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There’s a poignant story, common to many Indigenous groups across Australia that features a whale and a traditional message about the importance of sharing the Earth’s spoils with each other.
Uncle Bruce Pascoe – founder of the Indigenous social enterprise, Black Duck Foods – reveals one version of the ancient story to SBS. “Many years ago, the people on the land had a relationship with the whale because she was a land animal,” says Pascoe, an Aboriginal Australian writer, teacher, academic and farmer. “Then one day, we saw her go into the sea. The people stood on the headland and begged the whale to come back to the land, because they couldn't imagine that it would be able to live out in the sea.
“The whale did not return to the land. Instead, the mammal rose out of the water and showed the people its mouth full of seaweed. It said ‘look. I can eat and live here in the water. I’ll be okay.”
"We eat far too much. We process our food far too much. We need to respect the Earth a lot more [and the foods it provides us].”
The people, threatened by rising sea levels, were led to safety by the whale that took them into the lands of other Australian-Aboriginals. “The whale warns the group about how they will have to learn to live together with their [new] hosts, saying ‘you’ll be asking them to share what they have with you. They will give up the amenity of their land for your sake. So you will have to be polite’.”
There are so many beautiful environmental and social themes in this condensed version of the traditional story. Pascoe explains that it serves as a reminder of the relationship between animals and humans. It also highlights the need to amicably and respectfully share the Earth’s resources with animals as well as other groups of people. Most importantly, however, the story stresses the need to be respectful as we share.
For Pascoe, this respect extends to both humans and the natural environment, which feeds us. “How we treat the Earth is so important to Australia and the world," says the Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian man. "We have to be modest about our demands on it. In this world today, we have far too much. We eat far too much. We process our food far too much. We need to respect the Earth a lot more [and the foods it provides us].”
Sharing our waterways & respecting fish
The native foods advocate and avid fisherman, who was taught to fish by his father and uncle in his youth, says he catches the fish he eats. Living remotely along a river in far-east Gippsland Victoria, the saltwater man feels a sense of freedom in being able to catch his own meals and eat the food that nature provides.
But with the privilege of being able to source fish to eat, fresh from the river, also comes responsibility.
Pascoe reminds us that in order to sustainably share the food that the Earth provides we must also respectfully share our waterways with its inhabitants and all the other people who use it. “We need to share and care for our rivers. You can take your fish from the river but it is also your responsibility to look after the health of that river: that's what Aboriginal law is all about; not just your rights but your responsibilities.
“I've taught my kids, and now my grandkids, to remember that when they catch a fish to eat, they are actually killing something… The fish was living a pretty good life before you caught it and took it out of its realm. When you eat fish, you have to honour the realm where the fish lived.
“You’ve really got to value it because you've taken its life. When you cook it, you want its flavour and character to come out.”
Cook fresh fish, simply
To do that, Pascoe recommends cooking the fish out in nature, perhaps over a fire on a riverbank, so you can really connect with the environment surrounding you. Of course, cooking the fish in an oven is okay too. But, he says, just remember not to hide the flavour of the fish with a sauce that overpowers its essence.
“If you’re unsure about the quality of the fish then okay – add a sauce to hide the flavour. But if you've just pulled a fish out of the river and cleaned it yourself, you’re sitting on the sand, and the sun is going down, then it’s a beautiful thing to just to cook it as simply as possible so that the flavour of the fish can be distinguished.”
To cook fish simply, no matter whether it comes from the shop or river, Pascoe recommends the following.
“First, I clean the fish and stuff its belly with some [native] herbs like lemon daisy (asteracea). It has a real lemony zesty flavour to it. If I can’t find that I use Warrigal greens or samphire.
“I add a slice of lemon. Then I just wrap it all up in paperback or alfoil, smeared with a bit of butter. I put it on the coals and let it cook for about 25 minutes. If I do it in the oven, I give it around five minutes more.”
He says wrapping the fish keeps it moist and infuses it with the taste of the herbs used.
“I think if people could cook fish simply, this way, they would taste the difference between a bream and flathead and really appreciate the fish a lot more.
“They’ll remember the country around them, they’ll remember where the fish came from and remember the importance of honouring that fish.”