Australia’s bush contains many hidden treasures.
One is the kakadu plum, a food with the highest level of antioxidants in the world.
Then there are the succulent citrusy bubbles of finger limes and witchetty grubs, which according to early settlers, taste like the most delicious bone marrow.
So where do we start looking for them?
It’s diverse, rich and very old.
Bush food, called in Australian slang 'Bush Tucker', has been a source of nutrition and effective medicine for Australia’s Indigenous people for an estimated 60 thousand years.
It consists of a huge variety of native plants, fruits, vegetable, spices and animals.
Chef and the Chairman of the Australian Native Food Industry, known as ANFIL, Andrew Fielke explains.
“Bush Tucker or bush food is generally a term that’s referred to all Australian native foods. So it can be anything from fresh fish or yabbies or like a fresh water crayfish. It can be kangaroo, emu, native fruits, seeds, nuts, leaves, spices, all our eatable native fauna and flora.”
Although today the interest in Australian native foods is growing, for many years it wasn’t appreciated, sometimes even forgotten.
‘Colonial Gastronomer’ at Sydney Living Museums, Jacqui Newling, says the idea that the first European settlers to Australia mistrusted or didn’t appreciate bush foods is rather a simplistic view.
She paints a different picture of the new settler’s willingness to know and try native food.
“If you look at the early journals the European First Fleeters were very interested in Aboriginal habits and practices and a lot of them record various food processing techniques. But of course they didn’t get to see all of them at all of the communities living the everyday life. But they certainly saw them fishing around the harbour and that sort of thing. When the First Fleeters run out of the fishing lines, that they brought with them, they started making fishing lines the way the Aboriginal people shown them. So there was an exchange of information. But this took quite a while. It took quite a while for the relationship to build between two parties.”
Ms Newling adds that European interest in native Australian food began well before the arrival of First Fleet.
It started with the expedition of Captain Cook, who sailed to Australia with the botanist Joseph Banks.
Banks took a large number of samples of native vegetation back home, planting them in green houses in England.
Among the samples was a plant called ‘native spinach’, today known as Warrigal greens.
Jacqui Newling says Banks’ samples soon crossed the English Channel.
“The French were also very interested and they took samples of Joseph Banks’ cuttings or plantings and took them to France. And a lot of English people what they call ‘French spinach’ is actually Australian native spinach. And as far as I know this French spinach still grows in France as an eatable plant.”
Ms Newling believes that in Colonial times, settlers were very creative in introducing bush food to their diets and adapting it to their tastes.
They had only a limited amount of mostly preserved food that they had brought from Europe and had to supplement it with natural resources.
“So they took the sort of European staples, the salted meat, the flour, the tea but they had to be supplemented with fresh ingredients. They had the native spinach. They found a natural bush herb, which the convicts used as tea until they had the tea provided for them in their rations in 1820s they used the native alternative. But the things like kangaroo and wallaby and fish and oysters they were commonly on the menu.”
She describes a popular colonial dish known as ‘kangaroo steamer.
“Which is a combination of freshly cooked kangaroo meat, fresh meat but they would then combine that with salted pork and put it all together in a pot like a sort of billy and boiled it up. So you can have it hot as a sort of stew or it would actually keep quite well for the next couple of days. A little bit like a terrine or meatloaf perhaps.”
Interest in bush foods fluctuated over the next 200 years.
There were periods of great interest and times when the bush tucker was regarded as a 'poor man’s food,' and frowned upon.
Ms Newling argues spikes in bush food’s appeal occur around the first and the second centenaries of settlement and coincided with the rise of a ‘nationalistic’ fervour.
Cookbooks in the 1880’s included recipes for rosella jelly, parrot pies, wonga pigeons and the Australian brush turkey.
But from approximately 1910 this native menu disappears from the Australian table.
Ms Newling says this occured because native food again was looked down on as a food for paupers.
“So only people who couldn’t afford to buy butchers meat then they would have to use these local meats. They’ve got a bit bad reputation. And also in early 20th century, because of the war and the alliance with Britain, there were a big drive to eat an Empire food, foods that came from the Empire.
The next wave of popularity started around 1980s, and was pioneered by people such as Vic Cherikoff, horticulturalist Peter Hardwick, Chef Jean-Paul Bruneteau and Jenny Dowling, who in the 1984 opened Rowntrees restaurant in Sydney, specialising in using native ingredients.
