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Emma Lupin: Tropical Food Ambassador

Photo by Emma Lupin

You may shy away from the idea of eating cane toad leg stir-fry; Emma Lupin will not. As a Northern Territory resident for the last seven years, Emma has channelled all her efforts into learning the ways of the tropics, finding local produce and searching for sustainable ways to grow it and delicious ways of cooking it – including cane toads, which she doesn’t recommend because they’re poisonous.

Finding and using local produce in the remote city of Darwin isn’t easy. Emma says a lot of dry goods can travel up to 30000 kilometres to reach there. Motivated to change how Territorians view their exotic local produce, Emma began a website ‘tasteofthetopend’ where anyone can go online to view and share their produce and recipes: ‘I thought there was a real need to get people in touch with local food and to tell them more about it’.

The website is just a fraction of what Emma has done for the sustainable community in Darwin. After a three-year role as Kitchen Specialist at the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, Emma began to realise that there wasn’t much information about preparing the produce grown in the region, ‘so we experimented and invented recipes made with local produce that we were growing, that could be cooked by the students’, she says.

Before living in Darwin, Emma also gained extensive knowledge as the cook on board a boat that travelled throughout the Pacific Islands: she would visit the markets on the islands, and buy the local produce. She began to explore the idea of local produce in Darwin through community gardens and community projects. ‘My Sister’s Kitchen’ is one initiative that Emma is involved in, assisting refugees to grow and produce their own food. Recipes and knowledge are exchanged at meetings. ‘A lot of the people who hold the knowledge for the exotic and tropical produce in Darwin come from Asia – it’s in their culture to cook with these things’, Emma says. Her aim is to take that knowledge and share it with those in the community who don’t use the produce because they don’t know how to prepare it.

Photo by Emma Lupin

Educating the community has turned into a full-time effort for Emma who has now completed a Bachelor of Environmental Science, and received the Delicious. Magazine’s ABC Local Radio Community Award and a wheelbarrow load of other community awards to back up her years of experience in living sustainably. Emma’s efforts are obviously paying off locally: the harvests in Darwin’s sustainable backyard gardens are looking good – ‘There are now all these great local gardens that are going off!’ she says. However, she believes there is still work to be done, educating people about how to cook with local produce, particularly in the tropics.

The permaculture community in Darwin isn’t as big as Emma would like it to be. There is only one local produce market, and most of the suppliers have only two responses to questions on recipes: ‘curry or stir-fry’. She noticed that people want more than that, and reckons that it will take more than recipe variety to get people involved. The local council endorses Emma to take ‘Talk and Taste’ tours of the local produce market, proving that her ideas are starting to catch on.

Emma sees herself as being an educator in the future. Given the heavy reliance Western society has on using big supermarkets, she believes it is important to ‘bring producers and consumers together, either by people growing their own food in community gardens, schools or in their own gardens; or by using local markets and meeting the producers from smallscale farms. Here it is really important to educate a wide range of people on how to use the local produce and to make the gap between producer and consumer smaller.’

Emma believes that backing for local growers is the solution, and it needs to happen soon, because of the population growth of Darwin: ‘We don’t produce our own food and we need to do that on a small, urban scale’.

With the support of larger organisations, small-scale sustainable farms can make a living; Emma believes this is incredibly important for the future of Darwin – although they are not there yet, ‘the vision is getting bigger’.

Another reason that Emma believes eating locally is important is connection to place: ‘Where I can help people on a small, urban scale, in their own backyards, I do’. Emma believes that eating locally – food from your own climate, such as monsoonal Darwin – can help people deal with the extremities of living a tropical life. Emma is determined to put sustainable living and eating, and the exotic produce of Darwin, back into the minds of the locals, one cane toad leg at a time.

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Photo by Emma Lupin


A few facts

  • The loofa pictured is a smooth loofa – also spelt luffa or loofah – and it’s in the cucumber family. Its origins are in Asia and the Middle East.
  • It produces loofas from yellow flowers. The small fruit can be eaten, and the older fruit used as a scrubber for washing.
  • Angled loofa Loofa actangula can also be grown.

How to grow

  • Loofa is a climber, easily grown all year round in full sun in a free draining place with a trellis to climb up. It also loves plenty of water, and is prolific in the wet season, climbing over fences and up trees.
  • Loofas grow quickly so keep an eye on them, or let the fruit grow large and then dry them in the sun and peel, clean them and remove the seeds to make a scrubber.
  • Feed with organic fertiliser occasionally.

How to grow more

  • Loofa is easily grown from seed, collected from the dried loofas. Dry the fruit in the sun, and the seeds can be shaken out.
  • It is best sown directly, but can also be sown in small pots and transplanted out after developing a few leaves.

How to eat them

  • The loofa fruit is eaten when small – less than ten centimetres long – and soft in the middle, otherwise it is stringy and hard.
  • The spongy centre can absorb a lot of flavour and is great in curries, stir-fries and many dishes, used much like a zucchini.
  • The loofa is a source of carbohydrate, protein and some vitamin C.
Photo by Emma Lupin


Ingredients (serves 4–5)

  • 2 loofas
  • about 20 pea-sized eggplants
  • 1 bunch of snake beans
  • 1 medium taro, cassava or sweet potato (about 450 g)
  • 500 g free-range chicken thigh (optional)
  • chilli to taste
  • 8 Kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 tbsps sesame or peanut oil (for frying)
  • 3–4 tbsps of Thai curry paste
  • juice and zest of 3 limes
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 500 ml fresh coconut milk
  • 1 handful of chopped Thai basil, sweet basil or Vietnamese mint
  • chopped coriander leaves
  • 1 bunch of spring onions or garlic chives
  • brown rice (to serve)


  • Prepare all the ingredients, cutting the vegetables into slices and the spring onion into diagonal strips. Cut chicken into pieces if needed.
  • Pre-boil the taro/cassava/sweet potato for ten minutes.
  • De-seed and then finely chop the chilli and break the lime leaves into little pieces.
  • Place a wok over medium heat.
  • Add oil to the wok, and then when hot add the curry paste. After a couple of minutes add the taro/cassava/sweet potato, and chicken if using.
  • Cook for 5–10 minutes and then add the lime leaves, other vegetables, the lime juice/zest and fish sauce.
  • Add the coconut milk.
  • Simmer for 5–10 minutes more, until the veggies are just tender.

Serve in a bowl, sprinkled with coriander, other herbs and spring onions, and accompanied by brown rice.

If you use fresh coconut milk, it can be almost entirely local!


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