Native Foods: The Oldest Foods On Earth

In more than 230 years of occupation, European Australians turned their backs on the vast majority of foods the country’s Indigenous people have eaten for more than 50,000 years. We have ignored their sage and intricate management of the environment and overlaid an alien system of agriculture, leading to a process of ecological imbalance.

We lived on and not in this continent. We did not put down roots and did not see, as American food historian Waverley Root asserted, that ‘food is a function of the soul, for which reason every country has a food naturally fit for it’. Every country, that is, except Australia.

Food is more than nourishment. Food is culture, food shapes culture, food binds us together and forces us apart. Is the rejection of our native foods, ‘food racism’? Accepting the food of this land, which we are only just beginning to do after almost 230 years will, I believe, contribute towards what I call culinary reconciliation.

There are also many environmental advantages for eating more foods that haveadapted to the Australian climate; they, mostly, don’t require chemical interventions to protect them from weeds and insect predators. The same goes for the native animals: they too have adapted to live more lightly on the land. This could be the most compelling reason of all.

There are an estimated 6000 edible native plants; including 2400 fruiting trees in south-east Queensland and 2000 truffles or subterranean mushrooms. Of those 6000, non-Indigenous Australians currently use fewer than 50.

Why should you eat these foods? For their unique flavours and their nutrient values. Research conducted on Australian native food plants confirmed they’re among the richest on the planet in nutrients we need for health.

Why do superfoods always come from someplace else, usually some exotic place? The acai berry from Amazonia, the goji berry from Ningxia Hui region in north central China, quinoa from Peru and Bolivia. If these are super foods, the foods that have been growing there for thousands of years, Australian native foods are super-dooper foods.

But remember when sourcing these foods, according to the Outback Pride nursery in South Australia, ‘foraging or picking Australian native plants from the wild is breaking the law. If you take plants out of the bush, you’re depleting the seed source and the natural regeneration’. It almost seems like sacrilege to say this, in an era when the bush is crawling with chefs foraging for fodder. But they are right – foraging is illegal unless you have a picker licence which, in NSW for instance, includes restrictions about picking species of plants.

It’s one thing for Indigenous people with a deep understanding of what they’re doing to pick plants for their own use. It’s quite another for people to forage without understanding the potential problems of pulling up anything they see. It’s possible they may take a unique and irreplaceable specimen from the wild. If you don’t have Indigenous elders to take you out foraging, the next best thing to do is to seek out a tour.

And wherever possible, try to buy from a source that is either Indigenous-owned (like Indigiearth and Something Wild) or has close ties with Indigenous communities (like Warndu). This is not always possible as the Indigenous business community is still catching up in this sector.

If you haven’t had much experience with native Australian plants, you’re going to encounter very different flavours. They will be more intense, less sweet, tangier, even sour.

WATTLESEEDS

Illustration by Josephine Pajor-Markus

Wattleseeds are the edible seeds from any of the 120 species of Australian acacia used as food by Indigenous Australians. But we’ll stick to Acacia victoriae which has an impressive list of common names: prickly wattle, elegant wattle, bramble wattle, gundabluey and narran among them.

A. victoriae is a shrub-like tree, with several trunks and long thin leaves. It has small, bulbous yellow flowers and long pods containing the seeds. Wattleseed from this variety has a nutty flavour with overtones of coffee and chocolate and an aroma of crushed nuts and cereal.

Nutritional properties

Wattleseeds contain calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, are a low-glycaemic carbohydrate and are an excellent source of protein and fibre.

Available forms

Wattleseeds are available whole, roasted and ground, or milled into a powder.

How to grow

Depending on location, A. victoriae will flower between July and December. From October to December, pods appear, turn brown and split to release the seed. Collect the pods before they split, to save the seed.

The seed has a hard coating designed to be broken down by bushfire. To replicate this, pour boiling water over seeds and soak overnight; or scarify seed with sandpaper to penetrate the hard coating. Germinate in a seed-raising mix, then plant seedlings at least three metres apart, in full sun to partial shade.

