GO WILD DIET
Kakadu’s food festival will be a feast of beast and the bush
Crocodile tail cooked in an underground oven, crocodile dumplings, pickled crocodile – Australia’s most fearsome carnivore is firmly on the menu when visiting Kakadu.
But our first taste of one of the wildest regions of the land is a little more sedate. Pulling in at a truck stop just outside Kakadu, Darwin-based indigenous chef Zach Green introduces us to another local delicacy, Pauls Iced Coffee. The beverage is so beloved by Territorians that it made the NT News when there was a shortage earlier this year. When it’s 33C and 85 per cent humidity, the cold caffeine kick goes down a lot easier than a flat white.
The rest of our diet – as part of a trip ahead of A Taste of Kakadu food festival in May – is much wilder. Kakadu Kitchen, a breakout success of last year’s inaugural festival, will be back this year. It’s run by Kylie-Lee Bradford, 36, and Ben Tyler, 37, skin cousins who grew up in Kakadu and whose mothers are traditional owners of the land.
“Kakadu Kitchen is a taste of culture and food,” Ben says. “It comes out of the bush, hunting and fishing. It’s families going out together and getting the bush tucker and cooking together ... there’s lots of work by everyone that goes into it.”
On the menu will be cultural walks, a visit to the outstation’s community garden, damper with blackcurrant jam and billy tea, buffalo stew, a traditional cook-up of wallaby and barramundi as well as crocodile tail cooked in a ground oven. If you’re lucky, dessert will be a bowl of vanilla ice cream with blackcurrant sauce and green ants, which gives you a mouthful of cold, creamy, sweet, sour and crunchy in the one bite.
“It’s like wizz fizz,” according to Zach, referring to the green ants.
He didn’t lead us astray on the iced coffee, so when he plucked the ants from their nest in a wattle tree earlier, we followed his lead. Be careful to grab the head so it doesn’t nip your lip and bite off the bum which tastes sharp and sour, like green grapes. Luckily, Kylie freezes hers before adding them to the ice cream, making it less of a struggle.
Ben gives us a tour of Warradjan Cultural Centre, explaining how Aborigines live off the land. While western culture has four seasons, indigenous Australians recognise six and use them as a guide for when to hunt and where, what bush foods to collect, when the animals are nesting, when the water is coming and when it’s time to burn the land to encourage
new growth. “It’s taking what you need and coming back a year later to see it multiply,” Zach says.
When the flowers on the bank bloom, they know it’s time to harvest crocodile eggs; when the magpie geese have become fat from eating water chestnuts in September and October only then are they hunted; while the top of the spear grass indicates when geese are laying eggs.
“The flood plains are a powerhouse of food,” Ben says. “Families have come here for goose and pig-nosed turtles for over 65,000 years.”
The knowledge that has been passed down is incredible. The cheeky yam must be boiled, sliced and left in a bag in a running stream for 24 hours to leach the toxins before it is safe to eat. Ben says it tastes like a sweet potato and last year he made a hummus out of it with garlic and served it with damper at Taste of Kakadu. On the other hand, the river yam is safe to eat straight away; just pull it out of the creek shallows, cook it and you’re good to go.
He points out a grinding stone dating back 20,000-30,000 years. “Aborigines were making bread before the Egyptians,” he says. “The water lily seed, you can peel it and grind it to make a damper then wrap it in lily leaves or paperbark and bury it under coals to cook.”
Seasonality is a strong cultural concept. Even though most locals vote magpie goose as their favourite, it’s out of season so we can’t try it. But to give us a taste of country, Ben and Zach cook up a black bream stuffed with native lemongrass and sweet red gundurn berries. It’s wrapped in paperbark, which gives it a smoky flavour, and tied with pandanus leaves before being cooked over coals. Barramundi, caught in Jim Jim Creek that morning, are put straight onto coals and covered in paperbark leaves. It’s fresh, smoky, delicious. Then there’s warm damper with a blackcurrant jam that’s as thick and tacky as honey, which Ben makes from blackcurrants he forages.
On a foraging tour, Mandy Muir and Patsy Raiclar point out green plums that grow just before wet season, black plums used for dyes and Kakadu plums which look like olives and contain more vitamin C than oranges. As well as hosting foraging tours for A Taste of Kakadu, Mandy runs Billabong Safari Camp. She plans to take tourists out bush for three days, camping and foraging for a real taste of country. The experience will culminate in a dinner of crocodile tail cooked in an underground oven. I ask her how she’ll catch it, expecting a story about a croc trap and some sharp spears. “Just shoot it,” she says.
We don’t get to see the croc tail in an underground oven but ranger Fred Hunter gets up at 4am to prepare lunch. A ground oven is traditionally used to cook whole kangaroo or wallaby, but he’s cooking the front shoulder of a 700kg buffalo. Buffalo were introduced from Timor in the 1820s and when the settlement was abandoned in 1845, 50 were set free and have since multiplied. They’re considered a delicious pest – a whole buffalo feeds about 1000 people and is usually cooked for special events.
Fred starts the fire at 5am, burning it to coals until 7am, then adding rocks cooked until white hot. He takes the rocks out, puts in meat and vegies , lays the rocks on top so air can circulate and seals it with five layers of paperbark so the meat is steaming before covering it with dirt. The result is game meat as soft as a fillet steak and yams the best I’ve eaten.
To those who say Australia doesn’t have a national cuisine, I say what a load of crock. It’s only been 65,000 years in the making.
WARM DAMPER WITH A BLACKCURRANT JAM AS THICK AND TACKY AS HONEY ...
Kakadu’s Twin Falls is spectacular, particularly from the air; the region is a powerhouse of tasty delicacies.