Though once dominated by British culinary tastes, Australian cuisine is now influenced by a variety of Mediterranean and Asian foods introduced by immigrant cultures. Many people living outside of Australia think of native Bush Tucker when they contemplate Australian food, but Southeast Asian, Greek, Lebanese and Italian influences are now more common.
Photo: Andrew Fielke, award-winning chef and pioneer of Australian cuisine using native foods.
In recent food columns of the Australian daily newspapers much has been made of a swing back to traditional and native/bush foods. These are becoming popular with the average diner and "bush tucker food" is really being seen as an important part of our ever-evolving national cuisine. In Victoria alone we have a wine and food industry that combines the old bush tucker foods with the most modern, inventive and dynamic cuisine. Get out your atlases to find these food sources. Over 150 different cheeses are made in Victoria by some 30 cheesemakers. Milawa cheeses and Maffra farmhouse cheddar. Exotic vegetables such as bok choy and mizuna from Glenrowan—famous for the bushranger Ned Keely. Yabbies, native lobsters, for the table, farmed in Bendigo. Crayfish and abalone from Apollo Bay. Scallops and silver dory off Lakes Entrance. Crocodile fillets from Darwin and now even witchetty grubs and sea urchins—delicacies shipped to Japan in large quantities.
Most Australians would be horrified to hear that you have eaten snake or goanna or grubs. They are fastidious about what they eat. Kangaroo has only recently become acceptable. I really cannot see all Australians adapting to a diet of bush tucker foods, but we do have inroads being made at present with a variety of bush food products. Like macadamia oil, salad dressings, jams, mustards and chutneys. Recently, I brought some soap scented with lemon aspen fruit. The list is growing.
Some native Australian or bush tucker foods are now available commercially through the supermarket chains. Kakadu Plum jam is a favourite of mine. Kakadu plums are rich in Vitamin C and the jam is what Americans call jelly. I often substitute Kakadu plum jam in a sauce I use to accompany Chinese spring rolls. Luckily I have a cousin who lives in Darwin and sends me heeps, which she bottles herself. Otherwise I would be paying around $5.50 for a small jarof Kakadu plum jam.
Other bush foods that I have been eating all my life are macadamias and bunya nuts, quandongs (a native peach, tart and delicious), native mint and many of the varietal honey types. I was lucky, in that growing up in Victoria I went back to the extended family in Western Australia each year, and that every Easter break was spent on the border near Cobrum or Mildura. Growing up in the 1950's in Australia was a fantastic experience. But only if you were receptive to the food on offer. Many city kids were exposed to a very English diet of roasts and puddings. Unlike other children of my age I was exposed to different foods and was willing to taste new and strange things. Some I rejected out of sight. Liver, kidneys and tripe made me feel physically ill (any sort of offal does), but fresh fish—caught and cleaned and cooked on a beach fire with lemon and butter—remain warm and fuzzy memories of a lovely and safe childhood. Crayfish or lobster conjure up the same memories—all served with lemon and lots of happy members of an extended family I saw once a year. The uncles and my Dad drank beer from bottles—out in the shed so Grandma didn't see them. She was a very fierce Methodist. I cannot remember what my Mum and the aunties drank. If it was the 1950's, probably tea, because only "tarts" drank strong liquor.
At Easter, each year until I was 15, I went to a farm or "property" on the N.S.W. side of Cobrum. Here, I learned to catch yabbies and cook them in billies of boiling water. I used to watch with fascinated horror as they went a different colour. It was here I found out from hardened sheep shearers about the medicinal benefits of eucalyptus oil for swollen joints and goanna oil for burns. Mind you I was very young. As a teenager I would never have been allowed around the shearing sheds. Both of these oils are now marketed commercially.
Since my childhood and from early on in my married life, I have looked at bush tucker foods and used them in our daily/weekly diet. I have been extremely careful about what I feed my family, as they are very critical. However, I take the view point that if they don't know what they are eating, then I will give it a burl. Thus my family has eaten a number of things in stir-frys that they do not know about—.e.g. warrigal greens, which have a very strong flavour disguised by the satay sauce (trying to grow this in my garden at present, they are much like spinach); bunya nuts are like chestnuts—I use them all the time for satay sauces; quandongs and kakadu plums are great for sauces, chutneys, etc.
With regard to native meats, kangaroo and emu are now commercially farmed and processed. Both meats are low in fat content and high in fibre. I have eaten kangaroo quite a few times. Personally, I have no trouble in eating such a very lean red meat. with kangaroo however, I find that there is a distinctive grassy taste to the meat. Skippy was, after all, a vegetarian. I find no problem in eating these meats when they are cured or served like prosciutto. Rabbit is in plague proportions and available as gourmet cuts in the Victoria Market in Melbourne. Once again, the taste of rabbit is too blooded and gamey for me.I have also eaten emu, and I do not like it as a meat. Too gamey for me—like duck, and I have never liked the taste of red meat. I have eaten swan as a child in Western Australia, and once again I found it a gamey meat. The swan is now a protected species, like wallabies, koalas and goannas.
When I was first teaching up in Mildura I ate coal-fired snake. It was very nice. To me it tasted like tuna—done as the Japanese prepare sushi and the way it melts in your mouth. I also ate witchetty grubs. They were prepared like shasliks or satays on pieces of wire over a fire. I loved them. They tasted just the same as chicken satays with a bit of peanut sauce.
Contemporary Australian food has been described as using the best seasonal ingredients combined with a special mix of Asian, European and Indian cuisines to name a few and mix the ingredients and the foodstyles to create our own food styles. It is interesting that many food writers, up until the present have ignored the most basic cuisine of all: Bush tucker food.
I have been very fortunate in my background and family life. I have perhaps tasted more Bush tucker foods then most people of my generation. I often talk to students I teach about bush tucker foods and the majority, recoil in disgust. But it is an educational bonus to be able to bring in various "cooked" items and get them to taste the different foods. In most cases the opinion is favourable. And with the majority of kids it is better to offer the cooked product first and show them the item in its raw state later. I always start with damper (bread made without a raising agent like yeast) and serve it with heeps of a natural honey or kakudu jam. A winner all the time. Or I serve wattle seed ice cream in sugar cones or bring in a tin full of macadamia nut crisps. It is only by educating the young that we can hope to sustain part of our indigenous people's culture. A major part of any culture is surely the cuisine.
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This page modified January 2007
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