Cooking with wattleseeds

Wattleseeds can be roasted and turned into flour, used to thicken sauces or casseroles, make ice-cream flavouring, or added to chocolate or desserts. Dry-roasted seeds are sometimes made into a beverage. Sprinkle whole seeds through biscuits or flatbreads.

LEMON MYRTLE

Illustration by Josephine Pajor-Markus

The leaves of the remarkable lemon myrtle, Backhousia citriodora, contain high levels of citral – the fragrant liquid in citrus fruit. Lemon myrtle contains 90–98 percent compared to 10 percent in a lemon. This explains the wonderful taste and aroma that lemon myrtle leaves give to food and drinks.

In the rainforest, B. citriodora can grow up to 20 m in height and has long, hanging branches of soft, green leaves with cream flowers in autumn. It occurs naturally in the wetter coastal areas of New South Wales and in the higher rainforests in Queensland.

Nutritional properties

Lemon myrtle contains lutein, a vitamin that plays an important role in eye health. It’s also an excellent source of folate, vitamin A, vitamin E and many essential oils. It’s a good source of calcium and has high levels of antioxidants. Citral has powerful antimicrobial and antifungal properties, which is why it’s often used in soap, shampoo and cleaning products.

Available forms

Lemon myrtle leaves are available fresh and dried, ground into a powder or, the best way of all, from your own tree.

How to grow

Grow lemon myrtle from cuttings, taken around March. Being a rainforest tree, lemon myrtle prefers good soil and warm conditions. If you live in a mild climate, plant your tree in the full sun. If you live in a hot, dry climate, plant in dappled shade. Young trees need frost protection. Before you plant, build up organic matter in your soil with compost and, once planted, mulch well.

Cooking with lemon myrtle

Lemon myrtle gives lemon or lemongrass flavour to fish, chicken, ice cream, cheesecake or sorbet or substitute it for lemongrass in stir-fries. Sprinkle powdered lemon myrtle leaves on anything from pumpkin soup to salads.

If you have access to a tree, you can use the whole dried leaves – pick the older darker leaves for their flavour. The whole leaf will have little aroma until it is scrunched, powdered or heat is applied. Add a leaf or a sprinkle of powder – half a teaspoon per 500 g of meat – when steaming or roasting fish or chicken. Use sparingly and, when adding to a stir-fry, add it towards the end of the cooking. Overcooking diminishes the lemon flavour and can bring out harsh eucalyptus tones.

TASMANIAN PEPPERBERRY

Illustration by Josephine Pajor-Markus

Tasmannia lanceolata, also known as Tasmanian or mountain pepperberry, or mountain pepper, is the most popular of the Australian native peppers. There are seven species of tasmannia in Australia, all found in mountainous regions from Cape York to Tasmania. I’ll concentrate on T. lanceolata.

Tasmanian pepperberry is a bushy compact shrub, 2–10 m high. The leaves are thin, green and 5–20 cm long, with wavy edges. The plants are either male or female. Both sexes have small cream-coloured flowers with narrow petals. The male flower has many stamens; the female flower has a two-lobe ovary. The pea-sized berries grow in clusters and can be coloured pinkish-white or purplish-black, with a deep furrow on one side.

Nutritional properties

The compound that produces the heat in the pepperberry fruit and leaves, polygodial, is antimicrobial and antifungal. Leaves and berries are high in folate, zinc, magnesium, manganese and antioxidants; and medium levels of iron.

Available forms

Whole or crushed peppercorns. Whole or powdered leaf.

How to grow

You can grow pepperberry from seed; however, most grown commercially are from cuttings. The ideal climate to grow pepperberry is around the alpine regions of Victoria, Tasmania and NSW. You can grow it in lower altitudes if you plant in a cool shady spot. Prune your pepperberry for a more bushy shape. It can be grown in a pot.

Cooking with pepperberry

The berry’s heat is between pepper and chilli, but more complex. It is almost fruit–candy sweet in both aroma and effect on the palate, with a lingering tongue-numbing heat that increases and lasts some minutes. Use sparingly and experiment with quantities.

