BEYOND BANDICOOT CURRY
Thanks to the star power of chef Rene Redzepi and the Noma Australia pop-up, our indigenous foods have never been so fashionable. And it’s about time
On July 7, 1864, Melbourne morning newspaper The Argus ran a long report on page four about the second annual dinner of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria. The society had been formed to import into Australia from the old country flora, fauna and fish that were not available in the new one. But this worked both ways.
It also exported Australian foods and plants deemed worthy of being added to the menus and landscape of Britain. One such was Murray cod, a freshwater fish much admired by the colonists.
Perhaps the purpose of this dinner was to discover more native foodstuffs worthy of export. According to
The Argus, it was: “To discover what, within the limits of the colony, was eatable — to range the kingdom of Nature in search of meat — to test the esculent capacity of many of God’s creatures as could possibly be brought within the art of cookery — this was the wider and more daring aim of the diners last night.”
The menu, entirely in French — as was the custom for large, important dinners of the time — both in language and for course names ( Le Gibier for the game course and Entremets for the sweet course, for example) — contained some daring dishes. For example: “Le fricandeau de wombat aux. epinards” (thinly sliced wombat served with spinach), “Le bandicoot en currie” and “Le pate chaud de perroquets” (warm pate of parrot). In addition, there were dishes of kangaroo, black duck, magpie goose, Murray cod and other indigenous fare.
All in all, it was well received, some dishes more than others: “If among our beasts, we have nothing better to offer than a bandicoot or a kangaroo, we have among our birds the bustard or wild turkey which need not fear competition with anything that flies. The black duck and the magpie goose are also worthy in their kind to rank with the best of imported birds.” ( The Argus)
It’s worth noting, but not unexpected, that the only member of the vegetable kingdom on the menu was “Les yams de Queensland”. And even then we can’t be sure that they were native. Even less welcome than kangaroo and bandicoot on the early Australian table were the fruits, vegetables and herbs of the land.
The nameless journalist summed up by proclaiming that, “The novelties, approved by the eye and the tongue, require only labour and patience to become a familiar possession, and a part of the wealth of every man in the colony.” As we know, this didn’t happen.
Food, as we know, is far more than a material substance which is ingested and excreted. It distinguishes and defines us to ourselves and to our fellows. It can be a primary cultural marker of our clan, tribe, religion, region, province, personal sensibilities and country.
Fast forward to today’s Australia and Australians, and there’s one food that could well be the best predictor of national identity of any food in the world: Vegemite.
If you eat Vegemite, if you like the black, salty, sticky, sharp-tasting industrial spread, you are almost certainly Australian. Until globalisation, travelling Australians would either take jars with them or have them sent in care packages.
In Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, I met the vicar of the only Anglican church in that city. He was Australian, and he invited me for a cup of tea — with toast and Vegemite.
Vietnamese people feel the same deep connection to pho, Ethiopians to their spongy bread, injera, northern Italians to their polenta, southerners to their pasta. And just as the first Anglo-Celts to settle in Australia stuck rigidly to
the foods of their origin, so too did the migrants who arrived from the 1950s on, bringing with them, as did the First Fleeters, their ingredients.
Native produce was not entirely ignored by the new arrivals, but their use of it was opportunistic or surrounded by cultural hedges.
It is thought that a drink made from native sarsaparilla saved many from scurvy. The problem of scurvy prompted governor Arthur Phillip to make the most of available fresh foods, and in a dispatch he mentioned “wild celery, spinages, samphose, a small wild fig, and several berries which proved most wholesome”.
And beyond the merely medicinal, native foods were used for all manner of reasons, including survival and even feasting (of game meats).
There was, in the early days, a whiff of adventure around their consumption, to do with hunting and exploring, being out in the wild.
But, as Colin Bannerman writes in his article “Indigenous food and cookery books: redefining Aboriginal cuisine”, they also “represented failure: the depletion of stores, extreme poverty, or separation from the society of ‘home’ and were seen as second best.”
Settler and diarist Katherine Kirkland harvested the tubers of the yam daisy or maranong (also murnong) and wrote of it: “I have often eaten maranong; it is very good; and I have put it in soup for want of better vegetables, before we had a garden.” Conversely, some settlers actually enjoyed native food plants. In northern Queensland, cookbook writer Mrs Rawson said of bush yams that they were “not unlike sweet potatoes when unearthed, but have a far nicer flavour, more nutty”.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand the attitudes to local produce, without invoking that cultural hedge.
In 1838, a visitor, Arnold A. Haskell, wrote of the fish that used to be called schnapper that it was “very nice though not esteemed a proper dish for a dinner party … why I am at a loss to guess; but I never saw any native fish at a Sydney dinner-table — the preserved or cured cod and salmon from England being served instead, at a considerable expense and, to my taste, it is not comparable with the cheap fresh fish.”
Even when serving the food of the land, the hedges were built.
In 1846, the governor of NSW, Lieutenant-General Sir Maurice O’Connell, held a banquet at which was served kangaroo, wallaby and wonga pigeon.
Visiting soldier Godfrey Mundy wrote of the framing of the banquet that “the general appliances of the household, the dress of the guests and the servants, were as entirely English as they could have been in London”, while the ingredients of the dishes on the menu were a long way from British.
There was wallaby tail soup, boiled “schnapper” with oyster sauce, a haunch of kangaroo venison and wonga pigeon with bread sauce. The surprising inclusion of so many local foods in one menu was either an early and self-conscious attempt at nationalism or, more likely, a culinary entertainment. A bit of a lark.