Late last year I read the book Eating Between the Lines: Food and Equality in Australia (no longer, it seems, available – I borrowed it from the library). While this book raised many interesting points, the one that resonated with me the most was the observation that Australians are very, very good at accepting and incorporating other ‘ethnic’ cuisines into our diet, and yet we’ve all but ignored the foods of our own country.
Apart from being the food source to Aboriginals for thousands of years, Australian native foods also helped keep early white colonists alive. However, native foods soon gave way to more traditional and familiar European foods, and apart from macadamia nuts and the occasional interest in ‘exotic’ cuisine, Australian native foods haven’t enjoyed widespread popularity.
I think this is a real shame. It’s at our own loss that we have, by and large, ignored our native food source. It doesn’t make sense that you can buy chia seeds (native to Mexico) at your local supermarket while wattle seeds, for instance, are much harder to source.
Native foods are, obviously, perfectly adapted to growing in this country’s climate. They are also very nutritious: the Kakadu Plum is thought to be the richest source of Vitamin C of any food in the world. And if you forage for wild foods, then they are also free.
My own exposure to native foods has been limited to the occasional Quandong jam that my dad used to make, some lemon myrtle tea, as well as macadamia nuts, of course. And if you count kangaroo as bush tucker then yes, I’ve eaten that too (there’s an irony there – a nation that’s all but rejected it’s own native food is also one of the few that eats it’s national emblem).
But I’ve been looking into ways to widen our palate by making native Australian foods a regular addition to our diet.
Below are the five steps that we are taking to incorporate native Australian foods into our diet, beginning with the easiest. If you would like to explore native foods but find the idea of foraging for your own a little daunting, you can go the baby steps route like we are taking.
One reader, who does have experience in foraging, was wondering if there are other like-minded people out there who forage for food in Australia. If you do forage for native foods, it would be wonderful if you shared your experiences in the comments below (and there’s a link to a native foods forum in the resources if you’re looking for other passionate foragers). I would also like to hear about the experiences of others as I am very interested in learning more.
1. learning about bush tucker foods
If you’re new to Australian native foods, then the first step is to learn about what’s available. Information overload can be counter-productive, which is why it’s best to pick one food at a time to explore (something that I am doing).
Choose a native food (one that is palatable and not just edible) that grows in your local region, and learn how to identify it, it’s natural environment, it’s seasonality, what parts are edible, how to grow, how to harvest it and how to prepare it, use it (some plants are also medicinal) and cook with it.
Buy some. Try some. Taste it. Cook with it yourself. Grow it.
And familiarise yourself with native foods one plant at a time. The knowledge you gain through this process will be more valuable than any single book.
At the end of the article is a list of resources, including information on various plants, to help you get started with this process. Your local library will also have books on native foods.
2. buy foods made from native ingredients
We went to the food festival in Kenilworth over the Easter break and came home with a local product: a lovely jar of bush tucker / Moroccan fusion simmer sauce. At $8 a jar, it wasn’t cheap, but as the lady suggested, we only used about a third of the jar, so it will make three meals for the three of us.
Once you begin to look, there are actually lots of ready made products that incorporate native Australian ingredients (like sauces and jams); local markets are one of the best places to find these products. They make a good introduction both to the taste of native foods as well as ideas on how to use them.
Another place to find these foods is in your health food shop (and even sometimes in your supermarket). Lemon Myrtle tea is a good example. This is the one I’ve tried, although there are many different brands (as well as different native teas).
3. buy native ingredients to cook with
The next step is to buy raw native ingredients to cook with, things like native herbs and spices or native fruits and greens at your local markets. Find ingredients in specialty stores, health food stores, greengrocers, at local markets or online.
There are many recipes online to guide you in using native foods, although it will be a lot more fun to experiment and come up with your own recipes.
4. Grow native food plants in your garden
This is the aspect of native foods that I’m particularly interested in: incorporating native food plants into the garden. The benefits of growing your own bush tucker are many.
Firstly, and particularly if you’re buying from nurseries that specialise in native food plants, you can be assured you’re eating plants that are not poisonous.
Secondly, by planting native trees, you are providing a food source for native birds and insects as well as helping maintain a good balance between native and introduced species and helping to keep endangered species alive. Native plants are also hardy and water wise.
Thirdly, as much of the bush tucker currently consumed is ‘wild harvested’, increasing demand puts pressure on its sustainability. Many native plants are low maintenance so by growing your own, you have the best of both worlds.
If you are interested in adding native food plants to your garden, find out which ones are appropriate for your local climate and start from there. Your local nursery should be able to help or check out the resources section for more information.
5. Forage for native foods
Foraging means food for free, which is always nice. One day I would like to get more into foraging; it’s a great way to supplement what you buy and what you grow. Foraging is also a great way to really understand, appreciate and live within the natural rhythms of the environment.
Of course, foraging doesn’t just mean native foods, there are many introduced plant species (aka weeds) that can be picked and eaten. If you’re in Melbourne, Doris Pozzi does edible weed walks and workshops; she also has a book that you can buy online.
There are two things to keep in mind when foraging for foods. The first is to really make sure you know what you’re picking and eating. It can be very easy to mistake one plant for another, sometimes with deadly consequences. In the reading I’ve been doing lately, I’ve discovered that even within the same species, some plants are edible while others that look very similar are poisonous. Also, some parts of a plant may be edible, while other parts poisonous.
Ideally you would want to take a course or workshop (if you can find one) from someone who knows the native foods in your local area and can teach you where to find them and how to identify them.
Secondly, keep in mind that some plants are endangered and protected and therefore require a permit to harvest. The NSW variety of Davidson Plum comes to mind here (although the QLD variety is not endangered). You will also need to check out regulations if foraging in National Parks.
- Queensland Bush Food Association
- Australian Native Food Industry Limited
- Australian Bushfood and Native Medicine Forum – lots of info here
- Australian Bushfood Magazine
- NSW Flora Online
- Learn how to use bush tucker – ACS Distance Ed Course
- Bushfood shop and their blog with info on plants plus recipes
- Witjuti Grub Bushfood Nursery
If you have any other resources or experience in growing, foraging, cooking or eating Australian native foods, let us know in the comments below.