You can buy the berries fresh or brined. If brined, wash the brine off them thoroughly. They are at their best when used in slow-cooked stews, soups and curries, as their heat gives way to their unique flavour. The dark berries also infuse a rich plum colour to sauces and you can add them to your vinaigrettes. The berries combine well with lemon myrtle and can be made into a sauce for kangaroo or beef – great on a steak.

The leaf, usually supplied as a powder, should also be used cautiously, in the sparing way you add cayenne pepper. Add it to vinaigrettes.

FINGER LIME

Illustration by Josephine Pajor-Markus

This five-million-years-old Pliocene survivor is undoubtedly the most popular of the Australian native fruits. Citrus australasica comes in many flesh colours, primarily pink, green, red and yellow. The little finger-shaped fruits, up to 10 cm long, are concealed in a prickly tree with hard thorns and require careful picking. The edible flesh inside has small, sticky ‘bubbly’ globules, rather like tiny pearls or caviar.

Finger limes once grew in the wild, in tropical to subtropical rainforest, from the north-east coast of New South Wales to southeast Queensland, but now they are mainly cultivated. In its natural habitat, the finger lime fruits all year round.

Nutritional properties

The fruit is quite high in vitamin C; the red variety has the richest quantity. It also contains good levels of lutein, potassium and vitamin E.

Available forms

Best bought and used fresh.

How to grow

Grow from seed, cuttings or by grafting. It takes up to 15 years to grow from seed to a mature plant. Cuttings are also very slow growing. Finger limes are grafted onto an exotic citrus tree because they grow faster and have better success in all climates. Like more common citrus, it’s a good idea to plant your tree out of the wind in well-drained soil, in dappled light or full sun. They can withstand light frost and make a good hedge or espaliered against a fence or wall.

Cooking with finger limes

The tart and tangy flavour of finger limes varies from mild and ‘limey’ to pink grapefruit bitter and you can enjoy it without elaborate cooking. With finger limes, fresh is best.

To prepare finger limes, simply cut them in half and squeeze out the pearls of fruit. There’s no pith, segmentation or seeds, they’re ready to go. Sprinkle them on fish or oysters. They also make excellent marmalades and jams and complement melons and desserts. Add them to a gin and tonic or a vodka and tonic.

This is an edited excerpt from Cooking With the Oldest Foods on Earth, by John Newton (NewSouth Publishing 2019).

MACADMIA-CRUMBED FISH FILLETS WITH LEMON MYRTLE

Recipe by Paula Nihot

Paula Nihot is a descendant of Susan, of the Namoi River, within the Gamillaraay language region. Paula has lived on the Gold Coast for over twenty years and currently works at the Yugambeh Museum on a range of language activation programs.

SERVES 8

Serve the fish with a salad and mango salsa, or with burnt butter, bunya, zesty green beans and pepperberry.

INGREDIENTS

  • 100 g macadamia nuts, chopped
  • 100 g breadcrumbs
  • 50 g coconut flakes
  • 100 g coconut or plain flour
  • ground salt
  • ground Tasmanian pepperberry
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh lemon myrtle leaf
  • 8 fresh trag jewfish (see note) or whiting fillets
  • olive oil, for shallow-frying

METHOD

  1. On a flat plate mix chopped macadamia nuts, breadcrumbs and coconut flakes. Place the flour in a mixing bowl and season with the salt and pepperberry. Whisk eggs, mustard and lemon myrtle in a small bowl. Pat fish fillets dry, dust in the flour, then coat well with egg.
  2. Place a fish fillet on macadamia nut mix and spoon the mixture over the fish, pressing the chopped nuts in firmly. Heat olive oil and shallowfry two minutes until golden brown. Turn and cook for a further two minutes. Add more oil if the first side has soaked up all the oil. Transfer the cooked fish to paper towel to drain.

Note: Trag jewfish or teraglin is a Queensland Gold Coast fish; mulloway is a good substitute.

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