Bush tomato grows near Uluru
The drought-led destruction of Australian farming may hopefully force a rethink on how we view the incredible variety of "bush foods" that grow wild across our scrublands and deserts and jungles and have kept Aboriginal people alive, and healthy, for more than 60,000 years.
If you've never marinated a steak in bush tomato and lemon myrtle before throwing it on the barbecue, you have no idea what you're missing out on. An explosion of so many new flavour sensations you will be left mind-boggled as to why these herbs and fruits are not for sale in every supermarket in the country.
Australians have embraced just every kind of "ethnic" food in the world, but most of us would still turn our noses up at the herbs, fruits and meat that are found across our wide brown lands.
Maybe we just need to hear more about the new recipes that chefs, across the world, are experimenting with and embracing. Like these :
...turtle broth, dugong steaks with bush fruits, pan-fried magpie goose breast with a bush peach glaze, chargrilled crocodile tail with bush tomato chutney, bush-meat pie with kangaroo, bush-turkey and emu, goanna and vegetable stew, waterlily salad with red claw yabbies, kangaroo bourgignon and wattle seeds pancakes with sugarbag caramel.A nationwide rethink on the food we eat and grow would create new farming industries across the country, and provide much-needed jobs and income to isolated Aboriginal communities.
A fascinating story on all this :
Steve Sunk, a senior lecturer in hospitality and cookery at Charles Darwin University, is showing (Aboriginal people) innovative ways to cook the animals they traditionally hunt, and their wild fruit and vegetables.
He started his courses because he was concerned about health problems caused to a large extent by poor diet. Indigenous people suffer from high rates of diabetes, obesity, renal failure and heart disease.
Their traditional diet was healthy, combining low-fat meat (kangaroo, emu, crocodile, goanna) with a wide variety of fruit and vegetables: bush tomatoes, water lilies, wild limes, yams, quandongs (native peach), Kakadu plums and wild spinach, to name but a few.
After white settlement, though, Aborigines abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Forced to live on missions and reserves, they stripped the surrounding vegetation. They were also introduced to Western processed food, and nowadays many of them live off fried chicken and potato chips, washed down with Coke and other sugary drinks.
Mr Sunk wants indigenous people to return to their millennia-old supermarket: the desert, the rivers, the sea. To encourage that, he shows them how to cook their traditional produce more creatively and healthily.
While Mr Sunk spreads the message in Aboriginal communities, mainstream Australia is belatedly waking up to the rich flavours – and nutritional value – of "bush tucker". The Kakadu plum contains five times the volume of antioxidants found in blueberries, well known for their antioxidant qualities.
Other wild fruit and vegetables have been found to have extraordinary qualities. A government study published last month found that fruits such as brush cherries, finger limes and riberries are a rich source of phytochemicals, which help protect against disease and ageing.
While Australians pride themselves on their adventurous palates, and their multicultural dining scene, they have always resisted eating the produce of their own backyards. For many people, bush tucker evoked visions of squirming witchetty grubs – fat white insects found in the desert, which Mr Sunk swears are delectable fried in garlic butter. Previous attempts to popularise bush cuisine, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were unsuccessful.
Public perceptions are now changing, thanks to new restaurants devoted to "native Australian food", as bush tucker has been rebranded, and the appearance of products such as bush tomato chutney and lemon myrtle-infused fruit juice on supermarket shelves.
Tjanabi, an Aboriginal-owned restaurant in Melbourne, features starters such as tempura battered crocodile on its menu, and main courses that include emu fillet wrapped in proscuitto on a saltbush and potato tart with a red wine and quandong peach sauce.
However, mainstream chefs are increasingly using native ingredients such as wild lime and river mint. They are adding saltbush to their olive tapenades, garnishing meat with lilly pilly berries, and serving fish and chips with lemon myrtle mayonnaise. Ice cream made with wattle seed – a nutty, coffee-flavoured berry – is popular.
The trend is benefiting Aboriginal communities, where people are employed or paid to supply specialist companies, supermarkets and restaurants. It might be on a small scale, with enterprising individuals digging under acacia trees for witchetty grubs, or using their knowledge of local geography and the seasons to hunt out bush tomatoes. Or it might be on a larger scale, with thriving businesses engaged in growing and harvesting ingredients whose popularity is soaring. Lemon myrtle, wattle seed and quandongs are among the products now being grown on big plantations. Mr Christie's business partner, Vic Cherikoff, sources Kakadu plums from a plantation in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, run by a company uniting five communities. Such enterprises give indigenous people a degree of economic independence, while enabling them to retain their connection with the land. Some have called this serendipitous meeting of demand and supply "edible reconciliation".At Nauiyu, the former Daly River Mission, children are eating fruit and yoghurt instead of salty, high-fat snacks. They drink watered-down fruit juices; Coke and lemonade are just an occasional treat. The health kick has extended beyond food. Children at Miriam Bauman's school regularly take long walks, and enjoy exercise classes.
Ms Bauman says: "It makes the kids feel important too. It reinforces the culture. We still have all the skills and knowledge surrounding bush food. We just have to start using them again."
And on a national scale, and soon. There's not much time left. The Howard government-led "intervention" into Aboriginal communities is starting to sound like a deal has been done to allow the largest supermarket chains to move into once closed off communities and stock the shelves of the local stores with their own products, presumably more junk food and ultra-processed rubbish, when it is clear that "bush foods" will provide more nutrition and income to Aboriginal communities.
We need to embrace the bounty of amazing food our own bush produces, and teach the next generations that "bush tucker" means a whole lot more than eating raw witchery grubs and throwing a snake into the coals of a fire.
Diners in top restaurants in New York City, London, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai know all about the incredible variety of new flavours to be found in the Australian bush.
So why don't we?