultant, board member - is a lot like going for a walk in the Aussie bush. Meandering, meaningful and beautiful. It's easy to get lost in her words, lost in her world. Fortunately, her path is strong.

"I'm so glad that I live in a First Nations continent with a culture that's still around," Douglas says emphatically. "I mean, would you ever move to any other country and not seek First Nations knowledge? You probably wouldn't. If you go to a country where you know it still exists, you’d be kind of going, how does it happen there? What is that all about? How do things go on?"

Country of many Countries

Australia, of course, is a country of many countries and that's basically the crux of Douglas' message. Her main concern is the homogenisation of native foods. She's perplexed by the way bush foods and other products are being used by Indigenous chefs outside of the product's native Country.

"I mean, would you ever move to any other country and not seek First Nations knowledge?"

"If you're going to do that, you might as well just have an amazing chef - could be white, black, doesn’t really matter - just using native products," she says. "That's the same outcome.

"I feel as though [people need] to understand there’s a difference. There’s a difference between being on Country and leading food foraging, leading native food - so, you’re on your own Country, you're talking about your own food system - versus just being Aboriginal and then doing native food."

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Douglas believes that we should be reaching for something more. She explains that some Indigenous-run businesses representing a region outside of their respective Land, aren't allowing the uniqueness and specific localisation of people and foods on Country to be led by their own. "I am sure they would welcome specific localisation of people and foods on Country to be led by the people of that Nation," she says. "It’s like a vineyard, right? I mean, with land variation, water variation and technique variation... it's like Champagne from any other region but’d have variations of it, but that doesn't make it Champagne."

Multiple food regions

Douglas understands that this is a difficult conversation to have when everyone's suddenly very excited about native food. She's careful to point out that she's just as excited that the Australian and international public are beginning this journey. Exploring Indigenous food is her passion and her calling, but she wants to make sure the exploration starts on the right path.

"I don't feel people are giving deep thought to the development of native foods..."

"I don't feel people are giving deep thought to the development of native foods... in that same journey where people are learning that there are multiple nations, multiple languages, understanding what treaties might mean, all the big issues – that they're not thinking like there are multiple nations, that means there are multiple regions, food regions."

Evolving understanding

She gets that she sounds critical, maybe even picky, but she still believes it's important to make the distinction. 

"People think you're being critical, but in fact what you're really doing is maturing people's understanding. They already know that native food exists in Australia, but [for example] no one ever challenged Jock Zonfrillo on why did he call his restaurant Orana, which is a New South Wales [Wiradjuri] word, but it was based in Adelaide?"

The most important thing to Douglas is that the food growing on Country is served in that Country as a specialty.

Douglas, who is friends with Zonfrillo, asked him to explain and he said that at the time of opening his (now closed) restaurant, he didn't appreciate the nuance of multiple Aboriginal nations. He certainly does these days. Douglas supports the ambition and application of Zonfrillo's Indigenous Food Database, cataloguing and preserving local food knowledge.

Regional authenticity

The emphasis is very much on that word 'local'. Every Aboriginal nation is individual and sharing food gives them an opportunity to shine a light on their unique culture. Taking food away from Country means you often lose the First Nations heritage and knowledge that goes with it.

The most important thing to Douglas is having food grown on Country and served in Country. If it leaves the local area, the local mob should be compensated for the use of their native food being cooked elsewhere.

"I think that if you want to create an exciting future of cooking in Australia, then you are best served to develop chefs, both black and white chefs, so Aboriginal and non-Indigenous chefs, et cetera who particularise a region.

"You're stealing from them the opportunity to hold that regional authenticity."

"We have to stop getting excited about native food and pretending it's homogenised and it's all okay," she says. "Because what you're really stealing is the opportunity for mobs who have crocodile on their menus, for example, and eat that and deal with that and create with it; you're stealing from them the opportunity to hold that regional authenticity."

Nuance in native food

For Douglas, this is the way to create an exciting future of cooking in Australia. She hopes that in just a couple of generations time, Australians will could go back to having incredible barramundi from the north. Or abalone from the Tasmanian shelves. First Nations people showcasing the abundance of foods in their own particular area.

"We have an opportunity to reframe the nuance in food," says Douglas. "Regionally, food will taste and run differently, will have a different sensation over similar foods. But also offer extremely different foods."

Connecting people with localised native food and showing them how to find it, cook it, even grow it, means reconnecting them with a better way of life. "I mean, if I thought white culture could successfully sustain us as people, I’d probably be all about it," she says bluntly. "But it doesn't work."

First Nations lead the way

According to Douglas, learning the particularities of local Aboriginal systems is also a way for people to put some control back into what they eat and how they sustainably source it.

"It's really about a sense of security, an intimate connection to Country," says Douglas. "I want [Australian people] to have confidence in the food systems that surround them.

"I want them to know that environment is here to nourish and provide for them, and that you don't need to go through the white corporate lens of a supermarket to achieve that. Honour the environment and let it provide for you moving forward, and let First Nations people open up that door for you."

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