Trend or tradition?

Some of the country’s top chefs weigh in on whether bush tucker is a cultural icon and staple or true Australian cuisine or just a flash in the pan.

If you’ve heard of finger limes, you’ve probably noticed the recent rise of native foods across Australia’s dining scene. Thanks to a handful of chefs, foragers and even MasterChef Australia, diners are being swept up in the ‘bush tucker’ trend.

Celebrity chef Kylie Kwong, from Sydney’s Billy Kwong restaurant, claims that warrigal greens have revolutionised her menu; top chef Peter Gilmore marries garlic blossom with kangaroo tail broth at Sydney’s Quay restaurant and every dish chef Jack Zonfrillo serves at Orana in Adelaide boasts something from the bush.

Lemon myrtle, quandong, saltbush
and wattleseed are just some of the enticements on offer in ‘true Australian cuisine’ – perhaps our most exciting food trend to date.

But wild foods are much more than
a trend. Indigenous Australians have been eating them for 60,000 years, but without the price tag of modern dining.

Clayton Donovan is the first Aboriginal chef to be awarded an Australian Good Food Guide ‘Chef Hat’, a widely recognised symbol of excellence. Born and raised in sleepy Nambucca Heads on the New South Wales Mid North Coast, Clayton began foraging for native foods with his aunties and grandmothers when he was just four years old.

Fascinated by these ancient edibles and inspired by his mother’s love of European cuisine, Clayton pursued a cooking apprenticeship and was eventually drawn to Britain, where illustrious chef Kenneth Leung was experimenting with wattleseed and lemon myrtle.

Today, after running his own restaurant in Nambucca Heads, Jaaning Tree, from 2008 to 2014 and completing his own ABC TV cooking show Wild Kitchen last year, Clayton is happy to see the native food movement growing.

“Nowadays, even crocodile is popping up all over social media as a hot ingredient, which is great. I recently saw Rene Redzepi post something about serving crocodile on his Australian menu,” Clayton says.

Danish celebrity chef Rene Redzepi, whose Noma restaurant in Copenhagen has been named the world’s number one four times, was so taken by native foods during an Australian visit that he and his entire staff are coming back to run a ten-week Noma pop-up in Sydney this January.

Clayton points out that while indigenous ingredients are open to experimentation, it’s their connection to Aboriginal culture that makes them so remarkable.

“Luckily, I was able to learn about native ingredients at a very young age. But I think that any chef who has the chance to learn about them properly can go on to develop recipes,” he says.

“Already, we’re seeing bush foods acting as a vehicle for education about Aboriginal culture. The fact that the world’s number one chef is coming here will only make people more interested in their history and traditional uses.”

Wild foods are important to Australian culture because of their link with Aboriginal knowledge. Without guidance from Aboriginal elders and clan members living in remote Australia, it would have been difficult for chefs to access many of the ingredients we know today.

As the bush food industry grows, several organisations have expressed that in order for it to thrive, Aborigines must be acknowledged properly for their role as traditional harvesters.

In 2011, not-for-profit organisation Ninti One highlighted the limited inclusion of Aboriginals in the bush food industry, and that we need “to recognise that Aboriginal people see themselves as the custodians of the traditional and more contemporary knowledge of these plant resources”.

Andrew Fielke, an award-winning chef and board member of the Australian Native Foods Industries Limited (ANFIL), agrees with Ninti One. Since returning home in the mid-1980s after years of working in Europe, Andrew made it his mission to help define Australian cuisine, assisted by remote Aboriginal communities.

“Australians are very conscious of food origins – the region and the farmer.
As they grow more interested in native foods they become more curious about Aboriginal culture or working with Aboriginal growers,” Andrew says.

“By eating native foods, we can help preserve Aboriginal culture. It also gives us a chance to acknowledge remote communities and some of the social difficulties occurring within them.”

A crucial factor in recognising Aboriginals’ intellectual property and traditional ownership rights, says Andrew, is involving them in the cultivation and retail, and guaranteeing a return that can be reinvested into the community.

To ensure this, ANFIL is developing a certification process that identifies authentic Australian native food to create
a point of difference in the international food market.

“A trademark or logo, like the Heart Foundation Tick, would ensure indigenous authenticity of the ingredient and differentiate it from overseas farmers cultivating their own, like we’ve seen happen with Australian lemon myrtle in Malaysia.”

For bush food pioneer and author Vic Cherikoff, who has been researching the nutritional value of native foods for 30 years, there is more to the Kakadu plum and mountain pepper than showcasing Australia as a foodie destination. They provide an insight into the way Australians should be living.

“It’s funny, Australians are convinced they live in the best place on Earth but we’re only just seeing wild foods on enough menus for it to be called a trend,” Vic says.

“I believe we still have a lot to learn from indigenous Australians, including the land and resource management practices of each of the 600 clans across the country pre-colonisation.”

Nutrition helps guide people’s food choices and for nutritional value, native foods excel. Following on from Cherikoff’s work in the 1980s, Dr Isabel Konczak, with
help from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), showed that many wild food species have antioxidant capacities far higher than blueberries and other mainstream ‘superfoods’.

Paula Nihot, Project Officer of the Yugambeh Museum just north of the Gold Coast, is pushing for locals to start growing them at home.

“The Yugambeh region is abundant. If you look at research it says Aboriginal people were strong, healthy-looking people from this region,” Paula explains in an article for the ABC.

Davidson’s plum, which is native to South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales, is currently being studied for its anti-ageing properties, at the Gold Coast’s Southern Cross University. Easy to grow, acidic in taste and highly nutritious, this fruit is one of Australia’s very own superfoods.

Whether enjoying wattleseed sauce on steak at a high-end restaurant or chilled wild lime cordial at the beach, when we eat native foods, we are getting a glimpse into the world’s longest living culture.

“‘For everything, there is a season’ were the lyrics of my grandmother’s favourite folk song. Maybe now it’s the turn of Australian wild foods,” Vic writes in his new book,
Wild Foods; Looking Back 60,000 Years for Clues to our Future Survival.

“This could be an opportunity to better appreciate the culture to whom these foods belong and to appreciate, safeguard and preserve some of the environments from which they come.”

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