In the 1990’s restaurateurs Jennice and Raymond Kersh decided to prove that bush food could be served in a fine dining restaurant, opening 'Edna’s Table' in a historic warehouse just behind Sydney’s Town Hall.
The Kersh’s adventure with native food started much earlier.
In the late 1960’s they joined their missionary brother at Balgo in Western Australia, living among the Gogadja people.
Jennice Kersh explains.
“They’ve used to bring in lots of bush food. So sometimes it could be dry bush tomatoes, which did happen once and it was dry for so long. And when my brother said it was a bush tomato, I’ve bitten to it thinking it was this tiny, little cherry tomato it looked like. And I thought it was going to be soft. And as I bitten down on it I broke the side of my front tooth because it was as hard as a fossil.”
Ms Kersh says that this early experience kick-started her and her brother Raymond’s life-time passion for bush foods.
“We started feel very passionate about the fact that there was such a thing as produce in this country, to have a cuisine that you can call Australian. The food of your land, whatever your nationality, is a very important part of your DNA, isn’t it? It’s a very important part of your being.”
Today Ms Kersh’s sentiment is shared by many other chefs and bush food enthusiasts.
They believe that the native and locally produce food is not only important in building Australia’s cultural and culinary identity, but it’s also better for the environment.
Sydney Living Museums Jacqui Newling says it’s a global phenomenon.
“There seems to be a global trend toward sustainability and food miles and all that sort of things. And really looking at how long we can keep sending food around the world. And we have to look more consciously at our local resources.”
Another reason for the rise in popularity of native Australian food could be the recognition of its health and medicinal properties.
Many Indigenous peoples have long been aware of these health benefits - they use many different native species for all sorts of ailments.
They use snake vine to treat headaches, crushed witchetty grubs for burns, and sandpaper fig together with stinking passion flower to relive itching.
Griffith University Lecturer Dr Ian Cock says there’s still a lot to learn about the quite remarkable health properties of our native food.
“There was a paper a number of years ago by a Sydney group that looked at the antioxidant content of a number of the Australian fruits. And they found the contents to be really, really high. The highest of these was actually Kakadu Plum. It’s a one of the highest antioxidant, naturally occurring antioxidant level of any food in the world, with the highest level of vitamin C. We have others as well; Tasmanian pepper is another favourite of mine. We’ve got Davidson’s plum, Riberry, Brush Cherry, Finger Limes, Muntries. We have a number of very good plants with these medicinal properties. They really do deserve the term ‘super foods’.”
Some of the Dr Cock’s favourite bush medicines are available in our local chemist.
“When you walk around the pharmacy you will see some pretty obvious ones in terms of eucalyptus oils and tee tree oils. So they have been popular for a number of years. These are the oils you can put on the skin if you have cuts or abrasions to stop them going septic. So they are very good antiseptic agents. Apart from that there is not a very huge amount at the moment. We do have very good medicinal plants out there; it’s just that they are taking some time to break onto the market, to sell at pharmacies.”
Chairman of ANFIL, Andrew Fielke says if you’re thinking of cooking with native ingredients, they are still relatively hard to get, especially in their raw form.
“You might see Lemon Myrtle and native pepper in some supermarkets but that’s not wide spread. You will find lot more in gourmet shops and delicatessens or tourists outlooks where they’re selling native ingredients, packets of dried Quandong or bush tomatoes or native pepper or Lemon Myrtle. The online purchasing as well is available. But it’s not as easy as going and getting a bag of carrots or dried theme or rosemary in the supermarkets.”
Mr Fielke assures us that despite being still difficult to buy, Australian native ingredients are worth looking for.
“The one I enjoy using a lot is Lemon Myrtle. You get a beautiful floral, citrus perfume from its leaves. That’s magnificent flavour to work with and it’s so versatile. Apart from that I like Quandong, the wild peach. There is a really simple butter sauce I do with Finger Lime. So you cut the Finger Lime in half and you squeeze out the crunchy citrus bubbles. It looks like caviar, green caviar, or pink or yellowy ones, there are different colours. Crunchy citrus bubbles that pop in your mouth so it’s delightful.”
Our unique bush foods have been a source of nutrition and medicine for thousands of years.
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