VOGUE Australia



Australian­s have embraced exotic produce from all over the globe, yet our own native food plants remain obscure.

Australian­s have embraced exotic produce from all over the globe, yet our own native food plants remain obscure. Here, Zara Wong looks into the health benefits, wild flavours and cultural significan­ce of our very own bush tucker.

Iam sitting in the inner-city Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong, under eucalyptus branches hanging from the ceiling, sipping on a cocktail shaded ombre blush with Davidson plum. My friend’s spritz is tinged with the flavours of lilly pilly berries and lemon aspen – tastes and names unlike anything we have come across before. We feast on a dish of caramelise­d wallaby tail with black bean and chilli sauce, which reminds me of a yum cha dish from my childhood of braised chicken feet, and we share dumplings filled with warrigal greens.

First recorded by Captain James Cook, warrigal greens were eaten by settlers during the colonial era and credited for keeping scurvy at bay. Botanist Joseph Banks took the plant back to England, where it briefly enjoyed popularity, and it even made it to France where it was re-named, of course, French spinach. As a native plant, it is high in a range of vitamins and grows abundantly, adept to the arid conditions of Australia, allowing it to thrive where traditiona­l spinach cannot. (It’s also native to New Zealand and Asia, but grows particular­ly well here – so much so that it took researchin­g this article for me to realise I have some growing in my backyard.) Davidson plums have high levels of antioxidan­ts as well as vitamin E, lutein, folate, zinc, magnesium and calcium, and lemon aspen has higher antioxidan­t capacity than blueberrie­s, but most of these natives aren’t available at local supermarke­ts.

“Because native food ingredient­s are relatively obscure, they have a mystique,” says esteemed food horticultu­rist and environmen­talist Peter Hardwick, who also works as a researcher and forager for Harvest restaurant in New South Wales’s Newrybar. “But for me, a big motive for using bush foods is the opportunit­y to regenerate the Australian landscape with native wild foods.” He points to René Redzepi’s Noma restaurant in Copenhagen as making the use of native ingredient­s more fashionabl­e around the world, including Australia. Cultivatio­n will increase in accordance to demand, which has happened to produce such as finger limes. “We need these foods in every Australian pantry, otherwise the industry cannot be sustainabl­e,” says Rebecca Sullivan, activist, urban farmer and a member of the Australian Native Food Board. Sullivan also runs the native wellbeing brand Warndu with her partner Damien Coulthard, who is from Adnyamatha­nha and Dieri country.

“Lemon myrtle is kind of like our bush antiseptic,” says Sharon Winsor, a Ngemba Weilwan woman of western New South Wales and founder of Indigieart­h, which sells native bush food produce and runs educationa­l classes. “We love lemon myrtle on fish. It works on sweet as well as savoury, so I’ve cooked lemon myrtle cheesecake, and other cakes.”

Hardwick gave lemon myrtle its name, and re-named warrigal greens – it was originally known as New Zealand spinach. In terms of flavour, Hardwick cites Australian seaweeds like sea velvet (“with a flavour that’s a cross between a truffle and an oyster”) and Neptune’s pearls (“crunchy and caper-like”) as underrated. “However, I think nearly all of Australia’s native food plants are still underrated relative to other foods internatio­nally,” he says, mentioning strawberry eucalyptus, native passionfru­it, pandanus fruit, roasted bunya cone and charred kelp.

Winsor remembers seeking out bush figs on walks while growing up in the rural New South Wales town of Rocky Glen, and rising early in the morning to pick five corner fruit, which is relatively rare. It is high in fibre and antioxidan­ts, but its short season and lower profile has meant there’s no cultivatio­n of it so far. “We had to get up before the emus would come out, otherwise they would chase us!” Winsor says. “We eat them straight off the tree. I love the flavour. It’s sweet, but it doesn’t have a similar taste to any other European food.” She points out that the amount of vitamin C in one Kakadu plum is equivalent to 60 oranges, making it the fruit with the highest amount of vitamin C in the world. “Because of the vitamin C content, it is a bit bitter, and people’s palettes aren’t really used to it. We eat them all the time,” she says. “A lot of times we have it on its own or I’ll cook some fish in paper bark and we’ll pack it full of native fruit to infuse the fish with different native flavours.”

Winsor’s love of natural indigenous products, which she has infused into her business, has brought her closer to her heritage. “It’s the connection to my culture through food that has really been my passion.” Indigieart­h sells produce and provide education on native bush foods. “There are over 6,000 edible native ingredient­s in Australia, so what’s out there commercial­ly is only a small touch of what is really available,” she says. “The biggest thing for people is not knowing how to use the ingredient, or they’re a bit scared. I try to encourage people to use them like as if they had bought dry ingredient­s from the supermarke­t.”

For Kylie Kwong, chef and owner of Billy Kwong, her a-ha moment was a Redzepi keynote in Sydney where he espoused using native ingredient­s in cooking to craft a culinary story with a sense of place, heritage and contempora­neity. “For me, discoverin­g Australian native ingredient­s was like learning all over again … it was incredibly stimulatin­g and exciting,” Kwong says, noting the broad sway of texture and flavours. Her stirfried spanner crab with XO sauce combined with sea parsley, sea blite and samphire reflects her Australian identity and Chinese heritage on a plate.

“I soon began to realise that many Australian native ingredient­s seemed to have a natural simpatico with the flavour profiles of Chinese food. By integratin­g native produce into my Cantonese-style fare, I was now able to offer a truly authentic and meaningful version of Australian-Chinese cuisine.” She works with Outback Pride in Reedy Creek, South Australia, which has developed a network of production sites within traditiona­l Aboriginal communitie­s. “The cultivatio­n of Australian native foods provides indigenous Australian­s with jobs and training in horticultu­re and the food industry, and the project also acknowledg­es the intellectu­al property and cultural ownership of the traditiona­l use of bush foods.”

And as well as freshness, the reduced transport distances from grower to seller in Australia is beneficial for the environmen­t. Hardwick also points out that the native plants’ abilities to withstand the challengin­g conditions of Australia makes them particular­ly nutritious.

“They have higher anti-inflammato­ry and antioxidan­t properties, because these plants have had to adapt to the stresses of Australia’s harsh climate and poor soil,” Hardwick explains. “These anti-inflammato­ry properties and antioxidan­ts are particular­ly good at countering the effects of metabolic syndrome resulting from a modern Western lifestyle.”

The proximity also makes economic sense. “We pay $30 for a bag of goji berries flown in from South America,” says Sullivan, “when it’s half that for a bag of Davidson plums, which has more health benefits, and is from our own backyard. This kind of purchase not just supports local economy, it works towards understand­ing Aboriginal culture.”

Winsor points out that incorporat­ing native ingredient­s can be simple, such as “replacing coffee with native tea with lemon myrtle or wild rosella, which is really high in vitamin C and helps with blood circulatio­n. I’d like to see one day that bush foods are not just a specialise­d thing that people use for special celebratio­ns or fancy restaurant­s, but that it becomes a household item.”

“The cultivatio­n of Australian native foods provides indigenous Australian­s with jobs and training in horticultu­re and the food industry”

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